GOP Convention: Night 3

pence and trump at ft mchenry

Yesterday was my first day of face-to-face teaching since March. I am not yet in “classroom shape,” so I was exhausted by the end of the day. Mentally, I was still reeling from multiple technology failures (mostly due to my ignorance) and the panic (and sweat) that ensues when half of the class is watching you desperately trying to get the other half of the class connected via ZOOM.

This morning my youngest daughter headed-off to Michigan for her sophomore year of college, so we spent most of last night packing the car and spending a few hours together before the empty nest syndrome returns later today.

Needless to say, I did not get much time to watch the third night of the 2020 GOP Convention, but I did manage to see a few speeches and catch-up with the rest via news and videos.

Let’s start with American history:

  • In her speech, Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law (Eric Trump’s spouse), tried to quote Abraham Lincoln: “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedom,” she said, “it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” These are strong words. Lincoln never said them.
  • In his speech, Madison Cawthorn, a GOP congressional candidate from North Carolina’s 11th district, said that James Madison signed the Declaration of Independence. Here is the exact line: “James Madison was 25 years-old when he signed the Declaration of Independence.” Madison was indeed 25 in July of 1776, but he did not sign the Declaration of Independence. (He did serve in the Second Continental Congress from 1777 to 1779).
  • Clarence Henderson, who was part of the 1960 lunch counter sit-ins at the Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworths, deserves the appreciation of every American. (Just to be clear, Henderson was not one of the famed “Greensboro Four“). He is free to vote for anyone he wants in November. But it is sad to see this civil rights activist buy into the idea that African-Americans should vote for Trump (or the GOP in general) because Lincoln freed the slaves and the Democrats (in the South) were the party of segregation. While this is true, it fails to acknowledge an important principle of historical thinking: change over time.
  • Finally,  Burgess Owens, a GOP congressional candidate from Utah (and former NFL player), talked about his father and World War II. He said, “mobs torch our cities, while popular members of Congress promote the same socialism that my father fought against in World War II.” Owens is confused. The socialists (communists) were actually on the side of the United States during World War II. The Nazi’s were opponents of Soviet-style socialism. This can get a little tricky because “Nazi” is short for “National Socialist.” Sort it all out here.

OK, let’s move on.

Trump press secretary Kayleigh McEnany repeated the popular mantra about liberals “removing God” from public schools and “erasing God from history.” A few quick thoughts on this:

  • From the perspective of Christian theology, I don’t think it is possible to remove God from public schools or anywhere else.
  • Ironically, McEnany’s statement about erasing God comes at a moment when American religious history is one of the hottest fields in the historical profession. We know more about Christianity’s role in America’s past today than at any other point in the history of the nation.

I want to spend the rest of this post on Mike Pence’s speech last night. Watch it:

I did not recognize much of the America that Pence described in this speech. He began with an attack on Joe Biden: “Democrats spent four days attacking America. Joe Biden said we were living through a ‘season of darkness.'”

In January 2017, Donald Trump used the word “carnage” to describe the United States. Is America any better four years later? 180, 000 are dead from COVID-19. Colleges and schools are closed. There is racial unrest in the streets. We are a laughing stock in the global community. Millions are out work. Less than half of Americans have any confidence in the president. And Pence has the audacity to say “we made America great again.”

Pence continues to peddle the narrative that the coronavirus derailed the accomplishments of Trump’s first term. This is partly true. But when historians write about this presidency, the administration’s handling of COVID-19 will be at the center of the story.  COVID-19 is not just an unfortunate parenthesis in an otherwise successful presidency. COVID-19, and Trump’s failure to act swiftly, will be this president’s defining legacy.

Like Kayleigh McEnany earlier in the night, Pence also made reference to the current conversation about monuments and their relationship to our understanding of the American past. “If you want a president who falls silent when our heritage is demeaned or insulted,” Pence said, “then he’s [Trump’s] not your man.”

