Goodbye to the White House evangelical

gersonThe departure of President Bush’s close adviser and longtime speechwriter Michael Gerson ends an era in which an evangelical Christian had unprecedented access and influnce in shaping American foreign and domestic policy. Thanks to Gerson’s humility, he never came close to receiving the attention from journalists of the likes of Karen Hughes and Karl Rove, but few were as influential.

Fortunately, a few journalists were smart enough to spot the influence of Gerson, particularly Carl Canon in this National Journal cover story, which received a Aldo Beckman Award for repeated excellent White House reporting, and Jeffrey Goldberg in a New Yorker profile that received a high level of attention. Appropriately, his exit is receiving attention from Washington’s heavyweights:

Here’s The Washington Post‘s Peter Baker:

Michael J. Gerson, one of President Bush’s most trusted advisers and the author of nearly all of his most famous public words over the past seven years, plans to step down in the next couple of weeks in a decision that colleagues believe will leave a hole in the White House at a critical period.

Gerson said in an interview that he has been talking with Bush for many months about leaving for writing and other opportunities but waited until the White House political situation stabilized somewhat. “It seemed like a good time,” he said. “Things are back on track a little. Some of the things I care about are on a good trajectory.”

Since first joining the presidential campaign as chief speechwriter in 1999, Gerson has evolved into one of the most central figures in Bush’s inner circle, often considered among the three or four aides closest to the president. Beyond shaping the language of the Bush presidency, Gerson helped set its broader direction.

The WaPo article was a bit more thorough than the New York Times piece, but that’s to be expected. I did have one small beef with the Baker piece, though, in his reference to Gerson’s sharing Bush’s “conservative Christian faith.”

Gerson stood out in a White House known for swagger. A somewhat slight, pale, bespectacled and soft-spoken Midwesterner, he nonetheless forged a strong bond with the outgoing, backslapping Texan president, in part through their shared conservative Christian faith. He found a way to channel Bush’s thoughts, colleagues said, transforming a sometimes inarticulate president into an occasionally memorable speaker.

I won’t contest Bush’s conservatism or Christian faith, nor will I contest either for Gerson. But it’s just not that simple, as Cannon’s profile clearly demonstrates:

Gerson, in what amounted to a self-directed continuing education, had been immersing himself in Catholic social thought, to try to understand the intellectual underpinnings of these issues. (He currently attends the Falls Church, an evangelical Episcopal church in suburban Virginia that was organized in 1734; George Washington served there as a warden.) Gerson had also been studying how Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services delivered services to those in need. And Bush — in part because of Colson’s work in Texas’s prisons — had become a convert to the idea that government could work in concert with faith-based programs.

“Catholics have long believed that the state has a role to play in alleviating poverty, but that this is not necessarily a role it plays directly,” says Catholic scholar Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. “What has happened in the U.S. is that Protestants have embraced this — first with school vouchers, and later with prison outreach, poverty, and other issues. It’s a growing alliance between Protestants and Catholics to help the less fortunate, and Mike Gerson is at the intersection of these two traditions coming together.”

Does description of Gerson’s faith dovetail with what we know of Bush’s faith and politics? That’s a difficult question because much of Bush’s personal faith and its connection to his politics is relatively shrouded by political necessity. Perhaps we will learn more once Bush has left office, but until then, the comparison cannot be made.

It’s clear that Gerson stood out in the White House. It’s not so clear that he and Bush necessarily saw eye-to-eye on everything Christian and conservative. I believe it would be more accurate to say that Gerson’s conservative Christianity influenced Bush just as Karl Rove’s cutthroat politics influenced him.

To wrap up, I’d like to say that without Gerson, one cannot imagine the course of the Bush presidency. Gerson turned Bush into one of the most articulate presidents of all time at various points in the last five-plus years.

Where would Bush be without Gerson? I point you to the White House transcript of a press conference held Wednesday:

Q: Is the tide turning in Iraq?

