As any location manager out here in Hollywood will tell you, setting matters. And now and then you run into a location scout staring at an alley and taking a few pictures. You have to have to set the right mood, which means the right neighborhood. San Pedro is good for the nasty docks and warehouses of any port city in the world, and two short blocks east of the window here is North Orange Grove Avenue – with the house where MTV films their reality show The Hills (presumably referring to the Hollywood Hills) and the two houses from the 1978 movie Halloween (lots of people die, and not in a nice way). They’re all in the same block. It’s an odd neighborhood – narcissistic hip glitz and pure terror. And the little tour buses come and go, but not talking of Michelangelo.
But on a national level things get even stranger, as President Obama and his wife spent the last weekend in April on a brief vacation in Asheville, North Carolina. And they visited the Biltmore Estate – that’s the French Renaissance-style mansion near Asheville built by George Washington Vanderbilt II between 1889 and 1895. It is the largest privately-owned home in the United States, with two hundred fifty rooms. It’s a Gilded Age thing – Vanderbilt had Frederick Law Olmsted design the grounds and the mansion is full of all sorts of goodies. The state robes of Cardinal Richelieu up on the wall are good for a giggle. But one hopes Obama wasn’t getting any ideas about an imperial presidency. And Biltmore is surrounded by the Great Smoky Mountains – all a national park now. The Cherokees and other tribes used to live there, but they were forced out and told to walk to Oklahoma. You remember the Trail of Tears. The location is kind of spooky.
And you can work with that. Biltmore is where much of the 1979 movie Being There was shot – the last Peter Sellers film to be released while he was alive. Sellers plays a guy named Chance, a total innocent who knows nothing about anything, a total blank, but an enigmatic fellow whose calm is mistaken for deep understanding, and whose odd empty statements sweep the nation as a new sort of honest wisdom. And that ruins everyone, including the president, played by Jack Warden, who had been quoting him and saying, damn, this man knows things. He discovers otherwise. The screenplay was adapted from the 1971 novella written by Jerzy Kosiński – it’s about how people are so desperate for meaning they will latch onto what sounds kind of cool but is essentially empty nonsense, and then they make fools of themselves. That’s why they filmed at Biltmore. Someone should have told Obama.
And nearby, in Asheville, is Highland Hospital – once a private sanitarium, then a Duke University psychiatric hospital, and now just offices. In 1936 F. Scott Fitzgerald placed his mad wife Zelda there – she was a total wreck. And on the night of March 10, 1948, a fire broke out in the hospital kitchen and raced out of control, and she was one of the ones who died. It’s an unhappy place. But then Obama stayed at the Grove Park Inn – a nice and happy place, and where much of the 1987 movie Dirty Dancing was filmed (no, it wasn’t the Catskills). Nobody puts Baby in a corner? Was that planned?
Maybe you have to have lived in North Carolina to get a feel for how odd that corner of the state is – strange associations hang in the air.
And then, as CNN reports, it got stranger:
President Obama prayed Sunday with the Rev. Billy Graham at Graham’s mountaintop home before leaving North Carolina to attend the memorial service for 29 West Virginia coal miners killed in a recent explosion.
Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Graham at his family home, according to Graham spokesman Larry Ross. He is the 12th president, dating back to Harry Truman, to meet with the so-called “pastor to the presidents.”
Obama may be a man of faith – and not the Kenyan-born devout Muslim who is simultaneously an atheist, and who is also a socialist and a communist and a fascist too fond of social justice, as some maintain. Or this may be good politics, as Americans just don’t get that separation of church and state business and he needs to build a bit of Onward Christian Soldier cred. It might be both, but either way it was mission accomplished:
“I am pleased to have had President Obama in my home this afternoon,” Graham said in a statement, adding that Obama sought the meeting while on vacation in Asheville for the weekend. “My son Franklin and I enjoyed a brief visit with the president, followed by a time of prayer together.”
Those few of us who wish everyone would keep their religion to themselves were not pleased with this look-folks-I’m-praying business – whether he does or not is irrelevant, as there’s work to do and God is not intervening in banking regulation or matters with Iran. He left that to us. But others will be reassured, or suspicious that the Obama political staff seems to flaunting this.
But that’s what American politicans have to do, and the meeting seemed pleasant enough:
The two men also discussed their love of golf and the city of Chicago, where Graham attended school and held several of his religious crusades, Ross said.
At the end, Graham presented Obama with two Bibles – one for him and the other for first lady Michelle Obama, Ross said. The two men then prayed together, with Obama first praying for Graham and then Graham “concluded with a prayer for the president, his family and his administration,” according to Ross.
Obama was “extremely gratified” that Graham made time for the meeting and private prayer, White House spokesman Bill Burton said.
