Trump is Down 13% With White Evangelicals

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Here are the results of the latest National Public Radio/PBS/Marist poll:

A new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll finds Trump’s approval rating down and his disapproval rating up from a month ago. He currently stands at 39 percent approve, 53 percent disapprove — a 7-point net change from December when his rating was 42 percent approve, 49 percent disapprove.

And the movement has come from within key portions of his base. He is:

  • Down significantly among suburban men, a net-positive approval rating of 51-to-39 percent to a net-negative of 42 percent approve, 48 percent disapprove. That’s a net change of down 18 percentage points.
  • Down a net of 13 points among white evangelicals, from 73-to-17 percent approve to 66-to-23 percent approve.
  • Down a net of 10 points among Republicans, from 90-to-7 percent approve to 83-to-10 percent.
  • Down marginally among white men without a college degree, from 56-to-34 percent approve to 50-to-35 percent approve, a net change downward of 7 points.

Read the rest here.

Why the Buzzfeed Story, if Inaccurate, Could Backfire on Trump

Here is some speculation:

Buzzfeed issued a story claiming that they had two sources who told them that Donald Trump told Michael Cohen to lie before Congress.  Twenty-four hours later, a spokesperson for Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Donald Trump’s connections with Russia, said that the story was “not accurate.”

As of now, Buzzfeed stands by the story:

And Trump’s counsel Rudy Giuliani has responded:

So if I read this correctly, Giuliani (and by extension Trump?) is affirming the integrity of the Mueller investigation.  So if Mueller is right about the Buzzfeed article, why wouldn’t he also be right about everything else in an investigation that Trump has described as a “witchhunt?”

Trump may win this battle.  But when Mueller’s report comes out and Trump denies its accuracy, his opponents will bring up this incident.  This incident only strengthens the integrity of the Mueller investigation in the long term.

Just some random thoughts for your Friday night.

Historian Yoni Appelbaum Makes a Case for the Impeachment of Donald Trump

If you are a fan of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast, you will remember our interview in Episode 3 with Yoni Appelbaum, historian and IDEAS editor at The Atlantic.  In this piece, Appelbaum makes a case for the impeachment of Donald Trump.  Here is a taste:

The oath of office is a president’s promise to subordinate his private desires to the public interest, to serve the nation as a whole rather than any faction within it. Trump displays no evidence that he understands these obligations. To the contrary, he has routinely privileged his self-interest above the responsibilities of the presidency. He has failed to disclose or divest himself from his extensive financial interests, instead using the platform of the presidency to promote them. This has encouraged a wide array of actors, domestic and foreign, to seek to influence his decisions by funneling cash to properties such as Mar-a-Lago (the “Winter White House,” as Trump has branded it) and his hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. Courts are now considering whether some of those payments violate the Constitution.

More troubling still, Trump has demanded that public officials put their loyalty to him ahead of their duty to the public. On his first full day in office, he ordered his press secretary to lie about the size of his inaugural crowd. He never forgave his first attorney general for failing to shut down investigations into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, and ultimately forced his resignation. “I need loyalty. I expect loyalty,” Trump told his first FBI director, and then fired him when he refused to pledge it.

Trump has evinced little respect for the rule of law, attempting to have the Department of Justice launch criminal probes into his critics and political adversaries. He has repeatedly attacked both Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Special Counsel Robert Mueller. His efforts to mislead, impede, and shut down Mueller’s investigation have now led the special counsel to consider whether the president obstructed justice.

As for the liberties guaranteed by the Constitution, Trump has repeatedly trampled upon them. He pledged to ban entry to the United States on the basis of religion, and did his best to follow through. He has attacked the press as the “enemy of the people” and barred critical outlets and reporters from attending his events. He has assailed black protesters. He has called for his critics in private industry to be fired from their jobs. He has falsely alleged that America’s electoral system is subject to massive fraud, impugning election results with which he disagrees as irredeemably tainted. Elected officials of both parties have repeatedly condemned such statements, which has only spurred the president to repeat them.

These actions are, in sum, an attack on the very foundations of America’s constitutional democracy.

Read the entire piece here.

Hey Liberty University, This is What Happens When You Get Into Bed with Donald Trump and “All the Best People” Who Work for Him

U.S. Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump shakes hands with Jerry Falwell Jr. during a campaign event in Sioux City Iowa

A top-level administrator at one of the largest universities in the world rigged online polls to promote Donald Trump as a great businessman.  These polls were used to puff Trump in preparation for his presidential run.  Cohen paid John Gauger, Liberty University’s Chief Information Officer, to manipulate the polls in Trump’s favor.  Gauger claims that Cohen paid him between $12K and $13K in a blue Walmart bag.  (Cohen claims he paid with a check, but that’s not really the point here).  Cohen says that Donald Trump directed him to find someone who could rig the polls.

Lindsay Ellis of The Chronicle of Higher Education reports:

President Trump’s former top lawyer paid Liberty University’s chief information officer to manipulate online polls in an effort to raise Trump’s profile before his successful presidential campaign, The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday. The news shows a deeper relationship than previously reported between the president and employees of the university, a private Christian institution located in Virginia and led by Jerry L. Falwell Jr., a prominent Trump ally.

The Liberty technology administrator, John Gauger, also created a Twitter account, @WomenForCohen, to promote the president’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, according to the Journal. “Strong, pit bull, sex symbol, no nonsense, business oriented, and ready to make a difference,” the account’s description read on Thursday.

In one post reviewed by The Chronicle, the @WomenForCohen account shared a photo of Cohen, Falwell, and his wife. “Love to see good #Christian people on board the #TrumpTrain #Liberty #Trump2016,” the account wrote. The Journal reported that a female friend of Gauger operated the @WomenForCohen account.

Gauger told the Journal he had been paid by Cohen with a blue Walmart bag filled with $12,000 to $13,000 in cash, as well as a boxing glove once used by a Brazilian athlete. Cohen disputed that characterization, telling the Journal that Gauger had been paid by check, not cash.

Those previously unreported connections are the latest in a longstanding series of ties between Trump and Liberty. Trump has delivered multiple speeches at Liberty in recent years, including at a 2017 commencement. An administrator and Liberty students also produced a film about a former firefighter who said he had heard God say that Trump would be the next president.

Read the entire piece here.

Jerry Falwell Jr, the president of Liberty University and a prominent court evangelical, said that he knew Gauger was working for Trump, but claims he did not know the nature of the work.  Frankly, I find the latter claim hard to believe.  When it comes to Trump, Falwell seems to know just about everything that happens on his campus.  He refused to allow the student newspaper to run an anti-Trump story. He prevented anti-Trumper Shane Claiborne and others from coming on campus to pray.  And he forced an anti-Trump member of the Board of Trustees (and longtime Falwell family friend) to resign.  Falwell is thorough.  How could he have missed the fact that one of his administrators was rigging polls to try to manipulate the American public on behalf of the man who Falwell has described as the evangelical “dream president.”

When I read this story I decided to take a look at Gauger’s @womenforcohen Twitter account.  The tweets reveal that this Liberty University employee got into political bed with Michael Cohen and, by extension, Donald Trump.  As I argued in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, this is what happens when you get too close to political power  As you read these tweets, please recall that Cohen is going to jail for violation of campaign finance laws and the person responsible for the tweets is a senior administrator at Liberty.

