Richard Land, of the Southern Baptist Convention Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, announced earlier this week that he will retire next year [link]. The linked article, from the Washington Post blog On Faith, by Adelle Banks, suggests that his departure has something to do with the loss of his radio show, resulting from some comments he made regarding the death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, and that it may also have something to do with the ascension of Fred Luter to the presidency of the Convention.
Maybe; the Convention is more complicated than simple racial identity political issues, regardless of the racial demographic crisis Al Mohler has been describing at great length on his podcast, etc.
I frankly don’t care; I’m glad to see the back of Land. I listened to two of his podcasts, For Faith and Family and Richard Land Live! for a couple of years each, and I always got the impression that he was more concerned with repeating Republican talking points to Southern Baptist than he was anything else. I stopped listening to Land in 2009 after he suggested that the profitability of insurance companies was necessary to the continued viability of the health care industry in the United States.
But the bigger problem from my perspective was Land’s selling of the Iraq War in 2002; he is the last living signatory of the Land Letter [link], an endorsement by five evangelical leaders (Land, Colson, Bill Bright, D. James Kennedy, and Carl Herbster) on the basis of Just War Theory.
I would really encourage careful readers to follow the link from the page above to the text of the letter and decide for themselves how well it has aged, and whether it deserves critical reappraisal and, dare I say it, repentance. Hint: I’d opt for repentance, and I am inclined to consider an open and honest dialog on the latter Bush Administration a good place to start any further discussion of evangelical leaders and their involvement in contemporary politics.
In other words, if you’re an evangelical opinion leader I don’t care what you have to say until you’ve reassessed the Bush years. They were a disaster, and since we believe in openness, honesty, and repentance, we owe it to ourselves to start the discussion there.
I appreciate Land retiring, of course, since it effectively puts the punctuation on his career, full stop, while he’s still alive. I try to avoid speaking ill of the dead (see e.g. this week’s non-discussion of Gore Vidal), and I consider it something like providence to have a chance to take a long hard look at Land’s shall we say corpus all at once.
I recently took a break from listening to ESPN Radio in the morning, opting instead to listen to our local liberal talk radio station, which used to be an Air America Radio affiliate and now seems to offer the radio equivalent of the MSNBC minor leagues. It’s not so much that I’m dying to hear what e.g. Rachel Maddow has to say about current events twice a day; it’s more that I can’t bear the dead part of the sports year between say the end of March Madness and the MLB All-Star break.
And so it was that I woke up a couple of days ago and heard in about thirty seconds Bill Press [link] giving the schematic version of the death of Osama bin Laden. To my ears Press rushed through the facts to get to the meaningful part: how this one act made the first term of the Obama Administration a success, how the “right-wingers” were going to commit some sort of treason by second-guessing the President, and some other political color that for the moment eludes me.
I don’t and can’t fault Press for interpreting the situation the way he did; after all, it is always the political season and everything is grist for the political mill, and Press is paid to think the way he does, etc. Beyond that I have to agree with him: I believe President Obama’s reelection is all but assured now.
Press, in case you don’t know, grew up Catholic, has a degree in theology, and will occasionally mention his days in seminary. He considers himself a Christian and occasionally frames his political statements in a way that suggests that his faith informs his political positions.
Tuesday morning he dealt with the question of whether it is appropriate for a Christian to be happy when someone is killed. He said “yes,” provided the person is sufficiently evil, or words to that effect. And I think this is a valid question and worthy of consideration.
As an American, of course, I’m glad to see that after long last the system more or less works, and it’s possible for our intelligence service to figure out when our allies are double-dealing, how to deal with a complicated and difficult mission like this, etc. It takes some of the sting out of a failure like Operation Eagle Claw [link], but only just.
But as a Christian I can’t bring myself to be happy about this. And it’s not just the easy stuff about pacifism, the redeemability of bin Laden’s soul, etc. I’m more concerned about whether easy explanations about evil and justice [link] and so forth have any meaning when there’s no rule of law, or whether modern concepts of jurisprudence and war crimes make any sense when faced with sufficiently complicated circumstances.
