Your weekly TV dose of religion news

Since I have a bit of a TV theme going today, anyway…

I’ve been meaning to plug “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly”: on PBS, a terrific, informative show that I never miss (which isn’t that big a deal, since my DVR records it automatically each week).

If you haven’t seen it, R&EN is a general interest, non-denominational program about what’s happening in the world of religion. It’s sense of even-handedness is almost old-fashioned. And their website includes resources for viewers and teachers.

The most recent show featured a well-researched report on Georgia’s extreme sex-offender law (it’s extreme in that it makes life very difficult for people who are not sex offenders). There was also a real fresh feature about African-American Jews trying to find their place in shul.

Each week, host Bob Abernethy goes over the religion headlines in a calm, almost respectful manner that is about as far as you can get from what passes as news anchoring today.

WNET, Channel 13, shows R&EN at 10:30 a.m. on Saturdays and 6:30 p.m. on Sundays (right before 60 Minutes).

This weekend’s show will feature reports on: religious opposition to “mountaintop removal mining” in Kentucky; Conservative Judaism’s decision to allow gay rabbis and same-sex couples; and a McDonald’s owner who offers live Gospel music to french-fry chomping customers.

Another side of the immigration debate

I met yesterday with Larry Rich, executive producer of Maryknoll Productions, which has put out a new documentary on human trafficking. It’s called “Lives for Sale.”:

The film is premiering over the next few weeks on PBS stations across the country. It’s on WLIW, channel 21, in Westchester this Saturday at 3 p.m. WNET (13) will show it in the fall.

The subject, of course, is deeply disturbing. To think that there are immigrants who are kidnapped and taken across the border — or tricked into thinking that a real job is awaiting them, only to be forced into slavery. Most are women or girls forced into prostitution or other forms of sexual exploitation.

There’s no way no really know how widespread this practice is. Most victims of trafficking are kept locked away. Some who may have the opportunity to escape don’t know where to go or who they can trust.

The film makes clear that many victims are tricked by traffickers who are trying to take advantage of immigrants who want to get into the U.S. any way they can. Maryknoll, the Catholic foreign missions community based in Ossining, is certainly pro-immigrant, as is the larger Catholic Church.

“People put themselves at tremendous risk because they’re desperate,” Rich told me. “One of the risks is that they’ll be trafficked. You hope viewers will see this as more complex than they may have thought.”

I’m curious to see if those who want tighter immigration controls will see the film for what it is — a powerful overview of a terrrible social problem — or as liberal propaganda for immigration reform.

The survey shows: Conservative Jews OK with gay ordination

A national “survey”: of clergy and lay leaders across Conservative Judaism has found widespread support for the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis and cantors.

The survey was commissioned by the Jewish Theological Seminary in NYC, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (which represents congregations), and the Rabbinical Assembly (which represents rabbis).

Among the findings (released this morning):

*65 percent of rabbis favor gay ordination; 28 percent are opposed.
*Lay leaders split 68% to 22%.
*Conservative educators split 76% to 16%.

Here’s the interesting (if predictable) gender divide:
*60% of men favor gay ordination, with 33% opposed.
*86% of women are in favor, with 10 percent opposed.

According to the seminary, invitations to participate in the survey were sent to 18,676 email addresses for “rabbis, cantors, educators (including camp directors), United Synagogue Youth advisors, executive directors, USCJ board members, presidents, some congregational officers, and activists (including college students).”

Overall, 5,583 responses were received. Of these, 4,861 came from invitees. And 722 were responses to a public access website.

A committee of rabbinic legal scholars for the Conservative movement recently gave their blessing to the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis. The group also said that it was okay for Conservative congregations to continue to prohibit gay rabbis, if they so choose.

In announcing the survey results, Arnold Eisen, Chancellor-elect of JTS, said this:

“Our intent was and is to know what Conservative Jews – rabbis and cantors, educators and executives, board members and students – think about this important matter: admitting and ordaining/investing openly gay and lesbian students in our rabbinical and cantorial schools. Of particular note is the remarkable unity of Conservative Jews nationwide in their support of the centrality of halakhah as a key principle of Conservative Judaism. The survey gives us data on this score as one factor among many to bear in mind as we consider a complex and controversial decision that will undoubtedly have a major impact on the future direction of JTS and the Conservative Movement. A final decision on this matter is expected this spring.”

