Tongues, cartoons, news — oh my (updated)

washington post cartoonCartoons are certainly not news items in the traditional sense of a news article or broadcast, but as we all know, cartoons can certainly make news. See to the right (or click on this link) to get an idea of what I am talking about.

I hardly watch cable news these days (except for The Daily Show), so I can’t say what type of broadcast news coverage this attempt at humor is getting. Give me some feedback on whether this has received any significant coverage beyond various blogs. Maybe it’s time to start ignoring these types of incidents as some of you have suggested.

Or maybe it does matter since Pat Oliphant is one of the most widely distributed political cartoonists in the world. I love political cartoons and newspaper cartoonists in general. The first person outside family members I became friends with at my local newspaper was the evening newspaper’s cartoonist. Cartoonists can make points in ways writers like myself can only dream of. I am sad to see the slow decline over the years. The big question that some are asking: is this cartoon appropriate? Watch to see if The Washington Post‘s ombudsman Deborah Howell covers the issue this weekend in her column.

Now that the cartoon issue is out of the way, take a look at this news story from Dan Harris of ABC News on what Palin’s faith might mean to the country. The article starts out by saying the following:

It’s happened to John McCain and Barack Obama. Now it’s Sarah Palin’s turn to go through what one observer has called a “spiritual vetting.”

Isn’t it great when news stories start out by talking about the very thing that same news story is doing? As for the vetting, Harris didn’t do all that good of a job. Check out this paragraph:

Pentecostalism has been described as evangelical experience on steroids. Like evangelicals, Pentecostals believe that the Bible is the literal word of God and that the end of time is near. However, Pentecostals also believe that the Holy Spirit can give you gifts such as speaking in tongues, prophesy, and divine healing.

“It’s very common in Pentecostal churches to be emotionally involved, physically involved in our worship service,” Palin’s former pastor Tim McGraw said. “And the reason for that is that if you go to a football game and your team wins or kicks a field goal to win it’s entirely consistent to be happy.”

Why does Harris have to use a negative analogy like steroids? Couldn’t he have found the time to find a more neutral comparison?

The article mentions early and often the speaking in tongues issue despite the fact that it never suggests Palin has spoken in tongues. Getting that fact nailed down would seem to be to be essential to this story.

The article states that the practice is often the least understood. By definition, I think that is true. How should news reporters cover something as tricky and theologically controversial? I wouldn’t know where to start but maybe some of you readers could provide some suggestions.

UPDATE: Steve Waldman over at Beliefnet believes that Oliphant should apologize for the cartoon:

Where to begin? Palin doesn’t belong to a Pentecostal church now. When she did, we don’t know if she spoke in tongues. And most important, Speaking in Tongues is a religious practice in which Christians feel the direct presence of the Holy Spirit. Is that really something to mock?


Here’s a general rule of thumb: if you look closely, every religion’s practices and beliefs seem idiotic to those who aren’t part of that faith. Yet they’re profoundly meaningful to those who believe.

Print Friendly

  • http://www.magdalenesegg.blogspot.com Rev. Michael Church

    At first glance, the article seems to be entirely inappropriate. The main point seems to be making fun of one particular religious practice. It reminds me of one especially tacky article in which the writer claimed to have seen a pair of Mitt Romney’s underwear. Had the target been a Roman Catholic candidate, ridiculed for adoring the Host, you can imagine the outcry from the Catholic League. Likewise from the Anti-Defamation league if it were making fun of a Jewish candidate for keeping kosher.

    Furthermore, it is worth remembering that according to recent news reports, Palin (a) is no longer a member of her Pentecostal church (or any other), and (b) didn’t speak in tongues when she did

    That said, there is one sense in which the cartoon is, or at least may seem to some people, an appropriate piece of editorial opinion. Palin, like Obama and Bush, but largely unlike McCain, has chosen to make an overt connection between her religious faith and her public policies. That choice invites public scrutiny of her faith. After all, if faith shapes the policies, people have a right to evaluate the faith. The comparison that springs to mind is actually James Watt, Reagan’s interior secretary, who made it clear that his policy of using natural resources without consideration of long-term conservation or consequences was a reflection of his eschatologial convictions. Voters do have right to know such things, and editorial cartoonists have a duty to point them out.

