Category: Faith

Glenn Beck Reimagines Whiteness

from The Columbia Journalism Review.

It’s rare that an event can provoke columns that carry such contradictory teasers as “Don’t ridicule Glenn Beck’s tribute to MLK: Celebrate it” and “Drowning out the hate hustlers: Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck cannot steal America’s soul.”

The first comes from Slate’s William Saletan, responding to critics who decried the tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. during Saturday’s “Restoring Honor” rally at the Lincoln Memorial by asserting, “There’s nothing unseemly about the right’s embrace of King. This is America at its best: A man once disowned as a partisan and a rebel now belong to all of us… Their invocations of his legacy were sustained and serious. They affirmed his central message—equality—and grouped him with the country’s Founding Fathers.”

The second comes from Stanley Crouch’s column in the New York Daily News, which he begins, “Now that irresponsible opportunists have brought many of the misled to Washington, we can begin to contemplate what makes bigotry so appealing. Surely, being able to exclude is one of the great joys of the species because it can give a grand identity to the average person. That identity as one of the elect made the red glow in Southern white necks.”

While blasting the event’s main speakers, Crouch did not attack them for their words that day. Instead, he attacked them for earlier “race-bating as clearly as they could” around the controversy of an Islamic center in Lower Manhattan. He would have been hard-pressed to attack the speakers on the podium, for Beck delivered a pageant that scrupulously avoided any hint of racism. As Saletan notes, in addition to the embrace of King there were references to injustices done to Native Americans.

But even if spokespeople had never made comments that could be construed as racist, it would be understandable for critics to be on the lookout for racism. Continue reading


Show Me the Way of the Hebrews: The Making of an African American Rabbi

Originally published in Religion Dispatches.

Aronoff reading at torah dedication. Picture by J. Lester Feder

The services I attended at Philadelphia’s Congregation Temple Bethel were loud and joyous, but I felt totally out of place. That was a familiar feeling, of course. My two Jewish parents raised me without any religious education. (My father, a butcher, takes an almost perverse delight in flouting his non-belief with gestures like giving me lard as a Christmas present.) But I was more at ease this morning, because it was not expected that I understand the rituals because I look like a Jew. I was one of the only white people in shul that morning, and it was nice to look as out of place as I usually feel.

Bethel is an African American synagogue founded in the 1950s by a woman known as “Mother” Louise Elizabeth Dailey. Today it has an estimated membership of 500 families.

Their mode of worship looked more Pentecostal to me than Jewish. A praise band played throughout the five-hour service, which was punctuated by frenzied moments in which worshippers would run laps around the pews while some fell into ecstatic fits of weeping. They were dedicating a new Torah scroll, and some readers sounded almost like mullahs chanting the Koran, while others sang with an extravagant Ashkenazi style that I had only seen used by Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer.

I was at Bethel on an assignment for The Washington Post, a cover story for the magazine about a new African American synagogue in DC started in 2008 by Mother Dailey’s grandson, Eli Aronoff. (Aronoff claims no Ashkenazi ancestry despite his surname—his father was from rural South Carolina.) Neither my story nor the new congregation succeeded—the Post axed the story during a shakeup of the magazine’s editorial staff in 2009, and Aronoff’s congregation recently decided to disband after two struggling years. But the experience allowed me to ask what it means to belong to a tradition that I had always been taught was my birthright. Does heritage alone make a Jew a Jew? Religious law? And why are these more important tokens of membership in the community that someone’s personal faith? Continue reading

The Floral Majority

How the split between creation care’s leaders and its grassroots activists is dictating the future of the green evangelical movement.

