Covering those dummies on the right

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, check out The Culture Beat for yourself.

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

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

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

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

Which conservative base?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Trading conflicts over lulavs

palmI have long been an admirer of Chris Lee’s work in The Washington Post. As a reporter who deals primarily with the complex issues surrounding government agencies, Lee has a way of explaining intricate issues and spotting an unusual story that highlights key issues that others would overlook.

The story by Lee in today’s paper is no exception. As an extra bonus for GetReligion readers, he begins his story on trade negations with Egypt regarding the shortage of palm fonds, also known as “lulavs,” with a verse from the Old Testament: Leviticus 23:40. Here is the heart of the story:

Jews have had complaints about the Egyptian government since they were enslaved by pharaohs. But now Congress and the State Department are getting involved.

A shortage of palm fronds, or “lulavs,” has threatened to interfere with the celebration of Sukkot, a week-long Jewish festival that starts at sundown today and is also known as the Feast of Tabernacles.

Egypt has been the chief provider of lulavs. But several weeks ago Agriculture Ministry officials there announced that they were limiting the cutting of palm fronds this year because the practice hurts the trees’ ability to produce dates, a culturally and economically important crop in Egypt. The news upset many Jewish groups in Israel and the United States, and in turn set off a diplomatic scramble to persuade the Egyptians to relent, with the promise that more environmentally friendly ways would be sought to obtain the lulavs next year.

As expected, members of Congress are getting involved and the U.S. government is attempting to avoid an international incident over what are to most people a bunch of plants. I think Lee played up the ancient Egypt vs. the Jewish slaves a bit too much, but the connection was probably too irresistible to avoid.

The holiday is a harvest celebration and also commemorates the biblical 40-year period during which the Israelites — who escaped from slavery in Egypt more than 3,000 years ago — were wandering in the desert, dwelling in temporary huts.

According to the Bible, Jews are called upon to bind together a lulav and branches from myrtle and willow trees. Together with an “etrog,” a bumpy, yellow-skinned citrus fruit similar to a lemon, the items make up the “four species” used in blessings during the holiday ritual.

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s Chanan Tigay has a much more thorough report that is undated on Philadelphia’s Jewish Exponent website that could have been the impetus for Lee’s story.

Date palms typically have 15 to 20 healthy green leaves at any one time. The removal of leaves should be limited to the dead and dying brown leaves located at the trees’ base, he said.

The Encyclopedia Judaica translates the Hebrew word lulav as “a young branch of a tree” or “a shoot.” The lulav is one of the arba’ah minim — or four plant species — that are joined together and shaken on Sukkot. The others are willows and myrtle, which are bound to the lulav with strips of palm; and the etrog, or citron, which is held beside the lulav as it is waved.

As to be expected, niche publications will give an issue much more thorough coverage and lack the strict space limitations existing at larger more mainstream publications like the Post. No harm done — the Internet is a wonderful thing and resolves those problems for those who are interested.

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Old ghost in the Iraqi vote

mosqBagd2I don’t know about you, but every now and then I get two emails and, because I read them back to back, they become connected. This happened today, when I reached Jackson, Tenn., to visit Union University. I thinned out the deluge of email from the previous day or so and then started reading.

The Iraqi vote, of course, is one of the biggest stories out there today. I read the main Washington Post piece and, to my way of thinking, there was something missing. If the White House is going to be excited about this election and its impact on something that can be called a “democracy,” then I want to know about the impact of this vote on issues such as free speech, women’s rights, religious liberty and other related topics.

It may not be fair to read this story and let it stand alone, without taking into account other Post stories from the recent past. Still, read it and tell me what you think. Early on, we are told:

The strong overall turnout in the west, however, raised the possibility that the disempowered Sunni minority could defeat the draft charter, which endorses a loose federal system with a weak, religiously influenced central government. Many Sunnis fear the draft would bring the breakup of Iraq into ethnic and religious substates, and make permanent their loss of power to the Shiite Muslim majority after the toppling of Hussein. …

In his weekly radio address Saturday, President Bush said that the referendum dealt “a severe blow to the terrorists” while sending a message to the world. “Iraqis will decide the future of their country through peaceful elections, not violent insurgency.” Bush said the referendum was “a critical step forward in Iraq’s march toward democracy.”

The religion element is there, but quickly vanishes. We learn valuable information about the strong turnout, the threat of violence, the potential political impact of the votes and other topics. But if religion is at the heart of these issues, what happened to that information? How will the vote and this new constitution affect basic human rights?

