The church of punditry

coulterIt’s so difficult to write about Ann Coulter. Sometimes I think that those of us who do are all pawns in her game of making hoards of money. Having read her first book — which was harsh but not a bad read at all — I have come to the conclusion that she writes them and then inserts completely over the top and uncharitable statements at the last minute. This is for the sole purpose of having the mainstream media get outraged and bring her on the air to discuss it. She then goes home and watches the Amazon counter spin out of control.

I do have to admit that one of her columns still makes me laugh when I think of it. She was asked to opine about the Democratic Convention in 2004 for USA Today. She writes a typical Coulter column that the paper refuses to run. She had the column and the edits on her website for a while, but I couldn’t find them today. They were hilarious for revealing the profound disconnect between Ann’s populist-conservative philosophy and mainstream editors. Here was a sample I found from an old webpage:

Looking at the line-up of speakers at the Convention, I have developed the 7-11 challenge: I will quit making fun of, for example, Dennis Kucinich, if he can prove he can run a 7-11 properly for 8 hours. We’ll even let him have an hour or so of preparation before we open up. Within 8 hours, the money will be gone, the store will be empty, and he’ll be explaining how three 11-year olds came in and asked for the money and he gave it to them.

USA Today editor: I DON’T GET IT.

Not that her inability to take edits isn’t notorious. Anyway, Coulter’s new book argues that liberalism is a godless religion — a fascinating thesis. But media types were too busy acting aghast at her remarks about 9/11 widows to get to what she was saying. Which is a shame, since her books are read by many.

In comes Charlotte Allen, who wrote recently the surprisingly blunt piece in the Los Angeles Times on membership declines of mainstream Christian churches:

You want to have gay sex? Be a female bishop? Change God’s name to Sophia? Go ahead. The just-elected Episcopal presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, is a one-woman combination of all these things, having voted for [Gene] Robinson, blessed same-sex couples in her Nevada diocese, prayed to a female Jesus at the Columbus convention and invited former Newark, N.J., bishop John Shelby Spong, famous for denying Christ’s divinity, to address her priests.

When a church doesn’t take itself seriously, neither do its members. . . .

When your religion says “whatever” on doctrinal matters, regards Jesus as just another wise teacher, refuses on principle to evangelize and lets you do pretty much what you want, it’s a short step to deciding that one of the things you don’t want to do is get up on Sunday morning and go to church.

So that’s Charlotte Allen. Not exactly an apologist for godlessness. Which is why the interview, which it appears they conducted by e-mail, was so interesting. It’s a tough interview, and as Allen asks Coulter to defend her thesis, we get to see a bit of the difference between two women who oppose relativism. Here are a few of the questions and answers:

We’ve done some polls here at Beliefnet, and a surprising number of Democrats at least say they are religious. Some 61 percent say they pray daily and 72 percent attend worship services once a month or more. How would you explain that?

Just curious: What percentage of them know which Testament the Book of Job is in?

You say you’re a Christian. Do you think Jesus would want you to be nicer to your political opponents?

Who knows? Maybe He’ll say I was too tough or maybe He’ll chastise me for not being tough enough on those who hate Him. Ask the money-changers in the temple how “nice” Jesus was. Maybe He’ll say I needed more jokes or fewer adjectives. I’ll just apologize for not getting it right and thank him for dying for my sins.

What does it mean to be a good Christian, and do you consider yourself to be a good Christian?

To believe with all your heart at every moment that God loved a wretch like you so much that he sent his only son to die for your sins. Most of the time, I’m an extraordinarily good Christian.

It’s a pretty interesting read, both in terms of the questions and the answers.

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  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    For long-time GetReligion readers, here is another familiar name. Young master Jeremy has opined on Coulter as well:

    http://beliefnet.com/story/196/story_19644_1.html

  • Maureen

    “Hordes” are the people who have money.

    “Hoards” is where you keep your money.

    Please correct this.

  • Tom Breen

    “Most of the time, I’m an extraordinarily good Christian.”

    Is it just me, or is it hard to imagine, for example, Billy Graham making this kind of statement?

    But the piece raises an interesting question: Is there any way to evaluate someone’s claim to being a religious believer? Coulter says she’s Christian, which is news to me: until this book, her religious beliefs had not been a significant part of her shtick. Is there any way for a journalist to probe a little deeper beyond the professions of faith without being accused of attacking someone’s personal beliefs?

  • Iris Alantiel

    Oh, so it was Charlotte Allen who was interviewing Coulter. I was wondering about that.

    Poor Charlotte.

  • Larry Rasczak

    “Is there any way to evaluate someone’s claim to being a religious believer?”

