It was 92 years ago that a manufacturer of record players first trademarked the phrase "the gift that keeps on giving."
Perhaps the folks at Politico could consider its use any time they publish stories about God and politics.
Last week, it was a ham-handed attempt at analyzing President Donald J. Trump's "God-talk" as POTUS. And its equally poor take on supposed links between Trump and Russia via the Chabad Lubavitch organization, as noted by my colleague Ira Rifkin.
This week, Dr. Ben Carson is in the crosshairs for daring to mention the Deity when talking about government work linked to his new line of work -- housing:
God is Ben Carson’s favorite subject. Brain surgery is a close second. Housing is somewhere further down the list.
“I was told that as a government leader, I really shouldn't talk about God. But I have to tell you, it's part of who I am,” Carson said last month, in one of his first speeches as Housing and Urban Development secretary.
Less than two months into the job, Carson still holds forth on God and neurosurgery, but his views on housing policy remain largely a mystery. While he's making good on a promised listening tour to learn about the $48 billion agency he now leads, he's done little public speaking about the urgent issue at hand -- a lack of affordable housing. ...
Carson told POLITICO that policy proposals are in the works, but in public appearances the one-time presidential candidate is sticking to his stump-speech staples. He prescribes “godly principles” as a cure for the country’s political division and praises housing advocates for “putting God’s love into action.”
Now, from a political/policy standpoint, I can understand why Carson's emphasis on "godly principles" and "putting God's love into action" might seem a bit, well, off-putting. We're more accustomed to hearing about bloc grants, subsidies, expansion plans, or reasons why there can't be any of those.
Politico reporter Lorraine Woellert -- who in the 1990s pulled a four-year stint as a reporter at the faith-friendly Washington Times not long after I started there as a contributing tech columnist -- gets to the heart of the matter. Carson's God-talk is failing to connect with those in the housing activist community who want to see concrete plans and not platitudes:
But lately, [Carson's] up-by-the-bootstraps message has been falling flat with anti-poverty audiences.
“It’s a great story, but it’s a dangerous message because not everybody can pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” said Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. “Nobody does that, including Secretary Carson. He had a lot of support — his mother, his family, his faith. He had a whole context of support.”
Here's the journalism problem I have with this story: Nowhere does Woellert bother to mention which faith inspired Ben Carson's God-talk. Yes, it's understood he's a Christian, but isn't there more to the story? Perhaps a few facts and specifics? You know, like God is in the details?
I ask because Carson is not the only politician these days talking about God and poverty. In San Antonio, Texas, Mayor Ivy Taylor was quite explicit about her view that poor spiritual relationships are in part a cause of multi-generational poverty, according to a report in the Huffington Post:
Speaking at a candidates’ forum early this month, Mayor Ivy Taylor was asked what she thought were the “deepest systemic causes of generational poverty” in the city. In a video posted online by NOWCastSA, she said:
“Since you’re with the Christian Coalition, I’ll go ahead and put it out there that to me, it’s broken people. People not being in a relationship with their creator and therefore not being in a good relationship with their families and their communities and not being productive members of society.”
Taylor said that’s “not something I work on” as mayor, apparently referring to the religious elements of her answer, but added that from a policy angle she attempted to solve the issue through education. Taylor also mentioned addressing teen pregnancies.
As you might imagine, the HuffPo writer wasn't all that thrilled about Taylor's comments, and some of her constituents may not be so sanguine about them, either. But at least they identified Taylor as “a devout Baptist whose Christian faith is integral to everything she does,” citing a San Antonio Express-News column buried behind a paywall.
Back to Politico: We get no indication of where Carson attends church each week.
I, of course, happen to know the answer because, as regular readers here might recall, I share Carson's particular affiliation: He's a Seventh-day Adventist, as am I. (Truth be told, while I'm nowhere near the "brain surgeon" category, I did spend 11 years serving at the church's world headquarters, first in the communication department and then as news editor for Adventist Review and Adventist World magazines. Hence, I've learned a bit about presenting the church and its image, while working with the press.)
Now, it's worth noting that Seventh-day Adventists have long been kinda big on education, self-improvement, and using one's talents in the best possible manner to serve both God and their fellow man. It's one reason why so many Adventists are involved in the medical field, for example. And Carson's own story -- told in his autobiography, "Gifted Hands" -- emphasizes his own pursuit of excellence in school and in the operating room.
Ellen G. White, a co-founder of the movement (see video trailer for Tell the World above), put it this way: "Higher than the highest human thought can reach is God's ideal for His children. Godliness -- godlikeness -- is the goal to be reached. ... He will advance as fast and as far as possible in every branch of true knowledge." (Education, page 18)
Might it be possible that White's counsel, which I'm certain Carson studied diligently over the years, played a role in shaping his worldview? After all, White preached hard work, writing, "We can never be saved in indolence and inactivity. There is no such thing as a truly converted person living a helpless, useless life. It is not possible for us to drift into heaven. No sluggard can enter there." (Christ's Object Lessons, page 280)
While it might be a stretch to expect a Politico policy reporter to have at hand quotes from a founder of Carson's denomination, it's not much to ask for a little digging, is it? By identifying Carson's specific affiliation, and perhaps examining its beliefs, an enterprising reporter could add some much-needed context.
But context and nuance seem to be a bit alien at Politico these days, at least where matters of faith are concerned. More's the pity. Was the assumption that he was merely another "evangelical" like all the others?
Meanwhile, for a blogger examining how the press doesn't "get" religion, Politico's current wave of coverage truly is "the gift that keeps on giving."
FIRST IMAGE: Eric Metaxas and Ben Carson speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. Photo by Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons.