McCain and religion

mccainIt’s never too early to start talking about the next presidential election. The word on the street is that Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., is the odds-on favorite for the Democrats while Sen. John McCain is the GOP’s likely choice. Considering we haven’t had a president elected directly from the Senate since JFK, a McCain vs. Clinton 2008 contest seems a bit far-fetched. There is too much time, too many variables and too many candidates for anyone to know for sure.

MarketWatch’s Jon Friedman writes that McCain is attempting to position himself as the reporter’s dream president:

McCain, a Republican from Arizona widely considered to be a good bet to run for president in 2008, gave a glimpse of his strategy for winning over the media during the [American Magazine Conference].

He drew sharp differences with President Bush’s press policies, and said he admired both President Kennedy’s and President Reagan’s approaches. McCain stressed that he favored a system similar to that of Kennedy, in which the media were kept in the loop in a cordial, not contentious, relationship.

Of course, candidates always say that sort of stuff to journalists when they’re gearing up for a presidential run — and McCain is one of the savviest politicians around. He has a reputation for being an office holder who has never met a microphone to television camera that he didn’t like. Over the years, he has honed his skills on news programs dealing with subjects ranging from Vietnam veterans and the invasion of Iraq to family values and even the Arizona Diamondbacks’ World Series victory in 2001.

It’s nice to know that McCain will cozy up tight with reporters, shooting craps and portraying himself as the average Joe. My big question is, How will McCain play out on issues regarding religion? He isn’t exactly know for being all that close to leaders of the Religious Right, but that can change, as we saw with President Bush.

As an adept politician, McCain will do what is needed to gain support. I predict that we will see more than a handful of stories regarding McCain’s ability to court the voting bloc commonly credited with delivering Bush his second term.

We have already seen Clinton take a shot at “getting religion” (sorry Doug), but what have we seen from McCain so far?

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Covering those dummies on the right

crash test dummies2As I said a week ago, I really think the MSM are stuggling to cover the HHGR division within the camps of cultural, religious and political conservatism. What does it mean when journalists find themselves cheering for Bush, in opposition to Rush Limbaugh? What does it mean when you are an elite blue-zone scribe and you are tempted to line up on the same team as Dr. James Dobson?

In the past day or so we have seen all kinds of evidence of this confusion. Where to begin?

* Over at The Washington Post, Howard Kurtz has a nice look at the groundbreaking work of former Bush White House scribe David Frum. It’s full of punchy material. Check this out:

The spectacle of Frum, George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Rush Limbaugh, John Podhoretz, Kristol and other conservative commentators breaking with their president over Miers has the feel of a messy family feud. These, after all, are the political pugilists who are usually slapping around liberals and Democrats. But there is something about Bush picking his White House counsel and longtime personal lawyer — and passing over a batch of conservative judges with sterling credentials — that has inflamed his normally loyal media supporters.

Former Republican Party chairman Ed Gillespie says he’s detected a whiff of sexism in the opposition to Miers. Fox News anchor Brit Hume has noted that many critics of the Southern Methodist University graduate went to elite Eastern schools. This prompted Frum — a proud graduate of Yale and Harvard Law — to fire back at “Brit Hume’s and Fred Barnes’ embarrassing repetition of Ed Gillespie’s talking points: ‘Brawwwwwk-sexism; brawwwwwwk-elitism; brawwwwwwwwwk-Harvard; brawwwwwwwwwk; brawwwwwkk; brawwwwwk.’”

My take? Howie talks about Frum taking a “Passover break” from blogging. Is this part of the ghost? Has HHGR turned into a battle between lots of evangelicals (not all) and the world of conservative Catholics, Jews, mainline Protestants?

• That brings me to a nice blog piece by Roberto Rivera, a Catholic writer known for his work with evangelical leader Chuck Colson. This post titled “Crash Test Dummies” is at a new blog operated by some friends and associates of mine — The Culture Beat.

Rivera is reacting to a piece at The New Republic by Jonathan Chait (“Conservatives Get Taken for a Ride”) that is rather hard to get to. Here is the Chait lead:

There are two basic ways to think about President Bush’s relationship with the religious right. The first is that Bush is a genuine ally of social conservatives who, while often cagey in public, takes every opportunity to advance their agenda. As liberals would phrase this interpretation, Bush is a tool of the religious right. The second — utterly diametrical — theory is that Bush is mainly interested in harvesting votes from religious conservatives in order to implement an agenda dominated by his economic backers. In liberal-ese: Social conservatives are hapless GOP dupes. At this point, five years and two Supreme Court nominations into the Bush presidency, we can arrive at a definitive answer. And the verdict is: hapless dupes.

