The politics of obituaries

DianeKnippers.jpgDiane Knippers was a friend of this blog, in that I worked with her (and other conservative Episcopalians) during the Lambeth Conference of 1998 and the Episcopal Church’s General Conventions of 1994, 1997 and 2003. I was not so close to Diane as to be overwhelmed by grief as she is buried today, but I feel keen sorrow for her husband, Ed.

Those are the biases I bring as a reader of Diane’s obituaries in The New York Times and The Washington Post and by Religion News Service (as published on Christianity Today‘s website).

The obituary by Kevin Eckstrom of RNS is the most comprehensive and the one that engages in no cheap shots. Both the Times and the Post are quick to describe Diane’s longtime base, the Institute on Religion and Democracy, as small, and the Post adds that Knippers’ “access to politicians and the news media outstripped the modest size of the institute.” (By contrast, Eckstrom quoted Randall Balmer’s remark to Time magazine: “IRD is starting to have the kind of impact that think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the Brookings Institution enjoy.”)

Eckstrom took the trouble to interview a few people who worked with Knippers, while all three articles cited observers who could assess her influence. The Times quoted Balmer as calling her “one of the essential strategists for the religious right at the turn of the 21st century” who came off like “a very bright and sophisticated housewife.” (That sounds more than a little patronizing, considering that Ed and Diane Knippers never had children and she went straight from earning a master’s degree to working for Good News, a renewal movement within the United Methodist Church.)

The slights extend to Diane’s surviving husband. Both the Times and the Post describe Ed Knippers as “a painter of biblical scenes,” which may leave the impression that he’s another Sam Butcher (creator of Precious Moments) or Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light. (This biography page and this appreciative essay show why Ed’s non-squeamish work hangs at the Vatican, the Armand Hammer Museum and elsewhere.)

The most petty digs, however, come from the sneer-quote-laden Post obituary by Adam Bernstein, who uses the ever-reliable “in her view” device:

Mrs. Knippers highlighted the killing and persecution of Christians; took issue with those condemning Israel without noting human rights abuses in other parts of the world; and tried to “reform” Protestant churches in the United States through criticism of a liberalism that, in her view, fostered an “erosion in basic Christian doctrine.”

. . . She also railed against a “radical feminist theology” that she said tried to “re-imagine” God in a way that did not seem patriarchal.

Memo to the Post: There actually was a national conference in 1992 called “Re-Imagining” at which participants chanted “re-imagining God.” Some participants held a reunion in 2003. Several books have pursued those themes further. Some movements may exist only in the feverish imaginations of bright and sophisticated housewives/activists. Re-Imagining is not one of them.

Rest in peace, Diane, unless you’re already chuckling about those obituaries.

Print Friendly

  • Kendall Harmon

    You get the funny typo of the day award: he is Randall Balmer, not blamer. I didn’t like the quote either.

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    Thanks for catching this, Kendall. I do remember Balmer’s name, but my fingers messed up on the second reference. I’ll correct it right away.

  • Jill

    I didn’t know Diane, only knew of her by her writing and reputation, but I’ll bet she is chuckling over her obituaries, and resting in the arms of Jesus.

  • Erik Nelson

    Thanks, Doug, for saying some of what I’ve been thinking about these obits. The “housewife” comment was indeed the one that seemed most offensive to me. The sneer quotes we’re used to, of course, and I suppose are to be expected. I do not suppose that even in an obituatry we might see graciousness enough on the part of the writer to portray the person as they saw themselves.

    Comments about Ed’s paintings, I suppose, come as they are because the writers are unlikely to have really experienced Ed’s work. Because of this–and a general prejudice of evangelicals as cultural rubes–I suppose we should not be surprised.

  • Res Ispa

    Is it biased by the Washington Post, where politics is the city’s business, to point out that Knippers was a political player and something of a power-broker? The fact that she was religious does not overshadow the fact that she turned her spirituatlity into a political agenda in the most political city in America. That would seem to require pointing out that she was an idealogue as much as she was a religious person.

  • Fr. Stephen Freeman


    I was sorry to hear of Diane’s death. Our paths crossed – probably at the 94 GC. I remember her as a friendly when there were so few of them. May her memory be eternal!

    Fr. Stephen Freeman

  • Pingback: titusonenine