The Common Good
June 2005

Confessions of a Blue State Christian

by Donna Britt | June 2005

The only thing Americans are more weary about than discussions about

As a pre-

As a pre-teenager, I was furious with my mother because she wouldn’t let me see James Bond movies.

Her concern wasn’t so much that people were shooting, stabbing, and otherwise dispatching each other in the spy series. By the late ’60s, most kids saw that stuff on TV. Mom’s principal problem was that Agent 007 was shown as having "relations" with numerous women - not one of whom answered to "Mrs. Bond." In an era in which TV husbands and wives didn’t share beds - or, it appeared, have sex - this clearly contributed to my wheedling to see the films.

Unmoved, Mom didn’t agree to let me see a Bond movie until I was in my teens.

How quaint that seems today. At any hour of the night or day on TV, in movies, in magazines, and on the Internet, people of every age-gender-racial-numeric combination can be found sharing beds, floors, sex toys, and everything else you can - and couldn’t begin to - imagine. Millions of busy, indifferent, or overwhelmed parents give their children mostly free rein to observe the smutfest. Some who would battle the trend often feel intimidated by the sheer volume of swill.

Ironically, when it comes to the sexually active throng cavorting in today’s media, married people - or at least people married to each other - appear to be in a definite minority.

As a blue-stater who voted Democratic in the last election, I’m supposed to feel fine about this turn of events. My assumed liberalness, combined with the fact that I came of age in the Swinging Seventies, should ensure that I’m a free-love, church-disdaining, censorship-despising "Why is Janet Jackson’s boob a big deal?" kinda girl.

In fact, I am constantly appalled by the crudeness, brutality, and overly sexualized nature of our popular culture. I worry about its effect on my three children and the nation’s. Not only do I attend church regularly, but I commune with the Creator even more. I even watch my language - and though I’m hardly expletive-free, I have been known to stop young people who are cursing loudly on the street, politely reminding them that children and sensitive adults can hear them. Most often, they apologize.

Speaking of apologies, as a columnist for The Washington Post I sometimes write articles in which I unapologetically use a word terrifying to blue state op-ed pages and much of the Democratic party. If you think the F-word is scary, try seriously bandying the more even dreaded G-word: God.

As weird as it seems, not writing about my belief and how it guides my opinions and behavior would feel dishonest. But at some point in the last few decades, public expressions of faith began to seem odd at best and ridiculous at worst. These days, exposing oneself as a believer can mean seeming corny, embarrassingly retro, or slightly addled. As a result, I’ve sometimes felt leery about expressing my beliefs.

Just like many Democratic politicians, it would seem.

Okay, so I’m not running for office. Yet every time I have written columns about my faith and other people’s, about belief’s impact on our lives and how spirituality has gone missing from popular culture, the response from readers - many of them self-declared liberal Democrats - has been overwhelmingly positive.

These readers say they’re grateful that an apparently with-it person under 70 dares to express such beliefs in the newspaper. They say that as spiritual people they feel under siege - and that although they think of themselves as open-minded and even hip, the stuff they see and hear in the mass media makes them feel almost Amish in their repugnance. They fondly remember when parents actually could shield children from inappropriate images by telling them, "You can’t see that." A few recall prayer in school as a not-bad thing. Most marvel that once upon a time, TV and movies helped adults to protect children and the rest of us from everyday exposure to violence, profanity, and smut.

No more. Today, if you’re a parent concerned about the popular culture, an American appreciative of public courtesy and restraint, or a believer searching for public validation of your faith, you’re pretty much on your own.

Unless, of course, you’re a Republican. Some Americans probably are Republicans - or have at least toyed with the notion of joining the GOP - for just that reason.

Yes, I’m talking about values - despite the fact that the only thing that Americans are more weary of than discussions about "core values" is the lack of such values in popular representations of their daily lives.

LINDA THOMPSON of Silver Spring, Maryland, is a young-looking 46, a lobbyist for affordable housing issues, and a Christian. She’s also a married African-American mom of three who has one word to describe of the state of values in American pop culture: "Horrible."

"It’s just horrible," Thompson repeats. "If I could control TV and the radio, 95 percent of the stuff that’s on wouldn’t be there." Although she still maintains some control over what her 9-year-old son Tyler sees and hears, she realizes that "all children go to their friends’ houses.... They talk to their friends at school, who tell them stuff they saw and heard." As a parent, "all you can do is really try to instill your values in [your children].

"Because they’re going to be exposed to the awful stuff."

Thompson prays that the lessons that she and her husband have tried to instill will be remembered when their kids inevitably are confronted by such messages. She also encourages her children to look deeper. Her daughters, Melanie, 17, and Jennifer, 16, sometimes watch music videos on MTV and BET featuring nearly-naked, rump-shaking young women who - except for their state of undress, Thompson realizes - resemble her daughters.

