In Praise of Conscientious Conservatives


George Will, the dean of the conservative commentariat. Now a man without a party.

There are still conservative writers out there who have kept their integrity in this dark political era. This group is not as large as we might wish, but we should promote their work and appreciate the stand they are taking even if we often disagree with their other opinions. It will be a bleak future for American democracy if the poles of political debate range from racist/incompetent populism to technocratic liberalism to leftism. There  must be a place for thoughtful conservatism. Do you believe in the value of reasoned debate and the vigorous airing of dissenting opinions? Then support conservatives of integrity.

Here’s a roundup of some of their recent work.

Wheaton grad and former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson:

Republicans got an administration that is morally small. Trump’s proposed budget would require massive cuts in disease research, global development and agricultural programs — just as a famine gathers a hideous strength. The proposed budget practices random acts of gratuitous cruelty.

This is a pretty bad combination: empty, easily distracted, vindictive, shallow, impatient, incompetent and morally small. This is not the profile of a governing party…

It is now dawning on Republicans what they have done to themselves. They thought they could somehow get away with Trump. That he could be contained. That the adults could provide guidance. That the economy might come to the rescue. That the damage could be limited.

Instead, they are seeing a downward spiral of incompetence and public contempt — a collapse that is yet to reach a floor. A presidency is failing. A party unable to govern is becoming unfit to govern.

Another former Bush speechwriter, David Frum, on the healthcare debacle:

I take no pride or pleasure in saying “I told you so.” We’ve all been wrong about enough things to teach us humility about our rare bursts of foresight. What I would urge is that those conservatives and Republicans who were wrong about the evolution of this debate please consider why they were wrong: Consider the destructive effect of ideological conformity, of ignorance of the experience of comparable countries, and of a conservative political culture that incentivizes intransigence, radicalism, and anger over prudence, moderation, and compassion.

Weekly Standard founder Bill Kristol:

Consider the last week alone: The Republican president continues to speak out with no recognition of the normal proprieties of the presidential office, no appreciation for the dignity of the nation he represents, and no acknowledgment that he should be constrained by the truth. Meanwhile, the president appoints his daughter a White House adviser, and empowers her husband to be involved in delicate matters of foreign policy. Nepotism is a fact of life, but it would be foolish to deny that unabashed nepotism is evidence of progress in degeneracy.

Conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin:

Perhaps we should not be surprised by the flurry of unforced errors. President Trump has little relevant experience, zero curiosity in policy and a rotten temperament that suggests he is divorced from reality. His staff is a mix of ideological extremists and party hacks, none with White House experience. His 30-something daughter and son-in-law have no public experience, either. How did you think this was going to work?

And the man everyone on both sides loves to hate, David Brooks, on the failed health care bill:

I opposed Obamacare. I like health savings accounts, tax credits and competitive health care markets to drive down costs. But these free-market reforms have to be funded in a way to serve the least among us, not the most. This House Republican plan would increase suffering, morbidity and death among the middle class and poor in order to provide tax cuts to the rich…

The core Republican problem is this: The Republicans can’t run policy-making from the White House because they have a marketing guy in charge of the factory. But they can’t run policy from Capitol Hill because it’s visionless and internally divided. So the Republicans have the politics driving the substance, not the other way around. The new elite is worse than the old elite — and certainly more vapid.

These conservatives have kept their integrity. They insist that incompetence and corruption and cruelty are bad. As obvious as that ought to be, in our time these are controversial opinions. By airing them, these writers risk losing money, influence, and connections in the world of Republican politics. They are willing to pay a price for their integrity. May their ranks grow.

Republican-Voting Christians Need To Speak Up Now

lol gop

“People will die, but the rich will be so much richer! Ha ha!”

If you’re a Christian who votes Republican, your voice is desperately needed now. Call your Republican member of congress and tell them you oppose the GOP health care bill because it fails to provide for the poor and the sick. If you’re a Christian, these principles are more important to you than limited government.

The Republicans are trying to pass a health care bill that oppresses the poor and sick so that rich people can have more money. The Congressional Budget Office estimates 24 million people would lose health insurance coverage. The best estimates we have indicate that this would cause thousands of preventable deaths every year.

I’ve heard from Trump-supporting Christians who have been offended by my words during and after the election. They didn’t want to be lumped in with the people supporting hatred, racism, and oppression. This is an opportunity for those Christians to demonstrate their sincerity. Do they oppose this cruel legislation? Or do they put party politics above human decency?

