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February 01, 2005

Moyers has a Meltdown

A couple bloggers alerted me to this recent essay by Bill Moyers which was published in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. In it, Moyers asserts that those crazy Christians are planning to destroy the environment in order to hasten the end of the world and the return of Christ. He's completely convinced of this premise and I don't even know where to begin with this exercise in moonbattery.

But I'll try.

The whole piece is a minefield of stereotyping and bigotry. All that's missing is Moyers presenting a "final solultion" for dealing with Christians. If Moyers was someone the general populace actually listened to, I'd be worried. Moyers is just a pale ghost trying to frighten people with his hysterical moanings, and you can see right through him if you bother to look. But it is worrying enough that the Star Tribune should print this anti-Christian rallying cry.

(Just for fun, count the number of times Moyers presents opinions as facts throughout the piece.)

For the first time in our history, ideology and theology hold a monopoly of power in Washington.

What Moyers means is not just that there are Christians holding elected office (and that's scary enough for Moyers) but that there are elected officials that are (gasp!) backed by Christians! This is enough to cause Moyers to wet himself in panic.

Theology asserts propositions that cannot be proven true; ideologues hold stoutly to a worldview despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality.

If we accept Moyers' definitions, then this makes Moyers himself both a theologian and an ideologue, as we shall see.

When ideology and theology couple, their offspring are not always bad but they are always blind. And there is the danger: voters and politicians alike, oblivious to the facts.

The biggest danger comes from loony old columnists who are just plain oblivious. But I digress.

Remember James Watt, President Ronald Reagan's first secretary of the interior? My favorite online environmental journal, the ever-engaging Grist, reminded us recently of how James Watt told the U.S. Congress that protecting natural resources was unimportant in light of the imminent return of Jesus Christ. In public testimony he said, "after the last tree is felled, Christ will come back."

Here's the column in Grist to which Moyers refers. It's another helping of fearmongering over creeping fundamentalism. I was planning to blog about it last week, but never got around to it. Thank you Bill Moyers for the reminder that you're not alone in your bigotry.

Beltway elites snickered. The press corps didn't know what he was talking about. But James Watt was serious. So were his compatriots out across the country. They are the people who believe the Bible is literally true - one-third of the American electorate, if a recent Gallup poll is accurate. In this past election several million good and decent citizens went to the polls believing in the rapture index.

That's right - the rapture index. Google it and you will find that the best-selling books in America today are the 12 volumes of the "Left Behind" series written by the Christian fundamentalist and religious-right warrior Timothy LaHaye. These true believers subscribe to a fantastical theology concocted in the 19th century by a couple of immigrant preachers who took disparate passages from the Bible and wove them into a narrative that has captivated the imagination of millions of Americans.

Moyers acts as if he's just discovered a heretofore unknown people group. I must congratulate him on being able to fool PBS into employing him as a societal commentator for many years without ever letting on how ignorant he is of American society.

By the way, here's the Rapture Index. It looks to be a sort of Eschatological Atomic Clock. Moyers would have you believe that millions of Americans check this website regularly to find out how close we are to Christ's return. And that they destroy the enviroment to move the index ahead.

The Rapture Index looks to be the work of two people.

Its outline is rather simple, if bizarre (the British writer George Monbiot recently did a brilliant dissection of it and I am indebted to him for adding to my own understanding): Once Israel has occupied the rest of its "biblical lands," legions of the antichrist will attack it, triggering a final showdown in the valley of Armageddon.

As the Jews who have not been converted are burned, the messiah will return for the rapture. True believers will be lifted out of their clothes and transported to Heaven, where, seated next to the right hand of God, they will watch their political and religious opponents suffer plagues of boils, sores, locusts and frogs during the several years of tribulation that follow.

I'm not making this up.

Yes, Bill. That's one of many different beliefs about how the world will end. If you were honest you point out to your readers that there are other ways of interpreting the Revelation. Your only excuse is that you're just plain ignorant or too lazy to do any research into end-times beliefs. Which label would you prefer: dishonest or ignorant? There are no other options.

By the way, here's George Moonbat's Monbiot's article to which Moyers refers. It's yet another screed about those religious people who are "bonkers" and who apparently set George Bush's middle east policy.

