Two Weeks Later — Being Wrong as Academics

I Was Wrong.


I followed this election even more closely that I usually do. I believed the every-four-years hype of this being “the most important election in our lifetime”. I trusted the polls (even given their margin of error), thought the electoral map was structurally tilted toward Clinton, added in the rise is hispanic voters, paid attention to the Clinton advantage among suburban college educated white women, and held to my naive belief that governing was about policy.

But my wrongness runs deeper than election day.

While I tried to stay clear of fake news sites and was very cautious about clever memes to pass along, I paid a lot of attention to the kinds of media sources that fit my temperament as a sociologist — careful analysis of background factors, reliance on data, a favoring of rational dialogue. That’s why I (along with others) believed that the angry rhetoric of many at Trump rallies and/or on social media would also put off conservative Republican voters (which it did for some but not most).

Which means I’ve been wrong for a long time.

I’ve paid too little attention to those left behind in our social and economic transformations over recent decades. I wrote about most of these trends: changes in religious views, shifting attitudes toward sexuality and marriage, the housing crisis, growing inherited inequality, the shifting of the economy from manufacturing to finance, the increasing polarization of our politics, and the media’s increasingly relying on controversy to drive their economic model.

But I failed to reflect on how those changes affect different segments of the society. My sociological blinders had me looking at cities first and ignoring rural areas. This was made worse because I’ve argued for years that we don’t have red states and blue states; we have predominantly rural states and predominantly urban states.

I was wrong as an educator.

Many of my students come from smaller towns and suburbs of Michigan. While many of them were not supporting Trump, a great many more were and the vast majority of their families were. Granted, many of my students wouldn’t vote for Clinton because of their concerns over abortion. But they were making a significant choice in the first presidential vote they’d ever cast. To be honest, I was so concerned with how they’d respond when Clinton won that I didn’t really try to educate them about their voting decision. That was hubris on my part. Although I have to admit that finding the line between educating on the issues and direct advocacy can be hard to do.

There is a public responsibility to being an academic. We study things as a matter of discipline. We use careful reasoning and explain our thinking to others. We describe and interpret and occasionally make projections.

I wonder if all of the concern about “liberal academics”, “indoctrinating students”, “providing safe spaces”, offering “trigger warnings”, and being “politically correct” hasn’t made us unwilling to play our educational roles. We have maintained a presence in the classroom but have not done enough with public advocacy.

That vacuum is filled by news sites claiming the worst about others (which are easily “liked” by otherwise well-meaning people). It turns the already problematic cable news gabfest into a talking-point marathon featuring two shills for each candidate and a couple of supposedly independent journalists. It turns the election into a sideshow and leaves all of those social issues described above unaddressed for another election cycle.

Yesterday, Nate Silver of posted a story titled “Education, not income, predicted who would vote for Trump.” (This is the kind of data-based analysis I love to read.) Silver looks at the 50 counties with the highest percentage with a college degree and the 50 with the lowest. Even controlling for income, education still remains the more significant factor. Clinton won the first set by 8.5% more than Obama did in 2012. In the second set, she did 11% worse than he did.

I also read this piece today that was originally appeared in AlterNet. The author describes growing up in white rural Fundamentalist regions of the country and offers a pretty harsh critique of the “dark rigidity” of the Fundamentalist thought process. It overgeneralizes a little too much and comes off as if describing some remote and distant tribe. But it speaks to an educational need.

I’ve been wrong in my social advocacy strategies.

These two pieces have me asking what role academics can play in the midst of this educational divergence. Somehow we need to become a voice in our localities more than being a voice on Twitter.

After the election result, I realized that I have to communicate more with my congressman even though I don’t want to. But I need to do more than that. I need to increase my outreach efforts. I need to talk to high school civics classes about critical social problems confronting all areas of our country. I need to engage with civic groups about the needs in their communities and with ministers associations about the joys and concerns of religion in a diverse society. I need to write letters to the editor. I need to do all of this with ears to hear along with good sociological analysis. I need to make sure that I don’t speak with the arrogance of the educated explaining things to the masses.

This past two weeks has shown me that I’ve been wrong for awhile about a number of things. Now I have to figure out how to act on that realization. I hope my fellow academics will join me.


Religion and Discrimination: A Constitutional Challenge

I’m not a legal scholar. I’m a sociologist of religion who reflects on the relationship between law, religion, and the nature of pluralism. But I try to keep up in a cursory way with what some of the major legal tensions are in modern society and what those suggest about what it means for us to live with diversity.

