Nailing down a reporter’s passion

empty anchor deskLaila Kain’s very long article in the Hartford Courant‘s NE magazine on the departure of longtime television news anchor Steve Bunnell from the news business to the evangelism business is a great example of what can be done when a journalist gets a whole lot of space to fill and a whole lot of time to fill it.

There are some very good sections in the 3,100-word article that draw Bunnell’s reasons for leaving the anchor chair for the pulpit, but I found a lot of it to be relatively ho-hum material, including how Bunnell puts on his makeup before a show and the happy yelps of his children as they play in the backyard pool. This is a great story that needs telling, and I think it’s great that NE devoted so much space to it. I just wish the editors had tweaked the focus in a couple of areas.

Maybe this is just me, but I would have liked to hear more about Bunnell’s theology and how his passion changed from the news business to the pastorate. In particular, why is he going to Touchstone Christian Fellowship, a new church in Sacramento?

There was also a lot about politics, which is fine, but I’m not that impressed with Bunnell’s liberal evangelical beliefs. Kain seems to believe that a liberal evangelical is some sort of oxymoron that needs detailed explaining. She’s probably correct for the average reader, but I think she betrayed her surprise in less-than-necessary dramatic writing:

Bunnell fiercely believes in the Fourth Estate’s watchdog role, reads the U.S. News & World Report regularly and New York Times online. He watches PBS and jokes about the “fair and balanced” reporting on Fox news.

If stereotypes were true, he could be the poster boy for the liberal press.

Except for his faith.

As an evangelical Christian, he believes in the urgency of saving souls in this fallen world — nonbelievers being doomed to Hell, a real and everlasting conscious punishment.

In evangelical thinking, one is spared this fate or saved through Jesus Christ and personal conversion, enriched by the study of a Bible believed without errors.

As one among the saved, Bunnell prays daily and studies the Bible constantly, accessing it on his Palm Pilot. To prepare for his new profession, he listens to sermons on his iPod while running and on his computer at work. A longtime fan of Christian music, he is married to Shirley Bunnell, a well-known Christian singer/songwriter and recording artist.

If religious stereotypes held, Bunnell should be an advocate for the religious right.

Except for his politics.

In truth, Bunnell votes Democratic, bemoans the role of religion in politics, and has been a critic of the Iraq war “from the word go.”

Not the typical evangelical, nor the usual newscaster.

Bunnell’s political beliefs are interesting, but again, not earth-shattering. They certainly need explaining, but rather than telling us what news outlets Bunnell prefers, maybe tell us how his daily readings of the Bible affect his outlook on the world? What is his favorite Bible verse? Favorite philosopher? At what point in his life did he become a Christian, and how did that affect his outlook on being a journalist?

The second part of the story that I found fascinating was Bunnell’s discouragement with the news business. This is where I felt Kain was at her best, as she documented the litany of abuses Bunnell believes the news media inflict on the public:

“We have a friend who won’t let her kids play on her front lawn because she thinks it’s too dangerous. Why? She watches the news. I tell her violent crime is lower than when we were kids. Does she believe me? I don’t know.

“It’s like that shark summer when some station in Florida saw ratings spike with a shark story. Before you knew it, there were shark stories in every market. Truth was, the record of shark attacks that year was lower than normal. You’d never know it from TV.”

Across the business, Bunnell says, the driving force is ratings: the higher the number of folks watching, the higher the advertising rates, the better the bottom line. Across the nation, stations think the way to win viewers is with an increasingly sensational selection of stories and a constant, urgent sense of big, breaking news.

“In truth ‘breaking news’ is whatever has happened, whether it’s big or not,” he explains. “The point is to make it feel big. If we can fool viewers into thinking it’s big, then they’ll watch and we’ll make more money.

“Really, I can’t do this any more. In good conscience, I have to ask: Does this amount to selling my soul?”

In reading the article, I definitely absorbed the feeling that Bunnell is a burdened man. He is burdened for the nation, the news business, himself and Christians in politics. Bunnell’s passion really shone through. It reminded me of a piece out of Sports Illustrated on why some famous athlete decided to hang it up early to do something more significant.

