Apples, oranges and Facing the Giants

ftgmovieposterfinaltweak 01I think a key question here is still left unanswered: [Kris] Fuhr of Provident Films told you “she was told” that proselytizing was quite specifically the reason for the PG rating. [Joan] Graves of MPAA tells the LAT that religion and evangelizing had exactly NOTHING to do with it.

So let’s close the loop here. Get Fuhr to elaborate or respond. I’m still left wondering what MPAA’s reason really was — and whom to believe . . .

Posted by paddyo’ at 8:43 pm on June 21, 2006

It’s been several weeks since my original Scripps Howard News Service column about the controversial little Christian flick called Facing the Giants. You can click here if you want to see the follow-up post here at GetReligion.

There are still plenty of people out there who believe I got spun by a saavy public-relations professional, who landed a boatload of free publicity via talk radio, Christian bloggers and the mainstream press. There are also people who think the movie didn’t deserve a PG rating and that the whole affair is evidence that the Motion Picture Association of America hates religion in general and Christians in particular.

I continue to think the evidence is more complex than that. I also think the PG rating was appropriate, no matter how one settles the public disputes about the MPAA’s ruling.

To make a long story short, the studio and the producers behind Facing the Giants stand by their story that their original communications with the the MPAA — email and telephone talks — said the PG rating was based on content that could be interpreted as characters proselytizing on behalf of Christianity. There were multiple people involved in these talks and emails, but only one is speaking on the record: Kris Fuhr of Provident Films (which is linked to Sony).

Meanwhile, MPAA leaders have done a rare thing — discuss one of the board’s secret decisions. Some of these public statements have been interesting, to say the least. The board is saying the PG was not based on faith issues or on religion, in and of itself. But the board has not said that about the proselytizing issue.

What we have here is one voice saying, “This decision was based on A.” Then the other voice says, “That is totally wrong. This decision was not based on B!” One group says “apples” and the other replies by talking about “oranges.”

After reading lots of news coverage about the situation, and fielding lots of telephone calls asking me questions about my original column, I would like to share a key section of the Scripps Howard column that I shipped today. We begin right after a reference to a blunt public statement by Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri in which he attacked the MPAA ruling and suggested that Congress might want to discuss the matter.

This drew a quick letter from MPAA chairman [Dan] Glickman, a veteran Democrat who served in Congress and on President Bill Clinton’s cabinet.

“Any strong or mature discussion of any subject material results in at least a PG rating,” he said. “This movie had a mature discussion about pregnancy, for example. It also had other mature discussions that some parents might want to be aware of before taking their kids to this movie.

“Roy, I assure you that religion was not the reason this movie got a PG rating.”

This raised another question: What about those “other mature discussions” in the movie? What were they about?

The MPAA board works in secrecy and, other than its leader, members are anonymous. However, chairwoman Joan Graves granted a rare interview to discuss the “Facing the Giants” case — after receiving thousands of calls and e-mails.

“It we see someone on the screen practicing their faith and indicating that they have a faith, that’s not something we ‘PG,’” she told the Los Angeles Times.

This was an interesting choice of words, since hardly anyone had claimed that the movie was rated PG simply because it contained religious characters and expressions of faith. The key issue was whether its evangelistic content was offensive. Instead of merely showing faith, “Facing the Giants” included scenes that made a case for conversion to the Christian faith.

Thus, another MPAA official noted that — in addition to discussions of pregnancy and infertility — the movie included some proselytizing. “Parents might want to know” when a movie openly advocates one religion over other religions, John Feehery, the board’s executive vice president of external affairs, told The Hill newspaper.

ratings poster1The key language there, the part about “openly advocates one religion over another,” is a paraphrased quote and I tried to stay as close as I could to the wording in The Hill (with attribution, of course). It sure seems to me that Feehery is saying that parents need some kind of warning about a movie that may or may not include some proselytizing.

This is the issue that is so frustrating to me as a reporter.

I agree that there are many parents and other people who would be offended if they found themselves, without some kind of warning, sitting in a theater watching a movie that contained proselytizing or material that suggested that they were practicing the wrong faith. If the MPAA wants to say that proselytizing is valid reason for a PG rating, I think that makes sense. You could sure make a case for that.

