Ethics

When is a Byzantine cross just a tattoo and when is it a reason to ask another question?

When is a Byzantine cross just a tattoo and when is it a reason to ask another question?

On one level, this is a simple story about Culture Wars American in 2019.

A trans woman, a regular customer, is eating dinner in a local restaurant in a corner of America — the upper Midwest — where liberal and conservative citizens regularly bump into one another.

A pair of elderly locals is seated nearby and they make some unfriendly comments about the transexuals — not to the trans customer, but to their waitress. The waitress is triggered, when her boss insists that she serve these customers The woke NBC News double-decker headline outlines the outcome of this exchange in the marketplace of ideas:

'Morals over money': Waitress fired after refusing to serve transphobic customers

"Turning a blind eye to hate is just as bad as saying the hateful things in my opinion," the waitress, Brittany Spencer, said.

This is the stuff of shallow television news reports, of course. But here is the question that haunted a GetReligion reader: “Did anyone think to ask what's on her neck and what relevance it might have to morals??”

The waitress, you see, is heavily inked and she has a large, prominent tattoo on her neck that raises some interesting religious issues.

This tattoo includes a large Byzantine cross, of the style favored in Eastern churches — Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholic — in Slavic lands and elsewhere.

But the cross is upside down.

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Oh yeah -- this post is about that RNS column on why journalists just can't 'get religion'

Oh yeah -- this post is about that RNS column on why journalists just can't 'get religion'

If you ever needed proof that the editor of The New York Times saying something is what makes a point of view “real,” then check out the new Religion News Service opinion piece with this headline: “What it means to ‘get’ religion in 2020.”

Charles C. Camosy of Fordham University starts his “Purple Catholicism” column in a perfectly logical place. That would be the celebrated National Public Radio interview nearly three years ago in which Times executive editor Dean Baquet sort of admits that many journalists have trouble grasping the importance of religion in real life in America and around the world.

That’s the interview that, at the time, was marked with a GetReligion piece under the headline, “New York Times editor: We just don't get (a) religion, (b) the alt-right or (c) whatever.”

(RNS) — Following the 2016 presidential election, Dean Baquet, then executive editor of The New York Times, declared that one of his “big jobs” was to “really understand and explain the forces in America” that produced such a surprising result. Leading media organizations, he admirably admitted, simply do not “get religion.”

Baquet was right to be concerned. Otherwise sophisticated journalists and commentators regularly display minimal understanding of religion and how theological claims ought to function in public discourse. This not only hampers journalists’ ability to get to the heart of a story, it contributes much to the massive and growing distrust religious people tend to have of major media institutions.  

Comosy seems to assume that Baquet’s words brought this sad situation into the light of day, as opposed to millions of words of media-criticism and praise published here at GetReligion over nearly 17 years. I could note my cover story on this topic at The Quill in 1983, but that would be rather indecorous.

However, I will pause to be thankful for the first URL included in this RNS piece — the “minimal understand of religion” link — which points to at GetReligion post with this headline: “Mark Hemingway takes GetReligion-like stroll through years of New York Times religion gaffes.” Yes, that Mark Hemingway.

But here is the key to this piece: Rather than focusing on embarrassing religion errors that make it into print (even though errors are a sign of deeper issues), the RNS columnist digs deep into a philosophical issue noted many, many, many times at here at GetReligion. I am referring to the tendency by journalists that some subjects are “real” (politics and economics), while others are not so real (religion).

Here is the heart of the matter, from his perspective.

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Kings Bay nuclear protestors: Was this civil disobedience or a matter of religious liberty?

Kings Bay nuclear protestors: Was this civil disobedience or a matter of religious liberty?

It’s hard to live in Oak Ridge, Tenn., without learning a thing or two about civil disobedience, especially demonstrations linked to nuclear weapons. No matter what goes on inside the Oak Ridge National Laboratory — in terms of energy, medicine, the digital future, etc. — this top-secret research facility will always be known for its role in America’s history of atomic bombs and beyond.

This leads to protests. Some of them cross the line into civil disobedience, which raises interesting historical, legal and even theological questions. Hold that thought, because we will come back to it.

