Blame China? Jesus Doesn’t Play That Game

Luke 4

Luke 4: 21-30 (image from a 12th c. French ms., depicting the event).

Earlier today I wrote a post about how the court evangelicals were pushing Trump to exact revenge against China for its role in the spread of coronavirus to U.S. shores. Read it here.

Christian historian John Haas recently published his own thoughts about this on his Facebook page and he was kind enough to let me share.  He offers a good Holy Week reminder for followers of Jesus:

In the US a consensus is forming that the best response to Coronavirus is to blame China (either for inaction or for deliberately deploying it as a biological weapon), and to exact some kind of revenge (economic disengagement, reparations, etc.). China is returning the favor with heightened anti-Americanism.

In India, a consensus is forming that the best response to Cornavirus is to blame Muslims, and to exact some kind of revenge. I suspect when we get a chance to drill down into other nations and societies, we’ll find similar responses that involve targeting traditional enemies and minorities.

This is the typical human reaction: It’s actually immensely comforting. It tells us that our anxieties and fears regarding whoever have been correct all along, that they’re more dangerous than we thought, that the problems afflicting us aren’t anything to do with “us” but come from outsiders and others, and it paints a route forward towards safety and regeneration: The containment, weakening, or even elimination of the outsider or other.

Much of what’s most radical about Jesus’s life is his refusal to play along with these games. It’s what the people–at that time, and at this–want from him, however. They want Jesus to put his imprimatur on their fear, their xenophobia, their prejudices, and their yearning to hate. Instead, Jesus reminds them that God helps Syrian generals and pagan widows as much or more than the children of Israel.

His counsel runs against every natural instinct, against human nature itself; then and now, it provokes outrage. A good way to tell if someone is preaching Jesus is whether it feels unfair, unwise, and unsafe. A good way to tell that they aren’t is if it feels satisfying and exciting, because it fingers familiar enemies and encourages us to gear up for battle against them. This will invariably involve a demand that we unite around some leader and demonstrate our loyalty to them in some way. We will be asked to stay silent about any failures of the leader, or to redirect our energies to the fight against the designated enemy. A speaking Jesus will become a clear and present danger; he must be dispensed with, usually to be replaced with a “God” imagined after our own current image, prejudices and all.

Should Churches Speak-Out Against Trump in the Same Way that *Christianity Today* Has Done?

Church

John Haas of Bethel University (IN) responds on Facebook to my post “Civility and the Search for Common Ground Are Important, But Sometimes We Need a Prophetic Witness“:

So, if this “spade” is what you say, is it enough for para-church institutions such as CT to call it out, or must churches not do the same? Let’s be frank: Most evangelical churches are doing what CT says it can no longer do–dodge the unpopular task of actually drawing a line–and they’re doing so in large part for reasons that have to do with protecting the institution as a going concern.

Indeed, I think it’s the case that we are where we are now–the 81%–because so many churches have been doing that all along. At best they insinuate at the line during sermons, but they don’t draw it so explicitly as to make it offensive.

Should the preaching of the Gospel at this time be *offensive* (not just to Trump supporters, but others too, of course)?

Good question. I think the primary role of churches is to bear witness to the Gospel and help form the faithful in Christian teaching. In other words, speaking out on politics is not the church’s primary role.

A magazine, it seems, is something different.  The church should engage the political culture, but it will often do so by addressing the symptoms–power, fear, idolatry, etc.–that might lead members of the congregation to support someone like Trump. Each church will do this in different ways and in accordance with their local circumstances. A magazine such as CT will put out a position based on clear Christian thinking and then local pastors who agree with that position can translate it to their congregations as they deem appropriate.  It seems like there must always be a pragmatic dimension to all of this.

But I need to think about this some more. Is there a way to be prophetic and “offensive” from the pulpit without diving directly into the specifics or naming names?  Or should pastors be naming the name of Trump?

Beto O’Rourke: Churches and Religious Institutions Should Lose Tax-Exempt Status If They “Oppose Same Sex Marriage”

Here is Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke on CNN last night:

Every Democratic candidate for President of the United States should be asked this question.

I have always appreciated Beto’s sense of conviction, but I hope he rethinks this one.  His answer to Don Lemon shows a fundamental misunderstanding of religious liberty.  In fact, this answer throws the First Amendment under the bus.

Beto has no chance of winning the Democratic nomination. His campaign has been on life support for a long time and last night he probably killed it.  You better believe that his comment will rally the Trump base and legitimate the fears of millions of evangelical Christians.