So why won’t MPAA leaders talk openly about that?

It is possible, of course, that they reacted to this blast of Christian evangelism and, without really thinking about it, created this new standard about “mature discussions” of salvation and other matters of eternal bliss or damnation. The problem, of course, is that the MPAA board — if it openly discusses this ratings standard — would then have to apply it to other religions and to other ideas and beliefs that will offend many moviegoers. In this day and age, it’s hard to talk about heaven and hell without offending someone.

In fact, there are a whole lot of ideas and beliefs that, if movies start preaching about them, are going to upset lots of people. There are red beliefs that will offend blue people and there are blue beliefs that will offend red people. Is all of that going to start showing up in the movie ratings now?

Stay tuned. I expect sequels.

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Ghosts in conservative documentaries

BreakingDVCodeBuried throughout this New York Times piece on the attempts of conservatives to get into the documentary film business is the question of whether these conservatives are motivated by something more than a political desire to promote conservative ideas.

This “uprising on the right in a world that leans left,” as the Times‘ headline puts it, goes deeper than what John Anderson was able to report when he talked to Jim Hubbard, Michael Wilson and Charles Sellier. The three are heavily involved in creating and promoting conservative films in an attempt to balance what they see as a dominance of liberal documentaries:

What the three acknowledge, however, is that something besides liberal bias is responsible for the striking shortage of conservative nonfiction cinema at a time when filmmakers on the other end of the spectrum are flooding screens with messages about global warming, the war in Iraq and the downside of Wal-Mart.

Mr. Hubbard, for one, is out to fill the void. He said a philanthropist, whom he declined to identify, had come forward with money to help finance a series of six documentaries that Mr. Hubbard wanted to produce, on various subjects, including the growth of government and whether it is “potentially a threat to our freedom.”

Mr. Hubbard traces his own passion for the hitherto missing conservative cinema to an experience almost five years ago, when he was attending the University of Arkansas law school. He and his wife, he says, went to their local art house, where the menu was “Bowling for Columbine,” “Frida” and “The Life of David Gale” — films, respectively, by a liberal, about a Marxist and against capital punishment. The Hubbards weren’t pleased.

Being “upstream of the culture” is a challenge that goes deeper than getting a few political films and launching a film festival. If Hubbard is simply trying to be a conservative antidote to Michael Moore, then this is a fine article. But I sense there is something deeper, a few questions left unanswered.

Check out this section of the article:

The notion that conservatism is essentially static would probably come as a surprise to some of the exuberant right-leaning thinkers who have upended the talk-radio world. Yet Mr. Sellier, with several religious documentaries to his credit, finds some truth in the idea.

“In order for a mind to soar at the possibilities and come up with someone no one ever thought of and making a film about it and showing it at a film festival — it means you’re out of the box,” he said. “And if you’re out of the box, you’re out of conservative thinking, aren’t you?”

Richard Peña, program director of the New York Film Festival and a member of the New Directors/New Films selection committee, similarly noted a dearth of strong conservative prospects. “For a number of years we received submissions from a Christian university of films that always looked like cheap sci-fi and were always about forced abortions,” Mr. Peña said.

Anderson casually mentions later in the article that Sellier describes himself as an evangelical Christian.

I don’t doubt that Wilson, Sellier and Hubbard want to make conservative films. I just want to know their motivations and if their mission goes beyond political wars and into cultural wars.

Perhaps these guys are interested in just throwing out political bombshells, but I suspect the six documentaries that Hubbard has been commissioned to make, supported by some mysterious donor, have something deeper to explore than mere conservative politics.

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Another year, another “Jesus junk” story

A FTeeShirtI have to admit to a weakness for “Jesus junk” stories.

Since I worked in Denver for nearly a decade, I was pretty familiar with the style and substance of the CBA and its member stores. That’s the trade group formerly known as the Christian Booksellers Association.

Rare is the year that the CBA holds one of its blowout trade shows without seeing the publication of a “Jesus junk” story in a major newspaper or magazine. One of the classics, back in the late 1970s, focused on a company that was marketing Christian T-shirts for dogs. One year when I covered the convention, the hot story was the rise of Christian cappucino. Christian candy is another big favorite.

