DeSantis & a New American Way

Ron DeSantis appeared on Fox proclaiming that if elected he would serve two terms and destroy wokeism and leftism. The United States would become more like Florida, and wouldn’t that be a good thing. Teachers would be told what they could and couldn’t teach. History would be limited to a sanitized white-bread romantic tale of national pride and patriotism.  Mid-twentieth century white conservative Protestant social values would be imposed on all by force of law.  Government would favor big business, but only on government’s terms. In the name of color blindness, any group that could be identified by skin color or ethnicity would be prohibited from advocating for their interests that might be in conflict with the government approved version of the American Way.  You get the idea.  Fascism, pure and simple.

Labeling things as wokeism and leftism is a new take on the old strategy of creating enemies of the people to be feared and exterminated. Wokeism and leftism? What are they?  There have been some silly examples of what some people call woke, mostly on college campuses where fads flourish for a season.  Hyper demands to be called by a preferred personal pronoun is one.  I have a hard enough time learning names, and have no interest in learning preferred personal pronouns lest some offense be caused.  The same goes for demands that nothing be said that might trigger an unpleasant memory or anxiety over some troubling issue.  Life is full of events that challenge one’s comfort level.  Learn to deal with it.  I would get exorcised about such fads, but they come and go, so it isn’t worth the strain on my blood pressure.  Even the current wave of concern about trans people is a sort of fad.  Fear mongering about bathroom safety and athletic competition is a cruel fad, and pandering to the idea of trans is a silly fad.  The truly trans-sexual population is small and unlikely to change.  Leave them alone, and let them work out how they want to deal with it as they see fit.  There are a fair number of young people claiming to be non-binary, and making a point of it. Those who really are will work it out for themselves.  Those who aren’t will soon get tired of play-acting .  The next young tier will come ump with their own thing to act out.

Silliness is one thing, but facing up to issues of social and economic injustice is another. So is calling out racist language, and mean speech that humiliates an demeans.  It’s not wokeism to demand that equality before the law be realized in the fullest measure for every person in everyday life.  It’s not wokeism to expect every person can be safe as who they are and who they love.  Using the federal government to create a more level playing field is not leftism.  It won’t result in absolute economic equality but in a more honest equity of opportunity not saddled with legally imposed obstacles.  The liberal consensus, updated for the twenty-first century is not dreaded socialism.  It’s American democracy in action to create “a more perfect union,”or at least a less imperfect one.

The liberal consensus succeeds only when liberal and conservative voices negotiate in good faith to find common ground.  What DeSantis proposes, and the Freedom Caucus demands is not conservative.  It’s Fascism, a particularly pernicious form of American Fascism that would destroy not wokeism and leftism, but democracy itself.

The Heresies of Trinity Sunday: or the Trinity unexplained

On Trinity Sunday every preacher will commit heresy no matter how or what they say.  The very idea that we can plumb the inner workings of God Almighty is preposterous but it hasn’t kept us from trying.  After all, Christians know God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, so it’s only natural that people will want to know how one God can be understood in three different ways that make God appear as three different beings. In one sense it can’t be explained.  It’s a holy mystery to be lived into, not solved.  Nevertheless, there are ways to say something of a provisional sort that may explain a little, at least in a way that limited human brains can apprehend, if not comprehend.

There has been a struggle throughout the story of God’s people to understand the God who has no name, cannot be seen or represented by any sculpture or painting, and is utterly unlike the gods of  other people.  Indeed, in the course of time ‘he’ is revealed as the only God, no other, not one.  Even the word God is merely a place holder for the unknown, unpronounceable holy name. Whenever God spoke to prophets it was in inexplicable ways, metaphors that could be put into human language: a disembodied voice, burning bush, smoke and fire, dark clouds, psychedelic visions.  Other people were informed of God’s word through messengers, angels that came and went in ways humans could not. All mysterious until the coming of Jesus.

