E.J. Dionne on Political Idolatry

Trump USA Today

Donald Trump at the National Prayer Breakfast

This morning I was on a local radio show in the Boston area.  When the host asked me what I thought about Christians getting involved in politics, I said, as I have before, that Christians who want to enter political life must be very careful about letting political ideology (of either party) co-opt their faith.

E.J. Dionne makes a similar point today at The Washington Post.  Here is a taste:

If you wonder why young people are leaving organized religion in droves, look no further than last week’s National Prayer Breakfast.

Many who care about religion and its fate have condemned President Trump’s vindictive, self-involved, God-as-an-afterthought speech at the annual gathering. By contrast, his backers were happy to say “Amen” as they prepared to exploit religion in one more election.

My Post colleague Michael Gerson, a beacon of moral clarity in the conservative evangelical world, noted that Trump’s address was a tribute to his “remarkable ability to corrupt, distort and discredit every institution he touches.”

Gerson is right, but I confess that there has always been something troubling about the prayer breakfast. I don’t doubt the sincerity of the faith of many of its organizers. There have been moments when politicians, including presidents, have used the occasion to promote humility in the face of God’s judgment and call each other to fellowship across their political differences.

Nonetheless, the whole exercise seems idolatrous. The gatherings encourage the suspicion that many politicians are there not because of God but because of their own political imperatives. They want to tell the world how religious they are and check the faith box on the advice of their political advisers. You worry that this is as much about preening as praying.

And, as historian Kevin Kruse pointed out in his book “One Nation Under God,” the prayer breakfast was a component of a public elevation of religion in the 1950s designed at least in part to serve the cause of conservative politics.

Read the rest here.

The *Believe Me* Book Tour Comes to Mechanicsburg Church of the Brethren

Church of Brethren

I had a great visit yesterday with an adult education class at Mechanicsburg (PA) Church of the Brethren.  The class is reading Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump and it was a privilege to be present to answer questions and talk more about the book.

We spent a lot of time exploring theological, political, and historical factors that led so many evangelical to support Trump in 2016, but we also talked about a vision for Christian politics defined by hope, humility, and an informed understanding of American history.  Class members had questions about abortion, “end times” theology, environmentalism, the 2020 election, and how to think more Christianly about political engagement.

As Christian political scientist Glenn Tinder explains, politics requires “attentiveness” and “availability.”  Attentive people are aware of what others are “doing, suffering, [and] saying.” But they also make themselves available.  They see the needs of the world and ask: “Is there anything I can do about it?”  If we think about politics this way, then churches are always engaged in political activity.  And if churches are always engaged in political activity, then it also has a responsibility to think deeply about how to exercise such engagement in accordance with scripture.

Thanks to Warren Eshbach for the invitation.

24 Hours in Cleveland, Tennessee

lee U

This past weekend (Friday and Saturday) I was spent some time at the beautiful campus of Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee. I was there for the Lee Symposium: A Conversation on Faith and the Liberal Arts.  Retired Calvin College history professor Ron Wells founded the symposium at Maryville College and Lee took it over four years ago.  This year’s theme was “Christians and Politics: Power, the Liberal Arts, and People of Faith.  You can read the program here.

The organizer of the Lee Symposium,  history professor Jason Ward, caps registration at fifty or sixty people in order to allow for maximum conversation and fellowship. Most of the attendees come from faith-based colleges in the Chattanooga area, but there are a few who travel from longer distances to participate.

The symposium centers around four plenary speakers and respondents.  These keynote addresses set the stage for about an hour of questions and conversations.  I got the ball rolling on Friday afternoon with a talk titled “Christian Liberal Arts in the Age of Trump.”  I suggested a few ways that thinking Christians might counter the divisiveness of the Trump era, the undermining of facts, evidence, and proof in the Trump era, and the general anti-intellectualism of evangelical congregational life.  Historian Lisa Clark Diller of Southern Adventist University offered some excellent commentary and feedback.  The discussion was rich and several students participated in the conversation.

On Friday night, Lee University political scientist Ana Shippey reminded us that most of what the Trump administration tells us about immigration is wrong and feeds into what she described as “Christian nativism.” On Saturday morning, University of Oklahoma historian Wilfred McClay suggested that Christian liberal arts should be about liberation (using Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”), the pursuit of the good, true and beautiful (using Philippians 4:8), and the celebration of the teacher in the classroomChrista Bennett of Community Well in Charlottesville, Virginia shared her journey from the conservative daughter of a Pentecostal minister to a Christian who is liberal, pro-choice, and pro-LGBTQ.  Much of her talk challenged us to think about how “power” plays-out in everyday political and social life.

