Trying to out-Jesus the Republicans

Bill Clinton can be eloquent in the pulpit, as he was in the Memphis Speech in 1993 (excerpts here). Like so many politicians, however, Clinton is not above using a weighty moment to attempt some score-settling, as in his remarks yesterday at The Riverside Church.

Most news reports focused on Clinton’s chutzpah-laden charge that “our friends on the other side have become the people of the Nine Commandments” because of TV ads from Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

Columnist Joel Connelly of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer quoted Clinton weighing in on two non-negotiable planks of the Sexual Revolution:

Clinton took up a pair of issues, the labeling of pro-choice advocates as “pro-abortion,” and the demonizing of gay and lesbian relationships using Old Testament scriptural references.

“I have yet to meet anyone who is for abortion,” said the former president. He argued that being for choice means safeguarding a deeply personal decision that should be made in the privacy of the family.

“I’m not ashamed to say gay people shouldn’t be discriminated against, and I don’t think Jesus had much to say on the subject,” Clinton added.

Clinton’s remarks were part of announcements regarding the Riverside-backed Mobilization 2004 campaign. The sermon was by the Rev. Dr. Thomas L. Stiers on the theme of “Come to the Banquet.” (No texts or cassettes of the sermon or of Clinton’s remarks are yet available on Riverside’s website, but Sunday’s order of worship is here.)

So far as Connelly is concerned, Mobilization 2004 is the sweet voice of reason, as opposed to the Christian Right:

Mobilization 2004 aims not only to put the faithful on the streets but to reach voters’ minds. If successful, it will provide an alternative to the heavily ideological “Voters Guides” distributed by such religious right groups as the Christian Coalition.

The principles include — but go beyond — the Protestant churches’ historic social justice theme of responsibility for children, the disadvantaged and the elderly. As an example, Principle No. 6 says: “Disdain the Arrogance of Power.”

It reads: “Does the policy show humility before the governed, and respect the need for checks and balances on power? Does it fall victim to the hubris of ideological certainty, or a sense of entitlement to govern?”

Principle No. 7 takes up a similar theme: “Guard Freedom of Thought and Discussion: Does the policy provide for free press, free discussion, the expression of dissent, along with fair and just methods of participation in the democratic process.”

Such are not principles generally associated with such administration figures as Vice President Dick Cheney and Attorney General John Ashcroft.

There’s absolutely no ideology in those principles, heavens no.

I’ve not found a single story today that questions whether Clinton’s remarks at Riverside might just qualify, ever so slightly, as electioneering from a church pulpit. So far there has been no horrified reaction from Americans United, The Interfaith Alliance or Sojourners. (But you can watch Sojourners’ cartoonish perceptions of the Christian Right here. This video makes Choice Chick look like high art by comparison.)

Julia Malone of Cox News Service explored some of these questions on Aug. 13, reporting that Americans United has sometimes protested pro-Democrat breaches of the church-state wall o’ separation:

Americans United executive director Barry W. Lynn insisted that his group does not target conservatives. He noted that they are also seeking an IRS probe of the Charles Street African Methodist Episcopal Church in Boston, where the Rev. Gregory Groover welcomed Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry on Palm Sunday as “the next president of the United States.”

In an interview Thursday, the pastor said, “I am personally a registered Democrat and have been all of my voting years, but I do not as a reverend endorse any candidates.” His introduction of Kerry was “absolutely not” an endorsement, he said.

Don Parker, spokesman for the liberal-leaning Interfaith Alliance, which officially opposes all partisan politics in the pulpit, said that black churches are not scrutinized as strictly. “There has to be a historical understanding” of the special political and civil rights role of African-American churches in their communities, he said.

At a forum last March in Washington, a board member of the Interfaith Alliance, the Rev. James A. Forbes Jr. of New York City’s Riverside Church, said that he will be tacitly endorsing the Democrat from the pulpit.

“When I stand up in front of my congregation and tell them what principles I think our faith would cause us to concentrate on, they pretty much get the impression,” said the noted black minister, who added wryly: “I don’t have to call anybody’s name.”

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Another trip online: Can you find your favorite Godbeat specialist?

PinskyEvery weekend, I spend a large chunk of my time doing exactly what many of you would assume that I do. I surf around on the World Wide Web looking for religion news stories.

I often end up in the same cyber niches. There is a reason for that.

Some papers make it easy to find religion news. Many more do not. The ones that really tick me off are the ones that have fine religion writers and hide them and their work in dark, hard-to-find corners of their online newspapers.

Case in point: Go to the home page of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and try to find the fine work of the Godbeat veteran Ann Rodgers. Did you have any luck? Or for years, the St. Petersburg Times was known for its high-quality religion news coverage. Click here and try to find evidence of that.

