Good enough men

Theoval_3Cathleen Falsani of the Chicago Sun-Times moves well beyond the pedantic slogan that God is neither a Republican nor a Democrat by touching base with her former roommates from Wheaton College.

The result is a friendly survey of how evangelical students who attended the Harvard of evangelicalism and who still attend evangelical churches have reached very different conclusions — from fear of four more years to a steadfast commitment to reelect Bush to not feeling able to vote for either candidate.

Here’s how Falsani describes one of her friends:

Kathy is a stay-at home mom and philanthropist who lives in Manhattan, where she regularly attends an evangelical Protestant church.

Her faith deeply influences the choices she makes politically, particularly, “the part of my faith that manifests itself in caring for people with AIDS and viewing everybody as a creation of God with worth, which is a typical, more liberal thing,” she said.

She thinks she’ll vote for Kerry, but Ralph Nader has a certain appeal, too, she said.

“I don’t trust any of them,” she said. “I don’t think a good man can be president. Jimmy Carter was a good man, but he was a horrible president.”

I’d like to say this as one more week of fierce campaigning dawns, and especially before we can know how the election will turn out: I do think a good man can be president. I’m thankful for the democratic republic that gives us this choice between two good enough men. I’ll pray for both these candidates during the week ahead. And I’ll say a heartfelt prayer of thanks when it’s all over, which I hope will be sometime on the night of Nov. 2.

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But remember when you step / into your voting booth

vamping_it.jpgHow does that old saying go? Presidential politics makes for interesting one-night stands. In pursuit of a singular goal — getting more votes than the other guy — arguments are advanced during election season that would not be tolerated by the parties’ bases at any other time.

Witness President Bush advertising his pork-barrel tendencies to the wider electorate, and spinning his restrictive ruling on embryonic stem cell research as evidence that his administration is already cranking up the wattage to Dr. Frankenstein levels. Most on what we clumsily call the right (though not all) have come to accept this as part of the price of doing business with the Bush administration.

Similarly, most liberal Democrats are tolerant of Senator Kerry’s on-again, off-again warmongering; his softness on gun-control; and his rhetorical opposition to gay marriage. There’s an election to win, after all, and at least Kerry’s not Bush.

The amplified religiosity of this election has made things more interesting. Many observers have noted the diabolization of the president by his opponents. To quote, well, myself:

[S]ome protest signs show actual horns and fangs dripping with blood. In the Evil Bush version of history, he stole an election and then took food from babes with his tax cuts. He exploited the tragedy of September 11 to his immense political benefit and the country’s harm. Egged on by a neoconservative cabal, he fought a war for oil and Israel, and he threatens to further upset the global balance of power. Our commander-in-chief hates gays and minorities and wants to give industry free reign to pollute rivers and belch toxic gasses into the air. If he had his druthers, Bush would impose his own born again kind of Christianity, and perhaps his Southern drawl, on the rest of us.

If anything, things have gotten worse since I penned those lines, as the hostility has spilled over from demonizing Bush to demonizing his supporters. The most extreme manifestation of this is the fact that several Bush campaign headquarters have been attacked and vandalized. More mundanely, Richard Rushfield, stringing for Slate visited both Bush and Kerry strongholds in California. The trick is that he wore a pro-Bush shirt in Kerry country and an advertisement for Kerry in GOP territory.

Rushfield worried about a violent reaction from the Bushies, but he encountered “only shades of indifference — head shaking, ‘crazy idiot’ expressions from older, very wealthy, very white folks in Newport Beach; terse nods from the middle- to working-class citizens of Bakersfield.” In the Silverlake/Los Feliz and Brentwood areas of Los Angeles, he was called an asshole a few times and drew all kinds of comment and looks of undisguised hostility. One six-year-old girl stared at him “with a look so forlorn, I expect[ed] to learn that Dick Cheney just stole her crayons.”

