2017
December
28
Thursday

I often get a question from readers: Whom can I trust? The Monitor offers insight and depth. But the readers’ question is usually more about “fake news”: Who gives me reliability on the nitty-gritty facts about Uranium One or the Mueller investigation?

I prefer to flip the question: Are facts really what seem to be dividing us? Is “fake news” a cause or an effect? That’s why I tell people to go to the Pew Research Center. For example, its 17 striking findings from 2017 is must-read stuff for anyone who wants to understand the forces actually driving the United States and the world.  

The first finding explains so much of what we see in the US today. How people see key values differs by age, race, religion, and education – but not by a huge amount. When it comes to political party, however, the divide skyrockets. Think about that. When we look at the world through the lens of politics, our view literally changes. We think we have less in common than we do when we look through any other lens.

A 2015 study on political identity and trust found that “America’s political polarization is driven more by incorrect beliefs and stereotypes about the other side than distaste with those people,” according to a Harvard Business School review.

The deeper “fake news,” you might say, is how often we’re manipulated into blindly distrusting one another. 

Among our five stories today, we look at what it means to be an “Evangelical,” the ethical dilemma of reporting on white supremacists, and what needs to change to reduce child marriages in Guatemala. 

1. In Trump era, what does it mean to be an 'Evangelical’?

Labels can be useful identifiers – until they are not. Shifts in the American evangelical movement suggest that the label is increasingly papering over a growing split on faith and identity.  

Mark

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As the forces that helped propel Donald Trump to the presidency continue to reshape US politics, some Christian conservatives contend that the term ‘evangelical’ is being distorted during the Trump era to become more a marker of politics than a belief system within the Christian faith. Lately, a number of high-profile Evangelical leaders have been questioning or even abandoning the term. Younger Evangelicals are starting to disavow the label. And after 8 of 10 white Evangelicals in Alabama nearly sent former state chief justice Roy Moore to the US Senate earlier this month despite charges of sexual misconduct involving teenagers, some Evangelicals have been wondering whether the now politically charged term has become too toxic to even have a future. “The biggest issue about the word ‘evangelical’ is whether it should be a political identification for an ethno-religious group,” says George Marsden, a leading scholar of evangelicalism. “As a religious designation, it’s become very confusing here in America to use the term evangelical,” he says. “Every time you do, you have to clarify, well, you don’t mean just white Evangelicals of a particular sort.”

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In Trump era, what does it mean to be an 'Evangelical’?

For political pollsters and journalists, the term “white Evangelical Protestant” has been one of most handy demographic labels out there.

White Americans who say that they are “born again” or who self-identify as “evangelical Christian” have for decades voted consistently and overwhelmingly Republican. As a group, too, they reveal some of the most crystal-clear political positions of any subgroup out there. Making up around 25 percent of the population, white Evangelicals are the most worried about the threats posed by immigrants, by far. They are the most suspicious of Islam, by far. They are the most resistant to same-sex marriage, by far.

Which makes it very “useful as a category of analysis in sociology and political science,” notes John Schmalzbauer, a professor of religious studies at Missouri State University in Springfield. “The fact that 81 percent of people in a religious category voted for a single candidate suggests that it is a helpful way of mapping social reality,” he says about the overwhelming support white Evangelicals gave and continue to give to President Trump.

Yet even as the disruptive forces that helped propel Mr. Trump to the presidency continue to reshape American politics, a growing number of Evangelicals themselves contend the term has been both distorted and corrupted during the Trump era – a marker of politics rather than a belief system within the Christian faith.

Lately, a number of high-profile Evangelical leaders, such as Scot McKnight and Peter Wehner, have been questioning or even abandoning the term. Younger Evangelicals are starting to disavow the label. And after 8 of 10 white Evangelicals in Alabama nearly sent former state chief justice Roy Moore to the US Senate earlier this month, despite charges of sexual misconduct involving teenagers, some Evangelicals have been wondering whether the now politically-charged term has become too toxic to even have a future.

“The biggest issue about the word ‘evangelical’ is whether it should be a political identification for an ethno-religious group, or whether, if you look at it from a worldwide or historical perspective, you see that evangelicalism has hundreds of different kinds of expressions,” says George Marsden, emeritus professor of history at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, and a leading scholar of evangelicalism.

“As a religious designation, it’s become very confusing here in America to use the term evangelical,” he continues. “Every time you do, you have to clarify, well, you don’t mean just white Evangelicals of a particular sort.”

Indeed, as Professor Marsden and other evangelical scholars point out, historical evangelical beliefs span a much wider range of ethnic groups and include those within a number of very different cultural traditions. From staid Calvinists to rollicking suburban megachurches to old-time Baptists in Appalachia, evangelicalism can describe a kaleidoscope of styles and themes. It also describes the faith of most black and Hispanic Protestants, groups who vote Democratic, and who usually don’t emphasize the term. As a movement, evangelicalism is also growing rapidly in developing regions around the world.

For many scholars, the term ‘evangelical’ simply describes a set of traditionalist Christian beliefs, not a political movement per se. Citing a standard set of four core beliefs, described by the scholar David Bebbington in the 1980s, they note that Evangelicals have always claimed the primacy of the authority of the Bible – in contrast to mainline Protestants, who say some parts are obsolete, or to Catholics, who maintain the equal authority of tradition and the church’s magisterium of bishops.

Evangelicals are also characterized by their emphasis on salvation through the death and literal resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the need for a personal conversion experience. This experience, then, should be shared with others for the purpose of evangelism, as well as various forms of social engagement and help for the poor.

“Being evangelical doesn't entail or imply any particular political position,” says Marsden. Rather, evangelicalism is a religious stance on certain doctrinal issues, which could have any number of political implications, depending on the context.

A religious or cultural label?

