Dear Mohler: Welcome to Weinergate

I’ve heard that a comedian can make a whole career in Hollywood out of wiener jokes. I wonder if the same could be said for the media and Weiner jokes.

This post from Cathy Lynn Grossman of USA Today, however, is not so much about what U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner did, but about what the congressman’s actions inspired the Rev. Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, to do. It began with this tweet from Mohler:

Dear Congressman Weiner: There is no effective “treatment” for sin. Only atonement, found only in Jesus Christ.

To which Grossman responded with a post at her Faith & Reason blog titled “Baptist to Jewish Weiner: Christ is the only ‘treatment.’” Mohler read that post, and thought that Grossman had misunderstood him. He said he was not proselytizing on Twitter to a politician whom he doesn’t know and responded with what Grossman called a “thoughtful column.” He wrote

As far as I know, Rep. Weiner is not among my “followers” on Twitter. I did not assume that he was reading my posting. My message was mostly directed at my fellow Christians as a reminder of this very concern — that the American impulse is to seek treatment when our real need is for redemption.

(Who even knows who follows them on Twitter? Grossman made that point earlier as Weinergate began to unravel.)

Mohler’s response garnered to some media attention, from CNN to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. But Grossman still was not buying his explanation. This morning she responded with the latest volley in this online back and forth.

So, Mohler wasn’t targeting Jews, he was using a Jewish person in crisis as a sermon springboard to preach to his known flock to return to traditional faith. Right?

But he didn’t begin “Dear Christians…” He addressed his pitch to someone he knows is Jewish and then professes to be shocked when people notice.

All this background leads me to the point of this post. (Talk about burying the lede.) It’s a combination of GetReligion and GetSocialMedia.

Grossman understands why Mohler would be religiously motivated to reach out to Weiner with the Good News at such a bad time. As she says, “Evangelism is Mohler’s job description,” though often times Christians leaders do offer unconditional support, at least in the short term.

But I think that Grossman missed a pretty common nuance of speech in the Digital Age. In fact, I can appreciate her either not noticing this or just disagreeing that Mohler was employing it because I find the gimmick of “Dear ____” so annoying.

At least once a day I see a Facebook update from a friend that, more or less, begins “Dear super rude tool talking on your cell phone in the checkout at the grocery store, no one wants to hear about your super-duper important life.” Except for maybe in the instance of my most passive-aggressive friend, the aggrieved does not know the rude individual and certainly does not expect them to get the message.

Mohler’s tweet seems to be in that vein. It should come as no surprise that Mohler saw Weiner’s fall as a teachable moment. It’s also hard to imagine the same interpretation if Mohler had written on his blog something like “Weiner needs Jesus.” The difference here is just the gimmicky address of “Dear Congressman Weiner” and that Mohler used the 140-character confines of Twitter.

To me, it seems that Mohler was addressing his Christian followers on Twitter, but that he didn’t open with “Dear Christians” because he was trying to use that social media gimmick of “Dear ____” as a point of reference for his comment.

To be sure, I’m not saying that Grossman doesn’t get social media. (I also should disclaim that I graduated college just before UCLA got The Facebook.) She spends more time on Twitter and blogs more frequently than most any other mainstream religion reporter. I just think she misinterpreted Mohler on this one.

IMAGE: #weining on Zazzle

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  • TheresaEmilyAnn

    It’s simple – Weiner needs some help now, and Molher was offering the best type of help he could think of.

  • Philip Larson

    “vain” should be “vein”

  • Jerry

    (Who even knows who follows them on Twitter?

    I see you’ve not looked at twitter. Of course, any public tweet can be searched for, but following someone generates a note to the one being followed and you can always click on “followers” to see the list.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    Of course, Jerry. And I know about how many followers I have. But, other than the people whom I either follow back or interact with via @replies, I don’t know most of their names and wouldn’t be surprised to find Arnold Schwarzenegger following me.

  • http://Faith&Reason Cathy Grossman

    Nice discussion, Brad. Thank you for looking at this. I would add however, that whether one is posting on a blog,
    Facebook or Twitter, it’s always best to say what you mean from the start.

    “Dear Sinners” is what Mohler now, essentially, says he meant. You and I (and every other religion reporter with Internet access) all know Mohler is a very smart, social media media savvy fella. We’ve all called on him for articulate, clear, traditional Christian perspectives. So it was perfectly fair and logical to see deliberate meaning in what he actually chose to say: “Dear Congressman Weiner.”

    Meanwhile, no one is talking about a larger point Mohler makes in his followup column — Is every moral crisis a patholgy? When we’re in trouble, is it therapy or theology that we really need?