There is a very similar story unfolding elsewhere in the Bible Belt, as seen in a recent report — “Judge denies nuclear protesters’ religious freedom defense” — from Religion News Service. Here is the overture:

(RNS) — A federal judge has denied a request by a group of Catholic peace activists to dismiss charges against them for breaking into a nuclear submarine base in Kings Bay, Georgia, last year to protest nuclear weapons.

The seven activists, individually and through their lawyers, used a novel defense, citing the Religion Freedom Restoration Act, a 1993 federal law that says the government may not burden the faith practices of a person with sincerely held religious beliefs.

But Judge Lisa Godbey Wood, a federal judge in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia, denied that defense and scheduled a jury trial for Oct. 21.

The activists, known as the Kings Bay Plowshares 7, face up to 25 years in prison each for trespassing on the U.S. Navy base, which houses six Trident submarines designed to carry nearly 200 nuclear warheads apiece. The seven, mostly middle-aged or elderly, will each stand trial on three felonies and one misdemeanor: destruction of property on a naval installation, depredation of government property, trespass and conspiracy.

Now, there are all kinds of questions I’d like to ask at this point.

First of all, I assume we are talking about the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, as opposed to the “Religion” Freedom Restoration Act that is mentioned here. RNS needs to make a correction.

But it would appear that the basic idea is that the protestors had a right to violate the law as an act of religious conscience. It would be interesting to know more the specifics of their claims.

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What a world we live in: 'Reality Criticized For Not More Clearly Distinguishing Itself From Satire'

What a world we live in: 'Reality Criticized For Not More Clearly Distinguishing Itself From Satire'

During this week’s “Crossroads” podcast — click here to tune that in — host Todd Wilken and I talked about the ongoing war between The Babylon Bee, a conservative Christian news satire site, and the progressive fact checker squad at Snopes.com.

Oh, and as often happens in discussions of religion and public life, the threat that (trigger warning) Chick-fil-A seems to pose to American civilization ended up in the mix.

Here’s a typical question from the discussion: Is it satire to satirize contemporary satire by pretending to think that the satire is actual real news?

Or something like that.

The bottom line is that real news is starting to sound like satire. As the Bee said the other day: “Reality Criticized For Not More Clearly Distinguishing Itself From Satire.” At the same time, lots of satire is starting to sound like subtle (or not so subtle) forms of real — or some would say “fake” — news. Take the top of this New Yorker piece for example:

Customers across the nation who turned out for Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day were in for a surprise, as the chicken restaurant chose today to launch a new product, Hate Sauce.

Delighted customers mobbed the restaurants to try the zesty new sauce, with many chicken fanciers ordering their sandwiches with extra hate. “It’s so spicy it makes your mouth feel like it’s on fire — like a gay couple in hell,” said Harland Dorrinson, who sampled the sauce at a Chick-fil-A in Orlando.

That’s pretty blunt and, thus, it’s easy to assume that it’s satire (which it is).

But how about the quotes in the following story about a Chick-fil-A war at the University of Kansas?

“KU granted Chick-fil-A, a bastion of bigotry, a prime retail location in the heart of our campus,” KU’s Sexuality & Gender Diversity Faculty and Staff Council said in a letter sent this week to Chancellor Doug Girod, the provost’s office and the athletic department.

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Pro-choice doctor on abortion and Israeli law: In this case, the story is complicated

Pro-choice doctor on abortion and Israeli law: In this case, the story is complicated

Frederica Mathewes-Green, a longtime friend of GetReligion and its founders, began her transformation into a pro-life activist in 1976, after reading a piece called “What I Saw at the Abortion” in Esquire. Read it and I predict you can tell the passage that grabbed her and would not let go.

We never quite know the potential of one honest essay or journalism feature to move a person’s conscience. This leads me to “I Found the Outer Limits of My Pro-choice Beliefs” by Chavi Eve Karkowsky, a specialist in maternal-fetal medicine, writing for The Atlantic.

Karkowsky remains resolutely pro-choice in her sympathies, as reflected in how she describes pro-lifers protesting at late-term abortion facilities as “screaming at [women] not to do what they have already spent days or weeks weeping about.” It’s odd that pro-lifers — diverse people who often protest in silence, pray the rosary, have calm conversations with women and offer to help them bring their babies to term — apparently can only scream in their mass-media appearances.

