Commencement at Liberty University

In case you missed it, Vice President Mike Pence delivered the commencement address on Saturday at Liberty University, a school that claims to be the largest Christian university in the world.

Court evangelical and Liberty president Jerry Falwell Jr. was the master of ceremonies (Why didn’t he wear a robe like most college presidents?)  At one point in the ceremony he made his wife stand up to model the black and orange flame (as in Liberty Flames)-patterned dress she was wearing.  Falwell convinced her to wear it because she was the “hottest first lady at any college in the country.” Again, context is everything here.

Surgeon and 2016 GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson also spoke. He urged the graduates not to conform to the “forces of political correctness” that “want you to shut up and not express what you believe.”  He extolled the apparent Judeo-Christian founding of the country and told the graduating class that they were our best hope to “save America.”

When Jerry Falwell Jr. introduced Mike Pence, he praised the Vice-President for doing such a great job despite constant attacks from a “hostile press.”  He described him as one of the greatest Vice Presidents of all time.

Early in Pence’s speech some folks in the crowd starting chanting “U.S.A., U.S.A, U.S.A.” This is an odd thing to chant at a Christian college graduation, but there seems to be no big difference between Christian education and patriotism at Liberty University.

Pence wasted no time turning his commencement address into a Trump rally.  He praised the Trump economy, reminded the audience that “America stands with Israel,” talked about abortion, and attacked Barack Obama for his supposed threats to religious liberty.  Like Carson’s brief speech, Pence’s speech was filled with the typical victimization rhetoric and fear-mongering that one often hears from conservative evangelicals these days.  Pence cannot seem to move  beyond the culture wars–this is how he sees the world.  It is “us” vs. “them.”  The crowd loved it.

At one point in the speech, Pence gave a moving testimony about his conversion experience. I appreciated it.  But in the context–both in terms of Jerry Falwell Jr.’s politicization of Liberty University and Pence’s connection to the Trump administration–he seemed to suggest that an evangelical conversion will naturally lead to Christian Right politics and the unrelenting support of an immoral president.  It does not.

A commencement address should be a celebration of the graduates.  A commencement speaker must put down the self and offer words of encouragement and some wise advice about life after graduation.  To his credit, Pence did some of this. But even his words of exhortation to the graduates sounded like a Trump stump speech for 2020 and a warning to watch out for the progressives lurking in the shadows ready to undermine Christian America.  This was a message of fear, not hope.  But that is how they do things at Liberty University.

I am sure we will hear similar things from Pence next week at Taylor University.

Trump Led Among GOP Evangelicals From the Moment He Came Down the Escalator

Republican U.S. presidential candidates Carson and Trump talk during a break at the second official Republican presidential candidates debate of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley

According to CNN polling and this excellent chart in Philip Bump’s recent piece at The Washington Postwhite evangelicals flocked to Trump from the moment he entered the race in June 2015.  With the exception of two months during Fall 2015, he led all GOP candidates among self-proclaimed white evangelical voters.

When Trump entered the race, evangelicals were leaning heavily toward Ben Carson and Scott Walker, but by July 2015 Trump had taken the lead among these values voters.  As Bump points out, this was precisely the time when Trump was scaring voters by talking about Mexican immigrants crossing the border and raping and killing American citizens.

Trump held his ground with white evangelicals through the summer before he was passed in September and October by Carson.  It is hard to fully understand why Carson surged among evangelicals during these months, but it is worth mentioning that during these two months the former brain surgeon:

The surge did not last. By the end of October 2015, Trump has recaptured his lead among evangelicals.  On October 28, he trashed Carson’s 7th Day Adventist faith.  By December, media outlets were questioning details of Carson’s life story and his ability to handle foreign-policy issues in the wake of the Paris shootings.  Carson was done.  By the second week of December, Ted Cruz had passed him among evangelical GOP voters.

Read Bump’s piece here.  It would have been nice if Bump included Marco Rubio’s support among white evangelicals in his analysis.

Ben Carson: Keep Andrew Jackson on the $20 Bill

Ben Carson went on Fox News today and said that Andrew Jackson should stay on the front of the $20 bill.  He called Jackson a “tremendous president.”

Here is a taste of a CNN article on Carson’s interview:

Former presidential candidate Ben Carson disagrees with the plan to put Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill, and on Wednesday suggested another note for her: the $2 bill.

“I love Harriet Tubman,” the former GOP White House hopeful told Fox Business Network’s Neil Cavuto. “I love what she did, but we can find another way to honor her. Maybe a $2 bill.”

Tubman, the African-American suffragist and abolitionist who brought slaves to safety on the Underground Railroad, will begin appearing on a forthcoming version of the $20 bill, bumping former President Andrew Jackson to the back, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced Wednesday.

Carson insisted he had nothing against Tubman, but said Jackson deserved to stay where he is.

“Andrew Jackson … was a tremendous president,” Carson told Cavuto. “I mean, Andrew Jackson was the last president who actually balanced the federal budget, where we had no national debt.”

