What Can Evangelicals Learn from Adam Schiff?

They can learn something about moral clarity. They can learn something about doing the right thing.  They can learn something about patriotism.

“If the truth doesn’t matter, we’re lost.”

Here is what Fox News had to offer in the wake of Schiff’s speech.

There is nothing here on the content or the merits of the House defense.  They are talking about television ratings and CNN.  They are making vague references to our “Constitution.”  Is this all the Fox News crowd has to offer–gotcha lines and sarcastic jokes?  I am guessing we will see more of this on Saturday when Trump’s defense lawyers take the stage.  Will Cipollone and Sekulow be able to present a counter-narrative to the one presented by the House Managers over the last several days?  Will they even try? Is there a fact-based alternative narrative?

It is only a matter of time before Robert Jeffress gets on Fox News with Lou Dobbs to trumpet the court evangelical defense of Trump.  Expect multiple appeals to Trump’s visit to the March for Life.  They are already weighing in:

Some More Thoughts on the Populist Critique of “Elite Evangelicals”

Trump iN Dallas

For most evangelical Christians, the message of the Gospel transcends the identity categories we place on human beings.  All men and women are sinners in need of redemption.  Citizenship in the Kingdom of God, made possible by Jesus’s death and resurrection, is available to all human beings regardless of their race, class, or gender.

I also think that most evangelicals believe that good Christians strive to live Holy Spirit-filled lives that conform to the moral teachings of the Bible. In other words, evangelical Christians follow the 10 Commandments, Jesus’s teachings in  the Gospels (including the Sermon on the Mount), and the ethical demands of the New Testament epistles.

Since Mark Galli wrote his Christianity Today editorial calling for the removal of Donald Trump, the evangelical defenders of the POTUS have been playing the populist card. Let’s remember that the populist card is an identity politics card.

The opponents of Christianity Today have tried to paint Galli and other evangelical anti-Trumpers as “elites” who look down their noses at uneducated or working class evangelicals.  In their minds, Galli and his ilk are guilty of the same kind of supposed moral preening as university professors, Barack Obama, and the progressive legislators known as “The Squad.”  They view these educated evangelicals–some of whom they might worship with on Sunday mornings–through the lens of class-based politics rather than as fellow believers in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

This populist argument has come from a variety of sectors, including First Things magazine (here and here), the court evangelicals (here), and Calvinist Front Porcher and American religious historian Darryl Hart (here).

So I ask: Has Trump’s class-based identity politics co-opted Christian ethics?

Trump has openly lied or misrepresented the truth. He has engaged in speech that is misogynistic, nativist, and racist. He has advanced policies that have separated children from their parents.  He regularly demonizes and degrades his political enemies.  It seems like these things, on the basis of biblical morality, are always wrong, regardless of whether an educated person or an uneducated person brings them to our attention.  Last time I checked, the minor prophets and John the Baptist did not have Ph.Ds.

Mark Galli of Christianity Today has offered a stinging moral criticism of Trump.  We can debate whether Trump’s actions in Ukraine are impeachable, but Galli is on solid ground when he says the president is “grossly immoral.”

Is it right to say that a Christian is “out of touch” when he calls out such immoral behavior?  (Or maybe one might take evangelical theologian Wayne Grudem’s approach and try to make a case that Trump’s indiscretions are few and inconsequential).

Would a non-college educated factory worker in the Midwest who claims the name of Jesus Christ think that racism, misogyny, nativism, the degradation of one’s enemies, and lying are moral problems?  Wouldn’t any Christian, formed by the teachings of a local church and the spiritual disciplines (as opposed to the daily barrage of Fox News), see the need to condemn such behavior?  What does social class have to do with it?  Shouldn’t one’s identity in the Gospel and its moral implications for living transcend class identity?

For those who are lamenting disunion in the church, I have another question:  Shouldn’t the church be an otherworldly, counter-cultural institution that finds some unity in the condemnation of immoral behavior in the corridors of national power?  Or should we take our marching orders from the divisive, class-based identity politics of Donald Trump?

What Did Theologians and Ethicists Say About Bill Clinton’s Impeachment in 1998?

Impeachment trial

Today I was talking to a reporter about impeachment and recalled a statement issued in 1998 by prominent American theologians and ethicists.  A really interesting mix of evangelical and non-evangelical moral philosophers signed this statement.  I have copied it below.

Could we bring such a coalition of thinkers together today as we watch another POTUS  impeached?

Why are we not getting the same kind of ecumenical statements of moral clarity today?  Legal scholars have commented on the legality of the entire Trump impeachment affair.  Historians have weighed-in as well.  Where are the ethicists?  Here you go:

Declaration concerning religion, ethics, and the crisis in the Clinton presidency

The following declaration can be found at moral-crisis.org, November 16, 1998

The following declaration can be found at moral-crisis.org

To be released on 13 November 1998

As scholars interested in religion and public life, we protest the manipulation of religion and the debasing of moral language in the discussion about presidential responsibility. We believe that serious misunderstandings of repentance and forgiveness are being exploited for political advantage. The resulting moral confusion is a threat to the integrity of American religion and to the foundations of a civil society. In the conviction that politics and morality cannot be separated, we consider the current crisis to be a critical moment in the life of our country and, therefore, offer the following points for consideration:

1. Many of us worry about the political misuse of religion and religious symbols even as we endorse the public mission of our churches, synagogues, and mosques. In particular we are concerned about the distortion that can come by association with presidential power in events like the Presidential Prayer Breakfast on September 11. We fear the religious community is in danger of being called upon to provide authentication for a politically motivated and incomplete repentance that seeks to avert serious consequences for wrongful acts. While we affirm that pastoral counseling sessions are an appropriate, confidential arena to address these issues, we fear that announcing such meetings to convince the public of the President’s sincerity compromises the integrity of religion.

2. We challenge the widespread assumption that forgiveness relieves a person of further responsibility and serious consequences. We are convinced that forgiveness is a relational term that does not function easily within the sphere of constitutional accountability. A wronged party chooses forgiveness instead of revenge and antagonism, but this does not relieve the wrong-doer of consequences. When the President continues to deny any liability for the sins he has confessed, this suggests that the public display of repentance was intended to avoid political disfavor.

3. We are aware that certain moral qualities are central to the survival of our political system, among which are truthfulness, integrity, respect for the law, respect for the dignity of others, adherence to the constitutional process, and a willingness to avoid the abuse of power. We reject the premise that violations of these ethical standards should be excused so long as a leader remains loyal to a particular political agenda and the nation is blessed by a strong economy. Elected leaders are accountable to the Constitution and to the people who elected them. By his own admission the President has departed from ethical standards by abusing his presidential office, by his ill use of women, and by his knowing manipulation of truth for indefensible ends. We are particularly troubled about the debasing of the language of public discourse with the aim of avoiding responsibility for one’s actions.

