A lively topic and a generous offer

the trouble with islamThe Economist has organized a near-miracle: A debate about religion that doesn’t involve Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens. There’s more happy news: The Economist is offering 10 free tickets to readers of GetReligion.

The debate — scheduled for 5:30 to 7 p.m. Nov. 10 at Gotham Hall, 1356 Broadway, New York City — will be on this proposition: “Religion and politics should always be kept separate.”

These are the four participants, whose discussion will be moderated by John Micklethwait, The Economist‘s editor in chief:

For the proposition:

The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Irshad Manji, author of The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith.

Against the proposition:

The Rev. Richard Neuhaus, president of The Institute on Religion and Public Life (which publishes First Things).

Walter Russell Mead, author of God and Gold: Britain, America and the Making of the Modern World.

The free tickets will go to the first 10 people whose requests (one request per person, please) reach Rebecca Carman (rcarman@tentpoleny.com).

Seats also are available for $30 ($20 for Economist subscribers) by calling 1.800.965.4827 or through this website. The Economist will not sell tickets at the door, so plan ahead.

The religion debate will be preceded at 3 p.m. by a debate on this proposition: “America is failing at the pursuit of happiness” (participants: Jeffrey Sachs and Becky Stevenson for the proposition; Will Wilkinson and Tyler Cowen against). If you want to attend both debates, the cost is $40 ($30 for Economist subscribers).

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As I lay dying

holdinghandsLast week religion reporter David Crumm was featured in our 5Q+1 series. He said that aging is the most important religion story the mainstream media just do not get. Gary Stern of The Journal News had a fantastic story that Crumm may want to check out. He followed a local hospice worker as she attended to the spiritual needs of the dying. Here’s how it begins:

Anyone can have faith when their body is strong and their loved ones are full of life.

Mary Wasacz attends to the faith of those whose bodies are failing or whose loved ones are slipping away.

She holds the hands of the dying as they prepare to meet their maker. She prays with the survivors as their parents or siblings cross to the other side.

“This is the final journey,” she says. “It is just as important as any stage of life. I don’t have any answers, but I have my faith. I look around the world and know there must be a God. It’s a leap of faith to try to help people through it.”

Wasacz was motivated to become a spiritual care coordinator 30 years ago after her third child, Cathy Ann, was born with a fatal condition. She and her husband brought their little girl home from the hospital to die, the first such parents at that hospital to do so. After surviving that heartbreaking tragedy, they started a support group for parents who lost infants. She was already a psychiatric nurse and decided to make bereavement her specialty.

Stern spent two years on the story, accompanying Wasacz as she visited a few patients, some who are devout Christians and some who are irreligious. Wasacz herself is a devout Roman Catholic and a eucharistic minister. Stern describes a visit to the home of Mary Barrett. Wasacz had helped Barrett’s father, Charles, but he had died several months earlier. Now she was taking care of Barrett’s mother, Marjorie, who had suffered a stroke and has congestive heart failure.

“I went to Catholic school and the nuns would say ‘Pray for the grace of a happy death,’” [Mary Barrett] said. “I used to wonder what they meant. Now I know.”

Charles and Marjorie were married for 63 years and lived alone in Yonkers until two years before Charles’ death at 91.

As Wasacz gave Communion to Marjorie, Mary Barrett talked about the importance of faith to her parents and to herself.

“For people who don’t have faith, it must be very sad,” she said. “My parents always had a strong faith. My father was very resigned to whatever was going to be and wasn’t scared. My mother can’t wait for Mary to come and pray with her. I don’t get to church as much as I would like, but I say prayers. We believe in eternal life.”

At 93, Marjorie Barrett continues to fight on and receive Communion.

hospiceThat was one of several mentions of sacraments — a topic that most reporters only notice when politicians are involved. When my grandmother died from pancreatic cancer, our family chose palliative care to help relieve her pain as she died. I think Stern’s story does a great job of showing how families use hospice programs and palliative care. Early in the story he introduces readers to Nannie Seward, a dying 96-year-old. At the end of the story, he revisits the patient:

Early this year, Wasacz got to do something unusual: visit a patient who had recovered to the point where she could leave the hospice rolls.

Nannie Seward, who was turning 98, was fighting off her thyroid cancer. She had gotten through some other health scares, too, and was now eating well and feeling strong.

