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Monday, September 27, 2010

Megaenterprises.

Eddie Long has much at stake in clearing his name of sex abuse charges, not the least a substantial amount of money and that ostentatious lifestyle — home, cars, jewelry and custom made outfits.  In a story on his current troubles, it was reported that in 2005 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published tax records showing that from 1997 to 2000 Bishop Long had accepted $3 million in salary, housing, a car and other perks from a charity he controlled.  This was from just one of his multiple enterprises.  He likely also draws as generous salary from his 25,000-member megachurch. 


In the most immediate sense, Eddie Long’s saga brings to mind the 2006 downfall of Ted Haggard, leader of another blockbuster megachurch, this one in Colorado.   It isn’t only that each regularly inveighed against homosexuality from their pulpits — Long also conducting seminars promising to “cure” homosexuals — both were accused of engaging in sex with, in Haggard’s case a male prostitute, and in Long’s with what were then four boys.  Upon the advice of counsel, he won’t deny the allegations, but told congregants that he will fight.  Our system is built on a presumption of innocence and we should leave judgment of the specific allegations to the legal process.  That said, Long’s situation is an opportunity to consider anew the megachurch phenomenon. 


Scott Thumma of the Hartford Institute has written extensively about it and is well worth a look, but just consider this.  Haggard’s and Long’s churches bear very similar names — New Life and New Birth — and that shouldn’t be surprising.  Theirs and all the megachurches around the country have much in common.  All share nearly identical narratives, a kind of religious Horatio Alger story of humble beginnings with a handful of followers that over time become behemoths with thousands of members. Robert Schuller’s Garden Grove California church, now housed in Philip Johnson’s imposing Crystal Cathedral, stared in a drive-in theater parking lot; Joel Osteen’s huge Lakewood Church (the largest) began in an abandoned feed store and now occupies the $75 Million renovated stadium in Houston, once home to the Rockets.  While some have connections with larger denominations, many are freestanding evangelical ministries, all led by a charismatic leader (often accompanied by his wife as co-pastor), some holding self proclaimed ecclesiastical titles like bishop.  These are often family businesses — Osteen’s father founded Lakewood, Schuller’s daughter now leads Garden Grove.


Given the notorious fall of Haggard, and before him Jim Bakker, one is tempted to liken these ministers to Sinclair Lewis’s fictional Elmer Gantry, played so compellingly by Burt Lancaster in the classic movie translation.  But I think the more apt and timely figure to consider is the greed-driven Gordon Gekko, currently taking a curtain call in the just released sequel to Oliver Stone’s film Wall Street.  Long and many of his counterparts preside not only over large congregations, but also in over vast empires that include charities (some clearly doing good works), commercial businesses and substantial real estate holdings.  They have become, and are unashamedly, personally wealthy.  Many, like Bakker in his day, are televangelists whose syndicated programs combining sermonic fire and brimstone with unabashed entertainment reach far beyond their own communities.  This provides them with great leverage and a built-in audience for, among others, books that in Osteen’s case have brought in millions.  In more the Gekko than the Gantry tradition, these ministries would better be described as religious enterprises, more akin to business conglomerates than what we think of as churches.  In fact, while Long and his counterparts would vehemently deny any such notion, it may fairly be said that the church effectively serves more as a cover for their activities than its essence.


Eddie Long protests that the media is responsible for his current problems, just as the Vatican has done in their defense of now well-documented sexual abuse by clergy.  In both cases, the protestations have as much to do with protecting their enterprise as in protecting their personal (or church’s) integrity.  The Roman church has vast real estate and other holdings and its hierarchy maintains (in contrast to the average parish priest) lifestyles that, while perhaps paling in comparison to the megachurch leaders, can be quite lavish.  They’re called Princes of the Church for good reason.  In Gekko theology, the stakes are extraordinarily high when anyone dares question the moral compass of either the leaders or the institution.  As recent events across multiple faiths have shown, hypocrisy abounds.