The article concludes with this quote from Bunnell: “It’s very sad for me. I mourn for the business, and frankly, I mourn for our nation.” Well, I would like to mourn over the quiz that accompanied the article. It’s sadly revealing.

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Leaving politics aside?

godreignsWe would have looked at Laurie Goodstein’s New York Times piece on an evangelical pastor disowning Republican politics even if many of our readers hadn’t asked us to. Apparently a number of you had strong feelings about the piece, some loving it and some not so much. It’s also the second-most-e-mailed story on the Times website right now.

Goodstein writes about Minnesota evangelical pastor Gregory Boyd’s decision to preach against evangelical ties to the Republican Party and evangelical confusion of patriotism and Christianity.

Before we get into anything more substantive, it must be said: Goodstein writes well. She paints a vivid picture within a few words and keeps interest through a lengthy article. She clearly takes the time to study and understand her subjects and fleshes out multiple angles without overwhelming the reader.

Anyway, let’s look at a few passages:

The requests came from church members and visitors alike: Would he please announce a rally against gay marriage during services? Would he introduce a politician from the pulpit? Could members set up a table in the lobby promoting their anti-abortion work? Would the church distribute “voters’ guides” that all but endorsed Republican candidates? And with the country at war, please couldn’t the church hang an American flag in the sanctuary?

After refusing each time, Mr. Boyd finally became fed up, he said. Before the last presidential election, he preached six sermons called “The Cross and the Sword” in which he said the church should steer clear of politics, give up moralizing on sexual issues, stop claiming the United States as a “Christian nation” and stop glorifying American military campaigns.

“When the church wins the culture wars, it inevitably loses,” Mr. Boyd preached. “When it conquers the world, it becomes the world. When you put your trust in the sword, you lose the cross.”

Boyd’s sermons cost the megachurch 20 percent of its members. What I found most interesting about that was that the same people who left didn’t leave over an earlier controversy. Boyd had taught open theism, a rather unorthodox doctrinal position.

I’ve admitted my strong bias on these pages before: I think that the vast majority of Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians, among others, confuse the work of the church with the work of the state. I am an advocate of what Lutherans call the Two Kingdoms, a belief that the work of the church — preaching the Word and administering the Sacraments — is different from the work of the state — administering laws and keeping order. The two work together, at times, but have different realms.

My thing, though, is that the media seem to have a very easy time of seeing a One Kingdom approach when its being done by evangelical Christians on the right but a much more difficult time when its done by the left. I oppose both so I find them both easy to spot. Let’s see how Goodstein handles this:

Mr. Boyd lambasted the “hypocrisy and pettiness” of Christians who focus on “sexual issues” like homosexuality, abortion or Janet Jackson’s breast-revealing performance at the Super Bowl halftime show. He said Christians these days were constantly outraged about sex and perceived violations of their rights to display their faith in public.

“Those are the two buttons to push if you want to get Christians to act,” he said. “And those are the two buttons Jesus never pushed.”

It would have been nice if Goodstein would have permitted a response to Boyd’s view that Jesus didn’t “push peoples buttons” about sex. I mean, who said the following in the Gospel of Matthew?

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

The whole book is full of Jesus’ condemnation of adultery, fornication and lust. But, of course, the book is also full of Jesus’ forgiveness of same.

I bet this passage was also the point where some readers got upset. Lambasting the hypocrisy and pettiness of Christians who focus on abortion? Them are fighting words, we have to admit. Christians have dominated the American pro-life movement for three and a half decades. I doubt that many of them would consider abortion a sexual issue so much as a life issue, but even so, opposing abortion is one of the longest-held views in the Christian church. Church fathers from the very first centuries of the church preached against abortion.

Saying that such a cause is not worthwhile is definitely taking a political position, one that advocates, essentially, the status quo with regard to the current abortion laws in the country. There are apolitical positions to take on abortion, it can be said, but lambasting Christians who oppose abortion is political, plain and simple.

Goodstein does mention that some parishioners bristled at his views, but I think it’s worth noting that they are speaking defensively and not given the same treatment as Boyd. In general the parishioners who opposed Boyd could have been treated a bit better in the story. There is a coherent philosophy (one I disagree with, sure) for Christians being so political. But it’s not quite fleshed out. And in some cases the politically engaged Christians were made out to be buffoons. I would not have permitted this quote to stay in the story, for instance (because I have an incredibly hard time believing that the quote accurately relates a real conversation):

Mary Van Sickle, the family pastor at Woodland Hills, said she lost 20 volunteers who had been the backbone of the church’s Sunday school.