There are, of course, national-level newspapers that take the beat seriously and readers can tell this simply with a click or two of a mouse. Hit the Los Angeles Times and, with a brief scan of the front-page index, one can quickly move to this crisp little site. Imagine that — religion is as important as real estate. Of course, you can make a case that real estate IS A FORM of religion in greater Los Angeles. At least, I have heard friends discuss the need to sacrifice their firstborn in order to get a house.

But I digress. Contrast Los Angeles with the digital path to religion features at the New York Times — where a little bit of hunting will yield, in the national columnist section, some of the coverage served up week by week. At the moment, “religion” is also featured in a topics search list. But there is no consistent way to find the many religion stories and columns printed in the Times. Finding the stories with religion ghosts in them is another matter.

Then there is the bizarre case of the Washington Post, which does national-level religion beat work — which can be found hidden in the Metro news section. This is particularly upsetting, since the Post has made strong efforts in recent years to improve its religion coverage, with several reporters working on the beat and offering a wide variety of coverage. Once again, the missing link is this — the Post seriously needs a page collecting the religion-angle stories that are scattered about in its sections, especially the lively and provocative Style section. This is a newspsaper that needs a master plan, a better menu, for its digital religion offerings. The coverage deserves it.

I could go on and on. But I want to single out one case that strikes close to home for me. One of my favorite writers on the beat is Mark Pinsky of the Orlando Sentinel, who is probably as well known for his work on the theological content of the Simpsons and Disney as he is for his coverage of local power centers such as Campus Crusade for Christ and the Florida Southern Baptists.

Indeed, anyone who actually wants to read this reporters work from his own newspaper had best be prepared to do some illogical clicking and, in the end, you’re still going to hit more than your share of “The page you requested was not found” form pages.

Here is how Pinsky himself told me to look for his work: “Go to main splash page. Look on the left hand topic rail, then click ‘Lifestyle.’ Then click the ‘Life and Times’ circle. If I have a recent piece, like now, it should be on the list. … I have no regular column.”

The emphasis is on the word “should.” Once again, here is a national-level journalist covering national-level stories for a newspaper that does not seem anxious to feature his work — at least in its online, national product.

Luckily for Pinksy, national-level newsrooms keep discovering his writing, or, at least, his books. Larry Stammer of the Los Angeles Times recently offered up this look into Pinsky’s new book, The Gospel According to Disney: Faith, Trust, and Pixie Dust. Here is a sample:

“The Disney canon is fairly simple,” Pinsky said in an interview. “Good is always rewarded. Evil is always punished. Faith is paramount — faith in yourself and, equally, faith in something greater than yourself. It doesn’t matter what it is that’s greater than yourself.” But don’t look for overt references to God.

Pinsky calls his book a guidebook for parents and grandparents. Much of it is a short retelling of the Disney narratives, with a chapter devoted to most of the stories. Pinsky brings his own rendering of the story lines, seasoned with a religion writer’s familiarity with belief systems, and the sensitivity that comes with being a father himself.

It is essentially a work of journalism rather than blazing paths into entirely new insights, which should not be surprising in view of Pinsky’s training as a reporter. (He formerly worked at The Times.) His task was complicated by the Disney company’s refusal to grant him a single interview, whether with a corporate executive or an animator. Pinsky was forced to rely in part on the works of other scholars and authors, who are richly quoted and credited.

Those who are not able to survive the Sentinel web site can catch up on Pinsky’s life and times at his homepage. And, should readers be inspired to do so, it would not hurt to drop the Sentinel’s online editor a note to request easier access to one of the newspaper’s best journalistic assets. Click here to do that.

Come on. Just do it. And then find similar hidden Godbeat stars elsewhere in the country and try to help them, too.

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The ancient Church Fathers and the AP Stylebook

ap_styleFundamentalism is like neoconservative. Its just a buzz word that lets the left know they are allowed to dislike someone. Nobody out there can really define neo-conservative. Similarly few people, especially on the left, can tell me what the central tenents of Fundamentalism are. When people start calling Catholics “fundamentalists”, then you know they don’t have a clue.
Posted by: Jeff the Baptist | August 27, 2004 02:10 PM

Amen. Preach it Jeff.

This issue of “experts” nailing the label “fundamentalists” on the foreheads of innocent people just drives me nuts as a religion writer. I remember decades ago, just as the Religious Right was springing to life in the wake of Jimmy Carter, reading a mainstream media reference to the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s “fundamentalist stance” on nuclear arms control. Say what?

So many people use this word as an all-purpose way of saying that someone is stupid. Fact is, I have met brilliant people who, accurately, could be described as Christian fundamentalists. And they don’t handle snakes. Some of them hold doctrates from presitigious academic operations in Europe and other smart zip codes.