The New Republic, December 30, 2008

The Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins was gleeful after Richard Cizik, chief lobbyist of the 30-million member National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), was forced to resign on December 11. Perkins and other “family values” leaders had been trying to get rid of Cizik for two years, ever since he launched a campaign to add environmentalism to the evangelical “values” agenda. Though Cizik lost his job over comments endorsing civil unions, not because of his attention to what evangelicals call “creation care,” Perkins still claimed his ouster as a repudiation of the green agenda. “This was a long time coming,” Perkins said on his weekly radio show. “When you walk through that green door of environmentalism and global warming, you know, you risk being blinded by that green light and losing the sense of direction.”Cizik’s adversaries can easily find election data to argue he had diverged from the evangelical grassroots. While Barack Obama performed better among born-again Christians than John Kerry–Obama won 26 percent of white evangelicals, Kerry won 21 percent–Obama still won less than Al Gore’s 30 percent in 2000. The environment ranked twelfth on a list of 13 issues important to white evangelical voters in an October poll. And 2008’s most conspicuous evangelical, Sarah Palin, lead cries of “Drill, baby, drill.”

But it would be wrong to conclude that the evangelical grassroots have rejected environmentalism. Instead, evangelical environmentalists at the grassroots level simply conceive of the problem in different terms. Cizik envisions a politicized environmentalism to stop climate change, while the grassroots have been cultivating a consumer-focused green movement that intentionally steers clear of politics. Cizik’s resignation certainly doesn’t announce the death of creation care–but it does suggest it may evolve in a new direction. Continue reading

The Devil in the Details

Polls reinforce reporters’ stereotypes about evangelicals.

From The Columbia Journalism Review, May/June 2008.

My New York friends congratulated me for my “bravery” when I headed off to cover evangelical supporters of Mike Huckabee’s presidential campaign in Iowa shortly before Christmas. I grew up in Virginia at a time when the state’s Christian right was gaining strength, but have spent most of my adult life in liberal circles where evangelicals—if there were any—kept their faith largely to themselves.

During the days I spent following Huckabee’s campaign swing, I met some Christians who conformed to my friends’ expectations: home-schoolers, knee-jerk fundamentalists, voters for whom “family values” trumped all other issues. But I seemed to meet just as many evangelical voters who defied the stereotype. In Ames, there was the engineering grad student who was concerned about energy independence and was choosing between Huckabee and the libertarian Ron Paul. In Des Moines, a sixty-something woman whispered to me behind her husband’s back that she was uncomfortable with the hard-right line on abortion and gay unions. In Waterloo, I spoke by phone with a member of Huckabee’s “Pastors Council” who mentioned he was African American. At stop after stop, Christian voters—along with a good number of Huckabee supporters who said they were not regular churchgoers—cited economic concerns as often as social ones. And when I stepped off the trail to cover Christmas services at a Charismatic church, I even met evangelical Democrats.


Explaining McCain’s Success Among Evangelicals

The Huffington Post, January 20, 2008.

As South Carolina Republicans headed to the polls Saturday, an all too-simple storyline emerged in the press. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, a Southern Baptist minister who won the Iowa caucus, would have the evangelical vote, while Arizona Senator John McCain, a Vietnam War hero, would win defense conservatives. “It’s the Christian soldiers vs. the retired soldiers,” one observer summed up for the Wall Street Journal.

But McCain captured a quarter of evangelical voters when he won yesterday’s GOP primary according to exit polls, while Huckabee won only 40%. A recent conversation with Rich Cizik, who heads up governmental affairs for the 30-million member National Association of Evangelicals, reveals that Christian voters are a more complicated voting block than the media seems to realize. Cizik speaks unhappily about the GOP under the Bush administration. “This has been an unholy alliance in which the evangelicals have given everything and gotten nothing in return.” But, he says, “It’s quite obvious that the next Republican in the White House will likely be someone with a very different attitude… John McCain or Mike Huckabee, at least in the case of those two, would be much more sympathetic.” (Cizik was speaking for himself, not for the NAE, which does not endorse candidates.)

Cizik’s favorable disposition to Huckabee’s campaign is expected. Huckabee is widely regarded as the evangelicals’ greatest hope in 2008. But his view of John McCain may come as something of a surprise. McCain is regarded as having dealt his 2000 campaign a deathblow a week after George W. Bush defeated him in a dirty South Carolina primary when he blasted Bush supporters on the Religious Right in a Virginia Beach speech. He condemned Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as “agents of intolerance” in the political campaign, and expressed disdain for their opposition to his signature issue, campaign finance reform. “I don’t pander to them, because I don’t ascribe to their failed philosophy that money is our message. I believe in the cause of conservative reform.” Though not all evangelicals agree with Falwell and Robertson, McCain’s attack on the movement’s high profile leaders is believed to have ended any remaining hope that he could win over the key GOP constituency.

