Obama Sends a Warning to American Progressives

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In a speech in Germany, Barack Obama warned progressives in the Democratic Party to avoid becoming a “circular firing squad.”  Here is a taste of Martin Pengelly’s article at The Guardian:

Barack Obama warned on Saturday that US progressives risk creating a “circular firing squad” at a time when prospective presidential candidates are competing fiercely against each other to run against Donald Trump.

The former president was speaking in Berlin, at an Obama Foundation event.

“One of the things I do worry about sometimes among progressives in the United States,” he said, “maybe it’s true here as well, is a certain kind of rigidity where we say, ‘Uh, I’m sorry, this is how it’s going to be’ and then we start sometimes creating what’s called a ‘circular firing squad’, where you start shooting at your allies because one of them has strayed from purity on the issues.

“And when that happens, typically the overall effort and movement weakens.”

Read the rest here.

Who does Obama have in mind?  Bernie?  Or perhaps he is responding to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez”s comment that moderation is “meh.”

What if Trump Were a Democrat?

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks in Janesville

George Marsden teaches us all an important lesson in historical empathy.  Here is a taste of his guest post at The Anxious Bench:

For those who are (as I am) puzzled and sometimes troubled by how so many fellow believers support and even celebrate Donald Trump and so seem to be ready to subordinate some of their religious and moral convictions to political expediency, I suggest a thought experiment:

Let’s suppose that in some slightly altered historical circumstances, Trump, or someone a lot like Trump, had decided he had a better chance playing the role of a populist Democrat.

Then, by promising everything to almost everyone, he had unexpectedly been elected.

Even if the Democratic Trump would have had to hide his racism, he would have been the same in his essential dishonesty, his constant attacks on the line between fact and fiction, his narcissism, his background of corruption, his record of exploitation of women (despite the Democratic Trump claiming to champion of equality and male accountability), his lack of discernible principle, his disdain for the Constitution and the rule of law, his intimations that his critics in the press should be suppressed, his vilification of his enemies, and his ignorance combined with reckless and ungenerous “America first” ventures in foreign policy.

At first, we can imagine, many principled Democrats would have deeply opposed his nomination and some would have declared themselves to be in the “NeverTrump” camp. But the rank and file would have been energized and many of the working classes would have been brought back to the party.

And then let’s say that the Democratic Trump administration would have succeeded in establishing a single-payer health-care system, tightened environmental regulations, instituted sensible gun-control laws, and appointed several Supreme Court justices who would ensure protections of progressive views for the next generation.

Read the rest here.

How Liberals Treated John McCain

McCain New School

During John McCain’s funeral service, Barack Obama and George W. Bush made veiled attacks on Donald Trump for the current president’s failure to promote civil discourse across political parties.  But University of Pennsylvania historian Jonathan Zimmerman argues that liberals are also to blame for eroding “the civil discourse that McCain held dear.”   Here is a taste of his piece at The Dallas Morning News:

Like body odor and accented speech, however, incivility is a lot easier to notice in the other guy than in yourself. So I hope that those of us at universities will pause for a moment and ask ourselves how we, too, have eroded the civil discourse that McCain held dear.

How many professors have made snarky comments about Republican candidates or causes, instead of engaging our conservative students in respectful dialogue? How many students have denounced anyone they disagree with as racist, thereby cutting off discussion instead of promoting it?

And how many of us have insisted that only certain views — our own, of course — should be aired on campus, and that opposing ones should be discouraged or prohibited?

That’s what happened at the New School in 2006, when nearly 1,000 students and faculty signed a petition urging the school to rescind its invitation to McCain. “Pre-emptive War is Not a New School Value,” declared one sign at a rally outside the school. Other protesters denounced McCain’s position on abortion. “He has been opposed to Roe vs. Wade for more than 20 years,” one professor told the rally. “He is a man who believes in female sexual slavery.”

Got that? We (always “we”) are opposed to the war in Iraq, so we don’t want to hear from anyone who thinks otherwise. And if you’re pro-life, you don’t belong here either. In fact, you’re an advocate of slavery!

And so it goes, right down the line. If you question affirmative action, you’re a bigot; if you oppose gay marriage, you’re a homophobe; and if you resist gender-neutral bathrooms, you’re a transphobe.

Read the entire piece here.

The Faith of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pulled off a major upset in yesterday’s Democratic primary race in New York’s 14th District.  She defeated Joe Crowley, the 10-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives who many believed would be the heir-apparent to Nancy Pelosi as the House Minority Leader.  Ocasio-Cortez is a 28-year-old Democratic Socialist who ran on universal health care and the abolition of ICE.  She is also a Catholic.

On the day after her victory Ocasio-Cortez started writing, but not for The New York Times or The Progressive or The Nation or Jacobin or In These Times.  Nope. She turned to the web pages of the Jesuit magazine America.

Here is a taste of her piece, published today:

Discussions of reforming our criminal justice system demand us to ask philosophical and moral questions. What should be the ultimate goal of sentencing and incarceration? Is it punishment? Rehabilitation? Forgiveness? For Catholics, these questions tie directly to the heart of our faith.

Solutions are already beginning to take shape, which include unraveling the War on Drugs, reconsidering mandatory minimum sentencing and embracing a growing private prison abolition movement that urges us to reconsider the levels at which the United States pursues mass incarceration. No matter where these proposals take us, we should pursue such conversations with an openness to change and an aim to rehabilitate our brothers and sisters wherever possible and wherever necessary. By nature, a society that forgives and rehabilitates its people is a society that forgives and transforms itself. That takes a radical kind of love, a secret of which is given in the Lord’s Prayer: Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And let us not forget the guiding principle of “the least among us” found in Matthew: that we are compelled to care for the hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, sick and, yes—the imprisoned.

Read the entire piece here.  She apparently disagrees with her church, however, on abortion and marriage.

Franklin Graham: “Progressive? That’s just another word for godless”

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Court evangelical Franklin Graham is traveling through California to make sure Christians vote for conservative candidates.  Here is a taste of a piece on Graham’s tour at The Hill:

Evangelist leader and vocal President Trump supporter Franklin Graham is currently on tour in California to urge Christians to vote in the upcoming primary as part of an attempt to combat progressive policy in the state, The New York Times reported.

Graham, son of the late Billy Graham, is taking a three-bus caravan up the middle of California, which is home to some of the most contested elections this year.

He plans to hold 10 rallies to urge evangelicals to vote, the Times reported. His tour will end on June 5, the day of the primary.

“The church just has to be wakened,” he told the Times. “People say, what goes in California is the way the rest of the nation is going to go. So, if we want to see changes, it is going to have to be done here.”

Graham said that his tour is for Jesus and for supporting candidates that advance the social conservative causes — such as opposition to abortion and gay marriage — many evangelicals want.

“Progressive? That’s just another word for godless,” Graham told a group of supporters, according to the Times. 

He added that it was time for churches to “suck it up” and vote, according to the Times.

Read the entire piece here.

Billy Graham believed the church needed to be “wakened” to the good news of the Gospel and the re-dedication of individual lives to that Gospel.  Franklin Graham wants the church to be “wakened” to vote.  The political captivity of evangelicalism doesn’t get any clearer than this.

Two Quick Thoughts About Jeff Flake

Get up to speed:

1). A lot of folks on the Left are not taking Flake’s speech seriously because he still votes most of the time with Donald Trump.  This is a fair observation, but I think it misses the point and lacks nuance.  Flake never said he was leaving the Republican Party or ceasing to vote conservative.  His primary criticism of Trump is grounded in the way the POTUS debases the office, tarnishes the reputation of the United States around the world, enables the alt-Right, etc….  I think you can say the same thing about Bob Corker and John McCain.  I understand the intellectual purity of those on the Left.  Flake is not a progressive and probably never will be a progressive.  But by attacking Flake for voting with conservatives, those on the Left fail to recognize gravity of this particular moment.  Their criticism of Flake’s voting record would be the same no matter who was in the White House.  I don’t understand why those on the Left can’t bring themselves to be happy about the potential political implications of Flake’s speech.  In other words, if those on the Left want Trump out of office, isn’t what Flake did a step in the right direction?

I like Philip Bump’s piece on this issue at The Washington Post and Kevin Drum’s take at Mother Jones.  Jana Riess, a Mormon who votes Democrat, wants to buy Flake a cup of coffee.

2). Why aren’t more moderate Republicans concerned that their party will be held hostage by the extremists when Flake, Corker, McCain, and others leave?  Shouldn’t they stay in the Senate and fight?  Ana Navarro actually made this argument yesterday on CNN.

OK–have at it.

The Author’s Corner with Cara Burnidge

APeacefulConquest.jpgCara Burnidge is Assistant Professor of Religion at University of Northern Iowa. This interview is based on her new book, A Peaceful Conquest:  Woodrow Wilson, Religion, and the New World Order (University of Chicago Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write A Peaceful Conquest?

CB: A Peaceful Conquest is the result of me thinking about the American social gospel movement as both intimately connected to Christian ideas of proper governance, particularly American democracy, and as an example of American religious movements responding to their global context. 

As a graduate student, my primary research area was on the work of white social gospel ministers and the women of the settlement house movement. I knew from the primary sources that these themes were present, but when it came time to write a proposal for my dissertation, I had a hard time finding a hook that could make this project make sense without being the cliche of a PhD candidate who couldn’t speak succinctly about their own research. While sharing this conundrum in a meeting with a mentor, she asked simply “What about Woodrow Wilson? Have you thought about him?” I hadn’t. I didn’t consider myself a presidential historian and, to be honest, the vantage point of suffragists colored what limited considerations of Wilson I had had at that time. To be fair and start with the most obvious intersection between “on the ground” reformers and politicians, I began reading the The Papers of Woodrow Wilson and the most recent biography of Wilson at the time. I hoped to find a connection that would show that local and regional social gospel efforts made an impact beyond domestic policy concerns. Rather than a connection I could point to then move on, I found a treasure trove of of memos, letters, telegrams, speeches, and policy conversations that demonstrated the pervasive influence of social gospel thought in American foreign relations. The combination of primary and secondary sources convinced me that I had a different perspective to contribute to the existing historical conversation about Wilsonian liberal internationalism and American religion in this era based on my understanding of the social gospel movement.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of A Peaceful Conquest?

CB: I argue Woodrow Wilson’s religious identity, shaped by both southern evangelicalism and social Christianity, influenced his liberal internationalism and its legacies for American religion and politics in the twentieth century.

JF: Why do we need to read A Peaceful Conquest?

CB: It should come as no surprise that I am not the first person to write about President Wilson and that others have written great works examining the role of religion in Wilson’s presidency. In fact, Wilson is often the go-to example of a president whose religion “mattered.” What makes A Peaceful Conquest different from these works is its intentional placement of Wilson in the greater American religious landscape and its reconsideration of how we think of presidents and their religious identity. Methodologically, I consider Wilson’s religious identity as I would any other historical figure—intersectional. Race, class, gender, and religion are not separate “lenses” to clarify or frame figures, but constitutive parts that must be held together to understand the whole person and their historical context. Some readers may find this approach helpful for understanding recent public conversations about Wilson’s legacy. It also allows scholars to place Wilson in historical perspective as Americans think (and rethink) the place of white evangelicalism in American identity and the role of America in the world.

A Peaceful Conquest should be added to your reading list if you want to know more about how American religion shaped international politics; if you’re interested in how religious identity does (and does not) shape presidents and their policies; if you’d like to think about the peculiar ways religion is both present and absent from American democracy; if you’re wondering how the social gospel could have been central to American culture yet seemed to disappear after World War I; and if you’re wondering how or why the so-called “God gap” became central to the Democratic Party’s identity.