 

The Political Brilliance of Trump’s Fast Food Feast

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Writing at The Atlantic, Megan Garber suggests that Trump’s fast food dinner with the Clemson University football team was a masterful political move.  Here is a taste of her piece:

This was a thoroughly Trumpian strain of spectacle, its images meant to hijack attention and go viral. The president invited members of the press into the State Dining Room on Monday, before the diners were invited in, to take photos and shoot video of the tablescape, rendering an otherwise ordinary White House event—a victorious athletic team, rewarded with a presidential visit—into something remarkable. And the feast that ensued (“great American food,” Trump called it), was the distillation of some of his fondest visions of the country: corporate, homogeneous, teasing, unapologetic, and revolving, above all, around the whims of Donald Trump. Images of the president, presiding over piles of cardboard-boxed burgers, quickly attained their virality; there was pretty much no way for them not to. Trump bragged like so about his own role in the procuring of these postmodern loaves and fishes: “Because of the Shutdown I served them massive amounts of Fast Food (I paid), over 1000 hamburgers etc. Within one hour, it was all gone. Great guys and big eaters!”

A dinner of champions, with only one winner: The event was thus very little about the Clemson Tigers, whose fate, on Monday evening, was to dine on lukewarm Whoppers, and very much about the man who hosted them. The leader, that leader wants you to know, MacGyvered some McDonald’s, and in that fact is an argument not just about the powers of the one politician, but also about the limits of the others. The pragmatic reason for the McMeal, as the president noted, was the partial government shutdown, which Trump himself initiated, and which he refuses to end, and which has resulted in, among many other things, the reduction of staffers at the White House who might traditionally prepare a sumptuous feast for visiting dignitaries. (Adding to the limitations: a snowstorm in Washington, D.C., that kept even some non-furloughed workers homebound on Monday.)

The broader implications of the meal, though, are philosophical. Lurking at the edges of the shutdown—wrapped, along with Wendy, around those rows of wilted burgers—are deeper questions about what government ultimately is for, and about what government can truly accomplish on behalf of a vast and hectic nation. Trump’s feast was in that sense also an argument, one that aligns him, to an unusual degree, with the most conservative elements of the party he is steadily remaking in his own image: Government, all those neat lines of Big Macs insist, isn’t as important as some Americans have assumed it to be. Institutions, staffs, committed teams striving on behalf of the country: overrated. The government is shut down, and yet the Filets-O-Fish appeared nonetheless, each one alleging that, shutdown or no, the people shall have their feast. A McChicken in every pot.

Read the entire piece here.

What Would Lincoln Say?

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As Donald Trump served hamburgers and fries to the Clemson University football team, Abraham Lincoln sat and watched.  Here is a taste of Amy Wang’s piece at The Washington Post:

There he was, the legendary statesman who had guided the United States through the bloody Civil War, now peering at stacks of either 300 hamburgers or “over 1000 hamberders,” depending on whom or when you asked.

It didn’t help that Trump gleefully presided over the spectacle while standing directly beneath Honest Abe.

“I like it all. It’s all good stuff,” Trump declared as a White House staffer finished lighting two majestic candelabras flanking the spread. “Great American food!”

Above him, a great American hunched deep into his chair, chin in hand, pondering life, liberty and the rights of man. If paintings on walls could talk, what might Lincoln even say?

Read the entire piece here.

50 Court Evangelical Stories That Tell Us Much About Support for Trump in His First Two Years

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We are almost two years into the Trump administration. The Atlantic has assembled some of Trump’s “greatest” hits.  Here is a taste of “50 Moments That Define an Improbably Presidency“:

In an October 2016 editorial, The Atlantic wrote of Donald Trump: “He is a demagogue, a xenophobe, a sexist, a know-nothing, and a liar.” We argued that Trump “expresses admiration for authoritarian rulers, and evinces authoritarian tendencies himself.” Trump, we also noted, “is easily goaded, a poor quality for someone seeking control of America’s nuclear arsenal. He is an enemy of fact-based discourse; he is ignorant of, and indifferent to, the Constitution; he appears not to read.”

In retrospect, we may be guilty of understatement.

There was a hope, in the bewildering days following the 2016 election, that the office would temper the man—that Trump, in short, would change.

He has not changed.

This week marks the midway point of Trump’s term. Like many Americans, we sometimes find the velocity of chaos unmanageable. We find it hard to believe, for example, that we are engaged in a serious debate about whether the president of the United States is a Russian-intelligence asset. So we decided to pause for a moment and analyze 50 of the most improbable, norm-bending, and destructive incidents of this presidency to date.

So with this in mind, I thought I would list the 50 most outrageous court evangelical defenses of Donald Trump as chronicled here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  Some of these I included in my June 2018 book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  I am sure I missed some, so please feel free to add to the list.

50. Trump disparages MSNBC anchor Mika Brzezinski and the court evangelicals are silent

49. Jerry Falwell Jr. says Trump’s temperament as POTUS is “no longer relevant” because he has redefined the presidency.

48. Court evangelical calls CNN’s Jim Acosta a “demon.”

47. Liberty University alums return diplomas after Jerry Falwell Jr. refuses to condemn Trump’s Charlottesville remarks. Falwell Jr. calls their protest “a joke.”

46. Tony Perkins does not like being called a court evangelical

45. Court evangelicals write a “spiritual biography of Donald Trump”

44. Tony Perkins defends Scott Pruitt’s $100,000 expense account for private jets

43. Jerry Falwell Jr. says that Christ did not forgive the “establishment elites.”

42.  Court evangelicals bask in the court

41. Court evangelical Steven Strang says Trump is a Christian and he is an answer to prayer because he cut taxes.

40. Liberty University film students produce a film on a book about a fireman who  prophesied the election of Trump

39. Robert Jeffress invites Sean Hannity to his church to puff Trump

38. Jerry Falwell Jr. calls Trump “Ronald Reagan on steroids” and calls Democrats “fascists” and “Brownshirts.”

37. Robert Jeffress praises Trump for pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreements

36. On Thanksgiving, Paula White says we should be thankful that God has given America such a giving president.

35. A Southern Baptist pastor says that Mike Pence should not speak at the Southern Baptist Convention.  Court evangelical Tony Perkins accuses him of disunity, confusing church and state

34. Franklin Graham uses his father’s magazine to say that Christians will be “open targets” if the Democrats win the House of Representatives in November 2018

33. After the Stormy Daniels allegations, Jerry Falwell Jr. says “that doesn’t sound like the Donald Trump I know.”

32. Pastor Greg Lurie wrongly tells fellow court evangelicals that the United States was “founded in a time of spiritual renewal.”

31. Cohen tape reveals that Trump used court evangelical and minister Marc Burns for political gain.

30. Court evangelical James Dobson throws his support behind Roy Moore’s run for Senate in Alabama

29. Court evangelicals defend Trump’s behavior with Putin in Helsinki

28. Jerry Falwell Jr. blames Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort convictions on Attorney General Jeff Sessions

27. Robert Jeffress defends Trump’s “s-hole countries” comment.

26. Jerry Falwell Jr. defends Roy Moore against sexual molestation charges

25. Court evangelicals call Trump a new King Cyrus

24. Trump holds an August 2018 dinner for the court evangelicals and urges them to vote Republican in the midterm elections.

