Church & State

Remember James Davison Hunter and 'Culture Wars'? Pete Buttigieg fits right into that picture

Remember James Davison Hunter and 'Culture Wars'? Pete Buttigieg fits right into that picture

A long, long time ago — the 10th anniversary of my national “On Religion column” — I wrote a tribute to the trailblazing work of sociologist James Davison Hunter of the University of Virginia. How long ago was that? Well, today is the 31st anniversary of my first syndicated column hitting the wires.

Hunter is best known as the author of “Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America.” This book, more than any other, has influenced my work as a religion-beat columnist.

The words “culture wars” are used all the time by people who clearly have never read Hunter’s book. His thesis is that the old doctrinal, horizontal, denomination divisions in American life have been replaced by a vertical fault line that is much more basic, cutting into almost all religious pews and pulpits.

Hang in there with me. I am working my way to the rapid emergence of South Bend (Ind.) Mayor Pete Buttigieg as a White House candidate, in part because of his ability to unite Democrats on the religious and non-religious left. I wrote about that the other day (“Who says journalists hate religion? USA Today welcomes liberal Christian faith of Pete Buttigieg“) and “Crossroads” host Todd Wilken and I returned to that topic in this week’s podcast. (Click here to tune that in or head over to iTunes and sign up.)

But back to Hunter and the religious schism in modern America’s foundation:

The old dividing lines centered on issues such as the person of Jesus Christ, church tradition and the Protestant Reformation. But these new interfaith coalitions were fighting about something even more basic — the nature of truth and moral authority.

Two years later, Hunter began writing "Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America," in which he declared that America now contains two basic world views, which he called "orthodox" and "progressive." The orthodox believe it's possible to follow transcendent, revealed truths. Progressives disagree and put their trust in personal experience, even if that requires them to "resymbolize historic faiths according to the prevailing assumptions of contemporary life."

So, what was the big quote from Buttigieg that sent a Barack-Obama-style thrill up the legs of legions of journalists and inspired waves of news coverage?

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New on the 2020 political agenda: Will a gay mayor (finally) rally the religious left?

New on the 2020 political agenda: Will a gay mayor (finally) rally the religious left?

Our January 31 Guy Memo ho-hummed National Public Radio’s latest example  of perennial wishful thinking in U.S. media about a substantial religious left (still lower-case) emerging to counter America’s familiar Religious Right (upper-case for years now). However, the Memo observed that, “President Trump remains unusually vulnerable to resistance on religious and moral grounds,” so journalists were advised to be “alert for surprises.”

Surprise! South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg has since soared from obscurity. And his substantive interview for a March 29 Washington Post  article by Sarah Pulliam Bailey raises the prospect that the  religious left could achieve new impact by rallying behind his persona. Such a 2020 scenario could replicate 1980, when triumphant Ronald Reagan boosted the early Religious Right -- and vice versa.

Pundits quickly reinforced the Buttigieg religion angle, including Father Edward Beck on CNNKirsten Powers  in USA Today,  Andrew Sullivan of New York magazine and The Atlantic’s Emma Green.

Buttigieg has never run statewide and is merely the mayor of Indiana’s fourth-largest city (South Bend of Notre Dame fame). But the Harvard alum,  a boyish 37, has already been a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, businessman and Navy intelligence officer serving in Afghanistan. His golden tongue in rallies and TV appearances is inspiring early success.

The mayor could aid Democratic designs in the Big Ten states that are likely to (again) determine whether Donald Trump wins. The amiable Midwesterner ranks third behind East Coasters Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders in Emerson’s latest Iowa poll and well outpaces Amy Klobuchar from neighboring Minnesota. Focus on Rural America’s polling of Democrats who plan to attend the Iowa caucus puts him at 6 percent, tied with Klobuchar and another fresh face, “Beto” O’Rourke.

Journalists take note: Buttigieg is a religiously significant figure who underwent a spiritual turn at a Catholic high school and at Oxford. He became a devoted and articulate Episcopalian, came out in 2015, and married his gay partner in church last year.  That, and his social-gospel outlook, mesh with leaders and thinkers in “mainline” Protestantism’s liberal wing, alongside Catholics of similar mind.

