James Wall

The Mote that Is in Your Neighbor’s Eye

VTR Date: March 11, 1999

Guest: Wall, James


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Rev. James M. Wall
Title: The Mote That Is In Your Neighbor’s Eye
VTR: 3/11/99

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And if I’m counting correctly, this is actually the sixteenth time over the past generation and more that I’ve called upon my mid-American ministerial friend, Dr. James M. Wall, long-time Editor of The Christian Century (one of America’s most distinguished journals of opinion) to bring some “religious sensibility” to bear upon the controversies that have riled America.

Now, during all these years, Dr. Wall has never spoken all that kindly about the American media establishment. What he’s called our “media elite”. And though in fact I very much share his rather stunning disdain for these secular holy rollers, I’ve often needled him about it.

In a recent issue of The Christian Century, however, my friend revealed just how torn he must be by media stars who, as he writes, “Have been chewing on religious terminology” (Jimmy Carter’s or Bill Clinton’s) when they don’t — couldn’t possibly, as he writes — “understand religious language because it is the language of grace and eternity, not the language of the sound bite and the all-news channel”.

Then, too, there are those hypocritical nominal religiosos about whom he writes, “One of the worst developments in my tenure (as Editor) has been the extent to which the Religious Right has succeeded in controlling the public debate with its simplistic way of speaking of religion in the public arena, thereby linking itself to media language which knows nothing of ultimacy and everything about absolutes”.

Dr. Wall appropriately closes that last editorial about these contrarians by admonishing us especially, to “Avoid the greatest evil, the search for the mote that is in your neighbor’s eye”. But Dr. Wall, you certainly find the mote that is in the eye a) of the media establishment, and b) of the Religious Right.

WALL: I certainly do find the mote in them. I see them as a group that I’m concerned about, and my editorial reference was more of a speaking out against self-righteousness. Saying “I am a better man than you are, therefore, I am in a position to tell you of how immoral you are”.

HEFFNER: Well, you’re talking now about the Religious Right, or are you talking about the media elite, or you’re talking about both?

WALL: I’m talking about the behavior of the Religious Right, and of the media. And I think it’s the task of an editor, and a writer and a columnist, to focus upon those excesses when they take place. And the excesses of both the Religious Right and the media elite have been terrible these last 12-14 months.

HEFFNER: More than when we first sat at this table, oh, a generation ago?

WALL: Yes, I do think so. And I, I don’t want to be cliché here, but it does seem to me that the rise of the 24 hour a day cable television talk shows have generated a lot of this. The lack of civility in radio talk shows has generated a lot of this. So much so that even on the usually sedate … on the old days, the sedate Sunday morning talk shows you had people speaking with such absolutes … “he lied, he lied, he’s gotta go” kinds of things. That I was just disturbed beyond almost endurance at the way they’ve been behaving.

HEFFNER: But you know, Jim, I think back to the Carter Presidency and it seems to me that absent then the massive radio talk shows … they were there … but you are saying very much the same thing about the media elite. I mean I turn back and look at the transcripts and I see Jim Wall pointing his finger at me(!) of all people and accusing me of being part of that …

WALL: I was, I was … and it’s been my contention all along, and especially did it come into focus with Jimmy Carter. And that is the inability of the secular elite, and that means everybody who shapes how our media functions. And you know every small town newspaper in the country takes its cues from the leadership in Washington and in New York. How they … they take their cues from those people who cannot grasp the subtlety and the nuance and the ambiguity of religious terminology. We’ve talked on this program about how Jimmy Carter’s attempt to speak of religion was at first ridiculed, and then later on just sarcastically dismissed. Because they said, “He’s a Holy Roller, he’s a self-righteous person”. And now that he is putting into play exactly what he wanted to do, namely doing for others as an ex-President, they praise him to the sky. It’s because you can’t do anything else. They no longer can beat up on him, they simply can say, “Good” at what he’s doing. Cause they also will accuse him of doing things like this in order to win the Nobel Peace Prize. I mean there’s … there’s got to be a motive from the elitist, secular media peoples viewpoint.