For some Christian conservatives, the political behavior described by journalists and political pollsters misses the essence of true, church-going evangelicalism. As Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest evangelical Protestant denomination, said last year: “Secular people have for a long time misunderstood the meaning of ‘evangelical,’ seeing us almost exclusively in terms of election-year voting blocs or our most buffoonish television personalities” – including many of those who comprise Trump’s evangelical advisory board.

“Part of the problem with the political identity of evangelicals is that typically the questions that pollsters ask are, ‘Are you a born-again or evangelical Christian?’ ” says Marsden, “and you have all sorts of people who say, ‘I guess so.’ ”

“That makes it seem that groups of Evangelicals are bigger than they actually are,” says Marsden. “And it also invites all sorts of people who aren’t very deeply religious to say that they are in this cultural group.”

With a more ethnically diverse and theologically-focused definition of evangelicalism, the movement may not seem so politically uniform, scholars suggest.

“The crisis over the ‘evangelical’ label is a crisis for the 20 percent of white Evangelicals who did not vote for Donald J. Trump, as well as the lion’s share of nonwhite Evangelicals,” says Professor Schmalzbauer. “White Evangelicals who sympathize with Trump’s rhetorical defense of white Christian America and his religious nationalism are not worried about the future of the evangelical brand.”

“The soul searching and agonizing is among moderate to progressive Evangelicals, Latino and Asian-American Evangelicals, and evangelical scholars – especially those who do not ‘pray Republican’ or who reject the Trump takeover of the Republican Party,” he continues.

Impact of cultural anxieties and threats to power

Even so, a number of other thinkers reject the move to limit the definition of evangelicalism to faithful churchgoers or an exclusive focus on doctrine and beliefs.

Cultural change and perceived threats to political power, in fact, have long defined the anxieties of many white evangelical Protestants. After the Scopes “monkey” trial in the 1920s, many Evangelicals began a withdrawal from the country’s political and intellectual life as “modernist” ideas and Darwinian science became cultural norms – leading to the emergence of a separatist fundamentalism.

“In the 1920s, ‘respectable Evangelicals’ were distancing themselves from the fundamentalists,” says Tim Gloege, author of “Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism.”

A similar dynamic occurred in the 1950s, he says, when a group of “neo-Evangelicals,” including figures like the theologian Carl F.H. Henry and the evangelist Billy Graham again tried to distance themselves from their fundamentalist peers.

But both movements converged in the 1960s when it came to politics. Historians such as Dartmouth’s Randall Balmer, also a leading scholar of American evangelicalism, point out that the rise of the religious right, especially in the South, was a reaction against the desegregation of the public school system and the rise of the private Christian academy.

And since emerging as a particular political force with the election of Ronald Reagan, who many still revere as a virtual saint in American presidential history, white Evangelicals have also for decades voted consistently and overwhelmingly Republican, using terms such as the “moral majority” with a particular “focus on the family,” even as many became aggressively active in various culture wars over abortion, prayer in public schools, and vouchers for private school choice.

“It’s hard to talk about modern, 20th-century American evangelicalism without putting race at the center,” says Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a professor of history at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. “And so it’s not just a pure doctrinal matter.” 

If people identify as being born again or as an evangelical, this means something to them, she says. And in addition to faithful church attendance, there’s also what she calls a “culture of consumption,” in which popular evangelical media, books, movies, and music, often promoted by the television personalities other evangelicals like Mr. Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention dismiss as buffoons and heretics.

“I look at the last half century of American evangelicalism, I find as a defining feature the desire to claim cultural power,” says Professor Du Mez. “And along with that comes a Christian nationalism.”

It’s a political emphasis that has driven scholars like Bill Svelmoe, chair of the history department at St. Mary’s College in Indiana and a former Evangelical and Republican, to reject both identities.

“If you don’t know these eternal truths of evangelicalism, or you commit to other beliefs, it’s not that you’re just foolish or mistaken,” he says. “No, you’re wrong, you’re in error, and this error will likely cost you eternally.”

“If you move with that approach to the world, and wholeheartedly embrace one side of all political arguments, then what happens is, as you plant your flag over the Republican Party as the party not just with the right ideas about abortion, or even ideas about the economy, it becomes the moral party, God’s party,” Professor Svelmoe continues. “And now you have to defend everything with a religious fervor. And the folks on the other side are now your enemies, they are on the Devil’s side.”

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2. For journalists, a challenge of the age: how to cover extremists

When Patrik Jonsson proposed the story below, it began a two-week discussion among Monitor staff about how to cover the resurgent threads of white supremacy in the United States. The take-away: This kind of journalism is uncomfortable and difficult but is necessary and can be enlightening if done with honest reasoning.

Mark
Justin Ide/Reuters
White nationalist leader Matthew Heimbach (c.) screams at the media in defense of James Alex Fields Jr. outside Fields's bail hearing on suspicion of murder, malicious wounding, and hit-and-run charges ensuing from Fields's arrest after a car hit counter-protesters at the 'Unite the Right' rally in Charlottesville, Va., Aug. 14, 2017.

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It has become what one veteran reporter calls an “existential dilemma” for journalists: When the press tries to understand the thinking of white nationalists, does that advertise – no matter unintentionally – for white supremacy? Or is ignoring them a greater sin, confirming what the far-right say is true: that the media selectively sketches reality to fit a multicultural political agenda? As reporters tried to delve into the wave of white resentment that helped propel Donald Trump to the presidency, this year featured efforts both lauded (Vice’s blockbuster exposé of the Charlottesville white nationalists) and derided (The New York Times profile “The Nazi Next Door”). While giving hate a megaphone isn’t responsible, ignoring the rise in those who believe that whites are superior isn’t the answer either, say those who study hate groups. Bill Morlin, a reporter who has chronicled the crimes of extremists, including white supremacists, for nearly 40 years, says that one solution may lie in old-fashioned good journalism: “Sometimes,” he says, “we [journalists] let people involved in the extremist movement define what it is that they are talking about without fact-checking them.”

