The Bush doctrine: Heaven on earth?

mountainI was busy writing a column last night and didn’t watch the State of the Union. However, I think it’s safe to predict that, once again, there will be lively debate among some conservatives about President Bush’s restatement of his claims that American can, almost literally, create peace on earth.

Here is the key section of the speech, taken from the text posted at the New York Times (which includes some wonderful interactive links to related documents):

Abroad, our nation is committed to a historic long-term goal. We seek the end of tyranny in our world. Some dismiss that goal as misguided idealism. In reality, the future security of America depends on it. On Sept. 11, 2001, we found that problems originating in a failed and oppressive state 7,000 miles away could bring murder and destruction to our country. Dictatorships shelter terrorists and feed resentment and radicalism, and seek weapons of mass destruction. Democracies replace resentment with hope, respect the rights of their citizens and their neighbors and join the fight against terror. Every step toward freedom in the world makes our country safer, so we will act boldly in freedom’s cause.

Far from being a hopeless dream, the advance of freedom is the great story of our time.

It isn’t hard to figure out who Bush is pointing toward with his “some dismiss that goal” reference and, in this case, he is underlining a public disagreement with a certain conservative columnist. That would be Peggy Noonan, an outspoken Christian who also knows a thing or two about writing presidential speeches. A year ago, Noonan penned a post-SOTU piece that stunned many on the right, especially the religious right. Click here to flash back to that Wall Street Journal column. Meanwhile, here is a sample:

Ending tyranny in the world? Well that’s an ambition, and if you’re going to have an ambition it might as well be a big one. But this declaration, which is not wrong by any means, seemed to me to land somewhere between dreamy and disturbing. Tyranny is a very bad thing and quite wicked, but one doesn’t expect we’re going to eradicate it any time soon. Again, this is not heaven, it’s earth.

This morning, another outspoken conservative — Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher of the Dallas Morning News — lit into the top Texan against tyranny with a similar online comment.

The key question: Is there such a thing as a bad democracy? Or, stated another way, does the creation of democracies automatically defeat tyranny in a region? After 12 months of balloting in the Middle East, Dreher has some doubts:

What the president said was complete nonsense. “Dictatorships shelter terrorists?” Shoot, the Palestinians just elected terrorists! And you don’t think Palestinian democracy “feed(s) resentment and radicalism?” It’s their raison d’etre! And there is absolutely no reason to conclude that democracies will join the fight against terror. Some will — and some will foment terror, if that is the wish of their people.

Perhaps Noonan will write again in a day or so. Watch this space (or the Journal‘s archives section).

Print Friendly

Depicting Muhammad

kanyeYes, Kanye West posed as Jesus Christ on the cover of Rolling Stone. And, like he’s a Pat Robertson-in-training, the grandstanding worked. Media outlets splashed the news everywhere. So it was nice to see the way Rashod Ollison analyzed young Kanye for the Baltimore Sun:

Perhaps he meant it as a symbol of personal suffering. Maybe he wanted to present young hip-hop heads with an updated image of the Son of God. Whatever his motives, Kanye West again has accomplished what he set out to do: Get people to talk.

About him.

On the cover of February’s Rolling Stone, which hit news stands last week, the brash, egomaniacal rapper-producer poses as Jesus Christ. In the profile shot, he wears a crown of thorns. Blood runs down his face; his expression conveys anguish, vulnerability, a steely resilience.

It’s all so pedestrian, humorless and downright boring.

Exactly. And please note the scary Rolling Stone headline about God’s Senator while you’re at it. Remember when that magazine was actually cool? It hasn’t been since Hunter S. Thompson’s liver finally got larger than his cranium and they put P.J. O’Rourke out to pasture. Of course, for a long time now rock and roll culture has been less about subverting authority and more about moving units, so a minor controversy over disrespecting a tolerant religion is a valued as marketing ploy rather rather than a daring artistic decision. But as a few pundits noted, if Kanye wanted to be really rebellious, he would pose as Muhammad. Then we would see where the rubber meets the road when it comes to real artistic conviction.

