A Sermon Suggestion for Tomorrow

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Michael Gerson has an idea for tomorrow morning’s sermon:

You know I don’t preach politics from this pulpit. There are many political and policy views among Christians, and many represented here in this sanctuary. But our faith involves a common belief with unavoidably public consequences: Christians are to love their neighbor, and everyone is their neighbor. All the appearances of difference — in race, ethnicity, nationality and accomplishment — are deceptive. The reality is unseen. God’s distribution of dignity is completely and radically equal. No one is worthless. No one is insignificant. No one should be reduced to the status of a thing. This is the changeless truth in our changing politics. You can argue about what constitutes effective criminal-justice policy — but, as a Christian, you cannot view and treat inmates like animals. You can disagree about the procedures by which our country takes in refugees — but you can’t demonize them for political gain. And you can argue about the proper shape of our immigration system — but you can’t support any policy that achieves its goal by purposely terrorizing children.

Those of you who are churchgoers, what do you think? Would this message be welcomed in your church?

I wonder if most Trump followers in the pews would be ok with this sermon because they would just say Trump isn’t actually doing any of these things. If people just sidestep this message, what’s a pastor to do? I don’t envy pastors in this time.

Cartoon of the Day: Evangelicals & Watergate Edition

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Paul Conrad, Los Angeles Times, May 30, 1974

Evangelicals have been getting themselves in compromising political situations for a long time. Here, Paul Conrad lampoons Billy Graham’s slavish support for Nixon in the waning months of a doomed presidency. The scene is a typical Billy Graham revival, except the seats are empty. It’s time for the altar call. “All those wishing to make a ‘Decision for Nixon’ will please come forward,” Graham says. But the only person in the audience is Nixon himself, looking grim. The joke is on both men—Graham, for politicizing the gospel, Nixon, for having lost the public’s trust. No one is going to answer that altar call.

I’ve written before about Graham’s dalliances with political power and how he came to regret them. When I stumbled across a reference to this cartoon yesterday I wanted to track it down and see it for myself. It’s a humorous and apt reminder of the damage done when Christians become enablers rather than prophets in the public square.

Mike Pence to Speak at Southern Baptist Convention

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Mike Pence worshiping his god.

Vice-President Mike Pence has been invited to speak at the Southern Baptist Convention’s Annual Meeting tomorrow. The press release is…interesting: “We are excited to announce Vice President Mike Pence will be attending this year’s SBC annual meeting to express appreciation to Southern Baptists for the contributions we make to the moral fabric of our nation.”

It is telling that southern baptist leaders think Mike Pence has anything useful to say about the moral fabric of the nation, or that he cares about anyone who contributes to it. It is amazing that they can’t see how this will look to anyone who isn’t already a true believer in their brand of hateful politics.

Mike Pence has repeatedly lied and covered for all kinds of evil in recent years. He supports racism and flagrantly denies Christian teachings on caring for the poor, the sick, and the refugee. He is militantly hostile to Christianity. This is the kind of man the southern baptists want at their convention. Very telling.

Jemar Tisby gets this right:

Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to speak to the Southern Baptist Convention on Wednesday, and the evangelical leaders who approved this have just re-committed themselves to the tacit support of a racist, xenophobic, sexist administration and those who support it.

This is not simply about having a Republican official speak at the denomination’s biggest meeting. It’s about this particular administration. This president has engendered particular division among evangelicals and has alienated many black people. A journalist called the steady leak of black members from white evangelical churches a “quiet exodus.” It’s about to get louder.

This move also reinforces the reflexive association of white evangelicalism with Republicanism. I should not be surprised at this move, but it’s still baffling and utterly oblivious.

Last year’s annual meeting featured the alt-right fiasco. This year everyone thought the story would be about the SBC’s #metoo moment. Now they’ve found another way to make things even worse. I will be watching Pence’s speech tomorrow very closely.

Was The Country Ready For Obama?

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Was the country ready for a black president? If Obama advisor Ben Rhodes is to be believed, Obama himself privately wrestled with this question after the 2016 election. Peter Baker reports on Rhodes’ new memoir:

Riding in a motorcade in Lima, Peru, shortly after the 2016 election, President Barack Obama was struggling to understand Donald J. Trump’s victory.

“What if we were wrong?” he asked aides riding with him in the armored presidential limousine.