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For journalists, a challenge of the age: how to cover extremists

Jim Goad is not your garden-variety redneck, though he, self-admittedly, exudes “eau de garbage blanc.”

In the early 2000s, the leather-booted writer was attacked three times by anti-racist skinheads in Portland, Ore., for wearing an Iron Cross – a “commonly used hate symbol,” according to the Anti-Defamation League. Today, he finds himself in high demand as both a columnist and source for reporters seeking to understand the growth in white supremacy in 21st century America – though Goad does not view himself as a white supremacist.

Now in his 50s, Mr. Goad, author of “The Redneck Manifesto,” has been called the “godfather of the new right.” His oeuvre is plumbing the murky depths of white resentment – and uncovering what he calls in a Monitor interview “the blind, cruel hypocrisy of … forced equality.”

Goad says he doesn’t consider himself part of the self-described “alt-right,” a coalition that espouses white nationalist, anti-Semitic, and misogynistic beliefs. He calls himself, simply, a "lone wolf," an independent thinker not beholden to any group.

Since the election of Donald Trump, he is also part of a cadre of American thinkers and activists being pursued by journalists caught flat-footed by the wave of white resentment and emboldened white nationalists that helped put President Trump in the White House. Goad told the Willamette Week this fall that reporters look to him to describe the “etiology of the disease.” (WW’s Goad profile featured a trigger warning for racial slurs.)

“Half of people think I’m a dangerous idiot and the other half think I’m brave enough to say things they are terrified to say in public,” says the Temple University journalism grad in a phone interview with the Monitor on Dec. 12. In a column this year, he wrote, “I’ve never felt the need to say that white people are the best on Earth, but this isn’t what gets me labeled a white supremacist – it’s my refusal to say they’re the worst group on Earth.”

To be sure, Goad’s rat-a-tat-tat wit has been lauded beyond the alt-right, including by self-described liberal comedian Patton Oswalt. But as the country’s tone has grown increasingly angry during Mr. Trump’s first year in power, attacks on multiculturalism – and Goad does pile on – have also increasingly been seen by some Americans as an antidemocratic defense of white supremacy’s newest iteration. They point to an uptick in hate crimes reported to the FBI, an increase in stress and hostility found in schools, and growing reports of street clashes between far-right extremists and left-wing antifascist groups.

When the press tries to understand Goad and white nationalists, does that advertise, no matter unintentionally, for white supremacy? Or is ignoring them a greater sin, confirming all that Goad and others say as true: that the media – and its academic and political fellow-travelers – selectively sketch reality to fit a multicultural political agenda?

“The question [of how to cover the rise of white nationalism in the US] really is … an existential dilemma for journalism,” says Frank LoMonte, the former Atlanta bureau chief for the Morris News Service. “Do you treat certain issues as being settled beyond the point of litigating? Is the full respect, regard, and recognition for the rights of minorities really such a settled proposition in America? It feels like it should be, but we know that there is some segment of the population that is still prepared to litigate that question.”

Journalists' dilemma

To be sure, providing context for the voices of separatism and hate has become even more complicated as American news consumers on both the right and left have become increasingly siloed and militant, says Clay Calvert, author of "Voyeur Nation" and a law professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Some reporters, unable to stomach the viciousness and outright threats on social media, have started shying away from controversial topics. According to one informal survey, 15 percent of reporters say they have stopped pitching stories that may inspire internet backlash. The issue is being debated in newsrooms from south Florida to southern California.

Some are squelching reporting, including a Florida station that won’t use the names of white nationalists when covering their speeches. And some, primarily younger Americans, have gone so far as to question whether the First Amendment needs reevaluating. Last month, a student wrote in the Daily Nexus, the University of California-Santa Barbara student paper: “There should be a fine line where free speech stops being a right and starts being a threat to the very idea of America.”

Against that grain, Vice News won plaudits for embedding a reporter with white supremacists ahead of the deadly protests in Charlottesville, Va. Correspondent Elle Reeve came away with a blockbuster exposé that presented an unvarnished view of the marchers – and their personal armories – providing a front-row glimpse into ideas that are morphing into actual “erosions in the civil rights protections for huge groups of people in the US,” says Heidi Beirich, editor of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report.

“A lot of journalists are facing this huge dilemma right now around how to cover this resurgent white nationalist movement without normalizing it or giving it a broader audience,” says Sophie Bjork-James, a Vanderbilt University anthropologist who studies white nationalism in the US. “Journalists don’t want to have their own ideology shape how they portray [issues], but most do believe there are values we can agree on in a democracy.”

The problem for that mindset, she adds, is that white nationalist “ideas are spreading a lot more than actual people defining themselves as activists and going to outright protests.” The Program on Extremism at George Washington University found that the numbers of white supremacist followers on social media exploded by 600 percent between 2012 and 2016. “Analysis of this network pointed to significant growth in users identifying with white nationalism broadly, and among users who indicated some form of Nazi sympathy specifically,” the study author wrote.

At the same time, Bjork-James adds: “There is a huge danger of misrepresenting [white supremacists] having more power than they do and more numbers than they do, and then normalizing them, because they are working really hard at using various online spaces to normalize their radical ideas.”

Importance of fact-checking

In that way, some veteran journalists say, it can be worthwhile to look deeper at the pathology of hate – and how it becomes embodied through influential thinkers and journalists. 

