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Miscues in news on gay blessings and marriage from London: GetReligion, February 18, 2014 April 11, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Church of England, Get Religion, Press criticism.
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The Valentine’s Day statement from the House of Bishops of the Church of England on gay marriage has fluttered the Anglican dovecots.

The story received A1 treatment from the British press and it spawned commentaries and opinion pieces in the major outlets. The second day stories reported some activists were “appalled” by the news whilst others were over the moon with delight — but being British their joy did not rise to continental expressions of euphoria.

The story continues to move through the media and on Sunday the BBC had one bishop tell the Sunday Programme that clergy who violated the Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriage protocol might be brought up on charges — and could well be sacked.

So what did the bishops do? A scan of the first day stories reports that they either said “no to gay marriage but yes to gay civil unions” or “no to gay marriage and no to blessing gay unions.” The first day reports were evenly divided between the “no/yes” and “no/no” schools.

The Independent interpreted the document as no/yes.  The lede  in its story entitled “Gay marriage: Church of England to offer prayers after weddings but no same-sex marriage for vicar” stated:

Gay couples will be able to have special prayers following their weddings but members of the clergy are banned from entering same-sex marriages when these become legal next month.

The Church of England issued its new pastoral guidance following a meeting of the House of Bishops to discuss the issue on Friday. Despite condemning “irrational fear of homosexuals” and saying all were “loved by God”, the document sent a clear signal separating the Church’s concept of marriage and the new legal definition. …

Civil partnerships will still be performed and vicars have been warned that married couples must be welcomed to worship and not subject to “questioning” or discrimination. Same-sex couples may ask for special prayers after being married but it will not be a service of blessing.

The Telegraph also took the no/yes line. The lede to its story entitled “Church offers prayers after same-sex weddings — but bans gay priests from marrying” stated:

Gay couples who get married will be able to ask for special prayers in the Church of England after their wedding, the bishops have agreed. But priests who are themselves in same-sex relationships or even civil partnerships will be banned from getting married when it becomes legally possible next month.

Compare this to the dispatch from Reuters which took a no/no line. Its lede stated:

Church of England priests will not be allowed to bless gay and lesbian weddings, or marry someone of the same sex themselves, according to new guidelines issued by the church, which is struggling to heal divides over homosexuality.

Why the disparate interpretations? Was this a case of the Church of England speaking out of both sides of its mouth at the same time? Offering an ambiguous statement that allows individuals to read into it what they are predisposed to find?

Perhaps. One should never underestimate the skill of the Sir Humphrey Appleby’s at Church House in churning out drivel. But in this case I believe the reporters’ suppositions as to the meaning of phrases drove their interpretations. The problem was not imprecise language from the bishops but a lack of understanding of technical language from reporters.

Here are the pertinent paragraphs:

19. As noted above, same sex weddings in church will not be possible. As with civil partnership, some same sex couples are, however, likely to seek some recognition of their new situation in the context of an act of worship.

20.   The 2005 pastoral statement said that it would not be right to produce an authorized public liturgy in connection with the registering of civil partnerships and that clergy should not provide services of blessing for those who registered civil partnerships. The House did not wish, however,  to interfere with the clergy’s pastoral discretion about when more informal kind of prayer, at the request of the couple, might be appropriate in the light of the circumstances.   The College made clear on 27 January that, just as the Church of England’s doctrine of marriage remains the same, so its pastoral and liturgical practice also remains unchanged.

21.  The same approach as commended in the 2005 statement should therefore apply to couples who enter same-sex marriage, on the assumption that any prayer will be accompanied by pastoral discussion of the church’s teaching and their reasons for departing from it. Services of blessing should not be provided. Clergy should respond pastorally and sensitively in other ways.

Paragraph 19 restates there will be no same-sex church weddings, but notes that some same-sex couples might seek to have their unions prayed for, or over, by the clergy. The bishops are not giving their permission to do so, but are stating what they acknowledge to be the “facts on the ground” in some parishes.

