All right, enough already. The Christians aren’t coming to get you.
I can take the somber, frightened “special reports” on National Public Radio, where you can literally hear the correspondents wringing their hands over the possibility that the “Darwin fish” affixed to their Volvos will be banned. I can even handle the dog-whistle shrieks of Paul Krugman and Maureen Dowd types about the looming Inquisition led by an alliance of the new German (wink, wink) pope and the Kansas Board of Education.
But the most recent episode of NBC’s doddering Law & Order series is where I draw the line. The episode tells the story of a racist who committed murder nine years ago but who, in shame and remorse, subsequently found Jesus and was born again. In the nine years since he dedicated himself to Christ, he has led an exemplary life. But his guilt is discovered, and he decides to confess and show true contrition.
So far, so good, right? I’m sure the writers and producers thought they were being eminently fair to all sides. They even showed Jack McCoy (played by Sam Waterston) stunned beyond words that a born-again Christian could be so sincere. In one scene I swear he made the same face my old basset hound would make when I tried to feed him a grape: total and complete incomprehension. His assistant even confessed she goes to church regularly and knows decent born-agains herself.
But this was all grace on the cheap. The rest of the storyline was festooned with nasty–and dishonest–shots. For example, as McCoy and his assistants work to bring the murderer to justice, the shadowy forces of the Christian right seek to have him absolved of all accountability for his crime because he’d accepted Jesus as his personal savior.
I should point out that Christian conservatives have never done anything like this. Indeed, the only remotely similar episode in recent memory concerned Karla Faye Tucker, the white female ax murderer who also happened to be a born-again Christian. Some conservative Christians–and many other anti-death penalty advocates–argued she should be spared the death penalty but not absolved of her crime. George W. Bush–the supposedly theocratic Christian–was the governor of Texas at the time, and was empowered to halt the execution. His response to such requests: No dice. “I have concluded that judgments about the heart and soul of an individual on death row are best left to a higher authority,” he declared. “May God bless Karla Faye Tucker, and God bless her victims and their families.”
Why take pains to point out that TV fiction doesn’t match reality? Because the original conceit of Law & Order was that it tackled the thorny legal and moral issues associated with actual murders “ripped from the headlines.” In its early years, the show handled Tawana Brawley, the Central Park jogger, Bernie Goetz and other real crimes. The show remains a cash cow for the network–what, with more franchises than Pottery Barn–but it’s been unraveling for years. Now that the crime rate has shrunk, and the egos of the producers have expanded, they think they can translate any current controversy into a homicide. This often becomes a very offensive–and stupid–assault on the character of our republic; most of our political contests do not involve murders.
Regardless, the very idea that evangelical Christians would argue that being born again absolves you in this life for the consequences of your crimes is nonsense, plucked whole cloth in a fit of ignorance. But the complete, outrageous implausibility of the episode’s plot wasn’t the most infuriating part. Several times, various characters opine that the Christians’ legal tactics might work given “what’s happening in this country right now.” I half expected Pat Robertson to burst through McCoy’s office spraying holy water screaming, “Exorcist”-style, “The power of Christ compels you!”
The complexity of what conservative Christians really believe is lost on the writers of Law & Order–not surprising for a Hollywood show about New York that blends both coastal sensibilities perfectly. The fact that more and more headlines are being ripped from “red” America creates challenges for writers–like having to plausibly depict midtown Manhattan as a hotbed of evangelical, anti-abortion fervor (as they have more than once). But such challenges are minor compared to the dilemma of making their paranoia seem real.
I grew up in New York City, I know New York City, and I have this to tell my fellow New Yorkers: You are perfectly safe from the Christians hordes. None of the stuff supposedly “happening in America right now” is actually affecting Dowd or Krugman or the L&O writing teams. Pharmacies in New York and L.A. are still filling prescriptions for the “morning after” pill, schools are still teaching evolution, abortion clinics are humming along. And don’t e-mail me in a tizzy about gay marriage bans. Gay marriage didn’t exist under Bill Clinton either.
But that’s how the “paranoid style” works: Abstract or distant offenses are seen as personal threats. And the megalomania of the paranoiacs cannot process the possibility that important things might be happening that do not affect them. Your Darwin fish are safe, my friends.
–(c) 2005 Tribune Media Services