Among Buttigieg’s numerous religious comments in the opening phase of his campaign, the most remarkable came April 7 before a packed LGBTQ Victory Fund rally. He admitted that as a youth “I would have done anything to not be gay,” said his same-sex marriage ‘has moved me closer to God,” and challenged “the Mike Pences of the world” with this: “If you’ve got a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me. Your quarrel, sir, is with my Creator.” (Notably, some media lower-cased his C.) 

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Peter Boyer in Esquire: Thinking about Trump, advocacy journalism, religion and stick-on labels

Peter Boyer in Esquire: Thinking about Trump, advocacy journalism, religion and stick-on labels

The news media vs. Donald Trump.

Donald Trump vs. the mainstream news media.

Who will win in this epic life and death steel-cage wrestling match?

Well, you can argue that the media has already lost this battle, in that Trump now resides in the White House.

One could also argue that Trump has successfully rewritten the rules of public discourse in a way that has forced journalists to abandon many of their most important standards linked to fairness, objectivity and even accuracy. The more journalists veer into a Trump-style screaming match, the more they fit into the stereotypes that The Donald has created for them.

This brings us to an important Esquire piece written by magazine-pro Peter Boyer. If you know this work — including his years at The New Yorker — you know that he has a reputation as a reporter with an uncanny knack for covering both sides of tense, angry arguments. (See this classic New Yorker piece on Mel Gibson and The Passion of the Christ.)

So what does this Esquire piece have to do with religion-beat reporting? Read the following and think of former New York Times editor Bill Keller and his statement that the Times was attempting to do balanced, accuracy coverage of the news, “other than” many topics linked to culture, morality and religion.

So the scene opens with Boyer interviewing Trump:

… Amid those passing controversies was one story that Trump himself remembers clearly still. “Yep, very famous story,” he remarked to me in a recent interview. “It was a very important story...” Trump was referring to a front-page New York Times article published on August 8, 2016, under the headline "The Challenge Trump Poses to Objectivity." The opening paragraph posed a provocative question:

“If you’re a working journalist and you believe that Donald J. Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation’s worst racist and nationalistic tendencies, that he cozies up to anti-American dictators and that he would be dangerous with control of the United States nuclear codes, how the heck are you supposed to cover him?”

There is more, of course:

Reporters who considered Trump “potentially dangerous,” [Jim] Rutenberg wrote, would inevitably move closer “to being oppositional” to him in their reporting — “by normal standards, untenable.” Normal standards, the column made clear, no longer applied.

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Want to read a great religious freedom story? In The New York Times? (Wait for it ... )

Want to read a great religious freedom story? In The New York Times? (Wait for it ... )

Want to read a great story about religious freedom and freedom of conscience?

Want to read a great story about this topic — religious liberty, not “religious liberty” — in The New York Times?

Well, that’s what this post is about. Here’s the headline: “She Wears a Head Scarf. Is Quebec Derailing Her Career?

How did this story happen?

Well, for starters, it’s about a religious liberty linked to the life and beliefs of a Muslim woman. It’s not a story about white evangelical Protestant cake bakers in USA flyover country or traditional Catholics wrestling with liberal Catholics on some issue of marriage and sexuality.

In other words, this is a religious liberty case that — in terms of readers — pulls together the old left-right First Amendment coalition that existed several decades ago, when you could pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in the U.S. Senate and only three people would oppose it. It’s the kind of case that brings American religious conservatives together with liberal activists, attempting to — oh — protect the rights of Muslims in U.S. prisons.

It also helps that this drama is set in Canada and the bad guys are “right-leaning.” In other words, zero Donald Trump-era implications. Here is the overture:

MONTREAL — Maha Kassef, 35, an ambitious elementary schoolteacher, aspires to become a principal. But since she wears a Muslim head scarf, she may have to derail her dreams: A proposed bill in Quebec would bar public school principals, and other public employees, from wearing religious symbols.

“How am I supposed to teach about respect, tolerance and diversity to my students, many of whom are immigrant kids, when the government is asking me to give up who I am?” asked Ms. Kassef, the child of Kuwaiti immigrant parents who worked tirelessly to send her and her four siblings to college.

