Wednesday, December 27, 2006

1 Chron 12:32 Report, 13: Media spin, scapegoating and hostility boil over in the Independent for Christmas

Several days ago, I learned of a December 16th article "America's Religious Right: God's own country," in the Independent, by a certain Mr Robert Lanham.

(NB: Relevant claim to fame: he has written the book, The Sinner's Guide to the Evangelical Right, which title itself already contains a slanderous innuendo -- the true biblical view is that ALL of us are fallible, fallen, morally struggling sinners; so the real spiritual and moral issue is penitence and persistence in the struggle to do good, as Rom 2:5 - 16 discusses in detail. Indeed, it is worth excerpting this text: Rom 2:6 God "will give to each person according to what he has done." 7 To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. 8 But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger . . . 11 For God does not show favoritism . . . [This excerpt also answers to the implication in the article that God's wrath against those who insistently reject the truth and pursue evil [especially in the teeth of his gracious, loving offer of a Saviour -- Cf. Jn 3:16] is somehow unjust and hateful.] )

The Independent article -- sadly (but unsurprisingly, given the just above) -- opens on a denunciatory note:

They hate gays and abortion, and love George W Bush. They worship in churches the size of shopping malls, and dominate the nation's - and the world's - political agenda. But is the Christian backlash finally starting against America's religious right? . . .

It goes downhill from there (actually at one point insinuating that Evangelicals on a prayer vigil are too infantile to control their bladders!); never pausing to actually seriously address the many major issues it mentions in passing on the merits. Instead, it consistently asserts or assumes that radical secularist pat answers -- on a long shopping list: Abortion, homosexuality (with Mr Haggard “starring” in the article and featuring so-called same-sex marriage as a major theme), embryo-destructive stem cell research, who is "compassionate," "charitable" and "caring," Global Warming, Darwinism and evolutionary materialism, the Laffer Curve and the supply side vs dismissals of "trickle-down economics" vs monetarism and the new classical economics, the war on Christmas [of which the timing of the article is a telling example!] etc, etc -- are all beyond rational dispute.

The aim of the article is right there in the lead: to warn the British reader about the global threat of American "theocracy": [t]hey . . . dominate the nation's - and the world's - political agenda. (Subtext: Evangelicals, all around the world, are a dangerous, irrational, potentially violent threat to liberty and progress -- including in Britain [where the beleaguered Mr Blair is also an Evangelical].)

Sadly, most British readers probably don't know enough of the true facts, the context and the other side of the story to see that we are hearing here a very shrill, hostile presentation of one side of a very complex story. One that deserves to be heard, duly balancing Peter Hocken's the glory and the shame.

The contrast of the above to Mary Eberstadt in her "The Scapegoats Among Us," could hardly be more plain:

One way to begin is to survey the main intellectual and political currents since 9/11, which investigation yields a fact both unexpected and significant. As it turns out, a flight from political reality has indeed been underway on both the left and the right in America in the years since that event, as well as accelerating into more advanced forms in much of Europe. To switch metaphors, in the wake of the 9/11 attack -- and later, related Islamist attacks on civilians, most notably in Spain and Britain -- many Western observers have responded not by absorbing what we now know to be true about our world, but rather by transposing those brute facts into other, safer, more familiar keys . . . .
One result of that transposition, the record shows, has been the creation of a world of political scapegoats . . . These scapegoats, perverse non-explanations for what really ails us, can be identified by features common to the breed everywhere: The passion invested in them by their antagonists is disproportionate to any real problem the scapegoat represents; they are invoked to explain more about the world than they do; they capture some part of the truth, i.e., have a degree of verisimilitude without which a scapegoat cannot exist; and -- also like scapegoats everywhere -- they pose no threat of retaliation for their overburdening . . . . In sum, to judge by current intellectual trends, many post-9/11 attempts to diagnose the American soul, both here and in Europe, have served less to clarify reality than to gravitate toward safer and more palatable substitutes. [Cf. also, Rich Lowry's similar recent article on "Theocracy"]

Boiling it down: as Mr Lanham, Mr Boyne, Dr Hewitt (within only a few weeks of 9/11!), Mr Schroeder and too many others amply demonstrate through sadly all-too-familiar unbalanced scapegoating rhetoric, Evangelicals have now plainly joined the Jews as the world's favourite whipping-boys. [Good company to be in!]

An unfortunately favourite tactic in that rhetoric is to assert [im]moral equivalence with Islamist terrorists, through the use of that favourite sneer- and- smear- word: fundamentalists. ("Theocrats" is never far away when that particular resort is made.) Somehow, the major, material and costly contribution of Bible-believing Christians to the rise of modern liberty is almost never acknowledged -- and, these days, is often not even known about.