Finally, Jason Ward summarized the weekend and challenged us to continue the conversation.

I enjoyed the weekend at Lee and learned a great deal from the robust conversation.  It was so good to see old friends (Lisa Diller, Bill McClay, Ron Wells) and make some new ones (Rondall and Pamela Reynoso, some of Lisa Diller’s amazing students, some of Jason Ward’s amazing students, Ana Shippey, Krista Bennett, Don Bennett, Drew Bledsoe, Randy Wood, Richard Follett, and the ever-hospitable Jason Ward!)

I also saw some familiar names on campus:

DeVos

The DeVos family (as in Sec. of Education Betsy DeVos) does not just give money to Calvinist schools in Western Michigan.  Sometimes they also fund recreation centers at Pentecostal universities

Graham at Lee

In 1936, Billy Graham spent a semester as a student at Bob Jones College (now University) when the Greenville, South Carolina school was located in Cleveland, Tennessee.  The old Bob Jones College campus is now the site of Lee University.  Apparently there is at least one building left from those days.

 

Jess King: A Mennonite Running for Congress

This is not my district, but I live close to its borders.  I have written before about the way Christianity has been fueling the Democratic candidates for Congress in south-central Pennsylvania.  (Also see this post on Lutheran minister George Scott).

Here is another Washington Post piece on Jess King, a Mennonite who is fighting an up-hill battle against Republican incumbent Lloyd Smucker in Pennsylvania’s 11th Congressional District.

A taste:

LANCASTER, Pa. — Voters in the heart of Pennsylvania’s rolling dairy farms and Amish countryside have rarely seen a Democrat mount a competitive campaign for Congress — until now.

From all appearances, first-time candidate Jess King is giving freshman Republican U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker a fight to the finish in Tuesday’s midterm election in this heavily conservative district on Pennsylvania’s southern border.

Drawn by her Mennonite faith into a career of nonprofit anti-poverty work, King said she isn’t necessarily running against President Donald Trump.

For sure, she doesn’t like Trump, calling him inflammatory and divisive.

But, she said, she is trying to tap into issues where she and Trump voters can agree, whether on the need for health care, a level economic playing field or a government that is responsive to people, not corporate campaign contributions.

“That’s why we don’t talk about Trump so much because it’s not helpful, in that it becomes another element of the division, and shame is not a tactic that works,” King said in an interview in her bustling downtown Lancaster campaign office. “You know, to shame people into, ‘hey, you were wrong in your vote,’ or ‘hey, you should have done something else,’ or ‘hey, I think less of you.’ That doesn’t work, so we don’t do it.”

King, 44, is endorsed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and has gone toe-to-toe with Smucker in fundraising without accepting corporate campaign contributions or getting help from Democratic Party organizations.

Smucker, 54, acknowledges the race is competitive. Two polls in recent weeks have shown a single-digit race and Republicans are not disputing that finding. Still, Smucker says Republicans are getting engaged and happy with the last two years, and will vote to ensure the seat remains in Republican hands.

Last week, Vice President Mike Pence came to campaign and raise cash for Smucker, who began airing attack ads that King says are full of lies about her.

Smucker suggests she wants to legalize heroin and abolish U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. She doesn’t. He said she’s for open borders. She’s not.

The ads show Smucker in a plaid shirt, call him a central Pennsylvania native and suggest that “socialists” from San Francisco and New York are funding King’s campaign. King does not call herself a socialist and much of Smucker’s campaign contributions are from outside the district.

Read the rest here.

 

Yesterday’s Piece in *USA Today*

Trump court evangelicals

Yesterday USA Today published a piece I wrote about Trump and evangelicals.  The editors chose the following title: “White evangelicals fear the future and yearn for the past.  Of course Trump is their hero.”  The article draws heavily from the introduction to Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

Here is a taste:

Donald Trump is about to name his second conservative Supreme Court justice now that Anthony Kennedy is retiring. Conservative evangelicals are celebrating. They have been waiting, to quote the Old Testament book of Esther, “for a time such as this.”

For the last year I have been thinking deeply about why so many of my fellow evangelical Christians support Donald Trump.

I have wondered why they backed his zero-tolerance immigration plan that separated families at the border. I have tried to make sense of why some of them give him a “mulligan” (to use Family Research Council President Tony Perkins’ now famous phrase) for his alleged adulterous affair with adult film star Stormy Daniels. Why did so many evangelicals remain silent, or offer tepid and qualified responses, when Trump equated white supremacists and their opponents in Charlottesville, Virginia last summer?

