Compass pointed toward good Catholics

04 simonmcburney lgIt’s kind of hard to kick a major movie when it’s down, but I still find the whole story of The Golden Compass quite fascinating.

But first, here is the hard news — after the openings of Will Smith and Alvin — from the always cheery Entertainment Weekly:

The success of the two new arrivals undermined New Line’s The Golden Compass in its second weekend, causing the PG-rated fantasy film to drop a steep 65 percent. The film, which cost more than $200 million to make, has grossed slightly less than $41 million in the U.S. since it bowed ten days ago. Enjoy this one, kids, ’cause at this rate there’s no way New Line is going to get behind a sequel.

In other words, Compass failed to find that Holidays sweet spot somewhere in between atheistic evangelism and the family market in middle America.

There is no way around the fact that the creators of the film edited out as much of Philip Pullman’s anti-Christian orthodoxy worldview as they could, which led to justified yowls on the religious and cultural left. But Pullman is what he believes that he is — the anti-C.S. Lewis. He’s brilliant at what he does and the movie tried to dumb him down.

So what was the most important religion story in the semi-flop of this very expensive attempt to create an anti-Christian movie franchise? After all, I have always thought that very expensive failures tell you more about their makers than the success stories.

So here is www.baltimoresun.com/entertainment/movies/news/bal-to.compass12dec12,0,5178851.story">my nomination for the most interesting religion-beat story linked to this movie, care of The Baltimore Sun:

Days after its publication, a largely positive review of The Golden Compass that appeared in Catholic newspapers across the country was retracted this week by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The bishops, who could not be reached for comment, offered no explanation for the decision. But Catholic groups, including the conservative Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, have urged moviegoers to boycott the film, saying the film and the book on which it is based are anti-Catholic.

The pulled review in question — click here for a discussion of some of its contents — was written by Harry Forbes and John Mulderig, the director and staff reviewer of the bishops’ office on film. They gave the film an A-II, appropriate for adults and adolescents. The Sun noted:

In their review, Forbes and Mulderig praised the film as “lavish, well-acted and fast-paced,” and noted that the book’s anti-Catholic tone had been considerably watered down. “The good news is that the first book’s explicit references to this church have been completely excised with only the term Magisterium remaining.”

They also suggested the film could prompt some worthwhile discussions in Catholic households. “Rather than banning the movie or books,” they wrote, “parents might instead take the opportunity to talk through any thorny philosophical issues with their teens.”

GoldencompassThus, the bishops conference staff was, initially, more positive about the movie than the vast majority — Rotten Tomatoes here — of the nation’s mainstream critics. That is really interesting. Perhaps it was more important to send a message to Catholic traditionalists than to Hollywood.

The key is that Compass turned into another fault line between, to use James Davison Hunter language, the progressives and the orthodox. The movie, you see, was not an attack on Catholics. It was an attack on bad Catholics. It was not an anti-Christian movie, it was a pro-good Christianity movie. It was an attack on traditional Christianity, not the faith itself. Got that?

Early on, this was stated quite clearly in an excellent Washington Post interview with Chris Weitz, the film’s director — a self-proclaimed “lapsed Catholic crypto-Buddhist.”

… Weitz always knew that bringing “The Golden Compass” to theaters … would take extraordinary finesse. The book, published in 1995, is a parable that attacks the concept of organized religion — more specifically, any religion that rules by fiat and claims an exclusive pipeline to the truth. The book describes a world ruled by a pious, punitive outfit called the Magisterium. It doesn’t just dress its leaders in ominous frocks — it tries to repress knowledge in the name of protecting humanity. It also tortures children by trying to rob them of their daemons, the soul-mate pets that every human in this alternate universe needs in order to think and live. The point, it seems, is to crush curiosity and freethinking and tighten the Magisterium’s grip on power.

Weitz, who also wrote the screenplay, had to convey Pullman’s cosmology while slaloming between two very different and very important interest groups: the book’s fans, who would feel cheated if the movie didn’t stay true to its anticlerical spirit, and the movie’s backers, who would feel cheated if they infuriated religious people and the movie bombed. The grumbling has already started. On fan sites, such as Bridgetothestars.net, you’ll read a few complaints that Weitz soft-pedaled Pullman’s critique of religious dogma.

I am left with one question: What is the name of this acceptable version of Christian faith? Hollywood Buddhism? Unitarianism? New Oxford Anglicanism?

