Blogging versus reporting

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi (right) introduces Pope Benedict XVI to journalists during a news conference aboard the Pope's plane prior to landing in Darwin July 2008. Photo: AFP

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi (right) introduces Pope Benedict XVI to journalists during a news conference aboard the Pope's plane prior to landing in Darwin July 2008. Photo: AFP

Two recent reports from the Guardian’s religious affairs correspondent Riazat Butt show the way mainstream journalists are using bogs and traditional reports to cover their beat. Butt filed two reports of the Vatican communication’s director Federico Lombardi’s defense of recent Vatican press gaffes. What is interesting is that her blog report and her news item contain pretty much the same information but vary greatly in tone. Her standard report begins:

The Vatican’s communications chief has defended his handling of the controversies surrounding Benedict XVI’s papacy by arguing that the furores have benefited the Holy See.

Father Federico Lombardi said that many of the scandals had led people to think deeply about topics such as inter-faith dialogue, anti-Semitism and Aids prevention.

The pope has aroused controversy on several issues. His quoted remarks about Islam being “evil and inhuman” prompted violent protests around the world. Catholic-Jewish relations were severely tested when he lifted the excommunication of Richard Willamson, a priest who was a Holocaust denier. Benedict also angered health campaigners, politicians and activists by claiming that condoms aggravated HIV/Aids.

The incidents meant the pope’s ability and judgment were questioned as never before.

Despite the episodes generating unprecedented hostility towards the Vatican, Lombardi said in a speech in London on Monday night he was “convinced” the question of Christian-Muslim relations had been addressed more frankly following the pope’s 2006 lecture at the University of Regensburg, in Germany, when he talked about Islam. He also said the “clamorous response” to Williamson’s declarations had allowed the Vatican to reinforce its position on anti-Semitism, and that the pope’s remarks on condoms had led to a “greater understanding” of “truly effective” HIV/Aids prevention strategies in Africa.

Her blog report relates to the same speech but is much more personal – and cynical – in tone:

Last night I had the pleasure of going to mass in search of Federico Lombardi, the Vatican’s director of press, who was giving a lecture on communications. It doesn’t take a genius, never mind a religious affairs correspondent, to think that the head of Vatican PR pontificating (ha) on communications is akin to Norway giving masterclasses on getting a joke. Lombardi, an Italian priest who started his press career on La Civiltà Cattolica, working his way up before replacing the long-serving Joaquin Navarro Valls in 2006, has come under sustained fire since taking over at the helm of the Holy See press office.

First there was Regensburg. Then there was the lifting of the excommunication of the Holocaust-denying priest Richard Williamson. I know the decision was unconnected to the Holocaust denial, but it’s not that hard to Google, I do it before every date. Then there were unscripted remarks about condoms aggravating the spread of AIDS that were later edited to say something rather different. Bring in a bit of papal revisionism – he wasn’t a member of the Hitler Youth, oh hang on yes he was – and an almost unintelligible speech that angered gay rights campaigners and dominated news cycles for 48 hours with little or no clarification from the Vatican and we have all the makings of what Catholic and non-Catholic commentators called a PR failure, carnage, nightmare and train wreck. But wait! Apparently, we/I/you/they got it wrong. Citing not so much divine intervention as the law of unintended consequences Lombardi said that Muslim-Christian relations were better because of Regensburg, that the Williamson episode had allowed the church to clarify and strengthen its position on antisemitism and Holocaust denial and that the pope’s intervention on condoms was carefully crafted to allow deeper discussion and reflections on the topic.

Apart from the jokey tone the interesting thing about the blog report is that it links to details of all the previous reports such as stories about Regensburg and the Williamson fiasco. So the blog report is both more personal and potentially more personalised in the sense that it provides vertical history to the story which enables the reader to personalise the story for themselves.

Both reports use the same key quotes from Lombardi. The standard report is clear inverted pyramid style writing which quickly summarises the key points of the story while the blog report also introduces the key elements but does this in a less formal and many would argue a more engaging way. Given that the information is virtually identical in both reports it is interesting to compare the apparent objectivity in the standard report with the clearly cynical tone of the blog post. This is an easy case where the conventions of objective journalism – such as the judicious use of quoted phrases – allows a source like Lombardi to hang himself without any visible bias in the reporting.

Next Gen Evangelicals

Jonathan Merritt...one of a new breed of evangelicals

Jonathan Merritt...one of a new breed of evangelicals

A surprisingly detailed and measured look at the changes in the evangelical landscape from gay magazine The Advocate raises some of the same points covered in the Newsweek article I wrote about a few days ago. It notes that young evangelicals are more likely to be concerned about the environment and more likely to believe in some form of relationship recognition for gays. Jonathan Merritt a young evangelical leader puts it this way:

“My generation will not fight to preserve the platform for traditional marriage that our predecessors have fought for,” the 26-year-old says. “Older evangelicals are so stubborn and unable to compromise or reach out a hand. And they’re in danger of losing their legacy.”

Whatever his personal beliefs on marriage equality are, you’re not likely to hear him rail against a gay rights agenda in the vitriolic vein of Pat Robertson or James Dobson. On his blog Merritt criticizes a Starbucks-addled American culture that ignores the atrocities in Darfur. He renounces the use of torture. Most notably, Merritt recognizes the burden of 6.7 billion people on the world’s ecosystems and chastises Christians who don’t view conservation and carbon footprint reduction as godly mandates. “Environmental stewardship has been integrated into Christian thought since the beginning of time,” he says. “Unfortunately, when modern evangelicals began associating themselves with a particular political faction, they were skittish about issues seen as leftist or liberal policy.”

Matthew Fox the former Dominican who was hounded out of the Catholic church for his exploration of creation centered spirituality makes a great point about the individualist drive of traditional religious right positions:

“So much of the [evangelical] agenda has come from the modern consciousness of the individual,” says Matthew Fox, an Episcopal priest and theologian in Oakland, Calif. “Am I saved? Am I a sinner? Am I going to hell? But I think this generation has grown up with the realization that the planet is dying and that its survival is a little more important than whom people sleep with.”

For more from Fox check out this interview

The death of Christian America?

Newsweek explores the empty pews...Photo: Newsweek

Newsweek explores the empty pews...Photo: Newsweek

Amidst the proliferation of religion stories to coincide with Easter, the Newsweek cover story is a fantastic piece that has depth and currency. Written by the magazine’s editor, Jon Meacham, it is beautifully researched, engagingly written and strongly argued. It draws out a number of different points of view and possibilities around the theme of what a reported drop in religious affiliation might mean:

Let’s be clear: while the percentage of Christians may be shrinking, rumors of the death of Christianity are greatly exaggerated. Being less Christian does not necessarily mean that America is post-Christian. A third of Americans say they are born again; this figure, along with the decline of politically moderate-to liberal mainline Protestants, led the ARIS authors to note that “these trends … suggest a movement towards more conservative beliefs and particularly to a more ‘evangelical’ outlook among Christians.” With rising numbers of Hispanic immigrants bolstering the Roman Catholic Church in America, and given the popularity of Pentecostalism, a rapidly growing Christian milieu in the United States and globally, there is no doubt that the nation remains vibrantly religious—far more so, for instance, than Europe.

Still, in the new NEWSWEEK Poll, fewer people now think of the United States as a “Christian nation” than did so when George W. Bush was president (62 percent in 2009 versus 69 percent in 2008). Two thirds of the public (68 percent) now say religion is “losing influence” in American society, while just 19 percent say religion’s influence is on the rise. The proportion of Americans who think religion “can answer all or most of today’s problems” is now at a historic low of 48 percent. During the Bush 43 and Clinton years, that figure never dropped below 58 percent.

A few teaching points on style:

  • note the way he bookends the long feature with an anecdote from one of his key sources, Albert Mohler;
  • note the way he acknowledges his own religious position but neither his personal voice or faith dominate his argument;
  • note the diversity of primary and secondary sources and how he makes use of academic texts in a very reader friendly way; and
  • note the way he deep backgrounds the American constitutional tradition and various religious movements.

In a web post accompanying the article Meacham makes the point that some readers interpreted the story as an attack on Christianity. This is clearly not the case and is pretty obviously a knee jerk reaction to the coverline (“The decline and fall of Christina America”) by believers inculcated with the view that the press is anti-religious. Meacham notes:

Some have read the piece (or, I suspect, the cover line) as an attack on Christianity, which it is not and which would, in any case, be an act of self-loathing, since I am a Christian, albeit a poor one. Note that we did not say we were discussing the decline and fall of Christianity, or even the decline and fall of Christianity in America. But “Christian America” is something else again. It is the vision of a nation whose public life is governed by explicitly articulated and adopted Christian principles in the hope, I think, that God will bless and protect the country and its people in the spirit of II Chron. 7:14. To see how well that is going from the perspective of the religious right, take a look at the news from Iowa and Vermont. I do not think, as some evangelicals do, that we are entering a “post-Christian” phase, but I do believe we are growing rather more secular than I would have anticipated even five years ago. The cumulative effect of a somewhat declining Christian population and a weakening Christian force in partisan politics is likely, I think, to lead to a more secular politics. Not wholly secular, to be sure, but more secular than we have been accustomed to in our Jesus-Winthrop-Reagan “city on a hill.”

