Faith in Public LIVE is back, this time discussing a contentious issue in faith and politics: bias in media coverage of progressives’ religious beliefs and outreach efforts. Our first blogger, Paul Waldman, is a senior fellow at Media Matters and a regular contributor to TAPPED. Jeff Sharlet is editor of The Revealer and co-author of Killing The Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible. Dan Schultz, aka “Pastor Dan,” is co-founder of Street Prophets and an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ.
Part 10: Dan: Christians’ theological and political differences demand thorough analysis
I think we’re talking at cross-purposes to a certain extent. Again, you’re certainly correct to notice deep differences in the practice of Christianity in this country. But because unity runs so deep in Christian identity, you’re never going to get very far in encouraging us to think of ourselves as fundamentally separated from one another. And because Christians won’t think of themselves as separate, the press won’t report on us as separated, relying on our self-description.
More important in some ways, there is a battle going on within American Christianity to define the center of the faith. As I’m sure you know, part of the fight going on within mainline denominations is conservative factions trying to break away from the main body of the church. They justify this in part by saying that sometimes it’s better to just go separate ways if there’s no agreement on a path forward. The consequence of this, however, is that it allows the IRD types and their conservative allies outside the church to weaken the denominations and claim that they’re “failing” because of their liberalism.
My job as a pastor and an activist is not to play that game. If there must be division within the body, that’s the way it is. But I’m not conceding my place in the tradition or allowing the conservative folks to break things up without a fight. They’re going to have to admit that they’re the ones breaking unity.
That might be tough to understand if you’re outside the church, but trust me, it makes sense within it, particularly if you’re from an episcopal system. Think of it as the “third rail” in Christianity.
I have this argument frequently with people like Atrios, who recently called the ecumenical project “a horribly bad development” for the very solid reason that it papered over real differences between different stripes of Christianity. And as one of my commentors put it, “the whole ecumenical thing actually gets in the way of any sort of mutual accountability” by putting a happy face on a not-very-happy situation.
My response to Atrios, and now to you, is that allowing Christianity to be defined by its differences only empowers the extremists. As you yourself point out, part of the reason the Religious Right has been able to dominate the media narrative is that they shouted and pounded the tables and acted like general gorillas until the press took them at their word that they defined the faith. But they were only able to do that by defining themselves over and against those “weak-kneed Christians” such as myself. Bullying the press and fomenting division within the church have gone hand-in-hand, in other words.
Which is again not to say that we should ignore real divisions and pretend that the Christian church is just big happy family, goshdarnit. We are a beautiful, big, brawling, thoroughly dysfunctional family sometimes.
But as with anything else, reporters should do a basic analysis of the power dynamics behind a description of the faith or the church. James Dobson claims to represent “true” Christians. So do I in my way. Reporters should demand that we spell out what we mean by that, and not be afraid to challenge those statements as political rhetoric. (I’m going to live to regret saying that, I just know I am.) That much I think you and I agree on.
To bring the discussion back to where it started, my biggest problem with this TIME series is that that political analysis is all but absent. The project of making the Democratic party “faith-friendly” so far has been predicated on making it more acceptable to social conservatives.* Other than in the objections of Kim Gandy, the NOW president, where do we hear that not all Democrats think that might not be such a hot idea?
The answer is we don’t. What we hear instead is that Democrats are afraid to talk about faith itself, as though to speak of faith were necessarily to concede ground to the social conservatives.
That’s not true, and it’s just that sleight of hand that keeps the “faith-friendly” project alive. Because I believe theologically that social conservatism does not define my religion, politically I don’t see the need to bring social conservatives into my party in order to bring in Christian voters. We’re already here, and we’re already liberals.
There again, we agree. I want reporters to understand that the political equations put forward by Sullivan, Vanderslice, and their allies are just that: political statements, and not uncontested ones, either. You no doubt would like me to back up my words by bringing into the conversation the people I believe do define progressive faith.
That’s what I’ve been trying to do with Street Prophets, and I’d suggest that makes a good place to bring this discussion to a logical conclusion. Let’s talk about how the blogs and other emergent technologies affect the conversation on religion and politics.
*For the benefit of the critics down in the comments, to the extent that “making the Democratic party more welcoming to people of faith” is ever given any explicit content, it’s this. Even the discussion of “evangelical environmentalism” is couched in terms of reaching social conservatives who might care about more than abortion and same-sex marriage.
Part 9: Jeff on self-definition
Dear Paul and Dan,
The unified body of Christ Dan describe is a theological ideal, not a sociological reality. And I’d argue that it’s important to recognize that it’s not even an ideal for all Christians. You sure don’t have to let James Dobson tell you you’re not a real Christian, but as journalists and activists and general observers of the world, it does us no good to pretend that he thinks you are. Christianity may aspire to unity-within-diversity, but it functions in this world as a family of related religions. And the relations aren’t always as obvious as they seem. To wit: Austin Ruse, an organizer of the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington, believes George W. Bush is the first Catholic president. Yes, you read that right. Moreover, the Breakfast invites Bush to speak from the podium, but not Ted Kennedy — because they don’t believe he’s a Catholic. It’s not that they think he’s a bad Catholic — they don’t think he’s a Catholic at all, while Bush is.
That’s just one scary political example. There are plenty of others. I’m betting that there are Christians even here at this site who’d be unwilling to say that the Jesus worshiped by a friend of mine, a former Air Force chaplain who’s also a crone in a coven — yes, you read that right — isn’t the same as theirs. As my friend explained to me: When she’s dancing naked around a bonfire of a giant wooden head carved to resemble “The Horned One” — Jesus’ pal — she’s being a good Christian.
Well, that’s cool with me — I’m all for self-definition — but it sure as hell wouldn’t be ok with the church I just visited in Ohio, a mostly African-American pentecostal church with a distinct wariness of Satan at all turns.
The point being, for journalists and activists, that religion really is as religion does. To proclaim doctrinal purity in a nation where most self-described Christians have read only small portions of the Bible — and that’s leaving aside the disagreements about what it actually says, and how important what it says is — only sets off the bullshit detectors of journalists, and for good reason. Well, not always — I remember when a NYT journalist op-eded about Bush’s alleged fundamentalism on the basis of Bush’s alleged Methodism. The reporter read a Methodist website which proclaimed Jesus the one and only, and concluded that Methodists believed the same intolerant creed as Falwell. So I’d like journalists to be even more skeptical about unity-within- diversity. Part of the reason Falwell and Co. were able to dominate the media narrative is that they shouted that they were Christians louder than anyone else. So much of the press said, “Ok, that’s a Christian.” It’ll do progressives no good to try to outshout them.