He had read a column asserting that liberals had forgotten how important identity was to people and had promoted an empty cosmopolitan globalism that made many feel left behind. “Maybe we pushed too far,” Mr. Obama said. “Maybe people just want to fall back into their tribe.”

His aides reassured him that he still would have won had he been able to run for another term and that the next generation had more in common with him than with Mr. Trump. Mr. Obama, the first black man elected president, did not seem convinced. “Sometimes I wonder whether I was 10 or 20 years too early,” he said.

In the weeks after Mr. Trump’s election, Mr. Obama went through multiple emotional stages, according to a new book by his longtime adviser Benjamin J. Rhodes. At times, the departing president took the long view, at other points, he flashed anger. He called Mr. Trump a “cartoon” figure who cared more about his crowd sizes than any particular policy. And he expressed rare self-doubt, wondering whether he had misjudged his own influence on American history.

This is a fascinating window into President Obama’s state of mind after the election. A few thoughts:

1. What does it mean to be “too early”? If the timing of progress is measured by the scale of the backlash to it, then the civil rights movement was too early, and by a lot more than a decade or two. Would it have been better to listen to the white moderates in the 50s and slow down? This isn’t even a question most people consider because it seems obviously wrong. When freedom is not demanded, it is not granted. If we’re thinking about backlash, emancipation was about a century too early! Justice can’t wait for oppressors to change their mind.

In the immediate shock of the backlash I understand why Obama would feel as he did, but this is what change usually looks like. Only after the fact, with the passage of time, do we craft tales of progress out of the chaos and uncertainty through which people actually lived.

2. Still, I continue to be astonished by the preternatural restraint Obama showed throughout his presidency. In the face of the Republican Party’s descent into outright racism and conspiracy theory, how could Obama not wonder, on an emotional level, every single day of his presidency, whether he had arrived too soon? I had profound moral disagreements with President Obama, but he demonstrated a decency and strength of character that is sorely missed.

In this respect I am a staunch social conservative. I have an old-fashioned belief that the moral standards of our entertainers and leaders really matter, not only for their jobs, but for setting an agenda and tone for the entire country. I hate that our popular culture is a cesspool of sex and violence. I hate that pornography is mainstream and acceptable. I hate that our President is an evil man who embodies all these things. I miss President Obama!

3. Obama probably did misjudge his influence on American history, and would have been well-served by more self-doubt throughout his presidency. This was one of his weaknesses.

4. A lot of this isn’t about Obama. We’ve probably underestimated the degree to which sexism played a role in the 2016 election. All else being equal, it seems there are a significant number of Americans who would rather be led by stupid men than competent women.

Slavery Might Influence Your Political Opinions

9780691176741Nearly 70 years ago, in his classic study of southern politics, V.O. Key wrote, “Whatever phase of the southern political process one seeks to understand, sooner or later the trail of inquiry leads to the Negro.” Key’s explanation for the uniqueness of southern politics was the line of black-belt counties (so named for their soil) stretching through the Deep South and along the Mississippi River. These rich agricultural counties had high black populations because of their central role in the antebellum slave economy.

According to Key, the dominance of these counties in their respective states created a sectional bloc in national affairs, while factionalizing politics within the states themselves. Exerting an influence out of all proportion to their population, white elites in these counties built a uniquely southern brand of politics concerned with their very particular circumstances. As Key wrote, “In these areas a real problem of politics, broadly considered, is the maintenance of control by a white minority.”

Contemporary scholars have built on many of Key’s findings. These counties are definitely unique, and the white voters in them are among the most conservative and racially reactionary in the country. Why is this so?

A new book argues that what we are seeing in this region is the direct legacy of slavery on contemporary political attitudes. I plan to read the whole thing, but for now I am settling for the introduction, which the publisher has made available online. The authors write:

We argue in this book that political attitudes persist over time, making history a key mechanism in determining contemporary political attitudes…We argue that Southern slavery has had a lasting local effect on Southern political attitudes and therefore on regional and national politics. Whites who live in parts of the South that were heavily reliant on slavery and the inexpensive labor that the institution provided…are more conservative today, more cool toward African Americans, and less amenable to policies that many believe could promote black progress. By contrast, whites who live in places without an economic and political tradition rooted in the prevalence of slavery…are, by comparison, more progressive politically and on racial issues. These regional patterns have persisted historically, with attitudes being passed down over time and through generations.