Billy tells nothing

Billy Graham, Pastor-in-chief...photo: Time

Billy Graham, Pastor-in-chief...photo: Time

Pastor in Chief from Time’s Nancy Gibbs and Michel Duffy has a perfect anecdotal opening:

You have to climb a steep and narrow road, past the moonshiners’ shacks and dense rhododendrons and through the iron gates to get to the house on the mountaintop that Ruth Graham built after her husband Billy became too famous to live anywhere else. By 1954, after she caught her children charging tourists a nickel to take a picture of their old house and noticed Billy crawling across the floor of his study to keep people outside from catching a glimpse of him, she knew it was time to move.

And as we read further we are promised so much. Gibbs and Duffy tell us that they visited their famous subject, Billy Graham, several times over thirteen months, and that the aging pastor who has been a fixture on the American political scene for over fifty years had agreed to talk to them about his unique relationships with the last 11 presidents. What a story!There are some lovely moments and the picture we get of Graham, as a lovely old man who has led a fascinating life but still retains his innocence, is finely drawn. We are told that the Presidential families and the Grahams could empathise with each other because they were all public figures:

For a preacher who had no church, and who spent his life preaching to football stadiums full of people he never saw again, the First Families gave Graham the rare chance to be a family pastor. He gave them a sanctuary; they gave him a congregation. He carried the families through times of loss–literal and political; several wanted him to be with them during their last nights in the White House. Richard Nixon collapsed in Graham’s arms at his mother’s funeral in 1967. Bill Clinton took him to sit at the bedside of a dying friend in 1989. Graham was the first person outside the family whom Nancy Reagan called when her husband died in 2004.

We are treated to intriguing little scenes such as his last conversation with Lady Bird Johnson:

Last month, Johnson’s daughters Lynda and Luci reached out to him as their mother was dying. Two days before she passed away, he called and talked to them, and since Lady Bird was awake and alert, they put the phone to her ear. The former First Lady and the former White House pastor chatted some and then shared a prayer together.

We are told he “thinks a lot of” Hillary Clinton. That Lyndon Johnson was obsessed with his own mortality and commissioned a “secret” actuarial report on the likelihood of surviving another term in office. But there are no real secrets revealed here although some startling hints are dangled:

Was it crossing a line when he invited presidential candidates to his crusades or sent along suggestions for their speeches at National Prayer Breakfasts? What about when he lobbied lawmakers on behalf of a poverty bill or an arms deal, or consulted with candidates on their campaign ads or their running mates? It was one thing to serve as Eisenhower’s or Johnson’s private pastor. But it was quite another to act as Nixon’s political partner, carrying private messages to foreign heads of state, advising on campaign strategy and assembling evangelical leaders for private White House briefings.

These fascinating questions are raised by the authors but we are not privy to any of Graham’s answers. His role in lobbying lawmakers on an arms deal certainly sounds like a “line” was crossed and an exploration of this would have made for a much more revealing feature. I suspect there were strict guidelines about what could and couldn’t be written about and maybe this is Gibbs and Duffy’s way of hinting at what they can’t write about until after Graham goes to meet his maker. But in the end they don’t come close to fulfilling the promise of their stated purpose:

At a time when the country was bitterly debating the role of religion in public life, we thought Graham’s 50-year courtship of – and courtship by – 11 Presidents was a story that needed to be told. Perhaps more than anyone else, he had shaped the contours of American public religion and had seen close up how the Oval Office affects people.

In the end they add absolutely nothing to this “public debate”. All we get is Graham hagiography. It’s a perfect example of a beautifully crafted feature, on a fascinating subject that fails dismally because it says nothing so well.

Fallen Preacher Man

Haggard858_1162844730

In amidst following the election coverage (and all my corrections) I have still found time to be fascinated by the Ted Haggard scandal and have been spending time as a lurker in the Christian blogsphere (a revelation in itself – a very vibrant and diverse community) where the discussion has been fierce. What struck me immediately is how Christians, no matter their protestations, have taken it in their stride, this is because in some way “sin” is even more familiar to them than sanctity. As Jeff Sharlet commented on radio open source:

Is this the end of the Christian Right? No, no. Where does it go from here? Ted’s downfall is just going to make the movement stronger…This is a classic narrative, the fallen preacher. They know how to deal with this story, they depend on this story for drama, just as much as secular reporters depend on it.

This embrace of the predictable narrative is very striking. It is what gives Christianity a disturbing circular logic. Take this comment:

Praise the Lord that He knows what is best for HIs children. Even through this dark time I see more of God’s grace. Although the world my use this as an excuse to point the fingers at us Christians as hypocrites…we can point back to Christ as our Savior. Let us brothers and sisters show the Lord that they too need a Savior as Ted Haggard does. Let us show the world that He will forgive His child and that we are not perfect beings…just forgiven. Let us count it all joy through this trial and glorify God in the midst of it. We must stand together for the Lord’s sake.

Christianity as a narrative is all about the miracle of paradox: God/Man, Three-in-one God, darkness into light, he died that we might have life etc. At its most sophisticated it represents a deft worldview that engages in a beautiful dance with both the sacramental/symbolic and the materiality of life but at its most mundane it becomes just plain hokey: one door closes another opens. Either way, for the believer it is an unshakeable, incredibly buoyant framework.The other aspect of this symbolic world is that it is populated by a set of contradictory signs that depend on each other. The fall of Haggard is not only understandable it is in some ways necessary to the ongoing strength of the symbolic narrative and as Sharlet has pointed out the “gay man” (archetype not person) is also vitally necessary to the construction of the contemporary evangelical self.

This whole idea of purity as a way in which you can become a real activist in the cause. You might not be out there protesting outside an abortion clinic, or going out on a mission trip, but you are sort of conducting a mission trip in your own genitals. Driving lust out from your body the way Christ drives the demons out. And it makes everyone feel like, wow, I’m a part of something big…And the reason that the gay man looms so large is because, in their imagination, he’s the one who gives into his temptations entirely…The gay man, he’s not even procreating, it’s just about him, it’s just about pleasure, it’s just selfishness.

There have of course been some quite sophisticated takes on what Haggard means by Christian bloggers. The editor of Reformation 21 has what is in many ways a very traditional view of the whole episode but he recognises that there are two narratives and both the “denounce Ted” and the “just like Ted” narratives are equally flawed. But he does make the interesting point:

The Ted Haggard situation exposes a lot of dark reality in the evangelical movement that we should not gloss over in the interests of “grace”. A high percentage of our churches have hired ministers based solely on their oratorical gifts, with little consideration of whether or not they really are men of God. Godly men who lead holy lives are run out of pulpits so that hip, cool, media personalities can be put in their place. It is generally true, in my opinion, that our evangelical movement has pursued lifestyle happiness over biblical holiness, has emphasized numerical sucess over biblical truth, and has revelled in the gifts of men rather than in the glory of God. In this respect, I fear that the “show grace to Ted” argument fails to confront the values that dominate the broader Christian movement of which we are a part that have contributed to such scandals.

This post or others like it are not going to change these structural issues within American evangelical christianity but it does show a recognition that the logic of transformation at the heart of the personalised message of salvation does have to be taken seriously at the orgainsational level.

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A Christmas gift for Ted..

All I want for christmas...Mike Jones poses on his website

All I want for christmas...Mike Jones poses on his website

This is what Ted Haggard wanted for Christmas… It’s just one of the poses from Mike Jones massage web site. Rev Haggard is obviously not the only local Jones was keeping happy, his site says:

“Voted best massage and personal trainer for the years 2000, 2001 and 2002 by readers of the community newspaper Out Front Colorado. Former state bodybuilding and powerlifting champion.”

Now you know why Ted was tempted.

It is interesting that some of the media are being quite coy about Jones describing him as a “former prostitute” yet he is quite happy to say that he was with Haggard as recently as August.

As the photo indicates Jones is anything but coy: “If you like a strong muscle man to bring pleasure to you then please call me. I am a muscle stud with a friendly personality and a caring heart.

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Evangelical male order

Rev Ted Haggard down on his knees

Rev Ted Haggard down on his knees

It’s fascinating to watch yet another Evangelical/Republican homo-sex scandal erupt. After Rep Mark Foley was introduced to the world by a White House page, Rev Ted Haggard hits the media courtesy of a Denver prostitute called Mike Jones. Not only did the (now former) president of the National Association of Evangelicals pay Jones for sex he also bought crystal from him.

As delicious as it is as a scandal, it is also a fascinating media story and an even more fascinating religion story.

As Colorado Springs gay news site Gazette reports, the story has been brewing for some time and is a great example of the new press rules on how and when a scandal becomes public. NBC Denver affiliate KUSA had been investigating Jones’ claims for two months but say they couldn’t find corroborating evidence. But when Jones went on talkback radio and claimed to have been paid for sex by “one of the biggest religious guys in the country” KUSA decided that they could do an accusation/rebutal story if Haggard agreed to speak to them.

“It became public and we decided we would do the story if Pastor Haggard responded to it, and he did. We presented it as such: There’s an allegation, and there’s a response,” KUSA’s assistant news director told Gazette.

Interesting example of how the journalistic rules suddenly change when a media organisation suddenly thinks it might be scooped, on what is obviously going to become a pretty dynamic story. It’s a classic example of “strategic objectivity” being abandoned because it was no longer strategic. It’s also a story about elections. Jones says he wanted it out before next weeks elections because Haggard had been playing such a key role in the Colorado marriage amendment.

