Sunday, February 17, 2008


“Church Meets State in the Oval Office”

My local NPR station has been begging[1] has had their membership drive going, so I’ve had to listen to other things on the way to and from work lately.[2] I’ve used the opportunity to catch up on some backed-up podcasts from NPR and WNYC, which have been collecting on my BlackBerry.[3]

I’ve just listened to this Fresh Air interview from 28 January, with Randall Balmer, author of God in the White House:

In his new book, God in the White House, Randall Balmer explores the interplay between religion and politics in America, tracking the “religionization” of the Oval Office across the last half of the 20th century. How did faith become such an important criteria for the presidency?
Mr Balmer, himself raised as a Christian, takes a somewhat different view of the interaction between politics and religion than I would — looking also, for example, at how the politics affects the religion — and getting a different view is always an interesting thing.

He attributes the rise of the conservative Christian right as a political entity not to issues such as abortion and gay rights, but to the issue of tax-exempt status for organizations with practices of racial discrimination, specifically calling out the case of Bob Jones University in the mid‘70s. He also points out that the flap about Mitt Romney’s Mormonism simply wasn’t an issue in 1968, when his father, George Romney, was running for president — and that matches my recollection, as I don’t remember even hearing, in 1968, that Mr Romney was a Mormon.

Listen to it. It’s interesting.

There was one little bit about how Mr Balmer said something that I found amusing. Here’s my transcription of a sentence from 15 minutes or so into the audio, when he talks about Richard Nixon, a professed Quaker, and how he handled the conflicts of the presidency and the Vietnam war:

I think it’d be very hard, and I certainly haven’t run across any historian prepared to argue that Nixon was a deeply pious and devout man whose piety, whose understanding of the faith was reflected in his policies as president.
When I listened to that, I had to mentally rewind it and re-analyze it. The sentence is complex enough that the lead-in, which negates the rest, doesn’t tend to stay with one. So without care, one can easily be left with the impression that he said that Mr Nixon was deeply pious — exactly the opposite of Mr Balmer’s point.

In speaking, especially, avoid making your sentences too complicated. People can’t usually go back and “re-read” them.

[1] I say that to be silly, but I do support them every year, and I include my employer’s matching contribution. You should too — many people think NPR gets lots of government funding, but they don’t; they rely on endowments, sponsorships, and contributions “from listeners like you.”

[2] Even when one supports their need to solicit contributions, one can’t really drive around listening to it, now, can one?

[3] I don’t know if I’ll ever get to the 17 This American Life programs that are waiting....

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