THE PRESIDENT: I think — tide turning — see, as I remember — I was raised in the desert, but tides kind of — it’s easy to see a tide turn — did I say those words?

President Bush is already missing Mike Gerson.

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Daaaaaaaaa-dum. Da-dum. Da-dum. (continue)

PassionLastSupperWell folks, I really don’t know what to say about this news except: Cue the theme from Jaws. Let’s go straight to the Hollywood Reporter story by Paul Bond, which I am amazed has not inspired more coverage. Where is Frank Rich?

The bottom line — literally — is that Sony Pictures is attempting to appeal to the evangelical slice of the mainstream audience that flocked to The Passion of the Christ by making a sequel about the events after the resurrection.

Who are the key players? Wait for it:

Using the Bible for its source material, “Resurrection” will tell the story of Jesus Christ beginning the day he died on the cross and ending about 40 days later with his ascension into heaven. According to insiders, Sony’s mid-budget Screen Gems division commissioned a script several months ago from Lionel Chetwynd, the veteran screenwriter, producer and director whose credits include the feature “The Hanoi Hilton” and the Emmy-nominated TV movie “Ike: Countdown to D-Day.”

Set to produce is Tim LaHaye, co-author of the best-selling “Left Behind” series of books. A popular minister and frequent TV news pundit, “Resurrection” will mark LaHaye’s first foray into mainstream filmmaking.

Now, we know that the words “Mel Gibson” freaked out a lot of folks on the left coast. However, his name also thrilled a lot of people who were excited that a heavyweight, A-list talent was going to make a serious film about Holy Week. Gibson is a love-him or hate-him kind of man, but no one doubted his talent and his commitment to quality. He had that Braveheart thing going for him, after all.

But Tim “Left Behind” LaHaye? His involvement will excite many on the Christian right, but it will also — needless to say — raise questions about artistic merits of the project. I mean, is this a direct-to-video project?

It is possible that this movie will not cause controversy. It is also possible that it will. Bond’s short report noted:

The film will focus on these dramatic encounters and their implications for the Roman garrison in Judea and the broader Roman Empire, insiders said.

“This is not a fanciful rendering. It’s a serious attempt to understand the Roman world in which Christ moved and the Christian era was born,” a person familiar with the project said.

Does “the broader Roman Empire” include the complex and divided world of the Jewish authorities of that day? It goes without saying that LaHaye’s beliefs may also raise concerns among Jewish groups, especially on the cultural left.

Meanwhile, it is clear that The Passion raised issues in Hollywood that are not going away anytime soon.

After all, the crew at Entertainment Weeklywhich is known (cough, cough) for its mainstream views on religion — has just named Gibson’s bloody epic as the single most controversial film of all time.

That’s right, hotter than The Message by Moustapha Akkad, which offered a take on the origins of Islam that lead to riots and terrorism. Hotter than the epic racism of The Birth of a Nation. Hotter than JFK, Deep Throat, Fahrenheit 9/11, A Clockwork Orange and, of course, The Last Temptation of Christ by Martin Scorsese. And EW thought that Gibson’s film was way, way more controversial than that historic film Triumph of the Will by Leni Riefenstahl that helped build the legend of a secular messianic figure of some importance — Adolf Hitler.

It’s safe to say that anything hailed as Passion 2 will cause a bit of heat among the powers that be in the world of entertainment.

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Southern Baptists hit the highways — again

dbc buses lineThe year was 1979, the place was the Astrodome in Houston and, for legions of Southern Baptists on the left side of the nation’s largest non-Catholic flock, what took place there forever changed how they looked at church buses.

Church buses? You know, those slow-moving vans and school buses that you pass on highways during the summer-choir-tour and youth-camp season that have church names hand-painted on their sides.

