Marianne Williamson is Right. We Have a Gun Problem AND a Culture Problem


I am getting tired of the way the gun debate plays out in the wake of mass shootings.  Everyone tries to score political points or use the deaths of innocent lives to advance their own agendas.

For example, here is court evangelical Tony Perkins claiming that the problem is not guns, but evolution and the “driving of God from the public square.”

Others naively believe that mass shootings will stop if we just ban certain weapons.

Why can’t it be both?

Do we live in a violent culture?  Yes.  In one sense, the United States has always been a violent culture.  In another sense, there are clearly things going in our culture right now that were not present fifty years ago. It is thus worth thinking about changes over time when we try to explain why we have so many mass shootings.

Are guns a problem?  Yes.  If Tony Perkins is correct, and we do have a moral problem in the country, then why wouldn’t he support bans on assault weapons that can kill large numbers of people in short periods of time?  If Perkins believes that human beings are sinners, then I think he would be the first person to want to take these weapons out of the hands of sinful people who will use them to kill people.

I think Democratic presidential candidate Marianne Williamson gets it mostly right.  Here is a taste of her recent op-ed in The Washington Post:

America does not just have a gun crisis; it has a cultural crisis. America will not stop experiencing the effects of gun violence until we’re ready to face the many ways that our culture is riddled with violence.

Our environmental policies are violent toward the Earth. Our criminal justice system is violent toward people of color. Our economic system is violent toward the poor. Our entertainment media is violent toward women. Our video games are violent in their effect on the minds of children. Our military is violent in ways and places where it doesn’t have to be. Our media is violent in its knee-jerk shaming and blaming for the sake of a better click rate. Our hearts are violent as we abandon each other constantly, breeding desperation and insanity. And our government is indirectly and directly violent in the countless ways it uses its power to help those who do not need help and to withhold support from those who do.

The darker truth that Americans must face now is this: Our society is not just steeped in violence; we are hooked on violence. And in area after area, there are those who make billions of dollars on deepening the hook. Until we see that, we will just have more violence. Our minds must awaken so we can see all this. Our hearts must awaken so we can change all this. And our politics must change so we can discuss all this.

Read the entire piece here.

“It seems strange that a university would praise an employee for helping to rig online polls”

Liberty U

Inside Higher Ed is running a follow-up story on the Liberty University Chief Information Officer who accepted a bag of cash from Michael Cohen in exchange for rigging online polls to make Donald Trump look like a successful businessman.  We covered this here.

Here is a taste of Lindsay McKenzie’s piece:

Gauger did not respond to request for comments, but Liberty University released a written statement last week supporting him.

“Liberty University, like many other educational institutions, has permitted its employees for many years to engage in business, consulting and other side work that does not interfere with their employment obligations to the University,” it states. “Also, like other organizations, Liberty recognizes the strong demand for highly skilled IT professionals creates special challenges in recruiting and retaining talented employees with those skills and experience. The opportunity for Liberty’s IT employees to develop businesses and products is particularly important to attracting and maintaining Liberty’s IT talent. John Gauger is one example among many outstanding LU employees who have made great contributions in their official roles and also enjoyed success as independent entrepreneurs, allowing them to enhance their capabilities and generate more revenue for their families while allowing the University to retain them on our team.”

The university’s response surprised outside observers.

“It seems strange that a university would praise an employee for helping to rig online opinion polls,” said Tom Davenport, professor of information technology and management at Babson College, a private business school in Wellesley, Mass. “But Liberty University seems to me not a typical university in many respects — it is mostly an advocacy organization for evangelical conservatives and, more recently, Donald Trump.”

Davenport described the incident as “highly irregular on many fronts,” not only because of Liberty’s response but because Gauger was running a business on the side.

“That the CIO had a separate company is unusual in my experience, said Davenport. “Most CIOs in universities and elsewhere are plenty busy with their primary jobs and don’t have time to freelance even if their employers would allow it.”

Read the entire piece here.

This article contains quotes from several Chief Information Officers at secular institutions who say that what Gauger did was unethical.  Why doesn’t the leadership of a Christian institution understand this? When it comes to ethics, shouldn’t a Christian institution be setting the bar?

I also wonder if Falwell Jr. would have defended Gauger if he was working for Barack Obama or another Democrat? Is this just another example of situational ethics at Liberty University?

In most eras, the behavior of Gauger and Falwell Jr. would be embarrassing for Liberty University.  But not in the age of Trump.

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 New Republic* Weighs-In on American Missionary John Allen Chau


ChauYesterday I posted Kate Carte’s twitter thread on the connections between the missionary killed by an indigenous tribe on North Sentinel Island and the American celebration of Thanksgiving.  Read the post here.