4. We are concerned about the impact of this crisis on our children and on our students. Some of them feel betrayed by a President in whom they set their hopes while others are troubled by his misuse of others, by which many in the administration, the political system, and the media were implicated in patterns of deceit and abuse. Neither our students nor we demand perfection. Many of us believe that extreme dangers sometimes require a political leader to engage in morally problematic actions. But we maintain that in general there is a reasonable threshold of behavior beneath which our public leaders should not fall, because the moral character of a people is more important than the tenure of a particular politician or the protection of a particular political agenda. Political and religious history indicate that violations and misunderstandings of such moral issues may have grave consequences. The widespread desire to “get this behind us” does not take seriously enough the nature of transgressions and their social effects.

5. We urge the society as a whole to take account of the ethical commitments necessary for a civil society and to seek the integrity of both public and private morality. While partisan conflicts have usually dominated past debates over public morality, we now confront a much deeper crisis, whether the moral basis of the constitutional system itself will be lost. In the present impeachment discussions, we call for national courage in deliberation that avoids ideological division and engages the process as a constitutional and ethical imperative. We ask Congress to discharge its current duty in a manner mindful of its solemn constitutional and political responsibilities. Only in this way can the process serve the good of the nation as a whole and avoid further sensationalism.

6. While some of us think that a presidential resignation or impeachment would be appropriate and others envision less drastic consequences, we are all convinced that extended discussion about constitutional, ethical, and religious issues will be required to clarify the situation and to enable a wise decision to be made. We hope to provide an arena in which such discussion can occur in an atmosphere of scholarly integrity and civility without partisan bias.

The following scholars subscribe to the Declaration:

1. Paul J. Achtemeier (Union Theological Seminary in Virginia)

2. P. Mark Achtemeier (University of Dubuque Theological Seminary)

3. LeRoy Aden (Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia)

4. Diogenes Allen (Princeton Theological Seminary)

5. Joseph Alulis (North Park University)

6. Charles L. Bartow (Princeton Theological Seminary)

7. Donald G. Bloesch (University of Dubuque Theological Seminary)

8. Carl Braaten (Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology)

9. Manfred Brauch (Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary)

10. William P. Brown (Union Theological Seminary in Virginia)

11. Don S. Browning (University of Chicago)

12. Frederick S. Carney (Southern Methodist University)

13. Ellen T. Charry (Princeton Theological Seminary)

14. Karl Paul Donfried (Smith College)

15. Richard Drummond (University of Dubuque Theological Seminary)

16. Jean Bethke Elshtain (University of Chicago)

17. Edward E. Ericson, Jr. (Calvin College)

18. Gabriel Fackre (Andover Newton Theological School)

19. Robert Gagnon (Pittsburgh Theological Seminary)

20. Joel B. Green (Asbury Theological Seminary)

21. Robert H. Gundry (Westmont College)

22. Scott J. Hafemann (Wheaton College)

23. Roy A. Harrisville (Luther Theological Seminary)

24. Stanley M. Hauerwas (Duke University)

25. Gerald F. Hawthorne (Wheaton College)

26. S. Mark Heim (Andover Newton Theological School)

27. Frank Witt Hughes (Codrington College)

28. Robert Imbelli (Boston College)

29. Robert Jenson (Center for Theological Inquiry)

30. Robert Jewett (Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary)

31. Jack Dean Kingsbury (Union Theological Seminary in Virginia)

32. Paul Koptak (North Park Theological Seminary)

33. John S. Lawrence (Morningside College)

34. Walter Liefeld (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School)

35. Troy Martin (Saint Xavier University)

36. James L. Mays (Union Theological Seminary in Virginia)

37. S. Dean McBride (Union Theological Seminary in Virginia)

38. Sheila E. McGinn (John Carroll University)

39. John R. McRay (Wheaton College)

40. Robert Meye (Fuller Theological Seminary)

41. David Moessner (University of Dubuque Theological Seminary)

42. Grant Osborne (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School)

43. Carroll D. Osburn (Abilene Christian University)

44. William A. Pannell (Fuller Theological Seminary)

45. Jon Paulien (Andrews University)

46. John Piper (Bethlehem Baptist Church)

47. Stephen Pope (Boston College)

48. J. E. Powers (Hope College

49. Mark Reasoner (Bethel College),

50. John Reumann (Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia)

51. David Rhoads (Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago)

52. W. Larry Richards (Andrews University)

53. Daniel E. Ritchie (Bethel College)

54. Joel Samuels (University of Dubuque Theological Seminary)

55. David Scholer (Fuller Theological Seminary)

56. Keith Norman Schoville (University of Wisconsin)

57. J. Julius Scott (Wheaton College)

58. Mark Seifrid (Southern Baptist Theological Seminary)

59. Christopher R. Seitz (St. Andrews University)

60. Klyne Snodgrass (North Park Theological Seminary)

61. Max Stackhouse (Princeton Theological Seminary)

62. W. Richard Stegner (Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary)

63. Jeanne Stevenson-Moessner (University of Dubuque Theological Seminary)

64. R. Franklin Terry (Morningside College)

65. David Tiede (Luther Theological Seminary)

66. Reinder Van Til (Eerdmans Publishing Company)

67. Warren Wade (North Park University)

68. J. Ross Wagner (Princeton Theological Seminary)

69. David H. Wallace (American Baptist Seminary of the West)

70. Timothy P. Weber (Northern Baptist Theological Seminary)

71. Merold Westphal (Fordham University)

72. Jonathan R. Wilson (Westmont College)

73. Edward and Anne Wimberly (Interdenominational Theological Center)

74. Harry Yeide (George Washington University)

What Will Future Historians Say About Abortion?

abortion

I hate the term “right side” and “wrong side” of history.  No historian should use these phrases. They are moral, not historical, phrases.  When people use them they are usually saying more about their own politics or religion than the patterns of history.  When Martin Luther King Jr. said that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” he was making a theological statement.  It is a theological statement that I affirm because I am a Christian who hopes in a coming Kingdom where justice will prevail, and not because I wholeheartedly embrace the Enlightenment idea of progress.

Historians know that the story of humanity does not always bend toward justice.  Usually those who reference the right and wrong sides of history have a political axe to grind.  Historians, of course, are not prophets.  We cannot predict the direction history will move.  Christian historians should have eschatological hope, but we cannot pretend to claim that we know all that God is doing.  This is why we talk about humility and mystery.  We see through a glass darkly.

In her recent piece on abortion at VOX, evangelical feminist Karen Swallow Prior does not use the phrase “right side of history” or “wrong side of history,” but she does invoke a kind of ethical trajectory–a teleology if you will– that is born out of her Christian convictions and her belief in moral progress.  As a historian, I am trained to treat her predictions with caution.  As a Christian who believes we must reduce the number of abortions in the United States, I say let’s hope she is correct.

