The silence of the shepherds, again

NipTuckSeas3Read the following Los Angeles Times report and tell me if the phrase “culture of death” does not pop into your mind every few paragraphs. As graphic as this Greg Braxton story is, I think it actually avoids several issues that would have made it even worse.

You know you’re in for it when a daily newspaper starts a story with this kind of “warning” disclaimer:

The following story contains graphic and good-taste-defying descriptions of bone snapping, limb hacking, fingernail pulling and body zapping. Read on at your own risk.

The actual thesis paragraphs put this mass-media torture campaign into a context that strikes me as rather mild. The movies are getting bad, as we’ve discussed before, but some of the television shows are wading into the same violent swamp:

… (In) the last several months, numerous torture scenes — many of them graphic and bloody — have been set pieces on TV dramas, not only in thrill-ride dramas, such as “24″ and ABC’s “Alias,” but also in melodramatic or escapist fare such as Fox’s “Prison Break.” One key character on ABC’s “Lost” is an Iraqi military officer who tortures a fellow castaway. “Alias” had an unnamed recurring villain who quietly tortured key characters. FX’s “Nip/Tuck,” a hit drama about the psychic turmoil of those who seek and perform cosmetic surgery, recently spotlighted physical turmoil with two simultaneous torture scenes, each set to a tango.

It’s unclear — both to those who create torture-inflected scenarios and those who have taken note of their proliferation — whether such themes reflect a pop culture recalibration or a blip on the screen. But for now, at least, torture seems inescapable.

Here’s the question I wanted to ask. Braxton asks if the ramping up of the pain and suffering might, in some way, be linked to this era of fear and terrorism. But I was left thinking darker thoughts. What happens when the movies are not as bad as what ordinary citizens can see, if they wish, on the World Wide Web with a few clicks of a mouse? What can Hollywood do to top an online videotape of a man’s head being hacked off?

The obvious thing to say is that some people who choose to drink from this bloody well are getting used to it by now and want stronger and stronger drink. You can hear clergy and other moral leaders voice that sentiment every now and then. And, sure enought, the Los Angeles Times offers a mild disclaimer of that kind.

The people behind these projects maintain that movie ratings and parental advisories on TV tip off viewers to graphic material, and many stress that audiences themselves ultimately set the boundaries for what’s portrayed on-screen. Networks’ and studios’ reading of audience reaction has some amping up the torture in their projects, believing that doing so increases its effectiveness.

OK, we hear you. But how does this work in homes that have four or five cable-linked televisions? How does this work in the age of director-cut DVDs? How does this work in an age in which most religious groups are totally silent about the role that entertainment plays in daily life, other than to blow the warning trumpets every year or two about sex in a specific show or movie (as if waves of teen-agers are rushing out to see Brokeback Mountain)?

There is a ghost in here. It’s the silence of the shepherds. Again.

Follow the mass-media statistics for ordinary homes and for those “conservative” homes. There is a story in there.

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Not getting it

BibleInfluenceThis New York Times story does everything possible to fit the facts into the mold of a “Democrats try to get religion in order to appeal to religious people” story. I find this an an example of how many in the Democratic Party and many mainstream reporters do not get religion or religious people.

Fortunately the reporter, David Kirkpatrick, included a thorough accounting of the facts in the rest of the story. Here’s the lead, which is what I found a misinterpretation of what is described later in the story:

WASHINGTON, Jan. 26 — Democrats in Georgia and Alabama, borrowing an idea usually advanced by conservative Republicans, are promoting Bible classes in the public schools. Their Republican opponents are in turn denouncing them as “pharisees,” a favorite term of liberals for politicians who exploit religion.

Democrats in both states have introduced bills authorizing school districts to teach courses modeled after a new textbook, “The Bible and Its Influence.” It was produced by the nonpartisan, ecumenical Bible Literacy Project and provides an assessment of the Bible’s impact on history, literature and art that is academic and detached, if largely laudatory.

The Democrats who introduced the bills said they hoped to compete with Republicans for conservative Christian voters. “Rather than sitting back on our heels and then being knocked in our face, we are going to respond in a thoughtful way,” said Kasim Reed, a Georgia state senator from Atlanta and one of the sponsors of the bill. “We are not going to give away the South anymore because we are unwilling to talk about our faith.”