Rivera follows this line of thinking into several other pieces and reaches a simple bottom line — the world of religious conservatism is much, much more complex than many people let on and there are all kinds of attitudes in conservative pews about Bush, Harriet Miers and who knows what all. But the feeling of betrayal is real. Can journalists report that?

Meanwhile, check out The Culture Beat for yourself.

• If you think the MSM are having trouble deciding who to cheer for in the HHGR story, put yourself in the shoes of the Democratic Party leadership. Is Miers a closet country-club soft conservative or a secret-weapon theocrat? Who knows?

Now, imagine that you are reporter Charles Babington at The Washington Post and you are trying to figure out what the Democrats are saying and what they really mean as they say it. You might end up writing this:

Jim Jordan, a former presidential campaign manager for Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), agrees that Democrats will have plenty of reasons to oppose Miers, but he said some worry that Bush might replace her with a more forceful and effective conservative. “Even though she’s undoubtedly a mediocrity,” he said, “philosophically she’s probably the best they [Democrats] can do.”

Jordan added: “If the Republicans splinter, as looks likely now, the Democratic caucus will be in the bizarre position of having to decide whether to bail Bush out.” The choice will not be easy, he said. “From a purely political standpoint, they’ll have to decide whether to add to his humiliation,” Jordan said. A Miers rejection, however, would allow Bush “a do-over” that could improve his relations with his conservative base.

Which conservative base?

• Fun, right? But what if the president is convinced that he can force this nominee through? So he could — now that the religious right has seen the strong wink and nod — stop the God-talk and fight to take Miers back to the mainstream. Maybe this is what the White House is doing. Maybe. Maybe not.

• But what if — during the God-talk stage, when there were supposed to be talks about Miers and God, but not Miers and Roe — the White House left some fingerprints that could be detected by reporters with the right sources over on the right? At that point, you might be able to do what John Fund did today at The Wall Street Journal. He was able to write this:

On Oct. 3, the day the Miers nomination was announced, Mr. Dobson and other religious conservatives held a conference call to discuss the nomination. One of the people on the call took extensive notes, which I have obtained. According to the notes, two of Ms. Miers’s close friends — both sitting judges — said during the call that she would vote to overturn Roe.

The call was moderated by the Rev. Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association. Participating were 13 members of the executive committee of the Arlington Group, an umbrella alliance of 60 religious conservative groups, including Gary Bauer of American Values, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation and the Rev. Bill Owens, a black minister.

Well now, do you think some folks on the Hill might want to see those conference-call notes?

Stay tuned. Lots of reporters have calls to make to people they are not used to calling.

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Katha Pollitt to the rescue

pollitKatha Pollitt shows an occasional capacity for self-mocking humor — I remember her offer, several years ago, to rename her Subject to Debate column to Subject to Everett if two philanthropists by that name would send some jack over to The Nation. (Ideological bonus: Mother Jones reported in 1996 that Edith Everett is “staunchly anti-school prayer.” Blessed be!)

Her column for the Oct. 31 issue lives up to the smile-inducing premise of its headline: “If Not Miers, Who?” The column is noteworthy for two other reasons — her tortured reference to Valley View Christian Church in Dallas as “an antichoice church” (so congregations are now pigeonholed by their beliefs about abortion rather than, say, about God?) and the most candid description I’ve ever seen Pollitt offer of her worldview:

I am not a Christian. This may not strike you as an advantage, given the nature of your base, but think about it. Right now, the Christian right is split: James Dobson says you told him something on the phone about Miers that reassured him greatly, but Gary Bauer doubts she is “a vote for our values.” At Miers’s own evangelical church, the congregation stood up and applauded; but at other churches the pews are in revolt. Honestly, who can figure these people out? They only stopped burning each other at the stake a few centuries ago. Nominating me will unify them instantly: I’m a half-Jewish half-Episcopalian atheist. When they make a fuss, just tell them God told the President to pick me. Given the other advice God’s been giving him — to invade Iraq, for example — it could even be true.

So she’s half-Episcopalian, eh? Based on my onetime coverage of the Center for Progressive Christianity, I’m confident that at least a few [PDF] Episcopal churches would offer Pollitt not just a place at the table but perhaps even put her on track to becoming a priest or — hey, aim high — a bishop. After all, shouldn’t the church’s heinous discrimination against Brights (stake-burnings included) finally be rectified?