Jesus was the Word of God made flesh, a human being of flesh and blood who boldly proclaimed that if you had seen Jesus, you had seen God the Father because he and God were one.  Was that all there was of God?  That was it?  No!  It was only all of God that could be portrayed in human form, which is but a nano-vision of God who cannot be known in full.  The truth of his divinity was on full display in his death, resurrection and ascension.  What he did, said, taught and promised could be trusted.  It was and is the rock on which true life is built.  Through that reality it was possible to more clearly understand how God’s presence is always with us to guide and guard us insofar as we allow it to happen.  It’s a presence we call the Holy Spirit.

I don’t know what happened on Pentecost.  I only know it was so powerful that it could only be described as wind and fire that changed cringing cowards into courageous proclaimers of God’s word.  I have no doubt the same Holy Spirit is as active today as it was then. We are used to the triteness of thoughts and prayers promised in place of action, and to the insincerity of the old cliche “I’ll be with you in spirit” when we know full well it’s not true. It’s hard to believe the active reality of God’s Spirit being with us always, but there it is.  Are there other ways God can be known, even manifested among us?  No doubt there are; we cannot put any limits on what God can or cannot do. 

The Nicene Creed and Calcedonian Definition do a wonderful job of explaining God in human terms that made sense to the Greek mind and, with a little effort, to our minds also.  Rowan Williams wrote an extensive history of Christology that traced the philosophical and theological works probing the mechanics of how Father, Son and Holy Spirit fit together.  In my opinion, the deeper they went with their profound discoveries, the farther they dived down an unending rabbit hole, and the more stuck they got in the proverbial tar baby.  Interesting work, but in the words of Shakespeare, it seemed to be all sound and fury signifying nothing. 

The Trinity is a mystery.  Let us be satisfied to live into it in the sure and certain faith that everything we need to know, we know in Christ Jesus, the holy scriptures, with the Holy Spirit as God with us now and always. The Trinity is for me the fullest measure of God that I need, and I trust it to be true. 

A Weekend Rant: Things and Issues that get under my skin

It is said that algorithms are sophisticated tools for targeting people who most likely will be interested in certain goods and services. So it is said. I wonder.  Kindle sends hundreds of book suggestions to me every week promising they will be of interest. Few of them are.  I get ads for products I already own, stuff I’ll never own such as construction equipment and women’s clothing. Sophisticated? I don’t think so.

A posting on Facebook to “public”does not go to the public but only a select  list of a few hundred who are identified as having similar points of view.  Even a post of “all friends” doesn’t go to all friends, only those with whom one has been in contact recently and maybe to a smattering of others.  Bubbles and Silos created by marketing algorithms are widely understood and universally loathed.  I expect the only valid rationale is the need to disperse data flows through various arterials and side streets to avoid overloading the main information highways.

I received a survey instrument from Viking wanting to know more about what I want from a river or ocean cruise.  It did not ask a single question about what I want or like, or why I would be interested in a certain cruise as opposed to others.  It simply asked for forced choice answers to menus of available products lumped into groups of disassociated things.  Viking will get some gross indicators if enough people answer the survey, but probably nothing of value that will improve their marketing.

The Supreme Court invalidated federal regulation of wetlands not directly connected to streams and rivers.  The case revolved around an Idaho resident who filled in a wetland to build a house. Given the way the law is written, it was probably the right decision, but it also legitimized the immoral and irresponsible right of property owners to abuse the environment for their own pleasure and the detriment of the earth and all its creatures. Property rights hard liners whine about tree huggers and federal overreach making bugs, lizards and owls more important than people.  Hogwash!  Property owners have God demanded moral obligations to steward the earth for their own benefit with respect for the well being of the earth and all its creatures, other humans included.

The nation needs more affordable housing.  How much more?  I don’t know, but a lot.  It has to be affordable to someone with, let’s say, a median income.  Home builders have been using the Reagan trickle down model by convincing communities that more upscale housing will create more affordable housing in the downscale resale market for existing housing.  It doesn’t work, except as a model for slumification of rentals. They complain the profit margin just isn’t there to build affordable housing.  That may be partly right, but low profits at the bottom line can be created by generous developer fees, management fees, and hidden overcharges on materials.  If putting as much money as possible in developers’ pockets is the only measure of success, it’s a fine model of gluttonous greed. After all, who in their right mind would build affordable housing to make less money than possible.  It would still generate a generous payout and make decent housing available to those who need it, but that’s not the American Way is it?

