Creeping Fundamentalissssssssssssssm: Snake handler vote?

Snake_handlersI got the strangest telephone call yesterday, one that is directly linked to a common problem/challenge/sin on the Godbeat.

The call came from a newspaper reporter in Greece. I am not absolutely sure what the female voice on the other line was saying, because her accent was very heavy. And please remember, I attend an Antiochian Orthodox parish with an Arab priest who was educated in Greece and speaks Arabic, Greek, French, English and some Spanish. I am used to hearing some interesting accents.

The reporter attempted to give me her name but I was not able to get it down. But I was able to figure out why she was calling — Google. Then I was able to understand some of the crucial questions.

“You are an expert on Christians who worship with snakes, yes?”

Uh, not really, I said. I have read some books on the subject and I used to teach at a college in the mountains of East Tennessee, but I never even met any snake handlers. Even the Baptists there drive Volvos, listen to NPR and watch pantheistic Sci-Fi movies like everybody else. OK, I didn’t say that last part, but I tried to explain to her my limited contact with this kind of fringe niche culture in American Protestantism.

“Can we interview you about this? You have written about it?”

This told me that she was probably — via Google — looking at the following on a computer screen: “Snakes, Miracles and Biblical Authority,” a column I wrote back in the summer of 1996. It was based on a lecture by church historian Bill Leonard of Wake Forest University, a key figure in the whole Bill Moyers wing of Southern Baptist life. It described the theological lessons Leonard had learned from his friendship with the late Arnold Saylor, an illiterate country preacher who used to carry rattlesnakes with him into the pulpit.

Here is a flashback to the money paragraphs from that column.

Millions of Americans say the Bible contains no errors of any kind. “Amen,” say the snake handlers. Others complain that too many people view the Bible through the lens of safe, middle-class conformity and miss its radical message. Snake handlers agree.

Millions of Americans say that miracles happen, especially when believers have been “anointed” by God’s Holy Spirit. “Preach on,” say snake handlers. Polls show that millions of spiritual seekers yearn for ecstatic, world-spinning experiences of divine revelation. “Been there, done that,” say snake handlers.

The bottom line: Snake handlers say they have biblical reasons for engaging in rites that bring them closer to God. They wonder why others settle for less riveting forms of faith.”

In other words, snake handlers are a unique brand of biblical literalist who have, via sola scriptura, arrived at a unique form of sacramental worship. They like to quote the end of the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus is recorded as telling his disciples: “And these signs shall follow them that believe; in my name they shall cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.”

With that in mind, let us return to the Greek reporter. It seems that they needed to know more about snake handlers because their newspaper wanted to write about American religion during this election year. Did I know any snake handlers in the state of Ohio? They were going to be visiting there and that was a crucial state in the presidential race.

Say what? I tried to explain again that this was not exactly a normal form of evangelical worship and, come to think of it, I did not think that President Bush was automatically the candidate of snake handlers. I suggested that she get in touch with Leonard if she wanted to discuss the topic with an actual expert on the topic.

“Can we go ahead and interview you? We do not have a lot of time.”

That was really the end of it. Apparently, people in Europe really do think that evangelical religion is a powerful force in politics here in the United States of America. This is an entire news angle on the race for the White House that I had not thought of. Perhaps CBS is working on this story? I am sure there are experts who can give them a few quick quotes (documents even) on the impact of extreme forms of biblical literalism on the born-again faith of George W. Bush.

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It's morning in fascist America

Bushhitler_sdHere’s David Gates, in the Sept. 20 issue of Newsweek, reviewing Philip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America, in which Charles Lindbergh is elected president (as the Republican candidate, naturally) and turns America into a fascist state:

Roth doesn’t oversell any parallels between his imaginary 1940s and the real present. But anybody who feels hopeless at the ascendancy of today’s Christian right may feel a chill.

Now David Gelernter in the Sept. 13 issue of The Weekly Standard (subscription required), responding to George Soros’ comparison of America and Nazi Germany:

Has the Republican Congress decreed a U.S. version of the Nuremberg race laws? Has the administration transformed every American news source into a propaganda machine? Demanded that Jews (or anyone) be fired? That Jewish (or any other kind of) shops, businesses, professionals be boycotted? Propaganda posters everywhere? Students thrown out of schools? Secret police grabbing people off the streets? Children urged to inform on parents? All opposition parties banned? Churches harassed? A “Bush Youth” that every “Aryan” boy must join? Storm-troopers holding torchlight parades, singing hate-mongering war songs? Gigantic communal fines levied against Jews (or anyone else)? State-sponsored pogroms? Massive regimentation and rearmament? A führer cult and special schools to train disciples? Brutal suppression of all regime opponents? No? Actually America under Bush resembles Nazi Germany in no way whatsoever, isn’t that so?

