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Pod people: ‘Pinko’ Pat Buchanan and the Daily Mail: Get Religion, April 10, 2014 May 9, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism, Russian Orthodox.
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Heavy breathing this week from London’s Daily Mail, which has denounced American political commentator Patrick J. Buchanan as a toady of Vladimir Putin.

Yes, GetReligion readers you read that correctly, while he has escaped the pinko, secret traveler and useful idiot sobriquets due to the march of history, the Daily Mail nonetheless is calling Pat Buchanan a Russkie stooge.

The lede of the April 5 story entitled “Pat Buchanan claims GOD is on Russia’s side and that Moscow is the ‘third Rome’” pulls no punches. Not only is God on Russia’s side, but so too is GOD.

Conservative firebrand Pat Buchanan insists that God is now on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s side. The bombastic pundit’s claims in a rambling diatribe posted to a conservative website that Russia is the ‘third Rome’ and the West ‘is Gomorrah.’

‘Putin is planting Russia’s flag firmly on the side of traditional Christianity,’ Buchanan wrote in the op-ed published by Human Events, adding that his recent speeches echo those made nearly 20 years ago by Pope John Paul II — in which the pontiff also criticized the West.

The article proceeds to summarize,with evident distaste, Buchanan’s April 4 syndicated column “Who’s Side Is God on Now?”

Not quite a tabloid, or “red top” in British newspaper parlance, the Daily Mailstraddles the line between respectable and hysterical journalism. This story leans to the hysterical side — to the delight I’m sure of Buchanan, for whom this is great publicity — but to the detriment of those seeking to understand what is happening in Russia today.

The story has undergone revisions since it was first posted online. The first printing called the former Nixon speech writer a “bombastic preacher,” though subsequent editions were changed to “bombastic pundit.” What has not been updated, however, is the Daily Mail‘s claim that Buchanan is making the claims about God and Russia — when it is quite clear when reading the original piece Buchanan is reporting on what Putin believes to be Russia’s mystical destiny.

Buchanan’s voice comes toward the end of his piece when he laments a world where the leader of Russia has donned the mantle of Christian morality. Good Catholics once prayed for the conversion of Russia, but today they should pray for the conversion of America.

In this week’s Crossroads podcast, Issues, Etc., host Todd Wilken and I touched upon the poor job Western reporters have made in covering the deeper currents of the Russia-Ukraine clash. And, while being blissfully unaware of Buchanan’s column and the Daily Mail‘s coverage, we spoke of the “Third Rome” and the belief held by many Russians (including Putin it seems) that Russia has been given a mission from God to renew and redeem the world.

The GetReligion piece “No peace in our time for the Ukraine” was a “got news” story — that is a GetReligion category of a religion related news story that has somehow been overlooked by the media.

The Western press has done a good job in reporting the words of John Kerry, Angela Merkel, David Cameron and other Western leaders. Putin is painted by most newspapers as a villainous KGB thug. However, the enthusiasm shown towards then new leaders of the Ukraine has been tempered by frustration with their inability to govern their country.

All of interest to a degree, I concede, but not of significant importance. The deeper currents of religion, ethnicity and national identity, I told Todd, were not being given a proper hearing. Without the context of historical background, of the five hunded year clash between Catholicism and Orthodoxy, of the battle between the Westernizers and the Slavophiles, it was not possible to understand what was happening, beyond the level of caricature (Putin bad, protesters good).

The religion angle as essential to understanding this dispute, yet it was not being addressed by the Western press. In my GR piece I reported on Russian and Ukrainian newspaper articles that presented harsh denunciations by local church leaders of their opposite numbers. I wrote:

Reading the statements from the Russian Orthodox Church published in the Moscow newspapers and the statements of the Catholic leaders published in Kiev quite clearly demonstrates the religious dimensions of this dispute. Putin’s Moscow is the inheritor of the civilizing mission of Holy Mother Russia while the Catholic Church is the bulwark standing fast in the face of the Asiatic hordes.

Church leaders have picked up the tempo in recent days. The patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Cyril I (or Kyrill or Kirill, which means Cyril) offered his strongest critique of the unrest in the Ukraine last week, comparing it to the October Revolution.

In an interview with Interfax, Cyril stated:

“Most of us can hardly imagine what revolution is. The latest events in Ukraine, terrible pictures of the revolutionary uprising in the capital, people killed, distraught spiritually and consciously – all this helps us to understand what happened in Russia back then,” the patriarch said to a small crowd following a prayer service he conducted near the relics of Patriarch Tikhon of Moscow and All Russia in Moscow’s Donskoy Monastery on Monday.

During the 1917 events “life was destroyed and this was accompanied by outrage and terrible injustice under slogans for achieving justice,” Patriarch Kirill said.

Putin may well deserve his reputation of being a thug. But Pat Buchanan’s observations about the turmoil in the East are on target.

Western leaders who compare Putin’s annexation of Crimea to Hitler’s Anschluss with Austria, who dismiss him as a “KGB thug,” who call him “the alleged thief, liar and murderer who rules Russia,” as the Wall Street Journal’s Holman Jenkins did, believe Putin’s claim to stand on higher moral ground is beyond blasphemous.

But Vladimir Putin knows exactly what he is doing, and his new claim has a venerable lineage. The ex-Communist Whittaker Chambers who exposed Alger Hiss as a Soviet spy, was, at the time of his death in 1964, writing a book on “The Third Rome.”

The first Rome was the Holy City and seat of Christianity that fell to Odoacer and his barbarians in 476 A.D. The second Rome was Constantinople, Byzantium, (today’s Istanbul), which fell to the Turks in 1453. The successor city to Byzantium, the Third Rome, the last Rome to the old believers, was — Moscow.

Putin is entering a claim that Moscow is the Godly City of today and command post of the counter-reformation against the new paganism. Putin is plugging into some of the modern world’s most powerful currents. Not only in his defiance of what much of the world sees as America’s arrogant drive for global hegemony. Not only in his tribal defense of lost Russians left behind when the USSR disintegrated.

He is also tapping into the worldwide revulsion of and resistance to the sewage of a hedonistic secular and social revolution coming out of the West.

For Western ears, whose world view arises from a secularist enlightenment based notion of democracy and social order, these claims are hard to hear. That does not make them false.

AP reports he did have sexual relations with that woman: Get Religion, December 10, 2013 December 11, 2013

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“Can a bad person be a good theologian,” asked Mark Oppenheimer in the lede of an October column on the scandals surrounding John Howard Yoder. Should private failings overshadow public achievement?

This question has been asked of prominent figures ranging from T.S. Eliot to Bill Clinton to Mike Tyson. Is the aesthetic value of the Wasteland diminished by Eliot’s anti-Semitism, or the former president’s accomplishments wiped away by his claim he “did not have sexual relations with that woman”? Does biting Evander Holyfield’s ear or being convicted of rape undo sporting achievements? Will Pete Rose ever be inducted into the baseball hall of fame?

Religious leaders are held to a different standard, Oppenheimer wrote:

All of us fall short of our ideals, of course. But there is a common-sense expectation that religious professionals should try to behave as they counsel others to behave. They may not be perfect, but they should not be louts or jerks.

By that standard, few have failed as egregiously as John Howard Yoder, America’s most influential pacifist theologian. In his teaching at Notre Dame and elsewhere, and in books like “The Politics of Jesus,” published in 1972, Mr. Yoder, a Mennonite Christian, helped thousands formulate their opposition to violence. Yet, as he admitted before his death in 1997, he groped many women or pressured them to have physical contact, although never sexual intercourse.

Oppenheimer does not cast stones, but he pulls no punches in discussing Yoder’s flaws. He does not call him a hypocrite, but asks whether interpretations of his work should be colored by  personal failings. This week MennoMedia, the publishing agency for Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada, announced it will add a disclaimer to new editions of Yoder’s books that speak to his history of sexual harassment and abuse.

These musings on celebrity right and wrong were prompted by an Associated Press article reporting on the marriage of a former Catholic priest who left the Legion of Christ under a cloud. The article begins:

Thomas Williams, the onetime public face of the disgraced Legion of Christ religious order who left the priesthood after admitting he fathered a child, is getting married this weekend to the child’s mother, The Associated Press has learned. The bride is the daughter of former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Mary Ann Glendon, one of Pope Francis’ top advisers.

The second paragraph notes Glendon’s position as President of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences and names his wife to be — Elizabeth Lev. It then moves back to Williams.