23. Robert Jeffress defends Trump on the NFL-kneeling controversy

22. Trump loses the House of Representatives in November 2018 and the court evangelicals spin it as a Trump victory.

21. Trump brings porn into the mainstream and the court evangelicals say nothing

20. Court evangelical boasts of the “unprecedented access”  he has to the Trump White House

19. Paula White uses the Bible to defend Trump’s policy of separating children from their parents at the Mexican border.

18. Court evangelicals remain silent on the separation of families at the Mexican border

17. Paula White says Trump is “100% a Christian who understands repentance.”

16. Court evangelical Robert Jeffress claims that he will continue to support Trump despite Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal adultery allegations

15. Franklin Graham says that Christine Blasey-Ford’s accusations are “not relevant” to the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court

14. Court evangelicals think they scored a victory with Trump over the “Johnson Amendment.”  They did not.

13. Court evangelicals such as Robert Jeffress influence Trump to move the Israeli embassy to Jerusalem

12. Court evangelicals tweet about family values at the same time Trump is separating children from parents at the Mexican border

11. Robert Jeffress says that “God is not necessarily an open borders guy”

10. Former court evangelical says Trump’s evangelical advisory committee is little more than a “photo-op.”

 9. Tony Perkins gives Trump a “mulligan” on the Stormy Daniels adulterous affair

8. Robert Jeffress uses Romans 13 to defend Trump’s immigration policy

7. In 1998, court evangelical Gary Bauer thought that “character was destiny” for U.S. presidents

6. Franklin Graham said something different about a president’s “private sins” back in 1998.

5. Eric Metaxas defends Trump’s Charlottesville comments

4. Jerry Falwell Jr. defends Trump’s Charlottesville comments

3. Robert Jeffress says Trump should not apologize for Charlottesville statements.  “He did just fine.”

2. Jerry Falwell Jr. says there is nothing Trump could do to lose evangelical support.

1. Trump threatens to change the course of American Christianity

Believe Me 3d

 

Max Boot Lists 18 Reasons Why Trump Could be a Russian Asset

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Max Boot is an American intellectual and military historian who is best known for his decision to leave the Republican Party and the conservative movement in the wake of Donald Trump’s election.  He tells this story in The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right.

In a recent Washington Post piece, Boot offers 18 reasons why Trump might be working with the Russians.  Here is a taste:

On Friday, the New York Times reported that “in the days after President Trump fired James B. Comey as F.B.I. director, law enforcement officials became so concerned by the president’s behavior that they began investigating whether he had been working on behalf of Russia against American interests.” That investigation may well be continuing under the auspices of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. We don’t know what Mueller has learned. But we can look at the key, publicly available evidence that both supports and undercuts this explosive allegation.

Here is some of the evidence suggesting “Individual 1” could be a Russian “asset”:

— Trump has a long financial history with Russia. As summarized by Jonathan Chait in an invaluable New York magazine article: “From 2003 to 2017, people from the former USSR made 86 all-cash purchases — a red flag of potential money laundering — of Trump properties, totaling $109 million. In 2010, the private-wealth division of Deutsche Bank also loaned him hundreds of millions of dollars during the same period it was laundering billions in Russian money. ‘Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,’ said Donald Jr. in 2008. ‘We don’t rely on American banks. We have all the funding we need out of Russia,’ boasted Eric Trump in 2014.” According to Trump attorney Michael Cohen’s guilty plea of lying to Congress, Trump was even pursuing his dream of building a Trump Tower during the 2016 campaign with the help of a Vladimir Putin aide. These are the kind of financial entanglements that intelligence services such as the FSB typically use to ensnare foreigners, and they could leave Trump vulnerable to blackmail.

— The Russians interfered in the 2016 U.S. election to help elect Trump president.

— Trump encouraged the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails on July 27, 2016 (“Russia, if you’re listening”), on the very day that Russian intelligence hackers tried to attack Clinton’s personal and campaign servers.

— There were, according to the Moscow Project, “101 contacts between Trump’s team and Russia linked operatives,” and “the Trump team tried to cover up every single one of them.” The most infamous of these contacts was the June 9, 2016, meeting at Trump Tower between the Trump campaign high command and a Kremlin emissary promising dirt on Clinton. Donald Trump Jr.’s reaction to the offer of Russian assistance? “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.”

Read the rest here.

“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore”

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Kevin Kruse and Julian Zelizer, co-authors of Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974, argue that the outrage displayed by television anchor Howard Beale in the 1976 film Network (and revived on stage starring Bryan Cranston) should not surprise present-day Americans.

Here is a taste of their piece in The New York Daily News:

The current play and the original film are clever parodies of the news industry. When the movie debuted in 1976, audiences were entertained by its prediction of a dark future of the evening news — a dystopia driven by commercialized, sensationalized, and celebrity-driven formats for delivering information.

At the time, ABC anchorwoman Barbara Walters insisted, “There’ll never be that kind of show-biz approach to the news. The entertainment side of television is more respectful of the news side than at any time in the past.”

Seen in 2019, however, Cranston’s performance largely confirms the reality of what we see and read on a daily basis. As the star said in an interview about the show, “talking about the packaging of news and manipulating audiences . . . being addicted to our televisions . . . that’s exactly what is happening.”

Beale no longer surprises us and, in some ways, even seems a bit tame. (One reviewer noted that the character doesn’t have access to Twitter, which would make things even worse).

While contemporary commentators have noted the ways in which the news industry has become increasingly partisan, they have not given enough weight to another, equally important aspect of the industry’s modern history — the ways in which news has become sensationalized.

Read the entire piece here.

Medieval Historian: Walls Did Not Work Then and They Won’t Work Now

wall

Matthew Gabrielle, a professor of medieval studies at Virginia Tech, brings some historical context to Donald Trump’s claim that border walls worked well in the Middle Ages.  Here is a taste of his piece at The Washington Post:

President Trump’s demand for a wall across most of the U.S.-Mexico border has been mocked (and embraced) as a “medieval” idea. Responding to the president’s prime-time speech from the Oval Office on Tuesday, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) tweeted, “We are not paying a $5 billion ransom note for your medieval 🏰 border wall.” A day later, on Wednesday, Trump responded by embracing that characterization: “[Democrats] say it’s a medieval solution, a wall. It’s true, because it worked then, and it works even better now.”

Since then, others have seized on the idea, and the association seems to have stuck. Walls generally, but this wall in particular, are straight from the Middle Ages. Dana Milbank ran with the idea, speaking with several scholars of the Middle Ages, experts on siege warfare, about what the country would “really” need if it were planning to use a wall to repel invaders.

But as a scholar of medieval history, I have noticed something has been missing in all this discussion. In short, calling the proposed 700 to 1,200 mile border wall “medieval” is deeply misleading because walls in the actual European Middle Ages simply did not work the way Trump apparently thinks they did. If anything, their true function may speak to Trump’s intentions: Poor tools of defense, medieval walls had more to do with reassuring those who lived inside them than with dividing self from other.

Read the rest here.