The rules of the PR game are also in effect. At first Haggard denied the claims. Then he stood down from his church position while an independent investigation took place. But after that an incremental series of admissions have leaked from the pastor himself, culminating in the strange: I only contacted Jones to buy drugs and a massage not to have sex, yeh I did buy the drugs but I didn’t use them and ah the massage no, there were no happy endings – sorry we are all tempted. Positively Clintonesque: I did not have sexual intercourse with that man nor did I inhale. As Josh Holland on Alternet sarcastically comments:

The sad thing is that Haggard’s followers will probably buy all that. After all, they throw millions of dollars at these “spiritual leaders” who are transparent con-men of the worst sort. They support Republicans who pay them lip service but ignore them until the next election rolls around. ‘It’s all political,’ they’re saying to themselves now — part of the Grand Liberal Conspiracy® to tear down people of faith.

Probably the most interesting reflection on the whole saga comes from Jeff Sharlet who did a long profile on Haggard for Harpers last year. He writes: “The downfall of Ted Haggard is not just another tale of hypocrisy, it’s a parable of the paradoxes at the heart of American fundamentalism.” He also admits to missing that the first time around:

I wrote about the role of sex in Ted’s theology, but removed it from the final edit of the story (some of it I refashioned into a short essay on Christian Right’s men’s sex books for Nerve). I made the mistake of viewing Ted’s sex and his religion of free market economics as separate spheres. The truth, I suspect, is that they’re intimately bound in a worldview of “order,” one to which it turns out even Ted cannot conform.

In the Nerve article Sharlet notes how “the gay man” as archetype fills the role of the “harlot” of old as the new seductress:

It is no longer acceptable to speak of loose women and harlots, since sexual promiscuity in a woman is the fault of the man who has failed to exercise his “headship” over her. It is his effeminacy, not hers, that is to blame. And who lures him into this spiritual castration? The gay man.

Christian conservatives loathe all forms of homo- and bisexuality, of course, but it is the gay man (singular; he’s an archetype) who looms largest in their books and sermons and blogs and cell group meetings. Not, for the most part, as a figure of evil, but one to be almost envied. “The gay man” is the new seductress sent by Satan to tempt the men of Christendom. He takes what he wants and loves whom he will and his life, in the imagination of Christian men’s groups, is an endless succession of orgasms, interrupted only by jocular episodes of male bonhomie. The gay man promises a guilt-free existence, the garden before Eve. He is thought to exist in the purest state of “manhood,” which is boyhood, before there were girls.

And it is this state of unordered – uncoded – manhood that is such a threat, and so seductive. A seduction it appears Haggard could not resist.

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Fundamentalist Occultism

From a review of David Kats’ The Occult Tradition from the Renaissance to the Present Day in today’s Australian:

His most provocative claim however, is that “messianic fundamentalist Christianity” belongs firmly within the occult tradition. It is not difficult to see why fundamentalism is significant within the contemporary US political landscape: 91 per cent of Americans believe in God, 71 per cent believe in hell, 34 per cent believe the Bible is inerrant and, Katz estimates, 20 per cent “can be called ‘evangelical Protestants’; that is, fundamentalists”.

Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush all embraced evangelical Christianity, yet its “establishment quality … should not exclude fundamentalism from the history of the occult tradition”.

“Fundamentalists predict the future through deciphering a document whose meaning is hidden, occult rather than manifest,” Katz writes. “[They] believe in the imminent … Second Coming of Christ, according to a plan that they have worked out from encoded references in the Bible, with supernatural implications for everyone living today on earth.”

According to this Armageddon theology, true believers will be spared the tribulations of the impending End Times by being bodily removed from the earth in the “rapture of the church”.

When The Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward asked Bush whether he had discussed his planned invasion of Iraq with his father, he replied: “You know, he is the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength: there is a higher father that I appeal to.”

In one of the most fascinating passages, Katz turns to Bush’s speech announcing air strikes against Afghanistan a month after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US. This contains clear allusions to the books of Revelation, Isaiah and Job, which enable Bush to communicate with fellow fundamentalists, “winking at them conspiratorially as partners in a type of Christianity that is based on the careful reading of an esoteric text”.

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Revelation wrestling

From USA Today:

Tonight on ABC’s World News, correspondent Jake Tapper reports on a pro-wrestling match Saturday in Winterville, Ga., complete with body slams, men in tights and a revved-up crowd.

“Ultimate Christian Wrestling is like any other pro-wrestling bout you might see on a Saturday night in rural Georgia,” Tapper says. “Except the characters and story lines come to a dramatic climax at the end of the show straight out of the Book of Revelation: At the end of this show, dozens of folks in the audience said they were called to accept Jesus into their hearts. It was quite a thing to behold.”

Along with rock music, video games, movies and car racing, “wrestling is one of many non-traditional ways evangelicals are reaching out to Americans in what seems a very significant spiritual revival going on,” Tapper says.

From Iconculture:

Wrestling enthusiasts are a diverse group; Christian grapplers hope to tease out those eager to find God and bring them into the fold. The Lord is popping up throughout the culture, from U2 sermons to Papal text messages to Christian paintball. But pro wrestling seems a particularly powerful fit, since it’s already proven well suited for political evangelism. Hardcore piledriving fans can forget about WWE-style bloodbaths, though. Founder Rob Fields promises family-friendly, spiritually uplifting entertainment. Well, as family-friendly as a “Dr. Shock” vs. “Nightmare” grudge match can get.

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The corporate-religious-complex

Interesting quote from a Sunfell post on Daily Kos that I picked up via Jesus Politics, a good blog that I just discovered which seems to be collecting lots of stufff about religion and American politics/culture:

Rev. Rod Parsley, a pastor of the World Harvest megachurch in Ohio…declared, “We’re not Democrats. We’re not Republicans. We’re Christocrats!”

“Christocrats”. Straight out of the preacher’s mouth. That might also lead to another term that seems to be percolating under the surface of the metasphere: the idea-meme of the corporate-religious complex- that synergistic, and potentially fatal (to our country) blend of Gilded Age corporate greed and hard right religious fervor. The corporate-religious complex has replaced the military-industrial complex as the driving force behind our government. If we plan to keep our country, this complex must be derailed, the synergy spoiled and the perpetrators sent off chasing their own tails.

Shorting the corporations to ground will take some brave lawmaking, and a lot of time- one giant at a time. They have to return to being responsible citizens. Doing the same to the Christocrats will require a lot of deep study of what makes them tick. Someone mentioned the ‘flock mentality’. That needs to be understood, but the followers are not sheep, or stupid. But they are intellectually lazy, since they accept the pap fed to them by their leaders. We must understand that they have a monstrous persecution complex and a deeply held belief that they/we are living in the “End Times” and that the Bible- particularly “Revalation”, is literally true. We must also understand that their leaders have fed them gigantic lies and are the embodiment of the ‘wolves in sheeps clothing’ warned about in the very Scriptures they believe are literally true.

It’s a tough nut to crack, but it is crackable. They’re human beings, with a huge cross-shaped chip on their shoulder. If that wood could be used for something useful, to build a bridge, perhaps, we could find a way to talk them down from their Apocalyptic treehouse.

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From saving the soul to reinventing the self

A fascinating article in the NYT about the rise of evangelical ministries at Ivy League colleges in America. They are a deliberate attempt to reach and influence those who will hold key culturally influential positions.

Some interesting data about the rise of evangelicals in class terms:

As late as 1965, for example, a white mainline Protestant was two and a half times as likely to have a college degree as a white evangelical, according to an analysis by Prof. Corwin E. Smidt, a political scientist at Calvin College, an evangelical institution in Grand Rapids, Mich. But by 2000, a mainline Protestant was only 65 percent more likely to have the same degree. And since 1985, the percentage of incoming freshmen at highly selective private universities who said they were born-again also rose by half, to 11 or 12 percent each year from 7.3 percent, according to the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.

A range of forces were at work here:

There were also demographic forces at work, beginning with the G.I. Bill, which sent a pioneering generation of evangelicals to college. Probably the greatest boost to the prosperity of evangelicals as a group came with the Sun Belt expansion of the 1970′s and the Texas oil boom, which brought new wealth and businesses to the regions where evangelical churches had been most heavily concentrated.

And the evolution of the Assemblies of God is particularly interesting. Founded in 1914 they were originally shunned as a sect of outsiders speaking in tounges and against movies and dancing. They gradually changed and became one of the first groups to preach a prosperity christianity

Assemblies preachers began speaking not only of heavenly rewards but also of the material blessings God might provide in this world. The notion was controversial in some evangelical circles but became widespread nonetheless, and it made the Assemblies’ faith more compatible with an upwardly mobile middle class.

By the 1970′s, Assemblies churches were sprouting up in affluent suburbs across the country. Recent surveys by Margaret Poloma, a historian at the University of Akron in Ohio, found Assemblies members more educated and better off than the general public.

As they flourished, evangelical entrepreneurs and strivers built a distinctly evangelical business culture of prayer meetings, self-help books and business associations. In some cities outside the Northeast, evangelical business owners list their names in Christian yellow pages.