    It is not our place to judge our brothers and sisters, but if you want to know if someone is sincere in their claim of belief I would say a good rule of thumb would be “Actions speak louder than words, and difficult actions speak louder than easy ones.”

    If it doesn’t cause you to change how you live, then you really don’t believe it.

  • Tom Breen

    “It is not our place to judge our brothers and sisters”

    Well, it sort of is the press’ job to judge people’s claims, at least in terms of accuracy. This is relatively simple to do if the claim is, say, Gary Hart’s boast of husbandly fidelity, but it’s much trickier when it comes to religious affiliation.

    A good example of the problem is the situation with Messianic Jews. These are people who argue they are Jewish, but who believe Jesus is the promised Messiah. As you can perhaps imagine, they are extraordinarily unpopular with many Jews, who argue that you can’t both be Jewish and follow Jesus.

    Newspapers around the country have run into this, as even seemingly innocuous Local Happenings mentions of tag sales at Messianic Jewish synagogues draw angry letters from Jews who say these groups cannot be identified as Jewish.

    So the question for newspapers is, do they just go with self-identification, or do they try and make some evaluation about the Messianics’ claim to Jewishness?

    I see similar problems with Ann Coulter claiming to be a Christian or, for that matter, most politicians. How do we know John Kerry is a Catholic, or that George Bush is a Christian? Because they say so? Is there anything for a journalist writing about these issues to do other than take their sources’ word for it?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Well, unless journalists have figured out something that no other human has — the ability to see into someone’s heart — I think self-identification is a pretty good method. Then, journalists and others test that self-identification against actual words/actions.

    By actions, however, I don’t mean that we say people who sin are disqualified from saying they are Christian. Then all Christians would be DQ’d, obviously.

    I mean, look at the sinfulness of all the great men and women of faith throughout history.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    I could be reading some of the comments here incorrectly (and, heck, I probably am) but I find it interesting that we would seem to consider whether Ann Coulter is ineligible for the title of Christian — when she actually gave a pretty good definition for what it means and how she therefore qualifies — but think we’re safely there (because our works are so much better than hers?).

    It reminds me of something my father (who was my pastor at the time) told me when I made a quip about a fellow parishioner’s obvious lack of commitment to maintaining the parish. He told me that some people struggle so much that the only thing they can do is make it to church once in a blue moon. Others can attend faithfully, visit the homebound, mow the lawn, make sandwiches for the poor, etc.

    I realize I’m kind of rambling here, but this is what partially bothers me about attack journalism — we reporters naturally assume the worst and fail to put the best construction on others’ words/actions.

    And sure, we could say, “But she did it first!” But then we’re back to my previous post about mutually assured destruction. Perhaps the proper response to people being what we consider uncharitable and unfair is to put the best construction on their words and actions and see if the situation can’t be calmed a bit.

    I actually think the Lott book review that Terry linked to above does a great job with that — it’s critical but he is fair and tries to put the best construction on her arguments.

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  • http://www.nhreligion.com Stephen A.

    Coulter said: “Most of the time, I’m an extraordinarily good Christian.”

    Tom Breen asks: “Is it just me, or is it hard to imagine, for example, Billy Graham making this kind of statement?”

    Her statement is simply one made by yet another extraordinarily smug Christian who is *certain* that she is going to heaven and likely eqaully *certain* that others are going to hell. I’ve always found both statements to be quite presumptive, since the speakers (as far as I know) aren’t God nor are they privy to God’s inner thoughts on the subject.

    As for journalists determining who is a “real” Christian, didn’t we do that post about four months ago here? I sure don’t want to hash that out again.

    Suffice it to say (as I said before) that reporters should use the terms they’re given, and also be open to quoting others who challenge what those believers are asserting and how they are using terms. That’s easy when the subjects are well known “cult” members, but harder when their religous body has a Christian- (or Jewish, or Muslim, etc.) sounding name.

  • http://www.nhreligion.com Stephen A.

    I do have to say, this Q&A from the interview is classic:

    Q: You say that the Episcopal Church is “barely even a church.” Why?

    Coulter: “Because it’s become increasingly difficult to distinguish the pronouncements of the Episcopal Church from the latest Madonna video.”

    Q: Are churches that don’t agree with your politics or religious beliefs not really churches?

    Coulter: “Correct: They’re called ‘mosques.’”

  • Tom Breen

    Mollie:

    I’m not advocating for attack journalism, simply asking whether journalists have any way to determine whether people are what they claim to be. When a politician says “I’m an environmentalist,” that’s easy to check; when a divisive publicist pushing a new book about religion says “I’m a Christian,” that’s virtually impossible to check.

    So Ann Coulter is a Christian because she says so. And Messianic Jews are Jewish because they say so. And women ordaining women as priests are Catholic, because they say so. And John Shelby Spong is a Christian because – you guessed it! – he says so.