Plays and movies mocking or blaspheming Islam, as opposed to Christianity, are almost unheard of. Movies praising Islam, even, are difficult to make. Syrian-born director Moustapha Akkad, who was killed a few months ago in the terrorist bombing in Jordan, faced extreme opposition for The Message, for instance. (Random political trivia: former mayor, then councilman, Marion Barry was shot in 1977 in a hostage situation where Muslim radicals made demands against the movie.)

Which brings us to the present and the huge story on other continents about the decision of a Danish newspaper to run political cartoons that made a humongous error in the eyes of Muslims. They contained images of Muhammad. All images of Muhammad are prohibited in Islam, but these cartoons were of the Ted Rall variety rather than the Marmaduke variety.

In response, masked gunmen stormed an EU office in Gaza. Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador to Denmark. Libya closed its embassy in the Danish capital. Palestinians burnt Danish flags while Hamas and Hezbollah and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood demanded an apology. Former President Bill Clinton told Davos attendees that he worried anti-Islam sentiment would replace anti-Semitism and condemned “these totally outrageous cartoons against Islam.” The Danish newspaper received a bomb threat. Boycotts have cost Danish companies $55 million.

messageAs I said, big story. Deutsch Welle had a good update that also provided some perspective about EU concerns over freedom of the press and protection of fundamental religious values. It even mentioned media issues:

Arab League Secretary General Amr Mussa, in Tunis for a meeting of Arab interior ministers, decried the “double standards” in the European media.

“We see double standards in the European media, which is fearful of being accused of anti-Semitism but which invokes freedom of expression for a caricature on Islam,” Mussa told reporters.

Most Arab governments have vocally condemned the series of 12 cartoons, which show the prophet as a wild-eyed knife-wielding Bedouin flanked by two women shrouded in black.

It’s fascinating to note how the Arab League leader notes the standards of European media in his attempt to sway political opinion. Fascinating because, of course, the standards for religious tolerance in Muslim news outlets likely would not merit Western sympathy. I also found this passage from the Khaleej Times to be illuminating:

Qatar-based scholar, Dr Yousuf Al Qaradawi, has urged the United Nations to act to prevent the defamation of the prophets or religious figures from any religion, anywhere in the world. He was speaking in Arabic on Qatar Television. “We Muslims consider it as a major crime to abuse or denigrate any prophet, including Jesus and Moses. Any Muslim who is doing this will not continue as a Muslim,” Qaradawi is reported to have said.

It would be nice for reporters to ask other Muslim scholars if this is true. Do Muslims consider it a major crime to denigrate Jesus and other religious figures? Have they commented on the Rolling Stone cover, for instance? Are Muslims decrying anti-Semitic comments from Hamas leaders?

Reporters should also explain why Muslims are demanding that the Danish government apologize for the actions of a few of its citizens. A guided tutorial through the Koran would give reporters a lot of information about Muslim views on the separation of mosque and state.

And reporters and editors in this country should show a bit more interest in this story. It won’t just be Denmark where Western views of freedom of the press run up against Islam’s desire to protect its major prophet. And I’m not just saying that because I am afraid to put up a picture of Muhammad.

Print Friendly

Simon does it again

baby and fingerStephanie Simon is the Los Angeles Times reporter who did such a great job a few months ago with that piece about what happens inside abortion clinics. In a lengthy feature published Saturday, she writes about Danielle, a woman who refuses an abortion after finding out her baby would be born without a brain.

Simon spares few details about Danielle, who is pregnant with twins. Lee Jr. has problems while Leah is healthy.

Danielle had an abortion as a teenager but recently began going to church and decided to leave everything in God’s hands. She is in a precarious financial situation and receives welfare. Her relationship with the babies’ father is tenuous.

Simon writes about Danielle receiving emotional and physical support from a crisis pregnancy center that has a specialty for women carrying babies with terminal problems. It’s right next door to George Tiller’s clinic, famed for its third-trimester abortions.

