Douglas LeBlanc

Covering Rep. Gabbard’s American path to Hinduism, including some complex, tricky details

Covering Rep. Gabbard’s American path to Hinduism, including some complex, tricky details

Most clickbait is so flatly manipulative that I find it easy to resist, but there is the occasional instance when a headline like “Tulsi Gabbard Had a Very Strange Childhood” when I think, “OK, convince me.” 

Kerry Howley does a lot of convincing in her nearly 7,000-word essay, published in the recent edition of The American Prospect. My impressions of Rep. Gabbard, who represents the Second Congressional District of Hawaii, are from the headlines: She’s of Samoan heritage, she’s a Hindu and she stood against Sen. Kamala Harris’ efforts to depict a nominee’s involvement in the Knights of Columbus as a theocratic threat to the American judicial system. 

As Howley shows in her reporting, Gabbard self-identifies as Hindu although the group in which she grew up — the Science of Identity — does not claim a Hindu identity. Like many other movements that repackage Hinduism for Americans, Science of Identity offers Eastern theology (teachings from the Bhagavad Gita), a passionate leader with an exotic adopted name (Chris Butler becomes Jagad Guru Siddhaswarupananda Paramahamsa) and homemade variations on the life of faith (Howley quotes an aunt of Gabbard’s who calls Butler’s group the ‘alt-right of the Hare Krishna movement’ ”).

In this respect, Gabbard is Hindu in the same way that Arlo Guthrie was Hindu when he became a disciple of Guru Ma (Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati).

Gabbard’s father led his family into the movement before she was born, and she has stayed in relationship with it throughout her life.

Gabbard moved leftward in her perspectives on abortion and same-sex couples after she volunteered for military service and worked with a medical unit north of Baghdad. As Howley describes it:

When she returned, her positions on social issues eventually fell a bit more in line with the party; she said that living in a theocracy had changed her, and she no longer believed the state should dictate the romantic or reproductive lives of its citizens.

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Dispatch from the Island of Misfit Toys: it’s payback time for pagans on the far left

Dispatch from the Island of Misfit Toys: it’s payback time for pagans on the far left

There’s a simple reason for the recurring pop-culture theme about being the last kid chosen for the sports team, or fearing dodgeball, or being called a cruel nickname: nearly everyone feels the weight of being an outcast, usually by the ninth grade.

Yes, some carry that weight much longer than others, and often for reasons beyond their control. But some outcasts speak with such frequency about being outcasts that it appears to become central to their identity and actions. That brings us to “The Rise of Progressive Occultism,” a deeply researched longform report by Tara Isabella Burton in The American Interest.

You may remember that some witches joined in a collective hex against Brett Kavanagh, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, when he was but a nominee. You win some and you lose some.

The most serious practitioners of the dark arts are not mere political dilettantes, but people who believe a counter-narrative to Christianity (which they consider patriarchal) and who call on their ancient spiritual forces for supernatural assistance. This being the age of Donald Trump, well of course the 45th president serves as the bête noire (or bête blanc, if you prefer) in all of this:

In one Brooklyn zine, author and non-binary witch Dakota Bracciale — co-owner of Catland Books, the occult store behind the Kavanaugh hexing — celebrates the potential of traditional “dark magic” and outright devil-worship as a levying force for social justice.

“There have been too many self-elected spokespersons for all of witchcraft,” Bracciale writes, “seeking to pander to the masses and desperately conform to larger mainstream religious tenets in order to curry legitimacy. Witchcraft has largely, if not exclusively, been a tool of resilience and resistance to oppressive power structures, not a plaything for bored, affluent fools. So if one must ride into battle under the banner of the Devil himself to do so then I say so be it. The reality is that you can be a witch and worship the devil and have sex with demons and cavort through the night stealing children and burning churches. One should really have goals.”

As with the denizens of The Satanic Temple, Bracciale uses the imagery of Satanism as a direct attack on what he perceives as Christian hegemony. So too Jex Blackmore, a self-proclaimed Satanic feminist (and former national spokesperson for the Satanic Temple) who appeared in the Hail Satan? documentary performing a Satanic ritual involving half-naked worshippers and pigs’ heads on spikes, announcing: “We are going to disrupt, distort, destroy. … We are going to storm press conferences, kidnap an executive, release snakes in the governor’s mansion, execute the president.”