The old ruling elite of the Southern Baptist Convention was in firm control until church buses started rolling into the Astrodome parking lots packed with “messengers” — the convention does not have “delegates” — from churches that wanted to see their national boards and seminaries take a strong turn to the right. It was a landmark event in the history of American evangelicalism and the rise of what would soon be called the Religious Right. The buses were crucial, because they allowed thousands of Southern Baptists who had never played a role in convention politics to roll into the city on the day of the vote and swing the election. How many Baptists live within a six-hour drive of Houston? You don’t want to know.

I bring this up for a simple reasons. It appears that waves of church buses played a major role in the surprise election of the Rev. Frank S. Page of Taylors, S.C., as the new leader of the nation’s 16 million or so Southern Baptists during the current meetings in Greensboro, N.C. How many Southern Baptists are there in the Carolinas, Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia? You don’t want to know. It also pays to know that these states contain a high percentage of Southern Baptists who are conservative, but not as wedded to the new ruling elite that traces its reign to the events of 1979.

The New York Times sent reporter John DeSantis to cover the convention and, in a short report, he captured some of what went down. He also did a good job of avoiding the usual labels used in this kind of coverage — “moderate” and “fundamentalist.” Truth is, it appears that this election turned on factors other than the usual wars over the Bible and social issues. Here is the key section of that story:

… Page and his supporters said his election, on the first ballot on the first full day of the annual meeting of convention, did not mean that the nation’s largest Protestant denomination would change its views on social issues like same-sex marriage and abortion that the three candidates generally opposed. “I do not want anyone to think I am out to undo a conservative movement,” Dr. Page told reporters after his election. …

Page said although his election did not mean that the church was moderating, it certainly meant that change was in the wind. “I believe in the Word of God,” he said. “I am just not mad about it. Too long Baptists have been known for what we are against. Please let us tell you what we are for.”

The Times report also noted that Page drew stronger than suspected support — think church buses again — from people who have previously been on the fringes of the convention’s life.

bus mirrorThis is one of those cases where the nation’s newspaper of record simply could not offer the kind of nuanced reporting that readers would find in niche media. This is especially true for Southern Baptists, since this giant body is actually served by two wire services — Baptist Press (click here for a Page Q&A), representing the establishment, and Associated Baptist Press, which is operated by the progressives, “moderates” or, in some cases, true liberals who have been pushed to the margins since 1979.

The ABP report by veteran Greg Warner includes some fascinating details. The losing candidates, for example, had strong endorsements from the aging leaders of the 1979 movement. Is there division there now?

It is also crucial that only 11,346 messengers were registered at the time of the vote to elect the new president. This meant that voters in the region — driving in from nearby churches to vote for a South Carolinian — were in a position to swing the election.

And Warner also caught this crucial detail about the role of cyberspace:

Page agreed the bloggers, a new phenomenon in SBC politics, made a difference. While the bloggers are few in number, he said, “I think there are a large number of leaders who do read those blogs. I think they played a role beyond their number — perhaps an inordinant amount of influence given their number — but they are a growing phenomenon in Southern Baptist life.”

So two kinds of highways were crucial — concrete and digital. Outsiders have more clout when they have their own printing presses (so to speak).

This election was a blend of the past and the future. Stay tuned.

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Preachers and pornographers unite

remoteKudos to The Washington Post for picking up this Religion News Service article by Piet Levy on the problems religious broadcasters see with à la carte cable plans. The subject has been around for awhile. It has received heavy coverage in publications such as National Journal‘s Technology Daily and a segment on NPR’s On the Media, but mainstream press coverage has been scant.

It’s an excellent look into how Washington lobbying works. You would think that religious broadcasters would be thrilled with the idea of consumers being able to choose what cable channels they receive, but this is surprisingly not the case:

The fear among Christian broadcasters is that a proposal to allow consumers to reject MTV or Comedy Central would also allow them to drop the Trinity Broadcasting Network or Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network. Cutting off that access could hurt religious broadcasters.

“We do not believe that ‘a la carte’ is the cure for the disease,” said Colby May, attorney for the Faith and Family Broadcasting Coalition, which represents Trinity and CBN, in addition to other stations. “In fact, it is a cure that may very well kill the patient.”

