Saturday, March 05, 2005

Mark Anderson, Poor Richard, Hugh Hewitt, and Me

Mark Anderson from Poor Richard's Almanac posted the following comment on my Hugh Hewitt post:

Dear Hunter,

No more or less godless than the founding fathers. That is the point of my last post. I'm as baffled as you are about why Hugh made me blog of the month. Any light you can shed on this would be appreciated. He invited me to appear on his radio show in January. It was clearly because he thought I might make a good lefty academic to expose to his right Republican audience. My best guess is that blog of the month was supposed to be bait to get me to go on his show for fun times with the lefty on the Republican grill.

Mark, this is excellent info and sheds a lot of light on the situation. I think you've probably got Hugh figured out.

On the other hand you won't get far with me on the godless founders stuff you mention here and in your blog. I didn't take the time to check, but I had the feeling you were trotting out the case made in Kramnick and Moore's book "The Godless Constitution." That book is seriously lacking from a scholarly standpoint. What's going on there is the same sort of tedious axe-grinding done by David Barton and the crew at Wallbuilders for the opposite position. The two sides could trade quote after quote from this person or the other that would seem to make their case definitively.

The reality, which is too rarely discussed, is that "the founders" were a mixed-bag spiritually speaking. Some were quite orthodox in their Christianity, some tended toward atheism like Jefferson, some were liberal Christians, some were deists, and plenty remain unidentified. Those who were not particularly orthodox nevertheless realized the importance of the Christian faith as an important force for maintaining the virtue necessary to a free land.

If you'd like to read a couple of books that are extremely well-researched and balanced in this area, I recommend you try Derek Davis' "Religion and the Continental Congress" or Patricia Bonomi's "Under the Cope of Heaven." Both are published by Oxford University Press.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Culture Watch: Law and Order: Trial by Jury

In understanding the state of the culture, little things can often be quite revealing. Last night's premiere episode of Law and Order: Trial by Jury, the latest offering from the highly successful stable of NBC crime dramas produced by Dick Wolf, may be one such, as it included a rather unusual plot element.

The story centers on the murder of an aspiring actress by an egocentric Broadway producer, and it plays out as a pretty standard courtroom drama. The defendant is depicted as utterly odious in his callousness and disregard for others. He openly admits to the defense attorney that he has killed the actress, his mistress, who was pregnant at the time. He shows not the slightest trace of remorse for the killing. He is clearly an egomaniac and a monster.

The interesting angle: he murdered the woman because she refused to have an abortion.

Thirty-Four Years Later... G. C. Infante, RIP

The passing Feb. 21 of Cuban expatriate author Guillermo Cabrera Infante in London was little noted on these shores, as most of his writing was done in Spanish.

However, those who, like myself, are insane fans of the cult classic movie Vanishing Point from 1971 (I was 13 at the time), remember Infante as the author of that screenplay in English. This was an act of great genius, because the movie was set on the American highway system, traversing from state to state, and Infante had never visited these shores at the time of that writing.

I hope at some point to write what this movie meant to my life. But for now, I would like to appeal to our readers. If you have seen that movie and it had meaning to you, please share with us what you took away from the experience. There is tremendous debate about its message, and I would appreciate as broad a base of input as possible.

Poor Richard Took Hugh Hewitt for a Ride!

I've emailed Hugh to tell him, but he hasn't paid attention. Each month, Hugh props up some promising young blogger as his "Blog of the Month."

In January, he chose Poor Richard's Almanac. I have a feeling "Poor Richard" suckered Hugh because the blog now reads like a raging godless lib sheet.

Send Hugh (hugh@hughhewitt.com) some mail telling him he's been tricked.

UPDATE: Looks like I was wrong to say that Hugh was tricked by "Poor Richard." Richard himself, now identified as Mark Anderson, has expressed his own puzzlement at Hugh's promotion of his website. If you'll read Anderson's comment to this post, you'll see that he thinks Hugh may be feting him to get him on air for debate. As to Mark's characterization of the founder's, I've posted above.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

NYTimes: Bush Stumbling at Home, Public Says

The New York Times reports the results of a new poll finding that the American public sees President Bush and his administration as being out of step with their thinking on Social Security reform:

"Notwithstanding Mr. Bush's argument that citizens should be given more control over their retirement savings, almost four out of five respondents said it was the government's responsibility to assure a decent standard of living for the elderly."