Thank you for the heads up.

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The lifelong ripple effects of a fertility doctor who poured his Strangelovian essence into his work

The lifelong ripple effects of a fertility doctor who poured his Strangelovian essence into his work

The Fertility Doctor’s Secret,” a longform report for The Atlantic about doctor Donald Cline of Indianapolis, reports dozens of facts — but is bound to disappoint readers who are reasonably informed about Christian teaching on infertility.

There are mere traces of religion in Sarah Zhang’s coverage, and too little digging deeper on remarks that beg for attention. In other word, this story has religion-shaped holes in it.

But first the basic narrative: Cline, who opened his clinic in 1979, is believed to be the father of at least eight children by virtue of using his sperm to impregnant unknowing patients.

That this story has come to light is one of the perverse miracles of connecting through Facebook and discovering the secrets of one’s DNA through consumer-focused DNA testing offered by 23andMe and Ancestry.com.

We’re told twice that Cline cited Bible verses to these now-grown humans, which raises some interesting factual questions. Zhang presents a sole example:

For months, nothing much happened. Then one of [Jacoba] Ballard’s half sisters went for it. She found Cline’s children — those he raised with his wife — and his adult grandchildren on Facebook and sent them a group message. A granddaughter replied, saying she didn’t know anything and couldn’t help.

But then, Ballard says, she got a message from Cline’s son. He had been looking through her Facebook photos and recognized her priest — he said he was Catholic too. He helped broker a meeting between his father and six of the siblings at a restaurant. Cline, who was then in his late 70s, walked in with a cane.

Ballard remembers this first family reunion of sorts as oddly matter-of-fact. Cline admitted to using his own sperm but said the records had been destroyed years ago. He asked each of the siblings what they did and where they lived. He read them Bible verses from a notepad. Ballard saw this as a misguided attempt to comfort her, and she snapped at him: “Don’t try to use my religion.”

Late in the story — in the 101st paragraph, to be specific — Zhang reveals only one example of Bible-thumping:

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Testifying in The New Yorker: Jia Tolentino on her childhood inside Houston's 'Repentagon'

Testifying in The New Yorker: Jia Tolentino on her childhood inside Houston's 'Repentagon'

Gothic first-person accounts of growing up in a Christian subculture have become modern Americans’ equivalent of The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James. They serve as a vast collection of subjective narratives, often focused on the horrors of authority figures who encourage virginity, offer awkward alternatives to pop music (or welcome it uncritically), favor novels about the Apocalypse and otherwise fill the cavernous spaces of megachurches with conformists.

It’s difficult to read such accounts without wishing for more details. In “Ecstasy,” which appears in the May 27 edition of The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino writes this about her life in a Houston megachurch she calls the Repentagon. Here’s a sample:

“Three girls were electrocuted when a light blew out in the pool where they’d been swimming, and this tragedy was deemed the will of the Lord.”

Sensible journalism questions should be obvious: Who deemed it the will of the Lord? Was this declaration from the pulpit? Did it come from one of those boorish pew-dwellers who think it’s comforting to say the Lord must have needed a few new angels in heaven? Was it someone who speaks only of God’s sovereignty but never of living in a fallen world where random deaths are happenstance? Did this assertion represent even a plurality among members of the Repentagon, which Tolentino, for reasons she does not specify, never identifies as Second Baptist Church, one of the Bible Belt’s best known megachurches?

Tolentino’s account stands out because it is not solely a story of deprivation and unresolved anger. This paragraph leaps off the page:

I have been walking away from institutional religion for half my life now, fifteen years dismantling what the first fifteen built. But I’ve always been glad that I grew up the way that I did. The Repentagon trained me to feel at ease in odd, insular, extreme environments, and Christianity formed my deepest instincts. It gave me a leftist world view — a desire to follow leaders who feel themselves inseparable from the hungry, the imprisoned, and the sick. Years of auditing my own conduct in prayer gave me an obsession with everyday morality.

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Is Howard Stern, the man who gave us Butt Bongo Fiesta, evolving into a prophet for our time?

Is Howard Stern, the man who gave us Butt Bongo Fiesta, evolving into a prophet for our time?

Howard Stern gave a remarkable two-part interview last week on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross. In terms of cultural encounters, that’s interesting in and of itself.

