Surprise -- The crucial religion story of 2018 is the specter of 'designer babies'

Surprise -- The crucial religion story of 2018 is the specter of 'designer babies'

Newsroom story conferences are impossibly clogged with items in the Donald Trump Era.

This month everybody is sifting through everything in order to figure out the Top Ten events of 2018. The Religion Guy proposes that, without question, first place belongs not to political or economic eruptions but scientists’ onrushing effort to “play God” and re-engineer the human species through genetics.

With all the fear-mongering about animal or vegetable GMOs and “Frankenfood,” how shall we now cope with the similar and serious specter of creating human “designer babies” with desired traits?

Alas, the Guy has seen precious little media input from organized religion and urges reporters to bring those viewpoints to the center of this developing public debate.

The news: He Jiankui, a U.S.-trained biological researcher in China, says he has successfully altered the genes of newly born twins, with a third such birth expected soon. The claim has not been verified through the normal academic reporting process, much to the distress of fellow researchers, Chinese officialdom and the university and hospital where He works.

However, his background makes the claim plausible. There were important advances in such work during 2017. If He’s claim falls through, scientific success elsewhere, with the moral quandaries that result, appears inevitable. If it can be done, some scientists somewhere will do it, and self-regulation by science or government restrictions will be difficult to achieve.

The headline on a New York Times dispatch out of Beijing put matters bluntly: “In China, Sacrificing Ethics for Scientific Glory.” There were immediate hostile reactions from scientists. For one, Francis Collins, head of America’s National Institutes of Health (and a devout evangelical), spoke of “epic scientific misadventures” that will sully valid work on genetic diseases by provoking “outrage, fear, and disgust.”

CRISPR sounds like some newfangled kitchen gadget hawked as a Christmas gift on late-night TV. (“But wait!!”). However, it’s the acronym for a new tool for editing genes, Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, using the “CRISPR-associated protein 9” enzyme abbreviated as “Cas9.” Importantly, scientists say this method suddenly makes gene manipulation easy and quite precise.

It’s hard enough for mere journalists to fully comprehend this process, much less explain it to our audiences, but the biological basics and moral implications are crystal clear.

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Three points and a poem: How would Billy Graham have handled Donald Trump?

Three points and a poem: How would Billy Graham have handled Donald Trump?

Over the past few days, I have heard one question more than any other: How do I think the Rev. Billy Graham would have handled the current divisions inside American evangelicalism? When you dig a bit deeper, what people are really asking is how Graham the elder (as opposed to Franklin Graham) would have handled Donald Trump.

GetReligion readers will not be surprised that this topic came up during this week's "Crossroads" podcast. Click here to tune that in

In the old tradition of Southern preaching, I would like to answer with three points and a poem.

(I) How would Graham, in his prime, have handled Trump? Well, how did he relate to Bill Clinton, another man who had a loose connection to truth and fidelity? Graham praised the good in Clinton and then gentled criticized the bad, primarily by affirming basic Christian standards of life and behavior. He didn't endorse, but he provided personal support. He never, in public, attacked Clinton or his partner, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Graham took flak for this stance, but he was used to that.

(II) My second point is a story, a kind of parable, about the 1987 Graham crusade in Denver's Mile High Stadium.

One morning during the crusade, the evangelist's crack media team called all of the major newsrooms in that very competitive news market (where The Denver Post and The Rocky Mountain News were fighting an epic newspaper war). They wanted us to know that Graham was going to preach that night -- his first sermon on this topic -- about AIDS. This was news, because of Graham's de facto status as the Protestant pope, in the eyes of editors.

Graham's staff knew that reporters would be on deadline that night (press runs for early state editions would have been soon after 10 p.m.) and would need to line up quick telephone interviews with people who could react to whatever he said in the sermon.

Through a series of connections, I ended up interviewing a local associate pastor in an LGBTQ-affirming congregation. This man was a former Southern Baptist pastor, now out gay, who was HIV positive. As a child, he had made his profession of Christian faith at a Graham crusade. He still considered Graham a hero, although he disagreed with the evangelist's beliefs on sexuality.

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Sam Brownback has lots of friends and enemies: Reporters need to talk to both, right now

Sam Brownback has lots of friends and enemies: Reporters need to talk to both, right now

Sam Brownback has had a log and quite complicated political career and now it has taken another turn. On Capitol Hill, he has served in the House and the Senate, then he returned to Kansas as governor, where his stay was stormy, to say the least. He briefly ran for president in 2008.

On the religious side of things, he made headlines by converting from evangelical Protestantism to Roman Catholicism. He would make any observer's list of the top 20 or so cultural conservatives in American politics.

That's the kind of career that earns someone a long list of enemies, as well as friends.

All of that came into play when Brownback was nominated by the Donald Trump administration to be the U.S. ambassador for international religious freedom. That brings us to the top of this Associated Press report (as circulated by Religion News Service):

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Republican-led Senate on Wednesday narrowly approved Sam Brownback’s bid to be U.S. ambassador for international religious freedom, setting the stage for him to resign the governorship in Kansas after seven contentious years in office.
With two Republican senators absent, Vice President Mike Pence traveled to Capitol Hill to cast the tie-breaking vote to confirm Brownback, a favorite of Christian conservatives for his views on same-sex marriage and abortion. The vote was along party lines, 50-49, underscoring the narrow margin Republicans hold. Pence’s vote also was needed earlier in the day to get Brownback’s nomination over a procedural hurdle.

Now, it's obvious -- with that cliffhanger vote -- that Brownback's enemies came loaded for bear. You can also see, in the AP wording, that the battle over this nomination was fought along culture-wars lines. Note this: He is a "favorite of Christian conservatives for his views on same-sex marriage and abortion."

