God of the blue zip codes

51D89B4B2VLWhat we have here is one of those newspaper stories that didn’t have to spotlight the religion ghost, but it could have. Maybe it should have.

I’m talking about that A1 story in the Washington Post that ran with the bland headline, “Obama Assembles an Ivy-Tinged League.”

What? No “Best and the Brightest” reference? Anyway, here is the top of the story that put the Beltway buzz into print:

Barack Obama’s chief economic adviser was one of the youngest people to be tenured at Harvard and later became its president. His budget director went to Princeton and the London School of Economics, his choice for ambassador to the United Nations was a Rhodes scholar, and his White House counsel hit the trifecta: Harvard, Cambridge and Yale Law.

All told, of Obama’s top 35 appointments so far, 22 have degrees from an Ivy League school, MIT, Stanford, the University of Chicago or one of the top British universities. For the other slots, the president-elect made do with graduates of Georgetown and the Universities of Michigan, Virginia and North Carolina.

While Obama’s picks have been lauded for their ethnic and ideological mix, they lack diversity in one regard: They are almost exclusively products of the nation’s elite institutions and generally share a more intellectual outlook than is often the norm in government.

This is big news, of course, because the W. Bush team was full of dumb, second-rate people and, dang it, some of them were even religious crazies.

Am I reaching for that religion angle? Well, check out this reference later in this long news feature. You see, the style of this brilliant, articulate Obama team:

… (C)ontrasts with the style of President Bush, who played down his own Ivy League credentials and played up his mangled elocutions and the gentleman’s C’s he received at Yale and Harvard. …

Bush’s first Treasury secretary, Paul H. O’Neill, went to Fresno State, Vice President Cheney dropped out of Yale before graduating from the University of Wyoming, and strategist Karl Rove never finished college. Dozens of administration members hail from Regent University, founded by Pat Robertson.

Now wait a minute. Can anyone name a top-level, influential W. Bush-type from Pat Robertson University? How high up in the power chain did they climb or, as many Bush critics have noted, where they mainly foot soldiers who served in the offices far from those of the big dogs? Am I forgetting someone important?

Anyway, the Post story does quote conservatives who worry about the Obama elites being disconnected from all of those regular Americans who played such a major role in Republican rhetoric during the campaign. Once again, the stereotypes march forth to do battle. John F. Kennedy’s “best and brightest” led America into the pit called Vietnam. Ronald Reagan went to Eureka College and had the kind of common sense that is at the heart of all that is good and right in this great land of ours. Yada, yada.

But here is what interested me. I am not going to say, as many would, that people from the elite schools in the ice-blue zip codes of the Northeast are automatically skeptics and secularists. No way. However, we are not — obviously — talking about folks from the Bible Belt.

Thus, it would be interesting to know how many other members of Obama’s team have spent some time on their knees under a large cross in a megachurch sanctuary — even a liberal one — seeking the forgiveness of their sins. In other words, what’s going on here in terms of religion and culture?

Let’s put it this way, when it comes times to ask questions about this crew: WWWFBD?

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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://www.writeblack.com asha vere

    OK, maybe you can dismiss Monica Goodling as a foot soldier, although I don’t think being the Justice Department’s liaison to the White House is small shakes. However, there was also Kay James, who headed the Office of Personnel Management, controlling White House hiring. Those are just two of the highest ranked Regent-associated people I can name off the top of my head.

    Secondly, you’re being completely disingenuous. If you’re saying that you don’t believe people from the Northeast or with elite university ties are necessarily Godless Heathens, then why the reference to the Bible Belt — especially since the most basic Google search will show that Team Obama is not entirely devoid of people who grew up in the South or the Midwest? Why ask whether any of them meet some arbitrary standard of, well, religiosity? I mean, really, it has to be a megachurch?

    Try harder.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Asha Vere:

    You must be new to this site. We have, for several years now, urged more news attention to the religious left in all its forms and there are plenty of options other than secularist and skeptics. There are large and powerful faith groups that fit into the beliefs, ethos and lifestyles of the Blue Zones — as Obama said in the speech that launched him onto the national stage. So, no, I statement stands.

    Also, Trinity United Church of Christ has often been called the rare liberal megachurch. That’s where Obama fell to his knees in his conversion, which I referenced. Are you familiar with Obama and his faith?

  • http://knapsack.blogspot.com Jeff (the mild-mannered one)

    I think we all thought of Goodling and James; the point is “dozens” — really? Google-wise, i’m coming up empty.

    BTW, Asha, i think the graphic with the article (it’s my impression TMatt is always making some kind of a point with the graphics, so they’re worth considering) points along the line of sight that’s under consideration: is the world of elite university life as aware of evangelical tropes and folkways as Obama is? In this as in so many things, Obama is an outlier, a rara avis. He’s learned the “awesome God” -speak, but has the Columbia/Harvard/Chicago thang goin’ on.

