Coven and state clash, yet again

ALTAR2Maybe it’s just my church-state studies background, but this case about Wicca and public prayer strikes me as a major story and a sign of things to come. We may have heard the last of a witch named Cynthia Simpson at the U.S. Supreme Court, but the splintering of the old Judeo-Christian (and now Islamic) civil religion will continue. Here’s the lead from the Richmond Times-Dispatch story, the only MSM coverage that really mattered.

The U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider an appeal yesterday from the Wiccan priestess who was excluded from giving the opening prayer at meetings of the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors. Cynthia Simpson, who calls herself a witch as do others of the Wiccan faith, sued because the county limits its list of clergy invited to pray at meetings to those of Judeo-Christian and Islamic religions.

And I loved this final detail:

Simpson is now studying for a master’s degree in divinity at a Pennsylvania seminary and hopes to be ordained in the Unitarian Universalist Church. She said that church’s beliefs are compatible with the Wiccan faith, which is based on unity with the Earth and the idea that humanity and all things are part of the deity.

A note to newcomers on the religion beat — I heard about this case (more than once, in fact) through journalists operating on the Baptist left. If you care about religious liberties issues, it pays to read Associated Baptist Press on the left and Baptist Press on the right.

McPrayer Closets in your McMansions?

eyesore 200101 01What a week. I am finally back at work and I feel the need to unload some short items from the past week on the road. So — warning — here come some short, punchy (I hope) posts while I try to dig out my desk and travel bag. Prepare to scan and click.

Looking back, it’s hard to believe that I seriously considered not posting an update on my original “Mansions on a Hill” post. The follow-up post — a sort of “Would Tony Campolo own a McMansion?” debate — is still drawing a few new comments. Thus, it is with fear and trembling that I post the following link to a Wall Street Journal feature by Troy McMullen that, in effect, suggests more McProtestant people are building McPrayer Closets in their McMansions.

Actually, that isn’t really fair. There isn’t much evidence that this prayer-closet phenomenon has a class angle.

As religious themes grow more important in American culture — in an April Gallup poll of 1,003 adults over 18 years old, 42 percent of respondents described themselves as evangelical Christians — a handful of interior designers have begun to market themselves as experts in merging home decor with religion. Their influences run the spectrum: subtle touches, such as using colors taken from a client’s favorite Bible passages, and more overt ones, like the installation of altars and large cast iron crosses in some homes. …

These designers say they’re simply filling a niche — helping Christians and others guided by religion who want to tap into their faith without turning their homes into chapels. Still, there’s another reason interior decorators are striving to set themselves apart: The field has never been more crowded. The American Society of Interior Designers, a trade group, says its membership hit a record high of 35,000 this year.

Perhaps the story behind this story is that evangelicals are beginning to feel the need to do something that the ancient churches have done for centuries and centuries — urging members to bring sacramental objects into their homes. In my Eastern Orthodox neck of the church woods, we call these blessed zones “icon corners.” I have heard that Roman Catholics do this from time to time, as well.

Meanwhile, try to find a photograph online of a Protestant “prayer closet.” Let me know what you find. OK?

Covering those dummies on the right

crash test dummies2As I said a week ago, I really think the MSM are stuggling to cover the HHGR division within the camps of cultural, religious and political conservatism. What does it mean when journalists find themselves cheering for Bush, in opposition to Rush Limbaugh? What does it mean when you are an elite blue-zone scribe and you are tempted to line up on the same team as Dr. James Dobson?

In the past day or so we have seen all kinds of evidence of this confusion. Where to begin?

* Over at The Washington Post, Howard Kurtz has a nice look at the groundbreaking work of former Bush White House scribe David Frum. It’s full of punchy material. Check this out:

The spectacle of Frum, George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Rush Limbaugh, John Podhoretz, Kristol and other conservative commentators breaking with their president over Miers has the feel of a messy family feud. These, after all, are the political pugilists who are usually slapping around liberals and Democrats. But there is something about Bush picking his White House counsel and longtime personal lawyer — and passing over a batch of conservative judges with sterling credentials — that has inflamed his normally loyal media supporters.

Former Republican Party chairman Ed Gillespie says he’s detected a whiff of sexism in the opposition to Miers. Fox News anchor Brit Hume has noted that many critics of the Southern Methodist University graduate went to elite Eastern schools. This prompted Frum — a proud graduate of Yale and Harvard Law — to fire back at “Brit Hume’s and Fred Barnes’ embarrassing repetition of Ed Gillespie’s talking points: ‘Brawwwwwk-sexism; brawwwwwwk-elitism; brawwwwwwwwwk-Harvard; brawwwwwwwwwk; brawwwwwkk; brawwwwwk.’”