Here is a taste of her piece, “Abortion Will Be Considered Unthinkable 50 Years from Now.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last year that abortion hit its lowest rate since Roe v. Wade11.8 per 1,000 women ages 15-44, a dramatic decline from a peak in the early 1980s that approached 30 per 1,000 women. It’s unclear whether this decrease is owing to increased use of contraceptives; delayed sexual activity among young people; the declining number of doctors willing to participate in abortions; a growing inability to deny — thanks to ultrasound technology, prenatal surgical interventions, and extravagant gender reveal parties — the insuppressible personality of the child in the womb; or a combination of all these factors.

Whatever the cause, however, abortion is becoming less necessary and less desirable. Recent attempts in several states to expand access to late-term abortions in anticipation of the possible overturning of Roe not only violate the view of the majority (who support greater restrictions after the first trimester) but will be seen by future generations as a last, desperate show of stubbornness in the face of human progress.

Every age has its blinders, constructed, usually, through a combination of ignorance and self-interest. Many things such as bloodletting and wet nurses that are seen as good or indispensable in one age are unthinkable in another.

Our modern-day willingness to settle for sex apart from commitment, to accept the dereliction of duty by men who impregnate women (for men are the primary beneficiaries of liberal abortion laws), and to uphold the systematic suppression of sex’s creative energy and function are practices that people of other ages would have considered bizarre. As we enter late modernity and recognize the limits of the radical autonomy and individualism which have defined it, the pendulum will correct itself with a swing toward more communitarian and humane values that recognize the interdependency of all humans.

When we do, we will look back at elective abortion and wonder — as we do now with polluting and smoking — why we so wholeheartedly embraced it. We will look at those ultrasound images of 11-week old fetuses somersaulting in the waters of the womb and lack words to explain to our grandchildren why we ever defended their willful destruction in the name of personal choice and why we harmed so many women to do so.

Read the entire piece here.

This reminds me of what I wrote earlier this week about Jimmy Carter’s suggestion that the Democratic Party change its views on abortion:

I think there are a lot of pro-life Democrats out there who would agree with Carter, but they do not make their voices heard for several reasons:

  1. They do not want to be ostracized by the Democratic Party.
  2. They are afraid that if they defend the unborn they will be accused of not caring about women’s rights.  (This, I believe, is a false dichotomy).
  3. They do not want to be associated with the divisive and unhelpful “baby-killing” culture war rhetoric of the Right.
  4. They do not endorse the Christian Right/GOP playbook that teaches the only way to reduce abortions is to overturn Roe. v. Wade.

Princeton’s Robert George on Intellectual and Ideological Diversity in the Academy

7b24a-princeton

While I was visiting a big state university a couple of weeks ago I had a robust, spirited, and civil conversation with the history faculty about how to teach controversial or morally problematic issues.  Many of the history professors in the room said that they use their classrooms to advocate for certain political causes (all on the left) or see no problem giving their personal opinion about a particular issue or idea that arises from the study of the past.

I pushed back. I wondered whether the history classroom was primarily the place where such moral criticism should happen.  Those familiar with my Why Study History?: A Historical Introduction know that I think there is a difference between moral philosophy (ethics) and history.  Though I obviously have my opinions, and many of them are informed by my understanding of the past, I rarely bring those opinions into the classroom.  For example, the only time I talk about Donald Trump in my classroom is when he gets something wrong about history or uses the past irresponsibly to justify this or that policy.   I do the same thing with any public figure who manipulates the past for political gain.

In other words, my blog and other social media feeds are not the best representations of what my classroom looks like.

Robert George of Princeton University is very conservative.  I have seen him defending moral conservatism in public talks, in writing, and on social media.  But if I read his recent interview with Matthew Stein at The College Fix, I don’t think these conservative political and moral convictions dominate his classroom.  George has some very interesting things to say about intellectual and ideological diversity in the classroom. Here is a taste:

The College Fix: In your Open Minds Conference panel, you mentioned that you don’t think professors should “use their classrooms as a soapbox for advocacy,” and that you and professors like Cornel West make your classrooms as intellectually stimulating and valuable as possible by honestly portraying both sides of an argument. This seems to hit on a big issue with the universities today, as many professors of the “progressive orthodoxy” you later mentioned seem to use their positions to influence their students into becoming activists of related social causes. How do you think society can address this issue, particularly given the system of tenure and the sheer magnitude of the problem?

Robert George: Like most of the problems in academia—and society more broadly—today, what is needed above all is courage. We need the courage to speak the truth even when it is uncomfortable, and even when truth-speaking carries risks. Professors who seek to indoctrinate their students are betraying a sacred trust. They are supposed to be educators. If there is an antonym to “educating,” it’s “indoctrinating.” Professors (and other teachers) who engage in indoctrination need to be confronted. Certainly administrators need to do this. Fellow faculty members need to do it. And students themselves need to do it, too.

Is this risky, especially for students? You bet it is. But that’s where the virtue of courage comes in. All of us—including students—need to muster the courage to call out teachers who betray their sacred trust. In addition, professors who understand the importance of truly educating students, and who grasp the fundamental difference between education and indoctrination, need to set an excellent example for their colleagues—especially younger colleagues. Together, we can establish a milieu that powerfully discourages indoctrination.

CF: You also mentioned that you should create an atmosphere of “unsettling” each other in the classroom. Looking at the campus more generally, there are continually accounts of the opposite atmosphere in regards to discussing “unsettling ideas,” whether it be by an outside speaker being shut down or students on campus being afraid to express unpopular viewpoints. How can this negative general atmosphere on campus be improved to encourage students to act out the ideal intellectual atmosphere that you described?

RG: Again, courage is the key. Students must have the courage to express dissent—even if they are alone or in a small minority in the class in holding a particular view. And faculty members need to model courage for their students—and for their colleagues (especially younger colleagues). All of us must overcome the natural fear we feel in oppressive environments of the sort that too often exist today in college, high school, and even middle school classrooms. And when a dissenter does speak up in defiance of a campus dogma, all of us (and not only those who happen to share his or her dissenting opinion) need swiftly to provide that individual with support.

That is how we will establish an environment in which people are free—and feel and know they are free—to speak their minds, thus benefiting the entire community by contributing to robust, civil campus debates.

CF: Identity politics was one issue you touched on in the Q&A, which you said has a negative effect on both college campuses and society at large. Could you speak a little more on how identity politics and student groups organized around group identity has negatively affected the university? Are there any common issues of identity politics amongst the faculty? Has it had any effects on your or other professors’ ability to create the positive intellectual atmosphere you previously mentioned?

RG: Identity politics, and the dogmas of the phenomenon that has come to be known as “intersectionality,” harm learning environments by encouraging groupthink and stigmatizing dissent.

One especially regrettable consequence of the rise of identitarianism is the pressure placed on female and minority students to hold and express opinions that are in line with what women and members of minority groups are “supposed” to think. If you are female, you are “supposed” to hold a certain view on abortion and the status of unborn human life. If you are black, you are “supposed” to express a certain view on the desirability of affirmative action programs of certain sorts. If you are Latino, you are “supposed” to have a certain set of beliefs on immigration policy.

