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By Nathan Bierma

Content & Context

The Books & Culture Weblog


If, as Christian Smith argued recently in B&C, faith is an area of particular ignorance for the mainstream news media, then the risk is high for paranoia to spread about how President Bush's faith—and the faith of his evangelical supporters—determines his policies. In a cover story for the Boston Globe's Ideas section earlier this month, less out of enthusiasm for Bush's policies than the desire to clear up popular misconceptions of evangelicals, Alan Jacobs set out to debunk the conspiracy theory that the President is doing the bidding of certain religious groups.

For a conspiracy to work, Jacobs says, it would require eschatological agreement among fundamentalists. Instead, Bush is purported to be a spokesman for groups with opposing eschatological views. "President Bush could scarcely be a premillennialist and a Reconstructionist at the same time," Jacobs says. But to leftist intellectuals who don't appreciate these nuances, all fundamentalists are alike and represent a single nefarious influence.

Even if such lumping together were justified, critics would have to demonstrate that the Bush Administration prizes theology over politics, stubbornly clinging to ideology and rejecting political pragmatism. Says Jacobs: "The scenarios [two critics] construct require Bush and his key advisers to be people who read the Bible in light of a coherent theology that yields a specific political program (rather than politicians whose chief concern is getting reelected)." But Bush is surrounded by politicians, not religious crusaders. "With the exception of John Ashcroft, there's no one among his core advisors who could possibly teach him what right-wing evangelical politics are supposed to look like."

The most important rug to pull out from under conspiracy theorists is the assumption that all evangelicals have a lobbyist's level of clarity and zeal about religion and politics. Instead, evangelical social and political identity can be ambiguous. The critics Jacobs cites confuse evangelicals with fundamentalists, when in fact many evangelicals who read Left Behind also "watch 'Oprah," go to the movies, and send their children to public schools," Jacobs says. In short, President Bush would have a hard time pleasing all evangelicals, because not all are as certain as fundamentalists about what they want. "The likelihood that his thinking and his policies are shaped by a single, coherent, radical ideology is virtually nil."

Drawing lines between religion and politics is always a tricky business. President Bush, Jacobs notes, is a United Methodist, and so is Hillary Clinton. And the one recent president who does the most to justify theocratic conspiracy theories is Jimmy Carter. Jacobs doesn't take the time to address legitimate concerns about the rhetoric of civil religion in the President's speeches, or note its echoes of the religious rhetoric of Ronald Reagan. But Jacobs' prominently featured essay should be convincing enough to keep the Bush Administration out of The X-Files.

Martin Marty on "Bush and God" in Newsweek (story and CT's commentary)
Earlier:Seven myths about evangelical voters


From the Chicago Tribune:

ULURU, Australia—Nearly every weekday, rocks sent from around the world arrive here at the headquarters of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Some are the size of gravel. One weighed 75 pounds. But they all have one thing in common: They were taken from a sacred mountain by travelers later weighed down by remorse. Most of the stones are pieces of Uluru, the huge red formation in the middle of the Australian outback that is widely known as Ayers Rock. … The giant red rock is an awesome sight. Rising 1,140 feet from the desert floor, its sides are nearly vertical. In the shifting light of the outback, it can change from a reddish-orange hue to a deep red. For some, visiting it is a mystical experience. Surrounded by desert scrub and enveloped by the dry heat, Uluru lies almost directly in the center of the continent. A solid piece of sandstone more than 2 miles long and 1 1/4-miles wide, it gets its unusual color from the rusting of iron in the otherwise gray rock. When there is rain, waterfalls cascade down the sides, forming waterholes that have long been a source of life for animals and people.

From the New York Times :

ELMIRA, N.Y.—This small city in the state's Southern Tier was not the setting for fence painting or frog-jumping contests, and its river could never compare with the Mississippi. But that mattered none to Mark Twain, who spent many summers and wrote some of his most famous works here. … While so-called Twainiacs usually know of Elmira's influence, casual readers often associate the writer more with his childhood antics in Hannibal, Mo., or his permanent home in Hartford. But in the last few years, Elmira officials have begun considering how to attract thousands more tourists interested in Twain without disrupting the scholars of his work who already come here for the same thing he did, a quiet place to study and write. "There are all kinds of ideas now in the works," said Gretchen E. Sharlow, interim director of the Center for Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College.


