Bush and Gore out-Jimmy-Carter each other in US News
"We haven't seen anything like this since William Jennings Bryan," religion and politics quotemeister John Green tells U.S. News in its December 6 issue. No, he's not referring to Bryan's role in the early Evolution Wars—the most likely reason you'll hear Bryan's name invoked these days—but for his 1896 presidential campaign. "It's been generations since so many politicians have talked so much about Jesus—and their personal relationship with him," writer Franklin Foer begins his article, "Running on Their Faith."
There's surprisingly little media cynicism here. "When candidates make public displays of religion, a common reflex is skepticism: American politicians have always found votes in church. But with the governor and vice president [Bush and Gore], there is evidence of devotion," Foer writes. "There is a bigger point than piety here. For both frontrunners, their political agendas are bound to their religious agendas."
Foer describes how Gore's spiritual background—a mix of conservative Baptist revivalism bred in his youth and undergraduate days and "Protestant ultraliberalism" learned at Vanderbilt Divinity School—results in a social justice-oriented campaign that's supportive of faith-based charities and even teaching creationism in schools. Bush, on the other hand, "is the first major politician to emerge from the new milieu of suburban megachurches." His ideas on racial reconciliation and his embrace of self-help theories are straight out of Promise Keepers. (Extended interviews with Bush and Gore on faith are posted exclusively on the U.S. News Web site.)
Though he never comes out and says it, Foer's main argument is how, despite all the warnings about religious extremism, Gore and Bush both owe their moderate streaks to their deeply held faith. The candidates who are more vocal about their faith aren't mentioned, but those who aren't saying much of anything—Bill Bradley and John McCain—are discussed and given a sidebar. Especially interesting is Foer's take on the silence of Bradley, once very well known for his faith. "Liberal activists—with the notable exception of African-Americans—tend toward the secular side of the spectrum. Bradley has subtly played to these voters, emphasizing that religion is private business." As Foer quotes one Bradley aide, "There's still a sizable segment of our party that isn't comfortable with politicians who wear Jesus on their sleeves."
Bradley backslides his way to the White House
Bradley's silence—and apparent renunciation of the orthodox Christianity of his teens and 20s—is also the subject of "Unborn Again Bill Bradley," in the December 1999/January 2000 issue of The American Spectator. The article, by Paul Sperry, is a mirror of the kind that sometimes appear in the gay press, "outing" some politician or public figure who's deemed not supportive enough of the homosexual movement. Only this time, it's a conservative magazine outing a candidate for being a closet evangelical: "The younger Bradley wasn't just religious in the sense of going to church on Sundays and saying grace before supper. He was an evangelical. A full-fledged member of the Religious Right. A true believer." The article pulls out the evidence: Bradley's participation in a Billy Graham crusade in London, his teaching Sunday school during his Princeton days, his boostering of Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA), his bestselling evangelistic tract for the American Tract Society (selling 300,000 copies). In light of this, recent statements are just plain weird. A campaign aide now says Bradley was never a born-again Christian. And he's apparently become a utilitarian universalist: "People everywhere in the world seem more than ever to yearn for inner peace, a oneness with themselves an their world," Sperry quotes Bradley as writing. "Christianity offers one way to achieve it; Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Confucianism, Hinduism offer others." Now Bradley puts "accepted" Christ and "converted" to Christianity in quotes—"as if to say: Those are their terms," Sperry notes. Bradley claims that he walked away from "the absolutism of fundamentalists" during the civil rights struggle, particularly when hearing an Oxford minister defending white Rhodesian power. Sperry finds the story "a convenient and noble ending to what, in the worldly eyes of many of his backers, could be construed as an ignoble chapter in his life." The article tells a sad story of an evangelist's walk away from the faith (though FCA founder Don McClanen still thinks Bradley might secretly be one), but left unanswered are some political questions, such as whether evangelical voters should be concerned about a consciously ex-evangelical in the White House.