“They said, ‘You’re not doing what the church is supposed to be doing, which is supporting the Republican way,’” she said. “It was some of my best volunteers.”

Readers also must check out the excellent video that accompanied this story. You get to hear Ms. Goodstein’s soothing voice!

Photo via Beelzebobo on Flickr.

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Seattle terrorism? Or one crazed man?

Jewish Federation of Greater SeattleSix shot in an apparent hate crime. One person dead. One man, antagonistic toward Jewish organizations, acting on his own.

Move this incident from Seattle to the Middle East and you have a major war on your hands, except that it seems the initial reports on this incident were somewhat overplayed.

Friday’s shooting in Seattle has received a surprisingly small amount of national attention. This is in large part because of the current Middle East violence. Sadly ironic, isn’t it? It’s also due to a mixture of factors that seem to make this story less about anti-Semitism and more about just some crazy guy. If the body count had been higher, would this have received greater attention from the news media?

Here’s The Seattle Times on Monday:

Naveed Afzal Haq left Pasco on Thursday evening intent on driving to Seattle, despite his mother’s pleas that he stay home with his family.

His parents, who for years had witnessed Haq’s struggle with mental illness, worried about his ability to cope in a place where he’d never had much luck making friends or holding down jobs, said Larry Stephenson, a Kennewick lawyer speaking on behalf of Haq’s family.

Less than 24 hours later, the 30-year-old Haq forced his way into the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle’s office and randomly shot six women, killing one. Prosecutors are expected to file charges this week against Haq, who is being held in the King County Jail in lieu of $50 million bail on suspicion of homicide and five counts of attempted homicide.

Stories dealing with fast-breaking events are always better later in the news cycle — as in two or three days later. Take, for instance, the Los Angeles Times on Saturday:

“We believe at this point it is just a lone individual acting out some kind of antagonism toward this particular organization,” said David Gomez, assistant special agent in charge of counterterrorism for the FBI’s Seattle office, which classified the shooting as a hate crime.

Police officers recovered a handgun and found the gunman’s pickup in a nearby garage, while SWAT teams searched the federation building. Several other buildings in the Belltown area near downtown Seattle were evacuated.

The shooting came five days after the federation helped sponsor a large rally in support of Israel in its battle with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Police officers had been given a general alert for possible attacks on synagogues and mosques, officials said.

Federation Vice President Amy Wasser-Simpson, who was not in the building, said staff members told her they heard the gunman declare that he was “angry about Israel.”

No, really? You think this guy had some type of antagonism? And you think he was upset about Israel? I get very frustrated by quotes like this. I know you’re quoting officials, so what they say has a certain level of relevance, but why quote speculation? In turns out that this type of speculation was largely irrelevant.

It’s what cable television news is best at, except cable news is even worse than newspapers. Cable news typically follow those official comments up with talking heads spinning the situation. Newspapers leave the spin up to the reader. I like the maxim that if you don’t have anything factual to say, don’t say anything.

The best article I’ve seen yet is another Seattle Times piece on the shooter. He is 30 years old. He lived in the area and apparently has a history of mental illness. He’s also facing charges of public indecency from a previous incident. And he’s not connected with any radical Islamic group that the FBI was warning Jewish groups across the country to look out for.

Here’s more:

Stephenson said he does not believe Haq is married or has children. Stephenson said he did not believe Haq had a job.

Haq went to college, Stephenson said, but he declined to say where.

Asked if Haq had any mental-health issues, Stephenson said he couldn’t comment. “I’m really not OK to discuss that,” he said.

Haq’s father, Mian A. Haq, was a founding member of the Islamic Centre of Tri-Cities in Richland, said center member Youseff Shehadeh. He described the younger Haq as a loner who attended holidays at the center but was barely involved in recent years.

Naveed Haq’s parents moved into a new suburb in Pasco less than three years ago after living in nearby Richland for more than a decade, said Maureen Hales, a neighbor.