Looking towards 2008, McCain went to great lengths to repair relationships with the Christian leaders he had scorned in 2000. He met with Falwell in his Senate office and spoke at the graduation of the school Falwell founded, Liberty University. As the campaign heated up in the fall of ’07, he made a comment to Beliefnet that many greeted as bald-faced pandering. “I just have to say in all candor that since this nation was founded primarily on Christian principles… personally, I prefer someone who I know who has a solid grounding in my faith.”

Cizik’s openness to McCain explains why evangelical voters are more receptive than conventional wisdom would dictate. Now, Cizik is a different breed of evangelical leader than Falwell and Robertson. Indeed, he has weathered calls for his ouster by leading “family values” conservatives because he has championed a broader agenda that includes traditionally “liberal” issues like climate change. But if that issue is any indication, Cizik’s far more in sync with evangelical voters, 84% of whom favor global warming legislation. (Falwell, on the other hand, denounced global warming advocacy as “Satan’s attempt to redirect the church’s primary focus” shortly before his death last spring.)

On a host of issues I happen to agree with him,” Cizik says of McCain, beginning with the issues that have most antagonized conservative activists. “I agree with him on campaign finance reform. I agree with him on immigration.” Cizik continues, “I agree with him on climate and the environment. I agree with him on Iraq, where he’s disagreed with the Bush administration [about the need for more troops]. I agree with him on [opposing additional] federal spending and earmarks and all these things. I agree with McCain on the sanctity of human life.

The truth is, the evangelical movement is not homogeneous, but divided on many key issues. While evangelical leaders have long railed against campaign finance reform because it curtailed their ability to influence elections, even Christian voters supporting Huckabee before he won Iowa expressed outrage with the big money that influences the Republican party. Immigration, similarly, splits the evangelical family. Though roughly two-thirds of white evangelicals tell pollsters they regard immigrants as a burden on society, some evangelical groups have come out in support of immigration reform or avoided the issue because of a lack of consensus.

Voters in both Iowa and New Hampshire — and, now South Carolina — responded to candidates who positioned themselves as outsiders. Christians want that change as much as any other rank-and-file GOP voter. While Huckabee’s Christian roots gives him a leg up among evangelicals, Cizik’s comments suggest why McCain can compete for these votes despite his complicated history with the evangelical leadership. “I just think McCain has been a solid leader and a maverick and an innovator,” Cizik says.

Huckabee Campaign Divided on Environment and Evangelicalism

The Huffington Post, December 31, 2007.

The only policy issue Mike Huckabee singles out on a page devoted to “Faith and Politics” isn’t abortion or marriage. “My faith doesn’t influence my decisions, it drives them,” writes the GOP presidential hopeful. “For example, when it comes to the environment, I believe in being a good steward of the earth.”

But the prominence given to the environment on this webpage is unmatched in Iowa. He does not even mention the issue in his stump speech, and he is seldom asked about it by the largely conservative audiences that turn out to appraise whether he deserves their support in the state’s January 3rd caucus. This is undoubtedly a prudent judgment of the concerns of the voters he is courting. He is unlikely to win points for having bucked conservative orthodoxy with his endorsement of a cap-and-trade system to control carbon emissions. But he also likely avoids talking about the environment because there is deep division within the evangelical community that has fueled his rise to the front of the GOP pack

“I’ve heard reporters talking about global warming as an evangelical issue, and that’s just poppycock,” said Iowa Christian Alliance President Steve Scheffler, reached by phone earlier this month. Scheffler doesn’t object to adding the environment to the evangelical agenda because it strays beyond the bread and butter issues of abortion and marriage, he clarified after a fundraiser featuring Huckabee in Cedar Rapids. “People of faith are interested in issues beyond so-called Christian issues or moral issues” including preserving the state’s “Right to Work” law and sealing the borders. “But in terms of global warming or whatever, I don’t think those theories have been proven beyond of a shadow of a doubt.”