Thomas Jefferson currently resides on the $2 bill, which is seldom used in circulation. Carson didn’t discuss what should be done with the existing design of the $2 bill.

Carson and Jesus and Trump

Perhaps some of you have seen this picture.  It is apparently hanging in former presidential candidate Ben Carson’s house:

Carson and Jesus

Apparently a new picture has surfaced in the last twenty-four hours:

Trump and Carson

How Evangelicals Voted in South Carolina

Trump Cruz RubioOver at Religion News Service, Tobin Grant has a nice post about the way South Carolina evangelicals voted in Saturday night’s primary.

It is worth noting that Cruz did not win a single county.  The Texas Senator lost to Trump in the heavily evangelical counties in the Upstate.

Here is a taste:

The geography of the South Carolina primary fits the story coming out of the exit polls. Rubio did well among Republicans who want a candidate who can win. Trump voters want someone who can shake up Washington and “tell it like it is.” Cruz needs to secure most (if not all) of the evangelical and values-voters. He’s leading among these voters, but many of them are backing Rubio and Trump instead. 

So here is my take:

I think evangelicals in South Carolina are all “values voters” in the sense that they want a candidate who is pro-life on abortion, “protects” (to use Trump’s term) Christianity, and believes that marriage is between a man and a woman.  It seems like these things are non-negotiable.  Since all of the GOP candidates still alive in the race fit the bill here (or at least claim to fit the bill), they need to be distinguished in other ways.

Many self-proclaimed evangelicals are supporting Trump for economic and cultural reasons.  Economically, they believe, like Jerry Falwell Jr., that Trump’s business background will help him “make America great again.”  But they also like the fact that Trump wants to deport immigrants, sees Islam as a threat, and stands against political correctness.  The position of South Carolina evangelicals on all of these issues is often informed by their understanding of Christianity.

Cruz seems to be attracting more traditional, 1980s Moral Majority style, evangelical values voters. They are concerned about the economy, religion, immigration, and Islam, but these things take second place to issues such as abortion and traditional marriage. They are much more sensitive to the makeup of the future Supreme Court than the people voting for Trump.

Rubio continues to attract evangelicals who are politically conservative and evangelically moderate (in terms of how they apply their faith to politics).  As Grant notes in his article, these are the evangelicals who think Rubio has the best chance to win in November.

I think Jeb Bush’s votes will be split between Rubio and Kasich.  If Carson get’s out of the race, the doctor’s votes will be split between Rubio, Kasich, and Cruz.


Ben Carson, Bear Killings, Welfare, and Faith

I got in late last night and missed Dr. Ben Carson’s appearance on the CNN GOP Town Hall. Earlier today I finally got a chance to see Carson’s answer to a question about faith and the welfare state. It has been making the rounds on social media:

I want to commend Jessica Fuller for this question.  It is the best question on faith and politics that I have heard asked in this primary season.  (And that includes the media and the moderators of debates).

I am partially sympathetic here with Carson.  It is the responsibility of Christians to care for the poor at the local level through voluntary societies such as churches.

But we also live in a broken world.  Sometimes voluntary societies fail. Sometimes the church fails.

Think about the Jim Crow South.  Where was the white church during segregation?  If you read Martin Luther King Jr’s. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” or David Chappell’s treatment of the Civil Rights movement in Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow you have to come to grips with the fact that the white church did not do its job. And because it didn’t do its job, the government had to step in and desegregate.  (This is also part of Mark Noll’s argument in God and Race in American Politics: A Short History).

I wonder if the same thing can be said for poverty in America.  Would we need welfare programs if Christians were doing their job?  I’m not sure, but it is certainly something to think about.

I also wonder why caring for the poor always has to be framed in a “big government” vs. “civil society” way.  Yes, the welfare system needs reform.  But why can’t government also be involved in this kind of work?  Carson rattles off a bunch of problems with welfare.  But there are also stories of success.

And then there are the historical problems with Carson’s comments..

First, Carson is right about the Constitution.  The Constitution doesn’t say that it is the government’s job to take care of the poor.  In fact, I am not sure the Constitution says anything about taking care of the poor.

Second, I am sure that the kind of moral community Carson is talking about here was present in the “old days of America.” I have even written about it. (Although I failed to mention the bear-attacks).

But one also has to be cautious when suggesting that back in the good old days everyone cared for one another and there was no self-interest.  It is easy to romanticize this kind of community.  Carson is very nostalgic for a world that only partially existed.

Third,  Carson’s reference to Woodrow Wilson and progressivism comes straight out of the Glenn Beck playbook. In fact, when Beck and his writers attacked me a few years ago I had to deal with rabid Beck fans leaving messages on my office answering machine accusing me of being “Woodrow Wilson.” For Beck, Wilson’s racism is not a problem.  He is a problem for his “big-government” solutions to social issues.

