Pat Roberston on Culture

I suspect that Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell have limited following today. They are interesting to the media for their peculiarities, more than than their influence. They make for readable copy and engaging television because they’re so peculiar. The website reports the latest example. Rev. Robertson says the U.S. Supreme Court is a greater threat to the U.S. than terrorists. It’s hard to imagine that any but a handful take him seriously anymore.

But this points to a need for articulate people from the middle to speak to these issues in order to influence the conversation toward identifying real issues that should be addressed–poverty, peace, health care, care for the environment–and propose constructive solutions to the problems the world faces.

At the same time, we must work for judges that respect the Constitution and uphold the principles upon which the nation was founded, and in that debate the voice of moderation must be heard as well.

The Bishops and President Bush

The meeting yesterday of five United Methodist bishops with President Bush is an encouraging first step. Hopefully, it will open the door to getting the voice of these mainline Christians into the discussion of public issues. Bishop Weaver, the president of the Council of Bishops, is expressing the hope for further dialogue with public officials on the matters that make for a better world.

The absence of the mainline, moderate voice in public discussion is widely recognized. The manner in which mainline leaders study and speak is at odds with the shoot-from-the-lip media style that gets attention today. That’s a disadvantage they must overcome simply to be heard.

And I’m not critical of this style, I believe it’s served the church and the society well over the years. But the challenge is how to be heard when you’re moderate and measured rather than bombastic and extreme. Bombast makes headlines. Extremes grab soundbites.

In a world where media shape perceptions, if you are not seen or heard, your ability to shape public opinion is almost impossible. Influence in other ways, of course, is an option. Meeting with public officials and lobbying for policies is a proven method. But you need support behind you and more often than not that comes from public perception, or at least the ability to communicate broadly with constituent groups.

When, during the last election, there was a concerted attempt to organize pastors of local churches to support the Republican party candidates and to distribute mailing lists of local churches to the party, it was clear that some political operators are playing hardball.

Further, the public comments of people such as James Dobson demonstrate a willingness to use rhetorical flourish that is out of character for mainstream leaders. In that regard, the challenge they face is how to get a hearing without resorting to such tactics.

That in itself will need to be an ongoing conversation. But, for now, I’m proud of the bishops for the way in which they have handled this meeting with the President. I’m pleased that the President met with them. I think this is a good first step and I am hopeful it will lead to other steps that will result in the participation of mainline leadership in the discussion of public policy that will make the world a safer, more compassionate and more humane world for all people.

Runaway Bride and Media Trivialization

If anyone needed an excuse to criticize cable news, Jennifer Wilbanks has given it to them. This is the young woman who got cold feet about getting married and hopped a bus from Duluth, Georgia to Albuquerque.

I was rushing to get to the airport the other day and saw a news bulletin on MSNBC. I stopped and discovered it was really just continuing coverage of this young woman’s story. There are times when I just can’t take newscasts seriously and this is one.

This young woman’s behavior isn’t national news. It doesn’t deserve a breakaway news insert. It’s a measure of how far news has fallen. And it’s why viewers don’t care that much about what these folks say anymore. Part of the trust we give to journalists we give because we expect them to tell important stories that have some relationship to our lives. But that kind of journalism is increasingly difficult to find on the cable news channels. I went to the airport muttering to myself about trivializing cable newscasts.

United Methodist Bishops Meet President Bush

A delegation of United Methodist bishops presented President George W. Bush with a leather-bound Bible today in a tradition that goes back more than 200 years. The Bible was signed by United Methodist bishops from around the world. the practice of giving Bibles to U.S. presidents began in 1789 with President George Washington.

Five representatives of the Council of Bishops, which is meeting this week in Washington DC, met with President Bush to talk with him about shared concerns and to express their commitment to working together for the future of a better world.

The bishops expressed appreciation for the cordial welcome they received from President Bush, and said they felt the visit was an important step in continuing to build a relationship for working together.

