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The Guardian ridicules the saints, the Virgin and prayer: Get Religion, February 6, 2014 February 8, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism, Roman Catholic Church.
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Why do we fight? Why do we write? What motivates our editor tmatt and the team at GetReligion to do what we do?

For me, as I expect it is for my colleagues, it is the love of the game. To showcase the best examples of the craft of journalism — while chiding those that fall short.

I began to follow GetReligion shortly after it went online in 2004. I was a professional acquaintance of one of its co-founders, Doug LeBlanc and a long time admirer of his work and that of the editor, Terry Mattingly. Their call to improve the craft (not police it as some critics have charged) resonated with me. When I joined three years ago I was honored by their invitation and the opportunity to participate in their work by looking at the English, European and overseas press.

I was tasked with looking at stories such as this one from last week’s Guardian entitled: “Spanish government questioned over claims of divine help in economic crisis”, with an eye towards applying the standards of classical Anglo-American journalism to the story, as well as offering American readers a window into the British and European press world.

Critics often charge The New York Times and other American newspapers with spinning the news to advance the interests of a particular party or interest group. Advocacy journalism, as it is called, violates the tenets of classical liberal journalism which rejects overt politicking. The reporter’s role is to establish the facts and let them dictate how the story is written.

European advocacy style reporting draws upon a different intellectual tradition. “All history is contemporary history,” idealist philosopher Benedetto Croce said — history exists but only in the present tense.

In this school the past has reality only in the mind of the author.

At its worst, this relativist-subjective approach leads to the Dan Rather “false but true” mindset, but most practitioners understand that the reporter must be faithful to the truth. But it is further understood that truth does not have an independent existence from the reporter’s intellectual constructs.

Advocacy reporting is the norm for many Continental newspapers, and the shading of tone to advance a particular cause is expected by most European readers. The British press remains divided on this point. Most stories in the Guardian, The Times, Telegraph, Independent and regional papers follow the classical line. Yet many stories that deal with politics, religion and what in America we call the culture wars are written from an ideological perspective.

The practical problem with this relativist approach is that it leave gaps in the story and is open to abuse. This item from the Guardian is an example. It begins:

If higher powers are helping to lift Spain out of its economic crisis, one political party wants to know exactly who they are and what they’re doing.

Amaiur, a leftwing party from the Basque country, has put a series of questions to the governing People’s party after the interior minister, Jorge Fernández Diaz, said recently he was certain that Saint Teresa was “making important intercessions” for Spain “during these tough times”.

In a letter to the government on Tuesday, Jon Iñarritu García of Amaiur asked for clarification about what help the government was getting from one of Spain’s most popular holy figures.

The article then quoted the politician as asking:

“In what ways does the minister of the interior think Saint Teresa of Avila is interceding on behalf of Spain?” he asked. “Does the government believe there are other divine and supernatural interventions affecting the current state of Spain? If so, who are they?”

“What role has the Virgin of El Rocío played in helping Spain exit the crisis?” he asked.

The article transitions with an acknowledgment that this is nonsense, but then notes that this nonsense is a weapon in the fight against reactionary clericalism. This is followed by an over the top comment equating opposition to abortion with fascism.

The letter took on a more serious tone in asking about the separation of church and state in Spain. “Does the government believe they are respecting the secular nature of the state? Does the government plan to push for a religious state?”

The increasingly blurry line between church and state in Spain has been in the headlines recently as the government moves forward with its proposal to roll back women’s access to abortion.

In an article on Diaz’s comments, El País columnist Román Orozco wrote: “If I closed my eyes … I would think I was listening to some old shirt of the Falange.” Saint Teresa was a favourite of General Franco, who kept her hand by his bed until his death.

As journalism this is garbage. It leads one to ask what the Guardian has against St Theresa? There is no pretense of balance or factual reporting here. The author takes what he acknowledges to be an absurdity and uses it to slam those who do not share his ideological views. It is simply an exercise in hyperbole that ignores facts or context.

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.”

The totalitarianism we face today in the West comes not from Stalinism or Fascism. It arises in the the cant, hypocrisy and moral dishonesty of our intellectual and philosophical worlds. It is in challenging the orthodoxies of left and right, that one can find the best Guardian reporting. But the Guardian at times represents the ugliest impulses of our intellectual lives.

Does this article deserve condemnation? It is riddled with errors, condescending towards it subject, and is entirely predictable. And, it is malicious.

That unfashionable poet, Edna St Vincent Millay, wrote in her “Dirge Without Music:

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

A journalist who takes his craft seriously, who is not resigned to the world around him, who writes with moral purpose (but without moralizing) prepares stories that are a joy to read. This article is not one of them.

And why do we write? To speak out against the totalitarianism of small minds and corrupt reporting.

First published in GetReligion.

Tweeting Mohammad: Get Religion, February 3, 2014 February 3, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Islam, Press criticism.
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The Mohammad cartoon controversy has resurfaced over the past week with a flutter over a tweet.

The British press appears to have come down on the side of Maajid Nawaz. Newspaper articles, opinion pieces and television chat shows have defended his right to share a cartoon depicting Jesus and Mohammad. But they have also ceded the moral high ground to his opponents — Islamist extremists — by declining to publish a copy of the cartoon that has led to death threats and calls for Nawaz to be blacklisted by the Liberal Democratic Party for Islamophobia.

What we are seeing in the British media — newspapers and television (this has not been a problem for radio) — in the Jesus and Mo controversy is a replay of past disputes over Danish and French cartoons. Freedom of speech and courage in the face of religious intolerance is championed by the press — up to a point.

The point appears to be whether being courageous could get you killed or even worse, earn the displeasure of the bien pensant chattering classes.

The Telegraph gives a good overview of the affair.

A Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate has received death threats after posting a cartoon image of Jesus and the Prophet Mohammed on Twitter. Muslim politician Maajid Nawaz tweeted a picture of a t-shirt with a crudely-drawn cartoon entitled ‘Jesus and Mo’ which he describes as an “innocuous” and inoffensive.

However the image has caused fury among some members of the Islamic community who believe images of the prophet Muhammed are forbidden. More than 7,000 people have now signed a petition calling for the Liberal Democrats to suspend Mr Nawaz. Some have even suggested a fatwa should be placed on him while others have threatened they would be “glad to cut your neck off”.

The Guardian summarized Nawaz’s motives in this subtitle to their story:

Lib Dem candidate says he aimed to defend his religion ‘against those who have hijacked it because they shout the loudest’

It explained:

The row blew up after Nawaz took part in a BBC debate where two students were wearing t-shirts depicting a stick figures of stick figure of Jesus saying “Hi” to a stick figure called Mo, who replied: “How you doin’?”

The politician, who is founder of the Quilliam Foundation, an anti-extremist think-tank, tweeted what he believes is a “bland” image and stated that “as a Muslim, I did not feel threatened by it. My God is greater than that”.

Both stories are sympathetic and are topped by striking photos of Nawaz, who is  running to be an MP for Hampstead and Kilburn. But neither article reproduces the cartoon that has led to the threats against his life. In their defence, it could be argued that a photo of Nawaz, rather than the offending cartoon was more appropriate as the article focused on the politician’s travails over the cartoon, not on the cartoon itself. A week argument but an argument none the less.

Television was not blessed with this excuse. During the debate on The Big Questions which sparked the row, the BBC declined to show members of the audience who were wearing “Jesus and Mo” t-shirts. This censorship, avoidance, prudence (take your pick) led Nawaz to tweet a photo of the cartoon — leading to twitter threats to cut off his head.
Newsnight discussed the controversy over censorship, but decided not to show a copy of the cartoon. Newswatch also discussed the “Jesus and Mo” controversy, noting that complaints had been raised by viewers over its failure to show the cartoon. But Newswatch also declined to show the cartoon. Zero for three for the BBC.

The best (from a cognoscenti  of hypocrisy’s point of view) was Channel 4′s handling of the subject. It broadcast the cartoon, sans Mo. This prompted the popular British blogger, Archbishop Cranmer to write:

[This] censoring images of Mohammed establishes a narrow Sunni-sharia compliance: it is, effectively, a blasphemy code adopted by the state broadcasters.

The columnist for The Times, Janice Turner, excoriated the BBC and Channel 4 in an excellent piece entitled “Show us Jesus & Mo. It’s the price of freedom”. It was:

hard to watch Wednesday’s Newsnight without concluding that Britain has become a very strange place. We saw an artist so frightened for his life that his face and even his voice were disguised. We saw his hand sketching the Christian prophet in a crown of thorns, but forbidden to draw the Muslim one. An 11-minute film debated a drawing at the heart of a national controversy but at no point could we see it.

Turner further reported:

When challenged, Newsnight’s editor, Ian Katz, said that there was “no clear journalistic case to use” the cartoon, and that “describing” it was sufficient. (TV news will get a whole lot cheaper if we needn’t send a camera crew to war-ravaged Damascus: let’s just have it described by Jeremy Bowen.) Any depiction of Muhammad, Katz argued, “causes great offence to many, not just extremists” and to run it would be “journalistic machismo”.

She aptly summarized the journalistic and moral issues at play.

Mr Nawaz’s frustration is understandable. In banning the image, the BBC cast him as the faux-Muslim, his opponents as the rational, majority voice that must be heeded.

How can moderate Muslims be expected to speak out, if they are cast as apostates by national TV? Those who have not yet made up their minds will see angry offence as the default position. They hear it proclaimed by the deceptively reasonable Mohammed Shafiq, the Lib Dem, whose Ramadhan Foundation hosts homophobic speakers, and that hot-air balloon Mo Ansar, who argues that gender-divided public meetings are just like BBQs where guys cluster around the grill while wives chat with the kids. No biggie.

The BBC and Channel 4 are guilty of cant and hypocrisy. They are daring when it is safe to be daring, but cowards when it comes to militant Islam. Are the Guardian and Telegraph guilty of cant as well? They preach freedom of speech, but by refusing to show the Jesus and Mo cartoon are they not also ceding the moral high ground to the enemies of free speech?

First printed in Get Religion.

Reporters: beware of Greeks bearing gay gifts: Get Religion, December 5, 2013 December 5, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Greek Orthodox.
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The essence of life, its meanings, symbols and motives, can be found in television; reporting on the condition of man is reducible to vignettes from Seinfeld and Yes Minister.

This profundity came to me late last night as I perused The Guardian‘s report on the political and civil debate over same-sex unions in Greece. As my colleagues at Get Religion have shown, balance is not a requirement for many mainstream media outlets when reporting on gay marriage. The article “Bishop threatens to excommunicate Greek MPs who vote for gay unions” is unbalanced with only one side of the debate presented.

That is a commonplace of European-style advocacy reporting and The Guardian is not shy in proclaiming its leftist credentials. However in this instance the reporter’s desire to preach overcame her news gathering skills. Presented with a golden opportunity of promoting the rightness of the cause of gay marriage in the face of intolerance, The Guardian neglected to do its home work. It did not ask basic questions that would have provided essential context.

But first, let us turn to the canon of journalistic scripture. Reading from episode 19, series 3 number 5, of Yes Minister, “The Bed of Nails” recounts Jim Hacker’s acceptance of the gift of “Transport Supremo” from the prime minister. Hacker is delighted to be offered the job of developing an “Integrated Transport”‘ policy for Britain. The episode recounts his discovery the Supremo post is fraught with peril and might end his career. Sir Humphrey and Bernard urge the minister to think through the implications of what he has been offered as danger lies ahead.

Hacker: Furthermore, Sir Mark thinks there may be votes in it, and if so, I don’t intend to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Sir Humphrey: I put it to you, Minister that you are looking a Trojan Horse in the mouth.

Hacker: You mean, if I look closely at this gift horse, I would find it’s full of Trojans?

Bernard: If you had looked the Trojan Horse in the mouth, Minister, you would have found Greeks inside.

Odd look from Hacker… Bernard: Well, the point is it was the Greeks who gave the Trojan Horse to the Trojans, so technically, it wasn’t a Trojan Horse at all, it was a Greek Horse. Hence the tag timeo Danaos et dona ferentes which you will recall, is usually and somewhat inaccurately translated as Beware of Greeks bearing gifts. Or doubtless, you would have recalled, had you not attended the LSE.

Hacker: Yes well I’m sure Greek tags are all right in their way, but can we stick to the point, please?

Bernard: Sorry. Sorry, Greek tags?

Hacker: Beware of Greeks bearing gifts. I suppose the EEC equivalent would be Beware of Greeks bearing an olive oil surplus!

Sir Humphrey: Excellent, Minister!

Bernard: Ah. Oh. Well, the point is minister, that just as the Trojan Horse was in fact Greek, what you describe as a Greek tag is in fact Latin. It’s obvious, really: the Greeks would never suggest bewaring of themselves, if one could use such a participle, ‘bewaring’, that is. And it’s clearly Latin, not because timeo ends in -o, because the Greek first person also ends in -o. Though actually, there is a Greek word ?????, meaning ‘I honour’. But the -os ending is a nominative singular termination of the second declension in Greek, and an accusative plural in Latin, of course. Though actually ‘Danaos’ is not only the Greek for Greek, its also the Latin for Greek, it’s very interesting really.

The moral of the story is that sometimes something that is too good to be true, is too good to be true. This can be seen in The Guardian story about Metropolitan Seraphim of Piraeus.

The Guardian reports:

A leading Greek bishop has warned lawmakers that they risk incurring the wrath of God – and will be excommunicated – if they vote in favour of legalising same-sex partnerships. In a letter lambasting homosexuality as “an insult to God and man”, the Metropolitan of Piraeus, Seraphim, pleaded with the country’s deputy prime minister, Evangelos Venizelos, not to condone gay unions.

The article discusses the content of a public letter released by Seraphim, whom The Guardian describes as a “57-year-old former monk, a prominent personality in Greece’s powerful Orthodox church” and offers a response from liberal critics. True to form, the article is one-sided. We hear from a spokesman for the Socialist Party, who likens the bishop to the Taliban, and from a gay activist. The Church of Greece is offered a chance to say they are against same-sex unions, but no argument is proffered against gay unions — save for Metropolitan Seraphim’s jeremiad.

The article then closes out with references to European court rulings endorsing gay unions and a slam at the country’s backward stance on gay issues. All rather predictable from The Guardian and pretty much as one would expect. But there is more to this story that The Guardian did not report, or did not know.

Who exactly is Seraphim? How influential is he? How should we weight his words? These questions are not asked nor answered — leaving the impression that Greece is a priest ridden small-minded country. A little research, or knowledge of the Greek religious scene, would reveal that Seraphim has form. In 2011 I reported:

Jews are to blame for a host of the world’s ills, from homosexuality to the Holocaust, a Greek Orthodox Church leader told an Athens television programme last month.

In a Dec 20 interview broadcast on the MEGA television network, Metropolitan Seraphim of Piraeus laid the blame for Greece’s financial meltdown on an international Zionist conspiracy and a cabal of Jewish bankers who sought to “enslave Greece and Christian Orthodoxy.”

I grant you The Church of England Newspaper is not a must read for journalists. Sadly the paper’s circulation has not changed in recent years. When it started in 1828 it numbered around 12,000 subscribers and I think its current numbers are about the same –perhaps we should prune the circulation list. Nonetheless Seraphim’s views on Jews, (he believes Hitler was a tool of a Zionist conspiracy), have been reported in the New York Times and other English-language outlets.

Would it have put Seraphim’s letter in context if readers knew of his fantasies about a Jewish world conspiracy? Would his views on Freemasons and the nefarious influence of secret societies seeking to create a new world order provide context to his views on civil unions?

Presented with a golden opportunity of a crazed cleric denouncing politicians who would support same-sex unions, The Guardian ran an advocacy story that boiled down to its essence said: “See how opponents of gay marriage think. You can dismiss all objections to gay marriage because the argument does not rise above Seraphim’s silliness.”

I am not seeking to address the question of the rights or wrongs of gay marriage in this post. What I am discussing is journalism. What a good newspaper should have done in this case it to note Seraphim’s other controversial views in its description of the cleric. Context is key and the omission of important information, whether through ignorance or editorial design, colors a story.

In short, readers you cannot trust The Guardian‘s account to give you a full and balanced picture. If you are looking to reinforce preexisting prejudices, you have something here that will do quite nicely. But it is not journalism.

Reporters — a story that is too good to be true, should be investigated — as it may well be too good to be true.

First printed in Get Religion.

