aTypical Joe: a gay New Yorker living in the rural South
Monday, November 06, 2006
David Frum, Ted Haggard & The Gay Miasma
A sensational but to-date unsubstantiated allegation has been hurled at a major American religious figure. On much of the left, the reaction is gleeful delight: See! He is no better than anybody else!
In my mind, however, this story highlights a widespread moral assumption that I have never been able to understand.
Consider the hypothetical case of two men. Both are inclined toward homosexuality. Both from time to time hire the services of male prostitutes. Both have occasionally succumbed to drug abuse.
One of them marries, raises a family, preaches Christian principles, and tries generally to encourage people to lead stable lives.
The other publicly reveals his homosexuality, vilifies traditional moral principles, and urges the legalization of drugs and prostitution.
Which man is leading the more moral life? It seems to me that the answer is the first one. Instead of suggesting that his bad acts overwhelm his good ones, could it not be said that the good influence of his preaching at least mitigates the bad effect of his misconduct? Instead of regarding hypocrisy as the ultimate sin, could it not be regarded as a kind of virtue - or at least as a mitigation of his offense?
After all, the first man may well see his family and church life as his “real” life; and regard his other life as an occasional uncontrollable deviation, sin, and error, which he condemns in his judgment and for which he sincerely seeks to atone by his prayer, preaching, and Christian works.
There you have it, the rationale. Setting aside the notion that to reveal one’s orientation is to vilify traditional moral principles, the argument boils down to that Haggard is “more moral” for trying and lying than I am for honestly accepting who I am. But worse, Frum says clearly that the good of his preaching “mitigates” his “occasional uncontrollable deviation.”
Should we assume then that Frum means Foley’s good work as chairman of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children mitigates his pursuit of teen-aged boys? Or the good work of all those parish priests mitigates their sins with altar boys?
There’s been a lot of “occasional uncontrollable deviation” going around lately. And I believe the opposite of what Frum says is true: that it is precisely the repression of the proclivity that causes the uncontrollable deviation. That an out proud gay man is more likely to be bound by social norms than one living the deep, dark shame of an illicit double life.
Last week The New Yorker had an essay on Steven Johnson’s book, The Ghost Map, about the mid-nineteenth-century English doctor named John Snow who discovered that drinking water was the cause of cholera:
At the time, the idea that cholera might be transmitted by a waterborne poison ran against the grain of medical opinion. Disease was not generally viewed as a “thing"-a specific pathological entity caused by a specific external agency. ... Moreover, epidemic disease-literally, disease coming “upon the people"-was then widely ascribed not to contagion but to atmospheric “miasmas.” ... The miasmal theory remained medical orthodoxy for about two centuries. (We owe to it the name of the disease malaria: literally, “bad air.") In mid-nineteenth-century usage, a disease was called “epidemic” if it was not thought to be “contagious.”
The fact that the poor suffered most in many epidemics was readily accommodated by the miasmal theory: certain people-those who lived in areas where the atmosphere was manifestly contaminated and who led a filthy and unwholesome way of life-were “predisposed” to be afflicted. The key indicator of miasma was stench. ... [The] belief in a subterranean origin of miasmas gradually gave way to the view that they were caused by the accumulation of putrefying organic materials-a matter of human responsibility...Rather like syphilis, it was taken as a sign that you had lived in a way you ought not to have lived. [...]
But some sanitary reformers, Florence Nightingale among them, opposed contagionism precisely because they believed that the poor were personally responsible for their filth: contagionism undermined your ability to hold people to account for their unwholesome way of life. Whereas, in a miasmal view of the world, the distribution of disease followed the contours of morality-your nose just knew it-infection by an external agent smacked of moral randomness.
In the letter to his congregation, Haggard said James Dobson “will guide me through a program with the goal of healing and restoration for my life, my marriage, and my family.”
