The Oprah of Christian TV?

700ClubSplashNew2During that dizzying rush of recent Pat Robertson headlines, more than a few GetReligion readers protested that I was wrong to say the MSM should “excommunicate” him as a mainstream Christian, or even “evangelical,” news source. After all, said these readers, the czar of The 700 Club was still the czar of The 700 Club.

Well, you just knew that at some point a major newspaper or network was going to rise up to defend — sort of — the honor of the Religious Right leader that mainstream journalists most love to hate. As it turns out, the Los Angeles Times has taken up that challenge. Sort of. To tell you the truth, the article by reporter Faye Fiore (headline: “A Wholly Controversial Holy Man”) is pretty good.

The bottom line: He still has lots of viewers and he may have more freedom to speak out now because he has little or no political clout at all. What he has right now is a camera and a satellite. Who does he speak for? Good question.

His evangelical peers have branded him “arrogant” for his comments, and students at the Christian university he founded worry that his candor could damage their school’s credibility. The political left eagerly monitors his appearances on his spirits-raising morning show. What they find becomes fodder for talk-show monologues.

“Pat Robertson said that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s massive stroke was God’s punishment for him giving up Israeli territory. … If you are playing along at home, this is Pat’s first idiotic statement of the New Year,” Jay Leno quipped. …

(At) age 75, and freed from the need to marshal political capital, Robertson seems even less restrained than ever. His verbal grenades sound more like bombs, and even those in the evangelical community are noticing.

The key word there is “even.” In reality, Robertson’s clout among evangelical Protestants has been fading since he was all but invisible during the 2000 Bush campaign for the White House.

So what power does he have? As it turns out, Fiore reports that Robertson does have clout in one major corner of the Christian marketplace — public relations. He has the ability to threaten the companies that produce products for shelves in Christian stores.

Yes, Robertson is a mini-Oprah.

… Robertson’s reach is vast. “The 700 Club’s” average daily audience exceeded 830,000 this season, according to Nielsen Media Research, down from 1 million a decade ago but formidable enough that some dare not incur his notorious wrath.

“He’s like a little bitty Oprah among evangelicals,” said Doug Wead, an author and former advisor to President George H.W. Bush. “He’s got a talk show, so if someone comes out and says Pat’s a little goofy, he is going to have to accept the fact he won’t be on Pat Robertson’s show when his book comes out.”

There’s much more to read, but I think I had better be quiet. After all, I have a book out right now.

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Italian PM: “I am the Jesus Christ of politics”

berlusconiThe scandals and corruption charges surrounding Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi make the GOP’s problems in Washington seem minor league. Berlusconi is one of the 25 richest people in the world. His businesses create a number of legal problems for him politically, and he is facing charges of bribing judges in a trial involving one of his businesses. He’s also compared himself to Jesus Christ in a speech to political supporters:

But then he went on to complain that he feels like what he called “the Jesus Christ of Italian politics”.

“I’m a patient victim. I put up with everything. I sacrifice myself for everyone,” he said.

Opposition politicians called Mr Berlusconi’s comparison grotesque, although he was simply using popular speech.

In Italian, for example, you can refer to someone as a Povero Christo, or a poor Christ, without being accused of blasphemy.

Berlusconi’s statement will be used against him by his political opponents. Those in the European media, who love gifts like Berlusconi who keep on giving, will blast the comments across their front pages.

But do Italians really care that a man who owns a handful of television stations, some radio stations, a collection of newspapers, an advertising business, some film companies, insurance corporations and food and construction outfits said he’s on the same level as Jesus Christ? It certainly won’t generate any riots or burnings, nor should it.

This politician is conflicted with interests beyond repair, and during his tenure the country’s press freedom ranking dropped from “Free” to “Partly Free.” The Economist has been unrelenting in criticizing Berlusconi (just glance over his Wikipedia file and you’ll get an idea).

Berlusconi recently said that only Napoleon did more than he has as a leader, and called a German European Union MP a Nazi concentration prison camp guard. Berlusconi also once said that Mussolini was the greatest Italian statesman.

This is a country where Jesus Christ was put on trial (the case has since been thrown out). With all these comments under Berlusconi’s belt, is this religious reference really all that surprising?

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Next round of Da Vinci debates

222px The da vinci codeA few readers have written me asking my opinion of the news stories that are starting to apppear about TheDaVinciChallenge.com, the website that the public-relations professionals at Grace Hill Media have set up to promote and/or debate the upcoming movie about you know what.

