Halloween and the election are over, but the media's favorite boogeyman is still roaming the land.
The Christian right menace is alive and well, and the media are touting a slew of books designed to demonize or alienate it. The hammering began in October, when the networks featured Bush insider David Kuo's “Tempting Faith ” (Simon & Schuster), which alleges that the administration took religious conservatives for a ride and derided them behind closed doors. It was the perfect pre-election offering, with CBS's Lesley Stahl giving it a lengthy segment.
Likewise, Andrew Sullivan's “The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It and How to Get It Back ” (HarperCollins), received kid gloves treatment from bastions of social liberalism like the Washington Post Book World, New York Times Book Review, the Los Angeles Times Book Review and the Economist magazine.
The Economist describes Sullivan's book as “the strangest, often the most perplexing, and always the most intriguing” of several recently released political books. Well, yes, trying to meld Roman Catholicism with a libertine sexual ethic does present opportunities for intriguing, perplexing argumentation. Three-ring pretzels have a straighter line than Sullivan's gymnastic logic in trying to make the case that two men are functionally identical to a husband and wife. No wonder the Economist, after acknowledging the difficulty of Sullivan's task, concludes that his book is “peculiar and inconclusive, but it is also intellectually challenging and thoroughly captivating.”
I haven't read “The Conservative Soul ,” so I don't know how captivating it is. I've debated Sullivan and read his book “Virtually Normal .” All I can say is that I'm saddened that a fine writer and speaker has wasted so much of his considerable talent pursuing an unworthy cause—legitimizing aberrant sexuality. As with the release of David Kuo's book, Sullivan's publisher (HarperCollins) apparently was trying to boost sales by smacking the GOP base just before the election.
Other curiously timed books include “Letter to a Christian Nation ” (Borzoi Books, an imprint of Random House's Alfred A. Knopf division) by Sam Harris, and “The God Delusion ” (Houghton Mifflin) by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.
Overall, Harris' and Dawkins' anti-faith barrages received respectful, if not totally adulatory reviews. Jim Holt's New York Times review of “The God Delusion ” took some good, clean shots at Dawkins, accusing him of a “smug” tone and “logic occasionally sloppy,” while agreeing with Dawkins' characterization of Pat Robertson as a “buffoon,” along with the “fundamentalist pastors like the one who created 'Hell Houses' to frighten sin-prone children at Halloween.” It's always okay to beat up “fundamentalists” in the course of any analysis, especially those in the Times.
Curiously, the New York Times did not think it worthwhile to review Bill O'Reilly's book “Culture Warrior ,” which made it to the top of the Times' bestseller list. Nor have the Timesters thought that David Limbaugh's best-selling book, “Bankrupt: The Intellectual and Moral Bankruptcy of Today's Democratic Party ,” merited even a thrashing, er, review.
Nor did they take any interest in “Donkey Cons ,” by Robert Stacy McCain and Lynn Vincent, published earlier this year by Nelson Current. That book's subtitle is “Sex, Crime and Corruption in the Democratic Party.” You can just picture the editors at the Times yawning and blinking as they set it aside in the stack for staffers to grab and sell at their next garage sale. More surprising is that no major conservative paper other than the Washington Times (where McCain works as a deputy national editor) bothered to review it, either. Could it be because donkeys are so good at kicking back, in every sense of the phrase?
Clay Waters, director of TimesWatch.org , which monitors the New York Times, says that the Gray Lady rarely reviews conservative books, and when it does, the reviews typically are scathing.
“When lead book critic Michiko Kakutani does address conservative books, it's almost always uniformly negative,” Waters says. “For example, on October 31, here's how she described John Yoo's 'War by Other Means ': 'A book that is strewn with preposterous assertions, contorted reasoning and illogical conclusions.' She wrote that Fred Barnes' recent bio of George W. Bush, 'Rebel-in-Chief ,' was replete with 'ridiculous generalizations,' and 'absurdly rosy pronouncements as to undermine any credibility.' She dismissed Richard Posner's book 'Not a Suicide Pact: The Constitution in a Time of National Emergency ,' as 'shrilly titled' and 'chilling.'”
Meanwhile, amid helpful publicity, Sam Harris' “Letter to a Christian Nation ” (Borzoi Books, an imprint of Random House's Alfred A. Knopf division) made it to the top 10 of the New York Times bestseller list. Harris is a very charitable guy who wants to show Christians the errors of their ways, especially those who are trying to show him the error of his ways. So he read lots of letters from Christians and then wrote a short book full of red herrings as a sort of atheist manifesto.
National Public Radio devoted two segments to Harris's book: “Keeping Religion Out of Public Policy,” October 2, and “Rethinking Religion and Politics,” October 3, followed by a sympathetic chat with evolutionary biologist Dawkins on October 6 titled, “Fundamentalist Religion and Science.” During the last week in October, NPR did a session with David Kuo, along with Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, and, for balance, Rich Cizik, the moderate spokesman for the National Association of Evangelicals. Any resemblance to a pattern of opportunistic Christian-bashing is purely coincidental.
Here's some fodder from the opening paragraph of Harris' “Letter to a Christian Nation ”: “The truth is that many who claim to be transformed by Christ's love are deeply, even murderously, intolerant of criticism. While we may want to ascribe this to human nature, it is clear that such hatred draws considerable support from the Bible. How do I know this? The most disturbed of my correspondents always cite chapter and verse.”
Somehow, I don't think Harris got many letters from Franklin Graham, Pope Benedict or volunteers at the neighborhood crisis pregnancy center.
Calling all nutcakes. You're getting your moment in the sun to star as representatives of 2,000 years of Christendom. Make the most of it, and get your invective-filled missive to Sam Harris right away. He might include it in his next book.
By the way, if you buy Harris's diatribe right now, you can get an Amazon.com discount on Barry Lynn's “Piety & Politics: The Right-Wing Assault on Religious Freedom ” (Harmony), released in—surprise—October. Amazon knows who's going for this stuff, and it's not the folks down at the Knights of Columbus Hall or the bowling alley.
To see an example of the type of reader Amazon is shooting for, read this review of Harris's book posted on Amazon: “'I can't sign my name to this blurb. As a New York Times best selling author of books about business, my career will evaporate if I endorse a book that challenges the deeply held superstitions and bigotry of the masses. That's exactly why you should (no, you must) read this angry and honest book right away. As long as science and rational thought are under attack by the misguided yet pious majority, our nation is in jeopardy. I'm scared. You should be too. Please buy two, one for you and one for a friend you care about.” —Unsigned.”
The anti-faith barrage continued after the election, when Time magazine's November 13 cover featured the false dichotomy headline “God vs. Science ,” as if everyone assumes that belief in God is incompatible with scientific inquiry. That notion would be news to Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, among many others. Fortunately, the exchange inside between Dawkins and Christian scientist Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Institute, provides a more balanced look at competing worldviews.
The publishing assault on God and the so-called religious right is just beginning. With blood in the water following the Democrats' takeover of Congress, books that assail faith and blame conservative Christians for everything from acne to AIDS are likely to keep rolling off the presses.