The shrillest opposition to Bush in the press has come from the alternative weeklies. [Alternative to what? - ed. Beats me.] The Stranger‘s endorsement of Kerry began “George Bush is pure scum.” The illustration for Rick Perlstein’s story in the current Village Voice (pictured above) is of Bush as a vampire, sucking the blood out of Lady Liberty’s neck.

GetReligion has already covered one tack of the saner press’s overreaction to Bush’s faith. Go here for my take on last week’s New York Times Magazine Ron Suskind cover story or here for Terry Mattingly’s take on Jeff Sharlet’s “Bush the magic Christian” piece over at The Revealer.

But another line of criticism has emerged, which we might call the Geraldine Ferraro approach. Several left-of-center pundits and pundettes have charged that Bush is a bad Christian, if that. It started with criticism of Bush’s lack of regular church attendance and his unwillingness to fess up to mistakes he’s made and finally metastasized into Ayelish McGarvey’s article on the website of the American Prospect: “As God Is His Witness: Bush is no devout evangelical. In fact, he may not be a Christian at all.”

McGarvey’s arguments for this accusation:

1) The president is “neither born again nor evangelical” since he “did not have a single born-again experience.”

2) He “does not live or govern under the complete authority of the Bible — just the parts that work to his political advantage.”

3) His refusal to publicly admit to error is evidence that he doesn’t believe in sin.

4) He has money and is not a socialist.

5) He doesn’t try to aggressively proselytize.

6) He is not Jimmy Carter.

Therefore: Conservative Christian voters should reject Bush at the ballot box.

What’s the word here? Crassness? Irony? Opportunism? What McGarvey advocates, in the American Prospect, is nothing less than a religious test for public office.

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Sikh compromise

Small crosses are OK in France. Large crosses are not. Well, the same principle does not apply to turbans. Young Sikh men are in trouble with authorities in state schools, even after they removed their colorful turbans and wore less prominent under-turbans. Meanwhile, young Muslim women continue to cause trouble, refusing to remove their veils. This is, of course, an ongoing story that still has drawn little attention in the U.S. France is trying to replace tolerance with secularism, creating a glimpse into the next generation of culture wars in Europe.

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Bush: The New Age candidate of the Christian Right?

BushprayingIt’s been almost a week since Ron Suskind did his best to electrify the anti-evangelical voter base on behalf of the New York Times Sunday Magazine and, thus, the Democratic Party. His “Without a Doubt” essay was a rock, thrown into the pond of elite media opinion shortly before the battle to save civilization. The ripples should continue until the election. Once again, here is his lead:

Bruce Bartlett, a domestic policy adviser to Ronald Reagan and a treasury official for the first President Bush, told me recently that “if Bush wins, there will be a civil war in the Republican Party starting on Nov. 3.” The nature of that conflict, as Bartlett sees it? Essentially, the same as the one raging across much of the world: a battle between modernists and fundamentalists, pragmatists and true believers, reason and religion.

You may as well have added a few more pairings to that list — the smart and the stupid, the sane and the almost insane or, in the terminology of sociologist James Davison Hunter, the progressive and the orthodox. The bottom line was crystal clear: President Bush and his supporters are dangerous fundamentalists and linked at the theological hip with the very Al Qaeda fanatics they say they oppose. They are spiritual blood brothers.

It was no surprise Jeff “The Hulk” Sharlet at posted an essay in response to the Suskind opus. It was also not surprising that Sharlet caught the serious flaw in Suskind’s fundamental charge against the president — that he is a fundamentalist.

