Maybe Stone should direct that Springer opera

StoneSome weeks, pop culture is stranger than fiction:

• The Guardian reports on a harmonic convergence of weirdness known as Jerry Springer: The Opera:

BBC director general Mark Thompson has defended its decision to screen controversial musical Jerry Springer — the Opera, saying “as a practising Christian” he did not find it blasphemous.

Mr Thompson was speaking for the first time about the hit West End show, which is due to air on BBC2 tomorrow night and has generated more than 20,000 complaints. Critics have complained that the show features 8,000 swear words and portrays Jesus in a nappy admitting he is a “bit gay”.

. . . But the BBC has so far held firm, and received the backing today of the show’s star, David Soul, who is also a Christian.

“Believe me, this show would never have got to where it is today if it was simply about blasphemy and bad language,” Soul told Radio 4′s Today programme. “I’m a Christian and I certainly don’t see it as blasphemy at all.” Soul, who came to fame in the ’70s as one half of TV cop duo Starsky and Hutch, accepted some people would be offended but said they could always turn off their televisions. “We have a right to enjoy the kind of quality entertainment that Jerry Springer is.”

The award-winning musical, co-written by Lee and composer Richard Thomas, is based on Springer’s infamous daytime talk show. The musical, seen by more than 500,000 people in the West End, features a diaper fetishist confessing all to his true love, a tap dance routine by the Ku Klux Klan and Jesus and the Devil in a swearing tirade against each other. The bishop of Manchester Nigel McCulloch, the Anglican church’s spokesman on broadcasting, has also expressed concerns about the show. “My worry is that this programme is a major departure from the current high expectations of viewers regarding offensive material on a publicly-funded public service channel,” he said.

• Safely out of the country for the U.K. premiere of Alexander, director Oliver Stone is free at last to reveal the insidious forces (other than hundreds of non-fundamentalist movie critics) who destroyed that film’s box-office potential:

He says: “Americans don’t read about ancient history like the Europeans. And in America there is a raging fundamentalism and morality.

“From day one the Bible Belt people did not show up because there was one phrase throughout the media and that was ‘Alex the gay’.

“So you can bet you’re a*s the Americans aren’t going to see a war hero who in their heads has something wrong with him.

• Harvey Fierstein talks with Jesse McKinley of The New York Times about playing Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof:

Q. Are you generally religious?

A. No, but I am Jewish. I was brought up in a home where my father spoke Yiddish, but we were High Holy Day Jews — and I’m not a High Holy Day Jew at all now. I’m of the community, not necessarily of the religion. But this has really brought out the Jew. I mean, I don’t believe in God, I don’t believe in heaven or hell, but I pray three or four times a day.

Q. Has your praying increased during rehearsal?

A. Only when I forget a line. You know how they say there are no atheists in the foxholes? Well, there’s no atheist at the Minskoff either.

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More theodicy

ChagalIn one of his books, Dilbert creator Scott Adams wrote that he feels whale guilt — not guilt that he’s not doing anything to save the whales per se, but guilt that he doesn’t feel guilty about not doing anything to save the whales.

In a related vein, I’ve tried to get worked up about the theodicy questions triggered by the recent tsunami, but I just can’t. Every time a major disaster strikes, writers and reporters ask anew, If there is a God, how can he allow this?

Some ask it like it’s a new question, or as if a failure to proffer a quick and convincing answer should put the lie to religion once and for all.

As Doug LeBlanc quoted the editors of Arts & Letters Daily quoting J.L. Mackie: “If God is God, he’s not good. If God is good, he’s not God. You can’t have it both ways, especially not after the Indian Ocean catastrophe.”

I repeat this here because New York Observer columnist Ron Rosenbaum followed the links and used them, along with a few stray e-mails, as an opportunity to revisit the “age old question” of theodicy. Rosenbaum calls it “an underappreciated scandal that, philosophically,” the question of theodicy “has not been satisfactorily settled without resort to vague evasions.”

Rosenbaum splashes into different puddles of intellectual history in such a way that many readers may wish he had tread more cautiously. He upbraids Voltaire for deliberately misreading G.W. Leibniz’s Theodicy.

Leibniz, Rosenbaum explains, claimed that “God created the best of all possible worlds consistent with free will . . . The best of all possible worlds consistent with the nature of human nature, in other words — and its predilection for choosing evil.” The question that Voltaire should have raised “is whether a better, less murderous human nature — consistent with free will — could have been created by Leibniz’s God.”

