Dear Brother Powers (a parody)

From the desk of Ayatollah Hassan Sanei
Expediency Discernment Council, Tehran

Mr. John Powers
c/o 89.3 KPCC

Dear Brother Powers,

Please forgive me for using a business address for such a personal letter, but I cannot seem to find your home address on Google Maps.

When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent me a link to your review of Salman Rushdie’s memoir, I thought Punk’d might be returning to MTV. Oh, I know that too many Westerners see Mahmoud as eccentric and even a little dangerous. I hope that someday the world will meet the same man I know: a backslapping practical jokester who loves nothing more than slipping another one past the imams of greater Tehran.

As I began listening to your review, I was unsure whether you were really Fresh Air’s critic at large or a transgressive right-winger with shadowy ties to doing a sly parody of an NPR nebbish. Your weightless voice, your staccato delivery, your contented verbal italics on each rhetorical flourish — all of these left me asking: Is it real or is it performance art?

But I powered through these doubts and then it hit me: this man speaks truth to power, and I am that power. After all these years I have realized that L’Affair Rushdie, as we like to call it in Iran, was not a question of blasphemy. It was not even about whether issuing a fatwa, as such, has a chilling effect on our world’s ever-fragile interfaith conversation.

It was, at heart, a question of literary integrity: Had I read the book before renewing the Rushdie fatwa? My face was crimson with shame. I had been called out as a fraud, and by a man who writes for Vogue from the West Coast of Babylon.

I took your challenge to heart, my gentle brother. I have since read every subtle page of The Satanic Verses, and I now realize that if Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had done the same in 1989 we could all have been spared 23 years of misunderstandings and unpleasantness.

I have learned deeply from this experience. I expect to turn next to God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, as I have heard that he and Rushdie were pals and that he too had a wry sense of humor. Perhaps after that I will make time for Robert Bly.

You made all of this possible, dear sir. Had you not found the insight to challenge me to read the book, I would have drifted about for the rest of my life with lingering anger and control issues. Thank you, gentle brother, thank you.

One qualifier: I speak only for myself and for no other imam.


TLC-Cover.jpgThis last Friday of August 2009 marks the final post of my third stint with GetReligion. I am grateful for each of my excursions with GetReligion since February 2003, and I thank my longtime friend Terry Mattingly for making each one possible.

I have made new friends among this blog’s readers. GetReligion has helped me adapt my style, shaped by roughly 20 years in print journalism, to the rowdier medium of the blogosphere. I will miss my colleagues, but I am eager to return to full-time work on the Godbeat. A reporter who is not reporting tends to be fidgety and neurotic, and I am already neurotic enough about plenty of other things.

My new work will be with The Living Church, a magazine that has covered the Episcopal Church since 1878. I am thankful for this opportunity to join TLC in promoting and supporting Catholic Anglicanism within the Episcopal Church. I have written freelance articles for TLC for more than 15 years. Some years, especially those involving the Episcopal Church’s trienniel General Convention, have kept me busier than others. TLC is based in Milwaukee, but I will remain in Virginia. Thus my new job title, which I requested: editor at large. It reflects my geographical distance, and it is lighthearted.

I have engaged in a lover’s quarrel with the Episcopal Church since the late 1980s, when I began feeling tensions between my understanding of the gospel and my church’s public image of finding a middle way in all things, including ethics and theology. Through much of the 1990s, this quarrel kept me in a place of anger.

Since then, I have found a deeper affection for the church that formed me from my earliest days as an acolyte. I have a renewed love for interviewing other Episcopalians, across the church’s theological spectrum, about what they believe and how they live in light of those beliefs.

My work now seems less like reporting a war and more like chronicling an impassioned, protracted family argument. (Yes, this thought occurred to me before I read Lisa Miller’s similar comparison in Newsweek.) My church family reminds me, in its lighter moments, of the Castorinis in Moonstruck: One minute we’re yelling at each other operatically, and the next we’re eating together.

In these days of shrinking news pages, widespread layoffs in newsrooms and imperiled metropolitan dailies, it’s a remarkable gift to be paid to write about something I love so deeply. I had better get on with it.

Ted Kennedy’s quiet compassion

I have spent much of the day thinking of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy and of which news reports describe his legacy well. Throughout the day, I kept returning to remarks that another Catholic veteran of politics, Chris Matthews, made on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. (Morning Joe has not posted a video clip of Matthews’ story, but I’m embedding a solid, richly detailed obituary by NBC news anchor Brian Williams.)

