Thumbs up, thumbs down? (updated)

Left thumbs downI am genuinely fascinated with the degree to which the choice of Gov. Sarah Palin as the GOP’s vice presidential nominee has created a firestorm on the religion left and, to some degree, in secular corners of the Democratic Party.

For months now, I have been saying that the trailblazing efforts by Sen. Barack Obama — an outspoken voice for liberal Christianity — to invade traditional religious sanctuaries is one of the most interesting religion-beat stories that I have seen in a long, long time. That’s why I wrote about him so early in the campaign, in a column (“Obama’s awesome testimony“) for the Scripps Howard News Service.

That earlier effort included this passage about Obama’s fervent speech to a national meeting of the United Church of Christ, focusing on his decision to become a Christian:

“It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle … and affirm my Christian faith. It came about as a choice, and not an epiphany. I didn’t fall out in church, like folks sometimes do. The questions I had didn’t magically disappear. … But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt I heard God’s spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truths and carrying out His works.”

Over at the Christian Broadcasting Network, commentator David Brody offered a candid evaluation of the speech: “That, ladies and gentlemen, is called a conversion experience.”

Most of all, I was fascinated that Obama was urging his fellow believers on the religious left to strike a new tone, to take a more positive stance in their dialogues with traditional believers. He was trying to heal some wounds.

Now, in the wake of the Palin nomination, it’s like all of that has been washed away. We’re back at — well — the U.S. Senate hearings for Justice Clarence Thomas, or something like that.

So this week I stuck an editorial toe into the Palin tsunami. Lord, have mercy.

Here’s the new column (Scripps Howard link is here), with a few hyperlinks thrown in. However, note that I have also included the final kicker line that I almost used. I have been second-guessing myself ever since I clicked “send” early this morning.

So I want readers to give me a thumbs up or thumbs down. Should I have used this final, snarky, benediction? Would it have been appropriate? Fair? A straw-man exercise? Let me know what you think in the comments pages.

The punch line rocketed around the World Wide Web, inspiring smiles in pews friendly to Sen. Barack Obama.

The Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners saw a campaign button based on this one liner and, on the “Interfaith Voices” public radio show, said it was a fine response to Gov. Sarah Palin’s jab at the work of “community organizers.”

Donna Brazile — who ran Al Gore’s 2000 White House campaign — saw the same gag and, on CNN, quickly linked it to the Bible’s message that “to whom much is given, much is required.”

But this cyberspace quip finally made the crucial jump to YouTube when U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen took to the House floor to remind conservatives “Barack Obama was a community organizer like Jesus. … Pontius Pilate was a governor.”

Cohen later emphasized that, “I didn’t and I wouldn’t compare anyone to Jesus. … What I pointed out was that Jesus was a force of change.” But the apology came too late to douse the fiery rhetoric raging on talk radio and weblogs.

In particular, the soundbite used by Cohen and others captured the rising tide of religious tensions in this White House race. This conflict has been heightened by the powerful role played by religious liberals in Obama’s groundbreaking outreach efforts in a wide variety of sanctuaries.

Obama is, after all, an articulate, proud member of the denomination — the United Church of Christ — that has in recent decades boldly pushed mainline Protestant to the doctrinal left on issues such as gay rights, abortion and the tolerance of other world religions. His running mate, Sen. Joe Biden, is an outspoken American Catholic whose progressive views have often placed him in dangerous territory between his political party and the Vatican.

Sen. John McCain, meanwhile, used to be an Episcopalian married to a beer-empire heiress, the very model of a mainline Protestant gentleman from the 1950s. Then he started visiting Southern Baptist pews while mending fences on the religious right. Finally, McCain shuffled the 2008 deck by naming Palin — an enthusiastic evangelical mother of five children — as his running mate.

This move rocked the pews on both sides of the sanctuary aisle, but Palin’s ascension has caused an unusual degree of shock, anger, dismay and disdain on the secular and religious left.

The political weblog Instapundit summed up the mood on the cultural left with this headline: “She’s the freakin’ Antichrist, I tell you!”

For author Deepak Chopra, a superstar in the spirituality marketplace, Palin is, quite literally, the anti-Obama. She is a living symbol of all that is wrong with small-town, parochial, ignorant, reactionary Middle America, especially with her “family values” code language that opposes expanding doctrines of civil rights.

