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!

Moderate Muslims are upset — the New York Times says so

Muslims_prayingGetReligion readers who dig into the comments pages (thank you, commentators) may have noticed that some people do not share my conviction that journalists must cover debates within Islam over the tactics — the slaughter of civilians and children, in particular — being employed by many generic “nationalists” and “rebels.”

The bottom line: Some of you simply do not believe that moderate Muslims exist or, if they do, that they have the courage to make a stand against the Islamist fanatics.

However, you must be wrong.

Why? This theme in the Beslan story is now so obvious that even the New York Times has covered it. In a John Kifner story that is painfully similar to stories written days ago in other publications, the newspaper of record has declared: “Massacre Draws Self-Criticism in Muslim Press.” It cites the much-quoted commentary by Abdel Rahman al-Rashed of the satellite television station Al Arabiya, before adding other examples of this trend. For example:

In Jordan, a group of Muslim religious figures, meeting with the religious affairs minister, Ahmed Heleil, issued a statement on Wednesday saying the seizing of the school and subsequent massacre “was dedicated to distorting the pure image of Islam.” … Writing in the Jordanian daily Ad Dustour, columnist Bater Wardam noted the propensity in the Arab world to “place responsibility for the crimes of Arabic and Muslim terrorist organizations on the Mossad, the Zionists and the American intelligence, but we all know that this is not the case.”

“They came from our midst,” he wrote of those who had kidnapped and killed civilians in Iraq, blown up commuter trains in Spain, turned airliners into bombs and shot the children in Ossetia. “They are Arabs and Muslims who pray, fast, grow beards, demand the wearing of veils and call for the defense of Islamic causes. … Therefore we must all raise our voices, disown them and oppose all these crimes.”

Meanwhile, Time magazine recently put this topic on its cover with the blunt headline, “Struggle For The Soul Of Islam.” This is a lengthy news feature package that is full of tensions and, at time, the paradoxes that show up in the daily lives of almost all believers, no matter what faith they attempt to practice.

When reading it, my find flashed back to a scene I witnessed in the Pittsburgh airport a few years ago. A Muslim family was waiting to board an airplane, in the first-class line way ahead of me. The man was in a business suit. The woman was in traditional dress. The teen-aged daughter was straight out of the local mall and the 12-ish son was a mini-Eminem, complete with cool headphones blasting rap so loud anyone nearby could hear it.

The Time cover by Bill Powell, in a way, starts with this scene in reverse, with a vivid example of anti-assimilation. This anecdote details the tensions between a father and a son. The father in Baghdad sent his son away to school in the United Arab Emirates to help him escape Saddam Hussein, only to see him return in the garb of a true believer in radical Islam.

This was no longer the carefree young man he knew, Shakr thought, the son who loved to dance and go to parties. Now whenever the music channel was on television, Omar got up and left the room. One day he sternly told his father, who works for an American company, that the U.S. was the “enemy” of Islam. Shakr’s concern deepened. Finally he told friends at work, “I have to rescue Omar. I have to bring back my son.”

This is the language of a mainstream media report on a dangerous religious cult. This is precisely the kind of imagery that most newsrooms avoid, when writing news stories about those on the other side of battles in the war on terror. Of course, Time describes this in the universal media code language of “moderates” vs. “fundamentalists” — just like a school board fight in East Texas, or something.

Time’s bottom line: This is a civil war within a faith and it must be important, because it is affecting U.S. politics. Here is the money paragraph (but I urge those with Time accounts to read the whole thing):

The outcome of this struggle does not depend solely on numbers. The vast majority of the world’s more than 1 billion practicing Muslims are peaceful citizens getting on with their lives. But interviews by TIME with religious leaders, Islamic scholars, government analysts and ordinary citizens in dozens of countries around the world reveal that the fervor of those who adhere to radical forms of Islam has intensified since 9/11. While Muslims continue to consume and even celebrate Western pop culture, hostility to the policies of the West, in particular the U.S., appears to be on the rise. It is being propelled in part by anger at the U.S.’s staunch support of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, contempt for the U.S.’s occupation of Iraq and opposition to crackdowns on militancy carried out by previously permissive governments like those of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. In part because of their countries’ earlier experiences with European colonialism, some Muslims, from Indonesia to Iraq, perceive the U.S.’s stated desire to bring democracy to the Middle East less as a liberating force than as an unwelcome form of Western meddling.