Matthews told of how G. Gordon Liddy had been sentenced to prison after refusing to testify against any of the accused parties in the Watergate scandal. As Liddy sat in prison, both his daughter and Kennedy’s daughter were graduating from an exclusive Catholic school for girls. Liddy’s daughter was feeling like a pariah, Matthews said, and Kennedy was the one parent who took a moment to speak comforting words to her. (Matthews also told the story, though in less detail, in a tribute to Kennedy that he wrote for The Daily Beast back in February.)

On Morning Joe, Matthews choked up for a moment as he finished this story. In moments like these when much of the nation pauses to mourn, TV has an emotional advantage over print. A show like Morning Joe can bring on regular guests such as Matthews and Mike Barnicle, both of whom knew Kennedy for decades, and let them riff. The result is a mixture of endearing anecdotes, laughter and tears.

On his blog, David Frum told another story of the late senator offering comfort to Ted Olson, whose wife, Barbara, died during the terrorist strikes of 9/11. An elegant handwritten note from Kennedy to Olson, Frum wrote,

did not dishonor by ignoring or denying the political differences between the two families. It fully acknowledged them — and through them expressed a deeper human awareness of shared mortality, pain, and grief. Not all chapters of his life revealed it equally, but the senator was a big soul, and in his last years, he lived his bigness fully.

Michael Sean Winters offered a measured reflection for America magazine’s In All Things blog:

Kennedy’s death is that it is personal if you are a politically engaged Catholic. His family touched ours in ways few other families do, even neighbors. How many Catholic families have a picture of Jack Kennedy on the wall next to the crucifix? And, the last one standing was Teddy. He carried on the legacy of his brothers. He was the champion, year in and year out, of so many causes at the heart of Catholic social teaching. The first thing to do in the face of this loss is to cry.

Winters acknowledged and criticized Kennedy’s divergence from Catholic teaching on abortion.

On the death of a public figure such as Sen. Kennedy, I find the greatest poignancy in the small details of off-camera life. Rarely does the omnibus obituary tell me much that will move my soul. But offbeat items like these help me to remember the vulnerable and struggling person behind the legend, and to feel a deeper sense of loss at his death. When I want to better understand a figure who was larger than life, I’m thankful for the wide variety of sources made possible by a multimedia age.

Vogue’s squirm factor

As a magazine fan who does not consult Vogue about anything, I am quite happy to see that magazine give lengthy coverage to Jenny Sanford, First Lady (for now) of South Carolina.

Consider this byline-free article’s punchy lede, which cuts straight to the quality that makes Sanford a heroic figure for so many women – and men, for that matter:

Before Jenny Sanford came along, the options for wronged political wives were pretty poor. You could suffer silently (see Silda Wall Spitzer), deny everything (hello, Hillary), or make catty asides about the harlot who caused your husband to stray (Elizabeth Edwards). Then came Jenny Sanford.

To that list of long-suffering victims I would add Wendy Baldwin Vitter (wife of U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La.), whose expression of petrified vulnerability should end the sick tradition of a politician’s wife standing by her man at a moronic press conference.

Vogue‘s treatment of Jenny Sanford’s faith is another mater. She is, we are told, “pious without being smug.” Her one-page statement about her husband’s all-too-public adultery “mentioned God without making you squirm.” A quote from a longtime friend drives home the point that Sanford’s faith is so respectable because it’s apparently so deep in the background:

The Sanfords are conservative Christians, but they’re not the teetotaling, proselytizing sort. There are bottles of wine on the kitchen counter. Ayn Rand is on the bookshelf, but so is Gabriel García Márquez. The Bible sits front and center on the coffee table, alongside Forbes magazine. “You could be friends with her for 20 years, and she would never bring up the religious stuff,” says her friend Marjory Wentworth, poet laureate of South Carolina and a self-described liberal who once worked for The Nation.

Yet by the article’s own brief allusions, it’s clear that Sanford’s understanding of forgiveness has something to do with her faith:

“I am not in charge of revenge. That’s not up to me. That’s for the Lord to decide, and it’s important for me to teach that to my boys. All I can do is forgive. Reconciliation is something else, and that is going to be a harder road. I have put my heart and soul into being a good mother and wife.”

The article mentions that she saw her father kneel to pray each night, and says she attended “Georgetown University, the ne plus ultra for brainy Catholic girls,” but makes no effort to explain how she and her husband became Episcopalians. There’s no exploring of the rich questions about their political and social conservatism within a denomination not known for its conservatism. (In fairness, the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina is atypical in its theology.)