HEFFNER: What do you mean, “got to be a motive”?

WALL: Well, why else …

HEFFNER: What could the motive …

WALL: … why else, why else would he be doing this? They, they can’t accept the fact that he builds houses and tries to alleviate conflict in the world. But why is he doing this? He must be doing it for himself. They can’t imagine someone not doing something for themselves. And so they say, “He must be seeking the Nobel Peace Prize”.

HEFFNER: So, you’re saying that the reason for this is that they lack a religious sensibility, that they can’t understand it when they see it…

WALL: Yes.

HEFFNER: … in Jimmy Carter.

WALL: I would not want to say that every single media person lacks a religious sensibility. I’m saying that the media context itself makes it difficult for them to implement, or bring into play, their religious sensibilities. So either they dismiss it, or they never had it, or they prefer not to use it. They feel embarrassed about it.

HEFFNER: What do you mean by the media context …

WALL: Well the way in which media requires rational language. The way in which media prefers absolutes to nuance. There’s no room in a headline for “on the other hand”. It has to be “Monica Speaks” nothing else about what and what the context is and so forth. It’s just simply the nature of the beast. Except in more leisurely conversations of this sort, your headlines, your 30-second sound bites, your opening bits in television, news reporting, all require such simplistic points. Which is why, as I said in my editorial column there, the Religious Right has been able to seize the platform and be the force that directed how we would think about religion in public life these days. It was very simplistic.

HEFFNER: But, wait a minute. Before we go on to that level of simplicity, let’s stick with the media a moment. I find you to be saying something that puzzles me, and that is it’s almost as if you were saying that the concept of media, of news gathering and dissemination had, within itself, the germ …

WALL: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … and I do mean the germ …

WALL: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … that results ultimately in this spiritual sickness?

WALL: I would be willing to argue that. But also I would have to say that the mood of the nation, the zeitgeist in which we function is secular. So that media has to report that. Media cannot just assume, for example, a belief in God out there. They assume a belief in rational reality. They, they assume the scientific truth being the ultimate truth. And so then they report accordingly. And, of course, it’s a chicken and the egg situation. That the zeitgeist itself contributes to media’s behavior and media in turns builds on that. So that one does not have room to say, as X-Files might, “the truth is out there”, we just don’t know how to grasp it.

HEFFNER: But what is it about the media, about media presentations, that leads to this. You see, I’m trying to get to something …

WALL: I think …

HEFFNER: … more basic …

WALL: I think …

HEFFNER: … it seems to me.

WALL: … I think it’s the way in which we report. I mean I’ve been doing news coverage myself for the last 35 years. I think it’s the way in which we have to, to bring to the table the information that is out there. The factual reporting. This person is alleged to have killed this person, and these are the facts that led to this allegation. But … and that’s factual reporting about crime. I’m just thinking about Adlai Stevenson and how when he burst on the scene, as a Presidential candidate, his nuanced way of speaking was puzzling to people. He was accused of being an intellectual because he would say, “on the other hand”. And that’s always a problem. There’s no room in media for “on the other hand”.

HEFFNER: Well, you know, I’m trying to get you to say, and you’re not going to … clearly …

WALL: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: … that the reason there is no room is something that is not attributable to media alone, but the reason there is not room is because our media function within a demand for ratings, profits … call it what you will, it’s the bitch goddess Success.

WALL: Oh, I’d be very happy to say that. I mean I didn’t realize your questions were implying the motive. And certainly the motive is to what will sell. But after all, if you have … and what would get the highest ratings and what will bring you the greatest profits. Barbara Walters interviewed Monica in that awful two hour exhibition, and then when it was over she said, “Now, can we move on?” [Laughter] “I’ve got mine! The rest of you leave her alone.” Of course, it’s profit driven. It’s always been profit driven to a degree. I mean all media reporting has been.