The premise of the article is that Democrats are attempting to out-religion Republicans. The roles have been reversed. Republicans are now opposing religious teaching in schools.

Alas, this is not the case. The class proposed by Democrats is nothing to get excited about politically (I think the course looks great educationally). How is a textbook titled The Bible and Its Influence at all controversial or beyond the status quo, especially in the South? It’s produced by an ecumenical religious group and does not come close to touching the separation-of-church-and-state clause, as I see it, because it is not focused on a particular translation or interpretation of the Bible.

I’m sure Kirkpatrick’s original idea for an article on Democrats getting religion was a good one, and he cites several examples nationwide, but I believe his attempt (or his editor’s or whoever wrote that lead) to spin the story at the top falls flat on its face. An article with that type of lead made me think there was an actual proposal that would reach the religious voter Democrats are so desperate to bring into their fold.

As long as politicians see religion as solely a political vehicle for attracting votes, they will not gain the support they seek, especially in the South. The same goes for journalists and their media outlets — not that the NYT or its reporters are marketing their product to religious types in the South anyway.

The rest of the article is a series of politically charged back-and-forths between Republicans and Democrats that does little to get to the bottom of the story. Nice reporting, but isn’t getting to the bottom of things a journalist’s goal? Gathering the back-and-forth is key for getting to that truth, but in the end, give the reader a more accurate idea of the situation being reported.

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In the name of (insert god), we pray

Mason  Communion TableI waited a few days to comment on this story for two reasons. First of all, I was on the road and had limited access. Then I wanted to wait a day or two to see if any other media chased what I thought was a very significant story.

Alas, this seems to be another one of those stories that is only of interest to “conservative” media. For the life of me I cannot understand why, unless you want to say that the separation of church and state is merely a “conservative” issue.

The key story comes from Julia “There she goes again” Duin over at the Washington Times. According to a number of sources, the White House has agreed to pressure the Pentagon into letting military chaplains continue to voice public prayers that are appropriate in their own faith traditions, rather than requiring a kind of generic language that promotes a tax-dollar-funded civic faith that pleases people who believe that followers of all the world religions are basically on the same path to the top of the same mountain where they will someday learn that they have been worshipping the same God or gods or whatever (if you will allow me to be blunt about it).

Evangelical Protestants activists have, of course, been asking President Bush to clarify this situation with an executive order. Now, apparently, they have agreed to let the White House work quietly behind the scenes. Pay close attention because this gets complicated:

The administration struck a deal … with Rep. Walter B. Jones, North Carolina Republican, said the Rev. Billy Baugham of the Greenville, S.C.-based International Conference of Evangelical Chaplain Endorsers. Since October, Mr. Jones has arranged for letters from 74 members of Congress demanding an executive order to end reported religious discrimination against evangelical Christian chaplains.

Claude Allen, White House domestic policy adviser, promised the congressman that President Bush will take up the issue personally with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, said Mr. Baugham, who was involved in the discussion.

“He asked Jones if he’d be satisfied with less than an executive order, and Jones said ‘yes,’” he said.

Mr. Jones’ office, which confirmed that the conversation had taken place, says chaplains should be able to pray to whomever “their faith tradition” demands, including named gods, saints or prophets.

One of the most interesting details, for me, is an anecdote about a Muslim chaplain candidate who was corrected for praying in the name of “Allah, the most blessed and beautiful.” That turned into an safer appeal to the “most generous and eternal God.” One wonders how many Muslims will be willing to edit their faith in this manner.

In another case, a chaplain was taught how to add disclaimers at the end of his prayers, turning them into dual-source appeals to a generic god followed by language making it clear that only the speaker was praying to Jesus. All of this is, to say the least, precisely what church-state law calls the “excessive entanglement” of government in the free practice of religion.

Mason  Easter CongregationOf course, some on the left side of the church aisle are pleased with the God-lite language because it accurately reflects their theology. This is interesting, since these are normally the people who do not want to see tax dollars spent to proclaim a specific approach to religious faith.

But wait, you say, if chaplains voice public prayers that are faith specific, doesn’t that mean that tax dollars are being used to support a specific faith at that precise moment in time? Isn’t the government, in effect, funding religious confusion and allowing offensive religious speech in the public square?