“We wanted him to know that we are praying for him, and that we share with him the commitment for a better world. We are looking forward to finding ways to work together on common issues such as AIDS in Africa,” said Bishop Peter D. Weaver, President of the Council of Bishops and Bishop of the Boston episcopal area.

The delegation included officers of the Council of Bishops, as well as bishops from the Metropolitan Washington, DC area. Accompanying Bishop Weaver were “Bishop Janice Huie of the Houston area, president-designate; Bishop Ernest S. Lyght of the West Virginia area, secretary; Bishop John R. Schol of the Baltimore-Washington area and Bishop Charlene Kammerer of the Richmond area.

After their meeting with President Bush, the bishops also participated in a meeting with other religious leaders to talk about world concerns.

Religion and Politics

A few years ago when there was an organized left and a smaller and less organized right it was often said that religious people should stay out of politics. Religion and politics don’t mix. It was evangelical leaders who promoted this message.

They spoke out of genuine belief that faith is not something that can be contained in a political wrapper. They believed the central mission of the Christian was to make disciples, individual by individual. They were suspicious of government intervention in the affairs of religious organizations. And they felt, I suspect, marginalized in the majority culture.

Today, the situation is almost totally reversed. There really isn’t a left in the traditional sense. I think it’s a misnomer to call moderates “left.” The landscape of Cold War categories doesn’t apply to contemporary social and political realities on the ground, at least not in the United States. Those who call the leadership of the mainline churches leftist today are simply mischaracterizing those leaders, in my opinion. There is no leftist, radical voice advocating change by taking to the streets, tearing down institutions and upsetting the social order today as was the case in the sixties.

Neither are there theoretical frameworks advocating for socialism or state capitalism coming from the the left. That form of sixties radicalism has either been co-opted, marginalized or abandoned. Those who in former times would have been known as moderates or progressives are called leftists by some today, but, that doesn’t make it so. As I view the leaders I’ve seen in mainline religious groups, they don’t have a leftist agenda, nor any political agenda.

A few have called the federal budget a moral statement. Surely, that’s not a radical position. A few have called for social justice for the poor and vulnerable, but within existing public policies, and that’s not a radical position. It’s simply calling for critical review of priorities about how we expend national and state resources. I can’t figure out why this is viewed as politically unacceptable. It’s a fundamental part of the democratic process.
At most, those who advocate this position say that our values should inform our decisions about how we spend our money. That is hardly radical.

If I step back from the super-heated rhetoric of James Dobson and others who share his views, and look dispassionately at the religious landscape, I see a great moderate middle that is not prone to taking extreme positions from any direction. And if we are to believe the Barna Group’s polling over the past ten years, it confirms that there has not been significant shift in the religious landscape. Evangelicals still account for approximately 7% of the religious population, as they did ten years ago. Other groups have waxed and waned slightly, but not by precipitous change. National elections have hinged on razor thin margins. Votes in the General Conference of The United Methodist Church reveal a consistency that is tenuous at best. If a mere 10% of delegates changed their votes on some of the most contentious issues the church faces, the outcome would be very different. That’s not a church caught up in the grips of extremists on any side.

So, I see more reason to hope than to be discouraged. We need to keep hope alive. And we need to stay in dialogue

The Difficulty of Dialogue

As an interviewer I learned early on that an individual sharing a story with me is engaging in a relationship of trust. Trust is a two-way street. The person must trust that I will tell his or her story as truthfully and accurately as possible. I generally was not engaged in investigative or political reporting in which other dynamics come into play.

If an interview is a relationship, however brief, it demands respect for the other person, give-and-take, a basic commitment to truth and a commitment to discover the full context of the individual’s story. I’m probably leaving out some essential components of this relationship, but the point is, communication at this level, if it is to have depth, requires respect and trust. Authentic communication is fundamentally about mutuality.

