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Haunting words: What did Jeffrey Epstein mean when he used the term 'spiritual stimulation'?

Haunting words: What did Jeffrey Epstein mean when he used the term 'spiritual stimulation'?

I have followed the acidic soap operas (timeline here) surrounding Jeffrey Epstein for more than a decade. That may sound strange, but there’s a logical reason — I lived in West Palm Beach from 2001-2005 and taught at Palm Beach Atlantic University, right next to the mini-towers of Trump Plaza.

Yes, that was a long time ago, back when Donald Trump was embracing his good buddies Bill and Hillary Clinton and acting like a rather mainstream Democrat, in terms of moral and social issues. And it was impossible to read the news in the Sixth Borough of New York without bumping into the kingdom of Trump. That included, from time to time, the people being courted — socially speaking — by Epstein and Co.

Life behind the scenes? That, of course, is where everyone who cares about the details of this sordid affair has to dig into the essential “Perversion of Justice” series by Julie Brown of The Miami Herald. Download it into an iPad program of some kind, because you’ll have to read it in painful chunks.

So why bring this up here at GetReligion? To be blunt: I am waiting for some kind of religion shoe to drop, some angle linked to twisted religion or anti-religious convictions. In my experience, great evil almost always involves twisted religion or blunt, demonic rejection of what is good, beautiful and true.

In one recent story, I was struck by an Epstein statement — when he was a young prep-school teacher — that mentioned his use of “spiritual” activities with his students. Hold that thought.

Meanwhile, everyone is waiting to see the long lists of people who socialized with Epstein, did “business” with him or both. Some of those names — such as Bill Clinton and Donald Trump — are already known.

Will the list contain hypocrites as well as libertines? Of course it will. We live in a sinful and fallen world.

A new Vanity Fair piece on this scandal notes that it’s hard to talk about the mysteries of Epstein’s fortune without getting into the moral dynamics inside his entourage and clients:

In the absence of much other information, the reigning theory on Wall Street currently is that Epstein’s activities with women and girls were central to the building of his fortune, and his relations with some of his investors essentially amounted to blackmail.

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Happy July 4th! Now for an update on Tennesseans arguing about 'online' ministers

Happy July 4th! Now for an update on Tennesseans arguing about 'online' ministers

Happy July 4th, everybody. This is certainly a day to celebrate the various forms of freedom that Americans cherish — including some that are pretty confusing, when push comes to shove.

I am thinking, in particular, about the First Amendment and the edgy legal battle that is unfolding here in Tennessee about the state’s ability to enforce a law setting some standards about who is an ordained minister and who is not. If you want to catch up on press coverage of this battle, click here for my first post and then here for the podcast discussing this topic: “This is not funny: Does the state have the right to call some faiths 'real' and others 'fakes'?

It’s time for an update, since the status of click-that-mouse ministers with the Universal Life Church ended up in front of a federal judge yesterday. The Nashville Tennessean team produced a story for Gannett newspapers — which now dominate the volunteer state — that ran with this headline: “Judge questions 'rational basis' of state law blocking ministers ordained online from performing marriages.

The bottom line: Gannett is covering this case as a battle about LGBTQ rights, since many same-sex couples choose nontraditional ministers to perform their marriage rites. There is little or no evidence that pros at The Tennessean realize that this case will pivot on the U.S. government’s attempts — think Internal Revenue Service — to establish some guidelines to help officials determine when religious institutions exist primarily for the purpose of profit or fraud. Here’s the overture:

A federal judge on Wednesday repeatedly pressed state lawyers to explain a "rational basis" for a new Tennessee law that bans ministers ordained online from performing marriages — and he didn't seem to get an answer that satisfied him.

Chief District Judge Waverly Crenshaw said a lawsuit challenging the law raised "serious constitutional issues" that should be considered at trial by the end of the year. Until then, Crenshaw said, ministers ordained online could continue to perform legal marriages.

The Universal Life Church Monastery, a ministry that ordains ministers online, sued Tennessee over the law last month, saying it violated religious protections of the First Amendment among other things.

Yes, there certainly are “serious constitutional issues” at stake here. I think any serious church-state activist — left or right — would agree with that statement and with the judge’s decision that fights over this Tennessee law deserve a serious day in court.

So what are Tennessee lawmaker’s worried about? We will get to that.

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Bombshell Washington Post report details alleged lavish spending by former Catholic bishop of W.Va.

Bombshell Washington Post report details alleged lavish spending by former Catholic bishop of W.Va.

“Bishop spent millions on self.”

That’s the crisp, concise way that the front page of today’s Washington Post boils down the newspaper’s bombshell report on the former Catholic bishop of West Virginia.

