From the specific to the overstated

newsweek082605Newsweek‘s latest cover package is a religion writer’s dream — 16 pages of prime editorial space to discuss American religions in their ever-expanding diversity and custom-tailored worldviews.

The package is strongest, though, when it focuses on the individual details: an evangelical in West Virginia who’s an environmental activist; life at a Southern California mosque; a Church of God in Christ bishop in Memphis who is the denomination’s president; an African American Baptist Buddhist; observant young Catholics at Franciscan University of Steubenville; and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a Kabbalah teacher based in Boulder, Colo.

Jerry Adler, author of the mainbar, pokes justifiable fun at Time magazine’s “Is God Dead?” cover package from April 1966:

History records that the vanguard of angst-ridden intellectuals in Time, struggling to imagine God as a cloud of gas in the far reaches of the galaxy, never did sweep the nation. What was dying in 1966 was a well-meaning but arid theology born of rationalism: a wavering trumpet call for ethical behavior, a search for meaning in a letter to the editor in favor of civil rights. What would be born in its stead, in a cycle of renewal that has played itself out many times since the Temple of Solomon, was a passion for an immediate, transcendent experience of God. And a uniquely American acceptance of the amazingly diverse paths people have taken to find it.

Adler (supported by reporting from six other Newsweek writers) makes some tooth-grinding generalizations himself, and one doesn’t need another 40 years to recognize them. Here are several.

A false choice

“You can know all about God,” says Tony Campolo, a prominent evangelist [not to mention his decades-long career as a sociology professor], “but the question is, do you know God? You can have solid theology and be orthodox to the core, but have you experienced God in your own life?” In the broadest sense, Campolo says, the Christian believer and the New Age acolyte are on the same mission: “We are looking for transcendence in the midst of the mundane.” And what could be more mundane than politics? Seventy-five percent say that a “very important” reason for their faith is to “forge a personal relationship with God” — not fighting political battles.

Today, then, the real spiritual quest is not to put another conservative on the Supreme Court, or to get creation science into the schools. If you experience God directly, your faith is not going to hinge on whether natural selection could have produced the flagellum of a bacterium. If you feel God within you, then the important question is settled; the rest is details.

Has any Intelligent Design advocate ever suggested that Christian faith should depend on whether natural selection produced the flagellum of a bacterium?

Oh, really?

In America even atheists are spiritualists, searching for meaning in parapsychology and near-death experiences. There is a streak in the United States of relying on what Pacific Lutheran’s Killen calls “individual visceral experience” to validate religious ideas.

Examples, please, of atheists who put their faith in parapsychology or near-death experiences. Even one example would be nice.

Misunderstanding tongues

“For people who feel overlooked, it provides a sense that you’re a very important person,” observes Harvey Cox of the Harvard Divinity School. By the same token, people with social aspirations preferred other churches, but nowadays Pentecostalism — the faith of former attorney general John Ashcroft — has lost its stigma as a religion of the poor. And elements of Pentecostal worship are invading other denominations, a change that coincided with the introduction of arena-style screens in churches, replacing hymnals and freeing up people’s hands to clap and wave. Naturally, there is some attenuation as you move up the socioeconomic scale. Babbling in foreign-sounding “tongues” turns into discreet murmurs of affirmation.

Actually, most tongue-speakers understand their gift as focusing on communication with God.

Syncretism in Cambridge? Shut up!

Stephen Cope, who attended Episcopal divinity school but later trained as a psychotherapist, dropped into a meditation center in Cambridge, Mass., one day and soon found himself spending six hours every Sunday sitting and walking in silent contemplation. Then he added yoga to his routine, which he happily describes as “like gasoline on fire” when it comes to igniting a meditative state. And the great thing is, he still attends his Episcopal church — a perfect example of the new American spirituality, with a thirst for transcendence too powerful to be met by just one religion.

Memo to Newsweek: At Episcopal Divinity School of Cambridge, Mass. — easily the most theologically liberal seminary in a mostly liberal denomination — Stephen Cope’s experience is more likely to be the norm rather than the exception. To what extent this represents mainstream Christianity is far less clear.

