On the uses and abuses of neutrality by the religious right, the liberal media, and the journalists caught in between.
By Kathryn Joyce and Jeff Sharlet
Part I: Every Tool is a Weapon, and They Use It Right
Several years before PBS broadcast their recent Frontlinedocumentary, “The Jesus Factor,” and writing before the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, Joan Didionreflected on how the tenor of national political debate was fundamentally altered during the 2000 presidential campaign. In an effort to retain the elusive, and miniscule “swing vote,” Democrats followed their opponents further right, pushing the conceived political “center” in front of them.
“This was a meaningful shift in the national political dialogue,” Didion writes. “Politics, it had been until recently understood, is push and pull, give and take, the art of the possible, an essentially pragmatic process by which the differing needs and rights of the nation’s citizens get balanced and to some degree met. The insertion into this process of a claim to faith, or to ‘the high moral ground,’ it also had been until recently understood, is perilous, permissible if at all only at moments of such urgent gravity as to warrant its inherent danger, which is that the needs and rights of some citizens might be overridden to accommodate the needs and rights of those holding the high ground. This was not such a moment in American life. The nation was not at war.”
The obvious response is that the nation is now, in fact, at war; even by Didion’s secularist standards, religious rhetoric is presumably justified. But, using the words of his own emboldened supporters, Frontline shows just how long Bush’s use of that high ground predates the current crisis.
“There’s no question that the president’s faith is calculated,” Doug Wead, a friend to the Bush family and former advisor to Bush, Sr., told Frontline. “And there’s no question that the president’s faith is real, that it’s authentic, that it’s genuine. I would say that I don’t know, and George Bush doesn’t know when he’s acting out of the genuine sense of his own faith and when it’s calculated.” Though Frontline editorial director Marrie Campbell defends the show’s editing as faithful to the spirit of Wead’s interview (the full transcript of which they published on their website), they did cut several paragraphs from his final assessment of George W. Bush. Among Wead’s trimmed qualifiers were citations of historical precedents of religion being used for political ends by Constantine and Ghandi, his inclusion of the interviewer among those who “don’t know” when Bush is being sincere, and Wead’s claim that all religious politicians are similarly conflicted.
If Frontline’s editing emphasizes Bush’s political cunning, what Wead himself left out is illuminating. In his nonchalant delivery of what would seem quite a damning description of a friend, Wead makes no effort to prettify Bush’s calculation—or any of the blurring of the separation between church and state he proudly describes—because he sees no reason to apologize. No reason or no need; no reason because no need. This was a lesson he learned working on the senior Bush’s first presidential campaign—won without the votes of Catholics, Jews, Hispanics and “all those folks.” This was when “the message came home” to Wead: “My God, you can win the White House with nothing but evangelicals.”
It’s a disturbingly sure confidence that permeates Wead’s candor in discussing the sometimes opportunistic bend of Bush’s faith: Bush’s “eureka!” moment of revelation, when he saw what God could do for his home life; his learned “strategy” and blending of religion and politics after being defeated in a Texas congressional race by an evangelical opponent; his abandonment of certain faith talking-points (i.e., that only Christians go to Heaven). This unabashed telling of trade-secrets has a post-victory feel, as does Wead’s admonition that “people ought to be thankful that he has a faith,” because without it, Bush is “brutal,” “unapologetic,” and “self-righteous.” Maybe Wead feels comfortable with this “or else” tone because he’s certain Bush will be reelected by his “abused child” constituency, as Wead describes the “self-hating” evangelicals who, according to Frontline, constitute 40% of the population, and comprise the largest religious group in America.
Without question, Bush has tremendous support among evangelical Christians like Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals, who joked to Frontline that the NAE no longer needs a staff person to represent their interests, because their staffer sits in the Oval Office. Southern Baptist Convention director Richard Land (who has since termed the documentary “decent“) dismissed the concern of “people on the left [who are] uncomfortable with someone thinking they’re doing the work of God, or that they’re on a divine mission,” as more indicative of the left’s paranoia or hostility, than of Bush’s inappropriateness.
