Bill Clinton: In Red, White, and Especially Blue

This is how objections to presidential immorality sounded twenty-one years ago (from the October 1998 edition of the Nicotine Theological Journal):

Of the several disadvantages of growing up in a fundamentalist home, one was the ability of my father to detect off-color humor a mile away. (Sure, the promoters of family values would see this as a virtue. But, then again, they are the ones responsible for the Family Channel where firm parental guidance is little different from parental naivete.) I can remember those rare nights when for some reason my brother had been sufficiently well-behaved to merit staying up late – it also needs to be added that it was Friday night. And then around 11:30 we would gain access into the sophisticated adult world of “The Tonight Show” and hear the urbane (to us) humor of Johnny Carson. We would listen to Fred McMahon announce the evening’s guests and cherish the prospects of seeing Buddy Rich or Don Rickles.

BUT WE KNEW ONE OBSTACLE lay in the way of our making it past midnight. It was Carson’s monologue. If Johnny went blue – the showbiz vernacular for telling dirty jokes – then we knew dad would get up from his recliner and turn the TV off, thus forcing an abrupt end to the quality time around the tube. Sometimes Carson’s allusions to parts of the female anatomy would be tame enough to keep our father in his seat – he no doubt enjoyed Carson and wanted to see the same guests that we did. (By the way, it helped if dad fell asleep. But there would be hell to pay if he woke up to a dirty joke. And could you be really sure that he was asleep?) But in those cases where the jokes were only a shade blue, the pressure I felt was even greater than if Carson had gone ahead and told a crude one-liner. I couldn’t stand not knowing when my father would turn off the TV. And so, in some cases I would be the one to make the first move. It wasn’t because I objected to the humor, nor was it even a case of trying to protect my innocent dad from the dirty jokes that I had come to hear at school (often repeated from “The Tonight Show”). Instead, it was simply a desire to end my misery. I could not bear hearing off color jokes in my dad’s presence. If I laughed I would certainly disappoint if not anger him. If I didn’t then why bother watching?

MEMORIES OF MY YOUTHFUL late night discomfort have come back to me over the past eight months, first as a trickle, and now as a virtual geyser, as the sordid and tawdry details of our President and his intern have absorbed the nation and its media. Through it all I know that my aging fundamentalist parents sit glued to the TV, not because they are so interested in Bill Clinton’s sex life (though as registered Republicans these incidents have no doubt confirmed their prejudices). Rather, it is their habit to watch at least ninety minutes of news each night, first the local variety at 6:00, then the national edition at 6:30 – I think they still watch Peter Jennings, who has had his own intern problems, because their local news of choice comes from the ABC affiliate and they don’t have remote control. Then, they finish off the day with a dose of local news at 11:00, complete with that evening’s murders, fires, and woes of the Major League Baseball’s closest franchise.

THROUGH IT ALL, MY DEAR, devout conservative independent Baptist parents have had to hear about parts of the human body and sexual positions that had Johnny Carson ever mentioned my dad would have likely not only turned off the TV, but put it out by the curb for the next trash pick-up. I feel this obligation to go home at certain times of the evening so I can be there to turn off my parents’ TV. Many people have talked about how parents are going to explain the President’s actions to their children. But what about former fundamentalists like me? Who is going to explain it to our parents? I want to protect my parents from the evening news which is now pornographic. They don’t need to know about oral sex or stained cocktail dresses. Their lives, innocent though they may have been, would have been complete without such carnal knowledge. And this is the source of my complaint against our President. His sexual life is his business, though I can see its repercussions for the body politic and his ability to govern. But do my parents have to know? Couldn’t he have thought about all those fundamentalists out there who had never dreamed that sexual desire could take such bodily form?

Now, part of the problem may be mine. I could be suffering from the same naivete that Hamlet exhibited when he denied that his mother was a sexual creature. In other words, I may think my parents so sexually innocent that I can’t conceive of their sexual intimacy, let alone the fact that they did produce two sons. They both grew up on farms and probably know a lot more about sex than I can ever fathom. Still, if they felt the obligation to protect me from Johnny going blue, I feel a similar responsibility to protect them from Bill Clinton, who should be turning red.

Townsend Levitt

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More Questions about Timelines

If you listen to a certain podcast, you might learn that pro-life is a recently concocted notion (can forty-five years be that recent?) that white evangelicals use monochromatically to vote in ballot boxes and hector in the public square. You might even come to think that pro-life advocacy is a kind of cover for racially tinged views that prevent white evangelicals from noticing the circumstances that affect black pregnant women who face both economic hardships in providing for children and poor health care during childbirth.