As it happens, that program, Love Won Out, was in Atlanta this weekend. Even those who succeed in such programs, and there are few of them, tell of a process that is uncertain, fraught with relapses and some temporary successes.
Neither the medical community nor policymakers were convinced by John Snow’s discovery of a waterborne cholera pathogen; they stuck with the miasmal theory for nearly a decade after Snow’s death. The water got cleaned up, the right things were done, but not for the right scientific reasons.
Ted Haggard’s a pitiable hypocrite; Dr. Dobson a dinosaur. He’ll die and in the end we’ll see whose right. We may lose in seven more states again tomorrow, but I’m confident we’ll win in the end. I’m hoping that this time around it will be for the right reasons.
Best Invention: YouTube
It’s been an interesting year in technology. Nintendo invented a video game you control with a magic wand. A new kind of car traveled 3,145 miles on a single gallon of gas. A robot learned to ride a bike. Somebody came up with a nanofabric umbrella that doesn’t stay wet. But only YouTube created a new way for millions of people to entertain, educate, shock, rock and grok one another on a scale we’ve never seen before. That’s why it’s Time’s Invention of the Year for 2006.
Via Mashable, “You could argue that YouTube isn’t really an invention, though.”
Coddle your flock (reprise)
Haggard’s difficulties have me recalling a few posts from last year on how megachurches, with their giant scale (Haggard’s 12,000 member church and 3 million evangelical followers?) lack the kind of personal interaction once found in religious practice.
Fareed Zakaria observes in The Future of Freedom that there’s a decline of religious authority in American life. In a compelling and well argued chapter entitled “The Death of Authority” he suggests that the notion of evangelicalism thriving because of its strictness is flat-out wrong.
Rather, he explains, today’s fundamentalism has undergone a profound populist transformation; the focus is on attracting the masses. Today we have faith as therapy; a populist evangelicalism that coddles its flock. “People are praised, comforted, consoled, but never condemned,” he writes:
[p.214] What remains of the old Protestant fundamentalism is politics: abortion, gays, evolution. These issues are what binds the vast congregation together. But even here things have changed as Americans have become more tolerant of many of these social taboos. Today many fundamentalist churches take nominally tough positions on, say, homosexuality but increasingly do little else for fear of offending the average believer, whom one scholar calls “the unwashed Harry.” All it really takes to be a fundamentalist these days is to watch the TV shows, go to the theme parks, buy Christian rock, and vote Republican.
He notes that the evolution of Billy Graham from a “fiery preacher of perdition to a benign father figure” coincides with his rising popularity and move to radio and television evangelizing.
The development of Jerry Falwell’s megachurches modeled on shopping centers to “attract the massed to the gospel,” and Bill and Tammy Fay Bakker’s “Christianity should be fun” hedonism, furthered the populist democratization and politicization of evangelicalism.
Zakaria sees these larger and more anonymous communities as a shift from:
[p.210] [The] High Episcopal style of religious authority, in which the local priest is your moral guide to the new, evangelical model where moral guidance is provided through a television show. It is difficult to flout moral codes while you are a member of a local parish. But if all you do is watch a preacher on television, no one is watching you.
The churches know this. From the the August 7, 2005 All Things Considered report by Jennifer Ludden, Big Churches Use Technology to Branch Out:
Dr. BOULER: We were so large that the people would go to--they would go to the chapel service, but there was no sense of responsibility for their local church or their local community because they were related to the overall plan of Highland Park Baptist Church and our vision and scheme of things. And as we evaluated it, we noticed if we gave them responsibility along with owning the church and the property and accountability for it, there was a greater vigor and interest in evangelizing that local community in which that chapel is located.
Their response is to franchise; cover up the stained glass windows and install video screens in satellite churches. In these churches you can wear shorts and there are no crosses:
Mr. McDONALD: We were actually part of Hope Presbyterian Church in Wheaton, and I was an elder there and moved out here about five years ago and then was looking for kind of a church that was a little bit more, I guess, youthful in nature and had some more appeal to people around my age.
