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Monday, July 30, 2012

What Did Metaxas mean by "bullets"?

The author and journalist Frederick Clarkson has taken the conversation about Eric Metaxas and the HHS Mandate in a different direction by interpreting a speech by Metaxas differently than I did. Here is the paragraph from Metaxas’ speech at the Catholic Information Center in DC:

“This HHS mandate” situation he said “is so oddly similar to where Bonhoeffer found himself” early in the Nazi era. “If we don’t fight now,” Metaxas warned,
“if we don’t really use all our bullets now, we will have no fight five years from now. It’ll be over. This it. We’ve got to die on this hill. Most people say, oh no, this isn’t serious enough. Its just this little issue. But it’s the millimeter... its that line that we cross. I’m sorry to say that I see these parallels. I really wish I didn’t.”

Fred ties this revolutionary language into a broader context of conservative rhetoric that invites violence. I am not sure that I agree with him. I interpreted Metaxas to be speaking metaphorically in the paragraph sited. However, I wonder if I have viewed the quote that way because I was inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. It would certainly fit with Metaxas’ focus on Bonhoeffer, the man who attempted to assassinate Hitler, to view his call to bullets and “die on this hill” literally, but I don’t think that was his intent. I still think I was right to interpret his language as a call to skip nuance, fight verbally with every last extreme language possible, and leave the careful language for after the "crisis". What I can say is that Metaxas’ lack of clarity in using this kind of language is troubling.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Islamaphobia in Retreat

One of my major concerns over the past year has related to the issue of Muslim religious liberty in the United States. In that context I have been encouraged by the consistent voice of the Becket Fund, a leader in the fight against the HHS Mandate (they teamed up with Wheaton College yesterday) but also in the fight for religious liberty for Muslims. Given that background I was heartened to see this excellent post by Michael Sean Winters detailing three important victories--including one lead by the Becket Fund-- and placing these victories in broader historical context, as he does in this excerpt:

While many Catholics are focused on the HHS mandates and particularly the restrictive four-part definition of what constitutes a religiously exempt organization, we must remember that the situation of Muslims today is more akin to the kind of anti-Catholic bigotry faced by our Catholic forbears. Catholics today are a quarter of the population of the country: There are limits to what any government founded on the consent of the governed will be able to achieve in attacking the Catholic Church. Muslims are still a small minority and, like all minorities, have much to fear not just from a few stray bigots but from the prejudices of the majority. We Catholics face a long-term and very complicated struggle to shape political, cultural and especially legal attitudes about the role of religion in society. Muslims must live in fear of physical attacks, of Molotov cocktails and arson, and other forms of intimidation of the kind Catholics have not faced since the 1920s.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Media Coverage of Wheaton's HHS Decision

Media Hops on Wheaton’s HHS Decision

The decision by Wheaton College today to join the lawsuit of Catholic University of America and other Catholic institutions challenging the HHS Mandate marks a significant development. I welcome their decision and hope that it helps to demonstrate that this is not a partisan issue, or a uniquely Cathoic issue. I also hope the President of Wheaton College, Philip Ryken, will continue to articulate the views of the school with the kind or clarity and discretion evidenced in the initial media reports.
Here is a summary of the eary reporting on Wheaton’s decision.

Christianity Today has been in the lead with a news story and an interview with Ryken. Both the story and the interview were done by CT’s Sarah Pulliam Bailey. From the news story:

"Any attempt to narrow the scope of what is legally recognized as a religious institution sets a dangerous precedent and undermines the character of the institution going forward because their religious identity is vital to who they are," LoMaglio said. "What these lawsuits show is that religious groups do not view the accommodation as adequate."… The move is unusual for Wheaton, an institution that does not often join the political fray. Before he became president of Wheaton in 2010, Ryken was pastor of Tenth Presbyterian in Philadelphia, having little public involvement in politics, law, or government. Other high-profile presidents of Christian colleges and universities, such as Baylor University (Ken Starr), Liberty University (Jerry Falwell, Jr.), and The Kings College (Dinesh D'Souza) have more politically-related backgrounds. Unlike Liberty, for instance, Wheaton rarely invites political candidates to speak in its chapel services.