Then again, a few readers have noticed that I am listed among the writers who have agreed to write pro bono articles for this website. I have, in fact, agreed to write a short article on this topic: “Who is Dan Brown?” It is, of course, almost impossible to answer this question, which seems to be precisely the state of affairs that the author himself wants to maintain. This makes it rather hard for journalists to do serious, balanced writing about his books and his beliefs which, again, may be the point.

I have my doubts about how many moviegoers will dig into the “challenge” website, but there is always some chance that it may point a few mainstream journalists toward critical Da Vinci wars commentary by people other than, let’s say, the Revs. Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and the usual cable-news suspects.

But wait, Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times notes that the “R-word, the next generation” is still in the mix:

The site, thedavincichallenge.com, will post essays by about 45 Christian writers, scholars and leaders of evangelical organizations who will pick apart the book’s theological and historical claims about Christianity. Among the writers are Gordon Robertson, the son of the television evangelist Pat Robertson and co-host of their television show, “The 700 Club,” who is writing about how early Christianity survived; and Richard J. Mouw, the president of Fuller Theological Seminary, a leading evangelical school in Pasadena, Calif.

Dr. Mouw, who contributed an essay on, “Why Christians Ought to See the Movie,” said: “It’s going to be water cooler conversation, so Christians need to take a deep breath, buy the book and shell out the money for the movie. Then we need to educate Christians about what all this means. We need to help them answer someone who says, ‘So how do you know Jesus didn’t get married?’”

Actually, I would stress that there are more than a few writers involved in the website who are not evangelicals or, like me, even Protestants. Goodstein also noted that Grace Hill Media is also seeking more Roman Catholics to write for the site, which is fitting since the novel is viciously anti-Catholic, almost to the point of parody. The site needs at least a dozen or so Catholics, including more than a few who hold traditional Catholic beliefs.

x6644The other major fact missing from coverage so far is the matter of funding. Is anyone willing to discuss how many dollars (hundreds of thousands? millions?) the church historians at Sony are investing in this attempt to help shape the debate of this controversial movie?

As you would expect, many evangelical Protestants are doing that evangelical Protestant thing they do, arguing that people need to see the movie in order to evangelize the lost who go to see it and walk away with questions. As someone who has made that argument many times in the past, about many different movies, I do think it makes more sense to attempt apologetics before resorting to PR-friendly boycotts.

Veteran Godbeat scribe Mark I. Pinsky of the Orlando Sentinel offered this summary of that argument, as made by evangelist Josh McDowell (who has a new book on the topic):

“I don’t attack Dan Brown. I don’t attack the book,” says McDowell, who is on the staff of Orlando-based Campus Crusade for Christ. “Let’s see where fact leaves off and imagination begins. It’s a marvelous opportunity to be positive. The main purpose of my book is to reinforce their belief and placate their skepticism. If you look carefully, truth will always stand.”

McDowell and Campus Crusade, a worldwide ministry with more than 20,000 staff members and volunteers, seem to have accepted this truth. … So instead of fighting the wave of popular culture or urging a boycott, Campus Crusade is pushing McDowell’s book, which is aimed at young moviegoers and tries to spin their interest in an evangelical direction. McDowell says he wrote the book after distraught parents told him their children had read the novel and, as a result, walked away from their faith.

But does this mean that people need to see the movie? Why not read the book, since one would assume that it is the better statement of Brown’s beliefs? Why not read the book and then some of the books dissecting the book?

Stay tuned. This is just getting started.

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What creationists look like

creation 2In his recent opinion in Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School Board, Judge John Jones accused members of the Dover Area School Board of being closet Christian creationists. In fact, he more or less painted the entire Intelligent Design community as creationists. And I bring this up because one wonders what Jones and his bedfellows would call folks like Ken Ham, profiled yesterday in the Los Angeles Times.

The story is written by Stephanie Simon, who we’ve praised for her reporting on pregnancy issues. This is not written in as much of her trademark spare style, but she still permits her subjects to speak for themselves:

“Sometimes people will answer, ‘No, but you weren’t there either,’” Ham told them. “Then you say, ‘No, I wasn’t, but I know someone who was, and I have his book about the history of the world.’” He waved his Bible in the air.

“Who’s the only one who’s always been there?” Ham asked.

“God!” the boys and girls shouted.

“Who’s the only one who knows everything?”

“God!”

“So who should you always trust, God or the scientists?”