Well, Stephanie Simon of the Los Angeles Times has done the “Jesus junk” deed and done it quite well.

The reason these stories fly, year after year, is quite simple — we are talking about a $4-something-billion industry that is growing. But it is an industry that, on first glance, has a style of its own, a style built on Christian photocopies of whatever trend existed in the real world about five years earlier. Thus, Simon shows us:

More than 400 vendors packed the Colorado Convention Center last week to showcase the latest accessories for the Christian lifestyle. There were acres of the predictable: books, CDs, greeting cards, inspirational artwork, stuffed animals wearing “Jesus Loves You” T-shirts. Many of the newest items, however, put a religious twist on unexpected products — marketed as a means to reach the unsuspecting and unsaved.

Christian Outdoorsman was taking orders for a camouflage baseball cap with a red cross. In Booth 235, Revelation Products of St. Louis was pitching golf balls and flip-flops. Follow the Son flip-flops have patterned soles that leave the message “Follow Jesus” in the sand.

Gospel Golf Balls are touted as “a great golf ball with a greater purpose.” Manufactured by Top-Flite, the golf balls are printed with well-known verses from the Bible, such as John 3:16 (“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son …”). Dave Kruse, president of Revelation, said they were meant as “conversation starters,” to help men share their faith while teeing up.

An added bonus: Duffers need no longer feel bad about losing a ball in the rough. “If you’re playing great, good,” Kruse said. “If you’re spraying the ball, well … lose a golf ball, share the gospel.”

The difference between this story and most of the other stories produced in the “Jesus junk” genre is that Simon actually stops and asks if these products are what they claim to be — a means of outreach.

This is a claim that is a bit hard to swallow, since the junk side of this marketplace is built on selling Christian stuff to people who are already Christians through Christian outlets that advertise in Christian media. Is this outreach?

So who is the obvious person to call up for an interview on this topic?

You got it.

The effect of such products, according to political scientist Alan Wolfe, is to create almost a parallel universe, one that allows Christians to withdraw from the world instead of engaging it as Christ commanded.

“It’s as if they’re saying the task of bringing people to Jesus is too hard, so let’s retreat into a fortress,” said Wolfe, who directs the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College.

“Evangelism is about reaching out and converting the unsaved,” Wolfe said. “This is about putting a fence around people who are already saved. It strikes me as if they’re giving up.”

That’s part of the story. However, there are some products in this world that have — for reasons both mysterious and obvious — had an impact with ordinary people in ordinary shopping malls.

Simon is a fine, fine reporter. I hope that, having done the junk story, she will now chase the more serious side of the CBA. There is some substance hiding in there. Honest.

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That secretive Anschutz

Philip Anschutz A 6,800-word Los Angeles Times article by Glenn Bunting on the cigar-chomping, money-making, deal-cutting multibillionaire Philip Anschutz is a piece of journalism for which newspapers live.

Here is how it works. Newspapers want to cover people involved in their community. Usually this involves an interview, a nice photo and a couple of quotes. Controversial subjects are addressed (hopefully), but that’s routine since people typically know about the controversies.

There are those occasions when the person does not want to be interviewed, or involved in the article, but wants to be left alone. But when you are worth $7.2 billion, give to charities and own sports teams, venues, a movie company (think Ray and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), the nation’s largest theatre chain, and an aspiring newspaper chain in three major cities, you should expect to attract some attention. And if you don’t cooperate, a reporter is not likely to write as kindly.

Bunting did a very nice job hooking the story to Anschutz’s activities in Los Angeles to make it a relevant local story for the Times. But it quickly becomes a review of court documents and interviews with people who have had legal spats with Anschutz. It is not an article about religion, but religion definitely slips in there through Anschutz’s spokesman, Jim Monaghan:

Anschutz’s religious beliefs have been scrutinized, especially within the movie business, because he is regarded as a moral conservative who has invested heavily in films that appeal to families and Christians.

Although Anschutz and his wife have worshiped at an Evangelical Presbyterian church in suburban Denver, they no longer do so, according to Monaghan. He said that Anschutz considers himself “spiritual” and now attends services at churches of various denominations. When in Southern California, friends say, he prefers spending occasional Sunday mornings on the golf course.

