September 19, 2005

Playing the Cathedral


In the first flood of photos documenting the effects of Hurricane Katrina, I hadn’t noticed how many struck a religious theme.  Looking more closely, however, there were any number of floating icons, windswept priests, home made signs appealing for mercy, and churches with roofs blown off and spires folded over.

As humble as these images were, it made me think they might represent a different presence for religion.  After years of being preached to by this government and threatened with hell fire, perhaps a new order had arrived.  Maybe the Almighty him- (or her-) self had decided to step down from the Bush team.

Whatever it was, the failure of the government to respond effectively to human suffering couldn’t have done more to erode the far right’s claim to the moral high ground.  At the same time, just the perception that racial and economic demographics was a variable in the application of “compassionate conservatism” couldn’t have been more damning.

Looking back at Katrina, it’s possible one of the profound effects will be the neutralizing of God as a right wing asset.


Although the administration has been shaken and seems unsure which wound to bandage first, one of the most urgent priorities seems to be the need to spiritually reframe the disaster in order to restore the piety brand.

I was looking at the so-named “National Prayer Day” photo gallery at the White House website.  A prayer service at the Washington National Cathedral  — which might have been Bush and Rove’s central motivation for this rushed and contrived commemoration — was marked last Friday.

I’d be interested in your opinions on all of the photos, but I was interested in three — and one in particular.


The shot on the lower left of the montage is a fish-eye view of the cathedral, with the “ant-like” guests along the bottom.  The highlight of the picture is the mammoth house itself, with the stained glass window on high.  In these types of images, it’s hard not to appreciate man’s relative insignificance in the larger scheme.  Might it also imply that those “on the ground” lack the weight to judge this tragedy (or this Administration) before a higher authority?


I was also interested in the top middle picture of the black televangelist, T.D. Jakes.  Jakes’ role, and his sense of opportunism, were telegraphed by a particularly unguarded NYT “White House Letter” (Gulf Coast Isn’t the Only Thing Left in Tatters; Bush’s Status With Blacks Takes Hit – link) published earlier in the week.

If you look at the taller version posted by the White House, you will see they (again) make creative use of perspective.  Looking straight at the image, you can’t help but have to look up to this man.  Also, the strikingly white lectern virtually shouts out that a black man of God is here to bear witness for his other “Commander in Chief.”  Also, the way Jakes is framed against the foreboding gothic architecture almost seems to pull a little of that hell fire back again.


What I wanted to look at most closely, however, is the bottom right photo — the one and only depicting Bush with survivors of the flood.  Last week, I examined the photos featured on the White House site showing Laura Bush in the Gulf “reaching out” to displaced evacuees (Laura: Just Say N.O. — link).  Surprisingly, most of the images (photographed and hand-picked by White House spinmeisters, mind you) showed Mrs. Bush being treated coldly, passively or even invisibly.

So here we are, two weeks later, and the impression of Bush alongside the survivors (again, according to an image made and chosen by the White House) seems highly ambiguous.

I don’t know if the people here were flown in for the occasion, or had been relocated to Washington.  Either way, it looks awkward at best.  There may be genuine warmth between Bush and the man in the wheel chair, however there is no eye contact, and the disabled man appears to lean back, as if he has to be the one to make a physical accommodation.


With the security person (at the base of Bush’s back) signifying the separation of this group from the larger audience, these men and women mostly give the appearance of extras in Bush’s compassion play.  It is fascinating looking at them looking at Bush.  To an extent, they maintain public faces.  At the same time, each seems to express a characteristic detachment.  As well, several seem to share a skepticism — as if aware their President cares a little too much.

(image 1: Chris HondrosAFP/Getty Images.  New Orleans.  images 2 – 5: Eric Draper for the White House.  Washington National Cathedral. Washington, D.C., Friday, Sept. 16, 2005. image 6: BAGnewsNotes graphic.  September 10, 2005.)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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