Sincerity, good intentions, or ignorance do not absolve these Christians from responsibility. If they think this bill falls under the rubric of “complicated partisan politics” and so they can’t speak against it, they’re supporting oppression. Even if they sincerely believe the lies of the Republican donor class, they’re still supporting oppression. No one is making them tune in to the make-believe world of talk radio and Foxnews. No one is making them believe the self-serving lies wealthy people tell about the economy. No one is making them ignore evidence and sit in an echo chamber. These are the choices they make.

Many of them will respond, “But it’s not the government’s job to provide health care.” If that’s their belief, they have a responsibility to explain why people must die for the sake of their abstract principles.

In sum, if Republican-voting Christians can’t rouse themselves to oppose this inhumane legislation, they ought to step up and have the courage of their convictions. If you want to oppress people, own it and do it proudly.

Putting Things in Context: How Much Does the U.S. Spend on Foreign Aid?

Part of what historians try to do is put things in context. So today, as the Trump Administration releases a budget proposal with large cuts to foreign aid, it’s worth pointing out that the gap between what Americans think the federal government spends on foreign aid and what it actually spends is enormous:

Figure 5: Public Overestimates Share of Budget Going to Foreign Aid

Around 1% of the federal budget goes to foreign aid, and much of that is actually military spending. These numbers don’t tell us whether foreign aid is effective. But they do show that there is no vast pot of money just waiting to be unleashed for an “America first” policy. Xenophobia is not conducive to sound budgeting.

White Nationalism Is Deadly. Don’t Play With It.

steve king

Racist Congressman Steve King

This week, Iowa Congressman Steve King has had something of a coming out party as a white nationalist. King’s racism has been on display for years, but rarely has he articulated it in such robust ideological terms. It seems that the shackles are off. And with the Trump/Sessions/Bannon triumvirate at the helm of the executive branch, why not? King’s racist ideology is ascendant in the twenty-first century.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. We Americans are lazily optimistic, defaulting to the assumption that things will work out in the end even if there is no particular reason to think so. On no question are white Americans, in particular, more lazily optimistic than the problem of racism. We are moving onward and upward forever!

And yet.

If we understood race for what it is—something constructed in history, contingent and changeable—perhaps we could better see how dangerous is our optimism. Whiteness itself is an identity forged in conquest. As biology, it’s an absurdity. As a way to organize difference and deploy power, it has proven to be extraordinarily meaningful. It’s not that white people conquered and enslaved. It’s closer to the mark to say that these historical processes created white people.  And to the present day this white identity bestows material advantages. That’s why political mobilizations that invoke whiteness as such are always reactionary and oppressive.

That’s why white nationalism is dangerous and profoundly evil. It is a denial of our common humanity; it is the negation of Christianity. That so much white nationalism appeals to a kind of cultural Christianity only reveals how heretical much of the so-called Christian world actually is.

It is white nationalism—not democracy or human rights or racial equality—that is ascendant here and in Europe. That this claim is controversial shows how ill-prepared we are to deal with resurgent racism. A congressman declares his racist ideology and most of us scramble to reinterpret, to condescend, to do everything but take him seriously and assume that he actually means what he says. A President becomes a political figure in the first place through the use of racist rhetoric, and we sit around arguing about whether doing racist stuff makes someone a racist.

I am so tired of the magical thinking, the condescension, the attempts to coddle racists and tell them that, after all, “you don’t really mean that, do you my boy?” To call Steve King a racist is not to insult him. It is to give him the respect we all want and deserve: to have our ideas taken seriously. I’m tired of a world where the pro forma denial, “I’m not a racist,” counts for more than what one actually does. This is a post-truth world where Paul Ryan is considered a good man because he is clean-cut and sounds earnest. It is downright rude to evaluate him on the basis of what he does. It doesn’t matter that he supports racism. Everything is symbolism. Nothing matters.

But all of this does matter. We lazily assume that American history is linear and on an upward trajectory. It is just as likely that a country that began in genocide and enslavement will circle around to a similar ending. We will avoid that kind of outcome in some distant decade or century not because of an historical inevitability or any innate goodness, but because of the tireless efforts of ordinary people willing to become, as Dr. King said, coworkers with God. Right now, we’re playing footsie with one of the most destructive ideologies in human history, an ideology responsible for the death of millions of people. Steve King is not your eccentric uncle. He’s a sitting Congressman espousing the ideology of terrorists like Dylann Roof.

I’m tired of the nominal Christians that think supporting this resurgent white nationalism is something other than a rejection of Christianity. I’m tired of the symbolic Christianity that says Jesus will save your soul and then you’re free to go oppress everybody else. Here, too, we’d do well to take each other seriously and count our actions more important than our intentions.