The rise of evangelicals has also coincided with the gradual shift of most of them from the Democratic Party to the Republican and their growing political activism. The conservative Christian political movement seldom developed in poor, rural Bible Belt towns. Instead, its wellsprings were places like the Rev. Ed Young’s booming mega-church in suburban Houston or the Rev. Timothy LaHaye’s in Orange County, Calif., where evangelical professionals and businessmen had the wherewithal to push back against the secular culture by organizing boycotts, electing school board members and lobbying for conservative judicial appointments.

The complex interrealationship between class, geography, religion and subculture is fascinatingly apparent. As is the move from a notion of saving the soul to saving or reinventing the self which ironically is a modernist concept arising out of decidedly anti-modernist movement.

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The Revealer: Written on the Body

The Revealer’s Jeff Sharlet, breaks through all the media hype on the Pope with an intriguing reflection:

There is another form of religious media to consider with the pope’s death, that of the body. More widely read than any of his books were the images of the suffering, dying man; a message, many believe, that was the pope’s final teaching. The pope wrote his theology on his own broken body, and reproduced it by means of millions of images carried by secular media. And yet, this suffering is not a text that should be too glibly read; we should not assume to immediately understand its meaning. If we take John Paul seriously as an intellectual — and we should — then we should take his last statement seriously, too, as a set of ideas. Those who’d reduce the pope’s suffering to an easily-translated political program are, literally, fools, clowning on a dead man’s body. Those who find in the image of the man a message as banal as “the triumph of the spirit” inadvertently make a humanist out of John Paul. And those who turned away from what they perceived as grotesque, whispering about vanished dignity, choose for themselves a kind of illiteracy.

I think there is a wider application of this insight as well. I have been puzzling about what the Pope means. I know what he did. I can retrace his actions that were divisive and his actions which brought people together. Politically I can sum up his effect both inside and outside the church in ways that I don’t think the mainstream media is exploring. But still the question remains: what does the big slavic man in the long white gown mean?

I think there are millions who have noted his image, have taken heart in his presence, without knowing or caring much about his message, except to acknowledge that it is spiritual. Karol Wojytla through the mediation of television cameras and photojournalists became the bodily imprint of this message of spirituality.

His smile, his apparent gentleness, his hulking stooped body came to mean something in direct contradiction, and unrelated, to his appalling attacks on the dignity of women, gays, lesbians and dissidents within his own church. To those who took note only of his image, and this group was perhaps his largest congregation, he stood for a different vision of the world: resistance, possibility, hope. That image brought comfort, insight, pause, to many who didn’t really know or care about the details of his theological positions. They were pleased that he was there. In this sense he was undoubtedly an innovative force for spirit and change in the confusion of the late 20th century.

But two cautions: there are those, his victims, (and throughout his authoritarian rule he most definitely collected victims) who are forever and only confronted with the image of an oppressor, and the ubiquity of his lauded image is a reinforcement of their own victimisation. Secondly: more than anything else his image is that of “Holy Father” and while he has managed to imprint on this masculine holiness an image of gentleness and a certain humility, the bodily spiritual image he projects is necessarily at some level an unhelpful reinforcement of dominant patriarchal religion.

I am not wanting to reduce Wojytal to any of these images or storylines. Sharlet is right about the complexity of images and the literacy of storytelling. Part of the power of images is their simultaneity, their ability to tell many tales at once.

JP II the accolades begin

When deeply conservative politicians like Australian PM John Howard start describing the Pope with loaded accolades you know immediately how to place JP II in the current political ecology. Howard told a Melbourne dinner last night:

“This wonderful man who has been not only an inspiring leading of the Catholic church, but he’s been a wonderful warrior for freedom and democracy.”

This of course is not the experience of those who have dared dissent within the church. Hans Kung summed it up well a number of years ago:

Instead of a modernization in the evangelic spirit, one has gone back to the traditional fundamental Catholic lessons – rigorous moral encyclicals, traditionalist-imperialist world catechism. Instead of a collegiality between the pope and the bishops, there is an authoritarian Roman centralism expressed in the nomination of bishops and the attribution of theological seats over the interests of local churches.

Instead of an opening to the modern world, there are complaints and scoldings about a supposed adaptation to it and the encouragement of traditional forms of piety. Instead of dialogue, there is more inquisition and a rejection of freedom of thought and teaching in the Church. Instead of ecumenism there is again emphasis on everything narrowly Roman Catholic.

In a look at the pope’s achievement prepared by CNN in 1999 to mark the JP II’s 20 years as pope one unnamed source noted that this pope grew up in Poland with a church under siege and he has never grown out of that siege mentality:

Part of his problem is also his strength: He grew up in Poland where the church was persecuted by the Nazis and then by communism. The church was always under attack, and he developed a siege mentality. He has never really lived in a pluralistic, democratic society.

So even after the fall of communism, the model of the church is still one that is under siege. But now it’s by secularism, critics in the church, consumerism or relativism. And he responds with this kind of siege mentality, where the church is at war over these issues. And when you’re at war, you don’t have democracy. You don’t debate what you’re going to do.

It’s that very experience that made him so good at helping the church’s suffering from persecution and gave him such a strong backbone in saying what he thinks. But it makes it very difficult to see the grays and the ambiguities, and that there might be a place within the church for (those who disagree).

Images of the papal passion

Similar to the images of Terri Schiavo, the circulation of images of Pope John Paul, who has been described as “increasingly frail” for years now, are stimulating a range of mythic possibilities from conspiratorial narratives of the propped-up puppet to sanctifying stories of the ecstatic martyr. This extraordinary set of images from his appearance at the easter ceremonies was published in the Telegraph.

Weast28-1

Interestingly for a story so focused on the visual it begins: “The Pope struggled hard to find his voice to address pilgrims assembled in Rome yesterday for the traditional Easter Mass.” This pope, who has used his papacy as a bully-pulpit, now finally reduced to silence still some how turns this very silence into a perverse vocalisation of courage.

Is he yawning? Is he in pain? Is he angry and out of control? It appears from the report that in the final frame he is not hitting himself in frustration but merely making the sign of the cross. But what are we seeing here? Through the eyes of the faithful there is another story:

“Oh no!” said Maria Romero, from Peru, as the Pope’s aide took away the microphone. “The poor man can’t speak,” she said, tears streaming down her face.

However it is not just the eyes of the faithful who are constructing these images in this way. According to the Telegraph report, Italian state television called yesterday’s appearance the “most moving and poignant of his pontificate”. We are we embroiled here not just in the pope’s private passion play but in an on going story of western culture that is reified and retold by a range of institutions: journalistic, medical, political and religious.

These images of the distressed pope are not really new we can take other images from much earlier in his pontificate in which his devotional posture creates an other worldly sense of ecstatic martyred pain. This is very clear in an image from the PBS series on “the millennial pope” where his prayerfully contorted faith is propped against his ceremonial cross.

Faithimg1

These images are stock images of our christian culture but it is fascinating to see them played out in such a widely diverse and mediated way.

Myth and passion in the Schiavo case

28456320-terri-schiavo

As many commentators have noted (see the Howard Kurtz round-up) the battle over Terri Schiavo’s life, death and consciousness is the latest episode in the culture wars. An interesting article in USATODAY surveys some of the opinion in European newspapers. The European newspapers point out the startling contrasts in the the US right’s theology of life:

A cartoon in Tuesday’s edition of The Times of London, captioned “Funny Old World,” shows a caricature of President Bush signing a document titled “War on Iraq.” The panel reads: “Bush signs bill to kill thousands.” In the cartoon’s second panel, the Bush character signs a document titled “Schiavo Case.” The caption: “Bush signs bill to keep woman alive. …”

In another Times opinion the linkage is with the death penalty:

“The Terri Schiavo case shows just how emphatically the U.S. and Europe are moving on different paths on the ‘right-to-life’ — or in this case, the right to die,” starts one opinion piece in The Times. Later in the article: “The U.S., so impassioned about the right to life in the case of abortion and euthanasia, appears wedded to the right of the state to execute criminals.”

One of the fascinating things about the political dance around Schiavo’s hospital bed is that it is not just the European’s, with the perspective of distance, who see through the theatricality of Bush’s quick flight back to Washington for a 1.15am signing of the Congressional bill to “save” Schiavo. The Washingon Post reported a CBS survey that found that 82 percent of Americans – including 68 percent of people who identify themselves as evangelical Christians – think Congress’s intervention was wrong. Both ABC and CBS have also released polls which show that the overwhelming majority (74% in the CBS data) see congress’s action as motivated by “political expediency” (Kevin Drum via Kurtz). The Needlenose website has an interesting post on the media’s surprisingly up-front labeling of all this as political theatre.

However, in the same WP piece Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia makes the point that the minority that does back congressional action probably supports it intensely, while the majority that disagrees “won’t remember this woman’s name in a few months.”

I think this is largely true but I suspect that the case will hold some continuing mythic impact just as many people will remember the name Karen Quinlan even if they cannot quite place it.