The story gives proper weight to the role religion plays in Danielle’s life. Simon writes about religion with her signature style, descriptive but spare. She allows people to speak for themselves without spinning their quotes one way or another. Lee Jr. died a few days after he was born. Simon gives immense respect to everyone in the story, including the young boy. Here’s how she handles the funeral:

Lee’s funeral was held two days before Christmas in the chapel at Broadway Mortuary. Wrapped in the angel blanket, the baby lay in a Moses basket, wearing a bib embroidered “Daddy’s Boy.” When Danielle bent to kiss him, she tucked a blue stuffed bunny at his feet.

“Dear friends,” Pastor C.H. Hermon began, “we’re gathered here in our grief to draw on the strength of the Lord.”

Danielle looked over at Lee Sr. He was holding Leah, stroking her cheeks, and his face was soft with wonder. Their baby girl had come home from the hospital the night before the funeral. She was beautiful and absolutely content as she slept on her father’s lap, her pink blanket a splash of warmth amid the black of mourning.

“God has a unique plan and purpose for every child that was conceived,” Hermon was saying. “Our perfect God does not make mistakes. Let your comfort begin with that truth.”

Lee put his arm around Danielle. Jonathan laid his head in her lap. Hermon read aloud from Psalm 23: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”

Too many times reporters think of themselves as anthropologists or sociologists, obessively looking for grand meaning. And yet sometimes the best way to get at the grand meaning of life is to simply find an interesting story and tell it. You don’t have to call up ethical experts, special interest groups or think tanks. You just write what happened as ethically and honestly as possible. Reporters who hope to improve their style or improve their ability to write fairly about controversial topics should observe her carefully.

Print Friendly

A Catholic Supreme Court?

catholic supreme courtSupreme Court nominee Samuel Alito will most likely be confirmed this week or the next by the Senate and for the first time in United States history, the nation’s highest court will have a majority of Catholics serving on the bench. The Economist, with its European perspective, unsurprisingly sees this event as more significant than do its American counterparts:

This is a remarkable historical turnaround. Arthur Schlesinger senior once remarked that prejudice against the Catholic church was “the deepest bias in the history of the American people”. The Protestant majority denounced Catholics as minions of the anti-Christ and servants of a foreign power, marginalised Catholic schools, demonised Catholic pastimes, particularly drinking, and tried to keep them out of high political offices. It is not so long since presidents observed an unwritten convention against having more than one papist on the court.

The turnaround is all the more surprising for two reasons — who was responsible and when it happened. The Catholic takeover of the court has been engineered by the Republicans — the erstwhile party of the Protestant hegemony. And the takeover has coincided with the worst scandal in the Catholic church’s history in America: a paedophilia crisis involving dozens of abusive priests and cover-ups by the Catholic hierarchy.

So why have the Republicans been so keen to tap Catholics? The most obvious reason is political: the Catholic vote is up for grabs. Catholics were once a solid Democratic constituency, up there with blacks and Jews. They began to turn against the Democrats in the 1970s when the latter moved to the left on issues such as abortion. Ronald Reagan won the Catholic vote easily in 1984 (Catholics were the archetypal Reagan Democrats). But they are not reliable Republicans. Bill Clinton won a plurality of the Catholic vote in 1992 (41%) and a majority in 1996 (53%). Catholics voted for Al Gore in 2000 (50% to 47%) but then George Bush in 2004 (52% to 47%).

Americans like to forget their country’s darker histories — largely to their benefit, I believe — but in this case I believe it’s important to remember and appreciate the significance of this event. … OK, now let’s move on and figure out how this happened:

Above all, Catholics are becoming ever more mainstream. The Catholic electorate is probably not that different from the population as a whole, even on issues such as abortion and euthanasia. Millions of traditional Catholics manage to ignore the “crazy aunt of Catholic dogma” on matters such as birth control. The court’s Catholic majority is unlikely to vote as a block, even though they were all appointed by Republican presidents. Antonin Scalia (Reagan 1986) opposes the legalisation of sodomy, but Anthony Kennedy (Reagan 1988) supports it. As for following Rome, Mr Kennedy has upheld Roe and Mr Scalia has blasted the papal line on the death penalty. Clarence Thomas, who has returned to Rome since being appointed to the court, has generally stuck to the Scalia line on matters Catholic.