But not all evangelical Christians are as pleased with the access granted by Bush—and Bush’s Christian politics—as are Rev. Cizik and Rev. Land. Rev. Dr. Welton Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance was troubled by Bush’s encouragement to faith-based programs, that they need not conform to U.S. law, but to God’s. “The Bible as a hand-book for public policy? President Bush, as the chief executive officer of this nation, pledged to defend the Constitution. He was speaking as a religious leader, not worried about the Constitutional implications of that rhetoric.”
Jim Wallis of Sojourners magazine also criticized Bush for “bad theology” on a number of counts, and said that Bush changed, after September 11th, from a “self-help Methodist” to an “almost messianic American Calvinist“: employing the “language of religious empire, of God being on our side and our having this divine mission. I think this creates a framework for the misuse of religion. The rest of the world hears that and they’re frightened. Especially in the Middle East, because they’re afraid that we see this as a clash of cultures, that it’s a religious war.”
Which is a hard charge to refute for a president who campaigned by saying, for those Americans who didn’t already understand why Jesus Christ was his favorite political philosopher, “it’s going to be hard to explain.” But maybe he won’t have to do so, as Wead won’t have to temper his frankness and certainty—by-products of witnessing that singular voting block deliver victory to George Bush, Sr. The victory that sparked “great shock from me and others, saying ‘Woah. This is unhealthy.’”
But if Wead was once concerned about the “unhealthiness” of such one-sided support, he’s over it, and now discusses the utility of Bush’s faith with candor—and almost identical language as that used by the president’s detractors. This frankness was also clear in some of the evangelicalresponses to “The Jesus Factor,” and their thinly-veiled, or naked, ultimatums. LaVonne Redelinghuys of Fort Mill, SC warned: “The Dems, libs or whatevers should be careful about attacking Bush’s faith. Nothing unites people like persecution syndrome and those emotions run very strong. These kinds of attacks have recently made Mel Gibson a much richer man. Having said that, as an evangelical Bush supporter, I would just say: BRING IT ON!”
The response of Robert Haines of North Fort Myers, FL, was more measured, but arguably more disturbing: citing negative media portrayals of Christians as extremists, Haines wrote that “the sad fact is that it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to hear you at all.”
However, Haines’s assessment of “The Jesus Factor” as a typical example of condescension from an anti-Christian media was a rare exception among the viewers who wrote in to the show’s website (generating one of Frontline’s highest responses ever).A predictably large number of the letter-writers praised the show for its “frightening” portrayal of Bush-the-extremist, but a surprising number of (self-identified) Christians approved of what they saw as a uniquely unbiased portrait of a man sincerely devoted to his faith.
Frontline editorial director Marrie Campbell told me that if there was a consensus among the respondents, it was that everyone “found something that they liked in the program, whether it was because of concerns they already had about Bush, or his faith and how he takes that to the presidency. Or, if it was a positive response—I don’t want to use the word ‘supporters’—they wrote about his faith and his sense of values.”
As Campbell describes it, these responses were in line with their motivations for making the documentary—though like the show’s producer, Raney Aronson, Campbell shies away from the word, “motive.” Aronson prefers the word “curiosity,” as does Campbell. “We were interested in this large topic,” she told me. “A lot of times, the media has been stereotyped as being hostile to religion, though we’ve done a few programs on it over the years. And we had been reading enough about the growth of evangelicals. So it was out of a larger, general curiosity.”
In a live, online Q & A session conducted the morning after the show’s first broadcast, Aronson reinforced this neutrality, adding her hope that the media and the evangelical community could overcome their reservations about one another: the media treating evangelicals as “religious freaks,” and evangelicals demonizing the media as “out to get them.”Replying to one questioner, who felt alienated and “not really an American,” when he listened to Bush’s salvation rhetoric, Aronson mollified: “Many people who are not evangelical feel that way, but if you look at the numbers—while more than forty percent self-identify themselves as evangelical or born again—many of them live outside of New York City. So you are part of America—just a different part. And just an aside, many of the evangelicals feel the exact same way about folks who aren’t evangelical as you do about them!”
To an extent, this sort of I’m-okay-you’re-okay neutrality may be a PR necessity for PBS, and its optimism is likely a sincere attempt to foster the discussion that, as Aronson describes it, was cut off by mutual distrust. Here’s the “however” though: Is it a good thing that so many of the respondents to “The Jesus Factor” praised the show for reinforcing their own beliefs—polar opposites though they were?