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Where are you on the creation scale?

Has anyone else taken Beliefnet’s “creation” test yet? Let us know how you score.

But I have a question for our friends at Beliefnet about one of their questions. It looks like this:

Q8. If it were true that humans evolved from other animals by random chance and were not intentionally created by God, then . . .

1. My religious faith would be shaken.
2. It would not affect my religious beliefs.
3. It would reinforce my belief that only matter exists

This gets us right back to one of the big questions raised in our still evolving thread here about the New York Times’ mega-series about the competing priesthoods in the Darwinism debate. The Beliefnet question assumes that someone can prove randomness in a lab. They can create evidence that helps them make the case, but they are going to have to interpret the data — a process that involves worldview and belief.

So this question short-circuits the science/logic/philosophy sequence. This is, of course, the heart of the story that jouralists are struggling to cover.

Did the ghost of Dr. Carl Sagan write that question?

You want to know my results on the 0 to 70 scale? You can probably guess. I am not a “Young Earth Believer,” of course, but I could not help but notice that, on the “results” page that popped up, the Beliefnet editors had described that option with the following information:

0 – 27 — Young Earth Believer: When it comes to the origins of the universe and of life, the Bible is your guide. Read William Dembski’s case for teaching intelligent design in classrooms here.

Now wait a minute. I know Dr. William Dembski — an Orthodox guy with a stack of earned degrees including a doctorate in math from that famous fundamentalist institution called the University of Chicago — and this is not a “Young Earth Believer” kind of a guy, although he is now linked to a Southern Baptist seminary.

Did someone on the Beliefnet staff do the coding on that page wrong? Was it a mistake for Dembski to be linked with that stance?

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About the “lifestyle left”

010827allergies insideWhat exactly is your snotty little phrase “lifestyle liberal” supposed to mean?

Posted by Frank at 10:03 am on August 26, 2005

Well, Frank, we live in an age in which the major political divisions are not over the classic left-right issues of economics, labor, environment, peace, education, etc. The dividing lines are all about social and moral issues — lifestyle issues. It’s the age we live in.

Thus, I often refer to “cultural conservatives” in GetReligion posts, even though that number would include some old-line Democrats and populists, when it comes to the old-fashioned issues of liberalism. I also use the term “lifestyle left” to talk about those who are lifestyle Libertarians, even if they are in the GOP.

When the U.S. Supreme Court hearings get rolling, watch carefully and you’ll see this dynamic at work. Then watch how people vote.

For a previous discussion on this topic, click here. Or you might even take a look at my Scripps Howard News Service column this week, which focuses on how this is affecting Democrats and even James “It’s the economy, stupid” Carville.

Does this answer your question?

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Memo to Pat Robertson: Please fire yourself

Ah, where to begin on the continuing story of the Rev. Pat Robertson, regent of Virginia Beach?

I would like to flash back, if I may, to an event at the Ethics & Public Policy Center days after the 2000 election. From time to time, Michael Cromartie puts together high-powered panels of speakers who react to trends in the news. In this case, the goal was to do a quick deconstruction of role that religious faith played in the election — only the election was, of course, still twisting slowly in the wind.

The leaders of this particular discussion (click here to see a transcript) were two veteran election commentators — John Green of the University of Akron and John DiIulio of the University of Pennsylvania. The room was full of experienced reporters, including Michael Barone of Fox News, U.S. News & World Report, The Almanac of American Politics and lots of other places. Afterward, several participants lingered to talk about the election stories that the MSM missed as well as the ones that made it into print and video.

It was Barone who made the most interesting point. One of the most important stories that went untold, he said, was the behind-the-scenes efforts made by Bush campaign insiders to keep the old lions of the Religious Right out of the spotlight. This could not have been easy, seeing as how Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and others crave face time with candidates when cameras are near. But someone had cut them out or convinced them to stand down. In their place, some new faces began to emerge — such as Rick Warren and Kirbyjon Caldwell.