The members of New Birth who so heartily applauded their leader during his Sunday remarks may consider Long’s alleged wrong doing and practices internal matters.  The Catholic Church certainly has made that point over and over again.  But, especially with regard to megachurches who have sought over the last years to exercise substantial influence on the political landscape, I think their doings should concern us all.  They are our business.  Remember how Pastor Rick Warren sought to influence the 2008 Presidential election.  These mega pastors have substantial power and clearly evoke fear among our elected officials.   They play an often-critical role in what legislation is passed.  The pastor accused of having sex with boys lobbies against same-sex marriage and of course is opposed to gays in the military.


The New York Times reported last week that religious congregations were suffering a major decline in contributions.  As expected, part of the shortfall can be attributed to our deep recession.   Many members who have lost jobs or whose homes are in foreclosure simply can’t afford their dues or weekly contributions.  But the decline, it reported, may also be attributable to the growing number of Americans who have left religion behind.  Some no longer believe in God or in what religion teaches.  A good number are just turned off by the religion they see around them or read about in the press.  Eddie Long, not only what he might have done but his enterprising activities and what they token, throws coal on that fire of alienation.



Wednesday, September 22, 2010

All politics.

If in Tip O’Neil’s day all politics was local, today all is politics.  In a profound sense that isn’t only what’s energizing tea party folks in their purported anti-establishment movement but equally what’s enervating the Left, especially the young.  With all the noise about upsets in Republican primaries and the heightened often-ugly rhetoric of people like Newt Gingrich, one wonders what’s happened to the minions of enthusiastic Obama supporters who filled those stadiums to capacity and showed up at the Mall on Inauguration Day?


The easy answer is that it’s the economy stupid, the persistent unemployment and the growing sense that even the not so good old days aren’t coming back soon.  Some will argue that the President and Democrats under-delivered on their promised healthcare and financial reforms.  From a purist standpoint they did, but given the realities of what it takes to get bills through Congress, they actually may have done better than expected.  Some will say Obama himself hasn’t been forceful enough, that he should have abandoned any attempt at bi-partisanship early on, should have let the bastards have it with both barrels.  Maybe, but I don’t think its in his character and, more importantly, his entire campaign was focused on bringing people together, closing the divide.  Did he perhaps fail in sufficiently reinforcing that message with the electorate, in leveraging the Bully Pulpit?  Probably.


But for me, the overarching turnoff is that we have become, perhaps to a greater degree than ever before, mired in politics — all politics 24/7.  Just look at the state of our media, the domain of shouting-heads where any modicum of dispassionate and objective journalism has been replaced by rank entertainment, headlining political theater.  Newspapers are dying but the likes of Politico are thriving.  If a story doesn’t have political value it is either ignored or artificially politicized.  Look at the Islamic Center in lower Manhatttan that quickly went from what might have been a legitimate discussion to a partisan free-for-all. Indeed the torrid Right/Left debate has become so heated that it’s virtually impossible to have any serious discussion about the systematic problems that, if not addressed, could lead us over a cliff.  The unprecedented weather patterns of the summer just ending — we’re experiencing late September temps in the mid 90s here in Chapel Hill — haven’t produced a single moment of doubt among those who dismiss global warming, most likely because they fear being clobbered at the polls for opening their mouths.


For sure, the tea party movement evokes a mix of in some ways na├»ve and over simplified libertarianism, but their expressed outrage against the political establishment and politics as usual strikes a chord with the broader public.  As to the Obama supporters, particularly the young, many flocked to him because he was different, hoped he was not a traditional pol.  In fact, he is and he isn’t, a nuanced complexity that is too much for a lot of people who have been weaned on keep it simple, whether the tag line of a commercial or the catchall labels that we apply to people.  They are also a fickle group, notorious for being less than dependable one-off voters.  Well I voted last time around, worked my butt off, did my piece — on to my life.  But to be fair, they seriously engaged with politics in the name of change and have spent most of the time since watching same-old, same-old as if it was all for naught.


So, it wouldn’t at all surprise me if, despite the noise, we’re headed for an extremely low turnout on November 2nd.  That’s makes for a very unpredictable outcome and the likelihood that a very small minority might control our destiny for the two years ahead.  It is potentially very bad political news for the President and the Democrats, but a low turnout is ultimately bad news for democracy and for us all.  But the more serious problem is that there appears no single individual or group of leaders out there who are ready to standup and call a time out.  It isn’t only that our unemployment bespeaks systematic and structural problems that no degree of tax cuts or stimulus can quickly fix, but that with the rampant politicization of everything our governance is broken.