James Fallows: “3 Simple Facts About the Shutdown”

wall street

James Fallows boils it down at The Atlantic:

  • Reality one: As recently as three weeks ago, Donald Trump was perfectly willing to keep the government open and defer funding for his wall— until a right-wing chorus made fun of him for looking “weak.”
  • Reality two: Trump and his Congressional party never bestirred themselves to fund this wall back when they had unquestioned power to do so, during the era of Republican control of the Congress in 2017 and 2018.
  • Reality three: the U.S.-Mexico border has come under more control in recent years, not less. It’s been controlled by fences and walls in the busiest areas — as has been the practice for decades. The “crisis” is the politics of the issue, not its underlying realities.

Read the rest here.

*BUNK* Picks “Evangelical Fear Elected Donald Trump” as Best American Religious History Read of 2018

BUNK is a history website founded by award-winning American historian Ed Ayers and edited by Tony Field.  It is published by the University of Richmond.  Read more about it here.

Today I learned that BUNK chose my Atlantic Monthly piece  “Evangelical Fear Elected Donald Trump” as the best American history read of 2018.  (Of course, if you want the extended argument, get a copy of my book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump).

This means a lot to me, especially in light of the other winners.

Here are the winners:

Narrative History
The Train at Wood’s Crossing [Brendan Wolfe, brendanwolfe.com]
The long-forgotten story of a Charlottesville lynching is unearthed in a lyrical and deeply researched piece of writing that twists together strands of personal, local, and national history.

Honorable Mention:
The Counterfeit Queen of Soul [Jeff Maysh, Smithsonian Magazine]

Local History
As Goes the South, so Goes the Nation [Imani Perry, Harper’s]
A Thanksgiving trip home to Alabama occasions this tour de force through the state’s twisted past.

Honorable Mentions:
The Little Mayors of the Lower East Side [Laurie Gwen Shapiro, Lapham’s Quarterly]
In the Hate of Dixie [Cynthia Tucker, Bitter Southerner]

Legal History
Black Lives and the Boston Massacre [Farah Peterson, The American Scholar]
Do you know the story of Crispus Attacks, the black man who was the first American casualty of the Revolutionary War? If so, it’s probably incomplete. In this compelling essay, a law professor explains why, and what the omissions have to do with the struggle for racial justice today.

Honorable Mentions:
Separation of Power [William Hogeland, Lapham’s Quarterly]
No Law Without Politics (No Politics Without Law) [Jedediah Purdy, Law and Political Economy]

Religious History
Evangelical Fear Elected Trump [John Fea, The Atlantic]
Fea, a scholar and practitioner of evangelical Christianity, offers a nuanced take on four centuries of people “failing miserably at overcoming fear with hope, trust, and faith in their God.”

Honorable Mention:
The Fight to Define Romans 13 [Lincoln Mullen, The Atlantic]

Reported History
We Saw Nuns Kill Children: The Ghosts of St. Joseph’s Catholic Orphanage [Christine Kenneally, Buzzfeed News]
A devastating longread based on years of interviews with alleged survivors of systematic abuse.

Honorable Mentions:
Payback [Natalie Y. Moore, The Marshall Project]
A Cool Dip and a Little Dignity [Erin E. Tocknell, Bitter Southerner]

Labor History
A Culture of Resistance [Charles Keeney, Lapham’s Quarterly]
The teachers’ strikes that sprang up around the country last year caught many observers off-guard. Here, Keeney explains why labor activism in red-state West Virginia is not the anomaly it may seem to be.

Honorable Mention:
Where Did it All Go Wrong? [Gabriel Winant, The Nation]

Watery History
In the Dismal Swamp [Sam Worley, Popula]
As is the case with each of the honorable mentions below, this piece defies the terra firma of historiographical categorization, combining currents of environmental, cultural, political, and local history into a profound exploration of what it means to “drain the swamp.”

Honorable Mentions:
The Water Next Time? [Danielle Purifoy, Scalawag]
The First Floridians [Jordan Blumetti, Bitter Southerner]

Historical Reenactment
Natural History in Two Dimensions [Whitney Barlow Robles, Common-Place]
Another fascinating genre-buster that will tell you everything you ever wanted to know?—?and then some?—?about the lost art of fish-flattening.

Honorable Mention:
Revisiting an Explorer’s Northwest Passage ‘Disappointment’ After Nearly 230 Years [Brian Castner, Atlas Obsura]

Museum Review
Real Museums of Memphis [Zandria Felice Robinson, Scalawag]
A gut-punching portrait of Memphis by a daughter of the city, written from the shadows of the National Civil Rights Museum on the occasion of MLK50. “[W]e have to keep track of how our memories and experiences are being gentrified in a notion of progress that has no meaningful proof or original referent.”

Honorable Mention:
Our Nukes, Ourselves [Kelsey D. Atherton, The New Inquiry]

Debunk
How Social Media Spread a Historical Lie [Jennifer Mendelsohn & Peter A. Shulman, Made by History/Washington Post]
When an erroneously captioned photo of a KKK march went viral, the authors sprung into action, correcting the record and explaining how Google, Wikipedia, and other digital platforms amplify the falsification of the past.

Honorable Mentions:
The Myth of the Criminal Immigrant [Anna Flagg, The Marshall Project]
We’re Never Going to Have Our “Have You No Sense of Decency, Sir?” Moment [Rebecca Onion, Slate]

Obituary
An Obituary for Orange County, Dead at Age 129 [Gustavo Arellano, Los Angeles Times]
A clever use of the form to give historical context to L.A.’s midterm election results. “The death shocked everyone who hadn’t bothered to pay attention for decades.”

Honorable Mention:
Larry Eisenberg, 99, Dead; His Limericks Were Very Well Read [Margalit Fox, New York Times]

Reputation Revision
Living With Dolly Parton [Jessica Wilkerson, Longreads]
Wilkerson grew up in East Tennessee idolizing the region’s most famous native daughter. Now a historian, she sets out in this lyrical, personal piece to more fully understand Parton’s enduring appeal in the post-industrial South.

Honorable Mentions:
Why Tamika Mallory Won’t Condemn Louis Farrakhan [Adam Serwer, The Atlantic]
Paul Bremer, Ski Instructor: Learning to Shred With the Bush Administration’s Iraq War Fall Guy [Aaron Gell, Task & Purpose]
My Fellow Prisoners: On John McCain [George Blaustein, n+1]

Origin Story (Culture)
Bad Boys [Tim Stelloh, The Marshall Project]
A fascinating piece that chronicles the unlikely story of ‘Cops,’ one of television’s most successful, influential, and polarizing shows ever.

Honorable Mentions:
How Auto-Tune Revolutionized the Sound of Popular Music [Simon Reynolds, Pitchfork]
The Story Behind the Poem on the Statue of Liberty [Walt Hunter, The Atlantic]
My Dad Painted the Iconic Cover for Jethro Tull’s ‘Aqualung,’ and It’s Haunted Him Ever Since [Robert Silverman, The Outline]

Origin Story (Trumpism)
How Do We Explain This National Tragedy? This Trump? [T.J. Stiles, Zyzzyva (via Lithub)]
There was no shortage of contestants to this category in 2018. And while no single account can do justice to all the factors responsible for our current moment, I especially appreciated Stiles’ personal, wide-ranging, and not altogether pessimistic approach to the question.