If you did, you might be surprised also to read this from only four years ago (but decisively thirteen months before the 2016 POTUS election):

Abortion horrifies us because the notion of life as a gift has been infused in us by our Creator. In the account of humankind’s creation in Genesis 2, it says, “the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Gen. 2:7). God endowed all human beings with inherent dignity when he created them in his image and likeness (Gen. 1:26-27). We have an instinct for life because existence itself images the Creator.

Since God animates all humanity he has all rights over it. In Genesis 8, after the Flood he declares, “‘Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.’” God’s unrivaled command over the lives of all people as their Creator means he alone has the authority to declare the conditions under which life can be taken.

. . . God loves the little children, but black babies are dying by the score. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, an African American woman is almost five times more likely to have an abortion than a white woman. In the state of Mississippi, white women had 665 abortions in 2006, or 22.6 percent of all abortions in that state. By comparison, black women had 2,250 abortions or 76.3 percent of the total.

Planned Parenthood’s founder, Margaret Sanger, and the crusade to legalize abortion has also been linked to the eugenics movement, an effort to perfect the human race by promoting reproduction (i.e. selective breeding) among human beings with desirable traits and to discourage reproduction (i.e. sterilizing adults or aborting children) with undesirable traits. African Americans were generally not viewed as having the traits necessary for the progress of humanity, so they were frequent targets of racist eugenicist ideas like abortion.

The disproportionate number of abortions in the Black community should cause outrage among African Americans. Instead, organizations founded to uplift people of color support institutions that tear those same people from the womb. The NAACP has openly affirmed a woman’s legalized choice to abort and Planned Parenthood financially supports NAACP national events. Another important organization, the Congressional Black Caucus partners with Planned Parenthood. In 2012, a former CBC chairman, Emanuel Cleaver even received the Margaret Sanger award from Planned Parenthood for his support of “women’s reproductive rights.” The affiliation of the NAACP and the CBC, though, should not be taken to mean that all Black people support abortion. It is an inaccurate and pejorative stereotype to say African Americans do not care about life in the womb. Yet there are reasons some black people have aligned themselves with organizations like Planned Parenthood.

. . . While the contribution of certain individuals and organizations during the Civil Rights Movement should never be forgotten, this advocacy is no reason to ignore the contra-biblical practices of abortion providers. Fortunately, many African Americans have consistently opposed abortion. Alveda C. King, the niece of Martin Luther King, Jr., has been a public advocate for life. The National Black Pro-Life Coalition spearheads many pro-life efforts among minorities.

Christians of all races must be concerned with life “from the womb to the tomb” (and beyond!). This is why Christians of any race cannot support Planned Parenthood as long as it conducts abortions. Believers must do this while continuing to creatively address other important issues. The struggle is for the right to life and the right to a quality life. Love for God and his word requires both.

Have You Considered Working in a Qualification?

I haven’t listened to either Truth’s Table or Pass the Mic for a while because the impression I generally took away when I listened was that I am guilty of something on the border of racism if not the genuine article. I did not see myself in some of the specific complaints about white people or white Christians in the U.S. But then came the invocation of systemic racism that left me wondering (as with climate change and the wealthy 1%) what was I supposed to do. If I didn’t have to work, perform house and yard maintenance, and be a somewhat normal partner in a marriage, perhaps I could devote my time to reducing racism both in aspects of my personal affairs (by implication, I think) and in the wider society. But even if I did that, what possible difference would it make? If Dr. King did all that he did and racism is still as prevalent as it was in the 1960s, I find it hard to fathom that I could possibly make a difference.

Hint for justice warriors: the need to escalate rhetoric is understandable if you want to move people to see the dangers of which you complain; but if you portray the enormity in catastrophic categories, you may leave the awakened feeling powerless in the face of such overwhelming force.

Part of the problem, then, is rhetoric. Here are some recent examples available without having to download an mp3 file:

There are several reasons why white evangelicals are reluctant to denounce racism, but for the sake of brevity, I will name one: power. Racism is ultimately about power. The power to subjugate, influence legislation, oppress, exclude, marginalize, and lord said power over the powerless. White evangelicals are reluctant to denounce racism because of the benefits that accrue to them as a result of said power. The benefits of being at the head of the table, being the standard by which everything and everyone else is measured against, the benefits of having all of the course curriculum center white authors and viewpoints exclusively from elementary school through graduate school including seminary.