Mr Alito’s arrival on the court may be more of a swansong for Catholic America than the beginning of sustained popish hegemony. The America that produced so many Catholic intellectuals — the parallel America of Catholic schools and Catholic youth organisations — has dissolved as Catholics have moved out of their urban ghettos and into the anonymous suburbs. The Catholic faith is becoming ever less distinctive as conservative Catholics slide into the pews with conservative evangelicals, and liberal Catholics swap ideas with liberal Protestants. Three of Mr Alito’s most bitter critics in the Senate were fellow Catholics — Edward Kennedy, Patrick Leahy and Richard Durbin. Which is surely a triumph for the American way.

This concept of the Pew Gap is of course not new, as we see here in a tmatt post on the thesis presented by James Davison Hunter. What is fascinating, and new to me, is the magazine’s prediction that the “popish hegemony” among American Catholics might be on the way out due to moving to the anonymous suburbs, among other reasons.

The final sentence in the article referencing the American way also grabbed me. Is America great because religious ideologies don’t divide us the way they have in Europe? And are we headed toward old European-style politics where religion matters in politics and government?

Print Friendly

Not getting it

BibleInfluenceThis New York Times story does everything possible to fit the facts into the mold of a “Democrats try to get religion in order to appeal to religious people” story. I find this an an example of how many in the Democratic Party and many mainstream reporters do not get religion or religious people.

Fortunately the reporter, David Kirkpatrick, included a thorough accounting of the facts in the rest of the story. Here’s the lead, which is what I found a misinterpretation of what is described later in the story:

WASHINGTON, Jan. 26 — Democrats in Georgia and Alabama, borrowing an idea usually advanced by conservative Republicans, are promoting Bible classes in the public schools. Their Republican opponents are in turn denouncing them as “pharisees,” a favorite term of liberals for politicians who exploit religion.

Democrats in both states have introduced bills authorizing school districts to teach courses modeled after a new textbook, “The Bible and Its Influence.” It was produced by the nonpartisan, ecumenical Bible Literacy Project and provides an assessment of the Bible’s impact on history, literature and art that is academic and detached, if largely laudatory.

The Democrats who introduced the bills said they hoped to compete with Republicans for conservative Christian voters. “Rather than sitting back on our heels and then being knocked in our face, we are going to respond in a thoughtful way,” said Kasim Reed, a Georgia state senator from Atlanta and one of the sponsors of the bill. “We are not going to give away the South anymore because we are unwilling to talk about our faith.”

The premise of the article is that Democrats are attempting to out-religion Republicans. The roles have been reversed. Republicans are now opposing religious teaching in schools.

Alas, this is not the case. The class proposed by Democrats is nothing to get excited about politically (I think the course looks great educationally). How is a textbook titled The Bible and Its Influence at all controversial or beyond the status quo, especially in the South? It’s produced by an ecumenical religious group and does not come close to touching the separation-of-church-and-state clause, as I see it, because it is not focused on a particular translation or interpretation of the Bible.

I’m sure Kirkpatrick’s original idea for an article on Democrats getting religion was a good one, and he cites several examples nationwide, but I believe his attempt (or his editor’s or whoever wrote that lead) to spin the story at the top falls flat on its face. An article with that type of lead made me think there was an actual proposal that would reach the religious voter Democrats are so desperate to bring into their fold.

As long as politicians see religion as solely a political vehicle for attracting votes, they will not gain the support they seek, especially in the South. The same goes for journalists and their media outlets — not that the NYT or its reporters are marketing their product to religious types in the South anyway.

The rest of the article is a series of politically charged back-and-forths between Republicans and Democrats that does little to get to the bottom of the story. Nice reporting, but isn’t getting to the bottom of things a journalist’s goal? Gathering the back-and-forth is key for getting to that truth, but in the end, give the reader a more accurate idea of the situation being reported.

Print Friendly

In the name of (insert god), we pray

Mason  Communion TableI waited a few days to comment on this story for two reasons. First of all, I was on the road and had limited access. Then I wanted to wait a day or two to see if any other media chased what I thought was a very significant story.

Alas, this seems to be another one of those stories that is only of interest to “conservative” media. For the life of me I cannot understand why, unless you want to say that the separation of church and state is merely a “conservative” issue.

