Every few months Larry Rast shows up on Issues Etc. and every few visits he talks about Charles G. Finney [link], who was one of the main characters of the Second Great Awakening. His latest discussion regarding Finney is available from the Issues Etc archive [link] and his segment is called “American Revivalism.”
A typical Rast appearance involves a give-and-take with host Todd Wilken in which Wilken asks Rast softball questions as Rast sets forth distinctions between what Finney preached and what the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod (LCMS) teaches. Rast then draws connections between Finney and modern evangelicalism, and/or between Finney and Lutheran Pietism, and suggests that anyone “saved” as a result of Finney’s preaching isn’t really a Christian somehow. He typically also refers to the “burned-over district” [link] as being some sort of spiritual wasteland and blames Finney for the secularization of modern Upstate New York.
In this appearance he adds what to my ears sounded like a new twist: he suggested that Billy Graham is just Finney repackaged. Also, he retold what he claims is a typical revivalist plea that goes like something like this:
Our lot for all eternity depends entirely on ourselves. God votes for heaven; the devil votes for hell. The deciding vote is ours. [e.g.]
At the end Rast and Wilken draw a straight line between Finney and modern evangelicalism, suggesting that Rast’s criticisms of Finney also apply to modern evangelicals.
I believe Rast and Wilken do their listeners a disservice when Rast does this, and for a number of reasons. First of all, the Second Great Awakening was primarily a Methodist phenomenon [link] and while it spawned a number of sectarian or heretical groups none of them are modern evangelical groups. Second, Finney died in 1875; most strains of modern evangelicalism have their roots in events in the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy some 40 years later, or in the Azusa Street Revivals in 1906. So far as I can tell while there were important revivalists (e.g. Billy Sunday) who did some things that were passingly similar to what Finney did, there’s no lineage to connect them; I can’t see how Rast justifies connecting Finney to these various movements on the basis of the similarities he cites without there being some link between them. Third, so far as I can tell the Lutheran Pietists Rast and Wilken consider to be aberrant made no contributions to modern evangelical theology. And finally, while I’ve heard the voting cliche Rast trots out from fundamentalist or evangelical pulpits I’ve never heard it said seriously the way Rast presents it.
I would appreciate any help in finding an actual evangelical using the voting cliche above, seriously, from the pulpit. Please note that the source I quote above is a Catholic source.
I hate Christmas. You can quote me on that. Here are 10 reasons in no particular order that I hate Christmas:
- The music. There are a handful of (like, literally, five) Christmas tunes that are instantly recognizable and utterly transcendent. I’m thinking maybe Silent Night, O Holy Night, possibly Greensleeves, parts of Handel’s Messiah, and not much else. Beyond that most Christmas music is awful. And not just secular Christmas music of the Jingle Bells/Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer variety.
- The Christmas Cantata. Yes, we as Protestants know that Baby Jesus grew up to be Our Lord and Savior, and He died on a cross, and rose from the dead on the third day. Do we really need to muddle the Incarnation with the Crucifixion every single year? Isn’t the Incarnation miracle enough for one season?
- Advent. In more high-church traditions we spend a whole month of the liturgical year covering roughly the same handful of Scripture verses; this is one of the problems with the liturgical year: we tend to give most of Scripture short shrift and camp out on some aspect of either Matthew’s telling or Luke’s telling every year. This year my home church is spending an entire month on Auden’s poem For the Time Being [link]. I wish I knew why.
- The War on Christmas. My best guess is that this is a fund-raising exercise on the part of certain parties in the outrage industry. Yes, it grates for someone to wish me a “happy holiday;” who celebrates a generic holiday? Are these the same people who drink “a beer” [link], listen to “an album” [link], or make “repetitive generic music” [link]? Of course not; nobody would admit to doing these things. But everything about the War on Christmas strikes me as cynical and manipulative. Seriously: what’s a war without a body count on both sides? And who kills for Christmas?