If I got God
on my side,
what’s a Microsoft?
What’s a Microsoft?
It’s nothing.
–Rev. Ken Hutcherson

This thinking comes about because two stories I’ve been watching are receiving treatment today in major media. One is the conversation between officials at Microsoft and a local pastor who opposes anti-discrimination legislation in Washington state designed to protect the rights of gays and lesbians. He’s outspoken as the quote from the New York Times illustrates. There is no room for dissent, “misbehavior,” or subtlety. It’s apparently his way or the highway.

The story has been reported for several weeks. Microsoft has shifted positions. It is taking a neutral position on the legislation and the pastor claims credit.

A second is the struggle at Corporation for Public Broadcasting, also widely reported, that pits the chairman against some of the executive leadership. He claims liberal bias in program content, a long-standing complaint by the right against PBS and National Public Radio.

In this debate the issue being raised is balanced and objective reporting of all sides. It is, of course, a legitimate concern. What leads one to be slightly suspicious is the partisan environment, the connections to political appointments in government and the use of staff who have had partisan jobs to conduct the content review.

But at the heart of it is the lack of mutuality. The public dialogue today isn’t really a dialogue for some. It’s a shouting match or an exercise in bullying. If we continue down the road we’re on–shouting and bullying–the quality of our community life is damaged, the quality of our national conversation is notched downward to slogans and braggadocio and our ability to live in mutually respectful ways is undermined. What we need is a higher commitment to dialogue.

Spending Money and Social Relationships

Victorian evangelicals
believed in an
orderly universe
and saw the
economy as
the fulfillment
of God’s plan.
–Gordon Bigelow

The last couple of days I’ve been part of a conversation in which a small group attempted to understand what the words “health and wholeness” mean.

Of course there are dictionary definitions that define health as the physical state of the body. But health–a healthy life–is much more.

And that gets to the meaning of the word wholeness. What exactly does it mean to speak of wholeness, as when we strive to live a “whole” life? These questions are not just philosophical exercises removed from the realities of everyday living. In a time when more people are reporting increased levels of stress, less time with their families, greater pressures to increase performance at work and striving to achieve the “American Dream,” these questions take on particular connection to day-to-day life.

We live our days in a culture in which extraordinarily well-funded, creative and competitive forces seek to attract us to buy, and then buy more. Consumption is reinforced by the culture and it’s remarkably strong reinforcement. The culture of consumption has become our way of life.

Gordon Bigelow makes an intriguing case that evangelical Christianity is at the root of the idea of economic free markets in his article in the May issue of Harper’s, “Let There Be Markets.” (As I write this it has not been posted on the web, so I can’t link to it, however, it’s available on newsstands.

Victorian evangelicals believed in an orderly universe and saw the economy as the fulfillment of God’s plan, Bigelow says. This put the emerging theory of economics into an individualism that it has never escaped from. What is missing from the economic view of modern life “is an understanding of the social world.”

The great weakness of traditional economics, Bigelow says, is its reliance on the belief that individuals make decisions to buy things based on their own individual choice. This is rooted in evangelical theology which greatly influenced free market advocates in the 1820’s who needed moral justification for their own wealth and the stark suffering of the poor. This was the era of industrial transition that is chronicled by Charles Dickens.

With this foundation, Bigelow says economic theory embedded individual choice as a foundation. But we don’t live as individuals. We live in a modern community that is buffeted with hundreds of thousands of messages, with cultural values and with class affectations that all bear down on us when we make economic decisions.

we buy things
partly based on
who we are,
but at the
same time we
believe that
buying things
makes us who
we are and
might make us
into someone
–Gordon Bigelow

Thorstein Veblen said in the 1890s that consumption and work are carried out within boundaries set by class and culture. But this has not penetrated economic analysis, probably because it doesn’t serve the purposes of traditional economists, nor those who benefit from the myth that wealth is the reward for individual acumen and hard work.