“When journalists go down that rat hole, attempting to determine what makes white nationalists tick, they necessarily have to look at the chronology of people’s lives,” says Bill Morlin, a Washington State-based reporter who has for nearly four decades chronicled the crimes of extremists, including white supremacists. “And that can lead you from a look at a pretty normal person to how they get involved in this kind of extremism ….” The problem, he adds, is that “sometimes we [journalists] let people involved in the extremist movement define what it is that they are talking about without fact-checking them.”

For journalists specifically, that makes fraught any deep-dive into the defense of claims of white superiority.

The New York Times faced immense reader backlash to Atlanta bureau chief Richard Fausset’s fall profile of Ohio resident Tony Hovater, a co-founder of the Traditionalist Workers Party, which is loosely based on Nazi ideology. Mr. Fausset wrote: “He is the Nazi sympathizer next door, polite and low-key at a time the old boundaries of accepted political activity can seem alarmingly in flux. … He is a big ‘Seinfeld’ fan.”

“Dear New York Times: … Please don’t normalize white supremacy,” rang one of a chorus of complaints.

At the same time, other observers argue that Mr. Fausset’s piece and the reaction to it illustrated what many Americans might not want to hear: that white supremacist views have already been normalized to some extent. “The sensational nature of Hovater's identification with Nazi Germany obscures the ordinariness of his racism,” Slate’s Jamelle Bouie writes.

'More dangerous to ignore them'

In a poll responding to the Charlottesville "Unite The Right" rally in August, the Washington Post found that 1 out of 10 Americans believe that holding neo-Nazi views is OK, a view held by nearly 2 in 10 strong Trump supporters. Former Department of Homeland Security counterterrorism analyst Daryl Johnson has estimated the number of actual white supremacists at “several hundred thousand.” 

Meanwhile, 71 percent of Americans believe that political correctness has silenced important discussions that [the] country needs to have, according to an October poll by the libertarian Cato Institute poll.

“It’s true that most people in the United States don’t like these views, they find them unsavory, and they are unsettling to hear,” says Ms. Beirich of the SPLC. “But, sorry, they matter right now.”

Guardian journalist Gary Younge published an interview with National Policy Institute founder Richard Spencer in October, in which Mr. Spencer claimed that American blacks benefited from slavery since their descendants were now better off than the African societies they were kidnapped from, a point which Goad also makes. This claim has been repeatedly debunked by historians, and also ignores disparities in economic, educational, and incarceration levels – as well as evidence of the persistent effects of racism on the health of African-Americans. In a video that went viral, Mr. Spencer also stunningly suggested Mr. Younge couldn’t be British because he is black.

Younge wrote in a post-mortem that his first instinct was to not reward Spencer with the Guardian’s bandwidth. But in the end, he writes, Spencer’s influence, unlike the Ku Klux Klan, felt new – and thus, news.

“It felt as though these far-right ideas had traveled quite rapidly from the margins to the mainstream, and were infecting the US body politic at the highest levels,” Younge writes. “If these people were, as they claimed, providing the intellectual underpinning for the Trump administration, then it seemed to me it is more dangerous to ignore them than engage and hopefully expose them.”

'Politicized in ways that make you squirm'

The self-described offspring of “urban Philly garbage and rural Vermont scum,” Goad is best-known for “Manifesto,” which Simon & Schuster published in 1997. That year, he wrote that the rise of white identity would “get nasty … [a]nd politicized in ways that make you squirm.”

His advocacy for what he has called “white n------” goes back “to being a rebellious Catholic kid: Don’t try to guilt trip me with something I’m not guilty of,” he says. “As a child, I sensed malice in that. [The nuns] weren’t doing it for my own good. They were just mean.”

For his part, Goad expressly says he does not advocate, as Spencer does, for a white ethno-state, though he does note that “I have a dim view of humanity, so ultimately a sort of peaceful secession movement would probably be the best thing for everyone involved."

Yet he also says he’s grappled, sometimes painfully, with the real-world effects of his prose. The suicide deaths of three British neo-Nazis in 1996 were tied to Goad’s publication of a suicide issue in his early ’zine, Answer Me!

One of them, a young woman, called Goad before her death wanting to know if his P.O. box was the same.

“She was a really depressed girl, and the next week reporters are asking me, ‘What do you have to say about the three British kids who killed themselves?’ I’m privately crying about it. If I had known she was suicidal, I would have said, ‘Come on up, we’ve got a couch,’ ” he says. “My point [in the issue] was that people who are suicidal at least have insight about the human condition and shouldn’t kill themselves.”

Goad now lives in Stone Mountain, Ga., the birthplace of the modern-day Ku Klux Klan – a place where, today, 8 out of 10 residents are African-American. A recent satirical MoveOn.org campaign suggested adding the Atlanta hip-hop duo Outkast to the massive carvings of Confederate icons on Stone Mountain. He is divorced and rooms with Bam-Bam, his pitbull mix. In a meeting last year with this reporter, he grinned as he shared pictures of his grade-school-aged son. He is also a country singer who plays occasional live shows.

To get a sense of the Goad style of discourse, he defends a demeaning column in the libertarian webzine Taki's Magazine from earlier this year where he lists "nachos" as the most important Mexican invention by noting that Wikipedia lists only seven Mexican inventors but 374 British ones. If liberal journalists can cherry-pick facts to sway public opinion, he suggests, so can he. But critics say that kind of data-picking also gives cover to a more insidious claim: that so-called DREAM-ers, people brought to the US as children, are genetically and culturally inferior to whites, which he believes means their presence in the US presages a dumbed-down future.

“Goad’s convoluted ideas about race pose a real danger because his own followers, like so many on the alt-right, will tell you they aren’t racists when their actions would clearly tell you otherwise,” Joshua Frank, editor of the left-wing magazine Counter-Punch, told the Willamette Week in November.

For Goad's part, he says, “I don’t believe people are equal, but it all depends on what you do with that belief. For 25 years I’ve questioned equality and it has never made me want to harm anyone except for people who want to put me in jail for thinking that way.”

