Political Animal


December 28, 2011 12:14 PM The Unwritten Religion “Stories” of 2011

By Ed Kilgore

One of the great conventions of year-end journalism is the “Top Ten List” of this or that “story.” Many such lists are dreadfully uninteresting, and others probably represent content-recycling by underpaid staffers whose bosses are enjoying holiday vacations. Most can be safely ignored, or even read in slightly modified form a year later.

But one really interesting and far-from-conventional Top Ten List was prepared by progressive religious activist Peter Laarman for that always-provocative site, Religion Dispatches. It focuses on stories in the world of religion and culture that mattered, but got little or no attention, even in those sparse precincts of media-land devoted to such topics.

You can read Laarman’s piece itself, but it covers “stories” ranging from the chronic defiance of the Vatican by leaders of “Catholic countries,” to the conquest of the Southern Baptist Convention by neo-Calvinists, to the identity crisis of the pioneering “gay-friendly” Metropolitan Community Church, to the emergence of a visible group of African-American writers who are declaring independence from their community’s religious roots. If you are actively uninterested in matters of faith, you might check out Laarman’s argument that the market fundamentalists who are exercising such unprecendented power in U.S. politics and culture are from a philosophical point of view best described as “Nihilists.” It’s all well worth a read, and worth a lot more than most of the Lists that will bombard you between now and January 1.

Ed Kilgore is managing editor of the Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute.


Post a comment
  • DAY on December 28, 2011 12:39 PM:

    Organized Religion is like the NBA. Lots and lots of content, for those who like that sort of entertainment.

  • c u n d gulag on December 28, 2011 12:44 PM:

    Thanks, this sounds interesting and I'll take a look at it later.

    And, I know you're pressed for time, what with some of us being assholes (present company included), but you are doing a terrific job.
    Steve's a tough guy to substitute for when you have to consider that the expectations are of not just quality, but quality.
    And people have high expectations because he's spoiled us rotten over the years.

    Ignore some of the kvetching and any attempts at "grading." Don't let that grate on your nerves. Just 'keep on keppin' on!'

  • c u n d gulag on December 28, 2011 12:47 PM:

    "...keep on keepin' on!"

    Oh yeah, and Steve promised us an "Edit" button.

    And a "Delete" button.


    See what you can do about that in your spare time.

  • Hedda Peraz on December 28, 2011 12:54 PM:

    I keep hitting my delete button, but like a bad penny, c u n d gulag keeps re-appearing. Sheesh, indeed. . .

  • stinger on December 28, 2011 1:03 PM:

    @c u n d gulag, how can you have forgotten? -- Steve's first promise was NO MO CAPTCHA!

    fame BLOTalstro???

  • Michael W on December 28, 2011 1:04 PM:

    c u n d gulag, if you keep this up, you're going to owe me a me a new ergonomic keyboard by the end of the day. I should know better than to read comments to posts when you're around. :)

  • chi res on December 28, 2011 1:05 PM:

    So, here's the thing...

    We ONLY do religion around here on Saturaday mornings... and it HAS to be called THIS WEEK IN GOD... and it HAS to start with the line "First up from the God Machine this week..."

    Just sayin'.

  • hwickline on December 28, 2011 1:11 PM:

    Nice flag on a great post over at Religion Dispatches. One thing: it's actually Peter Laarman, not James.

  • Rick B on December 28, 2011 2:03 PM:

    Good post. As an Episcopalian who sometimes even attends church, but unfortunately lives in the Southern Baptists Theocracy of Texas I found the short discussion of "Five-Point Calvinism Inside the Southern Baptist Convention" caught my interest. A high school classmate of mine was one of two central individuals ramrodding the takeover of the SBC by what they called the "Conservatives." Unfortunately the original Laarman article has no link to the original article. The best I have found is this wikipedia article on The five points of Calvinism.

    I think it explains a lot of modern American politics. When people face great uncertainties their first intellectual/emotional reaction is to go back to family history. As society grew larger than bands and families, the history of the larger groups we attach ourselves to and identify with were taught by institutional shamans. Then Kings needed a source of legitimacy and took the shamans who supported them into their political "families." Institutions get government sanction if they are to survive beyond a few generations (see corporations.) Religions are similar social institutions. The ideology they teach is that which gives the government that supports them greater legitimacy, making it longer lasting also.

    Those government "house" shamans catered to people who had a higher need for order and less tolerance for ambiguity and who looked to authority outside themselves to provide it (definition of authoritarians.) I can see that in both regular and social conservatism.

