Warren as King David (minus Bathsheba)

rickwarren In case you missed the cover story of this week’s Time, reporter David Van Biema wrote a profile of evangelical mega-church pastor Rick Warren. He presents Warren as a kind of evangelical King David on a global scale.

Van Biema’s thesis is interesting, arresting even. And the reporting and writing in the story are exceptionally well done. But whether the story truly gets religion I have my doubts.

The story was intriguing. It told of an evolution in Warren’s thinking about his role in society. While it is a common knowledge that Warren is no longer a conventional figure on the religious right, Van Biema went on to explore the pastor’s new, expanded mission in detail:

If Warren were content to be merely the most influential religious figure on the American political scene, that would be significant enough. He isn’t. Five years ago, he concocted what he calls the PEACE plan, a bid to turn every single Christian church on earth into a provider of local health care, literacy and economic development, leadership training and spiritual growth. The enterprise has collected testimonials from Bono, the First Couple, Hillary Clinton, Obama, McCain and Graham, who called it “the greatest, most comprehensive and most biblical vision for world missions I’ve ever heard or read about.” The only thing bigger than the plan’s sheer nerve is the odds against its completion; there are signs that in the small country Warren has made a laboratory for the plan, PEACE is encountering as many problems as it has solved.

The story was also fair and balanced. A conventional magazine article would describe Warren’s new program and quote academic experts debating whether it would succeed or fail. This piece featured actual reporting from the front lines, seeking to determine whether his new enterprise has worked or not:

Yet others, rather flatly, claim Warren’s effort is invisible by the very terms on which he sold it. Visitors interested in the PEACE plan are still invariably flown not to a church but to the hospital in the town of Kibuye (Rwanda). PEACE is working with the University of Maryland to upgrade the facility and next year will give $500,000 as part of its province-wide $13 million commitment. But so far, aside from a paint job and some tidying up, there is little improvement. Laura Hoemeke, director of Twubakane, a USAID-funded Rwandan decentralization and health program, says, “Warren’s people haven’t done anything. For passing on information, mobilizing people, changing social norms, I think the church can be really effective. But …” Others maintain that short-termers can’t stay on top of the involved logistics of development.

Also, the story showed the domestic side-effects of Warren’s new global venture:

It’s possible that what drives Warren is the opportunity not just to lead American Evangelicalism but also to reshape it as a broad-based postpartisan movement, as focused on challenges abroad as (Billy) Graham‘s was on the crisis within. But it’s still unclear whether Warren’s many spheres of activity, his seemingly genetic disposition to multitask will sap his energy and influence rather than enhance them. Trouble recently popped up in the form of an “Evangelical Manifesto” that expressed several New Evangelicalism principles he has come to support. Despite having helped launch the document and claiming to still agree with it, he declined to sign it, saying it was released before consensus could develop for it. Warren’s retreat made it easier for old-line conservatives to dismiss it. It would indubitably have fared better had he applied his networking skills.

But it is one thing to describe a pastor’s social vision and its progress. It is another to explore its theological basis.

After all, Rick Warren is not a diplomat or politician; he is a Southern Baptist pastor, and a best-selling author at that. As Mollie noted in an email to me, why would Warren de-emphasize eternal salvation and the five non-negotiable political-cultural issues? Has his theology changed? Does he consider helping the poor and sick in Africa the doctrinal equivalent of God’s command about marriage and protecting innocent unborn life? On these questions, I am afraid, the story came up short.

The story attempts to answer those questions through an anecdote:

Warren had an epiphany in 2003. His wife Kay had dedicated herself to the fight against HIV/AIDS, a brave move in a community where it was still often stigmatized. In Africa with her nine months later, he says, he heard a message from above. “God said, ‘You don’t care squat about the sick and the poor. And you need to change; you need to repent.’” He became fond of repeating that the Bible has 2,000 verses dedicated to the poor and that the Gospel of Matthew contains not only the Great Commission, in which Christ bids his disciples to spread his word, but also the great commandment, in which he tells the Pharisees to love thy neighbor as thyself.

The time line is off. As late as the fall of 2004, Warren was invested heavily in that year’s presidential election and its attendant clash over cultural issues. But the passage above makes it appear that Warren and his wife had their change of heart and mind in late 2003 or in 2004.

