Finding Religion under the Barrister's Robe and in the Stripper's G-String

by Diane Winston

Just another day in the news: Chief Justice John Roberts casts the deciding vote in the Supreme Court's verdict on Obamacare, Egypt's new first lady is introduced to the American public and Steven Soderbergh's film about a male stripper garners mixed reviews.

But here's the interesting part—religion is significant in all three stories. Whether or how that angle is covered highlights Americans' ambivalence about religion as well as the news industry's attempts to shape our points of view.

Taking care of the sick? A major must in most traditions. Yet, most mainstream coverage didn't include a religion angle on the health care debate. Some online sites did report grassroots reaction. But the Washington Post's “On God” blog took note, parsing the political ramifications of potential religious infighting over the law. Still, like many mainstream news outlets, the Post assumes religion is a subset of politics rather than a broader grouping of beliefs, behaviors, ethics and spirituality.
The New York Times has a more capacious view, casting religion as a cultural force for good among friends and allies—and not so good among those it distrusts. Historically, the Times distrusts true believers, those who place scriptures over Style. As recently as the 1980s, evangelicals were depicted as quaint, and the Religious Right as politically naïve. Today, Western faiths like Judaism and Christianity typically get a pass—reported on as fascinating phenomena—but Islam is subtly denigrated, frequently through descriptions of its “oppression” of women.

Many Muslim women are victims of oppression, but their mistreatment often owes as much to culture as it does to religion. Child brides, marital rape, wife beating and honor killings occur in Muslim countries, but Islamic law does not sanction them. Neither does Islam seek to repress women through dress; in many countries head-to-toe female coverings are cultural not religious traditions, and in other places women choose to wear them as statements of religious commitment or Islamic solidarity. 

But the Times sees the hijab as a red flag. If it's not an outright indicator of repression, then surely it telegraphs close-minded parochialism. Read Thursday's profile of Naglaa Ali Mahmoud, the wife of Egypt's new president, as an example of the paper's flair for gracious deprecation. In the very first graf, Ms. Mahmoud is cast as backward, uneducated and unenlightened—in the nicest language imaginable.

Just for comparison, see last Friday's article on another group of religious women who wear concealing garments. But modesty among New York's Hasidic Jews isn't cause for righteous outrage or concern about repressive gender roles. The only question posed about these religiously-dictated fashion statements is how wearers cope with the heat. Cute, but in its own way a subtle take-down of religious commitment.

Over the past five years, contributors to the Scoop have had fun challenging the Times and the Post and other new outlets on why they perpetuate bad religion coverage–or giving them kudos when they get it right. We've explored how world religions are depicted; wondered why background and contextualization of religious traditions are minimized or missing; analyzed the ideological reasons for news and entertainment constructions of religion and religious folks; and called for fuller and richer probing of manifestations of belief in everyday life.

Now we're moving on to something new. A retooled Trans/Missions will be unveiled in 2013, but for the rest of the year, we're redesigning the site to feature religion coverage done right. Later this summer, we'll make it easier than ever to see KCMR-supported reporting on religion in the U.S. and overseas. We'll also keep links to the Scoop–check out the archive. We have five years' worth of savvy commentary on coverage of everything from Asian-American “model minorities” to The Wire.

And what of “Magic Mike“? Much to be written about religion and the objectification of the male body, analyses that plumb challenges to family values (especially male authority), the rise of female spectatorship and the conundrum of male commodification. Sounds yummy, right?

Looking forward to your post.

Re-modeling Reporting on "The Model Minority"

by Jane Iwamura

Last week, the Pew Research Center released a major report from its recent survey of Asian Americans. Pew's press release tagged Asian Americans as “the best-educated, highest-income, fastest-growing race group in the country,” and the highly regarded research institution further buttressed their claim with eye-catching and easily digestible graphics featuring buzzwords and catch-phrases such as hard work, education and tiger moms. Reporters ran with Pew's interpretative frame and generated their own headlines: “Asians eclipsing Latinos in immigration to the U.S.” (Reuters); “Asian Americans more educated, successful” (UPI); “Asian American parenting attitudes explored in Pew Study” (Washington Post).

Asian American politicians, advocacy groups and scholars were quick to write back with their own copy: “Asian Americans respond to Pew: We're Not Your Model Minority” (Colorlines). While there has been significant outcry, most of these criticisms are only prominently featured in West coast newspapers (Los Angeles Times, Seattle Times) and liberal publications (NPR, Huffington Post) or circulated through Asian American news outlets and blogs. The rest of the country (including Pew) seems content with its cherished stereotypes of Asian Americans.