As I listen to yet one more story about a shooting, I’ve had it with Second Amendment rights arguments that care nothing about the rest of the Constitution or the common good.  Everything they say adds up to little more than self centered fear based puerile emotions akin to a two year old throwing a tantrum in a grocery store aisle.  

The same goes for hard core anti abortion advocates who refuse to understand that pro-choice is not pro-abortion.  One is free to hold deeply rooted religious or ethical antiabortion views, and free to respectfully do what they can to convince others.  It is wrong to impose their views on others through the coercive force of law. Blatant hypocrisy is exposed in too many ways when hard core advocates also express disdain for the life and health of others, disinterest in funding child care assistance, quality public education, and contempt for religious views other than their own.

Finally, it’s Memorial Day weekend, a time to remember and honor those who died in the service of their country.  Not everyone who died was killed outright.  Many have been physically and emotionally  killed bit-by-bit as a result of war.  Each Memorial Day I remember my friend Harlan Miller.  He was blown up, but not killed, during the North African campaign.  He returned to civilian life after years of hospitalization to live out his years as an impoverished hermit, the church his only family.  He died in WWII, just not all at the same time.  There are thousands like him walking around today.  It is the great sin of humanity’s propensity for war.  Lest we glorify our own national’s righteousness too much, let us recall that out of the 100 and some named wars and armed conflicts we have fought, only four or five can be said to have been in defense of freedom and the American Way.

Charisma: its power for good or ill in politics

My neighbor Grace is well educated, well informed and politically active. It’s her firm belief that one can be an effective president or governor only if one is charismatic. First charisma, then all other things can be considered.  She won’t vote for Biden because, in her opinion, he has no charisma. She won’t go for DeSantis for the same reason.  She has no time for Trump, but boy does he have charisma, as she sees it.

I imagine there are many more people like Grace.  Looks, voice, and that certain something that reeks of inspiring leadership is what attracts them to any political candidate.  It’s partly why I think presidential approval rating polls are a silly waste of time.  Approval or disapproval on what, about what?  Looks, voice, and that certain something?  In the words of Ecclesiastes, it’s all vanity, a chasing after the wind.  Nevertheless, whatever charisma is, it’s a powerful aphrodisiac in the world of politics, especially presidential politics. 

With that in mind, I listened to Sen. Tim Scott’s candidacy announcement speech.  The Republican senator from South Carolina, the only black Republican in the Senate, provided powerful testimony to what charisma looks like.  But for his conservative Republicanism, he sounded a lot like Obama at his best.  He looks good, has a strong speaking voice, slips easily between standard American and cultured southern black English, and hits just the right cultural buttons to entice the crowd

Unlike Trump, he gave credit to his mother and a number of mentors for his successes and for his understanding of what is morally right.  He testified to his Christian faith in a way that would appeal to members of any denomination, and he showed respect for those of other religions or none.  He knew how to pump the crowd, even to generating an enthusiastic call and response cadence.  Of course he was talking to a home town crowd, but as Obama demonstrated, the same works well most anywhere, even in the stodgy Upper Midwest.

I imagine he is the kind of candidate that will appeal to Grace and her kind, regardless of his positions on issues.  For that matter, it’s hard to nail down where he stands, or might stand if elected president.  He seems to be a Reagan conservative who might gain the grudging support of tea party conservatives, without making enemies of Trumpians.  His moral convictions will seem attractive to a lot of centrists, and his take on issues will worry progressives, but probably not frighten them.  I think he looks like a conservative version of a cross between Obama and Clinton (Bill).

The pundits are united in calling him a low rated underdog who has very little chance.  He isn’t well known outside of South Carolina and the Senate, where he is well liked on both sides. The GOP primaries are stacked with Trump loyalists, according to the pundits at least.  Other underdog candidates with strong local support are likely to defeat each other in the primary process. Besides, there’s another South Carolina candidate, Nicki Haley.  So what chance does he have?  Democrats Clyburn and Booker say he should not be underestimated.  As for me, I have no idea, and am suspicious that his politics may be more right wing than independents and dissatisfied centrists would be happy with, should he be elected.