Mian Haq was involved in an Islamic center in Richland, but he did not discuss his religion with his neighbors, said Hales.

So it seems that this will be the last of any discussion of Naveed Haq being a part of some radical Islamic group. He was religious in some sense or another but his horrific actions last weekend seem to be those of a deranged individual, not a man acting for the greater cause of radical Islam.

Will we have any type of explanation for the quotes about Naveed Haq feeling an antagonism toward Jews or Israel? I certainly think it’s needed.

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Talking to the middle ground

CollinsBookThe mainstream media are covering intelligent debate over religion and science. And it’s about time.

Former Time religion correspondent Richard Ostling, now with The Associated Press, wrote an excellent news article focusing on the arguments of Francis S. Collins, author of the recently published book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. Ostling appropriately recognized that Collins’ faith is a news story unto itself, considering that he is one of the world’s leading biologists and leader of the Human Genome Project.

Much of the media’s reporting on science and religion has focused on controversial school-board decisions and federal funding of forums and research papers. The stories are full of high emotion, distinctive sides and bomb-throwing statements. A story on Collins and his work is not likely to produce that level of controversy, despite his highly intelligent work on combining the controversial areas of faith and science:

He asks scientific skeptics to investigate God with the same open-minded zeal they apply to the natural world, saying that there’s no incompatibility between belief and scientific rigor.

He tells fellow evangelicals that opposition to evolution — whether based in the biblical literalism of creationists or “intelligent design” arguments — undermines the credibility of faith. He finds the first line of thought “fundamentally flawed” and says the second builds upon gaps in evidence that scientists are likely to fill in.

The audience of 200 at [a Williams College conference sponsored by the C.S. Lewis Foundation] gave Collins’s views a respectful reception, in contrast to the frosty reaction he got when he said at a national meeting of Christian physicians that the evidence for evolution is “overwhelming.”

But scientists are probably the tougher audience. According to Nature, the weekly science journal, “many scientists disagree strongly” with Collins-style arguments, and critics think “more talk of religion is the last thing that science needs.”

CollinsLabCollins’ arguments are drawing a good deal of attention, largely because of his book. In a Time review, David Van Biema argues that the book is “enlightening but not always convincing.” (The New York Times reviewed Collins’ book alongside books by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Owen Gingerich, Joan Roughgarden, E.O. Wilson and Louis Wolpert.) The pace of Collins’ writing is closer to position statements than arguments that can sustain, Van Biema argues, and the book is most interesting when he criticizes creationists:

His insights on the nature of a God-science overlap, while fresh, are celebratory rather than investigative, budgeting relatively little space to wrestle with instances when the conjunction of the two can induce the philosophical bends (such as faith’s understanding of God’s place outside human time).

The book seems liveliest when Collins turns his guns from atheists on the left to creationists and intelligent designers on the right, urging the abandonment of what he feels are overliteral misreadings of Scripture. “I don’t think God intended Genesis to teach science,” he says, arguing that “the evidence in favor of evolution is utterly compelling.” He has little patience with those who say evolution is just a theory, noting that in his scientific world the word theory “is not intended to convey uncertainty; for that purpose a scientist would use the word hypothesis.” The book is hard on intelligent design, heaping scientific doubt on its key notion of “irreducible complexity” in phenomena like blood clotting, and theological scorn on its ultimate implications (“I.D. portrays the Almighty as a clumsy Creator, having to intervene at regular intervals to fix the inadequacies of His own initial plan … this is a very unsatisfactory image”).

That is not the argument his publisher has chosen to emphasize, or his book’s subtitle would be flipped to read A Believer Presents the Evidence for Science. But it may be the one with the best prospects. Students of the debate note that atheists are more dogmatically opposed to God than Evangelicals are to evolution, if only because aggressive creationism is neither a long-standing evangelical position nor a unanimous one. According to Edward Larson, a Pulitzer-prizewinning historian of the evolution debate at the University of Georgia, American support for it, now near 50%, hovered around 30% as recently as 1960. Today, Larson says, “it’s a dynamic situation, with no unanimity.” Evolution is taught at some Christian colleges.