My modest proposal: Leave Paul aka Saul out of it. Not out of your faith or even your activism, but out of your claims on the public sphere. He’s describing an ideal (and not one that’s meaningful to me as a Jew), not a fact, and right now we — journalists, activists, and subjects of Bushworld — need a lot more facts in the stories we tell about who we are and who we’d like to be.
That brings me to your last question, How do we invite more and better participation in the big conversation that’s the alternative to Bushworld? I think those are two separate questions. More participation is the job of activists, who need to get folks organized. Better participation is the job of journalists, who need to do a smarter, more attentive job of describing that organizing.
Part 8: Paul on getting results with reporters by playing hardball
Well, my reply is only to Jeff – here it is:
In response to Jeff’s last post, let me clarify what kind of reporters I was talking about. Jeff does long-form magazine journalism, which among other things allows him plenty of time both to talk with his subjects and to explore his topic in print. As such, he rarely (if ever) calls up a source and says, “My deadline is in half an hour, and I need a quote. Can you talk for two minutes?” But newspaper and television reporters do, and those are the stories where the overly simplistic portraits are painted.
Jeff, your piece on Sam Brownback was terrific (those who haven’t read it ought to: here’
s the link), but my guess is he’s going to think twice about giving a guy like you that kind of access again. In any case, he’s a struggling candidate desperate for attention. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, is the most important political figure in America, with the possible exception of the president. She doesn’t need more press coverage, so she can be as picky as she wants. Since everyone writing about politics would love to interview her, she can exercise very tight control over who she talks to and take few if any risks. I don’t think it has much to do with ideology. I’m sure if you made the same two calls to, say, Dennis Kucinich and Rudy Giuliani, you’d find that Kucinich would be happy to have you move into his house for a week, and Rudy’s flacks would tell you to stuff it.
But back to the broader question of the differing attitudes toward the press. What I was really thinking about in my suggestion about being tough with reporters was political reporters. Republicans have gotten excellent results from playing hardball for some time. Remember back in 2000 when a boom mike “caught” then-candidate George W. Bush calling Adam Clymer of the New York Times a “major league asshole”? I’ve talked to half a dozen national political reporters about this, and every one said they thought it was a set-up, that Bush knew exactly what he was doing and expected his words to be picked up by the microphone. He and Cheney were sending a message to reporters, and to their supporters: we have nothing but contempt for the press.
Nothing changed when they took office. In the early days of his presidency, Bush’s aides would punish reporters who were too critical, as the American Prospect reported.
“There seems to be a system within the White House of retribution,” said one White House correspondent. “Basically, if you write something [negative], it’s like at the communication meeting with [Bush senior adviser] Karen Hughes the message goes out that so-and-so’s on the blacklist — in some cases for that day, in some cases for that week.” Karl Rove tried to strong-arm the Washington Post into removing Dana Milbank, a reporter who had been critical of the administration, from the White House beat. In 2004, Cheney kicked the New York Times off his campaign plane because he didn’t like the Times’ reporting. Never in a million years would a Democrat think of being that tough with the nation’s most important news outlet.
Of course, the president is in a position that allows him to make life very difficult for reporters if he chooses. Blacklisting a White House reporter will make it difficult if not impossible for that reporter to do his or her job. Activists and individuals who interact with the press, on the other hand, are in the opposite position: they’re begging for attention. But that doesn’t mean they can’t act proactively. They can be polite and still view every interaction as an opportunity to engage that reporter in a dialogue, however brief, about the weaknesses in coverage of their issue. They can write or call reporters and tell them when they’ve screwed up or ignored something important.
This is what we do at Media Matters. But we try very hard to do it respectfully, yet firmly. We don’t question journalists’ motives, accuse them of being biased, or call them names. Some of them don’t like getting criticized, which is perfectly understandable. But journalists have so much influence on the operation of our democracy that it’s incumbent on us as citizens to watch them like hawks.
Part 7: Dan: “sometimes you have to be willing to throw a sharp elbow or two to get your message heard.”
First Jeff, then Paul (through Jeff), then Jeff a little more:
I didn’t want to go all theological on Sharlet, but to quote the apostle Paul: “What? Has Christ been divided?” (I Cor. 1:13) Your point about unacknowledged differences preventing real understanding is a good one, but one of the foundational beliefs of Christians is that we all worship the same Jesus of Nazareth. More to the point, we are all a part of the one body of Christ, though as Paul says, we don’t all fulfill the same role within it.
Now, partly that’s to say that the favorite sport of Christians is arguing about who’s a good Christian and who isn’t. But partly that’s to say that – again quoting Paul – “there is one Lord, one faith, and one baptism” – and I’ll be damned if I let somebody like James Dobson tell me that I’m not part of it. Unity-within-diversity is a cherished tradition among Christians, even if we can’t agree on what that means or who’s eligible for it. That’s particularly true for progressive Christians, who both pride themselves on diversity and are sick to death of getting called heretics and faithless monsters for doing so.
I wish to God that I could get my fellow progressives good and angry about this kind of thing, but angry doesn’t seem to be what we do best. I do wish that we could be a bit more contentious on this score, both with our co-religionists and with the media. The stakes are high, and we’ve really taken quite enough abuse as it is.
So in answer to your question to Paul, Jeff, no: we don’t need to call the reporter an a–hole. We need to be a–holes, at least once in a while. I’m sure that what Paul would tell you from the Media Matters perspective is that being demanding works. Reporters have been so beaten down by the right wing that they simply don’t respond to polite entreaties (or 1600 word press releases). Sometimes you just have to bludgeon them before they’ll respond. That’s what we’ve learned on countless other issues such as Iraq, Social Security, or the Supreme Court, anyway.
And sometimes you have to be willing to throw a sharp elbow or two to get your message heard. One of my greatest frustrations in blogging is having nice Christians say to me, “Maybe you should take it easy on James Dobson (or Pat Robertson or Tony Perkins). It’s not Christian to be so harsh.” Go read what Jesus had to say about his religious rivals. He didn’t soft-pedal much.
That doesn’t excuse being an abusive jerk for its own sake, of course. But Lord knows that there are some people who need to have their tops shaved a bit. It’s the same argument you hear all the time about “blog incivility”: is it worse to use intemperate language, or to excuse actually immoral behavior like the war in Iraq?