Beto says he does not want to run for Senate in 2020.  But if he does decide to run for a Senate seat in Texas he may have just blew his chances.  I am guessing that very few people in Texas embrace Beto’s secularism.

Here are a few responses to Beto’s remarks that I have seen online today:

Here is historian John Haas on  Facebook: “Not that Beto has any chance of becoming the nominee, much less president, but it would be interesting to watch the president ordering the IRS to pull Dr. King’s church’s tax exempt status.  Democrats do know that African-American churches are a big part of their informal infrastructure, right?

 

When I saw Beto’s remarks, I tweeted at Washington University law professor John Inazu:

Inazu is the author of Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving through Deep Difference.  Some of you know that I have extolled Inazu’s idea of “confident pluralism” many times at this blog.  Here is a summary of the book:

In the three years since Donald Trump first announced his plans to run for president, the United States seems to become more dramatically polarized and divided with each passing month. There are seemingly irresolvable differences in the beliefs, values, and identities of citizens across the country that too often play out in our legal system in clashes on a range of topics such as the tensions between law enforcement and minority communities. How can we possibly argue for civic aspirations like tolerance, humility, and patience in our current moment?

In Confident Pluralism, John D. Inazu analyzes the current state of the country, orients the contemporary United States within its broader history, and explores the ways that Americans can—and must—strive to live together peaceably despite our deeply engrained differences. Pluralism is one of the founding creeds of the United States—yet America’s society and legal system continues to face deep, unsolved structural problems in dealing with differing cultural anxieties and differing viewpoints. Inazu not only argues that it is possible to cohabitate peacefully in this country, but also lays out realistic guidelines for our society and legal system to achieve the new American dream through civic practices that value toleration over protest, humility over defensiveness, and persuasion over coercion.

The paperback edition includes a new preface that addresses the election of Donald Trump, the decline in civic discourse after the election, the Nazi march in Charlottesville, and more, this new edition of Confident Pluralism is an essential clarion call during one of the most troubled times in US history. Inazu argues for institutions that can work to bring people together as well as political institutions that will defend the unprotected.  Confident Pluralism offers a refreshing argument for how the legal system can protect peoples’ personal beliefs and differences and provides a path forward to a healthier future of tolerance, humility, and patience.

Inazu responded to me with this tweet:

Here is a taste of Inazu’s linked piece “Want a vibrant public square? Support religious tax exemptions“:

When it comes to federal taxes, there is a fundamental reason we should protect religious organizations — even those we disagree with. Functionally, the federal tax exemption is akin to a public forum: a government-provided resource that welcomes and encourages a diversity of viewpoints. Tax exemptions for religious organizations and other nonprofits exist in part to allow different groups to make their voices heard. Past the preexisting baseline, groups and ideas wither or thrive not by government decree but by the choices of individual donors. In this setting, government has no business policing which groups are “in” and which ones are “out” based on their ideological beliefs. And there is no plausible risk that granting tax-exempt status to groups such as the Nation of Islam, the Catholic Church or even the American Cheese Education Foundation means that the government embraces or endorses those organizations’ views.

Tax-exempt status is available to a vast range of ideologically diverse groups. The meanings of “charitable” and “educational” under the Internal Revenue Code are deliberately broad, and “religious” organizations are not even defined. Among the organizations that qualify as tax-exempt, each of us could find not only groups we support, but also those we find harmful to society. And our lists of reprehensible groups would differ. The pro-choice group and the pro-life group, religious groups of all stripes (or no stripe), hunting organizations and animal rights groups — the tax exemption benefits them all.

Read the rest here.

Kelsey Dallas has a nice piece on the way other Democratic candidates responded to similar questions in last night’s CNN forum.

Here, for example, is Elizabeth Warren:

Warren seems to suggest that a man who believes in traditional marriage will not be able to find a woman to marry because women who uphold traditional views on marriage are few and far between.  Really? This answer reveals her total ignorance of evangelical culture in the United States. (It may also reveal her ignorance of middle-American generally).  If she gets the Democratic nomination she will be painted as a Harvard elitist who is completely out of touch with the American people.