Rick Warren’s pastorate changed sometime from 2003 to 2005. Time’s story did a great job showing readers how it did and the consequences thereof. But it just didn’t explore why it changed.

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Property of Jesus

prodigal2You may have heard that the son of a major Hamas leader announced that he is Christian. But if your curiosity was piqued as to why he converted, read Haaretz reporter Avi Issacharoff’s story about Masab Yousuf.

The article was a model in some ways for religious reporters. First, the lede was memorable, underscoring the man-bites-dog theme of the story:

A moment before beginning his dinner, Masab, son of West Bank Hamas leader Sheikh Hassan Yousef, glances at the friend who has accompanied him to the restaurant where we met. They whisper a few words and then say grace, thanking God and Jesus for putting food on their plates.

It takes a few seconds to digest this sight: The son of a Hamas MP who is also the most popular figure in that extremist Islamic organization in the West Bank, a young man who assisted his father for years in his political activities, has become a rank-and-file Christian.

Second, Issacharoff asked Masab the proper questions. It might have been tempting for the reporter to describe Masab’s conversion in a sentence or two. But Issacharoff let the subject speak Rosebud style, which as the exchange below illustrates was a wise move:

How were you exposed to Christianity?

“It began about eight years ago. I was in Jerusalem and I received an invitation to come and hear about Christianity. Out of curiosity I went. I was very enthusiastic about what I heard. I began to read the Bible every day and I continued with religion lessons. I did it in secret, of course. I used to travel to the Ramallah hills, to places like the Al Tira neighborhood, and to sit there quietly with the amazing landscape and read the Bible. A verse like “Love thine enemy” had a great influence on me. At this stage I was still a Muslim and I thought that I would remain one. But every day I saw the terrible things done in the name of religion by those who considered themselves ‘great believers.’ I studied Islam more thoroughly and found no answers there. I reexamined the Koran and the principals of the faith and found how it is mistaken and misleading. The Muslims borrowed rituals and traditions from all the surrounding religions.”

The story was not perfect, however. Its chief flaw was a lack of context. While I use this criticism frequently, it really applies to Issacharoff’s article. Consider the following passage in which Masab warns the readers of the Israeli-based Haaretz:

“You Jews should be aware: You will never, but never have peace with Hamas. Islam, as the ideology that guides them, will not allow them to achieve a peace agreement with the Jews. They believe that tradition says that the Prophet Mohammed fought against the Jews and that therefore they must continue to fight them to the death. They have to take revenge against anyone who did not agree to accept the Prophet Mohammed, like the Jews who are seen in the Koran as monkeys and the sons of pigs. They speak in terms of historical rights that were taken from them. In the view of Hamas, peace with Israel contradicts sharia and the Koran, and the Jews have no right to remain in Palestine.”

Those comments are harsh. Although they might be true, Issacharoff should have quoted an academic or outside expert to verify this claim, as well as others that Masab makes. The lack of context can be viewed as a tacit endorsement of Masab’s views of the relationship between Islam and Judaism.

In addition, the article’s headline is odd. The story of the prodigal son in the New Testament is about a fallen-away Christian or Jew who returns to His Father. By using this headline, are Haaretz’s editors saying that Masab will return to Islam? Or that Masab’s ancestry is Jewish, presumably because his family is from Palestine, and that he will return to a Jewish conception of God?

Bottomline: this story got religion — about Masab’s experience of it at least.

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Deciphering home schoolers

fireside educationMost of the California print media covered the state’s Court of Appeal’s decision to reverse itself regarding the legality of home schooling under the state’s laws. In general the coverage was fairly spotty.

A rather significant holding of the case (that parents have a “constitutional liberty interest in directing” their children’s education that is balanced against the state’s “compelling interest” in protecting children’s welfare) also received little coverage. (See here The San Francisco Chronicle‘s coverage which mentioned it in a single paragraph.)

Not much discussion was given as to why religion was a factor in this case other than briefly mentioning that the family involved in the case home schooled for religious reasons. The most significant gap in the religious coverage of this decision had to do with the characterization of the home schooling family in question. See here how the Mercury News portrayed the family:

The overall victory for home schoolers does not necessarily apply to the family who sparked the case. The court ordered a new trial to determine whether the two youngest children of Phillip and Mary Long of Lynwood in Southern California should be removed from home schooling for their safety.