What kind of power does Trump hold over men and women who claim to be followers of Jesus Christ? Evangelical support for Trump goes much deeper than simply a few Supreme Court justices.

Read the entire piece here.

Believe Me 3d

The Author’s Corner with Matthew Bowman

41wkagDrU8L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Matthew Bowman is associate professor of history at Henderson State University. This interview is based on his new book, Christian: The Politics of a Word in America  (Harvard University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Christian: The Politics of a Word in America?

MB: I wrote the book because of Anne Rice, if you can believe it; she wrote a piece a few years back in which she announced that though she considered herself a follower of Jesus, she did not want to be called a “Christian” because it was commonly understood that Christians were anti- any number of things: women, Democrats, LGBT people, and so on. This struck me as fascinating, because I didn’t think she was alone: a lot of people seem to have come to similar conclusions in the past twenty years, and a wide range of surveys bear that out. Why is it, I wondered, that the Religious Right and millennials who leave Christian churches over their social politics have essentially come to an agreement that “Christianity” is about social conservatism?

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Christian: The Politics of a Word in America?

MB: The book looks at the ways the word “Christian” has been used in American politics since the end of the Civil War, and particularly follows the process by which white Protestants in particular have come to identify Christianity with something called “Western civilization” as defined in the twentieth century, a fascinating story that involves war, Cold War, psychology, and children’s textbooks. It’s that link, I think, that has allowed the Religious Right to identify the religion with traditionalist social politics, although I also explore a great number of dissenting voices, and point out ultimately that “Christian” is an essentially contested concept, one which might be best defined as a collection of concepts and ideas that can be marshalled to serve any number of definitions, theologies, or social orders.

JF: Why do we need to read Christian: The Politics of a Word in America?

MB: I think this sort of book is essential these days both for historical reasons but also contemporary politics. Of course it’s desirable to have a nuanced and detailed understanding of the American past, but I think questions like those this book raises also show how that understanding can serve a social and civic function: most people seem to agree that the polarization taking hold of American politics and culture these days is a bad thing, and one of the things I hope this book does is show that the history of American Christianity is profoundly resistant to that sort of polarization.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

MB: Like many past Author’s Corner authors, in college I found myself deeply confused about the culture and society I found myself in and was relieved, genuinely, when history I began reading helped explain it to me. I was a librarian in college, and sometimes my supervisor would find me kneeling in the stacks next to a cart of books thumbing through one or another; this, actually, is how I discovered Ann Braude’s Radical Spirits, one of the first monographs I ever read.

JF: What is your next project?

MB: I’m working on a cultural history of Betty and Barney Hill, the first people in the United States to claim abduction by a UFO, in the sense that we define “abduction” today: little gray men, profound trauma, lost time, medical probing, and so on. The Hills are interesting in their own right: when they were abducted in 1961, they were an interracial couple, practicing Unitarians, and civil rights activists, and all these identities intersected uncomfortably with their new status of “abductees.” I think this story will tell us a lot about race, sexuality, and the rise of the New Age movement in the United States.

JF: Thanks, Matt!

Episode 32: The Politics of Sex

uploads_2F1517801018608-g7jadvnppfm-49f71c59cada623d3fc8cd64f18ad36b_2FwoiHost John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling continue to explore the many facets of the Culture Wars. Today, they tackle the often taboo subject of sex and politics. John discusses how sex was politicized in colonial America. They are joined by R. Marie Griffith (@RMarieGriffith), author of Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics.

What Can 2 Kings 16 and Isaiah 7 Teach Christians About Politics?

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While I was writing Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump (pre-order here), I did a lot of reading in the Old Testament books of 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles.  (On Monday, I wrote some thoughts on 1 Samuel).  While my interpretation of these biblical chapters did not make the final cut, I found them to be helpful in my thinking about Christianity and politics.  What follows are some thoughts on King Ahaz in 2 Kings 16 and Isaiah 7.

In these passages we find Ahaz, the King of the southern Kingdom of Judah from 735-715 B.C., in a difficult political and diplomatic situation.  The northern Kingdom of Israel (Samaria) has formed an alliance with its northern neighbor Syria as a defense measure against the mighty Assyrian Empire threatening them.  Israel and Syria and are pressuring Ahaz and the Kingdom of Judah to join in their pact.