- Christmas movies. Seriously; name three good Christmas movies. And I don’t mean movies about “the Christmas season” (e.g. Love Actually or It’s A Wonderful Life) or “the Christmas Spirit” (any telling of Dickens’s Christmas Carol), but movies that are actually about Jesus.
- Christmas specials. The fact that Charles Schulz lost his faith [link] kind of undermines the Charlie Brown Christmas Special for me; once we get away from Linus Van Pelt’s rendering of Luke 2 is there anything left worth seeing in a Christmas special?
- Operation Christmas Child; do we really want Billy Graham’s son exporting American consumerism in the name of Christmas? Are there any worse examples of mixing the consumerist aspects of American Christmas with the religious aspects of Christmas than Operation Christmas Child? Have I mentioned that this is a charity with a budget of more than $300 million?
- Christmas charity generally; there is no worse indictment of the soullessness of contemporary American Christianity than the Christmas appeal. For a Christian there really should be no “season of giving” any more than there should be a “season of love” or “season of forgiveness.” That there is is embarrassing.
- Commercialism. This is the easy one: seriously, don’t you cringe every time you see a commercial featuring some big-ticket item wrapped with a giant red bow? How about the current commercial showing the transitional couple crumbling inside because hubby bought his wife the wrong car for Christmas? Who, apart from the occasional divorce lawyer or ad man, loves this commercial?
- Well, Christmas generally. I’d love to see any evidence that the Early Church celebrated Christmas (especially as an alternative to Saturnalia) alongside Easter.
I wish you and yours the best and hope your Christmas is tasteful, authentic, and on-key. Oh, and may you not be subjected to the Ron Howard/Jim Carrey version of How The Grinch Stole Christmas. Seriously.
And if you do anything that helps you make Christmas meaningful I’d love to hear about it. I’m all out of ideas here.
I’ve been catching a lot of search hits where people appear to be looking for articles mentioning Chuck Swindoll and ghostwriting, so I went to see if there was some sort of scandal that I had missed. I usually catch enough articles on unfolding scandals with the Google Alert “megachurch,” I guess partly because only scandals involving big churches are sufficiently newsworthy most of the time. That would be sufficient if something went wrong for Swindoll, since his current church draws some 4000 per Sunday [link], so it qualifies as a megachurch.
I did, however, discover a reprint of an old article about ghostwriting by Larry Witham [link] from the defunct magazine Insight on the News [link] with the title “Ghostwriting Haunts Christian Publishing.” It’s from August 2000, so it’s 10 1/2 years old, but a fair amount of the article is still worth reading:
For years, top ghostwriters in the industry have penned works that fill the evangelical best-seller firmament — unknown professional writers have penned books by Pat Robertson, the Rev. D. James Kennedy, megachurch pastor Bill Hybels and marriage guru Gary Smalley. Insiders estimate that 85 percent of the Rev. Billy Graham’s books have been ghostwritten.
It would of course be helpful to know who the insiders are here, and whether the Graham quote refers to total books or total pages.
Yet pangs of conscience have struck Christian publishing since the early 1980s, when the evangelical monthly Christianity Today decried the practice. Masking true authorship, the magazine held in an editorial, “is a canny but this-worldly approach to life, a playing of all the angles, a cunning attempt to skirt the edge of moral forthrightness.”
This latter quote I think brings the issue into focus: Christians are supposed to be different from the world around them, and that goes for Christian leaders, too, no matter how pressed they are for time.
The issue was highlighted again in a 1993 World magazine expose by Edward E. Plowman, a veteran news writer for Christian publications. Nearly every form of Christian writing is “grist for ghosts, grinding away for people long on reputation but short on time, self-discipline, or writing ability,” he wrote. But Christian publishers will continue to use celebrities as “marketing gadgets” until readers kick the celebrity habit, he predicted correctly. “There are gifted but lesser known writers out there with something important to say” he added. The article raised some dust in publishing circles, Plowman recalls, and did change things slightly. “More publishers are willing to use `and’ or `with’ on book covers to credit the ghost-writer,” he says.