And there is the greatest paradox at all. It is clear that many in the Muslim world want to join in the celebration of American freedoms, when it comes to entertainment and many lifestyle issues, while fearing the Western world’s commitment to basic human freedoms and essential rights. They want Disney and ESPN, but not debates and evangelism (except for all those converts to Islam).

All of these tensions need debate and mainstream coverage — for the sake of all who cherish civil liberties and, in particular, freedom of the press and religion. As friend of this blog Rod Dreher just wrote in a Dallas Morning News editorial:

In 1993, the Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington caused a firestorm by pointing out “Islam’s bloody borders,” citing overwhelming quantitative evidence showing that Islamic populations are far more involved in violent conflicts with their neighbors than any other group. Wrote Dr. Huntington: “Muslim bellicosity and violence are late-20th-century facts which neither Muslims nor non-Muslims can deny.”

There was, and has been, furious denial, and not only from Muslims. It has been considered taboo of late in right-thinking Western circles to notice the role the Islamic faith plays in driving terrorism. But the Beslan atrocity seems to have been a watershed event. Let us hope so.

Hell-haunted Hollywood

MaherAsSatanOf the many stories devoted to Hollywood Hellhouse, one of the best is by Jeffrey Weiss of the Dallas Morning News (registration required).

Like most reporters, Weiss includes the remark by Maggie Rowe — the show’s director who posed as a youth group director to buy a Hell House Outreach Kit from Assemblies of God pastor Keenan Roberts — about her churchgoing childhood. But then he follows it with comic understatement:

Ms. Rowe, a close friend of just about everyone in the cast and many in the first-night audience, said that she was raised in a conservative Christian household — and that it warped her.

“The biggest fear of my entire life was going to hell,” she said.

Now she attends a Zen Buddhist center, where eternal damnation isn’t in the big picture.

Weiss also dug more than most reporters, discovering that Andy Richter is a member of the United Church of Christ, and that another cast member isn’t entirely sure that hell is just a raucous joke: “Ninety-nine percent of me is sure we’re doing OK here,” said Michael Friedman, 35, an aspiring screenwriter. “One percent of me is worried we’re all going to hell.”

And how very reassuring it is to know that Hollywood Hellhouse leaves one of L.A.’s hothouse flowers believing that he now knows conservatives — not just the fraction of evangelicals or fundamentalists who choose to dwell on hell — better:

The Hollywood version was real enough for Padraic Duffy, 29, a playwright. He said he knew little about conservative Christianity and welcomed the chance to hear what evangelicals preach — in a nonthreatening setting.

“It was like a zoo of conservative thinking,” he said. “And they were safely behind bars.”

Honorable mention: Catherine Seipp in The Wall Street Journal, for writing about the Happy Ending Worthy of a Sitcom: a face-to-face meeting of Roberts and Rowe.

The photo of Bill Maher, dressed for his role as Satan, appears on this blog by Nora Murphy, and is used here with her kind permission.

Who is a liberal? Yin and yang at GOP convention

rudy2004It’s political convention time again and, once again, it is time to offer kudos to two of the best sites in terms of the religious language and symbolism of this media event. As with the Democrats, the yin and the yang of Republican God-talk is being served up by Beliefnet Editor-in-Chief Steven Waldman and Christianity Today blog maestro Ted Olsen.

Yesterday, Olsen offered up a lively contrast of the activities of the various “non-partisan” groups on the religious left and the religious right. (Another AP Stylebook aside: Why does it look strange to leave “religious right” lower case, yet “religious left” looks strange upper case?) The headline on this blog report was a classic: “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Ad Hominem Attacks.”

Don’t miss the coverage of the Family Research Council fortune cookies being handed out in New York. And there is this especially concise commentary on President Bill Clinton’s non-partisan sermon at Manhattan’s cathedral of the lifestyle left, Riverside Church:

Kevin Madden, spokesman for the Bush campaign, told the New York Daily News, “It’s astonishing that anyone would use a church pulpit to launch a baseless attack containing nothing but false accusations.”