Over at The New Republic, Ryu Spaeth provides some ethical nuance.  Here is a taste of his piece, “The Strange Ethics of Killing John Allen Chau“:

It is basically a miracle that the Sentinelese, numbering as few as a few dozen people, continue to exist. Other indigenous tribes were wiped out when the British turned the Andaman and Nicobar Islands into a penal colony in the nineteenth century. Still others withered when they came into a more benign contact with anthropologists in the twentieth. It is no wonder the Sentinelese are wary of foreigners. For them to have successfully turned back yet another encroachment by the West, even in the figure of an irrepressible fool, seems like a rare victory amidst so much defeat. It feels like well-earned revenge.

But this is where the story’s underlying moral logic becomes almost too beguiling. Perhaps we want it to be that simple, for a man’s life to cost exactly that of a trespass of sacrosanct ground. Just as the Sentinelese appear to modern eyes to stand outside of time, with their rough-hewn weapons and ocean-bound lives, so does their rough administration of justice, suggesting some iron decree that is immemorial, nearing the divine: Cross this line and you will be struck down.

In much of the world, the rules that govern borders and sovereignty, that determine who can go where, are not so brightly defined. They are tacked together from a host of precedents and compromises, and riven with ambiguities and ethical pitfalls. Some people can cross, others cannot, and the difference is sometimes literally arbitrary, determined by lottery. There is nothing close to a consensus on what these rules should ultimately be, with the options ranging from walls to the abolition of borders altogether. At the root of this issue are fundamental questions about what it means to be a culture, a nation, a people. It is arguably the most divisive problem of our time, and easily one of the most explosive.

Just last week, as news was spreading of Chau’s death, no less a liberal eminence than Hillary Clinton declared that Europe “must send a very clear message—‘we are not going to be able to continue provide refuge and support’” to migrants. Clinton said this position was necessary because a flood of migrants to Europe, starting in 2015, had played into the hands of right-wing anti-immigration parties, feeding their popularity. The latter part of that statement is undoubtedly true, but critics pointed out that that is no reason to deny refuge entirely to those fleeing appalling conditions in their home countries.

There is no equivalence between Clinton’s callous remarks and the hostility of the Sentinelese—for one thing, the dynamics at play between the powerful and the vulnerable in these two situations are reversed. But the comparison reminds us that the world we live in is necessarily imperfect and often unjust, because its laws are the product of competing claims made in pluralistic societies. The fascination with Chau’s killing is multifaceted, but perhaps it is at least partly driven by the impossible fantasy of a world where solutions arrive with the directness of an arrow’s flight—and where justice and the law are one and the same.

Read the entire piece here.

Paige Patterson and Richard Land Will Co-Teach an Ethics Course


Yes, you read the headline correctly.

Paige Patterson, who was ousted at Southwestern Theological Seminary for dismissing women’s concerns about domestic abuse and rape  (see our coverage here), is teaching an ethics course at Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina.

But it gets better.  Patterson is co-teaching the class with Southern Evangelical Seminary president and court evangelical Richard Land.  In 2013, Land retired early from his post at the Southern Baptist Church’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission because he made racially insensitive remarks in the context of the death of Trayvon Martin.  (Russell Moore replaced him in the post).

Here is Adelle Banks’s piece at Religion News Service:

Patterson plans to co-teach a mid-October weeklong class on “Christian Ethics: The Bible and Moral Issues” with Richard Land, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary, a school that is not affiliated with the SBC.

“Dr. Patterson’s one of the most significant figures in evangelicalism in the last 20 years, at least, of the 20th century and the first part of the 21st century,” Land told Religion News Service, “and we believe that there are a lot of people who would like to hear from him about living the Christian life in America. I believe he’s an asset to evangelicalism and we’re looking forward to it.”

Read the entire piece here.

Scott Pruitt on “Providence” and “Blessings”


Scott Pruitt has resigned as Director of the Environmental Protection Agency.  Trump announced the resignation via Twitter.

Here is his letter of resignation:

Mr. President, it has been an honor to serve you in the Cabinet as Administrator of the EPA. Truly, your confidence in me has blessed me personally and enabled me to advance your agenda beyond what anyone anticipated at the beginning of your Administration. Your courage, steadfastness and resolute commitment to get results for the American people, both with regard to improved environmental outcomes as well as historical regulatory reform, is in fact occurring at an unprecedented pace and I thank you for the opportunity to serve you and the American people in helping achieve those ends.

That is why is hard for me to advise you I am stepping down as Administrator of the EPA effective as of July 6. It is extremely difficult for me to cease serving you in this role first because I count it a blessing to be serving you in any capacity, but also, because of the transformative work that is occurring. However, the unrelenting attacks on me personally, my family, are unprecedented and have taken a sizable toll on all of us.

My desire in service to you has always been to bless you as you make important decisions for the American people. I believe you are serving as President today because of God’s providence. I believe that same providence brought me into your service. I pray as I have served you that I have blessed you and enabled you to effectively lead the American people. Thank you again Mr. President for the honor of serving you and I wish you Godspeed in all that you put your hand to.

