When Columnists Cry 'Jihad'

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By John McCandlish Phillips
Wednesday, May 4, 2005

I have been looking at myself, and millions of my brethren, fellow evangelicals along with traditional Catholics, in a ghastly arcade mirror lately -- courtesy of this newspaper and the New York Times. Readers have been assured, among other dreadful things, that we are living in "a theocracy" and that this theocratic federal state has reached the dire level of -- hold your breath -- a "jihad."

In more than 50 years of direct engagement in and observation of the major news media I have never encountered anything remotely like the fear and loathing lavished on us by opinion mongers in these world-class newspapers in the past 40 days. If I had a $5 bill for every time the word "frightening" and its close lexicographical kin have appeared in the Times and The Post, with an accusatory finger pointed at the Christian right, I could take my stack to the stock market.

I come at this with an insider/outsider vantage and with real affection for many of those engaged in this enterprise. When the Times put me on its reporting staff, I was the only evangelical Christian among some 275 news and editorial employees, and certainly the only one who kept a leather-bound Bible on his desk. As a professional insider (18 years of reporting, mostly general assignment work) and a spiritual outsider, I reaped some sweet rewards. Two Times editors, A.M. Rosenthal and Arthur Gelb, collaborated on a sketch of me. Responding to skeptics about the capacity of a "deeply religious man" to do such work, they concluded: "There are editors, indeed, who believe that if having a Bible on his desk has been of any help to Phillips, the Times might well be advised to form a Gideon society of its own for the benefit of other reporters."

The opening salvo of the heavy rhetorical artillery to which I object came in on March 24, when Maureen Dowd started her column in the Times with the declaration "Oh my God, we really are in a theocracy." While satiric, as always with the ever-so-readable columnist, it was not designed to be taken lightly. (Reading everything Dowd writes, while agreeing with scarcely any of it, is one of life's guilty pleasures for me. Now and then she sends a short left jab straight to the jaw of a rightist absurdity, as she recently did with regard to a White House press room admittee, the pseudonymous right-wing suck-up styled "Jeff Gannon.")

Three days later Frank Rich, an often acute, broadly knowledgeable and witty cultural observer, sweepingly informed us that, under the effects of "the God racket" as now pursued in Washington, "government, culture, science, medicine and the rule of law are all under threat from an emboldened religious minority out to remake America according to its dogma." He went on to tell Times readers that GOP zealots in Congress and the White House have edged our country over into "a full-scale jihad." If Rich were to have the misfortune to live for one week in a genuine jihad, and the unlikely fortune to survive it, he would temper his categorization of the perceived President Bush-driven jihad by a minimum of 77 percent. If any "emboldened minority" is aiming to "remake America according to its dogma," it seems to many evangelicals and Catholics that it is the vanguard wanting, say, the compact of marriage to be stretched in its historic definition to include men cohabiting with men and women with women. That is, in terms of the history of this nation, a most pronounced and revolutionary novelty.

From March 24 through April 23 (when The Post twinned Colbert I. King's "Hijacking Christianity" with Paul Gaston's "Smearing Christian Judges"), I counted 13 opinion columns of similarly alarmist tone aimed at us on the Christian right: two more in The Post by the generally amiable and highly communicative Richard Cohen headlined "Backward Evolution" and "Faith-Based Pandering"; one by his colleague, the urbane Eugene Robinson, "Art vs. the Church Lady" (lamenting that "the pall of religiosity hanging over the city was reaching gas-mask stage"); and three by Dowd, two by Paul Krugman and three by Rich in the Times.

In "What's Going On" [March 29], Krugman darkly implied that some committed religious believers in our nation bear a menacing resemblance to Islamic extremists, by which he did not mean a few crazed crackpots but a quite broad swath of red-staters. In "An Academic Question" [April 5], Krugman, conceding the wide majority of secular liberals over conservatives on the faculties of our major universities, had the supreme chutzpah to tell us why: The former, unfettered by presuppositions of faith, are free to commit genuine investigative work and to reach valid scholarly conclusions, while the latter are disabled in that critical respect by their unprovable prior assumptions. So they are disqualified as a class from the university enterprise by their unfortunate susceptibility to the God hypothesis.

Yet most of what became the great East Coast universities (Harvard, Dartmouth, Princeton, Columbia and Yale among them) were, in cold fact, founded by men of faith and prayer for purposes that were informed and motivated by explicitly biblical principles. If Prof. Krugman were to read some of their faith-based pronouncements -- many of them as much stronger than typical modern evangelical utterance as rum is from root beer -- it would surely curl his hair. Timothy Dwight, the president under whose mind and hand Yale made the turn from a college to a university, wrote a hymn quite unabashedly titled "I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord." Dwight was a prodigious scholar and a monumental figure in the history of Yale, altogether unbelamed by his evangelical fervor.

In the long journey from the matchless moment when I became "born again" and encountered the risen and living Christ, I have met hundreds of evangelicals and a good many practicing Catholics and have found them to be of reasonable temperament, often enough of impressive accomplishment, certainly not a menace to the republic, unless, of course, the very fact of faith seriously held is thought to make them just that. It is said, again and again and again, that the evangelical/Catholic right is out of accord with the history of our republic, dangerously so. What we are out of accord with is not that history but a revisionist version of it vigorously promulgated by those who want it to be seen as other than it was.

Evangelicals are concerned about the frequently advanced and historically untenable secularists' view of the intent of our non-establishment/free exercise of religion clause: that everything that has its origin in religion must be swept out of federal, and even civil, domains. That view, if militantly enforced, constitutes what seems dangerous to most evangelicals: the strict and entire separation of God from state. This construct, so desired by some, is radically out of sync with much in American history that shows a true regard for the non-establishment of religion while giving space in nearly all contexts to wide and free expressions of faith.

The fact is that our founders did not give us a nation frightened by the apparition of the Deity lurking about in our most central places. On Sept. 25, 1789, the text of what was later adopted as the First Amendment was passed by both houses of Congress, and subsequently sent to the states for ratification. On that same day , the gentlemen in the House who had acted to give us that invaluable text took another action: They passed a resolution asking President George Washington to declare a national day of thanksgiving to no less a perceived eminence than almighty God.

That's president , that's national, that's official and, alas, my doubting hearties, it's God -- all wrapped up in a federal action by those who knew what they meant by the non-establishment clause and saw their request as standing at not the slightest variance from it. It's a pity our phalanx of columnists cannot crawl into a time machine to go back and reinstruct them.

John McCandlish Phillips is an author and former reporter for the New York Times.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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