A good many social conservatives — OK, I’ll own this — have usually found it easier to think of Stern as one of the harbingers of the apocalypse. If he was not one of the four horsemen, he was the nearly naked drunken guy dancing with abandon somewhere in the end times parade, much to the delight of those citizens who think of Mardi Gras on Bourbon Street as the cultural high point of the year.

Writing in “Prophet of All Media” for Tablet, Liel Leibovitz makes an argument that, like Stern, is provocative. Leibovitz repeatedly compares Stern to Judaism’s prophets, and he begins with an earthy tale straight out of the Talmud about a prostitute who breaks wind and delivers a related prophetic word to her client, a rabbi.

“And it’s just the sort of story that makes the seminal text of Jewish life — often introduced to young yeshiva students as an account of God’s own mind — so transcendent,” he writes. “To imbue humans with wisdom, the ancient rabbis who compiled the Talmud realized, you need more than just a commandment; if you want humans to listen and learn, you have to embrace all the appetites and the oddities that make them human. Try to talk to us about the labors of redemption, and we might scoff at such haughty moralizing or slink away from the effort it demands. Deliver it in a good yarn about a farting prostitute, and we’re bound to laugh, think, and empathize.”

Much of Leibovitz’s argument continues in this vein, leaving the impression that apart from the occasionally unkind or crude remark, Stern surely joins the farting prostitute in having a heart of gold.

In time, however, Leibovitz reaches the mother lode of his case, with a comparison for all Americans who have set NPR as the first station on the audio devices built into their automobile dashboards. Leibovitz goes so far as to compare Stern to Terry Gross — not by mentioning their most recent interview, but by comparing the cultural effects of their respective style of interviews.

This is very long, but essential. Media professionals, let us attend:

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Meet Planned Parenthood's Leana Wen, a mind-reading 'major voice' in fight for bodily autonomy®

Meet Planned Parenthood's Leana Wen, a mind-reading 'major voice' in fight for bodily autonomy®

You may have heard of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. It ranked at No. 27 on Forbes magazine’s 100 largest charities in 2018, with a total revenue of $1.46 billion.

Understanding Planned Parenthood primarily as another business — simply another trusted American brand, giving customers what they want, just like a restaurant chain, a bookstore, or a fitness center—might help explain why Dr. Leana Wen appeared in a Corner Office column, in which New York Times business writer David Gelles engages executives in Q&A discussions about their lives and careers.

Indra Nooyi of PepsiCo, Gwyneth Paltrow of Goop and inventor James Dyson are among other executives popping up at Corner Office in recent months. Such interviews are most engaging for those of us readers whose eyes glaze over at the first mention of a spreadsheet.

The key difference between these executives and Wen? Only Planned Parenthood will sell you a legal abortion.

Is it unreasonable to expect any mainstream news profile of Planned Parenthood’s chief executive to engage this point directly and to acknowledge major cultural and religious disputes about abortion law? Has abortion now become simply another part of culture’s Muzak, something we all know is a daily reality not discussed among the polite? There are no ethical or moral questions here that divide Americans?

Worse, has it joined the ever-growing list of Settled Topics among journalists, in which there are establishment heroes (abortion-rights advocates), villains (abortion-rights opponents) and color commentators (journalists)?

Wen was the focus of Corner Office on May 2, in conjunction with Planned Parenthood’s announcement that she would be the first physician to lead the organization. Gelles devotes roughly 1,700 to the edited transcript of his interview with Wen. How many times might you see a direct reference to abortion?

The winning answer: two, both from the spoken words of this former president of the American Medical Student Association.

When Wen has stirred herself to this remarkable flash of candor, it is within the context of casting those who oppose unlimited abortion rights in the worst possible light:

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Life is unfair, and then you die, and then your survivors throw one hell of a party

Life is unfair, and then you die, and then your survivors throw one hell of a party

Karen Heller’s “The funeral as we know it is becoming a relic — just in time for a death boom” for The Washington Post is a nearly pitch-perfect roundup of how egocentric choices seem to diminish every cultural and religious custom they touch. 

For all the language about not denying death and “hollow platitudes that barely relate to the deceased,” the “celebration of life”  movement is just as death-haunted as some funeral traditions in the cultural past — and, as shown in Heller’s report, silent on larger questions about an afterlife.