Wouldn’t it be ironic if you oppose reparations for slavery because it was “too long ago” but the influence of slavery on your own political views is actually the reason you oppose reparations? Ha.

The correlation the authors describe has been understood for a long time. It is a powerful clue, but it doesn’t establish cause.  How can they demonstrate that slavery and contemporary political attitudes really are linked in a causal way?

I’ll be curious to see how these authors, as political scientists, build a theoretical framework for making this argument. In brief, they contend that the link between slavery and contemporary attitudes has been transmitted by a mixture of institutions (Jim Crow laws for example) and “family socialization and community norms.” Knowing what we do about how sticky political affiliations can be across generations, it would be hard to believe that the political influence of a centuries-long society-defining institution like slavery could dry up in just a century and half. The trick is to try to measure and show that influence in a tangible way.

A lot of people don’t realize that there is an influential white southern political tradition based on opposition to the post-civil war constitution, democracy, and human rights. This is one of the most influential political traditions in American history. We don’t like to think or talk about it as much as the tradition of equality and freedom, but these visions have been running alongside each other throughout our history. It’s still active now. For voters influenced by that white southern political tradition, Trump’s racism and hostility to the rule of law likely make him more appealing, not less.

The Anti-Family Administration

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Immigrants in Texas, May 9. Loren Elliott/Reuters

It’s interesting to imagine how different American politics would be if there was a significant pro-family faction in the Republican Party. A lot of people are under the illusion that there already is such a thing, but maybe you can understand my skepticism:

The number of migrant children held in U.S. government custody without their parents has surged 21 percent in the past month, according to the latest figures, an increase driven by the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” crackdown on families who cross the border illegally.

Although the government has not disclosed how many children have been separated from their parents as a result of the new measures, the Department of Health and Human Services said Tuesday that it had 10,773 migrant children in its custody, up from 8,886 on April 29.

Under the “zero tolerance” approach rolled out last month by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, anyone who crosses into the United States illegally will face criminal prosecution. In most cases, that means parents who arrive with children remain in federal jails while their children are sent to HHS shelters.

Those shelters are at 95 percent capacity, an HHS official said Tuesday, and the agency is preparing to add potentially thousands of new bed spaces in the coming weeks. HHS also is exploring the possibility of housing children on military bases but views the measure as a “last option,” according to the HHS official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the agency’s preparations.

White evangelicals will no doubt cheer this on. It’s not their families on the line, so who cares?

Trump Supporters Can’t Make Credible Moral Claims

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Michael Gerson is at it again:

At the Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan said: “We see moral relativism becoming more and more pervasive in our culture. Identity politics and tribalism have grown on top of this.” Ryan went on to talk about Catholic social doctrine, with its emphasis on “solidarity” with the poor and weak, as “a perfect antidote to what ails our culture.”

There is a profound disconnect when a Trump supporter says “moral relativism” and imagines that people of goodwill can believe he is sincere. So Gerson goes in for the kill:

And how did Ryan address the issue of Trump’s habit of dehumanization at the Catholic Prayer Breakfast? By avoidance, under a thick layer of hypocrisy. The Wisconsin Republican complained that politicians are too often in “survival mode” — trying to “get through the day,” rather than reflecting on and applying Catholic social teaching.

Ryan was effectively criticizing the whole theory of his speakership. He has been in survival mode from the first day of Trump’s presidency, making the case that publicly burning bridges with the president would undermine the ability to pursue his vision of the common good (including tax reform and regulatory relief). This, while a weak argument, is at least a consistent one. But by making the Christian commitment to human dignity relative to other political aims, Ryan can no longer speak of “moral relativism” as the defining threat of our time.

It is instructive to think about what moral claim Ryan could have reasonably made. Is there anything he could have said that people of sincere Christian belief could take at face value? Is there any moral principle he could have laid claim to without it ringing hollow? I can’t think of one. I believe that Ryan is sincere in his Catholic faith. We’re all pretty good at living with contradiction. But I find it fascinating that Ryan doesn’t feel a profound sense of shame when he talks about morality in a public setting (or private for that matter). This is what supporting Trump does to you. You become a hypocrite simply by telling your kids to be honest and respectful.

Gerson continues:

My tradition of evangelical Protestantism is, if anything, even worse. According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, white evangelical Protestants are the least likely group in America to affirm an American responsibility to accept refugees. Evangelicals insist on the centrality and inerrancy of scripture and condemn society for refusing to follow biblical norms — and yet, when it comes to verse after verse requiring care for the stranger, they don’t merely ignore this mandate; they oppose it.

