Syndicate Symposium: “Sins and Virtues in American Public Life”

Over at “Syndicate,” Dartmouth religion professor Jeremy Sabella has put together a symposium on the Seven Deadly Sins (lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride), the Four Cardinal Virtues (prudence, courage, temperance, and justice), and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. It is titled “Sins & Virtues in American Public Life.”

New posts will appear on Tuesday and Fridays. Writers in this series include Bharat Ranganathan, Daniel Schultz, Chris Jones, Vincent Lloyd, Stanley Hauerwas, Jamie Pitts, Jennifer Knapp, Christian Sabella, David Cloutier, Robin Lovin, Jon Kara Shields, MT Davila, Aaron Scott, Colleen Wessell-McCoy, Scott Paeth, Randall Balmer, M. Shawn Copeland, and Briallen Hopper.

My piece on the theological virtue of faith and American public life will appear on November 3, 2020.

The series began last week and will run through November 13, 2020. Here is a taste of Sabella’s introduction:

To paraphrase William Shakespeare: something is rotten in the state of our union.

We see it in our toppled monuments and overcrowded hospitals, feel it in the clouds of tear gas and welts from rubber bullets, hear it in the chants of protest slogans and the shouting at town halls. Yet we struggle to articulate what, exactly, has gone wrong.

The language we typically deploy to name political problems—the system is broken, our government is gridlocked—analogizes society to a massive machine, priming us to seek machine solutions to its dysfunctions. In a machine, if we identify the broken part, the blown fuse, the errant line of code, we can get it up and running good as new. By implication, if we can replace the defective parts of our social machinery—elect the right commander-in-chief, nominate the right Supreme Court justice, redraw gerrymandered districts—we can restore society to functionality. Both political parties have made such changes to great fanfare. Yet as a society we remain as broken and gridlocked as ever. Put simply, the changes aren’t working.

By evoking the breakdown of organic matter, Shakespeare’s language of rot points to an older understanding of society: not as a machine, but as a kind of organism. This biological imagery captures acute social crisis in ways that machine imagery does not. Machines break down and get fixed; organisms get sick, and with the right measures, can heal. But once the organism starts to rot—once the gangrene sets in—drastic measures are required to keep it from dying. Biological imagery clarifies what our moment requires: not another targeted, one-time intervention, but rather, full-scale transformation.

Which is where this symposium comes in. The reflections featured draw on the moral language of sin and virtue to describe contemporary social problems. This language presupposes the ancient image of society as a body politic. Plutarch’s Life of Coriolanus, for instance, describes the senate of the Roman republic as the stomach of the body politic, which digests nutrients and distributes them to the rest of the members. Similarly, Paul the Apostle uses bodily imagery to describe the relationship of individual Christians to the Christian community as a whole: “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1 Cor 12:26). Both sources depict society, not as a machine composed of discrete parts, but as a body of interconnected parts that fall ill and heal as a single unit. And the language used to shape the morality of individuals can help diagnose and mend the body politic.

As they faced waves of famine, pandemic, and political unrest, medieval thinkers developed and refined the categories of the Seven Deadly Sins, the Four Cardinal Virtues, and the Three Theological Virtues. In tandem they comprise a kind of toolbox for the care of souls, where the sins diagnose types of spiritual illness and the virtues identify states of spiritual health. This symposium deploys this toolbox to cultivate a comprehensive view of what ails our own body politic and how to nurse it back to health. Each contributor has been tasked with choosing one of the sins or virtues to answer the same basic question: What does sin/virtue x look like in American public life?

Read the rest here.

Court evangelicals on night 3 of the GOP convention

Court evangelicals prayer

Here is what the Bible-believing, born-again Christians who support Donald Trump are saying today:

Let’s start with the Liberty University Falkirk Center crowd:

Charlie Kirk believes that the Democrat concern over racial unrest and racial justice is politically motivated:

He is still denying the existence of systemic racism. How many more incidents have to happen before he sees a pattern?:

The NBA players boycotting for racial justice are morons:

And this:

Can Jenna Ellis point to one “God-given right” enshrined in the Constitution? The Constitution never mentions God:

As I wrote earlier today, Pence actually “stands firm” on the heretical fusion of Christianity and American nationalism:

Here is Sebastian Gorka of the Falkirk Center:

And this:

Court evangelical journalist David Brody has a partial list of court evangelicals who will be at Trump’s acceptance speech tonight:

The list includes Johnnie Moore, Jenetzen Franklin,Paula White-Cain, Tim Clinton, Greg Laurie, Samuel Rodriguez, Eric Metaxas, Gary Bauer, Jack Graham, Harry Jackson, Cissie Graham Lynch, and Ralph Reed.