    The conservative SBC movement was a reaction to the uncertainties of the Cold War, The Pill, Vietnam and the anti-Vietnam movement, and especially to the Civil Rights Movement as the very government turned against social order and stability.

    What I'm not sure of is why the five points of Calvinism had such a dominating power in the SBC. And there is no link that I could find!

  • Goldilocks on December 28, 2011 2:25 PM:

    The generic terms 'religion' and 'culture' have together been commandeered to mean mainly 'Christian'. It's a pity because religion and culture are vast, rich fields of human achievement and aspiration. How are we to refer to the profound wisdom and powerful methods of the Buddhist tradition, for example, if our language has been so narrowly compromised?

    Well, Buddhism is more of a science than a religion but it has, along with Hinduism, Islam, etc, espoused immensely rich and diverse social and artistic cultures. While we can relinquish 'religion' to equate with Christianity in common parlance, I personally take exception to the sequestering of 'culture' from its grander application. It is both spiritually and socially diminishing to reduce its reference to apply only to a set of nihilistic and repressive moralistic formulations that do few people any real good.

    Having got that off my chest, I will supplement Mr Laarman's piece with an amazing story of the 900th-year anniversary of the birth of the first lama in Tibet who predicted his own reincarnation in a letter left to his principal student shortly before his death. That has been repeated 17 times up to the present living incarnation of the same lama. Celebrations, teachings and ceremonies have been happening around the world, including in the US, during this whole year. Is that not a story that also merits inclusion?

  • chi res on December 28, 2011 2:45 PM:

    The generic terms 'religion' and 'culture' have together been commandeered to mean mainly 'Christian'.

    Really? Not in my world. Good material for building a straw man though.

  • Steve P on December 28, 2011 2:47 PM:

    "Nihilists! F*ck me. I mean, say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it's an ethos."

    But even nihilism is an ethos. What's driving Wall Street is more like the reptile brain, or clinical sociopathy:


  • Goldilocks on December 28, 2011 3:04 PM:

    chi res - Really?

    Ed introduces Laarman's piece with the sentence: "It focuses on stories in the world of religion and culture that mattered...". The rest of his post (and Laarman's article) includes mention of only Christian stories. What else is a person to conclude but that 'religion' and 'culture', at least in American usage, have come to refer primarily to the Christian religion and its cultural attributes?

    No straw man here, as far as I can see.

  • chi res on December 28, 2011 3:13 PM:

    Laarman's article) includes mention of only Christian stories

    Um, this is wrong. You may want to actually READ the piece. For instance, the title of #2 on the list is, "Judaism and Real Estate". Others deal with specifically secular cultural issues.

    But nice try. Sometimes straw can be a little hard to knock down when other people are watching.

  • Goldilocks on December 28, 2011 3:30 PM:

    chi res -

    No, I may NOT want to read the piece. Time is precious and so I rely on summaries, such as Ed's, to give me a general impression. I do often read articles referred to here and elsewhere if the content promises to be relevant and informative.

    You need not be smug about poking a hole in my case in this instance because it is manifestly true that when the term 'religion' is used in American postings it is almost invariably and demonstrably use to imply Christian religion. Unless you are being disingenuous for the sake of it, you cannot deny that my observation is true.

    The other people watching will find your straw utterly indigestible, sir.

  • chi res on December 28, 2011 3:41 PM:


    You make a verifiably untrue statement, back it up with another verifiably untrue statement, and then attack me for being smug, saying that your statements were "manifestly true" because... uh, oh yeah, because YOU SAID they were manifestly true.

    I assume you consider yourself on "other side", but your stand is nearly as sad as those idiots who are fighting against the non-existant "War on Christmas".

  • st john on December 28, 2011 4:09 PM:

    Since we seem to be waxing literary and talking books and religion, may I offer, once again, Pope Annalisa by Peter Canova. This Spiritual Thriller is set in the very near future and follows the ascension of a Catholic nun from Nigeria being elected to the College of Cardinals and eventually the Papacy. It has all the intrigue of a Dan Brown novel, including extensive factual material on religious history and the spiritual movements of the Gnostics. Peter Canova has done his research over the past 20 years and draws on his well-developed intuition to fill in the historical gaps. While presented as historical fiction, it incorporates much of the contemporary political and social issues into the plot. Pope Annalisa has won several literary awards, including the Nautilus: "Nautilus Awards– POPE ANNALISA swept the prestigious Nautilus Book Awards winning two Silver Medals and one Gold Medal in two different categories, VISIONARY FICTION and SPIRITUALITY. The path to the Nautilus Gold Medal Award was unanimous at all three judging levels and the book obtained the highest scores in its category seen in some years."
    You will not be disappointed with this book. If you need reassurance before making the purchase, visit www.popeannalisa.com and read the reviews, listen to interviews with the author and read his other articles.
    This is a tremendous book with potentially a huge impact on politics, religion and our status quo.