He meanders a bit before getting back to the theodicy of the tsunami: “[N]atural disasters are both more and less problematical for defenders of the faiths.” Less because floods or earthquakes or whatnot

don’t involve man-made evils and thus the question of the depravity of human nature — and the difficult question behind that question: whether humans are at fault for their depraved nature, or whether the deity who created them could have done a better job creating humanity consistent with free will.

More because these were, well, “acts of God.” Even the insurance companies deign to recognize the deity when the stuff really hits the fan. As Rosenbaum puts it, “If God is responsible for the fall of a sparrow, it’s hard to exempt him from other, more dramatic natural developments.”

Rosenbaum found himself sucked into a debate over on Beliefnet’s forums about the question of divine culpability for the tsunamis. He asked readers then, “Why this need to defend God?” Now he elaborates:

All so eager to rush forward and exonerate their version of God from any connection to the slaughter. It began to smack of “they doth protest too much”: The disaster somehow gets transformed into a display of God’s wonderfulness. In a way, doesn’t this sort of thinking suggest a kind of Stockholm syndrome? He’s the only God we’ve got, He’s got us imprisoned in this hell of a world — so, after a while, we worship Him.

Even a story of a premature baby, born as its mother was fleeing from the surging waves, sets Rosenbaum’s teeth on edge. Because the child’s father praises “God’s grace” for allowing the baby and the mother to come through alive, our modern-day wannabe Job launches into the following: “If you believe that God intervened to save this one little life, you have to believe that He chose not to intervene to save the lives of all the other children. He wanted them dead.”

I’d issue some kind of grand retort here but, like I said, this stuff just does not move me. That people are rotten, or that the earth shakes, it seems to me, do not count for much against the possibility of a good and loving God whose actions in this world are not always easy to discern or explain.

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"Countless Souls Cry Out to God"

Thai_waveIt took several days for the mainstream media to find a way to focus on the religious element of tsunami tragedy in South and Southeast Asia. This often happens with events that are simply too stunning and too important for the leaders of major print and electronic media to see them as “religion stories.”

How can this be a “religion story”? Many newsrooms do not even have a religion reporters (especially in television). The story is too big for the “religion niche.” It demands major attention, right now and for weeks to come.

Good grief, the “religion beat” doesn’t even have a travel budget, let alone extra funds for high-end graphics, photos from the other side of the world and, on the networks, its own epic/sad musical theme.

How can this be a religion story? It’s too BIG to be a religion story.

Then the religion questions start getting asked and, eventually, they make their way into the news.

Kenneth L. Woodward, the veteran Godbeat specialist at Newsweek, has been through this process many times through the decades. Thus, his religion sidebar looks at the obvious questions — Why us? Why here? Why now? — but with a twist. Simply stated: Different religions will ask different big questions. The headline called this event a “a cataclysm of biblical proportions,” but Woodward stressed that most of those affected — Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists — do not think in biblical terms. Here is a crucial section of his piece:

Caught up in the disaster, they had no time for religious ceremonies of any kind. In Sri Lanka, as in coastal southern India and along the beaches of Indonesia, there was only time to dig huge holes in the ground and shovel in the dead. “In this kind of tragedy, there is no religion,” said Syed Abdullah, a local imam in the ancient south Indian port of Nagapattinam, where Muslims, Hindus and Christians have lived together peacefully for centuries. “Let the dead be buried together. They died together in the sea. Let their souls get peace together.”

Woodward offers sketches of the faith issues that will arise in the region’s various faith traditions. In south India, for example, “Hindus tend to worship local deities, most of them female and far down the Hindu hierarchy of divinities. But like Shiva and other classic gods and goddesses, these local deities are ambivalent: they have the power to destroy as well as to create. The ocean itself is a terrible god who eats people and boats, but also provides fish as food.” Sooner or later, Buddhists will have to ask questions about karma and how their actions — individually or collectively — were connected to the tragedy. For Muslims, “All that happens is Allah’s doing, and nature itself wind, rain, storms constitutes signs of his mercy and compassion. Even the destructive tsunami, therefore, must have some hidden, positive purpose.”

Woodward’s conclusion is sobering: “Little wonder that from Sumatra to Madagascar, innumerable voices cry out to God. The miracle, if there is one, may be that so many still believe.”

For better or for worse, many journalists will try to see this tragedy in a Judeo-Christian context (even if they do not actually know much about Christianity or Judaism). As Doug LeBlanc has already noted, they will be led to the timeless questions of Job and other mysteries about the reality of evil, free will, a fallen creation and a loving Creator.