No, Sharlet had another label to pin on George W. Bush, a much more creative and insightful label. Bush, he says, is in his heart of hearts closely linked to the no facts, just faith school of thought often called “New Age.” Based on what we know about Bush’s faith, and there are very few specifics on the record, Sharlet believes that one of the last things anyone could call Bush is a “fundamentalist.” There is no such thing as a vague fundamentalist. Here is a large chunk of Sharlet’s argument:

A common aspect of many New Age schools of thought (though not all) is a gentle disdain for perceived reality. That’s different from the fundamentalist aversion to worldliness; rather, this approach views the “real world” as that which is within the mind or heart or spirit of the believer. That idea is often dismissed as a modern bastardization of psychology, but many New Agers argue that their beliefs are actually ancient; and, despite the fact that the superficial characteristics are often of a recent vintage, there’s some truth to that assertion. New Age religions are, literally, reactionary, responses to what’s been called the disenchantment of the world. Another word for that process is the Enlightenment, with its claims of empirical accuracy. New Age movements attempt to revive — or create anew — pre-Enlightenment ideas about magic, alchemy, ghosts, and whatever else practitioners can glean from a record for the most part expunged by institutional Christianity.

Christian fundamentalism, meanwhile, is the child of the Enlightenment, a functionalist view of faith that’s metaphorically `scientific.` It’s scripture as read by a cranky engineer who just wants to know how God works. The Bible, for a fundamentalist, isn’t powerful literature demanding our ever-changing discernment; it’s an instruction manual. And fundamentalists think that’s a good thing.

Magic_bush_1You can disagree with Sharlet’s point of view, but he is on to something. Nevertheless, I think he needs to consider another explanation for the phenomenon that bugs him.

Perhaps Bush is vague because his faith is vague. Perhaps he is, in the end, a five-star example of a free-church Protestant whose faith is highly personal, highly individualistic and not linked to a particular creed or set of dogmas. In a strange way, Bill Clinton had the same kind of faith — only it appears that he reached some different conclusions. Truth is, nobody knows. No one knows many of the specifics of Bush’s faith, because he only talks about his beliefs in very general, emotional terms.

And all those pew-sitting Bush supporters? Are they New Agers or fundamentalists?

Sharlet notes that Bush believers long for moral absolutes, but they:

… (Don’t) care about empirical definitions. They’re not literalists, in the sense that they don’t cling to language. In fact, they don’t trust language, which is why they read clunky, soulless translations of scripture, when they read it at all. The Community Bible Study approach to biblical education through which Bush found his faith is not based on intense reading, but on personal meditations built around a sentence or two. Bush himself doesn’t study the Bible; he samples phrases and invokes them like spells.

That may be true of Bush (again, we really don’t know) and it may be true of many people who call themselves “born-again Christians,” but don’t believe in getting much more specific than that. But this distrust of precise language is certainly not true of the president’s many supporters among Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, hard-core Baptists, traditional Lutherans, evangelical Presbyterians and a host of other believers who are more than willing to say the Apostles Creed without crossing their fingers.

I wrote Sharlet and asked him if, in effect, he had placed the president on trial and found him guilty of being a perfectly normal, off-the-rack, born again, megachurch, name it-claim it American Protestant.

And one more thing. If some journalists and intellectuals are screaming bloody murder about Bush’s faith being too vague, imagine how much noise they would make if he started getting specific and naming names, doctrinally speaking. In a strange sort of way, John “I was an altar boy” Kerry is in a better position to talk about his faith. Since he is, supposedly, part of a highly doctrinal faith — Roman Catholicism — he can stand up and describe his faith by rejecting the specifics. That works.

Sharlet wrote back, concerning Bush: “I don’t think there’d be a problem if he was doctrinal, so long as he respected separation of church and state. The mistake most pundits make, I think, is in assuming that that separation is simple; it’s not.”

I am sure there is more to come on this subject, as strategists on both sides rally their troops.

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"Rude" Ruth asks: Would Bishop Griswold do it again?

grh consecration3Someone in the company of Frank Griswold, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, apparently has not grasped a basic principle of sensible media relations: Do not berate a reporter who’s trying to do her job.

Let’s go to the account by Ruth Gledhill of the London Times, writing in The Church of England Newspaper:

He was standing in front of me, looking me in the eye and smiling. In England at least, this is normally taken by journalists as an invitation to proceed.

