Reporters and religion (again)

The New York Times reporter can’t be bothered to find the political point in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats.

Why doesn’t the political press corps know anything about religion? I don’t mean the names of important TV preachers; I mean something about the documents and beliefs that matter to a large number of voters. For example:

Michael Luo in the NYT has a story about a new PAC designed to do outreach to religious Christians on behalf of Barack Obama. It looks like a clever bit of self-promotion by Mara Vanderslice, which doesn’t mean that it’s not also good idea.

The name of the group is “The Matthew 25 Network.” For those of us who haven’t memorized the Gospels, this is something less than self-explanatory. A glance at the chapter shows it consists of three parables: the Wise and Foolish Virgins, the Talents, and the Sheep and the Goats. Still a puzzle. But Luo helps us out … not.

The new group’s name takes its inspiration from the 25th chapter of the gospel of Matthew in which Jesus talks about how he will select people like a shepherd separating sheep from goats, saying, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

To which all I can say is “Huh?” Looks as if Jesus thought it was good to be nice to people when they need help, which is a sentiment even many Republicans might embrace. Not at all clear what it has to do with practical politics.

The group’s website points us to vv 31-40, with the punch-line at the end:

When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.

Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

(The parable goes on to explain that those who have failed to serve “the least of these” will need asbestos underwear throughout eternity.)

Right. That makes sense. The group is pointing the faithful to the passage that says that services done, or omitted, to the “least” (i.e., poorest and least important) “of these my brethren” are, according to Jesus, equivalent to services to Jesus himself.

I’m sure my conservative friends will object to the notion that Democratic policies are better than Republican policies at helping the poorest, but it’s not hard to draw a line from the parable to the partisan point. That’s especially true when you recall that the Greek word the King James Bible translates as “stranger” is ξενον [xenon], literally “foreigner” or “alien,” and that Republicans wanted to make “taking in a stranger” a felony called “harboring an illegal alien.” .

Whether the name is a good one or a bad one and whether or not its political implication is a legitimate one, the reporter clearly had no idea why the group had chosen the name it chose, had no idea about what the parable means, and couldn’t be bothered to ask. Because in his mind, all those religious folks, they say and do strange things for strange reasons, you know, and if you ask them why they just quote you back some gibberish from the Bible.

Now, that’s not as far as you’d like it to be from the way reporters treat any issue with any sort of technical content; I’ve seen equally incoherent and inconsequential accounts of ideas in physics and economics. (The Times itself, on the day that Kenneth Arrow won the Nobel Prize, credited him with discovering the Condorcet Voting Paradox, rather than with his actual accomplishment: demonstrating that, in designing voting systems, there is no way to escape the Condorcet Paradox without giving up something else you’d like to have.)

But the practice of accepting and printing explanations that don’t explain anything is especially characteristic of how mainstream reporters cover religion. And that explains why they, and the secular politicians who read their stuff, so consistently get religious questions (and not only Christian religious questions) so totally wrong.

Footnote David Brody of Pat Robertson’s CBN thinks that Obama’s meeting with religious leaders is “a big deal. A really big deal.” If I were running the McCain campaign, a glance through Brody’s recent columns would give me a very bad case of heartburn.

Yes, of course Brody is trying to mau-mau McCain into choosing Huckabee or Jindal. But the discontent with McCain, and the attraction to Obama, are obvious and real. Notably, Brody is not playing the Jeremiah Wright card. More notably, Brody is actively denying the “Obama is a Muslim” crap.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com