“What right does the Quebec government have to stop my career?” she added.

Religious minorities in Quebec are reeling after the right-leaning government of François Legault proposed the law last week. It would prohibit not just teachers, but other public sector workers in positions of authority, including lawyers and police officers, from wearing religious symbols while working.

What’s the point here? The Times explains that this proposed law is advocating the brand of radical secularism and church-state separation that has its roots in France.

In other words, we are not talking about a First Amendment debate.

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How many times is too many to mention 'Jesus' in a prayer? That's the controversial question in Pa.

How many times is too many to mention 'Jesus' in a prayer? That's the controversial question in Pa.

A Pennsylvania lawmaker is drawing fire for a prayer in which she referenced controversial figures, including Jesus, God and Donald Trump.

In fact, she mentioned “Jesus” 13 times and “God” six times in less than two minutes, noted a critic who tweeted about the “offensive” nature of the legislative prayer.

Here’s how The Associated Press summarized the fuss in a national news story:

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A freshman Republican’s opening prayer Monday in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives drew complaints that it was inappropriately divisive.

Rep. Stephanie Borowicz began the day’s session with a Christian invocation that thanked Jesus for the honor and President Donald Trump for standing “behind Israel unequivocally.”

“At the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue will confess, Jesus, that you are Lord,” said Borowicz, elected in November to represent a Clinton County district.

Her remarks also brought up George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.

A quick aside: Since we’re counting words, AP uses “remarks” three times to describe what Borowicz said in the prayer. Given that she was praying (read: talking to God) and not making a floor speech (although I guess that’s open to interpretation), I wonder if there’s a better term AP could have used in the story.

But back to the main point: Was the prayer divisive? Or did the lawmaker simply pray — as she claims — like she always does?

Courtesy of the Friendly Atheist blog, which transcribed the prayer, here is exactly what she said:

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When the Southern Poverty Law Center implodes, why is no one surprised?

When the Southern Poverty Law Center implodes, why is no one surprised?

I’ve been complaining about the Southern Poverty Law Center for a long time and how it makes all the wrong moves in eviscerating conservative and often mainstream evangelical targets in the name of ferreting out hate. Only when it turned its focus on a British Muslim and got his story horribly wrong — resulting in a lawsuit filed against them by the aggrieved Brit — was it obvious to lots of media people that the SPLC was seriously off base.

With the recent dismissal of its co-founder Morris Dees, followed by the resignation of its president, Richard Cohen, various media, almost all of them on the left side of politics, have been piling onto the SPLC with cartloads of venom.

You’d think it was them who’d been tarred with the hate brush. But it wasn’t.

As religious liberty specialist David French, a Harvard Law man, reminds us at National Review:

For those who cared about truth, the SPLC’s transformation from a valuable anti-Klan watchdog into a glorified version of Media Matters for America was plain and obvious. It steadily expanded its definition of “hate groups” to include mainstream Christian organizations such as my former employer, the Alliance Defending Freedom, and it labeled as “extremists” men such as American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray.

These decisions had serious real-world consequences. Corporations and employers cut off relationships with groups and individuals targeted by the SPLC, and violent people used SPLC designations to justify attempted murder and assault. Remember the man who tried to commit mass murder at the Family Research Council? He found his target through the SPLC’s list of alleged “anti-gay groups.” Remember when an angry mob attacked Murray at Middlebury College and injured a professor? Because of the SPLC, those protesters thought they were attacking a “white nationalist.”

Recent articles that go after the SPLC include this lengthy read in the New Yorker. The critique majors on the organizations less-than-diverse racial make-up, its finesse as a “marketing tool for bilking gullible Northern liberals” and its place as a “highly profitable scam.”

Although there’s very little about this mess that is directly about religion, there is an emphasis on morality or at least morality that got lost along the way. Part of the problem was the incessant appeals to blue-state America to contribute money so the SPLC could kill off the bogeyman of the Religious Right, along with racism.

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USA Today: So 100-plus Tennessee clergy oppose 'anti-gay' bills. How newsworthy is that?

