Robert P. George

Solid, if low key, coverage of Muslim inmate executed in Alabama -- without his imam present

Solid, if low key, coverage of Muslim inmate executed in Alabama -- without his imam present

It was the kind of outrageous story that grabbed the attention of GetReligion readers, as well as old-school First Amendment liberals who care deeply about protecting religious liberty.

Plenty of journalists saw the importance of this story last week, which tends to happen when a dispute ends up at the U.S. Supreme Court and creates a sharp 5-4 split among the justices.

The question, in this case, was whether journalists grasped some of the most symbolic, painful details in this execution case in Alabama. I looked at several stories and this USA Today report — “Alabama executes Muslim inmate Domineque Ray who asked for imam to be present“ — was better than the mainstream norm. Here is the overture:

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama death row inmate Domineque Ray died by lethal injection Thursday evening with his imam present in an adjoining chamber. …

Ray was executed after an 11th-hour ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court vacated a stay of execution pending a religious rights claim. Ray, a Muslim, had argued Alabama's practice of including a Christian prison chaplain in the execution chamber was in violation of the First Amendment. Ray sought to have his imam present in the death chamber at the time of his death.

Imam Yusef Maisonet, Ray's spiritual adviser, witnessed Ray's execution from a chamber which held media and prison officials. Two lawyers accompanied Maisonet.

When the curtain opened at 9:44 p.m., Ray lifted his head from the gurney, looking into the witness room. With his right hand in a fist, he extended a pointer finger.

Maisonet appeared to mirror the gesture and murmured that it was an acknowledgement of the singular God of the Islamic faith. When asked if he had any final words, Ray gave a brief faith declaration in Arabic.

OK, I will ask: What did Ray say, in Arabic? Did he speak Arabic? If not, then the odds are very good that Ray’s final words were a memorized quote from the Koran. It would have been good to have known the specifics.

That’s an important missing detail, but not the key to this story. The big issue, in this case, was that Ray was executed without a spiritual leader from his own faith at his side. USA Today managed to get that detail — along with the crucial fact that state policy only allowed a Christian chaplain in the execution room — at the top of this report. That’s where those facts belonged.

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Stats on future of faith in Europe: What happens when Christendom's heart weakens?

Stats on future of faith in Europe: What happens when Christendom's heart weakens?

The original saying, I think, was this: "When France sneezes, Europe catches a cold (or words to that effect)." The meaning is pretty obvious.

Then people started spinning off variations. One of the most common is this: "When America sneezes, the world catches cold." In this case, we're talking about American economic clout, but there are many variations -- as this nice NPR feature explains.

But I'm convinced the true cultural equation is this one: "When Europe sneezes, America catches the cold." The whole idea is that Europe tends to be several decades ahead of America, when it comes major trends in arts, culture, etc."

Now what about religion? That's basically what we talked about in this week's "Crossroads" podcast. Click here to tune that in.

Well, for decades now, demographers have known that the active practice of religious faith was fading in most (not all) of Europe. Once again, France has been one of the easiest places to see this trend. However, in the past decade or so -- Hello, Church of England -- it's been easy to see the same struggles in other pews.

Now, several years ago here in America, we had a hurricane if ink and newsprint when the Pew Forum released its famous "Nones on the Rise" study, showing a sharp increase in the number of "religiously unaffiliated" Americans, especially among the young. The term "Nones" has been all over the place, ever since (including here at GetReligion).

Why? Well, for starters there were big political overtones. This paragraph from one of my "On Religion" columns pretty much sums that up:

The unaffiliated overwhelmingly reject ancient doctrines on sexuality with 73 percent backing same-sex marriage and 72 percent saying abortion should be legal in all, or most, cases. Thus, the "Nones" skew heavily Democratic as voters. ... The unaffiliated are now a stronger presence in the Democratic Party than African-American Protestants, white mainline Protestants or white Catholics.

In other words, a coalition of atheists, agnostics and "Nones" is now to the Democratic Party what the Religious Right (broadly defined) is to the Republican party -- the grassroots heart.

So here is the question that host Todd Wilken and I talked about this week: If the "Nones" study has received acres of headlines, why has there been so little American coverage of that stunning new Benedict XVI Centre study entitled "Europe's Young Adults and Religion"? 

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Masterpiece Cakeshop day: Did justices ask what this wedding cake was supposed to look like?

Masterpiece Cakeshop day: Did justices ask what this wedding cake was supposed to look like?

It's a wedding day, sort of, at the U.S. Supreme Court, with legions of activists and journalists (and folks who are both) lining up to hear oral arguments in the much-discussed case of Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.

One of the main challenges facing journalists is this: How should they frame the issues in this First Amendment case? In other words, is this a religious liberty (no "scare quotes," please) case about a religious minority, an artistic expression case or, as the title implies, a case that is essentially about civil rights?

Based on what I have been reading, the legal team for bakery owner Jack Phillips is planning -- preaching to Justice Anthony Kennedy, of course -- to focus on issues of artistic expression, as much or more than on religious liberty.

With that in mind, readers will want to pay attention to two specific issues in mainstream news coverage of the oral arguments at the high court.

