Archive for the ‘politics’ Category


November 14, 2018

In case you missed the news, the candidate I canvassed for, Josh Harder, was declared the winner in his congressional district yesterday. He trailed by 1,200 votes on election day,  but as more ballots appeared he surged into the lead and won going away.

It’s great to see the candidate you worked for get elected, so naturally my son Silas and I are quite happy about the news. My reflections go more to the privileges and responsibilities of living in a democracy. Josh’s candidacy motivated a lot of people. On our canvassing day in Turlock, CA, there were well over 500 people knocking on doors. That’s a lot of people willing to sacrifice their Saturday!

The biggest credit, though, goes to Josh–and all the candidates, win or lose, who gave so much. I don’t know exactly how Josh decided to run, but I know he hadn’t been particularly political before this election.  As a Stanford/Harvard grad he had lots of options that might be personally more attractive than running for Congress. He spent at least a year of his life, with no guarantee at all that he would succeed. Those are the kind of risks that make a democracy succeed.


Don’t Forget to Vote!

November 5, 2018

I spent the weekend in Turlock, California, along with my son Silas, canvassing for Josh Harder who is running for Congress. Silas was in a Bible study with Josh at Stanford, so he knows him and his wife Pam.canvassing in Turlock

I feel good about Josh, but my bigger motive for canvassing is that District #10 is a tossup in this election, and I was looking for a place where I could make a difference. I’m very concerned about the direction of our country, and hope for—at the least—a Congress that can put a check on the administration.

Silas and I were assigned a list of people in the small towns of Ceres and Patterson. I found it encouraging to meet people in their homes, and to see that despite all the political rancor of these times, most people are friendly and normal. I liked a slogan that I saw for the first time: “Make America Human Again.”


Evangelicals for Trump

July 20, 2018

I’ve repeatedly circled back to the puzzle of why white evangelical Christians are so enthusiastic about our president. Certainly his promise to appoint pro-life judges is a prominent motivator, but virtually any Republican president would have done the same. And no other Republican president could have matched his lack of moral character, a fact that has been reinforced again and again during his time in office. Despite his lies, his cruel treatment of the vulnerable, and his personal nastiness, his evangelical support has been not grudging or hedged but enthusiastic. Why?

Here’s a possible explanation drawn from the Middle East. The region has significant Christian minorities. Syria is about 6% Christian. Jordan is 2%. Egypt is almost 13%. Most of these Christians are from historic churches, Catholic or Coptic or Orthodox. Living as they do in a rough neighborhood, often targeted by Islamists, they almost invariably seek political protection from the local despot. Christians in pre-2003 Iraq strongly  supported Saddam Hussein. Christians in Syria are cheerleaders for the murderous Assad. Christians in Egypt love the dictator Sisi. They have made a deal with the devil: you protect us, and we will support your regime. It’s hard to fault them. When they look at the disastrous fate of Christians in Turkey or in Iraq, where they went unprotected, Christians are motivated to love the strong man.

Perhaps something of the same dynamic has led to evangelicals’ enthusiasm for Donald Trump. Many feel threatened by liberal forces in our society. They fear being forced to say and do things that they believe are wrong: to swallow evolution in schools, to employ LGBT activists in their schools and churches, to participate in or support gay marriages, to prescribe abortions in their hospitals and pharmacies.

Some will scoff at these fears, questioning whether Christians in America really have much to dread. But they’ve been fed a steady diet of alarmist news for at least a decade—think about the “war on Christmas.” Maybe American Christians aren’t going to be truly persecuted in the foreseeable future, but many are sincere in feeling like an endangered minority. To have a president who’s rude and abusive to your tormentors, a man of great power who will take your side in any dispute, feels secure. Trump promises the robust protection that vulnerable people seek.

There’s a cautionary lesson from the Middle East, though. I was talking to the head of a mission agency that reaches into Muslim countries. I asked him whether the historical Christian churches in those countries practice any evangelism. He said no. Part of their deal with the despots is that they won’t. “They are like submarines,” he said, with protective walls to keep out danger, but also to keep their faith safely inside. In return for safety, they only look at the surrounding world through their periscopes.

Our situation is parallel. In exchange for a president who promises protection, white evangelicals are willing to give up their witness to millennials, to immigrants, to gays, to non-whites. We’re building our own kind of submarine.



