President Bush

Bono sings an old song, again

It was a room full of religious believers -- Republicans and Democrats -- who were used to praying together and even hearing guest speakers quote the scriptures.

Bono looked around, studying the faces through his blue rock-star sunglasses. Reaching out to the sick and the suffering in Third World nations is not a matter of charity, he said. It is a matter of justice.

U2's charismatic lead singer kept returning to this theme. Forgiving Third World debt is a matter of justice, not charity. Leaping legal hurdles to provide drugs to parents and children with AIDS is a matter of justice, not charity. The issue is whether people of faith will do what God wants them to do.

"I am a believer," said Bono. "Forget about the judgment of history. For those of you who are religious people, you have to think about the judgment of God."

The man that many call "St. Bono" -- some with a smile and some with a sneer -- was not speaking into a microphone during this gathering back in 2001 and there were no television cameras present. In fact, the doors were closed and this conference room in the U.S. Capitol contained a small circle of staff members from key offices in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

For years, the rock star has talked about his faith in media interviews. Then, a few years ago, his work with DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade in Africa) pulled him into small prayer meetings in Washington, D.C., on college campuses and in other settings across America. When asked what he was up to, Bono gave a simple answer: The path into the heart of America runs through religious sanctuaries.

Eventually, this path led to the 54th National Prayer Breakfast, where the big rock star with the equally big messianic complex talked openly about his faith and what he believes is his divine calling to use his celebrity clout to help the poor. But this high-profile Feb. 2 sermon merely represented a change in venue for Bono, not a change in his message.

Bono has been singing this song for more than a decade and there is no sign that he will quit any time soon.

Speaking at the same breakfast, President George W. Bush said the key is that the singer has been willing to move beyond inspiring words into practical actions.

This reminded the president of an old story about a Texas preacher whose sermons kept inspiring a man in the pews to leap up and shout "Use me, Lord, use me." Finally, the preacher confronted him and said, "If you're serious, I'd like for you to paint the pews." The next Sunday, the man leaped up during the sermon. But this time, said the president, he shouted, "Use me, Lord, use me, but only in an advisory capacity."

What is different about Bono, said Bush, is that "he's a doer. The thing about this good citizen of the world is he's used his position to get things done."

On this day, the singer's message ranged from the book of Leviticus, with its year of Jubilee in which the debts of the poor are forgiven, to the Gospel of Luke and the moment when Jesus begins his ministry with the cry, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor."

The bottom line, said Bono, is that humanity can pass its own laws, but these laws can clash with the higher, eternal laws of God. When government budgets and medical patents clash with the life-and-death needs of the poor, believers have to ask themselves what their faith requires of them.

"While the law is what we say it is, God is not silent on the subject," said Bono, with the president seated a few feet away. "That?s why I say there is the law of the land and then there?s a higher standard. And we can hire experts to write them so they benefit us -- these laws. ... But God will not accept that. Mine won?t. Will yours? ...

"Let?s get involved in what God is doing. God, as I said, is always with the poor. That?s what God?s doing. That?s what he?s calling us to do."

Farewell to Ashcroft urban legend

The satirical report on the Democratic Underground website may have seemed bizarre to outsiders, but it was old news to Attorney General John Ashcroft.

According to a fictitious poll by CNN, Time and Cat Fancy Magazine, 52 percent of calico cats surveyed were afraid -- even deathly afraid -- of the attorney general and another 36 percent were "somewhat afraid." Some cats said they believed Ashcroft is, in fact, a sign of the devil.

"There have been reported cases of young kittens actually dying of fear when Ashcroft appears on television," said the fake news story. "Luckily for them, they have nine lives."

Behind the satire was an Internet report that spread as a rumor that became an "urban legend" about the Pentecostal Christian who was the highest of lightning rods during the first administration of President George W. Bush. Ashcroft will soon leave the cabinet, but this episode offers a window into how the religious and secular left viewed his faith and even the faith of his boss.

The rumor? Here is how it was stated by the San Fernando Valley Folklore Society ( "Attorney General John Ashcroft believes calico cats are a sign of the devil." The site says this rumor is "false" and calls it "one of the most bizarre items we've had to tackle in recent memory."

The key to understanding urban legends is that the people who spread them sincerely want to believe they are true, said Barbara Mikkelson, a curator at this urban legends research site. They don't believe they are spreading lies.