To answer Jeff’s question about imagining a different country, then, part of what needs to happen is a very frank – though not necessarily brutal – conversation amongst the “progressives and lefties”. (If anyone ever wonders why I’m such a crank at Street Prophets, this is it. Somehow, we have to break through the wall of politeness that keeps us from talking honestly.) One of the things that the Kossacks have been trying to point out to Bill O’Reilly’s fans this week is that they’re not all foaming at the mouth with hatred and animosity. There’s in fact a lot of imaginative work that goes on there, all ignored because it’s too easy to focus on the real anger and outrage.
As that conversation takes place, the people taking part in it need to advocate for it in the wider media. I mean that both in the sense of pushing the fruits of the conversation, and in the sense of advocating the conversation itself.
Because, as Paul understood, there was nothing that could separate us from Christ’s love except our own walking away. I may think that Amy Sullivan and Mara Vanderslice are prime examples of Inside-the-Beltway Chowderheads, and I’m sure they often consider me somewhat less than Christian in my approach, but what binds us all together is not our common ground but that we’re all arguing about the same thing. We need to be open about that, and invite people into the fracas.
We might not always win the argument, but at least we’ll be providing a healthier conversation.
In my book, that’s of almost supreme importance. We’ve seen what can happen to a government and a political system when they are taken over by megalomaniacal, paranoid, reflexively secretive people who think that they don’t need anyone to tell them what God has appointed them to do. To the extent that we can provide an alternative to that kind of governance, well, it’s a win-win for everybody.
I’ll kick it back to Jeff and Paul with this: if the answer to question of how to imagine a new country is to broaden the conversation, how do we invite more and better participation?
Part 6: Jeff: “Paul, where can I find these progressives who ‘reveal too much’? Sounds like a good story.”
A little while ago NPR’s “On the Media” invited Paul and I on to argue about this very issue, and we totally failed — we just kept agreeing with each other. But now I’m ready. Paul writes that progressives “open up to [journalists], they go off message, they leak, they reveal too much.” I could not disagree more. But more importantly — Paul, where can I find these progressives who “reveal too much”? Sounds like a good story.
I’ve been writing very critically about the religious right for national magazines for years. And yet religious right figures return my calls, send me unsolicited information, and grant me access. They also call me nasty names, but I can live with that.
Progressive groups? They rarely return calls. When they do, they tell me they’ll have to have a meeting before they tell me anything. Then they stay on message, all right — repeating the same quote I’ve already read in other magazines. Thanks, but no thanks.
That’s not always the case, of course, but it’s almost never the case with the Right.
A tale of two senators: In 2006, I did a profile of Senator Sam Brownback for Rolling Stone. The first day I was in his office, another journalist — a liberal, as it happens, simply trying to protect his access to Brownback from interlopers — sent Brownback’s flack a dossier on my lefty associations. I watched it open up on the flack’s screen, including a piece I’d done for Harper’s on the secretive Christian Right group Brownback was a part of. Brownback knew who I was, where my politics were.
So he invited me to go to church with him in Kansas. To prove, I think, that he wasn’t afraid of me.
A little while later, I called Hillary Clinton’s office to ask if I could speak to her for 15 minutes about faith. Her flack all but hung up.
I don’t know where Paul’s been reporting, but the rightwingers I speak to — not just leaders, but folks of all ages, all over the country — typically pour me coffee and talk too much. Progressive responses tend to be more like those I encountered at an anti-Clear Channel march I attended for an anti-Clear Channel story in the NY Times Magazine (which killed it for being too critical; it ended up in Harper’s) — most people refused to speak with me, BECAUSE I was from the NYT.
Rightwingers aren’t kinder or more courteous people (just the opposite) — but these days, they’re a lot bolder. They open up because they think they can — they’re certain I’ll “twist” the truths they tell me, but they don’t care because they believe they’re true. Progressives guard their beliefs so jealously that they’re unwilling to share them unless they can get a guarantee that the result will be not journalism, but transcription.
No right-winger has ever said to me “And as long as I’ve got you, can you tell me why the reporting of you and your colleagues is so shallow and simplistic?”Is Paul really suggesting that the way to get better progressive coverage is to tell a reporter, at the end of an interview, that he or she is an a–hole?
Part 5: Paul: “there is a higher degree of professionalism on the right when it comes to dealing with the media.”
First, to Dan’s question: As a starting point, progressives need to get savvier about the media. To take just one example, let me quote from a study of policy advocacy by progressive and conservative Christian groups, by Katherine Stenger and Kathryn Johnson (it isn’t available online), that looked at the press releases they sent out: “The average length of press releases from left-leaning groups was 730 words.The average length of press releases from right-leaning groups was a mere 329 words. Right-leaning Christian groups have learned to make their point quickly and clearly, and this style appeals to journalists.”
Does it ever. The sad fact is that journalists are not going to read 730-word press releases (and that was the average – some actually ran over 1600 words). The most valuable resource journalists have is time, which appears to be just one of the many things conservative Christian groups understand. So it’s no wonder they get more and better coverage. This is just one specific example that illustrates how there is a higher degree of professionalism on the right when it comes to dealing with the media.
The question of, as Dan put it, journalists who are “nominally on their side but perhaps in actuality not as friendly as they might seem” is a key one for everyone on the left. One of the media problems progressive operatives have is that they like journalists and respect journalism. They talk to reporters and find out that they’re folks not unlike themselves, who seem pretty liberal. And so they open up to them, they go off message, they leak, they reveal too much. Then when the stories get written, they are shocked to find that that nice reporter stuck a shiv in them.
Conservatives, on the other hand, have no illusions about journalists. They hate them and everything they stand for. They assume that the journalists are out to screw them. And that governs how they interact with them.
So here’s a tip: if a reporter seems like a nice person who shares your perspective, don’t assume that’s going to be reflected in their writing about you and your cause. It’s just as likely they’ll be doubly tough on you to show how professional they are and how their own beliefs don’t color their reporting, lest the dreaded “liberal bias” charge rear its head.
Now, to Jeff’s question of how we imagine a different country and describe it to a media that doesn’t know how narrow its horizons are.well, that’s a mighty tall order. One lesson we could take from the conservatives is to be unafraid to browbeat reporters about it. What if every time you talked to a reporter, you gave them the quote they were looking for, then said, “And as long as I’ve got you, can you tell me why the reporting of you and your colleagues is so shallow and simplistic?” Then tell them what they ought to be writing about. After they’ve heard the same thing from a dozen people, it might start to sink in.