God speaks to Ahaz through the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 7) to trust him: “Be careful, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart grow faint.”  Isaiah tells Ahaz to be firm in his faith. He promises him that the Lord will help him conquer the Syrians and the Kingdom of Israel.  Ahaz, however, has other ideas.  Rather than trusting God to get him through his diplomatic problems, Ahaz makes an alliance with Tiglath-Pileser III, the Assyrian king.  “I am your servant and your son,” he tells the gentile ruler, “come up and rescue me from the hand of the king of Syria and from the hand of the king of Israel who are attacking me.”  After presenting Tiglath-Pileser with gold and silver from the temple, the alliance is sealed, and the Assyrian king invades the Syrian capital of Damascus.

Fear can lead people–even kings and political leaders–to make strange decisions.  Most historians and biblical scholars agree that the threat posed to Ahaz by Syria and Israel was not great. Yet Ahaz’s foreign policy was built on these exaggerated fears.  Ahaz made this alliance with Assyria despite the fact that the Lord also promised to protect him through his crisis.  As biblical theologian Walter Bruegemann writes in his commentary on this passage: “The world looks very different when the observer is consumed by fear.”  Ahaz lacked faith.  He did not trust God’s plan in this situation.  “Faith,” Brueggeman writes, “is…a matter of…practical reliance upon the assurance of God in a context of risk where one’s own resources are not adequate.  It means to entrust one’s security and future to the attentiveness of Yahweh—to count God’s attentiveness as adequate and sure, thereby making panic, anxiety, or foolishness unnecessary and inappropriate.”  Ahaz chose to put his faith in the strong man of Assyria rather than God.  There would be future consequences.

“Christian Politics?”: Week One

Faith and Politics

This morning I taught the first of four 90-minute classes on Christian politics at West Shore Evangelical Free Church in Mechanicsburg.  We spent most of our time defining politics and examining five Christian approaches to political engagement.

I began with Christian political scientist Glenn Tinder’s definition of politics. Tinder writes: “Politics is the activity through which men and women survey the historical conditions they inhabit.”  I like this definition because it challenges us to think about politics beyond electoral politics and political parties.  According to Tinder, political engagement requires us to be “attentive” and “available.”  People who are attentive ask: “What are people in this world doing, suffering, and saying?”  Attentiveness moves from mere curiosity to politics when we make ourselves available.  People who are available ask” “Is there anything I can do about it?”

After we played around with this definition, I moved into a brief discussion of Christianity before and after Constantine.  I noted how Christian politics changed drastically after Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity.

We spent the bulk of our time discussion five approaches to Christian political engagement: Anabaptism, Lutheranism, the African-American Church, Calvinism, and Catholicism.

Since we had a lot of background work to do today, the discussion was limited.  I plan to allow more time for this in coming weeks.  I did get some really interesting questions though:

  • When did the idea of the “separation of church and state” develop?
  • Too what extent with the first-century Christians “atheists?”  (In other words, the Romans saw them this way because they did not worship the Roman gods)
  • Of the five Christian views of politics, which one was most influential at the time of the American founding?
  • In what way do pro-Trump Christians justify their vote using Lutheran theology?

Next week we will consider the following question: “How have American evangelicals practiced politics?”  We will try to unpack this question with three related questions:

  1. What is an Evangelical?
  2. What has Evangelical political engagement looked like in the past fifty years?
  3.  To what extent have Evangelicals drawn upon these historic models to craft their approach to politics?  In what way have they crafted a unique approach to politics?

We meet at 9:00am and 10:45am in room 202 at the church.

Christian Politics?: A 4-Week Class at West Shore Evangelical Free Church

westshoresign

Tomorrow at West Shore Evangelical Free Church in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania I will be leading a 4-week course titled “Christian Politics?”

Here is a description:

Christian Politics?

How should Christians engage in politics?  We will examine the historical roots of Christian participation in politics today as well as some popular approaches to Christian political activity.  We will think together about how we can be Christian citizens in a way that replaces fear with hope, the pursuit of power with humility, and nostalgia for the past with a healthier view of changes taking place in the moral life of the United States

Rooms 200-202.  9:00 and 10:45

I am still developing the course, but tomorrow we will be discussing different Christian approaches to politics:  Reformed, Lutheran, Anabaptist, African-American, and Catholic.

Jimmy Carter’s Christianity

81e2e-carterIn case you missed it, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently interviewed Jimmy Carter about his Christian faith.  Here is a taste of the interview:

Christians celebrate Easter on Sunday. But wait — do we really think Jesus literally rose from the dead?

I asked questions like that in a Christmas Day column, interviewing the Rev. Tim Keller, a prominent evangelical pastor. In this, the second of an occasional series, I decided to quiz former President Jimmy Carter. He’s a longtime Sunday school teacher and born-again evangelical but of a more liberal bent than Keller. Here’s our email conversation, edited for clarity.

