Hollywood conservatism unleashed?

E Hollywood signOne of the Big Ideas of this blog is that it is almost impossible to talk about the news business in terms of a pure “left” vs. “right” content, at least if you are going to use the old-fashioned definitions of words such as “conservative” and “liberal.” Most of our political conflicts today — other than issues of war and peace — are rooted in social, moral, cultural and even religious issues, not issues of economics.

Was Bill Clinton a “liberal,” except on moral and cultural issues? No way. Ask the labor unions that question.

What are the issues that cause warfare inside the GOP’s big tent? Economics? Environment? Sort of, but not really. The flash points are all linked to lifestyle issues and culture. Click here for one example — as the tension over Judge Janice Rogers Brown increases. Is this a classic left-right fight? No way.

Well, now we are seeing signs that Hollywood is growing more complex — as studios, in an era of declining box-office statistics — realize that it may not be wise to ignore or to constantly offend about half the U.S. population. So some journalists are beginning to talk about a surge of “Hollywood conservatism.” I wrote about this a few days ago, in connection with the film The Exorcism of Emily Rose. But this is only the latest in a series of recent films to cause a spike in MSM paranoia.

Remember The Incredibles? A.O. Scott of The New York Times does. Some of themes are woven into his feature titled “Now, from Hollywood, visions of conservatism.” He thinks it’s crazy to say Hollywood was ever “monolithically liberal.”

The notion that the American film industry is a hotbed of leftist propaganda is a venerable one, and some determined demagogues will cling to it no matter what the studios do. But the studios themselves, especially after the stunning success of Mel Gibson’s independently financed “The Passion of the Christ,” have tried to strengthen their connection with religious and social conservatives, who represent not only a political constituency but a large and powerful segment of the market. . . .

Last autumn, “The Incredibles” celebrated Ayn Randian libertarian individualism and the suburban nuclear family, while the naughty puppets of “Team America” satirized leftist celebrity activism and defended American global power even as they mocked its excesses. More recently we have learned that flightless Antarctic birds, according to some fans of “March of the Penguins,” can be seen as big-screen embodiments of the kind of traditional domestic values that back-sliding humans have all but abandoned, as well as proof that divine intention, rather than blind chance, is the engine of creation.

Yes, he thinks Intelligent Design shows up in The Exorcism of Emily Rose and the Terri Schiavo case looms in the background throughout Just Like Heaven. Did Team America really strike a chord with the Religious Right?

Once again, however, journalists should ask this question: What does “conservatism” mean in this context? What does “liberal” mean? If Hollywood is basically pro-profits and sold out to radical individualism and sexual freedom, isn’t this closer to Libertarianism (on moral issues, at least) rather than “liberalism”? Can anyone imagine Hollywood swinging right on, oh, sex and salvation?

Still, read Scott’s essay — just to see what the elites are thinking.

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MoveOn’s lost opportunity?

SarahWestIn an interview with Noel Murray of The Onion‘s A.V. Club, the masterful documentary filmmaker Errol Morris vents that he could not interest MoveOn PAC in some of his anti-Bush ads. More specifically, he says MoveOn took a pass on commercials featuring pro-Kerry evangelical Christians:

I wish the ads could’ve been used. I kept thinking that the only way ads like this could be effective was to just blanket the markets with them. You don’t show one person, you show 50 people. Make it seem as though there’s a bandwagon. And one thing that really interested me is, I shot evangelical Christians, and MoveOn didn’t even put those in the mix! For reasons that, you know . . . I’m speechless. It was assumed that you can’t touch evangelical Christians. “Oh, they’re the Republican Right. Stay away from those people. Don’t even try to talk to them.” Well, what’s interesting is that there were evangelical Christians who were voting for Kerry. There were right-to-lifers who were voting for Kerry. And it’s interesting to listen to the reasons why. To ignore that segment of the electorate is moronic. Particularly if you don’t know who those people are, or what their concerns are.

Morris mentions that he has posted some of those commercials on his website. In the commercials posted under the category of Religion, only two people (Doug West and Sarah West) say they speak as evangelical Christians. Only one (Sarah West) mentions abortion:

I voted for President Bush in 2000, but you can’t just blindly follow someone because they say they are a Christian. You still have to use you mind and look at the evidence. I just don’t see integrity. I don’t see truthfulness. I just don’t see much evidence of a life devoted to Christ. I’m a Christian. I am against abortion, but I’m voting for John Kerry.

Deborah Wood, identified as a lifelong Republican, objects to Bush’s claim that God is on the side of freedom, which Wood reduces to “God is on our side.”

