Media Matters

Politico’s Nuns’ Story

Unwitting self-worship leads journalists astray.

By 12.15.11

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The most disturbing part of Politico's first book publishing project is probably the thing about the nuns.

About half way into their short e-book "The Right Fights Back," co-authors Mike Allen and Evan Thomas give Mitt Romney's 2012 campaign manager Matt Rhoades a most unfortunate attaboy. "Most Romneyites," they write, "credited [him] for relentless 'message discipline,' a quality the political pros worship the way nuns venerate virginity."

There are so many things off about that sentence that it's worth making a study of them. What the authors meant to say, I think, after reading it literally dozens of times, is that political pros "worship" tight message control in the same way that nuns "venerate the virgin."

Perhaps you can see their literary dilemma here. They faced a crisis of parallelism. The "virgin" is a person (Mary, mother of God) and "message discipline" is not. But the authors, up against a tight deadline, must have figured "eh, virgin, virginity, close enough."

Their linguistic confusion goes deeper, unfortunately. The word venerate has a history of being misunderstood -- often intentionally so as part of anti-Catholic polemics. ("Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Cult of the Virgin Mary?") The point that Catholic apologists are forced to press is that "venerate" does not mean "worship," an activity in the religious sphere that has been narrowed over the last several centuries to apply only to God.

(The usage of the word "worship" used to be much broader. See references in English literature by commoners to authorities as "your worship." It became "your honor" in the colonial idiom.)

In modern English usage, Google's aggregate all purpose dictionary tells us that "to venerate" is to "regard with great respect; revere." Thus, Catholics, and in their own way, Orthodox, and a few high church Protestants, can venerate, or demonstrate great respect for, objects or images attached to Mary and the saints without formally worshiping them.

Now, it is possible to venerate a state or quality, but the usage is usually secular. ("I venerate genius, bwahahahaha!") And it does not seem to me remotely possible to venerate a quality the way that the sisters are said here to "venerate virginity."

Nuns are not celibate because they venerate virginity but because they worship God and want to devote their lives exclusively to that end. They find in the life of the Virgin Mary a great example -- the greatest example, save one -- of heroic virtue and self-sacrifice on earth that led to better things in the great hereafter.

Why Allen and Thomas decided to conscript the poor sisters in the service of analogy is an interesting question, perhaps even an important one. Did they simply mean to say "Political pros think it is really, really important to stay on message" and look for language to sex up that rather dry statement?

Or were they reaching higher than that? Were they saying that political pros have an almost religious devotion to the idea that The Message is all important, quite apart from the truth of that message? Were they calling that devotion into question by likening it to the rigorist practices of a small subset of Catholics?

We can look to context for answers, but in vain. The preceding sentences are forgettable, and the next one is, "To be sure, the likability issue was nagging." The sentence just sticks out there like the bastard child of an epigram and a Zen koan.

"The Right Fights Back" is part of a larger project, a partnership between Politico and publisher Random House. When the campaign is over, Allen and Thomas will gather this and a few other short e-books into a larger, smoother, more thoughtful narrative. At that point, one hopes, they’'ll explain themselves.

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About the Author
Jeremy Lott is an editor of rare.us.