2021: What should we expect on the religion scene?

I recently joined Engy Abdelkader, Jill Jacobs, John Inazu, Johnnie Moore, Gerardo Marti, David Gibson, Andre Henry, Asma Uddin, Robin Fretwell Wilson, and Jonathan Calvillo in thinking about what we can expect on the religious scene in 2021. Thanks to Yonat Shimron of Religion News Service for putting this piece together.

Here is my contribution:

In 2020, American evangelicals had an opportunity to move beyond the kind of one or two issue politics that have defined their public identity for four decades. They failed miserably. As historians look back on evangelical life during this tumultuous year, they will uncover a religious group that mostly ignored racial injustice, preferred individual liberties over care for their neighbors amid a deadly pandemic, and supported a narcissistic president who convinced them Supreme Court justices were more important than truth, empathy and basic human decency. As local pastors struggled to hold their politically divided congregations together by keeping them focused on spiritual matters, they learned their efforts toward shaping the moral lives of their flocks through sermons about racial justice, neighbor-love and compassionate politics could not compete with the power of conservative media and the loud voices of Christian right activists. In 2021, some evangelicals will remain citizens of the shadow government Trump is building through the millions of dollars donated to his “election fraud” efforts, while others will assess the damage of the Trump years, try to heal the wounds in their congregations and attempt to restore evangelicalism’s gospel witness.

Read the entire piece here.

A historian imagines how a history textbook would cover 2020

c7e71-textbooks

Historian James West Davidson is one of the authors of Nation of Nations: A Narrative History of the American Republic, a popular college and high school history textbook. Over at The Atlantic, he imagines what a chapter on 2020 might look like in a future textbook.

Here is a taste:

When a large crowd of demonstrators gathered around the White House in Washington, the Secret Service ushered President Trump into an underground bunker. Worried about appearing weak, and determined to “dominate” the situation, Trump spoke several days later. “I am your president of law and order,” he declared. At the same time, police and D.C. National Guard units were ordered to clear peaceful protesters from an area facing the White House, so the president could walk to a church and be photographed holding a Bible. General James Mattis, Trump’s former defense secretary, joined other military leaders in condemning the president for being divisive and using military force to disperse and control citizens.

In the two weeks that followed, the protests grew larger. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in more than 2,000 cities and towns. Perhaps more astonishing, similar demonstrations spread around the world to France, Sweden, and Britain, as well as Germany, Kenya, and Australia. “I’ve never seen so many emotions expressed by so many people in my whole lifetime of protesting,” said one Australian. “I want to and need to be here,”commented a Denver marcher.

Both the coronavirus pandemic and the protests for racial justice hit home because they seemed urgent, matters of life and death. “I can’t breathe,” chanted marchers, echoing George Floyd’s cry of pain. COVID-19, too, denied life’s breath. Though 2020 may have been the breaking point for America’s public-health system and the country’s institutionalized racism, these twin crises had been building over decades, if not longer.

The threat of a viral pandemic had surfaced several times in the 21st century, as diseases that originated in animals found new opportunities to infect humans. An earlier deadly outbreak of a coronavirus occurred in 2003, in a disease known as SARS. None spread as widely as the virus that caused COVID-19 would later, but with each new strain, scientists warned that it was only a matter of time before a more serious pandemic struck. The Ebola virus of 2014 persuaded then-President Barack Obama to establish an Ebola task force and an emergency fund designed to prepare for future outbreaks. The Trump administration disbanded the global-health security team in 2018.

Read the entire piece here.

Don’t Make Too Much About the Slip in White Evangelical Support for Trump

Trump and Bible

I have a now talked with a few media outlets about this. They are very eager to discuss a recent New York Times article titled “Trump’s Approval Slips Where He Can’t Afford to Lost It: Among Evangelicals.” Here is Jeremy Peters:

Unnerved by his slipping poll numbers and his failure to take command of the moral and public health crises straining the country, religious conservatives have expressed concern in recent weeks to the White House and the Trump campaign about the president’s political standing.