Big-government types and nanny state fans will surely enjoy reading that passage. (That is, if they can overlook the incorrect usage of the word assure; the right word in that situation is ensure, or barely possibly insure, but definitely not assure unless the sentence is recast to say "assure the elderly that they will have a decent standard of living." Sheesh.)

The better news for the president is that the public believes that the situation in Iraq is going "very or somewhat well."

Still, the public does not see the president as doing nearly as good a job at home. According to the Times story, "63 percent of respondents say the president has different priorities on domestic issues than most Americans."

The budget deficit appears to be a matter of great concern to the public. According to the Times story, 60 percent of respondents said that they did not like the way Bush was responding to the federal budget deficit. This was true even of 48 percent of conservatives. You may count me among those unimpressed with Bush's handling of the deficit, but for reasons the Times would probably not find amusing—an intense dislike of the vast increase of domestic spending during the administration of Bush the Younger.

Bush's approval rating among the public remains at 49 percent, the paper reported, exactly where it was a month ago.

Byrd Gets the Anti-Defamation League's Goat

Did you like that Homnickian headline? On with the story. Ultra-senior Democrat Senator from West Virginia Robert Byrd made big headlines when he compared Republican tactics on judicial nominations to those employed by Adolf Hitler in Germany.

We'll see whether similarly large headlines are made by the Anti-Defamation League's harsh criticism of Byrd for having absolutely no sense of proportion. Here's the ADL statement:

It is hideous, outrageous and offensive for Senator Byrd to suggest that the Republican Party's tactics could in any way resemble those of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party.

The Senator shows a profound lack of understanding as to who Hitler was and what he and his regime represented.


Senator Byrd must repudiate his remarks immediately and apologize to the American people for showing such disrespect for this country's democratic process.

No Return, No Deposit

Across the fruited plain, a circus of yellow-and-blue blazonry proclaims this monument of momentous manumission: THE END OF LATE FEES. Not all Americans are devotees of Blockbuster; some surreptitiously snag their videos from competing outlets. But the national imagination, the cultural iconography (and perhaps a touch of iconolatry), has been in the thrall of Blockbuster for some years. Birthed by the obstreperous Huizenga and adopted by the ubiquitous Redstone, this chain has enchained - some say enchanted - the popular conception of video entertainment for two decades. If they sign the death certificate on the late fee, you can be sure that the Hollywood Video lateness mulct can’t be milked much longer. Look closely at the long placid stream of the Public Library overdue fee and even there you will see a seiche, hear a susurrus; times they are a’ changin’.

No longer the midnight ride under a pall of reverence, the midday screech of anguished tires. Gone is the daredevil dash with one eye on the dashed road and the other on the dashboard clock; gone, too, the dashing of hope of 12:01. Never again the tortured conscience of watching the rewind machine languidly do its thing at 11:51, and the awful temptation to stop at the halfway mark to race out the door. Forgotten is the role of the clerk as cleric, looking sagely at the second handle with solonic solemnity, holding in his underpaid hands the key to your mortal fate. Now you can stride up to the counter at 12:09 of the next day, flash your smuggest smirk, plop down your movie and swagger on out: they can’t lay a hand on ya. No more Midnight Cowboy. It’s High Noon and you’re Gary Cooper, baby.

Whoa, what’s this? Trust your conscience to show up at the most inopportune times. Can’t leave well enough alone. It turns out, thinking on it a tad, that you liked it better the old way. Who’d ‘a thunk it?

The fact is that consequences, when delivered with some immediacy, are a component of civilization that comfort even as they collect (or connect). When you pay that traffic ticket, you buy absolution. All the cumulative guilt of endangering the citizenry with your recklessness has been whitewashed with a faint splash of green. Take your licks, pay the piper, do your time, then you’re clean. You have paid your debt to society and your scars are your receipt. You’ve been purged and cleansed and mitigated and expiated. The books are closed up tight.

You know the joke about the new guy who shows up at the pool in the Miami development, and a lady asks him why she hasn’t seen him before. He says, “I just got out of prison after twenty years.”
“Really, what did you do?”
“I killed my wife with an axe.”
“Oh, so you’re single.”

That’s you, a new man with a fresh start. Sure, you kept The Longest Day a day long; you held Another Twenty-four Hours… well, another twenty-four hours. But you got off your high horse and ponied up for Seabiscuit, and you can get right back on track with your head held high.