But I digress. Karkowsky’s new awareness of these outer limits emerges from a time of working in Israel, after her husband took a job there. Israel’s laws on abortion are more permissive than those in the United States, although they also require taking the decision to a Termination of Pregnancy Committee (va’ada), as Karkowsky explains:

In this majority-Jewish country with deep socialist roots, abortion law has never been constructed around the idea of a woman’s power over her own body, or around the value of fetal life. The basics of abortion law were passed in the 1970s, and were largely built around demographic concerns in a tiny collectivist country that, at the time, was almost continually at war. Though changes have been made, those foundational laws still prevail. In Israel, terminations of pregnancy, regardless of gestational age, must go through a committee, a va’ada. Without its assent, an abortion is officially a criminal offense. But here’s the surprise: In the end, more than 97 percent of abortion requests that come before the committee are approved.

The va’ada can approve abortions for specific reasons spelled out by the law: if the woman is over 40, under 18, or unmarried; if the pregnancy is the result of rape, an extramarital affair, or any illegal sexual relationship, such as incest; if the fetus is likely to have a physical or mental defect; if continuing the pregnancy would endanger the woman’s life or cause her mental or physical harm. Some of these rationales, such as rape and incest, are familiar from the U.S. abortion debate. Other justifications, such as those involving the woman’s age or marital status, bespeak a certain amount of social engineering, and may strike Americans as odd matters for the law to take into account.

Karkowsky describes herself as homesick for Roe v. Wade, which sounds ghoulish for a moment, but her explanation makes it warmer and — how to put this? — almost pro-natal:

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Don't look for God in Epstein selfies: It's all about who had prestige in elite New York circles

Don't look for God in Epstein selfies: It's all about who had prestige in elite New York circles

With Jeffrey Epstein, it was all about the selfies and party pictures.

Yes, his infamous “little black book” of contacts (Gawker link here) contained the names of legions of apparently innocent elite-zip-code personalities (lots of journalists here) who may have never even met Epstein — but he wanted their contact information because they had influence in the public square. Some of the man’s victims made it into the book, as well.

But then there are the people who made it into all of those photos that document the good times shared by the powerful people who were courted by Epstein or who courted him. We are talking about the people who made it to his private island or who flew — for various reasons — on the private Epstein jet. A few were, literally, royals.

It will be hard, but try to make it all the way to the end of the current New York Magazine feature that ran with this revealing double-decker headline:

Who Was Jeffrey Epstein Calling?

A close study of his circle — social, professional, transactional — reveals a damning portrait of elite New York

What do we see in this long list of powerful and famous names?

It’s hard to be more specific than the final words in that headline. This predator’s “little black book” was a guide to “elite New York” — the people with power and access to power. What role did religion play in this drama? That depends on how one defines the term “religion.” (Click here for my first post on this topic.)

Here’s the thesis of the New York piece:

For decades, important, influential, “serious” people attended Epstein’s dinner parties, rode his private jet, and furthered the fiction that he was some kind of genius hedge-fund billionaire. How do we explain why they looked the other way, or flattered Epstein, even as they must have noticed he was often in the company of a young harem? Easy: They got something in exchange from him, whether it was a free ride on that airborne Lolita Express, some other form of monetary largesse, entrée into the extravagant celebrity soirées he hosted at his townhouse, or, possibly and harrowingly, a pound or two of female flesh. …

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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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Follow the money? By all means. But Bransfield scandal may involve some 'Catholic' issues

Follow the money? By all means. But Bransfield scandal may involve some 'Catholic' issues

It’s time for another trip into my GetReligion folder of guilt. That’s where news features go that I know are important, but I cannot — quickly — spot the issue that is nagging me.

Thus, the story gets filed away, while I keep thinking about it.

In this case, we are talking about a Washington Post story that is an important follow-up on the newspaper’s investigation into charges of corruption against Catholic Bishop Michael J. Bransfield of West Virginia — an important disciple of the fallen cardinal Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick. Click here for the first GetReligion post on this topic, by Bobby Ross, Jr.