Christian publishers often view ghostwritten projects as “team writing” — helping the well-known minister package books, his “original thoughts” so readers may benefit. Yet the day may come when a Christian work “is a celebrity preacher’s ghostwritten book of ghostwritten sermons bearing a ghostwritten foreword by another celebrity and ghostwritten endorsement blurbs on the dust jacket by still more celebrities, none of whom has read the book” complains Plowman.
This latter quote from Plowman is standard-issue scare story passed off as example, but it opens up the question of ghostwriting to include sermons and blurbs.
I honestly don’t know how widespread the practice of high-profile preachers delivering ghostwritten sermons is; there was a persistent rumor at Liberty that Harold Willmington wrote Jerry Falwell’s sermons, but I have no way of knowing if that was actually true. Jerry did use Mel White as a ghostwriter for his book If I Die Before I Wake, and I suspect lived to regret it, but for other reasons.
A few best-selling Christian authors write their own books, including Philip Yancey, a Colorado-based essayist and stylist. “He writes every word” says Cryderman. “To us, that’s the ideal.” The Rev. Charles Swindoll, president of Dallas Theological Seminary, has crafted best-selling books from his sermons and has felt the need to defend their authenticity. “I have no writing staff or team of researchers who provide me with historical and illustrative material or serve as my `ghostwriters,’” he asserted in his 1992 book, The Grace Awakening. “Every word comes from my own pen through the age-old process most authors still use: blood, sweat, tears, sleepless nights, lengthy stares at blank sheets of paper, unproductive days when everything gets dumped into the trash, and periodic moments when inspiration and insight flow.”
Clashes over who truly shed sweat and tears — and got paid accordingly — sometimes erupt after a best-seller climbs the CBA charts. In the early 1990s, Colorado radio minister Bob Larson, whose name is on a novel trilogy that began with Dead Air, sued a woman who broke confidence by claiming she was the real author. The top-selling Christianity in Crisis by radio host and “Bible Answer Man” Hank Hanegraaff ended in a lawsuit by a ministry staffer who claimed to have done much of the work.
Articles like this aren’t complete without lists of good guys and bad guys, and this one has them: Yancey and Swindoll good, Larson and Hanegraaff bad.
I don’t know what to say about ghostwriting of books generally; I spent enough time in academic circles to know that authoring of some books is as much an administrative effort as a creative effort, and it often pays to beware “instant books” and read acknowledgments very closely. I tend to think that if a Christian is such a celebrity that you can’t go see them and get a sense of what sort of person they are, etc. you’re better off holding their books at arms’ length no matter how well-recommended they are.
Until the Crystal Cathedral situation started coming unwound I would have sworn that church bankruptcies happened for exactly two reasons:
- A debt load per donor that is too high
- Leadership malfeasance
The first one is an easy rug to sweep a bunch of unlike bankruptcies under, because it includes cases where a church takes on a new unsustainable debt, or where a previously sustainable debt becomes too large because the number of donors drops. Examples of both are cites in this article from this Suzanne Sataline/Wall Street Journal article from December 2008 [link], when it really seemed likely that the credit crunch and associated economic recession would produce a wave of church bankruptcies.
So far as I can tell that hasn’t happened; church bankruptcies are still rare events and are more sensibly blamed on events within the church rather than trouble in the broader economy. Economic times are tough all over, but multiple church bankruptcies in the same metropolitan area are still very rare.
Leadership malfeasance can cause a church to fail; there’s a whole gamut here, from a pastoral divorce and scandal (see e.g. Randy and Paula White’s Church Without Walls) to losses due to lawsuits (see various Catholic dioceses) to outright embezzlement.
But now in the wake of the Crystal Cathedral bankruptcy I’d have to add a third:
- Unpopular leadership succession
For the benefit of anyone who hasn’t been paying attention to the Crystal Cathedral situation, it went a little like this: founding pastor Robert Schuller retired in 2006 and passed the pulpit to his son Robert A. Schuller [link]. The younger Schuller preached differently (I’m under the impression that he is more charismatic/pentecostal than his father, but can’t seem to find a good summary of the differences online) and contributions dropped off until the elder Schuller took the pulpit back and after sharing it with his daughter Sheila Schuller Coleman retired again and passed the pulpit to Coleman full time earlier this year [link]. Revenue declined further, the ministry canceled a couple of marquee shows and stiffed some creditors, and finally filed for bankruptcy a few weeks ago. I might be inclined to suggest here that Crystal Cathedral was afflicted by not one but two unpopular successors to founder Schuller.