As The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher put it in a blog post titled “Bishop Bransfield’s Lush Live,” the Post “has the goods” on the bishop, who resigned last fall.

Yes, indeed.

Here’s a big chunk of the top of the story by religion writer Michelle Boorstein and two investigative reporting colleagues, Shawn Boburg and Robert O’Harrow Jr.:

In the years before he was ousted for alleged sexual harassment and financial abuses, the leader of the Catholic Church in West Virginia gave cash gifts totaling $350,000 to fellow clergymen, including young priests he is accused of mistreating and more than a dozen cardinals in the United States and at the Vatican, according to church records obtained by The Washington Post.

Bishop Michael J. Bransfield wrote the checks from his personal account over more than a decade, and the West Virginia diocese reimbursed him by boosting his compensation to cover the value of the gifts, the records show. As a tax-exempt nonprofit, the diocese must use its money only for charitable purposes.

The gifts — one as large as $15,000 — were detailed in a draft of a confidential report to the Vatican about the alleged misconduct that led to Bransfield’s resignation in September. The names of 11 powerful clerics who received checks were edited out of the final report at the request of the archbishop overseeing the investigation, William Lori of Baltimore.

Lori’s name was among those cut. He received a total of $10,500, records show.

The Post obtained both versions of the report, along with emails and financial records.

On Wednesday, in response to inquiries from The Post, Lori said he is returning money he received from Bransfield and is asking that it be donated to Catholic Charities “in light of what I have come to learn of Bishop Bransfield’s handling of diocesan finances.”

Lori acknowledged that the names of senior clerics were cut from the final report. “Including them could inadvertently and/or unfairly suggest that in receiving gifts for anniversaries or holidays there were expectations for reciprocity,” he wrote. “No evidence was found to suggest this.”

The full story is a whole lot to digest. I’m still attempting to do so. Let’s just say that the Post did its homework on this one. The result is strong, strong journalism.

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New York Times scribe has big problem with 'New South' -- it's full of backward church people

New York Times scribe has big problem with 'New South' -- it's full of backward church people

To be honest, I had shoved the Ginia Bellafante feature at The New York Times — “Abortion and the Future of the New South” — so far back into the “think piece” folder of guilt that I almost forgot that this “Big City” masterpiece still existed.

In this case, the term “masterpiece” is defined as a piece of first-person journalism that has to be in the running as one of the greatest summary statements of Gray Lady-speak ever put on paper.

I mean, Rod “Benedict Option” Dreher — a former Brooklyn resident — had already produced this truly fab summary statement of what’s going on here. Before we get to the latest response to the Bellafante opus — at Scalawag, hold that thought — let’s let Dreher kick off this thinker-fest:

I’m so sorry. Really, just very sorry. Here entitled Yankees like the NYT’s Ginia Bellafante thought the American South existed to give Millennial Brooklynites a place to reproduce Park Slope, but more affordably, and now we’ve gone and ruined it for them with our deplorable social and religious views.

Ah, right. All that icky religious stuff. That really messes things up for “Tess” and other relocated New Yorkers. Here is the essential Times-talk overture:

Tess wanted her own kingdom, and New York — forbidding, impossible — wasn’t going to let her build it. The start-up costs for the baking and catering business she envisioned were going to be too high; the rent on her apartment in Bed-Stuy was increasing. When she moved in it was $1,800 a month; just a few years later, it was approaching $3,400.

This young woman was a citizen of the New South now. Her business, Tess Kitchen, was thriving. Her New Orleans apartment, at $1,900 a month, had three bathrooms.

I called Tess on the day that the Louisiana House Health and Welfare Committee backed legislation to prohibit abortions once a fetal heartbeat was detected. This came 24 hours after Alabama passed the most restrictive abortion law in the country, one that does not allow exceptions for rape or incest. That followed the passage of another restrictive abortion law in Georgia.

Living in a very liberal city in a very conservative state is a trick mirror. “You really forget that you are in the Deep South here,’’ she said.

Need more? It’s all about the word “backward,” you see. You see the people who are, to New York-raised reformers, still yearning for the “Old South” are still fighting the Civil War.

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USA Today tries to explain why many Catholics are hitting the exits, but finds only one reason

USA Today tries to explain why many Catholics are hitting the exits, but finds only one reason

What are you supposed to think when you pick up the newspaper in your driveway and see a headline that proclaims, “Catholic Church In Crisis”?

I don’t know about you, but this question immediately jumps into my mind: OK, so which Catholic crisis are we talking about?