The parents had home-schooled their eight children through the Sunland Christian School in Sylmar. After authorities determined that the father physically abused the older daughters and the mother attempted to hide the children from authorities, an attorney representing the two youngest children asked the juvenile dependency court to order that they be enrolled in public or private school as a way to protect their well-being.

Because school employees are “mandated reporters,” required by law to report suspicions of child abuse, county welfare authorities believed that the children would have additional protection from possible abuse by being in school, Owens said.

There are too few details here and no word from the family to get any idea of whether these allegations are true or not. There’s also no mention the alleged religious motivation behind the family’s decision to school their children at home. I wouldn’t be surprised if this issue had been covered in previous articles, but there are basic ways of concisely summarizing than and even more (radical?) ways of linking to those prior articles.

For more on this family, see this article by The Los Angeles Times:

Phillip Long, who has said the family chose to home-school the children because of their strong Christian beliefs, said Friday that he doesn’t believe the court was swayed by the legal arguments.

“Only one thing swayed this court — politics,” he said. “This court was under pressure. . . . They did it to protect themselves and their reputation. Those judges want to be Supreme Court judges, they want to move up. They’re not going to do anything to upset their careers.”

Though the appellate court upheld the right of parents to home-school, it did direct the family court to revisit whether the Longs should be allowed to continue to home-school their children.

It’s unclear what will happen, because in July the family court terminated its jurisdiction over the family’s children, though the children’s lawyers are appealing that decision. Long is confident he will prevail.

“Educating your children in your own home preexisted these buffoons that sit on the 2nd Circuit,” he said. “It preexisted this state. It preexisted us. Parents have been teaching their own children since the beginning.”

Lots of nice quotes in this story, but unfortunately there is little content. The only thing I learned is that Phillip Long doesn’t like judges all that much. Can’t I at least learn the family’s denominational affiliation or lack-there-of?

We harp on this a lot, but this family’s Christians beliefs and values are an important aspect of the story in addition to the factual basis of the alleged abuses. How do those beliefs inform their decisions? Define for the reader what “strong Christian beliefs” are?

Home schooling is often associated with families with “strong Christian beliefs,” whatever that means. However, assuming that home schooling families are all Christian (or conservative) would be a grave journalistic error.

Even within the “strong Christian family” context though, families’ motivations for taking their children out of mainstream education settings vary greatly. Sometimes it’s exclusively religious reasons, as seems to be the case here, at least on the surface. Other times it relates to the parent’s desire to see their children receive an education that they believe will be better than the ones offered by their area’s schools. Other times it’s a financial issue. Sometimes parents believe home schooling better serves the needs of one or more of their children, and they send the remaining children to school.

A family’s decision to home school their child has significance. Are they home schooling because they want their child to have extra time to practice his or her cello or just because they don’t like the fact that prayer isn’t allow in the school? These two families may both be strongly religious Christians, but that doesn’t mean their motivations are the same.

Frontispiece to Fireside Education, Samuel Griswold (Goodrich) used under a public domain license.

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John Edwards’ “special energy”

41CZ3QJZM8LAny story of moral failing has religious overtones, and sex scandals are no exception. They usually involve broken religious vows and provoke all sorts of questions about the religious views of the participants.

Usually the mainstream media can’t get enough of sex scandals. But for some reason, they constructed a cone of silence around John Edwards’ affair with Rielle Hunter. Whether or not the media should cover sex scandals such as these, the bizarre double standard only reinforces perceptions of bias. Anyway, there will be many more stories to come out of the sordid affair, probably dealing with the payments Hunter has received from those within the Edwards camp. And there may be interesting religious angles to come.

