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Bias is back

"Bias is back" Continued...

Issue: "9/11 remembered," Aug. 17, 2002

Mr. Vines after the preach-off, by the way, stood by his analysis but tempered his tone. Back in his Jacksonville church, he cited the Caners' work and said, "I love Muslim people. I have found many of them to be kind, gentle, and loving people.... Many Muslims have come to our church to hear of the love, joy, peace, and saving grace available to all in Jesus Christ." But except for the Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville's daily newspaper, that message went uncited in the press. In The New York Times on July 9, columnist Nicholas Kristoff simply referred to Mr. Vines's initial remarks as "hate speech" and "religious bigotry."

3: Heather and Dayna, gracious extremists

The Curry/Mercer promotional book tour received coverage devoid of sarcasm-who would make fun of young women who had risked their lives?-but also a bit puzzled. Instead of analyzing lots of examples of this, I'll take us through an evocative example, Brad Buchholz's "Onward, Christian Soldiers" in the June 30 Austin American-Statesman; my comments are in brackets. Mr. Buchholz began affectionately, "In mind and memory, I see Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer as they were in their first days of freedom-a little weary, a little giddy, but projecting the very essence of gratitude as they stood before the congregation of their home church on the first Sunday of December 2001." [What is the essence of gratitude? To whom are we grateful?] "'This is a miracle,' I whispered to myself in the church that morning. What's more, I didn't think it particularly mattered whether one believed in Jesus or Allah, Buddha or Krishna, to appreciate the wonder of their deliverance." [No? Buddhists and Hindus don't believe in a personal God. And Muslims? It was because of fervent belief in Allah that the young women were detained.] "

How I wish my memory could stop right there-leaving me with a sweet, enduring snapshot of two grateful and gracious women.... Yet the complicated truth of Mercer's and Curry's story is that it does not end this way." Mr. Buckholz then waxed indignant about the insistence of the two young women that they and other servants of Christ should go back to Afghanistan: "How dare these Americans endanger their own lives-and those of innocents-by tempting fate yet again, carrying Christianity to cultures that forbid it. After all: Isn't the ethos of American liberty grounded in respect for people of all creeds, all colors, all faiths?" [Doesn't respect for Afghans mean wanting them to grab onto the only true hope for the world?]

"In the end, there is no understanding Curry and Mercer without accepting the unsettling incongruence that seems to define them." The incongruence, in Mr. Buchholz's eyes, is that when the two young women write about changing soiled hospital bedding, their "commitment to charity seems to transcend any type of faith-based agenda.... Yet in other sections of the book, we find Curry and Mercer showing a Jesus video, reading Christian stories to children, inviting Christian dialogue with Muslim citizens."

At least Mr. Buchholz saw that what he likes and what he dislikes have the same root; that's an advance on other journalists. But he was unsettled by the thought that offering material help in the hospital might go along with offering spiritual help to neighbors. Relief and evangelism as two sides of the same coin? That's too expensive a proposition for a secularist-but at least give Mr. Buchholz credit for asking agitated questions and not merely agitating.

4: Pro-choice when convenient

What Mr. Buchholz saw as upright incongruity, other journalists-when they had to come to grips with the idea that religious schools might be the key to inner-city educational improvement-saw as downright un-American.

Here are the first three paragraphs of the initial Associated Press story about Zelman vs. Simmons-Harris, the U.S. Supreme Court's decision on school vouchers:

"WASHINGTON (June 27)-The Constitution allows public money to underwrite tuition at religious schools as long as parents have a choice among a range of religious and secular schools, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

"The 5-4 ruling led by the court's conservative majority lowers the figurative wall separating church and state and clears a constitutional cloud from school vouchers, a divisive education idea dear to political conservatives and championed by President Bush.

"Opponents call vouchers a fraud meant to siphon tax money from struggling public schools."

Although the Associated Press in recent years has frequently given up the pretense of "neutral" journalism, words such as divisive and fraud are still pretty rough in a purportedly unbiased story-particularly because the fact pattern was summarized well by Chief Justice William Rehnquist's majority opinion: "The Ohio program is entirely neutral with respect to religion. It provides benefits directly to a wide spectrum of individuals, defined only by financial need and residence in a particular school district. It permits such individuals to exercise genuine choice among options public and private, secular and religious. The program is therefore a program of true private choice [that] does not offend the Establishment Clause."

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