Peggy Noonan

The mainstream faith of Bush 41: At what point did 'personal' become 'political'?

The mainstream faith of Bush 41: At what point did 'personal' become 'political'?

If you want a summary of what mainstream news professionals think is important — especially the elite scribes who cover politics — all you need to do is read the obituaries published after the death of a president.

What really matters? What subjects are secondary? It’s all there.

With that in mind, I urge readers to work their way through the stunningly faith-free New York Times obituary covering the life and times of former President George H.W. Bush: “George Bush, 41st President, Dies at 94.”

I would offer some commentary on the religious content in this massive feature — but there isn’t any. It would appear that the “personal” is not the “political.”

The bottom line: If you want to know what is real, what is “news,” then you need to study the political. You can see that by comparing the content of the Times obit with the newspaper’s fine sidebar that ran with this headline: “ ‘I Love You, Too’: George Bush’s Final Days.” Here is the overture to that:

George Bush had been fading in the last few days. He had not gotten out of bed, he had stopped eating and he was mostly sleeping. For a man who had defied death multiple times over the years, it seemed that the moment might finally be arriving.

His longtime friend and former secretary of state, James A. Baker III, arrived at his Houston home on Friday morning to check on him.

Mr. Bush suddenly grew alert, his eyes wide open.

“Where are we going, Bake?” he asked.

“We’re going to heaven,” Mr. Baker answered.

“That’s where I want to go,” Mr. Bush said.

Barely 13 hours later, Mr. Bush was dead. The former president died in his home in a gated community in Houston, surrounded by several friends, members of his family, doctors and a minister.

The minister at the former president’s bedside — Father Russell J. Levenson Jr. — was the pastor of the rather traditional Episcopal parish in which Bush was a leader. The same parish received quite a bit of attention when Barbara Bush died. The Times piece noted:

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Your depressing 'think' podcast: Faith, hate and details that mattered in Charlottesville

Your depressing 'think' podcast: Faith, hate and details that mattered in Charlottesville

Warning: This post is going to be rather depressing, especially for (a) old-school journalists, (b) religious believers seeking racial reconciliation and (c) consistent, even radical, defenders of the First Amendment.

I really struggled as host Todd Wilken and I recorded this week's Crossroads podcast (click here to tune that in) and I think you'll be able to hear that in my voice. From my perspective, the media coverage of the tragic events in Charlottesville, Va., descended into chaos and shouting and the public ended up with more heat that light, in terms of basic information.

The key question, of course, is what did these demonstrations/riots have to do with religion?

That's where this post will end up, so hang in there with me.

But let's start connecting some dots, starting with a shocking headline from the op-ed page of The New York Times, America's most powerful news operation. Did you see this one?

The A.C.L.U. Needs to Rethink Free Speech

As a First Amendment liberal, that made me shudder. The whole idea is that the ACLU is struggling to defend its historic commitment to free speech -- even on the far right. In the context of Charlottesville, that leads to this (in the Times op-ed):

The American Civil Liberties Union has a long history of defending the First Amendment rights of groups on both the far left and the far right. This commitment led the organization to successfully sue the city of Charlottesville, Va., last week on behalf of a white supremacist rally organizer. The rally ended with a Nazi sympathizer plowing his car into a crowd, killing a counterprotester and injuring many.
After the A.C.L.U. was excoriated for its stance, it responded that “preventing the government from controlling speech is absolutely necessary to the promotion of equality.” Of course that’s true. The hope is that by successfully defending hate groups, its legal victories will fortify free-speech rights across the board: A rising tide lifts all boats, as it goes.
While admirable in theory, this approach implies that the country is on a level playing field, that at some point it overcame its history of racial discrimination to achieve a real democracy, the cornerstone of which is freedom of expression.

The key, of course, is that the rally descended into violence.

 

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One more time: What explains enthusiasm among many evangelicals for Trump?

 One more time: What explains enthusiasm among many evangelicals for Trump?

On Super Tuesday, Donald Trump easily swept the four states with the heaviest majorities of Protestants who consider themselves “evangelicals” -- Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas and Georgia.  

So the campaign’s major religious puzzle -- likely to be pondered come 2020 and 2024 -- continues to be how to explain Trump’s appeal to Bible Belters.

Yes, Trump brags that he’s either a “strong Christian,” “good Christian” or “great Christian.” Many GOP voters don’t buy it. And they don’t care. Pew Research Center polling in January showed only 44 percent of Republicans and Republican “leaners” see Trump as either “very” or “somewhat” religious, while 24 percent said “not too” religious and 23 percent “not at all.”

That’s far below the “very” or “somewhat religious” image of Marco Rubio (at 70 percent) who’d be the party’s first Catholic nominee, Baptist Ted Cruz (76 percent) and Seventh-day Adventist Dr. Ben Carson (80 percent). Anglican John Kasich was not listed.

An anti-Trump evangelical who worked in the Bush 43 White House, Peter Wehner, posed the question in a harsh New York Times piece: “Mr. Trump’s character is antithetical to many of the qualities evangelicals should prize in a political leader.” Their backing for “a moral degenerate” is “inexplicable” and will do “incalculable damage to their witness.” Many such words are being tossed about in religious, journalistic, and political circles.

Observers who hate Christians, or evangelicals, or social conservatives, or political conservatives, or Republicans, have a ready answer: The GOP and especially its religious ranks are chock full of creeps, fools, and racists.

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WPost: Avoiding Maya Angelou's soul, if at all possible

In the world of political, cultural and social studies theory there is a term — “civil religion” — that scholars have been arguing about for decades. You can talk about Rousseau and you can dig into Tocqueville and travel on to Martin Marty, but sooner or later you end up with the 1967 Robert Bellah essay entitled, “Civil Religion in America,” written by Robert Bellah in Daedalus in 1967. As the Encyclopedia of Religion and Society notes: Bellah’s definition of American civil religion is that it is “an institutionalized collection of sacred beliefs about the American nation,” which he sees symbolically expressed in America’s founding documents and presidential inaugural addresses. It includes a belief in the existence of a transcendent being called “God,” an idea that the American nation is subject to God’s laws, and an assurance that God will guide and protect the United States. Bellah sees these beliefs in the values of liberty, justice, charity, and personal virtue and concretized in, for example, the words In God We Trust on both national emblems and on the currency used in daily economic transactions. Although American civil religion shares much with the religion of Judeo-Christian denominations, Bellah claims that it is distinct from denominational religion.

Back in by Church-State Studies days at Baylor University, I wrote my thesis on a topic linked to all of this, a 290-page work called “A Unity of Frustration: Civil Religion in the 15 October 1969 Vietnam War Moratorium.” Amazingly enough, you no longer have to go to my office or to the main campus library in Waco, Texas, to read it (although I have been pleased at how many researchers have used it through loaner programs). Now Google Books has made it available (sort of).

Anyway, while most people look at civil religion as something rooted in the belief of a great, unified, majority, I argued — with extensive material from interviewing Marty (key: a community of communities) — that some minority religious or semi-religious movements have, over time, been absorbed into the majority and thus into the civil religion.

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Tough questions: 'You gonna put those shoes on again?'

Embedded above is a clip from CNN where media critic Howard Kurtz says what is bleedingly obvious to everyone — the media have cheered on Wendy Davis’ and her abortion filibuster in biased fashion. He asks the rhetorical question of how the same media would cover the same filibuster if, instead, it were against abortion.

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