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Echoes of the past: What next in Crouch story?

CrouchSo far, the Paul Crouch story has proceeded along the traditional lines of a low-level conservative sex scandal, by which I mean a scandal that is not part of some hypernews event (think Jim Bakker era) or a political crusade (think minister with strong ties to the White House).

For those just tuning in, here is a Los Angeles Times summary paragraph on the drama so far:

On Sunday, The Times detailed the fierce legal battle that Crouch successfully fought to keep secret a 1998 agreement that paid Enoch Lonnie Ford $425,000 in exchange for staying silent about his allegations of a sexual encounter between him and Crouch in 1996 at a TBN-owned cabin near Lake Arrowhead. When Ford wrote a manuscript last year that contained details of his allegations, Crouch went to court to enforce the 1998 agreement.

Stop and think about this for a minute. In the age of talk radio, blogs and major leaps in alternative “Christian entertainment,” how many people out there are all that interested in televangelism? On top of that, there is the fact that the vast majority of Protestant megachurches have movie screens hanging in the front of their alleged sanctuaries. In other words, video-centric Protestantism has become the norm.

Nevertheless, there are a few signs that reporter William Lobdell’s story may have legs, even if another full-scale Pearlygate media storm fails to match the power of Rathergate. Then again, perhaps CBS has a new incentive to cover the TBN story.

As one would expect, the Los Angeles Times promptly did a follow-up, one noting that lots of people were buzzing about its original story, but that the accused was denying everything. Crouch would stay put — for now — pending further, well, revelations.

“We prepared for the worst and prayed for the best,” knowing that the allegations would be made public over the weekend, said Paul Crouch Jr., eldest son of the pastor and an executive at the network. “So far our prayers are being answered. Most of the e-mails and calls have been very positive.”

He said the network received unsolicited backing from dozens of Christian leaders who called or e-mailed their support, including author Josh McDowell; Doug Wead, a onetime advisor to former President George H.W. Bush; and singers Pat Boone and Carman.

Lots of shocking news there. Doug Wead? Wow, Carman.

The televangelist’s network also offered a traditional response to the newspaper’s evidence of the earlier settlement: “TBN officials said that Crouch agreed to the settlement to avoid costly litigation and scandal.” There was nothing to it, in other words. To which the Times responded: “Neither the civil court judge or private arbitrator ruled on the validity of Ford’s claims — only that the 1998 settlement prevented their disclosure.”

Meanwhile, there is a ripple of interest out there in new media land, symbolized by nearly 1,500 comments on a Yahoo message board. The more important news is that the omnipresent Ted Olsen of the Christianity Today digital desk has decided to run with the story. That validates it in mainline evangelical circles. On the conservative side of the evangelical aisle, World magazine has a TBN story in the works by Godbeat veteran Edward Plowman. Now, what will we see in Charisma?

Olsen noted that there is only one word to describe what is happening here — extortion. The court documents make that clear, along with a nasty allegation that the network was willing to write a second check to keep this out of the headlines. The accuser’s lawyer said TBN offered a mere $1 million. Ford’s lawyer thought $10 million sounded better. Olsen captures the mood:

$10 million! Simon & Schuster paid Hillary Clinton only $8 million for her memoir, Living History. GE chairman Jack Welch got $7 million for Straight from the Gut. That number isn’t about a book — it’s about keeping Ford’s story “out of the public view” — something Crouch had already paid $425,000 expressly to do.

This is true. But Olsen also makes this valid point:

this story isn’t yet to the level of the Jim Bakker or Jimmy Swaggart scandals of the 1980s. Both of those men were accused of breaking the law — Bakker for fraud related to time-shares, and Swaggart for prostitution. If the Crouch story is true (and the Times reports much evidence that it may be), the TBN head is guilty of having consensual sex with an employee. That’s immoral and unethical, but not criminal — especially in post-Monica America.