The headline on this new expose states: “Warnings about West Virginia bishop went unheeded as he doled out cash gifts to Catholic leaders.” Yes, this story is about money, money, money and then more money.

Oh, there is some signs of sexual harassment of seminarians in there, but that doesn’t seem to interest the Post team. And there are hints that some of the conflicts surrounding Bransfield may have had something to do with Catholicism. Maybe. Hold that thought because we will come back to it. Here is the overture:

Senior Catholic leaders in the United States and the Vatican began receiving warnings about West Virginia Bishop Michael J. Bransfield as far back as 2012. In letters and emails, parishioners claimed that Bransfield was abusing his power and misspending church money on luxuries such as a personal chef, a chauffeur, first-class travel abroad and more than $1 million in renovations to his residence.

“I beg of you to please look into this situation,” Linda Abrahamian, a parishioner from Martinsburg, W.Va., wrote in 2013 to the pope’s ambassador to the United States.

But Bransfield’s conduct went unchecked for five more years. He resigned in September 2018 after one of his closest aides came forward with an incendiary inside account of years of sexual and financial misconduct, including the claim that Bransfield sought to “purchase influence” by giving hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash gifts to senior Catholic leaders.

“It is my own opinion that His Excellency makes use of monetary gifts, such as those noted above, to higher ranking ecclesiastics and gifts to subordinates to purchase influence from the former and compliance or loyalty from the latter,” Monsignor Kevin Quirk wrote to William Lori, the archbishop of Baltimore, in a letter obtained by The Washington Post.

Then there is the big thesis statement:

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Gray Lady goes neo-tabloid: Evangelicals, Trump, Falwell, Cohen, Tom Arnold, 'cabana boy,' etc.

Gray Lady goes neo-tabloid: Evangelicals, Trump, Falwell, Cohen, Tom Arnold, 'cabana boy,' etc.

I think that it’s safe to say that Jerry Falwell, Jr., has had a rough year or two.

I don’t say that as a cheap shot. I say that as someone who has followed the adventures of the Falwell family and Liberty University with great interest since the early 1980s, when elite newsrooms — The New Yorker came first, methinks — started paying serious attention to the late Rev. Jerry Falwell.

Of course, there is a good reason for political reporters and others to dig into Falwell, Jr., affairs. His early decision to endorse Donald Trump, instead of Sen. Ted Cruz, helped create the loud minority of white evangelicals who backed The Donald in early primaries. Without them, including Falwell, Trump doesn’t become the nominee and then, in a lesser-of-two-evils race with Hillary Clinton, squeak into the White House.

So that leads us to a rather interesting — on several levels — piece of neo-tabloid journalism at the New York Times, with this headline: “The Evangelical, the ‘Pool Boy,’ the Comedian and Michael Cohen.” The “evangelical,” of course, is Falwell.

Everything begins and ends with politics, of course, even in a story packed with all kinds of sexy whispers and innuendo about personal scandals. Thus, here is the big summary statement:

Mr. Falwell — who is not a minister and spent years as a lawyer and real estate developer — said his endorsement was based on Mr. Trump’s business experience and leadership qualities. A person close to Mr. Falwell said he made his decision after “consultation with other individuals whose opinions he respects.” But a far more complicated narrative is emerging about the behind-the-scenes maneuvering in the months before that important endorsement.

That backstory, in true Trump-tabloid fashion, features the friendship between Mr. Falwell, his wife and a former pool attendant at the Fontainebleau hotel in Miami Beach; the family’s investment in a gay-friendly youth hostel; purported sexually revealing photographs involving the Falwells; and an attempted hush-money arrangement engineered by the president’s former fixer, Michael Cohen.

The revelations have arisen from a lawsuit filed against the Falwells in Florida; the investigation into Mr. Cohen by federal prosecutors in New York; and the gonzo-style tactics of the comedian and actor Tom Arnold.

Basically, this story is built on real estate and court documents (that’s the solid stuff), along with a crazy quilt of materials from sources like Cohen, reality-TV wannabe Arnold, BuzzFeed and a pivotal anonymous source (allegedly) close to Falwell who readers are told next to nothing about, even though he/she is crucial to this article’s credibility.

One key anonymous source? That’s right.

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