The story with the biggest religious angles thus far isn’t about Edwards so much as Hunter. I’m not quite sure why Newsweek reporter Jonathan Darman didn’t publish this story months ago, but he has a really interesting look at Hunter and her spiritual views:

I struck up a conversation with the woman at the next event, as we waited outside. She told me her name and asked me what my astrological sign was, which I thought was a little unusual. I told her. She smiled, and began telling me her life story: how she was working as a documentary-film maker, living with a friend in South Orange, N.J., but how she’d previously had “many lives.” She’d worked, she said, as an actress and as a spiritual adviser. She was fiercely devoted to astrology and New Age spirituality. She’d been a New York party girl, she’d been married and divorced, she’d been a seeker and a teacher and was a firm believer in the power of truth.

Hunter told Darman that she had met Edwards at a bar in New York and thought he was giving off a special energy. Darman cultivates Hunter as a source — in his mind at least. She appears to think of him more as a friend. They meet at a bar in New York:

Her speech was peppered with New Age jargon–human beings were dragged down by “blockages” to their actual potential; history was the story of souls entering and escaping our field of consciousness. A seminal book for her had been Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now.” Her purpose on this Earth, she said, was to help raise awareness about all this, to help the unenlightened become better reflections of their true, repressed selves.

She explains to Darman that Edwards is an old soul who had barely tapped into his potential. She believes that he could become a transformational leader such as Martin Luther King, Jr. or Ghandi. Eckhart Tolle is a popular spiritualist author who is big in the church of Oprah. Here’s a snippet from his Wikipedia entry explaining his writings:

Tolle’s non-fiction bestseller The Power of Now emphasizes the importance of being aware of the present moment as a way of not being caught up in thoughts of the past and future. His later book A New Earth further explores the structure of the human ego and how this acts to distract people from their present experience of the world. It is the feeding of the human ego that is thought to be the source of inner and outer conflict. Only in examining one’s ego may people begin to see beyond it and obtain a sense of spiritual enlightening or a new outlook on reality.

Interesting. Hunter told Darman that she and Edwards discussed Tolle “all the time.” It seems that other players in this story share some of Hunter’s spiritual views. In his Nightline admission, Edwards said that Bob McGovern called him and asked him to meet with Hunter at the Beverly Hilton. He also said that he would only go if McGovern would be there.

McGovern apparently lives in Santa Barbara, which is where Hunter was relocated by Edwards associates. Principals’ Web sites are dropping like flies but there is some information available on McGovern. The New York Times used some such information for its profile of McGovern today:

But little is known about Mr. McGovern, who is 64, according to records, and lives with his wife in a modest ranch-style home a few miles from downtown Santa Barbara. The Web site Margaretsweet.com, which promotes spirituality and New Age practices, recently carried a brief biography of Mr. McGovern, describing him as “an intuitive” and “a healer since 1988″ who had worked “with energy in the area of the emotional fields.” The biography is no longer on the site.

“He uses philosophy, psychology and the intuitive to find resolutions that move people back into alignment with the universe and into a place of peace, harmony and joy,” the site said. “Bob uses the intuitive to help people with a variety of life issues, including relationships, career and health.”

The description of Mr. McGovern, posted in a section called “Helpful Dudes,” also said he tried to empower people so they could deal with the challenges of everyday life with greater understanding.

“His knowledge of the past and the future helps people find balance in the present,” it said. “He is able to separate out surrounding negative energy, which allows people to have a clearer perception of their own options and choices.”

It is interesting that Edwards trusted McGovern so much. Perhaps the media will continue to do a horrible job with this story. But as the money trail gets scrutinized and the ties to Santa Barbara and Hunter’s trusted network undergo more examination, will it treat the New Age aspects as something loopy and marginal or will they soberly examine whether or how New Age beliefs played a part in this story?

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Nope, no religion in the protests

0129943150085Is it just me, or do the NBC announcers sound a bit tense during these first few days of the Olympics, whenever they are talking about issues linked to human rights or even the environment?

As young master Daniel noted the other day, religious issues have been part of these tension all along. President Bush went out of his way to spotlight religious liberty issues, but he was only scratching the surface.

If you don’t believe me, check out this Washington Post advance report from late last week. Just look at the opening paragraphs and count the religious ghosts.

China’s intense efforts to block any protest that would mar the Olympic Games were challenged … by foreign activists equally bent on diverting attention to issues as varied as Tibetan independence, the crisis in Darfur and religious freedom.

