Last week, three Christian clergymen were featured in the pre-Christmas news, and how they were treated tells us a good bit about where we have gotten to in our public ethos – and even our public etiquette.
The first, Rick Warren, has been targeted for supporting the California ban on same-sex marriage. And now also because Barack Obama, in a shrewd political move, has chosen him to pray at the inauguration. Warren was already a national figure because of his best-selling book The Purpose Driven Life. Alongside other large pastoral services, he has run AIDS ministries in California that put millions of dollars into treating the disease and counseling those who have it. But none of this matters when it comes to an issue that some have decided shows whether you are on the side of the angels or the neo-Nazis.
In case you haven’t noticed, that latter group (as a number of Americans now understand it) consists largely of the tens of millions of Christians and Jews – along with smaller numbers of Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and others – who sincerely believe that God does not want human beings to engage in sex of any kind outside of heterosexual marriage. They turn out and win in large majorities every time gay marriage is put to a vote. Until the last few decades, no one – liberal or conservative, religious or not – expected anything else. Even Gene Robinson, the gay Anglican bishop of New Hampshire, has publicly stated that there is nothing in Scripture or tradition in support of being gay. He just believes church and society have to move ahead on this issue because – well, because he wants them to.
But some media figures have gone much further. I do not in principle watch television “magazines” like Dateline. But I happened to be passing through a room when Ann Curry was interviewing Warren about Prop 8 last week and angrily intoning, “Well, what do you say about that, Mister forgiveness . . .” I quote from memory, but it was clear she thought Christian morals were an offense against real Christianity, which apparently is about tolerance and affirming everyone. I don’t recall the meeting when this was decided (the First Council of Media?). But Warren had clearly heard that line before and gently pointed out that he himself had lustful impulses towards beautiful women that, like homosexual inclinations, simply need to be controlled.
He was very good, good in a way that Catholics might wish our own clergy were more often, since the media – aided and abetted by ill-formed Catholics – have for some years tried to paint Catholic teaching on sexuality as the product of old men in Rome with too much free time on their hands. Still, as Harvard’s Harvey Mansfield has pointed out, you can tell who has political power by who is allowed to get angry in public. And Christians are now required to be all sweetness and light, even when television talking heads are angrily trying to instruct them in moral theology.
Our second Christian clergyman, Rowan Williams, is Archbishop of Canterbury, the leader of worldwide Anglicanism. Williams is a gifted theologian who has written on a wide variety of subjects including icons and the aesthetic theories of Hans Urs von Balthasar. The good archbishop published a Christmas message in London’s Daily Telegraph which argued that various “principles” people have believed in are illegitimate and in the twentieth century actually led to degradation and massacres of millions. True enough, of course, but the media seized on a few phrases from the column and widely reported that the Archbishop of Canterbury advised Christians “throw away your principles” because “all you need is love.”
His actual words made it quite clear that he was borrowing an idea from the great modern Protestant theologian Karl Barth, a special definition of “principles.” In short, technical philosophical stuff that astute journalists once shied away from, lest they appear foolish. But all that is no longer a worry for the clumsy grasp of the press. Instead, what started out as a strong statement against murderous ideologies was wrongly conveyed around the world as yet another expression of a liberal and ditzy Anglican Christian who believes in nothing and has only empty platitudes that his diminishing flock has already heard thousands of times.
All deeply unfortunate, but a warning for serious clergy: beware now about the way you put anything before the public, unless you want to provide an occasion to make it seem you are saying the exact opposite of what you believe.
Finally, our third clergyman, Pope Benedict XVI, also offered a Christmas message in which he yoked concern for the world’s ecology and what he calls the threatened human ecology that depends on marriage and family. Nowhere did he mention homosexuality, but some media were happy to extrapolate for him and to hold the coats for the fight. It didn’t work and the story soon died. But it was amazing how the initial reports all drew on the same circle of commentators from gay and lesbian organizations, who in virtually every story, referred to this mild and learned man as Papa Ratzi (which, you see, rhymes with Nazi).
A faith whose Founder was crucified should not expect gentle treatment by the world. But when the very people who repeatedly tell you that “hate is not a family value” indulge in this degree of childish name-calling, you don’t expect it to be picked up in respectable journalism, any more than you’d expect professional journalists to indulge in angry partisanship or crude misrepresentation about the major faith of the West.
Or do we now?