Collins, according to the Time piece, has regular talks with Prison Fellowship’s Chuck Colson. And Collins is attempting to move him away from his hardline intelligent design stance. I find this quite significant. While it may appear that Collins takes heavy heat from both sides of the debate, scientists opposed to intelligent design clearly respect his opinions, as do those fighting to supplant evolutionary theory with some form of intelligent design theory. With someone of Collins’ stature in the middle, how far apart are the two sides?

The statistics cited in the Ostling article are compelling. If 40 percent of scientists are religious, then why don’t we hear their perspectives more often in news articles? Why has this debate always been so polarized?

Journalists covering the evolution vs. intelligent design/creation wars should place Collins high on their list of sources to call next time a school board attempts to overturn a school’s teachings in the name of the Bible. Or the next time they hear a scientist trash religion for failing to support their work. An intelligent, respected scientist who can speak knowledgably on matters of faith is an invaluable source for understanding what has for years been a yawning gap between two of the most influential groups in American society.

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Sorry, no ghosts in Newsweek’s scoop

060731 COVER standardAlas, I am sad to report that there are no ghosts at all in Newsweek‘s much ballyhooed front-page exclusive look behind the secret curtain that hid the real President George W. Bush from the eyes of the secular world during his lengthy trip to Russia for the G8 summit. This is the feature story with the heavy subheadline “Behind the Scenes With President Bush As the Middle East Explodes.”

There were no prayer meetings on Air Force One and, apparently, the reporters and photographers had total access. There is no religion in this story at all, which feels rather strange, with the Bush image and all of that.

Did the Bible-thumping, power-praying president manage to go God-free for four days? Perhaps the Newsweek team was not familiar with the meaning of the words “Gog” and “Magog”? Also, I could find no evidence that Tim “Left Behind” LaHaye had a secret bedroom hidden just off the command center. How did Bush manage to hide him?

Let’s see, what else? There are no thinly veiled discussions between Bush and his disciples on the crucial question (thank you, CNN) of whether events on the Israel-Lebanon border will hasten the end of the world. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is not shown speaking in tongues (not even Russian, while in Russia), in front of the Newsweek team or playing praise choruses on the piano (not even Rachmaninoff).

Maybe I need to read this piece again. That premillennial ghost has to be in there somewhere.

Stay tuned. Oh, and it does appear that Bush knows how to pronounce Shiite.

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The church of punditry

coulterIt’s so difficult to write about Ann Coulter. Sometimes I think that those of us who do are all pawns in her game of making hoards of money. Having read her first book — which was harsh but not a bad read at all — I have come to the conclusion that she writes them and then inserts completely over the top and uncharitable statements at the last minute. This is for the sole purpose of having the mainstream media get outraged and bring her on the air to discuss it. She then goes home and watches the Amazon counter spin out of control.

I do have to admit that one of her columns still makes me laugh when I think of it. She was asked to opine about the Democratic Convention in 2004 for USA Today. She writes a typical Coulter column that the paper refuses to run. She had the column and the edits on her website for a while, but I couldn’t find them today. They were hilarious for revealing the profound disconnect between Ann’s populist-conservative philosophy and mainstream editors. Here was a sample I found from an old webpage:

Looking at the line-up of speakers at the Convention, I have developed the 7-11 challenge: I will quit making fun of, for example, Dennis Kucinich, if he can prove he can run a 7-11 properly for 8 hours. We’ll even let him have an hour or so of preparation before we open up. Within 8 hours, the money will be gone, the store will be empty, and he’ll be explaining how three 11-year olds came in and asked for the money and he gave it to them.

USA Today editor: I DON’T GET IT.

Not that her inability to take edits isn’t notorious. Anyway, Coulter’s new book argues that liberalism is a godless religion — a fascinating thesis. But media types were too busy acting aghast at her remarks about 9/11 widows to get to what she was saying. Which is a shame, since her books are read by many.

In comes Charlotte Allen, who wrote recently the surprisingly blunt piece in the Los Angeles Times on membership declines of mainstream Christian churches:

You want to have gay sex? Be a female bishop? Change God’s name to Sophia? Go ahead. The just-elected Episcopal presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, is a one-woman combination of all these things, having voted for [Gene] Robinson, blessed same-sex couples in her Nevada diocese, prayed to a female Jesus at the Columbus convention and invited former Newark, N.J., bishop John Shelby Spong, famous for denying Christ’s divinity, to address her priests.