Now one might ask why Asian American commentators are up in arms about the Pew Research Center report. After all, is it all that bad being the “top of the class”? As critics aptly point out, the summary report's focus on Asian American mobility, happiness and sense of national belonging, as well parenting attitudes, only reinforces the discourse about Asian Americans as the “model minority.” This stereotype obscures sharp disparities within a highly diverse population. The trope is also used to discipline other minority groups, e.g., “undocumented” Latinos and “low achieving” African Americans. Furthermore, the public release of the report and much of the news coverage that followed lends itself to older stereotypes that have plagued Asian Americans: “Asian invasion,” “Yellow Peril” and “Perpetual Foreigner.”

The data generated by the report is important. Pew's “spin,” however, borders on the sensational and does little to encourage a more nuanced look at the numbers. (Compare “The Rise of Asian Americans” with other Pew titles, more neutrally posed: “When Labels Don't Fit: Hispanics and Their Views of Identity,” or “A Religious Portrait of African Americans.”)

Representation is arguably one of the biggest challenges facing Asian Americans. And here is where news media play an especially key role. Pew obviously has an interest in garnering headlines with its reports, and journalists must try to dig beneath the hype. In this particular case, reporters might consider pre-existing stereotypes (both positive and negative), investigate the survey's construction and examine to what degree it reinforces prevailing attitudes and views. I served as an adviser to the Pew study, but only received one query from a journalist. While Pew did take into consideration some of the advisory committee's input, it failed to incorporate three of our biggest concerns: the inclusion of parenting or “tiger mom” questions; contextualization of the data (how selective migration is a significant factor in Asian American “success”); and a portrait that reflects the diversity of the group.

The Pew Research Center plans to release a second report from the Asian American survey in July; this report will focus on the religious affiliation, beliefs and practices of Asian Americans. If Stephen Prothero's “Belief Blog” for CNN is taken as any indication, the forthcoming report might only add to the misrepresentation and misunderstanding. In his editorial, Prothero ponders the significance of some of preliminary data on religion included in last week's report. He points to the high numbers of the “unaffiliated” (26 percent) and surmises that Asian immigration “may be making the United States less religious.” But if one looks at Pew's own Religious Landscape Survey, one will see that whites (non-Hispanics) make up the majority of the “unaffiliated” (73 percent) followed by Hispanics (11 percent) and blacks (8 percent). The 4 percent that Asian Americans contribute to this category—even with increased immigration—makes a very small dent in the overall figures.

Superficial interpretations do more than spread inaccurate portrayals. They also can do tremendous damage to a community. When I read Prothero's blog, I could not help but recall a time in (Asian-)American history when Chinese and other Asian Americans were labeled as “heathens” and suffered terrible consequences because of it. It is too easy for commentators and reporters to read and interpret such findings in stereotypical ways. Instead, we might use the forthcoming report on Asian Americans to ask new questions about religion and religious belonging: How might existing categories of religion fail to capture the Asian American experience (e.g., Chinese traditional religion)? How do race and class intersect when it comes to religious affiliation? What accounts for the large number of Asian Christians who migrate to the U.S.? What challenges have Asian American Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Muslims had to face in the U.S. environment? Such questions will help to move us away from illusion and more towards insight.

Jane Iwamura is a Visiting Scholar at the UCLA Asian American Studies Center. She is the author of Virtual Orientalism: Asian Religions and American Popular Culture and co-editor of Revealing the Sacred in Asian and Pacific America.

De-Sissyfying Jesus

by Richard Flory

Evangelical Christians have a long history of co-opting popular cultural forms, giving them a nice (and wholesome) Christian gloss and turning them into tools to help convert the masses—or at least to get them into the pews at the local megachurch. For example, in the early 20th century Billy Sunday parlayed his past as a debauched professional baseball player into a career as a barnstorming evangelist, drawing thousands to his revival meetings. I've read that he would run out onto stage, slide into position as though he were stealing second base and then stand up and start preaching.

There are many other examples of this phenomenon over the past 100 years or so, ranging from popular Christian music to Christian-themed movies, some of better quality than others (remember that atrocious film adaptation of the Left Behind book series?).

More recently a sort of “X-Games” Christianity has emerged in which young evangelical Christians — some of whom happen to be very good at skateboarding, BMX or stadium motocross — are using their prowess in edgy sports to promote the Gospel. Now, as if to raise the bar on extreme Christian outreach, several evangelical churches have launched ministries that use mixed martial arts (MMA) to attract followers and to spread the message that, contrary to what one might think, Jesus liked to kick a little ass. This latest attempt at combining popular cultural forms and muscular Christianity — dubbed “Fight Church” — is the subject of a new documentary.

MMA is a particularly violent, brutal and often bloody “sport” in which contestants seek to pummel their opponents until they “tap out” or give up. The New York Times described the “fight church” as a part of efforts to attract younger males back into evangelical churches; it's also meant to introduce a little testosterone into what some Christian conservatives see as a “feminized” Christianity that promotes “kindness and compassion at the expense of strength and responsibility.”