                          Your Faithful Friend,

                           Scott Pruitt

As this letter makes clear, Pruitt is an evangelical Christian.  He is a former deacon of First Baptist Church in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma and served on the Board of Trustees of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.  If you just change a few words in this letter it could pass for his resignation letter as a church deacon.

His appeal to God’s providence should not surprise us.  This is pretty common evangelical language and Pruitt sees little difference between the church and the government.  I am assuming that Pruitt means that God specifically chose Donald Trump to deliver His “chosen nation” from the hands of the Obama-Clinton threat.  I assume he means that God brought him to the EPA to prevent climate-change advocates from actually doing something about climate change.  He is sincere about all of this.  This is what he believes.  I have no doubt that he thinks that he was doing God’s will for a divinely-appointed POTUS.  These appeals to providence, coupled with regular Bible studies that no doubt use the Bible to endorse GOP politics, is what passes for evangelical political engagement today among Christian Right politicians.

The satirist Ambrose Bierce described “providence” as an idea that is “unexpectedly and consciously beneficial to the person so describing it.”

The use of the phrase “bless” or “blessing” (used four times in the short letter) is also pretty common in evangelical circles.  When evangelicals do something to encourage another Christian they are “being a blessing” to that person.  It is a pretty common way of talking about showing Christian love to a neighbor or friend.   When I was a teenager, I often listened to “Walk with the King,” the radio of show of The Kings College president and National Association of Evangelical president Robert A. Cook.  He used to end every broadcast by saying “Until I meet you once again by way of radio, walk with the King today, and be a blessing.”

Pruitt no doubt believes that he was a “blessing” to Donald Trump.  He was serving God’s anointed.

He also apparently  received his own “blessings” by working for the EPA.  I don’t think the prosperity gospel is popular in Southern Baptist circles, but in the context of this resignation letter it sure seems like Pruitt believed God was blessing him when he

  • rented a bedroom near Capitol Hill from a lobbyist for $50.00 a night.
  • tried to use his role at the EPA to get his wife a Chick-fil-A franchise.
  • spent over $3.5 million on his security detail.
  • asked an aide to get him a used mattress from a Trump hotel.
  • paid $1560 for 12 fountain pens.
  • lied about asking for a 24/7 security detail
  • flew first class to avoid “lashing out from passengers.”
  • spent $5700 for biometric locks.
  • installed a $43,000 phone booth in his office.
  • told his motorcade to use flashing lights and sirens in order to get to brunch on time.
  • went $60,000 over budget on an EPA trip to Morocco.
  • sent his security detail to buy him lotions and pick-up his dry cleaning.
  • takes a personal security detail on family trips to Disneyland and the Rose Bowl.
  • spent $120,000 for opposition research on the media.
  • hired a coal lobbyist to be his deputy EPA administrator.

I am glad Pruitt is gone for two reasons:

  1. The GOP will spin Pruitt’s resignation by saying that they agreed with his policies as EPA director, but disagreed with the ethics violations.  This position fails to take seriously the Christian responsibility to care for the creation.  Government must play a role in this work.  Having said that, I am guessing Trump will replace him with someone else who believes that climate change is a hoax.
  2. Pruitt’s ethical violations reveal that he is unfit for this cabinet position or any cabinet position.  The fact that he would make appeals to evangelical words like “providence” and “blessing” in his resignation letter is appalling.

And let’s not forget that many evangelicals have defended this guy.

Trump Evangelicals Line-Up Behind Scott Pruitt


Scott Pruitt’s ethical problems are abundant.  Here is how Aaron Weaver describes them in his recent piece at Sojourners:

A $50-a-night condo deal from a lobbyist pal. More than $100,000 for first class airfare and $40,000 on a soundproof phone booth. A twenty person 24-hour protective detail and emergency sirens en route to a French restaurant. Travel costs closing in on $3 million. Big raises for top aides and demotions for officials who dare question the spending habits of their boss and head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt.

Yet many evangelicals are standing by him, including Family Research Council president Tony Perkins.

Here is another taste of Weaver’s piece:

The evangelical leaders called Pruitt “well qualified” to head the EPA and said he deserved “the full support of the United States Senate in his confirmation.” These evangelicals aimed to counter the claims of climate change denialism leveled against their Southern Baptist brother, insisting that he had been “misrepresented as denying ‘settled science.’” Pruitt had just called for “a continuing debate” on the impact and extent of climate change, they said.

With this public defense of Pruitt, these evangelicals were continuing down a path started more than a decade ago as awareness about the urgent global challenge of climate change was increasing within evangelicalism. In 2006, a coalition of well known evangelical pastors and professors calling themselves the Evangelical Climate Initiative released a declaration urging environmental concern and imploring Congress to adopt legislation to curb carbon emissions. Shortly after, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a statement warning that climate change was “threatening to become a wedge issue to divide the evangelical community” and distract its members from “the priority of the Great Commission.”