“Bishop, would you do it again?”

He is not an Archbishop, so the fault was not in the style of address. But clearly I had done something very wrong. In an instant, his minder had translocated from her place by his side to stand right in front of him, glare up at me and state: “You are so rude.”

The “it” in Gledhill’s sentence referred to consecrating Gene Robinson — the first bishop of the Episcopal Church who openly discussed his homosexuality before his election. It seems like a reasonable question, and it’s a fair bet Gledhill anticipated an answer in the affirmative (albeit heavily nuanced).

One reason not to berate a reporter is that you may prompt her to draw her own conclusions, based on her observation of your actions:

But surely even Frank Griswold could see it might not be the best idea in the world to shun a national newspaper journalist in that way. Then again, a primate who is capable of overriding the opinions of large parts of the Global South, not to mention parts of his own province, is clearly not going to give a toss about The Times. We will never know. He was frogmarched from the room before any more questions could be asked.

Now if an Anglican prelate cannot tell his own, diminutive female minder that on this occasion, it might not be a bad idea to answer a question — and we all know that Grizzy has no problem thinking up appropriately slippery answers to even the most direct of interrogations — however is he going to be able to exert any authority he does have to ensure his bishops abide by the moratorium asked for in the Windsor report? My guess, judging from this encounter and from his statements in the preceding debate with Josiah Fearon, is that he is not even going to try.

. . . It is up to you, archbishops, to ask Frank Griswold whether he or his church intend any more consecrations of the kind that the Windor Report has asked for a moratorium on. He may not tell you the answer either. But as you already know, if you don’t ask him, he certainly won’t tell. You at least will not be ticked off, simply for asking the question.

And I have one final word for Frank. If I was rude to you today Frank, which I don’t think I was, I do regret it very much. But I won’t apologise. Is there a difference? Maybe you don’t think there is.

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Sexy ghost

There are all kinds of ways that you can spin this one. Republicans have happier sex lives than Democrats. OK, does this mean that people who go to church more often have happier sex lives than those that, well, stay home on Sunday a.m. and look at the erotic ads in The New York Times (tip of the hat to Woody Allen)? And what about these results? Who has worn something sexy to enhance their sex life? Republicans — 72 percent; Democrats — 62 percent. Who has faked an orgasm? Democrats — 33 percent; Republicans — 26 percent. What is the ghost in those numbers?

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You guzzle your crutch and shove it up your nose

Entertainment writers tend to be — how shall I put this? — very, very secular. Because of this demographic bias, they often have certain blinders. Hit Christian movies can sneak up on them like special forces troops creeping through tall grasses to find the enemy and rip their throats out. Now that I’ve got your attention with that rather . . . grotesque simile, I’d like to clear a story off of the GetReligion assignment desk.

Michael W. Smith is a huge name in the Christian music scene. According to one source, fans have purchased over ten million of his albums, and that is probably low-balling it (here’s his not terribly helpful website). He’s also written a few best-selling books and is a friend of President Bush.

Steve Taylor is possibly the most controversial artist in the history of evangelical Christian music (often called CCM). When I played “Lifeboat” for my college roommate, he called it the most offensive thing he’d ever heard. The controversy over “I blew up the clinic real good” got Taylor’s album pulled from stores and his tour in Australia was basically cancelled.

Back in the eighties, Taylor also managed to regularly enrage the devout. “We don’t need no color code” was a send-up of Bob Jones University’s anti-miscegenation policies. He railed against evangelical conformity and easy believism, praised the pope, and regularly mocked televangelists. In one interview, he rather forcefully rejected the idea that all Christian rockers should do altar calls: “I resent the sometimes fascist mentality on the part of some Christian bands, like their way is the only way and if you don’t do that you don’t care about kids or something like that.”