The point is not about Scott in any case.  It’s about the charm of charisma and its seductive power to acquire admirers and followers without any other qualification. Curiously, no one can define charisma with any certitude.  Social scientists try, and publish books with definitive explanations, but they capture only a few facets of what the members of the general public consider to be charismatic.  Each person seems to have their own sense of it.  What some find magnetically attractive, others find utterly repulsive.  Charisma seems to come down to the ability to appear honest and trustworthy to a large number of people, the sort of person they can trust to act in their best interest.  Charisma is not itself a virtue, it’s simply a facade that implies virtue that may or may not be real and has two weaknesses.  It hides the human fallibility we all share.  The most competent of us is lucky to be roughly right most the time, and always exactly wrong.  Failure cannot be avoided; perfection is not possible.  It can be a disillusionment to those who put too much faith in charisma.  Narcissistic charismatic leaders are especially skilled at making themselves  into idols whose manifest sins and wickedness are made to look virtuous.  They are the Bernie Madoff’s of the political world. 

It’s unfortunate that truly gifted leaders of great integrity are too often dismissed for lack of sufficient charisma, but that’s the way it is.  I don’t like to admit it, but I’m more like my neighbor Grace than I want anyone to know.  I also want national leaders who have the public persona to inspire trust and hope for the future, and I want them to be men and women of integrity who can be trusted to be the persons they appear to be.  I can name the ones who were.  I am unsure of who will come…  In the words of Peggy Noonan, trust but verify, don’t be too hasty to accept the appearance of charisma as a sign of virtuous competence. It may illuminate the real thing, or it may be nothing but a glimmering chimera hiding selfish greed.  Hope for the first. Anticipate the latter.

© Steven E. Woolley

Individualism, Community & Bonds of Oneness Dedicated to the Common Good.

Our weekly ecumenical discussion group got into Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer as recorded in John 17.  More particularly we talked about what it means to be one with something, as Jesus proclaimed he was one with the Father and called his disciples to be one with him. To be one with Christ is not to surrender one’s individual identity, but to enter an unbreakable bond with Christ. Even though different from one another, all who claim a bond with Christ share in a community of oneness with each other. It is a bond grounded in God’s abounding and steadfast love that brings healing, forgiveness, reconciliation, and beyond death to life eternal.

It is a theological truth with parallels in daily secular life. What is true for Christianity is true of all humanity and the communities to which they belong.  The multiplicity of bonded oneness is what forms community however defined: family, neighborhood, town, nation, passions, and so on. Healthy societies cannot exist without individuals in fungible bonded oneness with communities dedicated to the common good: “E Pluribus Unum.”  The opposing force to oneness in community is individualism. The two can work in creative tension with one another or in mutually destructive enmity. The balance between the two can be approximated in unstable equilibrium, unstable because humanity is sufficiently selfish to reject the common good in favor of individual freedom and personal advantage.

Individualism is not  in itself a bad thing. The American creed of individualism is important to our democracy, but it can be taken too far when it demeans and distrusts the greater value of communities and the common good, including the governments that define them.  At its extreme it becomes a kind of libertarianism acting as in a Hobbesian state of nature. John Stuart Mill and Ralph Waldo Emerson are often cited as the Godfathers of American individualism, but Mill’s essay On Liberty defined it within the context of community, of being one with more than one’s self, of Emerson’s self-reliance as a function of responsibility to one’s self and others and the communities with which one was affiliated.

I’ve been reading an exhaustive history of North American Indians in which Indian tribal leaders and scholars describe how their people greatly value individualism but have a binding ethos of oneness with the land, oneness with the tribe, and oneness with the Great Spirit however understood. It’s too easy to romanticize it: there never was such a state of being in which humans were not fallible and selfish.  But it may be the best example of Emerson/Mill individualism, and a good model to work from.  When asked to talk about themselves, most people will describe relationships, work, hometown, family, close friends, interests and hobbies, religion, clubs and so on.  Without using the term, each is describing the bonds of unity with communities that help form self identity.