Pointing at the videos, Thompson asks her girls, "What do you think other people think about this?"

She reminds Melanie and Jennifer that they, like many of the booty-shakers, are young black women. "You’re going to have to go on job interviews and maybe compete against white girls," she says. Your would-be employers may watch such videos, she continues, and be guided by what they suggest about black womanhood.

"What choice do you think they’ll make, even if you’re similarly qualified?"

Yet Thompson, like most African Americans, is a Democrat. And she’s frustrated that "family values" is seen as a Republican concern. "I want Democrats to address this," she says. "But where are they? I think, ‘Come on, speak’ - the [state of] popular culture isn’t a ‘liberal’ issue, so they can’t be afraid of having the L-word thrown at them.

"Maybe they just didn’t understand the last election."

The Democrats wouldn’t be alone. The election also baffled my neighbor Mary Jo, a social worker and an Ohio-born Mennonite who takes the denomination’s long-held abhorrence of violence seriously. Her disapproval of the war in Iraq and the president who led the nation into it has been passionate since the conflict was in the "what if?" stages.

Yet last November as the nation was settling into its second year of war, Mary Jo knew that most of her family members in Ohio would be voting to re-elect Bush - including her formerly Democratic-voting father and younger brother. "It’s the moral issue," Mary Jo explains, citing President Bill Clinton’s "sexcapades" as an early contributor to her family’s disillusionment with the Democrats.

"They think the Republicans better represent the things they think are important: good moral character, clean living...the emphasis on family," she continues. "My family is very Christian - and the Republicans...talk more about God, about Jesus. They see [Republicans] as leading us the right way because they say they’re being led by God.

"I think it’s more than just morals," Mary Jo says. "I believe it’s the emphasis on God."

Not all Mennonite churches place the same emphasis on the denomination’s "peace tradition," Mary Jo acknowledges. But it’s striking that her Midwestern relatives - men and women who were raised as and who remain active members of this historically peace-loving group - would support a president who started a war for now-disproven reasons.

All because they feel he’s being led by God.

Of course, smart people become Republicans for a host of reasons other than party representatives’ ease with expressions of religious faith. But some folks’ allegiance could be at least partly the result of effective packaging. In our consumerist culture, any product may be helped or hindered by how it’s marketed.

And if you think God hasn’t become a hot-button political commodity, you may not have been paying attention.

AUTHOR PATRICIA RAYBON didn’t realize how effective the Republican Party has been at, as she puts it, "packaging politics into faith envelopes" until she began marketing her new book, I Told the Mountain to Move, a frank and eloquent exploration of her struggle to pray more effectively.

Raybon, 55, wasn’t sure how Mountain should be marketed. If the publisher targeted the African-American women of faith whom Raybon, who’s black, imagined as her "first audience," she risked losing women and men of all ethnicities who would relate to the power of its message. Consumers, she recognized, have an extremely limited amount of time in which to judge a product’s worthiness. So packaging becomes vital for anyone hoping to communicate a message to a broad spectrum of people.

Suddenly, Raybon found herself thinking about politics. And she realized that the Republican party has "staked out, conquered, and owns the faith franchise," she says.

"The faith envelope puts a sheen on anything they put into it," she continues. Properly packaged, any issue can be assigned to it: "children’s issues, family life, health care, housing." Because few people have time to deeply ponder whether or even why something might work for them, "buyers need to understand a [product’s] message immediately, to be able to instantly discern if A or B is the right fit."

And in politics? "The faith position that Republicans have claimed implies that all of their positions line up with faith values," Raybon suggests. Time-strapped voters "tell themselves, ‘Oh, these are the faith people’ and they assume they can vote for them."

In fact, she points out, "a lot of Republicans are talking faith talk without walking a faith walk. They aren’t necessarily working for affordable housing, or family values, or excellence in education for all children" - issues that followers of Jesus’ doctrines would likely support.

So a war with Iraq - a nation that the Bush administration falsely suggested was directly connected to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks - gets put into the faith envelope, despite Christ’s stated commitment to peace. The apparent misdeeds of "conservative" politicians or pundits - think Tom DeLay, Rush Limbaugh, or Bill O’Reilly - appear to be minimized or overlooked because their stances on many issues fit nicely into the faith envelope. Even ignoring the poor can be an envelope-worthy impulse if the indigent are portrayed as lazy, greedy, or otherwise undeserving of Christian assistance.

FITTING PEOPLE and issues into envelopes is easy - goodness knows, many liberals and Democrats unfairly squeeze intelligent and sincere Christians and/or Republicans into envelopes marked "misguided," "unsophisticated," or "fanatic."

Envelope-stuffing is especially easy if you don’t know the people you’re tucking away. Mary Jo feels she might see things differently if she’d never left Ohio. "I grew up in same house, with the same parents, as my [Republican] siblings," she says. But the three months she spent in Haiti studying and assisting at a school, and almost three decades of working with poor people in the nation’s capital, showed her a more complex world. "Knowing people who are gay...and who are poor makes all the difference," she says. "That has shaped my life, my politics."