Perhaps that is what King David meant in Psalm XXIII when he said, “Your rod and your staff they comfort me”. And maybe that was what the nuns had in mind when they used a ruler to rap your knuckles. They were trying to teach you that a measured punishment is a desert to clean your palate – and your slate.

The tough ones are the unpunished kind. The cases that you tuck away in the ‘Open’ file. An inner voice says that you did wrong and the bill has not been paid. You walk through life with a sense of unfinished business, of inadequacy, of being less than all you can be. If you fear a Hell or a karma there may be a sense of looming fate that haunts your every step forward; even if not, there is the irresolution of unresolvedness. Even those billionaires who marry some zero in Las Vegas and later have to give her seven zeroes to unburden themselves look relieved, almost happy, when it’s finally over. At least they have – I know you hate this word – closure.

The video store still sets a due date. But it has no teeth. No enforcement mechanism other than annoying reminder calls. No aftereffects if you abuse your privilege. You can sit in your Lazy Boy and toy with your drink on the lazy Susan while the clock tolls midnight. No one will be the wiser nor your wallet the lighter. Ah, but you… you will be a lesser person.

So if Lola wants to loll around and take advantage, that’s her business. But I know what you will be doing. You will make doubly sure now to honor that return date, and that’s why you’re my hero. Only, please: no more busting down the block at eighty miles per hour.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

The Growth of Christianity in France

Christianity Today has a fascinating story up about the recent growth of Christianity, particularly the evangelical and pentecostal kinds, in France. The story entertainingly relates tales of new receptiveness to street evangelism, significant increases in sales of the Bible, and the founding of new churches.

But the most entertaining part of the article is an upside down account of a father being disappointed in his daughter:

Religious conversions still befuddle the French. David Brown, the head of the French equivalent of InterVarsity, University Bible Groups, told me about one girl's experience. Her father is a militant left-wing activist; he and his wife are separated. When he found out that his daughter joined Brown's church and left with the youth group for a weekend in Normandy, he became enraged and came to see Brown. These were his words: "Here I thought that she was just going off for a weekend with a new boyfriend! But then I find out it was to read the Bible!"

"To go off with a new boyfriend is no problem," Brown says, "but to read the Bible is unacceptable." The father was also concerned that his daughter had become too religious. "I'll prove it to you," he told Brown. "She's got a Bible by her bedside!"

Brown says, "A lot of French people think like him."

Oh, those crazy, mixed up young people!!!

Greenspan's Gloom

Alan Greenspan renewed his portrayal of Jiminy Cricket to President Bush's Pinocchio today, warning Congress that the current federal budget deficits are unsustainable, calling for "major deficit-reducing actions." I recall President Reagan running large budget deficits in the 1980s, and all that happened was that the economy grew like gangbusters and the Soviet Union fell.

Greenspan correctly brings up one matter in which the current time is quite unlike the 1980s: rather than being in their peak years of productivity and earning, Baby Boomers are now nearing retirement. That is certainly a concern. A positive trend that he does not refer to is that the fairly large Millennial Generation will soon be entering the workforce, but Greenspan is certainly right to note that the numbers for Social Security and Medicare in the next few years look very bad—rapidly increasing numbers of retirees, and a slow or stagnant growth in workers to support them. It's not an impossible problem, Greenspan notes, as productivity increases can do a lot, but any drag on the economy is a bad idea. And high federal spending is certainly a drag on the economy.

Greenspan's warning that the budget deficit will bring on "stagnation" may be a bit overwrought, but he is right to point out that federal spending has increased at a positively appalling pace during the Bush administration, even if one factors out the War on Terror. Domestic nonsecurity spending has increased rapidly, as exemplified by the Medicare prescription drug benefit (entitlement) the president successfully pushed through Congress.

In his presentation to Congress, Greenspan called for a new congressional spending restriction structure like the Budget Enforcement Act of 1990, and he suggested that he would prefer the deficit-reduction action to concentrate on reducing spending, but that is about as likely as, well, me ever seeing a nickel from Social Security.

Obviously, the response to Greenspan's comments will quickly become a debate over how many of Bush's tax cuts to let lapse rather than extending them, with the deficit given as the urgent reason for the change. The real drag on the economy, however, is the high percentage of GDP that is being spent on nonproductive government programs instead of on productive, private-sector investments. That will remain true until a Congress adopts a really strong and binding spending-restriction (not deficit-reduction) structure.