Religious Freedom

June 27, 2018

IMG_1146A few weeks ago I was in New Orleans for a wedding, which took place at the Old Ursuline Convent, built in 1745. The convent displayed a letter (see above) written to them by Thomas Jefferson just a year after the Louisiana Purchase.

The nuns at the convent were fearful that the barbarian Americans (mostly Protestants) who had taken power from the French would confiscate their property and put an end to their work. Jefferson answered as follows:

Washington, May 15, 1804

To the Soeur Therese de St. Xavier Farjon Superior, and the Nuns of the order of St. Ursula at New Orleans

I have received, holy sisters, the letter you have written me wherein you express anxiety for the property vested in your institution by the former governments of Louisiana. The principles of the constitution and government of the United States are a sure guarantee to you that it will be preserved to you sacred and inviolate, and that your institution will be permitted to govern itself according to it’s own voluntary rules, without interference from the civil authority. Whatever diversity of shade may appear in the religious opinions of our fellow citizens, the charitable objects of your institution cannot be indifferent to any; and it’s furtherance of the wholesome purposes of society, by training up it’s younger members in the way they should go, cannot fail to ensure it the patronage of the government it is under. Be assured it will meet all the protection which my office can give it.

I salute you, holy sisters, with friendship and respect.

Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson was an Enlightenment deist, and no particular friend to Roman Catholic religious life. It says something for his character that he answered the letter so civilly, reassuring the nuns on two grounds. One was the constitution, which guaranteed religious liberty. Jefferson says that the convent has the right to its physical property, and to organize its community life according to its own rules, without interference. He goes further in stating that its charitable work will ensure its support from the government, since all citizens whatever their religious point of view will appreciate it.

The sisters can rest easy because the law protects them; but they can also rest easy because their good works will be seen and appreciated by people of all persuasions. It’s a subtle response. There is perhaps some interplay between the two points: for when religious institutions are known for doing good to society, that strengthens the legal protections they enjoy. Jefferson does not say, but one can certainly think, that if the convent became so ingrown and narrow that it did no good for anybody outside the convent, the legal protections might prove to be much less robust in practice.

Today many believers (not just Christians, but Muslims too, and others) feel threatened, rather like those Ursuline sisters. Having lost the culture wars, they fear being compelled to surrender their consciences and participate fully in the reigning liberal regime. It’s no idle threat: bakers may be compelled to use their art to celebrate ceremonies they consider immoral; doctors may be compelled to oversee abortion or suicide; religious organizations may be compelled to hire staff who don’t share their beliefs. Religious people offer a strong defense, based on the American Constitution, for their right to continue their unique way of life. Some may feel that is all that needs to be said: The Constitution says it, that settles it. They would like to pursue a purely legal strategy.

But the Constitution won’t help most religious people in the world. It won’t do you a bit of good in China. And even in America, the Constitution’s protections will be far more vigorous if believers are known for contributing to the common good. I believe that we do. However, I suspect that a very strong and growing minority of Americans don’t. They don’t believe that religious institutions and religious people contribute to the common good. Therein, I suspect, lies the greatest threat to religious liberty. We should do everything in our powers to change it.




June 26, 2018

“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

–Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

I’ve been thinking about periods of darkness. Our day seems to be one such—a time of casual lying, proud callousness, deliberate unkindness. A very large plurality, and maybe a majority of Americans has embraced fear and cruelty against “outsiders.” I had hoped that this was just a tantrum, and that Americans would get over it. Maybe so, but I’m beginning to fear we’re in this for the long haul.

It’s horrifying to me, but I’m reminded that America has been through previous periods of darkness.

One was in the 1830s, when the Cherokee and other Indian nations were evicted from their property in the Southeast, mainly Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama, and force-marched by government soldiers to Oklahoma. Thousands died on the way. During the same period, slaveholders throughout the South grew so aggressive and vociferous that anyone who opposed slavery feared for their life.

Then came the Civil War, when Americans grew so polarized that they organized themselves to kill each other, in vast, mechanized swarms of men. The heroes of the time were those who slaughtered other Americans.

Following the war, after a brief period of Reconstruction, the right to vote was violently taken away from African Americans in the South. Thousands were killed if they resisted. From about 1870 to 1960—ninety years—violence kept blacks in subservient status throughout the South, and much of the North as well. Those who resisted were likely to be murdered.

Meanwhile, in the West, Native Americans and Chinese received more or less the same treatment—with the tacit approval of almost all white citizens.

