Two fine entrées & a shot of bile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I sense that Kristol is annoyed when I mention it.

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

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

Suppose it is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What kind of Catholic can judge?

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

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

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

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

Take it away:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s the age we live in.

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The gay priest debate renewed

8700228457There’s more big news from the Catholic Church this week. As most of you probably already know, the Vatican is considering a ban on homosexuals from the priesthood. This is certain to create a new intense round of debate in the mass media on the nature of homosexuality and of the priesthood. I haven’t had the time to do a thorough search yet of the coverage, but it seems that The New York Times is on top of the issue:

Investigators appointed by the Vatican have been instructed to review each of the 229 Roman Catholic seminaries in the United States for “evidence of homosexuality” and for faculty members who dissent from church teaching, according to a document prepared to guide the process.

The Vatican document, given to The New York Times yesterday by a priest, surfaces as Catholics await a Vatican ruling on whether homosexuals should be barred from the priesthood.

In a possible indication of the ruling’s contents, the American archbishop who is supervising the seminary review said last week that “anyone who has engaged in homosexual activity or has strong homosexual inclinations” should not be admitted to a seminary.

The Associated Press was onto the story two days before the Times, but I’m guessing the Times was merely waiting to make a big splash with exclusive documents and the like.

As this story unfolds, watch for quotes from the usual suspects, outrage from Andrew Sullivan, and much gnashing of teeth on both sides of the issue. And for some more background about this ongoing story, click here. Stay tuned.

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Gotta love that Post blog

It’s rather hard to get through the working day with a live video feed on your computer screen showing the U.S. Senate hearings on John Roberts. But I think The Washington Post‘s blog is amazing. Then, of course, there is National Review Online’s Bench Memos blog. What other blogs are readers following right now? This is all just another sign of an evolving technology and its changing role in our lives. Is anyone vblogging yet?

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Mama mia, that’s a spicy deity

meatballs 01My oh my, am I scared to blog about this story from the Telegraph right now. Nevertheless, rest assured that if I were to interview Bobby Henderson about his faith, I would do my best — iTalk is a wonderful thing — to quote him accurately and make sure that people know where he is coming from. That is what journalists do. Luckily, it does appear that he is rather candid about his views (even though his summary of the Intelligent Design mainstream is laugh out loud funny). But, hey, he is trying to be funny.

In an open letter to the Kansas Board of Education in July, Mr. Henderson wrote: “I think we can all agree that it is important for students to hear multiple viewpoints so they can choose for themselves the theory that makes the most sense to them. I am concerned, however, that students will only hear one theory of Intelligent Design. “I and many others around the world are of the strong belief that the universe was created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster.”

Oh, one more thing: I am 99.9 percent sure that the Scopes trial took place in Tennessee, not Kansas.

I will go hide now.

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Religion news in 70-point type

image 37495There is an old saying in the world of mass media theory (especially if you hang around the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) that “technology shapes content.” This is certainly true in the world of newspapers. Ask any layout specialist or headline writer who has ever tried to make the move from a broadsheet newspaper to one that uses a tabloid format.

So I could not help but notice the splashy main headline on today’s edition of the express, which is the free mini-tabloid The Washington Post publishes these days for commuters and/or people with thin wallets or short attention spans. In gigantic letters, someone on the express copy desk had summed up an ocean of ink dedicated to the U.S. Senate hearings on the chief justice nominee with this simple statement: “ROBERTS & ROE.”

Our nation’s political life does seem to have all boiled down to that, if you read the major papers or turn on the cable news shows.

The MSM bottom line (click here for a quick Howie Kurtz summary) seems to be that Roe is a lock-solid decision and that overturning it is unthinkable, which rather raises the question of why, after all these years, people still have to worry about it in 70-something point headline type.

Perhaps that rather large headline means something else. Perhaps the nation is rather divided on the issue. Perhaps journalists really do realize, deep down, that about 20 percent of the population — 10 percent on each extreme — truly has its mind made up and the great muddled middle is lost in a storm of emotions and the vague wordings of agenda-driven pollsters. And perhaps there is more to this than politics.