Williams, a moral theologian, author, lecturer and U.S. television personality, admitted last year that he had fathered a child several years earlier. At the time, Williams apologized for “this grave transgression” against his vows of celibacy and said he had stayed on as a priest because he hoped to move beyond “this sin in my past” to do good work for the church. …

Towards the end of the article the Legion of Christ scandals are recounted and Williams’ fall from grace is placed against the order’s larger problems. The article closes on a curious note, however.

The Legion said the numbers indicate that less than 1 percent of the 1,133 priests ordained in the 72-year history of the order had been found guilty by a church trial of abuse, and less than 4 percent had been abused. A Legion spokesman said he didn’t know what the percentage was for the current number of Legion priests.

One percent of priests are abusers and four percent have been the subject of abuse? And what is the unknown percentage, abusers or victims? Should “abused” in the second clause of the first sentence be “accused”, or is the AP setting the two numbers against each other?

That technical point aside, my discomfort with this story comes in the middle of the piece when it shifts style, moving from reporting to commentary.

Asked for comment Thursday, Lev confirmed the wedding plans in an email, adding: “We have no intention of ever discussing our personal life in this forum.”

She had initially denied an intimate relationship with Williams, though they frequently appeared together in American circles in Rome, particularly with visiting U.S. student and Catholic tour groups.

Their wedding closes a circle of sorts, even as it raises some uncomfortable questions: Who beyond Williams’ superior in the church knew about the child while the couple tried to cover it up? Was Williams already in a relationship with Lev when she became a regular contributor to the magazine he published? And did the family ties to Williams influence Glendon in her defense of the Legion and its disgraced founder despite credible reports that the founder was a pedophile?

Who is asking these questions? And for that matter, why the move to the “‘enquiring‘ minds want to know style”? While asking out loud these questions may titillate some readers, to me they speak to the reporter’s frustration of not being able to get past the “no comment” email.

There is no balance to this article. By that I do not mean a “yes he did, no he didn’t” exchange, but an appreciation of Williams’ work as a moral theologian. Was he a clerical hack and hypocrite, or did he produce valuable work? The article does not ask nor answer this question — leaving it the level of a “moral theologian” who was caught engaging in immoral practices.

The degree of vehemence in this piece may lead one to suspect personal animus. Why else would the AP omit the news that their child has Downs syndrome. The Daily Mail, which takes great delight in exposing the foibles of naughty clergy, found time in its piece to applaud Williams for having done the right thing in marrying the mother of his disabled child.

Yet the story the AP has reported is true. Where then is the line between a harsh but fair report and a hatchet job?

In this instance the back story of the scandals at the Legion of Christ do have a place, as does Williams’ personal fall. Yet a complete story would tell us about human failing and redemption.

There is no context in this story, only anger. Not moral outrage at a priest failing in his vows, but a cartoonish depiction of one man’s fall. There is no humanity, no decency in the tone and presentation of this story. It is a hatchet job.

First published in Get Religion

Gosnell fog blankets Britain: Get Religion, April 19, 2013 April 19, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism.
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Last week my colleague at GetReligion Mollie Hemingway broke the American media blockade surrounding the Kermit Gosnell trial. Mollie, and Kirsten Powers writing in USA Today, reported on the absence of national press coverage of the trial of the Philadelphia abortionist — questioning why reporters who never tired of Sandra Flake or Komen Foundation stories shied away from this national news item.

Some members of the press and newspapers have sought to repair their damaged credibility and are now playing catch up, while others have retreated into the bunker (Nixonian allusions spring to mind but would likely be lost on the miscreants).

However, the British press appears not to have received the memo. As of the date of this post, the BBC has yet to air a story on the Gosnell affair (though it did run one web piece on 15 April after the Hemingway storm broke and the American media mea culpa.) ITV and Channel 4 have yet to report.

The newspapers have not raised the average. The Times ran one story on 13 April, but the Guardian and Independent have remained silent. The Telegraph does a little better — it had one news article dated 12 April entitled “Kermit Gosnell: US abortion doctor could be put to death over ‘baby charnel house’”. Op-Ed writers Damian Thompson and Tim Stanley weighed in on the Gosnell story as well as the media blackout. On 12 April Thompson wrote:

But British readers must know about the case of Dr Kermit Gosnell, which has been played down in the American media – possibly because the allegations of a homicidal abortion doctor don’t fit into their pro-choice narrative.

Well, Philadelphia is very far away after all. And a story about an abortionist on trial for infanticide in Philadelphia may not be interesting to the British newspaper reading public. American newspapers are notorious for their lack of in-depth overseas reporting due to the perception that  its readers don’t care about the outside world.

Perhaps the Daily Mail is an outlier — it has published 26 stories since 2011 on the Kermit Gosnell case — a number greater than all the news stories of the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, ABC, CBS, NBS, and CNN combined. It must be due to the large number of transplanted Philadelphians residing in Surrey.

The popular British blog Archbishop Cranmer explains the reticence stating:

This low-key response is almost certainly because Dr Gosnell’s case takes us to the question of what it means to be human and humane, and this is why it is so important. What he was doing crossed a fundamental line in law and morality between abortion and infanticide. Abortion prioritises the health of the mother. Dr Gosnell is accused of killing babies after the child was outside of the mother, at a time when the risks of childbirth were passed, though they were now entering the risk-laden world of Dr Gosnell’s post-operative care.

He sees a political explanation in all this. The same news outlets who pushed Barack Obama into the Oval Office are protecting their investment.

There is a political reason behind the silence amongst a media that subjected President Obama to as little scrutiny as Dr Gosnell. There have been efforts to legislate for doctors to be required to provide full medical treatment to babies who survive abortion procedures. Three times the President has voted against it, imperiously ignoring the possibility that men like Dr Gosnell exist. The US Federal Government provides 45% of the $1billion budget of Planned Parenthood, the US major abortion provider.

They, like the President, are very equivocal about this issue of infanticide as this video demonstrates. The lady struggling to answer the clear and direct questions is Alisa Lapolt Snow, a lobbyist for Planned Parenthood giving evidence to a committee of Florida legislators. Dr Gosnell’s trial puts the inconvenient truth of abortion and infanticide plainly into the public domain. It puts the brutal bloody facts to the sanitised language and could prove to be the tipping point in the public debate as ordinary people see for the first time how far the pro-abortion lobby are prepared to go in defending their industry.

There is a reason we talk about the ‘slippery slope’.

Why are so few people in the media, American or British, asking these questions?

First printed in Get Religion.

Three cheers for the Church of England: Get Religion July 10, 2012 July 11, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Church of England, Get Religion, Press criticism.
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When I’m down; when I’m blue; there is always the Church of England to perk me up. Yes, the CoE. It has never let me down or failed me as a reporter.  And special thanks for today’s blessing from the CoE must be given to the Bishop of Bath & Wells, the Rt. Rev. Peter Price.

Last night as deadlines approached, there were songs in the hearts of Britain’s religion reporters as the story they were filing from the medieval city of York would certainly find its way to the front of the newspaper — maybe, hope against hope, above the fold.  Dr. Price’s speech to the General Synod on the root causes of last summer’s urban riots was “gold, Jerry, gold!

Let me show you the sort of  story that softens the heart of the most cynical hack. Here is the lede in the Daily Mails article on Dr. Price’s speech:

A senior Church of England bishop declared yesterday that rioting could be ‘an ecstatic, spiritual experience’.

The Right Reverend Peter Price said rioters in last summer’s deadly disturbances found spiritual escape as they looted and burned.

He spoke out as the Church’s parliament, the General Synod, approved a report that blamed last August’s four days of disorder on Government spending cuts, inequality and ‘structural sin’ in the rest of society.

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’ — it really doesn’t get better than this for a religion reporter. Yet the killjoys at the Guardian managed a harumph or two.  It opened its report in this way:

A Church of England report into last year’s riots wanted to “sound a clear warning note” about the “social consequences” of austerity measures, a senior cleric said on Sunday , as he presented research highlighting the effect of government cuts on people in areas where violence broke out.

The Rt Rev Peter Price, bishop of Bath and Wells, said he had no intention of being sentimental about the rioters, who, he said, had ruined other people’s lives. But he said such disturbances could also be “a kind of spiritual escape” for people who have little else in their lives.

