In a recent article about old jokes lodged stubbornly in his memory, Joseph Epstein mentioned a punch line -- without sharing the lead-up. It goes like this: a young man attending rabbinical school is about to go out with a young woman for the very first time. Nervously, he asks the rabbi who is his mentor: "What do you talk about on a date?" His teacher tells him to converse on such subjects as family, love and philosophy. Trying to stick to the script, he asks one question from each category, and here's how it goes.
"Tell me, do you have a brother?"
"No." So much for family.
"Do you love noodles?"
"No." Love thus dispensed with, it's time to shift to philosophy.
"If you had a brother, would he love noodles?"
That story comes to mind all too often, when public discussions manage to course in various tangential directions, artfully -- or obtusely -- eluding the main idea. The latest instance came last Thursday when Nightline featured a segment about two current scuffles engaging faith-based political activists. Although the presentation seemed fair-minded, both questioners and interviewees hit all the low points and missed the high ones.
The first fracas concerns Rick Warren, best-selling author of The Purpose-Driven Life, who is pastor of a large congregation in Lake Forest, California. The members of his flock number in the thousands. When Warren invites a speaker to man his pulpit, he is giving that person a huge endorsement within the evangelical community. Recently, he asked Senator Barack Obama of Illinois to address his parishioners on the subject of AIDS in Africa.
Many of Warren's coreligionists, along with prominent figures in the pro-life movement, have appealed to him to rescind his invitation. They point to the fact that Obama has not only been consistently pro-abortion, he even fought a law preventing children born alive in aborted abortions from being starved to death. Nightline asked Warren about that on the air, and he explained we must fight people where we disagree with them and work with them where there is common ground.
So the debate is framed for all denizens of TV Land. One side holds that being pro-abortion marks you as a pariah while the other believes in a more inclusive approach allowing for consensus-building and bipartisanship for the benefit of humankind. And you, dear viewer, can choose what side you're on. There is only one problem here; namely, the abortion issue is so far off-subject of Obama's appearance, it turns into nitpicking from left field. The flaw in the Warren-Obama love affair is its inherent ludicrous fraudulence.
Ask yourself this: what does Sen. Obama know about AIDS in Africa that you and I don't know? He has never done anything significant on the subject or studied it in some unique way. Sen. Frist, on the other hand, has spent extensive volunteer time there as a doctor treating actual patients. If the goal is to gain substantive knowledge and experiential insight, Frist is the man to hear, not Obama. All Obama will do is have a few of his aides throw together some stats anyone could get in five minutes on Google.
Why then Obama? Answer: for a series of reasons ranging from the cowardly to the cynical, all of them stylistic rather than substantive. 1) He is black, Frist is not. 2) He is a Democrat, Frist is not. 3) He has an African name, never mind his white mother and Harvard education. 4) He is a media darling, unlike Frist, whose volunteer work in Africa has never registered on the media radar screen.
In short, Rick Warren is pandering to a bunch of left-wing interest groups. If he wanted to engage Obama in a real quest to break new ground in working across the American cultural divide for meaningful goals, he could have asked him to come with a platform of new ideas how to help urban kids out of poverty. I would have liked to hear that address myself.
The other intra-faith squabble Nightline covered was the Christian Coalition electing Rev. Joel Hunter as its leader and his refusing the post. Hunter is an influential Florida pastor, but he did not see eye-to-eye with the Coalition board. He wanted to expand the "issue base" of the organization beyond opposing abortion and gay marriage into areas of poverty and the environment. Both Hunter and the Coalition representative queried on the show fell into the trap of framing the question as: should Christian political organizations be concerned about poverty and the environment? Hunter said yes and the rep said they had to first solve the great moral issues of the day.
Forgotten was the key philosophical point that communities of faith believe in addressing poverty through the generosity of individuals rather than government. To keep poverty on the church side of the church-state divide. I would venture to estimate that for every hundred dollars a Christian Coalition member puts up to fight abortion, he or she puts up a thousand to help poor people. As far as the environment goes, religious people backed the important laws of the 1970s that eliminated the truly noxious air pollution. Right now the environment is, if anything, overprotected, as in the foolish policy of not drilling for oil in Alaska.
When our friends in the media miss the boat, it is par for the course, or perhaps the dock. But our brothers in faith should learn to use their noodles.