That’s about as deep as the article goes in trying to understand Anschutz’s faith. This article is about money, power and scandal, but I think a more thorough look at Anschutz’s faith would have been compelling. That’s difficult because Anschutz obviously does not want anyone writing about his life, let alone his faith. For more on Anschutz and his faith, see Ross Douthat’s report for The Atlantic.

Anschutz’s press-averse ways make it difficult to do a balanced report, particularly regarding alleged improprieties with his Qwest telecommunications company and the gutting of the California State Teachers’ Retirement System:

Paula Smith, 56, a Denver mother of two teenagers, said she faces the prospect of working “until the day I die” after losing nearly $240,000 in retirement savings and $220,000 in the value of her Qwest stock.

Smith was hired as a technical writer for Mountain Bell in 1980 and took a buy-out in June 2001 — exactly one year after Qwest acquired the company.

It infuriates her that Anschutz has moved on to make spiritual films laced with moral messages.

“The thing I resent most about Anschutz is that he never steps up to the plate and holds himself accountable,” Smith said. “Funding ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ is not going to exonerate him in the eyes of the Lord.”

Ouch. Knowing that Anschutz is a Christian, I believe he would agree with Smith’s statement based on basic Christian doctrine. Nothing we do on Earth will save us in the eyes of God. But how does one fit that into a newspaper article when the guy isn’t talking?

One of the more interesting segments of the article deals with Mel Gibson and a lawsuit his movie company filed against a Anschutz’s theatre chain, claiming that the company cheated the actor’s distribution company out of payments for The Passion of the Christ:

Testimony in the case disclosed that Anschutz’s theater group charged church groups a $500 “worship price” on top of the normal admission to attend special screenings of “The Passion of the Christ.” Regal routinely levies an administration fee to cover marketing and overhead costs for private screenings.

Gibson became so upset that he ordered his company to issue more than $500,000 in refunds to churches and Christian groups.

“Icon was shocked and disappointed that this additional fee (which was never reported to us) was being charged to faith-based organizations,” Icon wrote in a letter accompanying the refunds.

Worship prices for churches and Christian groups? Why the term “worship” and not the more routine “administrative fee”? That smells fishy.

Finally, as a person fascinated by the life of Howard Hughes, I am not persuaded by the article’s comparing Anschutz to Hughes.

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Watching that circle go round and round

phelps2Fred Phelps is getting help from the American Civil Liberties Union. Phelps, of the Topeka, Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, is suing in federal court, challenging a Missouri law that prohibits protesting at military funerals.

I’ve held in the past that Phelps’ attempts to get into the news should be avoided by journalists. But when laws are enacted to prohibit the stunts pulled by his group, you can’t help but write about him. And journalists should. But now the ACLU is on his side, and that makes this an even bigger, and profoundly ironic, story.

For some background, this is the same ACLU that Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell said was responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But let’s not forget the “pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way,” Falwell said on The 700 Club.

So now we’ve come full circle:

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A Kansas church group that protests at military funerals nationwide filed suit in federal court, saying a Missouri law banning such picketing infringes on religious freedom and free speech.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit Friday in the U.S. District Court in Jefferson City, Mo., on behalf of the fundamentalist Westboro Baptist Church, which has outraged mourning communities by picketing service members’ funerals with signs condemning homosexuality.

The church and the Rev. Fred Phelps say God is allowing troops, coal miners and others to be killed because the United States tolerates gay men and lesbians.

God and gaysIt’s tough to deny the ACLU a level of credibility based on its attempts to act on principle. It’s certainly making for some interesting copy. Falwell and Robertson certainly made news for their comments after the terrorist attacks. Thankfully Phelps does not have that type of bully pulpit and following, but he is in the news again for legitimate reasons. Some loaded comments slipped into the AP story, and I’ll use this as an opportunity to highlight why journalists must be careful about how they cover this guy:

“I told the nation, as each state went after these laws, that if the day came that they got in our way, that we would sue them,” said Phelps’s daughter Shirley L. Phelps-Roper, a spokeswoman for the church in Topeka, Kan. “At this hour, the wrath of God is pouring out on this country.”