The Barbaric President


“And…scene! You looked very presidential, sir. You can go back to watching TV now.”

Help me out, historians. Has any president ever made a public accusation as reckless as the one President Trump made this morning? I can’t think of anything approaching this.

Back in January, I gravitated toward the idea of barbarism as my most basic framework for this administration. This framework is holding up well.

We see barbarism in the Bannon/Miller/Trump wing of the administration’s complete lack of appreciation for history and the achievements of modern civilization. We saw it when Trump accused John Lewis—of all people!—of being all talk and no action. We see it in his flippant calls to Make America Great Again, with no apparent reflection on the history to which he refers, and no apparent understanding of why this call is a threat to millions of Americans.

As a historian and a Christian, I have both historical and theological reasons to believe in such a thing as human nature, and to take a dim view of it. So I count it as a big win when people are able to live under governments that are not entirely predatory and that avoid things like famine and genocide. These are not natural conditions to be taken for granted. They are achievements to be carefully preserved. Trump demonstrates no appreciation for this. Instead of a sense of human limits and tragedy, President Trump claims that there is nothing he cannot fix.

We see barbarism in Trump’s utter rejection of truth. Other Presidents have lied, usually with strategic purpose in mind. But Trump attempts to create his own reality and compel millions of people to join him in it. Even many of Trump supporters acknowledge that he sometimes says or tweets things he should not. But the consequences of false and malicious statements are much more severe when a President makes them. When a President rejects reality, tens of millions of people stand ready to follow him. This tears apart the fabric of civil society and democracy, eroding the common ground that is necessary for dialogue and learning to occur. President Trump seems unable to appreciate the pleasures of learning from others, or participating in civic functions, or reading books. His ego determines what is true from moment to moment. From the perspective of Christian theology, attempts to create our own reality represent a rejection of the reality of a transcendent God.

We see barbarism in Trump’s demagogic nationalism, in the way he elevates the nation above the worth of human beings. Trump demonizes vulnerable populations to boost his agenda of nationalist aggrandizement. As unchristian as nationalism is in general, Trump takes it to a more extreme level, crudely encouraging Americans to count our lives as more valuable than those of other human beings.

We see barbarism in Trump’s greedy self-enrichment at the expense of the public he is sworn to serve. The full dimensions of this corruption is not yet possible to determine because of Trump’s unprecedented financial secrecy and his refusal to make ethical arrangements for his business affairs.

And we see barbarism in the wanton cruelty of this administration. Dara Lind had a roundup yesterday of some of the recent arrests and deportations of undocumented immigrants. Under the pretense of keeping the country safe, people are being oppressed for no reason at all. There ought to be a very high bar to clear before separating families. Only a grave threat to an individual or the public justifies breaking families apart. These arrests obviously don’t come close to meeting that standard. They are plainly cruel, and their circumstances raise legitimate questions about whether there is a deliberate strategy of intimidation and retaliation. (See Daniela Vargas’s story).

It is difficult to imagine the stress and fear millions of people in our country are facing right now. I don’t know how you get up every morning and go about your responsibilities not knowing if you’re going to be able to put your kids in bed that night. God is close to these suffering people, and God resists the Christians who support this oppression. Let’s not pretend this is very complicated.

Immigrant advocacy groups are saying that these kinds of arrests mark a departure from the Obama years. To the extent that there is also continuity, God forgive me for not being more vocal years ago.

Christians are called to pray for those in power. I’ve found myself praying for President Trump more than I ever prayed for President Obama. These prayers are not status-quo protecting mushiness. They’re not about giving sacred endorsement to the state’s actions. They’re prayers of concern for the public good. They are given with the knowledge that our leaders bear heavy responsibilities for which they will give account. So when we see evil rulers such as President Trump, we pray for their repentance. And we pray that in the meantime their barbaric designs will be thwarted.

One perhaps surprising source of hope is that so far Trump often appears more interested in playing President than in being President. He favors splashy announcements and grand claims, symbolic victories with very little substance. He is easily distracted, and seems to spend much of his time dwelling on personal slights and watching cable news. This isn’t good for anyone, but it’s probably better than the alternative of a focused, competent President intent on doing harm.

Prestonwood Baptist Church: a Portent of things to come?


Prestonwood Baptist Church, Plano, Texas

In an ominous development, a Southern Baptist megachurch is withholding funds from the denomination because of Russel Moore’s outspoken words against Trump during the campaign. Moore, the president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, spoke frankly last year about the spiritual dangers of supporting Trump. Now, because of Moore’s supposed “disrespectfulness” against his fellow evangelicals, major financial resources are at stake.

