Flack in black? Church Lady?

church ladyPeggy Noonan, who knows a thing or two about Oval Office strategy talks, weighs in on the issue of How Harriet Got Religion and just nails it.

Again and again, I will raise the question: Did someone play the Jesus card on purpose in an emotional attempt to rally the base and create flaming headlines that bury the crony angle? Who knows?

However, one thing is certain. We will know that the HHGR angle has legs, of course, when it hits Comedy Central and the Letterman Top 10 list. Come to think of it, maybe I need to check on that.

So here is Noonan (with a nod to the entertainment culture):

Barring a withdrawal of her nomination, it’s going to come down to Harriet Meirs’s ability to argue her own case before the Senate Judiciary Committee. If the American people decide she seems like a good person — sympathetic, wise, even-keeled, knowledgeable — she’ll be in; and if not, not. . . .

So the administration can turn this around. Or rather Ms. Meirs can. In her favor: America has never met her, she’ll get to make a first impression. Working against her: But they’ll already be skeptical. By the time of the hearings she’ll have been painted as Church Lady. There’s a great old American tradition of not really liking Church Lady.

P.S. Yes, I saw the Dallas Morning News take on the HHGR story, but after I had written the overflight story on the major papers. It has the usual material from the omnipresent Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht. Reporter Sam Hodges also notes that Miers may have grown up Catholic or it might have been Protestant. Who knows?

But he also jumps down I-35 to Baylor University for some “are they evangelicals or not” information from the place where I got my master of arts degree in church-state studies. The people down there take words like this seriously, which is good, in an era when mainstream journalists start talking about, well, Catholics who “vote evangelical.”

By the way, Texas readers will certainly note the presence of the explosive word “infallible” in this story — which is the one-word land mine that blew up the Southern Baptist Convention 25 years ago. There are a few Southern Baptist newspaper readers in Texas and lots of them vote. For which party? Both, actually.

Here is Hodges.

These churches describe themselves as evangelical.

“That’ll tell you a lot theologically,” said Barry Hankins, an associate professor of history and church-state studies at Baylor University. “It’ll tell you they affirm the authority of Scripture and they affirm a conversion experience followed by baptism.”

Indeed, the “What We Believe” section of Valley View’s Web site (www.vvcc.org) speaks of the Bible as “the only infallible, inspired, authoritative Word of God.” Dr. Hankins said Christian churches such as Valley View have tended to be less politically active than many evangelical churches. Justice Hecht agreed that that had been the case at Valley View.

“They are concerned, but the thought in the past has always been that the emphasis of the church should be on its primary mission” — conversion and ministering to believers. That said, they have had pro-life literature in the church building and pro-life speakers over the years,” he said.

What does this tell us about Miers? Who knows?

But if Saturday Night Live calls in Dana Carvey to morph Ms. Miers into the Church Lady, then — amazingly enough — her nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court is probably toast. It’s America.

Am I joking? Who knows?

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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.

  • http://japery.newpantagruel.com G.J.

    Not all evangelicals “vote evangelical.” One interesting thing about this story (that was far less pronounced with Roberts) is that “evangelicals” (whatever that means from place to place) are as much in the dark as anyone else as to what Miers believes, due to the meaninglessness of “evangelical” as an indicator of specific beliefs and practices with a bearing on political issues, like abortion. Words like “faithful” and “orthodox” used to describe Catholics or Jews imply fidelity to an established and coherent body of doctrine backed by recognizable institutions. The same cannot be said of evangelicals, and this is a problem, especially when some of them are trying to maintain an organized political agenda.

    In this vein, CT editor Mark Galli’s review of D. G. Hart’s deconstrucion of evangelicalism is instructive, as is Galli’s remark that he is an Anglican himself because he doesn’t “believe evangelicalism by itself can sustain a deeper Christian life.” (http://www.ctlibrary.com/bc/2004/janfeb/11.22.html) By some accounts, Miers may be in a similar boat, regularly attending both independent evangelical and mainline churches.

    Aren’t these mongrel “evangelical” ecclesiologies worth some attention? They are a rather common phenomenon in contemporary evangelical academic and media circles, and they are essentially crises of Christian identity, so they generally have political ramifications or indicate some things about one’s politics.