We have dark periods in our national past. In almost every case, the worst offenses were broadly accepted—hardly noted. Such offenses are only possible if the general population is anesthetized to them, becoming instinctually tribal and comfortably cruel.

Note, however, that in the darkness great lights were kindled. The abolitionist movement grew up in the 1830s, perhaps the most admirable group of (mainly) white activists we have known.

In the horror of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln found his voice.

And out of the repression of Reconstruction and the Jim Crow regime, we got Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights movement.

Our most wonderful citizens and movements came out of the darkness. They demonstrated amazing courage and remarkable faith. The darkness did not overcome the light. Out of the dark, the light shone at its brightest.

Cruelty and the Law

June 19, 2018

I’ve been surprised by the controversy over separating children from their parents at the border. Not surprised by the cruelty. Surprised that evangelical leaders have spoken against it.

I thought there was nothing that evangelicals couldn’t stomach. I thought, if hush payoffs to porn stars don’t lead Christians to temper their tub-thumping enthusiasm for Trump, nothing will. But I failed to account for the appeal of children.

It remains to be seen whether the criticisms Republicans and evangelicals have levied against the policy of tearing children from their mothers’ arms will lead to any larger reevaluation. Trump supporters are very strong on the importance of obeying the law. (This doesn’t apply to sagebrush rebels who drive federal agents off public lands at gunpoint, but never mind, none of us is entirely consistent.) Jeff Sessions led the evangelical charge with his comments that Romans 13 instructs us that God has empowered government to enforce the law. In his worldview, the Law is all. It justifies anything.

As any moderately well-instructed Bible interpreter knows, Romans 13 tells us that God has ordained government for the purpose of order, and therefore its laws deserve our obedience. Except, of course, when they don’t. When the law tells us to go against our faith, we are supposed to disobey it.

David Brooks writes in Monday’s New York Times that conservatives have consistently warned that big government leads to situations like this, where the Law becomes inflexible, inhuman, and bureaucratically obsessed with observance. What Trump and Sessions are doing isn’t conservatism. It’s certainly not Christian. I’ll leave it to you to name it.








How Did We Get Here?

March 12, 2018

Michael Gerson, best known as George W. Bush’s speechwriter, has a terrific piece in the Atlantic trying to account for evangelical Christians’ embrace of Donald Trump. “It is the strangest story: how so many evangelicals lost their interest in decency, and how a religious tradition called by grace became defined by resentment.” This is the best single account I have read.

The Beginning of Globalization

November 27, 2017

Of all the books I’ve read in the last year, I’ve most frequently found myself referring to 1493. I read it by accident–my library had it available for e-book loan when I was headed out on a long trip–and it’s become a marker in my mental map of the world.

1493 is a clever title for a book that might be called The World After Columbus. The author, Charles C. Mann, went up against the fact that Columbus is very out of fashion, seen as an exploiter and a bumbler who pioneered the rape of indigenous Americans. Mann’s point isn’t that Columbus was or wasn’t a great man, it’s that his discovery changed the world as dramatically as any single event in its recorded history. “Columbus’s voyage did not mark the discovery of a new world, but its creation.” (xxiv)

Mann is a very well informed journalist who covers a huge front of information, dallying in interesting stories. Any reader is bound to come away with at least a dozen cocktail-party conversation pieces. Mann does like to entertain, but he’s aiming to expose something bigger: the indisputable fact that a new world began. Trade, both intentional and inadvertent (nobody intended to pass African grasses to the New World), created the world that is recognizably our own, founded on trade and international exploitation, ecological transformation and crisis, the global spread of disease, foods that know no national boundary, and international economics.

I knew about some of the exchange between Europe and the Americas–for example, how American potatoes and corn transformed European diets, and how Bolivian silver enriched Spain while also hollowing out its productive economy. (You could make more investing in ships going to Mexico than in building factories or roads in Spain.) I didn’t know anything about Spain’s beginning trade with China (80 years after Columbus’s discovery), and how that led to a complete transformation of China’s agriculture, a doubling of its population, and ultimately the political crises that destroyed so much of its economy. I also didn’t know that China–which had long looked down on Europe because it offered no product that China really wanted–moved into international trade because of Bolivian silver, which came to comprise China’s entire money supply.

