June 25, 2005

An invitation to Moyers and Watt, accepted by one. Which one?

Bill Moyers embarrassed himself by slurring from former Secretary of the Interior James Watt. Patricia Nelson Limerick describes the incident this way:
Mr. Moyers gave a speech last winter at Harvard, criticizing the Bush administration's environmental policies and making the case that an unfortunate theology, particularly a belief in an imminent Second Coming, was the driving force behind these policies. At the start of his speech, to illustrate this theology, Mr. Moyers shifted back in time and quoted Mr. Watt. Mr. Moyers said that Mr. Watt "had told the U.S. Congress that protecting natural resources was unimportant in light of the imminent return of Jesus Christ. In public testimony, [Watt] said, 'After the last tree is felled, Christ will come back.' "

But there is no evidence that Mr. Watt ever said this improbable thing, and Mr. Moyers acknowledged his "mistake" in quoting a remark that he could not confirm....

By casting many evangelical Christians as enemies of the earth's well-being, Mr. Moyers has made a not entirely strategic move to alienate people who could, should they be persuaded to recognize the hand of the Creator at work in the creation, prove to be remarkable and effective supporters for a cause that he considers urgent and crucial.
Limerick frets about the way people are so contentious in these days of the endlessly yammering internet, and thinks if Watt and Moyers would just sit down to a nice meal together -- she offers to host them -- they'd learn to work together. She notes one of the two has accepted her invitation but doesn't say which. Given the way she's phrased the proposal, I've got to assume it's Moyers. Here's why.

Moyers used a quote that he had "no evidence" of and that is so bizarre that he can't even fall back on the fake-but-true characterization that it seems like the sort of thing Watt would say. And -- I'm just using the facts as stated in this column -- acknowledgement of mistake lies only in "in quoting a remark that he could not confirm." But if there's "no evidence," in what sense are you "confirming" a "quote"? There's nothing to confirm. Limerick is toning down Moyers' offense here, and it's an offense not only to Watt but, more generally, to evangelical Christians. It portrays them as dangerous and evil.

As Limerick puts it, Moyers has made "a not entirely strategic move" by alienating people who "could" be persuaded to join him in his cause. Note the assumption that evangelical Christians do not now care about the environment and that they haven't yet learned to see the hand of God in creation. Moyers is the dominant character here. He already knows the right answers, so he needs to adopt good strategies, and he made a mistake not to get the evangelicals on his side. But he could win them over to his cause -- the cause is his -- if he persuaded them with religious insight that they somehow aren't supposed to have on their own. Yet this observation is a plainly obvious one to a believer. To think otherwise is to think the fake quote really is the sort of thing an evangelical would say.

I agree with Limerick that people shouldn't be so contentious and that there's too much arguing. We never seem to reach the end of calling someone's statement outrageous and demanding another apology. Too many people are promoting themselves by acting all aghast about one thing or another and trying to divide Americans into stark politically partisan factions. But something about this proposed Watt-Moyers sitdown in front of a beautiful landscape rubs me the wrong way.


Slac said...

I don't remember how/when I first heard this quote about the Second Coming attributed to a Republican. Thank you for helping me learn it was a myth.

Ross said...

I've enjoyed Moyers' work over the years, but this article -- http://www.nybooks.com/articles/17852 -- was so over-the-top I had to just shake my head.

I'm a heathen, and there are certainly religious crackpots in the world, but I just don't get some folks' antagonism toward Christianity.

amba said...

I covered this at some length back in February (of course it was Powerline who covered it originally). I too had facilely believed the slander that that was what Watt said, for at least two decades! My post morphs into an investigation of apocryphal and frankly bogus quotes on the Internet, and in politics long before the Internet. I found a fascinating link about that.

amba said...

That post begins:

If I had been hit by a car two days ago, I would have died believing that James Watt, Ronald Reagan's Interior Secretary -- and an avowed born-again Christian -- had said something along the lines of, "No need to bother preserving natural resources, because Jesus is coming back soon." What's more, believing that as I have for 20 years has colored my entire attitude about evangelical Christians' even minimal trustworthiness as stewards of the environment.

Now, I will be able to die enlightened, at least on that score, thanks to Power Line's exposé of what appears to be an unsubstantiated, self-perpetuating liberal smear. Ain't blogs grand?

Mark Daniels said...

I was quite taken with this article by Limerick myself and had posted on it before I saw, just now, that you had as well. It would be very cool if these hosted lunches became a trend.

Troy said...

I alway snew the Watt things was a slander because I've been a SOuthern Baptist for over 30 years and I have not once EVER heard ANY evangelical Protestant say anything ever of the sort -- not in private, not in public, not in prayer meeting, Bible study, worship service, in the bathroom -- anywhere. Has someone said it??? I'm sure there are dipsh*ts who might utter such tripe.

The fact that so many believed that Watt -- or any serious believer could say such a stupid thing shows two things 1. How far removed much of America is from the Church and 2. -- and more sadly -- how far removed much of the Church is from America.

Troy said...

Sorry for the typos and the vulgarity, but there are only a few words that really capture such sentiments as are attributed to Watt.

The fact that Kool-Aid drinker Moyers recites it... well that does not surprise me anymore. There is a blanket and checker board waiting for him somewhere.

Gerry said...


I'll try to find the transcript, but it shows two facts that are, to a degree, contradictory towards the facts as presented in your post's quotes.

Watt did in fact make a religious comment about the return of Christ, and he did so in a comment about the relative importance of conservation of resources.

But the quote he made was to make the exact opposite point than the anecdote mentioned above says.

Moyers did not apologize for quoting Watts in a way he could not substantiate. He apologized for quoting him in a manner that precisely inverted what Watts said.

Gerry said...

Here's a link to Powerline's takedown of the affair.

It includes the following transcript:

Mr. Weaver [D. Ore.]: Do you want to see on lands under your management, the sustained yield policies continued?

Secretary Watt: Absolutely.

Mr. Weaver: I am very pleased to hear that. Then I will make one final statement... I believe very strongly that we should not, for example, use up all the oil that took nature a billion years to make in one century.

We ought to leave a few drops of it for our children, their children. They are going to need it... I wonder if you agree, also, in the general statement that we should leave some of our resources--I am now talking about scenic areas or preservation, but scenic resources for our children? Not just gobble them up all at once?

Secretary Watt: Absolutely. That is the delicate balance the Secretary of the Interior must have, to be steward for the natural resources for this generation as well as future generations.

I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns, whatever it is we have to manage with a skill to leave the resources needed for future generations.

Mr. Weaver: Mr. Chairman, I want to conclude, if I might, seeing the Secretary brought up the Lord, with a story.

The Chairman: The conversation will be in order.

Mr. Weaver: In my district, Mr. Chairman, there are some who do not like wilderness. They do not like it at all. I would try to plead with them. I go around my district and say do you not believe--I would plead with their religious sensibilities--that we should leave some of our land the way we received it from the Creator?

I have said this frequently throughout my district. I got a letter from a constituent... He said, "Mr. Weaver, if the Lord wanted to leave his forest lands, some of them in the way that we got them from Him," he said, "why did He send His only Son down to earth as a carpenter?"


Mr. Weaver: That stumped us. That stumped us until one of my aides, an absolute genius, said that the Lord Jesus before He determined His true mission spent 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness.


Mark said...

Moyers believes and repeats things like this because he's a bigot.