Like Monbiot, I've read the literature. I've reported on these people, following some of them from Texas to the West Bank. They are sincere, serious and polite as they tell you they feel called to help bring the rapture on as fulfillment of biblical prophecy. That's why they have declared solidarity with Israel and the Jewish settlements and backed up their support with money and volunteers. It's why the invasion of Iraq for them was a warm-up act, predicted in the Book of Revelations where four angels "which are bound in the great river Euphrates will be released to slay the third part of man." A war with Islam in the Middle East is not something to be feared but welcomed - an essential conflagration on the road to redemption.

Pet peeve: Bill, it's the book of Revelation. Not Revelations. There's just one Revelation, okay? I'd think a guy as smart as you, employed for years by PBS, would know that.

Anyway, note how Bill the armchair anthropologist speaks about "these people." It shouldn't surprise anyone that he singles out Texas. You know, . . . because George Bush is one of them! Booga booga booga! Hide the children!

The last time I Googled it, the rapture index stood at 144 - just one point below the critical threshold when the whole thing will blow, the son of God will return, the righteous will enter Heaven and sinners will be condemned to eternal hellfire.

Bill is also pretty ignorant of Google. Bill, here's a hint: you can find support for just about anything on the internet, and Google will happily guide you to the strangest things. Google is pretty cool that way. But just because you find it on the internet, Bill, does not mean that millions of Americans believe it. You can find my blog with Google, but that doesn't mean millions of Americans agree with me about everything written there. (Although they should, shouldn't they?)

For what it's worth, I'd never heard of the "rapture index" until Moyers brought it up, and I mark myself as one of those "crazy" Christians Bill claims follows the index like a pillar of fire. (Note to Bill: that's an Old Testament allusion. You may have heard of the Old Testament. It's in the same Bible where you find the book of Revelation.)

Here's more from the armchair anthropologist again:

One of their texts is a high school history book, "America's Providential History." You'll find there these words: "The secular or socialist has a limited-resource mentality and views the world as a pie . . . that needs to be cut up so everyone can get a piece." However, "[t]he Christian knows that the potential in God is unlimited and that there is no shortage of resources in God's earth . . . while many secularists view the world as overpopulated, Christians know that God has made the earth sufficiently large with plenty of resources to accommodate all of the people."

No wonder Karl Rove goes around the White House whistling that militant hymn, "Onward Christian Soldiers." He turned out millions of the foot soldiers on Nov. 2, including many who have made the apocalypse a powerful driving force in modern American politics.

It is hard for the journalist to report a story like this with any credibility.

You said it, Bill. I didn't.

Ask yourself: what is the point of Moyers piece? Or to put it another way, as a piece of persuasive writing, of what is this essay trying to persuade people? What is Moyers' solution to this problem? He closes his rant with these words:

The news is not good these days. I can tell you, though, that as a journalist I know the news is never the end of the story. The news can be the truth that sets us free - not only to feel but to fight for the future we want. And the will to fight is the antidote to despair, the cure for cynicism, and the answer to those faces looking back at me from those photographs on my desk. What we need is what the ancient Israelites called hochma - the science of the heart ... the capacity to see, to feel and then to act as if the future depended on you.

Believe me, it does.

So what does he mean when he calls on his readers to fight and to act because the future depends on them? What, exactly, does he want his readers to do to preserve the future? The most obvious answer is that he wants them to fight and to act against those people who he sees as enemies of the future -- Christians. And how are they to act against the enemies? Moyers doesn't say. He leaves that up to his readers. Maybe violence is the answer. Maybe they're supposed to enact laws to ensure that Christians are not allowed to hold elected office. Maybe internment camps and such. I don't know, but Bill irresponsibly sounds the alarm anyway.

Ask yourself how this would play if Bill had used the same language to warn everyone that Muslim believers posed a threat to the future. Would the Star-Tribune run it?

Posted by Drew at February 1, 2005 06:02 PM


What a wonderful fisking! Nicely done!

Posted by: eLarson at February 1, 2005 07:10 PM

Hey! Comments are working now!

Nice fisking to break in the new digs.

Posted by: Doug at February 1, 2005 09:33 PM

The tragic part about this is that he painted the entire Christian community in broad bushstrokes that are entirely inaccurate. It sounds more like a defensive yelp from a searching soul to me.

Posted by: tom at February 1, 2005 10:43 PM

The comparison to criticism/fear of Islam I think is actually a fair one. I personally think the Moyers column is way over-the-top because it does lump Christians into one dogmatic group. Having a father who thinks that there's nothing left for mankind to do but hold on and wait for things to get worse so God can come get us, I know that the kind of people Moyers is fretting about aren't uncommon. Are they as common, or as homogenous as he fears? Of course not. They're as diverse as the rest of society.