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

CB: As an undergraduate, I had the good fortune of having professors and mentors who treated me and other history majors as their equals. The History professors at Washburn University impressed upon us that history is a conversation among historians and they treated us as members of the guild well before we earned our credentials. Those conversations—arguments, debates, and more than one pontification on how history can save the world—convinced me that I was an American historian. More good fortune, generous mentors, and hard work helped me get to the position I am in now.

JF: What is your next project?

CB: My next project examines the King-Crane diplomatic mission, which surveyed residents of mandated territories of Palestine, Syria, and Transjordan to determine who they preferred to oversee their development toward democracy. I am considering how the State Department approached the role of residents’ religion and race in its commitments to advancing national self-determination and democracy in the Middle East.

JF: Thanks, Cara! Sounds like some good stuff.

My Aeon Piece on Evangelicals and Secularism

flagSome of you may have seen the piece I wrote recently for Aeon, a relative new online magazine.  I wrote the article in an attempt to get intellectuals and other thoughtful observers to understand the mindset of some American evangelicals.

I understand, and in some cases sympathize, with the largely negative comments that are appearing in the comments section of the piece.  On the other hand, I am afraid that many of the comments confirm a lot of what I was trying to say in the article.

I hope readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home will interpret the piece in the larger context of my work here at the blog and elsewhere.

Here is a taste:

Whether it be academia, popular entertainment, or some other sector of culture, secular progressivism is a real threat to evangelical Christian values. Christian culture warriors are often sloppy and usually inconsistent in the way that they apply Christian faith to public life, but not all of them are crazy. They are astute observers of modern culture who represent the values and fears of a significant portion of Americans. And, as long as secular progressives continue to remain intolerant about the deeply held religious convictions of these Christians, and refuse to understand them as part of a larger conversation about national identity and the common good, it will be difficult for US democracy to move forward.

Read the entire piece here.

Does Scott Walker Speak in Tongues?

On August 29, 2008 I wrote a post entitled “Does Sarah Palin Speak in Tongues?”  It remains one of the most read posts at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  It was published simultaneously at Religion in American History and it did quite well there too.

If I remember correctly, I wrote this post a day or two after John McCain picked Palin as his running mate in the 2008 presidential election. The piece was one of the first to raise the issue of Palin’s Pentecostalism.

I thought about my Sarah Palin post last night as I sat down to read Jud Lounsbury’s piece at The Progressive:Speaking in Tongues Just Part of the Fun at Scott Walker’s Church,”  

Here is a taste:

Meadowbrook is one of nine churches in the Milwaukee area that end in “brook,” which sprung out of the Elmbrook megachurch in nearby Brookfield, Wisconsin. The church is not affiliated with any organized religion and was started by an Englishman named D. Stuart Briscoe, who came to Wisconsin in 1970 and had no formal religious training.

A 1988 Milwaukee Journal profile of the church said the congregation is “almost all white, young, and affluent.” And that “its critics say its emphasis is on saving souls while ignoring more earthly social issues, and its theology reinforceseven blesses the lifestyle of many of its members.”     
Although these churches advertise themselves as nondenominational, their beliefs mirror that of most uber-conservative Pentecostal churches, “a form of religion that is more conservative in its religious philosophy but also in the social and political philosophy that characterizes the majority of the church.”  In addition, “although Elmbrook calls itself nondenominational, couples cannot be married in the church unless they’ve had ‘born-again’ experiences.”  
“Many of those attending the church espouse an attitude that anyone that does not accept their born-again theology is not Christian,” the Milwaukee Journal article also states.
Walker’s branch, Meadowbrook, doesn’t have any female pastors or “Elders,” which are the governing body of the church. According to same Milwaukee Journal article, “the church has ordained female pastors, but cannot elect women to their Council of Elders because its constitution forbids it.”  On the church’s website, a similar note is struck when it states that women are the “weaker” partner and should obey the Bible’s teachings on submission to their husbands. 
In fact, church members believe that everything in the Bible is literally true and “without error” and that Christ’s return (and the ensuing Apocalypse) is “imminent.”   
They also speak in tongues. If you’re not familiar with speaking in tongues, it’s when God supposedly speaks through a person. But God apparently doesn’t speak any of the human languages, so it all comes out as gibberish. Luckily, if a trained man of God is nearby, he can translate it all for you.
Several things strike me about this article.
I was unaware that charismatic gifts such as speaking in tongues were a prominent part of the Elmbrook network of churches, either under the ministry of Jill and Stuart Briscoe or their successor, Mel Lawrenz.  The Briscoes came from the Holiness movement, but I don’t think their theology celebrated speaking in tongues.