Just to make sure its readers did not miss the point, The Guardian printed an editorial attacking its rivals’ coverage of Dr. Price’s speech, saying the poor man had been misunderstood:

The headlines suggested a woolly minded churchman from central casting. “Bishop: Rioting’s ‘spiritual ecstasy’” was the Sun’s take. “Rioters were finding spiritual release, claims bishop” reported the Daily Telegraph. Equally glumly, a Conservative MP weighed in to condemn the Right Rev Peter Price, the bishop of Bath and Wells, and the report on the 2011 riots that he presented to the General Synod at the weekend as “complete drivel”. Actually, it wasn’t. Testing the Bridges is the sort of frank, factual report you would want a community-rooted organisation to produce after events like the riots. The bishop’s speech was clear and interesting. Anyone reading it will be struck by its reflectiveness and its appropriately religious concern. The “spiritual ecstasy” remark is in fact a quote from another priest in 1981. The riots are a serious subject. The bishop’s speech and the report should be studied thoughtfully, not caricatured.

Here is what the Neanderthals at the Telegraph wrote:

Smashing up homes, cars and shops and attacking police were a way of providing “release” and “escape” for troubled young people, according to the Bishop of Bath and Wells, the Rt Rev Peter Price.

He told the Church’s General Synod that the events of last August, which claimed five lives and devastated communities, were “evil”.

But he added that it was hardly surprising that young people had turned to mass criminality in England’s major cities because they had been “condemned” to lives with no hope in run-down areas.

While the slack-jawed troglodytes at The Sun in very large print and short sentences wrote:

Thugs who rioted last summer were having an “ecstatic spiritual experience”, according to a senior Anglican Bishop.

The Rt Revd Peter Price, Bishop of Bath and Wells, said they smashed cars and attacked police as a form of “release” and “escape”.

Let me say at the outset that I am not commenting on the news story being covered by these reports.  However, there is a touch of Dr. Spaceley-Trellis  about the Bishop of Bath & Wells. For over 50 years the late Michael Wharton populated his “Peter Simple” column in the Telegraph with characters that while outrageous, were somehow true to life. Given the recent back and forth about women bishops, my mind was drawn to this sketch.

WHO will be the first woman bishop of the Church of England? Odds-on favourite in clerical circles (writes “OLD BEADLE”) is the Rev Mantissa Shout, live-in partner of Dr E W T (“Ed”) Spacely-Trellis, go-ahead Bishop of Stretchford, trustee of Tate Modern and chairman of Football Managers for a Multi-Faith Millennium and dozens of other enlightened bodies.

Mantissa first came to notice as a militant feminist deaconess. She fought hard for the ordination of women by non-stop screaming outside Lambeth Palace and staged disruption of church services all over the country.

After being ordained and shacking up with Dr Trellis, she became vicar of Nerdley, where her well-publicised ecumenical services included Aztec sacrifice, Voodoo “alternative WI trance sessions” and Tantric Buddhist ceremonies for the young. But her habit of wearing a smart black “Muslim-type” silk headscarf at services led to a protest by Dr Mahbub Iftikharullah, chief imam of Nerdley, and several days of rioting.

Her plan is evidently to become joint bishop with Dr Trellis and succeed him on his retirement or other method of disposal. Then, who knows? Canterbury already beckons. But it will beckon in vain if the Bishop’s domestic chaplain, the Rev Peter Nordwestdeutscher, has anything to do with it.

In his subtle, incense-ridden, High Church brain, visions of death by slow poisoning, worthy of the worst days of the medieval Papacy, wreathe and coil in intricate patterns of malevolence.

I share these passages from today’s papers to show why I love the British press. There is a degree of intelligence matched with a sense of fun in the best British reporting. The Guardian, Telegraph, Daily Mail and yes, even The Sun, story are true — but each filter the truth through a specific intellectual and social lens. By reading all of the stories you have as good a picture of what happened yesterday at General Synod as is possible.

Yes, each paper has some degree of European-style advocacy reporting — the Guardian editorial and news article can almost — just almost — be swapped with one another. But when this advocacy reporting is done well — it is very good indeed. And unlike their American counterparts, the British press are not shy in proclaiming their biases.

So GetReligion readers, the bottom line is — read the British press when you can. Yes, you will encounter a great deal of junk — but also the best newspaper writing in the world.

First printed in GetReligion.

Working women of the world unite: Get Religion, June 21, 2012 June 22, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism.
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Women who put their children before their careers are selfish and are setting a bad example, the wife of former prime minister Tony Blair told Fortune magazine’s “Most Powerful Women” luncheon held at Claridge’s Hotel in London this week.

Cherie Blair, a “QC and mother of four”, the Daily Telegraph reported had:

criticised women who “put all their effort into their children” instead of working. Mothers who go out to work are setting a better example for their children, she said.

Addressing a gathering of “powerful” women at one of London’s most expensive hotels, Mrs Blair said she was worried that today’s young women are turning their backs on the feminism of their mothers’ generation.

Some women now regard motherhood as an acceptable alternative to a career, Mrs Blair said. Instead, women should strive for both.

“Every woman needs to be self-sufficient and in that way you really don’t have a choice – for your own satisfaction; you hear these yummy mummies talk about being the best possible mother and they put all their effort into their children. I also want to be the best possible mother, but I know that my job as a mother includes bringing my children up so actually they can live without me.”

Tell us what you really think — don’t hold back!

The coverage of this speech has been favorable so far to Mrs. Blair. In structuring its article the Telegraph moved from the quotes from the conference to statistical data showing the number of mothers with children in the work force has risen in recent years. Comments about the struggles Mrs. Blair had as a child after her father abandoned her mother and the family are followed by an appreciation of her charitable work. Nothing is offered in response from those women who do not think as Mrs. Blair does.

The Guardian’s account is a bit more robust, but follows the same story arc as the Telegraph. True to form, the Daily Mail gave Mrs. Blair a knock and covered the event in a column.

Cherie Blair sympathises with the children of ‘yummy mummies,’ saying those with ‘working mothers’ are more independent. Into which category falls working lawyer Cherie? Eldest son Euan, 28, lives in a £1.3m central London property. So do his brother Nicky, 27, and sister Kathryn, 24. All thanks to Cherie. Perhaps she should be thankful for her family’s good fortune and resist lecturing others.

The second day news analyses and commentaries took a different turn. In an extraordinary press hand-out news article Fortune magazine (host of the powerful women luncheon) attacked the first day stories. It began with an apologetic:

Taken out of context, just about any quote can spark outrage. Queen’s Counsel Cherie Blair learned that lesson the hard way this week, in the aftermath of comments she made about stay-at-home moms.

And after summarizing her remarks, Fortune attacked the other reports of the event, denouncing the Telegraph, Guardian, and Daily Mail for sensationalist scandal-mongering — and for not understanding the subtly of the message.

Blair’s “yummy mummies” comment has gained quite a bit of traction in the British press. “Cherie Blair attacks ‘yummy mummies’ who choose children over careers,” “Cherie Blair criticises career-shunning ‘yummy mummies’” and “Cherie Blair takes a swipe at stay-at-home yummy mummies” read headlines from the Telegraph, Guardian, and Daily Mail, respectively.

More than anything, the harsh words simply reveal a media culture that craves a catfight. Yet a Mommy War is not what the panelists — particularly Blair — were hoping to provoke. Instead, they were searching for a solution to a pervasive, complex social challenge: How can women pursue their careers and embrace motherhood in an economic world (for many) that all but mandates dual-income households but a culture that still retains skepticism about its effects?

There is an air of unreality in this. I find it extraordinary that there is no sense that the great mass of working mothers are not on a career ladder, but are working to make ends meet. Nor is the question asked  whether the great mass of working women desire what Mrs. Blair believes to be good for them. It also begs the question, is/was Cherie Blair a good mother? How did her choices impact those around her? What criteria is she using to say that her personal achievement is the greatest good?

One of the best  stories I have seen so far is a commentary in the Telegraph written by Cristina Odone entitled “Cherie Blair should leave yummy mummies alone”. Ms. Odone makes the point that the hallmark of a liberal progressive society is the freedom to choose — even if the choice is not to Mrs. Blair’s liking.

… the highly educated stay-at-home is an international phenomenon. A recent survey of Harvard Business School graduates found that 31 per cent of the women from the classes of 1981, 1985 and 1991 who answered the survey worked only part time or on contract and another 31 per cent did not work at all. These findings were comparable to a survey of Yale women graduates.

That makes no sense to Cherie. Alpha feminists like her are vocal, high-profile women whose excellent education has been followed by a dazzling career. They value their families and even in some instances their husbands, but they strive for autonomy: their mantra is “I can live without them/him.”