Moore’s public response to this has been unsurprisingly gracious. But danger looms ahead. What we’re seeing here is a large and powerful church attempting to leverage its financial clout to shut down Christian speech in the public sphere. What will Moore and others have to do to maintain unity with these Trumpist evangelicals? What compromises will need to be made to keep them money flowing? What silences will be bought?

It is difficult to see how unity is going to be maintained in this environment. We have a large group of evangelicals who are cravenly putting partisanship ahead of the gospel, and it seems they will brook no dissent. In these contexts, those who believe that the word of God stands above even a Republican president are inevitably going to be seen as sell-outs or worse.

I would rather be in solidarity with oppressed people of any faith or no faith at all than in union with the people supporting the oppression. If Prestonwood Baptist Church is any indication, the space for a middle ground may already be closing. I believe Dr. Moore is a man of integrity, and precisely because of that I don’t know how long he can remain the president of the ERLC. Hopefully I’m wrong.

How Robust Is White Evangelical Support for Trump?

Supporters of Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump cheer at a campaign rally in Wilkes-Barre

This is one of the first images that a search for “white evangelicals” produced.

Chris Gehrz, a professor of history at Bethel University in Minnesota, has some good thoughts and questions today. Reacting to polls showing strong white evangelical support for Trump’s travel ban executive order, Gehrz writes:

I’m from an evangelical family, attend an evangelical church, and work at an evangelical university, and I can’t think of a single evangelical who viewed that executive order favorably. Perhaps I just move in relatively progressive circles, or people are censoring themselves around me (in person or on social media). But off hand I can think of several evangelicals in my acquaintance who supported Trump (or at least opposed Clinton) and yet were bothered by the order.

Moreover, on this particular issue, a wide array of evangelical leaders actually did speak out, responding with varying degrees of alarm to the administration’s treatment of refugees and preference for some religions over another.

So what do we make of this 76% figure? It’s entirely possible that evangelical has simply lost all meaning. Or that there’s a fundamental split between the term as a category that historians like me use to interpret religious belief and behavior and the term as what Tim Gloege has called a “marketing segment… ‘Evangelicals’ in this sense were not an untapped segment of voters that pollsters discovered, it was one they created.”

So “this ‘evangelicalism’ was not an organic movement; it was a conjured segment.” But a conjured segment that soon attracted leaders… many of whom now seem not to speak for their supposed followers.

Read the whole thing. I do think there is an artificial polling effect here. Call it a self-fulfilling prophecy or a feedback loop. As “white evangelical” becomes primarily a political moniker in our public discourse, those who disagree with the politics the term signifies stop calling themselves white evangelicals. Anecdotally, we saw a lot of this immediately following the election. If “white evangelical” just means “a White Christian with conservative politics” then the polling results are predetermined.

But there’s something else going on here too. I’m inclined to say to Gehrz: yes, you do just move in relatively progressive circles. It seems to me that white evangelicals who say they don’t know evangelical Trump supporters (or supporters of the ban specifically) are either in a really unusual bubble or they’re kidding themselves. In these progressive evangelical circles, we hear it said that the polls showing 75% white evangelical support for Trump reflect “cultural Christians” in the South who don’t even go to church and aren’t “real” evangelicals. I think the pervasiveness of this feeling does tell us something about how diverse and divided evangelicalism is. But mostly I think this is a self-serving way to avoid facing the rot in our own communities.

Let’s grant that the polls overstate Trump support among “real” evangelicals (whoever they are). The support still appears very strong among churchgoing white evangelicals, almost certainly a healthy majority. How do we know? We can start with Pew’s poll last week, which showed support for Trump by frequency of attendance at religious services. This measure is extremely broad in that it encompasses all kinds of Christianity and other religions as well, but in a way it is more specific than asking someone if they are a white evangelical. Whether or not you go to religious services is more concrete and easy to answer than whether you affirm a disputed identity. In the absence of more detailed polling of white evangelicals, generic religious attendance might be a better measure. And what that shows is that high religious attendance is correlated with support for Trump.

Consider also a Barna poll from last October. It asked people in more detail about their religious beliefs and classified them as evangelicals based on a series of theological questions rather than self-identification. The result? 55% of evangelicals backed Trump compared to 2% for Clinton. Barna’s post-election recap found that the strongest support for Trump was among these evangelicals, not among nominal believers.