I find this reprehensible. People need to think for themselves. And they need to do that, and need to know that they are entitled to do that, whether they are male or female, black, white, green, blue, or purple.

 

Read the entire interview here.  He also has some interesting things to say about Liberty University.

Another Court Evangelical Doubles Down on Trump’s Charlottesville Remarks

Over at the Federalist, a writer named Daniel Payne has a piece titled “Trump Spoke Truth About ‘Both Sides’ In Charlottesville, And The Media Lost Their Minds.”  As the title suggests, this piece defends Trump’s remarks on Tuesday and seems to have no problem with his attempt to put the white supremacists in Charlottesville on equal moral footing with the counter-protesters.

Read it here.

I should also add, using Payne’s words, that American manufacturing leaders and an ever-growing number of GOP leaders have also “lost their minds.”

I understand the defense of Trump’s comments.  Yes, there were problems on “both sides.”  The counter-protesters engaged in violence.  It takes two to tango.  I condemn the violence on all sides.

But when the President of the United States takes to the bully pulpit in response to the arrival of white supremacists in an American city and says that “all sides were to blame” he misses the point.  He fails to see what happened in Charlottesville–the arrival of a group of white supremacists denouncing African Americans and Jews– as part of the larger context of race in America.  When one takes a longer view of what happened on Friday night and Saturday, it seems clear that the white supremacists represent something–racism–that has plagued this country from its birth. Yes, in the past those who have protested against American racists were violent at times.  During the 1850s there was a big debate over how to effectively oppose slavery. Many condemned violent approaches.  But the anti-slavery forces of that era all believed that the greatest moral issue was the ending of this immoral institution.  Any wrong-headed or destructive violence in the cause of abolitionism was always understood in this larger moral context.

Trump, Payne, and other defenders seem incapable of moral nuance here. Perhaps this kind of black and white thinking and the failure to grasp any degree of moral context and complexity explains why so many court evangelicals and writers like Payne are still defending Trump’s comments.  Or maybe its’ just politics.

Whatever it is, court evangelical Eric Metaxas has come out in support of the Payne piece and Trump’s comments.

Metaxas again

 

 

What Did Christian Scholars of Religion and Public Life Say About Bill Clinton in 1998?

Clinton Tix

Tickets to the Clinton Impeachment Trial (Wikimedia Commons)

One of my Facebook followers recently called my attention to a 1998 document that has some implications for our present moment.  The “Declaration concerning religion, ethnics and the crisis in the Clinton presidency” was signed by religious leaders and scholars seeking to bring some moral clarity to the nation during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.

Look closely at the people who signed this statement. The signers include Catholics, theological liberals, mainline Protestants, progressive evangelicals, evangelicals who might be described as theologically “conservative,” and everyone in-between.

There are parts of this statement that are still useful as we deal with our current president.  I am struck that the writer of this statement is reflecting on how to deal with a president–Bill Clinton–who has asked forgiveness for his indiscretions.  How does this statement hold up today with a president who does not believe in asking for forgiveness?

Here is the entire document:

Declaration concerning religion, ethics, and the crisis in the Clinton presidency

POSTED ON NOVEMBER 16, 1998 BY ADMIN IN PRESBYTERIAN NEWS AND ANALYSIS

Declaration concerning religion, ethics, and the crisis in the Clinton presidency

The following declaration can be found at moral-crisis.org, November 16, 1998

The following declaration can be found at moral-crisis.org

To be released on 13 November 1998

As scholars interested in religion and public life, we protest the manipulation of religion and the debasing of moral language in the discussion about presidential responsibility. We believe that serious misunderstandings of repentance and forgiveness are being exploited for political advantage. The resulting moral confusion is a threat to the integrity of American religion and to the foundations of a civil society. In the conviction that politics and morality cannot be separated, we consider the current crisis to be a critical moment in the life of our country and, therefore, offer the following points for consideration:

1. Many of us worry about the political misuse of religion and religious symbols even as we endorse the public mission of our churches, synagogues, and mosques. In particular we are concerned about the distortion that can come by association with presidential power in events like the Presidential Prayer Breakfast on September 11. We fear the religious community is in danger of being called upon to provide authentication for a politically motivated and incomplete repentance that seeks to avert serious consequences for wrongful acts. While we affirm that pastoral counseling sessions are an appropriate, confidential arena to address these issues, we fear that announcing such meetings to convince the public of the President’s sincerity compromises the integrity of religion.

2. We challenge the widespread assumption that forgiveness relieves a person of further responsibility and serious consequences. We are convinced that forgiveness is a relational term that does not function easily within the sphere of constitutional accountability. A wronged party chooses forgiveness instead of revenge and antagonism, but this does not relieve the wrong-doer of consequences. When the President continues to deny any liability for the sins he has confessed, this suggests that the public display of repentance was intended to avoid political disfavor.

3. We are aware that certain moral qualities are central to the survival of our political system, among which are truthfulness, integrity, respect for the law, respect for the dignity of others, adherence to the constitutional process, and a willingness to avoid the abuse of power. We reject the premise that violations of these ethical standards should be excused so long as a leader remains loyal to a particular political agenda and the nation is blessed by a strong economy. Elected leaders are accountable to the Constitution and to the people who elected them. By his own admission the President has departed from ethical standards by abusing his presidential office, by his ill use of women, and by his knowing manipulation of truth for indefensible ends. We are particularly troubled about the debasing of the language of public discourse with the aim of avoiding responsibility for one’s actions.

4. We are concerned about the impact of this crisis on our children and on our students. Some of them feel betrayed by a President in whom they set their hopes while others are troubled by his misuse of others, by which many in the administration, the political system, and the media were implicated in patterns of deceit and abuse. Neither our students nor we demand perfection. Many of us believe that extreme dangers sometimes require a political leader to engage in morally problematic actions. But we maintain that in general there is a reasonable threshold of behavior beneath which our public leaders should not fall, because the moral character of a people is more important than the tenure of a particular politician or the protection of a particular political agenda. Political and religious history indicate that violations and misunderstandings of such moral issues may have grave consequences. The widespread desire to “get this behind us” does not take seriously enough the nature of transgressions and their social effects.

5. We urge the society as a whole to take account of the ethical commitments necessary for a civil society and to seek the integrity of both public and private morality. While partisan conflicts have usually dominated past debates over public morality, we now confront a much deeper crisis, whether the moral basis of the constitutional system itself will be lost. In the present impeachment discussions, we call for national courage in deliberation that avoids ideological division and engages the process as a constitutional and ethical imperative. We ask Congress to discharge its current duty in a manner mindful of its solemn constitutional and political responsibilities. Only in this way can the process serve the good of the nation as a whole and avoid further sensationalism.

6. While some of us think that a presidential resignation or impeachment would be appropriate and others envision less drastic consequences, we are all convinced that extended discussion about constitutional, ethical, and religious issues will be required to clarify the situation and to enable a wise decision to be made. We hope to provide an arena in which such discussion can occur in an atmosphere of scholarly integrity and civility without partisan bias.

The following scholars subscribe to the Declaration:

1. Paul J. Achtemeier (Union Theological Seminary in Virginia)

2. P. Mark Achtemeier (University of Dubuque Theological Seminary)

3. LeRoy Aden (Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia)

4. Diogenes Allen (Princeton Theological Seminary)

5. Joseph Alulis (North Park University)

6. Charles L. Bartow (Princeton Theological Seminary)

7. Donald G. Bloesch (University of Dubuque Theological Seminary)

8. Carl Braaten (Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology)

9. Manfred Brauch (Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary)

10. William P. Brown (Union Theological Seminary in Virginia)

11. Don S. Browning (University of Chicago)

12. Frederick S. Carney (Southern Methodist University)

13. Ellen T. Charry (Princeton Theological Seminary)

14. Karl Paul Donfried (Smith College)

15. Richard Drummond (University of Dubuque Theological Seminary)

16. Jean Bethke Elshtain (University of Chicago)

17. Edward E. Ericson, Jr. (Calvin College)

18. Gabriel Fackre (Andover Newton Theological School)

19. Robert Gagnon (Pittsburgh Theological Seminary)

20. Joel B. Green (Asbury Theological Seminary)

21. Robert H. Gundry (Westmont College)

22. Scott J. Hafemann (Wheaton College)

23. Roy A. Harrisville (Luther Theological Seminary)

24. Stanley M. Hauerwas (Duke University)

25. Gerald F. Hawthorne (Wheaton College)

26. S. Mark Heim (Andover Newton Theological School)

27. Frank Witt Hughes (Codrington College)

28. Robert Imbelli (Boston College)

29. Robert Jenson (Center for Theological Inquiry)

30. Robert Jewett (Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary)

31. Jack Dean Kingsbury (Union Theological Seminary in Virginia)

32. Paul Koptak (North Park Theological Seminary)

33. John S. Lawrence (Morningside College)

34. Walter Liefeld (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School)

35. Troy Martin (Saint Xavier University)

36. James L. Mays (Union Theological Seminary in Virginia)

37. S. Dean McBride (Union Theological Seminary in Virginia)

38. Sheila E. McGinn (John Carroll University)

39. John R. McRay (Wheaton College)

40. Robert Meye (Fuller Theological Seminary)

41. David Moessner (University of Dubuque Theological Seminary)

42. Grant Osborne (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School)

43. Carroll D. Osburn (Abilene Christian University)

44. William A. Pannell (Fuller Theological Seminary)

45. Jon Paulien (Andrews University)

46. John Piper (Bethlehem Baptist Church)

47. Stephen Pope (Boston College)

48. J. E. Powers (Hope College

49. Mark Reasoner (Bethel College),

50. John Reumann (Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia)

51. David Rhoads (Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago)

52. W. Larry Richards (Andrews University)

53. Daniel E. Ritchie (Bethel College)

54. Joel Samuels (University of Dubuque Theological Seminary)

55. David Scholer (Fuller Theological Seminary)

56. Keith Norman Schoville (University of Wisconsin)

57. J. Julius Scott (Wheaton College)

58. Mark Seifrid (Southern Baptist Theological Seminary)

59. Christopher R. Seitz (St. Andrews University)

60. Klyne Snodgrass (North Park Theological Seminary)

61. Max Stackhouse (Princeton Theological Seminary)

62. W. Richard Stegner (Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary)

63. Jeanne Stevenson-Moessner (University of Dubuque Theological Seminary)

64. R. Franklin Terry (Morningside College)

65. David Tiede (Luther Theological Seminary)

66. Reinder Van Til (Eerdmans Publishing Company)

67. Warren Wade (North Park University)

68. J. Ross Wagner (Princeton Theological Seminary)

69. David H. Wallace (American Baptist Seminary of the West)

70. Timothy P. Weber (Northern Baptist Theological Seminary)

71. Merold Westphal (Fordham University)

72. Jonathan R. Wilson (Westmont College)

73. Edward and Anne Wimberly (Interdenominational Theological Center)

74. Harry Yeide (George Washington University)

Review of Gideon Mailer’s *John Witherspoon’s American Revolution*

MailerMy review of this important book is in the Summer 2017 issue of New Jersey Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal.

Here is a taste:

Prior to John Witherspoon’s American Revolution, the received wisdom from historians of Witherspoon’s thought was that the Presbyterian divine was the perfect representation of how evangelical Protestantism had either merged with, or was co opted by, the enlightened moral thinking emanating from the great Scottish universities. Historians Ned Landsman and Mark Noll argued that Witherspoon’s ethical sensibilities drew heavily from moralist Francis Hutcheson and the moderate wing of the Scottish Presbyterian Church. Landsman coined the phrase “The Witherspoon Problem” to describe how Witherspoon strongly opposed Hutcheson’s human-centered system of morality prior to arriving in the colonies in 1768, but then seemed to incorporate these same ideas in the moral philosophy lectures he delivered to his students at Nassau Hall. Noll forged his understanding of Witherspoon amidst the intramural squabbles in late twentieth-century evangelicalism over whether or not the United States was founded as a “Christian nation.” Since Witherspoon was a minister with deep evangelical convictions, many modern evangelicals claimed him as one of their own and used his life and career to buttress the Christian nationalism of the Religious Right. In a series of scholarly books, Noll challenged his fellow evangelicals to understand Witherspoon less as an evangelical in the mold of First Great Awakening revivalists such as Jonathan Edwards or George Whitefield, and more as a product of the Scottish Enlightenment who drew heavily from secular ideas to sustain his understanding of virtue.

Mailer’s revisionist work challenges much of what we have learned from Landsman and Noll. 

Read the entire review here.

Historical Thinking and Moral Reflection

adbb2-why2bstudy2bhistory-bakerShould historians ask whether something in the past was good?  Bad?  Here are five suggestions:

1. The historian’s primary responsibility is explanation and understanding, not moral criticism.  Historians can engage in moral criticism, but they should do so only after they have fully grasped what happened in the past and why it happened in the way it did.

2. When historians do speak or write ethically about what happened in the past, they should do so with caution so that preaching does not trump historical interpretation.  As historian James Banner has noted, “Reform may arise from historical knowledge, but bringing about reform is the province of others–or at least of historians on their days off.”

3.  When a historian engages in moralizing about the past, it should be characterized not only by mature historical understanding but also by mature moral thinking.

4.  Historians should make moral judgments in an implicit rather than explicit manner.

5.  Historians should remember to see historical actors as morally complex individuals before casting judgement on them.

Much of this post is drawn from Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  They are all developed in the book.

National Endowment for Humanities Funds Courses on “Enduring Questions”

Questions

Donald Trump’s current budget proposal will eliminate government funding for the humanities.  This means that local communities and American citizens will need to come up with other ways to fund programs like this:

In 2016, the National Endowment for the Humanities funded courses at colleges and universities across the country focused on these “enduring questions.”

