Dear readers: Please read this Freaking offensive article

JewsForJesusMaybe it’s the fact that I was raised as a Southern Baptist preacher’s son, but I have never been very comfortable with the “F word.” No, not “Fundamentalist.” The other one.

Which is why I have put off writing about a Fascinating post the other day by “Killing the Buddha” author Jeff Sharlet of The Revealer, which is sort of our counterpart on the other side of the God-beat beat aisle. Or gods-beat. It’s a wild world out there.

Anyway, Jeff took a Flying leap on a crucial topic that I raised recently here at Get Religion — which is the wedded-at-the-hip status of religious liberty and free speech. He decided to call this essay, and to make his point I really should quote it (Family members avert your eyes), “The ‘Fucking Brilliance’ of American Faith.” And what, pray tell, was the point of that?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship between free speech and religion lately. … Over the last several months, I’ve been asked time and time again by interviewers interested in Killing the Buddha what the common denominator of American belief is. I didn’t have an answer. I think I do now: a fundamental commitment to free speech.

Censorship is most often a top-down business, whether the high priest wielding the ball gag is Michael Powell at the F.C.C. or Dr. James Dobson at Focus on the Family. Most people are more interested in a good conversation. If they don’t like what’s being said, they offer their own view or leave the room, or the church, or the radio channel.

If you want to get picky about definitions, it would hard for Dr. Dobson to be a censor since he has no way to use government force to prevent the publication of anything offensive other than, well, his lobbying power via free speech on the radio. But nevermind about that right now.

Sharlet notes that anyone with open eyes can see this “free speech fundamentalism” all round the marketplace of American religion — from love-it-or-leave-it Episcopalians, to conservative Catholics trying to Fry Sen. John Kerry, to conservative kids wearing pro-life shirts in public schools, to the love affair some evangelicals Feel for the Free Flying tongue of U2′s Bono. And while we’re at it, wasn’t that whole Flap about “The Passion of the Christ” a Fun Free speech Free-for-all? Sharlet thinks the whole situation is, you know, Freaking amazing. And he’s Free to say so.

It’s hard to believe there’s so much freedom of speech in a nation far less diverse than its official myth would have you believe. (If you live anywhere but a major city, count your Hindu friends on one hand and leave enough fingers free to snap the beat to “What a Friend We have in Jesus.”) Let’s not fool ourselves: America is a Christian nation. That’s a fact atheist, free speech absolutists should be as glad of as are hotter-n’-hellfire holy rollers.

Americans, he note, don’t even have to agree about who Jesus is or was. They can Fight about that, too. But the bottom line here in this Free society is that all kinds of people have the right to say all kinds of things that are sure to Freak out many other believers.

This used to be Freaking obvious, especially to liberals. But, Face Facts Folks, there are Fundamentalists on the left as well as the right. There are people who think it’s Fine for nuns to get arrested saying the rosary at the gates of nuclear weapons plants, but not in Front of abortion Facilities.

Meanwhile, there is another Fascinating case down here in sunny Florida, involving a bunch of Christians who insist on saying — right out there in public — that they are both Jewish and Christian. If you can be Jewish and Free-Floating Buddhist, they say, why not Jewish and Fundamentalist Christian?

Jewish community leaders are offended, as they have every right to be. They say the Jews For Jesus people are liars and cheats. I sure hope people on both sides get to make their case right out there For everybody to see and hear. Even if that means going door to door, handing out tracts, preaching sermons, buying newspaper ads and offending lots of people. There may even be shouting, public prayers and Face-to-Face contact. Yikes!

After all, as Liberty Counsel attorney Mat Staver put it:

“Jews for Jesus has a right to free speech and a right to seek to evangelize Jewish individuals regardless of whether some individuals harbor animosity about those activities. … The law should not give a voice to prejudice, whether it be racial, or, as in this case, religious prejudice.”

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Chris Bugbee

    “The Revealer, which is sort of our counterpart on the other side of the God-beat beat aisle. Or gods-beat. It’s a wild world out there.”

    What makes you so certain it’s an aisle with only one other side? How do you define the Get Religion side of the God-beat aisle. And how would you differentiate the Revealer side from the Get Religion side?

  • Jeff Sharlet @ The Revealer

    Thanks for the Fanfare, Terry. Point taken on Dobson — one might say he is censorious rather than a censor. And that he uses his influence to bully (others might say persuade) his followers to look at only approved media figures (probably not unlike Ma, in the post above; for her that’s Arlo Guthrie, for Dobson it’s, well, Dobson).

    It should be added, too, for those who don’t click through, that “fucking brilliant,” as wonderful a phrase as it is, isn’t mine but Bono’s.

    Now as to the aisle question… How can we be on the other side of the aisle when we’d gladly publish you? I’ll grant that The Revealer may skew left more often than right (though that’s arguably the result of a position that’s critical of the status quo, whatever it is), but we’ve published more than a few items that could be said to skew right as well. And we frequently link to politically, culturally, and/or religiously conservative sites, with high words of praise.

    I’d never say we’re unbiased. But our bias is mainly in favor of good stories, and the stories that aren’t getting told.

    As is yours, I think, which is why I read Get Religion.

  • Tmatt

    CHRIS and JEFF:

    Gosh, there are lots of aisles and levels to the aisles. I sure didn’t mean to imply warfare here. But debate, yes. I know we will debate a lot, as we are sort of doing here.

    But people on both sites have been pretty open about their religious views AND their professional commitment to basic journalistic values. Jeff poked us a bit at the start with his observation that we wanted people to get OUR religion, in an evangelistic sense. I think our title makes sense to everybody now.

    Jeff called me “the right” on his site the other day, which is an interesting thing to call a lifelong Democrat who writes for a secular wire service. I am also called an evangelical a lot, even though I am not a Protestant. But, hey, I am a cultural and religious conservative of my ilk. Three cheers for the late Gov. Bob Casey.

    How would you guys describe the two sites’ approaches?