But this should have been a private matter. On the other hand, Graham is ninety-one and paying him respect seems appropriate. Asking him about our monetary policy in relation to China might not be, and this wasn’t that.
Actually this had the feel of damage control. The meeting with Billy Graham came three days after the Army rescinded an invitation for his son Franklin Graham to speak at the Pentagon on the upcoming National Day of Prayer. The Army decision was based on the son’s rather controversial comments about Islam – that Islam was, is and always will be pure evil, and their god isn’t our God, and ours is God and theirs just isn’t at all.
You see the problem. Such statements make our counterinsurgency strategy a joke, as it’s hard to win hearts and minds when you tell the locals they’re either fools or they’re pure evil, one or the other. The Army doesn’t need that sort of thing right now. Franklin Graham later tried to temper his remarks by saying that he has Muslim friends – some of his best friends are Muslims after all – and said he regretted the Army’s decision. But he stood by his comments. So this visit with the evangelical old man and his evangelical son might have been to deliver a message to the son, with the father listening in – no hard feelings, and no one questions the sincerity of your beliefs, and of course you can say what you think, but we’d rather not get our guys killed right now and then be tossed out of the region, so we can’t have you say what you think at the Pentagon right now, in spite of welcoming you at all the previous religious events there. Sorry.
And of course a few days earlier a federal judge in Wisconsin ruled that the National Day of Prayer, created in 1952 by Congress, violated the First Amendment. Everyone on the right was up in arms, and then the Justice Department informed a federal appeals court that the Obama administration will appeal that decision. The Obama justice department may actually think the decision was wrong, but there was no other political choice in religion-besotted American politics. And thus visiting old Billy in the strange mountains of North Carolina was probably a good idea on many counts.
And of course there was this:
Sarah Palin came to the defense of Evangelical minister Franklin Graham Friday morning, writing on Facebook that the man who was disinvited Thursday from the Pentagon’s National Day of Prayer services is a “fine patriotic man” and that military’s decision to exclude him – “the army’s loss” – was a sign that “things have changed.”
“It’s truly a sad day when such a fine patriotic man, whose son is serving on his fourth deployment in Afghanistan to protect our freedom of speech and religion, is dis-invited from speaking at the Pentagon’s National Day of Prayer service,” Palin wrote on Facebook. “His comments in 2001 were aimed at those who are so radical that they would kill innocent people and subjugate women in the name of religion.”
But it wasn’t just what he had said nine years ago. On Thursday, Graham appeared on Fox News and said this – “I speak out for people who live under Islam, who are enslaved under Islam, and I want them to know they can be free by Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ alone.” The Pentagon revoked his invitation for that.
But does it matter? Palin played this for all it was worth:
Palin, however, seemed untroubled by any of Graham’s rhetoric, saying, “In my years of knowing him, I’ve never found his tempered and biblically-based comments to be offensive – in fact his words have been encouraging and full of real hope.”
“Are we really so hyper-politically correct that we can’t abide a Christian minister who expresses his views on matters of faith?” Palin asked. “What a shame. Yes, things have changed.”
It will be interesting when she becomes commander-in-chief in 2012.
And then there was the “Women of Joy” conference:
Sarah Palin spoke to a crowd of about 16,000 attending an evangelical Christian women’s conference in Louisville Friday night.
The Courier-Journal reports the 2008 Republican candidate for vice president mixed stories of personal struggles and calls for women to be good mothers and good citizens with criticism of President Barack Obama – although she did not mention him by name.
Palin asked the women to provide a “prayer shield” to strengthen her against what she said was “deception” in the media.
She asserted that America needs to get back to its Christian roots and rejected any notion that “God should be separated from the state.”
ABC News looks into that in this item:
Is America a Christian nation? Sarah Palin said on Friday that it’s “mind-boggling” to suggest otherwise.
And then they dig up those who suggest otherwise:
“It’s incredibly hypocritical that Sarah Palin, who disapproves of government involvement in just about anything, now suddenly wants the government to help people be religious,” Barry Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told ABC News.
“It is wildly inconsistent with her views on limited government to get the government involved in matters of faith.”
Lynn was upset with what Palin said in Louisville after that federal judge in Wisconsin ruled that the National Day of Prayer violated the First Amendment, which was this:
“We hear of a judge’s ruling that our National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional,” said Palin. “I think we’ll be challenging that one.”
“God truly has shed his grace on thee – on this country,” Palin told the Women of Joy conference. “He’s blessed us, and we better not blow it.”
Yep, He’s watching. And He wants the government out of everyone’s life. And He also wants the government making sure everyone prays to him. Everyone knows that.
But ABC News was being pesky:
Without ever mentioning him by name, Palin also took aim at President Obama, repeating an often cited but incorrect claim that Obama said he believed that the US was no longer a Christian nation during a 2006 speech.