What does it mean to be happy?

When should war end?

How do we grieve and mourn?

What is the purpose of art?

What is freedom?

Who is our neighbor?

What is community?

How do we think about morality as it relates to our habits and our health?

What is comedy?

What is discovery?

How should we think morally about the marketplace?

What is the relationship between the mind and the body?

How might we think theologically about race?

Is time valuable?

Why does our society incarcerate people?

What is creativity?

Learn more about the NEH’s work on “enduring questions” here.

For other posts in this series click here.

Why a Clinton Victory in November Won’t Be a Moral Victory

Hillary_Obama

Over at Religion Dispatches, Peter Laarman argues that the Hillary Clinton campaign lacks the kind of moral vision that Democrats need to win back the House of Representatives.

He writes:

Put simply, the only force that could break the GOP’s lock on the House is the force of a morally awakened electorate. Were Obama running again, I believe that the Republican House just might crumble and fall. The president remains America’s Idealist In Chief, and he would run on his evident moral passion to bind up the nation’s wounds. He would take the high ground and smite the sworn enemies of American ideals–of liberty and justice for all–on both hip and thigh. He would chastise the Republicans as a group for their decades-long stirring of the toxic slime from which Trumpism emerged.

Secretary Clinton, on the other hand, often sounds moralistic when speaking of the nation’s problems, but she never comes across as a deeply ethical reformer in the mold of Barack Obama, Franklin Roosevelt, or even 1964’s Lyndon Johnson. Her pandering to groups representing underdogs—women’s rights groups, civil rights groups, trade unions—feels in both intonation and gesture exactly like that: highly calculated pandering. Tom Kaine’s down-to-earth Joe Biden impersonation can’t compensate for this defect at the top of the ticket. No number of morally-impassioned surrogates can compensate.

We should not forget that a widely-shared yearning for a moral revolution formed the heart of the Sanders movement. We shouldn’t forget that this surge of moral energy surprised the Vermont senator himself, or that it was really a remarkable thing to behold, especially considering the many liabilities of the senator as a credible candidate. We shouldn’t forget that what many read as “class warfare” and raw resentment of the overclass always arises from a deeply moral center. It’s not just that the 1% sucks up more than 90% of all new the new wealth generated in this country; it’s that their arrogance and presumption regarding their entitlement to power and wealth is widely seen to be undemocratic and simply wrong.

But it appears that Clinton and her team may have forgotten all of this.

Read the entire piece here.  Morality, of course, is a loaded term.  The anti-Hillary faction would agree that Clinton lacks a moral vision, but they would define such a vision in a very different way.  Yet, for a left-leaning publication such as Religion Dispatches, Laarman’s piece makes perfect sense.

The Author’s Corner With Sara Paretsky

Sara PAretskySara Paretsky is a best-selling mystery writer and creator of the female private eye V I Warshawski.  This interview is based on her new book Words, Works, and Ways of Knowing: The Breakdown of Moral Philosophy in New England Before Civil War (University of Chicago Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Words, Works and Ways of Knowing?

SP: This was originally my doctoral dissertation at the University of Chicago in 1977.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Words, Works and Ways of Knowing?

SP: Scottish Realism provided the underlying framework for intellectual discourse in northern colleges in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Words, Works and Ways of Knowing explores how that philosophy was irrevocably changed by what we, today, would call scientific inquiry. These changes began when Calvinist scholars began exploring new learning in geology and philology in the 1820s. By the time Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859 there were already deep fissures in the American Academy over questions of biblical inerrancy brought about by the new learning.

JF: Why do we need to read Words, Works and Ways of Knowing ?

SP: This book explores the underpinnings of what became current day fundamentalism.

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

SP: I worked in the Civil Rights movement in Chicago in the 1960s and I wanted to study American history to understand what lay behind the violence and the hatred that I saw playing out in Chicago and across the nation. However, at the time that I completed my Ph.D. there were no job openings. I worked in business for 15 years and currently am a writer of crime fiction. I believe the history work I did gave me commitment to accurate research and to providing a historic context for the events that take place in my novels.

JF: What is your next project?

SP: I am finishing a novel whose working title is Fall Out. It is set against the backdrop of the Cold War and how that played out in rural America.

JF: Thanks, Sara!

David Brooks: Born Again?

Columbia Journalism Review is running a great piece of long-form journalism by Danny Funt, a “Delacorte Fellow” at Columbia Journalism School. The topic is David Brooks.

Funt  portrays Brooks as a New York Times columnist searching for spiritual and moral answers to life’s big questions. 

Here is a taste of his piece “The Transformation of David Brooks”:

DAVID BROOKS WAS STRUGGLING WITH SIN. More precisely, he was seeking a way to translate the Christian understanding of sin into secular terms for millions of readers. His emerging specialty, whether in his New York Times column or best-selling books, is distilling dense concepts for the mainstream. An ugly word for that, he notes, is popularizing. On religious topics, some might say proselytizing. He calls it reporting. “He’s the master,” says Princeton professor Robert George, a onetime adviser to Brooks. “Nobody is better at that than David.”
Explaining Christian theology has bedeviled Brooks for several years now, in writing his latest book, The Road to Character, and in recent columns, much to the bewilderment of readers. It’s strange partly because Brooks was raised Jewish, but also because the opinion pages are generally reserved for current events and politics. For counsel on political punditry, Brooks used to make a practice of interviewing three elected officials a day. To flesh out his sense of sin, he sought a different sort of expertise.  
He consulted Pastor Timothy Keller, founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan and one of the country’s most prominent evangelicals. There are many explicitly Christian descriptions of sin: fallenness, brokenness, depravity. Keller suggested Brooks try a more neutral phrasing: “disordered love.” When we blab a secret at a party, for example, we misplace love of popularity over love of friendship.
Brooks recounted that guidance to me at a coffee shop in Arlington, Virginia, in between his regular Friday afternoon appearances on NPR’s All Things Considered and PBS’ NewsHour. He’s held those gigs for nearly two decades, and though he claims not to be bored with politics, his mind can seem elsewhere. When Brooks arrived that day at the bustling NPR headquarters in Washington, there was much to sort out. It was the day after the school shooting in Oregon, and the host wanted to know whether a gun crackdown was foreseeable. Would there be a contested race to replace John Boehner as Speaker? Did the Vatican really arrange the pope’s meeting with Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who refused to certify gay marriages? E.J. Dionne Jr., the Washington Post columnist who is Brooks’ liberal counterpart on NPR, provided a bubbly stream of punditry. Brooks was almost listless. On air, his hot takes lacked spark.  
Within minutes of arriving, he’d bagged a book from a give-away shelf,The Opposite of Loneliness, Marina Keegan’s posthumous bestseller about starting over. “I’ve been thinking about writing a column on loneliness,” he explained.
That topic might justifiably be on his mind. Just that week, he’d flown alone to a Gordon College event in Boston, Hope College in Western Michigan, and Washington and Lee University in Virginia to promote his book. He takes the train alone to Yale most weeks to teach, and lives alone (he’s recently divorced) in an apartment near the National Cathedral, a 10-minute drive from the Times DC bureau. His office, on a hallway some call “Murderers’ Row” but which he dubbed “The Hall of Big Egos,” is between Maureen Dowd’s and Thomas Friedman’s, but there isn’t much water-cooler banter among Op-ed staff.
Brooks, 54, also now occupies a lonely journalistic space. When he began using his column several years ago to philosophize about personal morality, he says, “I felt like I was wandering off the map into weird territory.” Where to, exactly, remains mystifying. Brooks thinks a tradition of journalists fluent, or at least conversant, in moral concepts dissipated in recent decades. Theologians were walled off within their denominations, and public discourse about values grew dysfunctional. A life of “meaning” by today’s standard, he wrote in hisTimes column to begin 2015, “is flabby and vacuous, the product of a culture that has grown inarticulate about inner life.”
In general, Brooks contends, journalists balk at sharing moral viewpoints, and readers bristle upon receiving them. His critics find him an insufferable scold, a pompous sermonizer. “I think there is some allergy our culture has toward moral judgment of any kind,” he reflects. “There is a big relativistic strain through our society that if it feels good for you, then who am I to judge? I think that is fundamentally wrong, and I’d rather take the hits for being a moralizer than to have a public square where there’s no moral thought going on.” There is at least marginal evidence that this is changing. His book, published in April, spent 22 weeks on the Times best-seller list.
For Brooks, studying sin (and other moral categories) has been transformational. His political views have shifted before, quite publicly, but this is closer to an intellectual rebirth. Whether it is also a religious one, he won’t say.  
On his book tour over the summer, Brooks committed to a mission for the rest of his career: to restore comfortable, competent dialogue about what makes a virtuous life. If that is truly an area of cultural illiteracy, then journalists have neglected it. Like Brooks, their values have been out of order.