The “fight church,” however, is only one way that macho Christianity is being promoted by evangelical ministries. Traditionally, evangelicals have focused on male Christian athletes such as Billy Sunday in the early 20th century and, more recently, media phenoms like Jeremy Lin and Tim Tebow. Others have pushed the emphasis further, depicting an aggressive, even violent Jesus and decrying the “feminization” of Christianity, including, of all things, its “effeminate and queer” music.

Like its sibling fundamentalism, evangelicalism has from its beginnings been an authoritarian, patriarchal movement. These various efforts to restore Christianity's purported masculine essence serve to illustrate the point. The “fight church” approach is just a natural, although incredibly violent, progression in promoting this ideology. Yet beyond simply reporting the titillating and sometimes baffling aspects of these ministries, journalists might ask why evangelicals remain so keenly focused on masculinity and male dominance in church and society? How does this core gender ideology, in turn, shape evangelical views on relations between the sexes, LGBTQ rights, same-sex marriage and the like? Finally, given that there is an apparent shift among younger evangelicals on issues related to sexual ethics, is the hyper-muscular Christianity represented by MMA ministries the first inkling of a backlash? Or is it, instead, the last gasp of patriarchal evangelicalism?

Richard Flory is associate research professor of sociology and Director of Research in the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California. He is the co-author of Growing Up in America: The Power of Race in the Lives of Teens (Stanford, 2010) and Finding Faith: The Spiritual Quest of the Post-Boomer Generation (Rutgers, 2008).

The Organic (Counter-) Reformation

by Kevin Healey

A recent headline at Jezebel made a startling claim: “Study Suggests that Eating Organic Foods Contributes to Moral Depravity.” It sounds counter-intuitive, given that many who eat organic do so for ethical reasons. Yet it conjures the love-to-hate-her stereotype of the wealthy and obnoxious Whole Foods mom. Psychology professor Kendall Eskine had unwittingly published a study ripe for sensationalist coverage. In the bitter commentary that followed, a broader issue was lost: the tension between consumerism and ethics that plagues every contemporary value system, from the religious to the secular.

Despite Jezebel's misleading headline, Eskine's study does not measure the effect of eating organic foods. Rather, it suggests that exposure to organic food labels can make people more judgmental and less altruistic. The argument: When we identify with a “good” product we feel that we have a credit in the bank, morally speaking, and therefore are less likely to help others. Similar research suggests the same effect for “green” products.

Given adverse reaction to crass consumerism in the recent film version of The Lorax—which transformed the story's central figure from a prophetic social critic into a sales mascot for laundry detergent—one might expect that organic food and environmental advocates would appreciate the implications of Eskine's study. In fact, Eskine insists that “organic products are indubitably environmentally sound and ethical choices,” and suggests that marketers should modify ad campaigns so consumers don't perceive their purchases as a moral license. That way individuals can become healthier—and economies more sustainable—without the psychological pitfalls he describes.

In other words, the problem is not organic food itself, but rather the commodification of ethics. Arguably, that problem is epitomized by the sale of indulgences by the Catholic Church. But it continues today in the form of “cause-related marketing” such as Bono's product-driven RED campaign, which benefits AIDS research. As Mara Einstein argues in Compassion, Inc., “[T]he ultimate consequence of merging profits and purpose is further desensitization to those less fortunate, while doing little to engage people in meaningful altruism.”

Of course, the sale of indulgences led not to the wholesale rejection of Christianity but rather the attempt—by Protestants and Catholics alike—to recover its integrity. Likewise, the issues raised by the RED campaign, as well as organic and “green” marketing, should prompt a re-examination of the notion of the “citizen-consumer,” not a rejection of cause-related activism.

Unfortunately, media coverage of Eskine's study eschews these nuances in favor of sensationalism. An MSN headline reads, “Does organic food turn people into jerks?” A Huffington Post headline suggests that “Organic eaters might be meaner than their counterparts.” At Fox News and Psychology Today, psychologist Dale Archer argues that organic shoppers are not actually any smarter or “greener” than their “McDonald's chomping neighbors,” but are simply overcome by a “moral superiority syndrome.” In fact, Archer claims that “the behavior of an organic shopper”—along with anti-fur advocates and hybrid car owners—is “comparable to that of a cult member.”

The message: If organic shoppers are simply “jerks,” we needn't address the broader question of whether organic food is, in fact, healthier and more environmentally sustainable. But to dismiss questions of food ethics based on the ill-effects of their appropriation by the marketing industry is like dismissing AIDS activism because of the distasteful consumerism of the RED campaign.

