Christians, the Church & Cancel Culture

Is there a form of Cancel Culture that inhabits the Christian tradition? In a sense there is, excommunication, but with some odd twists to it that don’t fit easily into the logic of ordinary secular life.

To deny someone access to Holy Communion, the Eucharist, is not to damn their souls to hell, which, I suspect, is the usual interpretation coming from too many books and movies. Excommunication is the church’s way to recognize that a person living a “notoriously evil life” must be held accountable for it, and that entering into intimate communion with the living presence of God is inappropriate for someone who has shown open disrespect for God’s ways by their words and deeds. But, and it’s a huge but, it is also an invitation to confession and amendment of life so Holy Communion can be celebrated again in joyful fellowship. The intent of excommunication is to reconcile, not ostracize.

It doesn’t always work that way. Some who have been denied Holy Communion are sufficiently humiliated to never enter a church again. Some never took Communion seriously, so if this club doesn’t like them, another will. Some have been treated cruelly by self righteous judgment, especially by those who place a higher value on church practices and social customs than Christ’s teaching. That’s why, at least in my tradition, excommunication is seldom used.

Nevertheless, the purpose of excommunication is to call one to a renewal of life in full communion, not only with God but with the people of God assembled as the church. It is said there was a time when Lent was observed as a season for restoring the excommunicated to fullness of renewed life in Christ. The extent to which that worked out in practice is debatable, but the idea of it remains today when the people are called to observe a holy Lent by reminding them that it was once a season when “…those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church.”

Current practice asks each Christian to examine her/his own life during Lent, and make his/her personal commitment of renewed faith and amendment of life. In this time of political strife and pandemic restrictions on communal life, it may be all the more important for Christians to observe the coming season of Lent through more intentional examination of how we, as persons and congregations, have not welcomed the other in Christ’s name. How have we been intolerant of words and behaviors insignificant to the way of following Jesus, found fault and demanded accountability over trivial matters, condemned the vulnerable, gave succor to those who abused their power, proclaimed self superiority, and tolerated policies of oppression. It’s hard work. No one wants to be burdened by more guilt than they already carry, or stand condemned for sins they believe they didn’t commit. That’s not what it’s about. It’s not about guilt and condemnation. It’s about reconciliation and restoration to greater wholeness of community as the people of God. It’s not standing in the corner punishment, it a call to renewed life in love.

That has implications for the Christian response to the politics of Cancel Culture observed in the life of the nation (As an aside, if you have not read my previous column on Cancel Culture, please do so now). First, calling out someone for words and deeds harmful to the well being of others or the community must be for verifiable words and deeds far exceeding offense to one’s opinions. They must rise to the level of felonies, not misdemeanors. What’s the difference? It’s a judgment call, but to use an inexact example that will infuriate lawyers, misdemeanors are acts causing relatively minor harm that can be mostly rectified. Felonies are intentional and cause significant, often irreparable harm to persons, property and the community. Mere allegations, or reliance on what one has heard via the grape vine, don’t count. There must be verifiable evidence.

Second, calling out must be accompanied by lamentation: genuine grief not only that things have come to this, but they have come to this by a person(s) who has corroded his/her own soul in the process. It is a call not to make the person(s) a pariah exiled from the community, but to invite confession, repentance, amendment of life, and restoration to community.

Third, it recognizes that accountability for words and deeds means there are consequences, often in the form of trial, conviction and punishment, not always in a court of law. Christians are called to do what they can to influence the process of holding persons accountable so they do not become vehicles for revenge.

Do examples come to mind? Think about it with care and compassion.

Cancel Culture Revealed: its naked truth exposed. Get it all here!

Cancel Culture is one of those phrases tossed around anytime someone is called to account for what they’ve publicly said and done.  To be accused of Cancel Culture has become its own form of condemnation, so what’s going on here?

Before it was called Cancel Culture, it was Call-Out-Culture, a college student form of publicly ostracizing someone for what they said or did that was deemed to have seriously violated campus norms.  Bullies, sexual abusers, and professors with views contrary to the dominant politics of the school have been targeted most frequently.  Calling out behaviors assaulting human rights and dignity has been an effective tool for exposing what has too long been tolerated on too many campuses.  Calling out professors and invited speakers for positions contrary to dominant norms has too easily become a tool of emotionally driven self righteousness powered by a little learning and less wisdom.  When calling out degenerates into “off with their heads,” it becomes its own violation of academic freedom.