Viva la Eurorévolution: Get Religion, December 3, 2013 December 3, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism, Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Ukrainian Orthodox (Kiev Patriarchate), Ukrainian Orthodox (Moscow Patriarchate).
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Religion ghosts haunt the stories out of Kiev this week, but the Western press has yet to hear their shrieks.

The events unfolding across the Ukraine — protests against the government’s move away from Europe towards Russia — are not faith stories as defined by editorial desks in London and New York, but the clash of nationalism and politics in Eastern Europe cannot be understood without reference to religion.

The Guardian‘s reporter in Kiev has described the scene on Monday morning:

Throngs of anti-government protesters remained in control of parts of central Kiev on Monday morning, as police kept their distance and Viktor Yanukovych’s government pondered its next move. After huge protests on Sunday, during which several hundred thousand people took to the streets of Kiev to call for the president’s removal, protesters erected makeshift barricades around Independence Square – the hub of the 2004 Orange Revolution. Nearby, the main City Hall building was taken over by protesters without police resistance on Sunday evening.

Many of the windows were smashed and “Revolution HQ” was daubed in black paint on its stone Stalinist facade. Inside, hundreds of people milled around receiving refreshments; many who had travelled from the regions to Kiev were sleeping on the floor.

The independent Eastern European press has characterized the street protests as a revolution.  Lviv’s Vissoki Zamok, stated that nine years after the Orange Revolution, “the Eurorevolution” was underway.

It is symbolic that on December 1, the anniversary of the referendum in favor of independence that took place 22 years ago, Ukraine was once again the theater of mass demonstrations in support of its sovereignty, the rights of its citizens and its European future.

Why is this happening? Protestors have taken to the streets to denounce President Viktor Yanukovych for refusing to sign an association and free-trade agreement with the European Union at the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius on November 29.

In a front page above-the-fold editorial on Monday the Parisian daily Le Monde stated:

Demonstrations of love for the European Union are sufficiently rare these days for them to be rather arresting. Absorbed by the debt crisis, the struggle for more growth and lower unemployment, the rise of populism and the management of its enlargement, the union has forgotten that it retains a formidable power of attraction. For people who do not benefit from the rule of law, Europe symbolizes the hope for freedom, democracy, and modernity.

This is the message sent to us by tens of thousands of Ukrainians who have been gathering day after day to protest on the squares of Kiev and the other cities of the country.

Reading Le Monde‘s editorial and related news coverage one might think les citoyens of Kiev were linked arm in arm marching to the seats of power singing La Marseillaise. But an American might well ask why a trade treaty would spark such an uproar. What is going on here?

It is in the secondary stories that we see glimpses of the religion ghosts. Reuters reports that when attacked by riot police, some protestors took refuge in an Orthodox cathedral and barricaded themselves inside a monastery.

Around 100 Ukrainian pro-EU protesters took refuge from police batons and biting cold on Saturday inside the walls of a central Kiev monastery. With a barricade of benches pushed up against a gate to keep police out, protesters – who had rallied against President Viktor Yanukovich’s decision to reject a pact with the European Union – checked their wounds in the pre-dawn light.

Some attended a 6 a.m. service in the lilac and gold St. Michael’s Cathedral on the monastery grounds after which a group of bearded, black-robed monks approached protesters to hear of their encounters with police and urge them not to seek revenge. “They gave us tea to warm us up, told us to keep our spirits strong and told us not to fight evil with evil,” said Roman Tsado, 25, a native of Kiev, who said police beat him on his legs as they cleared the pro-EU rally.

Further down in the story Reuters tells us what sort of church it was that gave shelter to the protestors.

The Ukrainian Orthodox cathedral, where the faithful light candles before gilded icons of saints, was destroyed during the religious purges of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and rebuilt after independence.

What Reuters neglects to mention is which Ukrainian Orthodox church belongs to. St Michael’s belongs to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kiev Patriarchate — not the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate.

What of it you might well ask. There are three principal churches in the Ukraine. One under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church, or Moscow Patriarchate; an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church or the Kiev Patriarchate; and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church.

And the three churches have taken differing stands on the protests, with the Kiev Patriarchate and the Greek Catholics backing the country’s realignment towards Europe, while the Moscow Patriarchate backs the president’s alignment with Vladimir Putin’s regime in Moscow.

Speaking at the Heritage Foundation in Washington last month Patriarch Filaret of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate) was reported to have said:

[T]he Ukrainian Churches would benefit from an Association Agreement. For one thing, it would place the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) in a new situation. With Ukraine committed to Europe and continued independence, that Church would have to decide which side it was on – that of Russia, or that of the Ukrainian people. By siding with Russia, the UOC-MP would assume the role of a fifth column for a hostile state. If, on the other hand, it sided with the Ukrainians, it would be obligated to unite with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate (UOC-KP) into a single Ukrainian Orthodox Church, independent of Moscow.

Statements released by the three churches in the wake of the uprising illustrate these religio-political calculations. The Kiev Patriarchate and the Greek Catholic Church have lent their support to the demonstrations — and as Reuters reports opened its churches to protestors as a safe haven from the police. The Moscow Patriarchate in Kiev has backed President Yanukovich — and its call for calm echoes the president’s public statements to date.

By raising these religion points, I am not stating the Eurorevolution is being driven by religion. I am arguing that a well rounded news report should touch upon the religion angles in this story — provide the context for a Western reader to understand. Not all of the protestors are motivated by religious fervor — but religion lies close below the surface of national politics east of the Oder and a good reporter should relate this information to his readers.

First printed in Get Religion

Indulgences & WYD in the Guardian: Get Religion, July 23, 2013 July 23, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism, Roman Catholic Church.
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The Guardian, the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory and the editorial board of the New York Times were the targets of my wit on Thursday’s Get Religion podcast. Crossroads host Todd Wilkens and I discussed the media coverage of the Vatican’s announcement that those who followed Pope Francis’ tweets from the World Youth Day celebrations in Brazil would be granted an indulgence.

My colleague Mollie Hemingway looked at this topic last week in a post entitled “Media: Pope says retweets spring the soul!” that focused on the Telegraph. Mollie seemed to be having so much fun with the topic that Todd and I decided to join the party and focus on the Guardian story “Vatican offers ‘time off purgatory’ to followers of Pope Francis tweets”. The subtitle was even better: “Papal court handling pardons for sins says contrite Catholics may win ‘indulgences’ by following World Youth Day on Twitter”.

Todd opened the program by asking my expectations and reactions to the story. I responded that the Guardian story was “wonderfully awful”. It  played into the anti-Catholic animus that resides just below the surface of English life and would elicit a visceral response from some readers — the liberal secularist left would find comfort in reading about the latest foolishness from those enamored with sky pixies. The Little Englanders (who don’t normally take the Guardian as they place their full faith and credit in the Daily Mail) would respond with two words: “bloody papists”.

While the tone of the article was problematic, it was not in error. The Guardian did not make the mistake of conflating absolution and indulgences: forgiveness for sin over against the remission of the temporal punishment due to sin. But the article could have provided context, offering examples of indulgences granted for Bible reading, praying the rosary or adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

And, good Protestant that I am, I offered my view that indulgences were nonsense. And admitted to a liking for ridicule — stating this was part of my repertoire in reporting on Anglican affairs.

But in this instance, if you did not believe in Purgatory, indulgences could have no theological meaning. The disdain that was so close to the surface of the Guardian article, and animated my off the cuff remarks, had its roots in one of the significant divisions between Protestants and Catholics, Todd (a Lutheran) and I (an Episcopalian) observed.

Yet the misreporting of this story chronicled by Mollie Hemingway also had its roots in the lack of knowledge or interest in religion found in news rooms. I told Todd:

I would not be quick to say there is a vast left-wing conspiracy out there to smack down the Catholic Church. Where I think it comes from is an inveterate hostility found in 99% of news rooms against the Christian religion, against organized Christianity. You are going to find the greatest concentration atheists not in the Soviet Politburo but in the editorial offices of the New York Times. Their coverage is filtered through that worldview. So they don’t understand what is going on. They don’t understand the attraction of faith. They don’t understand the mystery of faith and frankly ridicule is the easy way out.

While the Politburo reference dates me — I believe this quip holds true.

Read it all in Get Religion.

Interview: Issues Etc., July 19, 2013 July 23, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Interviews/Citations, Issues Etc.
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Here is an to an interview I gave to the Issues, Etc. show of Lutheran Public Radio broadcast on 19 July 2013.

1. Media Coverage of the Vatican Offering Indulgences and World Youth Day – George Conger, 7/18/13

George Conger of GetReligion.org

GetReligion

Put not your trust in Huffington Post headlines: Get Religion, June 18, 2013 June 18, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Anglican Ordinariate, Archbishop of Canterbury, ARCIC, Church of England, Get Religion, Press criticism, Roman Catholic Church.
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I know a maiden fair to see,
Take care!
She can both false and friendly be,
Beware! Beware!
Trust her not,
She is fooling thee!

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s advice about women — especially blondes …

And she has hair of a golden hue,
Take care!
And what she says, it is not true,
Beware! Beware!
Trust her not,
She is fooling thee!

… is also good advice in reading headlines. As your GetReligionistas have stressed many times, seldom does a reporter get to write his own title. Yet when a sub-editor makes a mess of a headline the blame is laid at the reporter’s feet when the claim made in the title is not substantiated in the text. There have been times when stories I have written appear under a title that implies the opposite of what I reported.

Sometime back I was commissioned to write an article on a lecture given by the literary critic and philosopher René Girard at Oxford. I gave the story my all and … when I opened the paper after it came off the truck from the printer I found my article nicely displayed on page 5 with a beautiful photo of Girard scoring a goal in a World Cup match.

Too bad René Girard the philosopher and René Girard the soccer player are two different people. Perhaps my readers thought I was being droll, commenting on the élan vital of Girard’s latest book on mimesis by reference to the 1982 France v Poland match. Or they thought I was an idiot.

These meditations on my less than glorious moments in journalism are prompted by a Reuters article on the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby’s visit to Rome to meet with Pope Francis. The Huffington Post headlined the story: “Pope And Archbishop Of Canterbury Meet, Note Differences On Women Ordination, Gay Rights”.

While I was not in Rome for the press conference at the Venerable English College where Archbishop Welby and Vincent Nichols the Archbishop of Westminster spoke at the end of their day at the Vatican, this headline indicated I missed a major event. Until now Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby held near identical views on gay rights, same-sex marriage, and civil liberties of persons with same-sex attractions. Oh to have been a fly on the wall at that meeting! What had they said to each other?

I dove into the Reuters story looking for details. But there was nothing there. I could quibble here and there with some of the language and editorial asides made by the author:

It was the boldest step by the Vatican to welcome back Anglicans since King Henry VIII broke with Rome and set himself up at the head of the new Church of England in 1534.

An Anglican would say Henry made himself Supreme Governor not head — the head of the church is Christ (there is a difference) and there was nothing “new” in a Church of England in 1534 — “new” implying a discontinuity between the pre and post 1534 church. A frightful papistical canard. Or:

In January this year, the Church of England lifted a ban on gay male clergy who live with their partners from becoming bishops on condition they pledge to stay celibate, deepening a rift in the Anglican community over homosexuality.

A celibate person is an unmarried person. A chaste person is someone who refrains from illicit sexual behavior. I assume Reuters meant to say chaste, meaning conforming to the church’s teaching that “in view of the teaching of scripture, [the Anglican Communion] upholds faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union, and believes that abstinence is right for those who are not called to marriage”. The working assumption is that clergy in civil partnerships are celibate, because they are unmarried, and chaste as they are to abstain from sexual relations outside of (traditional) marriage.

And it is the Anglican Communion, not community. Community implies an ashram in the woods somewhere, or a collection of sensibly dressed nuns in their cloister. (True there are such Anglican communities — religious with pearls and twin sets) but this is not what Reuters is likely to have in mind — but perhaps this is the “women” link to the headline?

Or:

The Church, struggling to remain relevant in modern Britain despite falling numbers of believers, published a plan in May to approve the ordination of women bishops by 2015, after the reform narrowly failed to pass last November.

It was the bishops — not the church — who published the plan. It still must be approved by the General Synod, which if the plan goes forward as currently written will likely be turned aside once more.

Anything about gays in the Reuters story? Nothing at all.

I looked about the web and found The Chicago Tribune had run the same item, but with a different title: “Pope Francis and new Anglican leader meet, note differences.” Rather a where’s Waldo headline — written for a bored seven year old. One is in purple, one in white. One has his wife with him (in the background) one has cardinals, etc.

I looked on the Reuters web page to see if the Huffington Post had shortened the article for space reasons, but found they had lengthened the title instead. The suggested title read: Pope Francis and new Anglican leader meet, note differences.” The gays and women bits came from the Huffington Post’s scribes — not Reuters.

Checking further I found I had not missed a major ecumenical story by staying home as La Stampa and the Guardian reported these comments by Archbishop Welby at the press briefing. La Stampa wrote:

Questioned whether he and Pope Francis had discussed the question of marriage and the debate over gay marriage, Archbishop Welby said “we are absolutely at one on the issues” by which he meant on the question of marriage (understood in the traditional Christian sense as between a man and a woman). He revealed that the Pope told him that he had read the speech he given recently to the House of Lords in which he opposed the British Government’s bill to introduce marriage between persons of the same sex.

Archbishop Welby added that he and Pope Francis are “equally at one in the condemnation of homophobic behavior” and “our sense that the essential dignity of the human being is where you start, and that is one of the absolute root foundations of all behavior, and the moment you start treating people as a category rather than as human beings with this essential dignity you have begun to lose the plot”.

What is the moral of the story?

Read the article, not just the headline. Though I will admit the Huffington Post editor who wrote this headline succeeded in his job, which is getting me to read the article. That is a different task than the reporter’s job of fairly presenting the news. Beware! You’ve been warned.

First printed in Get Religion.

Presby-speak: Get Religion, May 31, 2013 June 1, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Presbyterian/Church of Scotland, Press criticism.
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The meaningless drivel that passes for public language these days was the major theme of my chat last week with Todd Wilken, the host of Issues, Etc.  In our conversation broadcast on 24 May 2013, Todd and I discussed my article “Scotland the confused: Did Presbyterians back gay clergy?”, posted at GetReligion and talked about double-talk.

I led of my GetReligion story with the observation:

Something happened on Monday at the General Assembly the Church of Scotland — they appear to have become Anglicans. No — they didn’t change from a Presbyterian to Episcopal form of church government. They did something more Anglican than combining bishops with Calvinism.  They’ve accepted the sacred “yes/but”  Anglican doctrine of deliberate confusion,  and have adopted a policy on gay clergy that no one quite seems to understand.

What lay behind my observation was the news the General Assembly had adopted a new policy on gay clergy.  Same-sex relations continue to be placed in the sin column for the Church of Scotland — but individual congregations can opt out of this view and hire non-celibate gay clergy. The gay clergy bill must be backed by majority of the presbyteries and at this point only 35% are in favor. The issue becomes further confused as the Guardian announced this was a victory for supporters of gay clergy, running the headline “Church of Scotland votes to allow gay ministers”.

Two years earlier the Guardian ran a story about the 2011 General Assembly with the headline “Church of Scotland votes to allow gay ministers”, reporting the news the church of Scotland had voted to allow gay clergy. Problem with the headlines was that they reported what the Guardian wanted to have happened, not what did happen. Doubtless we will see another Guardian headline in 2015 stating church of Scotland votes to allow gay ministers.

I should not be too hard on theGuardian. It has approached this story through a worldview that sees objections to the normalization of homosexuality as backwards, bigoted and small-minded. The desire to see the right outcome occur is coupled with double-talk from the Presbyterian Church. This problem is not confined to the Church of Scotland however — the Anglican world too relies on clichés and trite phrases that more often than not are incomprehensible.

In his book “Death Sentence – The Decay of Public Language”, Don Watson argues that public language has been poisoned by a corporate speak that has no soul, no imagination and is useless in conveying humor, nuance or feelings.

… in public life the language has never been held in less regard. It withers in the dungeons of the technocratic mind. It is butchered by the media. In politics it lacks all qualifications for the main game.

His publisher’s blurb adds:

Almost sixty years ago, George Orwell described the decay of language and why this threatened democratic society. But compared to what we now endure, the public language of Orwell’s day brimmed with life and truth. Today’s corporations, government departments, news media, and, perhaps most dangerously, politicians – speak to each other and to us in cliched, impenetrable, lifeless sludge.