That’s a great story. But we can expect total silence from the U.S. Catholic bishops on that.

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Mighty mighty Methodists

methodist comics collageTime‘s Jay Newton-Small reports on presidential aspirant Fred Thompson’s work in Iowa. Though he’s trailing behind Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, Thompson is gaining some traction by offering himself up as the true conservative in the race:

Thompson firmly believes he can play well with Evangelicals, sapping votes from their current favorite, Huckabee. He has been on the attack — trying to show holes in Huckabee’s record both in press interviews and in a mailing that went out last week that accuses Huckabee of being weak on immigration. . . .

Thompson is also hoping endorsements from the National Right to Life Committee and the Wesleyan Center for Strategic Studies, an umbrella group for 40 million conservative Methodists across the U.S., will help him in Iowa.

I didn’t even know there were 40 million Methodists in the country, much less 40 million conservative ones. That’s pretty impressive. And wildly untrue. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette religion editor Frank Lockwood notes:

The news has got to cheer Thompson, who trails in the polls. But it will perplex statisticians. According to the New York Times Almanac, there are only 13 million Methodists in the entire country — and that includes the liberals …

It says something about how out of touch some reporters are when they can identify a group that’s not exactly a household name as representing such a large group. This whole religion landscape must really be a mystery to some reporters.

The art shows Methodist superheroes — including Superman (according to Adherents.com).

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Repeat after Meacham

Jon MeachamNewsweek editor Jon Meacham’s cover story on what the magazine calls “A New American Holy War” reads less like a news report than a sometimes exasperated prep-school instructor’s departmental memo about a pair of bickering students named Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney. A quick aside about Newsweek‘s headline: Calling a lively religious debate in primary season “A New American Holy War” is like referring to door-to-door evangelism — whether by Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses or Southern Baptists — as “Spiritual Waterboarding.”

“So it has come to this: the 2008 Republican Iowa caucuses have descended into a kind of holy war,” Meacham sighs. “The skirmish pits Huckabee against Romney in a story of hardball politics and high-minded history, of shadowy slurs and noble principles.”

Meacham lectures both men throughout the piece, but he takes Romney to the woodshed until Meacham hears what he all but demands:

In a telephone interview with Romney on Friday evening, I asked him why he had, to many ears, seemed to fail to reach out to those of no religious belief: “I was struck that you did not explicitly extend the definition of religious liberty to those who believe nothing at all …”

“I don’t think I defined religious liberty,” Romney replied. “I think it spoke for itself … but of course it includes all, all forms of personal conviction.”

“Or the lack thereof?”

“Yeah, the lack …” He paused. “But — well, the people who don’t have a particular faith have a personal conviction. …”

So, in the end, there it was, but it took a while.

This segment of Meacham’s report is especially disturbing. Ponder, for a moment, the thin-skinned argument from silence. Romney did not mention the satirical Flying Spaghetti Monster, either. Should Pastafarians, as they call themselves, now fear harassment? Let’s also ponder the nonsensical question “Or the lack thereof?” How would a president defend people’s right to hold no “forms of personal conviction”? Does the First Amendment enshrine the worth of philosophical apathy? Is anyone capable of holding no forms of personal conviction?

This, I think, is the most pressing question: Why must Romney go through this interrogation? Isn’t a journalist’s task to report on what Romney says he believes, rather than to coax him along, thought by thought, to an answer that satisfies the journalist?

Regarding Huckabee, there is this bit of rhetorical ping-pong:

In a telephone interview with Newsweek‘s Holly Bailey, Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister, declined to say whether he agreed with evangelical Christians who believe Mormonism is a heretical cult. “First of all, I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to start evaluating other religions,” Huckabee said. “The more I answer these questions, the more people want to say, ‘Ah, you describe yourself as a theologian,’ or ‘Oh, you’re the one who is setting yourself up as a judge of religions.’ I am damned if I do; I am damned if I don’t.”

Then he did. Asked if he thought Scriptural revelations from God ended when the Bible was completed, Huckabee said: “I don’t have any evidence or indication that he’s handed us a new book to add to the ones, the 66, that were canonized in 325 A.D.”

“Then he did” is a cheap shot of a transitional sentence. It confuses Holly Bailey’s persistence as an interviewer with an implication that Huckabee was eager to debate the canonical status of Mormon Scriptures (which he avoided mentioning, nota bene). Does Newsweek seriously expect an ordained minister to say “No comment” about the notion of continuing revelation?