My take? Howie talks about Frum taking a “Passover break” from blogging. Is this part of the ghost? Has HHGR turned into a battle between lots of evangelicals (not all) and the world of conservative Catholics, Jews, mainline Protestants?

• That brings me to a nice blog piece by Roberto Rivera, a Catholic writer known for his work with evangelical leader Chuck Colson. This post titled “Crash Test Dummies” is at a new blog operated by some friends and associates of mine — The Culture Beat.

Rivera is reacting to a piece at The New Republic by Jonathan Chait (“Conservatives Get Taken for a Ride”) that is rather hard to get to. Here is the Chait lead:

There are two basic ways to think about President Bush’s relationship with the religious right. The first is that Bush is a genuine ally of social conservatives who, while often cagey in public, takes every opportunity to advance their agenda. As liberals would phrase this interpretation, Bush is a tool of the religious right. The second — utterly diametrical — theory is that Bush is mainly interested in harvesting votes from religious conservatives in order to implement an agenda dominated by his economic backers. In liberal-ese: Social conservatives are hapless GOP dupes. At this point, five years and two Supreme Court nominations into the Bush presidency, we can arrive at a definitive answer. And the verdict is: hapless dupes.

Rivera follows this line of thinking into several other pieces and reaches a simple bottom line — the world of religious conservatism is much, much more complex than many people let on and there are all kinds of attitudes in conservative pews about Bush, Harriet Miers and who knows what all. But the feeling of betrayal is real. Can journalists report that?

Meanwhile, check out The Culture Beat for yourself.

• If you think the MSM are having trouble deciding who to cheer for in the HHGR story, put yourself in the shoes of the Democratic Party leadership. Is Miers a closet country-club soft conservative or a secret-weapon theocrat? Who knows?

Now, imagine that you are reporter Charles Babington at The Washington Post and you are trying to figure out what the Democrats are saying and what they really mean as they say it. You might end up writing this:

Jim Jordan, a former presidential campaign manager for Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), agrees that Democrats will have plenty of reasons to oppose Miers, but he said some worry that Bush might replace her with a more forceful and effective conservative. “Even though she’s undoubtedly a mediocrity,” he said, “philosophically she’s probably the best they [Democrats] can do.”

Jordan added: “If the Republicans splinter, as looks likely now, the Democratic caucus will be in the bizarre position of having to decide whether to bail Bush out.” The choice will not be easy, he said. “From a purely political standpoint, they’ll have to decide whether to add to his humiliation,” Jordan said. A Miers rejection, however, would allow Bush “a do-over” that could improve his relations with his conservative base.

Which conservative base?

• Fun, right? But what if the president is convinced that he can force this nominee through? So he could — now that the religious right has seen the strong wink and nod — stop the God-talk and fight to take Miers back to the mainstream. Maybe this is what the White House is doing. Maybe. Maybe not.

• But what if — during the God-talk stage, when there were supposed to be talks about Miers and God, but not Miers and Roe — the White House left some fingerprints that could be detected by reporters with the right sources over on the right? At that point, you might be able to do what John Fund did today at The Wall Street Journal. He was able to write this:

On Oct. 3, the day the Miers nomination was announced, Mr. Dobson and other religious conservatives held a conference call to discuss the nomination. One of the people on the call took extensive notes, which I have obtained. According to the notes, two of Ms. Miers’s close friends — both sitting judges — said during the call that she would vote to overturn Roe.

The call was moderated by the Rev. Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association. Participating were 13 members of the executive committee of the Arlington Group, an umbrella alliance of 60 religious conservative groups, including Gary Bauer of American Values, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation and the Rev. Bill Owens, a black minister.

Well now, do you think some folks on the Hill might want to see those conference-call notes?

Stay tuned. Lots of reporters have calls to make to people they are not used to calling.

Old ghost in the Iraqi vote

mosqBagd2I don’t know about you, but every now and then I get two emails and, because I read them back to back, they become connected. This happened today, when I reached Jackson, Tenn., to visit Union University. I thinned out the deluge of email from the previous day or so and then started reading.

The Iraqi vote, of course, is one of the biggest stories out there today. I read the main Washington Post piece and, to my way of thinking, there was something missing. If the White House is going to be excited about this election and its impact on something that can be called a “democracy,” then I want to know about the impact of this vote on issues such as free speech, women’s rights, religious liberty and other related topics.