This view of why we buy actually distorts us as human beings, and that is the connection I see to the definition of wholeness. Bigelow says “we buy thing partly based on who we are, but at the same time we believe that buying things makes us who we are and might make us into someone different.” This excludes the better part of us, as Bigelow writes, the part that makes us human; our social interactions and our irrational desires. It excludes our inner spirit and our outward-reaching spiritual concern. It excludes our understanding of ourselves as created for sacred purpose in a creation that is the work of a loving God. It excludes our understanding of responsibility for each other, and it leaves us alone as individuals rather than included as parts of vital, encompassing communities.

In short, we are more than consumers. Consumption cannot make us whole. We are more than our plastic can buy.

New Media and the Decline of Old Media

To many Americans,
today?s newspaper is
irrelevant, and network
news is as compelling
as whatever is
being offered over
on the Home
Shopping Network.
Maybe less.
–Terry Eastland

New media are threatening the power and dominance of old media. This isn’t a new story, but analysis about why it’s the case is sparse. Most writing on the new media is still written from a point of view that seems to be either gee whiz promotion or by those who are discovering it for the first time.

Terry Eastland provides an overview that explains how the new media are replacing the old, and why. It’s a good summation of what is happening and offers a clear historical perspective of the growth of the elite mainline media and their humbling decline today.

The divide between
publishers and the
public is collapsing.
This turns mass
media upside down.
It creates media
of the masses.
–Stephen Baker
Heather Green

BusinessWeek writers Stephen Baker and Heather Green explain why blogs are necessary for businesses and how major corporations are using the blogosphere.

They also say that blogs are not like the dotcom bubble that burst because it had no substance. Blogs will continue, they say, because they are in the hands of “masses of people with computers, no budget, no business plan, no burn rate…and no bubble.”

The most striking statement is the role the web is beginning to play in the lives of everyday people. Blogs are a public connection. Constantly changing. Ever updating. “They create a global conversation.” Baker and Green say blogs track what’s on our minds. This is the exciting thing.

Not so exciting is their claim that big companies have scale that individual bloggers don’t have, and therefore, the ability to reach niche audiences in a targetted way unavailable in mass media. What’s not exciting about this to me is the absorption of blogs as yet another tool for the self-serving ends of corporations. Yet another form of advertising.

However you feel about this, both articles present a clear and compelling case; blogging is redefining media. Blogging is not only making history, blogging is changing the global conversation.

Can We Talk?

John Richard Neuhaus asked in a rhetorical aside last night on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer if a national conversation is possible on the issue of the rights of individuals and the responsibilities of the civic community to protect those rights. He was part of a panel dissecting the Terri Schiavo story.

A national conversation is occurring about these complicated matters of personal rights, legal protections, moral obligations, ethical considerations and the role of government. It’s a healthy conversation.

I’ve read several printed comments on the web and find the level of thought in the printed media to be, for the most part, insightful and notably balanced. That’s encouraging.

The television coverage, on the other hand, reveals conflict and extreme opinions that don’t leave me hopeful that the conversation can be conducted in a civil, constructive way.

Perhaps it’s the nature of the medium. Visual media need action. They are better at depicting conflict than unraveling subtlety. Thus, the conversation on television often degenerates into polemics.

In the television stories I’ve seen spokespersons for the various groups with agendas in this debate have made statements for impact. This doesn’t necessarily add to our understanding or move the conversation forward constructively.

Perhaps its the nature of the respective media that creates these results. Print results in more reflective, analytical processing of information. Visual media engage us in emotional identification and reaction.

Understanding this, and how different people use the media, may be a necessary survival skill if the debate about end-of-life decisions is to be conducted constructively. That means, to me, that I must take a step back and assess both the messenger and how the messenger is using the medium in order to evaluate the message adequately.

It’s very important to do this today in order to guard against manipulation and exploitation. There are those who have mastered the use of media and seek to manipulate and exploit us to achieve their own ends.

This is not a diatribe against the media. But I do think we who are witnessing this event through the media need to approach media coverage with a critical eye and, perhaps, even with a skeptical frame of mind.

