WORLD reported in our April 27, 2002, special issue that liberal and neoconservative pundits in the news media during the six months after 9/11 had indulged "in broad religious profiling.... The New York Times and its disciples would have us believe that conservative Christians are major threats to domestic tranquility." Four news stories in June (concerning Southern Baptist Convention speeches, a book tour by ex-Afghanistan captives Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer, and the Supreme Court school-choice decision) created a good opportunity to see whether press biases had diminished-but regrettably, the bleats go on.
1: UnMerritted disfavor
On June 11 at the Southern Baptist Convention's annual gathering, SBC President James Merritt said, "We love homosexuals. God loves homosexuals. But He loves them too much to leave them homosexuals."
Mr. Merritt told of how he "had the privilege of leading two lesbians to Christ. We baptized one of them two weeks ago. I sat in their home and had one lesbian look at me with tears coming down her cheeks after she had prayed to receive Christ." He quoted the second lesbian as saying, "Our lives have been radically changed. Our desires have been radically changed."
Mr. Merritt concluded, "Christ has the power to change anybody. And so I urge you never ever condemn a blind man because he cannot see. These people are lost. They need Christ. Except for the grace of God, it would be us."
The Associated Press reported the address as follows: "ST. LOUIS (AP)-The head of the Southern Baptists condemned homosexuality from the podium yesterday .... 'Stop killing us. Stop the spiritual violence,' one [gay demonstrator] shouted.... 'You need Jesus,' shouted back the Rev. Robert Smith, a pastor from Cedar Bluff, Ala. Others hissed...."
Words like condemned and hissed convey an impression of hatred. But the overall story died quickly, in part because bigoted reporters could not do much with Mr. Merritt's actual statements; the tone was strong but compassionate. Mainly, though, that story died because a better example of Southern Baptist "bigotry" soon emerged.
2: Swinging at Vines
Also on June 11, Rev. Jerry Vines, pastor of First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, Fla., told the SBC gathering: "Islam was founded by Muhammad, a demon-possessed pedophile who had 12 wives-and his last one was a 9-year-old girl." This was very tough language (I personally prefer the pastoral emphasis of Mr. Merritt) but it arguably had a factual base. In Islam the Hadith-stories of Muhammad's life-have canonical status alongside the Quran; the most revered collection of Hadith, the one edited by Bukhari, notes that Muhammad had many wives, including 9-year-old Aisha (Vol. V, nos. 234, 236).
Whether that made Muhammad a pedophile could be debated among psychologists, and whether he was demon-possessed has been debated among theologians for almost 1,400 years-Muhammad himself at one point thought he might be-but there was no reason for journalists to be shocked, shocked that Mr. Vines, a former SBC president, took a strong stand against Islam. Nor was it big news that he spoke colorfully; when a pastor is talking to other pastors and church leaders at a conference, a preach-off-somewhat like a Pillsbury bake-off-is common. Everyone at such conferences rolls out the rhetorical cannon.
Reporters and Muslim lobbyists, though, made Mr. Vines's statements a big deal. A New York Times news story cited Mr. Vines's remarks as an example of "hate speech against Muslims" that has "become a staple of conservative Christian political discourse." The Associated Press quoted Muslim complaints about "hate-filled and bigoted language." Journalists, instead of attempting to determine objective fact, merely emphasized subjectivity, as did a publication with an honest title, PR Week: The Baptist leader had uttered what "was deemed hate speech by Muslims and condemned by Jewish groups, other Christian denominations, and moderate Baptists."
Hate, hate, hate, emphasized an Associated Press reporter who came up with a nifty quotation from Islamic Studies professor Ingrid Mattson: The Vines statement "makes me wonder what's the hateful religion right now that we should be worried about." A Washington Post news story attacked Mr. Vines in similar terms, but at least cited the book that was the basis of Mr. Vines's charges (Unveiling Islam: An Insider's Look at Muslim Life and Beliefs by Ergun Mehmet Caner and Emir Fethi Caner, brothers raised as Muslims who embraced Christ in 1982 and are now professors).
The Post ran an editorial on its editorial page to accompany the editorial in its news section. The editorial's first paragraph gives a sense of the whole: "Some people who follow these things say no one should be surprised by the anti-Muslim bigotry of a former leader of the Southern Baptist Convention. Maybe that's right; maybe when the Rev. Jerry Vines, a former president of the convention, called the prophet Muhammad a 'demon-possessed pedophile,' we shouldn't have been shocked, only disgusted." The editorial then took President Bush to task for not having blasted Rev. Vines.
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."
The Associated Press labeled vouchers a "divisive idea," but Clarence Thomas's concurring opinion pointed out that the governmental educational system was already divisive: Alluding to Frederick Douglass's statement that education "means emancipation," Justice Thomas wrote, "Today many of our inner-city public schools deny emancipation to urban minority students. Despite this Court's observation nearly 50 years ago in Brown vs. Board of Education, that 'it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education,' urban children have been forced into a system that continually fails them."