This is true. But we are also talking about one of the patriarchs of the global world of charismatic Christianity. People are going to talk — in all kinds of languages.

While reading between the lines of the Los Angeles Times story, I was reminded of what it was like doing off-the-record interviews during the Jim and Tammy era in Charlotte.

Olsen is right. The legal issues are the hooks that make the story valid. But in evangelical, charismatic and fundamentalist circles, it is the sexual politics that collapses the ministry’s tent. This is especially true if the allegations mention gay or bisexual conduct. An influential historian in these circles told me this.

“For most Pentecostal and charismatic people, the most serious questions about Jim Bakker were all those allegations of moral misconduct. … People haven’t forgotten that,” said historian Vinson Synan of Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va. “There does appear to have been a kind of subterranean, homosexual world inside PTL that has never been fully described. That’s where so many questions remain.”

When I was at the Charlotte News, I actually took several calls from the late John Wesley Fletcher, a spurned Bakker aide. This was clearly a case of one minister trying to blackmail another, not just for money but in an attempt to hurt his ministry. This was revenge and the plot was positively Byzantine. Here is a chunk of one of my columns on this.

In addition to his ties to Hahn, it was Fletcher who made anonymous calls in 1983 spreading dirt about Bakker. One of those calls went to me, when I was working as a religion writer in Charlotte, N.C., and I later shared my information with reporter Charles E. Shepard, author of “Forgiven: The Rise and Fall of Jim Bakker and the PTL Ministry.” Years later, Shepard confirmed that Fletcher was my mystery caller.

Fletcher mentioned Hahn by name in 1983 and also said David Taggart was Bakker’s lover. Fletcher was bitter and said Bakker had failed to keep promises and had forsaken him during tough times. But Fletcher did not, during those calls, say what he later said during the “Pearlygate” media storm — that he, too, had been sexually involved with Bakker.

“I never knew a more corrupt person in my life, period, than Jim Bakker,” Fletcher told me. “Now I see him for what he is.”

Well now, what should we look for in the TBN case? If this story is true, it will almost certainly not be an isolated case. Then there will be evidence of major charismatic and evangelical ministries distancing themselves from this already controversial network. And finally, watch for signs that Crouch is preparing for a sermon that proclaims, “I have sinned, I have repented and I have been healed.”

Above all, watch the cover of Charisma magazine. Why should the secular newspapers get to write all of the important stories about what happens inside conservative sanctuaries?

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God bless PBS

Nicholi_1Amid the many hosannas for The Question of God, the two-part PBS series hosted by Harvard’s Armand Nicholi (pictured), Richard Ostling of the Associated Press delivers this surprising criticism:

Unfortunately, the biographies are interspersed with round-table chats led by Nicholi. The seven panelists are a pleasant enough group. But except for atheist Michael Shermer, who runs the California-based Skeptics Society, we’re never quite sure who these individuals are, why they were invited, what religious backgrounds they reflect and why we should pay particular heed to their opinions.

[Director Catherine] Tatge booked equally amiable panelists for her Genesis series, but many were noted experts.

Many of the panelists for Moyers’ Genesis series were indeed experts, but that series had its own talking-head indulgences. How many people would have thought of artist Hugh O’Donnell, Byron E. Calame of The Wall Street Journal or writer/musician/artist Elizabeth Swados as essential authorities on any biblical book?

I think the conversations between Nicholi and his guest panelists form the heart of the series. They represent the same pointed discussions that take place day after day, whether in restaurants or libraries or through popular culture, between believers and skeptics.

The more cringe-inducing aspects of the series are the depictions of the adult Freud and Lewis by actors Peter Eyre and Simon Jones. In a few moments, the program imagines Freud and Lewis in the same room, exchanging their views on religion as if Freud had just dropped by the Eagle and Child pub.

Ostling concludes with these strong points:

The believers may be so pleased PBS is even taking the God issue seriously and portraying Lewis’ famous conversion that they’ll overlook the subtle tilt against belief. If Lewis had been on the panel he would have answered skeptical challenges that are left hanging and have assailed Freud’s lack of proof for his supposedly scientific theories.

So “Question” unwittingly indicates that faith remains on the defensive among cultural elitists, notwithstanding popular revivals and the supposed “Twilight of Atheism” proclaimed in a new book by Alister McGrath, a Lewis-style atheist turned Oxford theist.