“She eats almost everything in sight,” said her daughter, Mary Wallace, a nurse. “She gets up in the morning and loves to have bacon and eggs.”

Seward was happy as could be to hug and greet Wasacz, a friend full of hope and faith like her own.

“God is so much in your life,” Wasacz said, holding Seward’s hand.

“Oh yes,” Seward said. “Couldn’t do nothing without him. I feel sorry for people who don’t know God.”

Seward sat proud in a straightback chair, a Bible and bowl of candy bars on the coffee table in front of her.

“You were dying and you were ready to go,” Wasacz said. “You were ready for the Lord.”

“I’m not afraid of dying,” Seward said. “Anytime he’s ready for me, I got to go. I’m looking forward to a better place. I got to go.”

There are numerous stories enterprising religion reporters could cover about end-of-life issues. I keep thinking we might see more coverage of a story about a California effort to help people commit suicide:

Physician-assisted suicide advocates — unable to pass legislation and short on cash to push a statewide ballot initiative — will announce today the creation of a consultation service to offer information to the terminally ill and even provide volunteers for those who would like someone to be present when committing suicide.

“Volunteers will neither provide nor administer the means for aid in dying,” said The Rev. John Brooke, a United Church of Christ minister from Cotati and one of the organizers of the new End of Life Consultation Service. “We will not break or defy the law.”

That story was in the San Jose Mercury News. Let us know if you see any other good, bad or ugly stories about how various church bodies treat stories about death and dying.

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Where is Karl Rove when you need him?

YuppieJesusI was too slow to express my interest in posting about David Kirkpatrick’s epic New York Times Magazine essay, so Terry beat me to it, and with greater thoroughness. Still, Terry graciously invited me to write an additional post if I had a different perspective on Kirkpatrick’s reporting.

I felt no loss in the level of doctrinal detail that Kirkpatrick chose to explore. Political fragmentation among evangelicals is a popular story these days, and I believe Kirkpatrick demonstrates effectively that evangelicals can agree to the Nicene Creed or the National Association of Evangelicals’ statement of faith and still come out at different points on the political spectrum.

In a brisk and detail-rich story for Time last week, Amy Sullivan described how Mike Huckabee won over the audience at the Values Voters Summit. She ended the article with the observation that if many evangelicals heed Huckabee’s call to vote for him, “the battle between the purists and pragmatists in the Christian Right may well be settled in Iowa.”

I think Sullivan identifies an important hot point among evangelicals, though I’m not sure the dividing lines are yet clear between pragmatists and purists. One could say that James Dobson is a pragmatist in betting that Huckabee is not showing enough fundraising energy to be a serious presidential candidate, but is it at all pragmatic for him to threaten support for a hopeless third-party candidacy?

Kirkpatrick does a fine job in finding curious and even humorous reasons people cite for their political inclinations. Consider this example:

Patrick Bergquist, a former associate pastor at a local evangelical church who as a child attended Immanuel Baptist, became a regular. “From a theological standpoint, I am an evangelical,” Bergquist, who is 28, explained to me. “But I don’t mean that anyone who is gay is necessarily going to hell, or that anyone who has an abortion is going to hell.” After a life of voting Republican, he said, he recently made a small contribution to the Democratic presidential campaign of Barack Obama.

I must be missing the memos from evangelicals that spell out in such broad detail who is going to hell. The debate more often is about what the church will call sin.

There’s also this example, in which Barack Obama falls victim to a notably clueless version of “The Name Game”:

“Obama sounds too much like Osama,” said Kayla Nickel of Westlink. “When he says his name, I am like, ‘I am not voting for a Muslim!’”

OK, back to Earth now.

Evangelicals are in the difficult spot of having various media-anointed spokestrons declaring their opposition to various candidates rather than rallying around one candidate. Many evangelicals have long known that abortion cannot be resisted merely with politics, and Kirkpatrick’s story suggests that more evangelicals are reaching such a conclusion.

Above all, I enjoyed Kirkpatrick’s deadpan account of an Independence Day celebration at Wichita’s Central Christian Church:

Later, as a choir in stars-and-stripes neckties and scarves belted out “Stars and Stripes Forever,” a cluster of men in olive military fatigues took the stage carrying a flag. They lifted the pole to a 45-degree angle and froze in place around it: a re-enactment of the famous photograph of the American triumph at Iwo Jima. The narrator of a preceding video montage had already set the stage by comparing the Iwo Jima flag raising to another long-ago turning point in a “fierce battle for the hearts of men” — the day 2,000 years ago when “a heavy cross was lifted up on top of the mount called Golgotha.”