ME How literally do you take the Bible, including miracles like the Resurrection?

PRESIDENT CARTER Having a scientific background, I do not believe in a six-day creation of the world that occurred in 4004 B.C., stars falling on the earth, that kind of thing. I accept the overall message of the Bible as true, and also accept miracles described in the New Testament, including the virgin birth and the Resurrection.

With Easter approaching, let me push you on the Resurrection. If you heard a report today from the Middle East of a man brought back to life after an execution, I doubt you’d believe it even if there were eyewitnesses. So why believe ancient accounts written years after the events?

I would be skeptical of a report like you describe. My belief in the resurrection of Jesus comes from my Christian faith, and not from any need for scientific proof. I derive a great personal benefit from the totality of this belief, which comes naturally to me.

I do not judge whether someone else is a Christian. Jesus said, “Judge not, …” I try to apply the teachings of Jesus in my own life, often without success.

How can I reconcile my admiration for the message of Jesus, all about inclusion, with a church history that is often about exclusion?

As St. Paul said to the Galatians in 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female, for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” In His day, Jesus broke down walls of separation and superiority among people. Those (mostly men) who practice superiority and exclusion contradict my interpretations of the life and teachings of Jesus, which exemplified peace, love, compassion, humility, forgiveness and sacrificial love.

Read the entire interview here.

Stanley Hauerwas and Jonathan Tran on Christian Support for Trump

9143b-hauerwasStanley Hauerwas, considered by many to be one of the turn of the twenty-first century’s greatest theologians, has written an essay with Baylor theologian Jonathan Tran which, as far as I can tell, is his most thorough treatment of his views on the role of Christians in the age of Trump.

Here are a few snippets from their piece at the Religion and Ethics page of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation website:

On the failure of the Christian political imagination:

To us the most troubling thing was not that Christians voted for Trump when they had plenty of reasons and ways not to do so. While regrettable, that mistake follows a more basic one. We are most troubled by the ongoing belief Christians hold that the nation-state, not the church, is the arbiter of Christian political action. This belief obligates Christians to modes of statecraft in order to fulfil their moral commitments. In order to play at statecraft – again, for one’s “vote to count” – Christians will have to prioritize those commitments that will survive the state’s political processes over those that will not.

On abortion:

Take for instance the political issue of abortion, which some Christians cited as their reason for voting for candidate Trump. When Christians think that the struggle against abortion can only be pursued through voting for candidates with certain judicial philosophies, then serving at domestic abuse shelters or teaching students at local high schools or sharing wealth with expectant but under-resourced families or speaking of God’s grace in terms of “adoption” or politically organizing for improved education or rezoning municipalities for childcare or creating “Parent’s Night Out” programs at local churches or mentoring young mothers or teaching youth about chastity and dating or mobilizing religious pressure on medical service providers or apprenticing men into fatherhood or thinking of singleness as a vocation or feasting on something called “communion” or rendering to God what is God’s or participating with the saints through Marian icons or baptizing new members or tithing money, will not count as political.

On populism:

The nationalism of senior Trump advisor Steve Bannon and the so-called “Alt-Right” presents itself as a compassionate friend to those dispossessed by capitalism, bemoaning the loss of virtue and character and intoning a crisis of Western civilization. But when its antidote to global capitalism turns out to be the establishment of a 1950s version of Judaeo-Christian Victorian society without the recognition of that culture’s stewardship of capitalism or America’s guiding role in its operations, then its nationalism turns out to be only that, nationalism, and of the most nostalgic kind: to make America white again. The end result will be a nationalist-because-anti-globalist agenda that can achieve little more than a protectionist version of capitalism and a pseudo-intellectual endorsement of white supremacist activity. Not particularly original, but highly dangerous.

On lying:

Much has been made of President Trump’s shaky hold on the truth. When everything disagreeable is “fake news” then reality goes out the window. One approach to this state of affairs is to get the media to pile on as much discrediting evidence as possible with the expectation that Trump will be found to be caught in a lie. While this strategy has worthwhile benefits, we think it also has serious limitations, not least of which is that it positions the media politically in an endless troll/counter-troll game that will over time erode the public trust that is the source of its authority. The strategy also presumes that Trump is capable of lying. The way he presents himself makes us unsure that he is. Lying first requires an ability to distinguish truth from fantasy, an initial capacity to differentiate how things are from how one wants them to be. For anyone who has given himself to self-deception as constantly and continuously as Trump seems to, no amount of evidence will matter.