The Fox News Crowd Doesn’t Like Obama’s Use of the Phrase “Easter Worshippers”

Here is Obama’s tweet in the wake of the attacks on Sri Lankan Christians who were worshipping on Easter Sunday:

Apparently, some conservatives have a problem with Obama’s use of the phrase “Easter worshippers.”  Here is Ruth Graham at Slate:

To most people, former President Barack Obama’s tweet about the brutal terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka on Sunday read as standard post-presidential material: correct, sensible, and essentially anodyne.

But then some right-wingers noticed that other prominent figures on the left, including Hillary Clinton and Julián Castro, had used the phrase Easter worshippers too. Soon, a suspicion arose: “Easter worshippers” is a euphemism used by “people who don’t want to say ‘Christians.’ ” “We’re actually called Christians not ‘Easter worshippers’ wouldn’t hurt to maybe just say that,” a National Review writer tweeted. Obama and friends “could not bring themselves to identify the victims of the attacks as ‘Christians,’ ” Breitbart huffed, deeming the phrase a “Sympathy Snub.” An op-ed in the Washington Times called Obama and Clinton “anti-Christian.”

Some went further, interpreting the term Easter worshipper as a false claim that Christians worship the holiday of Easter. “We don’t worship Easter,” Laura Ingraham tweeted. “We worship Jesus Christ.” Others, including One America News Network host Jack Posobiec, claimed to have never heard the term Easter worshipper before Sunday.

Read the rest here.

And then there is this:

Easter worshippers

Historian John Haas tells us what is really going on in this picture.  Here is his recent Facebook post:

Can’t imagine anything better designed to advance the Kingdom of God.

Let us count the ways this is so Christian:

a) uses claims about Christianity for partisan political purposes

b) leverages a petty complaint in the service of self-interested grievances

c) claims one of the seven deadly sins as a constituent characteristic for the movement

“Evangelicals are assuming that God is intent on investing the church with worldly security and strength”

Dick Polman tweets:

Historian John Haas responds on his FB page:

A quick note on this. Many people will assume the problem here is one of obvious hypocrisy, but I think that’s a little off. Evangelicals aren’t comparing Obama and Trump as if they’re just President A and President B. Obama was perceived as a president who was hurting Christianity, and any scandals he was involved in would have been seen as a confirmation of his harmfulness and an opportunity to weaken him and maybe help the church. Trump is perceived as a defender of the faith, so any scandals he might be involved in are actually threats to the church; defending or excusing him is a way of helping to protect the church.

The problem here is a deeper one: Evangelicals are assuming that God is intent on investing the church with worldly security and strength, and they see President Trump as God’s providential instrument to achieve that aim. Is it, however, the case that God wants the church to enjoy security and strength of this kind? That’s the question.

A lot of this resonates with several themes in my forthcoming book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  (Don’t forget to pre-order).

More Thoughts on the U.S. Survey

College classroom 3

On Saturday we ran a post titled “How to Fix the U.S. History Survey Course: ‘Reimagine Everything.” One of the comments on that post came from veteran U.S. survey instructor John Haas, Professor of History at Bethel College in Indiana.  It was good that I decided to publish it here as a separate post.  Enjoy:

I recall a much-heralded teacher of undergraduates–his 8 AM survey courses were famous for filling up on the first day of enrollment–commenting when he received the university’s best teacher award, “I teach an ancient discipline in an ancient way. History isn’t broken, and there’s no need to fix it.”

If we’re just speculating, I would mention several challenges or mistakes that afflict the history survey today:

1. Specific to the survey, the American past is far more terra incognita for today’s students than it has perhaps ever been. The average freshman or sophomore comes to the survey with very little background knowledge–When was the Revolution? Who were we fighting? Why? Who won? and etc. are all mystifying questions in many cases–and if in our lecturing we’re assuming basic historical or geographical knowledge of the kind high school graduates once possessed, it will make our lectures incomprehensible. One has to work very hard, actually, to assume nothing. Everything has to be explained. This also goes for current events. If we rely on analogies drawn between the past we are explaining and a present we assume they are familiar with, our explanation will fail. Not long ago I was lecturing on the Revolution and mentioned some ways in which the Americans shared the advantages that the Taliban enjoy, and the looks on their faces indicated perplexity, so I asked, “Who can tell me who the Taliban are?” No one knew. (US foreign policy over the past 50 years or so is a total blank for almost all of them.) I mentioned Jerry Falwell the other day and no one–this at an evangelical college–knew who he was (Sr. or Jr.) The mental world of our students is essentially unpopulated.