Eric Alterman recently wrote an entertaining screed bemoaning the increasing conservative presence on PBS. It’s only a matter of time before some hardened secularist pundit sees The Question of God as evidence of oppressive God-talk at PBS.

TV critic Roger Catlin of The Hartford Courant deserves praise for tweaking one PBS affiliate’s discomfort with the series:

Connecticut Public TV obviously doesn’t feel its viewers are up to such intellectual activity, though. So they fill prime time with three hours of reruns of the British reality series “1940s House” (CPTV, 8 p.m.), bumping “The Question of God” to 1 a.m. with a replay at 4 a.m. (in case that’s a better time for you).

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The broom closet door is open

OursonInterfaith worship is still a volatile an issue in some denominations. To choose one recent example, a task force in the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado has recommended that liberals make a concession to conservatives by no longer administering Holy Communion to non-Christians.

Apparently Trinity United Methodist Church in Austin, Texas, left behind those sorts of questions long ago. As Eileen E. Flynn reported Monday in an understated story for the Austin American-Statesman (registration required), Trinity understands inclusion as bringing Christians and non-Christians together for a casserole of liturgies and theologies:

For the congregation of the church, at 600 E. 50th St., a witch leading worship isn’t scandalous. It isn’t even that unusual.

Trinity members have hosted American Indian shamans, Buddhist priests and other faith leaders, including Wiccans, before. They even practice their own pagan-inspired rituals at services.

“It’s not my way or hell,” said Trinity member Linda Eldredge. “All are welcome here. Everybody’s got something to offer.”

Flynn makes the point that increased interfaith worship is likely to be a long-term response to the terrorist strikes of three years ago:

“I don’t think as a nation we’ve figured out what to do with September 11,” said the Rev. Tim Tutt, United Christian Church pastor and president of the [Austin Area Interreligious Ministries'] board of directors. “This is AAIM’s best attempt to create a living memorial.”

(A theological debate has raged for three years in a different denomination, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, on whether one of its pastors should have participated in the post-9/11 memorial service at Yankee Stadium.)

Flynn also points out a moment of Wiccan humor, which this example suggests may be as wry and self-mocking as Unitarian Universalist humor:

After the service, [Tom] Davis noted the dread of sharing one’s identity in public. Just as some of Trinity’s gay members fear the consequences of coming out of the closet with their sexuality, he said, Wiccans have a metaphor for their own situation: coming out of the broom closet.

The expression is an example, Wiccan Gordon Fossum said, of the mix of mirth and reverence his faith embodies. Earlier that morning, Fossum had jokingly invoked the “Goddess Caffeina” to get the church’s coffee maker brewing.

Wearing a silver pentacle necklace and sipping from a Garfield mug, Fossum shrugged.

“If a religion can’t laugh at itself, it’s got some work to do,” he said.

Trinity is one United Methodist congregation that’s testing the boundaries of the Methodists’ marketing slogan, “Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors.”

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I Can't Handle the Guilt, Episode I

Mattbig_2Sometime this weekend, a TypePad software czar pushed a button that demoted me to “guest author” status here at GetReligion. Doug is the editor of the blog and he created it, with me as the associate. Yet I still have had the ability to handle my own posts (including all the typos) and art options. Now, I can post to the blog but cannot control the art, which is a major hassle for Doug — especially when he is on the road out there in dial-up territory.

I mention this as a way of reminding you that this blog remains quite experimental and limited, in so, so many ways. We still want to find someone to specialize in issues linked to international coverage. We still want better software and a better design. We still want some kind of format that allows us to do the longer posts, while also posting short items and more of your comments and letters (keep them coming).

Which brings us to this strange post — the first in what I hope is an occasional blog feature that I want to call “I Can’t Handle the Guilt.”

It happens every week. I read all kinds of things online and people send me all kinds of interesting stuff. I save these in my email in-basket, with a GETREL slug at the start of the subject line as items worth blogging about somehow, when I get the time. Then something else comes in. Then there are classes to teach here at Palm Beach Atlantic University and work to do with the journalism projects in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. Or perhaps it is a week with several extra services at church that require more music than is normal in Eastern Orthodox parishes. Maybe it’s a normal week for the kids, with lots of marching band gigs and you name it. Maybe we have a hurricane, or two.