Which brings me to this recent column from the Salt Lake Tribune by Corey Hodges, pastor of New Pilgrim Baptist Church in Salt Lake City, titled “Like father like son? It doesn’t always work out in the ministry” [link]. It’s mostly a compare-and-contrast, suggesting that the Billy Graham succession has succeeded while the Schuller transition failed. It also name-checks the Osteens and the Falwells as successful transitions, with caveats. Hodges makes the transition from successful transitions back to the Crystal Cathedral situation this way (emphasis mine):
Preachers’ children often are exposed to the challenges of the ministry and can receive invaluable insight from being around their parents. They thus tend to be suitable candidates for succession.
Family-line succession also is biblical. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the high priest of Israel was to be a descendant of Aaron, the brother of the prophet Moses. Aaron was succeeded by a son, Eleazar, and the trend continued for several generations.
Celebrity ministries often benefit from family succession because they tend to be personality-driven. Having a person familiar with the organization’s leadership style, who has similar personality traits, can provide stability for continued success.
The main problem with family-line succession is descendants often are expected to continue their parents’ vision rather than develop their own.
This is a fascinating piece of theology; as best I can tell Hodges is suggesting that the pattern for succession in the modern church is the Aaronic priesthood, rather than say the master-disciple relationship of Paul and Timothy. Or Jesus and The Twelve. He also suggests that the problem with unsuccessful successors is in expectations (of donors, I guess) rather than in the leadership. I might gently suggest that if a man spends 55 years in the pulpit, as the elder Schuller did, and he doesn’t have a workable succession plan, the problem is his, not the congregation’s.
And finally, I might gently suggest that a preacher speaking this way is a warning sign regarding how he sees his relationship to the rest of the church. There’s not a lot about Aaron in Scripture to serve as a model for behavior; there’s the Golden Calf episode, the Nadab and Abihu episode, and not a whole lot else (and I’m hoping neither is instructive in a positive sense), so chances are good the preacher in question is filling this empty symbol with his own meaning.
Update: Mark Byron takes another tack on this, asking rhetorical questions about megachurch bankruptcies [link]. Big church bankruptcies are so rare I’m not sure there’s a special way they get reorganized, as opposed to say a shopping mall.
My local church (about which more later) has started its Operation Christmas Child initiative for 2010, so I went back to see what sort of data is available regarding Franklin Graham.
I have to admit I am inclined to take a dim view of second-generation Christian leaders; it’s much easier to see a son who follows his father as the leader of a successful ministry as someone who takes over the family business rather than someone who is called by God to follow in his father’s footprints, so I tend to wait for the father to die and look at the decisions the son makes rather than just assuming the standard God-called-Junior story is the best explanation. Because his father is still alive and by all accounts healthy I’m still waiting to see what Franklin Graham is going to be.
So needless to say I was not thrilled when about a year ago Tim Funk and Ames Alexander reported in the Charlotte Observer that Franklin Graham had taken $1.2 million in total compensation from Samaritan’s Purse and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in fiscal 2008 [link, link]. Note that this is total compensation; the troublesome amounts were justified by the BGEA board as catch-up contributions to his retirement fund as compensation for years he worked without pay for BGEA, and with the goal of freeing Graham to “work for free by age 70.” Graham was born in 1952, so he’ll turn 70 twelve years from now, in 2022.
