One of the smartest commentators on American politics and religion is someone you’ve probably never heard of.
His wry and careful handling of flammable subjects is always admirable. But a recent blog post, which brought together three culture-wars figureheads — the Texas mega pastor Joel Osteen; New York Times columnist Ross Douthat; and Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee — in a virtual sparring match was so ingenious that it merits a column of its own.
Mark Silk is a medievalist by training, and a professor at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. But what he really does, on his blog Spiritual Politics, which runs on the Web site of the Religion News Service, is to scan the religion-politics landscape and make a single shrewd observation every day.
In a world where religion coverage is so often myopic and self-serving — everybody’s religion looks scary to outsiders — Silk stands on the sidelines with a passionate interest and a dispassionate point of view. At a time when words such as “faith,” “God,” and “Bible” can instantly trigger outrage (as when the journalist Dan Savage recently offended Christian students in a speech and then ridiculed them for taking offense), Silk refrains from predictable analysis. The right-left, in-out, religion-good, religion-bad dualisms are not for him.
The Osteen-Romney-Douthat blog post ran on Monday. In fewer than 500 words, it reversed conventional wisdom. It praised Osteen, a massively popular preacher who is despised by both the right and the left for his “prosperity gospel” and what they see as a shallow, happy interpretation of Scripture. It chided the intelligentsia’s new favorite conservative pundit, Douthat. And it implicitly raised a crucial question: Is Romney’s Mormonism really so intimidating?
The whole thing started with an interview Osteen gave to the Christian Post last month, in which he addressed the question that gives certain conservative Christians fits: Is Romney a Christian? (Romney says yes; the conservatives say no.)
Osteen asserted that if Romney wanted to call himself a Christian that was fine with him. “When I hear Mitt Romney say that he believes that Jesus is the Son of God — that he’s the Christ, raised from the dead, that he’s his Savior — that’s good enough for me,” said Osteen, who reiterated his remarks on CNN. Predictably, the conservative Christian districts of the Internet nearly exploded with indignation. “The gutless cotton candy motivational preacher does it again.”
But Silk refused to pile on. Instead he lauded Osteen for his inclusiveness and observed that it wasn’t so long ago that conservative evangelicals also regarded Catholics as though they had three heads.
“Now they consider Catholics within the fold. You might say that the Mormons have helped bring them together,” Silk wrote. Then, with a graceful flick of his dagger, he gently rebuked Douthat for calling Osteen’s religion a heresy in his new book “Bad Religion.”
“Monotheism in the Judeo-Christian tradition pretty much starts off with a gospel of prosperity,” wrote Silk. “God promises the Israelites the good life in a land of milk and honey if they keep their end of the bargain. Is belief in the Covenant now a Christian heresy?”
I called Silk and asked him whether any principles illuminate his path through the forest of religion and politics.
“I just try to think hard about what I’m writing about,” he answered. “If it’s something that looks like shooting fish in the barrel and everybody’s shot the fish before, I won’t do it. My father was a columnist. I’ve followed opinion writing for a long time. It’s the death of an opinion writer in my opinion when they stop saying, ‘What’s really going on here? What’s true?’ And they start saying, ‘What do I think?’ ’’
Silk is no ardent fan of Osteen, or Romney, but he has been shocked at the vitriol directed at Osteen’s prosperity gospel, especially by reporters who have no particular ax to grind. “Leave aside the people who are coming out of some kind of religious background,” he said. “What entitles secular reporters to say, ‘That’s [bad] religion’?”
It’s a point well taken, especially as we continue to scrutinize politicians’ character and values in terms of their faith and thereby deem them worthy (or not) for public office.
Silk is reasonable and interesting. He’s not afraid to provoke, but isn’t on anybody’s team. It is perhaps not incidental that his livelihood is not measured in clicks, tweets or viewer ratings. The man’s an academic, which may be why he can elucidate the fray without having to join it.