Part 4: Jeff to progressives: “Common grounder activists are annoying. Common grounder journalists are deadly.”
Dear Paul and Dan,
Now we’re talking, by which I mean arguing, which is as it should be.
Dan’s last question first:
“how can progressives corral journalists and political operatives nominally on their side but perhaps in actuality not as friendly as they might seem?”
I don’t know about that evolutionary dead-end known as the “political operative,” but I’ll speak to the question of how progressives can corral journalists: The same way the Right does, with good stories and lots of access. That seems obvious, but the Left doesn’t get it. Couple of examples: After I wrote a story for Rolling Stone about BattleCry, a militant fundamentalist youth movement that uses extreme war imagery to organize kids all over the country into “cadres” for fundamentalist revolution, a progressive activist I respect quite a lot invited me to cover a very worthwhile program, an interfaith summer camp. That’s nice. When I told him that’d be a hard sell — I wouldn’t read such a story myself — he understood and we lamented with one another about the difficulty of telling sweet, uneventful stories. So don’t; save those for the literary magazines. Progressives need to bring their arguments out into the open without worrying about the press portraying them as “divided.” Better that than bland.
Access: This is a problem of the entire Left, from radical to Democratic liberal. Progressives are media-literate enough to know that the story that a reporter will tell about them won’t be the story they themselves would tell. So, all too often, they attempt to control the narrative by parceling out access on some kind of bizarre need-to-know basis. I’m about as far left a journalist as you’ll find writing for national media, but I have much easier time getting access to right-wingers than I do progressives.
Rightwingers who know I’m not their friend return calls, invite me into meetings. Progressives who know I’m friendly hem and haw and delay and protect themselves so well they never get into the fight. They don’t get narrative — the idea that a reporter needs to see the life of an organization, not hear talking points. While progressives strategize about “frames,” the right blasts itself into the mainstream as if from a shotgun. The right’s media secret isn’t framing; it’s ubiquity.
Take Randy Brinson. I remember laughing over a Washington Times’ puff piece on Redeem the Vote in 2004. Brinson was a joke, his intentions transparent. But he did the right thing, for a right wing activist looking to shape the debate: He stuck around and talked to anyone who wanted to talk to him. Along comes Amy Sullivan, and suddenly this conservative activist has a platform in a liberal magazine that thinks he’s some kind of hero, and from there it’s a hop, skip, and a jump into mainstream media.
Which brings us to the problem of journalists who are “not as friendly as they actually seem” and political hacks like Vanderslice. I think we should make a distinction between the two. I don’t agree with Sullivan’s politics, but I understand what she’s doing, and why. She’s a good political reporter, making a case through stories for her politics. My problem isn’t with her journalism, but with her politics. How do progressives deal with those? By arguing with them. She’ll argue back. That’s the way it should work. She gets that as well as you and I do.
Consultants like Vanderslice are a different species. Their job isn’t to argue, it’s to persuade journalists that there is no argument — that Democrats and progressives are mostly aligned around their talking points. Not to put too fine a point on it,
but: to hell with ‘em. Mara Vanderslice is not “nominally” or otherwise on any side I want to be on.
But wait, cry the common grounders — don’t we all oppose poverty and worry about global warming? Yeah, and so does Pat Robertson. So what?
Common grounder activists are annoying. Common grounder journalists are deadly. Much more problematic than an honest centrist like Sullivan are the stealth centrists who write the “news” for magazines like Time. Yes, Dan, the Democrats-and- religion story was lousy. Not because they used anonymous sources — that can be ok — or because they failed to talk to any Democratic candidates about their faith. (See “access,” above; then try calling Hillary’s office to ask her about her faith. Good
luck.) It’s because they practice a journalism ultimately committed to sameness rather than difference. I don’t mean difference in the touchy-feely ain’t-diversity-grand way, but in the sharp-elbowed small-d democratic way.
Which brings me round to your first point, Dan, your bemused skepticism over the possibility of persuading American Christians that there’s more than one Christ out there. A few years ago, my friend Peter Manseau and I spent a year traveling the country to write a book about the margins of faith, the eccentricities that allow one a perspective from which to view the center. When we set out, we thought it was a shame the U.S. wasn’t like ancient Greece, a different god for every town. That wasn’t a theological perspective, mind you; we just wanted good stories. And we found them. It turns out the U.S. is like ancient Greece, and there is a different god in every city, thousands of them. The craziest part is that they’re almost all named Jesus.
There’s a Jesus in Miami’s Cuban churches, for instance, who seems to do nothing but wrestle Castro; a Jesus in Heartland, Kansas, who dances with witches who also consider themselves Christians, naked but for his antlers; a Jesus in Manhattan who dresses in drag; a baby Jesus in New Mexico who pulls cow tails and heals the lame or simply the sad by giving them earth to eat; a musclebound Jesus in South Central L.A. emblazoned across the chest of a man with a gun in his hand; a Jesus in an Orlando megachurch who wants you to have a black Beamer.
The pastor of that Orlando megachurch doesn’t think his Christ is the same one believed in by the witches of Kansas. I think he’s right about that one point. And as journalists — and people who want better reporting from journalists — I think we’d do well to pay attention to the differences. Imagine if that Time story had instead of telling Mara Vanderslice’s life story really paid close attention to her idea of the divine and investigated the theological struggles within the progressive coalition. You raise the odious Institute on Religion and Democracy; imagine if reporters asked tough questions about the IRD’s theological and political goals, if, when Hillary said she was a Methodist, the press asked her, “What kind?”
That can’t happen until we abandon the myth of common ground. For much of the 20th century, that common ground was vaguely liberal, if not left or even progressive; now, it’s conservative, regardless of which party holds Congress. Either way, common ground isn’t for common people. It’s status quo territory, a land of business-as-usual in which the lingua franca is Times-speak and the official religion is “faith” with few questions asked. That’s the kind of place in which hacks like Vanderslice prosper.
So: A question from the journalist to the pastor and the activist-scholar: If I’m even half-right, how do progressives and lefties imagine a different country? And how do they describe it to a media that doesn’t even realize how narrow are its horizons?
Part 3: Dan sees lack of context, independence, and accuracy in Time stories on faith in politics.
Dear Paul and Jeff:
Thanks for agreeing to participate in this roundtable. I’m always happy to hear your perspectives on these stories, and it’s even better to take part in them first-hand.