I used to have more moral clarity about war generally, but after voting for George W. Bush and seeing how he wielded the tools of war in response to 9/11 I lost a lot of that clarity. And I’m inclined to see the death of Osama bin Laden as just another step in the escalation of a physical, rather than a metaphorical, culture war.
James Bradley, author of Flags of our Fathers and Flyboys, has written a third book titled The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War. While his two earlier books are about various aspects of World War II, Bradley describes the new book as an exploration of the root causes of the war. In particular, he’s trying to explain where Japanese Imperialism got its start.
It’s a decidedly uneven book: part of it is about a boat trip by William Howard Taft, Alice Roosevelt, and others, to Hawaii, Japan, the Philippines, etc. (that would be the titular cruise); part of it is about Teddy Roosevelt personally; part of it is about Roosevelt’s foreign policy, especially his role as broker and king-maker (er, emperor-maker) in Asia. There is also an element that casts turn-of-the-century racial attitudes as a basis for American foreign policy. And finally, to my ears Bradley treats the entire story as some sort of parable about the recently-concluded Bush Administration.
Brady tells a rather lean story, a simple-tending-toward-simplistic story, portraying Roosevelt as over-privileged and under-informed, the product of an elitist racist subculture, placing him in an environment that saw itself in the context of a broad sweep of Aryan history, moving westward (“following the sun” in Bradley’s phrase), killing and supplanting native populations, etc. He also blames Roosevelt for the rise of Japan as a regional power, and repeatedly states directly that Roosevelt was to blame for World War II.
Of course I’m no historian and can’t say whether when Bradley connects dots with straight lines whether the circumstances warrant such simplicity, but Bradley’s telling to my ears was burdened by of causal holes and lacked context. I’m not the only one: Janet Maslin at the New York Times does a better job of relating Bradley’s story and pointing out some of the problems [link].
I’m more troubled by the American Christianity Bradley portrays. It’s a pre-Prohibition, pre-Scopes American Christianity, and sadly mixed with racial and imperial values that sound jarring today. And it’s worth noting that some of the Christians in question were pre-Modernist-Crisis respectable society types, roughly contemporaries of Fanny Crosby, Ira Sankey, and Dwight L. Moody, making their attitudes sound doubly strange today. Here’s the signature quote, from page 236, from Robert MacArthur, long-time pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, New York City, in a sermon titled “Japan’s Victory — Christianity’s Opportunity,” an apparent commentary on a battle in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War:
The Great Master said, “By their fruits ye shall know them.” Apply that standard, and you will find that the nominally heathen Japan is more Christian than “Holy Russia.”
The victory of the Japanese is a distinct triumph for Christianity. The new civilization of Japan is largely the result of Christian teaching. A very great proportion of Japan’s leading men to-day, especially those who fight her battles on land and sea, with such skill and valor, profess the Christian faith.
I realize it’s always dangerous to judge one era’s attitudes by those of one’s own, and it’s worthwhile to remember that if “the past is a foreign country and they do things differently there” [link] by the same token our values and attitudes will in some unanticipated way seem strange in the future, but I tend to take MacArthur’s attitude here as a cautionary tale and a warning to be careful when casting the affairs of modern nations (especially one’s own) in religious terms. A Christian should always beware mixing his identity as a Christian with his identity as anything else, or indeed mixing Christianity itself with any other issue, no matter how seemingly sensible. As C. S. Lewis warns, up to and including “spelling reform” [link].
Intelligence Squared sponsored a dial-in debate between journalist Mollie Ziegler Hemingway and “megachurch and leadership expert” Dave Travis [blog] on the premise “It’s hard to find God in a megachurch” [link, free registration required]. The introduction for the debate doesn’t look promising; apart from some soundbites (Robert Schuller, Eddie Long, George W. Bush, Ted Haggard) there’s this definition:
The evangelical movement has a globally influential role, and the megachurches are an important element of it. They have huge congregations with inspirational, charismatic pastors. They are run like businesses and, it might seem, often with rather business-like objectives of raising funds and satisfying customers.