On sanctuary churches:

Acting as the church hospitable, Christians welcome those fleeing poverty, violence and oppression. As the powers threaten this hospitality because it challenges unjust political orders, the church militant responds with the grace and truth expressed in the sanctuary statement, against the grain of a crucifying world and with the grain of the universe. Upending oppressive arrangements, the church as sanctuary, a true international, attests to the absurdity of borders when millions starve and the thievery of states in a world given as gift.

On fear:

Shockingly there remain to this day Christians who support Trump’s anti-migration policies because they believe his policies will “keep us safe.” Surely one could not wish for a more misleading understanding of what it means to be Christian. Christians worship at the church of martyrs; they seek fellowship with the crucified Lord. Being a Christian is not about being safe, but about challenging the status quo in ways that cannot help but put you in danger. Thinking it possible to be safe in a world where Christians are sent out like sheep among wolves is about as unfortunate an idea as thinking that war is necessary to secure peace. We can only guess that those Christians who voted for Trump because of his willingness to use questionable tactics to keep them safe have forgotten what it means to be Christian.

Read the entire piece here.

Political Diversity at Christian Colleges

messiah-sign

I want to call your attention to a nice piece at Inside Higher Ed on Christian colleges and political diversity.  It is written by Thomas Albert (Tal) Howard, a historian at Valparaiso University in Valparaiso, Indiana and former director of the honors program at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts.

To get a fuller picture of the Christian academic landscape, one would need to visit institutions such as Bethel University in Minnesota, Calvin College in Michigan, Dordt College in Iowa or East Texas Baptist University, among hundreds of others. They “represent a slice of America that most secular liberals don’t know anything about,” according Molly Worthen, a historian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of a much-discussed book on evangelical higher education.

As institutions that host many first-generation college students and are also replete with Ph.D.s from major universities, Christian colleges can provide a bridge between elite opinion and “red-state” America. How might they rise to the occasion?

First, they must practice what they preach. The Gospel of Matthew records Jesus as saying, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” In an age when conservative intellectuals often find themselves “disinvited” to speak on prominent campuses, Christian colleges should make certain that they invite articulate and diverse voices, including liberals and secularists, to their own campuses. When I oversaw a center at my former (evangelical) institution, Gordon College in Wenham, Mass., our lecture series included the well-known atheist Bart Ehrman as well as Cornel West, John Kerry and Susannah Heschel — hardly icons of the right. We also regularly hosted Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish and Muslim speakers. Charity begins by hearing what another is actually saying, not encountering it secondhand in caricature.

Second, Christian colleges can contribute to the common good by continuing to teach and even expand curricular offerings in the conservative intellectual tradition, perhaps one of the biggest causalities of the recent anti-intellectual insurgence. Authors whom one would find neither by Trump’s bedside nor trumpeted in the curricula of most elite colleges deserve a robust hearing: Edmund Burke, Friedrich Hayek, Russell Kirk, Irving Kristol, C. S. Lewis, Adam Smith and Richard Weaver, among others. Liberals should welcome thoughtful young conservatives lest their own identity become deformed in obsessions against Trump. Beware, Nietzsche once warned, for you can easily become the monsters you seek to slay.

Third, in what some have dubbed our “postsecular age,” Christian colleges should point the way by teaching, through empathy and analysis, how religion functions as a dynamic and complex phenomenon in human affairs. At elite colleges and universities, too often religion is viewed strictly through the lenses of race, gender and class — or else through some of the grand explanatory schemes of the academy, including that of Karl Marx (religion as ideological superstructure), Sigmund Freud (religion as coping mechanism or neurosis) and Michel Foucault (religion as a mask for power). Some of these schemes have yielded valuable insights, to be sure. Nonetheless, as Brad S. Gregory, a history professor at the University of Notre Dame, has argued, they often come with the presumption “that religion is not something that can be or ought to be understood in its own terms.” As such, explaining subtly and sometimes readily yields to a more reductionist explaining away, denying students insights wrought by the messier, more difficult process of empathetic engagement.

Finally, permit me to offer a modest proposal — one that would require no small dose of philanthropic support and administrative imagination. Christian colleges and elite secular institutions should seek out one another to promote student exchanges, either for a short visit or a semester of study, similar to one suggested by David J. Smith in a previous article in Inside Higher Ed. A Bay Area student at the University of California, Berkeley, would have much to learn from spending time with peers at, say, Goshen College, a Mennonite school in northern Indiana. A top-notch conservative Lutheran student at Concordia University in Seward, Neb., would greatly benefit from a stint at Williams College in Massachusetts. Stereotypes might well erode, exposing leftist, rightist, secular and religious groupthink in the process.