Here the assertion involves apparently all white evangelicals. Since I am a Presbyterian, I guess I’m off the hook. But I wonder if the person who said this would apply it to Ligon Duncan?

Here’s another broad claim:

we live in a patriarchal society that benefits men over against women. Nevertheless, men are definitely harmed by cultural expectations of biblical masculinity. It infantilizes men, by painting them as these warriors and outdoorsmen who are hunters who know nothing about domesticity: cooking food, cleaning the house, caring for their children. In this way, the message that is communicated is that a “biblical man doesn’t need to know those things because that’s the woman’s job.” He can’t even be trusted to stay home with the kids while his wife goes away for a weekend. Additionally, men are confined to these rigid categories that revolve around sports and machismo. Toxic masculinity must be dismantled in order to give men the liberty to express themselves in other ways, through the arts, the sciences, literature, and a host of other ways. We are embodied souls; not droids.

Since I do the shopping, cooking, cleaning (bathrooms and kitchen sink), in addition to the manly work of grass cutting, snow shoveling, and wood hauling, I don’t entirely agree about the patriarchal point, though the missus will chalk up my endeavors to wanting to control everything. But again I wonder if this applies to David Platt?

Here’s one more:

The gospel of male dominance, like that of white supremacy, is a poison dispensed through cultural diffusers. Today’s good Christian man is far too charming for misogyny. But since he is often ignorant to the narratives of oppressed people (including those in the Bible), he does not know he’s being discipled into the role of benevolent master. Like most categories of dehumanization, the misogynist interpretation of Scripture which gave us the “biblical manhood and womanhood” movement (correction: issa dead horse debate), places both subhuman and superhuman categories on women and men, and ignores non-binary identity altogether.

Yes, that is straightforward and the female interlocutors may have a point. But this is so fraught with binary categories as to make me suspect that even Brad Mason is guilty of white supremacy. Can that be?

My sense is that the hosts at Truth’s Table (and Pass the Mic) have a lot of allies in the church and secular society. That reality suggests that racism and misogyny are not as pronounced as they allege, especially since their views are readily available in the mainstream press, universities, and Hollywood. Indeed, another reason for giving up downloading and listening was that I hear these arguments in lots of other forums.

They all are, of course, right about misogyny and racism which are forms of hatred that Christians should fight in themselves and discourage in others. But I have a hard time thinking these assertions about the quantity or pervasiveness of such attitudes are correct. I deem the ladies’ and the men’s depictions of the United States and the “white church” rhetorically excessive.

Which Victims Do You Believe?

Yet another mainstream figure bites the dust — Matt Lauer of morning news fame whose performance only matter to mmmeeeEEE when he interviewed Larry David; I just can’t figure out any of the appeal of morning network news. Once again, women have come forward to accuse Lauer of inappropriate sexual behavior. NBC executives believed the women. And so Lauer loses his job.

What I can’t understand is the willingness of business, political, and journalistic authorities to believe what is generally one person’s word against another. This is not an opinion based on male privilege. It’s a legal reality hammered home by the Netflix series, The Keepers, in which Baltimore prosecutors and Roman Catholic Archdiocese officials were unwilling to believe the testimony of women who came forward almost 30 years later to accuse a specific priest of molesting them (and setting up meetings for other priests and police). No priest lost his standing (though a trip outside the country swept the controversy under the proverbial rug for a time). The reason as one of Baltimore’s States Attorneys explained was that the testimony of one person — even if memories were credible — was insufficient to start the engine of prosecution. (Of course, what is liable to prosecution in a court of law is not the same as public opinion or the rules of private employers.)

So what happened only six months after The Keepers was gaining some attention from video streamers?

And imagine writing today what one author did about the documentary series when it appeared:

How can anyone believe this?

The central thesis of The Keepers is that an alleged abusive priest, the now-deceased Rev. Joseph Maskell, can be tied to the disappearance and murder of Sr. Cathy. However, some of the central accusers in all of this, who claim that Maskell sexually abused them when they were young girls, have quite a bit of explaining to do.