At that point, I opened another email. Click here to read a fresh Freedom House release on the vote. Then read the Post report again.

I don’t know about you, but I want the excellent reporters at the Post to answer some of the questions raised by the Freedom House activists.

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The Jeff and Jeremy Show — on virginity

IHeartVirginsSorry to be absent from the blog so much. I am still on the road for a few more days. However, let me quickly point you toward an interesting call and response over at Beliefnet between Jeff Sharlet of The Revealer and that guy we used to know — young master Jeremy Lott (away writing his book on why hypocrisy beats the alternatives).

Jeremy has a very GetReligion-friendly lead on his piece:

It’s funny how religious stories sneak up on most American journalists. One minute, churchgoers will be going about their business and the next they’ll discover that their worship/Sunday School curriculum/whatever is part of some New Hot Trend, even though they’ve been doing — or not doing it — it for years.

So it is with the “new” virginity movement among evangelical Christians. In a recent issue of Rolling Stone, reporter Jeff Sharlet writes that he’s found “the new organizing principle of the Christian right”: chastity. In an explanation that sounds like it was copied out of a catalog for the Society for Creative Anachronism, he writes that this strange new virginity is “built on the notion that virgins are among God’s last loyal defenders, knights and ladies of a forgotten kingdom.”

But the emphasis on virginity for evangelicals is neither new nor terribly political.

As you would expect, Jeff — a friend of the task of this blog, coming from a very different point of view — disagrees.

So the way to catch up on their discussion is to start with the Rolling Stone piece by clicking here and then move on to the Sharlet side of the debate by clicking here. You may also flash back to an old Lott entry at this blog.

My own take is that the new virginity movement is, as usual, a late response by the evangelical subculture to trends in (a) mass media and (b) the realities in its own niche in the culture.

Once, cultural conservatives tried to abstain from entertainment media, to one degree or another. Then along came The Sound of Music and the next thing you knew — in terms of generational change — you had people who think of themselves as evangelicals wired to the gills and consuming exactly the same media as everyone else. Yes, this is a news story.

I am not saying, of course, that “the devil (media) made them do it.” I am saying that these changes are in some way signs of changing patterns in American homes. And then the divorce rate started to rise and, after a decade or two, finally, so-called conservative churches started worrying about this and trying to do something. This reality may affect politics (arguments over sex education programs), but the more important stories are back in the homes and the pews.

Churches on the left may not talk about these issues at all, since the baptism of the sexual revolution is part of the evolving creed at many of their altars. And what about the Catholics and, let me tweak my own flock, the Orthodox? Mostly silence, with few leaders attempting to address the trends and the harsh realities.

Anyway, back to my next speaking engagement. Please check out the Lott and Sharlet pieces. Much to think about there, as they dissect that interesting ghost (to freely mix a metaphor).

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Katha Pollitt to the rescue

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

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

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

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

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McMansions on a hill (continued)

McMansion2GetReligion has front-page readers and then it has comments readers. Thus, I wanted to pull a comment or two out front from the McMansions ghost post, so that more people can see them.

Oh, I also need to add my confession about housing. Yes, I now live in a 1930s Craftsman-era bungalow in an older neighborhood — only one that is currently not hot enough to attract McMansions. Yet. (Click here to see what this whole trend actually looks like on the ground.)

In terms of the ghost that was haunting me, Dan Berger nails it:

Here’s a ghost: when was the last time you saw something both serious and profound written about the Seven Deadly Sins? Like Greed? … I’m reminded of the apocryphal story about a clergy conference in which one of the speakers asks, “Is it possible to own a house that is sinfully large? And how large would it have to be?” From the back, someone piped up, “Bigger than mine!”

Posted by Dan Berger at 9:01 am on October 11, 2005

Also, I invited Rod “Friend of this Blog” Dreher of The Dallas Morning News to write in about this topic, since he has dedicated an entire chapter to the topic in his upcoming book Crunchy Cons.

Dreher’s main point echoes that of Berger and can be stated in a question: Would newspapers dare to write about strongly spiritual subjects that are not obvious, on their face, in a news trend? Is it possible to write about greed, other than in the context of Enron? Lust, other than in the context of, oh, the Bill Clinton era?