HEFFNER: But you, but you have distinguished between what’s happening more so in our time, in the years since you and I first sat …

WALL: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … at this table, you talk about Adlai Stevenson, who was also not tolerated, but tolerated a great deal more, it seems to me …

WALL: MmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: … than thoughtful people are today.

WALL: Well, are you asking me if I think the mood of the country has changed that dramatically? I think it has. I think there are all kinds of factors that have entered in to it. Certainly the proliferation of television programming. And you can now go through 65 stations just by clicking on television. And you can guarantee even well after the end of the impeachment trial, there would be one talk group going at it, in this intense fashion about Monica, about Bill and about the results of the impeachment.

HEFFNER: Well, I’m talking about a kind of social Darwinian ideology, or social Darwinian ethos that I think is more prevalent today than it was when we first sat down at this table.

WALL: I think that is true. And if you ask me why that is true, I’m not sure I would be able to tell you other than the fact that there it is. It’s a lot worse than it was when we first started having these conversations.

HEFFNER: But if I asked you, and you said, “I can’t quite tell you what … where would your guess go, what direction?

WALL: Proliferation of media outlets. The lack of civility in the country. The kind of talk show badgering back and forth that … after what we now read… even public television seems to be thinking of making its “Washington Week In Review” program of that same edgy kind of discussion.

HEFFNER: Well, to stay on the air, I have to hit you now.

WALL: Okay, that’s the way it’s aired … be edgy.


WALL: And it is a proliferation of outlets, so the competition steps up. And it’s also in the culture generally, an absence of civility, of politeness, of an understanding that there are rules by which we govern our communication with one another.

HEFFNER: Do you think that’s because of an absence, an increasing absence, which is a strange way of putting it, of what you have called, “this religious sensibility”?

WALL: I think a religious sensibility has the possibility of giving us a serenity, our tolerance, a concern for justice, a concern for fairness, a concern for love. All of that is true. Now I … because religion has such a bad institutional pattern these days, especially with the Religious Right, I’m reluctant to say religion is going to solve this problem. But I think religion has the capacity of whatever persuasion it comes out of to introduce us to a sense of civility and concern for our neighbor … yes.

HEFFNER: Well, I must admit that I’m a little … not taken aback, a little puzzled by this notion of “possibility”. I thought you were going to be more insistent. But then you’re not a dogmatic person.

WALL: I’m not an absolutist. The one word that I have discovered that bothers me almost the most is “absolutism”.

HEFFNER: Is that why you are ticked off so by the Religious Right?

WALL: Oh, yes, the Religious Right just says, “this is absolutely the truth”. And they may be wrong, and yet they never want to acknowledge that they may wrong, and that is so unfair with the complexity of the human spirit and the human interaction that … not every case is absolutely this way or that way.

HEFFNER: Jim, we’re sitting at this table now, the end of the first week in March, 1999. I don’t know when we’ll be seen on the air … what do you think is going to be the fate of the Religious Right in our country. Or perhaps I should say, what do you think is going to be the fate of our country, thanks to the Religious Right?

WALL: Well, the Religious Right is I think beginning to lose some of its edge. There’s no doubt but what the defeat of the impeachment made the Religious Right look bad because they drove much of this impeachment strength. I mean you could see the House manager on most … walking into these hearings with letters from the Religious Right stuck in their pockets. They drove this. That was the impetus behind it. What I think has happened is that this has toughened the 25% of the country who are basically, are the Religious Right that resolve to keep fighting and maybe eventually take over and shape American life. And the members of the House, the House Managers, and that kind whose voters are that persuasion were very comfortable in what they were doing. But I think the Religious Right has lost any influence in the mainstream of American life. They benefited, we’ve benefited … I’m a part of that mainstream … at the way in which their tactics showed their rigidity and their lack of interest in ambiguity.

HEFFNER: Yes, but your … your optimism, if I may call it that about what will happen in the future is puzzling because you do talk about a very substantial percentage of Americans whom you happen to be talking about those Americans who are organized …

WALL: That’s right.

HEFFNER: … those Americans who vote …

WALL: That’s right.