Trump hasn’t even given his speech yet and Robert Jeffress is already calling it “historic”:

As expected, Jeffress was pretty excited about Mike Pence’s speech last night:

Johnnie Moore, the court evangelical who describes himself as a “modern-day Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” wrote a piece at Religion News Service in defense of Trump.

Mike Pence tried to quote the New Testament Book of Hebrews last night. He replaced “Jesus” with “Old Glory. Pastor Jack Graham loved the VP’s manipulation of the Bible for political gain:

Ironically, earlier in the day Graham tweeted this:

Yes, but is Franklin Graham proud of his niece Jerushah?

Night four of the RNC convention begins very soon.

Engaging with the latest stuff on race and the founders coming from Liberty University’s Falkirk Center

Liberty_University_LaHaye_Student_Union_IMG_4121 (1)

Not all Christian colleges are the same. Some of you may recall a post in which I compared Messiah University to Liberty University. If you have a child considering a faith-based college I encourage you to read that post.

Liberty University recently established something called the Falkirk Center. In previous posts I called it a “think tank,” but after watching this organization develop over the last several months I now think it is more of a propaganda machine for Christian Trumpism.

In the last few days, the Falkirk Center Facebook page has been posting on race in America.

Here is a post from last night:

Woke Christianity is a manipulation of the Gospel. It intentionally twists the Bible to accommodate and achieve leftist political aims and purposes. This has been evidenced in past cries of “Jesus was an illegal immigrant!” Or “Jesus was a socialist!” Now, it is shifting to an idea that Jesus would have praised and been part of the Black Lives Matter organization. The Gospel is the free offer of salvation based on the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ at the cross at Calvary. The Gospel tells us we are all sinners and we will all likewise perish unless we repent and believe in Christ. As Christians, we must preserve the Gospel and proclaim the truth until his coming. We must also speak out against heresy both inside and outside the church which includes Woke Christianity, Social Justice, Critical Theory and Intersectionality.

Thoughts:

  • There is no such thing as “woke Christianity.” The Christian scriptures do not endorse a particular political program–Left, Center, or Right. The Christian scriptures do not endorse capitalism or socialism. Fair-minded Christians around the world have used the scriptures to argue for both of these economic systems.
  • Would Jesus have been a member of Black Lives Matter? I have no idea. But Jesus would have certainly endorsed the idea that black lives matter. Do you see what the politically-charged Falkirk Center is doing here? They focus all of their attention on the official Black Lives Matter movement as a way to avoid talking about why black lives matter. If they can convince everyone that Black Lives Matter is a direct and immediate threat to our democracy they can get Trump re-elected and advance their political agenda. Don’t let Jerry Falwell and Charlie Kirk manipulate the teachings of Jesus for political gain. Don’t let them take the New Testament and filter its teachings through a Christian Right lens. It’s all politics.
  • The Falkirk Center says, “As Christians, we must preserve the Gospel and proclaim the truth until his coming.” Amen. So how does a belief in the proclamation of truth relate to the Falkirk’s support for the pathological liar in the Oval Office? How can an organization with a platform such as Liberty Univeristy fail to speak out about this? How long will evangelicals send their tuition money to a place whose leadership remains silent on this most basic moral issue? The Kingdom of God is a kingdom of love, justice, and compassion. The citizens of this kingdom–the scriptures call them a royal priesthood– are in the business of announcing the arrival of this Kingdom to those in power.
  • Don’t be fooled by all these references to “Woke Christianity,” “Social Justice,” “Critical Theory,” and “Intersectionality.” They are big words used to scare ordinary Christians. Followers of Jesus Christ, as citizens of his Kingdom, will always fight for justice in the world. They will oppose both individual acts of injustice and systemic acts of injustice. They will fight for the poor and oppressed. American history teaches us that there white people have always oppressed Black people and stomped on their human dignity. This oppression is now embedded in our social institutions and it must be considered when Christians think about how to engage the world.  We can uphold these things without necessarily embracing every dimension of “critical theory” or “intersectionality.” Frankly, I think these words are just distractions. They prevent Christians from getting-on with the business of building the Kingdom. But let’s remember that they are meant to be distractions.