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3. Great Recession: 10 years after, a check on the recovery

How do you measure an economic recovery? Ten years on from the Great Recession, we find it means different things for different people. 

Mark

It started as a financial crisis centered in the United States. By the end of 2007 the US housing boom had turned decidedly sour, and banks were feeling the strain. Surging oil prices didn’t help. In the ensuing crisis of 2008 and 2009, the downturn became a massive and global one, and so was the response. Today, the good news is that the world economy has been growing steadily – though not briskly – and US unemployment has fallen back near pre-recession levels on average. The job market has rebounded, but with a big shift toward the service sector. Modest wage growth often hasn’t kept pace with things like housing costs. As we’ve reported in a recent cover story, the now eight-year-old recovery represents progress, but still remains a work in progress. – Mark Trumbull

SOURCE: S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller, Bureau of Labor Statistics
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff
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4. Guatemala’s young women take an active role in child-marriage fight

In Guatemala, changes in laws and policies can help address an astonishing rate of child marriage. But the more-needed change, many activists say, is of mind-set. 

Mark

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In Guatemala, nearly 1 in 3 girls marries before her 18th birthday. Earlier this year, the country closed a legal loophole that allowed older teens to wed with a judge’s permission. But if the law is a good step, it’s far from a final one. “It’s attacking the symptoms, not the real causes,” says the founder of one adolescent-rights group. Child marriage will continue, advocates say, if the reasons behind it aren’t addressed – including girls’ own attitudes, when many haven’t imagined a future beyond marriage, or see it as an escape from poverty. But mentor-based programs led by young, local women are gaining traction: explaining the risks of early marriage, expanding girls’ opportunities, and helping them become change-makers in their own communities. There’s “a cycle of children becoming parents, and then guiding their own children down the same path,” says one mother, whose daughter participates in a mentorship program. But she’s glad to see girls learn to challenge that thinking. 

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Guatemala’s young women take an active role in child-marriage fight

In this remote village perched high in the hills of eastern Guatemala, a spunky 21-year-old in high-tops and skinny black jeans is holding court in a former coffee-processing plant.

In front of Patricia Rossibel Cortéz Jiménez are dozens of girls, ages 8 to 18, who whisper and swing their feet beneath plastic chairs as she opens a weekly training with a question: “What is gender?”

The cavernous, cinder-block space grows quiet. Finally, one girl answers: “The difference between a man and a woman.”

“It’s also the role family and community assign to people,” says Ms. Jiménez, a mentor who runs weekly gatherings here for the youth organization Colectivo Joven. 

She breaks the girls into two groups and asks them to write out typical gender roles. Women do laundry, cook, care for children, writes one. Men farm and work outside the home for salaries, writes the other.

It’s stereotypes like that, says Jiménez, that groups like hers are trying to debunk.

“We are told … that we are not going to study because we were born to be in the house, to have children, to get married,” she says. Parents “don’t know that we have dreams, that we have goals that we want to accomplish.”

Rights advocates say the stereotypes contribute to high rates of child marriage in Guatemala, where nearly 1 in 3 girls marries before her 18th birthday.

But mentor-based programs are gaining traction as a means of tackling the problem. Many help girls build self-esteem and devise life plans beyond marriage. They teach girls their rights, and to educate their communities about why child marriage poses risks. 

Mentors like Jiménez – young, confident, and local – lead the trainings because they understand the challenges their peers face. In time, they say, the girls they mentor will become their own best advocates – and change-makers in their communities.

Backed up by the law

Guatemala has the largest economy in Central America, but also some of Latin America’s worst poverty, malnutrition, and maternal mortality rates. Inequality is especially stark in rural areas, home to many indigenous groups who historically have been subjected to exclusion and racism. Access to jobs, health care, and education are limited. More than half of the girls in these areas marry before age 18.

The reasons involve a complex mix of poverty, lack of opportunity, tradition, and beliefs that girls’ value comes from bearing children. Increasingly, advocates say, girls themselves see marriage as an escape.

Teen brides tend to have less education or stop school after marriage. They often bear more children and are more at risk during childbirth. They also face a higher threat of domestic violence, limited decisionmaking, and poverty than peers who marry later, according to a recent study by the International Center for Research on Women and the World Bank.

An August decree could boost efforts to end the practice by closing a loophole in the civil code that had allowed adolescents 16 and older to wed with a judge’s permission.

It’s a continental trend: Legislators in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala have all approved recent reforms eliminating exceptions for marriage among minors – putting them ahead of even the United States, where activists are pushing for a nationwide ban.

“You really can’t achieve any form of large-scale sustainable change without having the legal framework in place,” says Denise Dunning, the founder and executive director of Rise Up, a US-based organization that trains and funds community leaders to advocate for women.

Real challenge: root causes

Rise Up supported a coalition of girl-focused groups to lobby lawmakers in Guatemala to raise the marriage age to 18, in part by getting girls to sit down with them and share their stories. They’ve celebrated the ban as an indication their voices are being heard. But they also know that while the law is a first step, it’s far from a final one.

Many countries set the legal marriage age at 18, but enforcement remains weak. In many areas, de facto unions are more prevalent than formalized marriages, leaving young ‘brides’ with even fewer protections. And advocates argue that such unions will continue, regardless of what the law says, if the reasons behind them aren’t addressed.

The law is a good idea, but “it’s attacking the symptoms, not the real causes,” says Saúl Interiano Ramirez, the founder of Asociacion Coincidir, an adolescent-rights group working to change social norms and strengthen girls’ networks.

Alejandra Carrillo de Leon, the congresswoman who co-wrote the Guatemalan decree, is pushing for more investment in education, job opportunities, and health and recreational programs that empower women. The challenge, she says, “is to stop seeing girls like an economic burden and more like a development opportunity.”