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Return of the HHGR weblog at CT

Go ahead. I dare you. Click here and see how deep the HHGR rabbit hole goes. I just love the “Miers goes to church” section. Then click here and you’ll discover that the hole goes even deeper. Just consider this a footnote for Doug’s post. (By the way, feel free to correct me on the Matrix quote.)

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Just a coupla white guys sitting around talking (about anything but abortion)

DobsonPodiumFew reporters have picked up on James Dobson’s broadcast today regarding his chat with Karl Rove about Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers. What with Senators saying they may summons Dobson to address the Judiciary Committee, and Dobson explaining himself today, the Miers nomination story has taken one more step into the Truth Is Stranger Than Parody category.

Those reporters who have written about Dobson’s remarks have played it straight, simply summarizing the broadcast and the background leading to it.

Eric Gorski of The Denver Post turned up this helpful detail about how little power Dobson would have as a witness:

If Dobson is called before the committee, he lacks the legal standing to keep the information private, said Georgetown University professor Mark Tushnett. Conversations between lawyers and clients, and preachers and parishioners are protected by privilege, but political strategy is not, he said.

Tushnett said the likelihood of Rove’s testifying is low, although executive privilege should not come into play because it largely covers national security issues.

“If we knew more about (Miers’) views, this wouldn’t be a big deal,” Tushnett said. “But when you deal with a base of information that is very thin, then anybody who wants information will be looking for a source for it.”

Both The Denver Post and The Gazette of Colorado Springs offered copies of the broadcast’s transcript, which Focus on the Family also provided on its website.

Here is my favorite portion of the transcript, in which Dobson both criticizes bragging about private conversations for the purpose of looking important and refers to Karl Rove by his first name (which he did throughout the broadcast):

[Dobson]: [Charles Colson] helped me kind of assimilate the information that we had garnered, but I would not say much about the phone call from Karl Rove, even though I’m very close to many of the people who are on the telephone. Why would I not do that? Because it was a confidential conversation and I’ve had a long-standing policy of not going out and revealing things that are said to me in confidence. That may come from my training as a psychologist, where you hear all sorts of things that you can’t go out and talk about.

[Host John Fuller]: Sure.

[Dobson]: And I feel very strongly about that. And frankly, I think it’s a mistake and maybe even an ethical problem for people to do that — to go out and brag about being a player on the national scene, maybe to make themselves to look important. You know, I just wish that didn’t happen like it does and I certainly didn’t want to be part of it.

So, I wouldn’t reveal any of the details about the call, although I did say to these pro-family leaders, which has been widely quoted, that Karl had told me something that I probably shouldn’t know. And you know, it really wasn’t all that tantalizing, but I still couldn’t talk about it. And what I was referring to is the fact that on Saturday, the day before the President made his decision, I knew that Harriet Miers was at the top of the short list of names under consideration. And as you know, that information hadn’t been released yet, and everyone in Washington and many people around the country wanted to know about it and the fact that he had shared with me is not something I wanted to reveal.

Oh well. At least Dobson doesn’t have to worry about, oh, going to jail for nearly 90 days to protect his well-placed source.

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Why is the Bush burning?

Moses and the Burning BushBefore I head out the door on an eight-day speaking trip (perhaps with spotty blogging prospects in terms of time and web access), I want to try to connect a few dots on the HHGR story.

If you visit this blog fairly often, you may have noticed my mantra that the two hottest religion stories over the past decade or two have been sex and/or salvation. Lurking in the background are issues such as freedom of speech, freedom of association, church-state separation (on the religious left as well as the right) and other topics.

The spirit of the age, especially in newsrooms, is a kind of moral libertarianism that combines elements of conservative economics and liberalism on cultural, moral and religious issues. Thus, journalists in the MSM struggle, at times, to do fair coverage of the religious traditionalists that they consider backward, while often overlooking altogether stories about the religious left. It is hard to tolerate those you have decided are intolerant.

I have decided that the MSM honor this law in coverage of moral and cultural issues: When in doubt, the Religious Right must lose.

Now we see why the strange case of Harriet Miers has everyone so confused. The template is gone, because the Religious Right is divided. There are religious leaders in favor of Miers and those who are opposed. There are abortion-rights advocates who are furious about her appointment — singing in chorus with opponents of abortion on demand. There are evangelicals who think this church lady is right on and those who think her nomination is an abomination.