To this list of villains I would the institutional church — Protestant, Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox — all are infected with church speak, where language is not used to convey information but to confuse, dull and blur truth. Well this is what I hoped to convey in the interview. See what you think.

First printed in Get Religion.

Scotland the confused: Did the Presbyterians endorse gay clergy?: Get Religion, May 23, 2013. May 23, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Presbyterian/Church of Scotland, Press criticism.
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Something happened on Monday at the General Assembly the Church of Scotland — they appear to have become Anglicans. No — they didn’t change from a Presbyterian to Episcopal form of church government. They did something more Anglican than combining bishops with Calvinism.  They’ve accepted the sacred “yes/but”  Anglican doctrine of deliberate confusion,  and have adopted a policy on gay clergy that no one quite seems to understand.

Let’s compare headlines and ledes from the Guardian, the Press Association and the Associated Press to see what they think happened.

The Guardian saw Monday’s vote as a victory for the liberal faction in the church that is seeking to change church teaching on homosexuality. Under the headline “Church of Scotland votes to allow gay ministers” it reported: (seems I’ve heard that before — but don’t let me distract you.)

The Church of Scotland, the country’s largest Protestant church, has narrowly voted to admit gay and lesbian ministers after traditionalists agreed to compromise after four years of division.  The church’s ruling general assembly voted to allow congregations to admit gay ministers but only if they specifically elect to do so, in a radical departure from more than 450 years of orthodoxy set in train by the protestant reformer John Knox.

The Press Association was less sanguine. It took a “two steps forward one step back” approach to the story. The headline used by the Huffington Post with the PA story gave the liberals the win —  ”Church of Scotland votes for openly gay ministers” – but the lede did not back it up:

The Church of Scotland has voted in favour of allowing openly gay men and women to become ministers – whilst maintaining a traditionalist standpoint. The General Assembly backed a motion affirming the Church’s “current doctrine and practice in relation to human sexuality”, but permitting liberal congregations to depart from that approach if they wish to do so.

The Associated Press report was even more cautious than the PA and filed a “yes, but” story implying the decision was a draw. The headline that topped the AP story as printed on the FOXNews website stated: “Church of Scotland votes to allow gay ministers, but only if congregations choose to do so”.

Senior members of the Church of Scotland have voted to let some congregations have openly gay ministers, a compromise first step that could lead to the church allowing gay clergy. The church’s General Assembly backed a motion affirming a traditional conservative view on homosexuality, but permitted liberal congregations to “opt out” if they wish to ordain gay men or women. The assembly vote would require the approval of next year’s General Assembly as well as votes by the church’s regional presbyteries to become law. The process is expected to take at least two years.

You can see this diversity of interpretation in the British press as well as and blogs that follow church issues. So what did happen on Monday?

The always excellent Law & Religion UK blog summarized the day as follows:

Yesterday the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland voted in principle to allow men and women in civil partnerships to be ordained to the ministry and/or inducted as parish ministers. There were various options before the Assembly:

  • the Revisionist option, which would allow ministers in civil partnerships to be appointed to churches and gay couples in civil partnerships to be allowed to have their partnerships blessed – but would allow individual kirk sessions to opt out of the arrangement;
  • the Traditionalist option, under which no new minister in a civil partnership could be ordained or inducted; and
  • a countermotion to section 2 of the proposed Deliverance by the immediate past Moderator of the Assembly, The Very Revd Albert Bogle, which reaffirmed the Kirk’s traditional view  on the issue but would allow an individual Kirk Session to choose to call a minister in a civil partnership if it so wished.

In short, the Kirk voted for the compromise resolution which affirmed the church’s traditional theological stance against  gay clergy, but nevertheless allowed  individual congregations to opt out and engage gay clergy — an outcome the British delight in calling a “fudge”.

Each of the newspapers reported that there will be no immediate change as the bill must now go to a legal committee to be submitted to the 2014 General Assembly.  If adopted, it  will be sent to the presbyteries under the Barrier Act 1697 because the issue touches upon “doctrine or worship or discipline”. Only if a majority of presbyteries approved the bill and the General Assembly confirms it in 2015, will it become law.

None of the articles I’ve cited above are incorrect. But they are lacking in historical context and failed to tell the full story. This is actually a defeat for the liberals. The 2011 General Assembly was presented with two options: affirm the traditionalist position and keep the ban in place on gay clergy, or endorse the progressive position which asked the assembly to consider lifting the ban on clergy in same-sex relationships and to instruct the church’s theological commission to prepare a report for the 2013 General Assembly on the relevant issues.

The 2011 assembly backed the progressive option and the theological commission released its report last month that summarized the revisionist and traditionalist arguments for and against same-sex relationships. But the commission was unable to reach an agreement over which one it should recommend to the General Assembly for adoption. This week’s vote represented a setback for the left in that the trajectory of the Church of Scotland had been that conservatives would be allowed to “opt out” on gay clergy. The bill passed on Monday instead offered an “opt in” for liberals on gay clergy.

In its 2011 report on the General Assembly the Guardian used the same headline as it did on Monday. “Church of Scotland votes to allow gay ministers” its article of 23 May 2011. The lede that day was:

Scotland’s largest protestant church has voted to allow gay men and lesbians to become ministers.

It is a bit awkward for the Guardian to publish the same story on the same issue two years apart.

The second bit of context that would’ve helped was the report in the theological commissions paper that stated that only 35% of members of presbyteries supported the ordination of persons in a same-sex relationships. For the the bill to pass in 2015 the liberals must move support for gay clergy from 35% to 51%.

These press reports would give the casual reader the impression the Church of Scotland is shifting its stance on gay clergy. A shift has taken place but it occurred not on Monday but over the past quarter-century. The problem with these Church of Scotland articles is that the reporters assigned to these stories bring only a limited amount of knowledge to their reporting on the topics they are assigned to cover.  Would a reporter who knew this topic make the mistake the Guardian did, proclaiming in 2011 and again in 2013 the Church of Scotland has voted to allow gay clergy?

The market is responding by supporting specialty websites and publications. There are a number of fine Presbyterian publications and websites where you can find these issues debated and discussed in full. You just won’t find it in the newspaper on your front doorstep any more.

First printed in Get Religion.

Paedophilia and the left redux: Get Religion, May 16, 2013 May 16, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Abuse, Get Religion, Roman Catholic Church.
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Absent a priestly predator is paedophilia a religion news story? In comments posted in response to my 24 April 2013 story “Paedophilia and the Radical Left of ’68″, Ira Rifkin questioned whether politics and paedophilia were properly within the ambit of GetReligion. Was I pushing too hard? Confusing the moral and ethical issues in the story I cited in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) — protests over public honors to a prominent politician who 30 years ago as one of the stars of the radical left wrote of his sexual encounters with children, which he now claims are fiction –with religion news?

Whatever his crimes and immoralities, Cohn-Bendit’s actions are in no way comparable to those of the Roman Catholic Church. The 60s are long over; history has moved on. The media’s faults, blind spots and assorted deficiencies are not always at their root worthy of GR’s attention. Agreed: ain’t no ghost here worth the commentary.

… The Cohn-Bendit story contains little if any grist for GR.  As for Cohn-Bendit and the RC Church, it seems clear that the magnitude of the crimes Church leaders committed are far greater quantitatively, as well as qualitatively because of the Church’s unique position as a global religious/moral authority. Cohn-Bendit has far less reach. Whatever his personal responsibility, it cannot be compared to that of the Church. Bash the 60s if you like, even it’s values. But molestation – real or imagined – was not one of its identifiable hallmarks.

Some took issue with Mr. Rifkin’s comments, seeing religious ghosts in the story exhumed by GetReligion. Others noted that Daniel Cohn-Bendit is a prominent politician – – a public figure whose stock in trade has been lecturing Europe on how it should adopt his moral worldview on the environment, economics, immigration, foreign affairs, and social issues such as gay marriage. My observations focused on the different treatment accorded Mr. Cohn-Bendit and the Catholic Church by the media on the issue of paedophilia. I argued:

The opprobrium held by right thinking people against paedophilia in Europe does not apply, however to revolutionaries and left wing politicians. A report in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) on the fracas over the award of a prize to Daniel Cohn-Bendit suggests a double standard is being applied to paedophiles in Europe. Those who molest children out of lust are criminals and beyond the pale — those who molest children out of revolutionary fervor to bring down the capitalist regime really aren’t so bad.

The paedophilia and the left story has now moved back into the public eye in Europe  with articles in Stern, Deutsche Wella, Der Tagesspiegel and other news outlets on protestations by Green Party leaders that their movement had not provided political respectability for pedophile activists.

Der Spiegel reported:

 He is a boy, roughly 10 years old, with a pretty face, full lips, a straight nose and shoulder-length hair. The wings of an angel protrude from his narrow back, and a penis is drawn with thin lines on the front of his body. The 1986 image was printed in the newsletter of the Green Party’s national working group on “Gays, Pederasts and Transsexuals,” abbreviated as “BAG SchwuP.” It wasn’t just sent to a few scattered party members, but was addressed to Green Party members of the German parliament, as well as the party’s headquarters in Bonn.

Documents like this have become a problem for the Greens today. Some 33 years after the party was founded, it is now being haunted by a chapter in its history that many would have preferred to forget. No political group in Germany promoted the interests of men with pedophile tendencies as staunchly as the environmental party. For a period of time in the mid-1980s, it practically served as the parliamentary arm of the pedophile movement. A look at its archives reveals numerous traces of the pedophiles’ flirtation with the Green Party. They appear in motions, party resolutions, memos and even reports by the party treasurer. That is because at times the party not only supported its now forgotten fellow campaigners politically, but also more tangibly, in the form of financial support.

The protests over Cohn-Bendit have led to an internal party investigation. the Guardian reported:

Germany’s Green party is to launch an investigation into its active promotion in the 80s of paedophile groups who lobbied for the legalisation of sex with children. The party’s leadership has said it will commission an independent researcher to investigate “for how long and to what extent” such groups had an influence. The party’s chief whip, Jürgen Trittin, said the initiative aimed to take a close look at the “totally unacceptable demand” in the 80s that sex with children should be made legal. He admitted that the party had made wrong decisions about paedophilia.

In an interview with Der Spiegel, the Guardian wrote  Mr. Cohn-Bendit conceded his confessions were lies, prompted by a desire to shock.

“It was a type of manifesto against the bourgeois society,” he said. … He said he had written the descriptions of his time in the kindergarten in an attempt to “appear to be more dangerous than I was”, and admitted they had been “irresponsible”.

Germany’s tabloids and conservative political parties are not likely to let this story die. But is Ira Rifkin correct in saying this is the a political story, not a religion story.

Like Lord Copper, he is right up to a point. All social interaction, all life is based upon choices. Making a choice implies using moral judgment. It could be argued that the political pedophile scandal is a story about the moral failings of Daniel Cohn-Bendit and the Green party.

Here I agree with Mr. Rifkin. This is a political story that has moral and ethical overtones. But what makes this a Get Religion story is a comparison to the reporting by the Guardian, Der Spiegel and other European newspapers on the Catholic clergy abuse scandal. The perspective these newspapers have brought to the Catholic scandal is that the institution is tarnished by the actions of pedophiles within the clergy ranks. The perspective in these articles is that the institution is to be applauded for examining its historical support for pedophiles within the party’s ranks.

What makes this a Get Religion story is the context of the European press environment. I am not defending or excusing the Catholic Church. I am however pointing out inconsistencies and double standards in media coverage.

First printed in Get Religion.

Hypocrisy, grace and a fallen cardinal: Get Religion, March 12, 2013. March 14, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Roman Catholic Church.
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The downfall of Cardinal Keith O’Brien, Britain’s senior Roman Catholic cleric, has not shown the press at its best. While the Observer, the Guardian newspaper’ Sunday edition, deserves high praise for breaking the story of the cardinal’s misconduct, a number of stories have adopted a gleeful and sanctimonious tone. Sex and religion sells newspapers – – but coupled with sloppy language and malicious hyperbole good reporting can be squeezed out of a story.

On 3 March 2013 Cardinal O’Brien admitted “there have been times that my sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal.”

The Guardian reported that Cardinal O’Brien:

… who was forced to resign by the pope last week, has made a dramatic admission that he was guilty of sexual misconduct throughout his career in the Roman Catholic church. … The former archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, and until recently the most senior Catholic in Britain, apologised and asked for forgiveness from those he had “offended” and from the entire church.

… O’Brien’s resignation was remarkable in its speed; his apology is all but unprecedented in its frankness. Many sexual scandals or allegations of misconduct against individuals or the wider church have dragged on for years.

A second story by the Guardian commented that the cardinal’s real sin was not his abuse, but his hypocrisy.

In purely human terms, the story of Cardinal O’Brien’s resignation is tragic. He had spent a lifetime reaching the upper echelons of his church, but after allegations of inappropriate behaviour made in the Observer last Sunday his fall from grace took just 36 hours. Not one of the four complainants takes any satisfaction from that. This is not about the exposure of one man’s alleged foibles. It is about the exposure of a church official who publicly issues a moral blueprint for others’ lives that he is not prepared to live out himself. Homosexuality is not the issue; hypocrisy is. The cardinal consistently condemned homosexuality during his reign, vociferously opposing gay adoption and same-sex marriage. The church cannot face in two directions like a grotesque two-headed monster: one face for public, the other for private.

Other outlets took up the theme of hypocrisy with Salon offering the most over-the-top piece that I have seen so far. Under the title, “Cardinal ‘Tyranny of tolerance’ O’Brien is a hypocrite of the worst order”, Salon published a puerile screed that began:

He was a homosexuality-condemning cardinal who is now embroiled in a tale involving his alleged “drunken fumblings” and unwanted advances toward other men. Well, at least this one’s a Catholic Church scandal that doesn’t involve children. Progress, maybe?

Standing outside of the issue of the cardinal’s misconduct, the journalistic question I would question in these reports is the assertion that Cardinal O’Brien is a hypocrite.

Hypocrisy is saying one thing and doing another. Here the cardinal is accused of hypocrisy for promoting traditional Christian moral virtues while having failed to live up to them in his private life. An example of hypocrisy familiar to most GetReligion readers would be the scene from the movie Casablanca. Ordered by the Germans to close Rick’s Café, Capt. Renault states he is shocked to find that gambling is taking place in the club. Gambling is illegal Capt. Renault states just as he is handed his winnings from the croupier.

Hypocrisy is different, however, from failing to practice a virtue that one preaches. In Rambler No. 14 Samuel Johnson distinguished between hypocrisy and moral failing.

Nothing is more unjust, however common, than to charge with hypocrisy him that expresses zeal for those virtues which he neglects to practice; since he may be sincerely convinced of the advantages of conquering his passions, without having yet obtained the victory, as a man may be confident of the advantages of a voyage, or a journey, without having courage or industry to undertake it, and may honestly recommend to others, those attempts which he neglects himself.

If the cardinal were engaging in homosexual activities today while preaching the necessity of upholding traditional moral standards, he would be a hypocrite. However, no evidence has been presented that the cardinal has done this. My colleague, Peter Ould, wrote about this scandal:

If Keith O’Brien was publicly teaching one thing and privately practising another, then that’s hypocrisy. If on the other hand he sinned in the past, repented and then taught that such behaviour he had engaged in was sinful, that’s not hypocrisy, that’s grace.

And it is this distinction the secondary reports in the Guardian, Salon and other newspapers do not seem to comprehend. I do not know the full story but before I would accuse the cardinal of hypocrisy I would want to make sure that he was the being a hypocrite. Did he repent? Did he seek absolution for his sin? Or is he a reprobate who did not see his conduct as having been wrong — until his story was printed in the Observer? These questions need be asked before the assertion of hypocrisy is made.

Cardinal Keith O’Brien has committed a thought crime — he teaches that homosexual conduct is immoral while being subject to sexual temptation himself. He has fallen short — but does he teach something he does not believe?

First printed in GetReligion.

English Anti-Catholicism & Ethiopian Lutheranism: Get Religion, February 25, 2013 February 25, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Church of Sweden, Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Get Religion, Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod.
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Anti-Catholic bias is alive and well in Britain — however the animus to the “Italian mission to the Irish” comes not from the Church of England. Nor does it stem from the 1701 Act of Settlement (barring Catholics from the Royal Family), Guy Fawkes Night, xenophobia or other collective memories of the Britain’s past. The anti-Catholic bias one sees in England today is that of the political and media elites — those members of the chattering classes who detest the church for what it believes (not what it is).