Life, if you belong to this elite, is one long succession of networking opportunities at Claridge’s. The problems begin when you don’t fit into this tiny privileged minority. Alpha feminists want to be free to do as they please – shine professionally, stick two fingers up at marriage, whatever; but they quash other women’s freedom of choice – there is one way, and it’s their way.

Do read Cristina Odone’s piece. The time will be well rewarded.

Yet, I do feel there is another hole in this story that I have yet to see covered (it is early days though) and that is the religion angle. Women and men make decisions about how they live their lives that are influenced by more than their immediate appetites. The world view espoused by Mrs. Blair and the ladies who lunch at Claridge’s is a worldly one — with no time, nor need for the transcendent. There appears to be no religious or ethical core to Cherie Blair’s world.

How then should a journalist cover events such as these? Space and the need to go to print immediately often prevent a story from receiving a full hearing on the first day. But should a story that is not seeking to be first out of the box devote time to the voices of contrary world views — including the voices of religious women as well as non-religious women who reject the materialism espoused by Cherie Blair?

What say you Get Religion readers? How would you craft such a story?

First published in GetReligion.

Who reads the Daily Mail?: Get Religion June 6, 2012 June 6, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Archbishop of Canterbury, Church of England, Get Religion, Press criticism.
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Hacker: Don’t tell me about the press. I know exactly who reads the papers: the Daily Mirror is read by people who think they run the country; The Guardian is read by people who think they ought to run the country; The Times is read by people who actually do run the country; the Daily Mail is read by the wives of the people who run the country; the Financial Times is read by people who own the country; The Morning Star is read by people who think the country ought to be run by another country; and The Daily Telegraph is read by people who think it is.

Sir Humphrey: Prime Minister, what about the people who read The Sun?

Bernard: Sun readers don’t care who runs the country, as long as she’s got big tits.

“A Conflict of Interest” from Yes, Prime Minister (31 Dec 1987).

The British television sitcom, Yes, Minister and its sequel Yes, Prime Minister, are amongst my favorite television shows. The humor and political insight of the series written by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynch remains as fresh and sharp today as it did twenty five years ago.

The exchange above between Prime Minister Jim Hacker, Cabinet Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby, and his private secretary Bernard Woolley is a treat. The setting for this scene is the Cabinet Room at No. 10 Downing Street.  Hacker is vexed by his poor press and is worried that the situation will become worse as there are rumors of a scandal in the City (London’s financial hub). Sir Humphrey advises him not to act unless the rumors turn out to be true, while Bernard counsels the P.M. not to worry about what the newspapers say. This advice was foolish, Hacker responds, launching the set piece about the prejudices and readership of the British press.

Twenty five years later these stereotypes largely hold true. Perhaps a modern version would drop the Communist Party newspaper The Morning Star — the joke being they want another country, the Soviet Union, to run Britain — not being relevant today. A modern retelling, however, could insert The Independent in its place, with the joke being the Independent is very keen on the European Union.  Not as good a joke as the original, I concede.

The place of the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph might also be swapped — with the Mail being the more conservative — or cranky — of the two.

To understand the joke a viewer would have to understand that the British press is cheerfully biased. Each paper holds strong editorial positions and its news coverage is often driven by its editorial line.  Taken as a whole, this is not such a bad thing.  When one is able to read the coverage in the Guardian alongside that of the Times, Telegraph and others a thoughtful reader gets a well-rounded view of events.

Here lies one of the differences between the U.S. and U.K. media market.  The New York Times is as driven by a left-liberal political agenda like the Guardian — yet there is no Telegraph or Times to balance its coverage.  Speaking in very broad terms, the closest U.S. analogy might be the Washington Post v. Washington Times rivalry — yet the Washington papers have such unequal resources, circulation and influence they do not quite fit the bill.

However, when the British press are good, they are very very good — I would say the best in the world when the advocacy format seeks truth and moral virtue — and delivers a great story. But when they are bad, the British press is dreadful — with advocacy gone wild.

An example of a truly awful advocacy article can be found in the Daily Mail’s coverage of the service at St. Paul’s Cathedral for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Now I enjoy beating the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, about the head and shoulders with a stick as much as the next man — an Amelkite to be smote hip and thigh. But there is a difference between disagreement and vilification — and the Daily Mail story is cruel.

The headline of the story sets the tone. “Archbishop of Canterbury uses Diamond Jubilee Thanksgiving sermon to preach about his pet issues of City greed and the environment”.

The subtitles drive home this point for the reader who still may have doubts.

Outgoing Archbishop has a reputation for being controversial and holding liberal views
He previously questioned the legitimacy of the Coalition in a left-wing political magazine

HORRORS — Dr. Williams hates sin, loves the environment and is a liberal who has written in a left wing magazine. They might as well have added that he is a sandal-wearing, pacifist, socialist, hairy weird beard who lacks a sense of rhythm. (The sight of Dr. Williams bopping in time to Stevie Wonder singing “Superstition” at the Queen’s Jubilee concert made me cringe.)

The lede is not shy in telling us what is wrong with Dr. Williams.

The Archbishop of Canterbury made a pointed remark about the traps of ‘ludicrous financial greed’ and ‘environmental recklessness’ as he praised the Queen’s selfless service to others and urged the nation to follow her example.

Dr Rowan Williams could not resist politicising his thanksgiving sermon yesterday at St Paul’s Cathedral celebrating the Diamond Jubilee.

He made reference to several cherished Left-wing causes as he stated that the ‘challenge’ this jubilee sets us is to make sacrifices in pursuit of ‘a shared joy far greater than narrow individual fulfilment’.

The Mail then justifies its claims of liberal lunacy by quoting from the sermon.

He said: ‘Moralists, archbishops included, can thunder away as much as they like; but they’ll make no difference unless and until people see that there is something transforming and exhilarating about the prospect of a whole community rejoicing together – being glad of each other’s happiness and safety.

‘This alone is what will save us from the traps of ludicrous financial greed, of environmental recklessness, of collective fear of strangers and collective contempt for the unsuccessful and marginal – and many more things that we see far too much of, around us and within us.’

Dr Williams’ views on bankers and the environment are well known.

What sermon did the Mail hear? True,  it did not call Dr. Williams a vacuous toffee-nosed malodorous pervert. But this article is so over the top in its abuse and exaggerated sense of horror that it is just silly — Pythonesque.

I wonder who the Mail is trying to cultivate with this article, which is little more than abuse — a sustained attack on Dr. Williams’ character, person and office. It does not appear to be conservatives for at the end of the article it takes Dr. Williams to task for not pushing gay clergy and women bishops. Perhaps there is a constituency that dislikes liberals, the Welsh and social conservatives?

Dr Williams, who was selected as Archbishop of Canterbury in the Queen’s Golden Jubilee year in 2002, has a reputation for being liberal and controversial.

Many voiced doubt before he took the role as he backed the separation of church and state in England. He has been critical of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq in political statements he has made over the years.

He was also in the reformer’s camp on both the issue of women bishops and openly gay clergy, but in the face of huge opposition from the conservative element of the church he has been forced to sit on the fence, pleasing no-one.

In 2009 he was forced to defend his controversial comments about the introduction of Islamic law to Britain.

Perhaps I am too close to the story, having written about Dr. Williams in hundreds of stories over the years, but to my eyes appears to be more about animus than reporting. As journalism it is junk. Tabloid trash without the girls on page 3.

What say you GetReligion readers? Trash or treasure from the Daily Mail?

First published in GetReligion.

Gay rights v church rites: Get Religion, January 17, 2012 January 17, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Church of England, Get Religion, Human Sexuality --- The gay issue, Press criticism.
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I’d like to call your attention to some great religion reporting in the British press this week concerning Dr. Jeffrey John, the Dean of St Albans. Attention to detail and context, lightness of touch, lucid prose and a high degree of intellectual and moral sophistication mark these stories. There are also a few stinkers — the Guardian manages to mangle the facts and make unwarranted assumptions — but overall the reporting has been very good so far.

Let me focus on two of the best I have seen: the Independent and the Daily Mail.

Jonathan Petre of the Daily Mail broke the story of the week with his report that a senior cleric of the Church of England is threatening to sue the church on the grounds of employment discrimination for denying him preference because he is gay.

For those who have followed the Anglican wars of the past twenty-five years, Jeffrey John ranks with Gene Robinson and Jack Spong as being among the most newsworthy, admired or infamous (depending upon your perspective) liberal Anglican clerics. John figures prominently in Stephen Bates of the Guardian’s 2004 book A Church at War: Anglicans and Homosexuality, which I heartily recommend to those who wish to delve deeper into this issue.