Paragraph 20 notes the current practice is to permit “informal” prayers offered at the discretion of the priest that are appropriate to the circumstances, while paragraph 21 states no blessings of same-sex unions will be permitted.

However, clergy are permitted to offer prayers. What exactly is a prayer in this situation? A blessing? No. A mark of approbation or thanksgiving by the church? Not according to the document. The bishops have left this crucial bit undefined, save in the negative — saying what it is not.

The emphasis missing from the Telegraph and Independent stories is that in the context of these private informal prayers, the priest is to reiterate to the same-sex couple the church’s teaching on sexuality and ask they “their reasons for departing from it.”

The assumption made by the Telegraph and Independent is that a prayer for a same-sex couple must be, by its very nature, a prayer of affirmation. That is not stated in the document, and the reference to existing teachings would make affirmation of a gay union difficult at the very least — if the priest were to honor the bishops’ guidance.

There is ambiguity here — I can’t let the bishops off that lightly — as a clergyman who will be asked to give informal private prayers by a gay couple will most likely to be known to them and would offer prayers of affirmation. He is not forbidden to do that, but must also tag on the party line as their union is not one the church believes is in line with God’s plan for mankind, is contrary to Scripture and to right reason.

Is this then a failure of the press to Get Religion? To one degree yes — Reuters and other newspaper picked up the no/no line that the Telegraph and Independentmissed. But at the same time the bishops were not as clear as they could have been.

The bigger journalism issue is not the insiders’ Anglican game — but the difficulty in communicating to the wider world the symbols and code language of religious institutions. These sorts of miscue and missteps happen all the time in reporting on the Vatican — and the farther a faith moves from the comfort and knowledge zone of reporters the more apt we are to see the gaps. The answer, of course, is to use specialist reporters to write on these topics. Which I’m afraid is not likely to happen in the near future.

First printed in GetReligion.

Francis the homophile: Get Religion, January 3, 2014 January 6, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Human Sexuality --- The gay issue, Press criticism, Roman Catholic Church.
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With but a few exceptions, the “Francis is nicer than Benedict” meme continues to entrance the Anglophone press.

It appears that many who were once hostile to the Catholic Church have been encouraged to see in the new pontiff a reflection of their own social and political desires. Some of these assertions about what the pope believes and what he will do as head of the Catholic Church have bordered on the fantastic.

In choosing the pope as its “person of the year”, Time magazine’s editor Nancy Gibb wrote Francis had:

done something remarkable: he has not changed the words, but he’s changed the music.

The new pope was a kinder, gentler man, Time believed, who had rejected “church dogma.” He was teaching a softer, more inclusive Catholicism, noting his:

focus on compassion, along with a general aura of merriment not always associated with princes of the church, has made Francis something of a rock star.

This is rather mild compared to some liberal paeans to the pontiff. The Guardian‘s Jonathan Freedland quipped “Francis could replace Obama as the pin-up on every liberal and leftist wall.”

When the gay-lifestyle magazine, The Advocate, named Francis its “person of the year”, it explained its choice by stating:

Pope Francis’s stark change in rhetoric from his two predecessors — both who were at one time or another among The Advocate‘s annual Phobie Awards — makes what he’s done in 2013 all the more daring. First there’s Pope John Paul II, who gay rights activists protested during a highly publicized visit to the United States in 1987 because of what had become known as the “Rat Letter” — an unprecedented damning of homosexuality as “intrinsically evil.” It was written by one of his cardinals, Joseph Ratzinger, who went on to become Pope Benedict XVI. Since 1978, one of those two men had commanded the influence of the Vatican — until this year. …

The Advocate saw in Francis the potential for change in church teaching.

Francis’s view on how the Catholic Church should approach LGBT people was best explained in his own words during an in-depth interview with America magazine in September. He recalled, “A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person.”