In “The Editor’s Desk” for this issue, Meacham’s desk closes with this benediction:

It is not too much to say that the clash between Romney and Huckabee in Iowa touches on the most fundamental things about America. Whoever wins, let us hope that Lincoln’s “better angels of our nature” will prevail.

The persistent suggestion in this cover package is that the Republican nominee ought not express a religious conviction that differs markedly from the broad-minded and winsome faith of the Episcopal layman Jon Meacham — or the First Amendment is somehow imperiled. Surely Meacham knows his religious history well enough to realize that one can express deeply held theological beliefs and care about the freedom of those who disagree. Roger Williams taught us that much.

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J.K. Rowling, minus her soul

nov302007 966 967 lgEntertainment Weekly is an amazing magazine. I have been reading the magazine since day one and I remember thinking to myself back then, “It takes real talent and commitment to achieve such a consistently ironic, world-weary tone in your very first issue.”

America is not a nation that embraces the secular, but Entertainment Weekly manages to do so. With a few exceptions (music, for example) its sections are totally tone deaf to the role of religious faith in American life. At times, the silence and/or cynicism can be quite amazing.

Take, for example, last week’s entertainer of the year profile of J.K. Rowling. Now, this article had moments of real insight and it was, for EW, even rather touching and sincere. Here’s the heart of the piece:

Of course, the books are skillful, went the murmurs, but really, isn’t this woman merely an adept pickpocket, someone who’s synthesized a little bit of Tolkien and a dash of C.S. Lewis and some Lloyd Alexander and a wealth of British-boarding-school stories into a marketable but derivative new package?

No. As it turns out, the Harry Potter books are much richer than their progression from lightness to darkness, from childhood to adulthood, from the episodic simplicity of chapter-books to the heft and sweep of epic novels, and in their constant, book-by-book recalibration of what their readers were prepared to absorb, they’ve proven unlike anything else in a century of children’s literature. Can there be any remaining doubt that Rowling meant every word when she said, some time back, that she planned every aspect of her story ”so carefully I sometimes feel as though my brain is going to explode”?

Of course the books were carefully planned out, built on carefully researched themes and images from beginning to end. And it is now hard to deny that, at the heart of the series, is the author’s own struggle with her Christian faith.

Surely someone at EW read the remarkable MTV interview that made so many headlines? You remember, the one that said:

But if she was worried about tipping her hand narratively in the earlier books, she clearly wasn’t by the time Harry visits his parents’ graves in Chapter 16 of “Deathly Hallows,” titled “Godric’s Hollow.” On his parents’ tombstone he reads the quote “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death,” while on another tombstone (that of Dumbledore’s mother and sister) he reads, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

While Rowling said that “Hogwarts is a multifaith school,” these quotes, of course, are distinctly Christian. The second is a direct quote of Jesus from Matthew 6:19, the first from 1 Corinthians 15:26. As Hermione tells Harry shortly after he sees the graves, his parents’ message means “living beyond death. Living after death.” It is one of the central foundations of resurrection theology. …

But while the book begins with a quote on the immortal soul — and though Harry finds peace with his own death at the end of his journey — it is the struggle itself which mirrors Rowling’s own, the author said.

As you would expect, the EW profile included a strong reference to the “Dumbledore is gay” media storm — which is totally valid. That discussion doesn’t shed much light on the content of the actual books, but it’s interesting to note that Rowling wanted to talk about her feelings about the character. She has every right to do so.

For several years now, I have been arguing that Rowling is, in fact, what her writings suggest that she is. She is a very articulate, liberal mainline Protestant storyteller (Church of Scotland, in this case) whose academic background has baptized her in ancient Christian language and symbolism. It’s hard to read the coverage of the final book in the series — heck, it’s hard to read the final book itself — without seeing evidence of both sides of this equation.

Right, EW?

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Covering all sides

ChristChurchFollowing the departures of various parishes, the Episcopal Church is working hard to keep the parish properties from the groups that have joined other Anglican bodies. There has been lots of Washington-area coverage since many of the parishes are from Northern Virginia. But The New York Times‘ Brenda Goodman reports on a story out of Savannah, Ga. Here is how it began:

For 274 years, there has been one Christ Church here, and it is a congregation with a proud history.

Started with a land grant from King George of England and led by famous names like John Wesley and George Whitfield, Christ Church has been the spiritual home of some of this city’s most notable residents, including Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts.