“She is the reverse of Barack Obama, in essence his shadow, deriding his idealism and exhorting people to obey their worst impulses,” he argued, at The Huffington Post. “In psychological terms the shadow is that part of the psyche that hides out of sight, countering our aspirations, virtue and vision with qualities we are ashamed to face: anger, fear, revenge, violence, selfishness, and suspicion of ‘the other.’ ”

Obama, however, is “calling for us to reach for our higher selves,” said Chopra.

The ultimate irony is the GOP’s assumption that Palin will appeal to women just because “she has a womb and makes lots and lots of babies,” argued religious historian Wendy Doniger of the University of Chicago’s Divinity School

“Her greatest hypocrisy is in her pretense that she is a woman,” she wrote, in an “On Faith” essay for the Washington Post. “She does not speak for women; she has no sympathy for the problems of other women, particularly working class women.”

But can anyone, in the current political atmosphere, top the Palin as Pontius Pilate smack down? University of Michigan historian Juan Cole, a specialist in Middle Eastern and South Asian affairs, offered his best shot.

When it comes to faith and politics, the values of McCain’s “handpicked running mate, Sarah Palin, more resemble those of Muslim fundamentalists than they do those of the Founding Fathers. On censorship, the teaching of creationism in schools, reproductive rights, attributing government policy to God’s will and climate change, Palin agrees with Hamas and Saudi Arabia rather than supporting tolerance and democratic precepts.

“What is the difference between Palin and a Muslim fundamentalist? Lipstick.”

And then, the ending that I considered:

Stay tuned. The Rev. Pat Robertson has not raised his voice in a long, long time.

Thumbs up? Thumbs down? I was simply trying to remind readers that this kind of language on the left would almost certainly lead to a backlash on the right.

ART: OK, OK, I changed the art. Have it your way.

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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.

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    You mean “language on the right?” Yes?

    Thumbs down because I wouldn’t have got your point but for the explanation you give here.

    And btw, you didn’t need to pose that point as a hypothetical. Religious-related attacks on Obama from the right killed many, many trees and shaped even more electrons when the Rev. Wright was in the headlines. And continue unto this very day with challenges to the authenticity of Obama’s Christianity.

    By me, the Jesus/Pilate line was fair game and pretty funny. A bit of ju-jitsu using Palin’s own words and putative theology. The howls from the Palin/McCain camp were from a blow well-struck.

    The Cole line, OTOH, goes over the line — putting Palin in the same category as suicide bombers. Which is unsupportable and damaging to the body politic.

  • Alex Wainer

    Thumbs down fo the same reason above–it comes out of nowhere for the reader and you have to imagine what it means. Unecessary.
    The Doniger line is precisely the type of hysteria that either turns off normal observers of political rhetoric or confirms the rabid in their hatred.

  • Rachel Bryars

    I agree with Jeffrey:

    “Thumbs down because I wouldn’t have got your point but for the explanation you give here.”

    Additionally, I don’t think the prophesied backlash needs to be portayed as coming from such a polarizing figure on the right-wing. Let’s not add to the perception that he speaks for, well, anyone. I suspect a lot of decent people who are hugging that middle line look at the stream of shocking comments from folks like Cole, Glenn Reynolds, and co. and at the least want to distance themselves from the liberal left’s frantic attacks and at the most may be prompted to engage in the most effective backlash of all– a vote for McCain/hockey mom.

    But that’s just speculation. Let’s watch the polls and see what happens.

    P.S.: Pat Robertson may speak…but is anyone beside the controversy-hungry media really listening?

  • Don

    Thumbs down, but for different reasons than those above. If I didn’t know the author, I would have assumed that such a parting shot would be another dig at conservative Christians, or an attempt to link Palin and Robertson.

    The Cole quote was a better finish. It capped the concept that the backlash versus Palin has become overheated.

    And Jeffrey, comparing Palin to a suicide bomber is over the top, but comparing her to the man who sentenced Jesus to crucifixion is appropriate? That’s a pretty weird idea of balance. Maybe the 2nd is bad because it might offend Muslims, and the first is OK because it only offends Christians.

  • Jim

    Got the gist just the way it is. But I did have one comment on your post here. The hand pictured has one LONG thumb. I found myself looking at mine trying to see if I was seeing things.
    As for Robertson, if you had simply added his name at the end of the article, the entire tone of the article changes. Just mentioning him conjures up hated images on the left. For the right, he is the uncle that causes the family to cringe every time he speaks. He is loved for who he is, but the family would rather him not speak up at parties and get togethers.

