Blinded By the Light

Friday, February 13, 2009


When President Barack Obama paraphrased a passage from 1 Corinthians in his Inaugural Address, he made a point of attributing it to Scripture. Had he not, many in the audience – including many reporters – would not have recognized the Biblical reference. That journalists too often “don’t get religion” is the subject of a new book, Blind Spot, which seeks to describe how the media missed the mark on stories from the War on Terror to the 2004 presidential campaign to human rights. Former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, who wrote the forward, explains.

Comments [18]

Meghan from Salt Lake City, UT

I was disappointed in the "blinded by the light segment" and your coverage made me think: maybe reporters really don't get it. At best, Mr. Gershon was misappropriating the term "religion" when he really meant Christianity and yet OTM, which professes to tackle issues with frankness, did not take him to task for it!

I adore this show but wish you had spent more time thinking critically about your own coverage of the topic. I will, however, applaud you for making me think thoughtfully about media coverage even when I receive it through the lens of OTM.

Feb. 18 2009 11:52 PM
Chris Gray from New Haven, CT

Ye gods! I can't escape Yale references, even from Wisconsin listeners.

About the Gerson interview, I wrote to my elder brother, visiting his daughter, her wife and new baby in Australia, "I was afraid my email would distract me from my purpose on-line this morning, commenting about On the Media this week but your typo ("god" instead of "good") days brought me right pack to my point. Bush speech writer {Michael} Gerson was critical of reporters unschooled and unaware of the influence of religion on American culture, with which I agree, but he misses the other dimension, Americans are a spiritual people which rises above any orthodoxy, such as with you and Laurie.

"You eschew cannon but accept a greater truth, such as that you are blessed to be able to share time with your growing family and this has always been true, whether with your biological kin or those you have accepted into your heart no matter the diversity of their origin, Ning {a former co-worker originally from China}, for example, or the diversity of their religious backgrounds or views, {a neighbor family} Barbara {a Christian Scientist}, Josh and Konrad {her children, of no known religious affiliation}, also examples. We are all one yet different.

"Like I said, you kept me on point. Good or god visiting!"

Feb. 18 2009 05:09 AM
Paul Burkett from Bow, NH

Just wanted to second all that has been said. I particularly agree with the comment about not getting a Shakespeare reference as being in the same vein. But, whether we old English majors like it or not, there simply is less cultural cohesion in our world today than even 20 years ago. One reason Obama's answers to questions are so long is that he has to explain half of his referecnes to his audience (including memebers of the media). Gerson likely believes this dilution of culture is a harbinger of the End of Days (sorry), but he fails to appreciate that cultures that do not evolve are doomed to die.

Feb. 17 2009 05:15 PM
Ron Bean from Wisconsin

Religion aside, missing a reference to the Bible is like missing a reference to Shakespeare. You don't have to study Shakespeare to know that his plays are the origin of many common sayings. The Yale Book of Quotations has 17 pages of quotations from the Bible.

Of course, many people would miss references to Shakespeare too, but don't journalists use google? This stuff isn't exactly secret.

Feb. 16 2009 10:40 PM
Darrel Plant from Portland, Oregon

What's interesting to me is that a simple search of the New York Times online archive turns up more than 2,200 hits for articles with "mote" and "eye" in them (going back as far as the late nineteenth century) but only one article including "mote eye pot kettle bush".

That was an unsigned opinion piece (not a front page article) on May 9, 2006 about the administration's protests over Russia's moves away from democracy ("Cheney as Pot, Putin as Kettle"), which ended with this sentence:

"When Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an 'evil empire,' his words bit deep, because America was then a powerful symbol of freedom. It would be good if Mr. Cheney's truths also had an impact -- but how does it go about the mote in your own eye?" That sure sounds like someone at the Times understood the reference.

"Blind Spot" itself doesn't have any reference to this incident, at least not in the searchable version at, and there's no reference either primary or secondary I could find to this story searching through Google.

I think OTM has been lied to. But then, it was Michael Gerson.

Feb. 16 2009 12:22 PM
Dave H from Pleasanton, Ca

In the program aired today it was implied that evangelical christians are the only people who understand biblical references. There are many liberal christians who understand these references, too.

Having said that, I think that the age of Christendom in the United States is over. Many baby boomers were raised in an age when Sunday mornings were considered more or less sacred - most secular events were deferred until after noon on Sunday. At least that's the way I remember growing up in rural California in the 1950s. Now many children's sports include schedules on Sunday morning, not to mention the NFL and other professional sports activites, etc. etc. Many of the biblical stories that have been assumed to be part of our culture are now lost to the new generations.

And this discussion assumes that English and Christianity are the language and religion of choice. But the United States is the world's melting pot and it is no wonder that it is difficult to communicate across ethnic and religious differences. In California, Caucasians represent less than 50% of the population. Yes, there are many Latinos who are Catholic, but there is a large asian population, especially in northern California, who are not typically Christian (also Indian and middle-eastern populations). In the local school district where I live, for instance, students speak over 100 languages and/or dialects. I don't know how many religions are represented. Many of us do not appreciate how diverse our population ( both California and the US ) has become.