In this case, the ghost is there and its name is “consumerism,” a sin that is very easy for me to spot in the mirror (I don’t know about you). Here is the body of Dreher’s letter:

1. As David Brooks has observed, many modern people make up for the spiritual emptiness in their lives by fetishizing material objects. I don’t suppose that’s really a modern thing; after all, the Israelites fetishized the Golden Calf. Its modern version, though, comes with the kind of lifestyle you see celebrated in the upscale shelter magazines. It’s easy for me to see that secular lefties fetishize the old historic houses as embodiments of a certain spiritual purity they see threatened by McMansionization, and what it represents (the “More, Faster” society of rampant consumerism).

2. On the other hand, a religious conservative like me arrives at much the same place, for different reasons. I don’t think I’m a better person for having chosen this old house of ours, but I do think, in a sacramental sense, it mediates a spiritual ideal of modesty and simple beauty, which I find much preferable to the McMansion ethos. And it’s important, I think, to conserve old places, because of the links they provide with our past.

Our neighborhood in Dallas doesn’t look like all the other neighborhoods, and the people who moved in long before us, when it was a dismal, drug-infested slum, worked real hard to reclaim the original beauty and integrity of these old houses, and restore the neighborhood to its original charm. All the things they fought for are now being challenged by Republican developers, and Texans who believe in the sacredness of Private Propitty. You can drive around my neighborhood and see obnoxious McMansions that dwarf the other older, more modest houses. What this says to me is that the person who builds and owns the McMansion says to his putative neighbors: Screw you people, I’m going to do what I want to do, and you’ve just got to live with it.

3. In this sense, perhaps, what secular lefties in that Maryland neighborhood are fighting is an individualistic ethic that asserts the right to disregard tradition and the sensibility of the community for the sake of exercising the sovereignty of the individual. As I believe a lot of what’s wrong with this country is out-of-control individualism (on the left, resulting in the extolling of sexual libertinism, and on the right resulting in the extolling of shopping), I would come together with the left-liberals in this neighborhood as a matter of principle. How we arrived at the idea that the old neighborhood ought to be defended is, to the outsider, a distinction without a difference. What matters is that we stand by tradition and community.

Posted by Rod Dreher at 2:40 pm on October 11, 2005

As you can see, there is more to this specific issue than left-right politics or even theology.

“Tradition and community”? Sounds rather religious to these Eastern Orthodox ears.

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Breaking news: Britain’s church is dead

churchI am sad to report that the Church of England is passing away, at least according to this article in the Daily Telegraph I stumbled upon yesterday.

As I continue to unscientifically poll the British newspapers while riding the London Underground, I have discovered that my initial findings — that there is an “absence of religion coverage” — was not quite accurate, as many of you have pointed out. The papers do cover religion, but not in a way that would make anyone jump for joy at the thought of attending a church service.

A reader of ours, Lee, alerted us to the doomsday Telegraph story that finds the Anglican church past the point of bankruptcy:

Britain’s Churches are in such serious decline that if they were shops, they would have been declared bankrupt long ago, Lord Carey, the former archbishop of Canterbury, said last night.

In a bleak assessment of the future of Christianity in this country, he said that the Churches were approaching meltdown and the “last rites” could be administered at any moment.

In a lecture in a Buckinghamshire church, Dr Carey expressed his exasperation that his efforts to revive the Church of England in the 1990s had been frustrated by lack of support from the clergy.

He delivered a warning to his successor, Dr Rowan Williams, that his initiatives could meet a similar fate.

“Last rites,” “bankrupt,” “meltdown,” “despair,” “plunging congregations,” “club of the elderly” are all quite depressing words for describing Anglican churches.

I guess this story could be reporting the true condition of the Church of England. I am not the expert. The rest of the article deals with the political repercussions of Dr. Carey’s assessment. But there is room for a positive thought at the end of the article:

However, Dr Carey said there was also good news. He cited the 2001 census, in which 72 per cent of the population described themselves as Christian, and said that there was still a “deep allegiance” between nation and Church.

He said the Church had to ["]focus on mission from top to bottom” or it would become “an irrelevancy in the nation and a club for the old, the resigned and those tired of life.”

I don’t know about Dr. Carey’s prediction, but I can personally report that in attending St Helen’s Church in London Sunday evening, I found a packed house of mostly students and young professionals with nary a chair to spare and a Wednesday evening Bible study attended by a similar audience flowing with lively discussion of the Bible.

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Return of the HHGR weblog at CT

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

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