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.

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God, libraries and Harry Potter

GobletAs GetReligion readers may know, I am starting to get interested in podcasting (in this post-Katrina era of crowded commuter trains). One of my favorites is the weekly Pottercast program put out by the fanatics at The Leaky Cauldron. This week’s episode (No. 6) is linked to the annual Banned Books emphasis by the American Library Association.

Listening to the show reminded me of a recent piece from The Chronicle of Higher Education that was sent to me by the most excellent librarian who is my wife. It’s titled “The Loneliness of a Conservative Librarian” and it was written by David Durant, head of the government documents and microforms desk at East Carolina University. At first glance, this seems to be an article about politics. Durant writes:

The problem is not that most librarians have liberal or leftist views. It is that the overwhelming prevalence of such views has created a politicized atmosphere of groupthink and even intolerance, in which left-wing politics permeate the library profession and are almost impossible to avoid. . . .

The solution is not to replace left-wing with right-wing politicization. Rather it is to leave politics to the individual. Just as we should collect and provide access to materials representing a broad range of beliefs, we should welcome diverse viewpoints within our profession.

And so forth and so on. It seems that ALA meetings may, in the near future, turn into Michael Moore film festivals.

Like I said, this sounds political. But when you listen to the Pottercast, you realize that — at the local level — the conflicts between librarians and their conservative patrons are almost always about (wait for it) — sex, salvation and, OK, some people would say Satanism. The entire story of the challenges to the Harry Potter books is built on the distrust that exists between the powers that be in public libraries and conservative parents.

But there is more to this story than “banned books.” If journalists want to cover this story, I suggest that they dig a bit deeper. Once again, there are interesting people on both sides of these debates. A few years ago, I had a chance to cover Nimbus 2003 — a global Potter studies festival — and I was surprised to find that the two largest flocks in the hallways were real-life witches (Wiccans and druids, mostly) and, believe it or not, evangelical Christians (many homeschool moms). It was interesting watching them study each other before and after the main sessions.

With that scene in mind, I wrote the Pottercast staff a letter. I offer it here, in case it might interest any journalists who are thinking about doing Banned Book Week stories or follow-up reports on faith and the Potter books.


I wanted to make a comment or two about your Banned Books Podcast.

First of all, please know that I am a mainstream journalist who covers religion and church-state issues; the husband of a librarian; a life-long Democrat; and the father of two children who has, after some initial skepticism, read all of the Potter books to them myself — in part because of JKR’s highly intelligent use of traditional Christian images, names and themes. I am an Eastern Orthodox Christian, although I was raised Southern Baptist. Art and reading are crucial in our home.

Now, a few quick comments. Much of the protest about the Harry Potter books is, in my opinion, uninformed and knee jerk. Yes, they should read the books and even some of the books about the books, on both sides of the argument.

You should know, however, that there are millions of dedicated Rowling readers out there in church pews — something you have never addressed in your Podcasts. It is wrong to leave your listeners with the impression that, when it comes to things Harry, the world is divided into smart secular people and stupid religious people. You also need to know that many people, when they talk about Banned Books, tend to forget:

* To consider a different form of banning, which is the issue of books that librarians — acting on their own biases — never purchase in the first place. What shape might this bias take? As New York Times columnist David Brooks has noted, in the months leading up to the 2004 election “the ratio of Kerry to Bush donations” by librarians “was a whopping 223 to 1.”

Now, I am not all that interested in the political implications of this. What I wonder about are the religious and cultural implications. What percentage of the best-selling religious books in America never make it to library shelves or are never given multiple-copy status (even with millions of copies being sold across the nation)? What controversial books by cultural conservatives never make it to shelves and are, thus, banned books of a different stripe?

* That many parents do not fear the presence of objectionable books in libraries. They fear that tax-funded professionals will deliberately undercut parental authority. In a school context, they fear that children will be required to read objectionable books — with no alternatives given.

Many parents do not want to ban books. They want alternatives. Try to imagine public school teachers and librarians deliberately assigning objectionable books to, let’s say, Muslim parents. Try to imagine an educator assigning a Unitarian kid a book by, let’s say, Pat Robertson.

Parents have rights. They do not have the right to ban books for other people’s children. No way. But parents should be able to trust librarians and teachers not to actively attack the values taught in their home.

So I would urge you to open up your Podcasts to more points of view, not fewer. I would urge the people who organize the Banned Books events to be open to more points of view (and more books), not fewer.