In this 2,800-word article, we read as much about Jenny Sanford’s full-throttle days while working at investment-banking firm Lazard Frères & Co. and living on Long Island (“Sanford was not the Paris Hilton of the Hamptons, but neither was she a saint”) as we do about what she believes and how it affects her choices during her public ordeal.

The turns of phrase are elegant, the piece is rightly admiring of this strong woman — and yet a huge portion of her interior life is missing. Had Vogue assigned the piece to a writer not so prone to squirming at the mention of God, it could have published a more insightful work of reporting.

Stubborn facts on Episcopalians

Jon Meacham has occasionally cited John Adams as saying facts are stubborn things, but apparently some facts aren’t stubborn enough to be noticed by Newsweek under Meacham’s editing.

I truly wanted to like Lisa Miller’s latest Newsweek column. For starters, I agree with her: The Episcopal Church attracts far more news coverage than its membership numbers merit. I’ve devoted much of my journalism career to writing about the Episcopal Church, and I am part of the problem. I have no trouble admitting this or laughing about it.

Further, Miller steps up to one of tmatt’s favorite hobbies: Explaining why the Episcopal Church attracts so much coverage.

What ruins the piece for me is that Newsweek has not corrected errors first pointed out by fellow Godbeat scribe Frank Lockwood. It openly corrected one error: The claim that President Reagan ever identified himself as an Episcopalian. It quietly corrected two other problems: Referring to the church’s General Convention as an annual rather than a triennial meeting, and referring to President Ford as if he were still alive. (Under a sacramental reading of Hebrews 12:1, one could make the case for referring to President Ford’s faith in the present tense.)

But Newsweek has let stand some howlers involving membership statistics. As one of many journalists cursed with innumeracy, I sympathize with Miller on these mistakes. I once wildly overstated the membership of the Episcopal Diocese of Springfield, but as soon as I realized my error I alerted my editor to it, and he corrected it.

All this is to say it’s time for another episode of Proofreading With GetReligion.

The general convention General Convention of the Episcopal Church ended last month in Anaheim, Calif., with a whimper, despite these rather staggering announcements: it would, after years of internal battling, continue to elevate cite its freedom to elect more gay priests to bishops, and it would consider blessing bless same-sex unions in the states that allow gays and lesbians to marry.

General Convention is the proper name of a legislative body that meets every three years. I know this may be a question of Newsweek‘s house style, so it could be considered a gray area.

About elevate: Episcopalians elect, approve and then ordain/consecrate bishops. Episcopalians have been keen on this point for some time now.

On blessings for same-sex couples, see General Convention’s Resolution C056: “Resolved, That bishops, particularly those in dioceses within civil jurisdictions where same-gender marriage, civil unions, or domestic partnerships are legal, may provide generous pastoral response to meet the needs of members of this Church.” (The website of General Convention legislation is spotty; here is a report by Episcopal News Service.)

After years of dominance outsized cultural influence, Episcopalians have become a minority religion in America. There are just 2.4 2.1 million Episcopalians in the United States, down from 3.5 2.3 million in 2001 — a 31 percent falloff. (The Episcopal Church is the American branch of the Anglican Communion, a worldwide church that has 80 million members.) By comparison, there are 8 million nondenominational Christians (a low estimate), up from 2.5 million — an explosion of 220 percent over the same period.

Bookmark this address for trends of baptized members in the Episcopal Church. This PDF provides the latest numbers. For a number near 3.5 million, you’ll need to look 40 years back.

Thanks to the Great Awakenings and the waves of immigration over the past hundred years there are exponentially more Roman Catholics, Baptists, and Methodists in America than Episcopalians. There are also — surprisingly — more Mormons, more Pentecostals, and slightly more Jews.

This table [PDF] from the U.S. Census estimates the Jewish population of this nation at 6.4 million — more than triple the number of baptized Episcopalians.

This reversal of Episcopal fortune is due largely to well-known demographic shifts — the shrinking of the mainline Protestant denominations; the growth of evangelical and nondenominational churches, as well as in the number of people who declare themselves “unaffiliated.” But the Episcopal Church has had its own unique troubles above and beyond the encroachment of those other sects.

By what measure do these larger groups qualify as other sects?

After three centuries as the church of the WASP establishment in America, it started to make news in 2003 when it elevated to bishop of New Hampshire an openly gay priest named Gene Robinson.

Started to make news in 2003? Look up the names of the Rt. Revs. James Pike, Barbara Harris and John Shelby Spong.

A colleague who is Episcopalian describes the rift thus: “Here we have the faith of the Founding Fathers, the religion that is the purest representation of old-line American power and money, tearing itself apart before our very eyes over … homosexuality. How embarrassing! How publicly humiliating — this for a faith and culture that abhors nothing more than public humiliation.”