Bob Scott, also identified as a lifelong Republican, takes umbrage at the idea that Bush would ask God for guidance on any policy, which Scott believes means that “[Bush] thinks he is speaking for God.”

It’s too bad MoveOn chose not to air Morris’ commercials. Free speech, especially about politics, is an inherent good, and political nonconformists certainly are more interesting than people who remain undecided until election day. And it would have been entertaining to figure out whether those commercials changed the minds of more than a few hundred people.

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Hey, soldier, grunt if you love God

armsandman2The Wall Street Journal ran a book review today that raised way more questions than it answered, including a possble hard-news hook to the ongoing tensions among the chaplains who serve the various branches of the U.S. military. Click here for a flashback on those stories.

The book by Robert Kaplan is called Imperial Grunts and the headline on Daniel Ford’s essay has a kicker phrase that will certainly catch the eye of anyone interested in religion news: “God-Fearing Spartans: A look at America’s ‘imperial grunts.’”

So you are reading along and then you crash into this summary paragraph:

One of the more surprising of Mr. Kaplan’s findings is that evangelical Christianity helped to transform the military in the 1980s, rescuing the Vietnam-era Army from drugs, alcohol and alienation. That reformation, together with the character-building demands of Balkans deployments of the 1990s (more important, in his judgment, than the frontal wars against Saddam Hussein), created our “imperial grunts.”

Whoa. What in the world does all of that mean?

And later we meet a soldier who takes the whole “God, country, honor, duty” equation up to a whole different level. Who are the new “grunts”? We are told that they are the heart of America’s military and are dug in deep out in the overseas battlefields that they call “Injun Country,” an environment in which the grunts say that moral absolutes are easy to see and defend (according to those interviewed for this book).

“We’re the damn Spartans,” explains Maj. Kevin Holiday of Tampa, “physical warriors with college degrees.” A civil engineer with three kids, he is a National Guardsman with an attitude. “God has put me here,” he tells Mr. Kaplan. “I’m a Christian. . . . You see this all around you” — the dust, deprivation and anxiety of Injun Country — “well, it’s the high point of my life and of everyone else here.”

And believe it or not, that is about where things stop. Hey, folks, can you tell us more?

It is my hope that, somewhere at the WSJ news desk, some editor who works with the newsroom’s celebrated column-one feature team read these paragraphs this morning, spit out her or his coffee, and said: “What? Can somebody get me some hard numbers on this thing about ‘evangelical Christianity helped to transform the military in the 1980s’ and all of that?”

There’s a story here. I hope that the talented people on the news side at the WSJ report it, find out if this editorial claim is true and then print the results. Just do it.

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Do black Christians need to be angry?

image003It’s a challenge, in the print context of GetReligion, to do much reporting about the content of broadcast media. We can, of course, look forward to the day of expanded websites in which networks offer interactive print versions of the features that they broadcast in audio and video forms. We are seeing this happen more and more.

Nevertheless, religion-beat reporter Barbara Bradley Hagerty at National Public Radio just served up a report that offered a totally new (at least to me) take on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. To hear it, click here and fire up the RealAudio player. Here is the brief description of the report from the NPR homepage:

All Things Considered, September 19, 2005 — For African Americans watching Hurricane Katrina unfold on TV, the need to help was especially pressing. But anger has often accompanied that desire to help, and many black churches are struggling to both provide immediate aid and to help black Americans confront the bigger issues the storm raises.

That’s one way to put it, and the key word is “anger,” because the MSM’s storyline post-Katrina has been built on that emotion. But Hagerty’s reporting digs into a not-so-subtle split within the African-American church.

She starts in a logical place — the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church here in Washington, D.C., which calls itself “The Cathedral of African Methodism.” The church responded to the TV coverage of Katrina by quickly rounding up $20,000 in donations and 45,000 pounds of goods and shipping them off to Mississippi in an 18-wheeler.

This is not a big surprise, notes Haggerty, because studies show that black believers regularly give 25 percent more of their discretionary income to charities — especially church causes — than whites. The church aid flowed straight to needy people, while many other agencies were briefly stalled by forms and interview procedures.

This is where the anger comes in.

Many of the church people making these donations were, of course, moved by the images of black people suffering in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region. They got mad and this motivated them. As the Rev. Ronald E. Braxton said of the storm’s fallout: “I hope that it keeps us angry, that it keeps us on alert against forces that dismantle people.”Bishop T D  Jakes and the Potters House Mass Choir   A Wing and a Prayer

But is prophetic — even political — anger the best, or the most constructive, stance for the black church to take today?