Someone — I honestly don’t remember who — summed up the heart of this untold story this way: “I wonder who managed to get Pat Robertson to shut up?”

Righto. That job would require a miracle worker.

This story rolls on and on, which means that the place to go for all of the links is the Christianity Today blog. You have had people leap to make fun of the Rev. Pat (headline: “God Denies Links to Pat Robertson”). Hip evangelicals have been doing this for years (art from The Wittenburg Door). There have even been a few brave religious conservatives who have asked him which part of those 10 Commandments he fails to grasp.

In the MSM, Baltimore Sun reporter Arthur Hirsch has one of the best stories, focusing on a question of substance rather than straw-man destruction. It is the question that Barone and others were discussing back in 2000. What power does Pat Robertson have, anyway, other than serving as the punching bag that liberals love to prop up as the symbolic religious conservative day after day, week after week, world without end, amen? Has he become the lifestyle left’s best friend?

Tim Simpson, director of religious affairs for a new left-leaning group called the Christian Alliance for Progress, said the impact of Robertson’s remarks broadcast Monday on The 700 Club suggests that he cannot be easily dismissed. “One does that at one’s own peril,” said Simpson. “I take him dead seriously.”

(cough, cough) Here is a more constructive quote about the style and clout of the senator’s son:

“He is actually very, very smart and has an impressive set of credentials,” said Laura R. Olson, associate professor of political science at Clemson University and co-author of Religion and Politics in America. “He’s not just a hick from the mountains who came down and decided to talk about politics.”

She argued that if Robertson has lost much of the clout he wielded in the early 1990s, it’s due in part to his success in establishing Christian conservatism as a broad force in American politics. With so many more Christian conservative organizations active in politics, many of them focused on local organizing and local concerns, she said, it is more difficult for any one figure to dominate the national stage.

“I don’t know if I want to go so far as to say that Robertson is irrelevant,” said Olson. She also could not quite fathom the method behind Robertson’s pattern of making public statements that many consider outrageous.

The key is that Robertson has been playing this role for a long, long time, noted veteran scribe Richard N. Ostling of The Associated Press. For example:

Six years ago, Robertson said the U.S. could send agents to kill Osama bin Laden, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il and Saddam Hussein. “Isn’t it better to do something like that . . . to take out Saddam Hussein, rather than to spend billions of dollars on a war that harms innocent civilians and destroys the infrastructure of a country?”

Ostling then serves up the must-have feature of the day, a kind of “greatest hits” collection from the mouth of the near South. There really isn’t time to cover them all, of course. But who among us God-fearing newspaper readers can forget:

And in launching a 21-day “prayer offensive” in 2003 to pray for three justices to leave the U.S. Supreme Court after it had decriminalized sodomy, Robertson said: “We ask for miracles in regard to the Supreme Court.” One justice was 83 years old and two others had serious ailments, he noted.

And the hits (so to speak) just keep on coming.

It is, of course, impossible to make a wealthy religious broadcaster vanish from the airwaves since he can pay his own bills. The 700 Club also retains a niche audience. Would Pat Robertson have the guts to fire Pat Robertson? Right now, there are more people on the cultural right yearning for that outcome than there are on the left.

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Methinks something is missing here

Perhaps this miffed me a bit, since I wrote my column this week on a related topic (hooked to an amazing document [10-page PDF] from a trinity of Democratic Party strategists). But read this new Los Angeles Times story by reporter Maura Reynolds and see if you can think of one or two specific words, or issues, that have been omitted.

OK, it refers to one of the big missing words in an indirect way. I’ll grant that. But the Democrats are trying to find ways to avoid speaking certain words. This article is cut from that set of talking points.

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Too much play

Looks like I wasn’t the only one who protested the level of news-play Gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson received for his noisy memorial service last weekend. MarketWatch’s Jon Friedman objected as well:

And, of course, the media went along for the ride. While the event didn’t quite overtake the likes of Natalee Holloway, it did draw lots of coverage in print and on TV.