    (Great example: Doug’s “About” page: “Douglas is a lifelong Episcopalian but also, by choice, an evangelical Protestant. In August 2005 he became communications director of the Anglican Communion Network.” Here “evangelical” modifies “lifelong Episcopalian” to indicate “not a liberal or heretic,” and the ACN reference quietly nails the point home.)

    Maybe Miers is a “longstanding Evangelical, but also, by choice, an Episcopalian.” I’m not sure what that choice means, but it is definitely unusual.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2 Douglas LeBlanc

    {(Great example: Doug’s “About” page: “Douglas is a lifelong Episcopalian but also, by choice, an evangelical Protestant. In August 2005 he became communications director of the Anglican Communion Network.” Here “evangelical” modifies “lifelong Episcopalian” to indicate “not a liberal or heretic,” and the ACN reference quietly nails the point home.)}

    I’m honored that one of our friends at The New Pantagruel is studying my “About” listing, but I hasten to add that I use “evangelical” as an indication of what I am rather than what I am not. I happily identified myself as an evangelical beginning in the late 1970s, when I became involved in InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. I mention both my evangelical and Episcopal identities because they are both important to me, and I’ve come to love them both. The Network reference is there to place my biases out front, rather than to nail any point home.

  • http://onlinefaith.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    What strikes me is the volume of alt. press traffic that is utterly uninterested in the religious dimension. I’ve found plenty of traffic there concerning Miers’ involvement in “coverup” of the Air NG controversy and in scandals at the Texas Lottery Commission, but while Google news searches did turn up a Boston Globe story on the latter, MSM references to the former were totally lacking.

  • tmatt

    G.J.

    Hey, great points. The whole struggle to define “evangelical” is something that I have written about several times, if that interests you.

    Check this: http://tmatt.gospelcom.net/column/2004/11/24/

    Barna’s line between “born again” (emotional definition) and “Bible believing” (doctrinal) is very helpful to me and makes sense at the level of culture and politics.

    Here is a chunk from that column:

    In Barna’s system, all “evangelicals” are “born again Christians,” but not vice versa. In his polls, true “evangelicals” are a mere 7 percent of the voting population, while other “born again Christians” make up an addition 31 percent.

    The difference between these groups is crucial for those studying the politics of social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

    For Barna, evangelicals affirm that “faith is very important in their lives today; believe they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believe that Satan exists; believe that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believe that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; and describe God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today.”

    “Born again” Christians are those who believe they have “made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important” in their lives and that they will go to heaven because they have confessed their sins and “accepted Jesus Christ” as savior.

    Thus, “evangelicals” are defined by specific doctrines. “Born again” Christians are defined by personal, often vague, spiritual experiences and feelings.

    This can affect what happens in voting booths.

  • tmatt

    Oh, and one more complication.

    In the ANGLICAN context, the word “evangelical” is often used for the actual “low church,” Reformed theological camp in the British churchmanship battles. So that word does have some specific content there.

  • http://japery.newpantagruel.com G.J.

    Thanks for the link, Terry.

    Doug–I didn’t mean to imply that your use of “evangelical” to describe yourself works in a purely or primarily negative fashion–i.e., defining by reference to what you are not. It’s just that positives naturally imply negatives. I didn’t think your self-description indicated unawareness of this; on the contrary, you are, as you say, disclosing indications of “bias,” at least to those readers who perceive the following:

    1) “episcopalian” evokes a context of liberal-conservative politics relevant to GR’s reporting. This raises the question, where doues Doug fit in those politics?

    2) “evangelical” and “Anglican Communion Network” answer that question by invoking conservative groups/identities.

    My point was just that these terms form a relatively complex and significant relationship in a text, just as the realities they refer to are complex and significant. Lack of literacy on this level is what inhibits most religion reporting. Few are likely to ask potentially productive questions about people like Roberts or Miers because they don’t know there are many different kind of evangelicals, catholics, episcopalians, and mainline protestants in general. They especially do not know what to make of people who have moved from one to another or who are somewhat “ambiguously churched.”