American tribes go to different movies

NYET18801311348This is post is so, so, so overdue that I have decided to turn that into a good thing. Indeed, I will argue that my procrastination can be seen as a form of public service to GetReligion readers.

Why? The Atlantic Monthly is a wonderful magazine and is must reading for anyone interested in religion and public life. But some of those articles are just so long, too long even, when it comes time to reading them on a computer screen. So if you are not a subscriber, I urge you — the timing is perfect — to find a subscriber and urge them to give you that copy of the January-February issue that they were just about to pitch into the recycle bin. It’s the one with Pope Benedict XVI on the cover (more on that in a moment).

There is a very important article in this issue entitled “Tribal Relations” by Steven Waldman, the CEO over at Beliefnet, and John C. Green, the University of Akron professor who is one of America’s most quoted experts on political numbers. It is part of a package — look for the “Values Racket” headline — that tries to carve up all kinds of Culture War and Red vs. Blue political myths and actually, for me, ends up making the opposite case, underlining the fact that moral and cultural issues are at the heart of American politics these days.

In their article, Green and Waldman produce mini-profiles of what they believe are the 12 religious (or non-religious or even anti-religious) tribes in American politics. The goal is to prove that America is more complex than the old Religious Right vs. Everybody Else matrix. What they end up with is something very close to the point of view argued long ago — to one degree or another — by James Davison “Culture Wars” Hunter, evangelical statistics guru George Barna, Gerald De Maio and Louis Bolce and others.

Anyone who has read GetReligion very long will recognize this theory right away: There is the true Religious Right on one side (about 12 percent) and the true-blue secularists on the other side (10 percent or so) and, in between, there is OprahAmerica.

Not everyone will agree with how Waldman and Green have defined the other folks in the Republican and Democratic tribes — the “heartland culture warriors,” the religious left, the “moderate evangelicals,” spiritual but not religious people, etc. But it was good to make this attempt, and others should spin their own versions. Anyone seeking compromises on tough moral issues has to venture into this territory, the muddy land in between the rock-ribbed religious voters who define the Republican primaries and the anti-evangelical voters who dominate the Democratic primaries and fundraising.

Here is a sample of the “Tribal Relations” material. Note the reference to “theological restructuring,” which is a kind of indirect hat tip to Hunter:

A deep-blue religious left is almost exactly the same size as the religious right but receives much less attention. John Kerry is perhaps one representative of this group, which draws members from many Christian denominations and is a product of the same theological restructuring that created the heartland culture warriors. Members of the religious left espouse a progressive theology (agreeing, for instance, that “all the world’s great religions are equally true”) and are very liberal on cultural issues such as abortion and gay marriage. About a quarter attend church weekly. The religious left is somewhat liberal on economic policy and decidedly to the left on foreign policy. Its stances on both moral values and the Iraq War — but especially the latter — have pushed it further into the Democratic camp. Seventy percent backed Kerry in 2004; 51 percent had backed Gore in 2000. The religious left was the largest — and the fastest-growing — single tribe in the Kerry coalition.

103652 brokeback l 01So you may be asking, right about now: Why is there Oscar and Brokeback Mountain art attached to this post?

That’s easy. In the weeks running up to the Academy Awards, the mainstream press has been cranking out stories about the success of this movie and how this shocking “breakout” represents a major change in American culture. The latest version of this story appeared this past week in the big-story slot on page one in USA Today. Thus, reporter Scott Bowles wrote:

Brokeback Mountain already is The Movie. The film is the punch line of jokes, the subject of Internet parodies and the front-runner for the Oscars on March 5. Oprah plugged the gay-cowboy drama on her show. Howard Stern gave it a thumbs up. “Have you seen Brokeback?” has become a dinner-party Rorschach test of gay tolerance.

Brokeback also is freighted with expectations not foisted on a film in years. It leads a raft of social-issues films that are dominating the awards season. Some hail the picture as the one that will change not only how Hollywood portrays gay characters but also how gay men and lesbians are accepted by mainstream America. Those are mighty claims for a $14 million Western seen by fewer people in the three months since its release than who saw Dancing with the Stars on television last week.

Admirers say the film is erasing Hollywood’s homosexual stereotypes and raising consciousness of gay rights. Critics say Brokeback‘s destiny is to be remembered more for its marketing than its artistic achievements.

This story does — hurrah — work in a wide range of viewpoints about the movie. Still, it is yet another example of the trend that it is writing about.

At some point, you have to ask: OK, if $70-plus million at the box office is a sign of American mainstream status, then what is $288 million or even (if you catch my drift) $370 million?