The children answered with a thundering: “God!”

A former high-school biology teacher, Ham travels the nation training children as young as 5 to challenge science orthodoxy. He doesn’t engage in the political and legal fights that have erupted over the teaching of evolution. His strategy is more subtle: He aims to give people who trust the biblical account of creation the confidence to defend their views — aggressively.

That, my friends, is what creationists look like. And reporters, and others, would do well to see the difference between those who advocate teaching the literal biblical account of creation in government schools . . . and those who think the complexity of the universe points to a designer.

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Free religious speech?

Chaplain ShieldMy brother went to the Air Force Academy, which also happened to be a few miles from where my family lived in Colorado. We loved going to football games, but my father (a pastor) cringed each time they began the pre-game ceremonies with a prayer. Mostly that was because the clergy always prayed for an Air Force victory. He felt this was grossly inappropriate and trivialized prayer.

The good news for my dad is that the new religious guidelines issued Feb. 9 by the Air Force Academy seem to discourage such instances of prayer. The bad news for Pops is that they seem to encourage such trivialized content.

Julia Duin of the Washington Times has been all over this story, providing regular updates and an understanding of the conflict. Here’s how she succinctly sums up the one-page guidelines:

The Air Force yesterday released revised guidelines on religious observance that say chaplains need not recite prayers incompatible with their beliefs, but that also encourage “non-denominational” or “inclusive” prayer in public situations.

It is always interesting to see how various reporters wrap their heads around the odd bedfellows that come together in religious liberty and free speech fights, but most reports did a good job of explaining how some Christians involved in the battle just want the freedom to pray according to their conscience. Having said that, do these first three paragraphs in Robert Weller’s AP account clarify anything?

The Air Force released new guidelines for religious expression Thursday that no longer caution top officers about promoting their personal religious views.

The revisions were welcomed by conservative Christians, who said the previous rules was too strict and lobbied the White House to change them.

Critics called the revisions a step backward and said they do nothing to protect the rights of most airmen.

I mean, the guidelines do caution officers about promoting personal religious views, the revisions were not unilaterally welcome by conservative Christians and who are the critics mentioned in the third paragraph? Adjectives can be our friend! I don’t want to bash on Weller, as I understand wire service accounts can be difficult, but a complex issue deserves a bit more clarification.

Which brings us back to Duin. She not only got the gist of the guidelines, she broke a Washington story that was totally missed by the political trade blogs:

bush allen

Meanwhile, White House domestic policy adviser Claude Allen, a key aide who had sided with evangelicals on the issue, resigned abruptly Wednesday after five years with the Bush administration. His short letter to the president called it “the best decision for my family.”

In a Jan. 22 conversation with Rep. Walter B. Jones reported in The Washington Times, Mr. Allen promised the North Carolina Republican that President Bush would pressure Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld into allowing military chaplains to be more explicit about their faith.

She cites a military source saying Allen (pictured with President Bush) resigned to protest the White House’s refusal to lean on the Pentagon about the issue. If true, that’s quite the bombshell. It also shows how religious reporters can break political news that political reporters might not. Again, compare Duin’s info with the befuddlement of National Journal Group’s Hotline on Call or Weller’s lead.

I hope reporters continue to cover these brief guidelines and their implementation. As some keen reporters figured out long ago, this story is more about wars within the Air Force chaplaincy than anything else. Do these guidelines protect the rights of non-mainstream religious leaders? Will the Air Force pay lip service to religious freedom but then not promote the charismatic and evangelical chaplains who preach and pray in ways that make the rest of the chaplain corps uncomfortable?

Also, a final plea: Could reporters covering this story break out from getting all their quotes from the same few people (Mikey Weinstein, Ted Haggard, Tom Minnery)? I mean, there are hundreds of millions of people in this country, more than a dozen of whom have thoughts on the issue. Let’s hear from a more diverse pool.

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Concerning moderates and the mob

udhrThe cartoon controversy (far too weak a word at this point) is causing some interesting divisions on the right as well as the left. The debate that I think deserves the most serious news coverage concerns the role of Islamic moderates and what they do or do not believe about the freedoms of the West.

When it comes to brand-name conservatism in the United States, it’s hard to get more solid than the Wall Street Journal editorial page and Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer. Yet, at the moment, there are some interesting conflicts in what they are saying about this clash of cultures.

Perhaps it is a matter of emphasis. Perhaps they are talking about different issues within the larger crisis. That’s the point.