For example, in 1995, a woman named Jean Wehner – whose claims play a central role in The Keepers – filed a civil lawsuit against Maskell under the name Jane Doe. What was uncovered in the course of her suit can only described as disturbing. It turns out that all of Wehner’s claims of abuse surfaced through the dangerous and discredited practice of “repressed memory therapy.”

It turns out that, according to court documents, Wehner has not just claimed that Rev. Maskell abused her in her life. Wehner has also claimed that she has somehow also been abused by:

four additional priests; three or four religious brothers; three lay teachers; a police officer; a local politician; an uncle; and two nuns.

Good grief. Really, Jean?

For a fuller account of the Archdiocese’s responses, see here.

Is it I or does it seem that Roman Catholics have been a little shy about weighing in on the current spate of revelations if only because of the church’s recent scandal-ridden past? Never to be intimidated, though, is Father Dwight:

What does this new and unexpected social phenomenon mean?

I think it indicates that a new generation of women don’t give two hoots about the old feminist agenda. The main objectives for women have been pretty much obtained-fair pay and fair treatment in the workplace. Now a new generation of women is saying, “We don’t have to put up with the harassment and objectification that still continues.

Hands off!

This is very interesting because, whether they like it or not, the modern women who take this view are echoing a very traditional set of values–ones which their great grandmothers would have recognized.

Its called modesty. In the past women were expected to draw the line, slap the man’s hand away and refuse a kiss until he was worthy.

The woman was the one who was supposed to be pure and unsullied and the keep the horny man at bay.

Father Dwight does realize, doesn’t he, that this “just-say-no” approach did not apparently work for the girls in The Keepers.

Meanwhile, some think the new found disgust with male appetites is not so much a recovery of virtue as an acquisition of power:

…what puzzles many of us is why the definition of deviance varies so dramatically over time. We cannot always predict who will become defined as deviant, and when the definitions will change. We do know that power plays the most important role in identifying who gets to define deviant behavior.

Until recently, allegations of sexual harassment and abuse by powerful men were not taken seriously—they were not viewed as deviant because the acts were perpetrated by powerful men on less powerful women. Now, the power to define sexual deviance has shifted to women—those who have collaborated with the media to bring attention to the issue and reform how such behavior is perceived and dealt with by society.

Until recently indeed — only 4 months ago.

This Is Embarrassing

The Protestants who I enjoy criticizing are clear at the same time that Roman Catholics are not. And the editors at First Things are caught.

First, a recommendation of the evangelicals who produced the Nashville Statement:

[Several] critiques have merit, and are especially significant since they come from within the evangelical movement. But in our era of theological mushiness and cultural transformation, even the most imperfect attempt at clarity and doctrinal solidarity is better than soft-spoken obfuscation. Christians committed to historic, biblical doctrine on sexuality should be disposed to approve of efforts to make orthodoxy clear, unequivocal, and pastoral.

Perhaps, as many have said, the timing of the Nashville Statement was insensitive. Waiting a couple weeks after the initial images from Houston had appeared might have muted this criticism. But can we foresee a season when such a clear statement of traditional doctrine would not offend, alienate, or divide?

I suspect that what has turned off many people to the Nashville Statement is its clarity. The document’s fourteen affirmations and denials are short, unequivocal, and to the point.

But Roman Catholics, not so much. Aside from the ongoing dilemma of marriage and divorce that Pope Francis and his synods introduced into the magisterium, individual priests, like James Martin, are signaling virtue but in a very sensitive way:

Fr. Martin notably seeks peace. He speaks reassuring phrases in soothing tones. He prefers the familiarity of a sweater vest and dad jeans to the strangeness of the soutane. In ways superficial and profound, he seeks to render Christianity inoffensive. At a certain level, I understand this desire. The Church may be a sign of contradiction, but it is also a source of consolation. Sometimes we need a Church built on sharp, gothic lines, and at other moments we seek the calm harmony of the classical.

But Fr. Martin’s proposed renovation goes beyond mere ornament, to require the restructuring of the whole Christian edifice. Fr. Martin never says this outright, but the logic of what he does say demands it. Approval of homosexuality is now considered the bare minimum of politeness in the world’s respectable precincts (where one hundred years ago, it would have been thought intolerably rude). If Christianity is to have the manners Fr. Martin values—if is to exhibit perfect “respect, compassion, and sensitivity” in the eyes of world—it must not only change its phrasing but reverse its teaching on sex.

Fr. Martin is no idle vandal of the Church, even if his critics often take him for one. Though I disagree with his conclusions, I believe that Catholics have something to learn from his argument that the Church treats homosexuality unfairly.