So it was unsettling, to say the least, for some longtime members when Christ Church, which is believed to be the first church established in Georgia, voted recently to part ways with the Episcopal diocese it had been a part of for more than 200 years to join an Anglican diocese in Uganda.

“I just feel a tremendous loyalty to this church, and I am confused about this situation,” said Frances R. Maclean, 85, a member of Christ Church for 55 years who saw her children baptized and then married in its century=old chapel. “What is this business about Uganda?”

Nearly nine out of 10 members of the church voted to leave, so I find it interesting that the reporter uses an anecdote from the minority. The story is not about what happens to the losing side in votes to split from national church bodies (a most worthy angle) but, rather, about how the rifts have flooded courts with civil lawsuits over church property. The only other congregant quoted in the piece is likewise part of the minority who voted to remain affiliated with the Episcopal Church:

Speaking to her congregation on Oct. 14, just before congregants voted on the decision to disaffiliate with the Episcopal Church, Janet Stone, 63, a member of Christ Church since 1975, pleaded for unity.

“I beg you to stop this fight and seek reconciliation,” Ms. Stone said. “It would be a powerful witness.”

Moments later, 87 percent of the congregation voted to support the split.

Maybe next time the reporter can find one person from the 87-percent faction to discuss how they feel about being sued by the Georgia Diocese. Otherwise the entire human interest aspect of the story seems more than a bit one-sided.

Ann Rodgers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had a remarkably thorough story on the history and unknown future of church property disputes. Leaders of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh have begun the process of leaving, as well a number of Presbyterian Church (USA) congregations that have left for the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. It could be decided on case by case:

The original deed for a church founded in the 1780s might say nothing about entrusting its property to a denomination. But if it purchased additional property later, that parcel might have been explicitly held in trust for a larger church body.

“Trust” is the key word. Some denominations have a constitutional clause saying that all church property is held in trust for the denomination. But in others, such as the Baptists or the United Church of Christ, there are no trust clauses. Over the past two years, for instance, about 15 congregations broke from the Penn-West Conference of the United Church of Christ. But there were no fights over who got the buildings.

Those who defend trust clauses say they honor and preserve the gifts that people made over generations for the work of their religious tradition.

“Courts have jurisdiction over dirt and land and property. But a church, a presbytery, a diocese, has to see the parishes as mission sites. They’re about sharing the gospel, not about real estate,” said the Rev. Mark Tammen, counsel to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Rodgers gives both sides, explaining that departing parishioners are the ones who feel that the national church bodies have abandoned all generations by compromising creedal Christian doctrine.

Some of the Presbyterian breakaway parishes have been able to buy their property from the national church body, Rodgers notes. She also explains the two primary ways civil courts evaluate property disputes — enforcing whatever the governing church body says, or on the basis of deeds and other legal documents. Laws and precedent on the issue are not very stable at the moment, the piece suggests. In one case where the Episcopal Church won a decision over a breakaway parish, the building now sits empty while the congregation worships nearby.

Rodgers’ piece is chock full of interesting details and analysis. Here she shows what the Diocese of Pittsburgh might face in the days to come:

In a speech to the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church, the denomination’s chancellor, David Beers, outlined steps that could be taken if a diocese attempts to leave. In addition to removing and replacing the bishop, lawsuits could be filed against the departing bishop, other leaders of the secession and a sampling of congregations that try to keep their property.

“We are quite frankly stunned to learn of the actions of priests and lay leaders who undertake to leave the Episcopal Church and yet to maintain control and ownership of church buildings and other assets that belong to the [Episcopal] Church and have been held by them only in trust,” wrote attorneys Josephine Hicks and John Vanderstar, who serve on the denomination’s Executive Council, in response to a critical letter from several retired bishops Thursday.

Rodgers makes the case that these disputes could be decided in many different ways. Hopefully reporters will keep on the stories as they progress.

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Stalking the ‘moderate’ Southern Baptist

fworthbbc2It has been a long, long, long time since I have been inside the imposing sanctuary of the Broadway Baptist Church in Ft. Worth, Texas.

I do remember my first impressions, however. I walked in, looked around, whistled a few notes to test the acoustics (I am one of those classical-music choir fanatics), and said to myself, “This looks like a Presbyterian church to me.” Indeed, Broadway had a very oldline Protestant air to it back in the 1970s, when I lived in Texas and was very active in one of those strange, liturgically minded Southern Baptist congregations that mainstream reporters like to describe with that troublesome adjective “moderate.”