Then a new week arrives and I look in my email and there are all of those GETREL tags staring at me. That’s when the guilt hits. I have to do something about this.

Thus, pending the arrival of a format friendly to more short posts, I am creating what should be a weekly collection of shorter items — late, but still interesting — under the umbrella slug ICHTG. Here goes.

* There have been some interesting developments at the New York Times on the “fundamentalist” front, as noted over at the excellent Christianity Today blog.

First, there was a Sunday magazine cover about some elements of life at Biola University out in greater Los Angeles (a CCCU school, I should note). The cover included a secondary headline that was all wrong — “Fast Times at Fundamentalist U.” But inside, writer Samantha Shapiro actually made an attempt to summarize the historical meaning of the word “fundamentalist.” Bravo. This was still a kind of National Geographic feature story on the lives of exotic natives in a distant backward land, but she deserves credit for trying.

Then, the Times ran a short, but amazingly fair, essay on the ongoing intellectual warfare at Baylor University (one of my alma maters, I should note) between the Bill Moyers Baptists and the ecumenical conservatives. Still it included this paragraph.

Founded in Waco in 1845 as a Christian school in the Baptist tradition, Baylor’s religious identity has been the subject of controversy in recent decades. In the 1980s, the university found itself under pressure from its sponsoring group, the Baptist General Convention of Texas, to make faculty members sign a statement of faith and to adopt fundamentalist positions on issues like creationism, homosexuality and the ordination of women.

Now what, pray tell, are the fundamentalist positions on “homosexuality” and the “ordination of women”? If this means the positions advocated by traditional Christian faith through the centuries, does that make them “fundamentalist”? Is Pope John Paul II a fundamentalist? Billy Graham? The ecumenical patriarch? The vast majority of the world’s Anglicans? The vast majority of the world’s Protestants?

* I was reading a New York Times report last week about the fallout from Beslan and realized with a shudder that it opened with a sobering quote from someone I knew.

“We ride on the subway and think it is for the last time,” the Rev. Aleksandr Borisov told Russian Orthodox worshipers on Sunday morning. “We gather in a church and think it is our last liturgy.”

This was not simply the homily of a Sunday sermon. Following one of the most horrific terrorist acts in recent times, with the massacre of hundreds of children, parents and teachers in a schoolhouse on Friday, Father Borisov said he was speaking quite literally.

“We received a warning yesterday that terrorist acts are planned in churches in the center of Moscow,” he said at the Church of SS. Cosmas and Damian in the heart of the capital, one of many churches across Russia holding memorial services for the victims on Sunday. “World War III has begun.”

Now, I met him long ago when I was in Moscow just after the fall of the Soviet Union. Borisov is a very courageous priest who, long ago, was filmed by CNN and others as — dressed in full liturgical garb — he handed out Bibles to Soviet troops and blessed the sidewalks where men had died only moments earlier. If this man is worried, there is reason to worry.

Also, I have noticed that some media reports are quietly noting that slaughtering children in North Ossetia was particularly symbolic, because this is a rare community — it is almost overwhelmingly Orthodox Christian, while most of the breakaway republic of Chechnya is Muslim.

Perhaps it was more than a matter of nationalism when the murderers screamed “Allahu Akhbar”? Mark Steyn thinks so. Ditto for Dennis Prager.

* Readers who want more information about the moderate Muslims who are outraged by events in Beslan and elsewhere need to watch this site.

Here is a sample of what the “Free Muslim Coalition Against Terrorism” is saying:

After numerous admissions of guilt by Bin Laden and numerous corroborating admissions by captured top level Al-Qaida operatives, we wonder, does the Muslim leadership have the dignity and courage to apologize for 9-11?

If not 9-11, will we apologize for the murder of school children in Russia?

If not Russia, will we apologize for the train bombings in Madrid, Spain?

If not Spain, will we apologize for suicide bombings in buses, restaurants and other public places?

If not suicide bombings, will we apologize for the barbaric beheadings of human beings?

If not beheadings, will we apologize for the rape and murder of thousands of innocent people in Darfour?

If not Darfour, will we apologize for the blowing up of two Russian planes by Muslim women?

What will we apologize for?

What will it take for Muslims to realize that those who commit mass murder in the name of Islam are not just a few fringe elements?