A battle flag as the crucifixion: the church rose to a standing ovation.

Walker Percy, pray for us.

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Too few words for America’s many faiths

BenjaminFranklinIn celebrating its 150th anniversary, The Atlantic invited writers and artists to discuss the future of the American idea. The results, while not entirely disheartening, leave the impression of a people largely ill at ease with their nation’s future and, in a few cases, openly contemptuous of the country’s elected leaders (or, in the words of Greil Marcus, “those who presume to rule the nation”).

The Atlantic asked writers to limit themselves to 300 words, and it ended up with exercises in tourism-bureau boosterism (Gov. Janet Napolitano of Arizona), self-promotion (Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California), platitudes worthy of a high-school commencement address (the Rev. T.D. Jakes) and mau-mauing about America’s “niggerization” of the world (Cornel West, naturally).

When religion is mentioned at all, it is usually as a divisive force that must be controlled, as in this sentence by Napolitano: “This modern frontier also encompasses a sense of endless personal possibility, unconstrained by color, background, religion, caste, or any of the myriad labels we humans use to dehumanize each other.”

The most direct confrontation on religion occurs on page 44, in which Sam Harris delivers his astounding claim that four-fifths of Americans “believe that Jesus will return someday and orchestrate the end of the world with his magic powers” and Tim LaHaye quickly shifts from the nation’s founding by God-fearing forefathers to the near-destruction of American ideals by — wait for it — godless public schools. The essays by Harris and LaHaye are equally facile in blaming a blob called they, shaped more by the authors’ ideological presumptions than by reality.

Some authors (Joyce Carol Oates, Edward O. Wilson, John Hope Franklin, Robert Pinksy) were so tiresome in their ax-grinding that by page 49 I was tempted to abandon the symposium in favor of an ad — “Does the Universe Have a Purpose?” — that recently sent The Nation‘s Barbara Ehrenreich into a tizzy.

Eventually, though, two voices delivered rewarding words. One selection came from an online-only essay by Michael Novak, who struck the right balance on religion’s place in American history:

Ben Franklin proposed as the national motto “Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God.” The Virginians defined liberty of conscience as a natural right. They based “the first secular nation” on Judeo-Christian premises about God and conscience — that is, acknowledging not the right of Americans alone, nor of Christians and Jews alone, but of all human beings, including “Mahometans, Hindoos,” and atheists.

The other came from Tom Wolfe, who defied the editors’ 300-word limit, but whose 2,100-word essay appeared anyway:

America remains, as it has been from the very beginning, the freest, most open country in the world, encouraging one and all to compete pell-mell for any great goal that exists and to try every sort of innovation, no matter how far-fetched it may seem, in order to achieve it. It is largely this open invitation to ambition that accounts for America’s military and economic supremacy and absolute dominance in science, medicine, technology, and every other intellectual pursuit that can be measured objectively. And it is absolute.

Yet from our college faculties and “public intellectuals” come the grimmest of warnings. The government has assumed Big Brother powers on the pretext of protecting us from Terror, and the dark night of fascism is descending upon America. As Orwell might have put it, only an idiot or an intellectual could actually believe that.

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Underpromise, overachieve

princeEvan Thomas and Mark Hosenball (with Suzanne Smalley, Eve Conant, Babak Dehghanpisheh, Pat Wingert, Dan Ephron, Rod Nordland, John Barry, Michael Hirsh, Michael Isikoff, Richard Wolffe and Thijs Niemantsverdriet) profiled Blackwater CEO Erik Prince for Newsweek. It’s the kind of story that offers such balanced and illuminating insight as this:

In his NEWSWEEK interview, Prince, 38, wanted to rebut the suggestion that he is building a private army that is beyond the control of the American government and answerable only to him.

Um, who exactly is making this suggestion? And is it really news Prince wants to rebut the suggestion that he’s a megalomaniacal madman who will crush us all? Another indication that the 13 reporters struggled to write a decent article is indicated by the comments found online where one of their sources — not one of the myriad anonymous sources — refutes what they attributed to him. (My husband — all by himself — managed to write a fully-sourced article about Blackwater last year.) I happen to think that federal security is inherently governmental and shouldn’t be outsourced to private contractors (isn’t that why God made Marines?), but the piece just oozes sliminess about Prince as a person. Lots of insinuation, including about Prince’s religious views:

A recent book, “Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army,” by Jeremy Scahill, strongly suggests that Prince is a “neo-crusader,” a “Theocon” with a Christian-supremacist agenda.