Two American and two British protesters slipped through a smothering Olympic security net, climbed a pair of lampposts and unfurled banners demanding freedom for Tibet near the new stadium where the Beijing Games are to open. … In Tiananmen Square, three American Christian activists spoke out against China’s rights record and protested its population control policies.

The story focuses most of its attention on Tibet, which is understandable. That is the story that is close at hand, the one drawing the widest array of protests.

Just how tense is this issue at the moment? Check this out:

To prevent such protests inside their own borders, Chinese authorities recently threatened to take away one female activist’s two babies as she tried to enter the country. A Tibetan woman surnamed Kemo was returning to China on July 18 after nearly two years in the United States, where she had had two children. She was stopped by a passport control officer, escorted to an interrogation room and asked whether she had ever participated in political protests.

“Yes, but a long time ago,” Kemo said she replied, speaking on the condition that her first name not be used. Officers then showed her computer printouts of photos of her participating at various U.S. protests. “You are lying to us,” an officer told her.

This is political, of course. But it is impossible to skip the religious content in the Tibet crisis. The same goes for Sudan and Darfur.

You know that some Christian activists are going to take stands during the games. Will we see this on television? What happens if the protesters are actual athletes? Another Washington Post report noted:

Sanya Richards envisions 91,000 fans at Beijing National Stadium and millions more on television watching her cross the finish line first in the 400 meters later this month. Immediately afterward, Richards said, she plans to kneel, say a quick prayer and then point skyward in spiritual appreciation. …

Richards is among the athletes who openly display their faith on the playing field, and feel the two are inextricably linked. Whether through a prayer or symbolic gesture, they use competition as a pulpit, sharing their belief with thousands of spectators.

So here is my request. Has anyone seen a clear story that explains the restrictions under which American announcers are operating?

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God’s role in a runner’s story

An excellent example of journalism properly covering the issue of religion in an athlete’s life is this Runner’s World profile of Olympic marathoner Ryan Hall. I know many out there are skeptical when super rich athletes and coaches say something about how they thank the Lord for this or that or give God the honor, but bear with me because this story is about none of those things.

Long distance runners are rarely rich because of their athletic skill. The training is rigorous and anything but glamorous. How often have you watched long-distance running on television? Some may ask why anyone would bother to be a long-distance runner?

For some answers, check out Hall’s story which is more than deserving of the 5,800-plus words Michael Perry wrote in the article titled “The Power and the Glory.”

“My parents were strong Christians,” he continues. “I definitely believed, but I wasn’t really strongly pursuing my faith. I was playing baseball, basketball, football–I was into, like, the cool crowd at school. And then one day traveling down the mountain to a basketball game, I got this random–I describe it as a vision, but you could call it an idea, whatever–this thing pops into my mind where I am looking out at Big Bear Lake, and I think, well, it would be a great thing for me to try and run around that.”

It’s tough to put this in context now, what with the mind-bending marathon times in the books and Beijing right around the corner. But Hall wants you to understand that the power of the vision lay partially in the fact that he was not being asked to do something to which he seemed naturally inclined. “I never really had any interest in running. Like, in middle school, whenever they made us run the mile, I’d complain just like everyone else. But at that moment it became something that was very captivating – it really grabbed me.”

By now, of course, the story about the kid who circumnavigated Big Bear Lake in basketball shoes has become central to the Ryan Hall legend. He ran the route with his father, Mickey. Mickey says they made one stop in 15 miles, and he knew already the boy had something special. The kid was worn out at the end, but back home while unlacing his shoes, Ryan says he too knew this was more than a one-off stunt. “At that point, the trajectory of my life completely changed. All of a sudden I stopped doing baseball, basketball, and football, and started running full time.” And somewhere out on that loop, something else alchemized: “It was at that point that Jesus really became my best friend. That’s when our relationship took off…and it was a direct result of him bringing running into my life.”

At Summit Christian Fellowship, the people are praying. The highest profile congregant has yet to present–he is re-creating that famous day for the cameras–but the flock understands what might be keeping him. After all, they are the ones who hung the banner. They know: God told Ryan to run.