Calling out entered the larger public arena as Cancel Culture by way of campaigns to boycott persons, products, and organizations for words and actions deemed by boycott organizers to have been egregiously unjust, oppressive, cruel, or prejudicial.  Some have been well thought out for good reason.  Some have born the marks of emotional self righteousness.  On the whole, it’s been good to shed light on bad behaviors long condoned as if the public had no right or interest in them.  

Is Cancel Culture a left wing thing? Let it not be forgotten that intimidating tea party and armed right wing militia protests are a from of Cancel Culture declaring zero toleration of other views. The intransigence of the congressional freedom caucus follows close behind. But it didn’t take long for right wing media to complain that Cancel Culture is the exclusive tool of left wing extremists. To conservative media, concerted opposition to any right wing view is an example of Cancel Culture. They claim it demonstrates intolerance of alternative opinions, intent on shutting them off from the public arena. They say it’s part of the extreme left’s agenda for limiting the First Amendment rights of anyone who disagrees with them.

Accusing someone of Cancel Culture has become a way to  dodge accountability for words and deeds.  ‘It’s just a difference of opinion,’ they say, ‘and we have a right to express our opinions;’ and so they do. Tolerating differences of opinion is essential to the health of a democracy like ours, but there are limits, the most of important of which is mutual agreement on facts.  Legitimate differences of opinion depend on mutual agreement about the central facts in question.  For example, the car in we’re both looking at is a Chevy.  That’s a verifiable fact, and we can mutually agree it’s a Chevy.  You like Chevys and I don’t; that’s a difference of opinion.  We can argue the various merits of our opinions about Chevys.  You say it’s black and I say it’s navy blue.  That’s not a difference of opinion.  It’s one or the other, and one of us is wrong.  It’s a trivial example, but one replicated in matters far more complex and of great community wide importance.  

Genuine differences of opinion require mutual agreement about the verifiable facts from which differences emanate.  Calling out someone for stating as fact something that is verifiably not true is not denying their right to free speech, nor is it being intolerant of differing opinions.  If someone’s claims of fact are Q Anon fantasies, allegations of massive voter fraud, denial that an insurrection happened, that it was a false flag operation, that white rights are being taken, etc., calling them out is not denying their right of free speech, nor is it intolerance of differing opinions.  One can claim whatever one wants to claim, but they are not immune from the consequences of their words.  If their words are demonstrably untrue, their actions harmful to others, calling them out and holding them accountable is not Cancel Culture denying their right to free speech.  

Of course, one could trivialize calling out and holding accountable by dwelling on incidents of exaggerated story telling or the dozens of unverified talking points littering daily conversation.  It would be a crude red herring leading down a rabbit hole – a way to avoid being held accountable for words and deeds of importance.  What’s at stake with claims of Cancel Culture that make it into the public arena are often matters of national importance.  It’s imperative in a democratic society to boldly challenge arguments that do not emanate from mutually verifiable facts.  To argue that my facts are as good as your facts, my opinion is as good as your opinion, is untrue and undermines the integrity of the public debate. 

Ours is a society that treasures freedom of speech.  It’s a freedom more fully cemented into our laws than in any other democratic society.  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speak or of the press, or of the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” (Amendment I of the Constitution)

Freedom of speech does not extend to avoiding consequences proportional to the effects of speech.  Can those effects rise to a level where access to generally available public platforms should be denied?  We’re testing that now.  It’s not the same as college students demanding a professor be fired or speaker denied entrance.  It’s a matter of testing the boundaries of threats to public safety and the foundations of our democracy.  It remains to be seen what the outcome will be.  

And Now For Something You’ll Really Like: a rough overview of executive orders. What the heck are they?

Presidential executive actions take the form of executive orders, memoranda, and directives. This is a rough review of executive orders.

Executive orders are in the news a lot these days. President Biden has signed dozens of them. Is that a good thing for the nation? The answer, as usual, is not a simple yes or no. Not so many years ago some friends were unhappy with government by executive order that they saw in the Obama administration. It didn’t seem right to them. They had the idea that executive orders could create new law by decree, bypassing the legislative process altogether. We had a long conversation about them as something like office memos from bosses to subordinates giving direction about what needs to be done, and how. They can’t change law or establish new law, they can only direct how law and related regulations are to be administered. Of course it isn’t that simple because the issues are of national importance with major consequences affecting millions of people. Moreover, some laws, especially ones related to national security, give the president enormous power to do things on his/her own authority.

Obama did issue a lot of executive orders, 276 in eight years. Most were about routine administrative matters. Many issued directions for economic recovery from the 2007 Great Recession. Some made significant changes to American policies affecting international relations and national security, generally in the direction of opening trade opportunities. Some addressed programs important to environmental protection and civil rights. On the whole, they strengthened both.