No religious tradition has escaped the problems of consumerism. One can find religiously branded products to suit any niche interest, from Buddha key chains to Jesus T-shirts. And while today's organic shoppers are too ethnically and economically diverse to qualify as a cult (notwithstanding the origins of the health food movement), marketers suggest they are nevertheless driven by “common values and principles.” The numerous “denominations” within the organic movement have different practices and sites of worship—backyard gardens, corner bodegas, food coops and, yes, large-scale retailers. Not surprisingly, then, mass retailers who target this diverse group may resemble churches of sorts. Headed by CEO John Mackey—a Buddhist—Whole Foods appears in CNN's list of “10 Religious Companies.”

With regard to the problems of consumerism, traditional religions may find forgiveness more easily since they can appeal to a “golden age”— real or imagined—that preceded the onset of mass commercialization. By contrast, the relative youth and diversity of the organic movement, and its lack of a coherent “grand narrative,” make it more susceptible to quick dismissals. In fact, emergent ethical systems may have a harder time achieving cultural legitimacy because their authenticity is compromised from the get-go.

Eskine's findings are no reason to dismiss issues of food ethics out of hand. But his call for more effective marketing also falls short. Rather, the study should prompt far more sweeping questions (for journalists as well as consumers): If Whole Foods is selling indulgences, who is nailing theses to its doors, and what would be the foodie equivalent of a Protestant Reformation?

Kevin Healey currently holds a Postdoctoral Fellowship through the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Kevin's research on media and religion appears in Journal of Mass Media Ethics, Cultural Studies <=> Critical Methodologies, and Symbolic Interaction. His co-edited volume on the “prophetic” critique of popular media is scheduled for publication in the fall of 2012.

Politicos (and Journos) Chase the Catholic Vote

by Maura Jane Farrelly

Reporters, columnists, campaign strategists and admen have once again discovered the Catholic vote – and it isn't just because Catholics make up a quarter of the American electorate and are the largest religious group within America's fastest growing voting bloc, Latinos. It's because Catholics are some of the hardest cattle for our cowboy politicians to get their lassos around.  They went for Reagan and Bush in the 1980s, Clinton in the 1990s, Gore in 2000, but then Bush in 2004 – when, ironically, the evangelical convert was running against the first Catholic to achieve a party nomination since 1960. In 2008, the Catholic vote went back to the Democrats, when 54 percent of Catholics cast their ballots for Barack Obama.  

Obama's slim victory among Catholics was nothing to crow about – and in this sense, it was pretty typical of candidates' performances over the last 30 years. In only one of the last eight presidential elections did a candidate actually snag a sizable majority of Catholic voters: Clinton beat Dole by 16 points in 1996. In all of the other elections, however, Catholics were pretty evenly split, with the winning candidate (who also won the overall election seven out of the eight times) getting just a few percentage points more. Indeed, as Jim Arkedis recently noted in the New York Times, “perhaps no presidential candidate since John F. Kennedy has been able to unite this disparate flock” (Arkedis prefers the bird analogy, while I prefer the cow…).

This makes Catholics a fun group for reporters and columnists working the presidential beat to write about – and one that campaign strategists and political action committees feel they can't ignore. Catholics, after all, seem to be pretty good at picking presidential winners, and you never know which candidate they're going to pick.  

Hence, in addition to the coverage of the “Vatileaks” scandal and the ongoing rift between the Holy See and American nuns (a rift that was in the headlines again this week, when the Vatican condemned a book on sexuality that was written by Sr. Margaret Farley at Yale University), we've seen a flurry of articles and editorials about the so-called “Catholic vote.” Ross Douthat at the New York Times and Ramesh Ponnuru at the National Review have both assured us that the Catholic vote is very real, and Michael Gerson at the Washington Post has theorized that Obama is deliberately offending the Catholic vote in an effort to get young people to turn out for him in 2012, the way they did in 2008.

But I wonder if Michael O'Brien at MSNBC might not be on to something when he insists that the “Catholic vote” is a myth?  He points to a recent Gallup poll that shows Mitt Romney and Barack Obama running neck-and-neck among Catholic voters and notes that the split among Catholics is pretty indistinguishable from the split among other voter groups, such as women, whites or even Protestants. In other words, like other constituencies, Catholics who describe themselves as “very religious” support Romney, while Catholics who describe themselves as “not especially religious” support Obama.  

This raises the question of whether Republican strategists should be – or even are – targeting a “Catholic” vote, per se, when they draw voters' attention to the Obama administration's desire to see employers include coverage for contraception in their health insurance plans. One of the loudest groups to come out against the contraception mandate, after all, is the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Strategies aimed at the Catholic vote, therefore, may really be about rallying the Republican base.

But even if there isn't an actual “Catholic vote” out there, there are Catholics who vote – and who are strongly guided by their faith in their voting decisions. Because of this, I believe it is important for members of the news media to continue to explore the ways in which faith influences voting behavior within the largest single religious denomination in the United States. But the diversity within this single denomination must at all times be emphasized – and it would serve us all well if journalists eliminated the phrase “the Catholic vote” from their lexicon and spoke instead of “Catholic voters” in all their complexity.