Honorable Mentions:
Trumpism Before Trump [Robert L. Tsai & Calvin Terbeek, Boston Review]
The Religion of Whiteness Becomes a Suicide Cult [Pankaj Mishra, New York Times]
The Roots of Trump’s Immigration Barbarity [Daniel Denvir, Jacobin]

Origin Story (Plastic)
American Beauties [Rebecca Altman, Topic]
Before Americans had to learn to reuse their grocery bags, they had to learn to thrown them away. Behold one of my favorite pieces of the year, chronicling the rise and fall (hopefully not in a tree near you) of the plastic bag.

Honorable Mention:
Disposable America [Alexis Madrigal, The Atlantic]

Commentary (Reconstruction’s Legacy)
Today’s Voter Suppression Tactics Have A 150 Year History [Gregory Downs, Talking Points Memo]
There was a ton of terrific writing this year about Reconstruction, but this one stood out. It widens the lens on the story of disenfranchisement, explaining that “though rebels perfected the art of excluding voters, it was yankees who developed the script.”

Honorable Mention:
Citizens: 150 Years of the 14th Amendment [Martha S. Jones, Public Books]

Commentary (Historic Preservation)
The Archivists of Extinction [Kate Wagner, The Baffler]
The said archivists are none other than the contributors to a Flickr page devoted to images of defunct Kmarts. If that seems intriguing to you, I promise you that it is. Come for the Kmarts, stay for the withering critique of capitalist destruction.

Honorable Mention:
The Death and Life of a Great American Building [Jeremiah Moss, New York Review of Books]

Commentary (80s Movies)
In the Dark All Katz are Grey: Notes on Jewish Nostalgia [Samuel Ashworth, Hazlitt]
With what is probably the finest opening line of any on this list, this piece is a poignant meditation on nostalgia, the Borscht Belt, and why Dirty Dancing is actually a Jewish horror film.

Honorable Mention:
Brett Kavanaugh Goes to the Movies [Marsha Gordon, The Conversation]

Commentary (Covert Operations)
Did You Know the CIA ______? [Malcolm Harris, n+1]
In this review of Errol Morris’ latest miniseries, Harris examines the inability of Americans to confront the crimes that have been committed in their name. “If cold war is the name for the third world war that didn’t happen, what’s the name for what did?”

Honorable Mention:
The U.S. Needs to Face Up to Its Long History of Election Meddling[Peter Beinart, The Atlantic]

Commentary (Statue of Liberty)
Sentinel [Francesca Lidia Viano, Places]
To read about the Statue of Liberty’s origins is to become ever more aware of the contradictions baked into America’s most cherished symbols. I highly recommend chasing this read with the Slate piece below, which pushes the story forward into our crazy modern times.

Honorable Mention:
Who Does She Stand For? [Paul A. Kramer, Slate]

Commentary (Futility of War)
A Hundred Years After the Armistice [Adam Hochschild, New Yorker]
A standout in a year full of WWI retrospectives. Among other things, Hochschild tells us that more soldiers were killed after the Armistice had been signed than would die on D-Day in Normandy 26 years later. They died, in other words, for no political or military reason whatsoever.

Honorable Mention:
Remembrance of War as a Warning [Christopher Preble, War on the Rocks]

Commentary (Country Music)
Canon Fodder [Shuja Haider, Popula]
Another fun read from Popula, on policing the genre boundaries of popular music. If you’ve ever winced to hear somebody say that they like all kinds of music ““except rap and country,” then this one’s for you.

Honorable Mention:
Agriculture Wars [Nick Murray, Viewpoint]

Periodical Single Issue
Boston Review, “Fifty Years Since MLK” [Forum V (Winter 2018)]
Just in time for the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination, Boston Review published a knockout of an issue that was, in many ways, the perfect antidote to Dodge’s Superbowl ad from a few weeks earlier. Every article is a must-read.

Honorable Mention:
The Baffler, “Tramps and Millionaires” [Issue ?42]

Recurring Series
Overlooked [New York Times]
An ongoing effort by the Times’ obituaries desk to remember the lives of notable women who were left out of the paper of record the first time around.

Bibliography
Confederate Monuments Syllabus [Kevin M. Levin, Civil War Memory]
If there’s one person up to the challenge of keeping track of the latest skirmishes in the Confederate monument wars, it’s Levin. He recently compiled this wide-ranging collection of online resources in an effort to help teachers and students make sense of it all.

Trump Will Give a Speech Tomorrow Night. It Will Probably be Based on Lies and Other Assorted Falsehoods

trump at wall

Donald Trump will be speaking to the nation tomorrow night about the government shutdown and his border wall.

Trump will probably say that immigrants are coming across the border and trying to kill American citizens.  Yes, there have been people killed at the hands of undocumented immigrants.  This is a tragedy and the loss of a human life should never be taken lightly.

But, as I wrote in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trumpthe chance that an American will die at the hands of a refugee terrorist is about one in 10.9 million per year. One is more likely to die from walking across a railroad track or having one’s clothes spontaneously catch fire.  Yet Trump has managed to convince some Americans that Mexican immigrants are imminent threats to their safety.  This is the foundation of his immigration policy and his commitment to the border wall.  And one could argue that the wall is at the heart of his political brand.  It is based on fear.

If Trump wants to build a domestic policy around protecting the lives of everyday Americans, he should be spending billions on cancer research, heart disease research, diabetes research, the opiod crisis, Alzheimer’s research, safer systems of transportation, and suicide prevention. These are the largest causes of death in the United States.  Or how about spending money on long-term issues that will save lives–the protection of the environment, the reduction of the number of abortions in the United States, and affordable health care?

Do we need border security?  Yes.  Do we have an immigration problem that needs to be fixed?  Yes.  But if Trump really wants to keep more Americans alive he can spend that 5 billion in more fruitful ways.

More specifically, Trump will probably appeal to the so-called “4000 known or suspected terrorists” coming into our country illegally.  On Sunday, Chris Wallace debunked this claim in dramatic fashion before a national audience:

By the way, Chris Wallace works for Fox News.

Trump may try to declare a “National Emergency” based on this false information.  He will also accuse the Democrats in Congress that they do not care about the safety of our country.  But there is no national emergency.  I recently heard CNN Phil Mudd wonder when the last time a President of the United States had to go before the American people to persuade them that we were in the midst of a national emergency?  Aren’t national emergencies pretty obvious?  And don’t they usually get bipartisan support?  Maybe some of my presidential historian friends can help me with that one.

And finally, Trump may say that most of the American people support his decision to shut-down the government in order to get a wall.  This is another lie.  One recent poll found that 78% of Americans approve of some kind of compromise on border security.

Trump recently told the press that he “can relate” to the hundreds of thousands of people who are not receiving paychecks because of the government shut down. Really?  He added: “I’m sure the people who are on the receiving end will make adjustments; they always do.” I’ve seen this before.  Trump seems to be making some kind 18th-century appeal to political virtue. In other words, he believes the federal workers will be willing to give up some of their own self-interest (in this case their paychecks) in order to support a greater good (security through a border wall).  The Founding Fathers tried appeals to virtue in the 1770s and 1780s and they did not work very well.  They do not seem to be working very well today either.