Their rising discomfort spilled out into the open this week when the founder of the Christian Coalition, Pat Robertson, scolded the president for taking such a belligerent tone as the country erupted in sorrow and anger over the police killing of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, in Minneapolis.

Read the entire piece here.

Three quick thoughts on this:

  1. As I wrote last week, Pat Robertson does not have the influence over white evangelicals in the way he did in the 1980s and 1990s. His criticism of Trump’s speech and photo-op will not move the needle. I have no doubt that Robertson will vote for Trump in November. Moreover, many white evangelicals who are not happy with the way Trump has handled the coronavirus or the Floyd protests will still vote for him in November.
  2. Remember, white evangelicals think some moral issues are more important than others. Abortion and “religious liberty” (as white evangelicals understand it) will always trump racism and presidential leadership when it comes to electing a president. Even a moderate Democratic like Joe Biden is a threat.
  3. Having said that, even a small slip in evangelical support for Trump in places like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Florida could cost him the election.

Barack Obama Addresses the Killing of George Floyd and the Social Unrest it Has Precipitated

Peace Floyd

From Medium:

As millions of people across the country take to the streets and raise their voices in response to the killing of George Floyd and the ongoing problem of unequal justice, many people have reached out asking how we can sustain momentum to bring about real change.

Ultimately, it’s going to be up to a new generation of activists to shape strategies that best fit the times. But I believe there are some basic lessons to draw from past efforts that are worth remembering.

First, the waves of protests across the country represent a genuine and legitimate frustration over a decades-long failure to reform police practices and the broader criminal justice system in the United States. The overwhelming majority of participants have been peaceful, courageous, responsible, and inspiring. They deserve our respect and support, not condemnation — something that police in cities like Camden and Flint have commendably understood.

On the other hand, the small minority of folks who’ve resorted to violence in various forms, whether out of genuine anger or mere opportunism, are putting innocent people at risk, compounding the destruction of neighborhoods that are often already short on services and investment and detracting from the larger cause. I saw an elderly black woman being interviewed today in tears because the only grocery store in her neighborhood had been trashed. If history is any guide, that store may take years to come back. So let’s not excuse violence, or rationalize it, or participate in it. If we want our criminal justice system, and American society at large, to operate on a higher ethical code, then we have to model that code ourselves.

Second, I’ve heard some suggest that the recurrent problem of racial bias in our criminal justice system proves that only protests and direct action can bring about change, and that voting and participation in electoral politics is a waste of time. I couldn’t disagree more. The point of protest is to raise public awareness, to put a spotlight on injustice, and to make the powers that be uncomfortable; in fact, throughout American history, it’s often only been in response to protests and civil disobedience that the political system has even paid attention to marginalized communities. But eventually, aspirations have to be translated into specific laws and institutional practices — and in a democracy, that only happens when we elect government officials who are responsive to our demands.

Moreover, it’s important for us to understand which levels of government have the biggest impact on our criminal justice system and police practices. When we think about politics, a lot of us focus only on the presidency and the federal government. And yes, we should be fighting to make sure that we have a president, a Congress, a U.S. Justice Department, and a federal judiciary that actually recognize the ongoing, corrosive role that racism plays in our society and want to do something about it. But the elected officials who matter most in reforming police departments and the criminal justice system work at the state and local levels.

It’s mayors and county executives that appoint most police chiefs and negotiate collective bargaining agreements with police unions. It’s district attorneys and state’s attorneys that decide whether or not to investigate and ultimately charge those involved in police misconduct. Those are all elected positions. In some places, police review boards with the power to monitor police conduct are elected as well. Unfortunately, voter turnout in these local races is usually pitifully low, especially among young people — which makes no sense given the direct impact these offices have on social justice issues, not to mention the fact that who wins and who loses those seats is often determined by just a few thousand, or even a few hundred, votes.

So the bottom line is this: if we want to bring about real change, then the choice isn’t between protest and politics. We have to do both. We have to mobilize to raise awareness, and we have to organize and cast our ballots to make sure that we elect candidates who will act on reform.

Finally, the more specific we can make demands for criminal justice and police reform, the harder it will be for elected officials to just offer lip service to the cause and then fall back into business as usual once protests have gone away. The content of that reform agenda will be different for various communities. A big city may need one set of reforms; a rural community may need another. Some agencies will require wholesale rehabilitation; others should make minor improvements. Every law enforcement agency should have clear policies, including an independent body that conducts investigations of alleged misconduct. Tailoring reforms for each community will require local activists and organizations to do their research and educate fellow citizens in their community on what strategies work best.

But as a starting point, here’s a report and toolkit developed by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and based on the work of the Task Force on 21st Century Policing that I formed when I was in the White House. And if you’re interested in taking concrete action, we’ve also created a dedicated site at the Obama Foundation to aggregate and direct you to useful resources and organizations who’ve been fighting the good fight at the local and national levels for years.

I recognize that these past few months have been hard and dispiriting — that the fear, sorrow, uncertainty, and hardship of a pandemic have been compounded by tragic reminders that prejudice and inequality still shape so much of American life. But watching the heightened activism of young people in recent weeks, of every race and every station, makes me hopeful. If, going forward, we can channel our justifiable anger into peaceful, sustained, and effective action, then this moment can be a real turning point in our nation’s long journey to live up to our highest ideals.

Let’s get to work.

As millions of people across the country take to the streets and raise their voices in response to the killing of George Floyd and the ongoing problem of unequal justice, many people have reached out asking how we can sustain momentum to bring about real change.

Ultimately, it’s going to be up to a new generation of activists to shape strategies that best fit the times. But I believe there are some basic lessons to draw from past efforts that are worth remembering.

First, the waves of protests across the country represent a genuine and legitimate frustration over a decades-long failure to reform police practices and the broader criminal justice system in the United States. The overwhelming majority of participants have been peaceful, courageous, responsible, and inspiring. They deserve our respect and support, not condemnation — something that police in cities like Camden and Flint have commendably understood.

On the other hand, the small minority of folks who’ve resorted to violence in various forms, whether out of genuine anger or mere opportunism, are putting innocent people at risk, compounding the destruction of neighborhoods that are often already short on services and investment and detracting from the larger cause. I saw an elderly black woman being interviewed today in tears because the only grocery store in her neighborhood had been trashed. If history is any guide, that store may take years to come back. So let’s not excuse violence, or rationalize it, or participate in it. If we want our criminal justice system, and American society at large, to operate on a higher ethical code, then we have to model that code ourselves.

Second, I’ve heard some suggest that the recurrent problem of racial bias in our criminal justice system proves that only protests and direct action can bring about change, and that voting and participation in electoral politics is a waste of time. I couldn’t disagree more. The point of protest is to raise public awareness, to put a spotlight on injustice, and to make the powers that be uncomfortable; in fact, throughout American history, it’s often only been in response to protests and civil disobediencethat the political system has even paid attention to marginalized communities. But eventually, aspirations have to be translated into specific laws and institutional practices — and in a democracy, that only happens when we elect government officials who are responsive to our demands.

Moreover, it’s important for us to understand which levels of government have the biggest impact on our criminal justice system and police practices. When we think about politics, a lot of us focus only on the presidency and the federal government. And yes, we should be fighting to make sure that we have a president, a Congress, a U.S. Justice Department, and a federal judiciary that actually recognize the ongoing, corrosive role that racism plays in our society and want to do something about it. But the elected officials who matter most in reforming police departments and the criminal justice system work at the state and local levels.