2. Similarly, I’ve found that I really need to watch my vocabulary. It is not just technical terms that lose them. Words I would have never thought the least bit arcane are unknown to them. Once I used the term “affluent,” and someone asked what that was. I put it to the class. No one knew. I had a student who was perplexed by the word “nevertheless.” I’ve come to realize that unless I watch my analogies, references, allusions and vocabulary very carefully, it is quite easy to fill my lectures with so many unfamiliar or unknown elements that the students quickly become mentally exhausted. Of course, that they are loathe to indicate when they don’t know something you are assuming makes it all the more difficult, because it means I have to guess.

3. The use of PowerPoint has many downsides especially, I think, in history. This depends, of course, on how the PowerPoint is used and how one teaches. There are many ways in which it’s great. But in other places, it’s quite destructive. If, eg, one throws up a slide with 5 or 10 bullet points, one has undermined the element of suspense that makes story-telling a compelling experience. Instead of a drama or mystery to be unfolded orally in real time, the past has become a list of sentences that the student needs to quickly copy down before the slide disappears and the next one arrives. Even with something as simple as a map, the very evident superiority of the PowerPoint slide is undermined by the disappearance of the human dimension: Watching someone draw a map (or try to) is more compelling and interesting, as a process, than someone hitting a button and putting up a slide (even though the slide is a much better representation). Much of the human dimension of teaching (the quirks and foibles) have been erased from the classroom by technology, and the space has become efficient, accurate, and sterile. After reading Patrick Allitt’s book a few years ago, I began experimenting with devoting one class a week to still pictures and discussing them (as he describes doing in his book). I thought it was a lot of fun, and assumed students would like it too (“Hey, look! Pictures!”) But there is a downside here, too, as it removes opportunities for students to employ their imaginations (Andre Gregory once explained that that’s why the movie “My Dinner with Andre” is so entertaining–it lures the watcher into activating their imaginations).

4. There are no doubt other things affecting the course that are out of our control. I have found in the last couple years that interest in US foreign policy, and especially in the Middle East (two subjects I often teach courses on) had really dried up. During the Bush II years students were cramming into these classes, but over the Obama years interest declined and now it’s at the lowest ebb I’ve seen in my teaching career (we’ve actually ceased offering the course on the Middle East and North Africa). The way the course were taught remained essentially the same, and they were very well-received, so I can only assume that external factors have changed: We are no longer as a nation pursuing the remaking of the Middle East as a national project; there are wars aplenty, but there’s no effort to enlist the support or even interest of the population; the wars for their part have no narrative arc leading to successful or satisfying conclusions; and etc. I wonder, in addition, if this sense that the plot has been lost, or that there’s not a lot to feel good about, or similar affective and emotional dimensions to the topic, hasn’t impacted the study of US history as a whole? The history of a nation that elects a Barack Obama, eg, is more attractive as a subject to investigate than one that terminates in Donald Trump (to many students that is).

The 2016 POTUS Election: A View From the Christian College Classroom

bethel-college

John Haas is Associate Professor of History at Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana. Bethel is a member of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU).

Haas has commented on Adam Laats’s response to my critique of his History News Network piece suggesting that Christian colleges had something to do with the evangelical support for Donald Trump in November.  His thoughts originally appeared in the comments section of my post here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, but I thought his remarks were worth turning into a separate post.

Here it is:

Prof. Laats is certainly correct that evangelical institutions, strapped as they are for cash, competing with each other for students, fearful of any bad publicity (especially the kind that leads to folk inside the community doubting your soundness), and etc., leads these institutions (schools, and local churches, too) to be very skittish about political mind-fields. And he’s also right that the communities connected to these institutions (parents, donors, etc.) lean largely right: nostalgic, pro-business, militarist, with some degree of ambivalent tolerance for prejudiced individuals associated with the community (while sincerely officially condemning such attitudes), and so forth.

What that means is, as schools, and as faculty (usually), you’re not going to hear strident condemnations of Donald Trump even from those who personally are appalled by him, whereas more latitude would be granted the (usually rare) crotchety professor who might use their classroom to launch into an anti-Hillary rant. There would be a wide range of personal or small group conversations, of course.

More, I suspect a lot of evangelical faculty who personally find Trump and his politics unacceptable, are nevertheless sympathetic to some evangelical motives for voting Trump, just as they can sympathize with more consistently leftist evangelicals who deplore Hillary’s militarism and neo-liberalism, but who felt conscience-bound to vote for her.