Now there is an equal opportunity disdain at work — the Church of England is held in low regard also by the elites. Yet despite the best efforts of the magic circle, the small group of liberal prelates who control the English church, to conform the institution to the demands of the right thinking members of the establishment — the chattering classes reject the Catholic moral worldview (and have no problem saying so).

This is the theme of my chat this week with Todd Wilken, the host of Issues, Etc.  In our conversation broadcast on 21 Feb 2013, Todd and I discussed my article “Guardian wins week one of 2013 All-England pope-bashing contest” posted at GetReligion and discussed the phenomena of shoddy reporting on the abdication of Pope Benedict XVI. Todd asked whether I believed that this was a failure of journalism or if there was something more involved.

I argued that this was more than a failure of adhering to the reporter’s art, but represented a virulent anti-Catholic, anti-religious prejudice in the stories we discussed. How could one explain assertions made by the Guardian‘s man in Rome that Africans were unable to conform to the church’s requirements of priestly celibacy due to their being Africans? The Guardian (and the BBC) are the temples of the p.c. priests. How could such a  slur be allowed to make its way into print? Well if it is in a story that damns the Catholic Church it can.

The restraints of time and my inherent good breeding prevented me from giving full voice to my views. I would have liked to add that I was also concerned by the Guardian‘s decision to run so many pope stories — many not worth the bother reading due to the the ignorance of the authors — when other issues of equal merit in the world of religion were taken place over the past few weeks — the story about the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (EECMY) being but one example.

No, this is not a joke on my part. While I do not downplay the importance of the pope’s resignation announcement, the sheer volume of nonsense being published and the absence of news about the EECMY speaks to the media’s inability to evaluate religious events.

The EECMY story, in a nutshell, is that one of the largest members of the Lutheran World Federation — the 6.1 million member EECMY — has broken fellowship with the Church of Sweden and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The cause for this break is the normalization of homosexuality by the ELCA and the Church of Sweden. This story was all over the religion press in the US and Europe: Christianity Today, First Things, Dagen, and I covered this story for The Church of England Newspaper. I have seen only one secular news story on this item — a local Wisconsin news story in the La Crosse Tribune that ran comments from a Lutheran bishop lamenting the split.

Perhaps the Anglican wars have sucked all the air out of these sorts of stories. The splits in the Anglican world between the Episcopal Church in America and many of the Africans churches over the issue of homosexuality — the same issue that has divided the Ethiopians and the Swedes and the ELCA — has received lengthy and on-going coverage in the press. This may well be another example of the phenomena noted by TMatt here in the pages of GetReligion — the disproportionate coverage given to the Episcopal Church and the Church of England in the American press compared to other, larger faith groups.

There is so much in this story for a newspaper to develop, not least is how the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod has stepped into the shoes once filled by the ELCA as far as Lutherans in the developing world are concerned. I am not saying the Ethiopian split should have pushed the pope off the front page, but some coverage of the seismic change underway in global Christianity might be nice.

First printed in GetReligion.

Interview: Issues, Etc.: February 21, 2013 February 25, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Interviews/Citations, Issues Etc, Press criticism.
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Here is a link to an interview I gave to the Issues, Etc. show of Lutheran Public Radio broadcast on 21 February 2013

3. British Media Coverage of Pope Benedict’s Resignation – George Conger, 2/21/13

 

Guardian wins week one of the 2013 All-England Pope-Bashing Contest: Get Religion, February 19, 2013 February 19, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Roman Catholic Church.
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The year’s at the spring, And day’s at the morn; Morning’s at seven; The hill-side’s dew-pearled; The lark’s on the wing; The snail’s on the thorn; God’s in His heaven—All’s right with the world!

Robert Browning, Pippa Passes (1841)

It’s a wonderful life. My heart has been singing songs of joy every morning as I take up my newspapers and survey the latest news on the abdication of Pope Benedict XVI. For a critic of religion reporting these are the good times — no slogging through continental newspapers to find a story to review for this blog. I am spoiled for choice just by reading the British press. Some of the stories have been so silly and wrong-headed as to be bizarre.

But there have been quite a few good stories from the religion reporters at the Times, Telegraph, Guardian, BBC and Independent in addition to the speciality church press (Catholic and Anglican) on this issue — but outside the specialist reporters the quality falls off sharply in the secular press. There is also an undercurrent of hostility towards the Catholic Church that few media outlets bother to hide — or appear to recognize.

A typical example came in BBC Radio 4?s Any Questions program. Members of the audience are asked to submit written questions on topical issues for discussion by a panel of speakers that ostensibly will provide a balance of views. The producers of the show pick the panel and the questions — and on Friday’s broadcast 23:45 minutes into the show (after questions on the food standards in the wake of the horse meat in hamburgers scandal) the question was put to the panel: “Is now the time for a  black, woman pope?”

The first speaker, Ruth Davis, chief policy adviser for Greenpeace sidestepped the question, but said she did believe it was the duty of the next pope to “reconcile” the church with “the values most people hold” in Britain. Liberal Democrat MP Nick Harvey MP said to a roar of applause from the audience the Catholic Church “should be dragged into the 21st century,” and that it should update its teachings to “connect” with the values of the modern world. He and Labour MP Margaret Hodge urged the church to permit women clergy and and bring its moral ethic in conformance with those of the British establishment.

Mrs. Hodge — who was head of the Islington  Council when that London Borough was responsible for the oversight of local care homes where investigators uncovered evidence of sexual abuse (Hodge refused to investigate the charges at the time as it would have cost too much) raised the issue of child sexual abuse. She argued the Catholic Church had been lax in addressing the sexual abuse scandal and observed that child sexual abuse and pedophilia were “rampant in the Catholic Church”. Only Environment Minister John Hayes declined to attack the church noting that he was not black, not a woman and not Catholic so he felt disqualified in offering an opinion on the propriety of a black woman pope.

Let me say that Any Questions is a serious, highly respected news program. The discussions of the other topics were measured — and somewhat dry. It was when the topic turned to the Catholic Church common sense flew out the door.

However, it was the Guardian that took the prize for week one in the All-England pope-bashing contest. The news article entitled “A black pope could result in mixed message over priestly celibacy” informs British readers that Africans are cretinous sex-maniacs whose Catholicism is skin deep and that the priesthood is a haven for gay men seeking meaning for their pitiful lives. This strange piece begins with an unfavorable comparison between Benedict and John Paul to John XXIII.

When Pope Benedict addressed the clergy of Rome on Thursday, he chose to talk to them about the Second Vatican Council, perhaps the central event of his life. He is among the last people alive to have taken part in that momentous gathering and it is a privilege of the long-lived to rewrite history. The then Joseph Ratzinger played a leading role in the revolutionary changes brought about by what Catholics call Vatican Two, but then did a theological U-turn after witnessing with horror the more secular upheaval of 1968. He and his predecessor, John Paul II, have step-by-step reoriented the Catholic church to the point that it is nowadays an institution which might dismay the pope who convoked the Council, John XXIII, and reassure his austere predecessor Pius XII.

Get that — Benedict has sought to reverse the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. And the evidence for this assertion? Well there is none, but we do get another outlandish assertion.

The change of direction has created a smaller, but more homogenous, church. Millions of the laity in Europe may have drifted away in despair at the gap between their lives and the Catholicism preached by the Vatican; priestly vocations in Europe may have fallen off a cliff, but those who remain – worshipers and clerics alike – are proud to belong to a conservative institution at odds with the times.

The article states the decline in church attendance and the fall of priestly vocations in Europe is not a phenomena of liberalism and secularism but the ultramontane (reactionary) policies of the last two popes. Evidence for this extraordinary assertion? Again, there is none. But at this stage we do move into the meat of the story.

So the election to the papacy of a conservative African or Asian prelate would, in principle, be welcome to large sections of the church in Europe and the United States. Even for the dwindling minority of liberals, it would be a reminder to the world that, overall, Catholicism is growing, and at a faster rate than the global population. But traditionally-minded Catholics might see one major change resulting from an African pope; the tradition of priestly celibacy.

Because of that tradition, combined with the contemporary intolerance of the laity towards unmarried relationships between priests and their “housekeepers”, it would appear that the number of gay men in the Catholic priesthood has increased.

How’s that for a plot twist — bet you didn’t see that one coming. Because the church no longer lets priests fool around with their housekeepers the clergy are now gayer. In support of this assertion we have a comment by the chief executive of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (a minister of the Metropolitan Community Church) that the Catholic priesthood is a haven for those who cannot answer the question “Why aren’t you married yet?”

It is unlikely an African or Asian cardinal would be elected pope because they would crack down on the gay subculture of the European Catholic Church, the article states, and because they would be more likely to end priestly celibacy. The article observes:

 … time and again, bishops on visits to Rome have stressed that, in many African cultures, a man without a woman beyond a certain age incites suspicion and lacks authority.  That puts a Catholic priest at a notable disadvantage to the local imam in many of the areas where Christianity is competing with Islam for ascendancy. And since that is one of the most important challenges facing the church, a black pope could put an end to priestly celibacy.

Remember this article did not appear in the Comment is Free section of the Guardian or as an editorial or op-ed piece. It was printed in the news section — and did not even have the cover of being called “news analysis”. Where does one begin? There are several statements offered as fact that need substantiation — the cause of the decline of the Catholic Church in Europe, the priesthood as a refuge for gay men, the disinclination of Africans to honor clerical celibacy, and cultural pressures from Africa that identify unmarried men as being “suspicious” characters. These are opinions, not facts and this is certainly not news. The lack of professionalism in this story is compounded by an extraordinary cluelessness — the Guardian‘s Rome correspondent does not seem to get out very much.

My favorite Guardian article of the week though was published on 15 Feb in the World News section. It stated the pope had resigned because he had lost his faith.

When the resignation of the Pope was announced earlier in the week, the news seemed bizarre, almost unbelievable. I find, as I get my head around the idea, that the whole thing just becomes more bizarre, not less. If you strongly believe in God, I suppose you can tell yourself that He moves in mysterious ways, as per. But if you don’t, then this all seems rather like the moment when the curtain moves back to reveal the Wizard of Oz as a wee man pulling levers. Exposing the Papacy as a job, not a sacrosanct heavenly ambassadorship, is a quite risky thing to do, precisely because it’s so human, so humdrum, so non-spiritual. The only logical conclusion is that Joseph Ratzinger no longer believes that he is God’s representative on earth. Awkward. The Pope has surely lost his faith.

While I was surprised by the news of the pope’s resignation, I did not find it bizarre. The suggestion that he was stepping down because he no longer believed — that is bizarre.

I must say these stories made me laugh. While the first few roused my professional ire, the great number of silly stories (these three are but a skim of the surface) soon brightened my day. There is a Monty Pythonesque sense of the absurd in these stories.  They are so terrible that they cease to upset me and leave me smiling. What say you GetReligion readers? Am I so jaded that I am unable to be offended anymore?

First printed in GetReligion.

Interview: Issues, Etc., December 19, 2012 December 21, 2012

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Here is a link to an interview I gave to the Issues, Etc. show of Lutheran Public Radio broadcast on 19 Dec 2012.

3. Media Coverage of Circumcision Laws in Germany – George Conger, 12/19/12

The Guardian does not get Tim Scott: Get Religion December 18, 2012 December 18, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Politics, South Carolina.
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Amongst your GetReligion correspondents I was the last to board the twitter train. Now I knew about this micro-blogging tool and had heard of tumblr and instagram — and I even had a Facebook page. But I was slow to utilize these communication tools in my reporting. I cannot explain this reticence, for since I was a child I have been fascinated by these tools.

One of my memories of childhood was accompanying my father to his club in the city. I would wait for him in the smoking room where amidst the smell of strong cigars I would sit by the stock ticker and teletype machine and read the news as it came over the wire. I still remember the thrill of hearing the bell ring three times and the machine begin to chatter as it printed a breaking story.

Half a life time has passed since those days. Stock tickers, teletype and Telex machines are gone and I expect fax machines will soon pass away. Yet the thrill they gave me of instant access to a wider world I find in Twitter. This item from Byron York of National Review caught my eye.

Scott begins with moment of silence for Newtown and then says of appointment: ‘Thank you to my lord and savior, Jesus Christ.’

12:15 PM – 17 Dec 12 ·

York was tweeting the press conference where South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley announced that she was appointing Rep. Tim Scott to serve out the term of Sen. Jim DeMint. Approximately 45 minutes earlier I had read a breaking story from the Guardian on the news of the appointment.

Printed on the Guardian‘s website at 11:26 AM, the article entitled “Tim Scott appointed to fill Jim DeMint’s Senate seat for South Carolina” was a introduction of the new senator to Britain — the first African American Republican Senator in 30 years and the first from the old Confederacy since Reconstruction. The 700-word story was thorough. It reviewed his political career in Charleston and Congress, support from the Tea Party movement and speculated on his future prospects.

The Guardian also spoke to Scott’s personal story.

Some in the Republican party have drawn parallels between Scott and Barack Obama; his rise has been nurtured in recent years by the Republican party’s leadership, impressed by the carefully spoken and deeply conservative Charleston native, raised, like Obama, by a single mother. … Born in Charleston, Scott’s parents divorced when he was seven, and he attributes his belief in conservative values to his mother, a nurse.

“By the time I entered high school, I was completely off track. My mother was working hard, trying to help me to realize that there was a brighter future, but I really couldn’t see it,” Scott wrote in 2010 at the launch of his congressional campaign.

Then, he says, he had the good fortune to meet the owner of a Chick-fil-A fast food franchise next door to the movie theatre where he worked. “He taught me that if you want to receive, you have to first give. Embedded in that conversation, I came to realize, was the concept that my mother was teaching me about individual responsibility.”

The article closes with Scott’s decision not to join the Congressional Black Caucus.

Thanking the Democratic-dominated caucus for its invitation, Scott said: “My campaign was never about race.”

All in all this was nicely done, up to a point. It gives British readers some flavor of the newest American Senator and rising star of the Republican Party. Yet, the story is only half told of Tim Scott.

What role has faith played in Scott’s life? What were the values taught to him by his conservative mother? Should not the mention of Chick-fil-A have rung some bells in the Guardian reporter’s head? Taken in conjunction with Scott’s avowal of his Christian faith at the press conference, the absence of faith from the Guardian story about Tim Scott leaves the story half finished.

Now the article is not faith free. It mentions Scott’s work as a county commissioner in having the Ten Commandments publicly displayed outside the council chambers. But the Guardian describes this action as being a regional political affectation. And curiously it describes his appointment to the Senate seat in the lede of the article as a “remarkable turnaround”. Yet it also notes:

In 2012 he was elected unopposed, winning 99% of the vote, with policies mirroring those of his party in the South: deep opposition to tax increases, Obamacare, unions, abortion and immigration reform.

In what way was Scott’s appointment a turnaround? Winning reelection with 99 per cent of the vote speaks not to political misfortune. The bottom line with this article is that although it has most of the facts, it misses the story. The Guardian does not understand American politics as seen by its discussion of the Republican Party of the South and in the role faith plays in the life of Tim Scott (and for many Americans for that matter.) Not the best outing from the Guardian, I’m afraid.

First published at GetReligion.

What has God got to do with drones?: Get Religion, October 24, 2012 October 24, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Afghanistan, Get Religion, Press criticism.
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“It became necessary to destroy the town to save it,”a United States major said today. He was talking about the decision by allied commanders to bomb and shell the town regardless of civilian casualties, to rout the Vietcong.

So began Peter Arnett’s 8 Feb 1968 report from the town of Ban Tre. Published in the New York Times under the headline “Major Describes Move“, time has improved the quotation to various forms of “we had to destroy the village to save it”. Questions of the proportionality of  response to a threat have been present in war reporting from the start of the craft in the Nineteenth century to the present conflict in Afghanistan. However the questions raised by Peter Arnett have been debated for more than a millennium in the theological and philosophical speculations of “just war” theory.

The moral issues surrounding the use of unmanned drones has been been raised from time to time in the U.S. press and addressed by my colleague Mollie Hemingway on the pages of GetReligion. However, the European press has been particularly exercised over their use in the battle with the Taliban. Tuesday’s Guardian in London gave the issue the front page treatment in its story on the activation of an RAF squadron operating from Britain that will control drones flying over Afghanistan. However the Guardian approaches the issue of ethics without reference to religion.

The article entitled “UK to double number of drones in Afghanistan” begins:

The UK is to double the number of armed RAF “drones” flying combat and surveillance operations in Afghanistan and, for the first time, the aircraft will be controlled from terminals and screens in Britain.