"People have a tendency to immediately believe rumors about people that they don't like or that they don't respect," she said. "We tend to spread the stories that, on some level, we agree with. It tells us that we are right.

"So along comes this story that is perfect and it confirms all of those views that we already hold. Of course we want to share it. It's just too perfect."

In the Internet age, legions of people click "forward" and pass the rumor along to friends through email, many of whom do the same or even post it somewhere on the World Wide Web.

Urban legends are especially popular among religious conservatives, millions of whom believe that mainstream media conspire to hide the best and the worst of the news. Thus, digital true believers excitedly circulate reports about NASA confirming biblical miracles, evil activists asking the Federal Communications Commission to zap religious media and a born-again president boldly sharing his faith with troubled teens.

But this particular legend sprang up on the left, beginning with web columnist and Democratic National Committee treasurer Andrew Tobias. Citing anonymous sources, he wrote that members of Ashcroft's advance team had confirmed that their boss "believes calico cats are signs of the devil" and wants them removed from his path.

When pushed, Tobias declined to be more specific about sources. The tale of the demonic cats leapt into cyberspace and assumed a life of its own, as anyone can learn by typing "Ashcroft," "calico" and "Satan" (or "devil") into a computer search engine.

The attorney general laughed off the rumors -- again and again. Finally, a reporter from The American Enterprise asked if he had any idea how the rumor began.

"Absolutely none. ... In any case, there's no truth to it," said Ashcroft, a graduate of Yale and the University of Chicago Law School. "I owned a calico cat on the farm I lived on until I went away to be the state auditor of Missouri."

Still, the urban legend grew. It even reached the New York Times.

The natural tendency, said Mikkelson, is to focus on who starts the rumor. The more important question is this: Who is spreading the urban legend and why are they doing so? The Ashcroft rumor is especially interesting because it was spread by powerful people in the mainstream of politics and media.

"What we have here is a mirror held up to the people who are spreading it," she said. "What it shows us is something about their values and their hopes and their fears about the world around them. ... Even if the story isn't true, they believe that it ought to be true. They want it to be true."

Red, blue and green (tea)

One perk of covering a White House race from day one is that early-bird journalists snag lots of one-on-one time with the candidate.

Thus, Candy Crowley of CNN found herself sitting with John Kerry in a super-ordinary coffee shop in Dubuque, Iowa. The veteran political correspondent ordered coffee.

The senator, from Massachusetts, ordered green tea.

The waitress, from Iowa, was puzzled.

"I advised the senator that he would need to carry his own green tea in Iowa and probably several other states, as well," quipped Crowley, speaking at the Forum Club of the Palm Beaches in South Florida.

Yes, it's time for "post mortems" on 2004. So far, said Crowley, the experts insist the race was decided by -- take your pick -- the 22 percent of the voters that yearned for "moral values" or the 23 percent that were white evangelical Christians.

Crowley grew up in the Midwest and she thinks she can tell red zones from blue zones. Democrats have cornered the green-tea crowd, she said. Republicans are winning what Capital Beltway insiders now call the "Applebee's vote." This schism may have as much to do with cappuccinos and chainsaws as with the New York Times and the Southern Baptist Convention.

Faith played a major role, but it's simplistic to say that religious people voted for President George W. Bush and secularists for Kerry, said Crowley. The religious left has its own moral and spiritual beliefs and it will, in future elections, find ways to express them in the public square.

It would also be inaccurate to claim that evangelicals marched into voting booths and seized control. Bush won 52 percent of Catholic voters, facing a Catholic candidate, and 59 percent of the overall Protestant vote. The New York Times noted that the president, in four years, raised his share of the Jewish vote from 19 to 25 percent, winning two-thirds of the Orthodox Jewish votes.

The elites just didn't get it. "Somewhere along the line, all of us missed this moral-values thing," said Crowley.

This will be painful for journalists to hear. It is one thing, after decades of dissecting media-bias statistics, to know that armies of religious conservatives believe American newsrooms are packed with God-forsaken libertines. It will be harder for journalists to admit that they are blind to important stories.

Nevertheless, it's time to face the facts, said Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla.

"I am now taking seriously the theory that we mainstream journalists are different from mainstream America. 'Different' is too pale a word. We are alienated. We may live in the same country, but we treat each other like aliens," he said, in an essay called "Confessions of an Alienated Journalist."

