A raucous red glare, bombast bursting in air ...
That's the face and sound of media conservatism these days, as celebrated on best-seller lists, top-rated talk shows and books like Brian Anderson's "South Park Conservatives" (Regnery, 2005). His title comes from the cable cartoon program known for its helpful ripping of political correctness, but also its harmful endorsement of rage and sarcasm.
These days, being a "South Park" conservative is in, and the working definition seems to be: Hit hard, and don't worry about hitting below the belt, because there is no belt. If you counter the left's sputum with your own, talk show appearances and book contracts will follow.
What big-shots endorse, little shots snort. Anderson quotes one undergraduate talking about himself and cohort members who "get drunk on weekends, have sex before marriage ... cuss like sailors -- and also happen to be conservative."
Conservative, maybe -- but if "South Park" is our future, there won't be much to conserve. Must we accept the bipolar belief that either we're (Michael) savages or we're wimps? Is it possible for us to regain what New Jersey pastor Matt Ristuccia calls "earnest grace, the re-association of sensibilities that we moderns have judged to be beyond association: specifically, passionate conviction and profound compassion"?
Ristuccia wisely suggests that if we understand how Christ combined justice and judgment with forgiveness and hope, our earnestness can be seasoned with grace. But show business pulls us in the opposite direction: Fighting words sell. Ann Coulter, for example, says people don't respond to subtle reasoning and need to be bopped on the head.
She's probably right: Rapid-fire attacks keep people awake. But the columnist has another side that a former student of mine, Amy McCullough, caught in describing a Coulter appearance at the University of Texas: "When a young, conservative woman asked how she could stand the awful things people said about her because of her stand on abortion, she hesitated, messed with her hair, and said: 'Well, it's the same way I don't care about anything else: Christ died for my sins, and nothing else matters.'"
That gutsy comment suggests two big differences between "South Park" conservatives and those who profess Christianity not because of tradition but out of an awareness of God's grace. First, an overwhelming sense of His mercy makes all other considerations minor in comparison. That sense leads people such as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia to offer good advice: "Have the courage to have your wisdom regarded as stupidity. Be fools for Christ. And have the courage to suffer the contempt of the sophisticated world."
Second, Christian conservatives press toward earnest grace -- that combination of passionate conviction and profound compassion -- because those who reject Christ should do so because of the content of His message and not the style of a speaker. The apostles did not rant, they argued logically. In today's media culture, conservatives need to bop people on the head sometimes, but also need to display compassion, not contempt, toward the sheep of the left.
Amy's conclusion regarding Ann Coulter was: "I enjoyed a lot of what she had to say. It'd be nice if she was nicer." Acquaintances say Coulter is personally nice, so some of her stage persona is an act -- and probably one that is needed to break through the propaganda that suffuses so many college courses. But the trick -- and it's a difficult one -- is to transition from a lion attacking lost sheep to a shepherd guiding them.
How would the apostles act in today's culture? How, for that matter, would 18th century members of the religious right like Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry? Coulter can join that distinguished host as she finds more ways to rout liberal stereotypes without fulfilling others. Her acknowledgment of the centrality of Christ is terrific. She's too good to be "South Park."