Rolling Stone kicks the Christian Coalition when it's down, then gets nicey-nice
If U.S. News sees George W. Bush as the harbinger of a new spiritual openness among politicians, the view eludes Rolling Stone. In "Whimpers on the Right," an article in the November 25 issue about the state of the Christian Coalition, Bush comes off as the candidate "who chooses not to play the pandering game" with Pat Robertson's organization. "The Texas governor delivers a well-received speech ... but this is the same stump speech he gives everywhere in the country. ... One can read a harsh message from the Republican establishment between the lines of Bush's rhetoric: This is what you get, folks—take it or leave it. If you expect to maintain any influence, you've got to elect the candidate we give you and hope for the best. Pat Robertson certainly seems to have gotten the message. ... With a verbal wink in his voice, he explains that, of course, Bush has to run in the center to get elected, but—wink!—he can be trusted to do the right thing." The rest of the story, not posted online, is exactly the kind of Christian Coalition story you'd expect from Rolling Stone: an "edgy" recounting of its many recent woes, a few quotes from loony Christians at the Road to Victory conference ("I think Clinton is with the devil," one explains. "Where do you think he got that charisma? God doesn't give you that charisma."). A lionization of Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (a "minister with a rumpled, academic mien and, some might say, the patience of Job. ... He has methodically tracked Christian-right preachers and corrected their self-inflated claims." Stop. Please.) It's exactly the kind of Christian Coalition story you'd expect from Rolling Stone—until the abrupt U-turn at the closing:
While the grassroots Christians have their full share of hatemongers and loons, most of them are earnest, mild-mannered people seeking a seat at the table after many decades of social and political exclusion. ... In fact, they have never been as powerful and threatening as their media reputation. Mainly, they were used. ... The troops were gulled into following false leaders, seduced by cynical politicians, and victimized by innocent illusions. If they awake and get beyond narrow intolerance, it will be good for the country and also good for them. If so, they were entitled to more respect—sympathetic tolerance at least—from their enemies, too.
Big guns fire at Policy Review, but at least they're not war guns
Rolling Stone counts the Cal Thomas-Ed Dobson-Paul Weyrich "let's back off of politics" movement as another bell tolling for the Christian Coalition. In August, Cornell University professor Jeremy Rabkin used the movement to illustrate the problems with the term culture war. His Policy Review article, "The Culture War That Isn't," is one of the most talked-about articles of the year—and the hottest article Policy Review has yet published. Now, in the December 1999/January 2000 issue, comes the moment many of us have been waiting for: the letters. There's not a positive one among them. "Having served on the Council of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, I remember shedding blood in battles that Rabkin says never happened," writes Jacob Neusner. "He had better come down from his blind perch in the ivory tower and smell the moral napalm," writes conservative Catholic radio host W.A. Borst. Weyrich himself writes an infuriated, incredulous letter: "Only a lunatic professor could miss it. ... One wonders if the good professor ever wanders about his own campus."
Rabkin's response is excellent. "I did not expect my article to provoke such angry responses," he writes. "Evidently, my critics are so committed to the culture war that they can't stop shooting—even at their friends." He then agrees with his critics' main points—which are all some form of "our culture is going downhill fast." But, he asks,
What follows from these perceptions? The 'war' metaphor suggests that conservatives should be able to rally the stout-hearted American majority for a successful cavalry charge—or at least, a determined blockade—against the forces of cultural aggression. But ... the majority is already consuming all that debased popular culture—and doing so without coercion by leftist cabals in government or in schools. ... We shouldn't pretend that we can rally that country to [the] effort as easily as we rallied an earlier generation against communism. ... For all the problems our country now faces, its civic life is not a condition of 'war.'
Rabkin's letter has other excellent points. Unfortunately, the Policy Review Web site won't post the letters section until February 1. (Frustrated? Send e-mail.) Until then, tide yourself over with Rabkin's original essay.
Ted Olsen is Online and Opinion Editor of Christianity Today
Previous Amassed Media columns:
Evolution Wars (Dec. 8)
Hooray for Holywood (Nov. 17)
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