Yes, that is what it means. The problem is that there are only two options, if people insist on using religious language during civic ceremonies in a diverse public square. Oh, I guess you could just fire all the chaplains and make the military go totally secular. There are people who want that.

Someone is going to have to clarify all of this because the issue is not going to go away on its own. Meanwhile, this is an important story and other news organizations need to cover it. For one thing, it’s interesting that the evangelicals have let the Bush White House off the hook again, when it comes to taking a public stand (photos from IFCA.org).

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PBS overloads on Christian programming?

The AppalachiansThe second item in the ombudsman column Monday by the Public Broadcasting System’s Michael Getler deals with complaints from viewers who believe the publicly funded PBS carries too many Christian-oriented programs.

This is not a new complaint to the nation’s two public media organizations. Back in August we commented on a similar column written by National Public Radio ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin. These complaints seem to be of the same vein.

According to Getler, most of the complaints dealt with specific programs. In thorough fashion, Getler dispatches with the complainers who were “very concerned about the amount of Christian-related content oozing onto PBS.” The horror!

I found most of the complaints cited by Getler ridiculous. As a journalist I receive my fair share of kooky comments, along with an equal number of solid questions and informed statements of opinion. I wonder, where are the informed, intelligent complaints about the coverage of religion on PBS?

And where are the complaints about separation of church and state? I guess/hope we’ve moved beyond that for public broadcasting. As long as the news or feature value of the shows’ content was valid — which they appear to be — how can one complain?

Here’s my favorite complaint:

It seems each show, whether it’s historical, scientific or documentary in nature[,] is flush with some sort of Christian angle. In this age of growing multi-ethnicity in the U.S., and increased conflict and tension between cultures of religion around the world, I find this bias highly disturbing and worse — validating the new Right Wing Evangelical perspective that has become oppressive in this country.” This viewer mentioned recent, high profile and high viewership series such as “Walking the Bible” and “Country Boys” and an earlier documentary on “The Appalachians.”

Where to start? Christianity is not exclusive to the right-wing evangelicals, ignoring a religion will not help subside conflicts and tensions and a relatively heavy load of religion programming does not implicate bias. Disclaimer: I have not seen any of these shows so I cannot judge their quality of slant.

Here is Getler’s explanation for the rise in Christian-related programming:

We have, of course, just passed the Christmas season. And we are also at a time, in mid-January, when the three-part documentary “Walking the Bible” is airing around the country. This series is based on the best-selling book by author Bruce Feiler, who also hosts the series and takes viewers on a 10,000-mile journey based on a retracing of the routes contained in the first five books of the Bible. This series drew above average viewership nationwide, and, according to the producers, the “vast majority” of the responses sent directly to them were positive. I got some of those as well. But the majority of people who wrote to me complained. “The show is simply religious propaganda wrapped in pseudo-history and dubious legend,” wrote a Baltimore viewer. A resident of Omaha, Neb., said, “The schools and governments are prohibited from promulgating superstitious dogma. How is it that PBS can even consider such as ‘Walking the Bible’?”

The “Walking the Bible” miniseries also roughly coincided in January with the airing of “Country Boys,” a three-part, six-hour documentary presented by PBS’s highly respected “Frontline” program and produced by widely-acclaimed producer David Sutherland. This was a very powerful program. The mail to me was overwhelming positive, and I’m the guy to whom people are supposed to complain. This painstakingly documented portrait of two teenagers struggling to escape poverty in a small Kentucky town also achieved solid viewership around the country, although not as high on average as the Bible series. But “Country Boys” also had a sizeable dose of religion throughout.

On the other hand, religion is a big part of life in those communities, and that’s just the way it is and it needs to be reported and reflected. I didn’t see “The Appalachians,” which aired well before I got to PBS, but it is the same region. Indeed, Christianity, and religion generally, have always been a very big part of American life and it is only natural that portraits of who we are as a country will contain this as one aspect.

Yet, I found this collection of messages from viewers around the country to be important and worthy of attention and discussion within PBS and its vast network of independent member stations. Is religious content being elevated these days? If so, why is that happening? Is it intentional and how should public television handle it?