First, does the coverage mention that Colorado officials have, on three occasions, declined to force pro-gay bakers to provide Christian or conservative customers with cakes containing creative content that would violate liberal political and religious beliefs on sex and marriage. In other words, Colorado recognized the First Amendment rights of those cake artists.

Second, will the justices strive to find out precisely what kind of cake Charlie Craig and Dave Mullins were seeking when they sought the services of a baker famous for his custom-designed and intricate cake creations.

Why ask that second question? Consider this crucial passage in the National Public Radio advance story about this case, which ran online under this headline: "A Supreme Court Clash Between Artistry And The Rights Of Gay Couples." The key voice here is that of Kristen Waggoner, of Alliance Defending Freedom:

"The First Amendment protects the right of all Americans to decide what they will express and when they will remain silent," she continues. "It's fundamentally different than saying to someone, 'I will not serve you just because of who you are.'" This case, she maintains, "is about the message."

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Same as it ever was: Is Donald Trump beating the pope and winning GOP 'Catholic' voters?

Same as it ever was: Is Donald Trump beating the pope and winning GOP 'Catholic' voters?

The GOP establishment panic continues, with the political powers that be desperately working to kick their #NeverTrump campaign into a higher gear.

What remains interesting to me (click here for previous post), is the degree to which the stop-Donald Trump movement appears, in mainstream media coverage, to be totally secular -- as in this new Washington Post feature -- while the TV chatter on primary nights almost always involves talk about crucial groups of voters who are defined, in part, by religion.

Yes, I am talking about the old, old "Trump is winning the 'evangelical' vote" story that has been popular since the start of the White House campaign.

But there is more to this emerging religion-angle story than that. The other day, a prominent pack of 40 Catholic conservatives opened fire on Citizen Trump in a letter published by National Review. The Religion News Service story on this development reported:

Robert P. George, of Princeton University and George Weigel, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, headed the charge, and the appeal was also signed by opinion leaders from academia and religious media.
The letter denounces Trump for “vulgarity, oafishness, shocking ignorance, and -- we do not hesitate to use the word -- demagoguery.” Worse, they wrote, he’s the opposite of what Catholics should seek in a leader.

Later in this piece there was some crucial information that would appear to link this "Catholic voter" issue with the gaping hole in much of the mainstream press of the "evangelical voters." Only this time around, Trump numbers are even larger.

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Listening to D.C. debates: Who speaks for Southern Baptists?

Listening to D.C. debates: Who speaks for Southern Baptists?

A constant commandment for journalists is to “assess thy sources.”

The running debate on “what is an evangelical,” so pertinent for newswriters during this presidential campaign, involves “who speaks for evangelicals” and consequently “who speaks for the Southern Baptist Convention”? The sprawling SBC is by far this category’s  largest U.S. denomination, with 15.5 million members, 46,000 congregations, and $11 billion in annual receipts.

As noted by Jonathan Merritt in Religion News Service, the issue has been pursued with a vengeance by Will Hall, the new editor of the state Baptist Message newspaper in Louisiana. Hall targets as unrepresentative the denomination’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) and its president since 2013, the Rev. Russell D. Moore, 44, who’s the Southern Baptists’ prime spokesman on moral and social issues in the public sphere.

An editorial by Hall charged that Moore’s dislike for presidential candidate Donald Trump in particular “goes beyond the pale, translating into disrespect and even contempt for any Christian who might weigh these considerations differently” while Moore otherwise “has shown apparent disdain for traditional Southern Baptists.”

Moore is certainly outspoken about Trump. In a New York Times op-ed last Sept. 17, he said evangelicals and other social conservatives who back the billionaire “must repudiate everything they believe.”  He joined the 22 essayists in the “Against Trump” package in the Feb. 15National Review. Moore said with Trump, “sound moral judgments are displaced by a narcissistic pursuit of power” that religious conservatives should view as “decadent and deviant.”

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Another look at an old question: 'Can we be good without God?'

Another look at an old question: 'Can we be good without God?'

MARY’S QUESTION:

Is a belief in God essential to morality?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Many online articles carry that above headline, so Mary’s question is a classic, one seen in this little incident: A traditional Nativity scene is being moved away from Nebraska’s state capitol for Christmas week 2015 to make way for atheists’ “Reason This Season” display. A sponsor explained the purpose: “It’s meant to communicate that atheists are not bad people; we can be good without God.”

Some might hold a simplistic view that religionists think they and only they are or could be moral, and that all non-believers fall short.

Such assertions are nonsense, of course, and no serious religious figure would claim them. An individual atheist can lead an exemplary life, and a believer can be a scoundrel. British scholar C.S. Lewis observed that the fair comparison isn’t between problematic Christian X and virtuous non-believer Y, but rather what X would be like if he didn’t believe.

The actual question here is not virtues and vices of some individual but whether morality in general prospers if believers predominate, and whether society’s well-being suffers if many spurn faith in God. Does widespread respect for religious teachings, or fear of divine judgment, help people behave? Do supernatural ideals improve society’s over-all moral texture?

And the flip side. What is life like when foes of religion control society?

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