When a church doesn’t take itself seriously, neither do its members. . . .

When your religion says “whatever” on doctrinal matters, regards Jesus as just another wise teacher, refuses on principle to evangelize and lets you do pretty much what you want, it’s a short step to deciding that one of the things you don’t want to do is get up on Sunday morning and go to church.

So that’s Charlotte Allen. Not exactly an apologist for godlessness. Which is why the interview, which it appears they conducted by e-mail, was so interesting. It’s a tough interview, and as Allen asks Coulter to defend her thesis, we get to see a bit of the difference between two women who oppose relativism. Here are a few of the questions and answers:

We’ve done some polls here at Beliefnet, and a surprising number of Democrats at least say they are religious. Some 61 percent say they pray daily and 72 percent attend worship services once a month or more. How would you explain that?

Just curious: What percentage of them know which Testament the Book of Job is in?

You say you’re a Christian. Do you think Jesus would want you to be nicer to your political opponents?

Who knows? Maybe He’ll say I was too tough or maybe He’ll chastise me for not being tough enough on those who hate Him. Ask the money-changers in the temple how “nice” Jesus was. Maybe He’ll say I needed more jokes or fewer adjectives. I’ll just apologize for not getting it right and thank him for dying for my sins.

What does it mean to be a good Christian, and do you consider yourself to be a good Christian?

To believe with all your heart at every moment that God loved a wretch like you so much that he sent his only son to die for your sins. Most of the time, I’m an extraordinarily good Christian.

It’s a pretty interesting read, both in terms of the questions and the answers.

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Putting “theocracy” fears in their place

theocracyRoss Douthat, an associate editor at The Atlantic, wrote an inspired piece in the August/September edition of First Things taking apart, piece by piece, theories about a “theocracy movement” in America. Here’s a snippet:

This is a paranoid moment in American politics. A host of conspiracies haunt our national imagination, and apparent incompetence is assumed to be the consequence of a dark design: President Bush knew about the attacks of September 11 in advance, or else the Israelis did; the Straussians took us to war in Iraq, unless the oil companies did; the federal government let the levees break in New Orleans, unless it dynamited them itself.

Perhaps the strangest of these strange stories, though, is the notion that twenty-first-century America is slouching toward theocracy. This is an old paranoia: Back in 1952, the science-fiction libertarian Robert Heinlein’s Revolt in 2100 envisioned a religious tyranny toppled by a Freemason-led rebellion; in 1985, Margaret Atwood’s feminist dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale imagined America as a Christian-fascist “Republic of Gilead,” with its capital in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and its public executions staged in Harvard Yard. But the fear of theocracy has become a defining panic of the Bush era, reaching a fever pitch in the weeks after the 2004 election, when a host of commentators seized on polls suggesting that “moral values” had pushed the president over the top — and found in that data point a harbinger of Gilead.

Later, more cool-headed polling analysis suggested that the values explanation was something of a stretch: The movement of religious voters into the GOP played a role in Bush’s victory, but the uptick in his support between 2000 and 2004 seems mainly to have reflected national-security concerns. Still, these pesky facts didn’t stop Garry Wills from announcing the end of the Enlightenment and the arrival of jihad in America, or Jane Smiley from bemoaning the “ignorance and bloodlust” of Bush voters in thrall to a fire-and-brimstone God, or left-wing bloggers from chattering about “Jesusland” and “fundies” and plotting their escape to Canada.

Consider Douthat’s piece The Guide for blogging about the “theocracy” movement.

Rod Dreher over at Crunchy Con writes that the piece “calmly but utterly eviscerates the wack-job paranoia of the Kevin Phillipses, the Michelle Goldbergs, and other writers who have made a cottage industry of portraying the role of Christian conservatives in contemporary American politics as a dark conspiracy to take over America and turn it into a Christofascist theocracy.”