A society like ours cannot continue in good health if it doesn’t have a strong creed of community forming  durable, but not breakable,  bonds of oneness. An American creed of community has to live in creative tension with the creed of individualism, so important to our sense of freedom.  It is what the Declaration and Constitution tried to articulate, and the nation has lurched through nearly 300 years of trying to get it right.  Those ruthless for power and position know how to break the bonds of community by redirecting individualism to unquestioning obedience to the the power elite or Great Leader.  Hitler and Stalin are the most obvious examples of how raw brutality is used, but the same tactics are used by autocratic leaders and powerful elites in most any community or organization. They break down bonds of oneness with community by making each suspicious and fearful of others deftly labeled as the source of troubles or threats to status. . Hope of survival and security is only through obedience to those in power.  It is the tactic used by the powerful to enslave, subjugate, oppress, and conquer.  It uses the creed of individualism to destroy  healthy community, then remaining individualism is destroyed. Orwell wrote metaphor, not dystopian fiction. 

Trumpism and its legislative agents use the same tactic today to break bonds of oneness in community and in pursuit of an anti-democratic authoritarian government.  They have skillfully used the weaknesses of Reagan’s small government individualism and Tea Party libertarianism to break down trust in community.  Where possible they have suppressed individual rights and freedom with authoritarian rule with the excuse that it is good for all.  We’ve been through this before and come out OK when the public finally woke up to what was happening.  Will they awaken this time? The outcome is uncertain.  It depends on the electorates’ ability and willingness to recommit to a strong creed of community guaranteed and nourished by government, voluntary associations, and the importance of bonds of oneness linking each to one another for the common good.

What is Needed to Secure Democracy? Conservative Courage

A common theme in B movies streaming on the internet is of the courageous individual who stands up against cruel bullies who’ve cowed everybody else in the script. I wonder if they inspire many conservative individualists to imitate their imaginary heroes by heavily arming themselves. The ground had been prepared by elements of the right wing movement to encourage that kind of mindset long before it was popularized by Reagan.  Since then it’s become the mantra of courageous individualism who have no need of a government nanny. 

How’s that working out?  Not so well considering the numbers of mass and drive by shootings, shootings in response to minor insults and infractions, random shootings, accidental shootings, etc. Nothing morally courageous about any of it.  More curious yet is the ease by which anti-American hard right activists, the so called Trump MAGA base, has bullied the entire conservative population into utter cowardice for fear the base will do what?  Withhold their votes?  Threaten retaliation?  What?  The MAGA crowd is small compared to the whole of the electorate.  Yes they are loud, threatening, sometimes violent, but everything they claim to stand for is a figment of their imagination.  They’re gifted propagandists and know how to inject their hallucinations into the public arena as if they were the real thing, and it’s a sad thing to see so many otherwise decent people taken in by them. The truth remains, they are an active threat to American democracy and the freedom of everyone.

Americans who consider themselves somewhere right of center but not extremists have the numbers and all the resources they need to take a bold, courageous stand against “the base” if they only have the will to do so.  What’s stopping them?  It seems to boil down to fears that leftist socialism is just around the corner, as is the old fairy tale that smaller government is better government.

Republicans and Democrats were united behind the “liberal American consensus” until the 1980s.  Hard core conservatives had long engaged in fear mongering about creeping socialism (Russian style), and the superiority of an unregulated market to be more efficient, competitive, and beneficial to the national prosperity.  Government over regulation, by which they meant any regulation, was preventing leaders of American business from having a free hand to see that operations were running at peak performance.  It was a fringe view but one backed by skillful propagandists who eventually convinced the majority of regular conservatives that the old consensus was a failed depression era model that never did work: only WWII was able to turn loose the industrial might of the nation.  It was time to face reality and return the federal government back to an earlier form in which it was small, meagerly funded, and responsive to whatever business leaders wanted.

There were four curious outcomes when right wing advocates gained enough power to change the direction of the federal government.  First, national debt and deficits ballooned while the means to pay for them were cut.  Precisely the opposite of what their manifesto promised.  Second, the size and complexity of the federal government increased, and its efficiency hobbled. Third, socialism, insofar as it could be used to benefit corporate America and the very wealthy, was happily embraced while ordinary Americans were told to be rugged individualists caring form themselves under economic and social conditions designed to make it difficult.  Fourth, to keep Americans from uniting behind a reenergized “liberal consensus”, as much as possible was done to divide the population into confrontational camps.  Race, economic class, educational status, urban, rural, coastal and mid-America, were exploited to create what today we call the culture wars.  It was the very old and very successful tactic of divide and conquer. 