After leading with a solid illustration from a “Memorialpalooza” for entertainment agent Howard West, Heller turns to the factors (hello Baby Boomers) driving the trend of funerals as parties. This passage is long, but essential reading:

Death is a given, but not the time-honored rituals. An increasingly secular, nomadic and casual America is shredding the rules about how to commemorate death, and it’s not just among the wealthy and famous. Somber, embalmed-body funerals, with their $9,000 industry average price tag, are, for many families, a relic. Instead, end-of-life ceremonies are being personalized: golf-course cocktail send-offs, backyard potluck memorials, more Sinatra and Clapton, less “Ave Maria,” more Hawaiian shirts, fewer dark suits. Families want to put the “fun” in funerals.

The movement will only accelerate as the nation approaches a historic spike in deaths. Baby boomers, despite strenuous efforts to stall the aging process, are not getting any younger. In 2030, people over 65 will outnumber children, and by 2037, 3.6 million people are projected to die in the United States, according to the Census Bureau, 1 million more than in 2015, which is projected to outpace the growth of the overall population. …

Now, many families are replacing funerals (where the body is present) with memorial services (where the body is not). Religious burial requirements are less a consideration in a country where only 36 percent of Americans say they regularly attend religious services, nearly a third never or rarely attend, and almost a quarter identify as agnostic or atheist, according to the Pew Research Center.

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President Lallene J. Rector of Garrett-Evangelical: 'Our lobby and stairwells were rainbowed up'

President Lallene J. Rector of Garrett-Evangelical: 'Our lobby and stairwells were rainbowed up'

As documented repeatedly by my colleagues at GetReligion, precious few reporters have bothered to interview conservative United Methodists about the church’s teachings on marriage and sexual morality. What’s remarkable is when the subject of a one-sided interview does something other than describing the traditionalist side in terms that avoid mere name-calling.

Consider the case of Anne Ford of Chicago magazine interviewing President Lallene J. Rector, of the United Methodist Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in the northern Chicago suburb of Evanston. (As the hyphen suggests, “Evangelical” in this name does not refer to a theological emphasis, but to Garrett’s assimilation of Evangelical Theological Seminary in 1974.)

A pleasant surprise emerges in the first paragraph. Ford’s question repeats the Godbeat meme that the United Methodist Church’s General Conference “voted to ban ordaining LGBTQ people and performing same-sex marriages.”

Rector, while beginning on a note of horror about the vote, works her way around to a touch of humor:

Our students are devastated. I was personally sickened. We’re a left-leaning school. We’re on the record as being inclusive. After the vote, our lobby and stairwells were rainbowed up. The denomination’s been arguing over these issues since 1972, and as you can imagine, many people are fed up. We’ve lost a lot of seminary students to other denominations.

Any writer who must consult the academia-to-English dictionary regularly must give thanks for a seminary dean who uses a phrase as playful as “rainbowed up.”

So what can be found in this interview that is crucial, in terms of journalists learning where this local, regional, national global story might be moving?

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Doug Bock Clark writes beautifully on a sorrowful topic in North Korean life

Doug Bock Clark writes beautifully on a sorrowful topic in North Korean life

Doug Bock Clark has written an amazing report for GQ that is essential reading for those who care about North Korea refugees and how Christianity has driven one man to help them.

Clark reports on the Underground Railroad that helps people escape from North Korea to China and from there to multiple Southeast Asian countries.

Clark has published two previous longform reports with GQ: an account of Kim Jong-nam’s being murdered in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and a detail-rich record of how Otto Warmbier so easily slipped from student visitor to a dead victim of North Korean brutality.

Now he begins with the story of a young mother named Faith who makes a slow and costly journey from Pyongyang to Phnom Penh.

The following passage is long, but essential, if GetReligion readers want to understand why this is a must-read feature.

Much of Faith’s journey is arranged by Stephen Kim, the believer at the heart of this amazing story:

For safety, Kim doesn’t want too much known about his past, but there are two facts that he feels are important in order to understand him. First, his father grew up in what became North Korea before he moved to modern-day South Korea to run a wholesale vegetable business. Sometime after that, the Korean Peninsula was split into two nations and the Korean War broke out. Thus, while Kim grew up in the South, he thought of North Koreans as long-lost family. Second, Kim’s father was Christian, and though he and his family eventually stopped attending church, Kim never forgot Jesus.

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