While these stories have focused on Francis in the context of feature or “people” stories, the meme has also made its way into straight news reporting. A story in Saturday’s  Independent illustrates the Francis effect on reporters. “Pope Francis tripled crowds at Vatican during 2013″  should have been a straightforward story. It begins with:

Pope Francis attracted over 6.6 million viewers to his audiences, Masses and other events in Vatican City in 2013. Since being elected for the position in March, the first Jesuit Pope attracted almost triple the number of visitors that gathered to watch former Pope Benedict XVI speak at Vatican City in the whole of 2012.

The story shifts as it then notes Francis had been named by Time and The Advocate as their “person of the year” with a quote used as a segue to what it sees as the pope’s contradictory statements on homosexuality.

However, his track-record as a champion for gay rights in the Catholic Church was marred after he apparently expressed “shock” at gay adoption in December 2013. The Bishop of Malta alleged that Pope Francis gave him his blessing to “speak out” against the Maltese Civil Unions Bill that aims to legalise gay adoption, in his Christmas Sermon.

The first half of the story prompts me to ask, so what? What does the rise in visitors to St Peter’s Square mean? Is this a gauge for something, if so what? What happened to the number of visitors to St Peter’s when Benedict became pope? Why is this news, and not a “fun fact”?

Should we assume, as The Independent does, that the changing tone on homosexuality has prompted a rise in the number of visitors to the Vatican? The Independent may think this to be the case, but from where does the evidence or authority for this assertion arise?

The second half of the story is bizarre. The Independent assumes Francis is a “champion for gay rights”. What does that mean? Is he pushing for a change in doctrine or discipline? When did this happen?  Or has The Independent confused style with substance?

The two parts to this piece, short as it is, do not hang together as a news story. There is no context, no balance, no sourcing to this piece. Though presented as a news story, it is an editorial making the argument that the church should get with the times and ditch its old fashioned teachings on human sexuality — “See how the people flock to Francis because he is a champion of gay rights!”

Should any news story make the assumptions The Independent makes about Pope Francis? Not if they want to practice quality journalism. It has confused fantasy with reality.

First printed in Get Religion.

The Independent asks why report when you can reprint PR?: Get Religion, December 19, 2013 January 5, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism.
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How do you respond to a smear? If you are the Independent you respond with a smear of your own, it seems.

The London-based daily has picked up a story from the web and without doing any investigation of its own, has concluded that what it reads on the internet is true. One would hope that they would know better than that. Or, might this be a British example of the Dan Rather school of journalism — a story that is so good that even though it is false,  it should be true.

The left leaning newspaper published an article this week entitled “UK evangelist says Tom Daley ‘is gay because his father died’”. (Tom Daley is a British sportsman who recently announced he was bi-sexual.) Reporters are seldom responsible for the headlines placed atop their stories, but this title does set the tone for the journalistic errors that follow.

An evangelist is different from an evangelical.  The subject of this story, Andrea Minichiello Williams, is an attorney by trade — not a cleric or lay preacher — and the founder of Christian Concern, a conservative Christian evangelical advocacy group. Confusing evangelist and evangelical is a common error, but it presages the troubles that are to come.

The lede states:

The head of a British evangelical Christian lobby group has angered gay rights campaigners by urging Jamaica to keep same-sex intercourse illegal and reportedly suggesting  that Tom Daley is in a relationship with a man because his father died. To the dismay of mainstream church leaders Andrea Minichiello Williams, the founder of Christian Concern, spoke at conference in Jamaica to lobby against the repeal of the Caribbean island’s controversial law banning gay sex.

Let us unpack this. Mrs. Williams, is the head of evangelical group (not an evangelist), who “apparently” urged Jamaicans not to change their country’s sodomy laws.  Her words have led to “dismay”, not in Jamaica, but among gay activists — no surprise there — and “mainstream church leaders”, e.g., more than one and not just activists on the margins.  We need to wait and see who these “mainstream” leaders are, but cognoscenti of Anglican affairs will see an allusion here. One of the chief conservative evangelical lobbying groups is “Anglican Mainstream.” Is the Independent being clever? Are they suggesting a rift within the conservative wing of the church?