The word “today” is key, because right now that anger would be focused on President George W. Bush. Thus, the issue looming in Haggerty’s report is black church anger at other black church leaders who focus on a more positive, conciliatory approach to working with, and correcting, this White House. The big, and I mean big, example of this is Bishop T.D. Jakes at The Potter’s House in Dallas. He recently drew a big spotlight speaking at the National Cathedral service to remember those lost in Katrina. This meant he shared a spotlight, by default, with Bush.

As Haggerty notes, all of this raises a big question: “Who speaks for the black church and what kind of message will it have?”

Oh, and will those voters stay angry and solidly Democratic?

P.S. There might be a link between this story and another lurking just over the horizon (and I don’t mean Hurricane Rita). Click here and let me know what you think.

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Who’s calling who a “traditional evangelical”?

OK, I tried hard on my latest Pat Robertson post to keep things short, so I had better jump in here online (I am still in Chicago during some lectures) and address one or two concerns of readers who could see some of the holes created by my brevity.

How about Thomas Oden, Luke Timothy Johnson, Al Mohler, Mark D. Roberts, John Piper, Mark Noll, John Stott, R.C. Sproul, Paul Zahl, Alister Begg, John MacArthur, just for starters?
Posted by VaAnglican at 7:33 am on September 18, 2005pats

Fine list, with lots of good names. I was not trying, with my collection over at Poynter, to create any kind of definitive resource list. Instead, I was trying to suggest a range of options in terms of groups, gender, culture, skills, etc.

When reporters and broadcast producers research stories, one of the goals is supposed to be to find people who bring specific skills or fresh insights to the topic at hand. You see this a lot in niche-cable-news land on the left. You get serious or funny activists, you get young brilliant academics, you get behind-the-scenes powers who are not yet public names and so forth and so on. On the right you often get — Pat Robertson or another elderly white alpha male. I was trying to suggest that journalists could, with some digging, discover a range of traditional Christians of various pews who are experts on many different kinds of topics. Some are even pithy.

I also wonder if the other reason the Evangelical elite is afraid of criticizing Robertson is that it was Robertson who mobilized the first wave of religious conservatives to become involved in elective politics. The Robertson presidential campaign was a watershed among religiuos conservatives, and the elites owe his a debt.
Posted by Michael at 9:59 am on September 18, 2005

Yes, Robertson’s Don Quixote campaign was a major event for some evangelicals.

But even then, there was major opposition to Robertson among evangelicals, and some of the most telling criticism (even news coverage) of his campaign came from other evangelicals. I am thinking, in particular, of the trailblazing work by columnist Michael McManus digging into Robertson’s fundraising techniques. For a flashback on that issue, click here.

Why do VaAnglican and Terry’s lists of “representative Evangelicals” include non-Protestants, protestants who do and do not think “Fundamentalist” is a bad word, protestant mainliners, and reformed protestants who do not really regard themselves as evangelicals? . . .
Posted by +G.J. at 12:32 pm on September 18, 2005

I never said anything about “traditional evangelicals,” did I? Where did I use that phrase?

This is the essence of my complaint in the original piece. Robertson does represent a certain shrinking niche of the wider charismatic Protestant world. He has his niche. But year after year, he is held up as a major voice in the wider world of cultural conservatism and for Christians in general. He is propped up as a spokesman for many, many people who have never claimed him.

Thus, I said that my Poynter list offered a collection of interesting people who might serve as quotable sources for journalists looking for feedback from “traditional Christians” — not “evangelicals” or any narrower term. I also said that journalists needed fresh lists for the Christian left, Judaism and many other groups. It’s a tough and complex news beat, folks.

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Why journalists love Pat Robertson

Earlier this week, our friends over at the ethics and diversity office at Poynter.org published a column that I wrote pleading for journalists to drop the Rev. Pat Robertson from their list of “usual suspects” that they call to speak for the world of conservative Christians and other moral traditionalists. I thought the headline was pushy, but appropriate: “Excommunicating Pat Robertson.

Here’s the key idea I asked journalists who read that site to ponder. If another hurricane heads toward New Orleans, and you were one of the dozens of viewers who turned on MSNBC (OK, I wasn’t that snarky) and saw Pat Robertson’s face, would you be happy or sad? Would you be (a) happy or (b) sad because you knew that he was going to say something off the wall about why God was about to pour out his wrath once again on such a sinful city? patrobertson 01

If you answered (a), then I would bet the moon and the stars that you are someone who doesn’t think highly of Christian conservatives and their beliefs. If you answered (b), you are probably one of those Christians.

