GOP Convention: Night 2

NBC News

NBC News graphic

I didn’t get to listen very carefully to many of the speeches on night 2 of the GOP convention. I was preparing for my return to the classroom today.  At least my nightmares were different last night. Instead of dreaming about what Trump is doing to the nation and the church, I dreamed of microphones, ZOOM, Canvas, student rotation, the Cloud, and sweating through my mask as I tried to lecture to 170 students in a 500-person recital hall with people staring down at me from the third floor balconies. (Yes, this will happen today).

So this post will just focus on the things that caught my attention enough to pull me away from creating Canvas modules.

Last night Cissie Graham, the daughter of court evangelical Franklin Graham and the granddaughter of Billy Graham, spoke at the Republican National Convention. Watch:

A few quick thoughts:

  1. I will take Cissie Graham and the rest of the court evangelicals more seriously when they start talking about religious liberty for all Americans.
  2.  As a fellow evangelical, I would hardly call prohibitions against indoor worship during a pandemic “religious persecution.”

Not all of Billy Graham’s grandchildren are in the Trump camp. Yesterday Jerushah Duford, who describes herself as “the proud granddaughter” of Billy Graham, published an op-ed in USA Today claiming that evangelical support for Donald Trump “spits” on the “legacy” of her grandfather. Read it here.

During the convention Trump pardoned Jon Ponder, an African-American man convicted of robbing a Nevada bank. Ponder now runs Hope for Prisoners, a Christian ministry the helps prisoners re-enter society after their period of incarceration. Ponder’s story brings positive attention to criminal justice reform. It is a story of God changing a man’s heart. I am glad Trump pardoned him.

What bothered me about the segment featuring Ponder was the way the Christian faith was manipulated for political purposes. At times during this segment I wondered if Ponder was there to talk about criminal justice reform or help Trump make his appeal to the evangelicals. Ponder’s faith plays an essential part in his story. This should be celebrated. But faith should never be politicized.

Watch the segment and let me know if any of this belongs at a political convention:

Later in the evening, Abby Johnson spoke about Planned Parenthood and abortion:

I was nodding my head as Johnson spoke until she used the words “Trump” and “two Supreme Court justices” in the same sentence. We can reduce abortions in America without getting into bed with this president, but it will require breaking from the 40-year-old Christian Right playbook.

Then came Georgetown Law School graduate Tiffany Trump. I wasn’t really listening to Tiffany until she said “God has blessed us with an unstoppable spirit, His spirit, the American spirit.” The worst part about this is that most evangelicals didn’t blink an eye when Trump’s daughter conflated the Holy Spirit and the American Dream.

I perked-up again when Tiffany started lamenting–yes lamenting–the fact that the promotion of “division and controversy breeds profit.”

There was a small kernel of truth in some of Tiffany Trump’s words last night. She called for open discourse and the free exchange of ideas in the public sphere. I am on board with this, but I think the real issue at stake here is where one draws the boundary line between open discourse and anti-intellectualism. I am thinking here about both the Left and the Right. The far Right is prone to making public arguments that are not based on truth, science, or evidence. The far Left does better with truth, science, and evidence, but its defenders draw the boundaries of acceptable discourse so narrowly that they often sound like intolerant fundamentalists. And both sides need to stop the ad hominem attacks.

I am not going to say much about the speeches by Eric Trump, Mike Pompeo, or Melania Trump. Pompeo, of course, spoke from Jerusalem to keep the evangelical base happy. Melania’s speech is getting good reviews. I guess it was OK, but I tuned-out when she described her husband as an honest man.

As noted above, there was a lot of faith talk last night. The Democrats were portrayed as godless threats to true religion. This suggests that the millions of American Christians, and especially African-American Christians, who vote Democrat are not real Christians.

This tweet sums-up how I felt last night:

What is cancel culture?


If you’re like me, you are still trying to figure out this whole “cancel culture” thing. Ross Douthat’s recent column is helpful.

Here are his ten points:

  1. “Cancellation, properly understood, refers to an attack on someone’s employment and reputation by a determined collective of critics, based on an opinion or an action that is alleged to be disgraceful or disqualifying.”
  2. “All cultures cancel; the question is for what, how widely and through what means.
  3. “Cancellation isn’t exactly about free speech, but a liberal society should theoretically cancel less frequently than its rivals.”
  4. “The internet has changed the way we cancel, and extended cancellation’s reach.”
  5. “The internet has also made it harder to figure out whether speech is getting freer or less free.”
  6. “Celebrities are the easiest people to target, but the hardest people to actually cancel.”
  7. “Cancel culture is most effective against people who are still rising in their fields, and it influences many people who don’t actually get canceled.”
  8. “The right and left both cancel; it’s just that today’s right is too weak to do it effectively.”
  9. “The heat of the cancel-culture debate reflects the intersection of the internet as a medium for cancellation with the increasing power of left-wing moral norms as a justification for cancellation.”
  10. “If you oppose left-wing cancel culture, appeals to liberalism and free speech aren’t enough.”