The editorial voice of this article is that it is somehow beyond the pale to oppose the reform of sodomy laws. While this may be the received wisdom in the offices of the Independent, the world does not march to that tune. From this month’s ruling by the Indian Supreme Court that there is no constitutional right to gay sex, to Judge Antonin Scalia’s dissents in Bowers v Hardwick and Lawrence v Texas, there is an intellectually respectable body of opinion that disagrees with the innovations endorsed by the Independent.

This is not to say the Independent must raise the objections to its thinking each time it goes off on this issue, but a degree of self-awareness on the part of the newspaper would prevent it from making the silly errors found in this story.

After laying out the controversy, the article then goes on to quote Mrs. Williams. But the quotes are followed by the caveat that they have been taken from BuzzFeed. They are further hedged about with phrases such as “reportedly illustrated” and “she is said to have added …”.

The Independent provides a hyperlink to the BuzzFeed story, but cites no other sources. It does include a quote from Christian Concern saying Mrs. Williams was “unavailable due to a private matter.”

The story then moves to commentary and provides a “mainstream” critic, the Bishop of Chichester, the Rt. Rev. Martin Warner. Perhaps bishops count as multiple sources? What the Independent implied the bishop said is at odds, however, with the statement released by the bishop. It wrote:

Yesterday Martin Warner, the Bishop of Chichester, where Mrs Williams was elected to the General Synod in 2011, condemned the comments.

He told the Independent that they had “no sanction in the Church of England” and that they “should be rejected as offensive and unacceptable”.

Bishop Warner did not condemn Mrs. Williams or her comments — he condemned incitement to homophobia. He said:

The comments by Andrea Minichiello Williams about the decriminalisation of same sex intercourse in Jamaica have no sanction in the Church of England or the diocese of Chichester.  Insofar as such comments incite homophobia, they should be rejected as offensive and unacceptable.

The Christian Church is widely perceived as homophobic and intolerant of those for whom same sex attraction is the foundation of their emotional lives.  It is urgent, therefore, that Christians find legitimate ways to affirm and demonstrate the conviction that the glory of God is innate in every human being, and the mercy of God embraces each of us indiscriminately.

Note the use of the word “insofar” — The Independent is shading the bishop’s words here. It has either misconstrued what was said, or cherry picked phrases  from the statement to support its editorial voice.

We see this shading of facts in the use of comments. Quotes condemning what the Independent concedes are alleged statements made by Mrs. Williams are offered, but there is no voice offered in support for retaining Jamaica’s sodomy laws. As most of the article is taken from the press release of a gay lobbying group the lack of balance is understandable — why do the hard work of reporting when someone else hands you a press release you can reprint?

Now to forestall comments from the perpetually outraged, this post is not about the rights or wrongs of Jamaican sodomy laws. It is about journalism. And as journalism this article stinks. What we have is a re-written press release passed off as original reporting. The Independent will not stand behind the quotes it says might have been said by Mrs. Williams, but is happy to reprint the comments attacking her.

And when a quote is not sufficiently rigorous for its tastes, it improves it by omitting key phrases that put the words in their context. This story is an embarrassment to the craft of journalism.

N.b., should you be of a mind to debate the issues or go deeper into this story, blogger Peter Ould has done the investigative reporting that the Independent could not be bother to do.

First printed in Get Religion.

The masterpiece of Satan: Get Religion, March 1, 2012 March 2, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism, Roman Catholic Church.
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Ad fontes — to the sources — is a helpful phrase to keep in mind when reading press reports about church leaders. It is always useful to set what is reported to have been said by the pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury and other leading clerics against the text of their address. Sometimes the two do not agree.

The Daily Mail this week had a story about a speech given by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, that was sort of true. The reporter’s interpretation of what the archbishop said missed the nuances of Dr. Williams’ objections to gay marriage. As British commentator Peter Ould noted, the “over my dead body” tone ascribed to Dr. Williams by the Daily Mail didn’t quite match the archbishop’s argument that gay marriage was not an “intrinsic human right.”