She recalls one of her brothers commenting about her work with poor, single mothers that he "doesn’t really know people like that.... I think he’d be open to...learning that they aren’t just women who’ve been on welfare for five generations."

Similarly, some so-called conservatives have no idea how traditional so-called liberals such as me can be when it comes to protecting our children. We, too, are frustrated and frightened by the culture’s ever-spiraling crudeness. We, too, are humbled and guided by our love of God and God’s son. Sadly, many Democratic politicians seem just as clueless. For decades, the Democratic party has been known as a "big tent" party, as more embracing of people of varying beliefs, incomes, skin colors, religions, creeds, and sexual orientations than the Republicans - a reputation that Democrats haven’t always earned or even sought.

Everyone knows what happens when a multitude crowds beneath one umbrella. It isn’t just uncomfortable.

Some folks get drenched.

The Dems’ dilemma reminds Raybon of her publisher’s question about marketing her book: Would targeting a specific audience turn off other people of faith who could appreciate it? "But the basic rule of the marketplace requires that you have a clear primary audience," Raybon insists. "The Republicans decided their audience is conservative people of faith - and they’ve been very successful by narrowing that focus."

So how does a big-tent party authentically define itself in terms of faith, values, and religion without offending - or even worse, seeming false or wishy-washy? By reminding itself and the electorate that theirs is the party that represents the majority of Americans’ deeply held beliefs. By embracing its own religiosity and by acknowledging that God, too, is huge - too expansive to be defined as limited and rigid; too intimate in our personal connections to fit one-size-fits-all characterizations. Limiting people’s perception of God runs counter to the reason this nation was founded in the first place.

I mean, really. Could the Creator of all that is and ever was be squeezed into the confines of anything as self-interested, as flawed, as human as a political party?

Spiritually minded Democrats of genuine faith shouldn’t be afraid, as Raybon puts it, "to talk the talk." They should vocalize about how religion and morality intersect within the popular culture. They should risk describing how their spiritual beliefs affect their policies and their lives. They must be "clear and consistent and let people know where [they] stand," she says.

Much can be said, good and bad, about President Bush. What’s rarely stated by either his supporters or detractors is, "You can’t tell what he stands for." The president isn’t afraid to take unpopular stances in which he believes: A majority of Americans opposed the war that nevertheless was coaxed down our largely unprotesting throats. Three-quarters of Americans opposed congressional intervention in the Terry Schiavo case; even most evangelical Christians favored the removal of her feeding tube. Yet the president cut short a visit to his ranch to sign - at 1 in the morning - a bill intended to overturn several courts’ rulings in Schiavo’s case.

Being everything to everybody isn’t just politically unwise. It’s impossible to do. Plus, "there’s probably something in human nature that is just not comfortable with ambiguity," Raybon suggests. "A consistent person is consistent anyway - not just because it’s politically advantageous."

In a religiously tolerant nation, conflict is inevitable, even desirable. Certain issues, such as abortion and gay marriage, are non-negotiables for some Christians, and their political choices reflect that. My own relationship with God is everything to me - yet I can’t pretend that my relationship is exactly like any other believer’s. Some Americans couldn’t be more genuine in their heartfelt lack of belief.

Can’t faith-minded Democrats embrace that complexity while acknowledging the deity that more than 80 percent of their fellow citizens believe in? "At the end of the day, it’s about people knowing who they are," Raybon says. It is "standing in that position...and letting the chips fall where they may.

"We didn’t get that this last time from the Democrats."

PARENTS’ PROBLEMS, too, are complex, inevitably producing arguments such as whether the unexpected Super Bowl appearance of Janet Jackson’s breast was cataclysmic or shrug-worthy (for the record, I was in the first camp). The distinction between what is "inappropriate" and "free expression," between what’s "pornographic" and "art," has never seemed more blurred. In a 500-channel, 24/7 cable TV and Internet world, how does one legislate - or even keep up with - what one’s kids see, hear, and absorb? Which brings me to the question I’d most like to ask faith-filled but silent Democrats:

In such a world, what’s more worth discussing, exploring, or arguing about than God?

Today, James Bond movies seem comparatively Puritanical. We live in a country in which stopping for a light often means rolling up the windows to avoid hearing the car-next-door’s 10-decibel expletives. A movie that graphically depicts people being beheaded, dismembered, relieved of their testicles, and even eaten (Sin City) recently opened in the number one box-office position. Middle-school girls think oral sex is "safe" and wear T-shirts asking "Can you afford me?"

In such a world, can spiritual people of any stripe persuasively argue that God should be limited to a single political party?

Even James Bond would have trouble wriggling out of that one.

Donna Britt has been a columnist for The Washington Post since 1991.

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