For instance, in the Lanham piece, it is interesting to observe that while Judge Roy Moore of Alabama comes in for a major "hit," the actual historical inscriptions on his Granite monument to the Decalogue are conspicuous by absence. [Indeed, detailed citations of the inscriptions are very hard to find on the Internet. Given what the just linked documents, no prizes for guessing why. The link is here because I finally tracked down Appendix B to Judge Thompson's decision.]

Reality check: just one cite from the monument. In arguing for the adoption of the US Constitution, its principal architect (thus, a major American Founding Father) and later, President, James Madison wrote:

"The transcendent law of nature and of nature's God, which declares that the safety and happiness of society are the objects at which all political institutions aim, and to which all such institutions must be sacrificed" [North Side- Front of the Monument. Taken from The Federalist [Papers] No. 43, at 295.]

Blackstone's famous 1765 explanation of the key phrase here is well worth the read:

Man, considered as a creature, must necessarily be subject to the laws of his creator, for he is entirely a dependent being . . . consequently, as man depends absolutely upon his maker for every thing, it is necessary that he should in all points conform to his maker's will. This will of his maker is called the law of nature. For as God, when he created matter, and endued it with a principle of mobility, established certain rules for the perpetual direction of that motion; so, when he created man, and endued him with freewill to conduct himself in all parts of life, he laid down certain immutable laws of human nature, whereby that freewill is in some degree regulated and restrained, and gave him also the faculty of reason to discover the purport of those laws . . . These are the eternal, immutable laws of good and evil, to which the creator himself in all his dispensations conforms; and which he has enabled human reason to discover, so far as they are necessary for the conduct of human actions. Such among others are these principles: that we should live honestly [NB: cf. Exod. 20:15 - 16], should hurt nobody [NB: cf. Rom 13:8 - 10], and should render to every one his due [NB: cf. Rom 13:6 - 7 & Exod. 20:15]; to which three general precepts Justinian[1: a Juris praecepta sunt hace, honeste vivere. alterum non laedere, suum cuique tribuere. Inst, 1. 1. 3] has reduced the whole doctrine of law [and, Corpus Juris, Justinian's Christianised precis and pruning of perhaps 1,000 years of Roman jurisprudence, which begins, In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, in turn is the foundation of law for much of Europe]. [Parenthetical remarks and emphases added. A short Blackstone cite occurs on the same North side of the monument.]

In short, there is ample justification for Judge Moore's point that, from the beginning, American law rests on the principle that God is acknowledged as Judge over all, and (as the 1776 Declaration of Independence asserts) the laws of nature and nature's God [another cite from the monument] are the foundation of liberty and justice. In short, there is plainly more than one side to the story, here.

So, there is no excuse for the one-sided, hostility-stirring rhetoric that so mars the article. The dangerous implications of such media spin games bring to mind the grim warning Aristotle -- the fate of Socrates ever in view -- sadly notes in his The Rhetoric:

Of the modes of persuasion furnished by the spoken word there are three kinds. The first kind depends on the personal character of the speaker [ethos]; the second on putting the audience into a certain frame of mind [pathos]; the third on the proof, or apparent proof, provided by the words of the speech itself [logos]. Persuasion is achieved by the speaker's personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible . . . Secondly, persuasion may come through the hearers, when the speech stirs their emotions. Our judgements when we are pleased and friendly are not the same as when we are pained and hostile . . . Thirdly, persuasion is effected through the speech itself when we have proved a truth or an apparent truth by means of the persuasive arguments suitable to the case in question . . . .

Action: I have consequently lodged a complaint with the Independent, on journalistic malpractice. Excerpting from that complaint, you will see some of why:

First, I note the timing: just before Christmas. Think about the subtext of contempt and insensitivity that lies thereby revealed in all its utter shamelessness.

I am also certain that you would never have published a similarly one-sided hit piece on the American black church -- given the kid gloves treatment meted out to Bishop T D Jakes, a leading evangelical minister mentioned in your article. As to the idea that a similar sophomoric piece would have been written targetting Islam, in the aftermath of the Danish Cartoons fiasco, perish the thought. As to the idea of doing this in the middle of Ramadan . . . .

the article is:

1] Often outright inaccurate, or at minimum misleading:

--> e.g. someone who lives in a country that benefited from Mr William Wilberforce's heritage and saw the birth of the Salvation Army should immediately know that evangelical Christians [including right wing ones in the US] are in fact deeply involved in poor relief, charity and other social upliftment efforts. I think there are recent statistics on charitable giving that substantiate this, that can be easily accessed by your researchers.