When asked to comment on Huckabee’s green Christian rhetoric, he initially said the website language “is fine and dandy [but] I’m not sure he’s talked specifically in terms of global warming.” Informed of Huckabee’s endorsement of cap-and-trade, he appeared perplexed and declined to comment further.

Global climate change aside, there is no question there is substantial change in the evangelical political climate, and Huckabee is caught in the crosswinds. According to a survey conducted this fall by Ellison Research, that 84% of evangelicals nationwide favor global warming legislation. Fifty-four percent of those surveyed said they are more likely to support a presidential candidate who backs such legislation, while only 10% said they would question their support. The largest evangelical organization, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), found “Creation Care” (as Christian environmentalists have rechristened their cause) to be one of the top 5 concerns of American evangelicals. This was based on a survey of 100 members of their board of directors that included the heads of several evangelical denominations comprising about 45,000 local churches. The NAE has leant its institutional heft to the cause of global warming. NAE Vice President for Governmental Affairs Richard Cizik was an architect of the Evangelical Climate Initiative, which now has over 100 signatories.

But the most high-profile evangelical political leaders are singing from a different hymnal. Shortly before his death this spring, the late Rev. Jerry Falwell described growing environmentalism among evangelicals as “Satan’s attempt to redirect the church’s primary focus.” Focus on the Family’s James Dobson, Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins, and 23 other conservative activists have called for Cizik’s ousting, accusing him of “using the global warming controversy to shift the emphasis away from the great moral issues of our time.”

It is not surprising that the Iowa Christian Alliance’s Steve Scheffler is in line with old-guard leaders like Dobson and Perkins. He led the state organization to split with the national Christian Coalition in part because it was perceived as becoming too liberal after and backing a state tax increase in Alabama and joining with to defend “net neutrality.” But Huckabee owes his success to peddling a kinder-and-gentler brand of Christian conservatism than the one championed by the ICA.

Huckabee is by now familiar with navigating these fractious waters. He simply raised his eyebrows in bemusement when told about Scheffler’s repudiation of Christian environmentalism following a campaign stop in Ames. “I just think it’s a matter of stewardship… If you read Genesis 1, it makes very clear that we’re to help take care of [nature], we’re not to abuse, but to use.” But the split within the movement has forced him into a sometimes-confusing dance on the subject of global warming. His endorsement of a cap-and-trade system during a CBS Evening News appearance earlier this month was lost in an uproar over his response to a question about whether “the global warming threat [is] overblown.” “I mean, the honest answer for me, scientifically, is I don’t know,” he said. “But here’s one thing I do know, that we ought to not let this become this big political football and point of argument. We all ought to agree that we live on this planet as guests. I think Republicans have made a big mistake by not being more on the forefront of conservationism.”

Huckabee’s Iowa campaign co-chairman used humor to downplay the depth of division on the issue when asked if the environment was a Christian issue. “You mean, God’s Creation, the environment!?” he joked, feigning bewilderment of how anyone could think otherwise. “Of course it is.” But Huckabee’s other Iowa co-chairman, state Rep. Danny Carroll, was less primed to sign on to this agenda. “I guess it’s a Christian issue, but I guess I never really thought about it.” His perspective on his constituents’ attitude towards global warming reflect the conflict Huckabee is navigating. “I don’t know about Christians, but Iowans in general are a little bit skeptical about all of the discussion around global warming and that sort of thing, but we are by nature conservationists… I don’t know that they’re convinced that man is causing global warming, but the solutions that are proposed with that in mind are appealing to Iowans and to Christians.”

The ICA’s Scheffler had lashed out at the National Association and Evangelicals and influential pastor Rick Warren, a signatory to the Evangelical Climate Initiative. “They don’t represent the grassroots people…. The people in the pews [don’t] think what some national leader thinks.” Talking to the Christian voters who turned out to Huckabee’s Iowa rallies suggest he’s partly right. None listed the environment as a major issue to them, and many signaled their hostility to Al Gore and the global warming initiatives with which he is associated. But only one voter I spoke suggested he might hold Huckabee’s environmental views against him. When asked if the idea of the environment as a Christian issue resonated with him, Ethan Bolte of Cedar Rapids said, “Yeah — negatively. I think it’s a hoax, the whole global warming thing.” Far more typical was Amy Zimmerman of Van Meter, who prioritized conventional evangelical issues but was open to making the environment a priority. “It does resonate with us because…we are stewards of our earth, [which] we believe has been created by God,” she said. “However, human life comes before any particular real crazy left environment stuff.”