Hemingway gets off on the wrong foot from the start:
Most notably, the size and charisma aspects affect the relationship of the pastor to his congregation. These features require for lowest common denominator preaching; it becomes based on ‘You’, rather than Christ.. Equally, sacramental worship is not feasible with a congregation of 2,000 people. In small congregation churches, members are active. In megachurches, the audience is passive, consuming rather than engaging with gospel entertainment.
Yes, there are problems when the relationship between the preacher and church is out of whack, but she trots out the “big/passive, small/active” red herring: neither of these is necessarily true. And while her point about “gospel entertainment,” whatever that is, is probably apt, she’s made the mistake of making the conservative Lutheran method of worship standard so everything else is deviant.
The problem of America’s churches is that they’re market driven, but megachurches are market driven on steroids.
I have no idea what “market driven on steroids” means; this sounds like a fancy way of saying “very market driven” or “very very market driven.” And of course it begs the question “market driven as opposed to what?”
Hemingway is offering the usual talking points here, as if the alternatives in the megachurch debate were the LCMS standard on one side and Joel Osteen on the other. Briefly: not everyone outside a megachurch is looking to “receive sacraments for the forgiveness of sins” and not everyone in a megachurch is looking for “your best life now.” I’m disappointed in her presentation and don’t think it was effective, especially once she conceded that church size isn’t the problem.
Dave Travis on the other hand offers a fairly standard set of church growth arguments: “we took a survey, here are some results, lo and behold they support our model of church.”
Here’s part of his opening argument:
People are moving from small to big institutions in every sector of America’s society. In the church, this is not necessarily an obstacle to a healthy relationship with Christ; it just creates a different one. Yes, in megachurches, preaching is simpler in approach than smaller churches, but accessibility to doctrine does not make it un-challenging. In fact, megachurches preach what is relevant to the congregation.
I’m not sure how the first two sentences are related to one another; if there’s a causal connection between other institutions getting bigger and churches getting bigger I don’t see it. He concedes that megachurch preaching is simple and includes mention of the relevance of the text to the believer, but doesn’t point out any differences between sermons that are relevant to the believer and sermons that are consumer-centered. It’s a weak presentation, but Travis is mostly stuck responding to the moderators’ opening comments and Hemingway’s opening comments.
Travis doesn’t handle a question about pastoral accountability well; he answers a poorly-presented question about congregants in a small church engaging in question and answers with the pastor by saying megachurch pastors take feedback via websites and response cards. He also interacts poorly with a question about authoritarian preachers.
Hemingway responds to the same question by presenting the same lousy argument “churches should be defined by creeds and sacraments, not market research” and equivocates between creeds and sacraments on the one hand and Scripture on the other. I don’t know what if anything Hemingway can say about churches that are neither focused on creeds and sacraments nor driven by market research.
I think Travis misses an obvious knock-out punch that goes like this: The Hartford Institute, which provides definitions and lists for American megachurches, lists 1408 churches that meet its criteria. Of these seven are part of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod [link]; does Hemingway’s analysis apply to these? If so then all her bluster about creeds and sacraments is nonsense; if not then her distinction she’s making above is invalid.
I hate to say it, but I don’t see a winner here; neither party actually interacts with the premise. Hemingway’s argument is just special pleading, and she grows increasingly shrill as the discussion progresses. Travis comes closer to interacting with the premise by relating survey results about church attenders’ impressions of their relationship with God, but never suggests that there’s any way to close the gap between those results and an actual God. Hemingway can’t seem to see past her tradition. It’s a mess.
On the whole I’m left wondering if there is any common ground between the two sides, and whether this is an issue a debate can resolve. I would recommend listening to this debate anyway; 25 minutes isn’t very long to sort out issues like this, but it’s helpful to hear where the discussion is now (nowhere, mostly). As I said several months ago, this still sounds like a dialog between a dead church and a dying church to me.