His initial response was that this was just a misunderstanding, and in a later response two days later he reminded the public at large that he was called by God to fill his current positions:
It’s a year later and if I understand Charity Navigator correctly they do not have EY/2009 data available for either charity. They have Graham listed as having received compensation from Samaritan’s Purse of more than $410,000 and from BGEA more than $260,000, a total of $684,000. Note that this is about half what the Observer reported, and doesn’t square with either of the articles above: it isn’t $1.2 million, and Graham still received pay from BGEA in 2008. For this reason I’m looking forward to seeing the 2009 numbers.
Charity Navigator rates charities as businesses, on the basis of Organizational Efficiency (dollars out vs. dollars out, roughly) and Organizational Capacity (growth of money in and money out, plus an estimate of how many years’ reserves the charity has), not as ministries. In other words, they can tell you how many cents of your donated dollar went to mission vs. overhead, but they can’t tell you if the ministry’s mission is worthwhile, squares with your values, etc. They currently give Samaritan’s Purse four stars (out of four), BGEA two, mostly because BGEA’s revenue shrank about 7.5% during 2008. Again, I’m looking forward to seeing how these two ministries have done since then. 2009-2010 have been rough years for lots of charities.
Finally, in August of 2010 Charity Navigator published a study of charity CEO compensation [PDF]. It deals with a number of interesting issues in fairly plain language. They break down their results according to size of charity, region of the country, and category. Since their threshold for a large charity is total expenses more than $13.5 million, and Franklin Graham heads two charities with expenses in excess of $402 million (Samaritan’s Purse about $294 million, BGEA $108 million) we can safely say they’re both large charities. Given their breakdown I would have to suggest that Graham’s compensation from Samaritan’s Purse is on the large end for large charities in the South ($416,000 vs. a median of $269,000) and his compensation from BGEA is just below the median ($267,000 vs. $269,000). I guess this leaves open the question of whether he should be drawing two salaries (this point was raised in the first Observer article above), and whether his compensation should be bigger because Samaritan’s Purse is a very big charity. The study points out that CEO compensation tends to rise with total expenses; Graham’s salary is below the median for Samaritan’s Purse’s cohort ($416,000 vs. median $430,000 for a cohort of 46 charities in the $200-500 million range), and below the median for BGEA’s cohort (median $336,104 for 139 charities $50-100 million, $378,942 for 81 charities $100-200 million).
A propos of nothing I might note that Samaritan’s Purse spent more money than my undergraduate alma mater, Liberty University, in 2008, by seventy or eighty million dollars.
Anyway, the final section of the study mentions charities paying executive salaries to multiple members of the same family; the Grahams don’t merit mention here (Franklin and Billy Graham each drew more than $200,000 from BGEA), but the TBN Crouches do: about $1.1 million among four people, as do the Jeremiahs of Turning Point: $355,000 among three family members.
In summary, I’m still concerned about Franklin Graham, but I have to admit that when put in context these numbers are at least arguable, rather than being the case-closed abomination I thought they were at first glance (or rather, if it’s an abomination it’s an unexceptional abomination). I’ll wait and see again once the 2009 numbers are available, and again once he is running both charities without parental oversight.
My current cable provider, Comcast, recently began offering Inspiration Network (INSP) as part of its extended package, and I spent a few minutes browsing their schedule recently. I have something of a weakness for Billy Graham programming, and INSP offers the occasional half-hour of Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) program. Tuesday morning, for example, they’ve got a half-hour in the morning sandwiched between Creflo Dollar and Morris Cerrullo.
INSP’s programming is a funny mix of television reruns (The Waltons, Highway to Heaven, Our House, a Canadian something called Wind At My Back) and big-name television ministries, but without the TBN and CBN stars (no Crouches, no Pat Robertson). Here’s a sampling from their published schedule [link]:
- Mike Murdock
- Jimmy Swaggart
- Creflo Dollar
- James Robison
- Benny Hinn
- Joyce Meyer
- Sid Roth
- Rod Parsley
- Bill Gaither (Gospel Hour)
- Hilton Sutton
- Bishop Larry Harris
- Silas Malafaia
- David and Barbara Cerullo [link]
- Jay Sekulow/ACLJ
- Jentezen Franklin
- Beverly Crawford
- Randy Weiss
- Bret McCasland
- Mark Lyon Edmond
- D. James Kennedy
- Del Tackett
- Gregory Dickow
- David Jeremiah
- Kerry Shook
- Doug Batchelor
- Bobby and Sherry Burnette
- Keith Moore
- Charles Stanley
- Perry Stone
The first dozen or so, along with BGEA and Creflo Dollar constitute the bulk of the weekday ministry programming; the rest are part of the weekend lineup, and they’re a mixed collection of name-brand ministries and what appear to be pastors of large churches who are looking to expand.