Thus, when I started reading the massive USA Today feature (which ran on A1 in several Gannett newspapers in Tennessee, of course) on this subject, I assumed that the “crisis” in question was the ongoing clergy sexual abuse scandal. However, I wanted to see (a) if this feature would accurately note how long this scandal has lasted and (b) whether it would place the sexual-abuse crisis in the context of several other major problems in the American church (and the Western world in general). Also, if the USA Today team connected sexual abuse to any other issues, what would those issues be?

Right up front, readers learn that the “crisis” is people leaving the Catholicism or seriously thinking about doing so. That’s interesting and a valid way to approach the current state of things.

After a stack on anecdotes about people nearing the exits, there is this thesis statement:

The Catholic Church in the U.S. is at a crossroads. As millions of devout followers filled the pews this Easter season to celebrate the religion’s most important holiday, others hovered at the door, hungry for community and spiritual guidance but furious at the church’s handling of the decades-long sex abuse crisis that’s resulted in young children being raped and abused by priests who were often protected by their superiors.

Seven months after a damning grand jury report in Pennsylvania revealed that 1,000 children had been abused at the hands of more than 300 priests, and as state attorneys general across the nation investigate the church, a Gallup poll published in March found that 37% of U.S. Catholics are considering leaving the church because of the sex abuse crisis and the church’s handling of it. That’s up significantly from 2002, when just 22% of Catholics said they were contemplating leaving their religion after The Boston Globe published an explosive series that initially exposed the abuse and subsequent cover-up.

So, let it be known that the true crisis is clergy sexual abuse and that alone and that this scandal was “initially exposed” by the Globe in the massive “Spotlight” reports in 2002.

Let’s see — that’s wrong and wrong.

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Why rebuilding Notre Dame Cathedral could cost billions and take over a decade

Why rebuilding Notre Dame Cathedral could cost billions and take over a decade

The catastrophic Holy Week fire that ravaged Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris completely destroyed the roof and center spire, although the famous facade of the centuries-old gothic house of worship was spared and remains intact, as did the lower part of the church.

As investigators continue to sift through the damage — which includes three massive holes in its vaulted ceiling — in an effort to pinpoint the cause of the inferno, French officials and architects are working to determine how much money and time it will take to restore Notre Dame to its previous glory.

“We have so much to rebuild,” French President Emmanual Macron said Tuesday in a televised speech from Paris. “We will rebuild Notre Dame Cathedral even more beautifully. We can do it, and once again, we will mobilize.”

French officials confirmed, a day after the blaze, that the stone walls of the cathedral are structurally sound. Macron vowed that the landmark church, a symbol of Paris and Roman Catholicism for the past 800 years, will be rebuilt. State officials will enact an ambitious timetable of just five years to get the project completed.

The investigation into the cause of the blaze remains under investigation. Despite a spate of vandalism at French churches over the past few months, authorities do not believe this latest incident to be arson.

How long will it take to rebuild?

French officials said an international effort would be needed to pay for the reconstruction. Although Macron said rebuilding would be completed by 2024 (with one estimate saying it could cost $8 billion), some experts said the cathedral’s full renovation could take up to 15 years.

In terms of money raised, the billionaire Pinault family has pledged $113 million, as did the French energy company Total and cosmetics giant L’Oreal. The family of Bernard Arnault, who own luxury goods group LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, has planned to donate $225 million. Donations are coming in from all over the world, including $100,000 from Notre Dame University.

It’s worth noting that the cathedral was not insured.

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This may be a tough question: Does Rupert Murdoch have a soul? Does this question matter?

This may be a tough question: Does Rupert Murdoch have a soul? Does this question matter?

Every semester, in my Journalism Foundations seminar at The King’s College in New York City, I dedicate a night to the role that Stephen Colbert’s Catholic faith has played in his life and career.

It’s important, of course, to spend some time looking at the humorist’s break-out show — The Colbert Report, on Comedy Central. This show was, of course, a satire focusing on the flamethrower commentary of Bill O’Reilly for Fox News work.

With Colbert, every thing on the show was upside-down and inside-out, with his blowhard conservative character making lots of liberal political points by offering over-the-top takes on some — repeat “some” — conservative stances. I argued that to understand what Colbert was doing, you had to understand O’Reilly and then turn that inside out.

Thus, I asked: What kind of conservative is, or was, O’Reilly? Students always say things like, a “right-wing one?” A “stupid one”? An “ultra-conservative one”? I’ve never had a student give the accurate answer — a Libertarian conservative.

I realize that there have been lively debates about the compatibility of Libertarianism and Catholicism. However, it’s safe to say that most Catholics reject a blend of liberal, or radically individualistic, social policies and conservative economics. Turn that inside out and you have what? Conservative morality and progressive economics?

