Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Johnny Cash was plenty good enough to fool his fans. They believed he felt it in his soul when he sang the Gospel while stoned on drugs. He had listened to those hymns with taking his mother’s milk, in brush-arbor revival meetingsinthe Arkansas backwoods, but it was the drugs that took the message public.

Whenhe straightened up and kicked amphetamines, he confessed to the earlier hypocrisy in praising the Lord. He hated it that he sang of the serenity of peace with God when he didn’t feel a word of it. But perhaps it was the gap between public performance and personal shortcoming that gave his amphetamine-charged voice the power to express his buried pain. The lyrics, almost in spite of themselves, fueled his longing to break through to the real thing. He was finally helped by the love of a long-suffering wife who pushed him on to the path of righteousness for His name’s sake.

It’s impossible to see into a man’s heart, even less into his religious beliefs, but I’ve been struck by the outpouring of appreciation from reviewers in all corners of the political and religious spectrum who took Cash at his word — and his lyrics — both before and after he became a born-again Christian and found solace and affirmation in prayer.

It made little difference whether he feigned faith or actually believed in the message of the Gospel for the country-rockabilly-pop performer to be praised as a man whose talent was propelled by Christian faith, a deep and abiding awareness of right and wrong, who understood the difference between God’s party and partying with the devil.

Such observations leaped out of his profiles, reviews and more recently, his obituaries. The public reveled in knowing that the man was religious, that he was a reformed sinner who had found God and who easily talked “the God talk” while trying to walk the God walk. What also leaps out is the double standard when it comes to the response of religious expression in Johnny Cash and George W. Bush, both of whom were strongly influenced by the evangelistic preaching of Billy Graham.

The public loved to hear Cash speak (and sing) of his religious triumphs, but the president is put down for similar, if less dramatic, expressions of his own transformation through grace. Is it simply that the public gives more latitude to a performer than to a president? That’s certainly part of it. Cash capitalized on the look and the sound of a sinner, the strummin’ and growlin’ of the penitent in pain. George W. shaped up before he came to the public stage and entered a political arena that, particularly after the Clinton years, requires at least the appearance of moral rectitude.

But something else is at work here. In the vicious polarities of current political controversies, nothing is off limits to sneering scorn, not even a man’s religion.

Al Franken, who describes himself (with deliberate irony) as “fair and balanced,” is typical of the liberal enemies of Mr. Bush, who readily question what’s in the president’s heart. “I really can’t tell you — but I’m suspicious [of his religiosity],” he tells Editor Steven Waldman. “I’m very suspicious of the way he uses it. I’m suspicious that it’s done for political purposes and that he really isn’t as religious as he makes out to be. But he might be. I really don’t know.”

Of course he doesn’t know. But that doesn’t stop him from opening his book with mockery, because, as he puts it, God is “pissed off at Bush, whose friends have been going around saying he felt he was chosen at this time to lead the nation, presumably by God.”

This is nonsense and Mr. Franken knows it. He calls on a prejudice articulated by Stephen Carter a decade ago in his book, “The Culture of Disbelief,” describing how religious faith has been demonized and trivialized in public life. (Jimmy Carter, a liberal-enough Democrat, was similarly ridiculed.) “People who take their religion seriously,” writes Mr. Carter, “who rely on their understanding of God for motive force in their public and political personalities, well, they’re scary people.”

Liberals and conservatives once valued public law as having its foundation in religious law, what Martin Luther King meant when he said, “A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God.” It was a commonplace for politicians and presidents to speak of religious faith as underwriting public trust. The public was reassured by it.

Billy Graham advised Cash to put his “heart and soul” into his work, literally, and he did. A more generous-hearted public would appreciate nothing less from a president.

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