It’s mayors and county executives that appoint most police chiefs and negotiate collective bargaining agreements with police unions. It’s district attorneys and state’s attorneys that decide whether or not to investigate and ultimately charge those involved in police misconduct. Those are all elected positions. In some places, police review boards with the power to monitor police conduct are elected as well. Unfortunately, voter turnout in these local races is usually pitifully low, especially among young people — which makes no sense given the direct impact these offices have on social justice issues, not to mention the fact that who wins and who loses those seats is often determined by just a few thousand, or even a few hundred, votes.

So the bottom line is this: if we want to bring about real change, then the choice isn’t between protest and politics. We have to do both. We have to mobilize to raise awareness, and we have to organize and cast our ballots to make sure that we elect candidates who will act on reform.

Finally, the more specific we can make demands for criminal justice and police reform, the harder it will be for elected officials to just offer lip service to the cause and then fall back into business as usual once protests have gone away. The content of that reform agenda will be different for various communities. A big city may need one set of reforms; a rural community may need another. Some agencies will require wholesale rehabilitation; others should make minor improvements. Every law enforcement agency should have clear policies, including an independent body that conducts investigations of alleged misconduct. Tailoring reforms for each community will require local activists and organizations to do their research and educate fellow citizens in their community on what strategies work best.

But as a starting point, here’s a report and toolkit developed by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and based on the work of the Task Force on 21st Century Policing that I formed when I was in the White House. And if you’re interested in taking concrete action, we’ve also created a dedicated site at the Obama Foundation to aggregate and direct you to useful resources and organizations who’ve been fighting the good fight at the local and national levels for years.

I recognize that these past few months have been hard and dispiriting — that the fear, sorrow, uncertainty, and hardship of a pandemic have been compounded by tragic reminders that prejudice and inequality still shape so much of American life. But watching the heightened activism of young people in recent weeks, of every race and every station, makes me hopeful. If, going forward, we can channel our justifiable anger into peaceful, sustained, and effective action, then this moment can be a real turning point in our nation’s long journey to live up to our highest ideals.

Let’s get to work.

Encouraging Words from Bishop Michael Curry

Curry

Today is Pentecost Sunday, the day the Holy Spirit came upon the church in Acts 2. This year, Pentecost Sunday falls on a weekend in which race riots are tearing the country apart. It is a day that we as a nation must come face-to-face with racial injustice. If you are an evangelical Christian, I hope that your church brought these two things together in some way. Not all evangelical congregations did this. Others did not even mention Pentecost Sunday or race in America.

(Let me know how your evangelical church addressed Pentecost Sunday and/or the George Floyd death today).

On days like this, I find myself gravitating toward brothers and sisters who do not identify with white evangelical faith. I am reminded that the white evangelical church is often inept at dealing with the moments like this. We must do better. We need to speak the truth of the Kingdom of God and it’s “on earth” (as it is in heaven) dimensions to a broken country. We must do what we can to be agents of reconciliation. We must draw on the rich history of the church and celebrate the power of the Holy Spirit with millions of other Christians around the world on a day like this. We must be reminded of what happened in Acts 2.

Today I found spiritual comfort from Episcopal Bishop Michael Curry’s words in The Washington Post:

I am an African American man, blessed to serve as the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. In my 67 years, I have seen our country change a great deal. But what happened to George FloydBreonna TaylorAhmaud ArberySandra BlandPaul CastawayMelissa VenturaEric GarnerMichael BrownTrayvon Martin and countless others has been a sad constant.

Back in the 1960s and ’70s, my father ran the Human Relations Commission for the city of Buffalo. He organized sensitivity trainings for the police department, many of whose members he respected and liked. He also warned me to be careful whenever I interacted with the police, because he knew the dangers for a young black man were real. As events in Minneapolis have revealed, that danger has not changed. What has changed is technology: Today, cellphones document racial terror. That is why we see frustration, pain and anger rippling through our streets today. We should all feel the same.

But that frustration must not lead to fatalism or despair. We are not condemned to live this way forever. I recommend a different path — the path of love.