Trump issued fewer executive orders, but at a faster pace, 220 in just four years. Like his predecessor, most were about routine administrative matters. Many made bold statements about education, trade, infrastructure and the like, but were never followed through with plans and action. Some, such as his tariffs, and sanctions related to steel and aluminum, created serious problems for the economy without achieving their stated goals. Others created ways to avoid civil service hiring rules, and encourage limitations on organized labor in the private sector. Orders related to shutting down the border and limiting immigration proved his seriousness about those issues, and treaded beyond the limits of executive authority. Many appear to have been issued for p.r. purposes with no little or no interest in following up. COVID, drug prices, and school choice were on that list. Trump was proud of how he’d taken the regulatory burden off the back of American business and industry through executive orders. What progress he made was done not by executive order, but through the more cumbersome regulatory process. It appears few corporations benefitted. Those that did gained at the expense of employees, consumers and the environment. Few “mom and pop” businesses, family farms, or small manufacturing operations gained anything one way or the other. It was smoke and mirrors.

Executive orders can make for impressive presidential photo ops, grabbing headlines that help set the public tone of the administration. Sometimes they can push hard in the direction of making new law, but in the end, they are directives from the president to the administration on how laws and regulations are to be enforced.

So what about President Biden and the several dozen he’s signed already? They’re mostly aimed at restoring civil service integrity, halting inhuman border enforcement practices, undoing economically harmful trade actions, instructing the government to reengage with the community of nations, and restoring environmental protections eroded by the previous administration. He recently acted by executive order to put administrative teeth into long standing laws requiring the government to buy American made products. In short, he’s using them to set the public tone the president expects his agency heads to honor.

The recent history of executive orders illuminates their weakness. What one president can issue, another can revoke. An order’s authority exists only for the term of the president who issued it. As a practical matter, many are left in place from one administration to the next because the are routine, or establish sensible policies agreed to by everyone as needed.

Executive orders are a reality and have value, but they are not a substitute for legislation, nor can they be allowed to drift in that direction. We’ve had over eight years of congressional paralysis caused by obstinate Senate leadership. It’s far past time for that to end so we can return to government by legislation, not temporary lurches by executive order.

The Kingdom of God & Christian Nationalism

“Justice, as it turns out, is the social manifestation of the kingdom [of God].”  That’s a quote from the writings of Sen. Josh Hawley as cited by Dan Zak in a recent NYT piece.  What can it mean?  It depends on how one defines the kingdom of God. 

There is an apocalyptic view that defines the kingdom as existing on a new earth beyond the end of ordinary time.  In it, God’s abounding love is the only law, and the kingdom’s citizens live in peace because evil has been banished forever.  Until that day, we are compelled to live in a fallen world of woe and evil, coping as best we can to obey God’s laws as we understand them.

Another view of the kingdom is more consistent with the teaching of Jesus, whom we declare to be the Word of God made flesh.  He proclaimed that the kingdom of God is among us.  It has come near whenever and wherever the good news of God in Christ is proclaimed and the hungry are fed, the thirsty given water, the naked clothed, the stranger welcomed, the sick healed, and prisoners visited.  To understand the kingdom this way is to engage in personal charity while building communities of greater economic and social justice.

The two views are not mutually exclusive.  Jesus embraced them both at the same time.  What God has created is good, and worthy of God’s love, and yet is corrupt and in need of godly correction.  The kingdom of God is the redemption and reconciliation of what is already but not yet fully ours.  How can that be?  It’s a holy mystery to be lived into, not solved. 

There is another take on the kingdom, one I guess Hawley intended when he said justice is the social manifestation of the kingdom.  I’m not sure what to call it.  National media calls it Christian nationalism, and maybe that will do.  Its Christianity is in doubt, at least as far as I can tell, because it shows little interest in following Jesus by doing, in his name, the work he has given us to do, nor do its public announcements reflect justice as proclaimed in scripture.  To the extent so called Christian nationalism tries to influence public policy, it appears dedicated to the promotion of individualism over community, self interest over the greater good.  It ascribes to the idea that a person’s condition in life is a matter of choice, self discipline, and God’s will – the state has no business interfering in the matter.  Most of all, it desires the United States to be a specifically Christian nation in which conservative social beliefs are claimed to be biblical and enforced as the law of the land.  In other words, Christian nationalism desires a religious caliphate under religious law.  What would that look like?  Imagine the worst exaggeration Puritan New England or the darkest moments of Calvin’s Geneva.  Add pickups loaded with flag waving armed vigilantes, and I think you have the picture. 