In a Hot Topic editorial, the Journal lays out the history of the crisis and places a heavy emphasis on the role of Muslim governments in fanning the flames. Thus, the headline reads: “Clash of Civilization — The dictators behind those Muslim cartoon protests.” Perhaps what we are seeing is, most of all, a conflict within Islam and not a conflict between Islam and the West, symbolized by the Bill of Rights. Thus, here is a long statement of the Journal thesis:

… (Mass) demonstrations almost never represent mainstream public sentiment in the West. Why then should we take it as given that they do among Muslims? Every society has its silent majorities, but it’s only in democracies that those majorities exercise a decisive influence. If Islamic societies seem premodern and violent, this surely has something to do with the fact that most Muslim countries today are places where there is no democracy; where silent majorities stay silent; where, to adapt W.H. Auden, “only the man behind the rifle has free speech.”

So it has been in the case of the cartoons, which were first published in September, to the fairly muted protests of Danish Muslims. Ambassadors of 10 Muslim countries demanded that the Danish government “take all those responsible to task,” apparently forgetting that, unlike in their own countries, Danish authorities do not serve as press censors. Around the same time, an Egyptian newspaper reprinted the cartoons without drawing any noticeable wrath from Muslim clerics.

It was only after a December meeting of the 56 member states of the Organization of Islamic Conferences — all but a handful of which are dictatorships or absolute monarchies — that the “outrage” really took wing.

Thus, totalitarian leaders promoted coverage of the cartoons as a way of showing what would happen to Islam if Western-styled freedoms came to the Arab world. What we are seeing, according to the Journal, is not the “proverbial rage of the Arab street. It’s an orchestrated effort by illiberal regimes, colluding with fundamentalist clerics, to conjure the illusion of Muslim rage for their own political purposes.”

billofrightsAccording to this point of view, those seeking progress must cheer for democracy and the rise of a moderate, modernized Islam. Thus, things are going well in Iraq and the bottom line is simple: Stay the course. The problem is not with Islam itself, but with those who want to use violence for political ends.

Krauthammer, on the other hand, is not impressed with what he is hearing out of the moderates — in Europe, in American newsrooms or in the Islamic world. He notes that the moderates are united in their opposition to violence. But what if that is not the real issue? What if the key issues are the freedom of the press and the role of Islamic law in the future of Europe? In that case, says Krauthammer:

What passes for moderation in the Islamic community — “I share your rage but don’t torch that embassy” — is nothing of the sort. It is simply a cynical way to endorse the goals of the mob without endorsing its means. …

Have any of these “moderates” ever protested the grotesque caricatures of Christians and, most especially, Jews that are broadcast throughout the Middle East on a daily basis? The sermons on Palestinian TV that refer to Jews as the sons of pigs and monkeys? The Syrian prime-time TV series that shows rabbis slaughtering a gentile boy to ritually consume his blood? The 41-part (!) series on Egyptian TV based on that anti-Semitic czarist forgery (and inspiration of the Nazis), “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” showing the Jews to be engaged in a century-old conspiracy to control the world?

A true Muslim moderate is one who protests desecrations of all faiths. Those who don’t are not moderates but hypocrites, opportunists and agents for the rioters, merely using different means to advance the same goal: to impose upon the West, with its traditions of freedom of speech, a set of taboos that is exclusive to the Islamic faith. These are not defenders of religion but Muslim supremacists trying to force their dictates upon the liberal West.

Meanwhile, he is not impressed with the American media moderates who seem to want to look the other way and avoid the core issues, a set of issues that might be called the Bill of Rights or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

So there are two issues here. The first is the role of the mob. The moderates agree that the mob cannot be endorsed. However, are the goals of the mob wrong? Are the beliefs of the mob wrong? Does the mob have the right point of view, when it comes to freedom of speech and religion? Is the mob on the right side of history?

This is where journalists can do some digging. What do the American moderates truly believe? What do the Muslim moderates actually believe on these issues?

Meanwhile, says Krauthammer:

The mob is trying to dictate to Western newspapers, indeed Western governments, what is a legitimate subject for discussion and caricature. … The Islamic “moderates” are the mob’s agents and interpreters, warning us not to do this again. And the Western “moderates” are their terrified collaborators who say: Don’t worry, we won’t. It’s those Danes. We’re clean. Spare us. Please.

Would The New York Times agree or disagree? For that matter, would The Wall Street Journal agree or disagree? How about the White House?