Read the rest here.



Randall Balmer on the Christian Right’s Changing Code of Ethics

Trump court evangelicals

Randall Balmer, a lifelong observer of American evangelicalism, reflects on the “flexible” values of the Christian Right.

Here is a summary of Balmer’s sense of the “new” Christian Right ethical code:

  1. “Lying is all right as long as it serves a higher purpose.”
  2. “It’s no problem to married more than, well, twice.”
  3. “Immigrants are scum”
  4. “Vulgarity is a sign of strength and resolve”
  5. “White live matter (much more than others)”
  6. “There’s no harm in spending time with porn stars”
  7. “It’s all right for adults to date children”
  8. “The end justifies the means”

See how Balmer develops this points here.

Do You Trust Your Pastor?


According to a recent Gallup poll, 48% of Christians trust members of the clergy.  This means that they have more trust in nurses, military officers, grade school teachers, medical doctors, pharmacists, and police officers.

Here is a brief summary:

WASHINGTON, D.C. — For the 16th consecutive year, Americans’ ratings of the honesty and ethical standards of 22 occupations finds nurses at the top of the list. More than eight in 10 (82%) Americans describe nurses’ ethics as “very high” or “high.” In contrast, about six in 10 Americans rate members of Congress (60%) and lobbyists (58%) as “very low” or “low” when it comes to honesty and ethical standards.

Read the entire report here.

Christianity Today puts the story in context here.

Evangelicals Have Suddenly Become More Forgiving of the Sins of Elected Officials


First Baptist Church–Dallas

Hmm….  I wonder what explains this?

Back in 2011, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) asked voters if “an elected official who commits and immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.”

In 2011, evangelical Christians were the least forgiving.

In October 2016, when PRRI asked the same question, evangelical Christians were the most forgiving.  In other words “white evangelicals went from being the least likely to the most likely group to agree that a candidate’s personal immorality has no bearing on his performance in public office.”

PRRI CEO Robert P. Jones calls this “a head-spinning reversal.”

I’m not sure how “head-spinning” this is.  Seems pretty par for the course.  Just ask Dr. James Dobson and Dr. Wayne Grudem.

Read all about it in this piece at The New York Times.

Martin Marty on Football: “The memories are vivid; the agonies of conscience thus grow stronger.”


In his regular column at the University of Chicago Divinity School website, Martin Marty wonders how long we can in good conscience continue to celebrate football.  He writes: “The question ‘What Would Jesus Think About Football?’ sounds silly and is inaptly posed.  But, then again….”

Here is a taste of his piece: “Football Religion“:

…Regularly cited was a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association on a study of the brains of 111 deceased former NFL players. Finding? “110 had the degenerative brain disease [CTE].” Let it be noted that the sports commentators who have been roused by this issue are not anti-sports (or anti-billion-dollar businesses). Most of them recognize the positive role that athletics can play in character formation and physical prowess, and many of those who now oppose the violent sport display signs of ambiguity and regret. Realists are aware of how hard it would be to introduce radical change to professional sports, given their market value.

Who stands apart from the debate, the questioning, the confusion? The author of this column still cherishes his own score chart of the 1941 Rose Bowl, when he was a 13-year-old in the midst of the Great Depression and then World War II, and our Nebraska Cornhuskers brought home name and fame, those things which were absent from our lives and newspapers each year until the time when we could turn our radio dials to college football. In high school the only letter available to little me was awarded for my announcing games on local radio. The memories are vivid; the agonies of conscience thus grow stronger

Read the entire piece here.


I am hearing a lot of this in the wake of the Donald Trump–Morning Joe tweeting scandal.  In this case, “howeverism” is a rhetorical strategy being used by conservatives and Trump supporters, but it could apply to people of all parties and affiliations.

I’ll just explain it with my tweet:

Howeverism is an example of how politics pervades almost every dimension of public discourse.  Trump’s tweets about Mika Brzezinski require complete moral condemnation.  Howeverism weakens moral condemnation with an unhealthy dose politics.

Rich People are Immoral

wealth-05This is the argument made by journalist  A.Q. Smith at the website of Current Affairs: A Magazine of Politics and Culture.  

Here is a taste of his essay “It’s Basically Just Immoral to be Rich.”

Of course, when you start talking about whether it is moral to be rich, you end up heading down some difficult logical paths. If I am obligated to use my wealth to help people, am I not obligated to keep doing so until I am myself a pauper? Surely this obligation attaches to anyone who consumes luxuries they do not need, or who has some savings that they are not spending on malaria treatment for children. But the central point I want to make here is that the moral duty becomes greater the more wealth you have. If you end up with a $50,000 a year or $100,000 a year salary, we can debate what amount you should spend on helping other people. But if you earn $250,000 or 1 million, it’s quite clear that the bulk of your income should be given away. You can live very comfortably on $100,000 or so and have luxury and indulgence, so anything beyond is almost indisputably indefensible. And the super-rich, the infamous “millionaires and billionaires”, are constantly squandering resources that could be used to create wonderful and humane things. If you’re a billionaire, you could literally open a hospital and make it free. You could buy up a bunch of abandoned Baltimore rowhouses, do them up, and give them to families. You could help make sure no child ever had to go without lunch.