In the new squadron of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), five Reaper drones will be sent to Afghanistan, the Guardian can reveal. It is expected they will begin operations within six weeks. Pilots based at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire will fly the recently bought American-made UAVs at a hi-tech hub built on the site in the past 18 months.

Details of the new squadron’s operations are discussed and then the story moves to the moral issues involved in the use of unmanned drone attacks.

The use of drones has become one of the most controversial features of military strategy in Afghanistan. The UK has been flying them almost non-stop since 2008.

The CIA’s programme of “targeted” drone killings in Pakistan’s tribal area was last month condemned in a report by US academics. The attacks are politically counterproductive, kill large numbers of civilians and undermine respect for international law, according to the study by Stanford and New York universities’ law schools.

After raising the moral issues, the Guardian steps back somewhat and dives into eight paragraphs of operational details before resurfacing with this statement.

The MoD insists only four Afghan civilians have been killed in its strikes since 2008 and says it does everything it can to minimise civilian casualties, including aborting missions at the last moment. However, it also says it has no idea how many insurgents have died because of the “immense difficulty and risks” of verifying who has been hit. …In December 2010, David Cameron claimed that 124 insurgents had been killed in UK drone strikes. But defence officials said they had no idea where the prime minister got the figure and denied it was from the MoD.

Let me start off by commending the Guardian‘s reporter for raising the moral issues surrounding the targeted killing of America and Britain’s enemies. A story published the same day in the Washington Post on the administration’s plans to create kill lists of enemies was silent on the moral issues — though it did mention that there had been legal challenges to the government’s use of drones to kill American citizens in enemy ranks. As an aside, I am surprised by the lack of outrage over the targeted killing program from the press. America has been down this road before. The Phoenix program in Vietnam sparked congressional hearings and a steady flow of moral outrage up through the Carter Administration.

Was it sufficient for the Guardian to put forward the objections of some American law school professors when raising the moral issues of drone warfare? There are any number of philosophers and theologians who could have offered cogent critiques of the morality of drone warfare — Britain’s smartest man, the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams has been outspoken in his opposition to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and has lectured on the issue of “just war” to military audiences. The choice of whom to quote, of course, lies with the author — but my sense of this story is that the religious element is outside the reporter’s knowledge. Ethics for the Guardian is not tied to religion.

This is, for me, is the journalism question in this story. There is an ethical ghost here — but what sort of ethical ghost, secular or religious?

The Christian tradition holds that morality without religion is impossible. There can be ethics without religion, but these ethics are necessarily incomplete or flawed. In his book Morality after Auschwitz, Peter Haas asked how Germany could have willingly participated in a state-sponsored program of genocide. His answer was that:

far from being contemptuous of ethics, the perpetrators acted in strict conformity with an ethic which held that, however difficult and unpleasant the task might have been, mass extermination of the Jews and Gypsies was entirely justified. . . . the Holocaust as a sustained effort was possible only because a new ethic was in place that did not define the arrest and deportation of Jews as wrong and in fact defined it as ethically tolerable and ever good.

If there is no God, there is no good and evil, no right and wrong, or as Fyodor Dostoyevsky said in the Brothers Karamazov, “If there is no immortality, then all things are permitted.”

Against this view we have philosophers and ethicists such as Prof. Peter Singer of Princeton University who have argued  “that an intellectually coherent ethic has to be independent of religion and that’s an argument that goes right back to Socrates and Plato.”

Whether unconsciously or by choice, the Guardian has come down on one side of this argument. There is no God.

For those of us who are unpersuaded that there can be right or wrong without a God, should it have provided the arguments of religious ethics when addressing morality? Or should we take another newspaper?

What say you GetReligion readers? How should intelligent journalism address this question?

First printed in GetReligion.

Guardian ends the debate on abortion: Get Religion, October 7, 2012 October 8, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism.
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There are no valid pro-life arguments. All right thinking people have seen the light, the Guardian reports, with support for legal limitations on abortion  limited to the slack jawed troglodytes of the political right, Conservative Party MPs (possibly the same thing) and religious loonies.

I may have overstated things somewhat, but that is what I have taken away from this story entitled “Jeremy Hunt backs 12-week legal limit on abortion.” Not the most striking of headlines, I admit, but here is the lede — trust me, it is worth diving in to this story as it is an object lesson in the difference between news reporting and advocacy journalism.

The health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has said that he backs halving the legal time limit for women to have abortions, from 24 weeks to 12.

The intervention by Hunt reignited hostilities over one of the most polarising issues in politics on the eve of the Conservative party conference.

Coming just days after Maria Miller, the women’s minister, backed calls for a reduction in the legal limit for abortions, Hunt’s comments deepened fears among pro-choice campaigners that abortion laws are set to come under renewed assault.

Where do you thing this story is headed? A sober analysis of the state of the abortion debate in Britain, or rubbishing Jeremy Hunt for his views on abortion and for causing political mischief for the Conservative Party — why that would worry the Guardian is beyond me, but there it is. After this rather loaded introduction, the article offers some rather thin comments from the minister in support of his decision.

“I’m not someone who thinks that abortion should be made illegal. Everyone looks at the evidence and comes to a view about when that moment is and my own view is that 12 weeks is the right point for it.”

And this is followed by comments from the Labour Party’s shadow health minister. She calls the comments “shocking and alarming” and “another assault on women’s reproductive rights.” The opposition hammers Hunt for plucking 12 weeks “out of thin air” and not basing his decision on “medical evidence” — and true to form, we get an anti-American crack.

Let me say I do not find the shadow minister’s comments problematic. They are strong comments that candidly express the shadow minister for health’s views. What concerns me is that the Guardian gives her four paragraphs to critique the minister’s two paragraph opening quote.

The article then moves on to an independent medical voice, who perversely claims the minister’s remarks will lead to more abortion. The story line then returns to the minister, who is asked whether he was now, or had ever been a member of the Communist Party Christian.

“I don’t think the reason I have that view is for religious reasons. There are some issues that cut across health and morality, a bit like capital punishment does for crime. There are all sorts of arguments in favour and against in terms of deterrence and justice, but also there is a fundamental moral issue that sits behind it. I think abortion is one of those issues.”

The Guardian tosses in a a few unsourced opinions.

Political commentators have questioned the wisdom of sparking a political row over such an emotive issue as the party heads into its conference.

And the article closes with a knife in Hunt’s back from Prime Minister David Cameron’s office.

A spokesman for No 10 said that the prime minister did not share Hunt’s view about a cut to 12 weeks. Cameron said during the last general election campaign that he would support a reduction to 20 or 22 weeks.

David Cameron does seem set on giving Edward Heath a run for the money as winner of the worst Conservative PM contest. But GetReligion reader, do you notice anything missing?

Might there be someone to speak to this issue other than a marginal Conservative MP whose endorsement does not help but hurts Hunt.  Where is the smartest man in England, the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams? Dr. Williams’ views on the economy, foreign policy and other non-church topics are often solicited by the Guardian but we hear nothing from Labour’s favorite archbishop on an issue dear to his wooly heart. Where is the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols or any other Catholic, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Jewish, Humanist or, heaven help us, conservative Christian voice speaking on this issue?

Is the science truly silent on this point? Was no one available from any of the government’s scientific quangos that have been studying embryology, medical ethics, or reproductive health care issues? Maybe a word from someone from the Christian Medical Fellowship — a coalition of Christian physicians in the U.K.? Might they have a view on the 12 vs 24 week mark?

It may be a sign of my age, but a line from a Monty Python record “Matching Tie and Handkerchief” ran through my mind as I read this story.

Man: I think all right thinking people in this country are sick and tired of being told that ordinary, decent people are fed up in this country with being sick and tired.

All: Yes, yes…

Man: I’m certainly not! And I’m sick and tired of being told that I am.

Interviewer: Mrs. Havoc-Jones?

Mrs. Havoc-Jones: Well, I meet a lot of people and I’m convinced that the vast majority of wrong thinking people are right.

Interviewer: There seems like a consensus there. Could we have the next question, please?

There is an absurdist quality to this article. The Guardian does not believe it is important to give both sides of an argument, or it believes there is no credible opposition to the view that abortion is a non-negotiable right. This is advocacy journalism or it is arrogance. It may be seeking to endorse a particular political outcome and has marshaled some facts and omitted others in support of its argument. Or, it truly believes that there are no credible arguments against abortion and only draws upon the fringe for comments.

My sense is that this story is a mixture of arrogance, disdain and advocacy. The Guardian has chosen a side in the culture wars, but in doing so, it has dropped any pretext that it is engaging in journalism in its reporting on this issue.

First printed in GetReligion.

How many gays in Hampstead?: Get Religion, September 26, 2012 September 26, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism, Unitarian Universalist Church.
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Here is a craft question for you, GetReligion readers. No I don’t mean freemasonry but journalism. When should a reporter use his editorial voice to correct or challenge an assertion made by the subject of his story? What if the assertion is not central to the story at hand? What if the assertion is in line with convention wisdom, but is not true?

This item in a suburban newspaper serving the Hampstead and Highgate area of the London borough of Camden, Ham & High, tees up this question nicely. Under the headline of “Hampstead church first in London to allow same-sex civil partnership ceremonies”, Ham & High reports that Rossyln Hill Chapel, a Unitarian congregation, has voted to permit its American minister, the Rev. Patrick O’Neill, to solemnize same-sex civil partnerships. The lede states:

A Hampstead church could become the first in London to hold civil partnership ceremonies in its chapel following an unprecedented vote.

The article recounts the congregations internal deliberations on offering same-sex blessings for civil partnerships and Dr. O’Neill’s application to the Camden Council for a license to perform the ceremonies.The congregation voted unamimously in support of the innovation, and Dr. O’Neill explained the decision was motivated in part by the church’s belief that it should be a prophetic voice to the community on this issue.

Our motivation for this is always to be pressing for greater equality for all people which is very much consistent with our basic values as a church,” he explained. “The issue for us now is setting an example for the wider community.

The article also offers background on the issue of same-sex blessings under English law and notes the coalition government has allowed religious institutions to solemnize same-sex civil partnerships. It also gives Dr. O’Neill space to discuss his views on same-sex blessings and lets him distinguish his denomination’s stance from the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, which do not permit its clergy to solemnize civil partnerships.

The article is nicely constructed with strong quotes, good context and an explanation of motivation. Who, what, when, where, why are all here.

There is also this quote from Dr. O’Neill:

He added: “We need to raise cultural awareness and recognise that in our society ten to 15 per cent of people are gay, lesbian or bisexual”. He said: “It affects many families, whether they recognise it or not.”

Is this true? I have no reason to suppose that Dr. O’Neill has been quoted incorrectly. What I mean by my question is “10 to 15 per cent” of the population gay/lesbian? This is a hotly debated point and has been since the Kinsey studies were published in the late 40′s which first posited the 10 to 15 per cent figure. However in 2010 the Office for National Statistics in the U.K. reported that 1.5 per cent of the British population is gay.

In its account of the ONS study, the Guardian wrote:

How many people are gay in Britain? It’s a question which has vexed government and the tabloid press alike for some time. Estimates vary from around 5% to 7% (from a Treasury assessment before the civil partnership act in 2004) through to a much lower 2.2% from the latest British crime survey.

Well, today, the Office for National Statistics has published the most comprehensive breakdown on the question yet. It survey 238,206 people across Britain – dwarfing even the mighty British crime survey, which ‘only’ asks 22,995 people. In fact, the sample is slightly smaller, once you discount don’t knows, refusals and non-responses – but still a large 247,623.

It’s part of the ONS’ Integrated Household Survey, which comes out once a year to a normally muted response, largely because it’s buried on the terrible ONS website. The questioning involved showing people a card of options and asking them to indicate which category they fitted into. As a result, the ONS is highly confident about the results. Extrapolated nationally, they suggest a population of 726,000 gay, lesbian or bisexual people in the UK.

This also raises the question of what does it mean to be gay? Is it purely self-identification, or does inclination and past experience determine what it means to be gay/lesbian?

In its 2006 study on human sexuality, the Australian Longitudinal Study of Health and Relationships reported that .66 per cent of women and 1.03 per cent of men self-identified as gay/lesbian. This study, in conjunction with the ONS report and other studies would seem to dismiss the claims of Dr. O’Neill.

Yet if you go deeper into the Australian study and look at Table 3 you will see the question of sexual identity is rather more nuanced.

Table 3: Sexual Identity, Attraction and Experience of Respondents

Sex
Female Male Total
Sexual identity Heterosexual 98.08 97.72 8,027
Homosexual 0.66 1.03 69
Bisexual 1.26 1.23 102
Queer 0 0.02 1
Total 4,121 4,078 8,199
Sexual attraction Opposite sex 90.6 95.88 7,642
Both sexes 8.89 3.31 501
Same sex 0.22 0.64 35
Neither sex 0.29 0.17 19
Total 4,117 4,080 8,197
Sexual experience Opposite sex 89.94 91.08 7,418
Both sexes 7.21 6.06 544
Same sex 0.1 0.37 19
Neither sex 2.74 2.5 215
Total 4,117 4,079 8,196

 

While the rate of self-identification as gay/lesbian in the population hovers at around 1 per cent, the rates for sexual attraction to the same sex and sexual experience are much higher.

The journalism question I have is: should the author have responded to Dr. O’Neill’s claim of 10 to 15 per cent? In defense of the reporter, the issue of the proportion of gays and lesbians in the population is not the central subject of the story. And, chasing down every claim and statement made by a subject in a story can distract from the central issue — which here was that a Hampstead church will be the first in London to offer gay blessings.

Yet the veracity of the proportion of gays in society claim touches upon the motivation for the congregation of Rosslyn Hill Chapel. Should an assertion that something is true be challenged when there is evidence that it is not true? Or, would it suffice to say the question is disputed?

What say you GetReligion readers? Should you believe everything you read in the newspapers or expect the newspapers to make sure everything presented to you is true?

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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.

What’s wrong with Liberation Theology?: Get Religion, July 5, 2012 July 5, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism.
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Liberal Catholics have scored a major coup at the Vatican, the Guardian reports as a defender of “liberation theologists” and former student of Gustavo Gutiérrez has been appointed head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican.

This extraordinary news can be found in an article entitled “Pope appoints doctrinal watchdog with links to ‘Marxist’ Catholics”. For a religion reporter this is a great headline and it is followed by a great lede sentence. Think what fun the tabloids would have — Reds in the Vatican. Pinko Papal Prelate Promoted.

There is a problem, however — the remainder of the article contradicts this grand opening. After reading through the story a few times, I am unsure whether the Guardian thinks the appointment of Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller to the top job at the CDF a good or a bad thing. The former Bishop of Regensburg is said to have links to the liberation theology movement, but he is also identified as a conservative and protégé of Pope Benedict XVI.

Also, I’m unsure what being a defender of liberation “theologists” entails as I don’t know what they might mean by this phrase. A theologist is a theologian my dictionary tells me, but I have never heard this term used before in conjunction with the Liberation Theology movement (nor have I come across the word in my reading.)

There is much that is unclear in this story as one gets the sense the author does not understand the terms he uses or the issues under consideration. What is clear, however is that Liberation Theology is a bad thing in the mind of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. But the explanation why it is a bad thing is very thin – almost a caricature – as is the explanation as to how someone linked to Marxist thought is now the number three man at the Vatican. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition, nor do they like Liberation Theology.

Let’s begin with the lede:

Pope Benedict on Monday appointed as the Roman Catholic church’s doctrinal watchdog a fellow German with links to liberation theology, the interpretation of Christianity that conservatives have deplored as Marxism with a cross in place of a hammer and sickle.

Gerhard Ludwig Müller, 64, the bishop of Regensburg in Bavaria, is to take over the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the direct successor of the department created in the 16th century to manage the Inquisition.

So is Archbishop Müller a crypto-Communist? Has the Vatican’s doctrinal office taken a sharp turn to the political left? What exactly is the Guardian implying when it says he has “links” to liberation theology? Has he now, or has he ever been a member of the Communist Party?

The comment about Marxism with a cross is a strong line. But it does need to be sourced to someone. However a scan of the article shows no quotes from cranky conservatives seeing reds under the bed to justify this assertion.

The story continues with a description of the CDF’s responsibilities:

The congregation’s primary role is to keep a beady eye on the writings and teachings of Catholic theologians. But in recent years it has acquired responsibility for dealing with two of the most sensitive issues facing the Vatican – the scandal of clerical sex abuse, and efforts to heal the breach with breakaway ultra-conservative Roman Catholics.