These are not trivial questions and, in many cases, news sources are not going to provide easy, sound-bite-friendly answers. Thus, as Philip Kennicott notes in the Washington Post, many media professionals are starting to get uneasy. In a brutally honest piece, he accuses many reporters — especially television reporters — of dashing through the bitter realities and tough questions in order to get to the heartwarming, photogenic, emotional happy endings.

We want hope and we want it — right now. We want good news and we want it — right now.

Here is Kennicott’s money quote:

Add this to the debate about whether religion is too absent, or too present, in American public life: The stories we tell about disasters such as the Asian tsunami are through and through religious narratives. The basic lines of the hope story are essentially theological — pain is viewed as a trial, followed by the redemption of hope and healing — and they break down into a neat, two-act structure. There may not be resurrection, but there are at least tales of miraculous survival.

Disaster also forces the skeptical mind to question God’s existence, and yet the media — supposedly so skeptical — do a virtuoso dance around the problem of God and His mercy. There are complicated theological ways around this problem, this dilemma of two Gods, one who wields earthquakes and waves like Zeus throwing thunderbolts, the other filled with compassion and alert to the power of prayer. While the media will occasionally raise the issue of doubt — or how religious leaders deal with doubt — they revert quickly, effortlessly, to an endorsement of orthodoxy. It is easier to report on people praying (the visuals are better) than it is to write about doubt. And doubt makes people angry. It shakes faith at a time when faith is under stress.

There is much more to this essay. But one point is essential. This is one case where orthodox believers are far more likely to be up front and honest about the Big Questions of faith and doubt than are many of the journalists who want to dash through to the glowing visuals and happy endings, if they can find any.

Journalists need to realize that, yes, this is a religion story. There are life-and-death issues at stake. People are asking questions for which there are no, absolutely no, easy answers. This is not sound-bite territory. People are looking way past deadlines and into eternity. The goal is to listen to their voices and tell their stories, even when what they have to say is mysterious and complicated.

P.S. Ted Olsen of Christianity Today Online has called in Rudy Carrasco as a guest blogger on the tsunami while Olsen and his assistant Rob Moll churn out their usual dizzying array of links on other topics. Also, the Religion Newswriters Association has assembled a ReligionLink site dedicated to resources to help reporters. Check it out.

Regarding the photo with this post: Jeff Hock shot it at Phuket, Thailand, on Dec. 26, and it appears with plenty of other images on waveofdestruction.org.

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Richard Land prefers the Pope's company

Richard_landHanna Rosin of The Washington Post has written a fairly good analysis for The Atlantic of religious believers’ role in the 2004 election. The central insight of the essay comes in this remark from Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission: “I’ve got more in common with Pope John Paul II than I do with Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton.”

“There’s a fault line running through American religions,” Land tells Rosin. “And that fault line is running not between denominations but through them.” This will not be news to anyone involved in the moral, political and theological debates of several denominations. Still, it may surprise people who are relatively content with their local church and don’t pay much attention to their denomination’s national profile.

Rosin’s story includes a few false notes. She says that “a coalition of congregations broke off” from the Episcopal Church after it consecrated an openly gay bishop, but the two most visible coalitions, the American Anglican Council and the Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes, both remain within the church.

On a humorous note, this is how she describes “freestyle evangelicals”:

They are often married women with children who attend one of those suburban megachurches where the doctrine is traditional but the style is modern. Their morals are conservative but their politics are more heterodox, featuring considerable support for education and the environment.

It will be news to Bill Hybels and hundreds of other pastors of suburban megachurches that “support for education and the environment” both qualify as heterodox politics within their congregations.

On another humorous note, here is how Rosin describes the omnipotence of the evil genius known as George W. Bush:

According to the National Catholic Reporter, last year Bush asked Vatican officials for help enlisting American bishops’ support on conservative issues. He held regular conference calls with Catholic conservatives, and hired Catholics to turn out the vote in their communities. He created an atmosphere that enabled a small group of outspoken leaders — including Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, Archbishop John Myers of Newark, Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis, Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs, and Bishop Paul Loverde of Arlington, Virginia — to make their case that public positions can’t be separated from private faith.

Bush “created the atmosphere” for Catholic bishops to speak to their flocks about moral concerns, such as abortion, that have long been part of Catholic doctrine? Let it be known far and wide: W now bestrides even American Catholicism like a colossus!