A reporter with a decent level of knowledge of religion will understand that Phelps-Roper’s comments are religiously loaded, and follow-up questions should abound when someone makes that type of statement. A comment included in a story as if it were just a normal quote — with no background or context — fails to explain the shaky theological foundation on which this group stands.

Any reporter who believes Phelps represents anything close to a fraction of the diverse religious landscape in America needs to do more research. So fine, quote Phelps and his daughter, but do it in a way that provides proper context and understanding.

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The upside to Hezbollah

raptureI know Harper’s is on a mission to destroy Christianity or something, but remember what a great and interesting magazine it used to be, before it began its bizarre jihad?

Anyway, some of the articles Harper’s has published during its campaign have been insightful and involved real reporting. And I rather enjoyed a simple bit of blog reporting that Ken Silverstein did for the magazine’s Washington Babylon blog:

It turns out there’s an upside to the current conflict between Israel and Hezbollah — if you’re waiting for the second coming of Christ. Here’s a selection of excited messages spotted over the last few days on the Rapture Ready/End Times Chat online bulletin board.

Praise God! We are chosen to be in these times and also watch and spread the word. Something inside me is exploding to get out, and I don’t know what it is. Its kind of like I want to do cartwheels around the neighborhood.

* * *

In another thread, someone brought up the fact that the kidnapping of the first Israeli soldier that started this whole thing was on June 25th and if you count from that day to August 3rd … it is *EXACTLY 40 days!!!!!*

I find that to be a HUGE coincidence.

* * *

Whoa! I can sure feel the glory bumps after reading this thread!

My favorite comment is the second one. Anyway, I know that Harper’s is covering this so as to mock these rapture-ready, rapture-excited Christians but I think it would be great for mainstream reporters to talk to these folks. You can find stuff here and there. But most of it is laughably bad coverage.

I’d like to see more, particularly of those Christians who may not be getting ready for August 3 but are having their views of foreign policy shaped by their doctrinal views.

Photo via Marcn on Flickr.

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Seventh-inning sermon

baseballAs far as All-Star games go, this year’s was pretty exciting. The National League was leading for most of the game until some American League player (sorry, I don’t follow that league enough to know names) batted a couple of runners home in the top of the 9th with a triple. I believe Bud Selig showed what a bad commissioner he is when he made homefield advantage for the World Series dependent not on the merits of the teams who got there but, rather, on the outcome of this game. How long, Lord, will we be under his reign? How long?

Anyway, I don’t want to be one of those people who goes overboard in defense of her favorite game, but like many folks, I find similarities between baseball and religion. The liturgy of the games; the smells, bells and whistles; the deliberate pace; the standing and sitting. So I was inclined to appreciate John Dickerson’s piece in Slate.

Dickerson is the chief political correspondent for the online magazine owned by the Washington Post. He wrote a first-person account of his visit to Camden Yards Sunday to hear Billy Graham preach. Even though it’s written informally, it’s newsy. He paints a vivid picture of the experience, from the sinfully-priced sodas to the lusty Christian band that got things going. His artful style is engaging and sassy without being terribly judgmental. Cal Thomas — a friend of Dickerson’s mother — takes him to meet Franklin Graham:

He spoke with perfect diction and a whiff of a Southern accent. He is not a man in doubt. His positions on abortion, condoms, and immorality are just what you’d expect, but his weightless charm isn’t. There was no smiling at the wrong time or obsequious fawning or theatrical whispering. He’s selling salvation to be sure, and he is less diplomatic than his father, but he has such an even keel that for a moment you forget that he’s just condemned to eternal damnation all those who don’t enter into heaven through Christ.

But enough about Franklin. Like the crowds at Camden, we’re waiting for the main event. Here’s his description of Rev. Billy Graham’s sermon and altar call:

Then he said we’re all going to hell. It was very literal. There was no windup or the verbal padding I’m used to from Catholic Church, where the priest talks in parables and inference that usually obscure the starker messages of sin and redemption. “You are going to die,” he said. “I’m going to die. And after that, there will be a judgment. ‘Every idle word that man shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the Day of Judgment,’ the scripture says. When you break a law, you pay the price. You’ve broken God’s law. We’ve broken the Ten commandments. If you’ve broken one of the commandments, you’ve broken them all. And we’re all sinners. And we’re all under the threat of judgment.” It was spare and simple. He did not raise his voice. It was as if after all that rock, Woody Guthrie had hooked up his battered
acoustic to the sound system. “Are you ready to die? You’d better decide for Christ here and now.”

