H. L. Mencken defined Puritanism as the “haunting fear that someone, somewhere, might be happy.” The new Puritanism seems to have it that “someone, somewhere, might be innocent.”
Take the cases of Tiger Woods, Kate Smith, and Mike Pence.
Woods won the Masters a week ago and his less than virtuous past (anyone remember #believeher?) did not prevent Bishop Robert Barron from both rooting for the golfer and then using Woods’ comeback to illustrate the power of redemption:
“When Tiger had his great collapse 10 years ago and the stories came out about his personal life and how out of control he was, like many people I shared a certain disgust about that, this guy has really lost his way,” he said.
“But at the same time, I confess that all these years I’ve been rooting for Tiger,” Barron said. “I know that some people gave up on him and said, ‘I don’t like this guy anymore, I’m rooting against him.’ But even during this long desert period I was hoping. Every major, somewhere in the back of my mind, if Tiger was playing, I was hoping he’d win.”
“So it was unique, it was a very special thing,” Barron said. . . .
“What we saw was a very Biblical archetype of someone who falls from grace and is then forced through in his case a 10-year desert experience whose purpose was, if we’re going to think spiritually, to bring him to what really does give life its deepest meaning,” he said.
“I think that’s what people sense in the embrace of his kids after the [final] round,” Barron said.
In that sense, Barron said, Woods is almost like a Biblical figure.
It probably goes without saying — though I’ll say it — that a bishop defending a philanderer is not exactly the best look for Rome right now.
If only the owners of the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Flyers could be as willing to read Kate Smith’s career in the light of biblical narratives:
The singer Kate Smith’s recording of “God Bless America” has been a cherished part of sports tradition in the U.S. for decades. But in the aftermath of a discovery that the singer had also recorded at least two songs with racist content in the 1930s, two major American sports teams, baseball’s New York Yankees and hockey’s Philadelphia Flyers, have announced that they will stop playing Smith’s rendition of the Irving Berlin patriotic classic. On Sunday, the Flyers also took down a statue of Smith that had stood in front of their stadium since 1987.
A fan alerted the Yankees last week that Smith had recorded at least two problematic songs: 1931’s “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” and 1933’s “Pickaninny Heaven,” from the film Hello, Everybody!, the New York Daily News reported on Thursday.
On Sunday, the Philadelphia Flyers removed a statue of Smith that stood outside of the team’s arena since 1987, first at the Spectrum and later at the Xfinity Live! venue. Smith had sung “God Bless America” live for the Flyers before Game 6 in the 1974 Stanley Cup Finals — after which the Flyers beat the Boston Bruins. Since then, the Flyers had treated Smith’s rendition as a talisman for the team.
The offending songs Smith sang came from a Broadway production that ran in 1931 at New York’s Apollo Theater. Will someone step up to say the theater should be razed? Turns out it was in 1996 (I wonder if it had anything to do with the Clinton-Lewinski scandal).
That leaves Vice President Mike Pence, who is so squeaky clean as to be downright boring. But he won’t receive any breaks — especially from evangelical faculty — as long as he is in office with President Trump. Taylor University has invited Pence to speak at this year’s commencement exercises and some on the campus among students and faculty are upset:
Taylor alumni have started a Change.org petition claiming that the Pence invitation makes “our alumni, faculty, staff and current students complicit in the Trump-Pence Administration policies, which we believe are not consistent with the Christian ethic of love we hold dear.”
Chris Smith, a Taylor graduate and founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books (which is based in nearby Indianapolis), wrote a piece at the Sojourners website condemning the Pence invitation.
Amy Peterson, an author, evangelical missionary, and adjunct professor at Taylor, also condemned the decision. Her piece at The Washington Post provides some context and quotes students and alums who are unhappy about Pence’s upcoming address.
John Fea (from the link above) defends Taylor’s invitation to a point:
Progressives are going to condemn Taylor for inviting Pence because, among other things, the Vice-President holds a conservative position on marriage, condemns homosexuality and has recently mixed-it-up with gay presidential candidate and South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg. But this kind of criticism lacks nuance. Most evangelical schools have traditional positions on marriage and believe that homosexual practice is unbiblical. Progressives are going to need to deal with the fact that a significant portion of the United States population share Pence’s views in the area of sexual ethics. I hope they will see the need to work with evangelicals to cultivate a more inclusive and pluralistic society in which deeply held religious beliefs are respected. Both Pence and many progressives seem unwilling to take on this project, preferring instead to dig in their heels and continue to lob grenades in the culture war.
But that doesn’t leave Pence off the hook who, it turns out, is worse than Smith and Woods put together:
The real issue is Pence’s willingness to carry water for Donald Trump. He has stood behind a president who is a liar, has paid hush money to an adult film star, has faced dozens of charges of sexual harassment, has separated children from families at the Mexican border, disrespects American institutions, boasts of his materialism, understands religious liberty as something that only pertains to his evangelical base, seems incapable of seeing anything beyond himself, inspires white supremacists, and has generally governed our country with no moral core. Pence has defended or remained silent about nearly everything Trump has done. Trump has used him as a pawn to win white evangelicals and keep them in the fold.
That’s a comprehensive indictment on the basis of third-degree proximity — not actual acts, and not even an attorney or chauffeur. (I hope Fea does not practice law or become a judge.) Why not also blame Pence for climate change and immigration policy (or lack of it)? At the same time, I do not know how Fea himself is innocent of Trump’s sins since the Messiah College professor remains a citizen of the United States rather than leaving the country to find personal integrity under the holy nations that border the United States.
Meanwhile, David Swartz contrasts the courage of Fuller Seminary in 1970 to invite Senator, Mark Hatfield to its commencement exercises with Taylor’s hypocritical selection of the Vice President:
Fuller’s commencement that year seemed transformative for both the senator and the seminary. For Hatfield, the visit was renewing. “There was an inner urge of joy, peace, and strength which I vividly recall to this day. These brothers and sisters were really with me; their acceptance created a sense of spiritual solidarity … It demonstrated to me that there were countless evangelicals, who because of their faith in Christ, could not condone the immoral and barbarian violence our nation was inflicting throughout Indochina.” The surprisingly encouraging response helped reverse his waning desire to remain in politics. It seemed to Hatfield that evangelicalism was heading in a more humane direction.
But that is the road not followed by evangelical higher education’s contemporary leaders:
That so many have been shocked by persistently high levels of evangelical support for Trump shows just how effective—and misleading—the establishment narration of evangelicalism has been. Taylor’s President Haines appears to know better and has taken to heart the old adage: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” As Taylor, like most other Christian colleges these days, struggles financially, Haines is banking on continued sky-high evangelical support for Trump.
Does Swartz, though, consider whether Hatfield knew Kate Smith’s songs and about her 1930s career? If he did, then should Fuller Seminary have invited him to give its commencement address? And wouldn’t Fuller alumni be right to protest the school’s past commencement speakers?
Once you raise the bar of perfectionism, there’s no way to lower it without a little hypocrisy of your own making.