And on a final humorous note, I will add this remark to my still rather thin file of Republicans who claim God’s direct support for their party:

After the election the conservative luminary Paul Weyrich issued a letter to evangelicals exulting, “God is indeed a Republican. He must be. His hand helped re-elect a president, with a popular mandate.”

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Pro-Roe prolifers?

Abortion_sidesWilliam J. Stuntz, whose “Faculty Clubs and Church Pews” essay drew a year-end endorsement from New York Times columnist David Brooks, now lists the issues on which he believes the secular left and the Christian right may cooperate: abortion, poverty at home, poverty abroad and spreading freedom/nation building.

His thoughts on spreading freedom and nation building, like Terry’s post on Jan. 1, single out Tony Blair as defying Americans’ recent categories of polarization:

I haven’t noticed any groundswell of opposition from evangelicals to nation building in Afghanistan and Iraq. I have noticed that Tony Blair has become a hero among many evangelicals over the past couple of years, because he speaks so eloquently about the hellish suffering that the Taliban and Saddam Hussein inflicted on their peoples, and about the moral obligation of the rich world to do what it can to stop that suffering. Blair is a man of the left. He also appears to be a more-than-nominal Christian. That combination sounds contradictory only because we are too accustomed to the usual political categories. If the categories change, we might see a good many Tony Blairs — on this side of the Atlantic.

His proposals for fighting poverty at home are attractive . He emphasizes creating more wealth rather than transferring it, and fighting crime by decrease the frequency of punishment for certain crimes:

There is a kind of Laffer curve to criminal punishment — at some point, more bodies in the state penitentiary mean less deterrence. When a prison sentence is a rare event, it carries great stigma. Make it common, and it becomes a rite of passage, even a badge of honor. That does nothing to lessen the allure of crime and drugs for the young men who still live outside prison walls.

Stuntz admits that abortion is the most difficult topic on which to find common ground, and his proposal would ask the most of prolifers:

Pro-life Christians want to see fewer abortions. That is already happening: the abortion rate has been falling since 1981; from that year to 2000 the rate fell by 27 percent, according to census data. Among teenage girls, the decline is greater still. The abortion rate is probably lower today than in 1975; it might be lower than in 1972, the year before the Supreme Court legalized the practice nationwide. What lies behind these trends? Strangely enough, the answer has a lot to do with the law being pro-choice. When the culture is sharply divided on some kind of behavior, the side that wins the law’s endorsement tends to lose ground, culturally and politically. Roe v. Wade has been the pro-life movement’s friend. Those who want abortions to be rare would do well to keep them safe and legal.

. . . A lot of pro-lifers understand this, and their number is steadily growing. For the near future, the movement is likely to keep doing what works — finding ways to encourage young women to “choose life.” The old Clinton slogan — safe, legal, and rare — may actually become a reality. The compromise here is simple: let’s agree to leave Roe alone, at least for now, and to fight this cultural battle on a cultural battleground. Not a legal one.

In one sense his proposal is easy: It’s not as though Roe will be the subject of a national referendum or even state-by-state debates anytime soon. Most prolifers who looked to Congress to pass a Human Life Amendment probably began realizing by the mid-1980s that they had better become accustomed to disappointment. Further, at Stuntz argues, 30 years of legal abortion has changed the focus of the debate:

Today, abortion is a constitutional right. Back-alley abortions are no longer a story; partial-birth abortions are. And since the pro-life movement stopped focusing all its energies on changing the law, the culture has moved steadily in its direction. Few medical-school students learn how to perform the procedure, not just because they fear protests but because they have qualms about it. So do millions of young women. When I was a college student in the 1970s, abortion was talked about, and often done, casually. I don’t think that’s true today. But if the Supreme Court overruled Roe and a couple dozen states criminalized early-term abortions, those trends would quickly reverse. Abortion would become not a moral question, but a civil liberties question — just as it was in the 1960s and 1970s.

The idea of finding common ground in the abortion debate is not new — the Common Ground Network for Life and Choice began in 1992. But I find it difficult to imagine that movement will gain critical mass, unless one or another edge of the abortion debate is suddenly willing to sacrifice its core convictions.

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The perennial question of suffering

Job_tormentsThe editors of Arts & Letters Daily state it bluntly: “If God is God, he’s not good. If God is good, he’s not God. You can’t have it both ways, especially not after the Indian Ocean catastrophe.”

Most reporters, however, have realized that theologians have more than that to say about God’s role in human suffering. Phil Kloer of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution provided a helpful survey of responses from religious leaders, including these:

Rabbi Efry Spectre, Ahavat Achim Synagogue:

“We as Jews are concerned more with action than with thought. You can’t speak for all Jews at any one time, but for the most part we are a people who believe that God created a world that was good and ever-developing, and gave the human being the great gift of free will. It’s up to us to be partners with God in bettering the world.