This is nuance, (and I should say that understanding Rowan Williams is like learning Hungarian — a very difficult skill that few people have mastered and one that doesn’t reward the student for his labors).

And then there is error. By error I mean the sort of report produced last Friday by the Independent on Pope Benedict XVI. (The same story by the same author also appeared in the Belfast Telegraph and the print edition of the Irish Independent.)

Blogger Amy Welborn drew my attention to this 24 February 2012 story datelined Milan entitled “Pope warns Church to resist temptations of power after moves to canonise Don Luigi Giussani.”

It begins:

Pope Benedict XVI has warned the Catholic Church to resist temptations of power, even as it emerged that ecclesiastical figures in Milan had moved to canonise Don Luigi Giussani, the founder of the Vatican’s controversial political campaigning wing.

It then moves into a one paragraph summary of the pope’s Ash Wednesday audience.

The Pontiff told his weekly audience on Ash Wednesday this week that the Church was faced with temptations of power just as Jesus was in the desert. “Jesus found himself exposed to danger and faced with the temptation of the evil one who offered him a Messianism far afield from God’s plan, through success and power and dominion,” he said, adding that the same was faced “by the Church and us believers”.

The article drops the pope in paragraph three and moves the scene north to Milan. It reports that unnamed critics are concerned about moves “to make a saint of Don Giussani,” a priest and scholar whose “teachings gave rise to Communion and Liberation”, which the article describes as an “ultra-conservative, lay organisation” that has pursued a “right-wing social agenda on topics including stem cell research and assisted dying.”

It would have helped had the Independent mentioned Mgr. Guissani’s first name was Luigi. Don is an honorific that is almost always followed by the first name, not the surname, but I digress. More commentary and a quote follow:

Moderate catholic groups have opposed its aims and methods. But Pope John Paul II backed the organisation’s political campaigning. And its current, central position in Italian society was underlined last year when a key Communion and Liberation figure, Cardinal Angelo Scola, became the Archbishop of Milan.

As archbishop, Cardinal Scola, who had been a close friend of Don Giussani until his death in 2005 aged 82, received the official Communion and Liberation request to begin the beatification and canonisation processes.

“It shouldn’t be a surprise: the Vatican has always been about power,” said James Walston, a politics professor at the American University in Rome. “But if Don Giussani’s the sort of person they’re going to be canonising, then Heaven help us.”

The article then goes off on a different tangent, dropping the Communion and Liberation angle but moving farther away from the Ash Wednesday homily.

Another prominent Church figure – the Milan priest, tycoon and hospital director Don Luigi Verzè, who died last year – was accused of being too close to the rich and powerful as result of close friendships with Silvio Berlusconi and disgraced former Italian prime minister Bettino Craxi.

He left a €1.5 billion black hole in the accounts of Milan’s San Raffaele teaching hospital and faced allegations of fraud.

In her note to GetReligion, Ms Welborn stated that the author appeared to have a “lot of time on his hands” to be able to connect the Pope’s Ash Wednesday Homily to the “first steps in the movement in the canonization cause” of Mgr. Giussani.

She also observed that “power is used to connect these first two stories with “some random rich guy priest in Milan who seems to have no connection to any of this.”

Is Ms. Welborn being fair? I think she is being too kind. This article is, as she notes, “bizarre”. But it is also tendentious, sloppy, one-sided, and logically challenged.

What we have are three stories that concern Italy and Roman Catholics that have been cobbled together by the Independent under the theme of power (or the abuse thereof). Now a talented writer possesses the stylistic legerdemain to tie just about any story together — this reporter does not have this skill.

Looking at the official English language text of the pope’s Ash Wednesday weekly audience, I did not find the quotes cited in the Independent article. The power passage does appears in the Italian version. A partial English language translation came in a 22 February 2012 bulletin from the ANSI news agency. As the Independent story was written from Milan the day after the English-language ANSI story was published, I assume ANSI was the source.