For a somewhat unrelated reason I visited the Ministry Watch website recently and downloaded their 30 Donor Alerts of 2009 end-of-year wrapup [PDF]. It’s a very readable document, outlining seven areas they recommend being careful when making giving decisions. They list thirty ministries where they raise concerns, ranging from loss of tax-exempt status to high salaries to being a cult. Here’s the list of Donor Alert entities that is also featured in the list above:
- Benny Hinn
- Rod Parsley
- Creflo Dollar
- INSP/David and Barbara Cerullo
- Morris Cerullo
- Mike Murdock
Ministry Watch flagged the Cerullos for excessive compensation (~$3 million for the Cerullos over two years 2005-2006), the others for lack of transparency, being investigated by Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), and sundry negative media coverage.
Please note that Joyce Meyer did not make the list; her data for 2007 and 2008 was unavailable [link], and if her total compensation figures are available I can’t find them anywhere; it’s a complicated picture because she sells so many books, and only part of the proceeds filters back to the ministry [link]. Ministry Watch currently gives her a “C.”
What I don’t understand is why otherwise reputable ministries in the big list above (BGEA, Bill Gaither, maybe David Jeremiah) would have anything to do with INSP. Is there really that much money to be made? Do ministries make money consistently on a per-outlet basis? Is this just a business decision? I really have no idea.
I wish I could say I’m a devoted reader of The Economist, but I’m really one of those people who subscribes to its Facebook feed and scans the summaries there for uses of my name, name-checks of things I think I understand, and fodder for ready comment quips.
Needless to say I was thrilled to the teeth to see something from that middle category recently in the form of an article titled “How the cold war reshaped Protestantism in America” [link], because I am always curious what happened to fundamentalism in America between the Scopes Trial (1925) and the Bob Jones IRS case (1970) and the way its descendant evangelicalism became the sort of backward-looking Eisenhower Christianity it was in 1980 and more or less is today.
Unfortunately the unnamed author (I have no idea who W. W. in Iowa City is) is just pushing the PBS/Frontline series God in America [link] and offering the talking points that ignore fundamentalism/evangelicalism in the period 1925-1970:
- That the Federal Council of Churches/National Council of Churches is the true voice of Christianity in America and its dominance over religious contributions to the political discussion represents a lost ideal of some sort
- That Billy Graham was a tool of postwar fascism in America, particularly of William Randolph Hearst
The first point only makes sense if one fails to ask where the fundamentalists were after their liberal brethren emerged from the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy as the only acceptable voice of American Protestantism. This is a mistake many commentators make, some consciously (see e.g. Chris Hedges declarations of his liberal Christian bona fides in American Fascists) others (here) not. I think I would have to argue that there’s no good reason to say “liberals are normative and conservatives are deviant” rather than e.g. the other way around. Especially given some of the real corkers included here; is the casual reader supposed to believe that a desire for a worldwide currency (rather than say returning the dollar to the gold standard, as was popular among conservatives until the mid-Eighties) is a core progressive issue?
The second is a bit of a simplification, even if it is a helpful one.
Here are the pull quotes:
But I hadn’t known that Billy Graham goaded President Eisenhower into getting baptised while in office, that Eisenhower led the charge to insert “under God” into the “Pledge of Allegiance”, or that “In God We Trust” didn’t become the official United States motto until Eisenhower signed a 1956 congressional resolution. Nor did I know that Billy Graham had been launched onto the national stage because of his resolute anti-communism. Impressed by the charismatic young evangelist’s fiery anti-communist message, press baron William Randolph Hearst commanded the overseers of his influential national network of propaganda broadsheets to “Puff Graham”.