Getler’s three questions are something of a copout, but not one I can be too hard on him for taking. They are tough questions and deserve some serious debate.

Q. Is religious content being elevated these days?

Q. Why is that happening?

Q. Is it intentional and how should public television handle it?

Tmatt believes that PBS could be attempting to attract viewers in a country that is about 40 percent evangelical Protestant and another 85-90 percent self-identifying as “Christian.” Taxpayers are also the base of much of PBS’ funding, and taking on subjects that involve its viewers’ lives might be a smart move. If the country were 30 percent Islamic, I’m sure the network would air more shows on Islam.

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Covering another cultural shift, eh?

harpesCanada made some news earlier this week by electing a conservative government for the first time in about a dozen years. The conventional wisdom says that it all came down to a well-run campaign and a corrupted liberal party government as the new prime minister Stephen Harper moved to the center by avoiding issues like abortion and gay marriage.

It’s hard to believe, but Canada seems to be following in the United States steps as this Los Angeles Times story suggests with the rise of the red and blue zones. And it seems that Harper even campaigned in a style similiar to President Bush’s 2000 campaign:

But the Conservative Party victory was well short of a landslide, and the party’s failure to win a majority in the House of Commons will ensure that the country does not undergo dramatic change too quickly. Still, the new government is a symbolic change for Canadians, who traditionally have thought of their nation as a healthy rival to the American way.

Canada’s election echoed the “red state/blue state” struggle to its south. Western provinces leaned toward the Conservative Party and eastern population centers generally favored the Liberals, although Conservatives made inroads. Canada’s identity became a key issue in the election, with Liberals openly warning against a step toward U.S. values.

“A Harper victory will put a smile on George W. Bush’s face,” a Liberal ad aired late in the campaign said. “Well, at least someone will be happy, eh?”…

Harper’s positions are closer to those of the Bush administration. Harper has said he will reconsider Canada’s rejection of the U.S. missile shield, withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol on climate change to establish Canada’s own environmental controls, and try to work through a bitter trade dispute over lumber.

Although he campaigned from the center — as President Bush did when he first won the White House — he suggested he would reexamine the legality of same-sex marriage, and is known to oppose abortion rights and to favor changing the national healthcare system.

jesuslandHere at GetReligion, we’re wondering if Harper is on record as a Christian. The Wikipedia article on Harper says he is part of the Christian and Missionary Alliance. Could someone get us some solid information on that? None of the stories I’ve read over the last month have suggested one way or another and this Wikipedia article is the only confirmation I have at this point.

A New York Times analysis says that this is only a gentle shift to the right and due to the conservative’s lack of a majority, practically this is true, and thus, it’s the conventional wisdom. But there is more than one way to build a coalition.

Here’s a solid piece of analysis from The Washington Post on the culture wars up north:

A step to the political right will be a change for Canada, which has grown increasingly more liberal on social and political issues than its southern neighbor, to the point that Martin attacked Harper as being “pro-American” in the campaign.

The Conservative Party and its political predecessors have in the past championed such positions as outlawing abortion and banning gay marriage, views that polls show are inconsistent with the more tolerant tilt of Canadians.

“I think we have to give it a try. But I am very afraid that it will be too far right,” said Florence Koven, 72, emerging from the polls after voting — reluctantly, she said — for the Conservative Party. “The unknown always concerns you. Mr. Harper says he is a changed man; we’ll see how much he has changed.”

Ultimately, Harper will show his true political stripes and the voters will have ample opportunity to voice their concerns, if Canada is indeed as liberal as is the conventional wisdom. Issues like gay marriage and abortion will define Harper’s job at the helm because that is what it ultimately comes down to, right?

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Quiet, quiet March for Life coverage

IRegretMyAbortionAll in all, it appears to have been an exceptionally quiet year on the March for Life coverage front. I, for one, was a bit disappointed that things stayed so low-key, in part because you know that the U.S. Supreme Court hearings have cranked up the work — on both sides — behind the scenes.

How low-key? This is one year in which it is pretty hard to tell the Washington Times coverage from the Washington Post coverage, at least at the levels of the main stories. In the Post, things got a bit more lively in Dana Milbank’s column, which — fair enough — sounded sirens to mainstream Washington that those frightening anti-abortion folks are currently feeling their political oats. Quick, break out those checkbooks and mail something to NARAL Pro-Choice America.