Thus, I also thought that it was interesting that my morning email version of the Post including the following assignment in its topical index:


Roberts Avoids Specifics on Abortion Issue

John G. Roberts Jr. testified yesterday that he believes that the Constitution protects the right to privacy, the legal underpinning of the nation’s landmark abortion law, but he refused to say whether he would vote to uphold Roe v. Wade if he is confirmed as chief justice of the United States.

(By Amy Goldstein and Charles Babington, The Washington Post)

Religion does, of course, show up over and over in the story, and not just in the drumbeat paragraphs about abortion rights. I thought it was interesting that the senators flashed back to the old Bob Jones University case about God and interracial dating. Thus, the Post reports that:

One of the few issues on which Roberts dissented yesterday from Reagan-era policy involved the case of Bob Jones University, in which that administration unsuccessfully argued that the fundamentalist school qualified for federal tax breaks under a law passed by Congress despite its ban on interracial dating. In a 1983 memo, Roberts wrote that the administration “did not feel Congress had given the IRS the authority” to remove the school’s tax-exempt status. Yesterday, he told senators he did not believe the Reagan administration had taken “the correct position” on Bob Jones.

This is interesting to me, since I was involved in graduate seminars in Church-State Studies during the years that led up to that decision. At the time, all kinds of church-state experts — left and right — were worried about the Bob Jones case, in part thinking that bad cases make for bad law. It is possible that the Reagan team was thinking what the church-state people were thinking — that it is dangerous to give the government the power to single out and punish a religious group for its doctrines, even if those doctrines are wacko and-or vile. Religious liberty is built by protecting the rights of a lot of people with whom you might not want to share a vacation or even eternity.

Anyway, it does seem that the religion-abortion link is going to continue through the likely outcome of the Roberts hearings, which is a confirmation divided along party lines. The Post also wants to make sure that we know that they know who thinks they won in the first round of this verbal test.

Outside the hearing room, Roberts’s handling of the abortion issue appeared to frustrate abortion rights proponents, while pleasing antiabortion groups. In front of the Capitol, about a dozen Planned Parenthood Protesters wore shirts emblazoned with the words “Answer the Question.” Kate Michelman, the former president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said, “I don’t think we have any clarity yet on his views about Roe and privacy as it relates to reproductive freedom as a fundamental right.”

Jay Sekulow of the conservative American Center for Law and Justice said Roberts’s description of when courts should be willing to rethink precedents “left the door open” to the possibility he might vote to overturn Roe. “As someone who takes a pro-life position, I was extremely pleased with the answers he gave,” he said.

Ah, the usual suspects.

UPDATE: You can, of course, turn to Amy Welborn and the Open Book crowd for mucho commentary on Roberts and his “JFK moment” in the hearings.

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hypeThe news out of China is that the Pope has angered the Communist government by publicly inviting bishops from China after inviting a bishop from Taiwan. Sounds like a spat one sees in a Hollywood chick flick, but it’s more serious than that. In what is a complicated series of diplomatic events, I believe some of the mainstream media covering the issue may have exaggerated events just a tad.

It’s all gloom and doom in the International Herald Tribune:

In a setback for Pope Benedict XVI’s efforts to improve its official ties with China, the authorities in Beijing have rejected a Vatican invitation to four Chinese Catholic bishops to attend a church conference in Rome.

The news is even more depressing in The Times of India (the headline takes the cake, by the way):

BEIJING: Pope Benedict XVI is faced with one of his most serious challenges with China’s officially approved church refusing to attend the forthcoming synod in Rome in October. The move has dashed hopes of reconciliation in the frozen relationship between the Chinese government and the Vatican.

At the heart of the refusal by the official church to participate in the synod is that the Vatican has invited a bishop from Taiwan, which China regards as part of its own territory. The Vatican has invited Catholic bishops from China’s official church, the unofficial church and also from Taiwan.