As it turns out, Broadway Baptist has a fight going on in its pews right now that is, in many ways, linked to the wider, national story that your GetReligionistas keep noting from time to time — the painful rise of a true evangelical Protestant left.

The bottom line: When does a church cross a line from its old roots in evangelicalism and into its new home in mainline Protestantism? What are the signs that you need to look for, in terms of doctrine and in terms of, well, sociology?

This story ran last weekend in The Dallas Morning News — that great bastion of mainline Protestant culture in heavily evangelical Texas — and I missed it. The key issue: Should this church have photos of gay members and/or gay couples in its 125th anniversary photo album? The sharply divided church has decided it will hold off making a decision — perhaps, I think, in light of media coverage.

Doesn’t this sound mainline Protestant? Thus, the News notes:

Broadway is well known in Southern Baptist circles as a moderate church, where a diversity of views is welcomed and women have a strong role in leadership. The church has long had gay members.

But controversy erupted recently over whether photographs of gay couples should be in the directory being assembled for the church’s anniversary.

Brett Younger, senior pastor, said during Sunday morning’s worship service that some Broadway members believe homosexuality is a sin, based on certain Bible verses. Others think differently and note that Bible verses have been used to justify polygamy, slavery and the oppression of women, he said.

Earlier, in a church newsletter, Dr. Younger wrote that some members feel that allowing gay couples’ photos in the directory would be too strong an endorsement of homosexuality. Others hold that letting gay members be shown in the directory, but only on an individual basis, would constitute an unfair “judgment” against gay couples, he wrote.

A third option, recommended by Dr. Younger, would forgo individual and family pictures in favor of more attention to the church’s worship, Sunday school and ministries.

In other words, there is a point of doctrine here that cannot be avoided. The final option is to try to avoid it. The congregation is delaying the Baptist option — vote on it and the winners, well, win — because it is clear that there will be high costs either way.

But what about Broadway’s high standing in the world of “moderate” Baptist churches? This is where this story adds one key detail that shows what life is really like out in this small, niche-Baptist world on the left side of the sanctuary aisle. Pay close attention:

… (Some) Baptist churches welcome gay people as they are. One is Myers Park Baptist of Charlotte, N.C., which left the SBC years ago but continued to be affiliated with the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.

When the state convention decided that its churches must refuse to “affirm, approve, endorse, promote, support or bless homosexual behavior,” Myers Park turned itself in as not following such a policy. Last month, amid much publicity, state convention “messengers” voted to expel the church.

Myers Park’s pastor, Stephen Shoemaker, preceded Dr. Younger as pastor of Broadway Baptist.

What a small world. Myers Park was the last Baptist church I called home, before starting my pilgrimage toward the ancient church.

So what is the crucial doctrine at stake in this story? You will not be surprised that I think the doctrines in the infamous tmatt trio — click here or here — are lurking in the background. I also wondered, frankly, if one of the reasons this Broadway fight is so painful is that this church is aging and that gays and lesbians may be a powerful new force, in terms of energy and money, in a declining congregation.

That might be a good angle for a follow-up report. Broadway Baptist is not alone.

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News flash: Obama is not a Muslim

obama in a churchWhat is the point of reporting on Web rumors that are plainly false and contribute little to the political discussion? Unfortunately it becomes necessary when the rumors and false reports become too much of the story.

The Washington Post reported in a front-page article, “Foes Use Obama’s Muslim Ties to Fuel Rumors About Him.” From the start, the story rightly exposes rumors and false reports that Obama is a closet Muslim. In the second paragraph, the story explains why these rumors are silly and mentions the nugget of fact that gives these stories their spark:

Since declaring his candidacy for president in February, Obama, a member of a congregation of the United Church of Christ in Chicago, has had to address assertions that he is a Muslim or that he had received training in Islam in Indonesia, where he lived from ages 6 to 10. While his father was an atheist and his mother did not practice religion, Obama’s stepfather did occasionally attend services at a mosque there.

The story attempts to lump together two issues: the first is the false Web rumor about Obama being a closet Muslim. The second is that Obama sees his time overseas in the world’s largest Muslim country as an asset and a reason for people to vote for him. It shores up the international experience portion of his presidential resume:

“A lot of my knowledge about foreign affairs is not what I just studied in school. It’s actually having the knowledge of how ordinary people in these other countries live,” he said earlier this month in Clarion, Iowa.