“It’s a cycle of children becoming parents, and then guiding their own children down the same path,” says Norma Dilia Cortéz, the mother of a girl in the Colectivo Joven program, who is glad to see girls learning to challenge that thinking.

'The key is critical mass'

Nearly 300 miles from Tierra Blanca, mentors leading the Abriendo Oportunidades program in central Guatemala are using the law to boost their efforts. They’re broadcasting messages to parents, judges, and mayors to explain not just that child marriage is illegal, but why.

“Imagine, at last, a law that protects young girls from school dropout, violence, and motherhood before their time,” says one radio spot. The campaign includes live call-in programs and daily spots read by the girls themselves.

Supported by the Population Council, an international health and development organization, the Abriendo program provides safe spaces in indigenous communities where girls can discuss their futures and learn about their rights and reproductive health. It also encourages community leaders to promote girls’ access to school and discourage child marriage, key to reshaping social norms about girls’ value.

Challenging those norms is not easy, and many mentors say they’ve faced resistance for talking about taboo subjects like sex and gender. Some have been the brunt of rumors, derogatory name-calling, or harassment, a sign that acceptance of underage unions runs deep.

“There is a belief that a woman’s place is in the home, so they don’t see women as becoming something else,” said “Alicia,” an Abriendo mentor who asked not to use her real name for safety.

After 13 years in Guatemala, Abriendo is starting to see results. Program data show that 97 percent of mentors age 15-20 didn’t marry or become pregnant while they were in the program, and 76 percent of girls age 12-18 stayed in school, versus 40 percent of girls nationally.

“The key is critical mass,” says Alejandra Colom, director of the Population Council in Guatemala. “That’s why we try to work with at least half the girl population in the community: because social norms are collective.”

Ms. Colom says the messages are important because the girls, nearly all of whom are indigenous, are giving them in their own language and with cultural context. “They’re not just going to repeat what the law says; they’re explaining it in ways that make sense to people and parents and girls."

That means being organized, says Alicia, whose affable nature can’t mask her determination. “It is not that there isn't anybody else doing this, but we have to have initiative to do it in our own municipalities, in the communities,” she says. “It is we who have to start, it is why we keep on going.”

– Sara Schonhardt reported from Guatemala on a fellowship from the International Reporting Project.

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5. Coral may adapt to conditions – but at a cost to diversity

The news about coral reefs is almost universally dismal. But many scientists are offering a more nuanced story that speaks both of nature's remarkable resilience and the challenges of surviving a changing world.   

Mark
Caleb Jones/AP/File
Living coral is viewed under a microscope at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology on Coconut Island, Hawaii, in 2015.

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Coral reefs face a bombardment of challenges, as climate change turns up the heat and acidifies ocean waters, overfishing plunders their vibrant biodiversity, and pollution chokes up their waters. With back-to-back coral bleaching events occurring on reefs across the globe and more predicted, the future of our once-resplendent reefs looks bleak. But coral reef scientists aren’t ready to write off their research subjects just yet. And they’re finding clues that reefs might be more resilient than previously thought, thanks to some super-corals that can survive stresses such as extreme heat. Still, scientists agree that a handful of surviving coral species does not make for a thriving reef. So is it an environmental win if reefs persist but biodiversity is lost? “We will have to change our expectations of what reefs do for us,” University of Queensland coral scientist Peter Mumby says. Is a reef still a reef if it doesn't look like the colorful, diverse reefs that we have come to know?

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Coral may adapt to conditions – but at a cost to diversity

They should have all died. At least that’s what the worst-case-scenario predictions suggested.

But when Andréa Grottoli peered at the corals growing in tanks on Hawaii’s Coconut Island earlier this month, she breathed a sigh of relief. Some still lived.

For the past two years, Professor Grottoli and her colleagues had subjected these corals to some truly harsh conditions, the kind that climate models suggest could become the new normal by the end of the 21st century. When she harvested them from reefs around the Hawaiian island of Oahu, Grottoli had hoped that some would acclimate to the excessively warm and acidic waters of the tank, but “there was a real risk that they were all going to die after two years,” the Ohio State University coral researcher says.

Indeed, some of the corals had bleached under their new conditions. But a couple held their characteristic color. The team still has to examine the surviving corals in the laboratory to see if and how they truly acclimated to the new conditions, but “I’m glad they didn’t all die,” Grottoli says. “I’m glad that we have survivors and we have a story of resilience.”

The apparent resilience of even a few specimens of coral offers marine biologists a hint of hope that reefs will exist long into the future, despite rapidly warming temperatures, rampant overfishing, and persistent ocean pollution. But a few surviving corals dominating a monochromatic reef isn’t the same as a thriving reef. So is it an environmental win if reefs persist but biodiversity is lost? 

That’s a question that many coral reef biologists are grappling with. As it becomes increasingly evident that reefs of the future won’t continue to contain their characteristic biodiversity, scientists are forced to weigh two of their highest values, biodiversity and ecosystem resilience, against each other. But the two are also tangled together, as diversity is seen as key to long-term resilience of an ecosystem. 

This tension isn’t limited to coral reef science. Ecologists across fields contemplate the same question: Is it possible to have ecosystem-wide resilience without biodiversity, and to maintain both when a system is bombarded with threats?

Peter J. Mumby/PLOS
Diversity of coral forms shows rich underwater life found on healthy coral reefs.

Super-corals to the rescue?

Coral reefs thrive on three distinct layers of diversity – and each has its own relationship to resilience. Reefs support thousands of marine organisms, from fish to marine worms to algae, and more. This splendid biodiversity is what captivates tourists and nature photographers from all over the world. There are also hundreds of distinct species of coral globally. And within each coral species there is also thought to be broad genetic diversity.