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    Meanwhile, no one is talking about a larger point Mohler makes in his followup column — Is every moral crisis a patholgy? When we’re in trouble, is it therapy or theology that we really need?

    Interesting point. I definitely know Christians on the conservative end of the theological spectrum who think that every mental illness is actually an illness of the heart. Only God, not medicine, can cure it. And, no, these people are not necessarily Tom Cruise fans.

    As you might imagine, I don’t agree.

  • Jerry

    Brad, good point about “followers”. My twitter handle is different than on other places.

  • Kevin

    Dear Brad: You are more charitable than I. I’ve seen so much anti-Christian posting lately that I assume any unpleasant writing directed toward an evangelical I now assume that the motive is less pure than a “misunderstanding”.

    We are being told, in plain English, that we are not allowed to share our faith. I hope that you are correct; and that Ms Grossman is not one of those people who is trying to silence the Word of God. As if that were possible!

  • Kevin

    And after I posted my last, I see that Ms Grossman has posted a reply. Brad was right in his charity. Thank you, Cathy. I like that you pointed out the morality vs pathology quandary.

    To be frank, I think that most public figures who screw up and then ask forgiveness because they are “in rehab” are just pathologically unable to admit fault.

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

    Pushing the point that Brad just made: Was Mohler’s tweet also dismissing mental health care? Claiming that it is not helpful to somebody whose lack of judgment has precipitated a personal crisis?

    (Actually, of course, I’m not sure that’s the kind of help Weiner is seeking now; did he specify? For all I know, he’s joining the Ordinariate.)

  • Jerry

    So, it is OK to be upset with Dr. Mohler sharing his faith, but not OK to be upset that Anthony Weiner disgraces himself, his family, his constituents, and the US Congress.

    Up is down, black is white, right is wrong.

  • carl

    Rev. Michael Church wrote:
    Was Mohler’s tweet also dismissing mental health care? Claiming that it is not helpful to somebody whose lack of judgment has precipitated a personal crisis?

    I think it was dismissing the idea that mental health care is an appropriate tool for addressing moral failure. People look for reasons to excuse themselves. They wish to say “It’s not my fault, because I have this condition.” Then they toddle off to rehabilitation in order to treat the condition. Rehabilitation validates the diasnosis of ‘sickness’ and avoids the admission of personal moral failure. Except the problem isn’t found in some biological defect. The problem is rooted in character.

    carl

  • Izzy

    1) I find it offensive when a christian uses a jew as a prop to evangelize. Was Molher offensive? Yes.

    2) I find it offensive when any public figure, *after* being caught, says “Sorry”. Were they sorry before? No.

    3) I find it offensive when said public figure, in an obvious attempt to get a “get out of jail free” card, goes to rehab. Did Weiner do this? Yes.
    4) I find it particularly offensive when said public figure (or convicted felon) all of a sudden gets religion. (Just think of the irony of Reverend Jackson counseling Clinton after the Lewinski brou-ha-ha.

    So…

    Is Weiner a lying, scum-sucking, low-life, who should never be in the public eye again? Absolutely. No amount of rehab for some sexual perversion will change the fact that he is a liar.

    Was Molher going too far by using Weiner as the prop for his religious views? Probably.

    Did Grossman overemphasize Molher? Could be. But, maybe Molher should get some training in trying to understand how the other person thinks.

    This is a real teaching moment for Molher. He could easily say that his comment was out-of-bounds, and that he meant to say that a found-out sinner should turn to god before (or in conjunction with) rehab. It would show his best side.

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    I think it was dismissing the idea that mental health care is an appropriate tool for addressing moral failure.

    I think Carl got Mohler’s meaning spot-on. Mohler wasn’t referencing Weiner in the context of a member of a different religion who needs to convert. He was referencing him as an example of someone who sins and then substitutes “treatment” for actual repentance. Weiner’s actual religion was irrelevant to Mohler’s tweet.

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

    Look, I hope it’s obvious that I agree with the basic idea that repentance is the appropriate response to moral failure. But that said, I’m not sure that Mohler’s tweet was an especially useful or valuable call to repentance. And here’s why:

    1) If Mohler is to be believed, he wasn’t actually addressing Weiner, but rather using Weiner as an opportunity to remind his own coreligionists (and mine) that repentance is important. Most preachers have done the same at one time or another — the failures of public figures are an easy point of entry to a moral discussion. The problem with this strategy, of course, is that is also enables a certain self-righteousness on the part of the people one is actually addressing. Pharisees all over the world now have the chance to thank God that they aren’t like Anthony Weiner.