We can define something like a “maximum moral income” beyond which it’s obviously inexcusable not to give away all of your money. It might be 50 thousand. Call it 100, though. Per person. With an additional 50 allowed per child. This means two parents with a child can still earn $250,000! That’s so much money. And you can keep it. But everyone who earns anything beyond it is obligated to give the excess away in its entirety. The refusal to do so means intentionally allowing others to suffer, a statement which is true regardless of whether you “earned” or “deserved” the income you were originally given. (Personally, I think the maximum moral income is probably much lower, but let’s just set it here so that everyone can agree on it. I do tend to think that moral requirements should be attainable in practice, and a $30k threshold would actually require people experience some deprivation whereas a $100k threshold indisputably still leaves you with an incredibly comfortable lifestyle better than almost any other had by anyone in history.)

Of course, wealthy people do give away money, but so often in piecemeal and self-interested and foolish ways. They’ll donate to colleges with huge endowments to get needless buildings built and named after them. David Geffen will pay to open a school for the children of wealthy university faculty, and somehow be praised for it. Mark Zuckerberg will squander millions of dollars trying to fix Newark’s schools by hiring $1000-a-day-consultants. Brad Pitt will try to build homes for Katrina victims in New Orleans, but will insist that they’re architecturally cutting-edge and funky looking, instead of just trying to make as many simple houses as possible. Just as the rich can’t be trusted to spend their money well generally, they’re colossally terrible at giving it away. This is because so much is about self-aggrandizement, and “philanthropy” is far more about the donor than the donee. Furthermore, if you’re a multi-billionaire, giving away $1 billion is morally meaningless. If you’ve got $3 billion, and you give away 1, you’re still incredibly wealthy, and thus still harming many people through your retention of wealth. You have to get rid of all of it, beyond the maximum moral income. 

The central point, however, is this: it is not justifiable to retain vast wealth. This is because that wealth has the potential to help people who are suffering, and by not helping them you are letting them suffer. It does not make a difference whether you earned the vast wealth. The point is that you have it. And whether or not we should raise the tax rates, or cap CEO pay, or rearrange the economic system, we should all be able to acknowledge, before we discuss anything else, that it is immoral to be rich. That much is clear.

Read the entire piece here.

Mike Pence, It’s Time To Step Up And Tell The Truth About This Wiretapping Mess

e9584-penceHere is an exchange between an Ohio news outlet and Vice President Mike Pence about Donald Trump’s claim that Barack Obama wiretapped his campaign:

John Kosich, WEWS: The President has alleged that the former President committed a felony in wiretapping Trump Tower. Yes or no — do you believe that President Obama did that?

Mike Pence: Well, what I can say is that the President and our administration are very confident that the congressional committees in the House and Senate that are examining issues surrounding the last election, the run-up to the last election, will do that in a thorough and equitable way.

They’ll look at those issues, they’ll look at other issues that have been raised. But rest assured, our focus is right where the American people are focused, and that’s on bringing more jobs here to Ohio, creating a better healthcare system built on consumer choice.

Mr. Vice-President, you are dodging the question.  Please tell the truth.  You claim to be a man of Christian faith.  Where is your integrity?  It has apparently been sacrificed on the altar of political power.

Will you stand by and let this foolish investigation go forward at the expense of the American taxpayer?

You also said that your administration will speak the truth to the American people.  How can you stand by a POTUS who is so blatantly lying to us about this?

Why Walter Shaub Jr. Matters



Walter Shaub Jr. is the Director of the United States Office of Government Ethics (OGE). He graduated from James Madison University with a History degree and has a J.D. from American University’s Washington College of Law. Barack Obama appointed Shaub to a five-year term as Director of the OGE.  His term ends in 2018.

Some of you may not be familiar with the OGE.  You can learn more about it here. In essence, the OGE is an independent and non-partisan agency that functions within the executive branch of the federal government.  Its mission is to “provide overall leadership and oversight of the executive branch ethics program designed to prevent and resolve conflicts of interest.”

Shaub and his team usually work behind the scenes to help a new president avoid conflicts of interest and conform to ethical standards, but Donald Trump’s recent press conference has prompted him to go public.  Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker has done some excellent reporting and writing on this.  Here is a taste of his recent piece:

The day after the election, Shaub e-mailed several Trump officials based in Washington. “Congratulations on the campaign’s victory,” he wrote, according to e-mails released by the O.G.E. “We’re really looking forward to getting down to work on this Presidential transition—which we’re going to make the best one in history!” He reminded Trump officials that they could call him or other members of his office at any hour—“around the clock”—even on Christmas.