“Beady eye”? Is that the correct phrase? Eagle eye implies keeping a sharp watch. Jaundiced eye implies prejudice . Beady eye implies malice —- is that editorial comment appropriate here?

Etymology is not my chief concern, however. I am troubled by the article’s arrangement of the facts and by the way it framed the story. It states Pope Benedict served as head of the CDF under Pope John Paul II. During his tenure Benedict:

… spent much of his time bringing to heel Latin-American liberation theologists. The late John Paul II repeatedly accused priests inspired by liberation theology of having lost sight of their spiritual mission in their concern for poverty and human rights.

This sentence is problematic. JPII “repeatedly accused” liberation theologists of concentrating too much on poverty and human rights at the expense of spiritual matters? What exactly does that mean – did they abandon their sacramental ministries to engage in political struggles? Was their pastoral work devoid of spiritual content?

At the next jump the Guardian unseats the unwary reader. After opening with assertions about Müller being a man of the left, it then states he “is unquestionably a conservative” and offers comments from liberal Catholics who say he was more interested in “the enforcement of church discipline more important than changing obvious wrongs” while bishop of Regensburg.

Immediately after describing him as a man of the right, it notes he was trained in the schools of the left.

He was a student of Father Gustavo Gutiérrez, the author of the seminal 1971 work, A Theology of Liberation. And only eight years ago, Müller and Gutiérrez co-authored a book entitled On the Side of the Poor.

The Vatican’s new guardian of orthodoxy has on more than one occasion defended liberation theologists, arguing that their outlook is consistent with Catholic teaching.

The article begins with a colorful crack about Liberation Theology being a form of Christian Marxism, but offers no voices or sources to defend this view. Müller is portrayed as having been a man of the left – a defender of liberation theologists and a student of its most influential advocate within the church. Yet he is also described as a conservative. Are we to interpret this to mean that Müller is an ex-liberation theologian? Has he seen the light, or has he traded in his principles for preferment?

Which also begs the question why would the pope appoint a man with ties to a school of theology that has been rejected by the last two popes to oversee the church’s doctrine office? What exactly were these links? Who really is Archbishop Müller and what is so bad about Liberation Theolology that it would require stamping out?

This article reads as if it were written on the back of an envelope in a taxi ride to the airport. It is unstructured, unfocused, un-sourced and unintelligible.

However, I bring to this article a degree of knowledge about Liberation Theology and its acolytes that the general reader would not have. Am I seeing this article through my biases and finding fault where there is no fault? What say you GetReligion readers, does this story do the job? Or should it define its terms — especially the precepts of Liberation Theology?

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.

Rowan Williams exits Canterbury, Round 2: Get Religion, March 16, 2012 March 17, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Archbishop of Canterbury, Church of England, Church of England Newspaper.
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There have been no surprises so far in the first day coverage of the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams’ decision to retire at year’s end. A little before noon London time the archbishop’s press office released his resignation statement. Within the hour a Press Association interview and a background item for editors were released.

Throughout the afternoon comments and appreciations from political and religious leaders came across the wires (really the internet) — and from these sources the first day stories were formed.

What makes the difference in the quality of stories is the quality of the reporters and the experience/biases/insight they bring to their jobs. The Times, Telegraph, Independent and Guardian news reports are of high standard and reflect the professionalism of their reporters. The Daily Mail takes a different approach.

Rowan Williams has today announced he is stepping down as Archbishop of Canterbury but not before having a swipe at the ‘dim-witted prejudice’ against Christianity in Britain.

After a turbulent decade in office the leader of the 77 million-strong Anglican Church will leave at the end of the year.

He is tipped to be replaced by Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu, who would be the first black holder of the prestigious office.

But in a stark warning Dr Williams said ‘ignorance’ was damaging the church because too many people seem to oppose Christianity but ‘don’t know how religion works’.

Granted the Daily Mail has a different demographic than the broadsheets, but the article continues in this herky-jerky manner, jumping from assertion to assertion. It has no focus, no sense of itself — and no sense of the story.

The Sun article could have been written as a parody. It begins:

Dr Williams yesterday revealed that he would be standing down after ten years to take up a new post as Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge.

Bookies have given Dr Sentamu odds of 6/4, just ahead of the Bishop of London Richard Chartres at 7/4 and the Bishop of Bradford Nick Baines at 5/1.

William Hill [a bookmaker] spokesman Graham Sharpe said: “Since Rowan Williams became Archbishop of Canterbury, John Sentamu has very much come to the fore and has been the best-backed contender to succeed him for some while, although Richard Chartres, the beaten favourite when Williams was appointed, is also a strong contender.”

I must admit that I would not have had a bookie’s tout as my first quote. But the Sun is the Sun.

The stinker of the day, however, was the one surprise. The Italian newspaper La Stampa‘s usually excellent Vatican Insider offered opinion as news — and ill-informed opinion at that. Speaking of the controversy over women bishops in the Church of England, it wrote:

Since the Anglican Synod of York approved the ordination of women bishops in July 2010, the decision has gradually spread throughout the Anglican Communion, against the wishes of traditionalist communities. The Anglican Communion consists of 38 independent provinces and one of these is England. A number of provinces already have a bishop. The hemorrhage of faithful in the Anglican Church could be greater than expected as a result of the approval of the consecration of women bishops.

The Catholic Church opposes the process that will lead to the introduction of a law, next July that will authorise the ordination of women bishops. … Opening up the Episcopate to women will have negative consequences in terms of the Anglican Church’s dialogue with the Vatican. It seems pretty clear that the approval of women’s ordination will lead onto the ordination of openly gay bishops. This is the path the Anglican world has chosen to go down, inattentive to the ever growing communities that are choosing to return to Rome precisely as a result of this “liberal” change. …

Pretty nasty, and wrong. The assertion that “women’s ordination will lead onto the ordination of openly gay bishops” is questionable. The first woman bishop was the Rt. Rev. Penelope Jamieson who served as Bishop of Dunedin on New Zealand’s South Island from 1990 to 2004. There are, or have been, women bishops in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Cuba and the United States — all predating the July 2010 vote by the Church of England’s General Synod.

The op-ed pieces are all over the place. For an American reader what might be amazing is the number of stories. There are so many out there that I have space only to focus on one newspaper for this article.

In addition to its news reports, the Guardian offers five analyses pieces as well as a cartoon. The best is by Stephen Bates, the newspaper’s former religion reporter. If you have time to read just one piece from all those I cite, read this one. While I do not share his politics, I have been a long time admirer of his work. His story is fair, thorough (irritating in places) but also heartfelt. He has sympathy for the subject of his article, but remains committed to telling the truth. In short, great writing.

The archbishop’s biographer, Rupert Shortt, has a weaker story. A fan of Dr. Williams, his article presents only one side of this complex man — and also makes mistakes of fact when it moves away from the man to the issues.

Soon after his move to Lambeth Palace, the [Dr. Williams] urged [the pope] to kick-start stalled talks on reunion between Rome and Canterbury. Benedict’s condition for allowing this was that the Anglican communion should streamline its structures and start talking with a more united voice. Williams agreed; the covenant has formed a major element in his strategy.

No, that is not how it happened. The Anglican Covenant arose from an internal Anglican document called the Windsor Report — not from without.

Opponents describe [the Anglican Covenant] as an authoritarian measure at odds with traditional church polity. So far it has been supported in more conservative parts of the communion, especially Africa and Asia, but rejected elsewhere. If the Church of England itself refuses to endorse the covenant, the plan will probably be doomed.

Yes, if the CoE fails to endorse it, it will be doomed — the rest is questionable. The opponents who see the covenant as being too strict and “at odds” with the church’s traditional polity are the liberals. It is also not supported in the more conservative parts of the communion — the archbishops of the traditionalist coalition of Asian and African provinces last year said they could not support the covenant because it was too lenient.

All of the pieces stress the archbishop’s intellectual attainments — his brilliance. Amelia Hill also saw it as part of the problem.

But his intelligence – or, rather, his sublime confidence in his intelligence – has led directly to some of the crises that have marked his tumultuous decade as leader of a global Anglican communion sharply divided on issues of sexuality and gender.

From my experience in covering Dr. Williams for The Church of England Newspaper — which is what it sounds like, though it is not the official newspaper of the church, there is no such animal — Ms. Hill is correct. A number of Dr. Williams’ blunders arose from his refusal to take advice. The Sharia law fiasco being the most notable among many self-inflicted media messes.

Commentator Giles Fraser and the Guardian’s editorial also damned him with faint praise. Fraser writes from the perspective of a liberal activist who has been let down by one of his own.

One does not choose morality as one chooses cornflakes. So whilst his instincts may have been gay friendly, his increasing appreciation that the African church was dead against any accommodation with homosexuality made him side with the conservatives. He wanted a global Anglican community built around core values. And so, in effect, he became a split personality – with Williams the man at odds with Williams the archbishop. After the bitter Lambeth Conference of 1998, Williams, and several other bishops, made gay Christians a promise: “We pledge we will continue to reflect, pray and work for your full inclusion in the life of the church.” Unfortunately, it was a promise he would fail to keep.

The editorial board argued the job had become too big for the man.

Rowan Williams failed as archbishop of Canterbury, because the job description makes success impossible. But the announcement of his resignation makes clear that he failed at one particular impossible task he set himself: to hold together the Anglican communion. That gathering – now more of a dispersal – of 38 churches worldwide continued the schism between liberals and conservatives which has been under way since the 1990s. Both here and abroad, Dr Williams made enough sacrifices for unity to alienate his liberal supporters without satisfying his conservative enemies. But this is what he felt was his duty as archbishop, and in the patient and humble way he followed this thankless path, jeered at from left and right, he offered an example that not only Christians found attractive.

This is a defensible argument, but one I would not advance. It is reminiscent of editorials about Jimmy Carter circa 1979, and it also makes assumptions about liberals and conservatives that is not entirely straight forward. However this is not the place to wax eloquent about the byzantine world of church politics.

I expect the second wave will focus on who is likely to succeed Dr. Williams, and in a few weeks we will begin to see the pendulum move from favorable to unfavorable stories. But I must say, so far so good. An all round good job (exceptions noted.) And, this will keep me gainfully employed for months to come.

My concern, however, is how those outside of Anglican or British circles will be able to follow what is going on. From simple issues (What exactly is the Archbishop of Canterbury?) to the complex, (Why is the archbishop disliked by the left when he is an admitted “hairy lefty”?), these stories assume a degree of knowledge that is most likely not there. Even the British tabloid speculation as to who might be the next archbishop is based on an ill-founded assumption of how the process works.

What do you think GetReligion readers? Will this story catch on outside of English and Anglican circles? What hook might there be to catch a wider audience?

First published in GetReligion.

Guardian news flash – Michele Bachmann is not insane: Get Religion, January 5, 2012 January 6, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Politics, Press criticism.
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The European press has provided extensive coverage of the American presidential campaign. Much of it is of high quality — other stories are just awful (see the Guardianbelow.) The results of the Republican caucuses in Iowa could be found on the inside pages of most newspapers, with many publications offering editorials as to what the vote means for the U.S. and for Europe.

Some of the analyses however, tells us more about the European mind than the Iowa voter. While the U.S. press has seen a great deal of speculation about the role religion played in the voting and provided strong pieces about the faith of individual candidates, with a few notable exceptions this angle received less coverage overseas.

The best of these I have seen comes from La Stampa, Italy’s largest circulation newspaper. In an article entitled “Santorum: fede, libertà e lavoro ecco la mia ricetta per la vittoria” (Santorum: faith, freedom and work – here is my recipe for victory) reporter Paulo Mastrolilli speaks with the former senator following a stump speech in Des Moines.

Recounting the senator’s personal tragedies including a child born with a debilitating disease La Stampa writes:

“Sono cattolici praticanti e questo è il loro modo di trattare la vita.” (They are practicing Catholics, and this is their way of dealing with life.)

Asked if he was ashamed of his Italian heritage because his grandfather fled the fascists, Santorum says (in English translated into Italian and back into English so it is not a word perfect quote):

Absolutely not. I am proud of my origins, because they made me the man that I am today. I always tell the story of my grandfather because he is a source of great inspiration. The core values I believe in, ones that are based on my life and my politics come from there.

Asked if this core value is life (a word with strong religio-political symbolism in Italian as well as U.S. politics), Santorum responds:

The value and dignity of every life, of course. It is the thing that motivates me more to get up every morning to fight, along with the help of God.

Asked how Italy should respond to its economic crisis, the senator says:

You must return to being like my grandfather, who worked hard, without complaint and without excuses. [and America must learn] the same lesson and [emulate those] who built this country through effort and hard work.

La Stampa resists the impulse of categorizing Santurum in Italian terms — where his language and lifestyle would make him recognizable as a Catholic politician and allows him to define himself using American categories and religious and ethical standards.

Not all of the reporting has this lightness of touch. Although the vote count shows former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney running first, former Pennsylvania U.S. Senator Rick Santorum placing second, and Texas Congressman Ron Paul showing third — the real winners were Fox News and Barak Obama some argued.

Fox News had emerged out of Iowa as the king maker of the Republican Party argued the German news magazine Der Spiegel, while the leader [the British term for an editorial] in The Independent was entitled “And the winner in Iowa was … Barak Obama”.

The Independent’s editorial board argued the Republican’s window of opportunity to defeat President Obama may have closed due to their sharp partisan divisions. The Financial Times followed this line too in its opinion piece “Poor Night for the GOP” while the Belgian business newspaper De Tijd in “Die lessen van Iowa” (The Lesson of Iowa) in Belgium interpreted the results as showing the Republicans being hopelessly divided.

The winner by a hair, Mitt Romney, represents the classical policy of the establishment that made the Republican Party great. The unexpected runner-up, the ultra-conservative Rick Santorum, focuses on the traditional values that play a role above all in rural America. The third, Ron Paul, appeals above all to younger, dissatisfied voters who’ve had enough of the political system. … None of the three seems capable of winning over the other currents. … For voters not allied to any one party, the Republican circus is hardly impressive. That puts the current president in a comfortable position for the time being. His chances are on the rise.”

The left-liberal Viennese newspaper Der Standard concurred, writing the Republican caucus result “will work to the Democrats’ advantage.” However:

…the Democrats shouldn’t start celebrating yet. Once the Republican candidate has been nominated the cards will be reshuffled. Then the election will be decided by what the Republican consider more important: the self-castigation of their own party or their hatred of the Democrats in the White House.

In its news analysis of the election the Prague business newspaper Hospodárské noviny also argued that Barak Obama was not yet home free.

Considering the high unemployment rate Obama shouldn’t stand a chance of being re-elected. Although he has the opportunity now to defend his office, one thing he can’t base his campaign on is hope. … [The election] will be a bitter confrontation between two very different ideologies, two different notions of the role of the state and ultimately two different visions of America.

Religion, values-voting or other faith related issues did not figure highly among most accounts. While the Guardian did not do religion in its account, its reporter in Iowa does do psychoanalysis. In his live blog report on Michele Bachmann’s speech suspending her campaign, the Guardian’s reporter wrote:

… According to Bachmann, a painting of Ben Franklin told her to run for the presidency.

OK, so another recitation of the evils of “Obamacare” and how awful it is, which according to Bachmann is the greatest threat to America in history. I am not making this up.

Is she also resigning from congress as well? Oh and now it’s back to the painting: “I worried what a future painting … might depict” if Obamacare isn’t repealed. Really.

Now she’s talking about her campaign for the presidency in the past tense, but there’s a lot of stuff about “the president’s agenda of socialism,” which is hilarious.

Now Bachmann is stumbling over reading her written text. But otherwise, it’s all about fighting, how she will fight for everything. Fight, fight, fight … President Obama socialist policies … party of Reagan … America is the greatest force for good … constitution.

And after all that fighting: “Last night the people of Iowa spoke with a very clear voice, so I have decided to stand aside.”

So she’s not entirely insane, even if a painting of Ben Franklin speaks to her and watches her.

I find it reassuring that the Guardian employs a psychiatrist on the U.S. political beat who can tell us Mrs. Bachmann is not insane. What can one say about this last item, other than it is shoddy juvenile work that should not have made it past the editor’s pencil. Comparing La Stampa’s coverage of Santorum to the Guardian’s coverage of Bachmann is an object lesson in the difference between good and bad reporting.

First published in GetReligion.