It is true that the Blackwater Web site has a “Chaplain Corner” with a distinctly evangelical message. In the past 15 years, Prince says, he has attended “one or two” meetings of the Council for National Policy, a Christian right organization founded by the Rev. Tim LaHaye, author of the “Left Behind” series.

But Prince plays down any connection between his religion and his business. “Look,” he says, “I’m a practicing Roman Catholic, but you don’t have to be Catholic, you don’t have to be a Christian to work for Blackwater.”

I don’t even know what that first sentence means, but if Prince is a practicing Roman Catholic, then what’s up with the evangelical stuff? I fear the reporters aren’t informed enough to understand those two dynamics, much less explain them to the reader. As further proof of Prince’s scary religious obsession, the authors offer this:

He was once quoted by a defense-industry newsletter describing why his private contractors could provide better–more effective, more efficient–”relief with teeth” in a dangerous environment than international aid organizations or even the U.S. military: “Everybody carries guns, just like Jeremiah rebuilding the Temple in Israel, a sword in one hand, a trowel in the other.” Prince, a weapons expert and adventure seeker since he outgrew playing with lead soldiers as a boy, has seen the promised land, and it is righteous and well armed.

Oh no! Not an apt Biblical reference! Doesn’t the Constitution ban that? Speaking of bans, that last sentence is currently under review by the Federated Committee of Journalists Against Cliches.

The reporters drop in a bit about the conversion of the evangelical theocrat Prince:

Prince received a double shock when his wife, Joan, was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was pregnant with their second child.

One of Joan’s close friends, who declined to be identified discussing private matters, tells NEWSWEEK a doctor recommended Joan terminate the pregnancy before the cancer could be fed by the further rush of estrogen. Joan, a devout Catholic, had the baby–and then had two more. She died of cancer in 2003. Prince, who remarried in 2004, converted to Roman Catholicism at Easter time in 1992. His family had been members of the Calvinist Dutch Reform Church, though with an evangelical bent. No one seems to have been shocked or upset by Prince’s embrace of Rome. Several knowledgeable friends, who did not wish to be identified discussing private conversations, say Prince talked about his reverence for the continuity of the Catholic Church, his desire to go to mass every morning and his appreciation of confession.

For an article that keeps trying to make the case that Prince is a zealous evangelical whose religious views drive his business, the substance seems to indicate he’s more privately religious. It may have worked better for the 13 reporters if they’d under promised and over achieved when it came to allegations.

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‘We hear you, and now we are reaching out to you’

religionnewspaperSt. Louis Post-Dispatch religion writer Tim Townsend announced some welcome news yesterday:

Today, the Post-Dispatch introduces three new elements on our Saturday religion page and stltoday.com: more events, photos from readers and a column focusing on faith.

When it comes to religion events listings, readers tell us the more the better. We hear you.

Wow. A newspaper that cares what its readers want. It’s almost like it wants to make money or something. The addition of the column is interesting. It is no exaggeration to say that Terry Mattingly’s religion reporting and religion column in the Rocky Mountain News sparked my interest in a journalism career. I wonder if so many reporters are obsessed solely with politics because so many media outlets limit their news to political news or news with political angles. I think this one-note-samba ends up perpetuating the narrow focus and perspective of media outlets.

Anyway, Townsend explains what his column will tackle:

Religion is a part of life (for some it’s a bigger part than others) that bumps up against so many other parts. I imagined stories about religion and sports, religion and business, religion and politics, religion and law, religion and entertainment. The list goes on and on.

This column won’t be an opinion column. In fact, if you become a regular reader of “Keep the Faith,” this is likely to be the last time you see “I” outside of a quote. “Keep the Faith” will look and feel like a news story, but with more analysis and interpretation.

He explains that the name of the column comes not from the Bon Jovi song and album but because the expression has the same informality he’s aiming for in his column. I hope with the additional space he’s getting he’ll cover some more of the interesting stories coming out of my church body, the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod, headquartered right there in St. Louis.

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James Dobson, name that tune!