This represents the failure of Christian political leadership — not only from the speaker but from most other elected religious conservatives, too. Even more, it indicates the failure of the Christian church in the moral formation of its members, who remain largely untutored in the most important teachings of their own faith.

Christians who are following Trump (by that I mean they feel a strong sense of support and approval for him) are not following Jesus. To love the one is to hate the other. We shouldn’t shrink back from exposing their sin and calling them to repentance. Christians who say we need to work hard to maintain unity in the church in this divisive era are correct in a limited sense, but risk making a serious category error. Trump followers are not engaging in reasonable political behavior; they are separating themselves from Christianity and working to oppress their fellow Christians. It is hard to stay unified with people who do that.

 

Is President Trump Patriotic?

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There is a bizarre assumption at work in our politics today. Many people have got the idea in their heads that the President of the United States is patriotic. Ordinarily, this is such a safe assumption that we don’t really have to think about it. Yes, Ronald Reagan was patriotic. So was Barack Obama. All but the most rabid partisans will acknowledge that.

But when we extend the same presumption to Donald Trump, we’re actually reading against the evidence. Of course we’d like to believe the president of the United States is patriotic. But in this case there isn’t really any reason to think so.

In an interesting item today, Jonathan Chait calls Trump the “most unpatriotic president ever.” This isn’t true. That honor belongs to Andrew Johnson, who believed that people who had lately been killing as many United States soldiers as possible deserved more sympathy than citizens who remained loyal to the United States. Trump does appear to clear the low bar that Johnson set, so you can at least say that for him.

As Chait notes, the case that Trump is unpatriotic does not rest on asserting that one brand of patriotism is the only “real” patriotism. You can have Obama’s “more perfect union” kind of patriotism, or the “my country right or wrong” sort, or even Johnson’s execrable brand of patriotism explicitly premised on white supremacy. All of these sorts of patriotism, even if loathsome, can coherently reflect a genuine pride in one’s idea of a national community.

But profiteering at the public’s expense seems hard to square with any brand of patriotism we know of. It would be really odd for a patriotic person to use the office of the presidency to enrich himself at the risk of damaging the country. But of course, this is exactly what Trump does. Maybe the simple answer is the right one: he just doesn’t care about the country because he only cares about himself.

As Chait mentions, Trump also regularly insults the United States in terms that would make conservatives apoplectic if uttered by a Democratic President. Maybe—and I’m just spitballing here—he insults the country because that’s how he really feels about it. And maybe, just maybe, his lack of patriotism is part of the reason he hates Americans who demonstrate a sincere desire to improve their country.

No One Criticizes White Evangelicals Harder than White Evangelicals

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Some people might think losing your soul and everything that matters and getting a pen in return is a bad deal, but some people just don’t appreciate a good pen. H/T John Fea

After posting a couple examples of 1960s-era white evangelical debate yesterday, today I present a master class in criticism for the crisis of our era. David French has impeccable conservative credentials, is a devout Christian, and will frequently write things that infuriate you if you’re a liberal. Precisely because of all that, his takedowns of white evangelical Trump supporters are rather extraordinary:

Taken together, [the words of Scripture] indicate that our life on this Earth should glorify God, demonstrate profound virtue, and count even our lives forfeit in the pursuit of eternal truth. We are told — promised, even — that in living this life we should expect the world’s scorn. We are told — promised, even — that we will suffer trials of many kinds, and those trials can include brutal persecution.

We are not told, however, to compromise our moral convictions for the sake of earthly relief, no matter how dire the crisis. We are not told to rationalize and justify sinful actions to preserve political influence or a popular audience. We are not told that the ends of good policies justify silence in the face of sin. Indeed — and this message goes out specifically to the politicians and pundits who go on television and say things they do not believe (you know who you are) to protect this administration and to preserve their presence in the halls of the power — there is specific scripture that applies to you:

“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!”

The president of the United States has paid hush money to a porn star — apparently to cover up a tryst that occurred shortly after the birth of his son. And that’s hardly his only affair. More than a dozen women have accused him of sexual assault or some form of sexual harassment. He has been caught lying, repeatedly and regularly. Yet there are numerous Christians of real influence and prominence who not only won’t dare utter a negative word about the president, they’ll vigorously turn the tables on his critics, noting the specks in his critics’ eyes while ignoring the sequoia-sized beam in their own.