It may not be fair to read this story and let it stand alone, without taking into account other Post stories from the recent past. Still, read it and tell me what you think. Early on, we are told:

The strong overall turnout in the west, however, raised the possibility that the disempowered Sunni minority could defeat the draft charter, which endorses a loose federal system with a weak, religiously influenced central government. Many Sunnis fear the draft would bring the breakup of Iraq into ethnic and religious substates, and make permanent their loss of power to the Shiite Muslim majority after the toppling of Hussein. …

In his weekly radio address Saturday, President Bush said that the referendum dealt “a severe blow to the terrorists” while sending a message to the world. “Iraqis will decide the future of their country through peaceful elections, not violent insurgency.” Bush said the referendum was “a critical step forward in Iraq’s march toward democracy.”

The religion element is there, but quickly vanishes. We learn valuable information about the strong turnout, the threat of violence, the potential political impact of the votes and other topics. But if religion is at the heart of these issues, what happened to that information? How will the vote and this new constitution affect basic human rights?

At that point, I opened another email. Click here to read a fresh Freedom House release on the vote. Then read the Post report again.

I don’t know about you, but I want the excellent reporters at the Post to answer some of the questions raised by the Freedom House activists.

The Jeff and Jeremy Show — on virginity

IHeartVirginsSorry to be absent from the blog so much. I am still on the road for a few more days. However, let me quickly point you toward an interesting call and response over at Beliefnet between Jeff Sharlet of The Revealer and that guy we used to know — young master Jeremy Lott (away writing his book on why hypocrisy beats the alternatives).

Jeremy has a very GetReligion-friendly lead on his piece:

It’s funny how religious stories sneak up on most American journalists. One minute, churchgoers will be going about their business and the next they’ll discover that their worship/Sunday School curriculum/whatever is part of some New Hot Trend, even though they’ve been doing — or not doing it — it for years.

So it is with the “new” virginity movement among evangelical Christians. In a recent issue of Rolling Stone, reporter Jeff Sharlet writes that he’s found “the new organizing principle of the Christian right”: chastity. In an explanation that sounds like it was copied out of a catalog for the Society for Creative Anachronism, he writes that this strange new virginity is “built on the notion that virgins are among God’s last loyal defenders, knights and ladies of a forgotten kingdom.”

But the emphasis on virginity for evangelicals is neither new nor terribly political.

As you would expect, Jeff — a friend of the task of this blog, coming from a very different point of view — disagrees.

So the way to catch up on their discussion is to start with the Rolling Stone piece by clicking here and then move on to the Sharlet side of the debate by clicking here. You may also flash back to an old Lott entry at this blog.

My own take is that the new virginity movement is, as usual, a late response by the evangelical subculture to trends in (a) mass media and (b) the realities in its own niche in the culture.

Once, cultural conservatives tried to abstain from entertainment media, to one degree or another. Then along came The Sound of Music and the next thing you knew — in terms of generational change — you had people who think of themselves as evangelicals wired to the gills and consuming exactly the same media as everyone else. Yes, this is a news story.

I am not saying, of course, that “the devil (media) made them do it.” I am saying that these changes are in some way signs of changing patterns in American homes. And then the divorce rate started to rise and, after a decade or two, finally, so-called conservative churches started worrying about this and trying to do something. This reality may affect politics (arguments over sex education programs), but the more important stories are back in the homes and the pews.

Churches on the left may not talk about these issues at all, since the baptism of the sexual revolution is part of the evolving creed at many of their altars. And what about the Catholics and, let me tweak my own flock, the Orthodox? Mostly silence, with few leaders attempting to address the trends and the harsh realities.

Anyway, back to my next speaking engagement. Please check out the Lott and Sharlet pieces. Much to think about there, as they dissect that interesting ghost (to freely mix a metaphor).

McMansions on a hill (continued)

McMansion2GetReligion has front-page readers and then it has comments readers. Thus, I wanted to pull a comment or two out front from the McMansions ghost post, so that more people can see them.

Oh, I also need to add my confession about housing. Yes, I now live in a 1930s Craftsman-era bungalow in an older neighborhood — only one that is currently not hot enough to attract McMansions. Yet. (Click here to see what this whole trend actually looks like on the ground.)

In terms of the ghost that was haunting me, Dan Berger nails it:

Here’s a ghost: when was the last time you saw something both serious and profound written about the Seven Deadly Sins? Like Greed? … I’m reminded of the apocryphal story about a clergy conference in which one of the speakers asks, “Is it possible to own a house that is sinfully large? And how large would it have to be?” From the back, someone piped up, “Bigger than mine!”