Oh, come on. Bill Clinton accuses Republicans of only following nine of the Ten Commandments and of bearing false witness, and the best response you can come up with is that he’s misusing a pulpit?

On the other side of the aisle, sort of, Waldman has really come out of the blocks smoking in his convention blog. Some of the commentary is especially interesting in light of our recent discussions here at GetReligion.org on the meaning of religious labels such as “fundamentalist.” Apparently, these kinds of issues are hotly discussed among the members of God’s Own Party. Check out this anecdote from the almost-Libertarian front lines:

Went to a party thrown by the estimable conservative magazine National Review. Spoke to a woman wearing an “I Only Sleep with Republicans” button.

“Hey, I thought Republicans advocated abstinence before marriage,” I said.

“That’s conservative Republicans,” she said.

Who says they don’t have a big tent?

There’s more. Political conventions are, these days, about as spontaneous as discussions of the morality of abortion in a meeting of the Political Science department at the University of California at Berkeley. In other words, most of the speeches and texts are carved in stone long before the spotlights are turned on.

But perhaps it is hard to make some of the Republican Party’s religious voices seek the soft, non-offensive hymns of the party elite. Many of our readers would be interested in the online dialogue that is taking place between Waldman and Dr. Marvin Olasky of World magazine about the policy implications of George W. Bush being “twice born,” while John Kerry has only been “born once.” This is one of those cases where the views of the two men should be read — instead of turned into quickie headlines.

And here is another choice Waldman anecdote from the pre-prime time podium action at the convention.

When I read the prepared text of the speech by Mississippi congressional candidate Clinton LeSueur, I saw the line “The foundation of this great nation is faith,” and thought there was nothing controversial in that. Chris Suellentrop at Slate listened to the actual speech, in which LeSueur declared instead: “The very foundation of this country is Christianity and faith in Jesus Christ.”

Go ahead, Cosmo and company, serve up your favorite one-liners about Thomas Jefferson.

Actually, I haven’t been paying that much attention to the convention for reasons that are obvious for anyone who can tune in the Weather Channel. Does anyone know how to put up metal hurricane shutters?

What I have seen so far has — surprise! — raised more questions for me about the way the mainstream media use certain loaded words. This time around, I am wondering what the word “moderate” means when applied to members of the Republican Party who are pro-abortion rights. As they march to the platform, commentators are noting that their presence is an attempt by the GOP to reach out beyond its “conservative” base and reach “moderate” voters.

I am confused and want to ask this question. If abortion on demand is the “moderate” position, what is the “liberal” position? For years, polls seem to indicate that the public is divided three ways on this most painful of issues. On one side is a camp of people who do not want to limit abortion in any way, even when dealing with the partial-birth procedure that some Democrats have compared with legal infanticide. On the right are the conservatives — fundamentalists, even — who want an outright ban with few, if any, exceptions. In between is the great muddy middle in the electorate that favors some legal restrictions.

But in public media, “moderate” means pro-abortion-rights — period. Those who favor any legal limits are “conservatives.”

Help me out here. Who are the “liberals”? What is the “liberal” position on abortion? Has anyone seen this perfectly honorable political term used lately, in the context of political issues linked to a debate about morality and culture?

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).

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.

Yo, city dudes, you got punk'd!

amish_castWriting last Friday in The Wall Street Journal, sociologist Donald B. Kraybill suggested an entertaining alternative to Amish in the City:

If we want real TV reality, though, why not take five TV executives and put them in an Amish family for a week and let the cameras roll as they bake some apple pies, sew some shirts, haul some manure, pull some weeds, drive some horses and try to decide which end of a cow to milk?

It turns out, though, that the Hollywood dealmaker who conceived the series has more experience with the unadorned life than any of us may have guessed. Heather Havrilesky of Salon interviews producer Jon Kroll, who mentions that he “grew up in a Northern California commune without television or telephones or electricity.”

Havrilesky follows up:

Was there pressure to stay in your community?