  • "The Netherlands, as any European can tell you, has become a land of giants," says the New Yorker in a piece on the history of height. And quickly: in less than two centuries, the average male has grown seven inches. Other European and Asian populations have grown at least a half-inch per decade in the last half-century, but, strangely, the United States hasn't budged. The importance of height in the study of sociology has, shall we say, grown in stature only recently, the New Yorker says. Now researchers are puzzling over a pituitary riddle: How can the United States be one of the wealthiest nations ever and yet fail, for fifty years now, to grow? The New Yorker article gets muddled at the end, taking a stab at blaming income inequality and fast food (and, odder yet, trying to tie them together). Until then, it makes you wonder why we grow. Full story
  • So preschoolers are now using antidepressants, we learn from the Christian Science Monitor. It may be the ultimate validation of a pharmacological culture.
    Western society's overly medical approach to mental illness has relieved much previously unexplained suffering, but it has not made us "lastingly happier," said psychologist Martin Seligman in a recent interview with Edge.org. "We didn't develop interventions to make people happier; we developed interventions to make people less miserable," he said. Seligman is interested in the recovery or discovery of "eudaemonia, the good life, which is what Thomas Jefferson and Aristotle meant by the pursuit of happiness … the pleasures of contemplation and the pleasures of good conversation." After this promising setup, Seligman lapses into New Age blather, concluding, "The more you deploy your highest strengths the more flow you get in life." Interview
Pleasure discrepancies in southern and northern Europeans, from the New Statesman
Temptation in America, from the Los Angeles Times
Our inability to predict causes of happiness (third item)
Take Back Your Time Day

• The ubiquity of American popular culture in the world can give it the feel of mass merchandise. Not so with the spread of Japanese popular culture in Australia, says the Melbourne Age. What the Age calls the "Cool Japan movement"—an interest in Japanese animated games and movies—has found a following among not only Asian students but also "a young Anglo-Australian audience," who see Japanese culture as more hip and authentic than American culture. But although Japanese games and movies gross some $40 million in Australia, their popularity is "discreet," says the Age. "The trend has not had the McJapan treatment." Full story

Earlier:Resistance to McWorld

• Speaking of the ubiquity of American culture: its constant stimulants and diversions seem to have risen in opposition to one thing: boredom. But who gave boredom a bad name? Not poet Billy Collins, who calls it "the blessed absence of what the world offers as 'interesting.'" Nor an artist who says boredom allows "unconscious scanning that's the very stuff of problem solving and creativity." "Liberating and terrifying, benumbing and enlightening, boredom raises questions about meaning it can't possibly answer," says the San Francisco Chronicle. "Is experience itself a void, as 20th century artists like Beckett, Cage, Duchamp, Warhol and others often suggest? Or is boredom a failure of our own spirits and imagination?" Merely pondering the puzzle is one way to solve it. Full story

See also: Still Bored in a Culture of Entertainment by Richard Winter (review)

• Speaking of "what the world offers as 'interesting'": We are in the age of the image, as Daniel Boorstin, who died recently, announced in his 1962 book The Image. But what kind of image? asks Camille Paglia in a lecture adapted for the journal Arion. Paglia wishes to distinguish the moving image from the still image. The former has accustomed students growing up in a media culture to fragmentation and superficiality in what they see. But the still image, conveyed in art history courses, can orient and expand their minds. "Visual tracking and stability of gaze are major milestones in early infancy," Paglia says, adding that teachers must explore how to reinforce those skills. "Education must strengthen and discipline the process of visual attention." Full story

Related: Making movies out of fairy tales, from the Christian Science Monitor

Miscellaneous:Holy Week around the world in pictures—How camera phones can fight crime—After 16 years, the cicadas are coming -  The resurgence of public lectures in Britain—The lack of great basketball literature

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Nathan Bierma is editorial assistant atBooks & Culture. He writes the weekly "On Language" column for the Chicago Tribune.

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