"The churched people who embrace Bush, in spite of a bumbling war and a stumbling economy, are more than alien to me. They are invisible. ... My blind spots blot out half of America. And that makes me less of a citizen, and less of a journalist."

As a Catholic progressive, Clark said he finds it hard to hear "moral values" without thinking of "showy piety and patriotism, with more than a dash of racism and homophobia." He knows all about "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" and Bubba the Love Sponge. How come so many other Americans know what it means to be "evangelical," "charismatic" and "born again" and feel at home at church suppers?

Right now, there needs to be "more self-doubt in the journalistic system, as opposed to arrogance," said Clark, reached at his office. "We need to be able to say that we don't know it all and that we need to learn. We need to take a step back."

Most of all, said Crowley, journalists and blue-zone leaders must grasp that many parents feel threatened by the "coarsening" of American culture. They feel attacked.

"It's like they are saying, 'I was made to feel like a freak because I go to church' or 'I was made to feel like I was an idiot because I believe in God,' " she said. "They're telling us, 'I want my family safe and I want to be able to teach my children what I believe is true.'

Snakes, Bush and the Greeks

The woman on the telephone was speaking English, but it was hard to understand what she was saying because of her strong Greek accent.

She was a journalist in Greece, but I couldn't catch the name of her newspaper. She told me her name, but I didn't get that, either. Lest readers judge me too harshly, it helps to know that I attend an Eastern Orthodox parish with Lebanese priest who speaks Arabic, Greek, French and English. I am used to interesting accents.

The reporter's first question told me why she was calling -- Google. Before long, I learned that she was interested in American politics as well as religion.

"You are an expert on Christians who worship with snakes, yes?"

Not really, I said. I have read books on the subject and I used to teach in the mountains of East Tennessee, but I never met snake handlers. In modern times, even some of the Baptists there drive Volvos, wear Birkenstocks and listen to National Public Radio like everybody else. OK, I didn't say exactly that, but I tried to explain to her my limited contact with this edgy flock on the far fringe of American Protestantism.

"Can we interview you about this?", she asked. "You have written about it?"

This told me that she had found -- via Google -- my 1996 column on "Snakes, Miracles and Biblical Authority." It was based on lectures by Baptist historian Bill Leonard of Wake Forest University and described the theological lessons he learned from his friendship with the late Arnold Saylor, an illiterate country preacher who took rattlesnakes with him into the pulpit.

In that column, I noted: "Millions of Americans say the Bible contains no errors of any kind. 'Amen,' say the snake handlers. Others complain that too many people view the Bible through the lens of safe, middle-class conformity and miss its radical message. Snake handlers agree.

"Millions of Americans say that miracles happen, especially when believers have been 'anointed' by God's Holy Spirit. 'Preach on,' say snake handlers. Polls show that millions of spiritual seekers yearn for ecstatic, world-spinning experiences of divine revelation. 'Been there, done that,' say snake handlers."

Snake handlers, in other words, believe they have biblical reasons for engaging in their risky rites. They quote the Gospel of Mark, in which Jesus tells his disciples: "And these signs shall follow them that believe; in my name they shall cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover."

The Greek reporter, it turned out, was interested in more than snake handlers. The newspaper wanted to probe American religion, in general. To be specific, it planned to visit Ohio, a crucial state in the White House race. She wanted to know: Did I know any snake handlers in Ohio?

Say what? I tried to figure out the logic behind this question, which seemed to be linked to European stereotypes of this country. The thinking might go something like this: Snake handlers are evangelical Protestants. President Bush is an evangelical Protestant. Therefore, Bush is the candidate of snake handlers. Then again, Bush is a United Methodist. I doubt there are many evangelical United Methodist snake handlers in Ohio. Was this an overlooked voting block?

I urged her to get in touch with Leonard, the actual expert on the subject. That was the least the newspaper could do.

"Can we go ahead and interview you? We do not have a lot of time," she said.

A few days later, Leonard had not received any calls from Greece. He was still fascinated by the beliefs and customs of snake handlers and, come to think of it, he received a recent call from a Chinese newspaper asking questions about this topic. He declined to speculate on the logic of the Greek reporter's Ohio questions.

Truth is, snake handlers "are the bain of liberals and conservatives," he said.

"I can't say why there is this interest," said Leonard. "I don't think it's about Bush, but about strange religion in America -- Pentecostals, healing, evangelicals, snake handlers. ... They are always used as caricatures for something."