    2) And since the tweet really does seem to set up a division between repentance and seeking help, I think it’s fair to criticize that division. Amendment of life, which is the natural outcome of repentance, may sometimes require help and support. No, seeing a psychologist isn’t the same as confessing your sins; but it can be an awfully useful follow-up tool.

    3) And unless Mohler knows with a fair level of certainty that “the “help” Weiner intends to seek will not include spiritual direction of some sort appropriate to his own faith, it seems to me that publicly ridiculing the man in order to make a point for one’s own friends is arrogant on top of the obvious cruelty.

    All of which goes back to Cathy Lynn Grossman’s original suggestion. While there may not have been anything overtly hostile to non-Christians in Mohler’s tweet, the rhetorical strategy behind it seems deeply questionable.

  • http://paulaustin.wordpress.com Paul

    I’d like to point out that Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus (don’t know her beliefs) made a VERY similar point in her column today called “Rehab Nation.”

    “The concept of sin has been replaced by the language of addiction.”

    No outrage from Grossman there.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Twelve step programs are perfectly ok with a disease model of addiction, but steps 4-9 concern moral failings, character flaws, and repairing the damage we have done in our addictions.

    Which is to say that there’s no need to draw hard-and-fast lines or construct an either/or, oppositional model. It’s a matter of correct diagnosis and consideration of the whole person, physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual.

    I have no idea if Rep. Weiner is using rehab to evade personal responsibility and repentance for his sexual behaviors, but it’s entirely possible rehab will push him into looking at his character flaws and righting the wrongs of his past.

    Any journalistic exploration of the process should proceed cautiously, lest it become exploitation. And those of us commenting on the journalism should proceed cautiously; the human soul is complex.

  • Daniel

    Grossman is thickheaded on purpose. She misinterpreted him on purpose. I am under the impression that some journalists think it pays as much to be thickheaded as thinskinned. With as much experience as journalists get, I would think it would be as valuable to be as thick skinned as quickwitted.

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    With as much experience as journalists get, I would think it would be as valuable to be as thick skinned as quickwitted.

    That’s unreasonable, Daniel. Thick skins are indeed a side effect of being a journalist, but Cathy’s not being obtuse. It’s a case of her not fully comprehending the language, which is not surprising given the nature of Christianspeak.

  • Leslie Wolf

    I think that Mohler’s comment would be highly offensive if he clearly intended to evangelize Weiner, but I think that his comment would not be offensive if he clearly did not intend to evangelize Weiner. Mohler says that he didn’t inetnt to evangelize Weiner, but I see no reason to believe him. I also see no reason not to believe him. It seems to me that we can’t know what Mohler really intended by his statement.

    Let me bring his back to journalism: it seems somewhat silly to me that Grossman would insist that she knows what Mohler intended. How could she? Can she read minds? But it is now common for journalists and politicial commentators to presuppose an ability to read minds. Spend five minutes watching Fox News, and you will hear political commentators tell you what President Obama truly meant by a statement he made, even if this is completely unclear from the statement itself. Then spend five minutes watching MSNBC and hear politicial commentators tell you what some Republican politician truly meant by a statement he/she made, even if this is completely unclear from the statement itself. It seems that reporters constantly claim to have knowledge of the innermost workings of the minds of politicians. This is commonly accepted in the popular media, but it is rightly judged to be lunacy in any other line of work.

  • Daniel

    Cathy’s not being obtuse. It’s a case of her not fully comprehending the language, which is not surprising given the nature of Christianspeak.
    My reading today was in Philippians. All, not some, Christians are called to avoid the acrimonious tone this feeding frenzy engenders. I apologize that my tone was not gentle enough. It ought to have been seasoned with salt, that we might know how to answer everyone. A little or liberal seasoning of that salt would have helped Weiner’s press conference today. I have no wish to contribute to the destructive tenor of these discussions, and I apologize that I did.

  • http://homepage.mac.com/bjmora/rpdenom/Reflist.html BJ Mora

    Leslie’s comment (#20) is also germane to the original topic: how does one know, for sure, the original intent of a writer, poster, or speaker? There is much “psychologizing” that goes on in much of talking about anything – political commentators, sports talk, etc. And it’s not all bad, neither – look up the concept of “mentalizing” in mental health literature.

    I think to expound motives from a tweet (spontaneous, short) is particularly dangerous.
    Unless you directly ask a person what they meant (and of course they may still not say for sure), you are guessing, though it may be an educated guess.


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