It is often said, think Israel/Palestine,  Afghanistan or any conflict, that solutions require partners.  I for one am not sorry the President spent so much energy, and yes perhaps valuable capital, on seeking bi-partisan — beyond politics — solutions to pressing problems.  The problem has been, and continues to be, that he lacks partners in that endeavor and that includes a significant number in his own party.  In the short term scoring political points may give the appearance of victory to partisans on both sides.   But once again, Lincoln had it just right; A house divided against itself cannot stand.   In that, the clock is ticking.



Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The silence is deafening.

We're coming onto the eve of the Jewish New Year.   Jews are an ancient people with an elephant like memory.  Sadly much of what we remember is not pretty.  When book burning raises its ugly head, as it has in the last days, we don't have to dig deep into that memory bank.  Adolf Hitler burned books.  Book burners are always a company of hooligans, — sometimes ruling hooligans.  They are small-minded people who in the end seem more afraid of ideas than anything else, especially the ideas of others.


I’m happy that General Petraeus has spoken out.  His concern about the safety of our troops is legitimate.  But threatening to burn the Quran isn’t the only thing going on.  Not only is the Islamic Center in New York being challenged, similar centers and houses of worship are under attack across the country.  Forget the affront to religious liberty, the freedom we beat our patriotic breasts about.  One has to really wonder what these people, many of whom mouth concern for national security, are thinking.  A growing number of Muslims around the world are convinced that America is at war not with terrorists as it claims but with Islam.  With the blatant bigotry now being displayed in many parts of the country, why shouldn’t they come to that conclusion?  In a time of Tea Parties and generally in an economic climate that provokes genuine frustration and understandable anger, these acts are not merely wrong they have the potential of being literally explosive.


General Petraeus has spoken out.  Bravo, but where are the voices of America’s religious leaders?  On October 25, 1962, Ambassador Adlai Stevenson asked his Soviet counterpart Valerian Zorin if he denied that the Russians had placed missiles in Cuba.  When Zorin put him off saying his answer would come in due course, Stevenson famously retorted, I am prepared to wait for my answer until hell freezes over.  Would that I had his patience.


All I know is that Lady Liberty is shedding tears again and many of those who should know better, whom we expect to know better, aren’t there to give her, and us, comfort.  Shame on them.


Addendum  Shortly after this post, a significant number of religious leaders including from Protestant, Catholics and Jewish groups, presented a very forceful denunciation of attacks on Islam in the country.  Their statement, and more importantly promised follow-up, is encouraging.  Equally strong words from the still silent people like Rick Warren would be welcome. 



Wednesday, September 1, 2010

God is Beck

Jewish law prohibits public viewing of the deceased, considered an act of disrespect.  In essence, the reasoning behind this prohibition is that the dead can no longer speak for themselves and are thus subject to manipulation by the living.  The same holds true for God.  Whether or not you believe in a God — and I confess profound doubt — claimed revelations notwithstanding, what we know of the divine ultimately derives from human attribution.  Big surprise: those attributions tend to coincide with the particular beliefs and views of the attributor; more often than not, serving her or his own purposes.  When all else fails, we justify our actions with a God says, directs or wants, all declared with absolute and unquestionable (how dare you) certainty.  I like to call it the arrogance of attribution.


Which brings me to Glenn Beck.  Perhaps the most significant bit of news by far out of last weekend’s Lincoln Memorial gathering was not the crowd’s size or any particular speech but his decision to shift from the expected theme of politics to one of God.  Perhaps the broadcaster was moved by the sage advice given months back to attendees at the February Tea Party Convention.  As Sarah Palin put it then, it would be wise of us to start seeking some divine intervention again in this country so that we can be safe and secure and prosperous again.  Of course to many in this group God and politics are an indivisible one.  God has been integral to the Conservative playbook, and perhaps to its success, since the Reagan years.  Sure the economy sucks but playing to anger goes only so far; playing the God-card is so much more attractive and potent.  How exactly this crowd would address high unemployment if in power takes some concrete explaining, invoking the divine invites no questioning.  As such, it’s a political no-brainer. So take careful note, George Bush may be gone but God is back.  That may not be good news.