Read the entire piece here.

What Pence Could Have Said in the VP Debate When Asked About Faith and Policy

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Evangelical Protestants don’t struggle with how to apply their faith to matters of public policy.  Or at least they don’t talk about such struggles.  Evangelicalism is a religion of certainty–a lot of black and white, not much gray.

Catholics are pretty certain about things too.  But they also tend to feel more comfortable with mystery and struggle.

I am probably doing some pigeonholing here.  But I thought about this during Tuesday night’s Vice-Presidential debate when the candidates–Tim Kaine and Mike Pence–were asked, “Can you discuss in detail a time when you struggled to balance your personal faith and a public policy position?”

As Mark Silk notes at Religion News Service, Kaine answered the question, but Pence did not.  I am not sure if Pence’s evangelical faith and/or Kaine’s Catholic faith were behind their responses to the question, but it was interesting to see how they both approached the question.

Here is a taste of Silk’s post

Democrat Tim Kaine, first up, answered the question by talking about his struggle as governor of Virginia to carry out the death penalty, which he opposes in line with his Roman Catholicism.

“It was very, very difficult to allow executions to go forward,” he said, “but in circumstances where I didn’t feel like there was a case for clemency, I told Virginia voters I would uphold the law, and I did.”

Republican Mike Pence, by contrast, veered away from the question: “And with regard to when I struggle, I appreciate, and — and — and — I have a great deal of respect for Senator Kaine’s sincere faith. I truly do.”

He then proceeded into a discourse on his opposition to abortion, a mainstay of his evangelical faith. He never got around to saying anything about when he struggles.

Which was a shame, given what happened last year with Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. That act, you’ll recall, allowed businesses to discriminate against same-sex couples — albeit Pence, as governor, insisted it was only about guaranteeing religious liberty.

Read the entire post here.

Miroslav Volf on Why Christians Should Vote for Hillary Clinton

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Volf is the Henry B. Wright professor of theology at Yale Divinity School.  (Yes, Yale does have Christian theologians on the payroll).  Check out his interview with journalist Jonathan Merritt that is currently running at Religion News Service.

A taste:

RNS: In a given election, is there ever a “Christian” candidate?

MV: With just a bit of facetiousness, we could say that Jesus Christ is the only Christian candidate. Short of him, just as, strictly speaking, there are no Christian nations, so there are also no Christian candidates for the public office. Candidates can be more or less aligned with the commitments, convictions, and character that we see displayed in Christ, in the New Testament as interpreted in the context of the entire Scripture and taking into account the changed economic, political and cultural conditions under which we all live.

RNS: Who, in your opinion, is a more “Christian” candidate in this presidential election?

MV: It seems clear to me that Hillary Clinton is not only the more competent of the two major party presidential candidates running for office now, but that the kind of vision she stands for is more in line with the Christian faith than is Donald Trump’s. It is important to keep in mind the whole range of convictions and virtues when making an assessment, rather than zeroing in on just one or two. In Public Faith in Action, we discuss some 25 of them, ranging from positions on wealth and education, though positions on abortion and euthanasia to positions on war, policing and religious freedom.

RNS: I want to get to these issues. But first, make your best case for the candidate you think Christians should vote for.

MV: The best case to be made for Hillary Clinton is that on balance she better represents the convictions and character that should concern Christian citizens. No candidate is perfect. There are certainly areas where Secretary Clinton’s policies and record might give Christians pause. But she takes the threat posed by climate change seriously. Her policies, such as paid family leave, would actually strengthen American families. She is committed to a just and welcoming approach to immigration that does not unduly compromise the legitimate good of security. She supports major reforms to America’s overly retributive and racially-biased criminal justice system. And, perhaps most importantly, she has demonstrated much deeper commitment to supporting the disadvantaged and the vulnerable than her opponent has, his grandiose rhetoric notwithstanding.

RNS: What about the traditionally conservative issue of abortion? How should Christians think about this?

MV: Human life should be inviolable. That follows from the fact that human beings were created in the image of God and that God is attached to them in love. No matter who we are — how underdeveloped, incapacitated, and unproductive or how brilliant, diligent, and productive – we all have equal dignity before God and equal worth. That holds true for the new one in the mother’s womb, for the dying, and for everyone in between. The debates about the point that life in a mother’s womb becomes human life should not obscure that basic conviction.