A small aside: Jeff, best of luck on trying to convince American Christians that there’s more than one Christ out there. You let me know how that works out for you.
Anyway, I also find myself in a strange position here. Jeff has taken up the Atrios argument, which is that we should encourage argument about the details of religious belief so candidates don’t get a pass on spouting platitudes. That’s a good position. I’d never want to argue against providing voters with a better understanding of what faith is and does. But at the same time, I should put in a word for the opposite view: we also need to provide voters with a better understanding of the politics surrounding faith. So here’s the secular writer arguing for better religious understanding and the pastor arguing for better political knowledge.
In particular, I think we can’t let the vision of history put forward in these Time articles go unchallenged. Nowhere in Amy Sullivan’s column was there a mention of the role race played in bringing together the Religious Right, for example. Were it not for the Carter administration’s challenge to the tax-exempt status of segregated “Christian Academies” throughout the South, it’s unlikely that the Religious Right would even exist in the form we recognize it today.
Nor is there a mention of the decades-long work of the Institute on Religion and Democracy to undermine the governing structures of mainline denominations. The point of this operation – fueled by cash donated by ultra-conservative philanthropists – was to neutralize the social witness of denominations like the UCC, the Methodists, Presbyterians, or Episcopalians, to pave the way for secular Republican political gains. The Democratic “loss” of religious voters had a lot more behind it than simply not wanting to talk about abortion, in other words. I would like to have seen that reflected in these pieces.
The other curious position I find myself in is having to ask you two – among the most astute media critics out there – to take a harder look at the quality of the reporting here. Simply put, these articles are a disaster. In addition to what I’ve mentioned above, Sullivan spins the Time poll to say the exact opposite of what the numbers indicate, and with nary an indication that the results contradict her long-held arguments about Democrats and religion.
Gibbs and Duffy, meanwhile:
- quote an anonymous source with a clear agenda in criticizing the Democratic party
- allow Mara Vanderslice’s personal story to take up a significant portion of the story
- allow Vanderslice – a consultant with a product to sell – to diagnose the party’s ills
- allow Vanderslice to insert unchallenged claims, such as that faith outreach made the difference in places like Michigan and Ohio
- use Randy Brinson as an example of successful outreach – a dubious claim first put forth by Amy Sullivan
- fail to speak to any rank-and-file Democrats about their faith
- fail to speak to any Democratic candidates about their faith, or examine their practice
and on and on. This stuff is atrocious, in a word, and I’m sure I’ve missed a thing or two. I came away from Gibbs and Duffy’s piece with the strong impression that they’d let Sullivan and Vanderslice write the thing themselves, then touched it up here and there. The entire thing is out of the same perspective they’ve hit time and again.
I have been harshly critical of both Sullivan and Vanderslice many times at Street Prophets. I hate to do it, if for no other reason than the three of us are almost exactly the same age and generally on the same side of things politically. But the intellectual dishonesty on full display here demands some kind of response. Like Jeff, I wonder if their purpose isn’t to put together a socially conservative faction within the Democratic party. And like Paul, I wonder if they’re not playing into Republican ways of describing Democrats that help the GOP convince three-quarters of the American public that Hillary Clinton is faking her lifelong faith.
But as I started out saying, you two are the experts here. So I’ll toss the question back to you: how can progressives corral journalists and political operatives nominally on their side but perhaps in actuality not as friendly as they might seem? I’m all for a healthy diversity of opinion on the issues, but it seems to me that we are confronted in stories such as these with willful misrepresentations of progressives and their beliefs.
You won’t be surprised to discover that ticks me off.
Thanks again for the conversation,
Part 2: Jeff calls for diligent skepticism of both progressives and conservatives.
Dear Paul and Dan,
I find myself in a very unusual position: Defending Time. The Tony Perkins quote did belong in the story, but not as the kicker.
It should have been up top, because then readers would have been clued in to what the story was really about: a new political machine. I’ll venture into even stranger territory: Not only do I think Perkins belonged in the story, I think that for the most part his assessment is right. What I worry about is that Mara Vanderslice, the new Democratic “faith guru,” does too, and that she’s capitalizing on the good intentions of religious liberals, and the naivete of a press that thinks it’s finally “getting” religion, to help build a new, socially conservative faction within the party, heir to the economic conservatism of the DLC in the 1990s.
This faction will never satisfy Tony Perkins or James Dobson, but it may make the sacrifices necessary to win over Rick Warren and Randy Brinson — and that’s very bad news for those of us who believe that queer rights and reproductive freedom aren’t “special interests” or some litmus test, but fundamental to our health and well-being, not to mention democracy in general.
I think Paul is right that much of the press views conservative Christianity as sincere (if hypocritical), and liberal Christianity as so fuzzy as to be hardly worth mentioning at all. But I don’t think we correct for that by granting the sincerity of liberal Christian politicians. Rather, the press ought to do what it (thinks) it does best: sift through the political image factories for signs of the real agendas. I don’t want the press to take Obama’s piety more seriously, I want it to take Republican piety less seriously. Not because it’s all a lot of baloney (some of it is, some of it isn’t), but because it’s all enmeshed in political calculation (as it should be; this is politics), and that’s the stuff voters need to understand to choose wisely.
That doesn’t mean the press ought to ignore the professed faith of the candidates. Just the opposite. I want the press to pay very close attention. Not to “faith,” which in politics is a vague and generic term, but to religion as it’s lived. For instance, when my colleague Kathryn Joyce and I teamed up to do an investigation of Hillary’s faith commitments and religious allies for an upcoming issue of Mother Jones, we tried to embed those questions in the context of Hillary’s politics, which are dragged right by what happens to be very sincere — and rather conservative — faith. The folks at Tony Perkins’ Family Research Council understand that, and hold a fairly realistic view about it — just as the more honest among them admit that their big outreach to African-American Christians is simultaneously sincere and calculating, the result of the evangelistic impulse and the bet that they can peel off a crucial 5% of the black vote from the Democratic Party.
But such nuances get lost in the mythical “God gap.” There’s no such thing. The majority of the Democratic Party is religious, just as is the majority of the GOP; the difference tends to be in the nature of the gods worshiped. There is far more than one Christ in America, a basic theological fact lost on a press that treats God as a single prize to be wrestled over by Democrats and Republicans. Balancing out religious “conservatives” with religious “progressives” won’t fix that misperception, it’ll reinforce it, and that will always be to the Right’s advantage, since its most powerful brokers are committed to a rough theological homogeneity. We on the Left are not. And we shouldn’t pretend to be. Every time a Christian Right talking head bullies or smarms his way through an interview, he reinforces the notion of his movement as a monolith, which is to say, un-democratic and kind of scary to boot. Let them have that tactic. It does no good to respond to Cal Thomas’ claim that Clinton isn’t a real Christian by crying that he’s not a real Christian or that he’s done wrong by making his accusation. He hasn’t, and they’re both Christians, different kinds, and it would make the Left stronger to know what those differences mean than to fall into a trap of claiming the one true faith.