Three words: Shoe-leather journalism.

In one of the most byzantine organizational maneuvers ever wrought, the conservative opposition then regrouped under the leadership of a few conservative African bishops — still Anglican, still part of the global church, but no longer officially connected to the Americans.

It’s more than a few bishops, not limited to Africa and beginning long before 2003. Counting bishops who helped the Anglican Mission in the Americas and have since retired, they include Peter Akinola, Nigeria; Emmanuel Kolini, Rwanda; Frank Lyons, Bolivia; Benjamin Nzimbi, Kenya; Henry Orombi, Uganda; Moses Tay, Singapore; Gregory Venables, Argentina; and Ping Chung Yong, Malaysia.

Certainly, when the Episcopalians support — or seem to be supporting — gay marriage, it says something important about who we are as a nation and where we are going.

When clergy are free to bless same-sex couples in states where gay marriage is legal, call it what you like — but it’s clearly supporting gay marriage.

Watching the Episcopalians fight amongst themselves is like watching a boozy family brawl at a genteel country club. Onlookers continue to hope that someone — grandpa or junior — will finally say what he’s really thinking and make a headline.

Who are these unidentified onlookers? Any reporter who has covered General Convention can tell you this: The problem is not that grandpa or junior (or lots of people in between) is at a loss for words. If anything, my fellow Episcopalians compete regularly on who will have the fewest unspoken thoughts.

About the video: With this post, I confess my secret shame. Drag performance artist Chuck Knipp makes me laugh.

Robert Novak finds peace

Late last year I thought about blogging on a Q&A with Robert Novak in Washingtonian magazine. Now, with Novak’s death after a long battle with brain cancer, I’ve found that the reporter in that Q&A, Barbara Matusow, also deserves credit for recording one of the best quips about Novak. Matusow did this in a remarkable — and at times painfully candid — 5,000-word profile published in the June 2003 Washingtonian. She describes Novak’s baptism at St. Patrick Catholic Church in downtown Washington:

The ceremony, in May 1998, was mostly a solemn affair. In the course of it, Novak, then 67, was baptized, confirmed, and received his first Holy Communion. “It was an exhilarating experience,” he says, “one of the great moments of my life. I thought I was in a different dimension.”

The solemnity lifted for a moment when Monsignor [Peter] Vaghi said how privileged they were to witness the transformation of the “prince of darkness” into a “child of light.”

After the ceremony, Senator Moynihan quipped, “Well, we’ve now made Bob a Catholic. The question is, can we make him a Christian?”

It was a clever remark. Everybody laughed when it made the rounds at the reception at the Novaks’ apartment. But even Bob Novak’s good friends have wondered how he reconciles his Darwinian, take-no-prisoners conservatism with the biblical injunction to help the poor and the oppressed.

In both the profile and the Q&A, Matusow spends considerable space on Novak’s often withering opinions about the politicians he covered. His respect and scorn for politicians were not predictable: His wedding reception was at the home of President Lyndon Johnson, and Novak referred to President Nixon as “the worst — a vicious little man.”

The profile also revealed that Novak chose a transgressive role model when he was a college student: Bertrand de Born. (“He raided other people’s castles, killed, and caused tumult. In The Inferno, Dante places Bertrand de Born at the door to Purgatory, with his severed head in his hand, where he is condemned to stand for all eternity because in life he was a stirrer-up of strife.”)

Novak did not discuss his faith at length in either piece, but what he did say indicated a man for whom conversion was a conscious change in worldview. He grew up Jewish, never felt much interest in Judaism, attended Unitarian and Episcopal congregations, and ultimately chose Catholicism.

This is my favorite paragraph, in which Novak reflects on his decades-long career with Rowland Evans:

Rowly once gave me a very elegant description of what it was we were doing. He said we were trying to intercept the lines of communication. Looking back on my life, I regret I was so determined to do that. I ended up writing a lot of political trivia, which really made my reputation. I think when people stop me now and say they miss my column, what they’re talking about is the behind-the-scenes trivia — the kind of thing that made me acceptable to people who disagreed with me. But I think I would have been better off to write about tax cuts and abortion and less about inside politics.

Both of Matusow’s articles are worthwhile reading for people who want to see beyond his image of, to quote Matusow again, “Scrooge in a three-piece suit.”

Gingrich as anti-evangelical icon

NewtCover.jpgWhen a story’s headline is as ambitious as “Why Newt Gingrich Converted to Catholicism,” a reader might hope for a meaty report that addresses the question with insights from friends rather than with speculation. Amy Sullivan’s report for Time mostly does not deliver, except for a few good quotations from the convert himself and from his third wife, Callista.