See how Douthat unpacks these points here.

Is America More Polarized Then Ever?

Civil War dead

Annie’s recent Out of the Zoo column raised this question.  Check it out here.

I think Annie must have inspired University of Virginia Civil War historian Gary Gallagher. 🙂

Here is a taste of his piece at The Conversation:

It has become common to say that the United States in 2020 is more divided politically and culturally than at any other point in our national past.

As a historian who has written and taught about the Civil War era for several decades, I know that current divisions pale in comparison to those of the mid-19th century.

Between Abraham Lincoln’s election in November 1860 and the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army at Appomattox in April 1865, the nation literally broke apart.

More than 3 million men took up arms, and hundreds of thousands of black and white civilians in the Confederacy became refugees. Four million enslaved African Americans were freed from bondage.

After the war ended, the country soon entered a decade of virulent, and often violent, disagreement about how best to order a biracial society in the absence of slavery.

To compare anything that has transpired in the past few years to this cataclysmic upheaval represents a spectacular lack of understanding about American history.

Read the rest here.

How Long Will Americans Tolerate This Man as Their President?

Today I watched Representative Ilhan Omar’s speech on Islam, religious liberty, anti-Muslim bigotry at the Council of American-Islamic Relations.

Here is the controversial part of the speech:

Here’s the truth: far too long we have lived with the discomfort of being a second-class citizen. And frankly I’m tired of it, and every single Muslim in this country should be tired of it. CAIR was founded after 9/11, because they recognized that some people did something and then all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties. 

I do not take Omar’s remarks here in a sinister way.  Yet, Donald Trump chose to interpret them in that way.  Here is his tweet:

Trump’s decision to post this video with the burning 9-11 towers doesn’t surprise me.  Trump is an idiot and he is never going to change.  But there are no doubt millions of Americans who are praising Trump for this tweet.  They represent much of what is wrong with America right now.  Some thoughts:

  1. The Omar quote Trump used here is woefully out of context.  Let’s also remember that her entire speech focused on the difference between patriotic American Muslims and the Muslim extremists who attacked the U.S. on 9-11.
  2. Let’s also remember that Trump claimed that he saw “thousands” of people in Jersey City “cheering” as the World Trade Center “was coming down.”  As we now know–this did not happen.  It was yet another example of Trump’s embrace of a politics of fear.  And then there was Trump’s comments a few hours after the World Trade Center fell.  Instead of showing compassion for the lives lost in this tragic event, Trump was on the radio bragging that his building on Wall Street was now the tallest building in New York City.  (In actually, is the 32nd tallest building in NYC).  So let’s consider the source and the hypocrisy evident in this tweet.
  3. One can condemn both Trump’s tweet and Omar’s February 2019 tweet about Jews.
  4. This tweet is yet another appeal to Trump’s anti-Muslim white evangelical base as we get closer to the 2020 election.  Expect to see much more of this garbage. Strongmen use fear to stay in power.
  5. In this tweet Trump exploited the families of those killed on 9-11 for political gain.  Sadly, this is politics as usual.  Despicable.
  6. The New York Post seized on Trump’s words, thus further degrading public discourse in America: NY Post

I still believe that a President should set the moral tone of a nation. (Wow, what a crazy idea!). Trump is a deeply immoral man who is incapable of leadership.  Even if you think Omar should have been more specific in her condemnation of the 9-11 terrorists, we should not stand for this kind of gutter-politics from the President of the United States.

What saddens me the most, of course, is that white evangelicals played a major role in getting this man into the White House.  I know not all white evangelicals who voted for Trump like this kind of rhetoric.  I have met dozens of them on the road over the last year.  But let’s not pretend that these voters don’t share responsibility for the mess Trump is making of our country.  White evangelicals gave Trump this platform.

Joe Biden Weighs-In on the Kelly Sadler “he’s dying anyway” Comment

By this point you have heard about White House aide Kelly Sadler’s comment about John McCain. Sadler said that John McCain’s opposition to Donald Trump’s CIA nominee “doesn’t matter” because “he’s dying anyway.”  The remarks are awful, but I have two additional questions:

  1. What kind of culture has Trump created in the White House that would make it OK for someone to say something like this?
  2. Did anyone in the meeting rebuke Sadler after she said this?  Did the remark get laughs?  Did anyone tell Sadler that this was inappropriate.