Which means that we can delete all but the first four words of the previous sentence and it will still be correct.

University Faculty for Life

I've been asked to encourage readers to visit University Faculty for Life, particularly academic readers. The website has an eye-opening color scheme, but the content looks strong. If you're a member of the academy with a pro-life perspective, consider swelling the ranks.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

The Narnia Movie

The International Herald-Tribune has an interesting story up about the first Narnia film opening on Dec. 9. The story is full of speculation about how Disney and Walden Media will walk the tightrope of presenting Christian allegory to a popular audience that is "extremely sensitive." I think it's a non-issue. Present Narnia as Lewis presented it. Christians will absolutely get it. Those who aren't Christians will generally enjoy it without lingering on the real meaning of the story. Others will be moved and will want to linger. But the whole purpose of allegory is to get the audience's attention to hear a story about something they might ordinarily dismiss. The form of the story is the answer to the concern. Let Lewis be Lewis.

Horror in Lebanon—Can It End Soon?

The theory of both supporters and opponents of the Bush administration's decision to go to war in Iraq was that any success there would be followed shortly by a U.S.-led move against Iran or Syria.

It appears that the conventional wisdom has turned out to be correct. As the Times of London reports today, the United States and its allies, including in this case France, is increasing pressure on Syria to get out of Lebanon:

"America and France today issued a joint demand for Syria to pull its troops and spies out of Lebanon.

"The initiative by Condoleeza Rice, the US Secretary of State, and Michel Barnier, the French Foreign Minister, came the day after the entire Lebanese cabinet resigned in the face of mass public protests against Syrian influence in Lebanese affairs.

". . . They spoke at a London conference on Middle East peace attended by 30 countries, but to which Syria had not been invited - in itself evidence of Syria's increasing isolation on the world stage. The statement warns Syria to pull out its troops and intelligence services, to allow Lebanon to regain its sovereignty, and to allow the country to hold free and fair elections. . . .

"Ms Rice accused Syria of being out of step with the transformation occuring in the Middle East, where democratic elections have been held in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian territories, and have been promised in Egypt and Lebanon.

"She also charged Damascus with supporting violence in Iraq, aiding the militant Palestinian groups opposed to the peace process, and obstructing events in Lebanon, and issued a stern warning.

"The peaceful demonstrations by tens of thousands of people on the streets of Beirut and other cities against Syria's 30 year stranglehold on their country have been dubbed 'the Cedar Revolution' - a reference to Lebanon's national symbol and a nod towards the similar peaceful protests that achieved democratic change in the Ukraine last year, called 'the Orange Revolution.'"

The mass protests began after the car-bomb assassination of Lebanan's former prime minister two weeks ago, and pressure from the West has been increasing. Unlike the alleged Iraqi WMDs which were never found, the assassination in Lebanon provides a definite casus belli, though it is really but a small symbol of the greater depredations visited on that once-beautiful country and its people in the past quarter-century at the hands of its ruthlessly cruel occupiers.

Coming on the heels of a likely diminishment in American involvement in Iraq, the U.S. response to the Lebanese problem may seem to the Bush administration's opponents to be part of an insidious plan of neocons for a further increase of the U.S. presence in the oil-rich region by pretending to try to bring democracy and free markets to places that cannot support it. One suspects that any real moves against Syria will encounter widespread opposition within the United States. The enthusiasm of France for action, however, will probably give pause to the American Left, which followed the EU line in the runup to the war in Iraq.

I certainly hope that we can avoid war or anything like it in this case. However, what has been done to Lebanon is an international scandal and should never have been allowed to continue for so long. People such as ourselves, who claim complete fealty to the idea of political self-determination, not to mention morality and conscience, must support such efforts when they arise and are in our national interest.

The situation in Lebanon fits that description perfectly. As such, it has called out for attention for a quarter-century, and it is right for the West to increase pressure on Syria to set Lebanon free, and accomplish what even President Reagan failed to do: to give Lebanon back to the Lebanese.

The task for Bush, Rice, and the rest of the administration will be to do this through measures far short of open combat. It seems likely that it can be done, but ultimately the threat of force must be present. It is a certainly a risk, but one that the United States should consider well worth taking.

Using Newt . . .

