Mark Silk, a commentator on religion and politics who keeps above the fray

One of the smartest commentators on American politics and religion is someone you’ve probably never heard of. His wry and … Continued

One of the smartest commentators on American politics and religion is someone you’ve probably never heard of.

His wry and careful handling of flammable subjects is always admirable. But a recent blog post, which brought together three culture-wars figureheads — the Texas mega pastor Joel Osteen; New York Times columnist Ross Douthat; and Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee — in a virtual sparring match was so ingenious that it merits a column of its own.

Mark Silk is a medievalist by training, and a professor at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. But what he really does, on his blog Spiritual Politics, which runs on the Web site of the Religion News Service, is to scan the religion-politics landscape and make a single shrewd observation every day.

In a world where religion coverage is so often myopic and self-serving — everybody’s religion looks scary to outsiders — Silk stands on the sidelines with a passionate interest and a dispassionate point of view. At a time when words such as “faith,” “God,” and “Bible” can instantly trigger outrage (as when the journalist Dan Savage recently offended Christian students in a speech and then ridiculed them for taking offense), Silk refrains from predictable analysis. The right-left, in-out, religion-good, religion-bad dualisms are not for him.

The Osteen-Romney-Douthat blog post ran on Monday. In fewer than 500 words, it reversed conventional wisdom. It praised Osteen, a massively popular preacher who is despised by both the right and the left for his “prosperity gospel” and what they see as a shallow, happy interpretation of Scripture. It chided the intelligentsia’s new favorite conservative pundit, Douthat. And it implicitly raised a crucial question: Is Romney’s Mormonism really so intimidating?

The whole thing started with an interview Osteen gave to the Christian Post last month, in which he addressed the question that gives certain conservative Christians fits: Is Romney a Christian? (Romney says yes; the conservatives say no.)

Osteen asserted that if Romney wanted to call himself a Christian that was fine with him. “When I hear Mitt Romney say that he believes that Jesus is the Son of God — that he’s the Christ, raised from the dead, that he’s his Savior — that’s good enough for me,” said Osteen, who reiterated his remarks on CNN. Predictably, the conservative Christian districts of the Internet nearly exploded with indignation. “The gutless cotton candy motivational preacher does it again.”

But Silk refused to pile on. Instead he lauded Osteen for his inclusiveness and observed that it wasn’t so long ago that conservative evangelicals also regarded Catholics as though they had three heads.

“Now they consider Catholics within the fold. You might say that the Mormons have helped bring them together,” Silk wrote. Then, with a graceful flick of his dagger, he gently rebuked Douthat for calling Osteen’s religion a heresy in his new book “Bad Religion.”

“Monotheism in the Judeo-Christian tradition pretty much starts off with a gospel of prosperity,” wrote Silk. “God promises the Israelites the good life in a land of milk and honey if they keep their end of the bargain. Is belief in the Covenant now a Christian heresy?”

I called Silk and asked him whether any principles illuminate his path through the forest of religion and politics.

“I just try to think hard about what I’m writing about,” he answered. “If it’s something that looks like shooting fish in the barrel and everybody’s shot the fish before, I won’t do it. My father was a columnist. I’ve followed opinion writing for a long time. It’s the death of an opinion writer in my opinion when they stop saying, ‘What’s really going on here? What’s true?’ And they start saying, ‘What do I think?’ ’’

Silk is no ardent fan of Osteen, or Romney, but he has been shocked at the vitriol directed at Osteen’s prosperity gospel, especially by reporters who have no particular ax to grind. “Leave aside the people who are coming out of some kind of religious background,” he said. “What entitles secular reporters to say, ‘That’s [bad] religion’?”

It’s a point well taken, especially as we continue to scrutinize politicians’ character and values in terms of their faith and thereby deem them worthy (or not) for public office.

Silk is reasonable and interesting. He’s not afraid to provoke, but isn’t on anybody’s team. It is perhaps not incidental that his livelihood is not measured in clicks, tweets or viewer ratings. The man’s an academic, which may be why he can elucidate the fray without having to join it.

Lisa Miller
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  • DavidJ9

    The problem with the Prosperity Gospel is the implicit other side of the coin, a problem that has existed ever since Calvinists put it together in modern form. While those who are prosperous may claim to be beloved of God (though Jesus seemed not to accept that doctrine at all), they implicitly say that the poor are not beloved by God (again contradicting Jesus) and are not saved.

    Predestination is a doctrine that has long been a flashpoint of contention within Christianity, but the hubris associated with the idea that “God made me rich because I am saved” goes to a whole new level.

    Yes, I do see how you could argue that the story line in the Old Testament ties in nicely, but the deity in those stories was the deity of a tribe (obviously the good guys because they were telling the stories) who helped them against everyone else (the bad guys). It was a story fit for a tribal religion. It was also a story about communal prosperity or failure, not individual. The modern, Calvinist form lets the alleged favorites of God justify their lack of compassion toward others, particularly the poor, the sick, the elderly, those who are different. It ignores most of what Jesus taught.

  • krenc

    DavidJ9, I agree with you 100%. I’ve always wondered about those people who say that God saved them from the tornado, well, what about the people who were killed? Did God decide they weren’t worth saving? Or did God take the ones who were ready to meet their maker? What about the Beatitudes? Did God really mean that the poor were blessed? How about the verse about a rich man and the “eye of a needle.” I really don’t think God intervenes directly in individual lives to save them or to make them rich, or anything else, but I do think these verses are directed at the “haves” who are supposed to help the “have nots” and not take advantage of their wealth to the disadvantage of the less fortunate. As to the “land of milk and honey,” I always thought that meant a promise for the afterlife. I do agree with Silk in that no one should be ranting about another person’s religion. People should be worrying about their own religion and whether they are being true to their religion, or to the graven idols of the world.

  • jimmanis1

    My understanding of Protestantism and particularly Calvinism is that it was a response to an emerging middle-class’s desire to gain wealth and power rather than to share it disproportionately with the Catholic church and the church’s colleagues, the landed aristocracy. It succeeded in Germany and England when the aristocracy aligned themselves with Protestantism for their own political and economic reasons.