Moreover,  a quick glance at the doctrinal statement of the Meadowbrook Church (including the section on the Holy Spirit) does not say anything about speaking in tongues.  In fact, the statement looks pretty boilerplate evangelical (non-Pentecostal).  The link in Lounsbury’s article embedded in the  words “speak in tongues” is dead.  This link apparently connects Meadowbrook’s former pastor John Mackett to tongues-speaking.

There is a Meadowbrook Church in Green Bay, Wisconsin that is Pentecostal and not affiliated with the Elmbrook network of churches. I do not think Walker attends this church.
I also found a similar piece written by Jud Lounsbury in The Progressive.  It is entitled “Palin Got Hounded for Her Pentecostalism, But Not Scott Walker.”  In this piece Lounsbury once again tries to paint Meadowbrook as a Pentecostal church but provides no evidence on this front beyond a vague reference to a BBC website on Pentecostalism which states “It’s not always easy to see if a church is Pentecostal because many Pentecostal denominations don’t include the word ‘Pentecostal’ in their name.”  Based on this, he concludes that Walker’s Meadowbrook Church must be Pentecostal.
Both of Lounsbury’s pieces reveal a general lack of knowledge of evangelical Christianity.  For example, in the “Speaking in Tongues” piece he quotes a 1988 Milwaukee Journal article on the Elmbrook Churches that is close to thirty years old and does not appear to have a very strong grasp of American religion.  Again, here is the paragraph from Lounsbury’s article with the stuff from the Journal in quotes:
Although these churches advertise themselves as nondenominational, their beliefs mirror that of most uber-conservative Pentecostal churches, “a form of religion that is more conservative in its religious philosophy but also in the social and political philosophy that characterizes the majority of the church.”  In addition, “although Elmbrook calls itself nondenominational, couples cannot be married in the church unless they’ve had ‘born-again’ experiences.”   
There are several problems with this:
1. The Journal’s definition of Pentecostalism could apply to any conservative evangelical church in the United States. So could a similar definition of Pentecostalism he uses in the “Palin Got Hounded”
piece.  I don’t think Lounsbury understands the difference between a Pentecostal evangelical and a non-Pentecostal evangelical.
2. Lounsbury seems to have no clue about the meaning of “nondenominational.”  Nearly every nondenominational church that I know is an evangelical church that celebrates the “born-again” experience and will only marry those who have confessed to have had such an experience.  The idea that churches like this exist in the United States may be news to the readers of The Progressive, but there are millions of people who would embrace such a view of marriage and there are thousands of evangelical churches–conservative, moderate, and progressive–that would uphold these views.
While I am not fan of Scott Walker, I am a fan of accurate reporting on religion and politics.  It appears that this piece at The Progressive is an attempt to discredit Walker by connecting him to the religious beliefs of Palin.  (And even if he was connected to Pentecostalism in some way he would be part of one of the world’s fastest growing religious movements).
As my 2008 post argued, Palin was a Pentecostal.  She attended an Assemblies of God Church–a historic Pentecostal denomination.  Walker may or may not speak in tongues.  And perhaps the Meadowbrook Church does have a certain charismatic flavor that the mother church–Elmbrook–does not.  But if this is the case, Lounsbury and The Progressive are going to need some better evidence.
Here is a much better piece on Walker’s church.

ADDENDUM:  You should also check out Heath Carter’s recent piece on Walker and evangelicalism at The New Republic.