Petre (pronounced Peter) and the Sunday Times broke the story — but as the Times is behind a paywall it will not come into consideration in this post. The next day the Guardian and Telegraph followed with stories of their own, along with the Huffington Post and other outlets. The Independent ran its story on the second day as did the BBC

Some thoughtful opinion pieces have appeared as well, notably in the Guardian by Andrew Brown, George Pitcher in the Daily Mail and from popular bloggers including Peter Ould and Cranmer.  Because this was handed to the majors for a Sunday splash the church press in England, The Church of England Newspaper and the Church Times, won’t have reports out until Friday.

I want to hold out the Daily Mail story as an example of a great breaking news report, and the Independent for providing superior analysis and detail. The Daily Mail opens with:

A controversial gay dean has threatened to take the Church of  England to court after he was blocked from becoming a bishop.

The Very Rev Jeffrey John, Dean of St Albans, has instructed an eminent employment lawyer to complain to Church officials after being rejected for the role of Bishop of Southwark.

Sources say the dean, one of the most contentious figures in the Church, believes he could sue officials under the Equality Act 2010, which bans discrimination on the grounds of sexuality. Such a case could create a damaging new rift within the CoE.

Dr John was at the centre of a storm in 2003 when forced to step down as Bishop of Reading by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams after it became known that he was in a gay, though celibate, relationship. The furore fuelled a bitter civil war within the Anglican Church that has dominated Dr Williams’s decade in office.

The story offers details of John’s career, noting he had allegedly been blocked by Archbishop Rowan Williams from becoming Bishop of Southwark in 2010, and reports he has engaged a high powered employment law attorney to represent him — an attorney who won a high profile case against the Church of England when it refused to hire a gay man as a youth minister.

This is a great example of a finely written first day story. In the small space allowed him by the Mail, Jonathan Petre gives the pertinent facts and history that allow the casual reader to understand why this is a major issue for the Church of England. We know this story will have legs. Petre’s style is tight and his reporting neutral. While we can expect the Daily Mail to take a conservative position on this matter, Petre’s story does not push the party line but allows the facts to tell the story.

He also avoids speculation. It would have been very easy to have written this story with a spiteful tone — implying John was being presumptuous and was a fool for not knowing how this would look to others. But Petre does not go down that road, because, (I suspect) he knows that this is not the case and that it is more likely that the very press-shy John has chosen to make this an issue for the cause of equal treatment for gay and lesbian clergy. In any event Petre knows when to stop the story an opening day story. He does a great job.

Of the second day stories, Jerome Taylor’s story in the Independent’s is far and away the best I have seen. It also ran an leader and published a somewhat silly op-ed piece. But the Taylor article is the one worth reading. Here is an example of his analysis:

The Church long ago decided there was essentially nothing to stop a gay man who lived a life of celibacy from becoming a bishop. Even within the orthodox wings there was acceptance it would be difficult to exclude someone who was living in an entirely celibate civil partnership – for most traditionalists the line in the sand was engaging in a physical, same-sex relationship.

But a grey area remained concerning clergy who at one time or another had a same-sex relationship but had since abandoned it in favour of celibacy. Could someone who had been physically homosexual ever become a bishop?

The Church’s legal note provided a stark answer. Only those who had “repented” their physically homosexual past could be considered for a bishop. You could be a gay bishop, but only if you vocally shunned your sexual past, a condition which is not imposed on heterosexual applicants.

Within conservative wings the caveat quickly became gleefully nicknamed “The Jeffrey John clause” – after the openly gay Dean of St Albans who was humiliatingly made to relinquish his appointment to the Bishop of Reading in 2003 following traditionalist outrage over his promotion. Dr John lives in a celibate relationship but has always said refused to apologise for his past.

In effect, the decision meant those who remained in the closet could climb the ecclesiastical pole, but those who were honest about their sexuality were disbarred. To the liberals it was a slap in the face – another clear indication that senior leaders within the Church of England had no desire to rock the boat or confront an issue that has deeply divided the Anglican Communion for much of the past 15 years.

This is a thoughtful and succinct summary. I admire his prose, his detail and insight. I also admire Taylor’s moral sense. Though I do not share his sentiments, I applaud his pursuit of truth and his attack on cant (something the Church of England does very well).

To get a sense of how strong a story this is, compare it to the second day story in the Guardian. That story manages to mangle the history — making John a candidate for Bishop of Bedford when he was nominated to be Bishop of Reading — and also makes unwarranted assumptions. Here is but one example:

Conservatives have reacted with dismay to news of John’s apparent hiring of Alison Downie, an employment and discrimination law specialist, to fight his case over the Southwark post, which eventually went to Christopher Chessun.

How does the Guardian know this? With whom has it spoken? There is no shortage of conservative Church of England clergy who could give flesh to this assertion. I am also uncomfortable with the assumption the Guardian makes that John is driven by personal bitterness in challenging the church’s policies, when there is no evidence to substantiate this.

The issue of same-sex marriage is a contentious one in Britain. The Church of England, the Catholic Church and a number of civil society organizations have voiced their opposition to government proposals to broaden the gay civil unions law to marriage — the John affair adds another twist to what will be an interesting year for religion reporters.

The British press has taken a few hits of late, battered by the scandals surrounding the Murdoch tabloids. But as you can see from these stories, when they are good, they are great.

Wedding ring photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

First published in GetReligion.

Sex and circulation: Get Religion, January 14, 2012 January 15, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Church of England, Get Religion, Marriage, Press criticism.
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Jimmy Swaggart

There is nothing like a good sex scandal to boost circulation. A quick glance at the covers of the magazines offered for sale at your grocery store will confirm the maxim that sex sells. The escapades of film stars, royalty, and sports heroes have long been a staple of this genre, (politicians too, but they do not generate the same intensity of interest).

In recent years we have seen reality TV stars Paris Hilton, the Kardashian sisters and so forth — people who are famous for being famous — rise to pictorial prominence. But one of the staples of this genre that never seems to fade is the vicar sex scandal.

Every so often there will be a U.S. press feeding frenzy about naughty vicars — Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard, Jim Bakker, John Corapi — but this is one area where in quality and quantity the English press continues to outshine America.

The naughty Church of England vicar caught with his pants down with a member of the choir is a story that never seems to grow old. The Daily Mail, which loves these stories, ran one the other day with the title “Queen’s chaplain takes a blonde from the church choir as his third wife (what would the royal flock say?)”

Here is the opening:

He is a senior Church of England cleric and Queen’s chaplain who has written guides to marital harmony. But the Reverend Canon Andrew Clitherow’s own affairs of the heart are causing quite a stir in his parish. He has divorced his second wife, Rebekah, and taken a third bride, Nicola, a glamorous soprano.

His congregation is in uproar and so is the local bishop. For Canon Clitherow, 60, is said to have assured the diocese there was no one else involved when he split from the second Mrs Clitherow last year. Now, less than a year later, the father of four has married Nicola Howard, 44, who has sung worldwide and released several albums. She has moved into the sprawling Georgian vicarage with him.

Although he is still at home, the Canon is no longer performing any church duties and is said to be on ‘sick leave’. Parishioners say his latest marriage to the mother of three is yet another episode in a bizarre clerical soap opera which began last year and is ruining the reputation of the church.

We then learn the details of Canon Clitherow’s personal life.  He married his first wife in 1982 and they had two children, but they divorced in 2002.  He married his second wife that year, a women he had first met in 1992 when she was a high school student and he the chaplain of her school.  This marriage also produced two children, but in March 2011 he announced to the congregation that he was divorcing a second time.

The Mail lets us know that rumors at the church swirled around this second divorce, with tongues wagging about the vicar’s affair with a blonde divorcee who was a member of the choir.  At the time of his divorce the vicar informed his bishop that the marriage had broken down but that there was no other person involved. The vicar went on sick leave following Easter services, citing stress as the culprit — and then married the blonde divorcee at a private ceremony at a registry office over the Christmas holidays.

The story makes great play with Canon Clitherow’s having written a number of marriage manuals as well as his position as one of Queen Elizabeth’s chaplains — a very great honor in the Church of England. It also offers the voices of angry members of the congregation, who want their thrice married layabout vicar — who continues to draw a salary and live in the rectory but does no work — to be gone from their parish as he is an “embarrassment”.

So you have it — a sex scandal (with pictures of the glamorous blonde) that one can read with moral relish and no embarrassment.  Too embarrassed to read about the trashy behavior of the Kardashians? Here is the genteel option, a Daily Mail story that allows the reader to be titillated and express opprobrium at someone who should have known better. What fun!