To close in agreement with Paul: I think the media’s inability to really dig into those differences (and some of the surprising
similarities) is why, to paraphrase Paul, 24% of the public would say Hillary is an alien from the planet Grognak sent to suck out our brains, but only 13% recognize that she’s “strongly religious,” and that they’d better find out what that means.
Part 1: Paul provides examples and analysis of media bias against religious progressives.
Dear Dan and Jeff,
Reading this recent cover article in Time, I was struck by whom the reporters, Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, chose to seek out for comments on the topic of Democrats and religion. Some of the usual suspects were there — John Green, Jim Wallis — but they also went to the same sources they would have if they had written an article about Republicans and religion, like Richard Land and Tony Perkins. Take this passage: “‘It’s a positive thing that Democrats are willing to talk about faith and values,’ says Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. ‘But they are aligned with organizations that sue to stop kids from praying and block the Ten Commandments.’ Only when the policies evolve, he argues, as opposed to the rhetoric, will the party have a chance to make real gains with Evangelicals.â€
We see this over and over and over again: an article about Democrats and religion will include a quote from someone like Perkins saying, in essence, that Democrats are insincere and can’t hope to win over religious voters. But when reporters write about Republicans and religion, they feel no particular need to seek out religious progressives to criticize the GOP.
This goes back, I think, to a series of preconceptions that we can detect running through coverage of religion and politics. Conservative politicians have genuine faith, while progressive politicians’ faith can’t be taken at face value, since it’s probably just a cynical ploy to win votes; conservatives vote on their “values,â€ while progressives are just people with opinions; and — although this is an entirely separate topic we may not want to discuss here — the votes of religious people are good votes that you want to get, while the votes of secular people are somehow less valuable.
Alongside these kinds of ideas coming from mainstream reporters, you have the explicit attacks on Democrats’ faith coming from conservative media figures. They act as though they’re insulted that progressives — politicians or otherwise — would have the temerity to talk about their faith. “I have never met anybody less sincere than the religious left,â€ Tucker Carlson said on a recent show. “I mean, you think that Jerry Falwell was cloying and phony, honestly, you haven’t met the religious left.â€ Cal Thomas issued a blistering theological attack on Hillary Clinton, stopping just short of saying that she is not a real Christian (Hillary’s crime, it appears, is the fact that she’s a Methodist). Similarly, Andrew Ferguson of the Weekly Standard opined that Clinton might be able to appeal to religious voters, but only those who are “religious in the way that Hillary Clinton is religious, which is to say of a very liberal Protestant sort of view, in which they believe in everything but God.â€ Michael Gerson, former Bush speechwriter and current Washington Post columnist, criticized Barack Obama for speaking at a gathering of his own church: “By speaking at a gathering of the United Church of Christ — among the most excruciatingly progressive of Protestant denominations,â€ Gerson wrote, “he was preaching to the liberal choir. And he did not effectively reach out to an evangelical movement in transition.â€
So the terms are changing — first Democrats were supposedly unacceptably secular and hostile to religion; then, when some of the major candidates talk honestly about their own faith, the conservatives say, well, you’re probably disingenuous about your faith, but even if you aren’t, your faith is the wrong faith. It’s not real Christianity, it’s a Christianity that is by definition less worthy than that of whichever conservative is talking.
Supposedly, we had moved beyond interdenominational conflict to an inclusive, ecumenical approach to religion and politics, where it didn’t matter what your faith was, as long as you had one. But I guess that applied only so long as progressives could be attacked as ungodly.
One last point, before I turn it over to you: the most devout of the leading candidates for president is almost certainly Hillary Clinton. Yet according to the Time poll, only 13% of registered voters describe her as “strongly religious,â€ while 24% say they know she is “not religious.â€ Is this just about Clinton, and you could get 24% of the public to say she is an alien sent from planet Grognak to enslave us and suck our brains, or does it have something to do with how the whole question of Democrats and religion gets covered?
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Faith in Public LIVE is back, this time discussing one of the hottest issues for the religious community today: the environment. Chuck Gutenson is the lead blogger at Imitatio Christi, and an evangelical theologian and ethicists at Asbury Theological Seminary, Barbara Lerman-Golomb is the Executive Director of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) and is the coordinator for the Greening Synagogues project, and Sally Bingham is the President of The Regeneration Project which runs the Interfaith Power and Light campaign
Part 9: Sally Bingham lets out an “Alleluia” for the progress made on the environment and hope for the future
I would like to say, “Alleluia” and thank you to Barbara for pointing out that all is not lost and the doomsday message may no longer relevant. I, too, sense considerable hope; hope for change and hope for new opportunity, job growth and perhaps even a second industrial revolution, but this time a clean one. Not only has the religious community begun to unite, see our declaration on www.theregenerationproject.org (Jews, Muslims and Christians) calling for our government to cut green house gas emissions, but corporations, big businesses, hospitals and schools are embracing the “green” movement. There is bi-partisan legislation in the works with some 80 bills about energy under discussion in Congress. There is a lot to be hopeful about and one of the most important sign that I am experiencing is that rather than have to explain global warming or recite the reports and Scientist that agree global warming is a problem, people are asking “what can I do”? What are the solutions? This is a very different landscape than just two years ago. Very seldom does someone say “the science is still undecided” or we cannot make changes, it would hurt the economy.
It has taken ten years and catastrophic events like Katrina to get the attention of the general people, but it seems that many if not most have realized the problem. Many, too, are making changes in their behavior. It isn’t sacrifice, it is change: just like a light bulb. We are seeing congregations with solar on the roof serving as an example to the community. We needed the big corporations to voluntarily reduce emissions and show a profit besides. That is how policy is made. The folks who step up first and volunteer prove to the policy makers that it works. We did that with recycling. It took a while after programs began under volunteers, but in the end others saw that it worked and climbed on board. Those changes are happening now with conservation of energy and driving patterns.