This brings me to the massive New York Times Magazine deep-dive into the life and career of Rupert Murdoch. Here’s the humble headline on this long, long piece (150 interviews, readers are told) by Jonathan Mahler and Jim Rutenberg: “How Rupert Murdoch’s Empire of Influence Remade the World.”

So the question: What kind of conservative is Murdoch? Is it possible that there is some kind of moral or even religious ghost in this story?

It opens with a rather apocalyptic scene in January, 2018. The 86-year-old press baron — on holiday with his fourth wife, Jerry Hall — has collapsed on the floor of his cabin on a yacht owned by one of his sons. Is this the end? The big question, of course, is, “Who will run the empire after the lord and master is gone?”

So here’s what’s at stake:

Few private citizens have ever been more central to the state of world affairs than the man lying in that hospital bed, awaiting his children’s arrival.

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Fish sandwiches equal Lent: Maybe there's a religion hook in this meatless burger trend?

Fish sandwiches equal Lent: Maybe there's a religion hook in this meatless burger trend?

First, a confession: Which is a good thing during Great Lent.

I totally admit that the following headline caught my eye because, as Eastern Orthodox folks, my family is currently in the middle of the great pre-Pascha (Easter in the West) in which we strive to fast from meat and dairy. It’s a season in which the Orthodox have been known to debate the merits of various tofu brands and ponder the miracle that is apple butter.

Every now and then, people like me end up traveling — which means looking for Lenten options in the rushed, fallen world of fast food. Thus, you can understand why I noticed this headline in the business section of The New York Times: “Behold the Beefless ‘Impossible Whopper’.” Here’s the overture:

OAKLAND, Calif. — Would you like that Whopper with or without beef?

This week, Burger King is introducing a version of its iconic Whopper sandwich filled with a vegetarian patty from the start-up Impossible Foods. The Impossible Whopper, as it will be known, is the biggest validation — and expansion opportunity — for a young industry that is looking to mimic and replace meat with plant-based alternatives.

Impossible Foods and its competitors in Silicon Valley have already had some mainstream success. The vegetarian burger made by Beyond Meat has been available at over a thousand Carl’s Jr. restaurants since January and the company is now moving toward an initial public offering.

As I dug into this story, I had this thought: I realize that there is a religion angle here for strange people like me. But would the Times team include any kind of reference to the other religion angles linked to lots of other people who avoid beef?

Obviously, there are millions of Hindus in America and many of them avoid beef, for religious reasons. Then there are Buddhists who are vegetarians or vegans. Among Christian flocks, many Seventh-day Adventists strive to be vegetarians.

Then there is the Lent thing. Is there a religion angle to several fast-food empires — even Chick-fil-A, for heaven’s sake — emphasizing fish sandwiches during this Christian penitential season? #DUH

So I wasn’t looking for lots of religion-beat style content in this story. But maybe a paragraph noting the increasingly complex religious landscape in the American food marketplace?

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Question as reporters look ahead: How many United Methodists are there? Are all created equal?

Question as reporters look ahead: How many United Methodists are there? Are all created equal?

Anyone who has worked on the religion beat a year or two knows that it is wise for journalists to read church membership totals with one eyebrow raised high. The professionals who work in religious institutions certainly know that membership statistics are estimates, at best.

As we always used to say when I was growing up Southern Baptist; There are towns in Texas where there are more Baptists than there are people.

But there’s no way around it — estimated membership and attendance figures really do matter. This is especially true when they directly affect the polity and governance of a specific religious body.

This brings us — #DUH — to that dramatic United Methodist battle that took place the other day in St. Louis. This was the topic of this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in).

The follow-up coverage, with few exceptions, has focused on the rainbow-draped reactions of United Methodist leaders on the losing side of this special conference — which was charged with finding a way forward after four decades of doctrinal disagreements about marriage, sexuality (LGBTQ grab headlines) and the Bible. Could the UMC as a whole require that its clergy keep the vows they took, in ordination rites, to follow the denomination’s Book of Discipline?

But let’s look at an even more basic and crucial question, one linked to membership statistics. Ready? How many United Methodists are there in the United Methodist Church?

One would think that the official United Methodist News Service would be a solid place to look for that information. A year ago, it published a report online that stated:

The United Methodist Church’s global membership now exceeds 12.5 million.

These membership figures come from the most recent annual conference journals sent to the General Council on Finance and Administration. The vast majority of the journals are from 2016 with some from 2017 or earlier years including one from 2013.

The Rev. Gary Graves, secretary of the General Conference, used these totals in calculating how many delegates each conference sends to the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly in 2020. 

Yes, the word “global” is crucial. The United Methodist Church is a global institution and that reality shapes the structures that govern it.

That brings us to a post-war story in the Washington Post that contains some very interesting — I would say strange — language about church statistics.

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