Hawley, like Cruz, is extremely intelligent, well educated, smoothly articulate, the very epitome of what it means to be of the privileged elite.  He cannot be accused of naïveté or ignorance.  His willingness to prey on the life circumstances and prejudices of those who have bought into trumpism suggests a shrewd political move to acquire leadership of the movement.  I’m tempted to call it an example of ‘will to power’ of the kind exhibited by comic book super villains, except it’s being played out in real life with real consequences.  Whatever, it is far from manifesting the kingdom of God, and I suspect God is not amused.    

A Path Toward National Unity

The air is filled with talk of unity.  It’s the theme of a new administration, and the ardent desire of a people exhausted by corrosive divisiveness pitting class against class, region against region, and families against families.  To be sure, the nation has struggled with growing disunity for several decades, but the last four years brought us dangerously close to violent insurrection encouraged by a president who delighted in creating divisiveness.  It was a way for him to unify his followers as true believers separate from, and in deadly conflict with all others who were not true believers.  He did it through a constant flow of fear mongering lies ranging across a broad spectrum of national concerns: immigration, national security, violent street crime, civil rights, economic opportunities, religious freedom, individual rights, race and more.  Following a pattern taken by despots past, his fear mongering lies and fantastical promises of better things to come became articles of faith for those who put their confidence in him.

Unlike tragic examples in other places and other times, he never commanded a majority of the public’s heart and mind, and that, perhaps, added to the awareness of divisive disunity.  The majority, sometimes a slim majority, were always able to see through his hucksterism.  His dedicated followers were equally aware that they were held in contempt by non believers, which was more evidence that they were right, and those others were enemies. 

So here we are, exhausted and thirsty for the restorative waters of unity.  We know that restored unity will not mean singleness of mind, but we want it to mean the needed stability in which differing opinions about shared facts can be worked out in good faith.  We know there will be hot tempers, intemperate words, and inflexible positions, but we also expect our restored sense of unity won’t allow them to defeat the working out of differences.

Achieving a new unity is not as easy as wanting it.  It requires the hard work of reconciliation, which, in turn, requires the humbling work of confession, amendment of life, and restitution.   For the nation as a whole, confession must be centered on a more complete understanding of our nation’s history that doesn’t ignore or trivialize the uglier episodes of our story, yet doesn’t demean the most worthy of it either.  Dispassionately illuminating the long hidden uglier side will be more than uncomfortable for those who want to disbelieve it, or who feel they’ve been personally shamed, or that it’s somehow unpatriotic to bring it up, but it must be done.   For many individuals, maybe most, it will require recognition that they have been ignorant of the truth, and unwilling contributors to systemic injustices that litter our history.

Amendment of life, like confession, has national and individual components.  National amendment of life is probably the more important.  It means restoring the integrity of our voting system by curtailing gerrymandering, outlawing voter suppression tactics, enforcing civil rights laws, restructuring law enforcement training protocols, and rebalancing our tax code to greatly increase the marginal tax rate in the top tier, and prohibit profitable corporations from avoiding all federal taxation.  It also means encouragement of new curricula for K-12 education that includes a more complete rehearsal of the American story, and a more thorough grounding in basic civics.  Individual amendment of life is more difficult because amending one’s life requires admitting that it needs amending, which, if that means humiliation of any kind, is not likely to happen.  What may be needed is a sustained nationwide campaign to promote a new set of American values and American way of life.  The nation did it well during WWII, and in the post war years when the white middle class way was celebrated as the American way.  It can do it again, this time celebrating the diversity of our unity.

Restitution, or reparation, is even more problematic.  Reconciliation is completed by the penitent through restitution that, to the extent possible, restores to wholeness what had been broken or taken.  The problem is that restitution is individualistic.  The person injured is to be made as whole as possible, bu there is little concern for the injured community.  An excessive focus on individualism is one reason the nation has fallen into such disunity.  If all we are is a land of individuals in which “politics has done its job if it can protect the autonomy of individuals and their property from one another” (William Cavanaugh), then we can never have unity, and communities will always be unstable entities ready to dissolve for any reason or none.

The corrosive divisiveness that has infected the nation has eroded the integrity of the community.  It is the community that must be made whole first.  The American myth of rugged individualism cannot be the only measure by which we are judged.  Restoring the rights of the community to be a healthy place for all persons, without exception, to live as fully as they are able, must be at least as equal to the rights of individuals to live freely.  The proponents of individualism will complain it means limitations on their rights, and it will, not to take away their freedom, but to assure everyone has access to the same freedom. 

Restitution as reparation is a hot topic these days, and it’s usually interpreted to mean cash payments to individuals.  To me that’s a cheap salve achieving nothing of lasting value.  Reparations that make a difference create communities in which “justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5).  It would mean stern correctives to injustices built into the system – that would be reparation of lasting value.