In other words, we have reached the point where some journalists are happy to see Robertson’s face on television screens, because every time he opens his mouth he reinforces their stereotype of a conservative Christian. And they may sincerely believe that he remains a powerful leader among American evangelicals, someone who provides an appropriate “conservative” voice during coverage of controversial events.

I ended with a list of names, and hyperlinks, to a variety of traditional Christians that I wish reporters (and especially television producers) would call instead of Robertson. Check out the list and let me know who you think I should add. I also realize that we need lists of new voices on the religious left and in other traditions. This column was about Robertson, so I went with traditional Christians.

Apparently, Heritage Foundation pundit Joe Loconte was thinking along some very similar lines about the time that I was. He wrote a column arguing that Robertson is the perfect symbol for the authority problems that religious leaders, in general, are having in public debates right now.

Like who? Where do we start?

The Catholic Church still struggles to overcome its crisis of sexually abusive priests.

Liberal Protestant churches, mimicking the secular cant of political activists, have bled themselves dry in membership and prestige.

Though growing in numbers and political influence, evangelicals are among the most feared demographic group in the country, according to a recent Pew Forum poll. Here’s one reason: An evangelical figure with Robertson’s clout talks like a hit man from the Sopranos — and what do his religious brethren do about it? Not much.

Yes, some traditional Christians dissected Robertson’s remarks, but others ducked into their ministry foxholes. Loconte notes that a faithful few continue to respond to each new blast from Virginia Beach by opening up their checkbooks and sending Robertson more cash for his niche TV work.

Another excellent question: How did Robertson’s latest remarks affect the safety of missionaries in Venezuela? But in a way, argued Loconte, this is almost beside the point. Robertson has been quoted and quoted and quoted saying this kind of stuff for 20-something years.

Yes, his words are news. But for whom does he actually speak? How should people respond when he erupts once again?

Loconte has some suggestions. Anyone who digs into this will have a news story.

. . . (Evangelical) leaders would be wise to marginalize Robertson and his media empire — publicly and decisively. They should editorialize against his excesses, refuse to appear on his television program and deny him advertising space in their magazines. Board members should threaten to resign unless he steps down from his public platform.

Is anyone doing that?

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Two fine entrées & a shot of bile

AtlanticOct05CThe October issue of The Atlantic offers another rich meal of religion references, especially in Joshua Green’s “Roy and His Rock,” an 8,200-word essay on Judge Roy Moore and his traveling granite monument of the Ten Commandments. The Atlantic‘s website limits access to the full article, but I’ll quote some favorite passages here.

Beginning with the headline, Green’s article treats the monument as having its own personality. The device works well, especially in a passage like this:

As running mates go, the Rock is ideal. It is always on message. It is an indefatigable campaigner. It boasts a national following. And it is a terrific fundraiser. Since Moore left office it has been the force behind his political life.

Typically, an image of the Rock is beamed onto a giant screen before Moore takes the stage. Most of his speeches, and even his idle conversations, obsessively return to it. He has even copyrighted the monument. Today the Rock plays a role weirdly analogous to that of a retired Kentucky Derby winner gone to stud: with Moore’s blessing, it is being cloned for a Baptist group in Atlanta.

Green depicts Moore as a man who loves a good fight, and compares him to George Wallace. One of his more effective turns is to cite a poem by Moore, which uses the sort of doggerel you’re likely to see in God & Country emails:

“And we face another war
Fought not upon some distant shore,
Nor against a foe that you can see,
But one as ruthless as can be.
It will take your life and your children too,
And say there’s nothing you can do.
It will make you think that wrong is right,
Is but a sign to stand and fight.
And though we face the wrath of Hell,
Against those gates we shall prevail.
In homes in schools across our land,
It’s time for Christians to take a stand,
And when our work on this earth is done,
And the battle is over and the victory is won,
When through all the earth His praise will ring,
And all the heavenly angels sing,
It will be enough just to see His son,
And hear him say ‘My child, well done.
‘You’ve kept my faith so strong and true,
‘I knew that I could count on you.’”

Green reports that Moore shows a lasting interest in politics, including a possible run in Alabama’s next gubernatorial election. At least we can be relieved that Moore will not stake his future on writing more poetry.

In the issue’s cover story, Joshua Wolf Shenk shows how Abraham Lincoln’s lifelong struggle with depression made him into a great president.

Near the end of the essay, Shenk cites evangelical historian Mark Noll of Wheaton College:

Lincoln’s clarity came in part from his uncertainty. It is hard to overestimate just how unusual this was, and how risky and unpopular his views often were. Most religious thinkers of the time, the historian of religion Mark Noll explains, not only assumed God’s favor but assumed that they could read his will.