Here’s the point. If you apply the Waldman and Green matrix to movies instead of to politics, then you could reach this conclusion. Brokeback Mountain is a solid, artistic niche movie for the hard left in American life — a niche that is larger than the hard right (and is dominated by Oscar voters and Hollywood’s most loyal supporters in blue zip codes).

So who will make more movies for the other tribes? Who will find a way to make movies that combine the tribes, yet are artistic enough for Hollywood to honor? That’s the question people need to ask if they want to make mainstream movies that make lots of money and force Hollywood people to grit their teeth when it comes time for the Oscar voting.

So what else is in that must-save January-February issue of The Atlantic?

There is E.J. Dionne Jr.’s poignant attempt to wish away the Culture Wars. There is Caitlin Flanagan’s “Are You There God? It’s Me, Monica,” in which she seems to yearn for some kind of sexual morality in post-feminist America, but dares not propose one. And there is even the cover story, Paul Elie’s magnificent “The Year of the Two Popes,” which offers some critical insights into the differences between John Paul II and Benedict XVI, instead of rehashing all of the places where their views were so similar.

Like I said, find someone to give you a real copy of this magazine printed on high-quality dead tree pulp. You’ll get eye strain trying to read all of this wonderful stuff on a computer screen.

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J.J. Redick’s faith and his tattoos

redickIn high school, I was often terrified to play in organized basketball games. Don’t get me wrong, I loved to play basketball and to this day it is one of my favorite activities. But something made me go stiff the moment a referee and a coach were involved. The primary reason I survived four years of high school basketball was because of prayer and the support of my family and friends.

For this reason, faith and family have always gone together in my post-high school experiences in organized basketball, primarily as the coach of my younger brother’s junior high and junior varsity team for three years. Faith, while not significant in all ball players’ minds, certainly means a great deal to me, which is why I was thrilled to read this story by senior writer Pat Forde on the faith and tattoos of Duke guard J.J. Redick:

“I didn’t get tattoos so other people would say, ‘Oh, J.J.’s got tattoos. He’s got a basketball on his arm that says King of the Court,’ or something like that,” Redick said. “I got a tattoo for me. It’s a constant reminder, every day, of what God has done and what he will do in my life.”

The reminders are etched upon the senior guard’s lean torso — one on his chest, one on his abdomen.

The script lettering on his stomach reads, “Isaiah 40:31,” referring to this Bible verse: But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.

The other tattoo, on his chest, came first. It’s the Japanese word for courage, and beneath it is reference to another Bible verse, Joshua 1:9. That one reads: Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid, nor be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.

That’s the tat he got with grandma. And if there is one thing you can say about J.J. Redick, it’s this: He’s got basketball courage.

Courage is a tricky thing on a basketball court. Courage can quickly turn into cockiness detrimental to the team. I was privileged to see Redick drop 41 in a losing effort to Georgetown University last month, and I was struck not only by his ability to drill 3-pointers from 25 feet out with two guys in his face, but also his poise and unselfish behavior. Nevertheless, a big reason I believe Georgetown won was because Redick did not have the ball in his hands at the end of the game.

redick2Redick’s faith, his upbringing in a household of five homeschooled children, his struggles in his first two years at college — away from the comforts and protection of home — his recommitment to disciplining his life and his personal faith in God all make for a great story. While Pat Forde isn’t in your face about Redick’s faith in Christ, he certainly does not attempt to play it down or avoid it like some sportswriters are inclined to do.

Here’s more on Redick’s faith and his claim to fame as the world’s most hated basketball player (as of Saturday, he became the ACC’s all-time scoring leader to go along with his NCAA record 3-pointers and his all-time leading scorer status at Duke University):

It takes courage to embrace the burden of potential failure and hoist shots at the moments of maximum pressure. It takes courage to thrive as the most revered and most reviled college player in America. It takes courage to put your personality out there — the vulnerable poet’s side, the arrogant baller’s side, the unapologetic Christian’s side — for public dissection.

It would be so much easier to assume the dull automaton pose prevalent among today’s college basketball players. Redick doesn’t do easy.

“God’s got to be his comforter,” J.J.’s dad, Ken, said. “There’s got to be times in that spotlight, with that much pressure — and internal pressure from the Duke system of how you have to perform every day — when he couldn’t survive without faith, without being imbued with that spirit.

… After averaging 21.8 points per game last year and being named a first-team All-American, Redick decided he had earned a second trip to the tattoo parlor. That’s when he got the Isaiah 40:31 tat, to commemorate what he called “the best year of my life.”

“I regained my passion for basketball,” Redick said. “My relationships with my family members were as good as they’ve ever been — and my first two years, those were sometimes rocky. I met my girlfriend during that year and regained my spirituality.”