Now criticizing these sorts of stories is akin to taking a shovel to a souffle. This story has no pretense to being a morally improving tale or a work of cutting edge reporting — it is celebrity/gossip journalism. But in my secret heart I would have liked to hear something from the man’s bishop or some church voice to explain what exactly is wrong with this picture.

What is the Church of England’s view on divorce and remarriage? What is its view on divorce and remarriage of the clergy? There is a religion ghost here that could have been addressed without making the story too heavy.

I noticed one item — the timing of the first divorce in 2002. With the introduction of civil divorce and civil marriage in the nineteenth century, the Church of England was able to bear its witness to the evangelical expectation of marriage by refusing remarriage in church to divorced people without absolutely denying marriage to them.   This position, though never maintained without some sense of strain, continued to be the official position of the Church of England until November 2002.

Canon Clitherow could not remarry in the church until 2002 — and that coincidentally was the year that he divorced and remarried.

The Daily Mail ran a second story last week that touches upon these issues. “History’s repeating itself: Ex-Archbishop tells of the Queen’s ‘despair’ over Charles’s split from Diana and love for Camilla in a revealing new biography” offers excepts of a new biography of the Queen.

A new biography of the Queen reveals for the first time her despair over the divorce of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, and the Monarch’s fears that  her eldest son was about to ‘throw  everything away’.

In Elizabeth The Queen, by Sally Bedell Smith, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, recalls the moment that the Queen finally confronted the problems in her son’s marriage. The Archbishop reveals she was terrified that history was about to repeat itself – that Prince Charles would give up his place in the line of succession for Camilla, just as King Edward VIII gave up the throne in 1936 to marry his mistress, Wallis Simpson.

Lord Carey says: ‘There was a moment when we were talking very candidly about divorce. I remember her sighing and saying, “History is repeating itself.” I saw despair. What she was talking about was the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

‘She was concerned that if they divorced, Charles would marry Camilla. She thought Charles was in danger of throwing everything out of the window by rejecting Diana and forging another relationship.’

In this naughty vicar story there are some strong echoes of the Charles/Diana/Camilla affair — Canon Clitherow after all is a chaplain to the Queen, as well as underlying religion motifs.

In 2005 the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams refused to marry in a church wedding Charles and Camilla, as conducting a new marriage would be tantamount to consecrating old infidelity. It would be compounding the wrong according to the Church of England’s teaching on remarriage — when the partner in the new marriage has been a significant factor in the breakdown of the old marriage.

The question I ask is how can these be reported? It may be too much to expect People or the Tatler to make these links. But is it beyond the Daily Mail? Is it beyond any newspaper? Given the prevalence of divorce in our culture can this topic even be addressed?

What say you GetReligion readers?

First printed in GetReligion.

Have a merry pagan Christmas: Get Religion, December 19, 2011 December 19, 2011

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Popular Culture, Press criticism, Religion Reporting.
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The Daily Mail loves its crazy American stories — articles that show the quirky (I’m being polite) or bizarre (a little more true to life) aspects of American culture — or the lack there of.  Today’s installment is entitled: “Families shockedto find ‘hate mail’ claiming their Christmas lights honour ‘Pagan Sun-God.”

Yes, the guy who delights in shouting “you kids get off my lawn” has been stuffing mailboxes in Hudsonville, Mich. with flyers denouncing those who have decorated their homes with Christmas lights.

A group homeowners on one street with Christmas decorations have received an anonymous note saying the lights honour the ‘Pagan Sun-God.’

The residents in Hudsonville, Michigan, were baffled by the notes which were attached to their mailboxes on Wednesday night.

The note said the lights have nothing to do with the birth of Jesus, according to ABC News affiliate WZZM.

The letters begin on a warm note by saying ‘Hi neighbour, you have a nice display of lights.’

But it swiftly become serious by talking of how the ‘pagan tradition’ of putting up lights began.

The article quotes an offended homeowner, who found the note ridiculous. (Question. Would the Scrooge of Hudsonville have written Hi neighbour? Adding in the “u”. Just asking.) The Daily Mail’s stage American displays outrage, independence, Christian piety — and a hint of ignorance.

Miss Hoekman added: ‘It’s a sin to judge other people and to tell people that if they have Christmas lights they are Pagans.

‘We’re not Pagans, we go to church regularly, my kids go to the Christian school.

A “Miss” whose kids go to the Christian school? That would be news. It is a silly story of course. But it does reflect a meme often found in Christmas related stories that December 25 is a Christianized pagan holiday.

Here’s how a Dec 15 piece in the Huffington Post puts it:

Because early Christians didn’t have a specific date in scripture, they chose one with metaphorical significance that also coincided with two preexisting Roman celebrations. December 25th was the date of the winter solstice on the Roman calendar — the shortest day of the year. Sunlight grows stronger and longer each day following the solstice. Picking a day that represented the transition from dark to light would have been an appropriate symbol for those who saw in Jesus the birth of a man who would lead them to salvation. The Bible abounds in symbolic language of Jesus represented as light, a metaphor found for the divine in every other major religion as well.

The choice of December 25th also worked for the early Christians because it corresponded with two Roman celebrations centered on the winter solstice. Saturnalia, an ancient Roman celebration that originated two centuries before Christ, began on December 17th and ended on the 23rd. Saturnalia was a celebration of the god Saturn and was marked by feasts, merriment, the hanging of evergreen cuttings, the lighting of candles, and gift giving. … Many Romans in the fourth century also celebrated the birth of the sun god, Sol Invictus, on December 25th, marking the occasion with a festival. As Christianity began to spread throughout the Roman Empire, the Christian tradition of Christmas naturally absorbed elements of these popular pagan celebrations.

This bit of conventional wisdom does not stand up to scrutiny. It will disappoint the crank of Hudsonville no doubt, but he (and the Huffington Post) have it backwards. As Prof. William Tighe wrote in Touchstone magazine a few years ago:

… the Emperor Aurelian instituted on that date [Dec 25] in the year 274 was not only an effort to use the winter solstice to make a political statement, but also almost certainly an attempt to give a pagan significance to a date already of importance to Roman Christians.

In other words, it was the pagan Emporer Aurelian who sought to paganize the Dec 25 holiday of the Christians, not the Christians who sought to Christianize the Roman pagan holiday. For those who are interested in this topic I urge you to read Prof. Tighe’s popular treatment of the subject — or the scholarly study The Origins of the Liturgical Year by Thomas Talley.

I do not doubt that some will dispute Prof. Tighe’s conclusions on this point and reject his scholarship. However, from the perspective of journalism an unthinking acceptance of the conventional wisdom — and not checking sources — is a mistake.

Photos: the holiday home is courtesy of Shutterstock and the disc of Sol Invictus is from the British Museum courtesy of Wikipedia.

First printed in GetReligion.

Evolution and Islam: Get Religion, November 30, 2011 December 1, 2011

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Islam, Press criticism.
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The Daily Mail has brought to its readers’ attention a timely twist to the conflict between faith and science. The article: “Muslim medical students boycotting lectures on evolution… because it ‘clashes with the Koran’,” reports the tensions felt by Muslim medical students who are divided between adherence to their faith and the pursuit of their profession.

However, readers expecting an updated version of “Inherit the Wind”, substituting Islam for Christianity and London for the American South, will be disappointed. There is a great idea for a story here, but no story as far as I can tell.

The article opens with a bang, and telegraphs the Daily Mail’s editorial view (the students are villains, the professor the hero):

Muslim students, including trainee doctors on one of Britain’s leading medical courses, are walking out of lectures on evolution claiming it conflicts with creationist ideas established in the Koran.

Professors at University College London have expressed concern over the increasing number of biology students boycotting lectures on Darwinist theory, which form an important part of the syllabus, citing their religion.

Similar to the beliefs expressed by fundamentalist Christians, Muslim opponents to Darwinism maintain that Allah created the world, mankind and all known species in a single act.

Steve Jones emeritus professor of human genetics at university college London has questioned why such students would want to study biology at all when it obviously conflicts with their beliefs.

Everything is here for a screenplay. It includes great characters: Muslim medical students, a lefty professor, and a mysterious Muslim scholar Harun Yahya. The photo of Yahya provided by the Daily Mail could have come from central casting. Forget Claude Akins as Rev. Jeremiah Brown (the preacher in the 1960 Stanley Kramer version of the film) Harun Yahya could be played by a mature Jack Nicholson.