The bottom line: Liberials can ban books, too, especially if they are in charge of library budgets.

So let’s hear a cheer for diversity and intellectual freedom — beginning in libraries.

Oh, and if Sirius Black died in the (using alchemical terms) black book, and Albus (white) Dumbledore died in the white book, who might die in the RED, or final, sacrificial stage of the alchemical process? Rubeus (Latin for “red”) Hagrid? Someone in a family that is, well, rather red-oriented? Just asking.

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Finding Port Arthur (turn right at Houston)

house7aJust a personal note here tonight, after a day of watching Hurricane Rita coverage on various cable channels.

When I was growing up in Port Arthur, Texas, we had an old saying that went something like this. If you wake up in the morning and your bed is surrounded by water, roll over and dip your finger in the water. If it’s fresh water, go back to sleep. It’s no big deal. The pumps will take care of it sooner or later.

However, if you roll over and taste salt in the water, get out of town because the seawall (pictured) is down and that means the Gulf of Mexico is coming back to claim everything.

Actually, it is never a very good idea to taste the water in that part of the world, because of all the oil and chemical processing plants. Some of this colorful atmosphere ended up in the music of local artists, people like the Winter brothers and that renegade named Janis Joplin.

Anyway, the sea wall held once again and the pumps will eventually get rid of the rainwater. But today also left me thinking about another reality linked to journalism and its, well, struggles to pin a news value on life and destruction.

I have to admit that I did rather enjoy watching Geraldo Rivera grandstand in the wasted downtown city streets of my old hometown. I kept waiting for him to wrap himself around the Janis Joplin statue during a big gust of wind.

It was also fun listening to the visiting newscasters find new and unique ways of saying things like Sabine Pass (it’s suh-bean, not SAY-bine). It was also clear that the MSM, for obvious reasons, was set up for Houston and Galveston, not for all of those strange out-of-the-way places in Southeast Texas. I loved the moment on CNN when someone said, “Jasper? I guess we’re going to have to find out where Jasper is.”

Maybe so. People live there, after all. But for most of today, the MSM reports were still dominated by visuals and information from New Orleans and from Houston-Galveston. I know why this is and it is, of course, all about numbers. This is understandable.

It made me think about that old myth about The Associated Press having a chart that shows the value of a human life, in news terms. If you are a journalist, you have heard about this.

In terms of people being killed in catastrophic events, one American dying is equal to 10 Brits or 50 people in France, which is equal to 100 people in Mexico and maybe 1,000 people in Afghanistan (unless those Afghan deaths would somehow hurt President Bush politically and make it harder to nominate a cultural conservative to that other open chair at the U.S. Supreme Court).

It’s a nasty, cynical concept, but precisely the sort of things journalists laugh about during long days in tired newsrooms. And that’s what I have been thinking about today. How many people in worn-out Texas and Louisiana refinery towns does it take to equal how many hip, NPR-feature-worthy folks in a colorful city such as New Orleans? I mean, try to imagine someone writing something crazy like this about flooded small towns along the Texas-Louisiana border:

New Orleans, our old flame, how bitterly we hate it that this has befallen you. Fate is crueler than we feared, to strip away the illusions that made us love you even better in your rich, ripe age than in the headlong passion of youth — which we secretly rekindled, if only in memory, each time we sank again into your warm embrace.

And, yes, of course, we’ll come to you again. Only perhaps not just yet, not in the merciless glare of the emergency ward, with the tubes encircling you like water snakes and the inescapable whiff of the bedpan.

Believe it or not, that is from The Dallas Morning News and it is not satire.

I understand. Honest, I do. I’m a veteran in the news business. But still, thinking about all of this created an interesting emotional undercurrent during a long day. Not all towns and not all people are created equal, in the headlines.

The seawall held. That’s the news.

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Angels & demons in a city of sin

Bourbon NitePardon me while I veer into a bit of biography for a second. I have a news-oriented reason for doing so.

I spent my teen years in Port Arthur, Texas, which is right where the state of Texas starts morphing into the alternative state of mind called Louisiana. The horizon was lined with smoking oil refineries, and let’s just say that, back in the ’60s and ’70s, people didn’t care much about what you put in the air and the water. Throw in heat, humidity and mosquitoes that resembled fighter jets and it is easy to understand why the region’s best known cultural leaders were Janis Joplin and Johnny Winter.