None of this would be easy, but it might be the way toward reconciliation and restoration of unity.

3 Lessons in Listening & Prayer

We’re accustomed to being told there are right ways to do most everything. Anything else is the wrong way. At the same time, we’re told there isn’t one right way but many; however, some ways are more preferred than others. Then we’re told that failing to meet standards of rightness or wrongness can have serious consequences. Confusing as it is, it’s a theme applied in every culture throughout human history.

The protocols for the right way to address important persons are a good example.  Consider all the do’s and don’ts for talking with the Queen; the military rules for speaking with persons of higher rank; the propriety of calling some people by their title (senator, governor, mayor).  How to stand, when to sit or speak, we have protocols for all of it.

Maybe that’s why pastors are used to parishioners asking about the right way to pray.  They’re reasonable questions: after all, we imbue worship with special religious language not used in ordinary daily life, and ordain persons to the special role of mediating between us and God.  The implication is clear, there must be special ways to engage with God, protocols to observe, proper language to be used.  Fail to get it right, and things could go wrong.  

The lectionary lessons for Sunday, January 17 suggest something altogether different.  In them are three examples of communion with God that may help answer the questions.  The cast features the boy Samuel who ministered to Eli, the elderly judge of Israel; Philip, a fisherman who became one of Jesus’ first followers; and Nathanael, Philip’s skeptical friend who was in no hurry to believe without proof.

In Samuel’s story, God literally called his name loud enough to wake him up three times.  Unsure who was calling him, Samuel went to Eli to ask what he wanted.  Eli’s experienced wisdom instructed Samuel to listen more carefully and report back when he heard more clearly.  If there is a primary protocol for prayer, it is to listen, but how is one to know if it’s God, one’s own self, or maybe a figment of imagination?  It helps to have a wise, trusted mentor to guide in the hard work of discernment.  In fact, it’s never a good idea to proclaim that God has given you a word to share, without first exploring that word with such a mentor who will help you test it against the greater likelihood that it isn’t, or that you haven’t heard it right.

Philip’s story begins with his friend Andrew who spent a long time listening to Jesus, long enough to believe him to be the long awaited messiah.  In turn, Andrew led his brother Peter to Jesus, and no doubt told Philip about him also.  The gospel writers had a habit of compressing time, so their stories hit the high points but leave out much of the development leading to them.  Although the calling of the disciples seems to take place with an immediate response, I’m certain it took a lot of conversation over many days before real following began.  God’s call to follow is also a call to be in the give and take of conversation for as long as it takes for understanding to take root. 

Philip went to Nathanael to tell him all about Jesus.  Nathanael was not about to be suckered in by another wannabe messiah.  The very idea that Jesus was from the no account town of Nazareth was proof enough that Jesus was a phony.  Then he met Jesus, and was surprised to learn that Jesus already knew all about him.  ‘Wow!,’ he may have said in mock submission, ‘you really are the king of Israel.’  But Jesus gave as good as he got: ‘You ain’t seen nothin’ yet kid.  Hang with me and I’ll show you the entrance to heaven.’  God, it seems, enjoys a little banter, a little humor, and isn’t put off by honest skepticism.  

Prayer, conversation with God, begins with listening.  It’s important to have a trusted and wise mentor whose counsel can help you discern the godly from that which is not.  Prayer, conversation with God, means taking time to hear, ask questions, raise objections, and pay attention to the experience of others who have gone before.  Prayer, conversation with God, means being yourself, using your everyday language, and daring to have a laugh with God.  God will laugh with you. 

The other day I watched a short video featuring Rabbi Yitzchok Breitowitz on the question of prayer, and the right way to begin in conversation with God.  He reminded his viewers that the ancient Hebrew translated as payer doesn’t mean to ask God for anything, but to engage in self examination.  Prayer begins, said he, when we examine ourselves in relation to what God has already required of us.  It creates the opening for earnest conversation with God.  He’s mostly right, but also needs to leave room for the joy God has in going face-to-face with skeptical Nathanael, having days long conversations with a curious Philip, or working through a wise old mentor as ‘he’ did with Samuel and Eli.  

So what does that mean for the ordinary people of today?  I think it means not to worry so much about how to talk with God, just begin.  I think it also means recognizing there is no official God language that has to be used.  Finally, I think it means laundry lists of requests posted to God’s ear fall short of being the kind of conversation God desires. 

When Trump’s Presidency Began to Fail

When did the Trump presidency begin to fail?