It is time to move on to a new “liberal American consensus” – liberals and conservatives anchored by the majority of the electorate who are center-left/right.  The federal government is not the enemy.  It is the institution needed to maintain the unity of the Unites States of America and establish conditions under which no person is restricted from achieving all they are capable of achieving, and that the public health and welfare are enhanced and protected from abuse, degradation, and pollution.   Those more liberal will be bold in pushing for new ways to live onto the highest values of American democracy.  Those  more conservative will be cautiously committed to the same goals, but question how much change is really needed and how quickly it can be absorbed by the public.  Liberals will be more willing to raise revenues, while conservatives will opt for cost cutting.  It is in good faith negotiations that imperfect agreements will be worked out.  Unlike authoritarian governments, democracies muddle through, and the results work wonders for more people more fairly, civil rights more securely guaranteed.  What’s standing in the way?  Nothing, if conservatives have the courage to stand up to right wing bullying.

© Steven E. Woolley

Prayer? Why? To Whom? For What?

Hundreds of books and thousands of articles have been written about prayer.  I’ve written a few on Country Parson yet the same questions keep being asked.  There seems to be a deep sense of vulnerable insecurity over doing it right and not getting it wrong, even among lifelong church goers.  Who should I pray to; how should I pray; what should I pray for; what are the right words to use?  After all, what right do ordinary mortals have praying to God Almighty.

What might happen if it isn’t done the right way? Some remember the fear felt when told, “Go to your room and wait until your father gets home.” What happens when God the Father comes home? There are other parallels: being called to the vice principal’s office, to the boss’s office, or to the municipal court.  In those instances, there’s a right way, language, and protocol creating a barrier of self protection. To be ushered in to the presence of governors, presidents or monarchs creates trickier problems with rules to be obeyed and aides present to see that they are. Imagine being ushered into God’s presence.

But God is love, a love so powerful that there is none greater. George Herbert’s poem put it this way:

LOVE bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
    From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
            If I lack’d anything.

‘A guest,’ I answer’d, ‘worthy to be here:’
            Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
‘I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
            I cannot look on Thee.’
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
            ‘Who made the eyes but I?’

‘Truth, Lord; but I have marr’d them: let my shame
            Go where it doth deserve.’
‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘Who bore the blame?’
            ‘My dear, then I will serve.’
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’
            So I did sit and eat.

To pray is to answer Love’s invitation to sit and converse with God over a meal of holy nourishment.  From God no secrets are hidden so there’s no point in trying to pretend otherwise. Awed humility is the only way to be in conversation with the source of pure love.  Prayer is to converse with God in a state of trusting humility.

When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, he gave them a helpful outline we call “The Lord’s Prayer.”  Outlines always need to be filled in.  No doubt there are many ways, but consider this as a possibility: Pray to God your father/mother who loves you; remember ‘his’ name is holy, so don’t dishonor it; converse about how to be an agent of God’s kingdom in daily life; ask for the holy nourishment needed to do what must be done; admit your mess ups, and ask for God’s blessing on anyone against whom you have a grudge; ask for holy guidance to avoid sin and temptation.  In other words, I think Jesus was saying,’Don’t make it so hard.’

Too many preachers have threatened their people with God’s wrath and damnation if they don’t get it right.  Everyone who doesn’t get it right is going to hell because that’s what God does with them is the distorted message. Some practices define getting it wrong mostly in terms of what they call sins of the flesh, and pay little heed to the greater commandments to walk in the way of love.  Such formulas and practices burden people with fearful guilt that makes it very difficult to have an honest conversation with God, whose Love has bade them to sit and eat without concern for getting it right or their condition in life.

Other practices claim saying certain prayers in just the right way will result in God doing what one wants God to do.  It is a form of magical thinking that has no place in Christianity.   Magical spells and flattering bribery are abominations.

To paraphrase Jesus again, don’t make it so hard.  Follow his counsel and say yes to Love’s invitation to sit and be nourished with holy food.

© Steven E. Woolley