The Economist on birth control for nuns: Get Religion, December 12, 2011 December 12, 2011

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism, Roman Catholic Church.
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He believed, he said, in birth-control. Pickerbaugh answered with theology, violence, and the example of his own eight beauties.

Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis (1924)

Christmas comes but once a year, but reporters don’t always have to wait until December 25 for their presents. Great stories, items that seem to write themselves, can appear at any time of the year. A report in the British medical journal, The Lancet, released on December 8 and entitled “The plight of nuns: hazards of nulliparity” is just such an early Christmas gift for reporters on a short deadline.

The Telegraph and the Guardian provide good examples of the first day coverage — smart and concise summaries of the claims made by the article.  Religious Affairs Editor Martin Beckford of the Telegraph (one of the best religion writers in the UK) has a wonderful lede sentence for his story entitled: “Nuns should go on the Pill, says Lancet study.”

A paper in The Lancet claims that Roman Catholic nuns pay a “terrible price for their chastity”, as not having babies puts them at greater risk of breast, ovarian and uterine tumours.

Health Editor Sarah Boseley of the Guardian covered the story equally well and opened with:

Nuns should be given the contraceptive pill to reduce the high death rates from breast, ovarian and uterine cancer that result from their childlessness, say scientists.

Each gives a straight forward, uncluttered summary of The Lancet article’s claims. Both have strong pull quotes, and their stories could well be swapped between papers. Martin writes:

“Although Humanae Vitae never mentions nuns, they should be free the use the contraceptive pill to protect against the hazards of nulliparity [never giving birth] since the document states that ‘the Church in no way regards as unlawful therapeutic means considered necessary to cure organic diseases, even though they also have a contraceptive effect’.

“If the Catholic church could make the contraceptive pill freely available to all its nuns, it would reduce the risk of those accursed pests, cancer of the ovary and uterus, and give nuns’ plight the recognition it deserves.” … It goes on: “Today, the world’s 94,790 nuns still pay a terrible price for their chastity because they have a greatly increased risk of breast, ovarian, and uterine cancers: the hazards of their nulliparity.”

The second day stories fleshed out the issues, offering scientific critiques of the research and alternative voices. A story from the Catholic News Agency that a number of other sources drew upon  cited one oncologist who said the study had more political significance than scientific value. The CNA led with this critique.

Karen Brauer, president of Pharmacists for Life International, said the argument was so poorly made that she initially thought the article was a parody.

“It’s that bad,” she told CNA on Dec. 8, adding that the claims were not only outlandish but unsupported by the evidence presented in the analysis.

However, the best of the second day stories was Katie Moisse’s piece for ABC News, “Should Nuns Take the Pill for Health Reasons?” In addition to giving a crisp recounting of the article, she did that extraordinary thing of asking a nun what she thought of all this. And by concentrating on the basics of reporting, came up with a superior story.

…  according to Sister Mary Ann Walsh of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, nuns have the same access to medical care as any other woman – and that includes access to the pill.

“They’re presuming the church has some kind of authority over the medical care of nuns, which it doesn’t,” Walsh told ABC News. “A nun goes to a doctor for her medical care, and if that medical care requires a certain kind of medicine then that medicine is prescribed.”

Oral contraceptives can increase the risk of blood clots, a risk thought to be higher in some newer versions of the pill.

“The suggestion that all nuns should take contraception is rather sweeping and almost irresponsible,” said Walsh. “There are risks with the pill just as there are risks with doing nothing with regard to uterine and ovarian cancer.”

Walsh said the benefits of the pill in reducing cancer risk must be weighed against the side effects.

“A nun’s decision needs to be worked out between the nun and her doctor,” she said.

This is a great rejoinder to The Lancet piece as Sr. Mary Ann Walsh challenges several premises of the article — that the Vatican micromanages nuns’ health care choices or that nuns are forbidden to take the pill. It further raises the question whether the pill is a contraceptive device if it is taken by those living under a vow of celibacy.

I would contrast the ABC story with the treatment by The Economist. That story, entitled “Nuns and contraception: Praying for the Pill,” strikes me as having an adolescent tone. While the Telegraph and Guardian avoided commentary and reported on the facts and ABC provided context, The Economist story seemed un-serious. It is little more than a bilious anti-Catholic rant.

It opens with a discussion of contraception, turns to politics, and opines on whether the church will give nuns the pill.

The Catholic church condemns all forms of contraception, a policy that Paul VI laid out in detail in Humanae Vitae in 1968. Over the subsequent decades it has had various brawls with secular authorities over the use of birth control pills. Most recently, America’s bishops have fought to keep Barack Obama’s health law from providing contraception free. The church has already won an exemption for women who work for a church, but it also wants to keep coverage from women who work for any Catholic institution, even if the women in question are not Catholics and the institution has a secular purpose, such as a school, say, or hospital. Given all this, it would seem unlikely that the church would want to give the Pill to its nuns.

It recounts the arguments of The Lancet story and closes with a smirk.

The Pill can help to counteract [the risks of cancer]. The overall mortality in women who use, or have used, oral contraception, is 12% lower than among those who do not. The effect on ovarian and endometrial cancer is greater: the risk of such cancers plummets by about 50%. Drs Britt and Short make a compelling medical case. But it is unlikely to sway the Church.

What was that about the Vatican not micromanaging the health care of nuns?

Yes, birth-control and the Catholic Church is a controversial issue, and the church should not be above criticism for its views. However, if you are advancing an argument supported by an attitude of condescension towards your target you had better be right. Otherwise you come off the fool — as The Economist appears to have done in this story.

Images courtesy of Shutterstock.

First printed in GetReligion.

Jews as Christ Killers: GetReligion Oct 28, 2011 October 28, 2011

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Judaism, Press criticism, Roman Catholic Church.
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Bishop Richard Williamson of the Society of St Pius X (SSPX) is up to his old tricks and has angered the European Council of Rabbis with his remarks about the Jews’ role in the crucifixion of Jesus. The bishop believes Jews are Christ-killers — and his latest words on the subject come as Pope Benedict XVI begins an inter-faith summit in Assisi. Among his many attributes, I must say Bishop Williamson has great timing.

The Guardian ran a story last week on the Jewish reaction to the bishop’s comments. However, the story had some problems. “Bishop’s blog raises tensions between Jews and the Vatican” misstates church history and makes assumptions about the relationship of Bishop Williamson to the Catholic Church. And like most reporting on Vatican-Jewish relations misses or misunderstands the pope’s outstretched hand to the Jews.

Let’s take a look at the story. It begins with the the author’s interpretation of events, a sentence clarifying who Williamson is, what he believes and what the Catholic Church teaches, is followed by quotes from his latest missive and the ECR’s response.

Relations between Jews and Catholics are under immense strain after a bishop made controversial remarks on his blog.

Richard Williamson, who has previously denied the existence of gas chambers and the murder of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust, accused the Jews of killing Jesus, a charge that divided the two faiths for centuries until Pope Benedict XVI declared this year that Jews could not be held responsible for Jesus’s death.

In his weekly post, Williamson wrote that “the killing of Jesus was truly ‘deicide’ ” and that “only the Jews (leaders and people) were the prime agents of the deicide because it is obvious from the gospels that the gentile most involved, Pontius Pilate, … would never have condemned Jesus to death had not the Jewish leaders roused the Jewish people to clamour for his crucifixion.”

His comments have angered Jewish leaders and Holocaust survivors, who are urging Rome to cease reconciliation talks with the ultra-traditionalist splinter group to which Williamson belongs, the Society of St Pius X. Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt of the European Council of Rabbis said: “We call upon the Catholic church to suspend negotiations with extremist Catholic tendencies until it is clear that these groups show a clear commitment to tackling antisemitism within their ranks.”

Let’s start with the obvious problem and then move back to the deeper issue of identity. The Catholic Church did not stop accusing “the Jews of killing Jesus” in 2010. On 28 Oct 1965 Pope Paul VI promulgated the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate). A product of the Second Vatican Council, Nostra Aetate rejected the charge of deicide leveled against the Jews.

True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. The Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, … [and the Church] decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.

What happened in 2010 was the publication of excerpts from the pope’s latest book, Jesus of Nazareth – Holy Week: From Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, which was published in March of this year. The Daily Mail reported that in his new book Benedict:

confronts the controversial text of St Matthew’s Gospel in which ‘the Jews’ demand the execution of Jesus and shout to the Roman governor Pontius Pilate: ‘Let his blood be on us and on our children.’

The passage has been described as a ‘rallying cry for anti-Semites down the centuries’.

But the Pope said when St Matthew wrote ‘the Jews’ he meant the mob in Pilate’s courtyard and not the Jewish people in general.

As such the crowd was representative of the whole of sinful humanity, he added.

In addition to the factual error, the identification of Richard Williamson in this article I also find problematic. It is possible for a man to be Roman Catholic and a bishop, but also for that same man not to be a Roman Catholic bishop. Richard Williamson is not a Roman Catholic bishop — he is a bishop of the Society of St Piux X, and his consecration as a bishop in 1988 led to his excommunication from the Catholic Church. The way the first sentence is worded implies that Williamson is a Roman Catholic bishop (and the photo caption identifies him as such.)

The SSPX and the Vatican have been engaged in talks to end the split — which is (rather confusingly) not a schism. As blogger Fr John Zuhlsdorf  notes:

In the 1988 Motu Proprio Ecclesia Dei adflicta Pope John Paul used the word “schism“.  It looks like a schism, to be sure.  But officials of the [Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei] have affirmed over the last few years that while Archbishop Lefebvre’s actions in 1988 were schismatic acts, the SSPX did not in fact go into schism.

In 2009 the excommunication was lifted, but Williamson has not been permitted to function as a bishop. His denial of the Holocaust and rejection of Nostra Aetate led the Vatican to state that  “in order to be admitted to episcopal functions within the Church, [Williamson] will have to take his distance, in an absolutely unequivocal and public fashion, from his position on the Shoah, which the Holy Father was not aware of when the excommunication was lifted.”

It is not just the Vatican who is appalled. Williamson’s comments were also published in defiance of his SSPX Superior General, Bishop Bernard Fellay, who not only ordered him to stop making “any public statements on political or historical issues”, but has also denounced his anti-Semitism.

In a limited sense, Williamson is right in saying that Jews are Christ-killers. The catechism states that “All sinners were the authors of Christ’s Passion” (cf CCC 598). However this means that all Jews, all Gentiles — you, me, everyone — is responsible for the crucifixion. But that is not what Williamson is saying and while the Guardian story at its close does note that the Vatican has asked Williamson to recant, the overall tone of the story does not give a true sense of the church’s rejection of this pernicious evil.

Christianity’s relations with Jews and Judaism has been fraught with cruelty, abuse and murder. The Catholic Church should not be singled out on this point, however. Quakers aside, I am hard pressed to think of any Christian body that has not behaved badly. However, the past few decades have seen great strides in Catholic-Jewish relations. Cardinal Ratzinger, as he was then, was and is a consistent and strong voice for rapprochement — when I covered Catholic – Jewish relations in Europe for the Jerusalem Post I heard time and again from members of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and other Jewish leaders of their respect and appreciation for Joseph Ratzinger (and later Benedict XVI).

It is the absence of this underlying element, Joseph Ratzinger’s philo-Semitism, that distorts the reporting on the Vatican’s relations with Jews and Judaism. (That and factual errors.)

First printed in GetReligion.

Holy Cow Batman!, The Guardian on Hinduism: Get Religion Oct 16, 2011 October 17, 2011

Posted by geoconger in Buddhism, Get Religion, Islam, Judaism, Press criticism, Roman Catholic Church.
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After me everybody … “Hindus do not worship cows.”

Repeat please … “Hindus do not worship cows.”

One more time like you really mean it … “Hindus do not worship cows.”

It is the caped crusader’s sidekick who cries “Holy Cow”, not the sadhu.

Hindus venerate cows. There is a difference.

The Observer — the Sunday edition of the Guardian newspaper in London — doesn’t appreciate the distinction. Nor does it appear to be fully on board about a number of religious dietary laws. But it does have an excruciatingly hip article in its lifestyle section entitled “Religion and food: Lord knows, they don’t mix.”

Written in a jocular, off-hand style this article offers the philosophical musings of a food writer on the dietary laws and food customs of some of the world’s major faiths. It is also a silly little piece whose treatment of religion is puerile, offensive and profoundly ignorant of the subjects it seeks to address. I am not complaining mind you. Critics need stories like this. When a quality newspaper like the Guardian is willing to throw a slow pitch down the center of the plate it is churlish of me to complain. Let’s take our place at the plate.

There are lots of good reasons for cutting down on meat; Jesus really isn’t one of them. Not that the Catholic Church would agree. A few weeks ago the UK’s bishops declared that they would be encouraging their congregations to give up flesh on Fridays as a way to “deepen… the spiritual aspects of their lives”. Organised religions have form where this sort of thing is concerned. This summer also saw the publication of Kosher Modern, a cookbook designed to make the stringent dietary rules of observant Jews – no pork, no shellfish, no mixing of milk and meat – an opportunity rather than a constraint. A few years ago, a Welsh Hindu community went to court (unsuccessfully) to save a bull called Shambo, marked down for slaughter because he had tested positive for bovine tuberculosis. Hindus don’t eat beef. They worship the animals. The Muslims don’t eat pork. The Buddhists are vegetarians and the Jains are strict vegans who won’t even touch root vegetables because of the damage it does to the plants.

From this I can reach only one conclusion: God is a seriously picky eater. And yes, I know, the Jains and the Buddhists don’t have an overarching deity per se, but you get the point. The divine is marked by a palate that would shame a three-year-old brought up on crisps and Sunny Delight.

From this point forward in the article the author provides his interpretation of these dietary laws, noting that he is a “head-banging atheist” and consequently a “Very Bad Jew”. I am not concerned with the author’s views on the merits of religion or dietary laws. His sentiment: “Worship however and whatever you wish, but don’t expect me to respect you for it,” is not the subject of this critique. What concerns me are the statements of fact.

Let’s go through these one by one in order of veracity.

“Muslims don’t eat pork.” Yes.

“Jews – no pork, no shellfish, no mixing of milk and meat.” Yes … but.

The author’s interpretation as to why Jews keep kosher: “Because it defines difference. It sets them apart” — would not meet with universal approval amongst all rabbinic scholars.

England’s Catholic “bishops declared that they would be encouraging their congregations to give up flesh on Fridays as a way to “deepen… the spiritual aspects of their lives”.  Yes and no.

Effective 16 Sept 2011, Roman Catholics in England and Wales are to abstain from eating meat on Fridays as an act of penance. Those who do not eat meat normally should abstain from some other food. The bishops stated:

“Every Friday is set aside by the Church as a special day of penance, for it is the day of the death of our Lord” …  the Bishops’ Conference wishes to remind all Catholics in England and Wales of the obligation of Friday Penance. The Bishops have decided to re-establish the practice that this should be fulfilled by abstaining from meat.

The Catholic Church in Britain is going back to meatless Friday’s as a mark of penance. No the bishops are not “encouraging their congregations to give up flesh”, it is an obligation. And they are not to give up “flesh”, but meat.

“Jains are strict vegans.” No.

Jains are “strict” vegetarians but not all Jains are vegans. Vegetarians do not eat meat, fish, or poultry. Vegans, in addition, do not consume animal by-products such as eggs, dairy products,  or honey. Guided by the principle of ahimsa (non-harm) some Jains in the Indian diaspora have adopted a vegan lifestyle out of an ethical concern over Western factory farming practices. Their holy texts do not prohibit the consumption of dairy products and Jains may consume milk, curds and clarified butter (ghee).

“Buddhists are vegetarians.” No.

Not all Buddhists are vegetarians. The Buddha was not a vegetarian, and he did not prohibit eating meat. Some schools of Buddhism interpret his ethical strictures so as to discourage meat eating. Roughly speaking among the two major Buddhist traditions, the Mahayanists are vegetarian and the Theravadins are not. There are exceptions to this dictum. Ceylonese monks of the Theravadin school are often strict Buddhists, whilst amongst Tibetan and Japanese Buddhists of the Mabayanist school vegetarianism is rare.

“Hindus don’t eat beef. They worship the animals.” No.

Taking as my guide, What is Hinduism? published by Hinduism Today:

Hindus don’t worship cows. We respect, honor and adore the cow. By honoring this gentle creature, who gives more than she takes, we honor all creation … Gandhi once said, “One can measure the greatness of a nation and its moral progress by the way it treats its animals. Cow protection to me is not mere protection of the cow. It means protection of all that lives and is helpless and weak in the world. The cow means the entire subhuman world.”