I think it began at his inauguration. His speech was delivered in a monotone of acceptable platitudes by a man who neither believed nor understood what he was saying. From then on, we witnessed, a succession of events proclaimed as great achievements, that failed in delivering what they promised.

He promised accelerated economic growth and claimed he produced it, but the data say otherwise. GDP grew no better than in years past. Jobs grew, but at a slower rate, and almost entirely at the low end of pay with no benefits. There was all time low unemployment among Blacks and Hispanics, but too many jobs were part time and low paying. There was some improvement in middle class income, but not enough to celebrate. Steel and aluminum did not come back. Large manufacturing plants did not reopen. Coal declined more rapidly. The soaring stock market seemed more disconnected than ever from the basics of the nation’s economic health. It brought record paper wealth to those with substantial funds to invest, but not much to anyone else. Trump supporters bragged about the growth of their 401k plans, but they used macro data, not their own, and few had plans worth much.

He promised restoration of America’s standing in the world, asserting that it had become weak and ineffectual. Was that true? In his mind it was. But his forays into global diplomacy embarrassed us, alienated long standing allies, emboldened leaders hostile to the U.S., and isolated America from conversations affecting world trade and peace. Whether he made progress in the parts of the Middle East remains to be seen.

He advertised a new health plan better than the ACA. It was always just two weeks ahead, but never materialized. In the meantime, he did what he could to kill the ACA, stripping people of the limited protection it afforded. In that, like most other initiatives, he did not succeed.

The border wall that Mexico would pay for was a key campaign promise. He worked hard to make it happen. Mexico, of course, paid nothing, but monies stripped from defense appropriations were diverted to the project, and he got some funds from Congress too. The result? Not much. What there is turned out to be easily breached. The whole thing was based on fear of the nation being overrun by hordes of undesirable invading immigrants. Were there hordes at the border? Not hordes, but thousands, most seeking asylum. What we know from their predecessors is that they would be hard working, honest, and contributors to society. But they didn’t speak English, had brown skin, and lacked an American education. It was a white nationalist appeal that included draconian incarceration measures antithetical to everything America stands for.

His signature tax cut was supposed to stimulate job creation and industrial investment. It would pay for itself, he claimed. It did nothing for jobs or investment, it mostly benefitted the very wealthy, and it exploded the deficit and debt for no useful purpose.

He declared America First as he bailed out of multinational trade and environmental negotiations, and slapped tariffs against unfair competitors. He wasn’t wrong about unfair trade, but his tariff wars undermined our export economy, especially agriculture. He never did understand that China was not paying the tariffs, American consumers were. What’s more, China blinked once, looked the other way, and continued expanding its economic powerhouse with little notice of Trump’s jabs. He scuttled NAFTA as the worst deal ever, then renegotiated it with minor changes and called it a victory.

Korea was heralded as the breakthrough of the century. It turned out to be a brief floor show at which Kim had a great time making Trump look foolish. When Kim had enough, he went home to continue business as usual.

Little need be said about his leadership in the COVID pandemic.

Throughout his four years in the White House, he produced a daily stream of falsehoods creating a make-believe reality that his most devoted followers believed with all their hearts. He held 126 rallies celebrating it, during which he encouraged followers to violence against their supposed enemies. Who were the enemies? Anyone not among his followers, radical leftist socialists all.

Though he and his closest advisers claim it to have been the most successful presidency ever, the reality was a trail of failure leaving destroyed lives in its wake. A surprise? Maybe not – it was consistent with the trail of failures and destroyed lives he had left behind in his private life. Did he create anything of lasting endurance? Sadly, yes. He created an anti-democratic, white nationalist movement of ardent believers numbering in the millions. Not the 70 million plus who voted for him in 2020. Most of them, I suspect, will regret their votes, and shamefacedly declare they never really knew him. But there may yet be millions who will not easily turn away from the authoritarian white nationalist paradise he promised. He may soon be gone, but the promise remains.

I offer none of this as condemnation of Trump. He has been a consistent performer, well known to the public, who did not change his ways from private life to public. Who knows? In his mind maybe he really does think he was a good president. He still thinks he was a great business success. Sadly for him, and maybe lucky for the nation, the only tools he had to work with were in his bag of flimflam tricks he’d used all his life as he built the Walter Mitty world of make-believe he lives in. If there is condemnation to be meted out, it is to otherwise competent voters who fell for his hucksterism and thought, in spite of his track record, this time he might be selling a really good thing. Even greater condemnation falls to those who saw an opportunity to solidify their version of democracy as a small cadre of the right kind of people running the nation, and believed they could use Trump to make it happen.

