Dispatches > The Buzz

The Buzz

Issue: "Rolling the dice," Aug. 4, 2001

The pope and the president discuss stem-cell research at meeting in Italy
Message of conscience
President Bush's self-described "unusually deliberative" focus on embryo-destroying research became a topic of his meeting last week with Pope John Paul II at his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, Italy. While the president insisted the two mostly discussed foreign policy, their remarks on embryos after the meeting pleased pro-lifers reading between the lines. The pope expressed confidence that "In defending the right to life, in law and through a vibrant culture of life, America can show a world the path to a truly humane future in which man remains the master, not the product of his technology." In a paragraph of abundant praise, Mr. Bush suggested the pope's teachings should be heeded: "Always, to all, you have carried the gospel of life, which welcomes the stranger and protects the weak and the innocent. Every nation, including my own, benefits from hearing and heeding this message of conscience." Those words will ring in the president's ears if he attempts any kind of stem-cell compromise. In a later joint appearance with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Mr. Bush underlined his indecision, but added he admired how the Roman Catholic Church "stands on consistent and solid principle." While the pope did worry out loud about a gap between rich and poor in the wake of economic globalization, papal biographer George Weigel predicted the meeting could mark a new alliance for social conservatism: "Washington and the Holy See can and will work together to challenge the lifestyle libertinism that dominates the UN's address to a whole range of questions, from abortion to women's issues to the nature of the family." Dems attack social security panel
Heads in the sand
Having built political careers on scaring senior citizens, Democrats in Washington responded to an interim report of President Bush's commission on Social Security with typical zeal. The AFL-CIO organized protests outside the hotel in which commissioners discussed reform options, and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle criticized the commission as "a divisive force in the Social Security debate." Democratic Party chairman Terry McAuliffe accused the commission of playing "Russian roulette" with retirees. The Democrats didn't hesitate to attack their own, including panel co-chairman Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Black Entertainment Television chieftain Robert Johnson. What they did hesitate to do was talk about was basic math. The commission points out that as lifespans grow longer and birth rates decline, the demographic structure underlying Social Security is looking precarious. Within 15 years, the ratio of workers supporting each retiree will decline to two to one. President Bush established the commission to explore giving young people the opportunity to invest a fraction of their payroll taxes in individual investment accounts with the potential for higher yields. The commission was blunt: "Arguments against reform are equivalent to express advocacy of increasing taxes, cutting benefits, reducing other government spending, or borrowing on an unprecedented scale." LCMS chooses moderate texan as its president
Lutheran tensions
Some 1,200 delegates to the triennial convention of the 2.6-million-member Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod sent mixed signals from St. Louis last month. Led by conservatives since a showdown over Scripture in the mid-1970s resulted in a walkout by liberals, the LCMS now is struggling with other tensions, some of them cultural. For example, even as the LCMS has been enjoying a renaissance of orthodox Lutheran theology, particularly at its seminaries and among its younger pastors, many congregations have been going in a different direction. Some, embracing the "church growth movement," have jettisoned traditional liturgies in favor of contemporary worship, replaced Bach chorales with praise choruses, and-some critics claim-toned down the Lutheran distinctives. Under President A.L. Barry, who died in office at age 69, months before he would have stood for reelection, the conservatives had the upper hand. But delegates narrowly elected as president and top executive a moderate, Gerald Kieschnick, 58, head of the LCMS Texas district. Mr. Kieschnick believes in the inerrancy of Scripture, opposes women's ordination, and is committed to evangelism. He also favors closer cooperation with other Lutheran denominations, including the liberal-led 5.2-million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), and with non-Lutheran evangelical denominations. He supports much of the change that marks many LCMS churches and church services these days. In the convention's most controversial action, delegates voted 706 to 343 to declare that the ELCA is not an "orthodox Lutheran church body" and to reevaluate existing cooperative programs with it. Mr. Kieschnick offered a toned-down alternative resolution, but it was defeated. Families flee canada
Church and state up north