Catholic teaching has not changed, but at the practical level the Church today has made peace with heterosexual desire. Praise of virginity and warnings against lust in the marriage bed have given way to anxious reassurances that Catholics do not hate and fear sex. The Church has largely ceased to speak of sex as dangerous and requiring restraint, even where it is licit. We hear of the dangers of pre-marital sex, of extramarital sex, sometimes even of homosexual sex—but very rarely of sex simply.

Of course, doctrine hasn’t changed. You hear that a lot from those who have to live with modernists — those who won’t live by, defend, or recommend the doctrine that hasn’t changed. But something has.

And I suspect some converts to Rome are having trouble arguing for Rome’s superiority to Nashville.

Rating Professors is Arbitrary

So warns Jacques Berlinerblau:

Professorial prestige, I contend, is an awfully arbitrary thing.

Among professors, where one works is a marker of status. Thus, the assistant professor employed by an Ivy League college accrues greater glory than her counterpart at a midsize regional university. The latter, in turn, is more esteemed than an assistant professor laboring at some far-flung small liberal-arts college. The same hierarchies prevail, I guess, among high-school seniors comparing their college-acceptance letters as they hotbox their parents’ Toyota Priuses.

The juveniles and, distressingly, the professors are just following the logic of popular college-ranking systems. They are assuming that the greater the renown of an institution as measured by U.S. News & World Report, the greater will be the quantity and quality of research produced by scholars in its employ. Is this assumption accurate?

If it were, it would follow that an assistant professor in anthropology at Princeton University (U.S. News 2016 rank No. 1) publishes more and better work than her exact counterpart at the University of Southern California (U.S. News 2016 rank No. 23). The USC savant, in turn, outperforms the identically ranked anthropologist at Clark University (U.S. News 2016 rank No. 75). The Clark ethnographer has a heftier CV than a comparable scholar employed at Oklahoma State University (U.S. News 2016 rank No. 149). The better the institution, the better the research its tenure-line professors produce. Right?

Well, practice has a habit of trolling theory. Let’s imagine an experiment. All four of our hypothetical tenure-track anthropologists are asked to submit an updated CV and all of their relevant publications. Upon their arrival, these materials are scrubbed of any identifying markers. The anonymous files are then forwarded to a panel of experienced academicians, no-nonsense types who understand how the game is played. Their task: Figure out which CV corresponds to which sage employed at colleges ranked 1, 23, 75, and 149.

Our arbiters, I’m convinced, would fail this blind test. They would fail even if we asked them not to look at mere quantity of publications but quality as well. That’s because the contestants would all look puzzlingly similar. The judges might assume that the assistant professor at Clark worked at Southern California. And, yes, it is not unthinkable that they would place the Oklahoma State ethnographer in New Jersey. The problem is not that the Princeton person is a slouch. The problem is that all four are publishing a lot and all are very impressive on paper. Ergo, it would be impossible for the judges to distinguish between scholarly Coke and Pepsi.

Does this apply to New York City pastors?

What about U.S. Senators?

What about platforms makes an author more of an authority than another author?

Who Paved the Way for Trump?

It was not Jerry Falwell (or his son).

It was the gatekeepers who decided gates were simply mental constructions and who celebrated those who ran with the new freedom.

Want to know where fake news came from? Looks like it was Harvard not Liberty University (thanks to one of our many southern correspondents):

Trump’s playbook should be familiar to any student of critical theory and philosophy. It often feels like Trump has stolen our ideas and weaponized them.

For decades, critical social scientists and humanists have chipped away at the idea of truth. We’ve deconstructed facts, insisted that knowledge is situated and denied the existence of objectivity. The bedrock claim of critical philosophy, going back to Kant, is simple: We can never have certain knowledge about the world in its entirety. Claiming to know the truth is therefore a kind of assertion of power.

These ideas animate the work of influential thinkers like Nietzsche, Foucault and Derrida, and they’ve become axiomatic for many scholars in literary studies, cultural anthropology and sociology.

From these premises, philosophers and theorists have derived a number of related insights. One is that facts are socially constructed. People who produce facts — scientists, reporters, witnesses — do so from a particular social position (maybe they’re white, male and live in America) that influences how they perceive, interpret and judge the world. They rely on non-neutral methods (microscopes, cameras, eyeballs) and use non-neutral symbols (words, numbers, images) to communicate facts to people who receive, interpret and deploy them from their own social positions.