USA Today: So 100-plus Tennessee clergy oppose 'anti-gay' bills. How newsworthy is that?

I realize that I told the following Colorado war story last year.

But I’m going to share it again, because it perfectly describes one of the concerns that a journalist/reader raised in an email the other day about a USA Today story that ran with this sweeping headline: “Clergy in Tennessee take a stand against slate of anti-LGBT legislation.”

Focus on the word’s “Clergy in Tennessee.” The lede then describes this group as 100-plus “religious leaders.” Hold that thought, because we will come back to it.

OK, the setting for this mid-1980s war story is a press conference called by the Colorado Council of Churches, announcing its latest progressive pronouncement on this or that social issue. Here’s that flashback:

If you look at the current membership of this Colorado group, it's pretty much the same as it was then — with one big exception. Back then, the CCC was made up of the usual suspects, in terms of liberal Protestantism, but the Catholic Archdiocese of Denver was cooperating in many ways (although, if I remember correctly, without covenant/membership ties). …

So at this press conference, all of the religious leaders made their statements and most talked about diversity, stressing that they represented a wide range of churches.

In the question-and-answer session, I asked what I thought was a relevant question. I asked if — other than the Catholic archdiocese — any of them represented flocks that had more members in the 1980s than they did in the '60s or '70s. In other words, did they represent groups with a growing presence in the state (like the Assemblies of God, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)?

In other words, I asked (a) what percentage of the state’s clergy were actually involved in the religious bodies that had, allegedly, endorsed this political statement and (b) whether the churches involved were, statistically speaking, still the dominant pew-level powers in that rapidly changing state. Note: Colorado Springs was already beginning to emerge as a national headquarters for evangelicals.

I thought that I was asking a basic journalism question, in terms of assessing to potential impact of this CCC statement. I will, however, admit that I was questioning the accuracy of the group’s “diversity” claims.

This brings us to the current USA Today story here in Tennessee. Here is the lede:

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Big trend piece to consider: Could the Catholic church in New York file for bankruptcy?

Big trend piece to consider: Could the Catholic church in New York file for bankruptcy?

The 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning (and Tony Award-winning) play Doubt: A Parable is a fictional account that pits a progressive priest against a conservative nun. The plot involves allegations of sex abuse and a nun’s belief that he has engaged in some improper behavior after summoning the boy alone to the rectory. With no actual proof that Father Brendan Flynn is guilty of any crime, the priest’s fate is sealed and the audience is left with its own doubt about what may or may not have happened.

It was Mark Twain who famously said, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” In the case of the Catholic church these days, the takeaway from Doubt is something that can also be applied to the case of Australian Cardinal George Pell and New York’s recently-passed Child Victims Act. How are the two related? It’s something that could very well become a major story starting this summer.

Let’s start with Pell. As Julia Duin noted in this space, Pell was convicted in an Australian courtroom on charges he sexually abused two male altar boys about 20 years ago when he was archbishop of Melbourne on several occasions following Sunday Mass.

Pell’s lawyers argued their client had been surrounded by other clergy after Mass and that the sexual acts he’s accused of performing would have been impossible considering the complex layers of liturgical vestments he would have been wearing. Guilty verdict aside, the case was made even crazier when in December the judge issued a gag order — a blanket ban that said details of the trial could not be published — out of concern it could influence the jury in a second trial awaiting Pell. It was largely ignored, especially by news organizations outside Australia.

Whether Pell was found guilty because of anti-Catholic bias is one theory, but the overall takeaway here — editors and reporters take note — is that this case may serve as a bellwether of more to come.

Even in New York? In January, the New York state legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, when not busy passing a law making it easier for abortions to take place in the third trimester, signed the Child Victims Act.

Under the new law, victims who survived sex abuse will be able to file civil lawsuits against abusers and institutions until they are 55 years old. The current law permits victims to sue until they are 23. The sticking point — and one the Catholic church had been fighting against for years — is a “look-back window” for victims who were previously prohibited by the statute of limitations to sue during a one-year period. This is where the Pell issue and “recovering memories” (which sometimes can trigger false memories) comes into play.

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