Michael Gerson

Jean Vanier coverage: Vague on his Catholic beliefs about the humanity of the disabled

Jean Vanier coverage: Vague on his Catholic beliefs about the humanity of the disabled

With all the online arguments last week about the faith of Rachel Held Evans, there passed from our midst someone who many people around the world truly believe will be hailed as a Catholic saint.

I am referring to Jean Vanier, the French-Canadian philosopher and humanist who believed the disabled should be treated like human beings and that they deserve one-on-one care. He died on May 7 at the age of 90. As BBC’s Martin Bashir said, he engaged in the “upside-down economics of Christianity; that the first shall be last.”

Vanier had a profound effect on people of my generation, a number of whom spent a year at his community in Trosly-Breuil, France, much like others served a stint with Mother Teresa in Calcutta in the 1970s and 1980s. It was his Catholic faith that led him to forsake marriage and children to devote himself to living with the handicapped his whole life.

Most of the mainstream media obits mentioned his Catholicity only in passing. How is that possible?

The CBC video with this post and a piece from The Guardian are cases in point.

In August 1964, having giving up his job teaching philosophy at the University of Toronto, he bought a small, rundown house without plumbing or electricity in the village of Trosly-Breuil, north of Paris, and invited two men with learning disabilities – Raphaël Simi and Philippe Seux – to share it with him. Both had been living in an asylum and were without family.

The initiative was prompted by Vanier’s visits to the long-stay hospitals that housed many people with learning disabilities at the time. “Huge concrete walls, 80 men living in dormitories and no work. I was struck by the screams and atmosphere of sadness,” he said.

Believing the men’s overwhelming need was for friendship he thought the small house could provide the support of domestic life, with the three of them shopping, cooking and washing up together.

Any expansion was far from his thoughts: “I had no idea of starting a movement or establishing communities outside Trosly, even less outside France. At one moment I even said we should stay the size of one carload – so if no one came to help me I could at least continue to travel by bringing everyone in the car.”

The New York Times was a bit better:

Today L’Arche, rooted in the Roman Catholic Church, has 154 communities in 38 countries; Faith and Light has 1,500 communities in 83 countries. Through both organizations, people with and without intellectual disabilities live together in a community where they can feel they belong. His work served as a model for several other organizations.

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Evangelical colleges have much to say about the Billy Graham epoch and its aftermath

Evangelical colleges have much to say about the Billy Graham epoch and its aftermath

Pundits say evangelical Protestantism, so long led by the late Billy Graham, is faltering in the United States (though not overseas) and split over Donald Trump-ism in politics and morals as well as certain religious differences.

Upon Graham’s passing, by handy coincidence, journalists can obtain fresh insight from the new “Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education” (Oxford University Press) by Adam Laats, professor of educational history at Binghamton University. Unlike many scholars not personally part of  this subculture, Laats takes these believers seriously on their own terms, minus scholarly condescension.

Laats thinks dozens of Christian colleges undergird the movement’s cultural impact and political conservatism in the U.S. They also demonstrate the interrelations between militant “fundamentalists” and the somewhat more open “evangelicals.” His book and its very title apply those two tricky terms confusingly and interchangeably, but the details provide writers valuable context on the historical definitions.

He spent endless hours in archives at six non-denominational campuses to document their achievements and conflicts. (Laats largely bypasses theologically similar denominational colleges, seminaries, and ministries on secular campuses.) The findings would enrich a journalistic visit to profile one of these six. Fresh reporting will be essential because the book’s narrative largely trails off  before recent developments.

Here are the campuses, listed in order of founding.

* Wheaton College (of Illinois, not the Massachusetts Wheaton):  Graham’s alma mater has been a liberal-arts college throughout history that traces to 1853 with re-founding by slavery foes in Lincoln’s 1860. Selective and often dubbed the movement’s equivalent of Harvard, it leads evangelicalism’s elite vs. fundamentalism. But it remains staunchly conservative, recently forcing out a tenured professor over affinity with Islam, and winning federal court exemption from Obamacare’s contraception mandate.

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About that Michael Gerson think piece: Why (many) evangelicals got hooked by Donald Trump

About that Michael Gerson think piece: Why (many) evangelicals got hooked by Donald Trump

Here is a really obscure fact about American politics that you may not have heard about: Did you know that lots of white evangelical Protestants voted for Donald Trump in 2016?

I know. It's really strange, but it must be true -- because it's in all the newspapers, week after week after week after week.

As I have noted before, it's true that there were evangelical "early adopters" who helped Trump get the 30 percent votes that he needed to gain momentum in the early primaries. As his candidacy became inevitable, many other evangelicals bit their lips and signed on -- many keeping their hard choice private. The best story to read remains this feature at Christianity Today: "Pew: Most Evangelicals Will Vote Trump, But Not For Trump."