Before even explaining what the Supreme Court majority had decided, the Associated Press had opponents calling vouchers a "fraud." The AP story did not quote Justice Thomas's examination of the real fraud: "While in theory providing education to everyone, the quality of public schools varies significantly across districts." Nor did it quote Mr. Thomas's explanation of how prime advocates of vouchers are trying to save lives, not "siphon" funds: "Just as blacks supported public education during Reconstruction, many blacks and other minorities now support school choice programs because they provide the greatest educational opportunities for their children in struggling communities.... While the romanticized ideal of universal public education resonates with the cognoscenti who oppose vouchers, poor urban families just want the best education for their children."
The opposition to vouchers was evident on the news pages, but the editorial pages explained more of the reasons for opposition. The New York Times editorialized about the awful situation of parents choosing "between a failing public school system and the city's parochial schools.... Not surprisingly, fully 96.6 percent of students end up taking their vouchers to religiously affiliated schools." The Kansas City Star praised dissenting Justice David Souter's comment that the decision by an overwhelming majority of Cleveland parents to put their children in Christian schools could not possibly reflect the genuine choice of parents. The Los Angeles Times argued that choice isn't necessarily bad, "but what if the choice were only between public and religious schools?" The editorial staffs of these newspapers and many more were clearly troubled at the prospect of more children attending Christian schools.
I'm not at all suggesting that journalists should be cheerleaders for Christians generally or evangelicals in particular. Some examination of American history would lead to greater appreciation of the evangelical role in American history (see WORLD, April 27) but also a far deeper criticism.
Bill Mittlefehldt of the St. Paul Pioneer Press wrote in June: "Religious hatred and intolerance inspired the al-Qaida terrorist attacks. Our nation's founders knew that a young nation, filled with immigrants of different nationalities, languages, and religions, could easily pull apart. This is why public schools were designed as non-sectarian institutions-to unite 'we the people.'"
That's not accurate. Public (that is, government-funded, non-church) schooling caught on in the 1840s and thereafter, after the nation's founders were gone. Many schools were not so much non-sectarian as anti-sectarian, and anti one faith in particular, Catholicism. Catholics, perceiving the public schools as devoted to teaching Protestantism, worked to set up their own institutions and asked that some of their tax money be used to defray expenses. Protestants, wanting their schools to have hegemony, enlisted the aid of a leading politician, James G. Blaine; he would run for president as the GOP nominee and narrowly lose in 1884.
Blaine introduced a constitutional amendment prohibiting aid to explicitly religious schools. It received 2/3 support in the House but fell just short in the Senate. Legislators found a different route to impose their will: They required territories seeking admission to the Union as states, and Southern states seeking readmission, to have "Blaine amendments" in their state constitutions; most states today have them.
Arizona's Supreme Court recently called that state's Blaine amendment "a clear manifestation of ... bigotry" and did not let it sideline a tax-credit law that furthers school choice. School-choice proponents need similar actions in other states. If journalists covered this story, they would find out who is willing to have a level playing field for all religions, and who indeed is pushing for supremacy for his particular worldview. And journalists would be able to attack accurately the evangelical arrogance of Christmases past.
Closing off debate
Sadly, few journalists have looked at the history of American education. Most have remained content to view debates along the reductionist lines suggested by Dahlia Lithwick of Slate: "The whole battle that begins with 'my God can beat up your God' ... shouldn't start now, simply because we mostly agree that God is a good idea."
Several press exceptions to anti-Christian bias were evident. Yonat Shimron of the (Raleigh, N.C.) News and Observer tried to get at the facts of the Vines controversy by interviewing the Caner brothers and examining the Hadith. A Washington Post editorial writer appeared to recognize what its news reporters did not: Washington, D.C., public schools are so bad that even a religious school could be an improvement. But for the most part, reporters seemed content to solicit incendiary remarks without any apparent concern for truth.
Also unexplored was the reason why Muslims are so sensitive about any negative reference to Muhammad. Christians can read about Noah getting drunk, Abraham not protecting his wife, Jacob lying, Judah sleeping with his daughter-in-law, and so on, without being unduly upset, for sin is everywhere, and man's sin makes God's power and mercy in changing lives even more glorious. Muslim spokesman Ibrahim Hooper, though, popped up in the Washington Post to say that "Muslims see the prophet Muhammad as the ultimate example of moral behavior, so they really see this kind of attack on the prophet as gut-churning."
One reason religion is so powerful, though, it that it does churn guts; belief relates to the whole person and is more than intellectual. Mr. Vines was not diplomatic, but we have plenty of diplomats whispering sweet nothings about Islam. We slumber, and good preaching about controversial subjects like homosexuality or Islam wakes us up. So does a book about the willingness of two young women to risk their lives to bring Christ to others, or a Supreme Court decision about school choice.
In all four of these June stories, though, the press tendency-curious, given past journalistic willingness to light fires-was to tamp down. Many journalists proceeded on the assumption that homosexuality is a matter of personal choice (some would say destiny) but selection of a school for one's children is not. Many presupposed that all religions are pretty much the same and that evangelism in Afghanistan is a remnant of disrespectful imperialism.
Maybe those questions are settled among leading journalists but they are not within the public at large, and reporters should not use words about "hate" as a way to close off debate.