Not the kind of pressure that the Amish face. It was presented to me that, “You’re welcome to stay and do this sort of New Age homesteading thing that we’re doing. You don’t have to leave.” And after living like that for 10 years, I really had itchy feet. I wanted to get out there, just like some of the Amish on the show. I mean, the Amish kids who were selected are the ones who actively wanted to pursue more experiences before making their decision.

The UPN series charmed most TV critics during previews in late July, and has marched on to fairly good ratings.

Philip Kennicott of The Washington Post, after the obligatory reference to the Amish as “fundamentalist,” shows a good understanding of the show’s winning formula:

The fear, among some groups that worry about the depiction of religion and the treatment of rural people on television, was that this show would mock and demean its Amish characters. It clearly strives not to do so, at least overtly. The producers use a basic reversal of values to insulate themselves from the charge of exploiting the Amish. Instead, they exploit every cliche of urban vanity and inanity. The city kids are dull, rude, intellectually closed-minded and hypocritical. Next to them, the Amish are delightful. They have a strange, hard-to-place but winning quality: It’s called maturity.

A challenge: Produce a "God's Official Party" quote

bush_nimbusMatea Gold of the Los Angeles Times has highlighted some of the lingering awkwardness as the Kerry campaign begins challenging Republicans’ strength among regular churchgoers. That initiative has led Kerry to talk more about his faith, even while saying he does not wear his faith on his sleeve — unlike, say, a certain Texan who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?

Gold’s story includes the standard-issue assertion that the Republican Party is not, as Kevin Eckstrom wrote recently for Religion News Service, “God’s Official Party”:

“It’s very simply important for Democrats to get out there and say, ‘We are people of faith, we are guided by spiritual values, and the Republicans don’t have an exclusive franchise when it comes to God,’” said Mike McCurry, Clinton’s onetime press secretary.

I need to ask this: Can anyone find a quote from even a state-level Republican leader claiming that believers would or should vote only for Republicans? (Granted, some preachers will suggest this, but usually not for reasons of blind party loyalty. Jerry Falwell recently challenged Jim Wallis on NPR’s Tavis Smiley Show. Falwell says prolife convictions should prompt a believer to vote for prolife presidential candidates; Wallis counters that Christians should base their votes on more than a candidate’s stance on abortion or gay marriage.)

But back to Gold’s article. Wallis cites a concern discussed earlier in several GetReligion posts: “Sometimes it seems as if Democrats have said, ‘I have faith, but don’t worry — it won’t affect anything.’”

The least predictable remarks come from a leader of a People of Faith for Kerry chapter in western Michigan. While starting with a shot at “fundamentalists,” this leader also is willing to identify the elephant in the Democrats’ front parlor:

Last month, the group — clad in light-blue Kerry T-shirts that read, “He Shares Our Values” — cleaned up the warehouse of a Grand Rapids charity organization. They’re planning similar community service projects.

“We have decided to try to make the point that people of faith have values besides the values of fundamentalists,” said Peter Vander Meulen, one of the group’s leaders.

But Vander Meulen frets that his group will not be able to persuade many of the area’s churchgoing voters to support Kerry. He said most of the people at his church backed Bush because of his antiabortion stance.

“If the Democrats want to make serious inroads into communities of faith, frankly, they’re going to have to do more than just put T-shirts on some of us,” he said. “They are going to have to make room in the party for those us of who are deeply uncomfortable with the party’s hard-core position on abortion.”

A different message comes from former Clinton spokesman McCurry:

McCurry said that after he gave a presentation to members of Congress about the need for Democrats to talk about faith more openly, several expressed wariness.

“They’re nervous about something that sounds overly evangelical,” he said. “You have to break that association.”

There are deep-seated differences out there, and both parties have committed themselves to certain worldview-based assumptions. It should be obvious to fans of politics that sincere Christians vote as Democrats, Republicans, Greens, Libertarians or any number of other parties. It’s a matter of where believers place their priorities, and there is considerable disagreement within churches about what those priorities should be.

No one should expect Kerry to out-evangelical Bush, or to develop sudden doubts about abortion rights or his opposition to school vouchers. But nor should anyone assume that when conservative evangelicals vote for a Republican, they insist that all right-thinking Americans (Christian or otherwise) vote likewise.