Here’s Joe Biden:



America Got What It Deserved Last Night


Michelle Wolf’s comedy routine at the White House Correspondents Dinner last night was raunchy and crude.

Donald Trump is a raunchy and crude president.

America got what it deserves last night.

While the journalists were gathered in Washington D.C. anticipating Wolf’s X-rated routine, Donald Trump was in Washington Township, Michigan threatening a U,S. Senator and basking in his follower’s chants of “Nobel, Nobel, Nobel.”  I am sure there were many evangelical Christians in the room last night cheering for the president.  This was perhaps the saddest part of the whole night.  (And I would say the same thing about evangelical Christians who make an idol of a Democratic politician).

Those conservative evangelicals in Washington Township who returned home and watched Michelle Wolf’s raw and vulgar performance ought to remember the character of the man for whom they cheered earlier in the evening.  Please spare me the moral outrage.  Thank you.

This is the kind of culture in which we now live.  I don’t think I am engaging in an exercise of nostalgia to suggest that common decency is in decline–maybe free-fall–in American public life.

Is Historical Ignorance a Source of Our Political Polarization?


I largely agree with Jonah Goldberg’s National Review piece on “The Dangers of Arrogant Ignorance.”

Here is a taste:

It is a common human foible to think you know more than you do and to assume that when someone, particularly someone you don’t like, says something you don’t understand that the fault must be in the speaker, not the listener. “It’s a universal law — intolerance is the first sign of an inadequate education,” observed Alexander Solzhenitsyn. “An ill-educated person behaves with arrogant impatience, whereas truly profound education breeds humility.”

Ideological and political polarization is a big concern these days, and commentators on the Right and Left have chewed the topic to masticated pulp. But it occurs to me that one unappreciated factor is widespread historical ignorance, and the arrogant impatience of reaching conclusions before thinking. The instantaneity of TV and Twitter only amplifies the problem.

Read the entire piece here.


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

I’ll just explain it with my tweet:

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

The Pope is Catholic

This morning Fox News is running my piece “Pope Francis is Neither Liberal Nor Conservative, A Democract or a Republican.  He is a Catholic.” 

Those of you who read The Way of Improvement Leads Home closely have read many of the ideas in this piece in various posts and tweets throughout the past week.

Here is a taste:

It was all so surreal.
Thursday a Catholic Pope entered the chamber of the House of Representatives and gave a speech to a joint meeting of Congress urging those in attendance to apply Catholic social teaching to the affairs of the nation.
For most 18th and 19th century Americans the prospect of a person landing on the moon would have been more believable.
And not only did the pope speak, but he was flanked by a Vice-President and Speaker of the House who shared his faith. The presence of Joe Biden and John Boehner proves that the United States has come a long way in accepting Catholics.
The historical irony cannot be overlooked.  Think, for example, about the first Vice-President to occupy Biden’s chair in the House.  John Adams, the son of New England Puritans, was no fan of Catholics, especially Jesuits, the order of Pope Francis.  In 1814, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, Adams wrote, “If ever any Congregation of Men could merit, eternal Perdition on Earth and Hell…it is the company of Loyola.”
Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with David Sehat

David Sehat is Associate Professor of History at Georgia State University. This interview is based on his new book, The Jefferson Rule: How the Founding Fathers Became Infallible and Our Politics Inflexible (Simon & Schuster, May 2015).

JF: What led you to write The Jefferson Rule: How the Founding Fathers Became Infallible and Our Politics Inflexible?

DS: I was dismayed at the way that the Founding Fathers were referenced in contemporary political debate. It wasn’t just the Tea Party conservatives but also liberal Democrats. Politicians of all stripes invoked the Founders in support of nearly everything under the sun—limited government, multicultural egalitarianism, abortion rights, restricting abortion, and so on. The only thing that all these references had in common, it seemed to me, was that the Founders always (supposedly) agreed with the person who was invoking them. I began to wonder how we got here. This book is the result.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Jefferson Rule?
DS: I argue that it is an unspoken rule of American politics that we must agree with the Founding Fathers in all things. And that that rule has long distorted American political debate in predictable and recurring ways.

JF: Why do we need to read The Jefferson Rule?
DS: If you want to know why our politics are so messed up, why they have been messed up for a long time, how people in the past invoked the Founders, and how Founders rhetoric has a long history of sending political debate off the deep end, then this is the book for you. I also try to show why the sentence “The Founding Fathers believed [fill in the blank with your preferred political position]” is almost always meaningless as best and dishonest at worst. And I’ve got some killer stories in the book that make it a fun read.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
DS: I went to grad school first at Rice and then at UNC-Chapel Hill shortly after George W. Bush was elected president. I had studied various other things—philosophy, theology and biblical studies, some literature—but I realized that what I cared about tended to resolve itself into history of one kind or another. I also began dating a woman (who later became my wife) that knew a lot more about the past than I did. Having her around made me realize how many times I made completely spurious references to history in order to support my position in a discussion. So I decided to become an American historian.