Maura Jane Farrelly is assistant professor of American Studies and Director of the Journalism Program at Brandeis University. In the past, she was a reporter for Voice of America and Georgia Public Radio. Her first book, Papist Patriots: The Making of an American Catholic Identity, was recently published by Oxford University Press.

An Evangelical Changing of the Guard?

by Richard Flory

At about the same time that President Barack Obama came out in favor of gay marriage, and North Carolina amended its constitution to forbid gay marriage, a small group calling itself the Biola Queer Underground announced itself on the campus of Biola University, an evangelical university in southern California. Although it is difficult to tell how large this group is, its website claims “dozens” of members. It is understandably secretive, and no members are publicly identified.

Prior to their coming-out announcement, BQU was in discussion with members of another group related to Biola, this one made up of alumni, faculty and others, called Biola Queers. This group is not so secretive and includes self-identified LBGTQ members as well as those who are sympathetic to their cause. Quite understandably, the public emergence of an LGBTQ group at a conservative evangelical university has garnered a lot of coverage in the Christian press, among Christian bloggers, in the mainstream news media and even from a “friendly atheist” blogger.

I've written previously about the emergence of LGBT groups on evangelical university campuses, so I won't revisit those themes. But the persistence of the issue, along with changes in the larger culture regarding gay marriage and the desire of young LGBT evangelicals to remain within the fold, suggests that we may have arrived at a historical point of division within evangelicalism. This milepost will, in turn, have significance across the cultural and political spectrum.

What strikes me most about BQU and its counterparts at other evangelical colleges is that its members are not only committed to evangelical Christianity but also to the institutions that systematically marginalize them. From my perspective, it would be much easier (and perhaps much more healthy) to leave and find a more accepting place, perhaps even chuck the evangelical belief system altogether. Yet, as members of BQU suggest on the group's website, a confluence of factors works to keep them at the school: They grew up in a conservative atmosphere and it is comfortable for them; their parents would only pay for a Christian college education; they only realized through their time at college that their identity was LGBT. In short, these young people want to be evangelicals, but they also want to be accepted for who they are.

That's not an unreasonable aspiration. Recent opinion polls suggest that the younger generation of evangelicals is more accepting of homosexuality than older generations (39 percent of evangelicals 18-29 believe homosexuality should be accepted in society, compared to less than a quarter of evangelicals 34 and older). There are likely many explanations for this change, not the least of which is increasingly positive media representations of LGBTQ people. Because of that openness, younger people in general actually seem to know (and often become good friends with) a more diverse range of people, including LGBTs.

I have argued elsewhere that for religious groups, this exposure to the wider world through media tends to level authority, which is the stock-in-trade of evangelicals and indeed most religious groups. Religious groups need somebody to be in charge who sets the rules to which everybody else has to adhere. With evangelicals this process has historically been not just internal (within particular organizations) but also external (among other evangelical organizations and/or leaders). One word on the radio or from the pulpit by Falwell or Dobson could bring a wayward organization back into line. Now, however, an astonishing array of different groups has a ready platform from which to make their views known.  

These developments taken together raise several questions about the future of evangelicalism more broadly, and evangelical colleges and universities more specifically. Most obviously, reporters could focus on the extent to which the question of sexual identity and gender issues more generally will play out in different evangelical institutional settings. And as changes in the larger society make their way into the evangelical world, how will this change the way evangelicals advocate for their beliefs in the public sphere?

Other questions related specifically to evangelical universities are also important. For example, what will future legal changes in the definition of marriage mean for evangelical schools? Historically these schools have been able to maintain a proscription against all sexual acts outside the bonds of marriage, but what will this mean if gay marriage becomes legal? Will this put them at odds with the law and thereby affect their accreditation status? Further, none of these schools has any significant endowment; they are almost completely dependent on annual tuition dollars to operate. And while evangelical colleges like to claim that they don't take any money from state sources, they actually do in the form of state-funded student scholarships and federally guaranteed loans. What happens if this source of student scholarship money dries up?

In the end, the problem that evangelicals and their universities are encountering—thoughtful, articulate, insightful students and alumni who remain committed to their Christian faith despite their differences with fellow believers—is one of their own making. That is, these young people are the product of a (generally) good college education, in which they learn to think independently and argue for a particular point of view. These abilities are now being turned against the authority of accepted evangelical orthodoxies, not in order to undermine these institutions, but to challenge the way that they act toward committed, yet marginalized, members of their faith. Questions abound, and forward-thinking reporters will begin ask them.

Richard Flory is associate research professor of sociology and Director of Research in the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California. He is the co-author of Growing Up in America: The Power of Race in the Lives of Teens (Stanford, 2010) and Finding Faith: The Spiritual Quest of the Post-Boomer Generation (Rutgers, 2008).