I have a one-word reaction: Argggggghhhhh.

Why did journalists think this was newsworthy? It only goes so far to rationalize that these nostalgia freaks desperately wanted to resurrect the spirit of the (19)60s (I guess they couldn’t get tickets for the Rolling Stones’ tour-opening concert in Boston on Sunday night).

I haven’t found anyone at MarketWatch who’s upset over the coverage — or lack thereof — of World Youth Day, but many of you supported my annoyance of the way it was covered. Of course some of you didn’t, but that’s fine. It’s why we use the Internet for our news.

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The Times speaks: “No miracles allowed”

“The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.”

This is, of course, the famous credo used time and time again by the late Dr. Carl Sagan. What has always fascinated me about this statement is its open use of religious — even creedal — form and its willingness to launch beyond the rules of science and into a kind of anti-theology.

How, in a lab, can one prove under the rules of science that the material world is all there is? How does one run scientific experiments in the past? And how in the world does one claim to be able to test the future?

Sagan knew what he was doing, of course. I had a chance to ask him about it. He knew his famous Cosmos series was making an argument that the scientific evidence backed up these sweeping truth claims that carried him far outside the rules of research. He believed he had the facts on his side and, thus, he was willing to make a leap of faith from facts to a larger philosophy. Then he became an evangelist for this philosophical point of view.

I was reminded of Sagan while reading the massive New York Times series on how the priesthood of modern science is responding to the rebels gathered under the banner of Intelligent Design. Click here to go to a clearinghouse page for all of the Gray Lady’s efforts on this issue in the recent past.

Clearly we are in the midst of a blitz. Cages have been rattled.

As I have stated before, I try to stay on the fringes of this issue because I have so many close friends who are at the heart of it. So take what I say here with a grain of salt. It should also be noted that the scope of this Times series is so large that it would take days to respond to it point by point.

On the whole, I think it is a rather mixed bag. There is some give and take by the most intelligent voices on each side of the debate and that is a good thing. I am sure the powers that be in the newsroom believe it is a totally balanced package. For example, the reports do stress that the ID leaders are, if anything, trying to increase the amount of attention evolution is given in the classroom, not ban the theory. They simply want students exposed to the debates that are already taking place within the scientific community. They also do not think the religious implications of these debates — on either side of the table — should be included in public classrooms. The ID leaders want this to be a scientific discussion. However, this would apply to Darwinian philosophy as well as to deism or theism.

I digress. There are times in the Times, however, when it is clear that the scientific arguments at the heart of the story simply cannot be covered in depth in a newspaper series. When this happens, the Times uses this formula: The controversial religious people make this claim. The real scientists make this response, based on facts. That’s that. There is no need to let the critics respond to their critics.

At one key moment, reporter Jodi Wilgoren even slips into the old “fundamentalist” trap, violating logic, the facts and The Associated Press Stylebook all at the same time. Here is the context, speaking of the ID leaders:

Their credentials — advanced degrees from Stanford, Columbia, Yale, the University of Texas, the University of California — are impressive, but their ideas are often ridiculed in the academic world.

“They’re interested in the same things I’m interested in — no one else is,” Guillermo Gonzalez, 41, an astronomer at the University of Iowa, said of his colleagues at Discovery. “What I’m doing, frankly, is frowned upon by most of my colleagues. It’s not something a ‘scientist’ is supposed to do.” Other than Dr. Berlinski, most fellows, like their financiers, are fundamentalist Christians, though they insist their work is serious science, not closet creationism.

What does the word “fundamentalist” mean in this context, when speaking of a group that includes Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and a dozen other faith traditions? Why use this word? Is the goal to underline a basic assumption that one side uses faith and the other intellect?