The bottom line: When used in a Christian context — and you can make a case that this is the only context in which to use it — the term “fundamentalist” has specific doctrinal and even historical content.

But, first, may the journalists in our midst draw swords (this is an evangelical or fundamentalist cultural reference) and open their copies of the bible of deadline journalism. I refer, of course, to the Associated Press Stylebook. There you will find the following passage of authoritative material:

“fundamentalist: The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians.

“In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.”

In addition to that last sentence, it is important to note that AP takes the history of the word seriously.

The vague words in this reference are “strict, literal interpretations of Scripture.” I get the impression these days that there are legions of journalists who think that applies to anyone who clings to all of the Ten Commandments. True “fundamentalism” is a product of the early 20th Century, which means it certainly is not a word to describe people who are defending basic Christian doctrines and sacraments. Someone is not a “fundamentalist” simply because they believe in a creedal doctrine such as the Second Coming of Christ or that salvation is through Jesus alone. It is bad journalism to use the term in such a context.

So who were the first “fundamentalists”? You’d be surprised. Some of them were Anglicans and Presbterians and others mainliners who, today, are considered intelligent life forms by journalists. An essay posted at the simple — but informative — website called “Believe: Religious Information Source” notes:

Fundamentalism is a term popularly used to describe strict adherence to Christian doctrines based on a literal interpretation of the Bible. This usage derives from a late 19th and early 20th century transdenominational Protestant movement that opposed the accommodation of Christian doctrine to modern scientific theory and philosophy. With some differences among themselves, fundamentalists insist on belief in the inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth and divinity of Jesus Christ, the vicarious and atoning character of his death, his bodily resurrection, and his second coming as the irreducible minimum of authentic Christianity. This minimum was reflected in such early declarations as the 14 point creed of the Niagara Bible Conference of 1878 and the 5 point statement of the Presbyterian General Assembly of 1910.

A key phrase in that paragraph is “some differences among themselves.”

Whereas centuries of Christian believers had believed in, again, the Second Coming, different schools of thought among fundamentalists took this belief off into highly specific and often ideosyncratic directions. You can end up with mysterious symbols in the Book of Revelation turning into — literally — a prophecy of how many Israeli fighter jets can dance on the head of the Antichrist if the United Nations votes to do this or that. Classic Christian theology is often left behind.

Once again, the “Believe” site notes:

Two immediate doctrinal sources for fundamentalist thought were Millenarianism and biblical inerrancy. Millenarianism, belief in the physical return of Christ to establish a 1,000 year earthly reign of blessedness, was a doctrine prevalent in English speaking Protestantism by the 1870s. … The name fundamentalist was coined in 1920 to designate those “doing battle royal for the Fundamentals.” Also figuring in the name was The Fundamentals, a 12-volume collection of essays written in the period 1910-15 by 64 British and American scholars and preachers. Three million copies of these volumes and the founding of the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association in 1919 gave sharp identity to fundamentalism as it moved into the 1920s.

It is also hard to talk about what “fundamentalists” believe about issues in moral theology, such as abortion or the sinfulness of sex outside of the Sacrament of Marriage. Once again, the greatest minds of Christendom had addresses these issues over and over for nearly two millennia before the BIRTH of a movement called fundamentalism. Those interested in seeing examples can dig into various sites on the writings of the early Church Fathers (who were not all male).

There is this famous passage, for example, from the teachings of the “Didache.” It is certainly conservative. It is certainly traditionalist. But it is not — in any accurate sense of the word — “fundamentalist.” Fundamentalists did not exist in 70 A.D.

“The second commandment of the teaching: You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not seduce boys. You shall not commit fornication. You shall not steal. You shall not practice magic. You shall not use potions. You shall not procure [an] abortion, nor destroy a newborn child” (Didache 2:1-2).

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The Retro American freak show

The millionaire entrepreneur John Sperling attracted some Big Media attention for his new group-project book, The Great Divide: Retro vs. Metro America, with a series of visually hip ads depicting Mel Gibson and Newt Gingrich (Retro) and Michael Moore and Hillary Clinton (Metro). The book is still another version of explaining the cultural divisions that GetReligion usually describes as Red and Blue America.

Sperling sounds like a pleasant enough man in an online Q&A with Newsweek. He discusses growing up in a fundamentalist Christian household, becoming liberal while serving in the merchant marine and urging Democrats to offer a clear cultural alternative to Republicans — what, they aren’t doing this already? He dispels the rumor that he cloned his pet cat, but mentions that his venture did clone someone else’s cat, and promptly received orders for 10 other cloning jobs (at $50,000 apiece).