Latinos and LGBT Rights

by Arlene M. Sánchez-Walsh

Two recent surveys dispel some common misconceptions about Latino/a religious communities and LGBT rights. Adept news media watchers would do well to dig into these findings, which debunk the myth that Latinos/as are overwhelmingly socially conservative and that they invariably rely on their religious convictions to guide their politics.

According to a survey from Latino Decisions, moral values are not a defining issue for Latino voters. Another poll commissioned by the National Council of La Raza illuminates the broad gap between stereotypes and reality by revealing growing acceptance of the LGBT community among Latinos/as.

Of course, the finer details complicate the picture. Among Latino evangelicals, LGBT acceptance is still far off, though for many mainline Protestants and Catholics, the time for LGBT acceptance has already arrived. Here are some highlights: Among Latino/a Catholics, over 30 percent support same-sex marriage, for example. The numbers are similar for mainline Protestants. The NCLR study offers a bounty of information for journalists interested in the nuances within Latino/a religious communities and their views on a host of LGBT issues.

Two keys to LGBT acceptance among Latino/as are acculturation and generation. Recent immigrants, who tend to be most anti-gay, generally say they know no gay people and often hold onto a brand of biblical literalism that makes LGBT acceptance a nonstarter. There are clear correlations between the length of time in the U.S. (the level of acculturation) and the degree of moderation in views on social issues–trends that trace an arc from very conservative immigrant generations to highly acculturated U.S. born-Latinos. The take-away message? LGBT acceptance among Latinos/as seems to be just a matter of time.

Latino/a Catholics and Protestants who reported a more accepting attitude noted that the more contact they had with LGBT community, the more acceptance they felt. U.S.born Catholics, in particular, did not exhibit the antipathy that conservative Catholic activists have; in fact, they actually have one of the highest rates of LGBT acceptance. Mainline Protestants–a smaller but historically significant group of Latinos/as–exhibited the same or higher rates of acceptance. This supports the idea that as Mainline denominations have begun to accept LGBT people, their Latino/a adherents have incorporated these changes into their own belief systems.

Scholars of religion and those who cover religion in the news media would do well to complicate the picture of Latino/a religion by examining such crucial issues as generational change, acculturation and shifts in the sources of religious authority. The assumptions of the past cannot be taken as givens in the present, especially as the Latino/a religious community continues to evolve and surprise us all.

Arlene M. Sánchez-Walsh is associate professor of Latino church studies at Azusa Pacific University. As a Lilly Fellow in 2006, she began a project examining the influence of the prosperity gospel among Latino evangelicals. In addition, she is completing a book on multicultural evangelical youth culture and beginning a textbook for Columbia University Press's “Religion in America” series entitled Pentecostalism in America. Her first book, Latino Pentecostal Identity: Evangelical Faith, Self and Society, received the Hispanic Theological Initiative's Book Award in 2005.

The Gay Marriage Debate: Not (Just) About Religion

by Nicole Neroulias

Coverage of same-sex marriage often pits conservative Christians against liberals and atheists. While there is certainly some fire behind this smoke, several factors predict which side Americans take on this debate – and religion is only part of the puzzle.

Media outlets have rushed to conduct polls on gay marriage, as North Carolina voters affirmed its one-man, one-woman definition earlier this month, President Obama declared his support for marriage equality and states like Maine and Washington are expected to weigh in on their laws in November. As a journalist, I prefer to consult academics and public opinion experts who have been analyzing controversial faith-related issues over time, such as the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and the Public Religion Research Institute. These findings tend to be more nuanced, with years of data to back up their conclusions.

I asked PRRI research director Daniel Cox to isolate various demographic characteristics – not just whether you're an evangelical Christian, a frequent church-goer and believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible – to reveal what else plays into approval or rejection of gay marriage. Based on 2011 data, he reports that political affiliation, age, education level and gender are also strong predictors: Democrats, people under 30, college graduates and women are generally more accepting of same-sex couples. And across the board, people who have close friends or relatives who are gay are more OK with their tying the knot.

Makes sense. In Washington, both Republicans who voted in favor of the gay marriage bill in the state's House of Representatives emotionally spoke about gay family members. Democrats from conservative parts of the state also cited gay friends and family, or like President Obama, noted that their children – the generation gap at work – have friends with same-sex parents and don't see the problem.

Of course, religion has a strong influence on this debate, along with generation, gender, geography and political leanings. And all these factors are interrelated; young people, Democrats, urban residents and people who aren't in conservative Christian families are also more likely to know someone who is gay. In this day and age, it's hard to block out progressive points of view, even if you restrict yourself to right-wing media and a faith-based social life. Mitt Romney's campaign didn't foresee a problem hiring Richard Grenell, who is openly gay, as a foreign policy expert. (Grenell didn't last, but it shows how much has changed that his sexual orientation was considered a “non-issue” by a Mormon Republican candidate in the first place.)