Noted. Thus, it is going to be crucial, in this story, to cover the reasons that the cultural and religious left opposed him so strongly. That's part of the story.

However, it would also be crucial to note why Brownback was nominated for this particular post in the first place. What actions did he take, what causes did he support, during his long career that caused his supporters to support this nomination? I would add: Were all of his supporters on the right?

Anyone want to guess which side of this equation AP all but ignored?

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ESPN 30 for 30 (with respect, instead of a smirk) takes on faith, virginity and the NBA

ESPN 30 for 30 (with respect, instead of a smirk) takes on faith, virginity and the NBA

Yes, the YouTube photo at the top of this post is not normal GetReligion territory.

However, over the years we have taken more than our share of shots at branches of ESPN for covering stories about religious believers while paying little or no attention to the role that faith has played in their lives and stories. Silence or vague language has usually been the ESPN norm. However, on rare occasions, there has even been a dose of smirk -- or at the least, a digital rolling of the eyes -- added to some stories about faith-driven athletes.

So let's give credit where credit is due. Anyone who appreciates the world of news documentaries knows that the ESPN 30 for 30 team has been at the top of the pyramid for quite some time now when it comes to excellence.

Forget sports, for a minute. I'm talking about quality documentaries -- period. We are talking about films that take on complex, newsworthy subjects that, oh yeah, are linked to sports. I would put the classic "Roll Tide, War Eagle" in the same class with any film that I have seen on issues of race, class, tribal loyalties and the dark side of the human heart.

So this brings me to a recent 30 for 30 short entitled, "A.C. Green: Iron Virgin." That's the YouTube at the top of this post, but click here to go to the ESPN page dedicated to this film.

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Mirror-image news: SMU activists suffer attack which draws zero news coverage

Mirror-image news: SMU activists suffer attack which draws zero news coverage

Let's play the mirror-image news game again, shall we? Click here for previous examples.

As always, the goal is to look at a story that received next to zero attention, or perhaps received waves of attention, and then try to imagine what would have happened if a few details were switched and journalists were dealing with a different issue on the opposite side of America's so-called culture wars.

This time around, let's say that the AIDS memorial quilt was displayed in Dallas in a high-profile location that would be sure to generate lots of attention -- like the center of campus at Southern Methodist University. Then, during the middle of the night, a pack of counter-protesters descended on this display and attacked it, doing major damage.

Would this story have received major coverage in local media, such as The Dallas Morning News? We will take into account the fact that displays of the AIDS quilt have been going on for decades and, thus, the event itself may not have been a major news story. But would an attack on the quilt be news?

It's safe to say that this attack would have drawn coverage. Correct?

Now, let's flip the news mirror around and consider these details from a story published by the alternative -- yes, conservative -- website. The headline: "Pro-Abortion Students at SMU Vandalize Display of 3,000 Crosses to Remember Aborted Babies."

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Those 1989 Act-Up protests: The key events were OUTSIDE St. Patrick's Cathedral?

Those 1989 Act-Up protests: The key events were OUTSIDE St. Patrick's Cathedral?

This is not a post about what the Catholic Catechism teaches about sexuality.

It is also, in a way, not a post about the ongoing issues of LGBT groups being allowed to march in the famous St. Patrick's Day parade in New York City.

This is a post about a basic issue of balance and accuracy in some crucial background material in a recent New York Times update about events linked to that parade, which has been a flashpoint in conflicts between LGBT activists and Catholic leaders for decades.

So, first things first, what is the news hook for this news report?

George J. Mitchell, the former Senate majority leader who presided over negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement and power sharing in Northern Ireland, has been chosen as the grand marshal for this year’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
The parade’s organizers plan to announce the selection of Mr. Mitchell on Monday. But it is not clear whether Mayor Bill de Blasio, a fellow Democrat who skipped the parades in his first two years in office because organizers had barred openly gay groups since the 1990s, would take part. A spokesman for Mr. de Blasio said on Friday that the mayor was reviewing whether to march this year.

As you would expect, the Times team included several paragraphs of background material to let readers know a little bit about the history of these tensions. This is where I want GetReligion readers to focus their attention.

Let us attend (especially to the fine details):

The controversy began in December 1989, when thousands demonstrated outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral over statements made by Cardinal John J. O’Connor on abortion, homosexuality and AIDS.

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New York Post scrimps on lots of important facts in Womenpriests story

New York Post scrimps on lots of important facts in Womenpriests story

The Roman Catholic Womenpriests movement is something lots of people feel strongly about. Opinions range from it being the best thing ever to happen to Catholicism, very broadly defined, to it being utter fraud.

Debates about press coverage of this movement have fueled waves of GetReligion posts over the years, far too many to list them. I am not joking. For starters, is it Women Priests, women priests, WomenPriests or Womenpriests? The group's own website says the latter. The words "Roman Catholic" are in the organization's name, even though these women have received ordination into their own movement, which has no standing with canonical Catholicism.

Partisans on both sides might agree that if a mainstream reporter writes about the movement, it helps to know the basics. A few days ago, a New York woman, who was ordained within the movement in 2014, had acid thrown in her face.

No, this was not South Asia, where such outrages happen in places like Pakistan and Bangladesh along with Iran, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. This was New York. The New York Post began as follows:

The man who attacked and seriously burned a Queens woman Wednesday night-- splashing her in the face with a Drano-like substance -- snuck up and ambushed her as she walked alone to her car, law-enforcement sources said.
“Can I ask you something?” the assailant said, before hurling an off-brand drain cleaner in the face of Dr. Alexandra Dyer, an ordained priest who has devoted her life to helping others.

The writer doesn’t identify Dyer’s denomination anywhere high in the story, leaving one to wonder if she was an Episcopalian, Lutheran or in some other category. Things get more confusing further on.

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