    In her interview with Charlotte Allen, Coulter herself suggests some criteria for determining whether someone is a Christian – she says, for example, one can’t be Christian and support the welfare state.

    So are there no follow-up questions a journalist can ask to “Are you a Christian”? What about, “What kind of Christian? Where do you go to Church? How often do you go to Church? Is Jesus simply a worthy man with important teachings, or is he God?”

    I would be interested to hear Coulter’s answers to questions like these, especially since she can’t even be bothered to type out the entirety of her favorite prayer, the one taught to us by “our Creator” (which is technically true in an orthodox sense, although you rarely hear Jesus called the Creator).

    To me, it’s just not acceptable for journalists to simply take a source’s word for it, let alone to try and put the most positive construction possible on their words.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Tom,

    I agree with you — pressing for more detailed answers is the key. And talking to folks who might disagree with the first source’s self-assessment, etc.

    Mollie

  • Michael

    The liberal Media Matters thinks this is a good question too, since there are allegations that she has lied about attending the fashionable Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan

    http://www.rawstory.com/news/2006/Godless_author_Coulter_unknown_at_church_0608.html

  • Larry Rasczak

    Tom asks…

    “How do we know John Kerry is a Catholic, or that George Bush is a Christian? Because they say so? Is there anything for a journalist writing about these issues to do other than take their sources’ word for it? ”

    First you raise a great point. I think your point on the follow up questions is a great one. I think they are very important.

    That being said I would also recomend that you do the legwork.

    John Kerry is a great example, because the Catholic Church is very specific about its’ teachings. The Church is strongly against abortion, Kerry isn’t. The Church and Kerry have very different views on homosexuality. Except for the fact they both dislike the death penalty, I can’t think of a social issue that Kerry and the Catholic Church agree on, except perhaps the most basic platitudes like “feeding hungry people is good” and “nuking large cites is bad”.

    If a reporter wanted to do a story on this he or she should go and see how Kerry VOTED, and then go Google up some legitimate Catholic organizations (like the National Council of Catholic Bishops, or the Vatican Newspaper… Li Observatore Romano I think it is). Then compare the two and see if what the Church teaches stacks up against what Kerry DOES.

    Does Kerry act and vote in a way that a person who sincerely believed the teachings of the Catholic Church would? If not I think it is fair to question the sincerity of his claim to be a Catholic.

    Note that this does not necessairly make him an evil person or a dammed soul. It just means he doesn’t act the way someone who believed Official Catholic Teachings would act. He’d probably be right in line with the Episcopalians or the Unitarians. If he acts and votes more like an Episcopalian than a Catholic I would ask him why he claims to be a Catholic.

    Bush is a slightly tougher nut to crack because you asked “is George Bush is a Christian”? and “Christian” positions on issues are harder to define than “Catholic” ones. I believe Bush is a Methodist, so you might want to see how his actions stack up with traditional Methodist teachings.

    Again though I would say, look at his actions. His veto of the stem cell bill is probably the best example. He vetoed it because he felt it was MORALLY WRONG. None of the reporters I saw covering the veto story “groked” that fact. They all talked in terms of political calcucation, or apeasing the base, etc. etc. etc. Bush clearly didn’t care about that and he didn’t care about the poll numbers, (or he would have sold the pro-life people down the river like some of the “presidental contenders” in the Senate did). Bush vetoed the bill because he felt that destroying embroys means you are killing a person, and therefore vetoing the bill was the morally right thing to do.

    Again, the test is “if it walks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck…”. If you want to know if Bush is a sincere Christian pull Bush’s tax returns. Does he tithe? (I think Bush actually does more than that.) Did he give it to religious charities? Did he tithe in non-election years? Does he own stock in Playboy? Someone who makes as much as Bush or Gore or Kerry and only gives $150 to a church in one year isn’t putting their money where their mouth is.

    You site Gary Hart, and he’s a great example. Jesus is clearly “on the record” as being against both divorce and adultery. If someone is flying off to Japan with a hot young blonde who is not his wife, and doing his female staffers under the table, I would feel safe questioning how sincere that persons professed commitment to Christ was. Looking at how this person treats his (or her) family and staff might be a better indicator than anything else. Again the question is, does he personally act and publicly vote in a way that a person who sincerely believed the teachings of Christ would?

    Now, there is an element of risk here. Sophistry can turn ANYTHING into a “moral issue” and some people wrap every isssue in (if not the flag) the Shroud of Turin. It is possible to for sincere Christians to disagree on many, if not most, of the issues out there.