I think that Obama understands this dynamic of the changing American population and Bush/Gerson didn't.

Feb. 16 2009 04:19 AM
Jodi Smith

Wow! Not a lot of love for Mr. Gerson today. I'm not a big fan of Bush or his cronies, but I think that the more literate our society, the better. I'm an evangelical Christian, and I didn't think Bush was talking code to me. (I frankly couldn't stand to listen to the man talk.)

Why not be more Biblically literate? Why not be more conversant about Judiasm and Hinduism, etc.?
I think the tragedy here is that the 'media', and therefore our society, has become so illiterate. Not just in regards to religion, but to much of our past literature, science and thought. It curtails our ability to critically think through these references, and parse out what a speaker or writer is trying to convey.

I always tell my children that the more they know, the more they understand. Isn't it wonderful to hear or read a reference, and know what is being referenced? Weird Al is funny only because you know the song he is parodying. If you don't know the source material, you don't laugh. The same goes for reporters who don't take the time to understand the source of people's ideals and beliefs. Knowing where people are coming from can only enrich understanding.

Feb. 16 2009 02:01 AM
Jon from Astoria

Well, gosh, we all know religion is blinded by the light of media coverage. I grew up Catholic in Saint Louis, and God knows the "liberal press" was danged slow to expose the (more than a few) child molesters masquerading as priests. It wouldn't have been good for the church.

Feb. 15 2009 06:22 PM
Christopher Wood from United States

As a Catholic I am offended when right-wing Christians like Michael Gerson interpret the 'motives' of popes and the social teachings of Catholicism.

Invariably, their idea of Catholic social teachings starts and ends with abortion. I notice they never quote the Pope when there is a call against the death penalty, war and support of health services and welfare programs for the poor.

I wish they would stop using Catholicism when it's convenient for votes and a need to attract more Christians they ordinarily don't think will be redeemed by their version of Jesus as "warrior-King"!

Feb. 15 2009 02:58 PM
Jim Nickens from Plainview, TX

I'm so used to Mr. Gerson getting it wrong in The Washington Post that I don't trust what he said on your show. Can he provide a citation to The New York Times'
reporter who didn't get the log/mote/eye allusion? It sounds more like an email-fueled urban myth than something that would actually get by a reporter and his editors. They might be godless heathens in Mr. Gerson's view, but they are not illiterate.

Feb. 15 2009 02:07 PM
michael pettengill from merrimack, nh

I find it ironic that a Bush administration speech writer would claim the religious high ground and say that the media doesn't get it.

As a Christian who believes that charity is integral to Love thy neighbor, as a Quaker pacifist who understands the reason for turn the other cheek, and as a person who fully recognizes the need for tolerance in the history of this nation, I see the Bush administration as having blinders on when it comes to Christianity.

Sure, the media didn't cover the anti-war movement at all, much less delve into the religious foundations of the protests, and certainly not any of the reasons for the protests, but the Bush administration in its speech vilified those who protested the war, calling them anti-American.

The "either you are with us, or against us" rhetoric of the Bush administration is clearly contrary to the core of Jesus teachings, whether you consider Jesus to be God or you consider him, as Jefferson did, a great moral philosopher.

And you failed to provide context with the following story that got into the least religious excursion into covering religion I can imagine. Why couldn't you give a call to Krista Tippett or Bill Moyers, my two favorite reporters exploring matters of faith and religion?

And you could have followed up with a reprise of the Bush administrations efforts to muzzle Bill Moyers who expresses his bipartisan moral outrage in both religious and political contexts.

Feb. 15 2009 11:25 AM
Derek from Hartland, Vermont

I reject both Gershon's premise, which boiled down states that: 1. all journalists ought to know and be able to reflect on Christian dogma, and 2. that this Christian dogma is at the center of our culture.

It is up to the communicator of the initial idea to make certain the context of the message is understandable by all.

One of the main things that separates us is our use of language. Doctors speak medicine, historians speak historiana, computer mavens speak computer code, physisists speak physics, artists speak artistics, bankers speak in bankerese, etc, etc, etc. This is often done intentionally to belittle those outside and elevate those inside. But when speaking to a general audience and intending to be understood by all, it is far better to let the person understand in what lingo and from what point of reference you are intending to communicate.

Perhaps we were wrong in assuming that Bush's linguistic expertise was his and his alone. Possibly Gershon was the mentor and teacher to whom we can attribute the wildly popular Bushisms.

Feb. 15 2009 11:10 AM

Why was Gerson not taken to task for not realizing that not every American is a Christian (forget even Bible reading Christian)? He was not challenged in his belief that every American should read the New Testament. As has already been mentioned, many of those calling themselves Christian are unfamiliar with the New Testament. Why should non-Christians be expected to be sufficiently familiar with it that we can recognize passages from it?

This was a surprisingly weak interview from OTM.

Feb. 15 2009 10:23 AM
Gerald Fnord

(Where are comments taking you to task for being too damned hard on poor Mr Gerson...? I'll look again in a few days.)