Here are key excerpts from the interview with Ryken:

Is there any danger in at least appearing political with this lawsuit?
Wheaton College is not a partisan institution and the effect of our filing on any political process has played no part at all in any of our board discussions on the issue. The timing of things is driven primarily by the mandate itself. Wheaton College stands to face punitive fines already on January 1, 2013, and I am welcoming incoming freshmen in two weeks. It’s already an issue for us in terms of our health insurance and what we provide for this coming academic year. Although we wanted to wait for the Supreme Court decision out of respect for the legal system, we do not believe that we can wait any longer.

You did a press conference this morning with the leader of a Catholic institution. Is there any danger of watering down theological differences between evangelicals and Catholics, or is it advantageous to work together on this issue?
Our board felt strongly that if the possibility presented itself, we had a strong interest in filing alongside a Roman Catholic institution. This is fully in keeping with Wheaton’s convictions. We’re clear on our Protestant identity and there are many areas of theological disagreement that we have with Roman Catholic colleges and universities. This filing is not a way of suggesting that those differences have in any way been erased. But here’s an issue where we have strong agreement, and that is the value of religious freedom for all people everywhere. We also believe that we have a stake in the success of Catholic institutions winning their religious freedom arguments. Even if [contraception] is not a universal point of conviction for Protestants the way that it is for Roman Catholics, we believe that Catholic institutions should have the freedom to carry out their mission without government coercion. That struggle for liberty is a struggle for our own liberty and, we would argue, a struggle for the liberty of all Americans.

It seems like it’s fairly unusual for Wheaton to do something like this. Is it a big step? Does it feel out of your comfort zone?
We are reluctant filers. We’ve been appealing to the government all year to provide an exemption for religious institutions— not merely churches, but other religious institutions. It’s our conviction that institutions like Wheaton College have religious freedoms too that ought to be protected by the United States Constitution. It’s very distressing to have to come to a point of actually filing a lawsuit on these issues. It’s a matter of strong conviction and our board is unanimous that this is the right step to take for Wheaton College. It’s certainly unprecedented for us to file a lawsuit against the government, and we’re doing it only as a last resort.

The Becket Fund has been at the forefront of resistance to the HHS Mandate and they played a key role in coordinating Wheaton’s lawsuit with the Catholic University of America’s lawsuit. Their website carried a report framing Wheaton’s decision as a historic one:

This alliance marks the first-ever partnership between Catholic and evangelical institutions to oppose the same regulation in the same court.
“This mandate is not just a Catholic issue—it threatens people of all faiths,” says Kyle Duncan, General Counsel, The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.  “Wheaton’s historic decision to join the fight alongside a Catholic institution shows the broad consensus that the mandate endangers everyone’s religious liberty.”
Wheaton’s religious convictions prevent it from providing its employees with access to abortion-causing drugs. The college’s lawsuit acts to preserve its religious liberty and the right to carry out its mission free from government coercion.
“Wheaton College and other distinctively Christian institutions are faced with a clear and present threat to our religious liberty,” says Wheaton College President Dr. Philip Ryken. “Our first president, the abolitionist Jonathan Blanchard, believed it was imperative to act in defense of freedom. In bringing this suit, we act in defense of freedom again.”

This news is already rippling through the blogosphere and finding its way into major mainstream media outlets. This story is running at The Hill, one of the leading DC publications on politics.

The suit from Ill.-based Wheaton College — dubbed the "Notre Dame" of Protestant higher education — states that the controversial policy violates the religious freedom of people who object to birth control or consider forms of it equal to abortion…Catholic University filed its own suit in late May alongside Notre Dame University and the Archdiocese of Washington. 