Cultural conservatives and libertarian conservatives are gathering in several camps:

Those who trust the team of God and President Bush above all.

Those who do not trust Bush, in part because of rising evidence that the crony card trumps everything else.

Traditional conservatives — including many in pews — who are insulted that Bush passed over thousands of more qualified candidates (including younger judges, other females and minorities) and that now, to fight the opposition, the White House is playing the God card.

Thus, the typical MSM journalist is confused. There are sources that she or he respects (or laughs at) on both sides. It’s hard to punch the macro key that inserts the normal Religious Right language. Who is smart? Who is stupid?

One thing, however, is clear. The old, vague Bush code (thank you, David D. Kirkpatrick) on moral issues is not working.

But I believe several editorial writers have hit the nail on the head, starting with John Fund in The Wall Street Journal and Democrat Francis Wilkinson in The New York Times. Let’s start with a long, long chunk of Fund’s essay — which demonstrates why the “Trust me” line is not working.

After leaving office, Dwight Eisenhower was asked by a reporter if he had made any mistakes as president. “Two,” Ike replied. “They are both on the Supreme Court.” He referred to Earl Warren and William Brennan, both of whom became liberal icons.

Richard Nixon personally assured conservatives that Harry Blackmun would vote the same way as his childhood friend, Warren Burger. Within four years, Justice Blackmun had spun Roe v. Wade out of whole constitutional cloth. Chief Justice Burger concurred in Roe, and made clear he didn’t even understand what the court was deciding: “Plainly,” he wrote, “the Court today rejects any claim that the Constitution requires abortions on demand.”

Gerald Ford personally told members of his staff that John Paul Stevens was “a good Republican, and would vote like one.” …

An upcoming biography of Sandra Day O’Connor by Supreme Court reporter Joan Biskupic includes correspondence from Ronald Reagan to conservative senators concerned about her scant paper trail. The message was, in effect: Trust me. She’s a traditional conservative. From Roe v. Wade to racial preferences, she has proved not to be. Similarly, Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation recalls the hard sell the Reagan White House made on behalf of Anthony Kennedy in 1987, after the Senate rejected Robert Bork. “They even put his priest on the phone with us to assure us he was solid on everything,” Mr. Weyrich recalls. …

Most famously, White House chief of staff John Sununu told Pat McGuigan, an aide to Mr. Weyrich, that the appointment of David Souter in 1990 would please conservatives. “This is a home run, and the ball is still ascending. In fact, it’s just about to leave earth orbit,” he told Mr. McGuigan. At the press conference announcing the appointment, the elder President Bush asserted five times that Justice Souter was “committed to interpreting, not making the law.” The rest is history.

Wilkinson veered into the same territory in an essay titled “Another Republican for Roe?” The key concept: Try to imagine a Bill Clinton appointing someone to the court who ends up being pro-life. Can you picture that, even though 40 percent of the Democratic Party continues to identify itself as opposed to abortion on demand?

So what is going on inside the big tent of the new GOP? Wilkinson writes:

There are various theories to explain these instances of Sudden Pro-Choice Syndrome but no clear explanation. It’s the darnedest thing, but when it comes to the most sacred cause in the Republican canon, the right to life, Republican presidents somehow find a way to mess up. You’d almost think they were doing it on purpose. …

Roe v. Wade is not a fine point of law that busy presidents and their staffs overlook. It is the most visceral, emotional and politically contentious issue the court has decided in the past three decades. If you were president of the United States and truly believed abortion to be a modified form of murder, I suspect you would not only nominate someone who seemed to share your view on this paramount issue, but you’d also make damned sure there was no margin for error.

So what is the Big Idea?

Journalists must realize the leadership of the Republican Party knows that pro-life, traditional religious believers — Democrats, as well as Republicans — have nowhere to go in an era in which, to paraphrase Maureen Dowd, the Democratic Party’s only iron-clad value is the defense of Woodstock. So the Republican establishment can treat cultural conservatives the way the Democrats treat labor unions.

Also, opposing abortion is not a logical stance, for those who define “conservatism” as the radical freedom of every individual and the rule of the almighty dollar. Check out this classic essay from The Atlantic that explains all of this.

At the moment, the GOP leadership is divided for a simple reason. The party is divided. Meanwhile, the Religious Right is divided, between those who trust Bush and those who believe that the ultimate veto rests with, well, a Burning Bush. Journalists are going to remain confused if they do not — quickly — realize that these are two different groups.