Here is another Falkirk Center post from yesterday:

The founding fathers worked tirelessly to create the most just and free nation in human history. We owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude for their ingenuity. Rather than be grateful for America and appreciate her system of government, however, the left has chosen to spite the founding fathers and all that they created, showing no appreciation for the price that has been paid for them to live in America and use their very freedoms to destroy the country that protects them. Leftist thinking is detrimental to a free and just society and is rotten at its core. We must do everything in our power to preserve the true story of the founding fathers, the noble history of America, and teach future generations of the sacrifices necessary to preserve, protect, and defend freedom and liberty in America.

  • The nation that the founders created in 1776 was not just. It was built upon universal Enlightenment principles such as “liberty,” but these principles were not applied to all people. In this sense, it is very difficult to say that the founders wanted to establish some kind of “Christian nation.”
  • The nation’s founders left a legacy of freedom and liberty that was eventually applied to most citizens. But by the time American leaders got their act together and started applying these ideals to African Americans and others, certain systemic injustices were already baked in the national cake, the product of decades of failure.
  • All of this has led to much debate among historians. No good historian would reject the idea that the founders were products of their time. The debate is over how rapidly the ideals of the white male American Revolution found their way into the mainstream of national life. Some say that the American Revolution was “radical” because it set the stage or prepared the way for women’s rights, the emancipation of slaves, civil rights, etc. Others argue that the Revolution was not radical because it failed to apply these ideas immediately. The founders made deliberate choices to keep injustice in place when they could have chosen the opposite course.  These debates are good for American democracy.  Let’s keep having them. Neither of them should be “canceled.”
  • This is our country. Let’s tell the story honestly.

And then there is this from a day or two ago:

Unfortunately, the faith that used to unite our country and carry it through its darkest hours, is now viewed as superstition and a detriment to society. Secular leftists are working, daily, to to infringe on religious liberty by prohibiting religious exercises or expressions and forcing groups to hire people whose beliefs do not align with that group’s religious convictions. As Christians- now more than ever- we must be attentive to and engaged with political and cultural events. Failure to do so is an abandonment of our duty to be good citizens of our country and it leaves the liberties this country was created to protect at risk of being taken away by those whose end goal is tyranny.

  • The first sentence presumes that the founders were trying to found a nation united by Christian faith. This is a problematic assumption that I have spent the better part of my career as an American historian trying to address. Start here.
  • Many white evangelicals are very upset that governors are shutting down churches due to the prevalence of COVID-19. These evangelicals believe that these local officials are curbing their right to worship. Is the prevention of Christian worship in a time of pandemic a violation of the First Amendment? That is an issue for the courts. But many of the founders thought that republics survived when people were willing to occasionally sacrifice their “rights” for the greater good of their neighbors. This is one of those moments when Christians can lead by example. Instead, many evangelicals, like the Falkirk Center, have chosen to mount a rights-based attack on masks, social distancing, and science that most of the founding fathers would fail to recognize. I don’t think the first-century church would recognize it either. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in The Cost of Discipleship: “In the right confrontation with the world, the Church will become ever more like to the form of its suffering Lord.”
  • I am sympathetic to some of the religious liberty concerns mentioned in this post. I hope the Supreme Court will continue to defend religious institutions to hire according to their deeply-held theological convictions.  This, it seems, is a mark of a healthy pluralism.

*Harper’s Magazine* publishes “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate”

Harpers

 

This letter will appear in the October 2020 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

Signers include Anne Applebaum, Margaret Atwood, David Blight, David Brooks, Noam Chomsky, Gerald Early, David Frum, Francis Fukuyama, Todd Gitlin, Anthony Grafton, David Greenberg, Jonathan Haidt, Michael Ignatieff, Gary Kasparov, Mark Lilla, Damon Linker, Dahlia Lithwick, Greil Marcus, Wynton Marsalis, John McWhorter, George Packer, Nell Irvin Painter, Orlando Patterson, Steven Pinker, Claire Bond Potter, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, J.K. Rowling, Salman Rushdie, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Paul Starr, Gloria Steinem, Michael Walzer, Sean Wilentz, Garry Wills, Molly Worthen, and Fareed Zakaria.

Here is a taste:

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.

Read the entire letter here.

Tonight in the Rose Garden and at St. John’s Church, Trump Announced His 2020 Re-Election Strategy

Trump St. Johns

It’s hard to know where to start writing about what we all just witnessed earlier this evening.

Donald Trump was scheduled to speak in the Rose Garden at 6:30pm. Shortly before his speech, Attorney General Bill Barr came out to inspect the crowd. Then federal police used tear gas, flash grenades and rubber bullets to drive-out peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square Park, located across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House.

Trump’s speech was short. He said that he was an ally of all peaceful protesters. This is another Trump lie. I wrote about that here, but the act of driving these protesters out of the park today was a sign that he does not support peaceful protesters. More on this below.