The Wall: A Political Box of Trump’s Own Making

trump at wall

Here is a taste of a great New York Times piece by Julie Hirschfield Davis and Peter Baker on Trump’s border wall proposal and its political consequences:

To many conservative activists who have pressed for decades for sharp reductions in both illegal and legal immigration — and some of the Republican lawmakers who are allied with them — a physical barrier on the border with Mexico is barely relevant, little more than a footnote to a long list of policy changes they believe are needed to fix a broken system.

The disconnect is at the heart of the dilemma facing Mr. Trump as he labors to find a way out of an impasse that has shuttered large parts of the government and cost 800,000 federal employees their pay. Having spent more than four years — first as a candidate and then as president — whipping his core supporters into a frenzy over the idea of building a border wall, Mr. Trump finds himself in a political box of his own making.

In transforming the wall into a powerful emblem of his anti-immigration message, Mr. Trump has made the proposal politically untouchable for Democrats, who have steadfastly refused to fund it, complicating the chances of any compromise.

“As a messaging strategy, it was pretty successful,” Mr. Krikorian said. “The problem is, you got elected; now what do you do? Having made it his signature issue, Trump handed the Democrats a weapon against him.”

Read the entire piece here.

The Role of Historians in “Unfaking the News” (#AHA19)

trump fake news

Matt Lakemacher of Woodland Middle School in Gurnee, IL reports on a very relevant panel held at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association.  You can read all his posts here. Enjoy! –JF

This afternoon’s AHA19 panel, “Unfaking the News: Historians in the Media in the Age of Trump,” was a lively and much needed discussion on the role that historians can and should play in bringing their scholarship to the general public through mass media.  It was by far the most political session I’ve attended, but it’s hard to envision how that could have been avoided, considering the session’s namesake politician’s evident lack of historical understanding and (according to the Washington Post just two months ago) average of five false or misleading claims per day since becoming president.

The format was round-robin and each round of discussion was started with a question posed by session chair Kenneth Osgood.  This allowed for plenty of back and forth from the panelists and a good deal of follow-up questions and commentary from the audience.  What follows are two of the questions asked, with a summary of the responses from the historians on the panel.

1)  What’s an issue facing the country that cries out for meaningful historical understanding?

Nicole Hemmer – “The crisis of political journalism in the Age of Trump.”  According to Hemmer, the values of objective reporting have come under fire and the solution of some to just offer both sides has led to false equivalencies being created and unchallenged notions being promoted on the air and in print.

Jeremi Suri – “The bureaucracy (the ‘Deep State’).”  Despite its demonization, and view by some during the current government shutdown that it’s even unnecessary, Suri explained how bureaucracy is a good thing.  It makes our lives better and we need it.  At a conference with attendees from all over the country, his example of the air traffic controllers who are currently working without pay had easy resonance.

Julian Zelizer – “Partisanship and polarization … we need to understand just how deeply rooted this disfunction is or we’ll always be waking up like we’re Alice in Wonderland.”

Jeffrey Engel – “How much do we need to be educators, how much do we need to be citizens, and how do those responsibilities overlap?”  He continued, tongue in cheek, “When Trump sends that next tweet, we need to be able to step in and say, ‘well no, John Adams also tweeted that.’”  In some of the more sobering analysis from the panel, Engel admitted that over the past two years he has genuinely started to think that the Republic is in danger.  “What does the history we are talking about mean to us today?” he asked.  “These are unusual times.”

2)  Is Donald Trump just saying out loud what other presidents have thought in quiet?  Is the Trump Presidency unprecedented?

Hemmer – “The ‘just saying it out loud’ is important … that matters.”

Suri – “What makes Trump unprecedented is that despite the impossibility of the job, he doesn’t even try to do it.  He’s the first president to not be president.  He is running the Trump Organization from the White House.  He is using the office to help his family … He is running a mafia organization from the Oval Office … Every other president has tried to do the job; he is not doing the job.”

Zelizer – The unusual question we’re continuing to see played out is, “how far to the brink is the party of the president willing to go in support of their president?”

Engel – “Abraham Lincoln’s most recent thoughts didn’t immediately pop up on your phone.”  He continued, “If any other president had admitted to having an extramarital affair with a porn star, their world would have exploded.  It’s important to know just how far we have, and how far we have not, come in the last two years.”  Engel explained that never in the discussion of Stormy Daniels was anyone seriously questioning whether it happened.  The debate was always over whether it was illegal.  And for him, that’s a shocking development.  He also cautioned that historians have to be careful with how they use the word “unprecedented.”

Suri – “We need to move people away from the false use of history.”  For him, the word unprecedented means “beyond the pale for the context that we are in and the trajectory we’ve been on.”  He stressed that historians need to push back against the impulse to say that “everything is Hitler,” just as much as they need to push back against the narrative that “everything is normal.”

Osgood had opened the session with the observation that “these challenges were not invented by Donald Trump, but they have been exacerbated by him.”  Towards the end of the panel he added that for Trump, “Twitter is the source of his power.”  With that in mind, perhaps it’s a good thing that Kevin Kruse, Kevin Levin, the Tattooed Prof, and other so-called “twitterstorians” are practicing public history online and on the air.

Thanks, Matt!

Jerry Falwell’s “Two Kingdoms” View is Not Only Wrong, It’s Dangerous

File Photo: U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump shakes hands with Jerry Falwell Jr. at a campaign rally in Council Bluffs, Iowa

Many of you have seen court evangelical Jerry Falwell Jr.’s interview with Joe Heim of The Washington Post.

Falwell Jr. says:

There’s two kingdoms. There’s the earthly kingdom and the heavenly kingdom. In the heavenly kingdom the responsibility is to treat others as you’d like to be treated. In the earthly kingdom, the responsibility is to choose leaders who will do what’s best for your country. Think about it. Why have Americans been able to do more to help people in need around the world than any other country in history? It’s because of free enterprise, freedom, ingenuity, entrepreneurism and wealth. A poor person never gave anyone a job. A poor person never gave anybody charity, not of any real volume. It’s just common sense to me.

When Heim asked Falwell if there is anything Trump could do that would endanger evangelical support for the President he answers, based on his political theology, with one word: “no.”

Over at Slate, writer Ruth Graham responds to Falwell’s one-word answer:

At one point, reporter Joe Heim asked Falwell whether there is anything Trump could do that would endanger his support from Falwell and other evangelical leaders. He answered, simply, “No.” His explanation was a textbook piece of circular reasoning: Trump wants what’s best for the country, therefore anything he does is good for the country. There’s something almost sad about seeing this kind of idolatry articulated so clearly. In a kind of backhanded insult to his supporters, Trump himself once said that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” without losing his base. It’s rare to see a prominent supporter essentially admit that this was true. 

Graham also notes that Falwell’s views seem to contradict the mission statement of Liberty University.  This is true.

In its “Statement of Mission and Purpose,” Liberty claims to “promote the synthesis of academic knowledge and a Christian worldview in order that there might be a maturing of spiritual, intellectual, social and physical value-driven behavior.”  This kind of “worldview” language suggests that students at Liberty will learn to think Christianly about all things, including the ways Christianity intersect with politics and government.  After all, wasn’t this Falwell’s father’s vision for Liberty University?  Wasn’t Liberty University directly linked to Falwell Sr.’s Moral Majority–an attempt to bring Christianity to bear on government and politics?