Am I alone in thinking Newt Gingrich is underutilized in current day majority GOP Washington? Newt Gingrich may have been done in by the superior politician (Bill Clinton) and his own amorous adventures, but the guy is a policy wonk of the highest order. It seems to me that he has a lot to offer to a project like revitalizing Social Security.

First, he has the patience and the intellectual curiosity to lead an out of the box investigation into the possibilities. Second, he has the contacts and the reputation to help push the agenda once it is decided upon. Newt needs to make a comeback that extends beyond the Fox Network. A GOP with all the chess pieces could use a policy visionary to complete the political expertise of Mr. Rove.

Monday, February 28, 2005

The Twilight of Atheism

Alister McGrath is a Ph.D. in Biophysics from Oxford who turned around and became a top historian of the Reformation. He is also a former atheist. His latest book, The Twilight of Atheism, takes atheism on from a very respectful vantage point and deals very effectively with its claims. I read the book and enjoyed it thoroughly. I've moved on to his Dawkin's God, Genes, and Memes.

Happily, he's excerpted Twilight for Christianity Today's web site. Here's a bit:

Atheism was once new, exciting, and liberating, and for those reasons held to be devoid of the vices of the faiths it displaced. With time, it turned out to have just as many frauds, psychopaths, and careerists as religion does. Many have now concluded that these personality types are endemic to all human groups, rather than being the peculiar preserve of religious folks. With Stalin and Madalyn Murray O'Hair, atheism seems to have ended up mimicking the vices of the Spanish Inquisition and the worst televangelists, respectively.

One of the most important criticisms that Sigmund Freud directed against religion was that it encourages unhealthy and dysfunctional outlooks on life. Having dismissed religion as an illusion, Freud went on to argue that it is a negative factor in personal development. At times, Freud's influence has been such that the elimination of a person's religious beliefs has been seen as a precondition for mental health.

Freud is now a fallen idol, the fall having been all the heavier for its postponement. There is now growing awareness of the importance of spirituality in health care, both as a positive factor in relation to well-being and as an issue to which patients have a right. The "Spirituality and Healing in Medicine" conference sponsored by Harvard Medical School in 1998 brought reports that 86 percent of Americans as a whole, 99 percent of family physicians, and 94 percent of hmo professionals believe that prayer, meditation, and other spiritual and religious practices exercise a major positive role within the healing process.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

A Tribute To Jody Bottum, New Editor Of First Things

The very fine writer and editor who signs his work J. Bottum is on his way to New York to take over as Editor of the vibrant journal of culture and religion, First Things. He comes off a remarkable seven-year tenure as Books & Arts Editor at The Weekly Standard.

Being a culture editor at a magazine such as the Standard is, in my view, a greater challenge than managing one of the political segments of the publication. Since the 1980s there are plenty of capable political writers on the right side of the spectrum, as many if not more than on the left. But to define a cultural role that appreciates religion, is pro-life and pro-family, but is open to all the nuances of human artistry in literature, art and architecture, is a monumental task - one that is critical for the conservative movement to sustain. Mr. Bottum has not only held his own in a world dominated by lefties, he has conquered significant swaths of cultural territory. His particular sensitivity to poetry has softened the edges of this hard-driving magazine positioned at the pulse of power.

I have been fortunate to be the beneficiary of his kindness and respect. He allowed me to show some range, accepting book reviews from me on the subjects of Biblical figures, baseball personalities, a daring Holocaust escape and a deep-sea salvage adventure. At one time we had an idea for a book that we could do together, but that has not (yet) materialized.

As a free-lance writer, I am usually careful to confine my telephone calls to editors to a ninety-second maximum. Jody is more generous with his time than I am prepared to impose, but it is not only the quantity of his time that I appreciate, it is the quality. Virtually every conversation that we have had has included some incredibly pithy insight of his, one that leaves me pondering for days afterward.

My situation is paradoxical, because I consider myself a novelist first and an essayist second, yet I have no published fiction to stand alongside my sixty non-fiction clippings. Jody identified this quality in my writing from the beginning and he has consistently encouraged me to complete my first novel and assured me that it is saleable.

He is the perfect choice for his new position. He is a maestro of literature and culture, processing every bit of them through the prism of his steadfast Catholicism and passionately pro-life sensibility. I predict - I wish - I bless - great success for him in this role.

Thank you for everything, Jody. I am proud to call you my friend.