Historians can quibble with this data too, mostly because it is defining evangelical only by claimed beliefs rather than practices. But the evidence we have—imperfect though it is—paints an uncomfortable picture. Most committed church-going white evangelicals probably support Trump. A majority may even have an actively favorable view of his presidency. There’s no easy answer to this, or excuse for it. But this is our reality, and we need to face it.

Refugees and the Elite/laity Divide in Evangelicalism


In recent days we’ve seen a good example of the divide between evangelical elites and ordinary white evangelicals. Last week, a large group of evangelical leaders took out a full page ad in the Washington Post to express support for refugees and concerns about the Trump administration’s executive order. The signers are not minor figures or political activists. They are some of the most popular and influential figures in evangelicalism. White evangelicals read their books, donate to their charities, and listen to their sermons. And yet…

The first poll of white evangelical opinion since Trump’s inauguration reveals that 76% approve of President Trump’s job performance and 76% approve of the executive order on immigration and refugees.

This is not surprising, but it is still somewhat mysterious to me. Do white evangelicals just ignore the opinions of their best pastors and theologians and parachurch leaders? Or is the theology white evangelicals receive on Sunday mornings flawed at its core? One ad in the Washington Post is not likely to overcome the more routine messages of therapeutic, self-focused religion. White evangelical leaders (not the political hacks) have been sounding reasonable for decades. Yet in many ways, they appear powerless to shape the views of ordinary white evangelicals. What is creating this elite/layperson divide and what sustains it? How do education and race and class figure into it? I’m still not sure we have an adequate understanding of how the politics of the white evangelical mainstream is constituted. In any case, while white evangelicals cheer Trump on, evangelicals who actually help refugees have to close down services.

The real scandal here is not that most white evangelicals voted for Trump. We can concede the point and agree to disagree about that political calculation. The scandal is that most white evangelicals view Trump and his whole suite of policies favorably. They like Trump. Whatever else that tell us, it reveals that evangelical leaders have failed dramatically in getting their flocks to apply Christian thinking to public life.

Keep Your Eye on the Justice Department


An important intellectual call to arms during the last great nativist reaction. 1920.

The disgraceful confirmation of Jeff Sessions as the nation’s attorney general continues to fly under the radar. The Brennan Center’s Andrew Cohen reminds us what is at stake:

Just as the nation is turning away from mass incarceration, and discovering that crime rates can go down along with incarceration rates, Attorney General Sessions is poised to reverse course. He already made it clear with his opposition to bipartisan sentencing reform last year that he has little compassion or empathy for the families affected by the enforcement of unduly harsh sentencing laws. He has made this clear also with his adamant and relentless opposition to presidential clemency, even in cases of manifest injustice that shocks the conscience. A whole new generation of men and women, and their families, will be doomed to unreasonably long prison terms.

Even as he revs up the engine of mass incarceration, Sessions won’t be an attorney general who emphasizes the need to identify and rectify wrongful convictions. He will not fight for the right of criminal defendants to be ably represented in court so that fewer wrongful convictions occur in the first place. He won’t be an attorney general who questions the validity of forensic evidence, even when experts conclude that its reliability and accuracy is dubious. There are two types of prosecutors in the world: Those who care  only about convictions, and those who take a broader view of justice. Sessions has made it clear, both in Alabama and on Capitol Hill, that he is the first type of prosecutor.

Sessions’s confirmation hearing reminded us that he will be an attorney general for vote suppressors and perpetrators of the voter fraud myth. Under the guise of protecting democracy from a threat that does not exist, he will be an attorney general who allows more jurisdictions to enact voting restrictions that make it harder, or impossible, for the elderly, the poor, and citizens of color to cast a valid ballot. He will be an attorney general who looks for excuses not to file aggressive litigation designed to protect voting rights. He will be an attorney general who is as feckless in this area of the job as he has shown to be fearless in prosecuting dubious voter fraud cases.

Read the whole thing. A man who praises the Johnson-Reed Act and criticizes the Voting Rights Act is not fit to hold office. Sessions’ colleagues tell us how kind and decent he is. He reminds me of John Stennis in that way. As my forthcoming article in History & Memory details, American media and political elites harped on Stennis’s integrity and personal kindness, as if these interpersonal qualities somehow made up for what Stennis actually did as a public figure. He spent decades fighting for white supremacy, but his colleagues called him the “conscience” of the senate.

In a similar way, if you look at what Sessions actually does, he appears to be nothing more than a white nationalist operating in a proud tradition of white southern elites. Why should we care if he’s a nice guy?