Well, yes and no. Eisenhower’s relationship with public Christianity and the forging of Cold War-Era American civil religion is well worth examining, as is Graham’s role in it. But it is probably simplistic to say that Graham became a national figure because of Hearst’s papers and their shared hatred of Communism.
Before yesterday it had never occurred to me that America’s distinctive brand of evangelical conservatism—its peculiar marriage of mythic American nationalism with a personal, emotionally intense relationship with Jesus Christ—is not an entirely bottom-up phenomenon, but is to some extent the creation of Eisenhower-era government propaganda and the PR heft of William Randolph Hearst.
The archival Billy Graham Crusade television shows I’ve seen from the Fifties through the Seventies, when Graham’s influence was at its height, tend to be fairly straightforward assertions of the authority of Graham’s interpretation of Scripture, sprinkled with contemporary culture references, followed by a decision-centered Gospel message and an invitation. There just isn’t that much anti-Communism in his message.
I would, of course, welcome counter-examples. I’m always on the lookout for a smoking gun here.
The other quotes from Doug Wead in Jacob Weisberg’s Slate article [link] shed some light on Wead’s view of Bush’s faith:
But [Bush] was so anxious to avoid any whiff or rumor of infidelity that he asked Wead to stay in his hotel room one night when he thought a young woman working on the campaign might knock on his door. “I tried to read to him from the Bible, because by that time he was sending me these signals,” Wead told me. “But he wasn’t interested. He just rolled over and went to sleep.”
But Bush resisted religious overtures as firmly as sexual ones. “He has absolutely zero interest in anything theological—nothing,” Wead said. “We spent hours talking about sex … who on the campaign was doing what to whom—but nothing about God. And I tried many, many times.”
But the experience left Wead troubled about the sincerity of Bush’s beliefs. “I’m almost certain that a lot of it was calculated,” he says. “If you really believed that there’s some accountability to life, wouldn’t you have Billy Graham come down and have a magic moment with your daughters? Are you just going to let them go to hell? You have all these religious leaders coming through. If it changed your life, wouldn’t you invite them to sit down in the living room and have a talk with your daughters? Or is it all political?”
Wead’s case against Bush basically boils down to two points:
- Bush had no interest in the Bible or anything theological.
- Bush’s daughters aren’t born again.
The other stuff about Bush’s interest in other people’s sex lives is nothing new to anyone who’s seen e.g. Alexandra Pelosi’s 2002 campaign travelogue Travels With George. All things considered I don’t consider that sort of boundary-issue problem a big deal; I’ve seen comparable from more than one authority figure, and it’s rude etc. but not necessarily a fatal flaw.
The other questions about Bush’s spirituality and that of his daughters are more pertinent; I’m tempted to discount Wead’s comments as those of someone who grabbed for the proverbial brass ring and missed (Weisberg suggests he was originally on par with Karl Rove and Dick Cheney) and understandably bitter. But I do wonder what it says about Evangelical Christians that we don’t know more about Bush’s faith and that of his family. Did nobody ask? Did someone ask and get well-crafted answers? Or do we believe on some level that moderates like John McCain are right, and personal faith really is too personal and private to be a sticking point? Did anything we would want to know about his faith vanish in the glare of a terrorist attack and two foreign wars?
Or worse, do we really think that a couple of soundbites about Jesus and Oswald Chambers are sufficient to make someone a Christian President?
To my knowledge only two Evangelicals with ties to the George W. Bush administration have spoken or written about experiences:
- David Kuo, former Deputy Director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, published a book in 2006 called Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction, about his disappointment with the focus of the Initiatives office and how it was used to deliver votes in key states (notably Ohio) in the 2004 election.
- Doug Wead, former special assistant to George W. Bush, was interviewed by Slate editor Jacob Weisberg for the latter’s 2007 book The Bush Tragedy, excerpted in Slate.