Before going further, let me digress to identify the God in question.  The one of this particular arrogant attribution is an ultra Conservative God as largely seen by a certain group of Christians — a Libertarian God would be a stretch even for them.  Beck and company have made it clear that this definitely isn’t an Obama kind of God — even if he is a Christian and a citizen, the President, they proclaim (inaccurately), follows that alien liberation theology not the real faith.  Theirs is the God who is opposed to abortion, stem cell research and gay marriage.  To be sure it’s the same one resolutely opposed to any separation of church and state.  And that brings me to the larger implications of God’s return that transcend Beck’s gathering.


For starters, let’s consider the June 26 NY Times column by Yale’s Linda Greenhouse, Nine Justices and Ten Commandments.  In it Ms. Greenhouse, who had the Supreme Court beat for thirty years, uses the backdrop of the still not completely resolved issue of displaying the 10 Commandments on public ground to suggest that at least four and perhaps five sitting Justices have no real commitment to separation, certainly not an absolute one.  This of course has major implications for the likely Proposition 8 appeal and the abortion rights cases that will come before the Court, perhaps sooner rather than later.  Add to that the August 14 decision by U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth halting President Obama’s Executive Order modestly relaxing the Bush restraints on stem cell research.  By the way, that decision has stopped much of ongoing stem cell research dead in its tracks.


The issue discussed by Greenhouse reflects the generalized power of those, like Beck, who would impose their God-attributions on the rest of us, which includes a growing number of citizens who don’t believe in God or whose faith doesn’t include the big Ten.  But the others are even more to the point.  Abortion and stem cell research are ultimately medical/scientific issues.  The only reason to outlaw them is on religious grounds, what is attributed to God.  The stem cell issue is particularly troubling because however important reproductive choice, and I consider it fundamentally important, it can be said to impact directly on only a portion of the population.  Embryonic stem cell research has the potential of impacting on every one of us.  It boggles the mind how one can be pro-life and not leave a single stone unturned in an effort to prolong or improve its quality.  Forget the hypocrisy of opposing the destruction of embryos for medical research while happily dumping the same life-matter into the laboratory dustbin.  So, too, with the definition of marriage and opposition to same-sex unions, which are solely based on religious grounds, very narrow religious grounds to boot.  Why do all these things?  God says so, the arrogance of attribution.


The return of God in our politics is made possible and legitimized in part by the continuing myth of America a religious country.  This is not to suggest that many Americans, perhaps still a majority (if only in name), are not personally religious.  But that is not the same thing.  Part of the reason the political Right, particularly those with a religious agenda, have been so successful is that the media buy into that myth and fall into line even if the facts don’t match the words.  Once spoken, the language is set.  And the wordsmiths’ influence is powerful.  While not related to God is back, a case in point is that even now, and despite its own reporting discrediting that description, the august NY Times still headlines stories on the proposed Islamic Center as pertaining to the Ground Zero Mosque.  More on point is the headline accorded to a twenty-two and a half minute interview given by the President to NBC’s Brian Williams.  The setting was New Orleans on the 5th anniversary of Katrina and beyond that subject there was considerable discussion of the economy and of the exiting troops from Iraq.  For less than a minute of that long exchange the subject of religion came into play.  What was the headline of the video on the Washington Post’s website? Obama discusses his faith.   Glen Beck wants to change the subject and he’s getting a great deal of help from people who should know better and upon whom we rely for accurate information.


If each an every one of us believed in God or even if those who held such a belief shared the same attribution and the same consequences, perhaps that God is back wouldn’t be so bad.  That is not the case, and without diminishing or disrespecting the rights or questioning the heartfelt belief of Beck and others on the Religious Right, overtly and aggressively bringing God and religion back into our shared national space is no step forward.  Forcing your attribution of me, or for that matter mine on you, can lead to no good, especially in a society so bitterly divided.  Instead of taking Ms. Palin’s advice of bringing God back, perhaps we should consider that of Lyndon Johnson who lived in another time of deep division.  Let’s reason together, and leave God out of it.