Dozens of people from the Aylmer Church of God near Toronto have fled Canada for the United States in order to stop social workers from inquiring about how they spank their children. Police took away seven children in one of the congregation's families because their parents refused to promise to stop disciplining them with sticks or straps. The children are now in foster homes as their parents fight to get them back. The regional Family and Children's Services child welfare agency refuses to discuss the case. The church's website says 28 women and 83 children left town in "the dark of night" to avoid further removals by the child welfare agency. Aylmer parishioners say the government is persecuting them for their beliefs. "It clearly states in the Bible that corporal punishment should be used and that means more than a hand," said Henry Hildebrandt, the pastor in Aylmer. "The Bible talks about using an object. We find that works and it works well." But Cheryl Milne, a lawyer for the Canadian Foundation for Children, Youth and the Law, was unmoved. She wants such spanking banned, saying, "Once you start using weapons on children, you increase the chances that there's going to be injury." Man knows not his time
Hatfield: not the real McCoy
Failed muckraker James Howard Hatfield ended his strange career by killing himself last month in a Springdale, Ark., hotel room. His George W. Bush "exposé" claimed the future president's father helped cover up a 1972 cocaine arrest of the younger Bush in Houston. Mr. Hatfield only had a few seconds of fame because both he and his book were quickly discredited. St. Martin's Press pulled its entire run of Fortunate Son in late 1999 after it discovered the author's criminal past. Mr. Hatfield was on parole from a 15-year prison term while writing the book. He went to prison in 1988 for solicitation of capital murder: hiring a hit man to plant a bomb beneath a co-worker's car. Since then, he had also done time for embezzlement. "If someone really wants to fool you, they can. You pretty much take at face value that an author is who he says he is," Sally Richardson, president and publisher of St. Martin's Press trades division, said in 1999. Calls for tighter screening of authors followed the incident. A small publisher, Soft Skull Press, later reprinted Fortunate Son in paperback. As for Mr. Hatfield's death, police do not expect to find evidence of foul play. A housekeeper found the author after he apparently overdosed on two kinds of prescription drugs. Authorities said he left behind letters to loved ones and detailed instructions on what to do when the body was found. Reality TV faces backlash
Get real
Will reality TV's circus ever leave town? This cheap, popular genre has spread globally-and to ridiculous extremes: A drug rehab center in Melbourne, Australia, says it got three offers from producers to videotape residents there (see WORLD, Quotables, July 28). Here in the states, networks face a backlash from critics who call them tacky, mean-spirited, and degrading. NBC has more episodes of Fear Factor and Spy TV coming next season, while ABC has The Mole and The Runner and CBS is taping another run of Survivor in Kenya. Fear Factor and CBS' Big Brother have been especially controversial. Fear Factor subjects contestants to sometimes dangerous stunts-being dragged by horses or nibbled on by rats. A contestant who was kicked off Big Brother for holding a knife to a woman's throat was discovered to have had three assault charges in his hometown. NBC is trying to juggle an image that supports both downscale reality and upscale shows like ER. "I don't buy that we're known as the network of sleazy summer programming," NBC's Jeff Zucker said. He pointed to economics: Stars are expensive, production costs are high, and rerun ratings are lousy. The family channel changes hands as Fox sells ratings loser to Disney
All in the family
Disney is buying Pat Robertson's old cable TV network. The company plans to change the name of Fox Family, once known as CBN Cable, to ABC Family after a $3 billion purchase becomes final. The channel will be a showcase for various programs in the ABC, ESPN, and Walt Disney libraries. Mr. Robertson's group originally sold the network for $1.9 billion to News Corp and Power Rangers creator Saban Entertainment. When Fox took over The Family Channel in 1998, it revamped the schedule into something longtime viewers didn't recognize. Out went Hawaii Five-0, Bonanza, and The Rifleman and in came Digimon, Who's the Boss, and Early Edition. The results were disappointing, with Fox Family losing nearly 30 percent of its viewers after the format change. EchoStar Communications, owner of the Dish Network satellite service, sued last year for the right to drop the channel from its lineup. The second sale came after Saban exercised an option to sell its stake to Fox, but the partners couldn't agree on a price so they sold the network along with foreign outlets and a programming library. The survival of The 700 Club was contractually guaranteed in the Fox Family era and will apparently continue under Disney. "ABC Family will continue to broadcast The 700 Club and other programs produced by the Christian Broadcast Network, headed by Pat Robertson," a Disney statement said. The old CBN Cable was the first national basic cable channel, launched in 1977. At a time when programming was scarce, Mr. Robertson could garner national carriage on cable systems that would be virtually impossible today. Over the years, the mix of religious and secular programming slanted more and more toward the secular, though usually of the G-rated variety. -Chris Stamper

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