The role that religious institutions have played is crucial. It brought ethical and moral values to the discussion and when the call to be good stewards comes from the pulpit, people understand that addressing global warming by using renewable energy, practicing conservation and efficiency, we are doing the “right” thing. It is a responsibility of faith.
Another reason for hope to just to look around and count the number of hybrid cars on the road. People are beginning to see the light and make changes. We are a moral society and at its core the environmental situation is a reflection of our concern for life itself: it is a spiritual issue. We have a lot of work to do, but in all areas of life, but particularly in the religious community, I sense a strong instinct to make up for lost time and do the right thing.
Part 8: Barbara Lerman-Golomb sees hope for the environmental movement
With all the doomsday and fear mongering generated around environmental degradation, believe it or not, some positive opportunities have arisen. One positive is that it has created an environmental faith movement that has been a source of renewal for people eager to connect in a meaningful and purposeful way to their religion. What can be more spiritual than communing with nature and literally getting in touch with our agrarian roots? If we have a better understanding of the inner workings of our planet, we’ll have the tools to think creatively about how to sustain it.
Another positive is the coming together of the interreligious community. No matter what our differences or perspectives are on other issues, we all have a common calling when it comes to environmental stewardship and we understand that the only way we’re going to empower our message and mission is by our working in unison. There is strength in numbers. Our shared vision and passion, is exactly what we need to movtivate our communities and policy makers, many of whom identify strongly with their faith and the obligation to be good stewards.
A third positive is that the environmental movement can serve as inspiration for political activism that has lay dormant for too long. Of course in a democracy our legislators are supposed to listen to the will of the people, but they can only do that if they hear from the people. We need to let them know that the trend in the past few years of
decimating every environmental protection measure put into place and that the attitude of Genesis 1 of having “domain” over the Earth and essentially being able to do what we want with it, can not continue. But rather we need to follow the message of Genesis 2 to “till and to tend” as caretakers of the Earth. Citizens need to reengage in the political process. With new energy bills arising every day and the presidential election looming, we need to make sure that this time around the environment and particularly energy policy, climate change, and its implications for social injustice are a major focus in our country.
Let us do right by future generations by not leaving them with the possible burden of severe life threatening environmental devastation and the legacy that we stood idly by and did nothing to protect our sacred Earth.
Or put another way…
“God led the first human begins around the Garden of Eden and said: Look at my works! See how beautiful they are–how excellent! For your sake, I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world, for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.” (Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13).
Part 7: Chuck Gutenson on getting people to stop standing around and do something
What are the most productive steps in moving folks toward a greater sense of obligation when it comes to care and stewardship of God’s creation? Well, as one might expect, the answers vary. Let’s consider a few options.
First, and I think foremost, each of us has to come to realize that caring for the environment is a moral issue, and hence, for Christians, ultimately one of discipleship. I have a colleague who likes to say that our sense of what it means to be a follower of Jesus has not yet permeated deeply enough if it does not impact something as routine as throwing out our trash. What she was trying to capture, of course, was that our commitment to follow Jesus must impact every single aspect of our lives. Once we think of it this way, we begin to see the moral imperative to engage in environment friendly behaviors. There can be no substitute for each of us engaging this issue at a personal level.
At the same time, however, personal engagement cannot replace the need for public engagement. Education is always a central element of public engagement, since the right form of engagement cannot be determined without a good sense of where the pressure points are. After that, I would encourage each person (or, better, group of persons) to consider their own gifts and to become involved in ways that make it utilize those gifts. If I may borrow from the Apostle, those who are educators, let them educate; those who are articulate writers, let them write; those who are able to organize others, let them organize; and those who have relationships with congresspersons, let them utilize that access. There is more than enough work to be done and more than enough giftedness to go around. In the words of that old cliche: Don’t just stand there, do something:>)
Part 6: Barbara gives another reason to take action for the envrionment: God is all about action; we should be too.
God is all about action. And so if we believe that human beings are created in the image of God (tzelem Elohim), then we need to be all about action too. There are many ways to motivate a community to action. Creating a communal activity often works. People feel safety in numbers–getting a group together to rally or lobby on Capitol Hill on an issue, engaging in a letter writing campaign to legislators after an impassioned sermon, joining in a neighborhood clean up, or working together with the common goal of “greening” your house of worship. A successful action is often one that is doable such as changing to compact fluorescent light bulbs to address global warming and energy consumption.
It’s important to take that first simple step because the thought of taking action can feel overwhelming. We are already dealing with so many moral issues all vying for our attention–poverty, AIDS, homelessness, healthcare, Darfur, the Middle East and now global climate change. It’s easy to despair or to feel like taking action is just too much trouble and that it’s better left up to someone else. When it comes to environmental problems, many count on the fact that the “environmentalists” will deal with it. But we can no longer afford to compartmentalize environmentalism. We can no longer see it as “us” or “them.” The Sh’ma prayer is said to be the watchword of the Jewish faith. In its opening line it tells us that God is one. All of Creation is interconnected as one and so how all of us respond and care for the world positively or negatively will have its consequences.
The words tikkun olam, to repair the world, sum up a human beings obligation here on Earth. If we are created in the image of God, than we need to step up to the plate and begin to take action by truly being partners in Creation.
Part 5: Sally says that stopping global warming is the greatest moral issue of our time
The greatest moral issue of our time……Senator Brownback says “it’s abortion”, former Senator John Edwards says “it’s poverty”, Al Gore’s says it’s global warming. I am a Christian and I agree with Gore. My reason’s are 1) the first and great commandment: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. If we love our neighbors we don’t pollute our neighbors air, water or land. Right? And if you love God, isn’t it a sin to destroy what God created? Isn’t it an insult to God?
2) Morality for me asks the question “what are my values?” “How do I treat my neighbor”, how does society take care of the poor. Big issues, that make up social values, are what “moral” is about. What does it mean to be human, fully and wholly human created in the image of God? The image of God is kind, compassionate, inclusive, loving every child, not selectively choosing whom to love and not refusing to accept the way others were created when they are different from me. These are hard values to live by, but they are what make a moral society and moral people. How we respond to global warming answers these questions. Our response will define what it means to be human and how we respond will demonstrate love or not for God and for our neighbor.