Every weekend, there were many young people who would jump into their cars and head over the border to the bars, where they could pretty much get away with murder. As the son of a Southern Baptist minister, I was not one of them. Some people would head all the way to New Orleans, which was about as far into sin and depravity as one could go when you lived where I lived. It was not uncommon to walk the halls of our high school and hear people talking about who had wrecks getting home on those dark highways in the swamps. It was not uncommon for someone to get killed.

What’s the point? Let’s just say that there are some people in the Bible Belt who may be watching the hellish scenes we are seeing on TV right now with very mixed feelings. New Orleans is a strange and glorious and corrupt and soulful city, a place where the demons dance right out there in the open and the angels tend to hide in the shadows. It’s where the saints come marching in and lots of them are staggering because they are drunk. Right now, lots of them have guns.

There are people who love New Orleans for highly personal reasons and there are plenty of other people who have always thought that this great city might someday reap what they believe it has sowed. Let me put it this way: Have you ever heard people in Middle America make jokes about Los Angeles and earthquakes? It is kind of like that.

Is there a story in all of this? Will this conflict in the wider region affect the rebuilding effort? Is this a chance for New Orleans to shine and, perhaps, even bond with the rest of America, much in the way that New York City did in the days after Sept. 11?

Perhaps it would help to hear from someone on the other side of the church aisle. Howell Raines, the former (some would say “fallen”) executive editor of The New York Times, wore his heart on his sleeve in a memorial column that appeared — interestingly enough — in the Los Angeles Times. Note the undertow of cultural and religious themes in this chunk of it:

For millions of Americans who grew up in strait-laced towns, the Big Easy has always been the place to dance — the one Southern place where the Bible Belt came unbuckled. A hundred years ago, the Storyville section was America’s best place for the world’s oldest profession and the birthplace of America’s best contribution to world music, jazz. Like other young people in the preacher-haunted South, I bought my first legal drink in the French Quarter. We went for the booze, and in that world of cobbled streets and hidden gardens, some of us glimpsed the glory and costs of pursuing art or individualism. . . .

Oh, wondrous city of music that floats from the horn and poems drowned in drink! Oh, cheesy clip-clop metropolis of phony coach-and-fours hauling drunken Dodge salesmen, of gaunt-eyed transvestite hookers, of Baptist girls suddenly inspired to show their breasts on Chartres Street in return for a string of beads flung from the balcony of the Soniat House — will we lose even these dubious glories of the only American city that’s never been psychoanalyzed?

Read that passage out loud in a room full of folks down South and more than a few of them are going to roll their eyes and say, “Now that’s the kind of Southern guy who is going to move north and become an editor at The New York Times.”

Then again, behind the scenes, it appears that churches across the Bible Belt — left, right and center (including those Southern Baptists) — are already working overtime to get aid to the region.

This is as it should be. Right now, there are angels and demons on display in New Orleans and that is not going to end soon.

Please let us know when you see them show up in newspapers and on the networks.

UPDATED: A group called Repent America says openly what some people are probably thinking. (Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan.) If the Rev. Pat Robertson chimes in, hang on. Nice touch — adding the link to the classic “Sinners In the Hands of an Angry God” sermon by Jonathan Edwards. However, I am pretty sure this great early American evangelist did not claim that God’s wrath was zip-code-specific. And if you say it is behavior-specific, let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

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About the “lifestyle left”

010827allergies insideWhat exactly is your snotty little phrase “lifestyle liberal” supposed to mean?

Posted by Frank at 10:03 am on August 26, 2005

Well, Frank, we live in an age in which the major political divisions are not over the classic left-right issues of economics, labor, environment, peace, education, etc. The dividing lines are all about social and moral issues — lifestyle issues. It’s the age we live in.

Thus, I often refer to “cultural conservatives” in GetReligion posts, even though that number would include some old-line Democrats and populists, when it comes to the old-fashioned issues of liberalism. I also use the term “lifestyle left” to talk about those who are lifestyle Libertarians, even if they are in the GOP.

When the U.S. Supreme Court hearings get rolling, watch carefully and you’ll see this dynamic at work. Then watch how people vote.

For a previous discussion on this topic, click here. Or you might even take a look at my Scripps Howard News Service column this week, which focuses on how this is affecting Democrats and even James “It’s the economy, stupid” Carville.

Does this answer your question?