An octogenarian entrepreneur who clones cats? What’s not to like? (OK, the price is rather steep for anyone in Retro America, but maybe supply and demand will change that.)

What’s not to like is a manuscript encumbered by stereotyping and frequent errors. Inspired by Sperling’s ready use of the adjective fundamentalist — which in popular coinage translates as “Anyone to my political or theological right” — GetReligion downloaded the book’s fourth chapter, “The Nature of Retro America’s Political Power: Centrality of Race and Religion.”

The chapter begins with statistics that show the disproportionate power still held by white men in state legislatures and in the Congress. Fair enough, and may both parties improve their statistics, steadily and soon.

But by the ninth page of the chapter, the authors tee off on the menace of fundamentalism. They begin with the briefest disclaimer: “There are, of course, millions of evangelicals who are not Republican, but those who are tend to be conservative and often fundamentalist.”

Gee, thanks guys! Mighty Metro of you to grant that “millions of evangelicals” are not Republican. Could it be that millions of evangelicals manage to be Republican but not fundamentalist? Oh, no way, what with such bastions of fundamentalism as the United Methodist Church (“Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors.”) or vaguely defined Lutherans: “Map 4-6 shows that religious life in Retro America is dominated by evangelical Protestants — Southern Baptists, United Methodists, and Evangelical Lutherans.” (Surely the authors would not confuse the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America with the Southern Baptist Convention? Don’t bank on it.)

But that’s the merest stretching exercise compared to the generalizations that follow. Here are the worst offenders in Chapter 4.

Anti-American inerrancy

These denominations have a strong fundamentalist element that sees the Bible as inerrant and as a guide to both private and public life. Consequently, they reject the rational, scientific approach to the development of public policy that has characterized American politics since the nation’s founding.

One precocious fundie!

They are written by Jerry Jenkins, owner of the Christian Writers Guild, with Tim LaHaye, a Bob Jones University graduate and co-founder. Jenkins’ and LaHaye’s Left Behind books have on several occasions been at the top of the New York Times best-seller list, have sold more than 62 million copies, 14 and 6 of them have been turned into films.

[Bob Jones Sr. founded BJU in 1927, without any assistance from the one-year-old LaHaye. Only two Left Behind titles have become films; a third is in the works.]

Cite one example

What happens after the 1,000 years of Christ’s reign is not clearly spelled out in prophecy, but one popular interpretation is that the earth and all mankind would cease to exist.

Thanks so much, James Watt!

Not only do most of the 70 to 80 million fundamentalists hold conservative political views, but other surveys have also shown that many are indifferent to the problems of environmental degradation. Because the End Times are near, why worry about the environment?

Dumbing “destruction of life” down

The fundamentalist devotion to the “sanctity of life” holds only until the child emerges from the womb; once born, the devotion is often to the “destruction of life.”

First Amendment rights as a constitutional problem

We do not know the extent to which evangelical officials share inerrant and millennial beliefs, but we do know, given the high scores they receive from the Family Research Council and the Christian Coalition, that they are influenced by and act in response to the beliefs held by the fundamentalist Republican base. This presents a serious constitutional problem.

Is ultra-fundamentalism new and improved?

The [Family Research Council] scores determine the depth of a member’s religious persuasion. The council is operated by Focus on the Family, headed by ultra-fundamentalist Dr. James Dobson.

[Dobson founded FRC, but Focus does not "operate" it.]

Alex Massie of The Scotsman describes Sperling’s problem well:

When Mr Sperling poses the important question for Democrats, “why do we lose elections when we are right on all the issues?” he assumes the existence of a genetic stupidity that explains the otherwise inexplicable appeal of the Republican Party. It does not seem to occur to him that any decent person could possibly be a conservative. Indeed, Mr Sperling’s condescension illustrates the Democrats’ difficulties. It is hard to win votes from folk you so clearly despise.

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Padre Pio's new crib

“We’re in 2004. You have to look ahead.”

That triumphalist remark is the heart of an energetic New York Times report about a massive new church built at San Giovanni Rotondo, Italy, in honor of the Catholic mystic and stigmatic Padre Pio. The new church was designed by Renzo Piano, the architect of the modernist Pompidou Center in Paris. (Click here for fine photographs of the church’s exterior, and related text for architecture buffs.)

Times reporter Jason Horowitz diligently pursues the idea of modern architecture as a means of getting more people into the pews on architecture pilgrimages, and maybe persuading them to stick around for worship.

The closest Horowitz can deliver to someone who endorses this idea is Bishop Ernesto Mandara, head of the office that commissioned 50 new churches in Italy: “We turned to these big names [of architecture] for the same reason that when one has a sickness he goes to the best doctors.”

