Sunday, September 19, 2010

What do we make of reaction to pastor?

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star (19 September 2010)

Pastor Terry Jones has become world (in)famous for planning to burn copies of the Qu’ran on September 11 as a memorial to the victims of the al Qaeda terrorist attack on the US. A Google search on “Pastor Terry Jones” returns 1.6+ million results. I checked to the 50th page of results and it was still all the same Pastor Terry Jones. Pretty good for the pastor of a 50 person congregation from a central Florida town best known for a place called the “Swamp.”

Pastor Terry lives in Gainesville, Fl, home of the University of Florida. The famous “Swamp” is the home of college football powerhouse Florida Gators. The “Swamp” and “Gators” returns only 173,000 results. Pastor Terry also beats Florida Governor Charlie Crist (1.4+ million results).

As a sociologist I’m not that interested in the curious doings of Pastor Jones. I’m more interested in everyone else’s reaction to him. Apparently “we” and “they” are very interested in him.

“We” disagreed with his plan. Pastor Terry managed to draw political rivals together (President Obama and Minority Leader John Boehner even agreed on this hot topic); draw rival religions together (Catholics, Jews, Protestants and Muslims agreed that burning Qu’rans on the anniversary of 9/11 was a bad idea); and news rivals Fox News and the “liberal mainstream media” opined in harmony that this was a bad idea.

Even “they” (people in the Middle East) agreed with “we” that Pastor Terry’s plan was a bad one. Could it be that Pastor Terry has actually done something good, unifying such rivals? Maybe that was his goal: world peace through book burning.

Now that Pastor Terry is a celebrity, I predict that he will abandon his Gainesville flock for a cable talk show. People will tune in initially just to be appalled but give him some time and he will develop a following of enough viewers to keep advertisers (antacids might be good) buying ad time.

Americans love a spectacle and Pastor Terry’s “leadership” in a memorial book burning to honor the victims of 9/11 was surely that. Or was it a spectacle because the press made it one? Why does the extremism of an obscure pastor of a fringe church with 50 members warrant such attention? Without that attention and some help from the internet, just a ridiculous “plan” becomes a potential threat to American lives overseas.

Pastor Terry has been painted pretty much as a wing nut. I suspect he is more than he is being painted and used the American press and American reaction to get exactly what he wanted. If he wanted reaction, “we” and “they” gave it to him. Everyone played their part. What do “we” expect him to do now?

Of course, not everyone thought Pastor Terry burning Qu’rans was a bad idea. Conservative websites like Saberpoint, reprinted the content of Pastor Terry’s website which gave 10 reasons to burn the Qu’ran (which was taken off line by his ISP). Saberpoint referred to the Qu’ran as “the nasty little book.” What reaction were they hoping for had Pastor Terry put match to book? Did they hope their extremist Islamic counterparts would attack American troops in return? So, in turn, hallowed leaders like Pastor Terry can point to those extremists as examples of all Muslims, as the standard of Islam? Just as the Islamic extremists would use Pastor Terry as an example of all Americans?

Think about this. If a wing nut pastor can provoke such a response worldwide, imagine if a U.S. Senator introduced a Qu’ran ban bill, banning the Qu’ran from US soil. Yes, it would be unconstitutional, but we pass many laws that are unconstitutional. Regardless, that a Senator would do such a thing would be newsworthy (unlike international coverage of Pastor Terry’s antics).

Andy Warhol predicted in the late 1960s that “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” 40+ years later his prediction seems to be coming true. Warhol was famous for painting pictures of commercial products like Campbell’s soup cans. Pastor Terry didn’t even do that. He didn’t actually do anything and failed to follow through on his plan.

What did he do to honor the victims of 9/11? For his unexecuted plan, Pastor Terry generates more Google results than “Mitch Daniels” (231,000 results), “Evan Bayh” (329,000 results) and about the same number as “Peyton Manning.”
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