As I write this, I am of the opinion that the national conversation that will be most constructive will occur in the reflective media, which are primarily print-based, and not in the visual media. Television is looking for the cryptic and sensational. This story requires more. It requires dissecting complex rights and responsibilities, moral positions and ethical behavior. Television isn’t good at this.

That said, I thought the News Hour provided us with a well-rounded discussion by people who were informed in end of life matters and who, while certainly opinionated, were civil. It presented a fuller range of opinion than I’ve seen on other programs.

I hope we can conduct this conversation in a manner that leads to constructive policies, if such are needed, and provides all of us with better information to prepare us for important decisions about our own lives and those of our loved ones.

I hope we rise above polemics and simplistic slogans and get to a conversation that does inform and enlighten.

Obsolete Schools, Declining Industries

“American high schools
are obsolete. By
obsolete, I don’t
just mean that
our high schools
are broken, flawed
and underfunded. …
By obsolete, I
mean that our
high schools – even
when they are
working exactly as
designed – cannot
teach our kids
what they need
to know today.
–Bill Gates

No matter where you turn today, it seems the basic institutions and organizations that have been the foundation of the society in this country are found to be wanting. Thomas Friedman, columnist for the New York Times, is concerned that our educational institutions are not preparing young persons with the skills they need to compete in the global marketplace.

While his point is that the educational system must teach skills that make youth more competitive in a global marketplace, there is another lesson there that isn’t about competition. It’s about the ability of an institution to help people function in new social and cultural realities.

That’s a much more challenging concern, it seems to me, because it’s about how we adapt to new conditions, conditions so fundamentally different from past eras that the institutions can’t keep up with the changes.

Managerial capitalism
has outlived the
society it was once
designed to serve.
It successfully achieved
the efficient production
of goods and services,
but today’s individuals
want more.
–James Maxmin
Shoshana Zuboff

Shoshana Zuboff and James Maxmin contend that managerial capitalism has outlived its effectiveness. They claim that newly empowered individuals demand more today than the old form of capitalism can deliver. The search for meaning and purpose is deeper and more complex than mass market capitalism can meet. They propose “deep support” services for a fee as the next generation of capitalism.

While Zuboff and Maxmin concentrate on consumption, their analysis–that people want more meaningful relationships is helpful. I’m don’t agree with them about consumption, but their analysis helps us to understand the society in which we live and how it is responding to human needs and desires. We can study it without accepting the premise that a more helpful form of consumption is the answer. In fact, more consumption isn’t the answer, but it’s all the marketplace can offer. The model is breaking down.

Not only are
our various civic
and religious structures
and systems in
in fundamental
disarray, but our
conceptual frameworks
are shattered too.
–Gary Gunderson

A compelling analysis from a faith perspective is found in Gary Gunderson’s book Boundary Leaders. Gunderson is a prophetic, even loving, voice critiquing the existing religious and civic structures. He’s not a harsh critic, he’s a product of the very institutions he’s concerned about. He says they are not only in disarray, they also lack the conceptual frameworks to function well today. They’ve fallen and they can’t get up.

Each critique offers its own suggestion for a way out of this dilemma. Gunderson’s is more attractive to me. His thesis is that boundaries are not limits, they are artificial lines that can become intersections where opportunity is found, if we see them in that way and work to intersect with those who are on the boundaries. The bad news is that established institutions can’t, on their own, make the change that is required to create new solutions to the long-term problems that plague us. New thinking is required and existing institutions get mired in thinking about how to survive.

The good news is that there are people working already at the edges. Gunderson calls them Boundary Leaders. Because they are free of institutional encumbrance, they can think new thoughts and create new solutions.

There is hope in each of these critiques. Each critic is holding up higher standards, better organizations, more effective relationships. None is criticizing merely for the sake of criticism. Each sees hope and is working on steps to get to a better place in the future. This is healthy criticism, and organizations that want to recover their vitality will do well to hear and enable change to start.

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