Piano’s design will remind some worshipers less of St. Peter’s than of an airport concourse, as both the Times and a glowing review in the Guardian point out:

Inside, stone floors and walls curve up, supported by stone arches arranged in a radial pattern, to create one of the most unexpected domed spaces of all times: powerful, filled with light and, in architectural terms, all but miraculous. An invention extending Piano’s canon of airport terminals, art galleries and office towers, the Padre Pio church will draw people from every (or no) creed, for whom inspiring architecture is its own spiritual reward.

Considering Padre Pio’s colorful history, should forward-facing Catholics in 2004 have expected something subtle? Jonathan Glancey of the Guardian elaborates:

The subject of at least 600 biographies, and many more souvenir statues, prayer cards and “snowstorms”, he allegedly bore the stigmata, the five bleeding wounds that marked Christ’s body as he hung on the cross at Calvary. Investigated twice by the Vatican for alleged fraud and sexual misconduct, and banned from saying Mass in public at one point in the 1930s, he was reinstated with honour.

Among Padre Pio’s other gifts, according to his followers, were prophecy, conversion, the reading of souls, miraculous cures and bi-location. This last meant that he could appear in two places at once. Which he did, apparently, during the second world war. Allied pilots claim to have seen the face of the saintly friar appearing in the clouds, beseeching them not to bomb San Giovanni Rotondo, his home since 1916. The sight of a giant bearded monk looming up in front of the cockpit of a Wellington or Liberator might have prompted their pilots to take evasive action, and to have dropped their bombs elsewhere.

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Did Hudson think he could make this story go away?

Hang on. I don’t say he “deserved” it. I do say that he should have expected it, and was foolish to have thought that he could get involved in secular politics at his level and not have it come out. His hubris, as much as the act itself, brought about this act of self-immolation. As someone famous said recently, you can’t be naive if you want to play in that sandbox.

Posted by: Rod Dreher | August 25, 2004 12:40 PM

It’s no surprise, I guess, that there are waves of interesting ideas and questions in the comments section of the Deal Hudson post. One of the big questions remains: Was the National Catholic Reporter story a “hit job”?

Come on folks, of course it was a hit job. But it was also a valid news story. Remember that NCR is a partisan publication. It’s in a doctrinal war with orthodox Roman Catholics (and, on another level, this White House) and the purpose of the story — however that purpose is worded — was to take somebody down. On the flip side, see the Clinton era. Many hit jobs? Yes. Many valid stories? Yes.

What could have improved the NCR piece?

It appears, of course, that Hudson did not do an interview with them that would tell his side. I can understand that. To do that interview would have required trusting NCR.

But let’s stop and think about this, since this blog is in the business of encouraging the coverage of religion news in mainstream media. Hang in there with me. What if Hudson had granted that NCR interview? (Let’s assume that he can speak, without violating some kind of settlement agreement a decade ago.) And what if he had granted that interview on the condition that he could tape it, as well. Then he could run the transcript on a website or print it in Crisis. Last time I checked, he was associated with a magazine of his own, correct?

In other words, the story is going to come out. And the NCR report contains part of the story. A valid part of the story. A damning part of the story. The NCR story contained the sin and some of the punishment. However, if any journalist is going to be able to detail the repentance and the reality of the life AFTER THE FALL, then that information would have to come through Hudson and his contacts. Correct? Who else can talk about that?

This is part of what I was trying to say about the tragedy of major stories breaking in partisan media. This is a journalism job for Richard Ostling at the Associated Press — QUICK!

One more thing. Let me assign everyone to read Chapter 10 of the revised edition of Chris Matthews’ “Hardball.” It’s called “Hang A Lantern on Your Problem.” The key section deals with a less explosive issue, but the principles are still relevant. When faced with nasty comments about his age, Ronald Reagan made this a central theme OF HIS campaign.

Matthews writes:

“In slaying the age issue, Reagan had also demonstrated an important lesson of politics: if a question has been raised publicly about your own personal background, you need to address the issue personally.”

The question, of course, is whether religious conservatives can trust the mainstream media to serve up balanced, accurate and in any way nuanced reports that will tell their side as well as the side of the critics. The hard truth is that a 50-50 news report is a bloody miracle in the current media climate, where the sexual revolution has defined the sacred cows in most newsrooms and not just the openly partisan ones.

But, again, did Hudson think that the story was not going to get printed? Did he think no one would read an NCR story? Did he actually think, as many conservatives do, that they could hinder the printing of a partisan story by refusing to cooperate?

Get real. Faced with NCR printing large chunks of the truth about his past, his only real option — rather than writing a small insider piece for National Review — was to jump right on the issue in a media forum that was more powerful and more dedicated to fairness than the Catholic enemy that wanted his head.