  • FW Ken

    If I recall correctly, one of Gov. Palin’s pastors says she doesn’t speak in tongues. Not that’s it’s relevant.

    Again, I renew my question as to who in the media is keeping score on reporters and columnists who play Gov. Palin’s religion after denouncing those who played Gov. Romney’s. And, having declared Sen. Obama’s religion a non-issue, after much sturm und drang, will the media eventually say the same of Gov. Palin’s religion?

  • Bill

    I would say that the strongly negative reaction to Gov. Palin’s links to Pentecostalism is simply indicative of why this blog is named as it is. Whether or not she has ever spoken in tongues, the fact that she believes such a thing is possible is enough to discredit her in many circles.
    This is not to say that Palin’s supporters consistently react to Obama-related issues with any greater degree of understanding. Those of us on both sides of this growing American chasm more and more choose our sources of information to match our prejudices.

    And please explain this from the ABC News story.

    Sarah Palin, if she was just a plain Evangelical woman, would have a tough time thinking that she could be VP,” said University of Rochester religion professor Anthea Butler. “An evangelical woman might have issues with submission. What’s gonna happen with my kids? But a Pentecostal woman is saying God is calling me, I’m gonna answer this call.”

    Only Pentecostals have ever claimed to be called by God? Wow! I did not know that.

  • Brian Walden

    The article starts with:

    For two decades, Palin was a member of an Assemblies of God church in her hometown of Wasilla, Alaska. In 2002, years before she was elected governor of Alaska, Palin and her family switched to a nondenominational church, but Palin still returns to her old church on special occasions.

    But then the whole article is about Pentacostalism. Is Palin Pentecostal in belief and practice even though she attends an nondenominational evangelical Church? If not, why is all the coverage about Pentacostalism with none about what she believes now and her reasons for switching churhes?

    And I found this quote from the article jarring:

    “Sarah Palin, if she was just a plain Evangelical woman, would have a tough time thinking that she could be VP,” said University of Rochester religion professor Anthea Butler. “An evangelical woman might have issues with submission. What’s gonna happen with my kids? But a Pentecostal woman is saying God is calling me, I’m gonna answer this call.”

    Is this true? I think there should have at least been a quote from a second expert to balance this out. These lines just sound like stereotypes rather than in-depth analysis.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Pentecostalism has been described as evangelical experience on steroids. Like evangelicals, Pentecostals believe that the Bible is the literal word of God and that the end of time is near. However, Pentecostals also believe that the Holy Spirit can give you gifts such as speaking in tongues, prophesy, and divine healing.

    That’s what I call a train wreck of a paragraph. There are possibly more errors than words in it.

  • Karen B.

    You know, I’ve been surprised by all this Pentecostalism brouhaha. It’s not like we’ve never had a Pentecostal in a senior government position.

    Anyone remember a certain Attorney General named John Aschcroft? Wasn’t he Assemblies of God? Has his name been mentioned ANYWHERE in the avalanche of coverage re: Sarah Palin?

    I’m pretty sure there’s more to the rabid attacks against Palin than just her religion.

  • Pamela

    I remember a program that ABC did a 20/20 or PrimtTime Live program on speaking in tongues. The program aired years ago, sometime between January 2000 and early 2003 when I was attending a home Bible study. It was amazingly neutral. They interviewed people from a Protestant church and a Catholic church. Both churches had the leaders and many of the members that claimed that they spoke in tongues. Pentecostal believers halied the broadcast as wonderful. All the program did was explain the phenomenon, give people a change to describe their experiences and some critics (hot hostile). It was one of the best reports I ever saw on the subject.