The good cheer didn’t last. A couple of weeks later, during a time of turmoil in the Trump transition, when people associated with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie were purged from the Washington team, Shaub wrote a despondent e-mail to one transition official. “I’m just dropping another quick note to remind you that OGE is here to help,” he said on November 19th. “We seem to have lost contact with the Trump-Pence transition since the election….”

…When Trump and his tax lawyer—not an ethics lawyer—finally announced his plan, at a press conference in Trump Tower on Wednesday, Shaub was appalled. As many, including my colleague Sheelah Kolhatkar, have carefully documented, the Trump plan is a sham. Trump did not divest his assets the way his nominees have; he did not give up ownership of his companies, or appoint anyone with independence to oversee ethical questions. He has not taken serious steps to address concerns about violating the Emoluments Clause, and he and his team offered no details about public reporting of the minimal effort he has promised to make to address conflicts.

At the Brookings Institution that afternoon, Shaub pleaded with Trump to change his mind. “It’s important to understand that the President is now entering the world of public service,” he said. “He’s going to be asking his own appointees to make sacrifices. He’s going to be asking our men and women in uniform to risk their lives in conflicts around the world. So, no, I don’t think divestiture is too high a price to pay to be the President of the United States of America.”

Trump’s impulse is to cavalierly disregard ethical and democratic norms that he views as inconvenient. Going forward, government officials like Shaub, who risked a great deal by standing up to his incoming boss, will be more necessary than ever.

And now Jason Chaffetz, the Republican chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has accused Shaub of mixing ethics and politics.

According to Lizza’s piece, Shaub has worked out ethics agreements with Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson, Secretary, Treasury nominee Steven Mnuchin, Transportation Secretary nominee Elaine Chao, Secretary of Defense nominee James Mattis, and HUD Secretary nominee Ben Carson.  Why not Trump?

As Donald Trump said over and over again in his Wednesday press conference, he is not legally bound to divest his assets.  In fact, he even claimed that he could run the government and his business “and do a very good job.”  He bragged about turning down a 2 billion deal from a real estate developer in Dubai because he thought service to his country as POTUS was more important.  (I wonder if his sons will now pursue that deal in Dubai?).

But Trump’s false sense of public duty is not fooling anyone.  I find it hard to believe that Trump will not, in one or another, play some role in his business during his term as POTUS.  It is inevitable that at some point in the next four years Trump will be forced to choose between the good of his sons and the good of the country.  Divestiture seems to be the only option.  Anything else reeks of pure self-interest, the kind of self-interest that should disqualify any leader of a republic.

The good news is that Trump will appoint the right Supreme Court justices. 😉

Make Liberty University Football (and all other sports) Great Again in the #ageoftrump


Decency, morality, truth, and ethics no longer matter in what I have been describing on Twitter as the #ageoftrump.  Perhaps the most conspicuous representatives of this new political and cultural era are American evangelicals.

It has now been well documented that many white evangelical Christians supported Donald Trump despite the deficiencies in his moral character.  (And this has nothing to do with the fact that he is unqualified to hold this office).  Christian political witness has now come down to whether or not a candidate will promise to support a certain kind of Supreme Court justice or whether or not a candidate is Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.

#theageoftrump also seems to be having an effect on Christian institutions of higher learning who want to have nationally-ranked sports programs.

As you may have seen in the news, Liberty University just hired former Baylor athletic director Ian McCaw. I don’t know much about McCaw’s politics or Christian commitments. I assume that he is conservative and he is an evangelical.

I do know that he strengthened Baylor’s athletic program during his tenure in Waco. I also know that he knew about a gang-rape by Baylor football players and did not report it to school officials.  (We in central Pennsylvania know a thing or two about football coaches sitting on this kind of information).

It does not surprise me in the #ageoftrump that Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University and a strong Trump supporter who dismissed the POTUS-elect’s moral indiscretions, would hire McCaw as the university’s athletic director.  I am sure Falwell Jr. was grinning ear-to-ear when McCaw  announced that:

My vision for Liberty is to position it as a pre-eminent Christian athletic program in America and garner the same type of appeal among the Christian community as Notre Dame achieves among the Catholic community and BYU garners from the Mormons.

In fact, Falwell was so excited about McCaw that he turned to twitter:

Character and ethics no longer matter in the #ageoftrump.  What matters is making things great again.