But putting all the blame on Wilson and the Progressive Era fails to recognize that one of the brightest moments in American history–Lincoln freeing the slaves and the Radical Republican Reconstruction plan to bring racial equality to the South in the wake of the Civil War– was an example of an active federal government try legislating morality.

Thomas Jefferson: Secret Muslim?

Barack Obama is not the first United States President to be accused of being a “Muslim.”  As Stephen Prothero points out at USA Today, many of Thomas Jefferson’s opponents also thought he was a Muslim.  Here is a taste of Prothero’s piece:

Today, it is easy to imagine that Barack Obama is the first U.S. president to be accused of being a Muslim. But that honor actually belongs to Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson’s face now adorns Mount Rushmore, but in the election of 1800, Federalistpartisans of John Adams viciously denounced Jefferson as un-American, principally because of his unorthodox faith, which ran more toward deism and Unitarianism than toward evangelical Protestantism.

One Federalist called Jefferson the “great arch priest of Jacobinism and infidelity.” TheConnecticut Courant suggested he might be a secret Jew or Muslim. It complained that no one seemed to know “whether Mr. Jefferson believes in the heathen mythology or in the alcoran (Quran); whether he is a Jew or a Christian; whether he believes in one God, or in many; or in none at all.”

Op Ed: Why Do People Still Think Obama is a Muslim?

Faithful readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home read a version of this last week.  I cleaned it up a bit and published it at Al Jazeera-America.  Here is a taste:

Last Thursday night, during a question and answer session at one of his campaign rallies, Donald Trump was asked about how he planned to get rid of Muslims in the United States. The question also resurrected the idea that President Barack Obama is a secret follower of the Islamic faith and is not a citizen of the United States.
Most GOP candidates have condemned Trump for his refusal to publicly rebuke the man who asked this question. But Trump has doubled down.
“Am I morally obligated to defend the President every time somebody says something bad or controversial about him?” Trump said on Twitter. “I don’t think so!” On Monday, in an interview on The Today Show, Trump again suggested that Obama might be a Muslim.
What explains Trump’s stubborn insistence on letting the Muslim canard thrive? Perhaps the answer resides in a recent CNN poll that found that 54 percent of Trump’s supporters and 43 percent of all Republicans still believe that Obama is a Muslim. 
Read the rest here.

An Attempt to Understand Ben Carson’s Comments About Islam

I am sure some of you have seen this from Sunday’s morning’s edition of Meet the Press:

To summarize:

  • Carson says that faith does matter in presidential politics, as long as the faith of the candidate is “consistent with the Constitution.”
  • Carson says that Islam is not compatible with the Constitution and he would thus not support a Muslim President of the United States.
  • Carson would consider supporting a Muslim for a seat in Congress if that person’s beliefs are consistent with the American way of life.
It is pretty easy to counter Carson’s statements here.  All one needs to do is appeal to Article 6 of the United States Constitution.  It states, “No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”  This is the only time religion is mentioned in the Constitution.

Carson’s statement violates Article 6.  Men and women of any religious faith (or none at all) can hold federal office.  The President of the United States must swear to “defend the Constitution of the United States.”  In other words, if Carson is elected President in November 2016, he will need to change his views.

But I think what Carson is trying to communicate here has less to do with religious practice and more to do with the way Islam has functioned when it informs the political philosophy behind a particular government.

Freedom of worship is one thing.  The failure to respect that separation of church and state is another.

I am not a Muslim, but I would vigorously defend the right of Muslim’s to practice their faith.  I would even defend the right of Muslim politicians in the United States to allow their faith to inform their politics, as long as the way they do this is in keeping with the central tenets of a liberal democratic republic.  

I don’t think many Americans–liberal or conservative–want a theocracy, an Islamic state, or a nation in which Islam is the state church or established religion.  There are many nations that are Islamic states.  I am no expert in Islamic studies or Islamic political philosophy, but I do think that the way most Islamic states (such as Pakistan or Iran) function is inconsistent with the principles of a liberal democratic republic.

The same thing goes for Christianity.  As an American, I would defend the right of a Christian to practice his or her faith without government interference, but I would oppose attempts to create a theocracy, privilege Christianity over other religions, or to make the Untied States a Christian nation. 

If Carson believes that a Muslim cannot or should not be President, he is constitutionally wrong.  If he is concerned with the implementation of an Islamic state in America, then I am with him.  (And I am “with him” for all kinds of reasons, from the way Islamic states treat women to the way they treat religious dissenters).

But two more things need to be said:

1.  It is wrong for Carson to suggest (as I think he is doing here) that those Americans who practice Islam as a religion automatically embrace the political philosophy of Islamic states.  Just because someone is a Muslim does not mean that he or she wants to create an Islamic state in America or wants to instill sharia law.  This is like saying that all Christians in the United States believe that we should be a Christian nation.

2.  If Carson is going to oppose an Islamic theocracy in the United States, he must also stop promoting the United States as a Christian nation.