Remember — ad fontes. The ANSI summary does not do justice to what the pope said. His homily was not about power but conversion of life.

In these forty days may we draw nearer to the Lord by meditating on his word and example, and conquer the desert of our spiritual aridity, selfishness and materialism.

The Independent assumes the audience for the pope’s warning against the pursuit of power was the Vatican. However, if you read the homily you find the intended audience are Christians believers — the “pilgrim church” (Chiesa in cammino), not the institutional church. The issue of power was one of a number of minor chords played by the pope. Nor did I find the English equivalent of the phrase quoted by ANSI, faced “by the church and us believers.”

I was also struck by the reporter’s apparent unfamiliarity with the pope’s book “Jesus of Nazareth“. The best seller (2.5 million copies as of 2008) discusses the temptation narrative in detail and the Ash Wednesday homily is thematically tied to the book.

Moving to the second story within this story, the comments about Communion and Liberation (CL) are a bit much. The Independent states Pope John Paul II backed CL’s political campaigning. When did he do this? And when did CL engage in political campaigning. Facts that support these allegations are needed to justify the story’s claims.

Pushing Cardinal Scola into this story is also questionable. While the cardinal was involved in CL some 20 years ago, his membership ended when he became a bishop. Was CL responsible for his appointment as Archbishop of Milan? If so, say so and show how.

What is the Independent alleging when it mentions that Scola received the request to being the process of canonization of Mgr. Guissani? Is this a hint of an old boys network at work? Why did the Independent omit the statement that as a priest of the Archdiocese of Milan Mgr. Guissani’s case for canonization must first go to the Archbishop of Milan — Cardinal Scola?

The third story within this story is even more bizarre. How does the flamboyant Fr. Verzè relate to CL or the pope? The Independent‘s story about his death makes no mention of any these links but focuses on the priest’s ties to disgraced former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. A further aside — the Independent should widen its expert list, the same professor who offered caustic comments about Mgr. Giuissani in this article is the go to guy in the Independent‘s Verzè story.

So what do we have here. Distorted quotes. No voice appearing in support of Mgr. Giussani or CL. No explanation of the homily. No links between Fr. Verzè and the first two items. Plenty of opinion, but little reporting.

Why did this happen? Did a sub-editor cram three stories into one and slice out the balancing voices and background? Did no one not know any better. Is the Independent‘s reporter a knave or a fool? Or is there more to it?

Anti-Catholicism has a long and respectable history in Britain. Theology, great power rivalries, nationalism, anti-Irish animus have all played their part in its first five hundred years. The last half of the Twentieth century saw the rise of a new variety — an English anti-clericalism expressed by the chattering classes in disdain for the established church and a loathing for the Church of Rome.

Now this is a very broad statement that I concede is simplistic. But placing the question of the fell hand of a poor editor to one side, I am hard pressed to find an explanation for this story. Knave, fool, something more? Does this meet the test of good reporting?

What say you GetReligion readers?

N.b. The title … Charles Spurgeon said “The masterpiece of Satan is popery;” while Cardinal Manning said “The Catholic Church is either the masterpiece of Satan or the Kingdom of the Son of God.”

First published at GetReligion.

Seinfeld Nation: Get Religion, January 28, 2012 January 28, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Popular Culture, Press criticism.
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The front page of Wednesday’s Independent is devoted to a story that chronicles the collapse of public and private morality in Britain.

The story entitled “Britain facing boom in dishonesty …”  reports that according to a study by the University of Essex, the British are:

becoming less honest and their trust in government and business leaders has fallen to a new low amid fears that the nation is heading for an “integrity crisis”.

Lying, having an affair, driving while drunk, having underage sex and buying stolen goods are all more acceptable than they were a decade ago. But people are less tolerant of benefits fraud.

The Independent summarizes the results of a study carried out by the University of Essex’s Centre for the Study of Integrity and suggests the “integrity problem” will get worse as the young are more tolerant of dishonesty than the old.