Which brings me to the other problem with oversimplified coverage of this debate: Despite what their leaders say, rank-and-file Catholics, Mormons and evangelical Christians aren't in lockstep against homosexuality. It's easy for Christians on either side of the divide to pick and choose Bible passages to suit their needs – similar to the slavery debate in in history books. Black Christians are additionally conflicted, torn between conservative social values, empathy for minorities seeking equal rights and allegiance to the first African-American president.

In my own reporting on Washington state's Referendum 74 effort to suspend the new gay marriage law so that voters can reject it in November, I've found Catholics like Barbara Guzzo and Mormons like Scott Holley who are just fine with same-sex marriage as a civil right and who are horrified that their faith communities have been tarred as universally intolerant. Washington's evangelicals have been quieter so far, but I've met several who privately admit they don't personally approve of homosexual behavior but wouldn't deny equal civil rights to citizens of other faiths and don't consider the issue a high enough priority to help circulate the Referendum 74 petitions.

In other words, among and between their denominations and sects, Christians, Jews, Muslims and other religious groups are deeply divided on this issue. Just like families. Just like friends. Just like Americans.
GetReligion's Terry Mattingly weighed in recently on a North Carolina gay marriage article that glossed over the state's internally divided churches and voices from the religious left in favor of a simpler “us vs. them” frame. That absence, along with Mattingly's complaint that his blog post elicited far fewer than the site's usual number of comments, illustrates two problems: Most journalists don't have the time/space/knowledge to delve into these angles and they're not likely to get as many hits/comments if the article doesn't simplify the conflict into a clear “us vs. them” mentality.

Nevertheless, the gay marriage debate isn't going away anytime soon, so reporters should remember that it's not (just) about religion– it's about personal relationships, politics, gender, geography and age. We do a disservice to our readers and their faith communities if we dumb it down to a battle between ultra-conservative Christians and the godless world.

Nicole Neroulias is an award-winning religion reporter and Seattle-based correspondent for Reuters. A graduate of Cornell University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, she has previously written for the New York Times, Religion News Service and other media outlets. Follow her on Twitter: @BeliefBeat.

Sex and the Single Muslim

by Umbreen Bhatti

Sex. Here's the thing, you can talk about it like a giggling pre-teen, or you can talk about it like a grownup. In his Foreign Policy piece titled “Sex and the Single Mullah” – great title, right? It definitely got my attention! – Joshua Keating covered questions answered and fatwas issued by Islamic scholars on a wide range of issues, all creepy. In Morocco, for example, Imam Abdelbari Zamzami's fatwa was about female masturbation,

which he said was permissible for women who are widowed, divorced, or had lost hope that they would ever have sexual relations with a man.

“A woman can get much benefit from these vegetables and other elongated objects,” the imam said, listing pestles, bottles, and root vegetables among other suggested implements.

In Egypt in 2006, Rashad Hassan Khalil, former dean of Islamic law at Cairo's al-Azhar University, “ruled that being completely naked during sex would invalidate a couple's marriage.”

And way over in Indonesia, it seems Cholil Ridwan, of the Indonesia Council of Ulema, prefers to focus on pop culture. While it's not clear from the piece that he was issuing a fatwa, he did have the following to say about Lady Gaga prior to her visit to the country:

“She is from the West, and she often shows her aurat [genitalia] when performing,” Ridwan said, taking offense to the “Bad Romance” singer's “revealing outfits and sexualized dance moves.”

What to make of all of the above? Truthfully, I don't know. It seems the message is that Muslims can just be so weird when it comes to sex. But what I can't tell from Keating's piece is what a fatwa is, which might have raised his work from the merely salacious into the realm of the analytical. He might have asked, for example, under what circumstances are fatwas issued? Who is bound by them? Who are the people issuing them? What is the Indonesia Council of Ulema, or India's Sunni Ulema Board, which is also mentioned in the article? While we're at it, what does Ulema even mean? Without this kind of attention to detail and context, it's hard to make sense of the piece. Keating does suggest that the opinions he cites are outliers and not mainstream, yet there's little concrete information or resources for a reader who actually wants to learn something.

Why does this matter? As Sherene Seikaly and Maya Mikdashi write on Jadaliyya,

It is commendable that Foreign Policy highlights the all too common silence about sex and gender politics in its own pages. Hopefully, this is the beginning of a serious and continued engagement, rather than a one-off matter. Despite the editors' good intentions, however, Foreign Policy disturbingly reproduces much of the dominant and sensationalist discourse about sex in the Middle East. The “Sex Issue” leaves much to be desired.