Falwell Jr. seems to believe that the only thing Christianity teaches Christians about their responsibility as citizens is that Christianity has no role to play in our responsibility as citizens.  If I am reading him correctly, he is arguing that the promotion of capitalism, entrepreneurship, free-markets, and the accumulation of wealth is the essence Christian citizenship.  In other words, Falwell Jr. assumes that Christianity and capitalism are virtually the same thing.  I would love to hear from a Liberty professor on this point.  Is there anything about capitalism (as defined by the accumulation of wealth, free markets, and entrepreneurship) that contradicts the teaching of Christianity?   I know some Liberty professors and I DO think that they would say there is a difference between the two, but I wonder how free they are to make that critique in public.

I also wonder if Falwell Jr. believes that there is anything within the Christian tradition that might provide a critique of government.  I don’t have the time to search, but I am sure it is pretty easy to find Falwell Jr. making some kind of theological or Christian critique of Barack Obama.

It is important to note here that Falwell is not arguing, as other court evangelicals have done, that evangelicals should support Trump because he will deliver a conservative Supreme Court or defend religious liberty.  Remember, in this interview he says that there is NOTHING Trump can do to lose his support.  NOTHING!  This, of course, means that if he would commit adultery in the oval office, appoint a radically pro-choice Supreme Court justice, call for the end of the Second Amendment, or shoot someone on 5th Avenue, Trump will not lose Falwell’s support.  I don’t know of any American–Christian or not– who would be so confident about a political candidate.

The Statement of Mission and Purpose also notes that Liberty University will “encourage a commitment to the Christian life, one of personal integrity, sensitivity to the needs of others, social responsibility and active communication of Christian faith….”  Apparently Falwell believes that all these things can be practiced without any connection to politics or government.  In other words, Falwell wants to train students to live personal lives of faith, but never apply that faith to democratic citizenship.  I am not sure his father would have agreed with this.

Which leads me to one more question:  What is taught at the Jesse Helms School of Government at Liberty?  (Yes, THAT Jesse Helms). According to its website, the Helms School of Government develops “leaders who are guided by duty, honor, and morality.  It also claims to instill “a Christian sense of justice and civic duty in our students….”  Dr. Stephen Parke, the Associate Dean of the Helms School, lists his favorite Bible verse as Isaiah 1:17: “Learn to do right!  Seek justice, encourage the oppressed.  Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.”  This is an interesting choice for a dean at a Christian school of government and politics at a university run by Jerry Falwell Jr.

It is also worth noting that legitimate advocates of a Two Kingdoms approach to church-state relations would also reject much of what Falwell has to say in this interview.

Again, here is Falwell:

It’s such a distortion of the teachings of Jesus to say that what he taught us to do personally — to love our neighbors as ourselves, help the poor — can somehow be imputed on a nation. Jesus never told Caesar how to run Rome. He went out of his way to say that’s the earthly kingdom, I’m about the heavenly kingdom and I’m here to teach you how to treat others, how to help others, but when it comes to serving your country, you render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. It’s a distortion of the teaching of Christ to say Jesus taught love and forgiveness and therefore the United States as a nation should be loving and forgiving, and just hand over everything we have to every other part of the world. That’s not what Jesus taught. You almost have to believe that this is a theocracy to think that way, to think that public policy should be dictated by the teachings of Jesus.

Martin Luther also believed that government action should not be based on the Sermon on the Mount and other teachings of Jesus.  For example, Luther defended the right to private property.  As a result, he believed government should not be based on Jesus’s idea of abandoning all of our material possessions and giving them to the poor. (Although he would have certainly warned against materialism rooted in the accumulation of private property).

But Luther’s Two Kingdom belief, as I understand it, is more nuanced and complex than what Falwell Jr. makes it out to be.  (I am happy to be corrected here by Lutheran theologians). In fact, I don’t think Luther would have recognized Falwell Jr.’s political theology.

Ruth Graham links to Missouri-Synod Lutheran writer Lyman Stone’s First Things piece titled “Two Kingdom Theology in the Trump Era.”  Stone writes:

Is it the case that Lutheran theology favors brute political realism, mercilessness in state operations, perhaps even docility in the face of tyranny? Historically, the answer has often been “yes.” But it needn’t have been, if Luther’s Two Kingdoms doctrine had been understood correctly.

The Two Kingdoms Doctrine originates in Martin Luther’s 1518 tract, “Two Kinds of Righteousness,” though before that it has resonance with Augustine’s City of God, which had influenced Christian church-state relations in the West for a millennium. In the 1518 tract, Luther lays out an idea that is central to all Lutheran teaching: There are two kinds of righteousness, civil and spiritual. By civil righteousness, Luther meant that people, by the powers of reason with which they are endowed, can refrain from murdering one another, or stealing, or lying. But no amount of civil righteousness amounts to spiritual righteousness, that is, the right-acting that may earn salvation. Perfect civil righteousness does not undo the basically sinful nature of man; only spiritual righteousness does that, and spiritual righteousness is nothing else than faith in Christ. Without faith in Christ, no amount of civil righteousness obtains salvation. With faith in Christ, no felonious indecency can forestall the saving power of grace.

Stone reminds us here that God has ordained the civil kingdom–the realm of government.  God rules in both kingdoms and he rules, according to Lutheran theologian Paul Althaus, in “goodness, mercy, and love.”  Althaus adds: “Through the political authorities, God protects his people from the violent acts of evil men.” Luther believed in a state where justice prevails as a glimpse–but only a glimpse–of the kingdom of God.

As Christians, we are called to different vocations in this civil kingdom  As Stone writes, “without faith in Christ, no amount of civil righteousness obtains salvation.”  But this does not mean that Christians are not called by God to be engaged citizens.  We must exercise citizenship as a vocational act.

Stone adds:

Does this mean that Luther’s Two Kingdoms should be viewed ignominiously today? I do not think so. Rather, Lutherans should reconsider this doctrine in light of Luther’s teaching on vocation.

In this light, several facts become clear. Citizens have a different vocation than subjects. Modern governments place a duty and a burden upon citizens, demanding that they participate in governance. No modern American has a ruler, in the sense that the Christians did to whom Paul wrote his letters. All the scriptural teachings about governments apply, but the reality of democratic and participatory governments means that a vocation-centered theology cannot view Christians as merely the subjects of the state: By having voice, Christians are participants in the rulership of their state. As such, when considering what sins they should confess, they must consider sins of rebellion against lawful sovereigns and sins of misgovernment, that is, failures to discharge the duties of self-governing citizens.

Beyond this, Lutherans must avoid the mistake of the Reformation leaders who failed to cry out against the sins of monarchs. We must exhort all “sword-bearers,” that is, all agents of the state and public servants, from schoolteachers to the president, to live up to the demands of their vocations. Our Lutheran forefathers failed in this task; all the more reason Lutherans today must not.

Conservatives who fear that President Trump may be more like the decadent Belshazzar, feasting while the kingdom falls, than like the liberating Cyrus must pray that Lutherans remember the Two Kingdoms Doctrine. How we discharge the duties of citizenship—whether by accepting the creeping authoritarianism of the last two decades, or by raising our voices on behalf of the laws and democratic norms of our country—is a question of moral conscience, suitable for confession, and demanding repentance if we err.