Call it what you want: relativism, constructivism, deconstruction, postmodernism, critique. The idea is the same: Truth is not found, but made, and making truth means exercising power.

Casey Williams argues that the populist right has abused postmodernism.

The reductive version is simpler and easier to abuse: Fact is fiction, and anything goes. It’s this version of critical social theory that the populist right has seized on and that Trump has made into a powerful weapon.

One might object that Trump’s disregard for the truth is nothing new. American presidents have always twisted facts to fit their agenda and have always dismissed truths that threatened to sink them. Even George Washington’s great claim to honesty — that he ’fessed up to felling a cherry tree — was a deception. One could also argue that Trump is more Machiavellian than Foucauldian and that he doesn’t actually believe what he says: He propagates misinformation strategically, to excite his base and smear his opponents.

Not to be missed is what happens when other celebrities flout conventions. Then it becomes art and poignant. And so Lena Dunham is prescient (while Trump is so ordinary when he is not despicable):

The romance between this newspaper and the HBO show “Girls” is somewhat legendary. Between its debut in 2012 and its finale last Sunday, according to some exhaustive data journalism from The Awl, The New York Times published 37 articles about the show, its fans, its creator and star, Lena Dunham, plus her co-stars’ clothes and paintings and workout routines and exotic pets.

Except, fact-check: I made up the exotic pets, and The Awl’s list unaccountably failed to include my own contribution to The Times’s Dunham-mania, a love letter to the show’s flirtations with cultural reaction.

Was some of this coverage excessive? Well, let’s concede that the ratio of thinkpieces (all over the web, not just in this newspaper) to actual viewers was considerably higher for “Girls” than for, say, “Game of Thrones.” Let’s concede that the media loved to talk about the show in part because it was set among young white people in Brooklyn, a demographic just possibly overrepresented among the people who write about pop culture for a living. Let’s concede that Dunham’s peculiar role in electoral politics, as one of the most visible and, um, creative millennial-generation surrogates for Barack Obama and then Hillary Clinton, played some role in the press’s fascination with her show.

But now that we have the show in full, I think the scale of coverage actually holds up quite well — my own small part in it very much included. Indeed, I suspect that “Girls” will be remembered as the most interesting and important television show of the years in which it ran, to which cultural critics will inevitably return when they argue about art and society in the now-vanished era of Obama.

I know it’s hard to seem to be upholding the status quo. Baby boomers would rather have an edge, be a little deviant, and resist being part of the establishment.

But at some point you grow up, or you find no rationale for opposing a man (now president) who has been simply floating along with the decline of standards.

If Only Princeton Seminary had Read Sarah Posner on Tim Keller

They would have spared themselves a lot of grief (though one has to raise questions about Posner’s reasons for opining the way she does). Way back in 2009, the liberal journalist saw through the public relations success of New Calvinism’s favorite urban pastor/apologist:

Counterfeit Gods is an attractive, compact volume that a busy urbanite might tuck in his murse alongside his iPhone. It’s got a “there’s-an-app-for-that” sort of answer for the anxiety of contemporary city living. It’s a handy Jiminy Cricket to set you straight when you might be thinking of having sex with someone you’re not married to, contemplating a risky investment opportunity in the hopes of hitting the jackpot, or staying late at the office instead of having dinner with the family. While you’re at it, you might remind your spouse not to over-schedule the kids, because Jesus doesn’t like that, either.

Imagine: Wall Street casts its eyes upon Saint Timothy instead of Timothy Geithner! Dalton minus the uptight parents! A Manhattan nightlife free from casual sex! Coffee shops and bars purged of political ideology and discourse!

Such “counterfeit gods” ail the suburbs, too, but they are already saturated by big box mega-churches to counteract the false idols of Sam Walton-inspired strip malls and hyper-competitive Saturday morning soccer tournaments for six year-olds. Keller doesn’t bother with them. His schtick is to break into the untapped urban market for potential believers.

It’s hard to see, though, how New York’s wide swaths of spiritual diversity would take to Keller’s air of Christian superiority. For him, the Bible “comprises a single story, telling us how the human race got into its present condition, and how God through Jesus Christ has come and will come to put things right.” See? It’s that simple.