The key story comes from Julia “There she goes again” Duin over at the Washington Times. According to a number of sources, the White House has agreed to pressure the Pentagon into letting military chaplains continue to voice public prayers that are appropriate in their own faith traditions, rather than requiring a kind of generic language that promotes a tax-dollar-funded civic faith that pleases people who believe that followers of all the world religions are basically on the same path to the top of the same mountain where they will someday learn that they have been worshipping the same God or gods or whatever (if you will allow me to be blunt about it).

Evangelical Protestants activists have, of course, been asking President Bush to clarify this situation with an executive order. Now, apparently, they have agreed to let the White House work quietly behind the scenes. Pay close attention because this gets complicated:

The administration struck a deal … with Rep. Walter B. Jones, North Carolina Republican, said the Rev. Billy Baugham of the Greenville, S.C.-based International Conference of Evangelical Chaplain Endorsers. Since October, Mr. Jones has arranged for letters from 74 members of Congress demanding an executive order to end reported religious discrimination against evangelical Christian chaplains.

Claude Allen, White House domestic policy adviser, promised the congressman that President Bush will take up the issue personally with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, said Mr. Baugham, who was involved in the discussion.

“He asked Jones if he’d be satisfied with less than an executive order, and Jones said ‘yes,’” he said.

Mr. Jones’ office, which confirmed that the conversation had taken place, says chaplains should be able to pray to whomever “their faith tradition” demands, including named gods, saints or prophets.

One of the most interesting details, for me, is an anecdote about a Muslim chaplain candidate who was corrected for praying in the name of “Allah, the most blessed and beautiful.” That turned into an safer appeal to the “most generous and eternal God.” One wonders how many Muslims will be willing to edit their faith in this manner.

In another case, a chaplain was taught how to add disclaimers at the end of his prayers, turning them into dual-source appeals to a generic god followed by language making it clear that only the speaker was praying to Jesus. All of this is, to say the least, precisely what church-state law calls the “excessive entanglement” of government in the free practice of religion.

Mason  Easter CongregationOf course, some on the left side of the church aisle are pleased with the God-lite language because it accurately reflects their theology. This is interesting, since these are normally the people who do not want to see tax dollars spent to proclaim a specific approach to religious faith.

But wait, you say, if chaplains voice public prayers that are faith specific, doesn’t that mean that tax dollars are being used to support a specific faith at that precise moment in time? Isn’t the government, in effect, funding religious confusion and allowing offensive religious speech in the public square?

Yes, that is what it means. The problem is that there are only two options, if people insist on using religious language during civic ceremonies in a diverse public square. Oh, I guess you could just fire all the chaplains and make the military go totally secular. There are people who want that.

Someone is going to have to clarify all of this because the issue is not going to go away on its own. Meanwhile, this is an important story and other news organizations need to cover it. For one thing, it’s interesting that the evangelicals have let the Bush White House off the hook again, when it comes to taking a public stand (photos from IFCA.org).

Print Friendly

PBS overloads on Christian programming?

The AppalachiansThe second item in the ombudsman column Monday by the Public Broadcasting System’s Michael Getler deals with complaints from viewers who believe the publicly funded PBS carries too many Christian-oriented programs.

This is not a new complaint to the nation’s two public media organizations. Back in August we commented on a similar column written by National Public Radio ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin. These complaints seem to be of the same vein.

According to Getler, most of the complaints dealt with specific programs. In thorough fashion, Getler dispatches with the complainers who were “very concerned about the amount of Christian-related content oozing onto PBS.” The horror!

I found most of the complaints cited by Getler ridiculous. As a journalist I receive my fair share of kooky comments, along with an equal number of solid questions and informed statements of opinion. I wonder, where are the informed, intelligent complaints about the coverage of religion on PBS?

And where are the complaints about separation of church and state? I guess/hope we’ve moved beyond that for public broadcasting. As long as the news or feature value of the shows’ content was valid — which they appear to be — how can one complain?