"As the president of the national university of the Catholic Church, I am happy to express solidarity with our evangelical brothers from Wheaton College," said Catholic University President John Garvey. 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Tony Jones, Scot McKnight on Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer

The focus of my writing on Eric Metaxas has been on his refusal to substantiate extraordinary charges against the Obama Administration in general and the Health and Human Services in particular. But of course the reason Metaxas has a platform for these opinions, indeed the seeming reason why he is not even forced to make an actual argument for his view that the HHS Mandate is comparable to early Nazi legislation, is because of the mantle of authority that his biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer has provided him. In that light, it is interesting to see two of Metaxas’ fellow Christian intellectuals, Tony Jones and Scot McKnight, raising important questions about the veracity of that scholarship. Both Jones and McKnight reference with approval a significant review by the Bonhoeffer scholar Victoria Barnett. McKnight calls her essay “one of the best” and says she has “the same sort of problems I had with Metaxas, not the least of which is his failure to mention that Bonhoeffer was on Bultmann’s side when it came to the historicity of the Gospels — both when Bonhoeffer was in Spain and then later when the conservative Lutheran pastors disputed Bultmann.”

Jones points to Barnett’s review as well, noting it is an example of a trend that should cause Metaxas’ loyal followers some pause:

The problem? Metaxas’s account of Bonhoeffer’s life has been almost universally derided by Bonhoeffer scholars. They say that he simply took bits and pieces of Bonhoeffer’s biography — all cribbed from earlier books — and pasted them together to make his point that Bonhoeffer was actually a conservative cultural warrior who repudiated liberal Christianity and considered fundamentalists in America to be in the same plight as German Jews.

I trust that Metaxas is my brother in Christ, but unfortunately he simply does not have sufficient grounding in history, theology, and philosophy to properly interpret Bonhoeffer. This is not just my opinion. Victoria Barnett, the editor of the English-language edition of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, wrote a scathing review of Metaxas's biography. In her opinion, Metaxas "has a very shaky grasp of the political, theological, and ecumenical history of the period." She then calls Metaxas's portrayal of Bonhoeffer's theology "a terrible simplification and at times misrepresentation."

What Barnett says of Metaxas’ biography of Bonhoeffer is what I say about his claim to have discerned some sort of link between early Nazi laws and the HHS Mandate, namely that it is “a terrible simplification and at times misrepresentation."

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Rodriguez, Romney and the Politics of Immigration

Samuel Rodriguez has been back in the news in a big way over the last month. As regular readers will recall, I have quite a history of reporting on and writing about Rev. Rodriguez although I have been away from the topic for some time. I am drawn back to it in light of the recent statement by Rodriguez in which claims Mitt Romney has made a “180 turn” with respect to his relationship with the Hispanic community. This was a striking comment and one that cried out for substantiation given the fact that Romney has not made any public comments that would suggest waffling or backtracking on his stated positions with respect to key Hispanic issues like the DREAM Act, the President’s recent action regarding prosecution of children of undocumented immigrants, or the Arizona law. In the absence of facts such as these to point to, one is left with the impression that Rodriguez is again demonstrating his own loose speech. Here is how Bill Berkowitz weighs Rodriguez’s recent pronouncement on Romney:

Of all the leaders Team Romney has engaged, Samuel Rodriguez takes a back seat to none, although whether Rodriguez actually represents any voters is open to question. "I stand convinced the Governor appreciates the significance of the Hispanic electorate and he refuses to give up the Hispanic vote without a fight. He has made a 180-degree turn and is headed to a significant Hispanic outreach," Rodriguez told Brody.

It is unclear what kind of "outreach" Rodriguez is referring to given Romney's refusal to back the "Dream Act," and his predilection for pushing for the "self-deportation" of immigrants. In addition, a key Romney advisor on immigration issues is Kris Kobach, co-author of the Arizona's SB1070 law that was largely struck down by the Supreme Court, and who is considered "the intellectual architect of the draconian state-by-state approach immigration reform," as Tim Dickinson recently pointed out in Rolling Stone.
According to Brody, Team Romney's "focus now is on getting the conservative evangelical base motivated." The aim of a recent meeting of 70 conservative Christian leaders was "to figure out ways to get the conservative Christian base mobilized and excited about the GOP presidential nominee."

