Winter 2008, Vol. 10, No. 3

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From the Editor:
Apologia pro bloga sua

Men in Green

Turning Over the Bowl in Burma

When Germans Convert

Show Me the Money 


The Faith Factor
by John Green

From the Editor:
Apologia pro bloga sua
by Mark Silk 

Editing a magazine like this at a time like this is sort of like being a funeral director in the midst of a plague. You appreciate the business but have no idea how you can handle it all.

Nowhere is this more the case than on the American political scene, which has been hit by a perfect religious storm, what with the Democrats deciding that faith matters a whole lot and Republicans trying to figure out what on earth to do with it.

What should we do with it?

These days, when the going gets tough, the tough go blogging, so that’s what we’ve decided to do. Since the beginning of December, a Greenberg Center blog, Spiritual Politics, has been following religion and the campaign. For those of you who wish to check it out—and we hope you do—it can be found at

The idea is to provide daily tracking of the way religion seems to be enhancing, disturbing, and otherwise interacting with the 2008 election cycle. As is our wont, we are trying to do this in a reasonably non-partisan way, though not without attitude. Most of the posts are by your editor, aided and abetted by trusty undergraduate fellow Reid Vineis.

From time to time, however—and we hope more frequently as time goes on—there will be posts from such learned commentators on religion in American public life as John Green, Jan Shipps, Gary Dorrien, Richard Wood, and Jerome Chanes. With any luck, Spiritual Politics will become must-read commentary on the state of religious play in the campaign, and perhaps beyond.

I’d like to claim that we’re doing this purely out of devotion to the public weal. But confession being good for the soul, I am compelled to admit that the impulse is not quite so honorable. Twenty years ago, a set of odd circumstances placed me, a superannuated cub reporter, on the Atlanta Journal Constitution, into the midst of a presidential election campaign.

Whatever the downsides of covering Michael Dukakis, and there were plenty, it was catnip to me. Blogging is not much of a facsimile of actually covering a race, but it does give you the illusion of being on the beat.

The ’88 campaign happened to be a pretty interesting one from the standpoint of religion—practically as interesting as this one. It featured important religious figures in both races: the Rev. Jesse Jackson on the Democratic side and “religious broadcaster” (as he insisted being called) Pat Robertson on the Republican.

David Broder of the Washington Post, then almost as big of foot among the Beltway pundits as now, was unperturbed by this. “It’s a healthy phenomenon, in the eyes of this secular reporter-critic, and not the menace some see,” he wrote. “The clerics often speak uncomfortable truths to the mighty.”

My own memories include a number of religious apercus. There was Jack Kemp puzzling a luncheon of businessmen in Greenville, S.C., in mid-December by opening his remarks, “In this Christmas and Hanukah season…” There were the Greek Orthodox priests in New Orleans wandering through the crowd at the annual convention of AHEPA, the Greek fraternal organization, as Dukakis pressed the flesh.

I remember Dukakis being asked in Houston if he knew Douglas Ginsburg, a sometime Harvard law professor nominated (briefly) to the Supreme Court by President Reagan, and responding, “The only Ginsburg I know runs a deli in Brookline.” Was that an anti-Semitic crack, one scribe wanted to know?

The biggest religion story of that season was Robertson’s second-place finish behind Bob Dole in the Iowa caucuses. Dole, from nearby Kansas, was generally conceded first place and the expectation was the George H.W. Bush would take second. When the Robertson effort, powered by evangelical churches, pushed Bush back to third, it was left to Gov. John Sununu to rescue the vice president in New Hampshire.

After Robertson’s stunning achievement, I took a call from a Yankee radio station wanting to know how I, the Southern political correspondent, thought he was going to do in the South. Great, I said.

In fact, the religious broadcaster got cold-cocked in South Carolina on the Sunday before Super Tuesday and made a pitiful showing across the rest of the region on the day itself. Little did I know what Karl Rove’s mentor Lee Atwater, a South Carolinian, had prepared for him. But from the ashes of that defeat arose the Christian Coalition.

Twenty years later, a new evangelical paladin, Mike Huckabee, stole the show in Iowa and, in the absence of a Lee or a Karl, seemed poised to make a pretty good run through Dixie. Meanwhile, the Evangelical Awakening posed problems for the Mormon Mitt Romney that his father George, running for the Republican nomination 40 years ago, never had to face.

On the Democratic side, Barack Obama’s oratory put some in mind of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Obama was able to ring the changes on America’s civil religion as few secular politicians have done since that music was composed, by an earlier Illinois pol named Lincoln.

Altogether, a great time for a student of religion in America to be alive and blogging.

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