Monday, May 16, 2011

CNN, Franklin Graham and Barack Obama

A Dangerous Two Step

This weekend, CNN online ran an opinion column under the headline “Franklin Graham wrong to question Obama's Christianity.” Written by Roland S. Martin, the column began by noting that despite repeated assurances by Barack Obama that he is a Christian (UCC in tradition), “for some reason, the question as to whether President Barack Obama is a true Christian continues to be challenged by many...”

The irony of the column is that it appears under a thread heading which reads “MUSLIM.” As one reads the story, it becomes clear very quickly that there is nothing about Islam in the story itself. Indeed, the focus is on the son of evangelist Billy Graham, Franklin, and his dissembling about Obama’s religion. Not only is it not about Islam, Martin is neither a Muslim himself nor prone to write about Muslim issues.

But the irony in Martin’s statement that “for some reason, the question as to whether President Barack Obama is a true Christian continues to be challenged by many...” is that the very placement of his column under a heading of “MUSLIM” suggests an obvious reason why people continue to wonder about this. The column’s placement under the heading of “MUSLIM” by CNN webmasters clearly suggests that this story about President Obama is in fact about Muslims.

So while the thread heading is just a little bizarre if not deliberately misleading, it's little wonder that people continue to think Obama is somehow a Muslim. CNN, a usually respectable news source,  is implicitly telling them that’s what they ought to think. Usually one must turn to “We deform, you consume” Fox for such antics.

Of course, railing about the irresponsibility of the press today is a bit like complaining that it was too cloudy here in Orlando to see the Space Shuttle Endeavor lift off this morning. In the second decade of the 21st Century in the west, it is simply a reality that the press deliberately confuses its role of informing the public with its profit-driven desires to entertain us just as surely as clouds rolling in from the Atlantic obscure the horizon toward the coast in May in Florida. And what better way to entertain us than an ongoing manufactured scandal about nothing? It certainly keeps our mind off the fact that the same corporations who own the media also own our governments and prevent them from dealing with real concerns like climate change, immigration, education and unemployment.

In all fairness, Martin’s column, even with its awkward sentence construction in its lead, deserves a little more consideration than simply the thread heading under which it appears. Martin draws a bead on the disingenuity of Franklin Graham, the son of evangelist Billy Graham and the heir apparent to his evangelical enterprise. It is well placed criticism.

I have never had much respect for the elder Graham’s approach to religion. The egocentrism, simplistic theology and inevitable absolute certitude of evangelicalism is much more than I can stomach on a good day. I also have always found it a bit amusing that Billy would lend himself to rent-a-cleric services when presidents from Nixon to both Bushes needed a clergyman to legitimate unnecessary and destructive wars and couldn’t get anyone mainstream to come to the White House. This from a preacher who regularly rails about prostitutes.

But I always had the sense that what Billy said was what he meant, even if I found it completely untenable. Franklin, on the other hand, is a bit slicker. As Martin reported in his column, Franklin said the following regarding Obama’s religion:

"For him, going to church means he's a Christian. For me, the definition of a Christian is whether we have given our life to Christ and are following him in faith, and we have trusted him as our Lord and Savior. That's the definition of a Christian. It's not as to what church you are a member of. A membership doesn't make you Christian."

Martin goes on to say “This two-step that Graham is doing is dangerous because all of a sudden he has become the arbiter of who is and who isn't a Christian through the eyes of those in the media. By even asking him the question, we are affording Graham a level of respect that he doesn't deserve.”

Evangelicals have always defined Christianity on their own terms. In the 1980s the Southern Baptist Convention of Alabama took a “census” of those going to heaven and came up with an exact number. Lo and behold, it was exactly the same number as Southern Baptists in Alabama! Hallelujah!

Of course, no one has ever delegated the right to define Christianity to conservatives though they regularly presume such an entitlement. At a very basic level, it is little more than an exercise in intellectual dishonesty – if not arrogance - to presume to speak for the faith of other human beings. If we want to know what another believes, the only intellectually honest way to find out is to ask them. Everyone is entitled to speak for their own faith, but beyond that it is mere speculation.

Ironically, evangelical pollsters George Gallup and George Barna both use frequency of attendance as one of the defining factors in their constructs of authentic Christians. Clearly this approach well measures individualistic, pietistic and moralistic approaches to religion even as it fails to account for more communitarian, sacramental approaches. But Franklin appears to be asserting an essentially gnostic approach here, discounting church membership and attendance in favor of his personal discernment as to whether one has “given [their] life to Christ and are following him in faith...” In other words, only Franklin really knows if Obama is a Christian, as Martin notes.

What nonsense.

Martin has hit the nail on the head when he says, “By even asking him the question, we are affording Graham a level of respect that he doesn't deserve.” Sadly, it increasingly appears that while Franklin’s Daddy was entitled to a modicum of respect even if his religious constructs were not always so respectable themselves, Franklin is probably not entitled to either. While it is our duty as fellow human beings sharing the divine image to respect his humanity and his right to form, hold and articulate his views, there is never an obligation to respect unrespectable opinions or behaviors. One wonders what Daddy must be thinking these days,his time on Earth growing short, as he watches the antics of his eldest.

What kind of a world emerges from societies in which the media deliberately misinforms the public for entertainment value? What kind of society is constructed in which religious leaders deliberately dissemble regarding the faith of its leaders? How long can a house built upon such precarious foundations remain standing? As Martin says, “this two step... is dangerous.”

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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