In other news, Dee at The Wartburg Watch offered a take on Cruise With A Cause 2011 a couple of weeks ago [link]; her comments cover some of the same ground I covered [link], from a different angle and somewhat more pointedly. She also points out that the online biography for Ergun Caner appears to mix in elements of his brother Emir’s biography.
And finally: I found myself awake between 1:30AM and 2:30AM and ended up taking a peek at the KAZQ [link] overnight offerings. They offer GOD TV [link] as a second OTA digital signal (Digital channel 32.2) and on their primary signal in the wee hours. I got to sample the late Barry Smith’s program Mystery Babylon [link, link]; it caught my interest when I saw the word “Weishaupt” on the whiteboard behind Smith and heard his Kiwi accent. His presentation was a fairly typical fast-and-loose “Freemasons are apostate; Freemasons run the English-speaking world” presentation. Highlights included
- Smith’s claim that floor tiles in contrasting colors, especially in black and white, in public buildings, are a secret Freemason symbol
- Smith’s claim that certain hand gestures require Masonic judges to free Masonic criminals
- A dissection of the symbols on the back of a one-dollar bill that sounded even stranger with a Kiwi accent
GOD TV currently offers two or three episodes of Barry Smith programming a night and another in the afternoon; Joe Bob says check it out.
The hour-long 2004 film George W. Bush: Faith in the White House is available in six pieces on YouTube:
I’ve linked to the first part here; unfortunately WordPress doesn’t support embedding of YouTube playlists. As best I can tell this is a straight-up campaign film, and assumes that viewers will project their own faith onto George W. Bush’s faith; needless to say his views on, say, penal substitution do not feature prominently. I have no idea who produced this; the host is talk show host Janet Parshall, and it includes appearances by Doug Wead and Rabbi Daniel Lapin. Wead’s appearance was before his 2005 falling-out with the Bush administration over recordings he made of phone calls with Bush and then leaked to the press.
The source for the YouTube clips is a Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) aircheck; the TBN logo and toll-free number are frequently visible.
Doug Stych takes a view on comments by Marine Corps General James Conway warning that announcing a date for troop withdrawal from Afghanistan aids the Taliban [link; WSJ]:
What this general has done is called insubordination, his job is to implement the orders he receives from the commander in chief. For him to publicly criticize the commander-in-chief’s orders is not in any way implementing them. He should be immediately reprimanded, if not cashiered.
Oddly enough the Fundamental Christianization of the military seems to have really started to get traction around , a scary process that continues to this day. Why is is scary? Because armies are supposed to defend the country, not the faith. [link]
I really have no idea if Stych is right or wrong here; I don’t understand the first thing about the military and its relationship to the Office of the President, nor whether comparisons between World War II and the present day are fair.
I’m more interested in Stych’s characterization of the military as undergoing a process of Christianization. This basic idea — that the military has become disproportionately Christian — also surfaced in Lauren Sandler’s 2006 book Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement [Amazon],where she spent an entire chapter being appalled at something; I really couldn’t tell you if she was appalled by the fact that soldiers serving a post-Christian nation were Christian, by the details of their faith, or by the fact that they apparently saw the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in religious terms.
I do hear spooky stories from time to time about how one branch of public service or another is being overrun by crazies of one sort or another (a popular one a couple of years ago had Mormons taking over the American diplomatic corps and giving preferential treatment to foreign Mormons), but I never know how to analyze them. In this case I think I’d want to know something like
- The proportion of self-identifying Christians in the military circa the end of the draft in 1973
- The rates at which draft-era military people aged out and retired
- Proportions of various religious groups in likely volunteer pools in the general population
- Rates at which these groups actually volunteered over the course of the last 37 years.
It’s fairly easy and rather irresponsible to visit a distinct but foreign subculture, fail to see things that makes one comfortable, and freak out in print. I definitely got the impression that Sandler overstated how religious the military was. I remember there being a tendency in some quarters to see 9/11 in religious terms and people joining the military as a reaction to 9/11; I don’t have a feel for how many of these were Christian, much less how many were Evangelical or fundamentalist.