Rachel Tabachnick, drawing on Brody’s reporting for the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), notes that Romney’s outreach to Rodriguez is part of a wider effort to coalesce evangelicals behind his campaign. “Brody also reported that the Romney campaign has been quietly meeting behind the scenes with conservative evangelicals including Rick Warren, Richard Land, Gary Bauer, Samuel Rodriguez, and leaders from Focus on Family and Family Research Council.” All of this attention to Rodriguez is part of a pattern stretching back years in which Rodriguez is viewed as a vital cog in the Hispanic community. Questions about just how significant he really is, such as those raised by noted journalist Frederick Clarkson, are important but seemingly besides the point for writers like Lisa Miller who continue to puff Rodriguez as a “principled conservative” who President Obama would do well to listen to. Of course, this ignores two important facts: 1) Obama has actually given Rodriguez wide access to his administration especially when considering that 2) Rodriguez has been a vicious critic of Obama at times during his first term, especially when accusing Obama of leading “a government [that] has taken over the auto industry, the banking industry, the health industry, soon the energy industry. We have never been in this place before. Our founding fathers are turning in their graves. This is big government on steroids.”

I tire of the Rodriguez story because his standing in religious and mainstream media is so entrenched as to be impervious to hypocrisy and distortion that would have been the downfall of other Christian leaders. But when I see him poised to make another play at presidential kingmaking I must try again to raise the red flag to other media—why are you continuing to report on Rodriguez without even a mention of his scandals and distortions?

Metaxas and Jewish Memory

[This is a continuation of a series of posts on Eric Metaxas' rhetoric]

The memory of the Shoah is holy and its implications for Christian moral reflection profound. Among the many ideas that flow from meditation on the Holocaust, two appear in seeming tension. On the one hand is the determination that any consideration of Nazi crimes produces to see that it never happens again. On the other, comes a reverence for the memory of those who died—as individuals and as members of communities targeted for elimination. The moral imperative compels us to be ever vigilant in rooting out the structures of evil that give rise to such terror, while the reverence imperative cautions us to never cheapen or profane the memory of those who were lost.

It is my conviction that in the debate over the HHS Mandate notable leaders in the Christian community have failed to show reverence for the memory of the Holocaust and have in their zeal to force a change by the Obama Administration manipulated the moral imperative of the Holocaust in ways injurious to the common good. I have in mind in particular the best-selling author Eric Metaxas, biographer of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and William Wilberforce. Metaxas has been a very public ally of the bishops, having coauthored an important essay in the Wall Street Journal with Cardinal Wuerhl and a Jewish leader. In that essay no mention was made of Germany and Nazism, but in a number of different venues Metaxas has been pushing the idea that the religious freedom limitations of the HHS Mandate are strikingly similar to some set of undefined early Nazi laws. In a talk at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception’s Catholic Information Center Metaxas said:

“This [the HHS Mandate debate] is so oddly similar to where Bonhoeffer found himself [in the early stages of Nazi Germany]… If we don’t fight now, if we don’t really use our bullets now, we will have no fight five years from now…it’s the millimeter that is that line which we cross. I’m sorry to say that I see these parallels, I really wish I didn’t…We are getting a second chance…so we don’t make the same mistakes and go down the same road.”

In February, following an address that President Obama attended and also spoke at for the National Prayer Breakfast,  Metaxas appeared on MSNBC  and filled in the historical record ever so minimally saying that “In the early 30s little things was happening where the state was bullying the churches. No one spoke up. In the beginning it always starts our really, really small. We need to understand as Americans if we do not see this as a bright line in the sand…eventually this kind of government overreach will reach you.” While Metaxas has thrown out these serious charges he has never, to my knowledge, and certainly not anywhere available on line or in print, substantiated these charges with what would generally be considered a sustained argument. He has never, for instance, cited an early Nazi law that he thinks is comparable to the HHS Mandate in terms of religious freedom, nor has he ever explained how the HHS Mandate will lead us “down the same road” that led to the Holocaust.

Metaxas shows every intention of continuing to use this unsubstantiated rhetoric. In a speech just weeks ago at Fr. Sirico’s Acton Institute Metaxas again made the charge as part of an explanation for why the Fortnight of Freedom is so important to America’s future. His many followers on twitter have been reading constant reminders of the Fortnight of Freedom and about the “unprecedented abridgment of religious freedom” posed by the HHS Mandate, as a recent tweet put it. And a recent commentary for the widely read and listened to Breakpoint program of the late Charles Colson’s ministry featured Metaxas urging his largely Protestant audience to give full support for the Fortnight, though without reference to the German laws.