“How was it,” Noll asks, “that this man who never joined a church and who read only a little theology could, on occasion, give expression to profound theological interpretations of the War between the States?” Viewing Lincoln through the lens of his melancholy, we see one cogent explanation: he was always inclined to look at the full truth of a situation, assessing both what could be known and what remained in doubt. When faced with uncertainty he had the patience, endurance, and vigor to stay in that place of tension, and the courage to be alone.

Moving from the sublime to the hysterical, we have French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy reacting to publisher William Kristol of The Weekly Standard. Kristol had published an article by Matt Labash about the Clinton Presidential Center‘s grand opening, and he failed to agree with Lévy that the article was “crammed with the vilest gossip about the private life of the former president.” And suddenly we’re staring down the gaping maw of religious extremism:

I sense that Kristol is annoyed when I mention it.

I sense that he thinks a European can’t accept this mingling of politics with such trash, so he plays it down.

Don’t jump to the conclusion that I believe in it, he seems to be saying. That’s just the deal, you understand — supporting a crusade for moral values is just the price we have to pay for a foreign policy that we can defend as a whole.

Suppose it is.

Let’s agree that his annoyance isn’t feigned.

In that case the whole question lies right there, and in my mind it’s almost worse.

When you uphold one goal of a given faction, do you have to uphold all its goals?

Because you’re in agreement about Iraq, do you have to force yourself to agree with the death penalty, creationism, the Christian Coalition and its pestilential practices?

When I have dinner with someone in a restaurant, do I have to order all the courses on the menu?

It takes a special kind of ignorance to perceive Matt Labash and William Kristol as water boys for the Religious Right. Next time he’s staring at a menu, Lévy also ought to consult the wine list.

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What kind of Catholic can judge?

x33There are many people on the Religious Right who are tempted to say that the great division in this land — shown by the “pew gap” — is between unbelievers and believers.

This is way, way too simplistic. While there is evidence that a secularist political niche is gaining power, this overlooks the power of what can only be called the religious left. This can be seen, in part, by studying the omnipresent battles in major religious groups over issues linked to sex and marriage. All kinds of people, to paraphrase Maureen Dowd, are having theological battles about Woodstock.

The press needs to understand this, when considering the question of a “religious test” being used on nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court. The question is not whether nominee John Roberts is a Catholic. What the senators want to know is whether he is an Anthony Kennedy Catholic or an Antonin Scalia Catholic. Is he a John F. Kennedy Catholic or a Rick Santorum Catholic? In my opinion, they need to just come out and state this question openly and live with the consequences. Journalists like candid sources. Say what you mean and get quoted.

Politico Manuel Miranda dives straight into this in his latest daily commentary at The Wall Street Journal on the state of the hearings. This man is ticked off and, as a church-state studies guy, I am with him on this particular issue.

Take it away:

Article VI of the Constitution prohibits a religious test from being imposed on nominees to public office. . . . While questioning John Roberts on Tuesday, Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter asked: “Would you say that your views are the same as those expressed by John Kennedy when he was a candidate, and he spoke to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in September of 1960: ‘I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.’”

Hours later, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California made it worse: “In 1960, there was much debate about President John F. Kennedy’s faith and what role Catholicism would play in his administration. At that time, he pledged to address the issues of conscience out of a focus on the national interests, not out of adherence to the dictates of one’s religion. . . . My question is: Do you?”

How insulting. How offensive. How invidiously ignorant to question someone like Judge Roberts with such apparent presumption and disdain for the religion he practices. The JFK question is not just the camel’s nose of religious intolerance; it is the whole smelly camel.

Later on in the essay, Miranda quotes all kinds of people expressing outrage. Well, that isn’t quite right. He quotes all kinds of people who are — if you dig deep — critics or outright opponents of abortion on demand who are upset about this new form of modernist Catholic religious test. So the Jews that he quotes are not just Jews. They are traditional Jews. They are red-pew Jews and, thus, they are now finding themselves on the other side of the Woodstock gap.

Admit it. Isn’t this what leaps into mind when you read the following?

Representing more than 1,000 synagogues, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations wrote this letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee a few days earlier: “As a community of religious believers committed to full engagement with modern American society, we are deeply troubled by those who have implied that a person of faith cannot serve in a high level government post that may raise issues at odds with his or her personal beliefs.”

Many people are immediately going to think: “Well, that’s the Orthodox. They probably even voted for George W. Bush.” And that’s right. If President Bush nominated a female Orthodox Jew to the U.S. Supreme Court, the very first question she would be asked would be — one way or another — about her views on abortion rights. People would be asking not if she is religious but if she she the right kind of religious person.

It’s the age we live in.

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