“The day I’m inaugurated, I think this country looks at itself differently, but the world also looks at America differently,” he told another Iowa crowd. “Because I’ve got a grandmother who lives in a little village in Africa without running water or electricity; because I grew up for part of my formative years in Southeast Asia in the largest Muslim country on Earth.”

While considerable attention during the campaign has focused on the anti-Mormon feelings aroused by former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R), polls have also shown rising hostility toward Muslims in politics. It is not clear whether that negative sentiment will affect someone who has lived in a Muslim country but does not practice Islam.

That last sentence is a pretty poor piece of writing and reporting. First of all, you shouldn’t start sentences with an “it” in general. It (oops) makes it hard to know what the writer is referring to. Second, what isn’t clear about people’s sentiment toward a person who lived in a Muslim country for a few years but doesn’t practice the religion? No one is thinking about opposing a candidate because he lived overseas. They are thinking about opposing a candidate because they think he is a closet Muslim.

The two issues to an extent go hand-in-hand, and one has to wonder how many people out there really believe that Obama is a closet Muslim versus those who consider his time overseas and understanding of Muslim culture as an asset.

Buried at the end of the story, we get these fairly surprising poll numbers that may be out of date, given the coverage already devoted to Obama’s faith:

A CBS News poll in August showed that a huge number of voters said they did not know Obama’s faith, but among those who said they did, 7 percent thought he was a Muslim, while only 6 percent thought he was a Protestant Christian.

The last half of the story repeats the false accusations that Obama is a Muslim and cites the frequent references to it in magazines and Internet message boards. I guess this is necessary for a reporter to convey the message that there are people out there who like to spread false rumors, including talk radio hosts and chain e-mails, but it seems like overkill. Is it really news that there are many instances of people spreading false rumors about a politician?

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Failing to sort out 1968

mlkFive years ago, political scientists Louis Bolce and Gerald De Maio wrote a fascinating story about the media’s failure to cover the rise to power of “secularists” in the Democratic Party. Bolce and De Maio studied The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times between 1990 and 2000. While the papers ran 682 stories about the GOP and evangelical or fundamentalist Christians between 1990 and 2000, they ran only 43 stories identifying secularists with the Democratic Party.

That imbalance has surely lessened after reporters in 2004 discovered that Howard Dean was more of a secular liberal than a religious one. Yet when it comes to broader-gauge topics, such as recent political history, reporters continue to ignore or slight its importance. Witness the recent cover story in Newsweek about the legacy of 1968 on American life:

What, after all, did the baby boomers really achieve 40 years ago? Why does Newsweek commemorate 1968 instead of 1918 or 1941?

The answer: because all of us, young and old, are stuck in the ’60s, hostages to a decade we define ourselves as for or against. As the pages that follow demonstrate, the ’60s were not necessarily, as some baby boomers would have it, America’s defining moment. But they were an era when a generation held sustained argument over the things that have always mattered most: How should America show its power in the world? What rights were owed to African-Americans, to women, to gays? What is America and what does it want to be?

No doubt, the events of 1968 continue to be emotional and even painful for many in the pressroom. But is examining that year dispassionately as impossible as Newsweek implies?

I don’t think so. After all, the story suggests that America has become more individualistic, noting that Republicans pine to cast the 2008 election as a choice between “family values versus free love, the order and comfort of the ’50s versus the trauma and extremism of the ’60s.” Yet this story, by Jonathan Darman, and the others in the package view the secularist-religious liberal alliance as one that never occurred. None of the stories make the point that today traditional religion is weaker or that Americans are more materialistic and less communal.

Newsweek misses or slights those post-1968 changes in American life. While acknowledging that women and gays are treated differently, the magazine should not have stopped there as far as cultural issues. Divorce was not generally legal; cohabitation was not widely practiced; cloning was only found in sci-fci stories. If the magazine were more daring, it could have explored the religious or secularist elements of other changes. Military service was still universal; the top marginal rate on federal taxes in 1968 was 70 percent.

Being an American today often means bowling alone, to borrow from Putnam. American life is less about self sacrifice and more about autonomy; less about traditional religion and more about secularism and religious liberalism; less about formality in dress and speech and more about doing your own thing. That represents a sea change in values from 1968. Yet like intelligence officials before 9/11, we reporters continue to fail to connect the dots.

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