Sullivan perceives Gingrich’s conversion with witty skepticism, and that’s fair. She points out his historic non-interest in abortion and school prayer, his gestures toward a presidential bid and his quirky piety, which does not rule out his dipping into a novel while waiting for a Mass to begin at the Basilica of the National Shrine.

I believe Sullivan’s report falters most in this segment, about midway through:

Unlike Evangelicals, for whom conversion is often an emotional, born-again experience, Catholic converts tend to make more of a considered decision to join a theological and intellectual tradition. “Conservatives are especially receptive to the promise of there being some capital-T truth that one can embed one’s convictions in,” says Damon Linker, a former editor of the Catholic journal First Things.

Gingrich describes the appeal of Catholicism for him in just these terms. “When you have 2,000 years of intellectual depth surrounding you,” he told me on a recent summer morning, “it’s comforting.” There’s also cachet in conservative political circles to being Catholic. Until their deaths in the past year, Father Richard John Neuhaus and National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr. presided over an intellectual haven for conservatives put off by Evangelicals who rail against experts and élites.

Here we have two generalizations broad enough to accommodate a few tanks, driving side by side: Evangelicals’ conversions are often emotional rather than considered, and evangelicals (with no qualifying often this time) rail against experts and élites. Claiming that Neuhaus provided an intellectual haven from these unnamed evangelical populists is especially rich, considering that Neuhaus was a chief architect of the long-lived Evangelicals and Catholics Together project.

I do not doubt that significant numbers of evangelicals experience emotional conversions, or that some are skeptical of experts and élites. Sullivan never establishes, however, that Gingrich was ever drawn toward evangelicalism, or what specific great truths drew Gingrich into Catholicism. Rather, she implies that his conversion had as much to do with his wife’s insistence on attending Mass regularly.

Sullivan neglects a trickier question: Did the circumstances of Gingrich’s two previous marriages pose any difficulties for a church that still attaches disciplines to its teachings against divorce?

Sullivan strikes the right tone of tentativeness about what Gingrich’s faith will mean for his political future. That makes the rabbit trail about evangelicals especially strange, and gives this story an unfortunate odor of blowing smoke.

Image: Newt Gingrich’s first of five appearances on the cover of Time, Jan. 9, 1995.

Tarantino’s “kosher porn”

Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic does a stellar job of profiling Quentin Tarantino, even while criticizing the darker impulses of his latest film, Inglourious Basterds.

Goldberg begins by acknowledging the giddy appeal of Tarantino’s Jewish revenge fantasy. Tarantino’s producer, Lawrence Bender, thanks him for writing a “Jewish wet dream.” Bender uses far coarser words, but you’ll have to find those for yourself.

I tripped on Goldberg’s contention that Shindler’s List is “a story of Christian redemption and Jewish passivity,” but he illustrates the point well, both verbally and with a brief clip from the film, in the embedded video accompanying this post.

Goldberg hits his stride, though, when explaining why a revenge fantasy will leave Jewish souls empty:

My ambivalence about some of the excesses of Inglourious Basterds fully emerged only in the days after our conversation. I had met Tarantino less than 24 hours after I first saw the film. When I came out of the screening room the night before our interview, I was so hopped up on righteous Jewish violence that I was almost ready to settle the West Bank — and possibly the East Bank. But when my blood cooled, I began to think about the morality of kosher porn in the context of current Middle East politics. Some of this was informed by my own experience in the Israeli army, in which I saw my fellow Jewish soldiers do moral things — such as risking their lives to prevent the murder of innocent Jews — as well as immoral things, like beating the hell out of Palestinians because they could.

… Tarantino, of course, always goes too far: Sofie Fatale’s cut-off arm in Kill Bill: Vol. 1; the police officer’s sliced-off ear in Reservoir Dogs. I have a high tolerance for violence in Tarantino’s compelling fantasy demimonde. But Inglourious Basterds is the first Tarantino movie to reference real historical events. Which might be why I find his anti-Nazi excesses — there’s a concept — disconcerting. Or it might be because I don’t actually have revenge dreams anymore. They stopped sometime after I left the army, if I remember correctly.

I think this may be as simple as the difference between revenge and justice, even while remembering Bruce Cockburn’s witty point that “Everybody loves to see justice done — on somebody else.” In any case, Goldberg takes Inglourious Basterds seriously enough to point out its moral limits. Although his essay is not in the form of a movie review, it’s likely the best review you’ll read anywhere of Tarantino’s latest thrill ride.