In the mid-nineties, Taylor put his solo career on a long hiatus and decided to work the other end of the music industry. He produced and wrote songs for groups such as Guardian and the Newsboys in their prime. He founded Squint Records, which signed and promoted bands such as Sixpence None the Richer (think “Kiss Me”) until the company was sold out from under him in 2001. After that he dabbled in several film projects.

The point of all this? Taylor started shooting a movie, tentatively titled “The Second Chance,” in Nashville in early October, starring Michael W. Smith in his first acting role. This has potential hit written all over it and yet the coverage so far has been almost non-existent. A Nexis search of the last 60 days netted only one substantial mention of the movie and that, it turns out, was a press release. CCM magazine, the Rolling Stone of Christian rock, has run a few items, and a number of fan sites have pitched in with details, but that’s about the end of the list.

My suggestion to entertainment reporters: Don’t let this one catch you off-guard.

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The Wright stuff: Anglican issues worth arguing about readers need to know that Douglas LeBlanc has this thing against putting references to his own journalistic endeavors on this blog, especially when that work appears in the pages or cyber-spaces of that great evangelical fortress called Christianity Today.

I have tried to play along with this LeBlancophobia, but I am going to make an exception today. Any journalist who is interested in the current media sexuality wars the Anglican Communion and the Windsor Report needs to read LeBlanc’s interview with the Rt. Rev. N.T. Wright, author of a host of books — popular and academic — including “The Resurrection of the Son of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God).” Informed reporters need to do so for precisely the reasons that Doug cites.

N.T. Wright is the rare sort of theologian who attracts respect from both conservatives and liberals. He became Bishop of Durham in 2003, and for the past year has served on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lambeth Commission on Communion.

Many Anglican conservatives are in full meltdown mode at the moment and Wright is not one of them. For starters, he does not automatically assume that the central issue in this ecclesiastical civil war is homosexuality. Some very low-church Protestant people are firing away at Anglican traditions on another sacramental issue, arguing that lay people can lead celebrations of Holy Communion. That’s hard to put in a sexy headline in the New York Times, but it is an explosive issue nonetheless. And then there is the postmodern challenge to moral theology itself — pick a doctrine, any doctrine. Wright notes:

What we all have to do is to say about any issue — whether it’s lay celebration [of Communion], whether it’s episcopal intervention, whether it’s homosexual practice — How do we know, and who says which differences make a difference and which differences don’t make a difference? [Presiding Bishop] Frank Griswold and his colleagues make a great song and dance about difference and about accepting difference and respecting difference. That’s almost the only moral category that is left within postmodernity, welcoming the other, which is actually a very difficult moral standard to implement right across the board.

Near the end, Wright steers the interview off in an interesting — and I believe highly newsworthy — direction. What if the current media storms centered on some other issue? What might a truly Communion-shattering theological dispute look like? Here’s Wright again:

The critical thing is there are some differences which would divide the church. For instance, if somebody decided to propose that instead of reading the Bible in church, we should read the Bhagavad-Gita or the Qur’an, most Christians would say this is no longer a church and that’s a difference that we simply cannot live with. But if somebody says I really think we should never put flowers on the altar and somebody else says I think we should always have a bowl of flowers on the altar, most people would say that’s an issue which we must not divide the church about. It’s a local issue, which each church will have to decide for itself. And there’s no point in getting in a lather about it.

Now the question is, all these different issues that we face, which of those two categories do they come into? How do you know? And who says? Until we have prepared to address the question in those terms, the thing will just remain as a shouting match.

And all the people said, “Amen.” Wright knows that he is touching on an issue that burns quietly behind the scenes. Anglicans in the Third World are upset about the fading of traditional Christian sexual norms in the post-Christian West. But bishops from Africa and Asia would be just as upset, if not more so, if they knew about the emerging world of syncretistic prayers and rituals that have influenced the Episcopal Church and other oldline church groups. As a reporter, I have been following this trend for more than a decade.

Wright is right. Sex is not the only Anglican issue out there. But it’s the only issue in the headlines.

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