Thursday, December 16, 2004

Frank Rich's column this week is a must read:


What is this about? How can those in this country's overwhelming religious majority maintain that they are victims in a fiery battle with forces of darkness? It is certainly not about actual victimization. Christmas is as pervasive as it has ever been in America, where it wasn't even declared a federal holiday until after the Civil War. What's really going on here is yet another example of a post-Election-Day winner-takes-all power grab by the "moral values" brigade. As Mr. Gibson shrewdly contrived his own crucifixion all the way to the bank, trumping up nonexistent threats to his movie to hype it, so the creation of imagined enemies and exaggerated threats to Christianity by "moral values" mongers of the right has its own secular purpose. The idea is to intimidate and marginalize anyone who objects to their efforts to impose the most conservative of Christian dogma on public policy. If you're against their views, you don't have a differing opinion — you're anti-Christian (even if you are a Christian)...

Does Mr. Falwell, who after 9/11 blamed Al Qaeda's attack partly on "the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians," speak for any sizable group of American Christians? Does the Rev. Al Sharpton, booked on TV as a "balance" to Mr. Falwell, do so either? Mr. Sharpton doesn't even have a congregation; like Mr. Falwell, he is a politician first, a religious leader second (or maybe fourth or fifth).

Gary Bauer and James Dobson are also secular political figures, not religious leaders, yet they are more frequently called upon to play them on television than actual clergy are. "It's theological correctness," says the Rev. Debra Haffner, a Unitarian Universalist minister who directs a national interfaith group, the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing, and is one of the rare progressive religious voices to get any TV time. She detects an overall "understanding" in the media that religion "is one voice — fundamentalist."

Even more important than inflated notions of the fundamentalists' power may be their entertainment value. As Ms. Kissling points out, the 50 million Americans who belong to progressive religious organizations are rarely represented on television because "progressive religious leaders are so tolerant that they don't make good TV." The Rev. Bob Chase of the United Church of Christ agrees: "We're not exciting guests." His church's recent ad trumpeting its inclusion of gay couples was rejected by the same networks that routinely give a forum to the far more dramatic anti-gay views of Mr. Falwell. Ms. Kissling laments that contemporary progressive Christians lack an intellectual star to rival Reinhold Niebuhr or William Sloane Coffin, but adds that today "Jesus Christ would have a tough time getting covered by TV if he didn't get arrested."

Really, it's about time the networks started covering religion as something other than this either or between fundamentalists and the rest of us.

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