It is important to remember that “heritage” is not history. Those who sing the praises of “heritage” today are really talking more about the present the past. The purpose of heritage, writes the late historian David Lowenthal, is to “domesticate the past” so that it can be enlisted “for present causes.” History explores and explains the past in all its fullness, while heritage calls attention to the past to make a political point. Since the purpose of heritage is to cultivate a sense of collective national identity, it is rarely concerned with nuance, paradox, or complexity. As Lowenthal writes, devotion to heritage is a “spiritual calling”–it answers needs for ritual devotion.

When Trump and Pence talk about defending an American “heritage,” they are selectively invoking the past to serve their purposes. Such an approach, in this case, ignores the dark moments of our shared American experience. This administration is not interested in history.  They reject theologian Jurgen Moltmann’s call to “waken the dead and piece together what has been broken.”

Pence’s speech was filled with misleading statements, half-truths, and blatant lies. He claimed that Joe Biden wants to defund the police. He said that Biden “opposed the operation” that killed Osama bin Laden.” He said that Donald Trump has “achieved energy independence for the United States.” He said Joe Biden wants to “end school choice.” He said Joe Biden wants to scrap tariffs on Chinese goods. He said that “no one who required a ventilator was ever denied a ventilator in the United States.” He said that Trump suspended “all travel from China” before the coronavirus spread. He said that Biden did not condemn the violence in American cities. He said that Biden supports open borders. All of these statements are either false or misleading.

Trump is a liar. So is Pence. But Pence is an evangelical Christian. How can anyone reconcile the peddling of such deception with Christian faith? It doesn’t matter if the Bible-believing vice president lies about his political opponent, as long as his lies are effective in scaring Americans to vote for Trump. Pence claimed that “you won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.” Of course this kind of fear-mongering has a long history in American politics. But when people claim the mantle of Christian faith and engage in such political rhetoric, we must always call it out.

Finally, Pence has proven to be a master at fusing the Bible with American ideals. Again, this is not new. The patriotic ministers of the American Revolution did this all the time. It was heretical then. It is heretical now. Such a rhetorical strategy manipulates the Bible for political gain.

For example, Pence said, “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom, and that means freedom always wins.” Pence is referencing 2 Corinthians 3:17: “now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” This passage has NOTHING to do with the political or “American” freedom Pence was touting in his speech. St. Paul spoke these words to encourage the Corinthian church to live Spirit-filled lives that would free them from the bondage sin, death, and guilt. Pence has taken a deeply spiritual message and bastardized it to serve partisan politics and this corrupt president.

In the same paragraph, Pence says, “So let’s run the race marked out for us. Let’s fix our eyes on Old Glory and all she represents, fix our eyes on this land of heroes and let their courage inspire. Let’s fix our eyes on the author and perfecter of our faith and freedom.”
Here Pence is referencing Hebrews 12: 1-2. That passage says: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”

Again, see what Pence is doing here. Instead of fixing our eyes on Jesus, we should fix our eyes on “Old Glory,” a symbol of American nationalism. The “heroes” he speaks of are not the men and women of faith discussed in the previous chapter of Hebrews (Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Issac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jepthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets), they are the “heroes” (as he interprets them) of American history. Jesus is the “author and perfecter” of our faith and [American] freedom.”

The use of the Bible in this way is a form of idolatry. My friend and history teacher Matt Lakemacher gets it right:

On to day 4!

Members of the GOP join forces with progressive Christians against Trump

VCG-Social-Sharing

On July 17, 2017 (about a year before Eerdmans published Believe Me), I wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post titled “Trump threatens to change the course of American Christianity.” In that piece I wrote:

The court evangelicals are changing the religious landscape in the United States. The Trump presidency is only six months old, but it is already beginning to alter long-standing spiritual alignments. It seems as though Christians are not changing Trump, but rather that Trump could be changing Christianity.

Historians will write about this moment in terms of both continuity and change. On one hand, court evangelicals are part of a familiar story. For nearly half a century, evangelicals have sought to influence the direction of the country and its laws through politics. But Trump has forced them to embrace a pragmatism that could damage the gospel around the world, and force many Christians to rethink their religious identities and affiliations.