Reflections on Insurrection Wednesday

Like others, I feel compelled to write about the events of this past week, yet am reluctant because it’s difficult to wrap my head around them.  Maybe you feel the same.  As usual, everything revolved around Trump, and it’s impossible to reflect on the week without reflecting on him.  He entered the week as the same Trump he’s always been.  There was nothing new to see.  He continued his claims of a fraudulent election based, as he admitted in his infamous Georgia phone call, on rumors and the amplified echoes of his own words coming back to him through right wing media sources.  In his customary fashion, he rallied his troops to assemble on January 6 at the Capitol and fight to overturn the election.  We know what happened.  Two days later, again in customary fashion, he deadpanned a video disowning the violence while falsely claiming to have immediately sent the National Guard to restore order.  It was a classic Trump move to deflect blame and create an exhibit for possible future use in his defense at trial.  We’ve always known his loyalty is to no one but himself.  What he has done to countless aides and subordinates, he did to the entire mob that had assembled at his request.  Will they abandon him as he’s abandoned them?

Trump may be on the way out, but what troubles me more is the deeply rooted conviction among his followers that he has been the president of their hopes and dreams, restoring America to a figment of their imagination, and saving it from being overrun by the wrong sort of people.  They have believed, in their heart of hearts, that the election was rigged against him, saturated with fraud, and that a count of “legal” ballots would declare him the winner by an overwhelming majority.  Their evidence was the closed echo chamber of right wing propaganda outlets, the same echo chamber that Trump himself lives in.  They believe that “we the people” created a more perfect union. They believe in government by the people, for the people and of the people.  Who, though, are the people?  Many who were interviewed at the scene of the Wednesday insurrection said they believed that they are “we the people” who are here to defend America against radical socialists intent on destroying America, confiscating guns, taking away personal liberties, and promoting immoral behavior.   It’s a world view deeply held, against all verifiable evidence to the contrary, by millions of Americans.

Sadly for me as a priest in the tradition of classical Christianity, it’s a world view adhered to by a large swath of conservative evangelicals who claim to be Christian.  Various surveys estimate that 76% of white evangelicals supported Trump’s candidacy.  Some think he’s God’s agent to restore America as a Christian nation, governed by socially conservative “biblical” principles, on which they believe the nation was founded.  It matters not that his character is flawed, it only matters that he endorsed evangelical social policies.  It matters not that Christian texts, tradition and scholarship are in sharp disagreement with them.  From their point of view, they are the sole proprietors of correct Christian thinking.  They looked to Trump to be their benefactor, and for a while, he was.  They will not give up what we now call Trumpism when he’s gone.  They’ll simply look for a new, more capable benefactor, one to whom they can pledge their loyalty with greater confidence.  There are many to choose from, and they’re already auditioning for the part. 

Secular and religious believers in Trumpism may be strange bedfellows, but they’re in agreement that they alone are the ones who are “we the people.”  All others are not “we the people.”  They, as “we the people,” are the only ones whose votes should count, whose candidates should govern, and who get to set the terms and conditions for who can be an American.  They believe the nation should be governed by their rules alone, enforced by the candidates they alone elect.  We saw abundant evidence of that mindset in videos recorded in and around the Capitol during the Wednesday insurrection. “We the people” was boldly chanted.  One of my right wing contacts asserted their right to invade the Capitol because it is the people’s house, and the Trump crowd were the rightful claimants to be “the people.”  He was equally certain that those protesting racial and economic injustices over the summer are not rightful claimants to be “the people.”  They are the enemy of “the people.”  It’s plain for him to see, and others are blind if they don’t see it too.

Trumpians are unable to see or understand that the road they’ve chosen is not to freedom, but to oligarchical authoritarianism, fascism if you will.   They are unable to see or understand that they are merely fodder for the benefit of other, cagier, more resourceful people.  It’s been asked often how we’ve come to this place.  How could such an anti American world view gain so many adherents and so much power in such a short time?   How could they have so easily hijacked the label of patriotism? I’ve tried to poke at a few answers in previous columns.  The underlying truth is that they’v always been there.  They’ve been relatively quiet since the end of WWII, but they were there.  Surrounded by a larger, more liberal public, they knew their views were intolerable in the eyes of neighbors and national leaders. They saw the ignoble fall of Faubus, Wallace, Goldwater and the like.  They chaffed at the adulation given to King.  It was OK to make their voices heard among a few friends over a beer, but they didn’t have the critical mass to go public.  That changed with the tea party movement, partly created by oligarchs who thought they could control it.  They couldn’t.  Trump gave them permission and opportunity to shake off all restraint.  Like genies out of the bottle, or toothpaste out of the tube, they will not willingly go back into their containers.  