A rich diversity among any species is thought to promote overall ecosystem resilience. If one species in a diverse ecosystem is wiped out, there’s probably another species that can step in and perform the same ecological function. In the case of reefs, many coral species can build the stony structure that other animals call home. So as long as some stony corals survive, so too can reefs.

“The risk with low diversity, and this is true in any ecosystem, is that if you have disease propagate through and everything is the same species and it’s a disease that targets that species, you lose everything,” Grottoli explains. “With low diversity, you lose that ecosystem-level resilience” even if reefs still exist.

Grottoli and others are on a mission to find so-called super-corals that are particularly resilient to the extreme conditions predicted with anthropogenic climate change.

Some of these super-corals are indeed quite “super.” In one of Grottoli’s experiments, she found some corals in the Gulf of Aqaba in the northern Red Sea that can be heated to 6 degrees C above their normal summertime temperatures before they release their symbiotic algae and bleach.

But not every population of a species is necessarily resilient. One of these super-coral species in the northern Red Sea, Pocillopora damicornis, was also one of the species that Grottoli collected in Hawaii. And the Hawaiian population died in their tanks with just 2 degrees C of warming. This distinction suggests that something might be at play on a more minute level as well: adaptation to local conditions.

The idea is that under different conditions (on opposite sides of the globe, in this case), certain traits will be favored differently within the same coral species. This can happen in a few different ways, says Robert Toonen, a coral biologist at the Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology in Kaneohe and Grottoli’s collaborator in Hawaii. 

Classic evolutionary adaptation could be at play, as genetic traits that are more advantageous in distinct environments could be selected for over a generation or two. Some scientists are also investigating whether there is some sort of epigenetic mechanism at play, with heritable changes in gene function rather than the DNA itself. Or perhaps an organism has particularly plastic traits that can be expressed differently in different environments, making it possible to adapt to a new habitat in its lifetime. Better understanding the mechanisms at play could help coral scientists better understand how well the world’s diverse reefs will survive into the next century.

Diversity plays a key role with all these mechanisms, particularly when it comes to heritable genetics.

“Genetic diversity within a species is basically fuel for adaptive evolution,” says Mikhail Matz, a coral geneticist at the University of Texas at Austin. A broad variety of genetic mutations provides more options for adaptation in the face of changing environmental pressures, he explains.

So if that genetic diversity exists, adaptation can happen quite quickly, even within a generation, thus adding resilience to the overall system.

But there’s a catch. It takes a long time to build up such diverse mutations in a population. With the extreme selection pressures of rising global temperatures, the weakly adapted organisms will be selected out quickly, leaving a smaller population made up of a significantly diminished pool of genetic diversity. This will eventually create a bottleneck of genetics, as a species or population will have less variety to draw from and will therefore be less resilient.

Dr. Matz likens it to saving money. “Right now we have accumulated some genetic currency which we can spend, but it will not last forever. The income is slow, we cannot spend it too fast,” he says. “The genetic diversity existing right now is basically buying us some time to come to our senses and stop global warming. If we don’t do this, things will eventually collapse.”

A persistent glimmer of hope

Still, some ecologists see a glimmer of hope: if some reefs survive, they’ll be able to help others regenerate, too.

A recent modeling study found that the larvae from a handful of small, healthy reefs could be carried on ocean currents to replenish many dead or dying reefs across the Great Barrier Reef. 

“There is a capacity for recovery that we were unaware of,” says Peter Mumby, a leader of that study and a marine spatial ecologist at the University of Queensland in Australia.

Despite such hopeful hints, we may have to change how we think of reefs.

“All the world’s reefs aren’t going to be gone” in the next century, says John Bruno, a marine ecologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “There’ll be high-latitude reefs, there’ll be reefs in places that just don’t warm for whatever reason, but there’ll be far, far fewer than what we’ve got right now, and they’ll be different.”

As an ecosystem, whether or not you consider coral reefs resilient may be somewhat of a mindset, Toonen says. “I don’t believe that coral reefs will cease to exist,” he says. “I think that they will look very different, but I think that we will continue to see corals and something that we can call a reef.”

Whether or not you see a reef as resilient without biodiversity will depend on how you define a reef, he says. Right now, the spectacular biodiversity that reefs support make them iconic and draw large crowds of diving and snorkeling tourists. But reefs also support coastal fisheries, and the stony structure of reefs protect coastlines. A single species of stony coral, or even concrete, might still yield a similar effect in some cases, Toonen suggests.

Professor Mumby agrees. “We will have to change our expectations of what reefs do for us.”

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The Monitor's View

Want good news at year’s end? Crime is down – again.

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Polls show that most Americans still haven’t caught on to the good news, but the rate of violent crime in the United States has been headed down. In 2017, New York City is poised to experience its lowest level of violent crime since the 1950s. And crime has been decreasing all across the US for the past quarter century, found an analysis last spring by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. What’s causing this encouraging trend is less clear. Each city needs to find its own formula for success. Many have found that community policing – officers assigned to a neighborhood, where they can get to know the residents and their challenges – is effective, building mutual trust between police and residents. Washington D.C., once referred to as the nation’s murder capital, has seen a dramatic drop in crime in recent years. “It really is about having a community that is engaged with the police department,” a former D.C. police chief told The Washington Post. “I mean, really engaged.”

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Want good news at year’s end? Crime is down – again.

A good deal of daily news reporting points to what’s going wrong in society. That’s needed if solutions are to be found.

But bad news – often amplified by social media sharing – can have a distorting effect on thinking. People take more notice, and may remember more vividly, news that describes in detail a threat, such as a crime, act of terrorism, or disaster. News that reports on what’s going well, or getting better, may not register with the same emotional punch.

For decades the rate of violent crime in the United States has been headed down. Yet polls show that most Americans still haven’t caught on to that good news.

