Speaking in God's name

nagin comments I'm having trouble keeping up with the Rev. Pat Robertson's obnoxious comments. Was his last one about New Orleans and God's wrath? Assassinating South American leaders? Or was it regarding some Pennsylvania town? Or on the health of a Middle East head of state? I'm waiting for Robertson to say that the reason the Indianapolis Colts lost Sunday was the State Supreme Court's ruling that prayers invoking Jesus Christ are unconstitutional.

The sad part of it all is that Robertson does represents a certain slice of American thought and, thus, I think his comments will always be news. So do his pronouncements represent the thought of that section of Americans that follow this guy, or are they merely goof-ups that few in their right minds agree with? Most likely, as with most things, it's somewhere in between.

All apologies from Robertson aside, now it's time to talk about another person's coffee-spewing comments. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin managed to insult just about everyone yesterday by overgeneralizing and claiming (in jest) to converse with the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Almighty, stating that last summer's hurricanes were signals that "God is mad at America" and black communities for shooting at each other too much.

Of course comments like these this will happen when a person speaks from the heart. This is something Nagin has been praised for and one of the reasons for his (former?) popularity. Again, all apologies and excuses aside, Nagin's comments certainly deserve press coverage. He was rightfully elected to his position and could be out soon. Meanwhile, Robertson's position as Spokesman for Saying Idiotic Things is self-appointed. His removal could prove difficult, despite tmatt's call for his excommunication.

mayor naginIn a solid piece of journalistic craftsmanship, Los Angeles Times writer Miguel Bustillo places the comments in context and provides some much-needed explainers on what exactly got into Nagin's head and why he made things worse later with comments on how you make chocolate milk. Here's Bustillo:

The remarks by the mayor, who is black, appeared to be an attempt to foster racial unity and appeal to disgruntled African American voters. Black activists and community leaders have criticized a rebuilding plan, proposed by a mayoral commission last week, that would give residents of badly flooded New Orleans neighborhoods just four months to prove the viability of their areas before possibly being forced to sell to the government.

Asked by a television reporter afterward whether his vision of a "chocolate" city might be racially divisive, Nagin explained that he hoped for a racially diverse New Orleans.

"Do you know anything about chocolate?" the mayor said. "How do you make chocolate? You take dark chocolate, you mix it with white milk, and it becomes a delicious drink. That's the chocolate I'm talking about."

Nagin's statements came a day after a traditional parade in the city was disrupted by gunfire that wounded three people. The parade was attended by many black evacuees who had made their way back for the occasion. Police say they do not have any suspects or motive in the shootings.

As part of his imaginary conversation with King on the state of New Orleans, Nagin called the suspected shooters "knuckleheads" and demanded an end to black-on-black violence.

CNN leads with the race comments, while the LA Times and the Associated Press stories open with the God is punishing us angle. Go figure. A casual, completely unscientific study of my own tells me that CNN likes to lead with issues regarding race.

The question for reporters is how to now treat someone such as Nagin. What about his comments criticizing the handling of the recovery efforts? Can they be taken as seriously?

Over at Christianity Today's blog, Ted Olsen wonders if Nagin's recent comments will get the same level of media play as Robertson's earlier comments on Ariel Sharon:

One might think that a government official's declarations on the mind of God would be more newsworthy than those of a broadcaster. ...

Equating the hurricanes with God's wrath is theologically problematic. But it's even more theologically problematic to invoke God directly in your plans to rebuild the city: "This city will be a majority African American city. It's the way God wants it to be. You can't have New Orleans no other way. It wouldn't be New Orleans."

Of course, saying God wants a place to be majority one race isn't just un-Christian. It also runs directly against Martin Luther King's dream.

The daily grind of the news will pick up stories likes these and my own personal observation tells me that the media handles them all about the same. It would take a more scientific effort to say for sure. I'm sure Jon Stewart will comment on these matters in his set tonight, but here's hoping that journalists focus on serious stories, not on these comments by Nagin and Robertson.

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