    There aren’t a whole lot of those out there. So i see Terry’s question as asking — what will this administration miss or overemphasize due to their heavy representation on the cultural elite end of American life? The Lisa Miller story just before this post is one problematic possibility. I can’t imagine that a bright, well-read person (which Miller obvious is) could write something that reads from central Ohio as narrow minded and bigoted, which is a take that would no doubt stun the reporter to hear me say about her.

  • http://www.therowboat.com Nathan Schneider

    Now wait a minute. Can anyone name a top-level, influential W. Bush-type from Pat Robertson University? How high up in the power chain did they climb or, as many Bush critics have noted, where they mainly foot soldiers who served in the offices far from those of the big dogs?

    I think the main problem lots of people had was not so much a matter of a few top-level hires in the Bush administration, but a broader hiring tendency at all levels. This DailyKos article makes clear, I think, that the trouble with Regent was not its religiosity so much as its mediocre academic performance. The next logical supposition, when one asks how this middling law school managed to get 150 of its graduates into the administration, is that its distinguishing feature—conservative religion—might have had something to do with it.

  • Jerry

    WWWFBD = “What Would William F. Buckley Do” (thanks google).

    Thus, it would be interesting to know how many other members of Obama’s team have spent some time on their knees under a large cross in a megachurch sanctuary — even a liberal one — seeking the forgiveness of their sins. In other words, what’s going on here in terms of religion and culture?

    How many members of the current President’s team spent time on their knees. I don’t remember reading religious stories about Rumsfeld, Cheney, Rice and many others.

    Knowing such things would of course be red meat (vegetarians substitute tofu) to the politico-religious media, but given that we’ve not known such things about prior administrations for the most part, I don’t think we’ll die for lack of that information in the forthcoming one.

  • http://www.writeblack.com asha vere

    tmatt: I’m quite familiar with the site; I’m a regular reader. I’m also familiar with Obama’s faith and although I’m not UCC, have visited Trinity at least five times.

    I still don’t think the questions are quite right. Just because his team members have elite ties doesn’t mean they’re de facto ignorant of the religious complexity of the nation.

    Jeff: I read the post in spite of the WFB graphic. I was told repeatedly as a child that Buckley was Not A Decent Person, and the idea stuck. I also would argue that this is one respect in which Obama really isn’t unusual. Seems to me that many (a) black politicians and/or (b) blacks with elite university connections might have some familiarity with church life and likely could mix Godspeak and policyspeak with the same facility, if not the same eloquence, as Obama. In that context, he’s only rara avis in that he came to church life as an adult.

  • Harris

    A more telling question would be that of undergraduate attendance. Where are the Wheaton grads (Gershon, who else?), the Calvin grads? Baylor? If you will, it may be that the ghost in the blog is the Evangelical struggle with the mind: are why do the best of the best Evangelical schools not end up on the top list for an administration? Is that a failure of achievement? A feature of the political screening ? A feature of political Evangelical (Christian Right)thinking? Or could it be that they are there right along, but the story we want is either the Yale or Regent?

    btw Ashcroft was AoG but went to Yale, not to the denominational college where his dad was president. That’s the one person we know knew how to get down on his knees.

  • Joel Morsch

    . . . from Regent University, founded by Pat Robertson.

    Unless I missed something Regent University was not founded by Pat Robertson. Thw Washington Post needs to do a fact check on their own article.

  • http://www.reenchantment.net Ken

    Well, the graphic was effective in getting my attention. It not only reminded me of the fact that an education at elite schools is absent “the core” of western civilization that used to mark a “liberal” education; but also of William F Buckley’s often made remark that he was “obliged to confess I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.” This might also include a great number of their students.

    And I wonder if it would apply to Chicago in light of today’s arrest of the Governor for negotiating kickbacks and trying to work a deal for himself and his wife in the matter of who gets to be the replacement Senator. Soon to be Mr. Blagojevich’s cv is not with “elite” schools — he graduated from Chicago’s Foreman High School after transferring from Lane Technical High School; after graduation, he enrolled at the University of Tampa; after two years, he transferred to Northwestern University in suburban Evanston where he obtained his bachelor’s degree in 1979. He attended Pepperdine University School of Law, where he obtained his Juris Doctor (J.D.) in 1983 — but I would imagine that the Development Director at Pepperdine is wincing this morning as he tries to gather in the year-end gifts.

    No matter who is President of the U.S. it would seem that keeping The Ten Commandments hanging on a wall somewhere remains a noble civic gesture.

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