Surely our feelings regarding athletes who choose to bring their faith to the field reflect the state of our own souls. Fellow believers will likely rejoice at God’s word made manifest in the form of peak performance; nonbelievers will dismiss the testimony at best, deride it at worst. Ryan Hall believes he was chosen by God to run for God. One of Hall’s favorite Bible verses–the one he scribbled on the autographed poster just inside the door of the Teddy Bear Restaurant in Big Bear Lake–is from the book of Isaiah. Those who wait on the Lord, will run and not get tired. The Lord has taught Hall not to overlook that key word: wait. The divine plan doesn’t always run parallel to mortal hopes and dreams.

From what I can tell, there has been little news coverage of Ryan Hall leading up to this month’s Olympics. If there is coverage though, this would be one of those cases where a journalist would go astray in failing to ask or mention the role faith has played in his life. The same should go for broadcast commentators (if there are any) who cover his race.

Just how often do you see a runner say he wants to finish second place in the lead of a magazine article about his running career?

Ryan Hall will be happy with second place.

In his prayers, he thinks of entering Heaven, and imagines running through the gates as if into a great stadium filled with people raising a joyful noise. He hopes to be just off the shoulder of the leader, but he won’t attempt a late kick. “The goal of my life,” he says, “is just to follow in the footsteps of Jesus as closely as I can.”

Bob Myers of The Boar’s Head Tavern says that this article “is the most extensive and in depth feature on a Christian athlete” he can remember. I agree with Myers when he says it’s hard not to be a fan of Hall after reading this article.

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Media meltdown: Antichrist edition

Most people complain about how long this campaign season has been, but I’ve loved every minute of it. The primaries, the world tour, the advertisements — I can’t get enough.

Certainly the Barack Obama campaign has been the more exciting one over the last few months, but last week John McCain’s staff came out of nowhere with advertisements. There was the one that compared the celebrity of Obama to that of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. (Who didn’t love Paris’ response?) And there was McCain’s “The One” ad (right) that mocks the Messianic words and imagery used by Obama’s campaign. Both were wildly popular and elicited howls of protest. McCain was accused of racism, racist sexual innuendo, using phallic imagery for evil, shooting the ads to evoke Triumph of the Will (they used news footage), and comparing Obama to Chairman Mao.

And now he’s being accused of calling Obama the Antichrist.

And no, I’m not joking. I mean, I love a conspiracy theory as much as the next person, but I’m sorry to report that Amy Sullivan, who is a great writer, liberal Democrat, evangelical Christian and Time staffer, argues that “The One” isn’t poking sarcastic fun at the Messiah complex but is a secret dog whistle to the conservative evangelical community. Perhaps it is true that no one can make fun of Obama! Here’s her not-so-subtle lede comparing the ad to one accused of race-baiting:

It’s not easy to make the infamous Willie Horton ad from the 1988 presidential campaign seem benign. But suggesting that Barack Obama is the Antichrist might just do it.

She goes on to say that some Christian Democrats are claiming McCain’s ad taps into widely-held views on radio, blogs and circulated e-mails that accuse Obama of being the Antichrist.

The thing is that there is a discussion — though it’s either complete humor or extreme fringe — that Obama is the Antichrist. And it’s a solid idea for a story. The thing is, in a country whose civil religion is largely one-Kingdom Protestant, where folks on the left and the right use the words of Scripture to argue for specific legislation, applying the spiritual language of the Antichrist to current public figures is hardly uncommon. You can basically type in the name of any national star and the word “Antichrist” into the Google and get a result. There’s Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, John Edwards, John Kerry, Al Gore, the entire British Royal Family and, for good measure, more George W. Bush. Some allege Gary Coleman is the Antichrist. Even beloved Muppet Bert is a candidate for the horned dragon of darkness. Okay, just kidding about the last two. But I half think that “Antichrist” is synonym for “politician I oppose” in the American vernacular.

Still, alleging that McCain is painting Obama as the Antichrist is insanevery serious business. Sullivan quotes tons of Obama defenders freaking out about comparisons to the descriptions in the Left Behind apocalyptic fiction series, such as Tony Campolo: She points out that the ad was created by a “close friend” of Ralph Reed and nephew of Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe — and we know what that means! Actually, I have no idea how that supports the Antichrist allegations. Here’s a snippet:

As the ad begins, the words “It should be known that in 2008 the world shall be blessed. They will call him The One” flash across the screen. The Antichrist of the Left Behind books is a charismatic young political leader named Nicolae Carpathia who founds The One World religion (slogan: “We are God”) and promises to heal the world after a time of deep division. One of several Obama clips in the ad features the senator saying, “A nation healed, a world repaired. We are the ones that we’ve been waiting for.”