HuckabeeAxe2I’m not sure whether to call it a meme, but there’s certainly a monotony to reports about the Religious Right’s indecision on which Republican candidate to support. The same few names keep popping up, primarily James Dobson and Richard Land, and I think the entire country must know by now that both men would refuse to vote for Rudy Giuliani.

When thinking about Dobson’s threat of supporting a third-party candidate, should Giuliani be nominated, I’m reminded of these words by Hanna Rosin in a discussion on Slate with blogger David Kuo:

That whole cycle that evangelicals have followed for much of this century (Retreat. No! Storm the gates! Retreat. No! Storm the gates!) is just dysfunctional. It produces someone like James Dobson, who just about every six months barrels into Washington vowing to save it and then one month later leaves bitterly disappointed. He’s done it for 30 years, and it doesn’t work. It produces the worst of the home-school mentality, which teaches that you can go straight from your kitchen table to the White House and rescue America.

I’m not sure that Dobson’s barrelling into Washington occurs quite so frequently or that it began 30 years ago, but 2007 certainly doesn’t mark the first time Dobson has threatened to break from the Republican Party over abortion and other social issues.

Although Michael Luo of The New York Times and Michael D. Shear and Perry Bacon Jr. of The Washington Post stay with the broad theme of a dissatisfied Religious Right, some details in their stories suggest that evangelicals, like so many other voters, know that politics is the art of the possible.

Here’s Luo:

David and Merrily Crowe of Tennessee, who run an evangelical group called Restore America, said they arrived at the convention hall this morning skeptical but curious about Mr. Giuliani. They came away moved by what they described as his “honesty” and “transparency.”

“My wife leaned over to me afterward and said, ‘I’m going to vote for him,’” Mr. Crowe said. “And I probably will, too.”

And here’s a passage from the Post:

“Personally, I always thought that Sam Brownback held the closest, totally consistent views,” said John Jakubczyk, a lawyer and past president of Arizona Right to Life.

He said the expectations game destroyed Brownback’s candidacy. “Everyone says, ‘Oh, we love Sam, but he can’t win.’ And that became a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Jakubczyk said.

… Jakubczyk was more optimistic than some at the gathering. “A meeting like this helps to energize and remind us that we’ve got to get back on track,” he said. “Unfortunately, the last couple of years, after 2006, there were a lot of people who got depressed, got despondent, got upset, got worried.”

“Let’s not be depressed,” he concluded. “Let’s just get to work.”

Republicans who favor Mike Huckabee will take heart in a David Brooks column from yesterday. Huckabee, Brooks wrote,

is the most normal person running for president (a trait that might come in handy in a race against Hillary Clinton). He is funny and engaging — almost impossible not to like. He has no history of flip-flopping in order to be electable. He doesn’t seem to be visibly calculating every gesture. Far from being narcissistic, he is, if anything, too neighborly to seem presidential.

It’s a mystery why so few of Giuliani’s detractors have mentioned Huckabee as an acceptable alternative. It may be the same problem that John Jakubczyk described as hindering Brownback.

Still, it’s clear that Huckabee enjoys the respect of many pundits, both because of his direct language and his playful sense of humor. D.T. Max had some fun analyzing Huckabee’s prospects for The New Republic, mining Huckabee’s book Quit Digging Your Grave with a Knife and Fork for some guiding principles (“Stop Allowing Food to Be a Reward,” “Stop Whining”).

The most fascinating portion of Max’s essay is about the importance of Bill Clinton, then the governor of Arkansas, in launching Huckabee’s interest in politics:

Huckabee might have spent his whole life ministering were it not for Joycelyn Elders. A few years before she proposed teaching masturbation and was forced to resign from her post as U.S. surgeon general, Elders was the equally outspoken director of the Arkansas department of health under Governor Bill Clinton. In 1991, she testified about a proposed parental-notification law before the legislature. Arkansas preachers, she said, have to “stop moralizing from the pulpit.”

No sooner were the words out than Governor Clinton began damage control. He called Huckabee, by now the head of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, and asked if he would meet with Elders. Huckabee was known as a moderate who could talk to people, someone who had helped hold off the more extreme wing of the convention during the intense intra-Baptist battles of the early ’90s. Clinton hoped Huckabee and Elders could find common ground.