“I couldn’t figure out if you were trying to whip up support for George W. Bush or scare us to death,” one viewer wrote, but most thanked Frontline for telling the “real story”: whether about Bush as a scary, would-be theocrat, or conversely, as a humble and devout man who is steering our country rightfully back to God. While such divergent opinions may reflect on the neutrality, tolerance or “objectivity” of the reporting—famously touted as journalistic ideals—it also runs the risk of validating, through form rather than fact, its subjects’ argument: that evangelical Christians are a persecuted group suffering from intolerance, and in need of “special interest” consideration like other minority groups. In their well-intentioned effort to be fair-minded,Frontline and other earnest, tolerance-minded journalists, may be promoting as fact what is actually an opinion, an argument.
One can claim the same neutral ground as a place from which to assert that there’s an elephant of a story being overlooked here, in the name of understanding. In brief: The mantle of victimhood is an ill fit for the already-strong. It’s worth asking whether Wead and his army of “abused children” don’t evoke it as a plea to raise consciousness, but as a battle-cry.
The fact that such a question would be considered by most journalists as partisan is an apt illustration of the dangers of fetishizing “understanding.” In Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa, Washington Post reporter Keith Richburg starts from the premise that out of eagerness to highlight the progress of the recently independent black nations and celebrate African culture; or perhaps to atone for the wrongs committed against the continent and its people; or simply to avoid being labeled racist, many Western journalists and scholars ignore the very real problems facing Africa. Though Richburg’s book devolves into a string of racist clichés, there is truth to his initial argument. Too much sensitivity to difference can lead to moral stagnation; and the “personal” can not be held sacred, immune to investigation, when its use is so obviously political.
“The personal is political” is a concept which, after the left worried it into irrelevance, has found new life as a unifying tool for the religious right. Like all clever warriors, shrewd politicians will always study their opponents, and adopt strategies that work. In the hands of religious conservatives, though, the mantra has been reversed. The political is personal, i.e., a matter of faith. That, far more than any particular belief, ought to provoke journalists into deeper scrutiny. And yet, the traditionally liberal press simply recognizes an old political tool, and reacts to the weapon as though it was still in the hands of a friend.
Part II: The New Normal
PBS’s attempt to understand Bush’s faith on his terms—that is, to investigate the innerexperience of that faith more so than its public effects—is indicative of a drastic shift in media representations of religion. It is smart journalism, and a much-needed corrective to the kind ofalarmism that makes Bush into a religious lunatic eager to bring about apocalypse, now. But PBS’s Frontline is also a symptom of media reframing, the creation of a new master narrative with which to understand religion.
What the media once treated as fringe, it now regards as mainstream. The battle-ready, interventionist, and, most of all, American God once worshipped on street corners, more recently hallelujah’d in the ’burbs, is getting a new hearing from big media. That results in more nuanced portraits of believers like Bush. It also relocates the center, moving the political and theological spectrum, as represented by the press, sharply to the right—toward a religious sensibility of strength, moral clarity, and just war, spiritual and otherwise. Or, depending on where you stand, fanaticism, lunacy, and crusade. The media’s newfound appreciation for the Godliness described by either set of terms reveals a storyline reframed to the right.
To liberals, this will seem like a statement of the obvious. To many, acknowledgement of Bush’s sincerity sounds like sympathy for the devil. To the conservatives who often accuse the press of liberal bias, tagging Frontline’s foray into faith as a rightwing gesture is just another example of the problem.
But it’s the media spectrum in which both right-wingers and leftists believe that makes this statement true. To the right, PBS represents everything wrong with the media. It’s vaguelysocialist, it’s haughty, it’s multi-culti.
If PBS functions in the minds of most of its viewers as the left end of the spectrum, what does it mean when it broadcasts an investigation into Bush’s faith that satisfies his evangelical base? Sure, the program scared the bejeesus out of plenty of viewers who already thought Bush was a zealot, but even some secularists responded with approval for the program and the faith it depicted. Bush, Frontline proposed, really believes what he believes.
That’s what the new narrative is all about—the internal coherence of belief rather than its worldly ramifications. The courage of convictions trumps concerns about consequences. Faced with what they must have thought were only two options—to present Bush’s religion as fanatical or “normal,” Frontline rejected the former as simplistic and embraced the latter as fair. Why is his religion normal? Because it’s sincere.