Stanley Hauerwas Headed to Aberdeen University

For those of you who are interested in the American theological scene, Stanley Hauerwas, the man who Time Magazine described as “America’s Best Theologian,” has accepted a part-time endowed chair in theological ethics at Aberdeen University.  Here is a taste of the press release:

The University is delighted to announce the appointment of Stanley Hauerwas to a Chair in Theological Ethics. Professor Hauerwas will take up his part-time post within the School of Divinity, History &Philosophy this autumn. Respected worldwide for his influential and wide-ranging scholarship and acknowledged as a leading public intellectual both within and outwith the churches, Hauerwas—who previously helda professorship at the University of Notre Dame and is currently the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor Emeritus of Divinity and Law and a Senior Research Fellow the Duke University Divinity School—continues decisively to shape the field of contemporary theological ethics.
Hauerwas is the author of countless articles and over forty books including Community of Character (1981) and The Peaceable Kingdom (1983), God, Medicine and Suffering (1994), With the Grain of the Universe (2001), and most recently Working With Words: Learning to Speak Christian (2011) and Approaching the End (2013). His body of work engages a vast range of issues in theology, ethics, law, education, literature, disability studies, and medical ethics. He is also well-known for his commitments to pacifism and radical politics. His contributions have been recognized by award of honorary Doctorates from DePaul University, the University of Edinburgh, Virginia Theological Seminary and the University of Geneva. In 2001 he was named by Time Magazine as ‘America’s Best Theologian’.
Professor Sir Ian Diamond, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Aberdeen, said: “The appointment of Professor Hauerwas confirms the world-class stature of our Divinity department and the strength of our ambitions. Hauerwas is internationally acknowledged to be one of those very few scholars of whom it can be said without exaggeration that he has changed the face of his discipline. We are pleased to welcome to our ranks a major public intellectual whose scholarship is a touchstone for anyone working in ethics and related fields.”
John Swinton, Professor of Practical Theology and Master of Christ’s College added: “Stanley Hauerwas is one of the finest theologians of our time and we are delighted that he has chosen to come and work with us at Aberdeen. His appointment is a fantastic opportunity with huge potential and we look forward with anticipation to what will undoubtedly be an exciting and creative future.”

Reflecting on Religion and Citizenship in Chattanooga, Part One: Should Historians Make Moral Judgments On the Past?

I just returned from an excellent institute for Tennessee and Georgia history and social studies teachers at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga (UTC). The event was entitled “Religion and the Making of American Citizens” and it was sponsored by UTC’s Center for Reflective Citizenship.  Wilfred McClay, Jonathan Yeager, and Lucian Ellington made up the brain trust behind the event.  Twenty-four teachers, representing schools in Chattanooga, Memphis, Hixson (TN), Lindale (GA), Ringgold (GA), Ooltewah (GA), Signal Mountain (TN), Spring City (TN), and Lafayette (GA), participated in the institute.  It was a vibrant and engaged group.  In this post, I want to address Tracy McKenzie’s opening address to the teachers.

Tracy McKenzie is the chair of the history department at Wheaton College. He started off the conference with a powerful address about the role that religion could play in the school classroom. After discussing the provocative work of the late Warren Nord, a secularist who has made the controversial argument that it is unconstitutional to remove religion from the classroom, McKenzie turned to the subject of love.  He argued that if history teachers truly love their students they would not only teach them “what happened in the past” and “why what happened in the past happened in the way that it did,” but they would go even further, asking them to ponder whether what happened in the past was “good.” (McKenzie is borrowing here from Notre Dame historian Philip Gleason). When teachers ask students to think about whether a particular event in the past is “good,” they are challenging students to engage in work that is essentially religious.  This kind of engagement, McKenzie argues, belongs in the history classroom.

The teachers seemed to embrace McKenzie’s approach even as he claimed that such an approach goes beyond what most professional historians find acceptable.  Perhaps I am one of those professional historians who McKenzie chided in his talk. While the third part of Gleason’s formula (was what happened “good?”)  can have a place in the history classroom, I have argued that it must be done with a great deal of caution so that the discipline of history is not sacrificed to moral philosophy.

In the end, this is a friendly difference between two Christian historians. After spending twelve years teaching at a Christian liberal arts college, I find that making ethical, moral, and religious claims about people and movements in the past is rather easy for my students.  Most of them were raised in evangelical Christian homes where these kinds of judgments happen all the time.  As a result, I am often faced with the task of challenging them to understand, empathize, and explore the actions of those from the past on their own terms before jumping right away into whether or not such actions are “good” or “bad.”  While I certainly want the moral imagination of my students triggered by their

encounter with the past, they need to engage in the more elementary work of historical thinking before they dabble in moral philosophy.

Perhaps it might be a worthwhile exercise to read Tracy’s The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning from History alongside my own Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past?  

Whatever the case, I really appreciated McKenzie’s efforts on this front. I hope the teachers did as well.  What a treat!

Stay tuned.  A future post will explore the rest of the conference.

Do Academic Historians Dislike the American Revolution?

Over the past few weeks there has been a very interesting conversation going on at New York History, a blog that should be getting more attention due to the thoughtful posts from blogger and public historian Peter Feinman.

Recently Feinman attended The American Revolution Reborn conference in Philadelphia (May 30-June 1, 2013) and wrote a series of excellent posts on his experience.  In one post, Feinman noted that none of the participants in the conference were willing to recognize “the profound power of the revolutionary ideas of the American Revolution.”