Evangelical and family groups support the concept of “a la carte” cable legislation, which would allow cable users to subscribe only to the networks of their choice.

The article does an adequate job of explaining the two cable channels’ fears other than possibly losing viewers. Religious broadcasters are worried that they will end up “witnessing to the choir” and that channel-surfers will lose out on conversion experiences.

cable dishThis is definitely a concern, but what to do about viewers who want to receive family-friendly channels such as ESPN and CNN but want to avoid FX, Spike TV and Comedy Central? Well, here’s the answer:

“That’s why we have remote controls,” [Michael Goodman, media analyst for the Yankee Group] said. “If you don’t want to see it, turn the channel. Or if you really don’t want to see it, use the parental controls.”

But [Lanier Swann of Concerned Women for America] said because many children are more tech-savvy than their parents, it is simply not enough. Besides, she said, the main problem is that cable subscribers are required to pay for material that they find objectionable.

In an effort to appease critics, the two main cable providers, Time Warner and Comcast, announced “family tier” packages late last year that carry only what they construe to be family-appropriate stations, such as the Disney Channel, Discovery Kids, the Food Network and CNN Headline News. But the critics are still upset.

“The ‘family tier’ system is a straw man designed to fail,” Swann said. “. . . I don’t think we need the same individuals who promote, produce and air the type of programming we’re trying to avoid to be allowed to define what is family-friendly.”

I wonder whether FX and Spike TV are equally concerned. I would think they wouldn’t have the same “preaching to the choir” concerns, but are they worried about losing audiences?

As a consumer I want to control what I pay for. I don’t like paying for Lifetime and the other two dozen channels I never watch, but I also understand the concerns of the television evangelists, not only from a financial perspective, but also from a, well, evangelistic perspective.

I guess the next question is whether government policy is supposed to be directed to support religious goals. President Bush’s much heralded faith-based initiatives would seem to say that yes, government action can encourage religious activity, but I know more than a few groups that would strongly disagree with that ideology.

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Where did all the men go (again)?

church impotentThere are some news stories that simply cannot be written in 600 to 1,000 words.

Take, for example the Religion News Service report that The Washington Post ran titled “Empty Pews: Where Did All The Men Go? Gender Gap Threatens Churches’ Future.” (By the way, should that headline be “Churches’ Futures” or even “Church’s Future”?) The article was written by reporters Kristen Campbell and Adelle M. Banks, the latter of whom is a friend and has spoken many times in the journalism program that I lead at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.

The gender gap in American pews is, in fact, a big story and one that has been written many times. Click here for an example in The Wall Street Journal. The RNS piece begins with the work of David Murrow, author of the book Why Men Hate Going to Church. He notes that when it comes to working with men, many American churches simply cannot seem to get the job done.

The gender gap is not a distinctly American one but it is a Christian one, according to Murrow. The theology and practices of Judaism, Buddhism and Islam offer “uniquely masculine” experiences for men, he said.

“Every Muslim man knows that he is locked in a great battle between good and evil, and although that was a prevalent teaching in Christianity until about 100 years ago, today it’s primarily about having a relationship with a man who loves you unconditionally,” Murrow said. “And if that’s the punch line of the Gospel, then you’re going to have a lot more women than men taking you up on your offer because women are interested in a personal relationship with a man who loves you unconditionally. Men, generally, are not.”

The article goes on to talk about the rise of the Promise Keepers movement and other mainstream attempts to reach out to men. What the article does not do — perhaps due to reasons of length — is ask questions about why this trend affects some churches more than others. In other words, are there cultural and even doctrinal issues hidden in this gender-gap story?

Like what kinds of issues? That is where the controversial work of author Leon J. Podles kicks in, including his controversial (yes, I used that word twice) book The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity. Click here to read an essay that states his basic thesis, taken from the ecumenical journal Touchstone.