LUDDEN: You didn’t look around at other Presbyterian churches?
Mr. McDONALD: You know, we have looked on a couple of times--there’s one in Oswego, and it was just kind of this same--more hymn-oriented, more structured. And this, as you can see--people wearing shorts; the music, the band, just the energy of the people around here, and that’s something we didn’t find at other churches.
LUDDEN: Many mega churches target those who are tired of the traditional church experience or who may have never gone to church before; thus the absence in many of a cross, baptismal font or anything that looks religious and the rise of on-site coffee parlors, basketball courts, 12-step programs and everything from marriage counseling to financial planning, plus a message--at Community Christian they don’t use the word `sermon’--that’s finely attuned to popular culture.
Ms. LORI McGOVERN(ph) (Church Member): My name is Lori McGovern. I’ve been coming since August of 2000.
LUDDEN: And why did you start coming here?
Ms. McGOVERN: I started coming here on Tuesday nights for Celebrate The Journey, which is our support and recovery ministry. And I’ve been coming ever since, and I am now actually a coach and a leader in divorce care, which is why I started here. It’s something I personally can relate to, and it’s as though my church is trying to meet me where I’m at, meet my needs.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma
I’m listening to The Slate Audio Book Club critics discussing The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. Because of it, I’ll be buying the book. In it they say that once I do, I won’t want to eat anything ever again.
According to the Times’ today, a New England grocery chain, Hannaford Brothers, that came up with its own nutritional value ratings, found they’re exactly right:
At a time when more and more products are being marketed as healthy, the fact that so many items seemed to flunk Hannaford’s inspection raises questions about the integrity of the nutrition claims, which are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration - or possibly about whether Hannaford made its standards too prissy or draconian. Either way, the results do seem to confirm the nagging feeling that the benefits promoted by many products have a lot more to do with marketing than nutrition. [...]
Many products that are marketed as healthy received zero stars from Hannaford because they contain too much salt or sugar or not enough nutrients, said Lisa A. Sutherland, an assistant professor of pediatrics and a nutrition scientist at Dartmouth Medical School who was part of the advisory panel that developed Hannaford’s formula.
V8, for instance, which says it has “essential antioxidants” and is “vitamin rich,” is “like drinking a vitamin with a lot of salt on it,” she said. Ms. Sutherland said that the F.D.A.’s guidelines for labeling, including its definition of “healthy,” were simply too lenient. Even the low-sodium version of V8 got no stars under the Hannaford system.
Because of my hearing I am on a low-salt diet. My doctor says, “If it tastes good, spit it out.”
A criticism of Pollan’s book is that it wonderfully outlines the problem, but offers no solution. The more we learn the depth and breadth of the problem, the quicker will get to work on a solution.
I fully expect another agricultural revolution this century. I hope I’m around long enough to feast on it.
After the first news cycle everyone knew he’d blown a punchline. There were even plenty of conservatives who admitted it. But that didn’t matter. What mattered was forcing him to apologize for something he never said. It was a pure act of force, as if they put their foot on his neck and demanded that he agree that “up is down and black is white” --- a modern show trial in which Kerry agreed to confess in order to spare his party’s chances in the upcoming election. He instinctively resisted, as sane people always do when forced to deny reality. But the sheer power of the coordinated Republican outcry (with the willing help of cynical Dems and the media) finally made it imperative for him to issue an apology for something he never said.
And the Republicans laughed and laughed because once again they had forced a leading Democrat to bow to their will as surely as if they’d physically held him down and made him agree that black was white and up was down. It was all the more delicious because every party to it, the Republicans, the Democrats, the public, the media and John Kerry himself all knew the real truth. Now that’s power. [...]
Winning this election will not change this. The political establishment has been trained in this method for almost two decades now and the Republicans are actually better at wielding this power as the opposition. I have no answers about how to deal with it. It’s one of the most difficult challenges we face.