Real Mike Huckabee Please Stand Up?

Huffington Post, December 23, 2007.

Des Moines — Mike Huckabee began a bold denunciation of gay marriage in Ames, Iowa, Wednesday night, but quickly checked himself with stuttering caveats:

“We have to also realize that the strength of our nation really does come down to our families, and that’s why, without apology — I’m, I’m not mad at anybody and I’m, I’m not against anybody — but folks, we have an obligation to preserve the integrity of, of what family, what marriage means. Again, not to, not to try to put others down, but to lift that institution up.”

The former Arkansas governor returned to Iowa this week as the new frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination. He has been selling himself as a kinder-and-gentler conservative, one who’s “just not angry about it.” How different is the aw-shucks Huck who spoke in this Iowa college town than the culture warrior who wrote in 1998: “It is now difficult to keep track of the vast array of publicly endorsed and institutionally supported aberrations — from homosexuality and pedophilia to sadomasochism and necrophilia.” This quote turned up by David Korn at Mother Jones is one of the many Ghosts of an Angry Huckabee Past that haunted him the week before Christmas.

One of Huckabee’s main challenges during the final stretch to the Iowa caucuses is preserving his sunny image under intensifying scrutiny.

Huckabee’s campaign added new text this week to a campaign webpage devoted to “Faith and Politics.” His first principle, according the revised page, is that “The First Amendment requires that expressions of faith be neither prohibited nor preferred.” The old first principle, “Faith is my life — it defines me,” has been moved into second place. This is likely chiefly a response to media uproar of his assertion that “what really matters is celebrating the birth of Christ” in a holiday ad (whoops, I mean Christmas ad) that began airing earlier this week. Huckabee was now a foot soldier resisting the “War on Christmas.”

Huckabee spent the week performing this balancing act on the stump. After several appearances in Iowa, it became clear that he was fine-tuning his speech to make sure his audience heard what he wanted them to without giving ammunitions to reporters.

Twenty-four hours after his speech in Ames, home to Iowa State University, Huckabee headlined a fundraiser for the Iowa Christian Alliance in Cedar Rapids. Huckabee may claim not to be angry — but the ICA doesn’t make any such apology. They split with the Christian Coalition last year citing the national organization’s support for an Alabama tax increase and its cooperation with in support of “net neutrality.” Before Huckabee took the podium, ICA President Steve Schaeffer called on the audience to join a campaign for a state marriage amendment campaign and reminded them that Christian activists helped save the state right-to-work law.

In Ames, Huckabee had started with a long discussion of his rise from his humble roots, burying social issues almost 30 minutes into his speech. He spoke about gay marriage for less than a minute. But in Cedar Rapids, Huckabee offered up a credo to the ICA right out of the gate. “[T]hose of us who were evangelicals joined in the Republican Party because there was no other place to go politically when we were pro-life, pro-family, and pro-marriage. Now most of us are people, too, who believe in lower taxes and less government. We believe in more local government and less federal government, and we’re conservative across the board. And no matter what you hear, those are the things that I believe.”

He dwelled on the marriage issue before the ICA for twice as long as he had in Ames, invoking new religious rhetoric. Perhaps mindful that reporters might be waiting for the Huckabee of the ’90s to come out of hiding, he did offer one halting protest to ward off allegations of homophobia before serving up red meat.