“And then, hearing any leader declare that America isn’t a Christian nation and poking an ally like Israel in the eye, it’s mind-boggling to see some of our nation’s actions recently, but politics truly is a topic for another day.”
A written text of the speech posted at BarackObama.com of the June 2006 keynote address at the Call to Renewal Conference indicated that Obama had written that (emphasis added) “We are no longer just a Christian nation, but we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation…”
No wonder Palin wants a “prayer shield” to strengthen her against what she said was “deception” in the media. ABC News said her claim was incorrect, and proved it, and that’s not fair… or something.
But of course she used most her speech to reject the whole notion that God and state should be kept separate:
“Lest anyone try to convince you that God should be separated from the state, our founding fathers, they were believers,” said Palin. “And George Washington, he saw faith in God as basic to life.”
And then the godless atheist press, in this case ABC News, in their attempt to oppress and harass the outnumbered and beleaguered few true Christians left, went even further:
A spokesman for the Secular Coalition for America told ABC News that Palin is misconstruing the founders’ intent on matters of church and state.
“While the founders’ views on religion varied from person to person, there is no doubt that they believed strongly that religion had no place in government,” said Paul Fidalgo, the communications manager for the Secular Coalition for America. “John Adams signed the Treaty of Tripoli which stated in no uncertain terms that ‘the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.’
“Our Constitution established a secular government and has no mention of Jesus, Christianity, or a god of any kind, despite the false message spread by figures such as Sarah Palin who claim that America was founded as a Christian nation,” Fidalgo continued.
And there is that document that starts with “We, the people.” God isn’t mentioned. Ah well, it didn’t matter:
Palin told the women in attendance, whom she referred to as a “mom of faith movement,” that they should not listen to critics who would make them feel that their movement is “all a low-cost brand of ignorance.”
“Really, it’s just the opposite,” said Palin. “And I think the more we’re involved, the more we’re going to rock this world.”
How can Obama compete with that, even with his new Bible from Billy Graham?
CNN was covering this too. The same day it was one of Campbell Brown’s Hot Topics, with Tom Foreman reporting from mall in Washington:
FOREMAN: Pastor Rod Parsley believes American history has been twisted to advance a secular agenda. He calls that fabled wall an urban legend. So, where does the phrase come from? The constitution decrees that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting in the free exercise thereof. And it was Thomas Jefferson who said that created, quote, “a wall of separation between church and state.”
PARSLEY: If you sing “Onward Christian Soldier” in your Sunday school class, all of a sudden folks want to label you as a jihadist and say that you’re fighting for a theocracy. Nothing could be further from the truth.
FOREMAN: Maybe not, but Parsley is no agent of tolerance. He’s railed against homosexuals, denounced Islam as a faith that fully intends to conquer the world. His activist Christianity is hardly one size fits all.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That God is the author of history.
FOREMAN: In Washington, after a full day of touring, a new sense of purpose.
DIANE EVANS, TOURIST: I would like to see God be the very foundation of everything we do in public and civic life.
FOREMAN: Another soldier in Rod Parsley’s army of the righteous.
PARSLEY: I must speak now because God is still watching.
He is? What if He isn’t?
See William James in The Will to Believe from 1896:
Our reason is quite satisfied, in nine hundred and ninety-nine cases out of every thousand of us, if it can find a few arguments that will do to recite in case our credulity is criticized by someone else. Our faith is faith in someone else’s faith, and in the greatest matters this is most the case.
Our belief in truth itself, for instance, that there is a truth, and that our minds and it are made for each other – what is it but a passionate affirmation of desire, in which our social system backs us up?
Some might say then that this whole religious business is a social construct – everyone agreeing on what they want to believe, what James calls their desires, with no one stepping on anyone else’s toes, and Obama playing along, or believing himself, but making sure everyone knows he believes, to keep things rolling along. That explains the visit with Billy and Franklin. Keep things rolling along, and anyway, if you step outside our social system, you don’t get reelected.
But we have a political system, with a constitution and everything, that says God has nothing to do with government – government probably bores Him, as any good Deist would maintain. And our founding fathers were mainly Deists – who held God created the universe and kind of moved on – leaving us to work things out in the here and now, with the reasoning ability He gave use. He didn’t leave specific instructions, just general guidelines, along with providing us with brains that work pretty well if we use them. Sure, you can pray to Him, asking Him to intervene to fix your problems. You’ll get silence. We’re supposed to fix them on our own, we the people.
And now we have a political system – think things through – in direct conflict with our increasingly evangelical social system – thinking things through is an insult to God, who wants you to do exactly what He says, so just believe.
And we have a president on his knees praying with that evangelical old man and his evangelical son in the strange smoky mountains of North Carolina. Just what was he praying for? God isn’t up there. Ask any location scout.