Religions News Redux
BY KELLY BAKER
As I scoured the print magazines and the online news sources that I have missed over the past couple of weeks, I was impressed by all the religion news stories that ranged from the religious beliefs of presidential contenders to sacred drinking water to reviews of new religion documentaries. Newsweek, in particular, has presented quite a few articles on religion and politics that have analyzed not only Romney's faith speech but also the religious lives of Guiliani and Huckabee. The editor of Newsweek, Jon Meacham, wrote a cover story entitled, "A New American Holy War", which examines the much-examined Romney speech as well as the so-called tension between evangelicals and Mormons. Meacham notes:
So it has come to this: the 2008 Republican Iowa caucuses have descended into a kind of holy war. The clash centers on issues that are, in Saint Augustine's phrase, ever ancient, ever new: the nature of God, the disposition of power and the sanctity of conscience. The skirmish pits Huckabee against Romney in a story of hardball politics and high-minded history, of shadowy slurs and noble principles.
To Meacham's credit, he frames this debate in a larger historical context, and he quibbles with Romney's interpretation of the founders' various positions on religion and the state. He writes:
Romney would have been on safer ground had he said that America has always been largely religious and largely free, and that America's religious traditions should fight for the freedom of all, if only out of self-interest. Without freedom of conscience, today's tyrant could be tomorrow's tyrannized, and the other way round. With freedom of conscience, we come closer to living out the promise Washington made in his 1790 letter to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport, R.I., in which he said that the government of the United States was "to give to bigotry no sanction … and to persecution no assistance."
Newsweek's Holly Bailey interviewed Huckabee about faith being a central part of his campaign. Bailey wastes no time in getting into the heart of the matter:
You've made your faith a central part of your campaign. Your latest ad flashes the words CHRISTIAN LEADER.
There's one slide in that ad that says CHRISTIAN LEADER, which is descriptive. There's another slide that [quotes Time magazine saying] ONE OF AMERICA'S BEST GOVERNORS. How come nobody asks me about that? It's perfectly fair to ask, "What did you mean by [Christian leader]?" because some people have suggested there was something being written into it, but there wasn't.
So "Christian leader" wasn't an attempt to appeal to social conservatives who may have problems with Mitt Romney's faith? Absolutely not. It was simply a description of my pilgrim job, a Christian leader in a church in a denomination. This is who Mike Huckabee is, where he comes from. It was intended as an introductory ad.
Luckily (for me), not all of Newsweek's religion coverage has focused upon presidential contenders. Lisa Miller documented the rise of sacred drinking water and its consumption. Various companies have marketed their water that is blessed by priests, has good "sound energy" because it was bottled near a Tibetan singing bowl, or has prayers printed on the bottle that puts (water) drinkers in a good frame of mind. Not surprisingly, there has been backlash by religious believers, who find plastic bottled water morally and environmentally reprehensible.
Finally, the news magazine reviews the new HBO documentary "Hards as Nails", which follows Justin Fatica, a twenty-something "self-proclaimed prophet." As the title of the documentary suggests, Fatica focuses on showing teens the pain and suffering of Christ, and more interestingly, he's Catholic. The description of Fatica says a lot:
The pumped-up proselytizer—he looks more like a white rapper than an evangelist—sports a tough Jersey accent and a swagger that would make Tony Soprano proud. He screams, taunts and humiliates half-filled rooms at spiritual retreats across the country, hoping to "motivate" teens into accepting Jesus into their lives. Though his ministry, called Hard as Nails, is aimed at Catholic teens, he sounds like an evangelical. His tactics include drill-sergeant-like assaults: "If you sin, you better have the courage to bash Jesus' face in!" Fatica screams at one cherubic girl, pushing her to the verge of tears. "Have you sinned in the last 24 hours? Have ya?! HAVE YA?!" Fatica wants his disciples to feel the pain that Christ suffered for their sins. At one session, a kid picks up a metal folding chair and whacks Fatica—at his direction—on the back, as the minister repeatedly screams to another supplicant, "Jesus took all this pain for you!" He re-creates Calvary, ordering teens to carry heavy crosses up a hill, or asking them to stand, arms extended against the wood, while their peers pound the cross with a hammer and scream insults.
What proves most interesting about the documentary (which I will probably watch) is that Fatica is Catholic, but he is using supposed evangelical methods. I wonder how different his approaches are to those of similar evangelical teen ministries. One recent fascination is the advent of Life Teen Masses at Catholic churches, in which Catholic teens sing along with religious rock music, and the message is purportedly "hip" for teens. They seem to have an evangelical bent to me, but I wonder what it really means. Are these methods effective to evangelizing the younger set, Catholic or Protestant? And what does this show about the Catholic church embrace of said methods?
All in all, it always proves interesting (at least to me) to see what religious movements, peoples, ideas and products are covered by the news media. The religious lives of presidential contenders, anything that is slightly evangelical, or any religious consumption always seems to be fair game, which possibly means the mundane lives of everyday believers are just, well, too mundane for coverage. Folks chugging "holy" water or smashing chairs on body parts is another story entirely.