Church attendance in the United States is about 60 percent female and 40 percent male. The more liberal the denomination, the higher the percentage of females. Fundamentalists are almost evenly divided, but the only religions that sometimes show a majority of men are Eastern Orthodoxy, Orthodox Judaism, Islam, and Eastern religions such as Buddhism. Men say they believe in God as much as women do, but the more Christian a practice or belief becomes, the fewer men will own up to it. Men go to church less than women do, they pray far less than women do, and they believe in the afterlife and heaven and hell far less than women do.

MurrowI should, at this point, stress that Podles is a traditional Roman Catholic. I say that for a simple reason: Many readers of this blog know that I am Eastern Orthodox and might assume that this bias makes me favor his work. Frankly, that is one reason I started paying attention to what he had to say. But I soon realized that he had larger fish to fry, fish linked to news stories other than the gender-gap trend.

Podles is convinced that something has gone wrong with Christianity in the West — period. Although he is a Roman Catholic, his questions about trends in his own church are, at times, brutally honest. Hang on to something as you read this:

Western Christianity has become part of the feminine world from which men feel they must distance themselves to attain masculinity. That is why men stay away from church, especially when they see that the men involved in church tend to be less masculine. The most religious denominations, those that have the most external display, have the worst reputation. Anglo-Catholics were lambasted in the Victorian press as unmanly because they devoted themselves to lace and plaster statues (in some cases, this criticism was justified). Psychological studies have detected a connection between femininity in men and interest in religion. There may even be a physical difference.

External display? So why do some churches heavy on incense, candles and liturgy attract men (Eastern Orthodoxy), while others (think high-church Anglicanism and some Roman parishes) seem to drive men away? Why are African American churches 80 percent female? What can churches do to draw men to activities on days other than Sunday? Are the factors Podles worried about linked, somehow, to the declining number of Roman Catholic priests? The questions go on and on.

Like I said: This is a big story or the hook for many big stories. Very few of them fit neatly into 1,000 words. This may be a job for The New Yorker or The Atlantic Monthly.

P.S. Amy Welborn and Rod Dreher are blogging on the same topic today.

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Who’s missing from the big picture?

aslan eyeLet me (during a short break in my D.C. meetings) jump up on a soapbox for a minute.

Is Entertainment Weekly a news publication? Probably not, but it is published by a news organization and it has some pages in the front of each issue called “news.” The current issue has one of those trendy annotated list/feature stories by reporter Tim Stack titled “Claw Power: The top ten franchise characters in movies — Wolverine, Madea and Jigsaw are only some of the heroes and villians that attract audiences.”

The article never clearly defines its terms, which left me to assume — a bad word in journalism — that the goal of the article was to describe the characters at the heart of current Hollywood movie franchises, movie series that have potential to roll on for some time into the future making the big bucks.

The man at the top of the list is currently ruling global theater screens:

Despite some negative prerelease buzz, mixed reviews, and a furry blue Kelsey Grammer in a leather vest, X-Men: The Last Stand demolished Memorial Day box office records with a huge $122.9 million domestic four-day gross. It’s the latest impressive haul for a franchise that just keeps getting bigger: In 2000, the first X-Men pulled in $157.7 million total, while 2003′s X2 took home $214.9 million. With The Last Stand this X trilogy has come to an end, but the film’s best-known character, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), is set to live on in a highly anticipated spin-off, which could spawn sequels of its own. That’s why the blade-bearing mutant tops our list of film’s most powerful characters.

Notice that there appear to be two key factors linked to the meaning of this “franchise” term — (1) big box office and (2) the ability to produce more sequels. In other words, EW says it wants success right now and solid potential for success in the future.

Thus, Harry Potter is No. 2 and Spider-Man is No. 3. Shrek falls to No. 4. Shrek 3 is on the way, but beyond that? What is the source material for Shrek 7?