I’m sorry, but you cannot compartmentalize this behavior, declare that it’s “just politics,” and take solace that you’re a good spouse or parent, that you serve in your church and volunteer for mission trips, or that you’re relatively charitable and kind in other contexts. It’s sin, and it’s sin that is collapsing the Evangelical moral witness.

Read it all. I’m reminded of my own little contribution to this genre, “Things Trump Supporters Can’t Teach Their Children.” Somehow Trump’s evangelical defenders don’t realize they’ve forfeited their ability to make any moral claims. The oddest thing about it is that they seem genuinely unaware that they have thrown away their Christian witness.

A New Study Suggests the Christian Right Is Souring Americans On Religion

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One of the most important changes in the American religious landscape in recent decades is the dramatic rise in the numbers of people claiming no religious affiliation (now around a quarter of the population). Everyone agrees that this is happening, but why is it happening? A new article in Political Research Quarterly says the Christian Right has a lot to do with it. The authors argue that the rise of the “nones” is not consistent across the country, but is instead correlated with the clout and visibility of Christian Right politics in various places:

We argue that the rate of change is uneven across the states, driven by the salient policy controversy linked to Christian Right activism. Our findings suggest that Christian Right influence in state politics seems to negatively affect religion, such that religious attachments fade in the face of visible Christian Right policy victories.

If they’re correct, we may see this trend intensify in the Trump era. Whatever you think of the Christian Right, in decades past there was at least a case to be made that the movement had some sincerely held convictions. Now, it is impossible for anyone not in that bubble to take their claims about anything seriously.

We’ll have to wait and see the data that emerges on religious affiliation in the coming years. The authors note that this wouldn’t be the first time political engagement appeared to reduce religious affiliation:

American religion has faced similar trade-offs before. The turbulent 1960s witnessed a new breed of religious leaders from more liberal, mainline Protestant denominations taking positions on the pressing issues of the day, often (from the perspective of organizational maintenance, at least) to disastrous effect. Clergy involvement in the civil rights and antiwar movements precipitated losses in lay membership. For instance, one survey found that nearly two-thirds (63%) of church leaders who participated in acts of antiwar civil disobedience reported that their churches had subsequently lost members (Quinley 1974). Another study found that Protestant ministers who were involved in efforts at desegregation faced increasingly empty pews as their flocks bolted in favor of other congregations whose leaders espoused more pro-segregationist views or stayed out of the matter altogether (Campbell and Pettigrew 1959). These “storms in the churches” (Hadden 1969) are often credited with leading to membership declines among more liberal mainline Protestant churches (e.g., Wuthnow 1999).

In light of this history, there is a certain irony to the present situation in which elements of the Christian Right find themselves, as the early movement modeled many of its tactics after those employed by mainline churches during the civil rights movement (Findlay 1990). And just as involvement in the controversies of the day ushered in a period of organizational decline in which parishioners deserted mainline Protestantism in droves, it appears as though the Christian Right is following a strikingly similar path.

It may be that large numbers of Americans across the political spectrum want to believe that there are somehow discrete domains separate from one another—one that we call “religion” and another that we call “politics”—and that these Americans are inclined to withdraw from affiliation with those who dare to transgress those imagined borders.

As we imagine religion as something private and symbolic and of the mind, we look askance at those who take their religion as the basis of their public and political acts. I think that’s a mistake. We need the public activism that comes from the wellsprings of faith. You can’t applaud the civil rights movement and then lament the influence of religion in public life.

The problem with the Christian Right is not that it’s political religion but that it’s political religion based in fear and hatred. In response to this destructive movement, there is an understandable desire to cut religion out of politics, or vice versa, but these are pipe dreams. You can choose the politics of your religion, but apolitical religion is not one of your choices. A so-called apolitical religion is merely one whose politics its adherents have made to seem natural or sacred.

Hopefully evangelicals beyond the Christian Right can see the rise of the “nones” as a good thing. Insofar as people are discarding religion in response to the Christian Right, they are demonstrating more openness to the claims of Jesus, not less. The challenge for Christians moving forward is to practice politics rooted in love for the other and the good of the community. Whether we like it or not, that’s not Christian common sense; it’s a political agenda.