Read the whole article if you enjoy sports. If not, read it anyway to get a feel for one of America’s “Crunchy Christians” who has been reading, according to the article, Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life this winter. And I’ll be watching come March Madness to see whether Redick’s faith draws further attention by the media.

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Freedom to drink the tea

hallucinogenic teaHow significant was Tuesday’s unanimous Supreme Court ruling — allowing a New Mexico congregation to use a hallucinogenic tea in its religious rituals — in establishing precedent in religious-freedom law? If you read Wednesday’s Washington Post article, you would come away thinking the impact was minimal, but thankfully, the Internet gives us other sources of information. (GetReligion’s original post on the issue is here.)

Linda Greenhouse of The New York Times grasps the significance in the second paragraph of her report on the ruling:

With an opinion by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., the decision was one of the most significant applications of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a 13-year-old federal statute that requires the government to meet a demanding test before it can enforce a law in a way that creates a substantial obstacle to religious observance.

That’s about it, though. The rest of the article, along with the Post article, focuses mostly on how the issue came before the Supreme Court and on Chief Justice John Roberts’ writing style (it’s refreshingly conversational and lacking in numerous footnotes, by the way).

The Los Angeles Times places the “victory for religious freedom” theme front and center and quotes K. Hollyn Hollman, the Baptist Joint Committee’s general counsel, who said the decision was “good news for religious freedom and the continuing vitality of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”

For more background on the ruling’s significance, turn to this Christianity Today article published this morning, which quotes several legal types in religious-freedom organizations. (Disclosure: a coauthor of this piece, Sarah Pulliam, is indeed my younger sister.)

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Tooning in

southpark2Just a quick note to follow-up on Old Man Mattingly’s post about different standards for Christians, Jews and Muslims. Catholic church leaders in New Zealand are calling for a boycott of television stations that plan to screen an “ugly and tasteless” episode of South Park, according to the BBC. I have seen many episodes of South Park and I can’t think of one that wasn’t ugly or tasteless. Sometimes they’re even funny.

Anyway, the problem for the church leaders is that the episode depicts the Virgin Mary in a sacrilegious way. The stations, which recently apologized to Muslims for airing the cartoons, have a different response to the Christian protests:

TV station C4 is to air the cartoon earlier than planned in response to the levels of publicity it has generated.

The episode was originally scheduled for a screening in May, but will now be shown on 22 February. . . .

Rick Friesen, head of TV Works, which runs C4, said that if Catholics felt they would be upset by South Park, then they should not watch it.

Quick style note: It really bothers and confuses me how so many reporters use Catholic when they mean Roman Catholic. Catholic means universal and Roman Catholic refers to that church based out of, well, Rome. There is a difference. Many people who are not Roman Catholic consider themselves catholic — and even Catholic sometimes.

But it looks like the New Zealand station has found a consistent strategy for dealing with potentially offensive material — apologize to Muslims and tell Roman Catholics to buzz off.

Stories like this also makes me wonder why American media are not fighting on behalf of press freedom in this ongoing cartoon controversy. We can certainly imagine that if it becomes culturally or legally impossible to make any criticism of Islam in political cartoons, religious adherents of all types will expect equal or similar treatment.

Do reporters and editors really want a world where we can’t criticize any religion in cartoons? Maybe the heroes in Team America should pay a visit to a few of our newsrooms and straighten some folks out.

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Shifting cartoon coverage

muslim protestsI’ve noticed a shift in the cartoon coverage and in many bloggers’ attitudes toward the image-inspired violence and arguments over whether the images should have been published by media organizations. This shift has been driven largely by events on the ground that are just too huge to ignore, particularly as the “Furor Over Cartoons Pits Muslim Against Muslim,” as a New York Times headline writer phrased it Tuesday.

As Muslims turn on Muslims, one can only imagine how this would drive Middle East reporters insane, unless they had a deep knowledge of issues relating to Islam and its culture. The NYT focuses on the compelling story of Jordanian journalist Jihad Momani and Yemen editorial writer Muhammad al-Assadi and their writings condemning the violence in response to the cartoons. Here are the key paragraphs that show the significance of these developments:

Mr. Momani and Mr. Assadi are among 11 journalists in five countries facing prosecution for printing some of the cartoons. Their cases illustrate another side of this conflict, the intra-Muslim side, in what has typically been defined as a struggle between Islam and the West.

The flare-up over the cartoons, first published in a Danish newspaper, has magnified a fault line running through the Middle East, between those who want to engage their communities in a direct, introspective dialogue and those who focus on outside enemies.