The posts led to an exchange between Feinman and Penn historian Michael Zuckerman, the co-organizer of the conference. The exchange focused on academic historians, the American Revolution, and American exceptionalism.  Here is a taste of Zuckerman’s response to Feinman’s series:

In one of his most severe swipes at those academics, Peter lamented their lack of any apparent pride in the Revolution.  People everywhere, he says, take pride in the birth of their own country; only ivory-tower elites do not.  But, in this regard, Peter did not attend the same conference I did.  He blogged as though we all understand and agree on the story of that birth.  BUT WE DON’T.  That, it seemed to me, was the burden and the anguish of the conference.   A bunch of well-meaning scholars who don’t even know their own minds with any assurance, let alone think they know “the truth” of that birth, came together in the hope that, together, they might make more sense of it than they now do.  The issue of the conference was never, so far as I could see, whether we had pride in that birth.  The issue was the same issue that has preoccupied Americans since July 4, 1776: what is the meaning of that birth?

Pride was not the mood of the conference because humility was.  That is why messiness was, as Peter admits, the recurrent theme of our time together.  That, I think, is why no one was eager to address the question of whether the Revolution was a good thing.  That question begs a deeper one, on which no one wanted to pronounce pontifically: what was the Revolution?  On that, we will be having conferences like The American Revolution Reborn forever.  Or at least until the great corporate leaders who really don’t believe in We the People or in America finally win and tell us once and for all what the Revolution was.

Read Zuckerman’s entire post here.

And now a taste of Feinman’s response, “Scholars in the Public Mind“:

How do scholars “market” themselves in the public arena so their image is positive, and not apologetic anti-American? If scholars seek a call to (political) arms as Mike Zuckerman seems to suggest, then those issuing the call need to do so as prophets who want America to live up to its ideals and oppose the wealthy, powerful, and the loudly ignorant. 

If however, the language of academics today is condescending, doesn’t take pride in the American Revolution, and only criticizes America, then Mike Zuckerman is right: the battle over the changes America needs to live up to its potential is lost.

There is a difference between challenging America to be great and simply constantly condemning it for its shortcomings. Academics haven’t learned to speak the language of patriotism when criticizing America. They should champion the journey the Founding Fathers began, rather than only criticizing them for failing to meet their 21st century moral standards.

At one point in the exchange Feinman accuses historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich of ducking a question about “whether the Revolution was a good thing.”  Feinman sees this as a failure by academic historians to openly acknowledge what is exceptional about America.  In fact, he called Ulrich’s failure to answer the question “embarrassing.”

Now I don’t know what Laurel Ulrich thinks about the “rightness” or “wrongness” of the American Revolution.  I do not turn to Ulrich or any of the scholars at the conference for their opinion on such a matter.  But I do want historians like Ulrich to help me understand the meaning of the Revolution. In other words, to wonder whether the American Revolution was “good” is certainly a topic that can be debated and discussed, but it is not an issue that falls within the scope of the historian’s vocation. And the American Revolution Reborn was a historical conference.

As Zuckerman notes, “The issue of the conference was never, so far as I could see, whether we had pride in (America’s) birth.  The issue was the same issue that has preoccupied Americans since July 4, 1776: what is the meaning of that birth.”

Zuckerman also has some very good things to say about the place of history in our society, particularly the limits of our discipline. He writes:

I don’t for a moment discount the bright visions and the glowing words of the Founders, and I don’t know any other academics who do.  The scholars who spoke at The American Revolution Reborn study the founders – all the founders – because they treasure those ideals and that rhetoric.  But the world of the Founders and the founders is not ours, and their virtues no longer characterize us distinctively or, in some cases, at all.  The question is how we salvage something of those virtues in a world transformed, and largely transformed in ways inimical to those virtues.  The question is how we renew those virtues under new circumstances and against the odds.  But we can’t take up those questions and a dozen others like them if we simply reiterate the old verities.  If we are to engage in the conversation we have to have in 2013, we have got to acknowledge the realities of our new world.  

Zuckerman’s response here reminds me of Catherine O’Donnell’s recent op-ed in an Arizona newspaper,  “History is a Useful Tool, Not Answer to Every Problem.”  I encourage you to check it out.

On the other hand, Feinman certainly has a point when he writes, “If the new master narrative gives the appearance of being anti-American, then it will be rejected.  If it is presented by people who have pride in being American and who are not always apologizing for it, then it has a better chance of resonating with the American people.”

I think Feinman has put his finger on one of the primary reasons academic historians have struggled to speak to the public. American exceptionalism and so-called “founders chic” is so popular today because academic historians have abandoned the public sphere.  While there is definitely change on the horizon in this regard, historians should not be surprised that Americans get their American history from the likes of David McCullough, Bill O’Reilly, and David Barton.