“[W]hen it comes to the point of marriage — I’m not against people, I’m, I’m not mad at anybody about, uh, trying to dictate how other people live, but I, I certainly do feel that we’ve got a responsibility to act when people want to redefine the very essence of what marriage means. It’s only meant one thing in human history, and that’s one man and one woman in a monogamous relationship for life…. Once we change the definition of that structure, and we start saying…it can be any group of people who choose to be together and label themselves a family…you’ve taken the very structure away that has given us stability…. What happens when we loose that skeletal system of our entire fabric of being? And I remind people that before God created the church or even a civil government, first and foremost he created and established marriage and the family. It is the foundation, the foremost, the single most important institution that we have of all. That’s why it’s not an issue that we can say, it’s a political issue and it doesn’t matter. It does matter, and it’s got to keep mattering to every single one of us and the day that it doesn’t matter is the day that we might as well start looking towards the end of our civilization.”

Voices in the crowd offered up an “Amen.”

In Ames, his abortion rhetoric was cleverly anchored in the language of the Declaration of Independence, without reference to God:

To give [our kids] a better world, we have to make sure that we do the one thing that perhaps gives us the greatest level of civility of all. And that’s respect each other. Remember when I said that all of us are created equal and endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights? And the first one was life. For me, the sanctity of human life is not a political issue. It’s a fundamental definition of who we are as a culture and a society. The reason that this country works as it does is because we do treat each other with a sense of intrinsic worth and value that is not changed by IQ, by wealth, by what house you live in, by where you went to school, by who your father or grandfather was, or what your last name is, or what ethnicity you have, or what race, or what religion — none of that matters. All of us are equal. All of us have the same intrinsic worth. Which means that unborn child in the mother’s womb is just as valuable as is the 18-year-old, as is the 38-year-old, as is the 88-year-old. [Applause] And the day that we ever start valuing some more than others for whatever reason, we really do start losing who we are.

He simply reverses the order before the ICA, and stresses that Thomas Jefferson’s “creator” is the Christian God:

When people think about the issue of sanctity of life, sometime they want to make it a political issue. To many of us, it is not a political issue. It is an issue that is about really the essence of our civilization. Soul of our civilization. Quite frankly, if you think about it, the pro-life position is the one that was espoused by our founding fathers when they said that all of us our created equal, endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights. The first one they listed was life. And the whole part of that principle is built on “all men are created equal.” That means nobody has a greater level of intrinsic worth or value than any other person. Being unborn doesn’t make you less valuable. Having different IQ, having a different ethnicity, having a different last name or ancestry, none of those things cause one to be elevated above another in their basic worth before God. And the reason that for some of the pro-life issue is non-negotiable and it’s not a political issue, but it’s at its very heart and soul a moral issue that determines the future of this country is because if we miss it on that, we miss it all the way back to the concept of people being created equal.

The subtle reshuffling has a powerful rhetorical effect. In Ames, his pro-life position has no need for justification in the Bible — the constitution is reason enough. Speaking to the ICA, however, he implied that the faith and principles he shared with his religious right audience were written into the constitution by the Founding Fathers.

Many have wanted to write Huckabee off as a small-town rube. But decades as a preacher and a politician have turned him into a masterful speaker, one of the best on the stump. He has careful control over his words. By subtly shifting his rhetoric, he can make his hard-right audience hear what they are looking for without jeopardize the friendly image he has carefully constructed.

Which one is the “real” Huckabee? We may never know, unless he gets elected president. The weakest speech I saw him give during his time in Iowa, however, was the one I found most revealing. A few hours before addressing the ICA, a worn-out Huckabee spoke to a small crowd in a Manchester community center on the county fair grounds. This was his third stop of the day, and the 5th in less than 24 hours. As if seeking easy ground on which to warm up, he opened with social issues, coming close to belittling those on the other side of the issue.

“Seems like there’s a debate going on about whether marriage still means what it’s always meant — one man, one woman, lifetime relationship… It seems like it’s worked pretty well through most of human history, I hate to start changing the rules now,” he said, almost jokingly. “The fact is, marriage has enough trouble staying together for most people — the divorce rate now is at the 50 percent mark — I hardly see why we’d start a new version of it when we need to be working on the old version of it to try to make it a little better.”

Huckabee’s rival from Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, has gone on the attack as his lead over the Arkansan has evaporated. Huckabee uses this to emphasize his upbeat image, as he told those in Manchester, “There’s a real need in this nation for us to change the tone.” He might have been describing his transformation from cultural-warrior to conservative populist. The question is, is he still singing the same tune?