Looking at the box score, 2.5 answers rights, 3.5 answers wrong. This would have prompted a Holy Cow! out of Harry Caray.

I appreciate the audience for this article is the home team Guardian reader. But it does help not to be infantile when posing as l’enfant terrible. When you mock the religious sensibilities of others in a superior tone it helps to know what you are talking about. The Guardian doesn’t.

The Guardian doesn’t get atheism: Get Religion Oct 5, 2011 October 6, 2011

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism.
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`Tweedledum and Tweedledee
Agreed to have a battle;
For Tweedledum said Tweedledee
Had spoiled his nice new rattle.

Just then flew down a monstrous crow,
As black as a tar-barrel;
Which frightened both the heroes so,
They quite forgot their quarrel.’

`I know what you’re thinking about,’ said Tweedledum: `but it isn’t so, nohow.’

`Contrariwise,’ continued Tweedledee, `if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.’

`I was thinking,’ Alice said very politely, `which is the best way out of this wood: it’s getting so dark. Would you tell me, please?’

But the little men only looked at each other and grinned.

They looked so exactly like a couple of great schoolboys, that Alice couldn’t help pointing her finger at Tweedledum, and saying `First Boy!’

`Nohow!’ Tweedledum cried out briskly, and shut his mouth up again with a snap.

`Next Boy!’ said Alice, passing on to Tweedledee, though she felt quite certain he would only shout out “Contrariwise!’ and so he did.

Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871) by Lewis Carroll

Good atheism journalism is as rare as good religion journalism. Assumptions about what an atheist believes more often than not are couched in terms of what he does not believe, turning it into a game of Tweedledee and Tweedledum with the theist and atheist in turn shouting ‘contrariwise’. The varieties of atheistic thought are so wide it makes as little sense for a reporter to say ‘atheists think … ’ as it does to say ‘Muslims think … ’ or ‘Christians think …’.

In recent years there has been an upsurge of interest in atheistic writing and a ready market for the works of biologist Richard Dawkins, critic Christopher Hitchens, and philosophers Daniel Dennett, A.C. Grayling, Sam Harris, Thomas Nagel and Michel Onfray. However, there is no one atheistic worldview for within this genre there are incompatible viewpoints, arguments and varieties of tone.

Guy Kahane has observed that the arc of atheism encompasses those who do not believe in God, but runs from those who regret his absence to those who posit his absence is necessary for a moral world. Polemicists like Harris and Hitchens do not want God to exist and see religion as a force of evil while Thomas Nagel argues we should not want God to exist. ”  I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

At the other end of the arc are those who want God to exist, even though he does not. In his 2008 memoir the English writer Julian Barnes  observed: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.” God does not exist for Barnes, but he feels his absence — a sentiment forcefully expressed by a character in Samuel Beckett’s play “Endgame” who stated:  “God doesn’t exist — the bastard.”

Theodore Dalrymple in an essay entitled “What the new Atheists Don’t See” in City Journal argued: “To regret religion is to regret Western civilization.” In his critique of those new atheists who see in religion the cause of all evil in the world, Dalrymple (an atheist) noted that “If religious belief is not synonymous with good behavior, neither is absence of belief, to put it mildly.”

In fact, one can write the history of anything as a chronicle of crime and folly. Science and technology spoil everything: without trains and IG Farben, no Auschwitz; without transistor radios and mass-produced machetes, no Rwandan genocide. First you decide what you hate, and then you gather evidence for its hatefulness. Since man is a fallen creature (I use the term metaphorically rather than in its religious sense), there is always much to find.

This brings me to a recent article by the Guardian entitled “Rising atheism in America puts ‘religious right on the defensive’.” In this rather silly advocacy piece the Guardian manages to play into its stereotypes. In his report on an atheists conference in New England, the Guardian’s U.S. reporter offers a one-sided view of American politics and religion and offers statistics to substantiate the editorial voice: atheism is good, its triumph inevitable, and one day the American masses will come round to the Guardian’s way of thinking.

The story begins with the setting of the scene and then moves into assumptions, opinions and facts that gathers evidence for its conclusion.

At the meeting, members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) will hear speakers celebrate successes they have had in removing religion from US public life and see awards being presented to noted secularist activists.

The US is increasingly portrayed as a hotbed of religious fervour. Yet in the homeland of ostentatiously religious politicians such as Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, agnostics and atheists are actually part of one of the fastest-growing demographics in the US: the godless. Far from being in thrall to its religious leaders, the US is in fact becoming a more secular country, some experts say. “It has never been better to be a free-thinker or an agnostic in America,” says Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the FFRF.

The exact number of faithless is unclear. One study by the Pew Research Centre puts them at about 12% of the population, but another by the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College in Hartford puts that figure at around 20%.

Most experts agree that the number of secular Americans has probably doubled in the past three decades – growing especially fast among the young. It is thought to be the fastest-growing major “religious” demographic in the country.

Anecdotal evidence is offered to support the claims of fast growing atheism: Sunday shopping, low church attendance on Super Bowl Sunday, and so forth. The story then turns to politics.

Yet there is little doubt that religious groups still wield enormous influence in US politics and public life, especially through the rightwing of the Republican party. Groups such as Focus on the Family are well-funded and skilful lobbyists.

[An expert cited in the story] said the attention paid by politicians and the media to religious groups was not necessarily a sign of strength. “When religion was doing well, it did not need to go into politics. Secularity of our population and culture is obviously growing and so religion is on the defensive,” he said. … Others think that one day it will become politically mainstream to confess to a lack of faith as US political life lags behind the society that it represents. “Politicians have not yet caught up with the changing demographics of our society,” said Gaylor.

My concerns with this story are not with the viewpoints offered by FFRF. It is with the uncritical assumptions and observations made by the Guardian. “Survey said” may work for a game show but it doesn’t cut it in serious reporting especially when there are other surveys that report opposite findings. In a 2008 story in the Washington Times, Julia Duin reported on a Baylor University survey that came to the opposite conclusion of the Trinity College study.

Baylor researchers also criticized a much-ballyhooed “new atheism” as a barely discernible trend, saying the number of Americans who are atheists has stayed at 4 percent since 1944.

Why? Atheism is a “godless revolution that never happened,” the survey said, adding that irreligion often is not effectively transmitted to children who, when they reach adulthood, often join conservative religious denominations.

An American Spectator story offered the argument earlier this year that atheism is collapsing as a worldwide phenomena. It cited a 2010 Gallup poll that reported 43 per cent of Americans said they attended church at least monthly. In 1937 this figure was 37 per cent, rising to 49 per cent in the 1950s and settling at 42 per cent in 1969, where it has remained constant for the past four decades.

The question whether atheism is the “fastest-growing major ‘religious’ demographic” or a “barely discernible trend” in American religious life is not settled, nor is it the issue I am raising in this critique. An opinion or news analysis piece may argue that one view is superior to another. It is a mistake for a news story to write as if the issues were settled.

Nor is it helpful to leave the discussion of atheism as that of a purely “anti-” phenomenon. This story gives us the ‘who’ and the ‘where’, but assumes we know ‘why’ — why does the FFRF believe religion should be driven from the public square? What are their moral or metaphysical views? What sort of atheists are they? Leaving it this way paints the group as a gathering of village atheists. Atheists are not cranks, yet the Guardian’s portrayal leaves this impression of monomania

The bottom line: This article about atheism would have been improved by detailing what atheists believe and why they believe (or not-believe). The statements of fact offered by the subject should have been challenged or checked, and more than one expert point of view should be offered — especially when the issue is in dispute. While the tone and editorial voice of the story is sympathetic to the atheists’ agenda, the omissions, assumptions and biases served to make the atheist view appear unserious —a contrarian Tweedledee to the theist’s Tweedledum.

There was an opportunity to treat this phenomena seriously, but instead you have what you see.

First printed in GetReligion.

Acceptable prejudices: The Guardian and Catholic bashing September 16, 2011

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Roman Catholic Church.
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Crain’s New York Business reports the Guardian has set up shop in the US and is open for business. In a piece entitled “The British are coming: Guardian hits U.S.”, CNYB notes the British daily’s website “had more than 10 million unique visitors in the U.S. in August.” The head of the US operation, Janine Gibson, states their aim is “combine the Guardian’s internationalist, digital journalism with American voices and expertise.”

I am one of those 10 million visitors from the US and a daily reader of the newspaper’s website. At the outset of this post I should say I have been a freelance contributor to the Guardian and am a friend and reader of the paper’s religion reporter Riazat Butt.

While I do not share the Guardian’s pacifist, socialist, sandal-wearing, diversity worshiping, vegetarian, tree-hugging, anti-American weird-beard liberalism, I admire some of its writers. Stephen Bates, the paper’s former religion reporter, who prepares the Diary column is one of the best working journalists writing today. He is one of the few British reporters who “get religion” and “get” its place within the intellectual and cultural life of the United States, and whose work is always worth reading.

The Guardian’s stable includes a number of superior writers, but at times the newspaper lends itself to parody, mouthing the biases of the chattering classes. Take a look at “Bishop of Derry calls for end to celibacy in Catholic church” from its Ireland reporter.

The story is rather straight forward.  The former Bishop of Derry Edward Daly has published his memoirs: A Troubled See, Memoirs of a Derry Bishop. Daly, who came to prominence on Bloody Sunday in 1972 when he was photographed waiving a white handkerchief as he escorted a wounded man to safety after troops opened fire on demonstrators, offered his views on several issues facing the Roman Catholic Church.  The Irish Times reported Bishop Daly was not enamored with the Latin Mass, finding it “lifeless and somewhat meaningless” and believed the church should reform the way it selected its bishops, stating “the virtual absence of pastorally experienced clergy in positions of authority in the Irish church” helped inhibit renewal promised by Vatican II..41

And, the Irish Times reported he also had a word to say about celibacy.

I ask myself, more and more, why celibacy should be the great sacred and unyielding arbiter, the paradigm of diocesan priesthood? … (There) is certainly an important and enduring place for celibate priesthood. But I believe that there should also be a place in the modern Catholic Church for a married priesthood and for men who do not wish to commit themselves to celibacy.

So that’s the story. Retired bishop with colorful past questions mandatory celibacy. Let’s see what the Guardian team elects to do with this.

It opens with a flourish.

On Bloody Sunday in 1972 Father Edward Daly faced down the Parachute Regiment responsible for shooting dead 13 unarmed Derry civilians, waving just a white handkerchief as he protected the wounded from the army’s bullets in the Bogside. Now 39 years later the retired Bishop of Derry is confronting an even more powerful force than the Paras: the Vatican.

Dr. Daly, who was the Bishop of Derry for 20 years during the Troubles, has become the first senior Irish Catholic cleric to call for an end to celibacy in the church. His intervention in the debate over whether priests should be allowed to marry is highly significant because he is still one of the most respected figures in the Irish Catholic church at a time when faith in the institution has been shattered by the paedophile scandals involving clergy.

Challenging centuries of Catholic theocracy, Daly has said that allowing the clergy to marry would solve some of the church’s problems.

Crusading hero priest v. the evil Vatican curia, in other words. How’s that for telegraphing your point of view. Is the bishop really calling for an end to celibacy? All priests must marry? Of course not. He is calling for an end to compulsory celibacy.

Is he the first? Of course not. Off the top of my head I can recall the furore caused by the Bishop of Ferns, Brendan Comiskey, in 1995 when he called for a debate on compulsory celibacy. And there was Bishop Willie Walsh of Killaloe — but Killaloe is in the back of beyond in Co. Clare so it may not count. I will grant that Bishop Daly would have been the first to call for an “end to celibacy.” But since he did not actually say that, I don’t believe it is a point theGuardian might want to press. And it is nice to see the paedophile angle worked in. Can’t have a Roman Catholic story without the perverts can we.

And what should we make of the use of the word “theocracy”? A theocracy is a church run state like the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan government in exile or Muslim countries where Sharia law controls civil law or the Vatican City State.

So, is the Guardian suggesting that Ireland is priest-ridden island under the wicked rule of the Whore of Babylon? I’m prone to flashbacks, (the colors, the colors) and these opening paragraphs took me in my mind to Ibrox Stadium in Glasgow for a Rangers – Celtics football (soccer) game. The subtlety of this article comes close to that of a Rangers fan in full roar.

The 1200-word piece, long for a British news story, lays out what the bishop wrote in his book and shares anecdotes from his life. When the article turns back to history, offering context for the bishop’s views, we find more problems.

Catholic priests have been unable to marry since the Gregorian reforms in the 11th century made celibacy compulsory. Historians have contended that the move was partly for spiritual reasons, but was mainly to ensure estates held by clerics would pass back to the church upon their deaths rather than to offspring.

Which historians say this? What about the Catholic version which teaches that the Church’s obligation of celibacy goes back to the apostles in an ‘unbroken’ line. And that the motivation for celibacy was the closer following of Jesus Christ, who required his apostles to leave wife and family, to become “eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom”.

While attempting to pile on further, the Guardian fumbles the ball. Take these passages on Anglicans going to Rome.

However, in recent years Pope Benedict XVI has made allowances for married Anglican ministers to transfer to the Catholic church after a number made the move in protest at controversial Anglican issues including the ordination of women priests, and acceptance of ministers in same-sex relationships. …

The other development has been the welcoming into the Catholic church of traditionalist Anglicans, unable to reconcile their faith with the ordination of women or the consecration of openly gay bishops. Their incorporation has been made easier since October 2009 when Benedict issued a controversial ordinance allowing them to retain much of their identity, liturgy and pastoral arrangements.

Anglican clergy who have entered the Catholic Church and have sought to be re-ordained as Catholic priests (a move introduced by John Paul II in 1980) may have been horrified by Anglican events of recent years, but they became Catholics because they believed the truth claims of the Catholic Church. Gay bishops and blessings, women clergy and inclusive language liturgies may well have sharpened the mind, but the Catholic Church is not a girl picked up on the rebound from a bad break up. The Guardian may well think the Roman option was a knee jerk response to the innovations of recent times, but I doubt any of those who crossed the Tiber would make this claim (or if Rome would have re-ordained them if this was their motivation.)

But I digress. Back to the story. Try these samples:

The debate over whether to admit married men to the priesthood, however, is one not even the pope can stifle.

Stifle? How? When? Come on.

..the continuing sex abuse scandal. .. The first senior figure to argue the case for a link between an unmarried priesthood and sex abuse was the bishop of Hamburg, Hans-Jochen Jaschke, who in March 2010 told a newspaper interviewer a “celibate lifestyle can attract people who have an abnormal sexuality”.

Is there a link between the “celibate lifestyle” and clergy sexual abuse? If so, show us. How about a contrary view articulated in a study commissioned by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops that linked child sexual abuse by Catholic priests in the ’60s and ’70s to the feminist movement, a ‘singles culture’ and divorce. It may strain the credulity of the typical Guardian reader to think the virtues celebrated by the newspaper are vices, but it should have received a nod none the less.

And let us not forget to take a gratuitous shot at the pope.

In 1970, the decline in priesthood vocations persuaded nine leading theologians to sign a memorandum declaring that the Catholic leadership “quite simply has a responsibility to take up certain modifications” to the celibacy rule. Extracts from the document were reprinted in January. Not least because one of the signatories was the then Joseph Ratzinger, now pope Benedict.

Is Benedict a hypocrite? What is unsaid is that according to the Süddeutsche Zeitung in 1970 Karl Rahner, Walter Kasper, Karl Lehman, Joseph Ratzinger along with five other theologians wrote to the German Bishops’ Conference asking that the requirement that all priests in the Latin Church to be celibate should be reconsidered in the light of  the “new historical and social conditions” unfolding in Europe and North America. The full text of the document has not been released and has not been verified. However, from what has so far been printed the nine asked that the question be discussed, which is different from calling for it to be rejected.

Coming soon after the charge the Pope was stifling debate, the lack of balance in this charge of papal mendacity is troublesome and to my mind speaks to the failings of this article, and the difference between good and bad journalism.

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.” I make the same claim for work of journalists whom I admire. 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 here—in challenging the orthodoxies of left and right—that one can find the best Guardian reporting.

Does this article meet this standard? No. It is riddled with errors, condescending towards it subject, and is entirely predictable.

That unfashionable poet, Edna St Vincent Millay, wrote in her “Dirge Without Music:

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

A journalist who takes his craft seriously, who is not resigned to the world around him, who writes with moral purpose (but without moralizing) prepares stories that are a joy to read. This article is not one of those stories.

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