The snarky line of the day was also, perhaps, the most insightful factual observation about the strange state of abortion politics. Pay close attention to the second paragraph of reporter Michael Janofsky’s story in the New York Times.

As they have every year since the Supreme Court first ruled in Roe v. Wade, abortion opponents flooded the capital on Monday with an energetic rally featuring speeches, prayers and signs that urged an end to abortions across the country.

In most respects, the rally was similar to the 32 that preceded it, as tens of thousands of people packed several blocks of the Mall before marching toward the Capitol and the Supreme Court. For the sixth straight year, President Bush was out of town for the rally, though he offered words of encouragement through an amplified telephone line.

Zing. This is precisely the kind of observation about the Republican president that you were likely to hear during the march, should you be marching alongside pro-lifers who are on the political left.

Which brings me to my main observation. This year’s MSM coverage of the march was quite bland. In some ways, this is good. No one singled out tiny groups of hot-tempered radicals on the right and portrayed them as the norm. At the same time, I can’t find anyone who sought out some of the quirkier (and, yes, much smaller) groups that often support marches of this kind. Like who? Would you believe Libertarians for Life? And then there is the Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians, a group that is concerned that a DNA hook for homosexual tendencies might have terrifying results. One can also find pro-life groups in the world of oldline, usually liberal, Protestantism — such as the National Organization of Episcopalians for Life.

The goal, of course, is to cover the mainstream and, in the pro-life movement, that means covering young people and women from evangelical, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox sanctuaries, with a vocal presence of Orthodox Jews, as well. Perhaps the most important group at the moment is called “Silent No More,” in large part because the women with the somber, black “I Regret My Abortion” signs (photo from an earlier event, new photos here) are the archetypal opposites of the people who used to dominate television-news reports about these events. You know, that would be the angry men with red faces, bullhorns and bloody posters.

The women at these marches represent the mainstream. However, I was surprised — and disappointed, I admit — that this year’s mini-wave of coverage did not include more commentary from the left (the pro-life left and the pro-abortion-rights left). Yes, I wanted to hear more from the protesters and from the small, symbolic, groups in the march. I guess that, once again, my bias in favor of balance is showing.

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Memory eternal

bg2005 IMG 1334I am in between meetings and classes in West Palm Beach, where I am doing some recruiting for the Washington Journalism Center. With a brief shot at an Internet connection, let me slip in here with a quick note.

It appears that the March For Life is drawing some balanced early coverage, which is to be expected, and that is a good thing. As you would expect, President Bush did the Ronald Reagan thing and phoned in some remarks. This allows a shy leader to be there, but avoid the photo op. It’s an old GOP move. CNN already has an early story online with this quote:

“We’re working to persuade more of our fellow Americans of the rightness of our cause,” the president told abortion foes gathered at the foot of Capitol Hill on a chilly, rainy day. He spoke by telephone from Manhattan, Kansas, where he was to give a speech.

“This is a cause that appeals to the conscience of our citizens and is rooted in America’s deepest principle,” the president said. “And history tells us that with such a cause we will prevail.”

I guess that the news is the phrase “our cause.” However, it will be interesting to see if the press realizes the number of different pro-life groups are in this march, from pro-life atheists to gays and lesbians for life, etc. Even the phrase “pro-life” means different things to different people.

At my own parish, which is home base for the veteran pro-life writer Frederica Mathewes-Green of Beliefnet and NPR, there was a weekend emphasis on the sanctity of life. The Eastern Orthodox stance on this issue is very ancient and crystal clear, but the Orthodox have not, in the past, been eager to march or get involved in politics. There is a story in there somewhere. This is another ancient church that has been deeply affected by the Democratic Party’s decision to place abortion rights at the very, very top of its priority list.

But, among the Orthodox, the language of our opposition to abortion still sounds somewhat different than the rhetoric you hear on the far right. Here is part of a litany that the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese sent out for use [PDF] this past weekend. I think most reporters will see signs of news hooks in it.