That may be a good thing.  We now know how fragile our democracy is, and how hard we need to work to keep it.  It’s work that includes restoration of opportunities for economic well being, first benefitting those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.  It means teaching a more complete version of America’s story that doesn’t shy away from challenging things like slavery, conquest of Indian lands, oppression of immigrants, etc.  It means doing that without demeaning the stories that celebrate our achievements and ideals.  

For the Christian Church, it means boldly reclaiming the name of Christian by even more boldly proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the moral precepts guiding his followers in the way of love.  It means working for justice that will restore wholeness of community by naming the sin, and committing to repentance and atonement.

Liberals Have a Problem with Elitism: it’s not necessary

Liberals have a problem with elitism in the words and actions of some vocal, well-meaning people.  They undermine programs that otherwise have broad appeal among a large majority of Americans.  Some decades ago they were called Limousine Liberals: wealthy do gooders who had it easy in life.  They were mocked for the way they swooped down to do good things for pathetic unfortunates, then soared back to their estates where they held balls celebrating their good works.  Cartoonish, I know, but not without reason.  It didn’t go unnoticed by the recipients of their largesse that their benefactors looked down on them, with pity, that the unwashed needy were not as good, nor as capable, and would never amount to much unless helped by their betters. 

Curiously, wealthy benefactors who celebrate themselves for their generosity are seldom liberals.  I’m reminded of one whom I knew well.  He underwrote an education program to place gifted ESL students in colleges of his choice.   To qualify, students had to agree to speak only English, except in the privacy of their homes, take his prescribed classes, and learn his definition of Americanism.  Racist to the core, he was determined to fashion a new generation of potential leaders from south of the border into his right thinking conservative white ‘man’s’ ways.  He was a one man version of what the nation had for a century tried to do to young American Indians through the infamous Indian Schools.  He knew that, believed the schools were on target, and we gave up on them too soon. 

It may be an extreme example, but it represents a historical mindset that has ebbed and flowed throughout American history from its earliest colonial times.  Moreover, wealth and limousines are not required for some version of the mindset to be exhibited.  Too many liberals are unable or unwilling to identify with, be among, and recognize the equality of those whom their agendas are intended to benefit.  Even recognizing equality is problematic when the measure of equality is dictated by those who assume their values are the standard to which others should aspire.  Some of my liberal friends mean well in every way, but it comes off as if they think those whom they would defend or benefit can’t do it for themselves.  I confess I sometimes fall into that trap.  It’s so easy to do.  As a pastor, I’m reminded that Jesus lived among those he came to heal as one of them.  He ate and drank with persons in all walks of life, as one who truly knew, loved, and called them friends.  Yes, he also called them to new and better way of life, but without a trace of the superiority that he alone had a right to claim.  

When I was in high school (a long time ago), our social studies teacher, Mr. Hobson, had creative ways to teach about government.  He organized our class as a legislative body, with students self selected as conservatives on one side of the room facing liberals on the other side, with independents forming a bridge at one end.  Students came from a broad range of economic classes with a plurality from lower middle income families.  The liberal students laid out an agenda to dedicate more resources for the poorest and least capable in the community.  They meant well, but conservative students objected that the poorest were not, therefore, less capable, and should be left alone to make it on their own.  Both were right.  More resources were needed.  It’s all but impossible to make it on your own without resources.  But it’s arrogant and wrong to assert the poor are less capable than others.  That’s a lot of wisdom shown by a bunch of young teenagers, none of whom lived on estates or rode in limousines.  It’s a lesson I’ve been pondering for over sixty years. 

Today’s liberal agenda, about which few liberals can agree, recognizes that government is the necessary tool for creating conditions in which the nation can prosper.  It starts with devoting adequate resources needed by the lowest economic strata to raise their incomes and open doors to greater mobility.  It advocates creation and maintenance of the complex infrastructure that enables our technologically advanced society to function: assuring that its parts operate safely, without discrimination, and with concern for the future of the environment.  Health, education, housing, transportation, and civil rights are critical elements of its domestic side.  Mutually beneficial relationships with other nations, and a global policy defending and promoting liberal ideals are pillars of its foreign side.  It is less concerned with defense of American territory, and more concerned with defense of American intellectual property and cyber security.  It is the antithesis of right wing howling about radical socialism and Marxist ideology, but making that clear may be a lost cause.    

It will succeed or fail depending on how well liberals can avoid the trap of perceived elitism that right wingers are eager to turn against them.  The final irony being that right wing leadership has no sympathy with ordinary people, and believe themselves to be best suited to rule without the messy processes of democracy.