Brooks’s search for meaning reminds me a lot of Eric Miller’s portrayal of Christopher Lasch in Hope in a Scattering Time.  Both men had intellectual conversions. 

Lasch became disgusted with liberalism and the idea of “progress” that defines modern life.  In order to find purpose in his life he turned toward historically conservative values such as place, limits, family, community, virtue, and something akin to sin.  Lasch may have been close to embracing Christianity, but, as Miller argues, he never quite got there.

Brooks’s intellectual conversion seems similar.  He has been speaking at a lot of Christian colleges lately.  He hangs out with Tim Keller at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.  He is trying to make connections between his conservative ideals and the teachings of orthodox Christianity.

Is a conversion experience in Brooks’s future?  Has it happened already? Read Funt’s piece and decide for yourself.

Is Barack Obama Professor in Chief?

This stuff on Obama’s Prayer Breakfast seems to be having a very long shelf life.  (I will be publishing a version of my earlier blog post at another website. It should be out soon–stay tuned).

Now Damon Linker has weighed in over at The Week.  Here is a taste of his piece: “The Problem with Barack Obama Playing the Professor in Chief.”

The problem with the president’s comments isn’t that they were wrong. As Ta-Nehisi Coates and others have powerfully argued, they were indisputably correct.

The problem is that Barack Obama is the president of the United States and not its professor in chief. It isn’t the president’s role to stand apart from and above the nation he leads, issuing supposedly even-handed, dispassionate, scholarly, objective, or prophetic moral judgments about the sins of America and Western civilization. This is especially true when those judgments are rendered in the context of a comparison with the butchers of ISIS — a bloodthirsty Islamist syndicate the president has accurately described as a “network of death” and pledged to destroy by force of arms.  

What Obama’s comments demonstrate is that he lacks a sufficient appreciation of the crucial difference between politics and morality.

Broadly speaking, morality is universalistic in scope and implication, whereas politics is about how a particular group of people governs itself. Morality is cosmopolitan; politics is tribal. Morality applies to all people equally. Politics operates according to a narrower logic — a logic of laws, customs, habits, and mores that bind together one community at a specific time and place. Morality dissolves boundaries. Politics is about how this group of people lives here, as distinct from those groups over there.

Now this certainly overstates the difference between the two realms. In the real world, they overlap in all kinds of ways — and it is one of the great achievements of liberal government to have tamed some of the narrow-minded excesses of politics by more strictly applying moral criteria to the political realm than was common for much of human history before the modern period.

If the president truly believes that ISIS poses a dire threat to the United States — one requiring a military response that puts the lives of American soldiers at risk, costs billions of dollars, and leads to the death of hundreds or thousands of people on the other side of the conflict — then it makes no sense at all for him simultaneously to encourage Americans to adopt a stance of moral ambiguity toward that threat.

Does Obama want us to kill the bloodthirsty psychopaths of ISIS? Or does he want us to reflect dispassionately on the myriad ways that they’re really not that different from the grandfather of my friend from Mississippi?…

A wise president understands that his role is categorically different from that of a journalist, a scholar, a moralist, or a theologian. It’s not a president’s job to gaze down dispassionately on the nation, rendering moral judgments from the Beyond. His job is to defend our side. Yes, with intelligence and humility. But the time for intelligence and humility is in crafting our policies, not in talking about them after the fact. When the president speaks as he did at the Prayer Breakfast, he sounds like a man who believes that executing his own sometimes ruthless policies is too narrow-minded, too partial — a word, too political — for a man as worldly and cosmopolitan as he.

I can’t argue with most of what Linker says here.  I think he is right. Most Americans want a president of decisive action, not a president-moral philosopher.  But let’s go back to Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural.  Why do so many of us celebrate this speech.  Lincoln was being a president-theologian in that speech and it has gone down as one of the greatest speeches ever delivered by an American president.  It seems that Americans want both–strong executive action to defend the interests of the United States and someone who can root such executive action in a robust moral philosophy.  Perhaps the problem with Obama is that his moral philosophy is too indecisive, complex, and nuances when compared to the way his predecessor, George W. Bush, employed his  moral philosophy.

Just some preliminary thoughts here.  I need to think about this some more.

Why I Like "Evangelii Gaudium": Part Three

Here is part three of my continuing series on Pope Francis’s Evangelii Gaudium.  Most of this series covers material from the document that I did not discuss in my Religion News Service piece, “10 Reasons Why Evangelicals Should Read Pope Francis.”  (By the way, I am thrilled that this piece has been picked up by The Washington Post, The Salt Lake City Tribute, and Sojourners).