Why has the press been so focused on white evangelicals? Trump isn't president today because lots of evangelicals -- for various reasons -- backed him. He is president because lots of blue-collar and labor Democrats voted for him in crucial states. Many of them were white Catholics. Where is the tsunami of coverage of those crucial niches in American politics?

I bring all this up -- again -- because this weekend's think piece is the must-read Michael Gerson cover story at The Atlantic that ran under this double-decker headline:

The Last Temptation
How evangelicals, once culturally confident, became an anxious minority seeking political protection from the least traditionally religious president in living memory

The key part of that headline is the reference to "seeking political protection." Hold that thought, because we will come back to it. Meanwhile, here is the overture:

One of the most extraordinary things about our current politics -- really, one of the most extraordinary developments of recent political history -- is the loyal adherence of religious conservatives to Donald Trump.

 

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Don't give us those old time religions: New York Times asks what it means to be a Democrat

Don't give us those old time religions: New York Times asks what it means to be a Democrat

Hey, news consumers: Does anyone remember that "Nones on the Rise" study from the Pew Research Center?

Of course you do. It was in all the newspapers, over and over. It even soaked into network and cable television news -- where stories about religion is rare.

The big news, of course, was the rapid rise in "Nones" -- the "religiously unaffiliated" -- in the American population, especially among the young. Does this sound familiar? One-fifth of all Americans -- a third of those under 30 -- are "Nones," to one degree or another.

Traditional forms of religious faith were holding their own, while lots of vaguely religious people in the mushy middle were being more candid about their lack of ties to organized religion. More than 70 percent of "Nones" called themselves "nothing in particular," as opposed to being either atheists or agnostics.

When the study came out, a key researcher -- John C. Green of the University of Akron -- said it was crucial to note the issues that united these semi-believers, as well as atheists, agnostics and faithful religious liberals, into a growing voter block on the cultural left. My "On Religion" column ended with this:

The unaffiliated overwhelmingly reject ancient doctrines on sexuality with 73 percent backing same-sex marriage and 72 percent saying abortion should be legal in all, or most, cases. Thus, the "Nones" skew heavily Democratic as voters. ... The unaffiliated are now a stronger presence in the Democratic Party than African-American Protestants, white mainline Protestants or white Catholics.
"It may very well be that in the future the unaffiliated vote will be as important to the Democrats as the traditionally religious are to the Republican Party,” said Green. ... "If these trends continue, we are likely to see even sharper divisions between the political parties."

These sharp divisions are also being seen INSIDE the major political parties. If you want to see that process at work, check out the fascinating New York Times report that ran the other day under this headline: "As Primaries Begin, Divided Voters Weigh What It Means to Be a Democrat." It isn't hard to spot the religion "ghost" in this blunt overture:

PALOS HILLS, Ill. -- When Representative Daniel Lipinski, a conservative-leaning Democrat and scion of Chicago’s political machine, agreed to one joint appearance last month with his liberal primary challenger, the divide in the Democratic Party was evident in the audience that showed up.

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Your weekend think piece: Billy Graham, Jeffrey Bell, Michael Gerson and 'Starbucks' politics

Your weekend think piece: Billy Graham, Jeffrey Bell, Michael Gerson and 'Starbucks' politics

The Rev. Billy Graham worked hard to avoid political questions, at least in public.

But there was one fact about his life that, for decades, he didn't hide. Graham was a registered Democrat.

In other words, the world's most famous evangelist grew up in the old South, pre-Roe vs. Wade, and he didn't grow up rich. Thus, he was a Southern Democrat. Most evangelicals were. Culturally conservative Democrats didn't become an endangered species until quite late in Billy Graham's adult life.

I thought of that fact the day Graham died. I sat down early that morning with an "On Religion" column already finished. All I had left to do was a quick edit and then ship it in. But first, I opened Twitter and there was the news that many religion writers had been expecting for years.

I knew what I was going to write when Graham died, as a sidebar to the major coverage across mainstream media. But I hadn't written it. Thus, I was on a hard deadline for the first time in many years. That column focused on Graham's sermon at civic memorial service for the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 (click here to read it).

It was hard not to think about the current state of American politics, and evangelicalism, while writing that column.

But what about the column that I had already written? It ran this week and, amazingly enough, it focuses on some very similar themes -- looking back to the crucial years when the Democratic Party began cutting it's ties to traditional religious groups.

The key figure in this column was Jeffrey Bell, a political strategist who died on Feb. 10. Bell was a Republican, but he also was known for his work to create a presidential campaign for the late Gov. Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, an old-school Catholic Democrat who was also vocally pro-life and pro-religious liberty.