But it has also underscored a political struggle involving emerging Islamic movements, like Hamas in Gaza and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and Arab governments unsure of how to contain them.

“This has become a game between two sides, the extremists and the government,” said Tawakkul Karman, head of Women Journalists Without Constraints in Sana, Yemen. “They’ve made it so that if you stand up in this tidal wave, you have to face 1.5 billion Muslims.”

One thing this development is doing is putting to rest the idea that this conflict is somehow leading to a clash of civilizations. I posed the idea in this space two weeks ago, but I am beginning to realize that the cartoon controversy is nothing of the sort, as S. Brent Plate profoundly explains over at The Revealer:

First of all, in utilizing such a grandiose phrase as “clash of civilizations,” we (journalists and the rest of us) must remind ourselves of the rather small-scale nature of this current clash. As Juan Cole notes, the protests have, by and large, been limited. In general terms, the Muslim world numbers as much as 20% of the world’s population, so if major protests were to somehow be widespread among the Muslim population, every one of us would know about it — not through CNN, but by hearing screams and gunshots in our own backyards. I write this in Fort Worth, Texas, a place not typically thought of in relation to Islam, yet within a couple miles of here there are a half-dozen mosques, regularly attended by Muslims from North Africa, Arabia, Indonesia, and by U.S. Latinos and African-Americans. It is only a minority of Muslims who are of the Arabic race. Muslims, now and for much of history, are not the antithesis to the West, they are the West.

golden dome mosqueThe clash within Islam is even more apparent with the destruction of the golden-domed Shia shrine in Samarra early Wednesday morning. The attackers are still at large and unknown, but no matter, the incident is sparking reprisals and protests against Sunni Muslims. If the cartoon violence and protest was any measure, Iraq is about to become a very violent and dangerous place in the next week — not that it was not already a seething caldron — considering that the St. Peter’s Cathedral of the Shiite world has now been destroyed under the United States military’s watch.

Here’s the Independent‘s take:

In a number of respects civil war in Iraq has already begun. Many of the thousand bodies a month arriving in the morgues in Baghdad are of people killed for sectarian reasons. It is no longer safe for members of the three main communities the Sunni and Shia Arabs and the Kurds to visit each other’s parts of the country.

“Iraq is in a Weimar period like Germany in the 1920s which will either end with the country disintegrating or in an authoritarian government taking power,” said Ghassan Atiyyah, an Iraqi political commentator.

Was it not only a matter of time for an event of this magnitude to occur in Iraq? I would consider this one of the worst developments in the Iraq since we invaded, and it could end up setting back all the positives gained in the elections.

The article in the Independent is where I found the St. Peter’s/Golden-dome comparison. It certainly put the incident in a perspective with which I could relate. The Independent also gets the religious significance of this event when it comes to creating a sustainable government in Iraq. American papers seem to be focusing on reporting the who, what, where, when and how the bombing happened, rather than the so what? or why. Not a bad approach, considering the event did just happen, but it also can be limiting.

As it stands now, the stories posted on the New York Times and Washington Post websites do little to show the significance of the structure to Muslims. Perhaps this will change as the story progresses, but as it stands now, what is the average reader supposed to take from this story other than the massive headlines, words like “revered” and “holiest shrines” and, of course, statements from officials in Washington?

While the European press tends to be better about understanding the Middle East — as I pointed out here, I’m holding out hope that U.S. publications will get the significance. I guess we’ll see in the morning.

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A ghost in the syringe?

execution table 01Reader Matt Holiday says that he sees a religion ghost in the following Reuters story by Carolyn Abate, which describes the problem that California state officials are having finding medical professionals who are willing to take part in the execution of convicted killer Michael Morales. Here is the final section of the story, which contains the direct quote in which Holiday says he sees a ghost:

Dr. Priscilla Ray, chairwoman of the American Medical Association Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs, last week condemned the ruling requiring the anesthesiologist’s presence.

“The use of a physician’s clinical skill and judgment for purposes other than promoting an individual’s health and welfare undermines a basic ethical foundation of medicine — first do no harm,” she said. “Requiring physicians to be involved in executions violates their oath to protect lives.”

Holiday has a simple question: How many doctors have, in the face of what Pope John Paul II called the “culture of death,” actually taken the Hippocratic Oath in its traditional form or in a close translation thereof?

There are questions, of course, about the origins of that phrase “first do no harm.” Then again, there are those ancient lines that say: “To please no one will I prescribe a deadly drug nor give advice which may cause his death. Nor will I give a woman a pessary to procure abortion.”

UPDATE: Here is the latest on the case from the Los Angeles Times.