The mythic import of the case is highlighted for many players and media commentators by the proximity of the Easter weekend, and the metaphor of the “Terri Schiavo passion play” has been used repeatedly. However the play of passions isn’t as simple as it seems American Prospect’s Terence Samuel in one of the best pieces I have seen on the case points out that “a close reading of this case suggests that it is about many things (including politics, religion, modern medicine, aggressive weight loss, fertility treatments, medical malpractice awards, and deep moral and ideological beliefs)”. That is of course why it has been taken up by everyone from media commentators, bloggers, the Pope, Bush, Congress and even a 10 year old boy who was arrested yesterday because he was trying (with his father and sisters) to bring Schiavo some water.

Samuel notes how congress majority leader Tom DeLay constantly used the brain dead woman’s first name “Terri” in his congressional speech and referred with haunting effect to her “parched” mouth and “throbbing” hunger. Another aspect of the rhetorical construction of the weak innocent Terri, that I haven’t seen anyone comment on, is the haunting pictures that have been reused constantly in media reports.

schiavo

In these images Schiavo looks imploringly and lovingly towards the camera or towards her mother but she also has the look of a mystic or mad woman. Her consciousness – which is at the heart of this whole drama – is at once affirmed and elided by these images and Terri Schiavo once again enters the realm of the symbolic, transfixed and transformed by both her condition and her representation. This is all made very explicit by a right to life poster which merges the image of Schiavo and Christ, both lost in their own passions.

Liberal Christians Challenge ‘Values Vote’

The Washington Post reports the results of a poll commissioned by a group of Liberal Christians which challenges the notion that "values" equal abortion and same-sex marriage.

Battling the notion that "values voters" swept President Bush to victory because of opposition to gay marriage and abortion, three liberal groups released a post-election poll in which 33 percent of voters said the nation’s most urgent moral problem was "greed and materialism" and 31 percent said it was "poverty and economic justice." Sixteen percent cited abortion, and 12 percent named same-sex marriage….

The nationwide telephone poll of 10,689 voters was conducted by Zogby International for the Catholic peace group Pax Christi, the New York-based civic advocacy group Res Publica and the Washington-based Center for American Progress, a think tank allied with Democrats. It had a margin of error of plus or minus one percentage

The poll found that 42 percent of voters cited the war in Iraq as the "moral issue" that most influenced their choice of candidates, while 13 percent cited abortion and 9 percent same-sex marriage. Asked to name the greatest threat to marriage, 31 percent said "infidelity," 25 percent cited "rising financial burdens" and 22 percent named same-sex marriage

Acting as spokesperson for the group Jim Wallis called for a "conversation" about abortion:

"One of the things a few of us are talking about is a reassessment of how the Democrats deal with an issue like abortion — could there be a more moderate ground, where even if they retained their pro-choice stance, they talked about uniting pro-choice people together to actually do something about the abortion rate?" said Jim Wallis, editor of the liberal evangelical journal Sojourners.

If the Democratic Party were to "welcome pro-life Democrats, Catholics and evangelicals and have a serious conversation with them" about ways to reduce teenage pregnancy, facilitate adoptions and improve conditions for low-income women, it would "work wonders"
among centrist evangelicals and Catholics, Wallis said.

This notion of a "conversation" and the adoption of non-confrontational, non-judgemental constructive ways of engaging the "left" and the "right" is gaining currency in many commentaries on the net (check Barlow and Mumamusings). It is an obvious strategy and Wallis’ suggestion that it begin somewhere in the middle is a good one. But this startegy of localised conversations must also move firmly into the public arena and the public agenda. So much of our conversation today is mediated by the divisive frames produced by the media. If the grassroots conversations are to flourish then we must begin to move the media rhetoric that stresses the religious right’s all encompassing power.

This "power" is rhetorically created by the media, currenlty in awe of the success of the "Rove strategy," but it is also confirmed by the rigid boisterism of the myth of the Apocalypse of Empire which inflects the language, action and beliefs of the religious right.

The emergence of vibrant organised groups on the left, like MoveOn and Wallis’ liberal christian coalition, is one of the signs of hope to emerge from this election. Through a smart combination of grass roots and broader public sphere activism they have begun the slow incremental process of transforming the public terms in which politics, values and spirituality are conceived. Although their tactics need to avoid the "all or nothing" aspects of the Apocalypse of Resistance this is the alternate myth that in a sense guides their work.

Unfortunately if this does become a collision of two completely apocalyptic world views dialogue becomes impossible.

Wallis and other speakers noted the diversity of christian voting blocks. This is one step towards breaking through the binary opposition between the hard right and hard left that is currently set up as "common sense".

They contended that there is a vast religious middle, including "progressive evangelicals," "resurgent mainline Protestants" and "socially conservative African Americans," that could be attracted by biblically based "prophetic" appeals to make peace, fight poverty and spread social justice.

This kind of conversation and public activism from the left is also needed in Australia as the abortion debate seems to be taking on increasingly fractious terms here. At least there is a sense that the conversation has begun in America and their are leaders like Wallis attempting to bring people together, in Australia the broad church of the left is still very much in the wilderness.

Evangelical culture/evangelical politics

Interesting explanation from the Washington Post that tries to unpack the poll data on increases in the evangelical turnout in 2004

Exit polls do not permit a direct comparison of how many evangelical and born-again Americans voted in 2000 and 2004 because the way pollsters identified these voters changed. Four years ago voters leaving polls were asked: “Do you consider yourself part of the conservative Christian political movement, also known as the religious right?” In 2004, the question was changed to: “Would you describe yourself as a born-again or evangelical Christian?”

Fourteen percent answered “yes” in 2000 and 23 percent did so in 2004, but polling specialists said the 2004 wording virtually assures more affirmative answers.

The percentage of voters who said they attend church more than once a week grew from 14 to 16 percent, a significant difference in an election decided by three percentage points. These voters backed President Bush over John F. Kerry 64 percent to 35 percent. Similarly, the percent of the electorate that believes abortion should be “illegal in all cases” grew from 13 to 16 percent. These voters backed Bush by 77 percent to 22 percent.

In the two major battlegrounds, Ohio and Florida, exit polls showed Bush substantially improved his support among voters who attend church more than once a week. At the same time, the percentage of the electorate that goes to church this often actually fell.

The article also argues that the grassroots evangelicals were not driven by the Bush election team but were actually way ahead of the curve. The interviews with a range of Christian activists support Dana Milbank’s notion (which I posted about yesterday) that we have seen the emergence of a new evangelical politics in this election. Many of the activists interviewed in today’s Post article argue that they were better organised, and campaigning earlier within their christian communities, than the official Bush team. The picture to emerge is of both organised and grassroots action. Certainly the big names like James Dobson and his Focus on the Family were active – and in weekly phone contact with Bush strategists – but local ministers and smaller organisations and individuals were critical to the campaign.

As to the significance of the same sex marriage issue Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council puts it nicely. It was “the hood ornament on the family values wagon that carried the president to a second term.”

But other factors certainly also drove moral values voters:

The Rev. Rick Warren, author of the best-selling “The Purpose Driven Life” and one of the most influential ministers in the country, sent a letter to 136,000 fellow pastors urging them to compare the candidates’ positions on five “non-negotiable” issues: abortion, stem cell research, same-sex marriage, human cloning and euthanasia.

Many of these activists regard Bush as slow to take up the marriage cause and they were working on a constitutional ban long before Karl Rove started to think of the issue as a voter turn-out technique.

Some Democrats suspected that the ballot initiatives were engineered by Rove and the GOP, but religious activists say otherwise. In Michigan, state Sen. Alan Cropsey (R) introduced a bill to ban same-sex marriage in October 2003 and assumed it would have the support of his party. Instead, the Roman Catholic Church in Michigan became the amendment’s main booster, spending nearly $1 million to secure its passage.

“I couldn’t say anything publicly, because I would have been blasted for it, but the Republican Party was not helpful at all,” Cropsey said. “It’s not like they were the instigators. They were the Johnny-come-latelies, if anything.”

Michael Howden, executive director of Stronger Families for Oregon, said it was a similar situation in his state. “There’s been no contact whatsoever, no coordinating, no pushing” by anyone at the White House or in the Bush campaign, he said.

Dobson sums up what a “values voter” means very clearly and very simply:

A values voter, Dobson said, is someone with “a Christian worldview who begins with the assumption that God is — that he not only exists, but he is the definer of right and wrong, and there are some things that are moral and some things that are immoral, some things that are evil and some things that are good.”

Although liberals may mock Bush for his good-vs.-evil approach to the world, it “is seen by many of us not as a negative but as a positive,” Dobson said. “Here is a man who is simply committed to a system of beliefs.”

This type of world view is not explicitly apocalyptic but is congruent with the type of moral universe that LaHaye and other producers of christian mass culture evoke. This also ties into broader streams of American popular culture as identified by Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence’s American Superhero myth.

A new evangelical politics

The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank sees the emergence of a new kind of evangelical politics in the recent US election. She argues that while organisations like the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition may have previously mobilised voters for Reagan, this time it was grass roots Christian activism that got the turnout for Bush. She writes:

In the past, evangelicals participated in politics reluctantly, at the urging of such figures as Jerry Falwell and, later, Pat Robertson. This time, more than 26 million of them turned out — 23 percent of the electorate — in local church-based networks coordinated closely with the Bush campaign.

"You see the maturation of a movement that began in the late ’70s with the Moral Majority," said Michael Cromartie, who directs the Evangelicals in Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. "Now these people don’t need to be told. They have their own opinions about the state of the culture, and they’ve gotten organized. It has more power because it’s decentralized and organized."