* As a veteran of the Jim Bakker PTL wars in my Charlotte Observer days, let me briefly note the Los Angeles Times report on the homosexual (bisexual?) accusations against televangelist Paul Crouch by a former employee in the ministry.

William Lobdell’s story has some impressive paper documentation of an earlier settlement for silence – which is the smoke that often points to the fire. What happens next? Where are the other voices? Watch for the follow-up stories and actions by major charismatic churches. Also watch the Christian media.

* Did anyone else note the religion ghost in that George F. Will column on the power of ESPN? Dr. James Davison Hunter may need to check this out:

Michael Mandelbaum, author of eight books on international relations, argues in his ninth book, “The Meaning of Sports,” that sports are “a variety of religious experience.” Like religion, sports stand apart from the mundane and are a realm of special coherence and heroic example.

The rise of team sports coincided with what Mandelbaum calls the 20th century’s “social and political hurricanes.” Those were urbanization — people moving from countryside to town and from job to job — and world wars, unprecedented confusions and traumas from which people sought diversions. The 20th century, Mandelbaum writes, “was the era of free verse in poetry, stream-of-consciousness writing in literature, atonal music in place of traditional harmony and melody, and abstract rather than figurative art.” At a time when Robert Frost was comparing free verse to playing tennis without a net, sports became cultural counterpoints because they are transparent and coherent. Transparent because spectators can see for themselves what is happening, and why. Coherent in that they are defined and governed by rationality — rules — and reach definitive conclusions.

* Maybe it is just me, but I see a religion ghost in this David Brooks column as well. He sees two political Americas – spread-sheet people and paragraph people. He notes that, according to PoliticalMoneyLine, the number of C.E.O.’s donating funds to Bush is five times larger than the number donating to Kerry. Then he notes:

Professors, on the other hand, are classic paragraph people and lean Democratic. Eleven academics gave to the Kerry campaign for every 1 who gave to Bush’s. Actors like paragraphs, too, albeit short ones. Almost 18 actors gave to Kerry for every 1 who gave to Bush. For self-described authors, the ratio was about 36 to 1. Among journalists, there were 93 Kerry donors for every Bush donor. For librarians, who must like Faulknerian, sprawling paragraphs, the ratio of Kerry to Bush donations was a whopping 223 to 1.

Fascinating. Nevertheless, why are conservative books selling the way they are? Why do conservatives read newspapers so much and thrive online?

And what about clergy and the most active religious believers? Brooks seems to have found another way to analyze some major elites, but that’s about it.

* Say WHAT? The Immaculate Heart of Mary sisters made a political donation to Emily’s List, the network that backs female Democratic Party candidates who support abortions rights?

* I must have missed this when Howard Kurtz ran with it. Needless to say, folks at the National Right to Life Committee and its partners are still buzzing about it.

After sending out a routine press release on abortion, the National Right to Life Committee received a stinging e-mail from Todd Eastham, a Reuters editor in Washington:

“What’s your plan for parenting & educating all the unwanted children you people want to bring into the world? Who will pay for policing our streets & maintaining the prisons needed to contain them when you, their parents & the system fail them? Oh, sorry. All that money has been earmarked to pay off the Bush deficit. Give me a frigging break, will you?”

Uh, might this show just a hint of bias?

Believe it or not, that’s about half of last week’s GETREL leftovers. I still feel guilty. Help!

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And they'll know we are Christians by our love

AlphonsojacksonPoor Alphonso Jackson cannot catch a break. Earlier this week, I mentioned how Jackson was hissed and booed at Call to Renewal’s Pentecost 2004 event. Jackson was booed again on Thursday at the National Baptist Convention USA for saying that the Republican Party is committed to helping African Americans.

Janet McConnaughey of the Associated Press narrates:

The audience, which had given him a polite patter of applause when he was introduced, sat quietly for most of the speech, including Jackson’s statement that Bush has made home ownership for all Americans a central theme of his administration.

Jackson also told how his father, stricken by cancer, rejected a social worker’s statement that he was entitled to welfare and food stamps as well as Social Security and Social Security supplemental payments.

“My father said, ‘I’m only entitled to two of those, because I’ve already paid for them,’” Jackson recounted.

Then he said, “The Republican Party is committed to helping African Americans,” and the boos began.

“He’s said enough already,” one man muttered.