    That being said, while Christ didn’t speak a great deal about tax policy, He was pretty clear on the basics. Don’t steal, don’t lie, no adultery. While none of us are perfect, I don’t think you need to catch someone sacrificing a goat to Baal to question the sincerity of their commitment to Christ.

  • Roger Bennett

    I don’t know, and don’t need to know, whether or not Coulter is a Christian. What I do know is that when she was merely a very bright, sassy, and (according to some) attractive blond who savaged liberals, I liked her quite a lot. After 9/11, when something changed (“snapped”? – she was very close to Barbara Olson, one of the airline passengers), she became far more savage (saying we should forced conversion of Muslims, for instance), and I became hesitant. Now that she self-identifies as a Christian, I will go to no more of her talks, because her conduct, even allowing for the schtick of her punditry, does not represent what I want the “Christian” voice in the public square to sound like.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    What amazes me is how hysterical liberals and Dems get over Coulter’s fairly gentle jabs. Compared to the rotten attacks liberals and Dems make she is a marshmallow. Doesn’t Howard Dean–head of the Dem. Party go around using words like Nazis, etc. on a regular basis and nary a twitch seems to result in the media (except from the offended Republican or Conservative–and then the media makes it look like “Gee! what’s the problem here?”

  • http://n/a Greg

    Stephen A writes:
    “Her statement is simply one made by yet another extraordinarily smug Christian who is *certain* that she is going to heaven and likely eqaully *certain* that others are going to hell. I’ve always found both statements to be quite presumptive, since the speakers (as far as I know) aren’t God nor are they privy to God’s inner thoughts on the subject.”
    Actually we are privy to God’s inner thoughts on the subject. He has made us privy in the Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection of His Son and in the Bible, His written word. There God makes it clear that those (like Coulter) who trust in the Blood Atonement Jesus offered at Calvary can be absolutely certain that they are going to heaven. Coulter’s certanity is grounded in the Gospel. Doubt is not a virtue, it is a flaming dart of Satan to be extinguished by faith in the Gospel. Three Cheers for Coulter’s crystal clear explanation of justification by faith alone which is the heart of the Gospel.

  • http://www.nhreligion.com Stephen A.

    Greg, thanks for “Exhibit B.”

    I stand by it – despite what a person says about himself, he can’t say someone else is going to hell, and by extension, that the other person is going to heaven.

    Having read her entire interview, I note that Coulter says, “I cannot speak to individual cases – only God knows who is truly following Him.”
    That’s my point.

  • http://hairouna.livejournal.com Discernment

    It seems that most people took Coulters’ statement that she is an extraordinarily good Christian out of context, despite the fact that the context is only one sentence long. Check out the sentence before she said that. It reads (in case you’re too lazy to scroll up): “[Being a good Christian means to] believe with all your heart at every moment that God loved a wretch like you so much that he sent his only son to die for your sins.” It seems clear that Ann is saying that, most of the time, she believes with all her heart that God loved a wretch like her so much that he sent his only son to die for her sins. It sounds like she occasionally doubts or forgets that (like most of us). She isn’t saying that she’s an extraordinarily good Christian according to any other standard people may have agreed on or have in their minds.

    Somehow, though, I get the feeling that she chose her words — particularly the ones in that sentence that people have grabbed on to — very carefully. Maybe she even expected out-of-context reactions like these.

  • Tom Breen

    Larry:

    Those are excellent points. My concern is that, because the word “Christian” can mean basically anything, I think journalists shouldn’t be afraid to ask for a little more detail from their sources. A word that can mean anything is meaningless, so Ann Coulter saying she’s a Christian doesn’t tell me very much, but if she says she’s an Orthodox Christian or a Catholic Christian or a Missouri Synod Lutheran Christian, that gives me a little more information for evaluating her claims.

    All too often, I think the press lets “Christian” stand as self-explanatory, as if there weren’t several thousand different denominations to choose from. A little more precision in news stories would be extremely welcome.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Not that I didn’t already agree with Tom, but I want to agree with him again.

    I am shocked, sometimes, how people’s actual views are rarely fleshed out by reporters. Sometimes I feel lucky to get an actual denominational affilliation — and yet that doesn’t necessarily say much about someone itself!

  • Albertanator

    Well I sure hope she is…..the only hope for humanity is Christ and I hope that is in who she Trusts…..I’ll have to take her word for it…

    Mayby she’s like me….kind a immature struggling Christian???? Growing in stutter steps I guess???

  • Marcum

    Ann says outrageous things that shock people and that is why she is so popular with the mainstream vulgar media. The media and culture is addicted to using pornography and vulgarity to feed the beast. Consider-
    She is the only one I’ve heard in the media ask with a humor tone:

    ‘when is Hilary coming out of the closet?’

    What, I thought Hilary was a happily married Christian woman.