Metaxas’ cavalier use of the memory of the Holocaust era is striking for someone whose biography has been so widely read and praised. His standing as a commentator on religion and public life owes itself to that reputation. In fact, it earned him an audience with President Obama at the recent National Prayer Breakfast which Metaxas and the president addressed. Metaxas owes it to the president, and to the memory of the Shoah, to either explain and justify his charges or retract them as publicly as he made them. Of course to say this does not in anyway imply agreement with the HHS Mandate. One critic of Metaxas’ language, the noted Protestant ecumenist John Armstrong, has said, “I disagree with the President about how to solve the health care crisis, rather profoundly if I am pushed, but I do not think his actions are remotely like Hitler's in the 1920s and early 1930s…Christians cannot continue to violate civility and expect to be heard when their voice is truly important.”

Pixar and Disney: Who is Changing Who?

 The true sign of my lack of financial chops is that the one stock prediction I ever made that I was completely right on was the one I did not invest money!! Many years ago, when Pixar was still a small, new kid on the movie block, I told my wife we should invest a thousand dollars in this company because it was going places. Of course, we were young and did not have the money to invest but I have thought of that prediction often over the years. Pixar of course went on to incredible success and was eventually bought by Disney for an extraordinary price. I think my stock would have been 20X the price if I had bought it the year I thought about it.

I mention all this not solely to make you feel sorry for me, but also by way of introduction to my passion for Pixar. This passion is unusual in that I am not a particular movie-crazed person or inclined to business dealings. But Pixar came along just as we were starting our family and I have seen nearly every film they have produced because I, like hundreds of millions of others, have found their films the perfect blend of children and adult themes done with a style and a depth rare to movies these days, much less animated movies. My interest in Pixar also grew during my years in Orange County California where the movie business was a regular part of conversation given our proximity to Hollywood. I remember the  concerns expressed when it first became known that Disney was attempting to buy out Pixar: Would Pixar lose its independence? Would Pixar be forced to do sequels and dumb down its productions? The answer to these questions was that Pixar would be given an unusual amount of freedom within Disney to continue to operate according to its own values and vision and that if anything Pixar would help sharpen the production quality of other Disney animation films not produced by Pixar.

Well, it has been a few years since the merger and after watching Brave a couple weeks ago with the family I am more convinced than ever that Disney is damaging Pixar, although Pixar seems to be helping Disney. I base this conclusion on a few things:

1)   Brave is simply not in the caliber of pre-DisneyPixar films. Its story line is nowhere near the depth of those films and its underlying theme is so much like classic Disney as that fifteen minutes into the film I knew the general plot theme. Compare the character development of this film to, say Walle or Finding Nemo—is there any comparison?
2)   Judging by the brilliant Disney film Tangled, the consultation Disney is receiving from Pixar leadership is having a positive influence on Disney’s own line of animation films. Tangled was without question the strongest Disney animation movie in years and its winsome characters and delightful spirit felt more like a Pixar movie than Brave’s.
3)   Pixar is doing more sequels that seem destined to be more bland than the original. Before being bought by Disney, Pixar had done only one sequel, Toy Story 2. Since then, there has been Toy Story 3, Cars 2 and, next summer, the sequel to Monsters Inc., called Monsters University, will be released. I am alone in seeing Toy Story 3 and Cars 2 as hollow shells of the original Pixar productions? Cars 2 in particular was weak and failed to garner the usual Academy Award for Pixar. I doubt that Brave will win and it seems unlikely that Monsters University will. Pixar has gone from a near automatic Academcy Award winner, to questionable in a matter of years.

Pixar is a powerhouse of creativity and wholesome storytelling whose films have left a mark on a new generation of children and adults. I have no doubt that there will still be great films from the studio in the future and I suspect that Disney’s own animation films will be improved from their interaction with Pixar personnel and methods, but the days of Pixar’s premier, near automatic quality seem gone.