(We’re still waiting for a tell-all book by Michael Gerson, Wheaton graduate and Bush speechwriter, one of the men most responsible for helping Bush as candidate and President speak in Evangelical code in a way his father never could. Gerson is still gainfully employed, so it may be a while before he takes his turn.)
In one of the Slate excerpts [link] Weisberg tells a story about Bush editing his own past, rewriting his apparently true conversion story (from Episcopalianism to a self-styled Methodism) from a by-the-book born-again encounter with Cross walker Arthur Blessitt to a more picturesque story about a walk on a beach with Billy Graham. As Weisberg takes pains to point out, Bush’s conversion story was polished over time; published accounts differ, and Bush himself related the story differently on different occasions. Many of the various elements of his story are true: Billy Graham visited the Bush home in Maine; Graham and Bush conversed; Bush at some point “got right with God.” They just don’t fit together as advertised.
The result is something that was useful as a campaign narrative: Bush had something in common with an important voter bloc, and the published version made better telling than the truth, especially among voters who might find Billy Graham palatable but might be put off by Arthur Blessitt. Weisberg takes Bush’s appropriation of his conversion story as a campaign tool to be indicative of his faith as a whole:
What his faith stories have in common is the way they put George W. Bush’s religious experiences to political use. The beliefs themselves may be entirely genuine. But Bush does not appear to surrender himself to the will of God in the way a conventionally religious person does. If we look closely at his relationship to religion over a period of two decades, we see him repeatedly commandeering God for his exigent needs. His is an instrumentalist, utilitarian faith that puts religion to work for his own purposes.
This is a complaint about Bush that arose more than once during his time in the White House: that there were aspects to his personality that seemed entirely untouched by his faith, whatever it was.
As per usual I’m less interested in Bush than in what the loyalty he got from various evangelical leaders says about Evangelicalism. But I will need to deal with several other things Weisberg says before discussing that.
There’s a discussion going on among Liberty alumni on LinkedIn about who should be the 2011 graduation speaker at Liberty. In summary, most of the nominations are either Fox News personalities, politicians (mostly right of center, natch), or Christian authors. My suggestion that former Moral Majority lieutenant and Liberty dean and professor Ed Dobson would make a good selection did not meet with universal approval, partly because of Dobson’s appearance on Good Morning America in 2008:
Here’s a list of Liberty graduation speakers from 1985 on; I’d appreciate any help in filling gaps
- 1985 Senator Bill Armstrong, R-Colorado
- 1986 Donald Hodel, Secretary of the Interior
- 1988 Lt. Col. (Ret.) Oliver North
- 1989 W. A. Criswell
- 1990 President George H. W. Bush
- 1991 Rep. Newt Gingrich
- 1992 Pat Buchanan
- 1993 Dr. James Dobson
- 1995 Sen. Phil Gramm
- 1996 Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas
- 1997 Billy Graham
- 1998 Dr. John Borek Jr. (outgoing President of the school)
- 2004 Karl Rove
- 2005 Sean Hannity
- 2006 Sen. John McCain
- 2007 Rep. Newt Gingrich
- 2008 Chuck Norris
- 2009 Ben Stein
- 2010 Glen Beck
I think it’s interesting to note that during the heyday of Moral Majority the speakers were relatively minor figures; it’s important to note that during those days Liberty was still a school of less than 6000 students. Resident enrollment has doubled since then, and total enrollment has increased eight-or-nine-fold. It’s also interesting to note that the three speakers selected since Jerry Sr. died have all been commentators and entertainers. I have no idea what that means.
Among the names above only two are preachers: Criswell and Graham, so I’d be really surprised to see Liberty select another high-profile Christian preacher or author who isn’t also involved in politics somehow for 2011.
Video for the 1996, 2004, and 2006 addresses are available at C-SPAN [search].
Finally: it’s interesting to note that of the twenty or so names commonly mentioned as possible 2012 Republican Presidential nominees, only Newt Gingrich is listed above. That may or may not be significant; I do think it’s interesting that Mike Huckabee isn’t on that list. Mitt Romney not so much.