We have a clash of ideals — the tenets of Islam versus evolution, and a change of scene to London.  And in the background we have England’s unease in dealing with the demands of its growing population of immigrant Muslims. Throw in a clash of generations with the clash of cultures and an attractive female lead and we have a modern morality play. But that movie is not this story.

The Daily Mail article is unbalanced, un-sourced, and heavy handed. Neither good entertainment nor good journalism. Following its strong opening Prof. Jones speaks.

“I had one or two slightly frisky discussions years ago with kids who belonged to fundamentalist Christian churches, now it is Islamic overwhelmingly.

“They don’t come [to lectures] or they complain about it or they send notes or emails saying they shouldn’t have to learn this stuff.

“What they object to – and I don’t really understand it, I am not religious – they object to the idea that there is a random process out there which is not directed by God.”

So far so good — pithy, hard hitting comments from the professor. I was initially surprised, however, by placement of the professor’s comments first. When a reporter presents two sides to an argument he sometimes gives the less favored side the first chance to speak. That allows the reporter’s favorite the opportunity to speak in rebuttal. (“God tells me the earth ends tomorrow” claims Fred Loonie. “Not so,” replies Prof. John Serious. “The Science is against it,” said the Nobel laureate ….)

But surprise turned to astonishment when I read on and found no student or Muslim voice in rebuttal or explanation. After  the professor’s comments comes a statement that an imam received “death threats for suggesting that Darwinism and Islam might be compatible.” This is followed by:

Sources within the group Muslims4UK partly blame the growing popularity of creationist beliefs within Islam on Turkish author Harun Yahya who, influenced by the success of Christian creationists in America, has written several books denouncing Darwinist theory. Yahya associates Darwinism with Nazism and his books are and videos are available at many Islamic bookshops in the UK and regularly feature on Islamic television channels.

And the article closes with a word from Richard Dawkins.

Evolutionary Biologist and former Oxford Professor Richard Dawkins has expressed his concern at the number of students, consisting almost entirely of Muslims, who do not attend or walk out of lectures.

That’s it. Somebody (known as Sources) in a group called Muslims4UK (who are they?) says the fault lies with a Turkish author who draws his insights from the work of American creationists. How does Muslims4UK know this? What does Mr. Yahya say about all of this? How does Prof. Dawkins know that students are walking out of classes at University College London because of their religious beliefs?

What we have here is the statement of one professor that some Muslim students are cutting his classes — and the professor believes this is because their faith is in conflict with the school’s syllabus. The absence of any contrary voice in explanation might just as well mean the professor was boycotted because he is a boring lecturer.

The Daily Mail commits the further sin of assuming Muslims speak with a single voice and that Islam rejects the teaching of evolution. While Hamas may believe that Darwinism is a nefarious plot by Jews to destroy religion, other Muslims believe Islam and evolution are compatible. A 2004 Guardian article that discussed the teaching of creationism in British schools quoted Dr Khalid Anees, president of the Islamic Society of Britain, as saying:

There is no contradiction between what is revealed in the Koran and natural selection and survival of the fittest. However, Muslims do not agree that one species can develop from another.

The journal Science reported that while belief in Darwinian evolution was not common in the Muslim world,  the scientific communities of many Muslim nations backed the teaching of evolution in state schools. The 21 June 2006 InterAcademy Panel “Statement on the Teaching of Evolution” was endorsed by the national science academies of Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Morocco, Pakistan, Palestine, Senegal, Tajikistan, Turkey, and Uzbekistan.

Saying there is a single Muslim voice on evolution is as false as saying there is a single Christian view. Some conservatives Christians reject evolution, but the Catholic Church does not. While some Anglicans believe in creationism, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, does not. He told the Guardian he opposed teaching creationism in state schools.

“I think creationism is … a kind of category mistake, as if the Bible were a theory like other theories … if creationism is presented as a stark alternative theory alongside other theories I think there’s just been a jarring of categories … My worry is creationism can end up reducing the doctrine of creation rather than enhancing it.”

The shame of it all is that there is a real story in here — but not the one the Daily Mail is reporting. If the premise of the story is true, that Muslim medical students are boycotting classes on human evolution for religious purposes, then it is important to learn why and how such a radicalization took place. What has happened in British higher education that has converted Muslim students to an extremist view of their faith? A view rejected by the scientists from across the Muslim world.

All in all, this is a mess.

Photo of Charles Darwin courtesy of Shutterstock – Jose AS Reyes

First printed in GetReligion.

Pope’s season cut short by knee injury: Get Religion, November 12, 2011 November 12, 2011

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism, Roman Catholic Church.
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The Daily Mail has a story out that speculates the pope may resign due to ill health.

One can read this article in two ways. Either it is the silly season in the British press for articles on Pope Benedict XVI. His appearance on a rolling platform and use of a cane may have led to some recent heavy-breathing from Fleet Street. Or, this may be a continuation of the meme that began with a 25 Sept 2011 story in the Italian newspaper Libero which said the pope was thinking about retiring on his 85th birthday next April. While the Vatican press office denied the Libero story, could a painful degenerative joint condition precipitate an early exodus by Josef Ratzinger?

There may well be something in the later thesis, but the tone and style of the 11 Nov 2011 story in the Daily Mail entitled “Pope crippled by arthrosis leg pains which makes walking difficult” suggests it may be the former.

Now it isn’t quite the thing to criticize a story based on its headline as the power of naming a story is withheld from reporters. Those slack-jawed troglodytes of the newspaper industry known as sub-editors often come up with headlines that bear no relation to the story. So its not on to beat up the Daily Mail over the verb in the headline — “crippled”. But I’m afraid the rest of the story is weak. Reading this story, one would assume the pope was a professional athlete with a knee injury that threatens to end his career in mid-stride. Is this silly reporting? Take a look and tell me what you think:

The Pope is suffering from a degenerative condition in the joints of his legs which makes it painful for him to walk, according to Vatican insiders.

The onset of arthrosis means 84-year-old Benedict XVI can move only short distances before it becomes agonising to carry on.

His condition, which is related to his age, last month prompted him to request the use of a wheeled platform devised for predecessor Pope John Paul II.dence of Castel Gandolfo

Pilgrims were surprised to see the current pontiff clinging to the bar of the platform while ushers rolled it slowly down the main aisle, making it impossible for him to stop and greet well-wishers as he usually does.

At the time, the Vatican played down concerns about the Pope’s health, saying the platform was ‘solely to lighten the burden’ of processions.

The article then turns to a discussion of arthrosis before it enters the twilight zone.

The fact that it was the Pope – and not his doctors – who requested the mobile platform sparked renewed fears about the health of a man who has suffered two mild strokes and is also known to have a weak heart.

It also prompted speculation that the Bavarian-born Pope, who was elected in April 2005, might eventually resign rather than die in office.

The Daily Mail covers its bets with a closing quote from an Oxford don who says it is highly unlikely the pope would resign due to the aches and pains of age.

However, it is the bit just above the close that is problematic. Someone (we know not who) has fears about the pope using a platform — it being a sign the end is near. And someone else thinks joint pains may force the “crippled” pope to resign.

Using unnamed sources is always tricky. There are times when one must not reveal a source. When I write about the church in Zimbabwe I don’t identify some sources due to fears of retribution. At other times I withhold a name because the source is not authorized to speak on behalf of the organization or doesn’t want to lose his job. And then there is making it up as you go along.

In this case, we don’t have enough information to decide how much credence to give to these assertions. A reporter who covers the Vatican is named earlier in the story as a source for the news the pope uses a cane when moving about his private apartments, but there is no link between this insider and the allegations pushed at the close.

Yet this insider, La Stampa’s Andrea Torneilli who writes the “Vatican Insider” column, has made some cogent arguments about the pope stepping down. In his 25 Sept 2011 column, Torneilli commented with approval on the Libero article.

[T]he assumption he will resign, without any hitches, was the same thing Ratzinger talked about in an interview in the book “Luce del mondo” (Light of the World), when, in response to a question by interviewer Peter Seewald, he said: “When a Pope arrives at a clear awareness that he no longer has the physical, mental, or psychological capacity to carry out the task that has been entrusted to him, then he has the right, and in some cases, even the duty to resign.” Furthermore, in another passage, Benedict XVI wondered if he would be able to “withstand it all, just from the physical point of view.”

Torneilli also reported the Libero story  said the pope was not willing to run away from a fight. In response to a question about the pedophile priests’ scandal Benedict said:

When there is a great menace, one cannot simply run away from it. That is why, right now, it is definitely not the time to resign …  It is actually at moments like these that one needs to resist and overcome difficult situations. One can only resign at a time when things are calm, or simply, when nothing more can be done about it. But one cannot run away right when the threat is alive and say, “Let somebody else take care of it.”