Jim and Tammy Faye’s good guy son

I’d been avoiding “One Punk Under God”: — an ongoing series on the Sundance Channel about Jay Bakker, the son of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.

I mean, I’ve always thought of the Bakkers as little more than a joke. Tammy Faye’s makeup. Jim’s unreal smile (and televised break-down after his empire crumbled).

But when I watched the show the other night, it was kind of touching. Jay Bakker (that’s him) is a tattoo-covered, “punk” minister who is still trying to come to terms with his parents’ celebrity and long, slow downfall. He seems very genuine, a lost-puppy sort.


On the show I watched, he visited the ruins of Heritage USA, his parents’ Christian theme park that opened in 1978 and became a sensation. Only two years later, Jim met Jessica Hahn and…you know the rest.

The Bakkers eventually divorced. Jim, somehow, started a “new TV show”: in 2003 with his new wife, Lori. “Tammy Faye”: has been very sick with cancer, but appeared on the WB’s Surreal Life.

Anyhow, it was moving to see Jay walking through what’s left of his childhood.

Even worse was to watch him leave several messages for his father, who would not return calls to his estranged son.

Jay Bakker leads a congregation called “Revolution.”: They meet on Sundays at Pete’s Candy Store in, of all places, Brooklyn.

‘Forgive me, Father, I’m a fake’

My newspaper has a policy that prohibits reporters from posing as something or someone they are not.

Every now and then, though, you hear about a TV reporter who poses as a customer of some sort or someone trying to get a bank loan. You’ve seen it.

Well, get this: A journalist for L’Espresso magazine, a popular Italian weekly, recently made _false confessions_ to 24 priests in five Italian cities, including Rome. He wanted to see if priests would take the same pastoral approach on controversial issues.

And he didn’t leave anything out: homosexuality, divorce, stem-cell research, euthanasia, prostitution. (“Forgive me, Father, but I’ve done stem-cell research….”).

Anyway, the Vatican is not happy. According to “Catholic News Service,”: the Vatican’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, wrote:

“”Shame! There is no other word to express our distress toward an operation that was disgusting, worthless, disrespectful and particularly offensive.”


“It was a sacrilege, because it violated the sacred space in which a self-recognized sinner asks intimately to receive God’s merciful love.”

The state of the union (spiritually speaking)

The venerable “Gallup Organization”: has produced a study of “The Spiritual State of the Union: The Role of Spiritual Commitment in the United States.”:

Some interesting findings:

— The percentage of Americans who say they are “spiritual but not religious” stands at 40 percent (up 10 percent since 1999), compared to 49 percent who are plain, old “religious.” Boy, 40 percent who are SBNR seems kind of high.

— 70 percent say they have meaning and purpose in life because of their faith (including, I guess, a lot of SBNR folks).

— Since 2002, the percentage of Americans who say they are part of the “Christian religious tradition” has dropped 6 percent.

–Those with no religious tradition have grown by 5 percent.

— Only 4 in 10 American believe that, in general, people can be trusted.

— 79 percent of Americans believe that the spiritual health of the nation is important. (Even 44 percent of liberals agree.)

— 60 percent believe that success in life is determined by religious or spiritual forces.

Gallop did the study for the Spiritual Enterprise Institute. I hadn’t heard of the group, so I checked out its “website,”: which says:

“The Spiritual Enterprise Institute (SEI) was established and endowed in 2005, by Dr. Theodore Roosevelt Malloch, to rediscover, measure, organize and direct new thinking about Spiritual Enterprise and Spiritual Capital. The fundamental goal of SEI is to stimulate new thinking and discovery with regard to the “toolâ€? of Spiritual Capital, and how it can best be employed to benefit social and economic development through Spiritual Enterprise.”

I still don’t know what it is. But the website features a quotation from Ben Franklin: “God helps them that help themselves.”

Building ‘hope’ for Katrina victims

Over the last year, many religious congregations in New York have sent youth groups and other delegations to the Katrina-ravaged Gulf. They paint. They build. They talk. They help out in any way they can.

Trips down south have become the social ministry of choice for many.

When the Rev. Chris Mietlowski, pastor of Dobbs Ferry Lutheran Church, came back from a journey to Mississippi last year, his son Lucas said something that stayed with him: “After we came back from our trip last year, Lucas wanted us to keep building ‘hope’ for the people we met who lost so much after Hurricane Katrina.”

