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Newsweek Writer Enjoys Atheist Denouncing the Conservative 'Nitwit'

Newsweek's Devin Gordon is certainly not objective when it comes to Philip Pullman, the atheist children's author behind the new movie The Golden Compass. He really appreciates it when the atheist denounces conservative Catholic leader William Donohue as a "nitwit."

In person, Pullman is tall and inviting, with ruddy features and thatchy gray hair, and when he gets going about the attacks on the film, it's a reminder of how enjoyable it is to observe a polite English gentleman properly outraged. Pullman does, in fact, describe himself as an atheist, but his vocation is storytelling, and his only agenda, he said during an interview with Newsweek, is "to get you to turn the page." "To regard it as this Donohue man has said—that I'm a militant atheist, and my intention is to convert people – how the hell does he know that? Why don't we trust readers? Why don't we trust filmgoers?" Pullman sighed. "Oh, it causes me to shake my head with sorrow that such nitwits could be loose in the world."

At this point a critic must ask: as much as he enjoyed the denunciation of Donohue, did Gordon check out Pullman's assertion of having no greater agenda than telling a rip-roaring tale? Even Snopes.com thinks Pullman's hostility to religion is no urban legend. How would Gordon greet some of these quotes from Pullman about his agenda?

In the February 19, 2001 Washington Post, Pullman stated clearly, in contrasting himself with C.S. Lewis, author of the Christian Narnia books for children:

"I'm trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief," says Pullman. "Mr. Lewis would think I was doing the Devil's work."

In the December 13, 2003 Sydney Morning Herald, Pullman was also clear:

"I've been surprised by how little criticism I've got. Harry Potter's been taking all the flak. I'm a great fan of J.K. Rowling, but the people -- mainly from America's Bible Belt -- who complain that Harry Potter promotes Satanism or witchcraft obviously haven't got enough in their lives. Meanwhile, I've been flying under the radar, saying things that are far more subversive than anything poor old Harry has said. My books are about killing God."

In the third book of his "Dark Materials" trilogy, Pullman has God killed. Faced with that literary reality and these quotes, if he is an honest reporter for a "news" magazine, shouldn't Devin Gordon acknowledge that the "nitwit loose in the world" is correct, and the man charging "nitwit" is lying about his intentions? This dispute is about facts, and not simply about Gordon's affinities.

But Gordon is interested in spin, not facts, and he clearly sides with the atheist and against the Catholics and other Christians who oppose Pullman's cultural mission to undermine Christian beliefs. Gordon consistently spins that the Christians are the ones making errors with their hyperactive imaginations. Here's another charge:

The villains in the books serve an all-powerful theocracy called "the Magisterium," which some people believe, incorrectly, is a stand-in for the Roman Catholic Church.

As Brent Bozell has noted in his Golden Compass column, the name for these evil theocratic forces is a term specific to the teaching authority of the Catholic church, the keeper of Catholic dogma. It was not described as "the Caliphate." Would Gordon enjoy Pullman denouncing the Muslims as "nitwits" if they objected to such a "stand-in" plot? It was also not described as "the Sanhedrin." Would Gordon enjoy Pullman denouncing the Jews if they had objected to such a "stand-in" plot? Hollywood would never make a film where the evil technocratic forces were named "Planned Parenthood."

Let's rewind to see how Gordon winds up to his enjoyment of Pullman rhetorically punching Donohue in his "nitwit" face.

The film stands accused of being both anti-Catholic and not anti-Catholic enough—though no one making either claim has actually seen it. The loud, bristling organization known as the Catholic League is urging families to boycott a film in which the word "Catholic" is never uttered.

It hasn't been scrubbed of religion, either. While references to "the church" are gone from the film, no one over four feet tall could mistake the Magisterium for anything but an oppressive theocracy. Accusations of "heresy" abound. Buildings often resemble cathedrals. At one point, Kidman's character, the diabolical Mrs. Coulter, alludes to the story of original sin to justify a ghoulish purification rite that separates children from their daemons. But the film is not, Weitz says, an attack on people of faith; like the books, it tells a story "that attempts to rescue the religious spirit from its perversion into political power." In any case, says Deborah Forte, the film's producer, "when you talk to young people who are passionate fans of the books, they only talk about the golden monkey, and the armored bear, and Lyra, and daemons." Of course, that hasn't stopped Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, from accusing the film of being "bait" to lure children to the novels, where they will be ensnared by Pullman's "pernicious atheist agenda."

Newsweek pulled out one quote for bold emphasis underneath publicity photos of the film: "No one over four feet tall could mistake the Magisterium for anything but a rigid theocracy." (You might notice that the pull-quote editor replaced Gordon's use of "oppressive" with "rigid.") In other words, no one who's made it out of grade school (or midgets and dwarves, oh the political incorrectness!) would see the film as anti-Catholic in general.