HEFFNER: And would I rather have, on my side, my legions … 25% of a population that is determined, that is organized, that works, that votes, rather than 75% of people so few of whom vote.

WALL: Yes. Bear in mind this 25% didn’t used to vote, didn’t used to organize. It’s a fairly recent phenomenon …

HEFFNER: But it does now with a vengeance.

WALL: It does, it does. And it will continue to have an influence at places like the Republican National Convention. No matter who they nominate, the Religious Right is going to have a representation there, in the form of delegates, and in the form of shaping the Vice Presidential choice. Probably not in choosing the top person. But in shaping the platform. They’re going to be players all the way through. They continue to be players in the Congress because in … not so much in the Senate, because the Senate has to go to the whole state to get votes … and 25% won’t do it. And it will vary from state to state … the 25% goes up to 35% in Southern states, for example. But there will be … they will continue to be a factor in American political life, certainly in American cultural life. But I think they’ve lost some momentum in the reaching of the larger population.

HEFFNER: Jim, you mentioned the South … a question that I’ve always wanted to ask you and as many times as you’ve been here, I never have, and as well as we know each other, I never have. That is, what is that South today? You’re s Southerner, you may have resided in Illinois for a long time now, but I don’t think its puzzling to the people who are listening to you to know that you’re a Southerner, really.

WALL: Georgia …

HEFFNER: Georgia.

WALL: … to be precise.

HEFFNER: What is the South now?

WALL: Well, it’s not the South that I grew up in, I’ll guarantee you that. The homogenization of our American culture has spread out through everywhere … through television, through businesses, so that you go to Atlanta, where I spent most of my young life, and you don’t … you see buildings that look like Memphis, you see buildings that look like New York and so forth. And you see culture that’s similar. And it’s no longer the same distinctiveness that it was when I was younger. But the traditions of the South, the gentility … the graciousness, the family orientation, all of these things are part of the ethnicity of the Southerner.

HEFFNER: But that isn’t what you were referring to when you said, “25% of the population … Religious Right, except from the South, where it’s 30%. You weren’t talking about gentility …

WALL: Well, I will point something out to you, if you … again … let’s go back to the House Managers, because most of them are Southerners … the leaders at least were … Bob Barr and the other three or four people that you saw most on TV. They were genteel, they were civil, they were polite, they had a certain style about … there’s just a misuse of that style …

HEFFNER: Oh, okay.

WALL: … that you saw going on.

HEFFNER: I thought you meant the real thing.

WALL: No, no, no, no, no. They … as a matter of fact that’s why I disliked it so much because they were, they were bringing disrepute upon the graciousness of the South. And to hear them say things like, “We must stand up for these dear ladies who are being harassed in offices” and so forth, and that’s so phony, and you knew it was so phony, because five years ago … three years ago until this whole thing rose up, they would not have …politically … wanted to say anything like that. Or even vote in that direction.

HEFFNER: Jim, later today Stanley Crouch will sit at this table, we’ll do a program, and one of the reasons I’ve been so fascinated by the way he has taken out in the post-impeach-and-then-get-rid-of-Bill-Clinton…

WALL: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … period, although why I should say “post” I don’t know, because who knows what’s going to happen … he’s taken out after Trent Lott. And he’s taken out after Trent Lott because of an attitude toward Blacks, toward minorities of all kinds and shapes and forms, which has been overlooked by the New York Times, when it wants to pat …

WALL: Yeah.

HEFFNER … Mr. Lott on the back. But which seems to be there. Now what about the South in relation to minorities today.

WALL: Well, let me defend Trent Lott here a bit.

HEFFNER: That’ll be interesting.

WALL: First of all, Trent Lott is not going to overtly offend the African American voters in his state. And there’s a large number of them in his state. What you’re alluding to, and what I gather your up-coming guest is alluding is his appearance at a conservative right wing Ku Klux Klan oriented group in the South.