Read the rest of my piece here.

The Trump presidency has led to all sorts of new political realignments. For example, could anyone imagine that members of the Republican Party might join forces with progressive, social justice Christians in an attempt to convince Christians in the GOP to vote for Biden?

Here is Gabby Orr at Politico:

A left-leaning group focused on persuading religious Americans to vote out Donald Trump in November has recruited some of the president’s leading Republican agitators to assist them.

On Wednesday, Vote Common Good will launch a new partnership with the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump GOP group founded by veteran Republican strategists, to mobilize faith voters to reject Trump on Election Day.

The initiative will focus on courting white evangelicals and white Catholics — two demographics Trump won by significant margins in 2016 — who have lost patience with the president’s behavior or been disappointed with his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protest movement against racism. The efforts will be concentrated in six battleground states — North Carolina, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida — where multiple polls have shown Trump trailing his Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.

Read the rest here.

Wehner: Republicans are “Living Within the Lie”

Jordan

Conservative public intellectual Peter Wehner reflects on today’s impeachment hearings. Here is a taste of his piece at The Atlantic:

We are facing a profound political crisis. What the Republican Party is saying and signaling isn’t simply that rationality and truth are subordinate to partisanship; it is that they have to be obliterated for the sake of partisanship and the survival of the Trump presidency. As best I can tell, based on some fairly intense interactions with Trump supporters, there is no limiting principle—almost nothing he can do—that will forfeit their support. Members of Congress clearly believe Trump is all that stands between them and the loss of power, while many Trump voters believe the president is all that stands between them and national ruin. In either case, it has led them into the shadowlands.

For those of us who are still conservative and have devoted a large part of our lives to the Republican Party, it is quite painful  to watch all of this unfold. Perhaps too many of us were blind to things we should have seen, or perhaps the GOP is significantly different now that it was in the past, when it was led by estimable (if imperfect) individuals like Ronald Reagan. Whatever the case, we are where we are—in a very precarious and worrisome place.

You can be critical of the Democratic Party and believe, as I do, that it is becoming increasingly radicalized while also believing this: The Republican Party under Donald Trump is a party built largely on lies, and it is now maintained by politicians and supporters who are willing to “live within the lie,” to quote the great Czech dissident (and later president) Vaclav Havel. Many congressional Republicans privately admit this but, with very rare exceptions—Utah Senator Mitt Romney is the most conspicuous example—refuse to publicly acknowledge it.

“For what purpose?” they respond point-blank when asked why they don’t speak out with moral urgency against the president’s moral transgressions, his cruelty, his daily assault on reality, and his ongoing destruction of our civic and political culture. Trump is more powerful and more popular than they are, they will say, and they will be targeted by him and his supporters and perhaps even voted out of office.

The answer to them is that it is better to live within the truth than to live within a lie; that honor is better than dishonor; and that aiding and abetting a corrupt president implicates the aiders and abettors in the corruption.

Read the entire piece here.

What Happened to the Never-Trump Republicans?

beck

A few still exist, but most of them have lined-up with their Trump-controlled party.

I can’t tell you how many times I hear from people who did not support Trump in 2016, but today defend him and his policies with vigor.  Lawrence Glickman, a historian at Cornell University, provides some historical context to help us understand why these never-Trump Republicans like Ben Shapiro, Glenn Beck, and Erick Erickson went “extinct.”

Here is a taste of his piece at The Washington Post:

The very same thing happened in 1964, when party loyalty and ideological similarity convinced moderate Republicans to embrace the controversial candidate upending their party. In the late spring that year, as it became increasingly likely that Sen. Barry Goldwater (Ariz.) had a clear path to the Republican nomination for the presidency, twin fears gripped the then-formidable moderate wing of the party: first, that Goldwater might bring catastrophic loss to the Republican Party, and second, that if he were to win, it would bring a dangerous man to the White House.