I would be tempted to cast a lot of this as a variant of the prevailing notion that Barack Obama is a “bad king” and needs to be resisted, however, against George W. Bush being a “good king” that needed to be obeyed, just writ in a particularly military vernacular.
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?
The third excerpt of Jacob Weisberg’s book The Bush Tragedy (2007) at Slate yields the choicest quotes. Most of them come from former Bush adviser Doug Wead:
“When he got the one on Texas, his eyes just bugged out,” Wead remembered. “This is just great! I can become governor of Texas just with the evangelical vote.” [link]
This is from 1987 or 1988, when George W. Bush was still the family failure. This quote from Bush is so perfect and prescient it’s almost too good to be historical.
“Evangelicals believe that [Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis] is so effective that they will automatically assume that if the Vice President has read it, he will agree with it,” Wead wrote.
Wead argued for “an effective, discreet evangelical strategy” to counter Jack Kemp, who had been courting the evangelicals for a decade, and Pat Robertson, whom he accurately predicted would run in the 1988 primaries. Wead compiled a long dossier on the evangelical “targets” he saw as most important for Bush. (“If Falwell is privately reassured from time to time of the Vice President’s personal friendship, he will be less likely to demand the limelight,” he wrote.)
These quotes by themselves portray Wead as a savvy political operative, and may be just a bit self-serving; it’s important to remember that by the time Wead spoke to Weisberg on the record his relationship with the Bushes had ended, and not especially well.
I don’t want to be too hard on Wead, but in these quotes it sounds like he’s selling out Evangelicalism for votes, and he’s genuinely hurt and surprised when Bush turns out to be more politician than Christian. He seems to have had a “David Kuo moment,” when he discovered that politics is about power and not values. Unfortunately Weisberg is interviewing just the post-moment Wead, so we can’t know with any certainty what the pre-moment Wead thought he was doing.
Still, Wead has some interesting things to say about Bush and his faith, and we’ll take those up in a later post. It’s just important to remember that as ever, Wead is a single witness, and a disgruntled former employee at that. I’d want to be very careful about concluding that Bush is some sort of pseudo-Christian on the basis of Wead’s characterization alone.
Slate editor Jacob Weisberg set himself a difficult task in trying to describe the content of George W. Bush’s faith, but he does so pretty deftly:
When religiously inclined writers try to describe Bush’s faith, they invariably end up talking about how Bush uses religion, how he relates to other religious people, and what faith means to him. But they seldom say anything about its content. They described all the things his faith is not—fiery, judgmental, dogmatic, exclusive—but don’t discover positions on even the most basic theological issues that divide and define denominations, such as whether the Bible is literally true, whether Christians should evangelize, or whether salvation comes through faith alone. They overlook the curious detail that he seldom goes to church. Often, they end up projecting their own beliefs and assumptions onto his blank screen. [link]
What I think Weisberg is trying to say here is that Bush’s faith is theologically empty; it helps explain why he does things, but it doesn’t really have any theological content. It “does” much more than it “is.” I think it’s a fair question to ask whether it matters whether a politician has a rich and orthodox theology to accompany his faith.
We don’t, after all, elect people in the hope they will believe things; we elect people in the hope they will do things, and by implication not do other things. And when we’re choosing who to vote for, which is usually the only choice most of us have, we hear what they’re promising to do; we listen for whether they speak our language; and we decide what sort of people they are, and what that implies regarding how they’ll behave in the future, dealing with issues and circumstances we can’t anticipate. And in a sense this is where a theology is supposed to come in: it’s supposed to hold a person together, spiritually speaking, and cause what they believe about one thing to matter regarding how they’ll behave when dealing with something similar.
To a degree Weisberg is casting doubt on how sensible this process is: he’s suggesting that Bush more or less spoke our language but it shed no light on what kind of person he was, much less how he’d make decisions.
Of course, a more disturbing but equally reasonable conclusion to draw here is this: that George W. Bush is thoroughly one of us, and we as evangelicals have faiths much like his: devout but unconnected and having no bearing on how we’ll think or act.
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.