Here’s my favorite complaint:

It seems each show, whether it’s historical, scientific or documentary in nature[,] is flush with some sort of Christian angle. In this age of growing multi-ethnicity in the U.S., and increased conflict and tension between cultures of religion around the world, I find this bias highly disturbing and worse — validating the new Right Wing Evangelical perspective that has become oppressive in this country.” This viewer mentioned recent, high profile and high viewership series such as “Walking the Bible” and “Country Boys” and an earlier documentary on “The Appalachians.”

Where to start? Christianity is not exclusive to the right-wing evangelicals, ignoring a religion will not help subside conflicts and tensions and a relatively heavy load of religion programming does not implicate bias. Disclaimer: I have not seen any of these shows so I cannot judge their quality of slant.

Here is Getler’s explanation for the rise in Christian-related programming:

We have, of course, just passed the Christmas season. And we are also at a time, in mid-January, when the three-part documentary “Walking the Bible” is airing around the country. This series is based on the best-selling book by author Bruce Feiler, who also hosts the series and takes viewers on a 10,000-mile journey based on a retracing of the routes contained in the first five books of the Bible. This series drew above average viewership nationwide, and, according to the producers, the “vast majority” of the responses sent directly to them were positive. I got some of those as well. But the majority of people who wrote to me complained. “The show is simply religious propaganda wrapped in pseudo-history and dubious legend,” wrote a Baltimore viewer. A resident of Omaha, Neb., said, “The schools and governments are prohibited from promulgating superstitious dogma. How is it that PBS can even consider such as ‘Walking the Bible’?”

The “Walking the Bible” miniseries also roughly coincided in January with the airing of “Country Boys,” a three-part, six-hour documentary presented by PBS’s highly respected “Frontline” program and produced by widely-acclaimed producer David Sutherland. This was a very powerful program. The mail to me was overwhelming positive, and I’m the guy to whom people are supposed to complain. This painstakingly documented portrait of two teenagers struggling to escape poverty in a small Kentucky town also achieved solid viewership around the country, although not as high on average as the Bible series. But “Country Boys” also had a sizeable dose of religion throughout.

On the other hand, religion is a big part of life in those communities, and that’s just the way it is and it needs to be reported and reflected. I didn’t see “The Appalachians,” which aired well before I got to PBS, but it is the same region. Indeed, Christianity, and religion generally, have always been a very big part of American life and it is only natural that portraits of who we are as a country will contain this as one aspect.

Yet, I found this collection of messages from viewers around the country to be important and worthy of attention and discussion within PBS and its vast network of independent member stations. Is religious content being elevated these days? If so, why is that happening? Is it intentional and how should public television handle it?

Getler’s three questions are something of a copout, but not one I can be too hard on him for taking. They are tough questions and deserve some serious debate.

Q. Is religious content being elevated these days?

Q. Why is that happening?

Q. Is it intentional and how should public television handle it?

Tmatt believes that PBS could be attempting to attract viewers in a country that is about 40 percent evangelical Protestant and another 85-90 percent self-identifying as “Christian.” Taxpayers are also the base of much of PBS’ funding, and taking on subjects that involve its viewers’ lives might be a smart move. If the country were 30 percent Islamic, I’m sure the network would air more shows on Islam.

Print Friendly

Robertson will skip NRB gig

robertsonFor those of you who are still maintaining the Pat Robertson watch, here is the latest from the omnipresent Julia Duin of the Washington Times (who, it seems, has been able to cover a dozen stories in the past week or so). It seems that the leaders of the National Religious Broadcasters have had second thoughts about Robertson’s upcoming address:

Although the evangelist was not told to step down, he did release a statement citing demands on his time. A spokeswoman for Mr. Robertson did not return a call requesting comment. An NRB statement said the speaker switch was a result of “scheduling complexities.”

By the way, let me offer a compliment with a kick.

Someone at the Washington Times online division needs to create a website that makes it easier to find all of the many, many stories linked to religion, morality and culture (even pop culture) produced by Duin and others. Yes, they need a site that is even broader than the “Culture, etc.” page. That would make it easier to contrast Times coverage with the Godbeat offerings over at the Washington Post. This would be good for people who care about religion news, in Washington and beyond.

Print Friendly


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X