Let me conclude by returning to Sagan. The various Times writers seem to glimpse, every now and then, the larger fact that Darwinian orthodoxy makes truth claims that are based on claims of logic as well as laboratory results. What they seem to miss is that the Intelligent Design people want to use the same sequence as Sagan. They believe that laboratory evidence and logic point to an unknown designer — something that cannot be tested in a lab by science. But what they also want people to note is that the ultimate claim made by many in the Darwinian priesthood also cannot be tested.

In academic circles, evolution has been defined as an “unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable, and natural process . . . that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments.”

The controversy centers on the words “unsupervised” and “impersonal.” That is the heart of this story. These are the words that Sagan and others cannot test in a laboratory, yet many still believe they are at the heart of all legitimate science. For, you see, any involvement whatsoever by a Divine Person — any meaningful role for a Creator — is called a miracle. That is bad. Millions and millions of taxpayers, representing (cue: Sagan voice) billions and billions of tax dollars, must be shown the light.

Thus, the Times notes:

. . . (M)ainstream scientists say that the claims of intelligent design run counter to a century of research supporting the explanatory and predictive power of Darwinian evolution, and that the design approach suffers from fundamental problems that place it outside the realm of science. For one thing, these scientists say, invoking a higher being as an explanation is unscientific.

“One of the rules of science is, no miracles allowed,” said Douglas H. Erwin, a paleobiologist at the Smithsonian Institution. “That’s a fundamental presumption of what we do.”

That does not mean that scientists do not believe in God. Many do. But they see science as an effort to find out how the material world works, with nothing to say about why we are here or how we should live. And in that quest, they say, there is no need to resort to otherworldly explanations.

Thus, one side gets to use the equation — science, logic, philosophy — but the other side does not. One side gets to make leaps of faith in the public square, but the other side does not. Rules are rules.

Dr. Sagan would be proud.

P.S. For a lively discussion of the terms that journalists are tossing about in this coverage, click here for a visit with William Safire.

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Preaching in Billy Graham’s shadow

TwoGrahamsPeter J. Boyer of The New Yorker has become an indispensable reporter on the Godbeat, and his recent story on Billy and Franklin Graham is another solid achievement. (The article, from the Aug. 22 issue, is not available online, but the magazine atones for that by offering an engaging slideshow of black-and-white photos by Mary Ellen Mark, along with an audio track by Boyer.)

Boyer focuses strongly on the differences between father and son, and those differences defy stereotypes. So often the script for a World War II-era father and his Baby Boomer son would be that the elderly father is a crusty ideologue and the son is more experimental and laissez-faire. Not so here:

Although Franklin’s preaching style is cooler and more conversational than his father’s he is much less willing to smooth the edges of the faith. If Billy’s theme, especially in his later years, was the saving grace of God’s love, Franklin’s is more elemental. “My message is very focussed,” he says. “My message is to call on people to repent their sins.” Franklin believes in a sulfurous Hell, and has no doubt about who is going to be there. “The Bible says every knee under the earth, every knee that’s in Hell, one day is going to bow,” he says. “And every tongue is going to confess Him as Lord one day. Now, either you’re going to do it voluntarily and submit your heart to the Lord Jesus Christ, or you’re going to be forced. And when you’re forced it’s going to be too late then.”

Boyer’s 13-page article is a thorough survey of the highlights in Billy Graham’s long vocation as an itinerant evangelist, and of his role in giving evangelicalism a public face. Boyer is especially strong in explaining Graham’s decisive break from fundamentalism. (This article is a rare case of using that word accurately and without a sneer.)

The article glosses over some of Billy Graham’s harder edges as a younger preacher. Some of Graham’s critics in the 1950s were just as troubled by his remarks on communism as today’s critics would be by Franklin Graham’s remarks on Islam.

Still, the article also mentions that Franklin already has attracted the respect of Richard Holbrooke’s, President Clinton’s former Ambassador to the United Nations:

Holbrooke says that Graham has been “enormously important” in the fight against AIDS abroad. “Samaritan’s Purse created one of the most important new developments in American foreign policy in the last generation — the entry of Christian conservatives into American foreign policy as pro-foreign-aid people.”

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