His speech did not address the racial tensions in America that led to these protests. There was no empathy for the plight of African-Americans in the United States. Trump is incapable of this.

Trump rightly condemned the destruction of property and the outside rabble-rousers who, by all reports, are causing this damage. But rather than trying to bring the country together, he blamed state governors for the riots and destruction in major urban areas.  (He did the same thing on a call with governors this morning). At one point in the speech, Trump said that he wants “healing” not “hatred.” Please look in the mirror Mr. President. You are an agent of hate in this country. There is nothing you have done in your presidency thus far to bring any kind of national healing whatsoever.

When Trump said “America always wins,” he was not referring to a much-needed victory over the evil of racial injustice, but was rather referring to the use of military force and violence to stop the riots. This, for Trump, is the only way he understands a “win” for America. Trump plans to mobilize the U.S. Army in cities around the country through the use of the 1807 Insurrection Act (I will write more on this in another post) to “dominate the streets.” He also sent a dog-whistle to his base by referencing his protection of Second Amendment rights. Some will no doubt see this as the president telling them to take matters into their own hands.

When Trump talked about justice in this speech, he meant quelling the riots through force. He did mention justice for George Floyd, but these words have no meaning until his presidency reverses course on the issue of race. Trump must not only stop the race-baiting, but must support policies that will address systemic racism in America. I don’t see this happening because Trump does not understand the true meaning of justice.

I wrote about justice this morning, with the help of 20th-century German moral philosopher Joseph Pieper: “…the claim implicit in the principle of justice [is that we] must confirm the other person in his otherness and procure for him that which is due.” Justice starts with empathy and understanding, but Trump is a narcissist and he does not read.

Throughout the speech, Trump kept saying that he is a “law and order” president. This is another dog-whistle. Here is what I wrote about this phrase in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump:

For most Americans, “law and order” is associated with Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign. According to historian Michael Flamm, “law and order was the most important domestic issue in the presidential election and arguably the decisive factor in Richard Nixon’s narrow triumph over Hubert Humphrey.” As might be expected, the need to bring law and order to American streets was a response to a significant rise in crime during the 1960s, particularly among African Americans and juveniles in American cities. The high crime rate among black men brought fear to white working-class Americans. Flamm notes that “by the late 1960s, white Americans overwhelmingly associated street crime with African Americans, who were more than seventeen times likely as white men to be arrested for robbery. The worst fears of white Americans materialized in the summer of 1967, when race riots broke out in Detroit and Newark. The violence continued in 1968 following the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. In Chicago, Mayor Richard Daly ordered his police officers to shoot looters on sight in the street. In Washington D.C. , race riots, led by black activist Stokely Carmichael, came within blocks of the White House, prompting President Lyndon Johnson to dispatch federal troops armed with machine guns to quell the violence. Later in the year, the Chicago police used tear gas to control protesters at the Democratic National Convention.

The Nixon campaign capitalized on the chaos. Nixon promised that, if elected, he would end the riots–using force if necessary. His campaign blamed the lack of law and order on the Democrats and portrayed his opponent, Hubert Humphrey, as weak on crime. Nixon consistently denied he used the phrase “law and order” to send a message to white voters who feared African American violence, but many of his conservative supporters clearly heard the message. Nixon walked a fine line on matters related to race. He was aware, from watching his independent opponent, George Wallace, that calling attention to racial difference worked very well in presidential campaign, especially in the South. Yet Nixon was not Wallace: he opposed segregation and supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Still, when he was not in front of the cameras, he was not reticent about his disdain for the “damn negroes.” He confided to his counsel, John Ehrlichman, that Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs would not help African Americans because “blacks were genetically inferior to whites.” After filming a campaign advertisement calling for law and order in public schools, Nixon said to his aides, “Yet, this hits it right on the nose…it’s all about law and order and the damn Negro-Puerto Rican groups out there.

Like Nixon, Donald Trump claims that his use of the term “law and order” has nothing to do with race. Yet when he combines the phrase with a steady drumbeat of attention to “Muslim terrorists” or illegal Mexican immigrants that he claims were committing violent crimes, he is sending a message to his largely white working-class constituency that he hears, shares, and prioritizes their fears. Trump wants to restore law and order to America much like Nixon promised to do in the 1960s. Is this what he has in mind when he says he wants to make America great again?