Some food for thought.  Read the entire interview here.

What Can Augustine Teach us About American Politics?

st-augustine-3

A lot.

Check out Alex Grant‘s piece, “City of God and the Ends of American Politics” at Christ & Pop Culture.”  Here is a taste:

At heart, the Democratic and Republican parties are each giving us a story about identity. Augustine begins his critique of this identity by satirizing some of what we might call the “conservative values” of the Republican party. He argues that we can tolerate corruption in a people and their government as long as “our way of life” is not disrupted:

“So long as it lasts,” they say, “so long as it enjoys material prosperity, and the glory of victorious war, or, better, the security of peace, why should we worry? What concerns us is that we should get richer all the time, to have enough for extravagant spending every day, enough to keep our inferiors in their place. It is all right if the poor serve the rich, so as to get enough to eat to enjoy a lazy life under their patronage; while the rich make use of the poor to ensure a crowd of hangers-on to minister to their pride . . . if provinces are under rulers who are regarded not as directors of conduct but as controllers of material things and providers of material satisfactions, and are treated with servile fear instead of sincere respect. . . .” (II.20, translated by Henry Bettenson)

Does not this desire to maintain riches, glory, and a certain kind of stability contain the echo of “making America great again”? Here is the preservation of class divides, the “freedom” to be good consumers, and a hawkish desire to go to war in order to “protect our way of life” (in our case, isolationism, capitalism, and neglect of social justice). It reveals a people who have found their identity in being “the greatest nation on Earth,” where greatness is defined in measurables, such as economic prosperity and military power rather than true justice and relational human flourishing.

But Augustine is not just concerned with the economic and material desires. He goes on to address the more liberal “identity politics” most often espoused by the Democratic party. Why should we worry, Augustine continues,

if the people applaud those who supply them with pleasures rather than those who offer salutary advice; if no one imposes disagreeable duties, or forbids perverted delights; if kings are interested not in the morality but the docility of their subjects; . . . The laws should punish offences against another’s property, not offences against a man’s own personal character. No one should be brought to trial except for an offence, or threat of offence, against another’s property, house, or person; but anyone should be free to do as he likes about his own, or with his own, or with others, if they consent. (II.20)

Notice that, in this view, consent is all that is required to make an action virtuous. All desires and delights are valid. Here is the argument that it should be possible to do anything one wants, provided that it does not harm others’ property or bodies.

We could stop here, recognizing that both parties have their flaws. But Augustine goes further, linking the desires for unchecked economic prosperity and personal license:

It is a good thing to have imposing houses luxuriously furnished, where lavish banquets can be held, where people can, if they like, spend night and day in debauchery, and eat and drink till they are sick: to have the din of dancing everywhere, and theatres full of fevered shouts of degenerate pleasure and of every kind of cruel and degraded indulgence. Anyone who disapproves of this kind of happiness should rank as a public enemy: anyone who attempts to change it or get rid of it should be hustled out of hearing by the freedom-loving majority: he should be kicked out, and removed from the land of the living. (II.20)

And this is where we reach the ends of what we have been trained to love and value. The link between both parties and ourselves is the supremacy of pleasure. And so the Republican party asks, “Why shouldn’t we do what we want with our money and do all we can to maintain our nation’s power?” And so the Democratic party asks, “Why shouldn’t we fulfill every desire that is in our hearts?” Embedded in both is the same question: Why should we deny ourselves pleasures of any kind, and why should we let anyone disapprove of what we do?

Read the entire piece here.

Obama and Romney Talk About Their Religious Faith…

with Cathedral Age, the quarterly magazine of the Washington National Cathedral.  Here is a snippet from each interview (as summarized by CNN):

Obama, when asked how he responds when people question the sincerity of his Christian faith, said:

… (T)here’s not much I can do about it. I have a job to do as president, and that does not involve convincing folks that my faith in Jesus is legitimate and real. I do my best to live out my faith, and to stay in the Word, and to make my life look more like His. I’m not perfect. What I can do is just keep on following Him, and serve others trying to make folks’ lives a little better using this humbling position that I hold.

Romney, when asked about how his faith plays a role in his life said:

Faith is integral to my life. I have served as a lay pastor in my church. I faithfully follow its precepts. I was taught in my home to honor God and love my neighbor. My father was committed to Martin Luther King Jr.’s cause of equality, and I saw my parents provide compassionate care to others, in personal ways to people nearby and in leading national volunteer movements. My faith is grounded in the conviction that a consequence of our common humanity is our responsibility to one another to our fellow Americans foremost, but also to every child of God.