But the scribes of doom may end up being wrong after all. An analysis by AsiaNews shows that things might not be so bad (thanks to Catholic World News for the link):

There have been signs that Beijing might drop the Maoist policy soon. In June, Beijing accepted the Vatican’s choice of a bishop for Shanghai’s official church. In return, the Vatican agreed not to recognize a successor to the current bishop of Shanghai’s underground church when he passes away. And dual appointments of bishops have become a common practice, promising to remove the divide between the official and underground churches.

If you read the stories in The Times of India and the IHT, you will find that AsiaNews had access to basically the same set of facts.

It’s typical of the media to make events out to be greater than they are. This type of hype proves to be most problematic in diplomatic situations. Complicated and intricate, they can confound a reporter. Measured reports on what may seem to be significant developments are the key, I believe.

Who’s to know how the situation between the Vatican and China will turn out? My guess is that it’s one of those “one step backwards for two steps forwards” situations.

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Who was left behind? And why?

052404novakmichaelPlease consider this a short follow-up post after my recent “Watching Katrina with Sen. Moynihan” effort. You may recall that this raised some questions about the moral, cultural and even religious issues looming in the background of the failed evacuation of New Orleans.

A key question: To what degree is this tragedy rooted in questions linked to family life and, in particular, the lack of fathers in most impoverished homes? I suggested that, at some point, these questions would begin to influence discussions of the future of New Orleans, or at least the city core in Orleans Parish.

Soon thereafter, David Brooks wrote about this issue in The New York Times:

In those cultural zones, many people dropped out of high school, so it seemed normal to drop out of high school. Many teenage girls had babies, so it seemed normal to become a teenage mother. It was hard for men to get stable jobs, so it was not abnormal for them to commit crimes and hop from one relationship to another. Many people lacked marketable social skills, so it was hard for young people to learn these skills from parents, neighbors and peers.

If we just put up new buildings and allow the same people to move back into their old neighborhoods, then urban New Orleans will become just as rundown and dysfunctional as before.

Meanwhile, the conservative Catholic scholar Michael Novak — winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion — wrote an essay at National Review Online that dug into the 2000 census data for New Orleans.

It is sobering reading, but I urge those who are interested in the future of the Crescent City to take the plunge. Sadly, Novak (pictured) concludes that New Orleans is the “prototypical, old-time welfare-state city.” Who would be left stranded? Sadly, that was easy to predict:

In 2000, there were only 25,000 two-parent families in New Orleans with children under 18. By contrast, there were more than 26,000 female householders with children under 18, and no husband present. In other words, slightly more mothers all alone with children than married-couple mothers. In addition, there were more than 18,000 householders who were more than 65 years old and living alone. Of these, most would normally be female.

If you add together the 26,000 female householders with children under 18, no husband present, and the 18,000 householders more than 65 years old and living alone, that is an estimated 40,000 female-headed households. That explains the pictures we are seeing on television, which are overwhelming female, most often with young children. The chances of persons in this demographic being employed full-time, year round, and with a good income, are not high. The chances of them living in poverty, and without an automobile, are exceedingly high.

So what happened? We are only now beginning to see national-level media dig into this topic. This process will be painful, but there is no way around it.

Here is the opening of a blunt story in today’s Los Angeles Times, written by Nicholas Riccardi and James Rainey. The headline is like a brick up against the side of the head: “Save Yourself — New Orleans had a plan to warn the poor, but it sat on a shelf in L.A.”

NEW ORLEANS — After years of warnings, community leaders this summer prepared a video guide to hurricane evacuations with a stark message: Many of this city’s poor, including 134,000 without cars, could be left behind in a killer storm.

But the 30-minute DVD still has not arrived. Some 70,000 of the newly minted videos that were to be released this month remain on warehouse shelves in Los Angeles. Their warning: Save yourself, and help your neighbors if you can.

“Don’t wait for the city, don’t wait for the state, don’t wait for the Red Cross,” the Rev. Marshall Truehill warns in the public service announcement.

In the end, the family is the final safety net.

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