From the invaluable Merriam-Webster dictionary:
1: a person or device that tickles.
2: a device for jogging the memory; specifically: a file that serves as a reminder and is arranged to bring matters to timely attention.
Most scribes employ No. 2 to some extent, whether with old-style manila folders or in electronic form. Attention to the calendar paid off with a Feb. 19 feature by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s well-respected Peter Smith on the 50th anniversary of the local “Duquesne Weekend,” which inaugurated the Catholic Charismatic movement.
Political reporters’ datebooks will mark the 100th day of President Donald Trump’s presidency, or perhaps the July 20 half-year point, as useful points to assess the new administration. Another peg comes June 14 when history’s oldest president turns 71 (while refusing to provide full medical data, as with his tax returns).
Religion beat specialists could use those same calendar pegs to examine pro and con reactions to how the new president is handling questions of keen religious interest, overtures to this or that religious faction, or whether he ever attends church services, if so where, and if not why. Or this: Is the liberal Christian Century correct that Trump has obliterated the “civil religion” preached by prior presidents?
Speaking of presidents, ticklers will list the National Prayer Breakfast the first Thursday of each February. The 2017 version roused great expectations after a religiously and morally bizarre campaign, and President Trump’s first outing did not disappoint. He recalled childhood “in a churched home,” suggested prayer might help Arnold Schwarzenegger achieve his own “tremendous success” on TV, and remarked “the hell with it” during a fond mention of the Senate chaplain.
From past breakfasts, who can forget Ben Carson’s anti-Obama sermonette that launched a presidential run? Or past testimonies from Mother Teresa, former Prime Minister Tony Blair, U2 singer Bono and scientific superstar Francis Collins?
Reporters should once again examine the event's controversial and secretive (or devoted-to-confidentiality) sponsor, the Fellowship Foundation. Reason: The group's veteran leader, influential behind-scenes D.C. networker Doug Coe, died February 21 at age 88. So what will be the makeup of leadership in the post-Coe era?
Back to ticklers, in February 2018 how about a serious look at those caucuses of evangelical bigwigs in and around the main event?
A related tickler moment comes with the March 28 death date of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who appeared at the very first prayer breakfast in 1953, launching an unbroken presidential tradition. Or there’s his birth date on Oct. 14. Like the far different Trump, Ike never held elective office before winning the presidency.
A periodic C-Span survey, issued last week, shows 91 historians now rank Ike No. 5 among the nation’s best presidents, his best showing yet (behind only Lincoln, Washington and the two Roosevelts). Ike-versus-Donald comparisons are also in the media mix thanks to Fox News anchor Bret Baier’s new best-seller “Three Days in January: Dwight Eisenhower’s Final Mission.”
Regarding religion, Baier sketches the essentials of Ike’s upbringing (he was named for primo evangelist Dwight L. Moody), and the story behind that first prayer breakfast. Other landmarks in the “piety on the Potomac” 1950s were adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, making “In God We Trust” the national motto and Ike’s pick for chief justice, Earl Warren, leading a D.C. prayer rally on behalf of Moody’s evangelistic successor Billy Graham.
Like many military officers, Eisenhower was a spiritual vagabond who held no church membership when he entered the White House. He joined D.C.’s National Presbyterian Church through a baptism conducted by Pastor Edward Elson, later Senate chaplain. Baier recounts that the sacrament was supposed to be private and when Elson issued a press release Ike “was so peeved he threatened to choose another church.”
Diane Winston of the University of Southern California filed a good prayer breakfast backgrounder that noted Eisenhower was reluctant to attend the first one and was coaxed into it by Graham, who also brokered the president’s baptism and Presbyterian affiliation. Thus another tickler date comes next Nov. 7, the 99th birthday of the world’s most famous Protestant, a player in many such spiritual interactions.
Sources on all the above: (1) Gordon College’s scholarly President D. Michael Lindsay, author of “Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite.” (2) Historian Grant Wacker, author of “America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation.” (3) Sociologist William Martin, author of “Prophet With Honor: The Billy Graham Story.”