Again we pray that You will kindle in our hearts the will to care for the needy, to show kindness to the poor, to aid the homeless and to help the helpless.

Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.

O Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son, Who are in the bosom of the Father, True God, source of life and immortality, Light of Light, who came into the world to enlighten it, You were pleased to be conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary for the salvation of our souls by the power of Your All-Holy Spirit. O Master, Who came that we might have life more abundantly, we ask You to enlighten the minds and hearts of those blinded to the truth that life begins at conception, and that the unborn in the womb are already adorned with Your image and likeness; enable us to guard, cherish and protect the lives of all those who are unable to care for themselves. For You are the Bestower of Life, bringing each person from non-being into being, sealing each person with divine and infinite love. Be merciful, O Lord, to those who, through ignorance or willfulness, affront Your divine goodness and providence through the evil act of abortion. May they, and all of us, come to the light of Your Truth and glorify You, the Giver of Life, together with Your Father and Your All-Holy and Life-giving Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

As the Orthodox will sing today at the Supreme Court: “Memory Eternal.

I hope the complexity of this event makes it into the newspapers — from the pro-life left to the pro-abortion-rights right, from the pro-life right to the pro-abortion-rights left.

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America’s pastor?

rickwarrenHas Rick Warren become a media darling or what? The man certainly knows how to communicate a message and apparently has no trouble using the mainstream media to do so. And reporters are eating up this guy and all the wonderful things he does, including his “reverse tithing,” in which he says he keeps 10 percent of his income and gives the rest away ($14 million in 2004).

In a glowing Washington Post story Saturday, reporter Paul Nussbaum gives us an update on what the sandal-wearing, goatee-sporting, Hawaiian shirt-clad Rick is up to these days:

“One of my goals is to take evangelicals back a century, to the 19th century,” said Warren, 51, shifting painfully in his chair because of a back sprain suffered during an all-terrain-vehicle romp with his 20-year-old son, Matthew. “That was a time of muscular Christianity that cared about every aspect of life.”

Not just personal salvation, but social action. Abolishing slavery. Ending child labor. Winning the right for women to vote.

It’s time for modern evangelicals to trade words for deeds and get similarly involved, Warren contends.

Warren was tagged as the next Billy Graham a long time ago, but I think many reporters miss a critical distinction between the two. Graham was an evangelist unassociated with a church or a denomination. Warren is a fourth generation Baptist preacher and his church is Southern Baptist.

By all accounts, Warren is on the brink of becoming the most influential evangelical Christian in the United States. And this Washington Post story is dripping with The Message that Warren preaches.

At the end of his second sermon on that recent Sunday, he reminded his largely affluent Orange County audience: “Life is not about having more and getting more. It’s about serving God and serving others.”

That, simply put, is his message: Give your life to God, help others, spread the word. It is the same message that Christians have been preaching for 2,000 years. Warren has updated the language, added catchphrases and five-step guides, but he readily admits that “there is not a new idea in that book.”

Well is that the same message Christians have been spreading for 2,000 years? Did Warren say that, or is that the reporter helping us readers along? Cite the source, Mr. Nussbaum.

PurposeOther than that small beef, I am having difficulty finding something to pick at in this story, except that it may have been too positive. The muscular Christianity theme worked well — for Warren — and there was little a negative word to say about the guy.

Warren “is able to cast the Christian story so people can hear it in fresh ways,” said Donald E. Miller, director of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California.

“The Gen X-ers are sick and tired of flash and hype and marketing,” Miller said. “The soft sell of a Rick Warren is far more attractive to them than a highly stylized TV presentation of the Christian message.”

Among evangelicals, Warren is more influential than better-known and more divisive figures such as religious broadcasters Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell or radio psychologist James Dobson, and he is often seen as the heir to the Rev. Billy Graham as “America’s pastor.”

This could all easily backfire on Warren. He is human and he will make mistakes. And with the increasing public scrutiny, any mistake will be blown sky high. Just ask Peyton Manning.

Warren is riding high, but as I’m sure he is aware, many popular American preachers have been taken down tragically. And the media will not hold back in trashing him, even if all he does is trip up a bit. Perhaps Warren’s connection with a church structure will help keep him straight. He answers to other humans in a formal way, unlike most independent television evangelists.

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