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Mansions on a hill?

ChevyChase6OK, what is the statute of limitations for an item here at GetReligion? You would think that I would know.

In this case, the late item is even stranger because I am not sure whether there even is a religion ghost in it. Stranger yet, I am not sure that there should be a religion ghost in it. It’s more like a hunch on my part.

I wanted to post about this Washington Post story last week to ask for the insights of others, but it got buried in HHGR week — which is turning into HHGR month, even as I speak. It was a very busy week. Now I am heading out of town for a complete week, so I thought I had better blog on this right now or just forget about it.

The feature in question is Stephanie McCrummen’s human-passions-meets-zoning-war drama about people tearing down nice little houses and replacing them with massive retro houses in the highly symbolic elite suburb of Chevy Chase in Montgomery County, Md. This is a life and death battle, it seems. What gets to me is the sense that there is much more at stake than mere bricks and concrete, sight lines and community spirit. It almost seems like there are people who believe in transcendent Good that is clashing with transcendent Evil.

I am not alone in thinking this. Check out this summary:

Indeed, amid all the arguments this summer, something else has lingered awkwardly in the air: the sense that the debate over mansionization has laid bare a culture clash, an impasse in taste, mores and perhaps even values.

“We believe in ‘Don’t take up any more space than you need,’” said Don MacGlashan, a moratorium supporter who has lived in the town nearly 30 years. “They obviously feel ‘The more the better.’ It’s a different sensibility, a different worldview. It’s conspicuous consumption, meaning in a sense their values are all out of proportion.”

Now Rod “A Friend of this Blog” Dreher is wading into this controversy in his upcoming book Crunchy Cons, which is about cultural conservatives who love healthy food, elite art, the environment, classic books, large families and other dangerous things. Maybe Rod will drop in to explain some of that.

But in Chevy Chase, there are no “Birkenstocked Burkeans” on the scene. The folks who act as if their values are being shredded are all on the left, at least, as far as we can tell. This suburb is about as blue as blue can get, on the red vs. blue zip code scales. And where are the churches in this debate? Most fights of this kind end up with megachurches fighting dying oldline mini-parishes.

Does anyone else sense a ghost in this story? Are the houses themselves religious objects?

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Warning! Children reading classic books!

news30 3aFriends, I ask you to read the following news lead and tell answer this question: Is it from The Onion, or what?

No! It’s from The Palm Beach Post. But before you read on, ask yourself this question: How much money does someone like David Geffen give to progressive political causes? How about other members of the Hollywood elite? And do they have every right to do so? Of course.

Now check this out:

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Jeb Bush is encouraging Florida schoolchildren to read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, a parable of the New Testament gospels, for a contest timed with the release of the movie version by a company owned by a prominent Republican donor. …

The movie is being co-produced by Disney and Walden Media, which is owned by Philip Anschutz, a Colorado billionaire. Anschutz, his family, his foundation and his company have donated nearly $100,000 to Republican candidates and causes in the past three elections, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Now we are, of course, talking about a book that has been read for decades by schoolchildren across the nation and in many, many parts of the world. The Narnia books are classics — unless they have been banned in schools and libraries lately and I missed that headline.

Anschutz gave $100,000 in the space of three elections? Shocking! You mean some brand of conservative owns any kind of Hollywood studio? Shocking! And now he is working with that fundamentalist outfit called Disney?

It turns out that the usual suspects are, indeed, afraid that Narnia — book and movie — is an attack on the wall between church and state. You just know who the Post is going to quote, don’t you?

“This whole contest is just totally inappropriate because of the themes of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” said Barry Lynn, director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. “It is simply a retelling of the story of Christ.”

I am afraid the conspiracy may go back further than that.

Last night, to test this theory, I got out a DVD of another right-wing flick by this same Walden outfit — a movie called Holes, based on a novel by Louis Sachar that — gasp! — was also read and enjoyed by millions of unprotected school children. In their own classrooms! And libraries! Some children may even have read this book without the permission of their Unitarian parents!

This movie was packed with moral absolutes and even strong religious symbols. The word “sinner” was sung in an appropriate context. There was sacramental symbolism involving water and what could only be seen as an act of God.

Enough is enough. Let’s all thank the Post for raising this crucial issue. Reading books of this kind must be stopped. What’s next? Little House on the Prairie, in the original editions?

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