Posted by Dan Berger at 9:01 am on October 11, 2005

Also, I invited Rod “Friend of this Blog” Dreher of The Dallas Morning News to write in about this topic, since he has dedicated an entire chapter to the topic in his upcoming book Crunchy Cons.

Dreher’s main point echoes that of Berger and can be stated in a question: Would newspapers dare to write about strongly spiritual subjects that are not obvious, on their face, in a news trend? Is it possible to write about greed, other than in the context of Enron? Lust, other than in the context of, oh, the Bill Clinton era?

In this case, the ghost is there and its name is “consumerism,” a sin that is very easy for me to spot in the mirror (I don’t know about you). Here is the body of Dreher’s letter:

1. As David Brooks has observed, many modern people make up for the spiritual emptiness in their lives by fetishizing material objects. I don’t suppose that’s really a modern thing; after all, the Israelites fetishized the Golden Calf. Its modern version, though, comes with the kind of lifestyle you see celebrated in the upscale shelter magazines. It’s easy for me to see that secular lefties fetishize the old historic houses as embodiments of a certain spiritual purity they see threatened by McMansionization, and what it represents (the “More, Faster” society of rampant consumerism).

2. On the other hand, a religious conservative like me arrives at much the same place, for different reasons. I don’t think I’m a better person for having chosen this old house of ours, but I do think, in a sacramental sense, it mediates a spiritual ideal of modesty and simple beauty, which I find much preferable to the McMansion ethos. And it’s important, I think, to conserve old places, because of the links they provide with our past.

Our neighborhood in Dallas doesn’t look like all the other neighborhoods, and the people who moved in long before us, when it was a dismal, drug-infested slum, worked real hard to reclaim the original beauty and integrity of these old houses, and restore the neighborhood to its original charm. All the things they fought for are now being challenged by Republican developers, and Texans who believe in the sacredness of Private Propitty. You can drive around my neighborhood and see obnoxious McMansions that dwarf the other older, more modest houses. What this says to me is that the person who builds and owns the McMansion says to his putative neighbors: Screw you people, I’m going to do what I want to do, and you’ve just got to live with it.

3. In this sense, perhaps, what secular lefties in that Maryland neighborhood are fighting is an individualistic ethic that asserts the right to disregard tradition and the sensibility of the community for the sake of exercising the sovereignty of the individual. As I believe a lot of what’s wrong with this country is out-of-control individualism (on the left, resulting in the extolling of sexual libertinism, and on the right resulting in the extolling of shopping), I would come together with the left-liberals in this neighborhood as a matter of principle. How we arrived at the idea that the old neighborhood ought to be defended is, to the outsider, a distinction without a difference. What matters is that we stand by tradition and community.

Posted by Rod Dreher at 2:40 pm on October 11, 2005

As you can see, there is more to this specific issue than left-right politics or even theology.

“Tradition and community”? Sounds rather religious to these Eastern Orthodox ears.

Return of the HHGR weblog at CT

Go ahead. I dare you. Click here and see how deep the HHGR rabbit hole goes. I just love the “Miers goes to church” section. Then click here and you’ll discover that the hole goes even deeper. Just consider this a footnote for Doug’s post. (By the way, feel free to correct me on the Matrix quote.)

Why is the Bush burning?

Moses and the Burning BushBefore I head out the door on an eight-day speaking trip (perhaps with spotty blogging prospects in terms of time and web access), I want to try to connect a few dots on the HHGR story.

If you visit this blog fairly often, you may have noticed my mantra that the two hottest religion stories over the past decade or two have been sex and/or salvation. Lurking in the background are issues such as freedom of speech, freedom of association, church-state separation (on the religious left as well as the right) and other topics.

The spirit of the age, especially in newsrooms, is a kind of moral libertarianism that combines elements of conservative economics and liberalism on cultural, moral and religious issues. Thus, journalists in the MSM struggle, at times, to do fair coverage of the religious traditionalists that they consider backward, while often overlooking altogether stories about the religious left. It is hard to tolerate those you have decided are intolerant.

I have decided that the MSM honor this law in coverage of moral and cultural issues: When in doubt, the Religious Right must lose.

Now we see why the strange case of Harriet Miers has everyone so confused. The template is gone, because the Religious Right is divided. There are religious leaders in favor of Miers and those who are opposed. There are abortion-rights advocates who are furious about her appointment — singing in chorus with opponents of abortion on demand. There are evangelicals who think this church lady is right on and those who think her nomination is an abomination.