Any suggestions on the newspaper or wire service to which he should have offered the story? I say Howard Kurtz at the Washington Post.

UPDATE: Catholic Exchange has a new commentary up on this sad affair. Here is a long, and gracefully sane, passage from this editorial.

Deal Hudson portrayed his becoming a confidant of the Bush team as something he was tapped for rather than as something he actively sought. Be that as it may, it is surely the fact that regardless of whether he put himself forward or was brought into the limelight, he has known all along about this sordid incident lurking in the background, and he could have demurred — it is our opinion that he should have. Poor judgment on his part left his vulnerabilities open to attack, and it is therefore correct for him to say that he let many people down. But even as we forgive, we beg our fellow Catholics to regard this as a cautionary tale. …

If you are a Catholic seeking to serve the Church or your country and you have a scandalizing secret that you never want your children to read in the papers or on the web, keep a low profile. There is much to be done — in fact most of the work of building God’s Kingdom is being done — in the background, out of the public eye, and you are indispensable in only two positions: being a husband or wife to your spouse and a father or mother to your children.

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Is the Crisis crisis a big deal? Of course it is

hudson_ewtnFor the past four or five days — or whenever it was that I staggered out of registration here at the university and saw the wave of Deal Hudson reports — I have been trying to recover a piece of information lost in the file cabinets of my brain.

Don’t you hate it when (a) you forget who said something important that you read, but you can’t remember where, and (b) you can’t find the quote in Google, because if contains too many common words (or your middle-aged brain does not have enough of the words in the right order).

Whatever. I give up. Here is the gist, as I remember it. Right at the peak of the most recent wave of Roman Catholic clergy-abuse stories, a candid conservative commentator reminded his readers never to forget that sexual sin is not an issue of conservative and liberal, orthodox and progressive. The article was not in Crisis magazine, I know that.

In other words, there are skeletons rattling in conservative cloisters that affect important news stories, as well as in those on the liberal side of the church. The two doctrinal armies do have different responses to sexual sin and they do have clashing beliefs on what is sinful and what is not. But the larger truth is that everyone struggles with these issues and there is no evidence that it is any easier for conservatives to repent than for liberals to do so. Sin is sin. Repentance is repentance. Shame is shame. Secrecy is secrecy.

Which brings us, of course, to the National Catholic Reporter and its red-hot story about the sinful past of conservative Catholic leader Deal Hudson of Crisis magazine and the Bush campaign’s outreach program to Catholic voters (or one brand of Catholic voter).

A number of excellent blogs have been all over this story for nearly a week, led by the usual suspects — the crack teams at Christianity Today’s blog (for a sample go here) and the freewheeling folks at At the latter, head hauncho Jeff Sharlet has more than made his feelings clear that this is a story that deserves more attention than it has been given. Are we seeing a strange case of pro-conservative bias, or at least nerves?

Washington Post’s Alan Cooperman gets in on the Deal (Hudson) deal with an A-6 snoozer. Why is the resignation of the Bush’s chief Catholic advisor — a position of much greater power than the governorship of New Jersey — getting so little attention? Even leaving aside the undisputed charges of profound sexual misconduct, why doesn’t this story rate? The resignation of the DNC’s religious advisor, for the crime of having supported the removal of “under God” from the pledge, won way more column inches. We’re not being rhetorical here: What gives?

To which Christianity Today’s online maestro Ted Olsen quipped:

Weblog thinks reporters are ignoring it just to see if The Revealer editor Jeff Sharlet merely starts walking the streets of New York in a sandwich board, or if he turns apoplectically into The Hulk, pummeling reporters who haven’t followed up on the story.

Sharlet is amused, but ready for another few rounds of debate. His bottom line: There is substance to this story that journalists are struggling to get into print.

The CT folks also chided us here at a bit for our relative silence, which was, I assure you, based on the event catching Doug in the middle of a trip and me swamped with the opening of the semester here at Palm Beach Atlantic University. But I also have to admit that it took me a few days to sort through what I think is the heart of this story about a news story. Here are some of my other impressions:

* At this point, I agree with Sharlet that this story has been strangely undercovered. Let me state clearly that this is a major news story and its presence in the pages of daily newspapers cannot be written off as a blast of anti-traditional Catholic bias in big newsrooms.

* At the same time, there is no question in my mind that this was a degree of payback at work for the NCR editors, based on Hudson’s role in exposing the pro-Kerry work of an employee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Here is Cooperman on that angle (in a story that I thought was not spectacular, but not a snoozer).

Hudson himself may have gotten the ball rolling with a column early this year revealing that the moderator of the Catholics for Kerry Web site was an employee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The conference subsequently fired the employee, Ono Ekeh, for using his work computer to make postings to the political Web site.