Soumaya Khalifa, executive director of the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta, part of the Islamic Network Group:

“The Islamic perspective is that God is the master of the universe. Anything that happens, Muslims look upon it as a test. Muslims also believe that at the day of judgment, the deeds of all people will be looked at. When a test is given such as this, their reaction is what they will be, if you will, graded on. Were they patient and thanking God, or were they thinking, ‘Why me? This is unfair.’

Robert White, executive director of the Georgia Baptist Convention:

“Whether a disaster happens when you’re on an airliner or in a fire or a hurricane, if your faith and hope is in Jesus Christ you know that should you die, you will live eternally in heaven. That is a tremendous comfort for people who have faith in Christ.

“As to why this kind of thing happens, that’s the perennial question. We live in an imperfect world. The issue is not whether disaster will strike us or sadness will come, but are we prepared spiritually for that moment?”

Ed Buckner, southern U.S. director for the Council for Secular Humanism:

“I understand that for some religious people it stirs deep questions for which there are no easy answers. For a secular humanist who doesn’t believe in a supernatural explanation for anything, it is easier in some ways to take events like this. We don’t ask questions like ‘How could God let this happen?’ since we don’t believe there is a God.

“To people who think we are not compassionate or not moral, we feel great compassion for our fellow human beings who are suffering unimaginable agony right now. It’s not exclusively a Christian impulse to want to reach out and help.”

Jeffrey Weiss of the Dallas Morning News has done a fine job of reporting how Buddhism and Hinduism differ from the three great monotheistic faiths in their understanding of suffering:

Buddhists believe the universe operates on a strict system of karma, moral justice that spans generations. Bad things that happen to a person in this life are the result of bad things the person did in this life — or in myriad earlier lives. That means there are never “innocent victims.”

“What goes around comes around,” said the Rev. Prem Suksawat, the Thai-born religious leader for the Dhamma Cetiya Buddhist Vihara in Boston.

. . . Unlike most Western faiths, Hinduism has no universally recognized authorities, texts or doctrines. Rituals and practice change from region to region.

But Hindus generally agree that there is one all-powerful god who manifests in many forms, male and female. And that god can sometimes send messages though natural events.

Sunday’s local deepa puja, attended by more than 100 devotees, included a prayer for the dead to that single, highest god:

“The light symbolizes the divine power of God, the brightest and most sacred of all. Similarly, the light that emanates from the departed souls is also powerful and sacred. We pray that these two lights merge, symbolizing the unification of the immortal soul of God.”

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2004 in review (II): Playing Hookie

BrIn order to deal with the dearth of "hard" news that usually comes at the end of the year, columnists and magazines come up with gimmicks to fill space and keep readers interested. Time has the person of the year, Jeff Jacoby collects a "liberal hate speech" folder and shares the results with readers (favorite bit from this year’s column: "The St. Petersburg, Fla., Democratic Club took out an ad calling for the death of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. ‘Then there’s Rumsfeld who said of Iraq, "We have our good days and our bad days . . . We should put this S.O.B. up against a wall and say, "This is one of our bad days," and pull the trigger.’").

And now relatively new New York Times columnist David Brooks has the Hookie Awards. The award is named for the "great public intellectual" and philosopher Sidney Hook, who was simultaneously a social democrat and a fierce anti-Communist. Unlike recipients of the Sidney Hook Memorial Award, Hookie winners don’t receive a cash prize. Then again, they do gain valuable real estate on the Times editorial page for essays that were published mostly in small circulation journals of opinion.

Of course, his list is fraught with ghosts. In the first column, Brooks awarded Hookies to a City Journal article by Theodore Dalrymple (a.k.a. Anthony Daniels) about the breakdown of Islam, an overrated piece in The Wilson Quarterly about the pragmatic progress of the early Sixties, and a Tech Central Station number about the common roots of Christian communities and academic communities. In the second round of Hookies, Brooks gave the thumbs up to Christopher Caldwell’s Weekly Standard cover on the Netherlands and a piece in the London Review of Books about the revolutionary (secular) faith of Trotsky.