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Out of touch

TylerPerryI wanted to bring to attention this item in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times. Staff writer Lorenza Muñoz jumped on a tremendous Hollywood story of how Tyler Perry‘s Oprah-inspired journal writing about childhood physical abuse turned into plays and movies that are now taking the entertainment industry by storm.

And the major themes of his stories are the Christian tenets of faith, hope and redemption in an African American cultural context:

Having shown that black churchgoers can also be filmgoers, Perry — inspired by the likes of Bill Cosby before him — is out to introduce himself to mainstream white America.

“What is important to me about this movie is that the stories and messages are for anyone,” said Perry, who says a recent test screening drew raves from a white audience near Sacramento. “Anyone who needs to learn about forgiveness … will enjoy it no matter who they are.”

… Lionsgate is aggressively targeting the spiritual community by printing 30,000 prayer cards to be distributed at more than 1,200 churches nationwide [to promote Perry's new film, Madea's Family Reunion]. On one side is Perry wearing a large gold cross; on the other is Madea surrounded by a golden cloud resembling the Holy Spirit. On Thursday, Perry will appear on the Trinity Broadcasting Network.

Why is it so surprising to Hollywood executives that religious African Americans look for quality entertainment and are willing to pay to get it? And why is it so surprising that these religious themes — while directed at African Americans — also appeal to the broad swath of religious people in the United States?

Stories like these that shatter Hollywood executives’ preconceptions and stereotypes of other Americans are much-needed, and in a way that’s sad. It’s too bad this country’s entertainment executives are so out of touch with the American people.

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Welcome to the world of politics

allen2Much has been made of the Republican Party’s relationship with evangelical Christians. Who is truly in control of that relationship? Is it people like James Dobson, or is the White House (Karl Rove) playing evangelical religious leaders in order to gain access to their followers for votes? Of course, then you get bogged down into the debate over exactly who is an evangelical. Go figure.

The following article gives us something of a hint.

I’m going to bypass the whole military chaplain prayer guidelines story because it touches too closely to my day job, but that won’t keep me from flagging a small item in this Washington Times article on the subject by Joseph Curl and Julia Duin.

The Times piece is about Claude A. Allen, once the White House’s top adviser on domestic policy, and his departure from the administration. Some have said his departure was in protest of the new military guidelines regarding prayer in the military. Allen says it’s for family reasons. Again, go figure.

So in the midst of sorting this story out, the authors of this article throw in this quote:

rich cizik2Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals, said the West Wing can be rough for people such as Mr. Allen, an evangelical Christian who attends Covenant Life Church, a large congregation in Gaithersburg.

“They don’t take kindly to someone serving too strongly the evangelical cause,” Mr. Cizik said. “The people in the White House want someone who will salute, no matter what. If you are an evangelical, you get special scrutiny. They know evangelicals are obedient to a higher principle.”

This is not all that surprising. What administration has not been leery of a person loyal to someone other than the president? But to what extent is that simply Washington politics or a much broader mistrust of evangelicals, despite the White House’s efforts to gain their votes?

This Newsweek article on Cizik and his new work contains a few clues. In his efforts to challenge the Bush administration’s current policies towards the environment, specifically relating to global warming, Cizik is causing a significant rift among evangelical leaders:

Until now, the movement has emphasized the individual responsibility of Christians to conserve. But this week a coalition of leading evangelicals will issue “An Evangelical Call to Action,” asking Congress and the Bush administration to combat global warming by restricting carbon-dioxide emissions. “Christians must care about climate change because we love God the Creator,” it reads. The challenge to the Bush administration — which rejects mandatory limits on greenhouse-gas emissions as economically harmful — has caused a major rift within evangelical circles. Last week the president of NAE, the Rev. Ted Haggard, announced that the group would not endorse the document, since it was not unanimously approved by members. And Cizik says NAE executives instructed him to remove his own name from full-page newspaper ads promoting the “Call to Action.”

Conservative critics of the document, including the Rev. [sic] James Dobson of Focus on the Family, say the global-warming science is inconclusive and the issue doesn’t belong on the evangelists’ agenda. “It’s a distraction when families are falling apart and abortion continues as a great evil,” says Tom Minnery, director of Dobson’s political-action group. But the “Call to Action” has been endorsed by dozens of Christian heavy hitters, including the country’s leading megachurch pastor, the Rev. Rick Warren, as well as the presidents of major Christian colleges and denominations.

Two leading evangelicals, James Dobson and Rick Warren, are on opposite sides of an issue? It had to happen sooner or later, and with politics at the core of the split, bringing the two sides to an accord isn’t likely to happen anytime soon.

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