Gordon's dismissal of objections from religious readers is endorsed by his editor Jon Meacham, the constantly self-confessing Episcopalian, in his promotional "Runthrough" video on the Newsweek home page:

Devin Gordon writes a terrific essay about The Golden Compass. It had an interesting back story. A lot of people in the religious world, particularly the Catholic world in America are upset about it because they think it's anti-religious. As usual, a lot of people are saying that who haven't seen it. I think this piece will shed a lot of light on what's actually in the movie, and the thinking behind this very popular trilogy.

So both Gordon and Meacham play the Haven't Seen It card. So the first question to Gordon and Meacham is: Have you seen it? Have you read the trilogy? Playing the Haven't Seen It card should be a trickier gambit when a film is based on a book or books, especially when those books have a glowingly obvious agenda and point of view. When Warner Brothers makes its movie based on the Valerie Plame book, would it be unfair to suggest before it's been screened that it will be anti-Bush?

The second question is just as obvious: did Newsweek wait to see The Passion of the Christ before it critiqued it? No. In fact, Meacham wrote a 5,000-word cover story commenting on the film two weeks before the film came out.

In the October 30, 2003 Newsweek, Sean Smith reported on the immense controversy over that movie, and which studio would dare to pick it up, and noted calmly, not critically, that it hadn't been seen by "loud, bristling groups" on the secular left.

Gibson's film -- a traditional Roman Catholic portrayal of Jesus' death -- has inspired more hostile attention than any movie in recent history, with accusations that it could foster anti-Semitism, even when few have seen it. Although supporters of the film are just as vocal, the film could prove a PR ulcer for any large, publicly held company.

Unlike Gordon's taking delight in Pullman's atheist machinations, Smith concluded the article by passing along that Tinseltown thought Gibson was a "strident" religious nut:

Gibson's camp would not comment about the potential sale, beyond saying it could happen in the "near term." It's possible, though remotely, that Icon, which distributes most of Gibson's films in the U.K. and Australia, may opt to put The Passion in U.S. theaters itself. Meanwhile, the press surrounding the film -- in particular a New Yorker profile that delineated Gibson's rigid religious beliefs -- has done some damage to his reputation. While he remains one of the most bankable stars in history, his occasionally strident public statements have not played well in an industry predominantly liberal and significantly Jewish. "People think Mel's crazy now," says one top producer. Adds a studio head, "People feel like his character in Lethal Weapon isn't that far from who he is. It's like, 'Wow, he's way out on a limb'." We should know very shortly who's going to get out there with him.

The Gordon Golden Compass article was hopelessly devoted to promoting the Pullman movie, to help it be profitable enough to spin off into a trilogy of church-bashing movies. It even included the requisite Nicole Kidman profession of her relatives' Catholic faith, and noted its quote-machine quality:

In her previous life as Mrs. Cruise, Kidman was often required to handle sensitive questions about his connection to Scientology. So it's not a surprise that she's well prepared for the controversy surrounding the film and doesn't even wait for a reporter to bring it up. "The story is more about authority now, rather than religion, which was important to me. I've been raised as a strong Catholic, and my grandmother would not be happy, or my dad for that matter, if we'd followed that part of the book." Kidman will deliver some version of this answer in just about every press interview she gives over the next year.

This raises another question for Gordon: if Kidman cared so passionately about what Pops or Grandmum thought about their faith, why did she go ahead and marry the fervent Scientologist? Gordon did not seem to ask her whether her relatives would approve of her appearing in a watered-down anti-Catholic movie that promotes the reading of a viciously anti-Catholic set of books.

PS: Devin Gordon also enjoyed light-hearted Catholic mockery surrounding The DaVinci Code.

PPS: For insight, Gordon could consult Rod Dreher at Beliefnet:

One expects that religious parents will keep their children away from the film.

"But why?" the question arises from liberals. "What are you afraid of?"

My children losing God, especially before they have a firm hold on Him, that's what. At some point they will question the existence of God. I did. It's normal to do so. I want more than anything else I want for my children, even their own happiness in this life, for them to believe in God, Who is their salvation. If you believe in God, and that the loss of God is the worst thing that can happen to a person, then you would sooner give your child a rattlesnake to play with than expose him or her at an early age to the work of a man who openly says he wishes to destroy God in the minds of his audience.

Because so many liberals refuse to take God seriously, they have trouble understanding people -- Jews, Muslims, Christians and others -- who do.

Tim Graham is Director of Media Analysis at the Media Research Center.