Ekeh, 34, said yesterday that he sympathizes with Hudson.

“It’s come to the point where disagreements about doctrine or ideology have made people consider the other side as bad people,” he said. “So it’s moved from ideological disagreements to personal disagreements, and that’s bound to get destructive.”

As I have been saying all along on the Kerry Communion story, there is more to the situation than politicians trying to grab undecided Catholic voters. It isn’t news to note that there are bitter divisions in this country between Roman Catholics and American Catholics, to use the kind of spin that would be common in conservative Catholic publications — such as Crisis.

* The Hudson story is a valid news story. But, you know what? The Ekeh story was a valid news story and one that cuts to the heart of the Catholic wars in this nation. Conservative Catholics tend to get mad when church employees spend their time promoting the cause of a liberal Catholic politician who has never missed an opportunity to support abortion rights. The bishops conference is Ground Zero for these conflicts.

So what we have here are two valid, important stories — both of which broke in the pages of highly partisan publications. Thus, the mainstream coverage is, in part, being shaped by reactions to the prejudices of the competing Catholic armies. This is what happens — think Clinton scandals, if you will — when news stories are shaped by their first incarnations in fiercely partisan media.

Just ask yourself this question: Would reactions to this story be different if it had broken, not in NCR, but in the pages of Newsweek, written by veteran scribe Kenneth Woodward, or in an Associated Press piece by Richard Ostling?

* So I am hoping that there is more coverage of BOTH of these stories, both the Ekeh story and the Hudson story. They are part of the same larger story, a story that I don’t think is wrapped up yet.

At the same time, let me note that the NCR (this is war, remember) told the worst possible version of the Hudson story, even if the most sordid and sensational details of the story were accurate and valid. It is, for traditional believers, crucial to ask if Hudson confessed his sins, paid the price and has been a different man since then. In this case, I think repentance is part of the story, including the story of Hudson’s marriage and the future of his family.

Reporter David D. Kirkpatrick of the “issues that divide conversatives” beat at the New York Times ended his report on the crisis with this angle, noting that in his book “An American Conversion,” Hudson had:

… discussed his “past mistakes” and “the role they played in my conversion through the grace and the forgiveness I have found in the Catholic Church.” At one point in the book, published last year, Mr. Hudson wrote about the cooling of passion in a long marriage. “I experienced, the hard way, that passion does subside, and I was foolish not to realize that the love that follows is better,” he wrote. “No doubt this led to unfortunate and destructive behavior on my part,” he added. “I am blessed that I have not gotten what I deserve.”

He concluded the book by recalling a romantic episode that took place a year before his conversion: “I was jolted by the sudden departure of someone I loved but who I had not treated well. The hurt was compounded by my sense of failure. I spent many months hoping to win her back but without any progress. I was to blame and I knew it.”

He wrote that in despair, he prayed to the Virgin Mary at his local parish, the Immaculate Heart of Mary. “My prayers brought me both relief from my loss,” he wrote, “and a sense of forgiveness for my failure.”

Hudson has spoken out twice on these matters in recent days, first in a “hang a lantern on your problem” piece for National Review Online that tried to knock down some of the affects of the upcoming National Catholic Reporter piece. He also sent a letter to a Crisis e-mail list that was posted in one of the most serious Catholic niches on the World Wide Web, Amy Welborn’s “Open Book” blog. For examples of the threads that have spun out of this, click here or here.

Writing to Welborn, Rod Dreher of the Dallas Morning News (and friend of this blog) sent this sober reminder to his fellow Catholic conservatives. The bottom line: This is a news story, folks. Admit it. When shoes drop, they drop.

Powerful and charismatic older male violates his vows by taking sexual advantage of troubled, emotionally unstable young person, using alcohol. This is a familiar Catholic narrative of late, isn’t it?

I wish it weren’t so, but come on, y’all, if this were about a liberal priest, or involved two men, most of the people here would be calling for the wrongdoer’s head. I used to write for Crisis about a decade ago, and know Deal Hudson a little bit, so I’m not going to kick him while he’s down. This is an ugly and sad situation for his wife and children. I only want to say that it’s important for those of us who consider ourselves conservative Catholics remember not to be hypocrites when one of our own, so to speak, is revealed to have had feet of clay. Attacking the alleged motives of NCR and its reporter does not make the facts go away, or any easier to take.

Posted by: Rod Dreher at August 19, 2004 03:32 PM

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On abortion: Any signs of real change out there?

GEOlsen’s article is mainly just worthless spin. He ignores key facts and misrepresents the implications of others.