Cultural conservatives and libertarian conservatives are gathering in several camps:

Those who trust the team of God and President Bush above all.

Those who do not trust Bush, in part because of rising evidence that the crony card trumps everything else.

Traditional conservatives — including many in pews — who are insulted that Bush passed over thousands of more qualified candidates (including younger judges, other females and minorities) and that now, to fight the opposition, the White House is playing the God card.

Thus, the typical MSM journalist is confused. There are sources that she or he respects (or laughs at) on both sides. It’s hard to punch the macro key that inserts the normal Religious Right language. Who is smart? Who is stupid?

One thing, however, is clear. The old, vague Bush code (thank you, David D. Kirkpatrick) on moral issues is not working.

But I believe several editorial writers have hit the nail on the head, starting with John Fund in The Wall Street Journal and Democrat Francis Wilkinson in The New York Times. Let’s start with a long, long chunk of Fund’s essay — which demonstrates why the “Trust me” line is not working.

After leaving office, Dwight Eisenhower was asked by a reporter if he had made any mistakes as president. “Two,” Ike replied. “They are both on the Supreme Court.” He referred to Earl Warren and William Brennan, both of whom became liberal icons.

Richard Nixon personally assured conservatives that Harry Blackmun would vote the same way as his childhood friend, Warren Burger. Within four years, Justice Blackmun had spun Roe v. Wade out of whole constitutional cloth. Chief Justice Burger concurred in Roe, and made clear he didn’t even understand what the court was deciding: “Plainly,” he wrote, “the Court today rejects any claim that the Constitution requires abortions on demand.”

Gerald Ford personally told members of his staff that John Paul Stevens was “a good Republican, and would vote like one.” …

An upcoming biography of Sandra Day O’Connor by Supreme Court reporter Joan Biskupic includes correspondence from Ronald Reagan to conservative senators concerned about her scant paper trail. The message was, in effect: Trust me. She’s a traditional conservative. From Roe v. Wade to racial preferences, she has proved not to be. Similarly, Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation recalls the hard sell the Reagan White House made on behalf of Anthony Kennedy in 1987, after the Senate rejected Robert Bork. “They even put his priest on the phone with us to assure us he was solid on everything,” Mr. Weyrich recalls. …

Most famously, White House chief of staff John Sununu told Pat McGuigan, an aide to Mr. Weyrich, that the appointment of David Souter in 1990 would please conservatives. “This is a home run, and the ball is still ascending. In fact, it’s just about to leave earth orbit,” he told Mr. McGuigan. At the press conference announcing the appointment, the elder President Bush asserted five times that Justice Souter was “committed to interpreting, not making the law.” The rest is history.

Wilkinson veered into the same territory in an essay titled “Another Republican for Roe?” The key concept: Try to imagine a Bill Clinton appointing someone to the court who ends up being pro-life. Can you picture that, even though 40 percent of the Democratic Party continues to identify itself as opposed to abortion on demand?

So what is going on inside the big tent of the new GOP? Wilkinson writes:

There are various theories to explain these instances of Sudden Pro-Choice Syndrome but no clear explanation. It’s the darnedest thing, but when it comes to the most sacred cause in the Republican canon, the right to life, Republican presidents somehow find a way to mess up. You’d almost think they were doing it on purpose. …

Roe v. Wade is not a fine point of law that busy presidents and their staffs overlook. It is the most visceral, emotional and politically contentious issue the court has decided in the past three decades. If you were president of the United States and truly believed abortion to be a modified form of murder, I suspect you would not only nominate someone who seemed to share your view on this paramount issue, but you’d also make damned sure there was no margin for error.

So what is the Big Idea?

Journalists must realize the leadership of the Republican Party knows that pro-life, traditional religious believers — Democrats, as well as Republicans — have nowhere to go in an era in which, to paraphrase Maureen Dowd, the Democratic Party’s only iron-clad value is the defense of Woodstock. So the Republican establishment can treat cultural conservatives the way the Democrats treat labor unions.

Also, opposing abortion is not a logical stance, for those who define “conservatism” as the radical freedom of every individual and the rule of the almighty dollar. Check out this classic essay from The Atlantic that explains all of this.

At the moment, the GOP leadership is divided for a simple reason. The party is divided. Meanwhile, the Religious Right is divided, between those who trust Bush and those who believe that the ultimate veto rests with, well, a Burning Bush. Journalists are going to remain confused if they do not — quickly — realize that these are two different groups.