HEFFNER: We’re not talking about a, an appearance …

WALL: An appearance and that was an unwise appearance. I promise you one thing; he won’t go there again. In other words, it was a slip, I’m sure on the part of this staff to let him do this. Now, all I’m saying is … I cannot testify to Trent Lott’s racial attitudes, but I can testify that no U.S. Senator in the South is going to offend an African American voting block because that’s sheer political suicide. The voters in the South have really become strongly … I couldn’t give you statistics … but they’re very strongly African American in the Southern states. So, I would say … I’m not sure what he’s … his … he’s faulting him, no doubt, and I don’t doubt this.

HEFFNER: To be sure.

WALL: And I’ve written the same thing about Trent Lott, especially during the impeachment time, I said: “Here’s a man who has made that mistake in his past, and is trying to overlook it.” And proceeds to deal with other people’s mistakes.

HEFFNER: Now, let’s take Trent Lott and set him aside. Let’s even take politicians, as a group and set them aside. The South itself, and race … your comments.

WALL: I think the South and race … again this grows out of my own younger days living there, has the potential to have a much more positive relationship between the two races. Because there’s always been a closer relationship between Whites and African Americans, a more intimate relationship. Whereas you can grow up in the North and almost have no connections … at least that’s been the case in the last 40 years.

HEFFNER: But, Jim, isn’t that the old pro-South argument …

WALL: I must tell you … it may be an argument, but I’m just telling you that the potential in the South for the racial harmony is stronger than it is in the North. It’s stronger … the potential is stronger than it is…

HEFFNER: Okay, let’s take that face value, the potential, set it aside. Let’s look at reality … and I’m not quarreling with you …

WALL: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … I’m asking you because you’re a frequent visitor to the South, you’re still a Southerner …

WALL: I have family there, I go there frequently, and it’s part of my make-up, sure.

HEFFNER: Give me an answer then, to the question of what about your native land?

WALL: I think it is … to the extent to which the South is … in common with the rest of the nation … in its attitude toward minority groups … it’s no different from people, the way I live in Chicago, or New York. But the roots, the tradition … granted it comes out of an ugly period of slavery … nevertheless has potential because of the make-up of the Southerner mind set. And I think of the religion at its best in the South … at its best … the religious sensibility has no room for bias or prejudice, and therefore the South at its best is a positive force in the area of a race relationships.

HEFFNER: Then why did you say before that there is a higher percentage of Religious Right activists, politically speaking, in the South …

WALL: Because these religious … my guess is that these Religious Right activists … and I say 30% is a ballpark guess … they’re concerned, and many of them are sincere people, by the way … we don’t want to just say these are all people who sit around and don’t believe any of this, but use it. This are sincere people who do not like what’s happening in American culture in the way of abortion, in the way of gay and lesbian rights and freedoms, and they are deeply troubled by this. And I don’t agree with them …on either point, but it’s what troubles them, and so they are struggling and they’re turning to politicians to help them, and the politicians who may or may not believe this are using it to generate, to support for their own political agenda.

HEFFNER; Jim, I’m going to get a signal soon that we have one minute left …

WALL: All right.

HEFFNER: How do you want to use that minute?

WALL: Well, we have not talked very much about the … maybe you did at the outset, the merger of the absolutism of media, with the absolutism of the Religious Right. And I think the national media in particular has a lot to regret in the way in which it’s behaved in the last 12 months in dealing with the impeachment process. It rushed to judgment so quickly because it did not, for some reason, want to give this man any freedom to move. This man being the President. And it seized on the commercially driven tapes that were made available and it seized upon the opportunity to run with sex in the public arena. And therefore, I think, degraded our whole American process. It’s been an ugly time in American cultural history.

HEFFNER: In other words, in all the years that we’ve been sitting here, your opinions about the press haven’t all that much improved.

WALL: Not at all.

HEFFNER: Jim Wall, thank you so much for joining me again today …

WALL: Thank you.

HEFFNER: … over the next generation, another 16 visits … right.

WALL: I would hope so.

HEFFNER: Thanks. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.