    Another one was done last year I believe on Nightline. It was about 10-15 minutes. They were trying to see if speaking in tongues had any impact on people other than a spiritual feeling. They aired the testimony of a couple of people and what they experienced. They then did analysis of their brain waves and another test that I do not remember. The conclusion was that ‘scientifically’ proved what the people stated they experienced by speaking in tongues. Again another attempt of reporting about this.

    I am not convinced that the only issue being reported with this cartoon is dealing with Palin’s former church. This is the difference in the reporting of Palin and Obama. Palin and her family have not been members of that church for about six years. Obama was currently attending Trinity United Church of Christ. Why are these reporters focusing on a former church? The fact that this is not her current is why I’m suspect. I humbly feel this is a veiled attempt to slam an entire group of people they think might vote for her solely because ‘she speaks in tongues’. If this was her current church it would be one thing. I’m sure one reason they are not focusing on her current church is that nothing goes on there that could be ridiculed like the former church.

  • Jerry

    The cartoons I’ve seen about Palin have generally been totally political such as this one that shows her and the Republicans booing the community organizers who happen to be our founding fathers. In the collected Palin cartoon at about.com I don’t see any really relating to religion.

  • Martha

    “However, Pentecostals also believe that the Holy Spirit can give you gifts such as speaking in tongues, prophesy, and divine healing.”

    *sigh* And once again, it’s not just Pentecostals who believe this. Have these guys never heard of the Charismatic movement? Even Catholics are into it, boys!

    I swear, I’m just waiting for someone to mention snake handling. I mean it.

  • David J. White

    I think the expression “on steroids” has become generally accepted as meaning “to the extreme”, without the negative connotations now associated with the actual use of actual steroids. Someone could, for example, describe person who went far beyond any conceivable call of duty in dedicating her life to the poor as “Mother Teresa on steroids”. It might be a silly comparison (esp. since it’s hard to imagine anyone outdoing Mother Teresa in that regard) and it’s certainly hyperbolic, but I don’t think there’s anything negative or offensive about it.

    I think the expression itself has become common enough that people use and accept it as an expression without worrying about its origin or literal meaning. After all, even nice people say “that sucks!” without making the connection that the expression probably had its origin in a reference to oral sex.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    I should also observe that the lives of the saints are PACKED with references to miraculous workings of the Holy Spirit. You can’t deal with the history of the ancient Church — East or West — without seeing this.

    Also, all reporters should be made to read some or all of the massive Pew Forum report on the rising role of Pentecostalism in global Christianity.

    MUST READING: http://pewforum.org/surveys/pentecostal/

    Come on people. Think global. Think diversity.

  • http://faithphotos.aminus3.com Chris

    While I agree that Gov Palin’s faith should be discussed by the media a bit (since Sara Palin has told people that her faith influences her policies), the problem is the way that explanation will come out. As badly as the MSM doesn’t “Get Religion”, they really won’t “get” Pentacostal worship, which to outsiders can be “unusual” (as a former Episcolpalian turned Pentacostal, I know).

    In response to Rev. Church above, Christianity Today had a discussion on James Watt’s religious views and public policy which is different from the popular and often repeated view he quotes above. From CT:

    A frequently cited example is James Watt, an evangelical believer and former Secretary of the Interior during the Reagan administration. Here is one account: “James Watt told the U.S. Congress that protecting natural resources was unimportant in light of the imminent return of Jesus Christ. In public testimony he said, ‘After the last tree is felled, Christ will come back.’”

    To many minds, this succinct quote effectively sums up the attitudes of evangelicals, except for one crucial fact: James Watt didn’t say that. This oft-repeated quote comes from a journalist who didn’t bother to confirm something that he read on the Internet.

    What did James Watt actually say? The only time he gave public testimony about the relationship between his Christian beliefs and care for the environment was in February 1981, in response to Oregon Democrat Jim Weaver, before a House subcommittee on the environment.

    Mr. Weaver: I believe very strongly that we should not … use up all the oil that took nature a billion years to make in one century.