In 2017, for example, New York City is poised to experience its lowest level of violent crime since the 1950s. In 1990 the city experienced 2,245 killings. With 2017 nearly over, this year’s total is 286 – the lowest number for which reliable records can be found.

Data from the 30 largest US cities shows that the annual murder rate in 2017 will decline 5.6 percent from 2016, reports the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. Among the cities with the largest decreases: Chicago (down 11.9 percent) and Detroit (down 9.8 percent).

“Once again crime rates remain near historic lows. This is welcome news as 2017 comes to an end...,” said Ames Grawert, counsel at the Brennan Center.

In an analysis last spring, the center found that across the US crime has been decreasing for the past quarter century, from 5,856 crimes per 100,000 Americans in 1991 to an estimated 2,857 per 100,000 in 2016. Murders alone have fallen from 9.8 per 100,000 in 1991 to about half that, an estimated 5.3 per 100,000 in 2016.

What’s causing this encouraging trend is less clear. A strong economy that supplies good jobs is a likely candidate, but it doesn’t explain everything. An in-depth look at the drop in violent crime in Los Angeles by The Wall Street Journal found that the lower crime rates in high-crime neighborhoods happened despite rising joblessness, high poverty, and shrinking household incomes in those areas.

The solution may lie in part with a program that recruits former gang members to work with youths and head off crimes before they happen.

The drop in crime rates isn’t spread evenly across the US. Smaller cities such as Charlotte, N.C., and Baltimore have seen substantial increases, resisting the trend.

Each city needs to find its own formula for success. Many have found that community policing – officers assigned to a neighborhood who get to know the residents and their challenges – is effective, building mutual trust between police and residents. 

Washington, D.C., once referred to as the nation’s murder capital, has seen a dramatic drop in crime in recent years.

“It really is about having a community that is engaged with the police department. I mean, really engaged,” Cathy Lanier, former police chief of Washington, D.C., told the Post. “They trust you, they trust the cop on the beat.” 

Spreading the good news that crime is diminishing can calm fears and replace them with brighter hopes for the future.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Practical results from the Lord’s Prayer

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When an economic downturn forced the family business to close, contributor Wendy Margolese faced unemployment, financial struggles, and a bleak future. But she’d seen before the power of prayer to bring renewal and healing. So she turned to God, finding particular comfort in this line from the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). As she prayed, she saw more clearly that God is divine Love, ever present as the source of all good, and that this infinite love can never be taken away from anyone. As her fear and hopelessness dissolved, a new and rewarding full-time job opportunity opened up in an unexpected way. As she puts it: “This experience has given me the confidence to consistently rely on God as a loving, caring Father-Mother. Ever since, I’ve felt more tangibly that we are all ‘cared for, watched over, beloved and protected’ ” (“Christian Science Hymnal,” No. 278).

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Practical results from the Lord’s Prayer

In the economic downturn of 2008-09, our family business of many generations was forced to close its doors. This left me not only feeling great loss, but unemployed. I had invested most of my personal savings into trying to save the company and was virtually penniless.

Although the future seemed bleak indeed, like many others I have found that moments in quietness and contemplation of God can bring renewal and healing. So I humbly turned to prayer.

Centuries ago, Christ Jesus spoke of the importance of creating this quiet space by entering into our “closet” (see Matthew 6:6). I understand this to be a mental state that shuts out the jumble of “what-ifs” and worries.

I really needed that closet! Clamoring fears were trying to make me feel I was outside God’s love and care. The Lord’s Prayer came immediately to thought, and one line in particular stood out: “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, gives a spiritual interpretation of this line: “Give us grace for to-day; feed the famished affections” (“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” p. 17). I wanted desperately to see more clearly that God, our loving Father-Mother, was caring for me – feeding me with infinite love, as it were – and would supply my need.

I humbly prayed with this beloved prayer. Yes, I wanted assurance that I would have the day-to-day necessities of life. But even more urgently, I wanted to know more of God’s grace, to better understand and feel His ever-present goodness.

Echoing the biblical Psalmist, Mrs. Eddy writes: “In divine Science, where prayers are mental, all may avail themselves of God as ‘a very present help in trouble’ ” (Science and Health, pp. 12-13). Praying to discern everyone’s relationship to God, divine Love, shed light on God’s love for me as His spiritual idea, untouched by loss and devastation. I spent morning hours with the Christian Science Bible Lessons, which helped me learn more of God’s love and provision for all.

Soon I found temporary work to help with living expenses. As I continued a search for more gainful employment over the ensuing months, fear and depression tried to take hold. But when they did I would affirm that God is ever present as the source of all needed good, and that God’s love can never be taken away from anyone.

My growing confidence in this unchanging, universal Love reshaped my thinking from hopelessness to an expectation of good in my life, and the fear and depression dissolved. As this happened, a new and rewarding full-time job opened up in a most unexpected way.

This experience has given me the confidence to consistently rely on God as a loving, caring Father-Mother. Ever since, I’ve felt more tangibly that we are all “cared for, watched over, beloved and protected” (“Christian Science Hymnal,” No. 278).

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Viewfinder

Bolivian flare-up

David Mercado/Reuters
A firecracker explodes next to riot police officers during a protest rally against the Bolivian government's new health-care policies in La Paz, Bolivia, Dec. 27. Many protesters held signs in support of health-care workers, many of whom have been striking over changes to malpractice law.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( December 29th, 2017 )

Thank you for spending some time with us today. Tomorrow, our film critic, Peter Rainer, takes a look at his top 10 films of 2017. One thing he noticed: While the big story in Hollywood was how women have been treated off-screen, it was women's powerful on-screen roles that were some of the year’s most attention-getting. 

Monitor Daily Podcast

December 28, 2017
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