The rest of the list gets kind of strange (read the article for the explanations of each):

(5) Robert Langdon (with or without the hair of Tom Hanks)

(6) Jason Bourne

(7) James Bond

(8) Jigsaw

(9) Bart Simpson (fading on TV, first movie on the way)

(10) Madea

Aslan Lion Narnia MovieActually, I would have rated Perry’s “trash-talking senior citizen” higher in the list, in part because of her cost-to-box-office ratio. Clearly, there is a niche out there for African American humor that has some sense of (how to say this) faith and funky family values. I also get the impression that Perry is tapping a very deep personal well of creativity.

But I digress.

Take a look at that No. 2 slot — Mr. Harry Potter. Now, I love these books and think the movies are OK. The fourth movie was a smash and brought in $290,013,036 in domestic box office. That’s a strong total, and few doubt that the final three movies will do likewise.

But what if you had a franchise character that brought in $291,710,957 in its opening movie? What if the character was at the heart of a beloved, classic seven-book series that sold roughly 100 million copies in the second half of the 20th century?

With six books to go, could we say that this character has solid box-office potential? If the first film topped that No. 2 franchise, might not this new franchise character at least make it onto the list? Somewhere?

Who is missing from this list? Why is he — or even He — missing? Why doesn’t this pop-news article in EW play by its own rules?

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Post: Christian conservatives usually look like this

angerLibby Copeland’s 2,500-word profile of Sen. Sam Brownback thoroughly analyzes his religious views. Titled “Faith-Based Intitiative: Presidential Hopeful Sam Brownback Strives to Be Humble Enough for a Higher Power,” the piece is all religion, all the time.

And because I know very little about Brownback, I’m unsure whether he really is as folksy, non-threatening and, well, slightly weird as she makes him out to be. The piece is puffy and Copeland seems a bit taken with Brownback. She’s goes to great lengths to point out how much Brownback prays for his enemies, how he apologized to Sen. Hillary Clinton for thinking hateful thoughts about her, how he worried about his stereotyping Copeland as a liberal because she’s a reporter. For The Washington Post. (You have to admit it’s funny that he says that to her and she puts it in her story.)

But there is a paragraph in the piece that says nothing about Brownback and everything about Copeland.

Because of his emphasis on compassion, Brownback does not fit the stereotype of the angry Christian conservative. This persona was embodied sensationally by “Pitchfork Pat” Buchanan and his talk of America’s “religious war,” by Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who once imagined “rampant” lesbianism in his state’s schools, by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who said abortionists, feminists, gays and pagans helped cause the 9/11 terror attacks. (Falwell later took it back.)

Well, if the Post‘s stereotype of Christian conservatives is that they are angry and are described best by bizarre outliers and uncharitable caricatures, then I guess Brownback doesn’t fit! I wonder if there are any other Christian conservatives — other than this Brownback fellow — who deviate from the Falwell model?

I know it was in the Style section, but when do reporters there get to stop using that as an excuse?

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Attention Dr. James Dobson (and team)

arthur sulzberger 200x220Here’s another link that I thought I had lost. Don’t you just know that quotes from this blue-zip-code commencement address by Arthur Sulzberger Jr. are going to be showing up in, oh, Focus on the Family fundraising letters for weeks, months and even years ahead? Click here to see what I’m talking about.

The big quote is his Baby Boomer apology to the graduates for the state of their world and even American culture.

You just know that the critics of The New York Times and, sadly, many of the critics of journalism, period, are going to say that it is a kind of blue creed for news coverage (as opposed to content on those holy writ editorial pages):

So, well, sorry. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. You weren’t supposed to be graduating into an America fighting a misbegotten war in a foreign land.

You weren’t supposed to be graduating into a world where we are still fighting for fundamental human rights, be it the rights of immigrants to start a new life; the rights of gays to marry; or the rights of women to choose.

Parse that.

Many will say that there is absolutely nothing surprising in this statement. It is the mindset of the institution he leads, they will say. Is that true? Is that newsroom marching lockstep on moral and cultural issues? Is that good for the product and its potential in a national marketplace?

OK, I highlighted the obvious quotation. Readers — on left and right — what do you see and how will the usual suspects spin it?

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