    We ought to leave a few drops of it for our children, their children. They are going to need it … I wonder if you agree, also, in the general statement that we should leave some of our resources—I am now talking about scenic areas or preservation, but scenic resources for our children? Not just gobble them up all at once?

    Secretary Watt: Absolutely. That is the delicate balance the Secretary of the Interior must have, to be a steward for the natural resources for this generation as well as future generations.

    I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns, whatever it is we have to manage with a skill to leave the resources needed for future generations. (emphasis added)

    The historical record certainly seems a little less sensational than the popular view…..

  • http://www.magdalenesegg.blogspot.com Rev. Michael Church

    Thanks for the correction, Chris. Reading it, I instantly recall the correct version in newspaper articles from the time, and realize with chagrin that I have been omitting the second half for decades.

    On the other hand, I don’t think this changes my actual point, which is that when public officials or candidates begin to talk about their religious views in connection to public policy, the public needs to know more about those religious views, which for any individual citizen may include comparing them to his or her own. Watt was an inappropriate example, though.

    And btw, when considering Watt’s actual testimony in light of his policies as Secretary of the Interior (massive deregulation, opening wilderness and wetlands to industry, etc.) I can see that, although he was not acting based on eschatology, he was probably lying to Congress. Which is no surprise, given that he was later (and for other testimony) indicted on multiple counts of perjury.

  • http://vagantepriest.blogspot.com/ FrGregACCA

    There is a long history of Pentecostal woman having active ministries. Amy Semple McPherson, Karthryn Kuhlman, Joyce Meier, and yes, Tammy Faye Baker are names that immediately come to mind.

    This is not so much the case among non-Pentecostal Evangelical women.

    Having been raised in a religious environment which included both Pentecostal and non-Pentecostal Evangelical influences, I think that describing Pentecostalism as Evangelicalism on steroids is nearly perfect.

  • http://vagantepriest.blogspot.com/ FrGregACCA

    I should also observe that the lives of the saints are PACKED with references to miraculous workings of the Holy Spirit. You can’t deal with the history of the ancient Church — East or West — without seeing this.

    True enough, but in these Churches, such manifestations are confined to a relatively few persons – Saints, as you point out, who are first and foremost known for holiness of life, not for these phenomena. There is no question here of mass manifestations of charismatic gifts, and “speaking in new tongues” is understood entirely differently than in Pentecostalism. Further, the Tradition as a whole, again in both East and West, strongly discourages focusing on these gifts, often warning of the danger of falling into what the Russians call “prelest,” or spiritual delusion. Charismatic activity is certainly not seen, in-and-of- itself, as an indication of holiness.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com Mattk

    As one raised in the Pentecostal churches (Though I am not Pentecostal my Dad was one of their pastors.) I must comment on the bizzare syllables chosen by the cartoonist to represent speaking in tongues. Clearly, this is someone who has never been to a Pentecostal service.

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    However, Pentecostals also believe that the Holy Spirit can give you gifts such as speaking in tongues, prophesy, and divine healing.

    Surely I’m not the only one who noticed this. Prophesy is a verb; the noun is prophecy. Have these journalists no copy editors among them?

  • Brian L

    Oliphant’s cartoon is religious bigotry dressed up as political editorial.

    On another note – last year or so, this site looked at how Muslims acted when they heard about cartoons and teddy bears. Many commenters on those posts talked about how Christians would react if something similar were done. The fact that Pat can walk down the street and sleep well at night says volumes about the difference.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Well said, Brian. It is religious bigotry based, at least in part, on religious ignorance. Of course, Oliphant stopped being funny, and relevant, about 20 years ago. Now he is an embarrassment to every paper that runs his cartoons.

  • http://jesusblogger.wordpress.com JesusBlogger

    If Allah was depicted in such a way as the cartoon portrays God (who is a Spirit, not an old bearded man) there would be uproar. Forget about Sarah Palin, it is God who’s been abused in this cartoon.