Mann tells a lot about the spread of disease. I knew about cholera and smallpox, which played a large role in decimating populations and enabling their conquest. I didn’t know much about malaria, which is more insidious. Mann has a long discourse on the varieties of malaria and their effects on England and the Americas, including most of what would become the United States. He suggests that malaria played a potent role in the southern colonies’ adopting slavery.

What about horses and cows, which came to America with the conquistadors and quickly transformed the way of life of many native American tribes? What about tobacco? What about rubber? These were plants of little or no importance in their place of origin that became the source of great fortunes–and great ecological transformations–in other places around the globe. What about the rise of slavery, which went from a local practice to a global business that was essential to other global businesses–for example, the production of sugar, which was the source of enormous riches.

Mann effectively portrays the world we know, where everything affects everything whether we like it or not, and transformations occur for good or evil (more likely, both) invisibly and visibly, and on a human level, great riches, great suffering, ecological convulsions and political mayhem are the inevitable result. These forces were at play long before Columbus–think of the Roman Empire, think of the Silk Road–but they exploded globally after Columbus. The world Columbus inadvertently created is our world.

1493 is relevant not by telling us whether to support or oppose globalization but by making it clear how utterly ubiquitous globalization is. It is, literally, in the air we breathe. We can’t stop it, we can only seek to shape it. And because there are so many complicated, interlocking and invisible forces at play, our attempts to shape it will have many unintended consequences.

Adam Smith is best known for his idea of an “invisible hand” shaping the selfish forces of a free-market economy into a benevolent result. A globalized world of the kind the Mann describes is a free-market economy of much wider extent and scale. It does much greater good and evil, and no “invisible hand” appears anywhere. Our human reaction is to try to regulate and legislate, but it is hard to be optimistic that these forces can be regulated effectively–or perhaps at all. Do you have faith in a loving God? The alternative, in the world Columbus created, is to anticipate disaster.

Abbie Hoffman and Donald Trump

September 27, 2017

In yesterday’s New York Times David Brooks names our president as the Abbie Hoffman of the right. It’s an interesting comparison. I remember going to hear Hoffman when I was a college student. I recall that the climax of his appearance (with Jerry Rubin?) was jumping on Rubin’s backside and riding him around the stage. I think it was supposed to be Henry Kissinger riding Richard Nixon, or something like that. I didn’t care for the performance–Hoffman offered more insults than ideas–and clearly Hoffman was acting like a clown. But the audience seemed to think it was pretty funny.

When you want to blow up something, you can use insults and clowns. Brooks says that the New Left of the sixties wanted to blow up the WASP establishment, and did. Now, he suggests, the New Right (alt-right?) wants to blow up the meritocratic Ivy League establishment, and has. Brooks suggests we will be searching for a new establishment that all sides can respect.

He’s on to something, I think, and it’s mainly this: Donald Trump isn’t our core problem, any more than Abbie Hoffman was. The problem is that a lot of people think Trump is pretty funny, and are happy to see him blowing up things that others respect.

The comparison between Hoffman and Trump suggests how far down we’ve gone. The New Left may have laughed at Hoffman, but they ran George McGovern for president. (And lost.) McGovern was a sober senator. The New Right ran–and elected!– a president who has the sobriety of a drunk at a New Years party. Imagine Abbie Hoffman elected president, and you have it.

I’m still grappling to understand how anybody could vote for Trump, and what exactly his supporters are protesting. But I need to remember that my parents’ generation felt the same way about us long-haired radicals in the sixties.

We’re a badly divided nation, where neither side appreciates the others’ good points, and neither side thinks the other side’s jokes are funny. Both sides want the other side to just shut up and go away.

Neither side is going anywhere, however; we are stuck with each other.

Trump’s Support

August 11, 2017

I mostly quit blogging after last year’s election, because I realized that all I was going to do was fulminate. In the nine months since, I’ve tried to listen carefully to Trump supporters, and to read anything I could find explaining their motives. I don’t want to moan, I want to understand.

I haven’t heard anybody claim that our president is a good man. Not even his most ardent defenders say they want their children to grow up like him. They voted for him knowing his character, since he makes no attempt to hide it.

They don’t necessarily approve of his character, but other powerful forces motivate them to support him. I’ve tried to understand what those forces are. I’ve been particularly interested in evangelical Christians, the heart of his support. They have always been very interested in morality—passionately so–but suddenly they don’t care about morality at all. What is driving that?

Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

Certain issues are very potent for Trump supporters. Most of them are non-economic. They are more emotional and cultural. Among these issues are:

–immigration and the ethnic and religious makeup of America

–gun control

–LGBTQ and their rights


–land regulations

–minorities getting “special treatment”

These are all significant issues. If we were simply discussing policy choices, we could probably find room for discussion and compromise on most of these. But as they have all become highly emotive cultural symbols, they easily become litmus tests. (This is as true on the left as the right, of course.)

Emotions are fueled by a deep distrust and dislike of Democrats. It’s not just the what, it’s the who. Hilary Clinton became the epitome of this mistrust: she was deeply and viscerally disliked. Some of this was no doubt because she had been targeted by relentless Republican propaganda for 30 years. But some of it was because she lacked the charisma to escape the generic dislike of her party. Among a large share of the American public—30%? 40%?—it’s axiomatic. Democrats are faceless, careless, lying politicians. Everything they say should be regarded with deep suspicion. The party is owned by gays, minorities, feminists—that’s all they care about, not you. (Many people have similar feelings about Republicans. For “gays, minorities, feminists,” substitute “rich people.”)

Nostalgia and resentment are fueled by the pace of change. Conservatism has always featured a measure of the old-fogey complaint that the world is going to the dogs. That’s been ramped up by a world in which change has accelerated. Who could believe how quickly gay marriage triumphed, and marijuana was legalized? Churches are shrinking, whites are becoming a minority, America can’t impose its will on the world. Rural whites have become the leading victims (and perpetrators) of drug addiction; who saw this coming? Naturally many people are unsettled by such change. They don’t believe all this change is inevitable progress, and they want somebody to stand up and say so. If that person says it rudely, good. Maybe somebody will listen.

Condescension turns resentment into rage. One friend described the feeling of being lectured about gay rights by people who less than five years ago publicly opposed gay marriage. Ah, the convictions of the newly converted! Look at the list of issues I listed. Can you hear the scornful and lecturing tone often employed by liberals when discussing these? Of course, I’d say an even more hostile tone is employed by the right wing, but that’s not what I’m discussing here. I’m trying to probe why people support Trump. One reason is that they want to give the middle finger to people who condescend to them.

The book Hillbilly Elegy paints a portrait of an ethno-cultural group that is a mainstay of Trump support: an Appalachian Scots-Irish heritage that is closely bound to family and clan, but frequently unable to sustain family values like marriage and sobriety. They are proud people. Their lives may be deeply troubled, but they won’t stand for anything that sounds like criticism. I’d say Trump has been a champion for such people, as for lots of others who can’t stand being told what they can think and what they can say.

If my description is accurate, it’s not going to be easy to undo our current polarization. Most people say they want our politicians to work together and compromise to get things done, but these issues and the emotions that accompany them dominate our politics. Based on what I’ve heard, there’s no substance to the argument that Democrats only have to offer some clear economic appeal to regain the allegiance of the middle class/rural white/working man (pick one). Nor do I think that Trump himself is the key issue. Once he goes away or loses sway, these powerful feelings will remain. Trump is a catalyst, but the emotional chemicals that drove the reaction will remain.

That’s what I worry about most: that we get through the next four years but find ourselves unable to escape the dynamics that elected Trump. I think we need—all of us, on all sides—to rediscover how to talk about ourselves as Americans. We need to find a way of thinking and acting that can name our common and distinctive identity. Call it patriotism. Both sides have been complicit in losing sight of this. Republicans have been strong on waving the flag, but often with the aim of casting anyone who doesn’t agree with them as un-American. Democrats have fallen right into this trap. I was struck by the critique of the choice of speakers at the women’s march, right after the election. How many police or military veterans spoke? How many fire chiefs? How many clergy? How many school board presidents? In our local event, the speakers were all liberal politicians and activists fighting for some group. Fine, but did anybody speak for all Americans? Did we sing the national anthem?

What binds us all together?—gays, hillbillies, immigrants, software whizzes, school teachers, farmers, Hollywood producers, disabled veterans, opioid addicts, Christians, Jews, Muslims. Surely if we read the Constitution very carefully we can rediscover some ideas of what a remarkable nation “we the people” hoped to make. We won’t all agree on the issues. Our forefathers didn’t. But at least we would be arguing toward common ground, not toward cutting off “the takers” or “the deplorables,” as though they were a diseased limb.