Our nation’s heart breaks right now because we have strayed far from the path of love. Because love does not look like one man’s knee on another man’s neck, crushing the God-given life out of him. This is callous disregard for the life of another human being, shown in the willingness to snuff it out brutally as the unarmed victim pleads for mercy.

Love does not look like the harm being caused by some police or some protesters in our cities. Violence against any person is violence against a child of God, created in God’s image. And that ultimately is violence against God, which is blasphemy — the denial of the God whose love is the root of genuine justice and true human dignity and equality.

Love does not look like the silence and complicity of too many of us, who wish more for tranquility than justice.

“What does love look like? Not like this.” These words — spoken Thursday night by my friend Craig Loya, the newly elected Episcopal bishop of Minnesota — haunt me. I look at searing images of racialized violence across our country — against the backdrop of the disproportionate number of covid-19 victims who are black, brown and native — and I cannot help but notice love’s profound and tragic absence.

So what is the path of love? In times like these, how can we find it and follow it?

When I think about what love looks like, I see us channeling our holy rage into concrete, productive and powerful action. In this moment, love looks like voting for leadership at the local, state, and federal level that will help us to make lasting reform. Love looks like calling on officials and demanding they fulfill their duty to protect the dignity of every child of God.

Love looks like making the long-term commitment to racial healing, justice and truth-telling — knowing that, without intentional, ongoing intervention on the part of every person of good will, America will cling to its original, racist ways of being.

Love looks like working with local police departments to build relationships with the community and develop mechanisms that hold officers accountable. It means ensuring that no police officer with a history of unauthorized force or racialized violence is shielded and allowed to endanger the lives of those they’ve sworn to protect and serve.

Love looks like all of us — people of every race and religion and national origin and political affiliation — standing up and saying “Enough! We can do better than this. We can be better than this.”

What does love look like? I believe that is what Jesus of Nazareth taught us. It looks like the biblical Good Samaritan, an outsider who spends his time and money healing somebody he doesn’t know or even like.

What America has seen in the past several days may leave us wondering what we can possibly do in this moment to be good Samaritans — to help heal our country, even the parts we don’t know or like. But we have the answer. Now is the time for a national renewal of the ideals of human equality, liberty, and justice for all. Now is the time to commit to cherishing and respecting all lives, and to honoring the dignity and infinite worth of every child of God. Now is the time for all of us to show — in our words, our actions, and our lives — what love really looks like.

Have You Seen Ben Sasse’s Commencement Speech?

What is this?

Watch Sasse mock the graduating class of 2020, take multiple shots at China, make fun of the name “Jeremy,” tell kids that they are heavier than his generation, belittle “gym teachers,” and tell students not to study psychology.

As the father of a 19-year-old, I do not think Sasse is connecting with many graduates here.

UPDATE: My 19-year-old tells me some of it was funny, but not as a commencement address.

 

Obama to the Class of 2020: “Things are so screwed up” because people with “important jobs” act like “little kids.”

Transcript:

Hi, everybody. Aniyah, thank you for that beautiful introduction. I could not be prouder of everything you’ve done in your time with the Obama Foundation.

And of course, I couldn’t be prouder of all of you in the graduating Class of 2020 — as well as the teachers, and the coaches, and most of all, parents and family who guided have you along the way.

Now graduating is a big achievement under any circumstances. Some of you have had to overcome serious obstacles along the way, whether it was an illness, or a parent losing a job, or living in a neighborhood where people too often count you out. Along with the usual challenges of growing up, all of you have had to deal with the added pressures of social media, reports of school shootings, and the specter of climate change. And then, just as you’re about to celebrate having made it through, just as you’ve been looking forward to proms and senior nights, graduation ceremonies — and, let’s face it, a whole bunch of parties — the world is turned upside down by a global pandemic. And as much as I’m sure you love your parents, I’ll bet that being stuck at home with them and playing board games or watching Tiger King on TV is not exactly how you envisioned the last few months of your senior year.