It is a huge responsibility to be human, created in the image of God. Trying to live up to that is challenging and yet something we should strive to do. We have an obligation to care for all of Creation. Adding to the pressure of the challenge, we have the ability to meet the needs of all and to solve the global warming problem if we decided to. If we could agree as a country, a society, a culture, a human, we could take the steps necessary that show we are people striving to be the best we can be. I think global warming is the greatest moral issue of our time, not because the issue is a moral one, but how we respond to it, is a moral value. I think abortion and same sex relations are issues that are personal and not to be decided by cultural trends or legislation. If I ask myself, what would Jesus do?, I have to say, based on what I know about Jesus, he would love and embrace everyone and particularly the marginalized. He would be pro life, but pro healthy: life created out of love, not conflict or without access to fresh air, food and water. The people who will suffer the most from global warming are the poor and Jesus said, “what you do to the least of them, you do to me”. We are called to serve the poor, love our neighbors. Those are moral issues and global warming will hurt both the poor and our neighbors. We have a moral obligation to do something about it. Jesus would.
Part 4: Chuck Gutenson on falling in love with creation
When we talk of care for creation, we often jump, rightly I think, to ideas of stewardship and responsibility. I focused on these in my last post, and suggested that we have an obligation to care for the earth so as to give it in better (or, at least as good) shape to our children than we found it. However, I want to focus in a somewhat different place today. I wonder how often we consider the extent to which God, to put it simply, enjoys the world he has created.
In the last several chapters of Job, while the emphasis is upon correcting some bad perceptions about God held by Job’s friends, I always pick up a tone of playfulness in God’s language about creation. He speaks of creating the hawk so that it can rise majestically into the sky, he speaks of “playing with” the great sea creatures, and he reflects on the joys of his creation giving birth to yet more creatures. In the Psalms, we see references to the creatures that are worthy of our fear (the lion and its cubs, for example). Yet, God speaks of them with regard to his feeding them in the sort of tone we might use to describe feeding a pet from our hands.
It is hard to read these passages about God’s interactions with and reflections upon his creation without getting a sense of the intimacy with which God views all aspects of the world he has created. Would it be far too anthropomorphic to say that one way to see God’s relationship with the world is analogous to that of a “proud father”? God’s love is over all his creation, and the more deeply we let that reality sink in, I think, the more deeply our own love and appreciation for creation will become. And, of course, it is always easier to care for a thing you love deeply than for a thing we see merely as object.
Part 3: Barbara Lerman-Golomb: we need to start building an “ark” before the floods come
So what will help guide humanity to do the right thing? Centuries of disconnect have kept us from understanding the natural cycles of the Earth, from connecting to the food we eat, to understanding how we fit into the chain. Reconnecting to our environment is the first step to appreciating the beauty and awe of the world. We need to get outside, to learn to respect nature instead of fearing it or mistreating it. The Rabbis taught: Even those things that you may regard as completely superfluous to Creation — such as fleas, gnats and flies–even they were included in Creation; and God’s purpose is carried through everything–even through a snake, a scorpion, a gnat, a frog.â€ (Breishit Rabbah 10:7) Once we begin to disregard nature, to disconnect from it, it’s easier and easier to destroy it. If we don’t fully understand that polluting the air, water, and land, will come full circle and affect our health and the quality of our lives, then we’re not going to make any effort to preserve our natural environment.
If we begin to understand our ecological footprint, we’ll be more thoughtful in our choices, our purchases, our consumption. We need to ask how is my lifestyle affecting or harming others? Once we begin to take steps to live a more sustainable life, then we need to demand as much from our legislators who set into motion the opportunity for real change. We can gain momentum with a coming together of consumers, the business community, elected officials, and more and more with the faith community. This is a natural place to have our voices heard because it is where our actions have always been directed by a need for social justice.
Environmental degradation will affect all of us, but will disproportionately affect the most vulnerable in our society. We’re seeing this already with climate change. Too often we wait until disaster strikes and then communities, particularly faith communities come in to pick up the pieces. We need to be like Noah and begin building the ark before the floods come, before we destroy our sacred Earth. But in order to take that first step, we need to connect with what we’re protecting.
Part 2: Sally Bingham: Will self-interest make us “greener?”
Mightn’t we shift our attitude and behavior towards the Creation if we understood that it is in our best interest to do so? If it is true that by nature we are greedy and selfish and as Chuck puts it “Jesus rails against -the inability to control our own wants and desires,” might our task, as people who DO care about God and God’s Creation try to shift the focus of what constitutes selfish? If we really care about ourselves and many people say we do, then it certainly does not seem so if we poison the water, the air, the land. If you knew that you were ultimately killing yourself (committing suicide) by polluting, wouldn’t you stop it? The theory would only work, however, if people really are selfish dominating self-involved fools.
Let’s, for the sake of discussion, pretend that they are not. Lets say that people are really good, generous and kind. Look at the donations for Darfur, efforts to end the killing in Iraq, millions to restore Thailand and New Orleans. Large amounts of land set aside for conservation and all from individual people wanting to do good. I think people of faith care particularly about saving creation and ultimately themselves and future generations. I think they don’t usually read Scripture with green lens on, but when they do, they “get it.” Religious leaders of all faiths need to own the pulpit in a new way and step up to the challenge that faces humanity today. The response that we have towards the environmental crisis and the way we behave today will dictate the future. The response will define what it means to be human: fully human.
Part 1: Chuck Gutenson on the Biblical call to stewardship
A popular right wing spokesperson was famously quoted to the effect that God had given the earth to humans to do with as they please–even to “rape it,” I think was the language used. One wonders how anyone could read the over-arching narrative of God’s love for his creation so badly as to see Genesis 1 as giving humanity license to exploit that creation in any way we might choose.
If one looks a bit deeper, one finds that the broader context of Scripture makes it clear that God’s command to humanity is intended to carry with it the idea of “stewardship.” In other words, God does not give humanity authority over the earth and all its natural resources to “do with as we please,” but rather in order for us to exercise godly care and stewardship over the creation. This is captured in the initial recognition that the primeval couple are placed in the garden to tend it, to serve as gardeners who will provide appropriate care for the garden, which functions here as a metaphor for all of creation.
It is worth noting that reckless exploitation of creation is precisely driven by one human failing that Jesus consistently rails against in his own ministry–the inability to control our own wants and desires. We are enjoined to “deny ourself,” and this injunction carries with it the implicit recognition that, left to ourselves, we have a tendency to favor of favor instant gratification. To recognize our calling to care for the earth means realizing that our obligations to future generations involve leaving the earth better than we found it. In essence, this is what stewardship is all about–accepting that God expects us to prepare the way for our children by resisting the temptation for instant and maximal gratification in order to leave a healthy earth as a legacy of our faithfulness to God.
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