So on Feb. 10, from noon to 4 p.m., the church will host a community-wide “nail-a-thon” at the Embassy Club in Dobbs Ferry, 60 Palisade St. What’s a nail-a-thon?, you ask. “For every dollar donated to support the people of Mississippi, a nail will be hammered into one of four very large boards (4’x8′). Each board will have one letter spelling the word “H-O-P-E.”

Then, from Feb. 17 to 24, 53 people from four local congregations, including Mietlowski’s, will return to Ocean Springs, Miss. The other congregations taking part are Woodlands Community Temple in Greenburgh, Emanuel Lutheran Church in Pleasantville, and St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New City.

Donations can be sent to Dobbs Ferry Lutheran Church, 43 Ashford Ave., Dobbs Ferry, NY 10522. (Write in note section: “Mississippi trip.”)

For more information, contact Mietlowski at 914-693-0810 (church) or

The unexpected memoirs of a journalist

I only met Tracy Early a few times, but I knew him through reputation.

Early was one of the best-known religion journalists in New York, over a span of several decades, before his death in December 2005. For a quarter-century, he was the New York correspondent for Catholic News Service. He also wrote for National Catholic Reporter, the Christian Science Monitor and many other publications.

He was a distinguished looking fellow who asked the kind of precise questions at press conferences that journalists, well, don’t always ask.

Early completed the manuscript for a book that he never got published. But his brother, Grady Early, of San Marcos, Texas, has stepped in to finish the project. The book, called “Sidebars: Reflections by a Missionary Journalist in New York,” is available directly through him.

Early wrote about what he did and what he cared about: reporting in New York on everyone from evangelicals to Jews and everything from abortion to liberation theology.

His brother also includes a biography of the author.

In a letter sent to Early’s friends and associates, Grade Early writes: “Using his observations and his articles over those years, he paints vivid pictures of major issues that he reported on for so long. He writes in natural language with humor and insight and, in some cases, unedited bluntness. Along the way, he often intersperses comments that reflect his own religious theology.

“As Tracy wrote in a note, the book is neither highbrow nor lowbrow but — what’s left? — middlebrow. The subject matter and treatment is not designed for theologians, but for anyone with an interest in religious issues.”

Many reader must have assumed that Tracy Early was Catholic. But he was an ordained Baptist minister who attended Riverside Church.

Father Jim Gardiner of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement told NCR around the time of Early’s death: “He embodied ecumenism to the point that it took me several years to realize that he wasn’t Catholic. He was so knowledgeable and so respectfully inquisitive and so personally supportive and so human.â€?

To obtain a copy of the book, send $30 to Grady Early, 214 Triple Crown Run, San Marcos, Texas 78666. I’m going to get mine.

Is Hillary a Wiccan? McCain a Zoroastrian?

I’m pretty late getting to the whole “Is Obama a Muslim?” controversy, but just a quick thought…

Can anything be a story these days?

Insight magazine, published by The Washington Times, runs an “article”: saying that Hillary Clinton thinks Barack Obama may be hiding his secret Muslim past. Then Fox News picks it up and CNN investigates.

Obama has already acknowledged he attended a mostly Muslim school in Indonesia. And now he belongs to a United Church of Christ congregation in Chicago.

So he’s a secret Muslim, posing as a Christian and going to church on Sunday?

And Hillary’s team leaked this? To make themselves look like fools?

Here’s the real question: How is The Onion going to top this?

‘My Methodist Space’

The United Methodist Church today rolled out its new website — still “”: — that includes “the first large-scale social networking site developed for people of faith.”

The site’s “community”: and social network, modeled on MySpace and Facebook, allows visitors to connect with one another 24 hours a day. People can set up personal profiles, establish networks of “friends” and upload photos.

This is a church network, though. It filters out offensive language. There are reviews of video and photo content. And visitors can also flag inappropriate content to be checked out.

ourchurch_main_467.jpg“ is more than a Web site—it’s about relationships and bringing people of faith together in innovative new ways,� says the Rev. Larry Hollon, head of United Methodist Communications in Nashville.

It is a good-looking site, easy to navigate. There’s a lot of good material on “our rich theological heritage.”

The new site also includes:

An “Our People” section, “where visitors can identify their own personal spiritual gifts, see how they can use their individual talents to make a difference, and read inspirational stories of faith about members of The United Methodist Church.”

A “Prayâ€? tab, where visitors can submit a prayer request.

A “Serve� section, which connects people with volunteer opportunities in their communities.