Now I’ll be honest with you — the disappointments of missing a live graduation — those will pass pretty quick. I don’t remember much from my own high school graduation. I know that not having to sit there and listen to a commencement speaker isn’t all that bad — mine usually go on way too long. Also, not that many people look great in those caps, especially if you have big ears like me. And you’ll have plenty of time to catch up with your friends once the immediate public health crisis is over.

But what remains true is that your graduation marks your passage into adulthood — the time when you begin to take charge of your own life. It’s when you get to decide what’s important to you: the kind of career you want to pursue. Who you want to build a family with. The values you want to live by. And given the current state of the world, that may be kind of scary.

If you’d planned on going away for college, getting dropped off at campus in the fall — that’s no longer a given. If you were planning to work while going to school, finding that first job is going to be tougher. Even families that are relatively well-off are dealing with massive uncertainty. Those who were struggling before — they’re hanging on by a thread.

All of which means that you’re going to have to grow up faster than some generations. This pandemic has shaken up the status quo and laid bare a lot of our country’s deep-seated problems — from massive economic inequality to ongoing racial disparities to a lack of basic health care for people who need it. It’s woken a lot of young people up to the fact that the old ways of doing things just don’t work; that it doesn’t matter how much money you make if everyone around you is hungry and sick; and that our society and our democracy only work when we think not just about ourselves, but about each other.

It’s also pulled the curtain back on another hard truth, something that we all have to eventually accept once our childhood comes to an end. All those adults that you used to think were in charge and knew what they were doing? Turns out that they don’t have all the answers. A lot of them aren’t even asking the right questions. So, if the world’s going to get better, it going to be up to you.

That realization may be kind of intimidating. But I hope it’s also inspiring. With all the challenges this country faces right now, nobody can tell you “no, you’re too young to understand” or “this is how it’s always been done.” Because with so much uncertainty, with everything suddenly up for grabs, this is your generation’s world to shape.

Since I’m one of the old guys, I won’t tell you what to do with this power that rests in your hands. But I’ll leave you with three quick pieces of advice.

First, don’t be afraid. America’s gone through tough times before — slavery, civil war, famine, disease, the Great Depression and 9/11. And each time we came out stronger, usually because a new generation, young people like you, learned from past mistakes and figured out how to make things better.

Second, do what you think is right. Doing what feels good, what’s convenient, what’s easy — that’s how little kids think. Unfortunately, a lot of so-called grown-ups, including some with fancy titles and important jobs, still think that way — which is why things are so screwed up.

I hope that instead, you decide to ground yourself in values that last, like honesty, hard work, responsibility, fairness, generosity, respect for others. You won’t get it right every time, you’ll make mistakes like we all do. But if you listen to the truth that’s inside yourself, even when it’s hard, even when its inconvenient, people will notice. They’ll gravitate towards you. And you’ll be part of the solution instead of part of the problem.

And finally, build a community. No one does big things by themselves. Right now, when people are scared, it’s easy to be cynical and say let me just look out for myself, or my family, or people who look or think or pray like me. But if we’re going to get through these difficult times; if we’re going to create a world where everybody has the opportunity to find a job, and afford college; if we’re going to save the environment and defeat future pandemics, then we’re going to have to do it together. So be alive to one another’s struggles. Stand up for one another’s rights. Leave behind all the old ways of thinking that divide us — sexism, racial prejudice, status, greed — and set the world on a different path.

*2020: The Year of _____*

2020

It is quite common for historians to write books with a year for a title.  Some examples:

Charles Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the America’s Before Columbus

Adam Goodheart, 1861: The Civil War Awakening

Louis Masur, 1831: Year of Eclipse

David Traxel, 1898: The Birth of the American Century

Michael Rapport, 1848: Year of Revolution

It will only be a matter of time before we start to see books about 2020. It is only March and we have already witnessed the third presidential impeachment in U.S. history and a major pandemic. And let’s not forget that we have a presidential election in November.

2020: The Year of ______