This is somewhat redundant to the comments above, but I felt the need to state plainly: 'Don't claim my entire culture Mr Gerson.' Ours is not a 'Christian' culture in the way Mr Gerson would use the word for himself: we suffer witches to live, our laws permit all sorts of conduct obviously destined to redact us to God's own Torture Chamber, we do not allow voices in our heads, or in the heads of my ancient ancestors, to serve as evidence in open court (or, in saner times, as the full basis of executive policy). It was part of our cultures' childhoods, but for some of us, it is time we put aside childish things, as someone once said (lest we pass directly from infancy to dotage directly, as a better man once said).

Yes, reporters should be conversant with the Bible to the extent that it has influenced English, but they can't be held responsible for recognising every blast of the dog-whistle a Bush or Palin passes to the pack. And Mr Gerson chose the least dog-whistlish example possible: I, a Jew atheist, would recognise the reference, admittedly because I'm also a science-fiction reader.

And, in point of fact, the "Times" reporter was exactly right: Mr Bush was the pot who calls the kettle black, given that he has shown an inordinate talent for ignoring the logs in his own eyes...the sort of talent fundamentalist religion is _great_ at inducing.

Feb. 15 2009 08:18 AM
chuck thompson from Anchorage, AK

I agree with Mr. Gerson that many reporters, pundits and observers of our times do not "get" many Biblical references, but by making that very contention, he contradicts his later assertion religious references made by President Bush "is not a code, it's our culture. It's the common rhetorical heritage of our country."

Obviously, if most people in the culture don't "get" the context or nuance of a reference, it is no longer "common rhetorical" currency. It's like being told an inside joke that only those who "know" the context of the joke will get. Oh, it may be an American "heritage" (a term I have come to loathe) but it's no longer part of our contemporary vernacular.

Those Bibical references ARE, however, part of the lexicon of many well-read Biblical folk. I once was part of that crowd and I know all the chapters and verses, which is why I immediately notice these references (however badly paraphrased: such as Obama's 1 Cor. 13 allusion and were nearly all of George's feeble attempts).

The fact that some elements of our society pick-up on religious references while others do not, suggests that a certain "fundamentalist-speak" does exist which -- call it code or not -- serves the same purpose.
It's a distinction without a difference.
If someone "gets" it and most don't, it's still "code," no matter how carefully you parse your definition around it.

The fact that so many younger church-goers don't "get" the code, to me, suggests it will be a code that fewer will understand and which, in time, will become functionally irrelevant.

As to whether we need to revisit this dead horse and start teaching Biblical literacy to journalism students, however, I'm undecided.
Sometimes, society just moves on, like it or not.
Losing it, though, would be a significant cultural loss.

Feb. 14 2009 10:19 PM
Avery Dame from Tuscaloosa, Alabama

Firstly, as another Southerner whose undergraduate focus is English, I second Patricia Waters's comments - Michael Gerson's presumption that most Americans "get it" with regard to Biblical references is both laughable and, at least in this interview, unsupported.

And though Gerson makes a great show of emphasizing the supposedly "unknown" service work of evangelical churches, he carefully leaves out the other side of these efforts--such as tacit evangelical support for Ugandan pastor Martin Ssempa's efforts to have gay men and women arrested for the crime of existing.

So while what Gerson wishes for may be good religious advocacy, what he would get may be a far different story. As the old saying goes, "Be careful what you wish for."

Feb. 14 2009 08:25 PM
Patricia Waters from Tuscaloosa, Alabama

Dear OTM, I teach in the English department at a flagship university in the South, the buckle of the so-called Bible belt. Not being conversant with the Biblical literature has perhaps led you into taking Gerson's assertions at face value, leaving you unable to question the grounds of those assertions. A case in point is Gerson's saying that Reagon appropriated 'the city on the hill' passage from Matthew 5:14 "Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid" when in truth the allusion is to Winthrop's Model of Christian Charity, a foundational statement of American exceptionalism.

Gerson may or may not be correct in his thesis that Presidents incorporate Biblical rhetoric as it is a touchstone in American culture. Has anyone done a sustained comparative rhetorical analysis? However his assertion that reporters don't 'get it' because they are secular but that the public does 'get it' because the public is plugged into religion, specifically Christianity, is completely unproved and I assert dead wrong.
My students don't recognize biblical allusion because 1) most don't read it or hear it, particularly in the KJV that links the Bible to the era of Shakespear and 2) most do not come out of the narrowly defined Christian evangelical tradition that Gerson defines. That is not to say that the majority don't define themselves as Christian but to assume now in 2009 that religious self-defining is related to an intimate knowledge of Biblical imagery and tropes is an unsubstantiated leap. For the most part, they do not read: anything, much less the Bible. Gerson has been watching too much Trinity Broadcasting. That is not America; that is a part of a much larger, complex whole.

Feb. 14 2009 01:18 PM
Mark from 49014

Sorry you had to give so much time to this smug presentation.

Feb. 14 2009 12:06 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.