Fortunately, other publications have managed to avoid that dominant and sensationalist discourse, and for that, they deserve commendation. In its weekly roundup of news about Islamic law, islawmix highlights two pieces by Dan Murphy at the Christian Science Monitor that offer good, nuanced coverage of another sex-related story that spread rapidly across the Internet last week – the claim that the Egyptian parliament was considering a law that would allow men to have sex with their wives up to six hours after their deaths. The claim stems from an op-ed penned by Mubarak supporter Amr Abdel Samea in the Egyptian state newspaper Al-Ahram. That commentary was subsequently translated into English for Al Arabiya, then reported in the Huffington Post and elsewhere. Murphy wrote two pieces about the claim for the Christian Science Monitor, as islawmix's Krystina Friedlander notes:

   Murphy writes in the original piece:

There's of course one problem: The chances of any such legislation being considered by the Egyptian parliament for a vote is zero. And the chance of it ever passing is less than that. In fact, color me highly skeptical that anyone is even trying to advance a piece of legislation like this through Egypt's parliament. I'm willing to be proven wrong. It's possible that there's one or two lawmakers completely out of step with the rest of parliament. Maybe.

But in responsible journalism, extreme — not to mention inflammatory — claims need at minimum some evidence (and I've read my share of utter nonsense in Al Ahram over the years). The evidence right now for the Egyptian legislation? Zero.

   Murphy's follow-up piece looks at the political context surrounding Al-Ahram:

Ahram's reporting should be seen within its traditional framework – serving the interests of those in power. That was Mr. Mubarak for decades. Now, it's the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF), the military junta that has run Egypt since Mubarak's ouster last February.

Thanks, Dan. The folks at Foreign Policy could learn a thing or two from you.

Umbreen Bhatti is a lawyer with experience in civil rights and constitutional law, as well as the co-founder of, a service for news readers, media producers and legal scholars seeking credible, authoritative information about Islamic law.

Amendment One, Not Commandment One

by Anthony Hatcher

Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State. This section does not prohibit a private party from entering into contracts with another private party; nor does this section prohibit courts from adjudicating the rights of private parties pursuant to such contracts.

This is the wording of Amendment One, a proposed addition to the North Carolina Constitution. Citizens will vote for or against the amendment during the May 8 primary. Same-sex marriage was outlawed in the state in 1996, so why propose a constitutional amendment?

The short answer is politics. Both houses of the North Carolina General Assembly came under Republican control in 2010 for the first time in a century. GOP proponents feared a state court could strike down the existing law as unconstitutional, paving the way for gay marriage in the state.

Prominent backers of Amendment One include the Rev. Franklin Graham, who recorded an audio message for the pro-amendment group Vote For Marriage NC. Kevin Daniels, 32, is president of the North Carolina chapter of the Frederick Douglass Foundation, a conservative black Republican group that supports the marriage amendment.

A long roster of organizations opposing the amendment, including state chapters of the ACLU and NAACP, as well as gay rights groups, is listed on the website Protect All NC Families. On the surface, this appears to be just another battle in the Culture Wars between liberals and conservatives, the secular and the religious.

Dig a little deeper, though, and you'll find some surprising voices in the opposition, including many conservatives and people of faith. Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers recently made a speech at a Charlotte Country Club. “I believe that when you pass an amendment like that, you are sending a message to the world about what kind of community this is — not inclusive,” he said. “I'm old fashioned. I believe we're all the children of God, and we shouldn't have special rules for some and not for others.”

John Hood, who runs the conservative think tank The John Locke Foundation, believes marriage amendment supporters are misguided. “It seems to me that the real threat to marriage [is] straight people getting divorced or never getting married in the first place,” Hood told WUNC public radio.

A survey from Public Policy Polling shows support for the amendment softening. Fifty-four percent of likely voters support it in the PPP poll, down from 61 percent in November 2011. An Elon University poll conducted in early April found that 61 percent of all state residents oppose the amendment. And a story in the Asheville Citizen-Times noted that “a coalition of Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopal, Unitarian-Universalist, Jewish and other spiritual leaders held a press conference…to show solidarity in opposition to the amendment…”

In the Durham News, columnist Pierce Freelon quoted the Rev. Haywood Holderness, retired pastor of Durham's Westminster Presbyterian Church. “Jesus and the prophets were loving, kind and inclusive, and I find this amendment to be mean-spirited and thoughtlessly constructed,” Holderness said. “A lot of folks say, 'All the other Southeastern states have passed it'… So what? Do we have to be like South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia or Tennessee? We used to be considered something of a renegade state.”

“I hope North Carolina can continue to claim its renegade status,” Freelon writes. “Lucky for us, we're in good company. Jesus was a renegade too.” A fascinating sentiment, and one that complicates the kind of coverage that often passes for reporting on the Culture Wars.

Anthony Hatcher, a former newspaper journalist, is an associate professor of communications at Elon University in Elon, NC. His research focuses on religion and popular culture. He teaches a course at Elon in religion and media.