The Hookies have attracted some criticism. Subbing for a vacationing Andrew Sullivan, Ross Douthat praised Brooks’ attempt to "single-handedly bring idea-driven discourse to the (ahem) not-terribly-idea-driven opinion pages of the New York Times" but then inveighed against the choice of the Tech Central column, by William Stuntz:

The fact that universities were founded as schools of theology is telling, yes — telling of how far universities have risen or fallen (depending on your point of view) from the days when they did have a lot in common with religious communities. Claiming that elite colleges’ Christian past somehow links them to today’s evangelicals is at best appealing sophistry, and it’s typical of Stuntz’s argument, which relies on superficial similarities — people reading texts and caring about ideas — that could apply equally well to any pair of mismatched intellectual groups, from Pakistani madrassas to Communist cells to suburban book clubs.

For my money, Brooks’ choice to exclude essays published in newspapers, and especially his own paper’s Sunday magazine, caused him to overlook what could have been last year’s most important essay. I’ll identify the essay, and explain why I think it so important, later this week.

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Can the U.S. left play the Blair card?

Blair_churchAnyone who has been reading GetReligion in the wake of 11/2 knows I am convinced that one of the major stories of 2005 will be the early signs of what the religious left will do to help the political left address the “pew gap.”

On one level, the press will simply cover this as an attempt by the Democratic Party to “get religion,” to (cue: trumpet flourish) quote the headline on Nicholas Kristof’s post-election column. But the reality is more complex than that. This is not a matter or pro-religion vs. anti-religion. For starters, there are different brands of religion “to get.”

Anyone who wants to see this process in action can look across the Atlantic at media coverage of faith and the career of Prime Minister Tony Blair. Rachel Sylvester provided an update on this story recently in the Telegraph, under the headline, “Mr Blair has a strong belief in mixing religion and politics.”

This is controversial stuff, especially since “God” has become a curse word on the British left. Besides, if Blair talks about God and President George W. Bush talks about God, then this suggests that Blair’s faith might in some way resemble Bush’s — which is, as everyone knows, hard-core fundamentalist Christian insanity — which could mean the death of modern England.

Nevertheless, as Sylvester’s essay makes clear:

 . . . (This) Government is, in fact, more Christian than any of its recent predecessors, of either political persuasion. There is a divide on the Left between those who adhere to Marx’s view that religion is the opium of the masses and those who agree with Keir Hardie that Labour politics derive “more from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth than all other sources combined”. The Blair administration is well and truly in the latter camp.

Indeed, and here is the point. It is true that there are British journalists and elite thinkers who are appalled at Blair’s open embrace of Christian faith. This is a true secular reaction to any claim of the sacred. We will see this in America, as well, as soon as more Democrats tap into the new, progressive, “purple” religious language flowing out of upstate Illinois and other locations.

Blair knows what is going on. He knows that some forms of religion are more dangerous than others. Again, here is the Sylvester essay:

Tony Blair, meanwhile, is the first Prime Minister since Gladstone who keeps a copy of the Bible beside his bed. . . . According to his biographer Anthony Seldon, the Labour leader thought seriously about going into the Church when he left university, and a political career is not that different, in his mind, from a religious calling.

“My Christianity and my politics came together at the same time,” he once said, explaining to The Telegraph that his Christian values led him “to oppose what I perceived to be the narrow view of self-interest that Conservatism — particularly its modern, more Right-wing form — represents”. Naturally, his is an outward-looking faith that accepts the validity of other religions. What he does not have time for, however, is non-belief. “Religion should remain the bedrock of civilization,” he told a multi-faith service held to celebrate the Millennium.

So there is the secular option. Then there is the right-wing, traditionalist option. In between is a progressive yet pro-faith option. This middle position accepts some religious claims, some emphasis on absolute truths and absolute evils. In Britain, this is currently affecting foreign policy debates, with Blair solidly left on moral and cultural issues. But even there, he is trying to sound Clintonian on some cultural and family issues, while avoiding any compromise on the big issues such as abortion and gay rights.

It also helps Blair that when the British press says “the church” this usually means the Church of England, which leans way left on moral and cultural issues (or at least it does in England and North America). When the U.S. press says “the church” this could mean anything. This usually means the church of the candidate. For a progressive, this is OK if you are a member a liberal mainline church. It is troublesome — ask Sen. John Kerry — if one is a Catholic. Clinton, of course, was a Baptist — a word that is defined differently from person to person, from congregation to congregation.

Meanwhile, here is what Blair has started saying: “There is right and wrong. There is good and bad. We should not hesitate to make such judgments.” And there you have it. Can the American left say that, without too great a firestorm in, oh, Hollywood and the New York Times editorial page offices?

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