A similar Two Kingdoms argument comes from Glenn Tinder in The Political Meaning of Christianity: An Interpretation.  He writes:

Christianity, then, requires acceptance of society, and such acceptance cannot be a matter simply of bowing to bitter worldly necessity.  It is more appreciative than that.  Even if society is not community, it serves community in various and essential ways; and a responsible person will feel obligated to defend society when it is threatened…. (pp. 56-57).

Christians are traditionally, in their relations with governments, obedient yet disrespectful.  Thus, they violate the ethos of both secular radicals (disobedience grounded in disrespect) and of conservatives (obedience grounded in respect).  Eschewing absolute principles, they are unreliable allies of either left or right.  Their attitude, however, is anything but frivolous.  It goes down to the first principles of Christian faith.  Estranged from God, from human beings, and even from ourselves, and in our perversity continually reaffirming our estrangement, we would be overwhelmed by chaos if we did not ordinarily submit to the order contrived by political rulers.  On the other hand, we are, in the Christian vision, recipients of the mercy of God, and if we obeyed unconditionally, we would replace the exalted individual with exalted governments…As an eschatological being, man is always critical, normally acquiescent, and potentially rebellious. (p.210-211).

Falwell Jr’s view of government is dangerous.  It is a corruption of the Two Kingdoms view.  Such a corruption is what led German Lutherans to sit quietly as the Nazis took control of Germany in the 1930s.  Here is University of Virginia theologian Charles Marsh in Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

Acting in the name of Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms–that God has established two kingdoms (zwei Reiche): the kingdom of the earth, which he rules through human government and law; and the kingdom of heaven, which he directs by grace and through the church–the German Christians determined to achieve an accommodation (however tortured) of the Fuhrer principle and Aryan paragraph under church law.  And this they would do in a spirit of obedience to God!  Under this accommodation, baptized Jews, being a difference race altogether, could no longer serve in the German Protestant Church, whose identity was now rooted in ethnicity, or racial sameness, rather than in the confession of Christ as Lord. (p.162).

In 1938, Freidrich Werner, the director of Germany’s Protestant consistory, was tasked with bringing Lutheran clergy into line with Hitler.  He required that all clergy swear an oath of allegiance to Hitler and the Third Reich.  Marsh writes:

Refusing the oath subjected one to dismissal and criminal detention.  To some degree, the underlying idea was consistent with the traditional Lutheran doctrine of two kingdoms: Christians must be obedient to the earthly authorities unto God.  But Werner went to an unprecedented extreme, turning a doctrine that had historically yielded a variety of views on church-state matters into an absolutist principle: make a “personal commitment to the Fuhrer under the solemn summons of God,” and forge an “intimate solidarity with the Third Reich” and with the saintly man who both “created that community and embodies it.”  “Submit to Hitler with a joyful heart, in gratitude, as pleasing to the Lord.

In the end, Christians–whether they embrace the Reformed, Catholic, or Lutheran tradition–are called to live out their vocations as citizens.  In this sense, they agree with my good friend Philip Vickers Fithian who believed, with the authors of Cato’s Letters, that “political jealousy” is a “laudable passion.

The Johnson Amendment is Good for the Church

Johnson Amendment

The Johnson Amendment is the news again.  As you may recall, the Christian Right has been trying to remove Lyndon Johnson’s 1954 addition to the tax code for a long time.  The amendment bars churches (and other non-profit entities) from endorsing political candidates.

Here is Jacob Lupfer‘s recent piece at Religion News Service:

But since we now have this debate every time Congress has to pass a tax bill, let’s at least be honest about what is really at stake here.

If, hypothetically, Congress ever does repeal the Johnson Amendment, a lot could go wrong, and probably would. Democrat-aligned groups would demand that bureaucrats censor sermons. Republican advocates would have to answer for why they cheered as churches devolved into Super PACs.

As Maggie Garrett, vice president for public policy at Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, recently told me, “Changing the law would allow endorsement activity to permeate throughout tax-exempt organizations, transforming them from charitable organizations to tax-exempt partisan campaign organizations.”

The question is, in short: How much more damaging and obnoxious do we want politicized religion to become in this country?

We already live in a world in which Trump’s most eager evangelical lap dog, Southern Baptist megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress, hosts the Fox News All-America Christmas Special from his church. This event gives us the obscene spectacle of Trump disciple and hack journalist Todd Starnes standing in the pulpit where Baptist legends like George W. Truett and W.A. Criswell once preached.

The Johnson Amendment works great, protecting us from our worst instincts in religion and politics, and saving us from ourselves. Well, most of us.

Read the entire piece here.

Here is what I wrote about The Johnson Amendment in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump:

Believe Me 3dAnother religious-liberty issue that concerns many of the court evangelicals is the clause in the IRS tax code commonly referred to as the Johnson Amendment.  The Johnson Amendment is a part of the code that forbids tax-exempt organizations such as churches from endorsing political candidates.  Since 1954, when the Johnson Amendment was added to the code, only one church has ever lost its tax-exempt status for violating it.  Trump first learned about the amendment during some of his early meetings with evangelicals in Trump Tower.  Since that time he has become fixated on it: he realized that the IRS would not allow evangelical pastors to endorse him or any other candidate without losing their tax-exempt status.  Trump promised his evangelical supporters that, if elected, he would bring an end to the Johnson Amendments.

For many evangelicals and their followers, Trump fulfilled that promise on May 4, 2017.  In an outdoor ceremony a the White House, with court evangelicals and other religious leaders by his side, Donald Trump issued an executive order on religious liberty.  Section 2 of the order included the statement: “In particular, the Secretary of the Treasury shall ensure, to the extent permitted by law, that the Department of the Treasury does not take any action against any individual, house of worship, or other religious organization on the basis that such individual or organization speaks or has spoken about moral or political issues from a religious perspective.”  The statement was a reference to the Johnson Amendment without explicitly naming it.  After he signed the order, Trump told the faith leaders present: “You’re now in a position to say what you want to say. . . no one should be censoring sermons or targeting pastors.”

Court evangelicals cheered the new order, but in reality it did absolutely nothing to change the Johnson Amendment.  The order was little more than a symbolic gesture meant to appease evangelicals and keep their support.  What may have been a public relations victory for Trump and the court evangelicals did not amount to anything because the president does not have the authority to change the tax code–that job belongs to Congress.  And when Congress did overhaul the tax code in December 2017, the Johnson Amendment was not removed.

But the attempts to repeal the Johnson Amendment exposed something deeper: a serious flaw in the way that many conservative evangelicals think about the relationship between church and state.  According to a 2012 poll, eighty-six percent of evangelical pastors believed that clergy should not endorse political candidates from the pulpit.  Those who do want to endorse candidates from the pulpit, and have turned the Johnson Amendment into a political issue, seem more concerned about freedom of speech than they are about the way this kind of political partisanship undermines their gospel witness. There is an old Baptist saying about religion and politics that goes something like this: “If you mix horse manure and ice cream, it doesn’t do much to the manure, but it sure does ruin the ice cream.”  When the government starts telling evangelical pastors what they can and cannot preach in terms of theology, biblical interpretation, or ethics (even sexual ethics), we have a problem; but the Johnson Amendment is not this kind of problem.  Evangelicals should be thankful for the Johnson Amendment: it is a useful reminder from an unlikely source about the spiritual dangers that arise when sanctuaries are used as campaign offices.