  • Mike Hickerson

    The ending you went with was the better choice. I agree that the reference to Robertson comes out of the blue.

  • Margaret

    I agree with posts 1 through 4, thumbs donw. Mostly for the reason cited in post 4, it looks like you’re recommending Robertson as a source to be listened to concerning the correctness of Palin.

  • Rick

    The ending that wasn’t used is only slightly more confusing than the essay itself. tmatt, I can’t tell if you are personally opining that Palin is the moral equivalent of an islamic terrorist, but that’s the leaning I think I am hearing. I hope I’m just obtuse today.

    I thought the Pilate/Palin comparison was un-funny, of very questionable judgment, and ultimately destined to backfire as reflective of a remarkably desperate smear.

  • Mattk

    I wouldn’t hae understood the Pat Robertson reference.

  • Steve

    The “Lipstick” like appears in quotes because, I assume, it was a quote from Prof. Cole. Fair game. The carrot tossed to Pat Robertson is an invitation, a flare, maybe even a dare. You could just call him and ask him to comment if that’s the idea. Otherwise, Robertson’s views on Palin may or may not warrant further coverage. As other comments suggest, Robertson’s influence is rather limited in recent years.

    Mostly, I appreciate the way your column surfaces new voices. Go forward, not back.

  • Mike Perry

    … Hillary not only made a mistake when she refused to appear on the same stage in NYC with Sarah, she exposed a weakness in the Democratic attacks on Palin. The more diverse and the more national the contexts in which Palin appears, the more ineffective Democratic attacks on her as a religious nutcase from Mooseland will become. The first rule in effective politics and war is to recognize the strengths of your opponents. Palin is strong because there are a lot of American women much like her. They have seen her for what she it. Even with the cooperation of the press, they can’t demonize her without demonizing them. And on them the election may hinge.

    –Michael W. Perry, Inkling Books, Seattle

  • FrGregACCA

    Well, here ya go, y’all. Pat’s on board. The Palin pick has restored his faith in McCain, and Palin is, quite literally, the second coming of Ronald Reagan.

    Pat Robertson assesses Palin

  • David Buckna

    In a 2006 gubernatorial debate, Sarah Palin said evolution and creationism should both be taught in public schools. But in an interview the following day with the Anchorage Daily News, Palin said:

    In an interview Thursday, Palin said she meant only to say that discussion of alternative views should be allowed to arise in Alaska classrooms:

    ‘I don’t think there should be a prohibition against debate if it comes up in class. It doesn’t have to be part of the curriculum.’

    She added that, if elected, she would not push the state Board of Education to add such creation-based alternatives to the state’s required curriculum.”

    Teaching Evolution – Is There a Better Way?
    by Ian Taylor

    Should Evolution Be Immune From Critical Analysis?
    by David Buckna

    Teaching Origins in Public Schools
    by David Menton

    David Menton bio:

    * Biomedical research technician at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota in he Department of Dermatology (1960-62)
    * Associate Professor of Anatomy at Washington University School of edicine, St. Louis, Missouri (1966-2000)
    * Associate Professor Emeritus of Anatomy at Washington University School of Medicine (July 2000)

  • Peter Musurlian

    If you want to see “the real” Congressman Steve Cohen in action — including the blemishes of hypocrisy, ethnic slurs and violence — take a look at this. All 10 minutes is worth you time.

  • Keri Mitchell

    It might be a good reminder, but the way you ended it was a more effective ending.

  • Ken Mahanes

    Terry, my opinion, for what it’s worth, is that you ended the piece correctly. The final Pat Robertson line would have been a spoiler for me.

  • Jerry

    Most of all, I was fascinated that Obama was urging his fellow believers on the religious left to strike a new tone, to take a more positive stance in their dialogues with traditional believers. He was trying to heal some wounds.

    Now, in the wake of the Palin nomination, it’s like all of that has been washed away.

    This comment will probably get me in trouble with some, but it’s worth pointing out the difference between the teachings of the Christ and what is done by some in the name of Christianity. So to fault Obama for failing to get his supporters to strike a new tone is asking way, way too much of an ordinary human to change especially over night.

    “What is the difference between Palin and a Muslim fundamentalist? Lipstick.”