--> This specifically includes leading examples cited, such as Mr Pat Robertson's Operation Blessing, which is a near 1/4 bill dollar exemplary disaster and suffering relief agency; just look up their online audited financial statement, eg here . [Note the snide use by the author of a comparatively paltry $14 millions from the US Govt. Has he looked up the financial backing of said Govt to say Planned Parenthood?]

--> On a simpler point, as at last count Mr Brownback – a likely Presidential Candidate who has as his public policy hero one certain Mr William Wilberforce -- is a Catholic, having converted from evangelicalism

2] Massively unfair, unkind and biased. Leading to stirring up of contempt and hate:

--> For a single instance, your article fails to note that what Evangelicals object to is EMBRYO-DESTRUCTIVE stem cell research, even as they support the use of adult stem cells and cord blood cells that have now reportedly racked up something like 70 treatments for different ailments. And we do so on the grounds that the embryo, as human life should have its right to life respected. [This is of course the same moral grounds on which the abortion holocaust of the past generation is objected to in the US alone the abortion death toll post 1973 is approaching 50 millions, nearly three times Hitler's horror. Surely, this is a MORAL position, not a specifically religious one. And kindly see that the foundation of rights is that they are moral demands we make that we should be respected given our dignity as human beings – raising the issue of moral consistency as say we see in Kant's Categorical Imperative, and not just the classic Golden Rule. In short the issue is not a minor side issue that some misguided people are obsessing over: like slavery and racism, it goes to the heart of morality.]

--> Similarly, it is plain that the fact that so-called same-sex marriage is a novelty with serious moral questions and concerns that there are major harmful socio-cultural impacts attaching thereto is simply passed over in silence in the rush to accuse Christians who take say Romans 1 - 2 seriously, of hatred for homosexuals. [A pause to address the Christian principle of opposing sin while loving sinners would have made a difference, especially if joined to actually tracking down those who are dealing with this issue on the ground. Likewise, a reflection on recent cases where Gay activists and their supporters are moving to censor or persecute Christians for making a fundamental objection to the promotion of homosexuality as a desirable norm, should be looked at. For, there is a recognisable and material difference between Adam and Eve, and Adam and Steve; one that has at least potentially serious consequences. [Cf here Matt 19:3 – 6 for Jesus' view on the matter of marriage.] Plastering Mr Haggard across your lead as if that tells the whole story is amateurish misrepresentation.]

--> Third, the citation of Atlantic Monthly that after a prayer vigil at the court in Alabama, they had to clean up urine, serves no positive purpose. I watched the people live on cable TV -- they had no "wet pants" sir. Even if the claim of a need to clean up the steps is true, it is far more likely to be due to a frat-boy mentality protest by night by people who are most unlikely to have been among the ones praying, than to be the main point you invite the reader to make about people in prayer vigils.

--> In short, the article seems to be here indulging in propagandistic hate speech, sirs.

3] Lacking in relevant context

--> You failed to acknowledge that in fact the Decalogue is foundational to western jurisprudence and the development of modern liberty and law. In so doing, you failed to address the actual inscriptions on the four sides of the monument, which come from US history specifically, and make the historically and culturally accurate point of the monument abundantly plain. Also, Mr Moore did not run a stealth campaign: he gained attention because of an earlier attempt to force him to remove a plaque of the 10 commandments he personally carved and put up in his County level courtroom, and promised to put a similar monument in the State courthouse in his campaign. He was elected with a 70% vote if memory serves, and delivered on his promise, quite publicly – there was a speech [and thus, a public ceremony] according to the report just linked. Further to this, the reading of the 1st amendment you rely on, as will be briefly discussed, is seriously historically unwarranted and flawed.

--> For, you have swallowed whole the revisionism that fails to see that for instance the 1st Amendment to the US Constitution, properly, is about forbidding Congress from establishing a state church of the USA [while at the time there were nine of thirteen colonies with established churches]. So, on historically and legally proper grounds, Judge Moore was right -- but the usurpation of the words and intent of the First Amendment have turned it into almost the opposite: quasi-establishment of the secular humanist philosophy, which functions as a religion substitute. [NB: I think he should have allowed the removal to proceed and made his proper protest on the usurpation in another forum, even though he is technically right that the judge in the case was acting under colour of law, not its substance.]