But rather than going to war against Goldwater, the moderates, led by former president Dwight Eisenhower, first vacillated in their criticism and then relented, ultimately offering active support for their putative enemy.

Their actions help explain how a shared enemy and ideological affinities often lead political figures to overcome doubts they once had about the fitness and extremism of the leader of their party.

Of the moderates, Eisenhower’s behavior is especially telling. He should have been leading the charge against Goldwater. After all, the Arizona lawmaker and author of “The Conscience of a Conservative” had denounced the social welfare policies of his administration as a “dime-store New Deal.” And according to the journalist Theodore H. White, author of “The Making of the President” series, “Eisenhower was appalled at the prospect of Goldwater’s nomination.”

Yet the former president refused to publicly or explicitly denounce Goldwater. Instead, he whipsawed from private criticism of Goldwater to loyalty to his party, seeming to endorse even some of Goldwater’s more extreme ideas.

Read the entire piece here.

Actually, Carly Fiorina, What You Said About Hillary IS An Exxageration


Here is Carly from last night’s debate:


Imagine a Clinton presidency. Our military will continue to deteriorate. Our veterans will not be cared for. And, no, Mrs. Clinton, that situation is not exaggerated. The rich will get richer. The poor will get poorer. The middle class will continue to get crushed.
And as bad as that picture is, what’s even worse is that a Clinton presidency will corrode the character of this nation. Why? Because of the Clinton way: Say whatever you have to, lie as long as you can get away with it.
We must beat Hillary Clinton. Carly Fiorina can beat Hillary Clinton. I will beat Hillary Clinton. And under a President Fiorina, we will restore the character of this nation, the security of this nation, the prosperity of this nation, because as citizens, we will take our government back.
She definitely know how to play to the GOP base.

Is There Anyone Left for Pundits to Compare to the Republican Party?

Michael Schaffer, writing at The New Republic, has come up with a list of “novel comparisons for the GOP ultras” who he believes started the whole government standoff.  Here is the list:

Colonel Walter E. Kurtz from Apocalypse Now  (Ross Douthat, New York Times)

V.I. Lenin (Jonathan Chait, New York)
Leon Trotsky (Richard McGregor, Financial Times)
The Weather Underground (David Horsey, Los Angeles Times)
Maoists (Michael Hirsh, National Journal)
The Know-Nothing Party (Paul Rosenberg, Salon)
Sonny Corleone from The Godfather (Kathleen Parker, The Washington Post)
Osama Bin Laden (Kathleen Parker, The Washington Post).
The Jacobins (David Corn, Mother Jones)
The John Birch Society (Christopher Parker, The Monkey Cage)
Joe McCarthy (Carl Bernstein, Morning Joe)
Occupy Wall Street (Michael Gerson, The Washington Post)
Poujadists (John Cassidy, The New Yorkers)
Conservative American Republicans (Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker)
Major T.J. “King” Kong from Dr. Strangelove (Jason Cherkis, Huffington Post)
Wow!  I think there is a lesson in here somewhere about the dangers of pursuing a “useable past.”

A Few Random Observations from Last Night’s GOP Convention

  • Sorry Chris Christie, you had your chance to run for president. Didn’t anyone tell you that you were not in Tampa to accept the nomination? 
  • If my Twitter and Facebook feeds are any indication, the incivility and venom of the culture wars are just as much a problem for the Left as for the Right.  Political conventions bring out the worst in people, especially people with access to social media.
  • Anne Romney:  “Tonight I want to talk to you about love.”  Chris Christie (immediately following): “Tonight, we choose respect over love.”  Woops!
  •  When did the Heartland Fox News guy become governor of Ohio?
  • Forget about the unofficial religious test for office, what about the “I had a hardscrabble, working-class life” test for office?  
  •  The Convention tweet of the night comes from Bobby Griffith: “Hofstadter/Lasch 2012.” 
  •  The commentator quote of the night comes from Mark Shields on PBS:  (paraphrased): “In just 30 minutes Americans got to know Chris Christie better than they know Mitt Romney.