 

Milbank quotes Barry W. Lynn, from the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State speculating that the Left Behind novel’s have played a part in this:

Lynn said that a number of evangelicals, inspired in part by minister Tim LaHaye’s "Left Behind" novels, have come to view politics as part of their religion. "There is a strain of evangelical Christians who believe it is political figures who usher in the Second Coming," he said. As such, Bush "is the spiritual and political leader of a moral revolution."

This certainly fits with my reading of Rapture Culture, Amy Johnson Frykholm’s fascinating reader reception study of Left Behind culture. One of the striking things is the way readers move between engagement with the Left Behind series and other elements of popular culture. This has the effect of creating a kind of seamless imaginary world in which the imaginative possibilities of the Left Behind series become a very real part of daily life and thus daily political choices. I think the Left Behind series is performing an important bridging function that hasn’t been fully explored yet.

In a not very good review of Rapture Culture (when will mainstream reviewers get over the quick easy jabs at post modernism) Stephen Prothero (chairman of the Department of Religion at Boston University who should know better) does make a perceptive point. He argues that the Left Behind series and other evangelical mass cultural products are about maintainance not conversion:

Decades ago the sociologist Peter Berger contended that worldviews
perpetuated themselves (and the societies in which they were embedded)
through "plausibility structures" that sustained in the minds of
believers the reality of those perspectives. Churches and religious
institutions do much of this work, but so does the Left Behind
publishing firm, Tyndale House, the evangelical girls’ magazine Brio
and Billy Graham’s World Wide Pictures. Although evangelicals often
raise funds for their forays into mass media by promising to make
converts, the real purpose of those raids may simply be to hold on to
believers already made through procreation or proselytizing. Even
religious traditions that prize sudden transformations in tent meetings
must labor to keep the hearts and minds of the Christians they have
birthed and baptized. And evangelical media, whatever we may think of
their politics, or the virtues of alchemizing atheists into Christians,
play an important part in doing just that.

It seems that these books and other forms of evangelical culture, not just firey Sunday sermons, are in fact "alchemizing" christians into activists. Milbank quotes some striking rhetorical examples:

Though such views are a minority, there were glimpses of that passion on the campaign trail. Last month, at an invitation-only meeting with Vice President Cheney, a questioner rose and said: "I personally think, next to Jesus Christ, [Bush] probably took the greatest load upon his shoulders of any individual, so it had to be with strong backing that he has been able to stand for his testimony for the Lord Jesus Christ."

At another invitation-only event, a questioner asking about Bush’s "faith-based initiatives" told the president: "I believe that the enemy that we need the greatest freedom from right now happens to be Satan, and it’s the enemy that we also don’t necessarily always see. There’s so many people who are being attacked on every level."

Leaders of Christian political organizations have spoken of Tuesday’s results as providential. "Only the Lord could have orchestrated an election in which the president got a wonderful majority vote and at the same time we had a basic Christian institution of marriage on the ballot," Tom Minnery, Focus on the Family’s vice president of public policy, said on the group’s radio show this week.

The organization’s head, James Dobson, said, "I think God has honored" Bush because "the president did acknowledge Jesus Christ." The same program broadcast a statement by Dennis Prager, a Christian commentator, saying "civilization as we understand it was in the balance" in the election, and "a beautiful man has been vindicated."

 

One of the interesting things about these examples is the confluence between the leadership and the grass roots. It looks like they have fully bought into the divinely mandated version of the Bush mission.

This is a fascinating example of the real-time effect of the apocalyptic myth not just transforming the daily lives of believers but also effectively reshaping the national political agenda.

The Revealer: Killing Religion Journalism

The new NYU Revealer site, on religion and the news, is an extraordinary resource that has come along at the perfect time for me. Jeff Sharlet and co are ddoing an amazing job of gathering the serious and the quirky and presenting it all in a rigerous framework that brings context and analysis.

In a reflection written to promote his new book on religion and journalism, Killing the Buddha, Sharlet writes of the central yet obscured role of religion in the news.

That’s what religion writing has to offer every other aspect of journalism: The focus on belief. That’s missing even from most religion writing. The “faith pages” languish while news stories revolving around real, actual belief, causing events in the world, occupy the front page.

I said they revolve around real actual belief. That’s what they do. They circle it. Nervously. They dip in, but they never get too close. Part of that is that nobody wants to seem like they’re declaring some truth about God. But what we need to report on is not God or the lack thereof, it’s the way people believe in these things, and what they do about them.

What do they about it? Sometimes, they run for president. Sometimes they feed other people. Sometimes they prey on little kids. Sometimes, they fly planes into buildings. Sometimes what they do defines the public sphere, sometimes, it seems to take place far beyond the public sphere’s boundaries. But that idea that belief is outside the public sphere, that it’s private, exists partly because America remains a largely Protestant country, but more importantly, for our purposes as journalists, because we fail to look for evidence of things not seen.

While part of the way religion is treated is to do with the protestant ethos, it also in large part derives from the ideology of objectivity in journalism. This working method allows journalists to give voice to a range of uncritical sources in complex debates such as gay marriage and adoption. The practice of objectivity perpetuates a natural conflict frame for these debates with spokespeople for gay organisations pitted against moral majority/family first spokespeople. Thus those who might have some evidence based comment to contribute to this debate such as child psychologists, legal scholars or sociologists are marginalised in the false two source balancing act of pitting gays against the religious right.

As well as treating religion as part of the complex fabric of belief in society, journalists must learn to treat relgion critically and call hatred hatred and intollerance, intollerance. This too is part of the fabric of belief. This is the ugly side of belief that is rarely covered in mainstream religion reporting, except when it presents in extreme forms such as Phelps and his “God Hates Fags” group, but the more difficult reality is that the “God Hates Fags” message is preached in much subtler and more insidious ways and these are never addressed.

American political religiosity

“I’d be delighted to live in a country where happily married gay couples had closets full of assault weapons.”

US blogger Glen Reynolds giving an example of why he can’t be easily classified as left or right!

Reynold’s Instapundit blog is one of the A-list blogs, and I must admit that I had dismissed it as a pointless pro-Bush blog without looking too closely at his posts. In his Guardian column this week Reynolds points out why he sits uneasily in any easily defined spectrum of American politics. His main point is that religiosity affects both the left and right wing agendas and he finds both equally disturbing:

The language of righteousness and sin, if not that of redemption and grace, remains a hallmark of the purportedly secular left, though I find it no more attractive than the language of the religious right.

I don’t fit into the religious right or the religious left. But, in America, you don’t get to choose a major political party that does not have some sort of religious strain to it.

And it strikes me that one reason why politics in the US have become so much more bitter over the past couple of decades is that two rather different threads of religiosity have come to dominate the two major parties in distinct fashion, where each party had previously incorporated major components of both. This has turned political battles into quasi-religious ones.

I think this is undoubtedly true and Reynolds gives the example of Hilary Clinton as a religiously inspired leftie, pointing out that “the roots of this do-goodism are ultimately in New England Puritanism, which had many characteristics associated with today’s left.”.

However, I think there is a fundamental difference between the right’s use of religious rhetoric and the left’s use of religious rhetoric. One of the primary religious values of the left is a call to inclusive community. This is inherent in the title of Hilary Clinton’s book about children: “It takes a village” I haven’t read the book but the excerpts here seem to support this view:

The horizons of the contemporary village extend well beyond the town line. From the moment we are born, we are exposed to vast numbers of other people and influences through the media. Technology connects us to the impersonal global village it has created.

To many, this brave new world seems dehumanizing and inhospitable. It is not surprising, then,, that there is a yearning for the “good old days” as a refuge from the problems of the present. But by turning away, we blind ourselves to the continuing, evolving presence of the village in our lives, and its critical importance for how we live together. The village can no longer be defined as a place on a map, or as a list of people or organizations, but its essence remains the same: it is the network of values and relationships that support and affect our lives….

We cannot move forward by looking to the past for easy solutions. Even if a golden age had existed, we could not simply graft it onto today’s busier, more impersonal and complicated world. Instead, our challenge is to arrive at a consensus of values and a common vision of what we can do, individually and collectively, to build strong families and communities.

Creating that consensus in a democracy depends on seriously considering other points of view, resisting the lure of extremist rhetoric, and balancing individual rights and freedoms with personal responsibility and mutual obligations.

This is a fundamentally different view to the resisting pre-apocalyptic communities of the religious right, whose religious world view promotes a divisive politics that wants to proscribe, people and practices that don’t conform to their particular beliefs. Now this does not mean that the left does not also use the politics of consensus in devise ways, nor do they always live up to their ideals of inclusion, but in their basic orientation I think that religious conservatism and the religious liberalism need to be read quite differently.

The similarities and differences of the religiously inspired right and the religiously inspired left is certainly something that I should look at further.

Any world view, strongly held, creates divisions: sometimes these divisions are helpful organising devices, other times they lead to easy judgments, (like my instant assessment of Reynolds!) that really deserve more open thought.

When prophecy fails

Interesting discussion over at Crooked Timber on apocalyptic christianity and the response to failed prophecy. John Quiggin got the ball rolling with this question:

Revelations-based prophecies have similarly failed time after time, but they seem to be more popular than ever. What is about apocalyptic Christianity as a belief system that protects it from empirical refutation?