Yes, there are divisions on the right as well as on the left. Journalists have work to do, finding the cracks in the “moderate” middle.

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Did you think you would live to see this?

Swedish Flag   MYes, I know that it is the newspaper of a far-right political party, a fringe group that wants strict immigration controls and has little or no mainstream role in Swedish politics.

But did you ever think that you would live to see this news story? The Swedish government has shut down a newspaper website, reacting to its stance in favor of publishing cartoons of Muhammad. Here is Islam Online‘s take on the same story:

The site’s host, Levonline, pulled the plug on the website of the Swedish Democrats’ SD-Kuriren newspaper after consulting with the government. It is believed to be the first time a Western government has intervened to block a publication in the growing row.

Kuriren editor Richard Jomshof said the government was breaking the law.

“We have to do something about it. This is illegal. They can’t do this just because we are a small magazine,” he told the BBC News website.

Once again, government officials have found themselves in a double bind. They are for free speech. But they are not for free speech by small groups of offensive people or, at least, people who are willing to offend the wrong religious groups.

Once there was a saying that free speech does not include the right to shout “Fire!” (or, perhaps, “Burn, baby, burn!”) in a crowded building. Now, it seems, there is no right to shout “We disagree with your doctrine!” in a small, crowded nation. This is what that press theory sounds like in practice:

Swedish Foreign Minister Laila Freivalds described Kuriren’s move as “a provocation” by “a small group of extremists.”

“I will defend freedom of the press no matter what the circumstances, but I strongly condemn the provocation by SD-Kuriren. It displays a complete lack of respect,” she said in a statement.

However, it should be noted that there are press reports that the SD-Kuriren website is — at the moment — back online via a backup server. (Then again, maybe not.) In the age of the World Wide Web, you can put servers anywhere. But, up until now, I think most people would have assumed that Sweden was the kind of place where offensive people, just to be safe, wanted to locate their servers. As a friend of mine said today: You mean there is something that is too offensive for the Swedish government?

By the way, here is my understanding of where many mainstream American newspapers are at the moment. They are confused and conflicted. Click here for a National Journal look at the Catch-22.

flag danishOr, once again, let’s take The New York Times as the MSM outlet of record.

In the past, it has been the position of the Times that it is censorship, in reality if not in law, for government officials to deny government money to artists and communicators who wanted to produce offensive speach that offended religious groups. Perhaps the Times is gaining a new appreciation for the power of religious images, in this current debate. However, it would seem that the long-established stance of the Times editorial board would lead it to argue that it would be censorship for the Swedish government (or the Danes) to deny actual government funds to artists and communicators who wanted to prod, provoke and offend religious orthodoxies.

Then again, perhaps this does not apply to all religions.

Then again, perhaps — for the Times editorial board, and editorial-page leaders in some other zip codes — journalists are not artists and communicators.

One final comment, after looking at the controversial flags together: Do flags burn better in certain parts of the world when they have crosses on them? Just asking.

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Not getting it, again

nytIt’s not the first time I’ve written about The New York Times not getting it. Sadly, this is not the first time the NYT has missed it (remember the Holocaust).

So says Andrew Sullivan:

So we now discover that the hideously offensive and blasphemous cartoons — so blasphemous that CNN, the New York Times, and the Washington Post won’t publish them … were reprinted last October. In Egypt. On the front frigging page. No one rioted. No editor at Al Fager was threatened. So it’s official: the Egyptian state media is less deferential to Islamists than the New York Times. So where were the riots in Cairo? This whole affair is a contrived, manufactured attempt by extremist Muslims to move the goal-posts on Western freedom. They’re saying: we determine what you can and cannot print; and there’s a difference between what Muslims can print and what infidels can print. And, so far, much of the West has gone along. In this, well-meaning American editors have been played for fools and cowards. Maybe if they’d covered the murders of von Gogh and Fortuyn more aggressively they’d have a better idea of what’s going on; and stared down this intimidation. The whole business reminds me of the NYT‘s coverage of the Nazis in the 1930s. They didn’t get the threat then. They don’t get it now.

I’ve become more and more convinced of the importance of this issue. After some thought, I don’t feel, like Sullivan, that the NYT or the Post should print these cartoons. It would only inflame the situation and accomplish little.

But it does matter that extremist Muslims have been able to whip up a huge frenzy over how the Danes — I repeat, the Danes — have allegedly insulted an entire religion and now this group, whoever they may be, are attempting to make a free democratic state bow to their wishes.

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