For more than four years I have been preparing commentaries on religion in American life: first for the radio, now for the newspapers. This week, reaction to these columns went off the charts.
First, I discovered that I had made the 2001 annual report of the Catholic League of America. This New York-based watchdog group monitors and records all episodes of what they consider defamation of the Roman Catholic Church.
I am cited by name and date for my article last summer entitled, “If I Could Pick the Pope.” That piece was designed as a tongue-in-cheek probing of several critical issues in contemporary Catholic life (such as the internationalization of the papacy, the role of women in the church, and the legitimacy of celibacy).
This article produced a firestorm of controversy in Nicholasville, Ky., led by a local priest, who accused me of ridiculing the Catholic Church. For four weeks, letters to the editor appeared in the Jessamine County Journal. Neither my many commentaries commending the Pope and his Church nor my written apology seemed to have affected the local Catholic population and the Catholic League of America.
I also recently wrote a piece for the Lexington Herald Leader, taking issue with a local Baptist minister and his public comments at a Fourth of July rally. It was entitled “Minister’s Comments Un-American and Un-Christian.” My e-mail box has been full of energized reaction, about evenly split between attackers and defenders.
One wrote: “I would be ashamed to … take issue with a fellow minister who is ‘defending the faith’ and preaching out against the sins of our day. Why not visit us and hear a message that is not watered down or politically correct.”
I still think the minister needs either to apologize or issue a statement of clarification (if he thinks he has been misunderstood).
Earlier this year, I wrote a column entitled “Where Is Amos When We Need him?” It was a critique of the Enron scandal and a reminder that the ancient Hebrew prophet Amos became famous for challenging the injustice inherent in the social and economic structures of his day.
More than one businessman “went ballistic,” as they say, going so far as to call for my dismissal at Georgetown College. One prominent Lexington entrepreneur accused me of “shameless self-promotion” and said: “You don’t have enough experience with the corporate culture to make the kind of comments that you did. And if you did have any experience you could not possibly make those comments knowingly.”
Six months after the column, we are reeling from the worst series of corporate misconduct in the last half century, a danger to America more serious than any attack by foreign terrorists. My original column now sounds rather bland; the angry protests thoroughly silenced.
One of my first commentaries for the newspapers dealt with the phenomenal success of the Left Behind series of supposedly Bible-based novels: bad theology and bad literature, I called it. An editor (who, I think, still publishes the column) wrote back a long critique: “I am a Christian,” she contended, “and these novels are winning people to Jesus. How can you complain about them?”
I wrote back: “Does being a Christian give you license to publish a second-rate newspaper? Are we Christians going to defend the lack of excellence by an appeal to evangelism? I also have a friend who was converted through the book series, and I praise God; but that does not justify poor writing and poor thinking. It only demonstrates that God can use anything to turn a life around.”
Two years ago I wrote to defend the nomination of John Ashcroft, but suggested he needed better instruction on the separation of church and state. A publisher in Western Kentucky responded angrily: “Take me off of your distribution list; I do not want to read anything else you write. If this is typical of what they teach at GeorgetownCollege, I am glad I sent my children elsewhere.”
Now after some two years with Ashcroft at the helm of the Justice Department, I confess I am more troubled by his confidence in bigger government bureaucracy and a corresponding disregard for civil liberties.
I am not surprised by these reactions, nor am I troubled by them. Religion has a strong emotional and intellectual hold on most of us. But religion is also an exceedingly powerful social force in American culture. Like other centers of power (e.g., education, media, military, business and government), religion stands in constant need of strong and sustained critique—for its own good and for the common good.
Dwight Moody is dean of the chapel at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Ky.