Here’s more from Dreher:

… These same writers celebrate the role Christianity has played in American public and political life when it has led the way in achieving goals important to liberals, like civil rights. Which is fine, but you can’t have it both ways: you can’t praise religious leaders like Martin Luther King for bringing their faith to bear on politics while at the same time condemning Pat Robertson for doing the same. To be sure, it’s perfectly fair to criticize Robertson (or whoever) for the particular stands they take, but if it’s fair for the Religious Left to get involved in politics, it’s fair for the Religious Right to do the same thing. As I’ve said before, the whole “preachers should stay out of politics” line you get from liberals these days is the mirror image of the same stance I heard as a child down South from whites who resented clergy active on behalf of civil rights.

I think it’s important to note that preachers have been equally inconsistent in what type of politics they choose to get involved in. It was Jerry Falwell who shunned the civil rights movement, stating that it would take time away from turning people to Christ, but who plunged headfirst into politics soon after Roe v. Wade.

People scream “Theocracy! Theocracy! Theocracy!” for political reasons, and they are not always going to be consistent. But don’t forget that preachers’ reasons for involving themselves in politics are not necessary consistent either.

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Mutually assured destruction

retaliation 01I read an op-ed in Monday’s New York Times that has stayed with me. It’s not religious in the sense that we normally discuss on these pixels, but I can’t help but think it’s a great example of how religious writing could be deepened.

He Who Cast the First Stone Probably Didn’t” was written by Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard. He looks at the psychology behind people justifying their behavior, essentially. Here he looks at the notion that our behavior is a response to other people’s behavior but their behavior is not in response to ours:

The problem with the principle of even-numberedness is that people count differently. Every action has a cause and a consequence: something that led to it and something that followed from it. But research shows that while people think of their own actions as the consequences of what came before, they think of other people’s actions as the causes of what came later.

In a study conducted by William Swann and colleagues at the University of Texas, pairs of volunteers played the roles of world leaders who were trying to decide whether to initiate a nuclear strike. The first volunteer was asked to make an opening statement, the second volunteer was asked to respond, the first volunteer was asked to respond to the second, and so on. At the end of the conversation, the volunteers were shown several of the statements that had been made and were asked to recall what had been said just before and just after each of them.

The results revealed an intriguing asymmetry: When volunteers were shown one of their own statements, they naturally remembered what had led them to say it. But when they were shown one of their conversation partner’s statements, they naturally remembered how they had responded to it. In other words, volunteers remembered the causes of their own statements and the consequences of their partner’s statements.

My fiance and I were in premarital counseling with my pastor on Monday when he alluded to the tendency of spouses to obsess on how they were wronged while ignoring the unkind things they have said or done to their spouses. He said this pattern can cycle out of control and wreak havoc in marriages and other relationships. Gilbert takes a more macro look at the phenomenon:

Examples aren’t hard to come by. Shiites seek revenge on Sunnis for the revenge they sought on Shiites; Irish Catholics retaliate against the Protestants who retaliated against them; and since 1948, it’s hard to think of any partisan in the Middle East who has done anything but play defense. In each of these instances, people on one side claim that they are merely responding to provocation and dismiss the other side’s identical claim as disingenuous spin.

Oh how true this is. We wonder why others can’t put the best construction on our behavior but respond by putting the worst construction on our neighbors’ actions.

The rest of the op-ed is interesting as well. Gilbert looks at how applying a similar amount of force in response to an attack is difficult for individuals to gauge. Tests showed that volunteers trying to respond to another volunteer’s touch with equal force responded with 40 percent more force than they had received. This escalates as the exercise continues.

Research teaches us that our reasons and our pains are more palpable, more obvious and real, than are the reasons and pains of others. This leads to the escalation of mutual harm, to the illusion that others are solely responsible for it and to the belief that our actions are justifiable responses to theirs.

None of this is to deny the roles that hatred, intolerance, avarice and deceit play in human conflict. It is simply to say that basic principles of human psychology are important ingredients in this miserable stew.

I think of how certain newspapers, such as the Los Angeles Times, have a religion beat that includes faith and values. Articles such as this one are excellent for a beat structured that way. A piece like this, particularly if it emphasizes personal relationships as well as global conflict, would be of a lot of interest to readers. All people, I imagine, justify their behavior and demonize others’ when conflict arises. Or maybe it’s just me and my friends and family! But a bit of understanding of what we Lutherans consider an eighth commandment violation and what psychologists have different names for makes for a fascinating read.

Photo via Muir on Flickr.

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