After Trump’s speech, he walked out the front door of the White House to nearby St. John’s Episcopal Church. It is known as the “Church of the Presidents” because every American president, beginning with James Madison, has attended the church (presidents sit in pew 54). During some of the protests on Sunday night (March 31) a fire started outside the church and spread into the basement of the parish house. It was extinguished quickly and there was no major damage. The words “The Devil is across the street” was sprayed on the church in graffiti and windows were smashed.

Trump walked to St. John’s for a photo-op. The church did not know he was coming and both the Episcopal bishop of Washington D.C. and the rector of the church have condemned the visit.

Trump stood before the church and held-up a Bible. When a reporter asked him if he was holding his Bible, Trump said it was “a Bible.” He then invited several members of his cabinet and staff to join him. (Interestingly enough, Mike Pence was not present).

And that is all he did. He stood there, held-up the Bible at a couple of different angles, and then left. He did not pray. He did not offer words of comfort or healing. He did not pray for the coronavirus victims. The message was clear. Trump’s law and order response–an approach with deep roots in racism and violence–is somehow informed by the Old and New Testament. (Once again, let’s remember that Trump’s favorite Bible verse is “an eye for an eye”). Off the top of my head, I cannot think of a U.S. president who has used a Bible–a material object representing the word of God–in this way.

Here a good rule of thumb. Whenever a public official uses the Bible to justify law and order during times of unrest, expect the worst. I think history offers some good lessons on this front, from politicians in the antebellum South to Nazi Germany. One should also be concerned when a president uses tear gas, rubber bullets, and flash grenades to remove peaceful protesters in front of a church for the purpose of using this sacred space to fortify such a show of power.

What we witnessed today was the president using this moment of racial strife and social unrest to announce his November 2020 campaign strategy. He will present himself as a strongman who will protect fearful white people. In this sense, he is like the Savage in C.S. Lewis’s Pilgrim’s Regressa Nietzschian warlord who tells Vertue that “If I am to live in a world of destruction let me be its agent and not its patient.” And he will justify all of this using the Bible–a direct appeal to his fearful white evangelical base who believe Trump is their divinely-appointed champion. It was all staged, not unlike a reality television show.

The court evangelicals, as expected, support what Trump did today. If you believe that America is a Christian nation and needs to be reclaimed as such, then anytime the president lifts a Bible, and especially if it is done at a historic church, it is a great thing.

Here is Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church in Dallas:

Fox News has Robert Jeffress lined-up for an early morning appearance:

Expect Jeffress to talk about this.

Tony Perkins just retweeted:

Here is Marc Burns:

I am reminded of a quote I added to the Commonplace Book this morning:

All moral laws derive from one law: that of truth” [Goethe]…A person who is incapable of viewing things impartially, uninfluenced by the affirmations or negations of the will, a person who is incapable, for a time, of simply keeping silent and perceiving what is there, and then of converting what he has seen and learned into a decision, is incapable of achieving the good, or in other words is incapable of performing an ethical act in the full sense of the term.  —Joseph Pieper, “The Art of Making Right Decisions,” *Civitas* (1970) in The Weight of Belief: Essays on Faith in a Modern Age, 212.

For the sake of the country, Trump needs to keep silent and start “perceiving what is there.”

Fleming Rutledge on Advent Hope

Rainbow

“The concept of justice is indeed central to the biblical portrait of the God who has revealed himself in his written Word and in the incarnate Word who is his Son.  However, the current use of ‘justice’ as a rallying cry for the church is reductive, because it is limited to particular political and economic issues without reference to the righteousness of God .  A key to the biblical meaning of justice is found in the fact that the word translated ‘justice’ and ‘righteousness’ is the same word in Hebrew and in Greek.  The root of the word becomes, in both Testaments, both a noun and a verb, so that ‘justice’ or ‘judgment’ is the same thing as ‘righteousness’ or ‘rectification’ (making right).  The Christian hope is founded in the promise of God that all things will be made new according to his righteousness.  All the references to judgment in the Bible should be understood in the context of God’s righteousness–not just his being righteous (noun) but his ‘making right’ (verb) all that has been wrong.  Clearly, human justice is a very limited enterprise compared to the ultimate making-right of God in the promised day of judgment.

Promise is a key concept of understanding Advent.  We are all familiar with broken promises; indeed, it sometimes seems that broken promises are the only promises there are.  This is a sign of the old age.  The gospel announces the promise of God, which has an entirely different character from human promises because it is anchored in the very nature of the righteous God with whom ‘all things are possible’ (Matt. 19:26).  Therefore, the principal defining characteristic of the Christian community, along with faith and love, is hope (I Cor. 13:13).

Fleming RutledgeAdvent: The Once & Future Coming of Jesus Christ, 21-22.