You could see this one coming a mile away. As soon as Matt Lauer announced that Today was inaugurating a series called 'One Nation Under God' on the role religion plays in our country, and that the first episode would focus on President Bush, you knew we were in for a bumpy ride.
The series plays off a new book, 'American Gospel', by Newsweek Managing Editor Jon Meacham. In his set-up [and I do mean set-up] piece, David Gregory claimed that "the Bush era has created not just a political but a religious divide."
Continued Gregory: "Critics have accused the president of using religion to close himself off from opposing points of view." Oh, I don't know, David. He seems to hear you pretty loud and clear.
Gregory asserted that "some see the president trying to fulfill God's mission."
Meacham wasted no time in claiming that poll numbers show that "a third of the country is nervous about the fact that organized religion - the Christian right as we understand it in a popular way - may have too much influence." Today didn't display the precise poll question asked, but it seems as if Meacham might have been extrapolating a general concern about the influence of organized religion into a specific objection to "the Christian right."
In describing the role of religion in our nation's founding, Meacham observed "the Founders understood that religion "should shape the country, but not strangle it." Hard to say whether Meacham was making an invidious allusion to the current president, but there was no mistaking the elitist condescension in his very next sentence: "Homer once said, 'all men need the gods.'" Meacham did stop short of Marx's 'religion is the opiate of the masses.'
Lauer: "Does the word 'evangelical' incite a lot of people?"
Meacham: "It is both a noble word in religious terms, it means you have a very personal religious relationship with Jesus, you believe in the Bible . . . but if you're on the secular, more left side you see this as Jerry Falwell coming to get you."
Lauer: "Right. And you say 'personal beliefs' yet in 2004 when President Bush, to bring the conversation back to him, said, made no bones about the fact that 'I'm going to go out there, I'm going to get 4 million new evangelicals to register to vote, I think a lot of people thought wait a second, this is no longer a personal belief, this is a get-out-the-vote campaign."
Have a look at the photo. It captures part of the sweeping gesture toward himself that Matt Lauer made while uttering "a lot of people thought wait a second, this is no longer a personal belief, this is a get-out-the-vote campaign." Sure looks as if 'a lot of people' includes one Matt Lauer.
Meacham: "You can't have it both ways. The civil rights movement was run out of African-American churches and fueled by faith. Martin Luther King was a minister. Eisenhower opened cabinet meetings with prayers. These things are part and parcel of the American experience."
Lauer wasn't easily appeased: "Critics will say if all those evangelicals vote for you you've got to do something to pay them back and you're going to pay them back with your policy."
Finkelstein lives in Ithaca, NY, where he hosts the award-winning public-access TV show 'Right Angle'. Contact him at: email@example.com