  • Trollop on December 28, 2011 5:13 PM:

    See, its a holy war! This is the only thing beside self-delusion that religion is good for.

  • Goldilocks on December 28, 2011 5:27 PM:

    Thank you, stjohn, for calming the waters with an intriguing diversion.

    I cannot, however, let chi res get away with his/her nonsense.

    I acknowledge that I had not read Laarman's piece - I deduced from Ed's references that it was predominately devoted to "unwritten" stories about Christian affairs, about which I am not particularly interested. So - thank you, on behalf of 'people watching' for pointing out that defect, which I am not disputing.

    For some reason however, he/she is perversely refusing to recognise a self-evident fact that the term religion in American parlance has come to refer predominantly to the Christian religion. It is a form of linguistic degeneration which, though understandable, is IMHO regrettable.

    Why he/she should choose to make such a mountain out of what most people would recognize as a valid, if somewhat molehill-like, observation I admit is at present beyond my comprehension. Perhaps he/she could do us all the favor of elucidating his/her gripe, preferably in an objective rather than abusive style.

  • st john on December 28, 2011 5:53 PM:

    Goldilocks: While you may classify my entry as a diversion, it is, in fact, a direct response to the discussion that is raging here. Pope Annalisa, the character, addresses most of the issues of the day and offers non-religious solutions. While the character is identified as the Pope, her purpose is to bring peace and understanding to a world in turmoil, beyond political and religious labels. If you and the others on this blog would take a moment to consider a larger context that is beyond partisanship, you would discover a world that works for everyone. The context is that we are all One. You may also reference Neale Donald Walsch and The Storm Before the Calm. There is an entire genre of books and leaders whose purpose is global reconciliation of conflict.

    May peace prevail on earth.
    St John

  • chi res on December 28, 2011 5:55 PM:

    First "smug", now "abusive". Who's handing out the abuse here?

    1. You make a wholly unsupported statement: "The generic terms 'religion' and 'culture' have together been commandeered to mean mainly 'Christian'."

    2. I question it.

    3. You try to support it with a verifiably untrue statement.

    4. I point out your error.

    5. You call me smug and say that your statement is "manifestly true", again without a shred of support.

    6. I point out again that you have given no support to your original statement.

    7. You call my comment "nonsense" and challenge me to "elucidate" my "gripe", still having done nothing to support your original claim other than a contention that it's what "most people would recognize as [] valid".

    Congratulations. You and your "most people" must be right. You obviously "win". Have a drink on me.

  • Goldilocks on December 28, 2011 8:14 PM:

    chi res -

    Victory is always bitter-sweet. I play a lot of chess. Naturally I play to win, otherwise what's the point. But when I do win I always feel bad for my opponent, simply because I know what it's like to lose. I'm not claiming victory in our contest here, but I do respect your final gesture of conciliation. Thanks.

    I did make a mistake in referring to an article which I hadn't first checked out - actually a rare presumption for me. So, you were pretty sharp and absolutely correct to take me to task for that error. I am embarrassed about it and apologize to you and 'people watching'. Certainly it will never happen again.

    I've been searching in the last few minutes for examples of the word 'religion' used synonymously with 'Christian' but haven't come up with any yet. I will keep my eyes open for them now and when I collect some I'll let you know when we next meet here. I may say that I'm certain I will find a lot before too long. It's a worthy task for me which I hope will resolve our dispute.

    It was a nice word battle which neither of us need feel offended by. Thanks again.

  • Goldilocks on December 28, 2011 8:28 PM:

    St John -

    "Pope Annalisa" sounds really interesting. I didn't mean to be dismissive of your appraisal of it - I was just focussed on the issue with chi res. I seem to have touched a few nerves in my comments today. Not one of my better days.

    I've recently read and thoroughly enjoyed "The Da Vinci Code" by Dan Brown, which sounds similar to Annalisa. Trouble is I have a book list about the length of the century, most of which I will not be able to consume in this life. However, on the basis of your recommendation, Annalisa is now on the list. Thanks.

  • chi res on December 28, 2011 9:05 PM:

    It was a nice word battle which neither of us need feel offended by. Thanks again.

    I've had more intelligent conversations with my dining room table.