Why did Bell think that conservative evangelicals and Catholics needed the option of backing a Democrat? That question is at the heart of this "think piece" collection for this weekend.

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Michael Gerson sends message to senators (and journalists?) about faith, law, public life

Michael Gerson sends message to senators (and journalists?) about faith, law, public life

Miichael Gerson is a graduate of one of America's best known evangelical liberal arts schools -- Wheaton College.

He has been a mainstream journalist, as well as a writer for Christian think tanks.

Gerson is, of course, best known for his work as a presidential speech writer for George W. Bush. He then moved into the role of the well-connected Washington, D.C., pundit, writing columns for the Washington Post op-ed page while holding various semi-academic research posts as a public intellectual at the Council for Foreign Relations and other groups.

It's safe to say that Gerson is capable of writing a column that is aimed at one specific DC crowd, while including information and themes that are relevant to other Beltway audiences.

Consider his Post piece on the "loud dogma" controversy that I have been writing about all week (click here for podcast) at GetReligion. The headline: "Senate Democrats show off their anti-religious bigotry."

We are, of course, talking about the recent U.S. Senate hearing in which Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and others, probed judicial nominee Amy Coney Barrett about the fine details of her traditional Catholic beliefs. Mainstream news coverage of this event was thin to nonexistent, but opinion writers of various stripes have had a field day. It's the new American journalism.

Here is my question: Gerson's column is about Democrats in the Senate. But there are places where one could switch his target to the mainstream press and his language would work just fine, if I believes that many journalists struggle to do news coverage of traditional forms of religious faith.

First, here is a key passage near the top of Gerson's column:

Barrett is an instructive test case of secular, liberal unease with earnest faith, particularly in its Catholic variety. She is, in the description of a letter signed by every full-time member of the Notre Dame Law School faculty, “a brilliant teacher and scholar, and a warm and generous colleague. She possesses in abundance all of the other qualities that shape extraordinary jurists: discipline, intellect, wisdom, impeccable temperament, and above all, fundamental decency and humanity.”
Barrett is also, not coincidentally, a serious Christian believer who has spoken like one in public.

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It's the (oh, no, not again) art of Trump’s deal with many old-guard evangelicals

It's the (oh, no, not again) art of Trump’s deal with many old-guard evangelicals

From the You Can’t Make This Up Department: During Donald Trump’s summit with nearly 1,000 evangelicals (GetReligion podcast here), Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. proudly tweeted out a photo of himself and wife Becki greeting the man who would be president.

Seen on the wall behind them was a framed Playboy magazine photo of Trump alongside a nubile Playmate.

Online liberal satirist Sarah Wood noted the Playmate is currently in prison for drug smuggling, and wondered why Falwell was “honored” to associate with “a thrice-married man who has more than insinuated that he wants to date his daughter, is currently racist, made money off screwing people over, and has posed for Playboy. Praise Jesus!”

Less derisively, Professor Tobin Grant, a Religion News Service columnist, quoted Trump’s new friends who not long ago warned he “can’t be trusted,” needs to “repent,” is “embarrassing,” a “scam,” and a“misogynist and philanderer” laden with “untruthfulness.” 

A second Grant piece listed words Trump never uttered during the 90-minute encounter: that would be Jesus, Christ, Bible, prayer, faith. “God” was mentioned once, however.

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Big picture: How can religious traditionalists shift strategies in cultural conflicts?

 Big picture: How can religious traditionalists shift strategies in cultural conflicts?

Big picture, it would be hard to over-state the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court’s legalization of same-sex marriage upon believers who uphold longstanding religious tradition. The resulting soul-searching is a theme worth careful journalistic treatment going forward.

One fruitful avenue would be seeking reactions from prime sources to three future options proposed by a package of articles in the current issue of Christianity Today, the influential evangelical monthly.

The cover offers a degree of optimism: “Have No Fear: How to Flourish in a Time of Cultural Weakness.”

That’s the tone of the lead article by two authors better known for politics than religion, Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Both were speechwriters and then top policy advisors in the George W. Bush White House. Armed with a foundation grant, they interviewed many evangelical writers, academicians and non-profit leaders, with varied reactions, then drew their own conclusions.

Gerson and Wehner scan history, noting how rarely authentic Christians have exercised full political power. Key quote: “When Christians find themselves on the losing side of Supreme Court decisions, it isn’t cause for despair. Nor does it preclude them from doing extraordinary things.”

Realistically, they say, believers must simply adjust to a world of same-sex marriage. Any bids to reverse this culture shift “will be spectacularly unsuccessful.” But “this does not mean they have to endorse gay marriage.” Traditionalists must remain vigilant in protecting “vital religious liberty,” which is a mark of the healthy society.

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