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tmatt, the Kurds and secularism

kurdflag2I guess anything can happen in the age of the WWW. Take a look at this Kurdish essay and tell me: Am I on the side of a more secular approach to Islam or not? Or am I being quoted to back the Islamists?

The decline of secularism can be seen as a global phenomenon, more than an Arab one, because the Arab world has refused all secular aspects, whether in religion or customs. When Samuel Huntington talked about the “clash of civilizations”, he gave priority to factors of culture and religion over secularist ones in reshaping relations among different nations. Today, secularism doesn’t sell in the marketplace. As American religious affairs columnist Terry Mattingly noted, “people hunger for spirituality, miracles and a sense of mystery . . . but the core question remains: should believers defend eternal truths or follow their hearts?”

At least the Kurdistan Regional Government quoted one of my more symbolic columns. Click here to see the context for the quote in my 10th anniversary column.

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Does GetReligion want to “go there”?

dieties. . . (The) Christian worldview’s truth claims include an admonition for Christians to be “salt, light, and leaven,” individually and collectively, on their spheres of influence. That truth claim presupposes that their spheres of influence would benefit from a collective and intentional Christian influence, and also presupposes such intentional and collective influence is possible.

My perception is that the “Get Religion” blog does not want “to go there” — whether/to what degree Christian journalists should collectively and intentionally influence their profession. I suggest Jay Rosen’s most thoughtful insights, linked to the blog item, on the “religion of journalism,” allude to this — they do not mention how, if at all, Christian journalists (or journalists of other faiths) should collectively and intentionally influence their profession, as an appropriate outworking of that faith and its truth claims.

Posted by Joe at 9:56 am on August 17, 2005

This topic is linked to questions that we hear, from time to time, about the role of religious faith in journalism and, thus, in the work at this blog. This is natural, since faith tends to give journalists sweaty palms and journalism has the same effect on far too many religious leaders. I’ve been working in this particular minefield for decades.

So let me very briefly respond to Joe’s comment that GetReligion does not “want to go there” on the God and journalism issue.

If Christians in the field of journalism influence our field, I hope it is in the same way that religious believers influence the fields of law, art, sports, academia, etc. In other words, that influence is expressed through the quality of their work and in open debates about ethical issues that affect everyone on the job.

In other words, GetReligion is not a site about “Christian journalism.” We are pretty open about our faith around here, but the purpose of the blog is to talk about how to improve MSM coverage of religion news. The goal is diversity. We are pro-journalism. Click here and here for some of foundational essays about that.

Now, I freely admit that any study of media-bias literature tends to point toward conflicts between the press and traditional forms of religion. There’s no way to avoid that. But I am convinced there is more to that topic than some simplistic left vs. right divide. Religious conservatives who claim the MSM is “liberal,” in some traditional meaning of that word, and is out to nail them are not seeing the whole picture. That’s another topic that keeps coming up in this space, from time to time.

The Christians I know who thrive in mainstream journalism (I am active in Gegrapha, for example) are those who want to work in journalism — period. To get theological about it, they see journalism as a part of God’s (glorious and fallen) creation. No more, no less.

To paraphrase that noted theologian James Carville: It’s journalism, stupid.

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Back to my Anglican hobbyhorse

SeoulNaveAs Terry hinted at the beginning of this month, I have taken a new job with the Anglican Communion Network. Since the early 1990s, my greatest passion as a writer has involved the moral and theological debates within the Episcopal Church.

I was born an Episcopalian because my Roman Catholic father and Southern Baptist mother both knew they wanted a church for themselves and their two boys, but also knew they needed a liturgical via media. During the 1990s I sometimes experienced a love-hate relationship with the Episcopal Church, and I wondered if I ever would have joined it had I grown up in, say, an evangelical Lutheran church. Today that relationship is more of a lover’s quarrel.

Because I will be engaged in an activist’s role with the ACN, I will cut back radically on how often I write about Anglican and Episcopal matters for GetReligion. Indeed, I expect to write on such matters only if I can do so without setting off my Conflict of Interest Meter (which I try to keep fine-tuned).

I will, however, write about magazine articles on many other topics that touch on the concerns of this blog.

I’ll always be grateful to Terry for making me part of this project when I was leaving the full-time staff of Christianity Today, but I’m also eager to rejoin the Anglican discussions I’ve been less involved in for the past several years. I’ll still appear here, albeit it with less frequency.

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