1. The undeniable global trend of the past several decades has been to reduce legal restrictions on abortion, not increase them. There is no sign that this trend is reversing. A broad legal right to abortion now exists in almost all the industrialized democracries, and countries where abortion is still severely restricted are under increasing pressure to ease those laws. …
Posted by: Fred | August 22, 2004 03:57

I have been working on a late catch-up post on the Deal Hudson crisis. But as I continue to work on that, along with my column for this week and the opening week of classes here at the university, let me jump in and add a few thoughts on Doug’s post from this weekend, focusing on trends related to abortion.

Interesting questions raised. Here are a few comments and questions of my own:

* I agree that it might be too strong to call recent abortion-debate trends the best news opponents of abortion “have heard in years.” I would not go that far. I have major doubts. Nevertheless, I would request some specifics from those who see increasing support for abortion rights — just as I hope those who oppose abortion rights would also quote specifics (or point to where we might find them).

Olsen does give interesting links to follow and to criticize. Good for him. I would like to see more from both sides. It is one thing to disagree with one another. It is something else to disagree and quote a source and some specifics. Anyone want to offer a few URLs?

* It still seems to me that the nation is in pretty much the same shape as portrayed by James Davison Hunter in the poll-data chapter of “Before the Shooting Begins” — strong cores of 15 percent or so who are clearly pro-abortion-rights or anti-abortion, sandwiching a large majority that talks pro-life (or variations thereof) but does not favor political action.

* If there has been a change, it is the one that sounded alarm bells at Planned Parenthood last year — a sign of weakening support for legalized abortion among young Americans. For specifics, click HERE.

I have ticked off some of my fellow pro-lifers by saying that I doubt those numbers, in part because that would seem to run against the growing cultural trend toward relativism/individualism on moral issues. If there has been a move toward a more traditional stance on abortion, it has merely pushed the nation back towards a more painfully divided situation.

* While we are at it, it helps to note that this discussion is not always a matter of “left” and “right” if we are talking about politics (as opposed to moral theology). The dominant political wind of our age is not left or right, but Libertarian, especially on moral issues. Remember that President Clinton betrayed labor unions, but never the lifestyle left. Meanwhile, the GOP is trying frantically to remind the mushy middle that its big tent contains few moral absolutes.

The party of moral absolutes these days is the Democratic Party, when the issue is abortion. It is absolutely certain that the abortion-rights stance is morally correct. Check out the changed language in the last two party platforms. Note especially the conscience clause in the 2000 text.

The Democratic Party stands behind the right of every woman to choose, consistent with Roe v. Wade, and regardless of ability to pay. We believe it is a fundamental constitutional liberty that individual Americans — not government — can best take responsibility for making the most difficult and intensely personal decisions regarding reproduction. This year’s Supreme Court rulings show to us all that eliminating a woman’s right to choose is only one justice away. That’s why the stakes in this election are as high as ever.

Our goal is to make abortion less necessary and more rare, not more difficult and more dangerous. We support contraceptive research, family planning, comprehensive family life education, and policies that support healthy childbearing. The abortion rate is dropping. Now we must continue to support efforts to reduce unintended pregnancies, and we call on all Americans to take personal responsibility to meet this important goal.

The Democratic Party is a party of inclusion. We respect the individual conscience of each American on this difficult issue, and we welcome all our members to participate at every level of our party.

I had to edit that some for length. Please see the full text. Now, here is the only abortion material in the 2004 platform.

We will defend the dignity of all Americans against those who would undermine it. Because we believe in the privacy and equality of women, we stand proudly for a woman’s right to choose, consistent with Roe v. Wade, and regardless of her ability to pay. We stand firmly against Republican efforts to undermine that choice. At the same time, we strongly support family planning and adoption incentives. Abortion should be safe, legal, and rare.

Note the lack of a conscience clause — will the GOP have one this time around? — and the statement, in effect, that anyone opposed to abortion is automatically backing the Republican Party. Those are fighting words to many, many old-coalition Democrats.

You may have seen that Zogby recently had a poll showing that 43 percent of registered Democrats say they are opposed to abortion (while not saying what they would do to stop it). Meanwhile, the Boston Globe found a mere 2 percent of delegates to the Democratic convention who were opposed to abortion. The convention was not a very big tent on cultural issues.

* One final comment. As a media professor, I constantly remind my students that we live in a culture dominated by two things — images and emotions. Call it Oprah America.

My hunch is that recent technological trends are making more Americans — journalists even — nervous about abortion as they look at stunning images of unborn children. These images create strong feelings. These feelings may even show up in poll data. These figures may offer hope to those who oppose abortion and fray nerves among those who support abortion rights.

But does any of that equal political change? Or is it just another sign of a painfully divided culture?

I am not even sure that the race for the White House will yield much new information on this. Tune in for a reality check, as soon as there is an opening on the U.S. Supreme Court.

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