JF: What is your next project?

DS: I’m kicking around various ideas. I’ve begun working on a book about the politics of climate change but I’ve put that research on pause to make sure that is the direction that I want to go. For me the issue is always, what do I want to think about for the next several years? Climate change might be too depressing.
JF: Thanks David!

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

Philip Jenkins on "Witch Hunts" and Joe McCarthy

Philip Jenkins wants us to stop using the phrase “witch hunt” to describe American investigations into communism during the Cold War.  The phrase, he argues, should be removed from political discourse.  Here is a taste of his piece at Real Clear Religion:

To speak of a witch-hunt evokes a whole mythological system. In the original witch-hunts of sixteenth or seventeenth century Europe, thousands of innocent people were tried and punished for crimes of which they were not just innocent, but which were actively impossible, such as riding on the back of a goat to a personal meeting with Satan. Witch panics served to focus fears and anxieties within hungry and war-torn communities in desperate need of scapegoats.

Real witches, by definition, did not exist. 

And that is the implication of the phrase when applied to the twentieth century. When Congressional committees dragooned left-wing activists before them to answer humiliating questions, they were (we think) investigating imaginary crimes by non-existent witches. This picture is consecrated in American culture by Arthur Miller’s heavy-handed allegory, The Crucible. Once you accept the witch-hunt idea, you have a ready-made system of near-diabolic villains, and a heroic martyrology of saints and innocent sufferers.

In the Communist case, though, the “witches” really did exist, and genuinely posed a threat. For some thirty years now, we have had excellent historical studies by such scholars as Ronald Radosh, Allen Weinstein, John Earl Haynes and Hervey Klehr, and they demonstrate a picture of American Communism absolutely at variance with the myth. At its height in the 1930s, the US Communist Party had at least 75,000 open members, including many well placed in key strategic industries. There was also a penumbra of clandestine members, of unknown scale.

Catholics and Evangelical for the Common Good: Part Two

For the first post in this short series on the recent meeting of Catholics and Evangelicals for the Common Good click here.

After a reception, dinner, and welcome from Georgetown president John DeGioia, we discussed an excellent paper by Notre Dame theology and law professor Cathleen Kaveny on the place of “prophetic indictment” in political discourse. 

Kaveny argued that those engaged in the public square should use prophetic language with caution.  When not employed carefully, prophetic language results in a loss of nuance, ad hominen arguments, a dualistic world view that sees politics as a battle between good and evil, and a failure to be constructive.  When both sides of a particular issue speak in prophetic tones it usually gets us nowhere.

She then offered a few suggestions toward a “just prophecy” or a “prophecy without contempt.” Kaveny applied the lessons of Catholic Just War Theory to the use of prophetic language in public discourse.  Those who use prophetic rhetoric should be held accountable by the larger religious communities of which they are a part.  She also suggested that prophetic language should only be used when there is a good possibility that its use will result in success. Finally, she insisted that prophetic language should not target children, families, or other “non-combatants.”

Kaveny concluded that prophetic indictment must be tempered and informed by a spirit of humility.  Before calling down the wrath of God on one’s enemies Christians must remember that they ARE NOT Old Testament prophets.  She cited Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln (particularly in his Second Inaugual Address) as examples of this kind of prophetic humility.

Kaveny’s paper inspired some excellent discussion, most of which centered around King’s use of the prophetic voice.  Though it did not get much discussion, I was most intrigued by a question about the Martin Luther King memorial in Washington D.C.  Does this monument serve as a prophetic message to the rest of the world?  I would argue that it does not.  Rather than being a prophetic piece of material culture, I argued that the King monument, set amongst all the other monuments in Washington dedicated to great Americans, is more a sign that King’s message had been co-opted by a larger national story.  And if I read the Letter from a Birmingham Jail correctly, I think King would have wanted it this way.  His Letter, as I am often reminded by my Messiah College colleague Jim LaGrand, was an appeal to the story of the nation.  King wanted African-Americans to be considered a part of that story.  His letter placed the cause for civil rights in a national narrative that began with the Pilgrims and continued to unfold during the American Revolution.

It is thus fitting that King’s monument shares the Tidal Basin with Jefferson.  Unlike more militant black activists, MLK did not criticize or prophetically condemn the nation Jefferson helped to create.  Instead he longed to be an equal part of it.

Look for a full-explication of Kaveny’s argument in a forthcoming book.