The focus isn’t eternal salvation, but rather remaking the cultural and political world. He offers a way of making sense of what Jerry Falwell-style fundamentalists might call the scourge of secular humanism. Instead of spiritual warfare against these satanic enemies, Keller asks his readers to confront them as biblical figures might have rejected false idols.

Thus, the hovering, over-protective mother might take lessons from Abraham: let God test your love for the children by letting them be free. The man who lusts for someone other than his wife might learn from Jacob’s misguided quest for the more beautiful Rachel. Jacob’s wife, Leah, provides cues for anyone looking for love and sex and transcendence in their romantic lives, rather than through God. The inevitable result of looking for everything in romantic love, Keller maintains, is “bitter disillusionment.”

One would think the Jacob-Leah story might yield some feminist deconstructions. But feminism, apparently, is also idolatry. Every such political ideology, Keller maintains, creates a sort of idolatry of its own. “An ideology,” he writes, “like an idol, is a limited, partial account of reality that is raised to the level of the final word on things.” Keller can’t see, somehow, that our body politic was designed to be secular, and that a religious prescription for its ills—itself portrayed as a final word—is one of the scourges that has, over the last four decades or so, led to the single-minded extremism he decries.

Keller is a favorite of flagship evangelical magazines like Christianity Today and World, but he receives glowing coverage in mainstream outlets as well. “While he hardly shrinks from difficult Christian truths,” observed a 2006 profile in the New York Times, “he sounds different from many of the shrill evangelical voices in the public sphere.” Keller, the piece went on, “shies away from the label evangelical, which is often used to describe theologically conservative Protestant Christians like him, because of the political and fundamentalist connotations that now come with it. He prefers the term orthodox instead, because he believes in the importance of personal conversion or being ‘born again,’ and the full authority of the Bible.”

This assertion—that biblical orthodoxy is somehow apolitical—was put to the test recently when Keller became one of over 100 original signatories to the Manhattan Declaration unveiled on November 20th. Billed as a statement of “religious conscience,” the Manhattan Declaration is something more, something unmistakably fundamentalist and quintessentially political, a regurgitation of the religious right’s assertion that sexual and gender rights are somehow a threat to good Christians’ religious liberty.

What Kind of Art Will American Greatness Leave Behind?

Talk about greatness after you watch The Great Museum, a documentary about The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna:

The museum was the creation of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria-Hungary. Opened in 1891, the museum (a combination of two) holds the Habsburgs’ formidable art collection and makes many of the effects of the Holy Roman Emperor accessible to the general public. As much as the Protestant and republican in me wonders about that kind of wealth, concentration of power, and even accumulation of relics, it doesn’t take a high school diploma to understand that The Great Museum should be on my bucket list and should likely have been higher than the Louvre or London’s National Gallery. Say what you will about the Habsburgs, they acquired lots of stuff that people interested in history and art want to see.

(Although, I could not fight the impression that the art world, even as accessible as it is now compared to when it fenced in for only the aristocracy and friends to enjoy, has become one big commodity to be bought and sold. The documentary has one auction scene that took the missus and me back to The Red Violin, arguably the best historical treatment on film of the changing value of a musical instrument. Let’s just say, moderns know monetary value better than artistic achievement. I’ll confirm that by noticing that even though the Republic of Austria subsidizes the Great Museum with significant Euro’s, admission in 2013 to the Great Museum was almost 34 Euros — $37. Ouch!)

Meanwhile, back in the greatest nation on God’s green earth, the feds debate whether to cut funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. Stephen Limbaugh keeps it real when he warns about the NEA’s ideological outlook:

Be it the misuse of funds, waste, or deleterious governing philosophy, the National Endowment for the Arts has proven to be a recidivistic cultural butcher.

The NEA’s process for cultivating art is informed by standards set by universities and critical theorists. Those standards of what qualify as “acceptable” contemporary art seem to be any phenomena that offends an individual’s inherent aesthetic disposition. Preferential treatment is given to those works that 1) are able to evoke the most unpleasant reaction and 2) are created with the least amount of discernible purpose. This destructive artistic praxis is thoroughly documented, and there are few examples of NEA-backed art that does not adhere to it.

Be that as it may, so what? Even if the NEA retains their funding, will the artists they subsidize produce anything that will command attention in three centuries? Anything like Peter Brueghel’s Tower of Babel (the film’s closing image)? Can a top hat worn by President Wilson really compare with the Bratina of King Ladislaus IV of Poland?

I don’t think so.