The thing that is so amazing about Sullivan’s piece — which, again, is built around an interesting topic — is that it lacks any balance at all. Obama defenders may say the ad is unfair or awful, but it uses the actual words of Obama (e.g. “We are the ones that we’ve been waiting for.”) and the language of his campaign (e.g. Oprah campaigning for him by telling voters he’s “The One.”). It’s not like it’s laying out a subtle case using Biblical texts about the Antichrist. Almost all of Sullivan’s premise for the Antichrist parallels is the Left Behind series, which is somewhat odd. Sullivan says that unnamed McCain defenders say the ad was “humorous” and “creative” but there is no actual discussion of whether this Antichrist allegation is in any way reasonable. There isn’t even a single quote from anyone who is not a Democratic operative. It seems someone else could have been consulted. Instead, there are these completely unsourced claims:

The visual images in the ad, which Davis says has been viewed even more than the McCain’s “Celeb” ad linking Obama to the likes of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, also seem to evoke the cover art of several Left Behind books. But they’re not the cartoonish images of clouds parting and shining light upon Obama that might be expected in an ad spoofing him as a messiah. Instead, the screen displays a sinister orange light surrounded by darkness and later the faint image of a staircase leading up to heaven.

ObamaNapeThere was also this:

It’s not hard to see how some Obama-haters might be tempted to make the comparison. In the Left Behind books, Carpathia is a junior senator who speaks several languages, is beloved by people around the world and fawned over by a press corps that cannot see his evil nature, and rises to absurd prominence after delivering just one major speech. Hmmh. But serious Antichrist theorists don’t stop there. Everything from Obama’s left-handedness to his positive rhetoric to his appearance on the cover of this magazine has been cited as evidence of his true identity. One chain email claims that the Antichrist was prophesied to be “A man in his 40s of MUSLIM descent,” which would indeed sound ominous if not for the fact that the Book of Revelation was written at least 400 years before the birth of Islam.

It is all well and good to point out the error of fact in the e-mail. But I have to point out that if Amy Sullivan thinks that the comparison between Nicolas Carpathia and Obama is based in part on the speaking of several languages, that is also an error of fact. Despite his tut-tutting about Americans speaking only English, Obama doesn’t speak any foreign language. There is no comparison on that basis. Anyway, as a piece of political polemic, Sullivan’s article is fun and interesting and, sure, unhinged. And I realize that Time and the other newsweeklies are sort of abandoning their former stated stance of neutrality, but the piece would be better if it didn’t make all conservative evangelical Christians sound like closet racists with two horns and a tail.

One piece of news analysis that did seem more balanced was Ben Smith’s in the Politico. He basically points out that Obama’s supporters have occasionally cast him in literally messianic terms.

I keep pointing back to that Pew survey that blamed the media for reporting on discrete events rather than the underlying subtext and context at play. Sullivan’s piece takes the discrete event of the McCain ad and tries very hard to tie it to some Antichrist discussions that may be happening. A better piece would tie all that also into the messianic language of the Obama campaign.

Image via Exurban League.

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5Q+1: It’s pronounced “Dow-thut”

douthat2One of the advantages of living and working on Capitol Hill is that there are all kinds of interesting people who live in your neighborhood. I mean, there is this house a block or so away from my computer keyboard that, these days, has all kinds of people in black suits in black cars around it these days. I think it has something to do with it being the home of the junior senator from Illinois.

But I digress. Another very interesting thinker, when it comes to religion and public life, also lives in this neighborhood. His name is Ross Douthat of The Atlantic and he is someone who shows up in all kinds of interesting places around this very small town talking about all kinds of interesting things. Check out this interesting Pew Forum session on God and the Democratic Party, with the omnipresent Amy Sullivan and E.J. Dionne.