I know, for myself that while I mentioned the contest several times before and after the election, in class, I restricted myself to 1) general discussions of recent developments that might throw light on the election; 2) explanations of the electoral college; 3) brief recommendations of books and articles explaining Trump supporters and their motives; 4) a discussion of how tight a connection there is between Supreme Court appointments, the party affiliation of the justices, and their decisions on hot questions; and 5) a quick look at the map and the electoral statistics right after the election. These were very brief–5 to 10 minutes, at most. Almost always, these were student-initiated mini-discussions that led to brief departures from the task of the day.

I certainly did not advocate voting for any candidate or offer arguments for why voting for a candidate was unacceptable. I marveled at trump’s success at times, but my only extended meditation came in conjunction with a discussion of the rise of Andrew Jackson and populism, which was on the syllabus for that day.

My reasons for all this have more to do with my job description (historian) and the time constraints of the semester which militate against off-topic discussions. I also don’t want my students thinking of me in political terms. I have my thoughts, but my role in their life is as a fair and unbiased conduit of things out of the past. I don’t want them to even suspect I may have an agenda, less because I’m afraid of a backlash than because it would undermine my effectiveness as a teacher. That said, if a student asked, I would honestly answer any question about my commitments or political behavior (though i might ask that we defer the answer till post-class, so as not to get off-topic).

So, my sense, for my school, at least, was that if we had any impact on the election, it was by not making our college an inhospitable place for your typical garden-variety white evangelical student. I suspect if we had tried to do that, we would have alienated rather than converted many of them. Election seasons aren’t always the best times for those kinds of polemics–minds are usually closing as polling day approaches. The fact is, evangelicalism is what it is, and faculty at evangelical schools have a hard enough time getting students to think about just war theory, appreciate Dickenson, and know what was in Hamilton’s reports, and so forth. We can help them understand their world, we can encourage certain perspectives that follow from bringing the Bible to bear on that understanding, but we cannot–and, I believe, should not–be demanding people vote one way or another, or condemning them for voting as they do, or creating atmospheres of one kind or another directed at their political beliefs.

What I want, from my liberal and conservative students both, is that they become more aware of the roots and effects of their choices, their parallels and precedents, and have some awareness, perhaps, of the paradoxes, problems, unintended consequences and such that will attend the various choices they make in life–political and otherwise. Most of them are not mature enough nor have they nuanced enough worldviews yet to really do that, but I hope I’m planting questions, hints and suggestions they can dredge up later, when it seems more relevant to them.

A Reader Responds to My Post on Russell Moore’s "Wall Street Journal" Piece on Religious Liberty

John Haas is one of the many thoughtful readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home, but unless you also follow me on Facebook you often don’t get to read his insightful commentary. (John seldom, if ever, posts in the comments section of the blog.  In fact, some of the best commentary on our blog posts appears on my Facebook feed.  Feel free to follow me over there, but if you do be prepared to see pictures of my daughters playing volleyball and basketball).

Haas teaches history at Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana.  Earlier today he had an insightful response on Facebook to the post I published this morning on Russell Moore’s Wall Street Journal op-ed on religious liberty.  So in an attempt to publish more commentary from readers of this blog, here is Haas’s response:
The article–at least the excerpt–is half fantastic, half balderdash.

He’s quite right about Jefferson’s legitimate appeal to those concerned about religious liberty, and how more thinking is required on our part, especially with regard to the hucksters that try (and succeed) to hoodwink the gullible.

But the Baptists actually faced religious establishments that jailed, beat, fined and oppressed them.

That the Hobby Lobby and Hosanna-Tabor cases would even be mentioned as in the same ball park is absurd.

Hobby Lobby: These drugs are not abortifacients (indeed, Hobby Lobby and Wheaton College provided plans that offered them right up to the time that became politically inconvenient). And an insurance plan is the employee’s compensation–it is most decidedly not an employer paying for anything.

As for the H-T case, it’s a very ambiguous one. Cheryl Perich does not fit any common-sense definition of a “minister,” though she was defined as one by the denominational school where she taught. The court decided to do as it has long done (rightly), and refuse to second-guess a church’s definitions of its officers, even in an obviously hard case such as this. But the fact is, nevertheless, she’s a teacher and an employee too, and it was perfectly right for the EEOC to push for employee-protections in her case–that’s their job. Had the case gone the other way, the effect on religious liberty would have been nil (though it arguably would have set a precedent that might have had some deleterious effects down the road).


Have at it.