    And that is wrong because a “Fundamentalist Muslim” woman might indeed wear lipstick but might do so only at home. So that is not a proper statement I found one definition at but there are writeups about what “Muslim fundamentalist” means in many places. So I have to fault you for not fact-checking the phrase.

  • Tom Goodman

    Thumbs down, but only since you asked. And that goes for the way you ended it and the way you thought about ending it. As I read the article, I gathered that you wanted to point out how the whole effort of Obama to reach out to the religious community–and even elevate the whole conversation about faith in the public square–had been sidetracked by the unhinged reaction to Palin by the Left (Anne Lamott in Salon anyone?). But the ending as you have it doesn’t clinch the argument: Instead of being shamed, those on the Left probably just found it funny and used it in their next conversation. Anne Lamott probably already has.

  • Harris

    I think you’re missing the story. As written you offer up a reaction to other reactions — we’re in a cycle. I would think a better approach would be to consider why this reaction exists: what has been violated here, what trigger pulled?

    This latter aspect would be a longer-lived insight. The reactions? They are already being forgotten as the discussion turns to economics, and the discussion of the Governor turns to her governing style. All the more, since she doesn’t put faith front and center in her speaking or policy positions; Rod Dreher’s observation that she is more a Western conservative remains one of the sharpest insights on left or right.

  • Jay

    Am I the only one who finds an irony in this phrase:

    “She does not speak for women; she has no sympathy for the problems of other women, particularly working class women.”

    This is being said about a woman who had five children, and who is mainly raising the children in her family rather outsourcing childrearing to a nanny or daycare (as upper class women do). Her dad was a teacher and her mom a secretary. Her husband has no college degree and is an oil field worker.

    Meanwhile, the woman who says “she has no sympathy for the problems of … working class women” has a doctorate from Harvard and another from Oxford. Why does this upper class woman have the right to speak for “working class women” but the working class politician does not?

    Tmatt, you have three experts saying Palin is illegitimate on some level. Don’t you think you should have found someone to speak for the other side? Don’t they call it “balance” in journalism school — or is that a 20th century (or pre-Tom Wolfe) concept?

    How about Jennifer Roback Morse (working class Catholic with a PhD from U. Rochester), who is a regular guest on Issues Etc.? Balancing the PhD professor with a nutjob CBN broadcaster would only reinforce the editorializing against Gov. Palin.

  • Fr Joseph Huneycutt

    I don’t care what you say, I agree with Jim (#5) — I even studied my own for 35 seconds before reading the article — that’s the longest darned thumb I have ever seen.

    That said, flip it the other way on the Pat line.

  • tmatt

    Interesting questions on the “balance” of the piece.

    First of all, I am a columnist. So balance is a concern, but I get to write about what I want to write about. And, in this case, it is a column about how Palin has unhinged the religious and secular left.

    Also, where in this article or in my Obama column of 2007 do I blame these unhinged views on Obama? If anything, I think his efforts to change the tone are being UNDERCUT by this Palin as Antichrist blitz.

  • Sarah Webber

    You heard it here, folks. Terry Mattingly said Palin is the Antichrist. :)

    Seriously, though, I like the column as is. All this furor over Sarah Palin is a nice distraction from the constant bad financial news. It makes me wonder if the financial instability of (seemingly) everything is connected to the number of people who seem to have come unhinged, in that it makes them more emotionally unstable, or that the MSM is providing an alternate focus to another bank merger or financial bail out. If we’re all frothing at the mouth about the latest campaign news, we won’t be worrying about the rapidly expanding federal debt.

  • patrick connolly

    Please note Cohen’s hate speech against Armenians (among the first Christians and the first country to convert to Christianity in 301 AD)which he committed August 6, 2008. Anti-Christian hate speech is apparently O.K. in the USA, as evidenced by the fact that Cohen has 1. yet to apologize, 2.has not been officially censured…. ,

  • Grupetti

    “…Palin’s ascension has caused an unusual degree of shock, anger, dismay and distain…”

    Terry, did you mean “disdain”?

  • Lee

    I agree with Jay and it’s exactly the point of the whole Palin backlash. No longer can ordinary citizens speak for themselves about other ordinary citizens. It’s for those in academia and elitist circles (journalists, political pundits, et al) that can speak for others and voice what they think is on their minds. Unfortunately, they’ve so divorced themselves from the ordinary citizen, they no longer no what that is. Thanks Jay for stating the obvious.

  • Lee

    I meant to write, “they no longer know what that is.”