If you want to know more about Douthat, here is what they say about him at his day job:

Ross Douthat is a senior editor at The Atlantic and the author of Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class (Hyperion, 2005), and Grand New Party, with Reihan Salam, which is forthcoming in 2008 from Doubleday. He is the film critic for National Review, and his work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, GQ, Slate and other publications. A native of New Haven, Connecticut, he now lives in Washington. …

Of course, these days, you also need to know that he is the co-author, with Reihan Salam, of the new and much-discussed book “Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream.”

You also need to read this man’s weblog over at The Atlantic, where there is currently a very lively discussion on this provocative question: Why are modern Evangelical Protestants more pro-life than modern Catholics? Yikes.

And, of course, the name is pronounced “Dow-thut.”

So here we go, with the standard 5Q+1 questions:

(1) Where do you get your news about religion?

I get my news primarily from a combination of the big newspapers that I read every day — the New York Times and Washington Post chief among them, with the Wall Street Journal close behind — and a slew of bloggers who are either interested in religion or writing about it full time, ranging from the crew at GetReligion and Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Con blog to the First Things blog, Dan Gilgoff’s God-o-Meter, and my colleague Andrew Sullivan. (I consider myself vastly more underinformed than I was in the days when Amy Welborn used her blog as a Catholic-inflected clearinghouse for religion news of all kinds; I don’t blame her for giving that up, but I miss it.)

(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?

It isn’t the sort of story that makes for newspaper headlines, so it’s no surprise they don’t get it, but I think the media’s focus on the culture wars — whether between secularists and believers, or the religious right and the religious left — has led them to underplay the larger theological context in which its occurring: Namely, the collapse of orthodox Christian belief in the United States, and its replacement by a cluster of competing religious narratives that tend to offer variants — some socially-liberal, some socially-conservative — on what Christian Smith has termed “moral therapeutic deism.” I think there’s still a core of orthodox Christian belief (broadly defined to include Catholic, Orthodox and Reformed traditions), but there isn’t enough coverage of the extent to which the “conservative evangelical” who gets her religious teaching from Joel Osteen the Prayer of Jabez and the liberal Protestant who cheers for the consecration of V. Gene Robinson actually share a lot of theological premises, most of which are functionally post-Christian.

douthat(3) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?

Since this is an election year, Barack Obama’s attempt to broaden the Democratic Party’s support among religious voters, both Catholic and evangelical, strikes me as the biggest national religion story of the next six months. The second-biggest is the cracking-up of the Anglican Communion — the media tends to overhype it, but it’s implications for the future of Christianity, in America and abroad, are large enough deserves at least some of the hype.

(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?

I can think of a hundred reasons, but here’s one big one: Because religious belief and practice relate not only to our timebound lives but to eternity — which means that the stakes in religious controversies tend to be higher than in any other aspect of human affairs — which means in turn that the capacity for dramatic, world-changing actions (for good or for ill) is higher in the religious sphere than anywhere else. And if you’re a journalist looking for the story of a lifetime — well, anyone can cover Presidential politics; it’s the writer who discovers the next Mother Teresa, or Osama bin Laden, who’s really going to make a name for himself.

(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?

This was well-covered, especially in the liberal press, but when Larry Craig and David Vitter showed up as two of the 10 co-sponsors of the Federal Marriage Amendment was reintroduced in the Senate last month, I don’t care where you stand on the amendment, or on the attention we should pay to hypocrisy … You HAD to chuckle, at the very least.

BONUS: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media?

This relates more to my own sphere of opinion journalism than to newspaper and magazine reporting, but I would love to live in a world where the media provided more space for arguing about the actual truth claims of religion — where op-ed columnists and bloggers and essayists spent less time on meta debates about the politics and sociology of religion, and more time arguing about whether Christianity or Islam or Judaism is true. These kind of arguments still take place, obviously, but they take place in books rather than in the popular press — and I’d like to live in a world in which the pope’s book about Jesus of Nazareth sparked a lively intellectual debate about Christianity’s truth claims in, say, the Times Book Review and the Post op-ed page, instead of being largely ignored.

But I’m as guilty as everyone else in this regard … In a short-form medium like journalism, it’s easier to write around the central questions raised by religion than to attack them directly.

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