Apparently, though, this is par for the course in Jackson’s speaking engagements:

“I am pleasantly pleased that I didn’t get more,” he said. “I have spoken in churches where I got called names.”

“The so-called black leadership — Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Julian Bonds — creates and continues black victimization,” he said.

And, he said, the National Baptist Convention USA is made up mostly of older people who are set in their ways.

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The Revealer crew tries its hand at New Old New Journalism

Notwhatimeant_1OK, friends and cyber-neighbors, here is your reading assignment for the weekend.

Jeff “The Hulk” Sharlet and the crew over at TheRevealer.org conducted a kind of loose-form experiment in religion-news coverage during the Republican National Convention and have posted the six-part “What God Gap?” series that resulted. Sharlet wrote me earlier this week specifically asking for my reaction and asking that we point our readers that way, in order to spark dialogue and feedback.

And all the people said, “Amen.”

Here is a piece of the overture for this operation.

The “God gap,” as the media has come to call it, is the imaginary abyss that separates pious conservatives from atheistic liberals and leftists, as if there was a heavenly kingdom divided between red states and blue states. Sound a little too simple for the world we actually live in? We thought so, too. So instead of getting press passes to the predictable rituals of the Republican National Convention, five Revealer reporters went looking for religion, spirituality, belief — the ” mysterium tremendum “– outside the Garden.

This is interesting, since it assumes there was mucho religious content INSIDE the Garden and there wasn’t that much. Big-tent moderation and all that was the goal, you see. Nevertheless, I sent Sharlet some reactions to their package that looked something like this.

* One of the big themes here at GetReligion is linked to the red vs. blue phenomenon, but not the simple electoral college map that started the debate.

A better way to state this is that I believe there are red and blue zip codes, but that this split is essentially three way, not two way. The blue zip codes appear to be dominated by two groups that combine to form a coalition of secularists and the religious left. The political sciencists at New York University call this the coalition of “anti-evangelical” voters. I think it is broader than that and favor the James Davison Hunter thesis on clashing definitions of truth — the orthodox vs. the progressive, the absolute truth vs. experiential truth camps.

* But here is what I must stress: I see this essentially as two different approaches to faith — not people with faith and people without faith. Here at GetReligion, I have jokingly attempted to pin the “DaVinci Vote” label on this political zone on the left. The religious left exists and it deserves coverage. This is one of the most important stories of the year.

* As for the reporting in The Revealer package, let me say this. Long ago, I used to read and enjoy the old Rolling Stone. What you are doing is basically the revenge of New Journalism, right? I do not see this as an approach that is valid in the mainstream press. It is an honest, advocacy, European approach to journalism. I will gladly read both your work and, let’s say, that of Marvin Olasky’s World. But I do not want to see this in the Washington Post, except on the op-ed pages.

* One more thing. It was amazing reading some of this New Old New Journalism through my own lens — as a reporter who, long, long ago, wrote his first master’s thesis on the role of a liberal form of civil religion in the Vietnam War Moratorium. Wow. What goes around, comes around.

Sharlet wrote back and here is some of what he had to say. The key point we need to keep discussing is at the end.

* I hadn’t thought of it in explicit terms of the religious left, but yes, that’s it, ironically the historical tradition of religion in America and yet almost totally overlooked now. Or was it always thus? The press dragged its feet on King, scorned Day, didn’t know about the messianism of the wobblies, and would have hanged John Brown if they could have got to him first. …

* Red & blue zip codes cut three ways — I’d buy that. Though where does that leave the evangelical preacher voting for Bush and marching against him?

* Revenge of new journalism: Ha! Yes, SORT OF… my own route to this kind of stuff was via modernist fiction like Melville and Woolf and “modernist” documentary photo, which I used to be a big fan of. I’ve never had much use for the 60s new journalists, other than Didion — all were capable of great things, but most were anti-intellectual in a way that prevented them from doing really good things with their stories. Well, I don’t know — Executioner’s Song and Dispatches are important books. But I just can’t get through Wolfe and Talese and Thompson and all those guys. They’re too distracted by their own genitals.

* Which is why I differ from you about the mainstream journalism, which desperately needs massive infusions of narrative, integrated analysis, recognition of subjectivities, understanding of character and plot, etc. Nowhere more so than in the coverage of religion, which simply isn’t well-served by journalistic conventions.

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