--> A perusal of the recent US library of Congress display on religion and the American founding, would be instructive, especially the note here, which I excerpt in part:

The Continental-Confederation Congress, a legislative body that governed the United States from 1774 to 1789, contained an extraordinary number of deeply religious men . . . both the legislators and the public considered it appropriate for the national government to promote a nondenominational, nonpolemical Christianity . . . . Congress was guided by "covenant theology," a Reformation doctrine [NB: traceable through Locke, Rutherford and many others back to Duplessis-Mornay's Biblically based Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos of 1579, and as expressed practically in the 1581 Dutch Declaration of Independence] especially dear to New England Puritans, which held that God bound himself in an agreement with a nation and its people . . . The first national government of the United States, was convinced that the "public prosperity" of a society depended on the vitality of its religion. Nothing less than a "spirit of universal reformation among all ranks and degrees of our citizens," Congress declared to the American people, would "make us a holy, that so we may be a happy people."

--> Further to this, the US Constitution, itself [the Declaration of Independence is even moreso in this frame] -- hot denials notwithstanding -- is actually quite explicitly Judaeo-Christian in its context, once we see what the terms "blessings of liberty" and "in the year of our Lord 1787" mean. Excerpting:

[PREAMBLE] We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America . . . . [Main Body, Arts I - VII] . . . . Done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven and of the Independence of the United States of America the Twelfth. In Witness whereof We have hereunto subscribed our Names. . . . . [AMENDMENTS].

--> To illustrate from just one of many proclamations of days of penitence, prayer and thanksgiving, by the founding congress, here is in part a proclamation of March 1776 [the facsimile is linked on the LOC page linked above], over the name of the same John Hancock who first signed the July 4 Declaration of Independence:

In times of impending calamity and distress; when the liberties of America are imminently endangered by the secret machinations and open assaults of an insidious and vindictive administration, it becomes the indispensable duty of these hitherto free and happy colonies, with true penitence of heart, and the most reverent devotion, publickly to acknowledge the over ruling providence of God; to confess and deplore our offences against him; and to supplicate his interposition for averting the threatened danger, and prospering our strenuous efforts in the cause of freedom, virtue, and posterity.. . . Desirous, at the same time, to have people of all ranks and degrees duly impressed with a solemn sense of God's superintending providence, and of their duty, devoutly to rely, in all their lawful enterprizes, on his aid and direction, Do earnestly recommend, that Friday, the Seventeenth day of May next, be observed by the said colonies as a day of humiliation, fasting, and prayer; that we may, with united hearts, confess and bewail our manifold sins and transgressions, and, by a sincere repentance and amendment of life, appease his righteous displeasure, and, through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, obtain his pardon and forgiveness; humbly imploring his assistance to frustrate the cruel purposes of our unnatural enemies; . . . that it may please the Lord of Hosts, the God of Armies, to animate our officers and soldiers with invincible fortitude, to guard and protect them in the day of battle, and to crown the continental arms, by sea and land, with victory and success: Earnestly beseeching him to bless our civil rulers, and the representatives of the people, in their several assemblies and conventions; to preserve and strengthen their union, to inspire them with an ardent, disinterested love of their country; to give wisdom and stability to their counsels; and direct them to the most efficacious measures for establishing the rights of America on the most honourable and permanent basis—That he would be graciously pleased to bless all his people in these colonies with health and plenty, and grant that a spirit of incorruptible patriotism, and of pure undefiled religion, may universally prevail; and this continent be speedily restored to the blessings of peace and liberty, and enabled to transmit them inviolate to the latest posterity. And it is recommended to Christians of all denominations [i.e. 98 - 99+% of the public at the time], to assemble for public worship, and abstain from servile labour on the said day.

--> The explicitly, evangelically Christian frame of mind of this official document issued by the American founders is plain, and indeed, this -- with updated phrasing -- would not sound amiss from say T D Jakes' pulpit today. In short, people of evangelical Christian faith acting within their worldview made a major contribution to the rise of liberty in the American founding, and the wider world as a direct result. In short, the theocracy canard is not only scapegoating, but reflects a lack of understanding of fairly easily accessed history.

Plainly, one of the functions that a newspaper of magazine should carry out, is to accurately and fairly inform the public, giving enough context that an intelligent twelve year old will understand what is at stake and where the balance of the truth most likely lies. When such a media organisation fails in this duty, it betrays the public's trust.

Therefore, it is more than appropriate for us to point that out, and ask for redress. Accordingly, I requested that the Independent should . . .

revisit the article. IMHCO, it should be withdrawn and apologised for, and the editorial procedures should be audited and corrected.

Let us pray and trust that wiser heads will prevail, especially in this season of goodwill. END

UPDATE: Minor cleanups and added links.

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