Torneilli concluded “nothing of what Benedict XVI himself said in answer  to his alleged plans to resign, seems to be materialising.”

The bottom line: There is informed speculation that the pope may step down when he believes his physical or mental capabilities have deteriorated to the point that he is not able to carry out his duties. Or, the sands of time have run out for that plucky Bavarian, Josef Ratzinger. Nobbled by a knee injury that will end his career.

My take is the Daily Mail’s focus on the illness rather than upon the pope’s published comments about the relationship between illness and his duties as Bishop of Rome means the story falls short.

Silly season … or a foundational story that will see its completion in the coming year? I’ve had my say .. what about you GetReligion readers.

Images courtesy of Natursports / Shutterstock.com

First printed in GetReligion.

Moral cowardice and Mohammad: Get Religion November 2, 2011 November 2, 2011

Posted by geoconger in Free Speech, Get Religion, Islam, Persecution, Politics, Press criticism.
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Get ready GetReligion readers for a new round of righteous indignation, moral cowardice and sloppy reporting about Islam. There will be a cartoon of Mohammad — quelle horreur — on the cover of the French satirical journal Charlie Hebdo. The magazine is set for distribution on newsstands today, 2 Nov 2011.

My colleagues at GetReligion have written extensively about reporting on images of Mohammad. Articles on Everybody Draw Mohammad Day, South Park, and the Jyllands-Posten cartoons have raised questions about the quality of reporting and unwarranted suppositions about Islam. And although we are only in the first days of this news cycle, the same errors, moral cowardice and surrender to the forces of religious extremism and censorship are cropping up in this latest cartoon controversy.

The editors of Charlie Hebdo — a lowbrow political humor magazine akin to Private Eye — held a press conference on Monday in Paris to announce that the Muslim prophet Mohammed would be this week’s guest editor and the magazine renamed “Sharia Hebdo” for this issue in honor of the occasion.

The French wire service AFP filed this dispatch from the front lines following the press conference:

“In order fittingly to celebrate the Islamist Ennahda’s win in Tunisia and the NTC (National Transitional Council) president’s promise that sharia would be the main source of law in Libya, Charlie Hebdo asked Mohammed to be guest editor,” said a statement.

The weekly has been rebaptised Sharia Hebdo for the occasion, and will feature on its cover a picture of Mohammed saying: “100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter!”

On the back page, a picture of Mohammed wearing a red nose is accompanied by the words: “Yes, Islam is compatible with humour.”

The cover was circulating on social media such as Twitter on Tuesday, with many users incensed and describing it as “puerile”.

The weekly’s publisher, known as Charb, rejected accusations that he was trying to provoke.

“We feel we’re just doing our job as usual. The only difference is that this week, Mohammed is on the cover and that’s quite rare,” he told AFP.

Le Nouvel Observateur — a Paris-based weekly with a circulation of over half a million, it is generally considered the most prominent French-language general news magazine (think Time in its heyday)  — ran a story late Monday evening (with a photo of the offending cover)  on its website under the title “Quand ‘Charlie Hebdo’ devient ‘Charia Hebdo’.” This story drew upon the original AFP report for the details, and added a few color quotes from French social media sites. By the end of the day about two dozen French-language newspapers and broadcasters had their own stories up on the cartoon controversy — with most displaying the cartoon. And being France, opinions ran the gamut from praise to condemnation.

The story began to spread and at midnight Eastern Daylight Time  on Monday night the Worldcrunch news service posted a translation of the Observatuer story illustrated with a copy of the offending issue. However, within hours the Mohammad cartoon disappeared. The article was now illustrated by by picture of a back issue of Charlie Hebdo. Was it copyright concerns or cowardice that led to the spiking of the cartoon?

English language stories began to appear but without the cartoon. The BBC ran a brief item by midday. The Telegraph ran first the AFP story and then its own re-write. By day’s end, the Daily Mail ran the first detailed report entitled “French satirical magazine set to spark outrage by naming Prophet Mohammed as editor-in-chief”.

The Daily Mail’s story was robust, damning both the French and radical Islam (no surprise there).  It led with: “A leading French magazine is set to provoke fury around the world by calling itself Sharia Weekly and pretending that the Prophet Mohammed is editing it.”

The article set the scene well, but closed badly:

Islamic law forbids any depiction of the prophet, even positive ones, to prevent idolatry.There are some six million Muslims living in France – the largest group of its kind in western Europe. While many have welcomed the fall of despots like Muammar Gaddafi following the Arab Spring revolts, many fear that they will be replaced by extreme Islamist governments.

There may not have been space available to flesh out the consequences of Muslim reactions, or to touch upon the past cartoon controversies. The story would have been improved with a word or two on this point. But it too played the coward, running a cover from a back issue of Charlie Hebdo instead of the Mohammad cover to illustrate the story.

And no, Islamic law does not forbid depictions of Mohammad. As my colleagues at GetReligion have pointed out there is no one Muslim law, nor common view on this topic. Here is a gallery of Mohammad images in Western and Turkish art collections.

Silenced, a 2011 book on the collision between Western concepts of free speech and Islam by Paul Marshall and Nina Shae notes:

There are numerous representations of Muhammad in historic Muslim art. Such works are housed in the Smithsonian, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace. Images of Muhammad appeared in illuminated manuscripts dating from as early as the thirteenth century and as late as the eighteenth century.

Sunni Islam, in modern times, has prohibitions against depicting the Prophet or his companions. Sunni theologians at Al-Azhar University continue to prohibit his portrayal, as does the Muslim Brotherhood, and iconoclastic theology has been promoted with particular vigor by the conservative Wahhabi sect, supported by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Shia tradition is less stringently opposed to such depictions. Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani of Iraq, a prominent Shia cleric, suggests on his website that portraying the Prophet is not problematic as long as the depiction is respectful. A primary reason for barring images of Muhammad is the prevention of idolatry…

Yes, I agree the Charlie Hebdo cartoons are puerile. But aesthetic considerations should not be grounds for censorship. Gustave Doré illustrations of Mohammad for Dante’s Inferno are as offensive to the Wahhabist Muslim as is Charlie Hebdo’s juvenile stunt. Nor am I persuaded that the self-censorship on display is intellectually or morally credible.

In 2009 the Yale University Press cancelled the publication of a scholarly book on the Mohammad cartoons after the school’s administration intervened. The university defended its cringing cowardice in a press release. While Yale was “institution deeply committed to free expression” publishing cartoons or “other illustrations of the Prophet Muhammad” ran “a serious risk of instigating violence.”

Writing in Slate, Christopher Hitchens deplored Yale’s mendacity and its misuse of  the word“instigate”. One instigates violence by actively encouraging and abetting it, not by engaging in lawful acts of communication. Lawful or innocent actions can spark violence. But society is not subject to mob rule. Maintaining public order is why we have police forces.

This story may have legs. French President Nicolas Sarkozy will have a tough time winning reelection in 2012. The Socialist challenger François Hollande is playing on economic discontent in France, and is touted to win. However, if the latest Mohammad cartoons spark rioting in the Muslim banlieues, it will be a political gift to Sarkozy (as well as to Marine Le Pen of the National Front).

European Muslim militants have manufactured outrage about Mohammad cartoons in the past — remember it was not until a group of Danish imams toured the Middle East complaining about the Jyllands-Posten Mohammad-with-a-bomb-in-his-turban cartoon that rioting ensued. Danish embassies were attacked and a trail of murder and mayhem spread across the Muslim world that ultimately left some 200 people dead. The Assad regime and the Muslim Brotherhood, among others, have facilitated riots over past cartoons. Whether it is in their political interests to do so now is a calculation that will be made in the coming days.

In his 1946 essay, “Why I Write”, George Orwell stated, “every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism.”  This is the duty of a free press. Though Stalinism and Fascism no longer have a place in Western intellectual life, the cant, hypocrisy and moral dishonesty they represented remain part of our intellectual and philosophical lives. And it is in this work, in challenging the orthodoxies of left and right, that journalism achieves its moral purpose.

Does the omission of Mohammad cartoons serve this moral good? No, it does not.

Addendum: In the hours between writing this story on Tuesday evening and publication on Wednesday morning the Charlie Hebdo story entered a new phase. The offices of the magazine were fire-bombed early this morning. No group has yet claimed responsibility or other actions against the magazine or its distributors been reported so far.

First published in GetReligion.