Evangelii Gaudium helps me understand why Pope Francis does not make a big deal about the kinds of issues that were important to his predecessors and which many conservative Catholics hold dear–abortion and gay marriage. (You may recall that I did a post on this earlier in the month).  He writes:

…In today’s world of instant communication and occasionally biased media coverage, the message we preach runs a great risk of being distorted or reduced to some of its secondary aspects.  In this way certain issues which are part of the Church’s moral teaching are taken out of the context which gives them their meaning.  The biggest problem is when the message we preach then seems identified with those secondary aspects which, important as they are, do not in and of themselves convey the heart of Christ’s message…

Pastoral ministry in a missionary style is not obsessed with the disjointed transmission of a multitude of doctrines to be insistently imposed.  When we adopt a pastoral goal and a missionary style which would actually reach everyone without exception or exclusion, the message has to concentrate on the essentials, on what is more beautiful, most grand, most appealing and at the same time most necessary…

All revealed truths derive from the same divine source and are to be believed with the same faith, yet some of them are more important for giving direct expression to the heart of the Gospel.  In this basic core, what shines forth is the beauty of the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ who died and rose again from the dead.  In this sense, the Second Vatican Council explained, “in Catholic doctrine there exists an order or a ‘hierarchy’ of truths, since they vary in their relationship to the foundation of the Christian faith.  This holds true as much for the dogmas of the faith as for the whole corpus of the Church’s teaching, including her moral teaching.

Francis then goes on to say that “What counts above all else is ‘faith working through love’.'”  He calls for a balanced message that treats all Catholic moral and social concerns equally. For example, “if in the course of the liturgical year a parish priest speaks about temperance ten times but only mentions charity or justice two or three times, an imbalance results, and precisely those virtues which ought to be most present in preaching and catechesis are overlooked.”  I wonder if Francis could be more specific.  In other words, would this sentence hold true: “If in the course of the liturgical year a parish priest speaks about abortion or gay marriage ten times but only mentions justice or charity two times….”  There is no mention in this apostolic exhortation about abortion or gay marriage, but if you read between the lines there is a lot in this document about these hot-button topics.

He concludes this section (34-39):

Before all else, the Gospel invites us to respond to the God of love who saves us, to see God in others and to go forth from ourselves to seek the good of others.  Under no circumstance can this invitation be obscured!  All of the virtues are at the service of this response of love.  If this invitation does not radiate forcefully and attractively, the edifice of the Church’s moral teaching risks becoming a house of cards, and this is our greatest risk.  It would mean that it is not the Gospel which is being preached, but certain doctrinal or moral based on specific ideological options.

In other words, abortion, gay marriage, etc… are important, but if they are preached outside the context of the saving love of God radiating in the lives of Christians the church’s teachings on these topics lose their moral power.  As I wrote in the Religion News Service piece, this reminds me of the way Billy Graham tried (not always successfully, I might add) to subordinate theological or ecclesiastical issues and social and moral problems to his primary Gospel message.

Francis is not trying to undermine the social and moral issues that conservative Catholics hold dear, but he is trying to challenge his church to get their priorities straight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Gehrz on Historians and Moral Reflection

How do historians confront the problem of evil?  Bethel University historian Chris Gehrz wonders how historians should approach the tragic events of December 14, 2012 in the Connecticut town of Newtown and the “Massacre of the Innocents” that took place in the wake of Christ’s birth.

As I do in my forthcoming Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past (Baker Academic, Fall 2013), Gehrz draws upon Peter Hoffer’s helpful essay on the problem of evil in The Historian’s Paradox: The Study of History in Our Time. He also draws upon Tracy McKenzie’s recent presidential address at the Conference on Faith and History, particularly his suggestion that historians should be engaging in moral criticism.

I am not as optimistic as McKenzie and Gerhz when it comes to Christian historians engaging in moral judgment, but I do not think it should be removed from the historian’s toolbox.  See some of my thoughts on this subject:

What is the Moral Responsibility of the Historian?

Should Historians Cast Judgment on the Past? 

Thinking Historically With Pro-Slavery Documents

Or just read Gehrz’s excellent post at The Pietist Schoolman

What if Michael Sandel Ruled the World?

If he ruled the world, the Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel would rewrite economics textbooks so not to confuse market reasoning with moral reasoning. Here is a taste of his piece at Prospect:

If I ruled the world, I would rewrite the economics textbooks. This may seem a small ambition, unworthy of my sovereign office. But it would actually be a big step toward a better civic life. Today, we often confuse market reasoning for moral reasoning. We fall into thinking that economic efficiency—getting goods to those with the greatest willingness and ability to pay for them—defines the common good. But this is a mistake.

Consider the case for a free market in human organs—kidneys, for example. Textbook economic reasoning makes such proposals hard to resist. If a buyer and a seller can agree on a price for a kidney, the deal presumably makes both parties better off. The buyer gets a life-sustaining organ, and the seller gets enough money to make the sacrifice worthwhile. The deal is economically efficient in the sense that the kidney goes to the person who values it most highly.

But this logic is flawed, for two reasons. First, what looks like a free exchange might not be truly voluntary. In practice, the sellers of kidneys would likely consist of impoverished people desperate for money to feed their families or educate their children. Their choice to sell would not really be free, but coerced, in effect, by their desperate condition.

So before we can say whether any particular market exchange is desirable, we have to decide what counts as a free choice rather than a coerced one. And this is a normative question, a matter of political philosophy.

The second limitation to market reasoning is about how to value the good things in life. A deal is economically efficient if both parties consider themselves better off as a result. But this overlooks the possibility that one (or both) of the parties may value the things they exchange in the wrong way. For example, one might object to the buying and selling of kidneys—even absent crushing poverty—on the grounds that we should not treat our bodies as instruments of profit, or as collections of spare parts. Similar arguments arise in debates about the moral status of prostitution. Some say that selling sex is degrading, even in cases where the choice to do so is not clouded by coercion.

For more stuff like this check out Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.

American Attitudes Toward Sin

This new Gallup poll is fascinating.  It ranks how the people of the United States perceive the moral acceptability of certain behaviors and social policies.

It looks like we believe that adultery, human cloning, polygamy, and suicide are the most morally reprehensible practices, but we do not have much of a problem with birth control, divorce, gambling, or wearing clothing made of animal fur.

Here is a taste from the article in The Atlantic:

Gambling and divorce, both frowned upon in old-time religion, are now broadly accepted, with less than a third of the public disapproving of either. But Americans’ judgment of infidelity is harsh: 89 percent find the notion of married people cheating on their spouses morally unacceptable. (Tell that to Bill Clinton, John Edwards, Anthony Weiner, and all the other cheating pols.) That’s more than disapprove of human cloning and polygamy (86 percent each) or suicide (80 percent).

Fur-wearing and stem-cell research are largely accepted (about 60 percent each), while slim majorities approve of gay sex and out-of-wedlock births (54 percent each). A majority, 51 percent, finds abortion morally unacceptable. (Not surprisingly, there are major partisan differences in the moral judgment of all of these.) And Americans are surprisingly disapproving when it comes to porn: Nearly two-thirds say it is morally wrong. Based on the contents of the Internet, that seems to be a qualm that’s routinely and easily overcome.

I wonder what this poll would like if it included lust, greed, deceit, selfishness, pride, materialism, gluttony, envy, or sloth?