Soon after, Huckabee and Elders met in her office on the top floor of the health department building in Little Rock. “He’d been a preacher, so he knew how to meet and handle people,” she remembers. “It was an honest, frank discussion.” Though the visit was scheduled for 15 minutes, they wound up talking for over an hour. “I was impressed,” Elders recalls. “He really wanted to listen to my opinion.”

Huckabee was impressed, too, though in a different way. He and his cohorts had been upset with Clinton’s social policies, such as a health-department program to distribute condoms in high schools, but had thus far kept their complaints to themselves. After meeting Elders, he went home and, he remembers, told his wife that “here’s a lady who genuinely believes what she’s saying and is deep in her convictions. But, if people like her are creating the public policies that will determine how our kids are going to be educated, and the atmosphere, then maybe we need to get out of the stands and get on the field and get our jerseys dirty.”

Huckabee recently attracted a cover and set of articles — including a flat-out endorsement — from New Man magazine (published by Strang Communications, which also publishes Charisma).

An endorsement by New Man does not oblige support from Dobson or Land or anyone else. But in a time when Bob Jones III’s endorsement of Mitt Romney is depicted as a crucial factor for conservative Christians who vote, it may be something Dobson and Land will want to discuss.

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When a warm puppy is not enough

SchulzCoverReviews are beginning to appear for Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography by David Michaelis, and they are renewing an age-old question among fans of Schulz: What did Schulz believe about God?

Newsweek deals with the question in this paragraph:

The portrait of the artist as flawed human being has become a cliche, and Michaelis admirably steers clear of it. What he gives us instead is both a dynamic character study and a penetrating literary analysis. For the first, he dispels the myth of “Saint Charles,” recounting — with great sympathy, considering — how a father who created the best-known cartoon children in the world almost never kissed his own goodnight, how an evangelical Christian (he even did sidewalk preaching) cheated on his first wife and how the most successful cartoonist in history threatened to sabotage a competitor’s strip. This is not the Schulz of “happiness is a warm puppy.”

In a longer-form review for The New Yorker, John Updike has the space to explore the question more fully. He mentions that Schulz joined the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana), “becoming a tithing pillar and part-time preacher. In the raffish, New York City-centered brotherhood of cartoonists, he was an antisocial, teetotalling, non-smoking oddity.”

Updike also offers this:

Schulz’s own religiosity seems to have quietly faded in the California sunshine, though he continued to contribute a cartoon panel to the Church of God magazine and for a time taught Methodist Sunday school in Sebastopol. His manifold newspaper interviews trace a gradual withdrawal: “I’m not an orthodox believer, and I’m becoming less of one all the time.” Robert Short, the author of the immensely successful “The Gospel According to Peanuts” (1964), admitted, “Sparky . . . could sound like the conservatives, but . . . there was always this very humanistic liberal strain that was beneath the surface.” In Schulz’s strip, the Great Pumpkin episodes verge on travesty if not blasphemy, and in his life he diffidently accepted his children’s lack of interest in Sunday school. His daughter Amy, who eventually became a Mormon, complained, “He never read [the Scriptures] to us kids and he never took us to church. He didn’t share it with us.”

While he was on staff with the journal Religion in the News in 2000, Dennis Hoover wrote a still more thorough study of the cartoonist’s beliefs, contrasting them a few times with the “fundamentalist evangelicalism” of fellow cartoonist Johnny Hart (creator of B.C.):

Tactful Schulz may have been, but wishy-washy he was not. “Humor which does not say anything is worthless humor,” he once told Decision magazine. “So I contend that a cartoonist must be given a chance to do his own preaching.” In an interview last year he told the Ottawa Citizen‘s John C. Davenport that he was confident his religion-themed strips “really dipped beneath the surface. They haven’t been just silly things … I feel very deeply about it and I feel it should be handled well.”

Hoover gives the closing words to Hart:

In his foreword to the 1968 Peanuts Treasury, Hart wrote, “I sometimes, with growing understanding, resent the laughs that God must surely enjoy at the expense of his clumsy, faltering children. He shares, of course, an equal amount of sorrow, which I do not choose to get into. Charles Schulz does get into this. He gives us our pathetic side, and we laugh with dewy eyes.”

I stopped reading Peanuts about three decades ago, when I lost my interest in cute overload, Snoopy’s typewritten philosophies and Charlie Brown’s Sisyphean efforts to kick a football. For people who devoured The Gospel According to Peanuts, however, this new biography sounds like essential stuff. Happy existentialist reading to all.

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