But conservative christians are trashing Moyer's irrational, bleating fear of all things christian based on the actions of extremest christians, without acknowledging that he's observing a real problem (though overgeneralizing, and failing to understand its scope). I see the same phenominon among muslims -- they crowd together against the outsiders who say "hey, that bin laden is a MANIAC -- Islam is a crazy religion!"

I think there's a lesson to be learned here. The way you guys feel about the Moyer's colum is probably pretty similar to how the average muslim intellectual feels about what many are saying about Islam these days. And, not surprisingly, their reaction is the same -- they tighten up to battle the outsider, to deny any hint of truth in the fear. When, in fact, the fear is based in reality in both cases.

And then the cycle continues. Moyers fans will look at the christian community that mocks his fears and say "geeze, if they'd ADMIT that some christians are crazy, waiting excitedly for the world to end, then maybe they'd have some credibility." Anti-muslims say "man if muslims would just CONDEMN those crazy fundamentalists who interpret the Koran literally, they'd have some credibility." And we start over.

Posted by: Aaron at February 1, 2005 11:48 PM

Reasonable argument. Just two things I want to point out. First, that there's no way such an article would have been published in a mainstream newspaper like the Strib had it been about any other identity group.

And second, I think it's important to note that this "Rapture Index" that Moyers is all bothered about is, from what I can tell, the work of two individuals. That is to say, there are only two individuals listed as contacts at the site, and no sense of any sort of organization behind it. If there is, they're keeping it a secret. Moyers isn't just taking the beliefs of a sect of Christianity and applying it to the whole, he's taking the beliefs of two individuals and applying it to the whole.

Then much of his premise is based on the notion that just because we have Christians holding elected office, and Christians supporting them, the environment will be destroyed. But the dots are connected by the most outrageous stereotype.

Posted by: Drew at February 2, 2005 12:35 AM

Drew, Moyers is not lazy or ignorant. He's just full o' hate. Possessed by it.

Posted by: TheAnchoress at February 2, 2005 12:54 AM

I agree that had Moyers written an article about Islam in the same tone, it'd never have been published in the MSM. But I think the reason for that is that the media doesn't see a need for an "islam watchdog" in the same way it sees a need for a "christianity watchdog."

The fact is, there are plenty of voices publically pointing out the crazy people in Islam. Having an editorial breathlessly revealing a hidden threat -- "have you heard? There are radical muslims who believe that god will reward them for killing Americans!" would sound suspiciously like white house propaganda, not news.

Moyers' column, while wrong on many levels, seemed more newsworthy to his peers because nobody with any power in the U.S. is saying it right now. That's the thing with journalism -- generally it breaks stories, in a hazy fashion, reporting biased points of view that we wouldn't hear otherwise. It's up to us to sort the gibberish from reality.

I'm not saying that was Moyers agenda -- he wasn't being a journalist, and admitted as much. But that's why something like his point of view will get more attention than criticism of Islam -- journalists don't feel like the dark underbelly of Islam is "news." It's already accepted by our culture as fact. The dark underbelly of Christianity? Well, obviously that's still pretty controversial in this country, and thus it's news.

When criticism hits the media, whoever is being criticized generally feels like they're being unfairly represented. The reason isn't that the media is biased against them -- the reason is that the media is biased toward revealing "new" information. So they'll breathlessly reveal accusations, fears, anger, without balancing it with a bunch of stuff we already knew (the good stuff).

So should the media just report the "bad news"? I talked about this on ITA today -- media focus on "bad news" is actually a good thing because the criticized parties themselves are happy to reveal all the "good" information about themselves without journalists help. It's only the bad stuff that we NEED journalism to tell us. Then, if we want to know the accuracy of such information, the criticized party will, again, be happy to help us -- unless it's all true.

Posted by: Aaron at February 2, 2005 09:46 AM

You might want to look up Mr. Moyer's biography and note his life before he was a journalist - many in the liberal media look to him as an expert on all thing religious because of that. Which makes it even more fun to see him mess up on "Revelation'S'". His early ties to the Southern Baptist denomination apparently left him rather bitter and angry - and in my opinion it shows in all of his work the past 20 years.

Posted by: Rev. N at February 3, 2005 07:01 PM