But Dickerson doesn’t just give the one side of Graham’s well-known work. It’s not all Law:

This was where the incongruity of the venue worked so powerfully. Graham’s message wasn’t just for Sunday or weddings or funerals. What he was offering was the promise of grace at any moment, including in left field under an Esskay hot-dog sign. Too frail to walk, the old man left the stage as he arrived, driven across the field on a golf cart. It’s the same way they bring relief pitchers from the bullpen. He was departing after one more save.

Some might say that last line is a bit much but I thought it worked well. And it kind of makes me wish Dickerson were writing more about religion.

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Getting religion in the public square

the cross in americaThe most recent edition of PBS’ Washington Week included an interesting exchange between a member of the audience at the Aspen Ideas Festival and a panel consisting of leading journalists from Time, The Atlantic and NBC News:

Q: I would like to ask how can we keep religion out of government and politics?

MS. IFILL: How can we keep religion out of — how can we or should we?

Q: Hell, how should we? (Laughter.)

I was a bit taken aback by the bluntness of the question. To some, it’s not a matter of whether religion should be involved in public life, but a matter of how it can best be eliminated.

Ifill quickly passed that question to Andrea Mitchell, NBC News’ chief foreign affairs correspondent, who referred the audience member to American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation by Jon Meacham, the managing editor of Newsweek. Mitchell said the book shows the role of religion among the Founding Fathers, how religion was not completely excluded from our civic society and how it does have a role.

No, really?

I haven’t read Meacham’s book yet, but it is highly respected and has has helped shift popular Washington opinion toward the understanding that religion can indeed have a role in public society.

But as with all matters of religion, some people disagree.

Peter Slevin of The Washington Post has written a 1,400-word viewpoint, I mean news article, on an organization dedicated to keeping religion in the public square:

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — A 29-foot war memorial shaped like a cross should be allowed to remain on public land. A teacher should be able to emphasize references to God in the Declaration of Independence. Protesters should be permitted to approach women near the doors of an abortion clinic.

These courtroom fights and dozens of others pending across the country belong to the portfolio of the ambitious Alliance Defense Fund, a socially conservative legal consortium. It spends $20 million a year seeking to protect what it regards as the place of religion — and especially Christianity — in public life.

Considering itself the antithesis of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Scottsdale-based organization has used money and moxie to become the leading player in a movement to tug the nation to the right by challenging decades of legal precedent. By stepping into the nation’s most impassioned debates about religion in the public sphere, the group aims to bring law and society into alignment with conservative Christianity.

religion in the public squareNote now the article portrays the group as on the offensive. But if you read through the article, all of the examples place the group on the defensive. Rather than attempting to move American law to the right, the group seems more determined to keep the law where it is.

This impression of advancement was helped along by ADF founders Alan Sears and Jeffery Ventrella. The group has a financial interest in proclaiming this version of reality. American values and cultural mores have already been trampled underfoot. And they are the ones, if we can get a check, to bring them back from the brink:

Alliance executives say they are on solid ground when it comes to history and the law, and they insist that the pendulum is beginning to swing their way. Sears said the group, “by grace,” expects to grow 20 percent a year.

“Over and over, there’s a search-and-destroy mission for religious expression,” Ventrella told the trainees in Chicago. “Do we want to forget our religious heritage? When we abandon God, we will forget man. So what’s God got to do with it? Everything.”

The article does an excellent job of documenting the group’s attempts to inflame situations using impassioned rhetoric, but I wonder if the Post would have examined similar efforts by just about any other interest group. I receive ACLU and Sierra Club fundraising letters with rhetoric that could give the ADF a run for its money.

So, why the ADF? The Post article briefly mentions Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law & Justice and Jerry Falwell’s Liberty Counsel. Those groups, and the Rutherford Institute, surely would appreciate similar front-page treatment.

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