There are a number of sub questions in this:

What happens when prophecy fails?
How does the meaning making system of apocalyptic belief work?
What is the relationship between belief and empirical evidence?

I think the first thing to understand is that “apocalyptic Christianity” is much more than a belief in specific apocalyptic events. As I noted in my post yesterday it also includes what Cynthia Burack has called a “politics of desert”. It is a resistance theology that constantly constructs and reconstructs oppositions, that comes from a place of such certainty that the “signs of the times” become a fluid collage that reinforce that central resistance identity.

Some of the posts in response to John mention When Prophecy Fails, by Leon Festinger. Festinger proposed that adherents basically redouble their efforts when prophecies fail as a way of resolving their experience of cognitive dissonance. Post-Festinger scholarship has tended to agree with Festinger’s conclusion that adherents work hard in a post-failure moment but most scholars disagree with his specific conclusions about how this works.

In Expecting Armageddon: Essential Readings in Failed Prophecy, Jon Stone has gathered fourteen articles that dialogue with Festinger’s conclusions. For a strange but interesting review of this collection go here. (Haven’t read this but have it on order from Amazon)

In his article on failed prophecy in the Lubavitch movement Simon Dein gives a good summary of some of the arguments in this literature. His reference to Melton ( Melton, J. G. 1985. Spiritualization and reaffirmation: What really happens when prophecy fails. American Studies 26(2):82.) supports my contention that apocalyptic belief cannot be limited to the predictive, but must be seen as a more general belief system:

Melton (1985) points out a number of problems with the thesis…[one] problem involves Festinger’s assertion that millennial groups are organized around the prediction of prospective events. This is seen by Melton as a one-dimensional view of millenarianism which neglects the presence of a complex cosmology. Indeed, prediction often springs from a broad context of belief and disconfirmation provides a “test” which generally strengthens a group. Third, the problem was noted of the researcher’s standard for logic not necessarily being consistent with the internal definitions of the group studied.

John Quiggin’s post also had a reference to Hall Lindsay as an example of apocalyptic christianity. As Stephen O’Leary has shown in Arguing the Apocalypse, the fascinating thing about Lindsay is that although his work is littered with prophetic readings of current events he avoids any major predictions of end events. Instead he produces a dispersed apocalypse that calls for a continuing sense of readiness.

O’Leary shows that between his first book The Late Great Planet Earth and his 80s sequel Countdown to Armageddon Lindsey updated his theology to show a role for America and “a ray of hope” that led to the more activist new right politics of the eighties. This is epitomised by Jerry Falwell’s telling comment that Christians are called “to occupy until he comes.” This is a phase he still uses today. In a September 2004 interview: Falwell: Evangelicals ‘Energized’ for Bush he sets his beliefs out very clearly:

NM: We hear a lot these days that many Christians believe that, based on current events, perhaps Christ’s second coming is near. What do you tell people who ask you about that?

JF: Well, Scripture is clear on that. No man knows the day or hour of His second coming.

It is my feeling, and has been for the 52 years I’ve been a Christian, that we’re to live every day as though the Lord were returning today…but we’re to plan and work as though we had another 100 years, with the next generation in mind.

The danger, if there is a danger in believing in the imminence of the Lord’s return – and I do, is to become a fatalist, that certain things are going to happen regardless and there’s nothing we can do about them. That isn’t true. We’re told to occupy until He comes. We’re told to pray for the peace of Jerusalem. And we’re given clear instructions about raising our children up in the nurture and admonition of Christ.

Falwell’s theology reflects the fundamental change in premillenial beliefs from the widely believed but failed predictive prophecies of William Miller in the 1840s, which led to what is known as “the great disappointment“, to the current “dispensational premillenialists” of today that believe we are in the end times but won’t hazard a guess at the day or the hour.

Falwell’s beliefs seem to show a gradual merging of elements of the premillenial and the postmillenial belief systems but that’s another story for another posting….

(For a reasonably good but abbreviated precis of O’Leary on the Millerites and Hall Lindsey go here)

Bush, the debate and fundamentalism

I must admit that watching the debate between Bush and Kerry confused me a bit. I was struck by both performances. The press accounts seem to concur that Kerry won and gained more from the debate because he suddenly appeared comfortable, concise and presidential. I was mesmerised, in a kind of perverse fascination by, Bush.

He appeared flustered and irritated at times, for sure, but his direct, strong, simple appeal and absolute confidence was remarkable. He shone in his “We will win” and his “I’m gonna get ‘em” moments. It took me back to some remarks by Steve Almond in his KtB feature, The Gospel According to Dubya.

I understand that the events of 9/11 scared our citizens; that we need to protect ourselves, and oppose terrorism. These are, frankly, truisms. What Bush has done is to use 9/11 to mobilize our worst impulses. This was most vividly illustrated in the response of the convention crowd. At any mention of the war in Iraq, they began to boom, U.S.A.! U.S.A.! But the war in Iraq, any war, is not an occasion for celebration. It is an occasion for profound sorrow, an abject failure of humanity.

The public fear instilled by 9/11 (along with the endless terror alerts) has allowed Bush to ignore the most noble of Christ’s teachings, the pleas for mercy and tolerance, and to indulge instead in prophetic grievance. In opposing Islamic fundamentalism, Bush has relied on his own brand of fundamentalism. He has rendered the moral chaos of the world in black and white.

Many find this comforting. It spares us from having to consider why terrorists target us, and how our policies might actually foment hatred. It allows us to believe that affixing a bumper sticker to an SUV is an act of patriotism, or to feel that we are we are receiving the Good News by watching Christ’s life reduced to a slow-motion snuff film.

The crowds that were shouting their indiscriminate approval at the convention were obviously party faithful and the audience that Bush needed to pitch to in the debate had to extend beyond this group. While the faithful’s vision is channelled through Republican or Christian ideology, I suspect there is a broader secular, unaffiliated group to whom this rhetoric also plays well.

Fundamentalism and an apocalyptic viewpoint may be most prevalent amongst born-again Christians and neocon-hawks but I suspect one of the new elements in the political landscape post 9/11 is the growth of a kind of fear based secular fundamentalism.

The Jesus Factor

Just watched PBS’ doco on Bush and his faith, The Jesus Factor, which screened tonight on SBS.

Liberal evangelical activist, Jim Wallis’ has an interesting analysis of the trajectory of Bush’s faith:

When I met the president and began talking with him, and listening to what he was saying, I felt that he was sort of a self-help Methodist — meaning, someone whose faith had made a difference in his personal life. Solved some drinking issues and some family issues, and changed him. Gave him purpose. That’s part of Methodism. Always has been. Kind of a 12-step God — you know, changing my life….

Then Sept. 11 came. I think his role changed dramatically, his notion of himself and his place in history, and he became commander in chief of the war on terrorism. The self-help Methodist became now almost a messianic American Calvinist, speaking of the mission of America, and even of his perhaps divine appointment to be president at a time such as this.

This raises some deep and unsettling theological questions, I think, whether there’s a confusion now in the role of church and nation — the body of Christ, the Christian community, what its role is versus the role of the nation.

Wallis is prepared to admit that “calling” and doing “God’s work” is the task of any committed Christian but it is the divisive certainty of Bush’s mission that disturbs him:

But when one believes that you’ve been appointed by God for a particular mission in history, you have to be very careful about that, how you speak about that. Where is the self-reflection in that? Where is the humility in that? Are we asking whether we are being accountable to God’s intentions and purposes? Or are we asking for God’s blessing on our activities? They’re very different things.

I think when we are so sure that God is on our side, and that those who are not with us are against us, or even with the terrorists, that’s taking another step. I believe God is in our world, in our history, in our lives, in our choices. To ask what God’s calling is for me is a fair question, a necessary question, for any Christian. That’s not a problem.

But when we place God on our side of things, that we are now ridding the world of evil — that’s very dangerous, that one nation has this role to rid the world of [evil]. What about the evil we have committed, that we are complicit in? The richest nation in this global economic system, in which 2 billion of God’s children are poor [and] live on less than $2 a day?

Well, there are things to look at ourselves here, if we’re presiding over that global economy. Does this language allow us to look at ourselves, or does it give us a kind of certainty, and a sanction, and even a sense of divine righteousness for our political position? Are we blinded to things that we’re otherwise not willing to look at?

Richard Land the director of the Southern Baptist Convention points out that Bush’s public religiosity and sense of mission is part of an ongoing mainstream religious tradition In American politics:

George W. Bush is standing squarely in the middle of American history and American tradition, and believing in American exceptionalism. Does that mean that America is God’s chosen people? No. No. Does it mean that we believe that an angel still rides in this storm, as they did at the founding? Yes. Yes.

I believe that. I believe that the United States of America has a divinely given responsibility to hold up the flame of freedom, and whenever possible, to advance it. I don’t make any apology for that. That’s part of who I am as an American. Just exactly what does the left think that John F. Kennedy was talking about, when he said, “We’re going to let tyrants of the world beware. We’re willing to go anywhere, bear any price, assume any burden, defend [against] any foe, support any friend, in defense of liberty?”…

But I can’t imagine that there would be a president of the United States in my lifetime — and I was born during the Truman administration — that would not have given some religious context to the events of 9/11. We have to understand that America is a very religious nation. I know this disturbs and perplexes the New York Times, but it is a fact. When the Pew Trust does a study, for instance, they find that [for] somewhere between 65 percent and 70 percent of Americans, religion is very important in their lives. You compare that with Canada where it’s 28 percent, and Great Britain, where it’s 17 percent.

