Press Column Saturday 05 August 2000

There is no religious news in England this week that seems worth bothering with. So I have been reading the papers from Kansas instead, where on Tuesday there were elections to decide whether the state’s educational system will recognise Darwinism or not. I don’t know the outcome of these elections yet: a mixture of time zones and deadlines means that the column will be written before the voting for local school boards even starts. But you can learn a lot about the atmosphere in which they will take place by simply reading the local papers, of which about twenty are on the web at the moment.

All of them, have a specialised Religion Section. This is not particularly inspiring: rather it consists of parish news: talks about outings and, in some papers, long lists of funerals and obituaries. This is more or less what you might find in an English local paper: part of the character of American newspapers is that they tend to be local monopolies, and so much less competitive and news-driven than English ones which always operate on the assumption that readers have better things to do. The Wichita Eagle, the largest, or at least most linked-to paper in the state, has newsier stories: it also runs Billy Graham’s advice column. Reading that is the first moment when it seems that you have wondered into a foreign country.

People write in with the obvious questions: " Does God judge nations as well as individual people? When I look at all the ways we have abandoned God, I wonder if He will intervene some day and judge our nation for its sins …" and "My aunt keeps telling me to pray about some of the decisions I'm facing, but what reason can you give me for thinking God will listen?" But there are also some things which would never be asked of a religious columnist in the British press: "My husband and I thought we had good jobs, and so we took on a lot of debt because we thought we could pay it back. But now he's lost his job and I've been cut back to part time, and we are really panicking. Why did God do this to us?" Billy replies sternly — "God knows your situation, and He wants to help you in the midst of it. And to be honest, you alone are responsible for taking on so much debt. … Perhaps God wants you to put your trust in him instead of financial security."

The Topeka Capitol-Journal carries a long teaser for a sermon to be delivered on Sunday, which is apparently eagerly awaited, because the preacher, the Rev’d George Lemon, was until the spring the owner of a local American football team. He has some pedigree in this role: his father, Meadowlark Lemon, was one of the Harlem Globetrotters. But in May, he was pushed off the board in what was obviously a tremendous local scandal:

"On Sunday, Lemon breaks his silence and speaks on how he came out of his trials and tribulations still standing during the 10 a.m. service at Joyful Harvest Church, 530 N.W. Broad.

He says it won't be a ‘pity party,’ but rather a time to testify to how his faith in God carried him through what he describes as ‘the toughest thing I've ever been through.’

‘All of a sudden, the phone quit ringing,’ said Lemon, 44. ‘I had some church folks who turned their backs on me. Other people, who I never thought would have come to my corner, God sent them there, and they stayed there.’

‘The thing I've learned out of this whole thing is Topeka is a good town,’ he said. ‘They will come to the rescue of their own. That's what's been such a blessing.’

That's what he's going to focus on during his Sunday presentation, he said earlier this week: ‘All the great successes and the many great things that have happened through the whole thing.’

As for his business problems, Lemon said he won't get into that on Sunday morning.

‘I've decided to let the Lord and the lawyers handle that,’ he said.

Well, there’s a line for Peter Selby to practice for his next interview about the Kidderminster case.

In all this, the observant reader will have noticed nothing about the school board elections which I had set out to discover. My impression is that the Kansan papers are pretty embarrassed about the whole thing: for two reasons. The first is that they don’t much like being laughed at by the outside world. The second is that "religion" is a concept pretty much homogenised by advertising, even in the Bible Belt. The important thing is not to offend readers, whatever they may believe. So the papers carry reports on Jehovah’s Witness conventions (4,500 coming to Wichita next week), Muslim theologians visiting Kansas, Yoga classes, and even a convention on Native American religion.

This rich life of believers and potential blasphemies explains the great fiasco of the bible and the cereal packets, reported in the Wichita Eagle. 12 million packets of Cheerios have gone out to American supermarkets with bibles inside them, and the manufacturer is panicking. The NIV Bibles are on a CD rom, along with a number of games, a dictionary, thesaurus and a one-volume encyclopaedia. But the box makes no mention of the bible’s inclusion; and Zondervan, the publishers, had prepared a press release announcing this as a triumph of stealth marketing. At the last moment, General Mills, the manufacturer, issued a remarkably slippery and dishonest press release apologising for the whole thing: "While inclusion of the Bible may be seen as added value by some, it is the company's policy not to advance any particular set of religious beliefs. Inclusion of this material does not conform to our policy and we apologise for this lapse." The people who had put the bible on CD then released an earlier email from the same PR droid congratulating them on putting the Bible there. Disney had already refused to allow its software to be shipped on the same CDs as the Bible. The row must be a much more effective piece of evangelisation than the software: I can’t quite imagine any little pagans saying "Hey, we’ve played Lego Creator for five days now, and Carmen Sandiego’s boring. What’s left on this CD. I know: let’s read the bible!"

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