The article cites statistics illustrating the decline in trust in government and in falling moral standards and concludes with a warning from the study’s author that this collapse in civic and private virtue will have political consequences. The study’s author stated:

integrity levels mattered because there was a link between them and a sense of civic duty. If integrity continues to decline, he thinks it will be difficult to mobilise volunteers to support David Cameron’s Big Society project.”If social capital is low, and people are suspicious and don’t work together, those communities have worse health, worse educational performance, they are less happy and they are less economically developed and entrepreneurial,” Professor Whiteley said. “It really does have a profound effect.”

The Independent put some effort into this story — front page coverage, man in the street interviews, trumpeting the story as an exclusive and advance look. Overall, they do a pretty good job — well written, thoughtful interviews and comments, strong insight into the consequences of the findings.

But … no mention of religion or faith in this story. It may well have been the Essex study did not include religion as one of the strands of civic virtue, but even so that would have been worth a mention. The reader is confronted with the assumption that religion is irrelevant to morality.

I would contrast this story with the prime minister’s recent speech on virtue.  Remember when Tony Blair’s press secretary famously said “We don’t do God”, even though Mr Blair was known to be a believer. Nine years later the current prime minister, David Cameron — whose public utterances about his personal faith have been less rigorous than Mr. Blair — did not find himself similarly constrained.

At celebrations marking the 400th anniversary of the printing of the King James Bible, Mr Cameron affirmed the centrality of the Christian faith in forming a tolerant civic society. Tolerance was not a product of secularism, he argued.

Moral neutrality or passive tolerance just isn’t going to cut it anymore. … Put simply, for too long we have been unwilling to distinguish right from wrong. ‘Live and let live’ has too often become ‘do what you please’. Bad choices have too often been defended as just different lifestyles.”

These social observations flow naturally from a speech marking the KJV, the prime minister said, because:

The Bible is a book that has not just shaped our country, but shaped the world. And with three Bibles sold or given away every second… a book that is not just important in understanding our past, but which will continue to have a profound impact in shaping our collective future.”

The Bible permeates “every aspect” British culture, language, literature, music, art, politics, rights, constitutional monarchy, parliamentary democracy and welfare provisions, Mr. Cameron said, adding that:

We are a Christian country. And we should not be afraid to say so.

While he was not addressing the crisis of public and private morality in Britain, writing in the Wall Street Journal on 21 January 2012, Charles Murphy described a similar disease afflicting America. In his article “The New American Divide”

Over the past 50 years, that common civic culture has unraveled. We have developed a new upper class with advanced educations, often obtained at elite schools, sharing tastes and preferences that set them apart from mainstream America. At the same time, we have developed a new lower class, characterized not by poverty but by withdrawal from America’s core cultural institutions.

For Murray, religion is a component of the common civic culture and its decline a mark of the collapse of civic virtue.

Whatever your personal religious views, you need to realize that about half of American philanthropy, volunteering and associational memberships is directly church-related, and that religious Americans also account for much more nonreligious social capital than their secular neighbors. In that context, it is worrisome for the culture that the U.S. as a whole has become markedly more secular since 1960, and especially worrisome that [working class] Fishtown has become much more secular than [bourgeois] Belmont. It runs against the prevailing narrative of secular elites versus a working class still clinging to religion, but the evidence from the General Social Survey, the most widely used database on American attitudes and values, does not leave much room for argument.

The bottom line … the Independent article presents a classic example of a religion ghost in a secular news story. The topic under review — public and private morality — is inherently connected with religion, yet no word about religion appears in the story.

Should the Independent have noted the absence of religion in the public morality report? Is religious belief intrinsic to morality? Can the two be separated? Given Prime Minister David Cameron’s widely publicized December speech about Christian Britain — how could the Independent not touch upon religion in its report on collapsing public and private morals.

Or, have we reach the point where Britain become a Seinfeld nation? Where it is no longer news that the majority can now affirm with George Costanza. “Jerry … It’s not a lie, if you believe it.”

First published in GetReligion.