And Doug Wead, a Bush family friend and evangelical political consultant, makes a fascinating comment about the real and the calculated in Bush’s religiosity:

There’s no question that the president’s faith is real, that it’s authentic, that it’s genuine, and there’s no question that it’s calculated. I know that sounds like a contradiction. But that will always be the case for a public figure, regardless of their faith, whether they’re Islamic, or Jewish, or Christian….

Gandhi once said, “He who says that religion and politics don’t mix understands neither one.” I would say that I don’t know when he’s sincere and when he’s calculated, and a reporter for FRONTLINE doesn’t know. George Bush doesn’t know when he’s operating out of a genuine sense of his own faith, or when it’s calculated, and there must be gray areas in between. I think he operates instinctively.

For example, in the Iowa debate, when he said Jesus was his favorite philosopher, it’s very questionable whether that helped him. It didn’t help him, especially in Iowa, especially not by very much. … It happened too late, and it was too shocking to have a great impact on the Iowa caucus. It may have a cumulative effect today. It may be remembered by evangelicals along with other things, and may make them more likely to embrace him in 200[4].

The religious war

Very explicit quote from an LA Times Article posted by Brian Flemming on his blog “slumdance”. The Times registration wont let me track the original.

“George sees this as a religious war,” one family member told us. “He doesn’t have a PC view of this war. His view is that they are trying to kill the Christians. And we the Christians will strike back with more force and more ferocity than they will ever know.” Critics charge that the president is blindly engaged in a crusade, propelled by a belief in Armageddon that will end in a geopolitical disaster. One has compared his faith to the fundamentalists of Islam. Another calls it downright “frightening.”

Flemming also posts a fascinating two columns of direct quotes contrasting Bush and Co’s Christian rhetoric with descriptions of Abu Ghraib.

Evangelical about politics

This article from the Sydney Morning Herald Evangelical about politics shows that the religious right influence in politics may no longer be a purely American affair.

Joan Woods, from the Family First party and wife of the president of the Assemblies of God church in NSW, is adamant: there’s “absolutely no connection” between the two organisations. Church and state are absolutely separate, says the party’s lead NSW Senate candidate. There is no funding link between the two, indeed no formal link at all. “Not in any file, in any legally written document, in [the party] constitution,” she says, a little indignantly.

What she means is there’s no legal connection. However, 3 years after it was started by a leading light of the Assemblies of God in South Australia, it remains almost totally populated by churchgoers of one faith.

Family First has arisen from nowhere to become a powerful player in the election, largely through its impact on preference flows. It is running Senate candidates in all states and in more than 120 of the 150 House of Representatives seats in the nation.

But its significance goes beyond immediate concerns about preference flow. To some who know a lot about it, including one Assemblies of God dissident who contacted the Herald, Family First represents the strongest push yet by the religious right into politics, following the US model….

In fact, almost all the party’s 24 candidates in NSW are Protestant evangelicals, overwhelmingly Assemblies of God and in many cases, pastors. The Herald has identified only one Family First candidate who was not a Christian evangelical.

Republicans Admit Mailing Campaign Literature Saying Liberals Will Ban the Bible

This New York Times article shows just how out of control the Christian Right is getting: Republicans Admit Mailing Campaign Literature Saying Liberals Will Ban the Bible

The Republican Party acknowledged yesterday sending mass mailings to residents of two states warning that “liberals” seek to ban the Bible. It said the mailings were part of its effort to mobilize religious voters for President Bush.

The mailings include images of the Bible labeled “banned” and of a gay marriage proposal labeled “allowed.” A mailing to Arkansas residents warns: “This will be Arkansas if you don’t vote.” A similar mailing was sent to West Virginians.

A liberal religious group, the Interfaith Alliance, circulated a copy of the Arkansas mailing to reporters yesterday to publicize it. “What they are doing is despicable,” said Don Parker, a spokesman for the alliance. “They are playing on people’s fears and emotions.”

As Eric Alterman puts it in the link to this article on his MSNBC blog

Dear Religious Americans. How are you? I am fine. Have you notices that the Republican Party thinks “You are all a bunch of morons.”
(Think I exaggerate? Liberals “banning” the Bible? Can anyone but a paranoid lunatic believe such a thing is possible?)

The Rapture racket

Great link from the Empire article about The Rapture racket. Bill Berkowitz interviews Barbara R. Rossing about her recently published book The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation. Rossing has quite a different take on what Empire means in Revelation

Rather than scare the living daylights out of folks, the book of Revelation actually aims “to comfort and inspire Christians to a vision of hope,” Rossing stated. “In the early Roman Empire, when it looked like violence was getting out of hand — much like things today — it was a message to people that the empire would not last much longer and that the Emperor was not the one in charge of the world. Jesus is in our midst, but He is not the avenging warrior Jesus. Jesus is the lamb who is leading us to a different way of life — one espousing love.”

The Gospel According to Dubya

Another great analysis of GWB and the rhetoric of apocalypse, The Gospel According to Dubya, from the fantastic website, KtB – Killing the Buddha. KtB describes itself this way: “a religion magazine for people made anxious by churches, people embarrassed to be caught in the “spirituality” section of a bookstore, people both hostile and drawn to talk of God.”

In the Book of Luke, Christ comes off, in his lust for Armageddon, as somewhere between Dick Cheney and Dr. Strangelove. “I have come to light a fire on the earth,” he announces. “How I wish the blaze were ignited! … Do you think I have come to establish peace on earth? I assure you, the contrary is true: I have come for division.” (12, 49-51)

In these moments, it becomes much easier to see how George W. Bush might view his policy of pre-emptive war as a fulfillment of his savior’s wishes — particularly a holy war against what both he and Christ call “the evildoers.” There is, in both figures, an eschatological hunger. Judgment Day becomes a revenge fantasy.

This is not to suggest that President Bush was eager for the apocalyptic specter of 9/11. But it is quite clear that the events of that day roused in him a sense of mission that had been conspicuously absent during his first eight months in office. He immediately declared a “War on Terror” — an all-encompassing battle between the forces of good and evil — which the press was only too happy to ratify. This artificially constructed “war” (it is more like a series of police actions) has kept his administration afloat by distracting the public from his domestic record. But Bush is not just making political hay; he’s bringing to fruition a moral struggle Christ foretold.

“The son of man will dispatch his angels to collection from his kingdom all who draw others to apostasy, and all evildoers,” Christ says, adding in a most unlamb-like manner, “The angels will hurl them into the fiery furnace where they will wail and grind their teeth.” (Matthew 13-41) It should be noted that while Bush does not have angels at his disposal, he does brag the largest standing army and arsenal in the history of mankind.

The domestic and international outrage his war-mongering has provoked doesn’t bother Bush a bit. Just the opposite, it reifies his connection to Christ: “Blessed shall you be when men hate you, when they ostracize and insult you and proscribe your name as evil.” (Luke, 6-22)

Bush, religious rhetoric and the press

From NYU J-School’s great new site/blog The Revealer which covers the press and religion

David Domke, University of Washington professor and author of the just-released book, God Willing?: Political Fundamentalism in the White House, the “War on Terror,” and the Echoing Press, documents President Bush’s effective linking of religious terminology with political goals. While the tally of Bush’s good n’ evil rhetoric isn’t exactly shocking, Domke’s criticism of the press hits home: Just two of 326 editorials written about Bush’s speeches challenged the religiously derived notion of good vs. evil; none questioned his statements about God’s will. “‘In a time of crisis, the certainty conveyed by what I call “political fundamentalism” put forward by the administration silenced the Democrats and had great appeal to the press. And yet with so many around the globe expressing a different view, the press failed its readers by uncritically echoing these fundamentalist messages.’”

More on the same from Domke’s newswire release.

Domke examined the response of news media, by dissecting TV and newspaper reports on the administration and its policies related to the “war on terrorism.” This included every terror-related news story in the New York Times and Washington Post during the three weeks after Sept. 11, and several hundred newspaper articles and network television stories.

The coverage, Domke found, gave uncritical voice to four key fundamentalist messages from the administration:

1) Simplistic, black-and-white conceptions of the political landscape.

2) Calls for immediate action on administration policies as a necessary part of the nation’s “calling” and “mission” against terrorism.

3) Declarations about the will of God for America and for the spread of U.S. conceptions of freedom and liberty.

4) Claims that dissent from the administration was unpatriotic and a threat to the nation.

“These messages were rooted in a religiously conservative worldview,” Domke said, “yet they were often framed by both the administration and the news media to emphasize a sense of nationalism.

“That made the fundamentalist approach attractive, or at least palatable, to the press and public,” Domke added, “in a period when Americans were trying to understand what had happened and why.”

It was not until nearly two years after 9/11 that the administration relinquished its full-court religious press, Domke said, and the news media began to question their role in helping the administration to control public discourse.

“All of this came at great cost to democracy and the public,” he said, “both of which were roundly ignored by the administration as it pursued a religiously grounded vision of America in the 21st century.”