In the new line on faith in America, sincerity equals “normal,” and normal means reasonable. Thus the religious center, as exemplified by Bush on Frontline, has moved considerably to the right—one may not agree with the idea of an interventionist God concerned with a great battle between good and evil, but it’s no longer a belief relegated by the press to the fringe.
The latest issue of Newsweek illustrates the shift perfectly. Cover boys Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, authors of the Left Behind series, are no longer scary doom saying commercial opportunists, as they’ve long been portrayed by the secular press; now, they’re the “pop prophets,” an “odd couple” of regular, hardworking guys. LaHaye, we learn, lives on a golf course, but rarely has time to play; Jenkins is a little embarrassed of hisRevelation riches. Their readership isn’t “the ‘Sex and the City’ crowd—which helps explain why it took so long for the media to notice that one in eight Americans was reading all these strange books about the end of the world.
“And why are so many people eager to do that? Well, check the news tonight. As the world gets increasingly scary, with much of the trouble centered in the Mideast—just where you’d expect from reading the Book of Revelation—even secular Americans sometimes wonder (or at least wonder if they ought to start wondering) whether there might not be something to this End Times stuff.”
Left Behind, journalist David Gates tells us, makes sense. As a way of explaining the world, it works. “Certainly,” he acknowledges, “LaHaye and Jenkins promulgate what might be called outsider theology. But they are outsiders: they grew up that way, and they’re proud of it.” What follows is a description of their working class roots, which, apparently, justify their deployment of a Revelation as a blueprint for blowing up the world.
Not that Gates is a believer—there’s no vast, rightwing media conspiracy at work here. LaHaye, he notes, can’t resist questioning “a NEWSWEEK reporter about his personal relationship with Jesus.” Good reporter that Gates is, he doesn’t let the reader in on his answer, if any.
But one need only read Gates’ own fiction, such as The Wonders of the Invisible World (in which the “wonders” are the demons of Mark’s gospel), for insight into his religious convictions, or lack thereof. I mean that as no critique; I’m such a fan of the bitter, restless moral failure of his characters that I asked Gates to write an essay about a book of the Bible for a collection subtitled A Heretic’s Bible. Gates chose Ecclesiastes (“all is vanity”); wrestled with the original; and, so he told me, lost faith even in faith during the battle. The record of his struggle, he said, did not amount to a hill of beans.
It’s Gates’ religious uncertainty that makes him capable of seeing the ordinariness in the certainty of Left Behind, the reasonableness that critics such as Joan Didion miss. In a world of fear, terror, and class anxiety, Left Behind does make sense. It is normal.
What’s new is that Newsweek wanted Gates to write about something like Left Behind, and to put it on the cover. One can’t help suspecting that the motive was less than newsy. Newsweek—a pillar of the old “liberal” media—is triangulating, just as Clinton did when he claimed for the “left” policies long associated with the right. Back then, the media followed, embracing the new notion of deregulated trade as natural law, and accepting the end of welfare as we knew it as pre-ordained. Now the press is moving to the theological right in search of common ground.
Which brings us back to normal, the center, the faith of the President, the country, and the media. Used to be that the religious nihilism woven throughout Bush’s stated theology and printed on every page of Left Behindmerited a little anxiety. It’s one thing to respect another’s beliefs; it’s another to “dialogue” with people who believe the end of the world is a good thing. But 62 million books sold and one crucial electoral victory can’t be wrong—at least not when it comes to calculating the God quota, the amount of religious fervor considered reasonable. Bush’s sincere certainty now represents the middle ground, Left Behind’s apocalyptic rage is the responsible right, and all the blood of Mel Gibson’s Passion is just so much thoughtful commentary.
For journalists who want to explore the religious landscape, there’s good news in this development. “Wacky,” “wing nut,” and “weird” were never very useful terms for describing belief; it’s a relief to see them retired. At the same time, though, the new paradigm is just that—a paradigm, a frame, a box that defines the boundaries. These days, there’s room in the box for what used to be dismissed as holy rolling hickdom. It’s the new normal. The rest of American religion, all that is less certain it hears God’s voice, is getting reframed out of the picture.