I’ve been thinking about this topic for most of the summer. In fact, the early forms of my thoughts on the topic began to form back when Indiana passed its Religious Freedom Law in April of 2015.

My thoughts are not fully fleshed out but I feel pretty confident in the conclusion I think I’m coming to. I am sure I’ll dig deeper into this question in the future but I wanted to get my preliminary thoughts down before the semester starts and I get swamped teaching six classes this fall.

I’ll state my conclusion up front and then circle back to explain how I got here. Here goes:

In an increasingly pluralistic culture, claims of religious freedom will conflict directly with protections against discrimination. When that conflict occurs, the discrimination issues will win. This is the case because there is a conflict between the 1st and 14th Amendments to the Constitution. This means that way the forward for evangelicals in a diverse culture is not to rely on claims of religious freedom but to shift our argument to concerns about equal protection under the law.

ConstitutionLet me start with the US Constitution. As most of us learned in civics class, the 1st Amendment guarantees certain issues with regard to religion. Legal scholars distinguish between the establishment clause (government privileging of one religious group over others) and the free exercise clause (protecting freedom of religion from government interference).The 14th Amendment guarantees birthright citizenship, mandates due process protections, and requires equal protection under the law.

I repeat: I am not a legal scholar. But the history of Supreme Court rulings is very instructive to our current situation.

Take, for example, the phrase “sincerely held religious beliefs”. On the surface that seems to be an affirmation of religion. But it’s curious that the phrase arose in a 1944 decision, United States v. Ballard. It revolved around a California group that called themselves “I Am”. The founders of the movement had, according to the state, bilked people out of millions of dollars based on what the state called “fraudulent beliefs” (this was to prove they acted with intent to defraud). But in Ballard, the Supreme Court ruled that it was not the place of the court to deal with the validity of religious claims.

There are many cases where the Supreme Court ruled in favor of religious protections for individuals in the face of state laws. In Sherbert, a Seventh Day Adventist woman was protected from the demands that she work on Saturday. Similar decisions regarding the Amish and public schools (Yoder v. Wisconsin) or Alaskan Aboriginals and hunting rights (Frank v. Alaska) were upheld.

On the other hand, one of the earliest religious freedom cases (Reynolds v. United States) went against the religious practitioner who in 1844 wanted to practice polygamy in line with his Mormon beliefs. In 1990, a native american lost his job due to peyote use and sued to get unemployment benefits (Employment Division of Oregon v. Smith). The Court ruled that the government had a compelling interest in both cases that overrode the individual claims of religious freedom. The Smith case prompted Congress to pass the federal RFRA in 1993.

In the midst of the coverage of the Indiana law, I wrote this post which quoted a remarkable passage from Justice Scalia writing in the Smith decision. Here it is again:

“It is a permissible reading of the [free exercise clause]…to say that if prohibiting the exercise of religion is not the object of the [law] but merely the incidental effect of a generally applicable and otherwise valid provision, the First Amendment has not been offended….To make an individual’s obligation to obey such a law contingent upon the law’s coincidence with his religious beliefs, except where the State’s interest is ‘compelling’ – permitting him, by virtue of his beliefs, ‘to become a law unto himself,’ contradicts both constitutional tradition and common sense.’ To adopt a true ‘compelling interest’ requirement for laws that affect religious practice would lead towards anarchy (emphasis mine).”

What do I make of this history? First, while the Court supports the free exercise clause, it has been fairly erratic in its decisions. The freedom sought by the petitioner is usually balanced by larger state interests. Second, there appears to be a pattern of granting relief to those from a respected minority group against a majority view (Sherbert or Yoder) but less so against those seen as more marginal (Ballard or Smith). Third, while the idea of “sincerely held religious beliefs” works in certain circumstances where the practice is self-contained (Burwell v. Hobby Lobby or the recent state decision about a Michigan funeral home), it’s hard to see how the same applies to people working and living in broader secular culture.

[There is another avenue for redress beyond direct 1st Amendment claims. In 2000, Congress passed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which provides some protection against zoning laws and was the ground for the Holt decision allowing a Muslim  prisoner to keep his beard.]

In short, the tensions between the establishment clause and the free exercise clause make certain application of freedom of religion claims hard to manage. Consider this description of the Locke v. Davie decision (taken from a very good site I found from the University of Missouri at Kansas City):

In 2004, the Supreme Court in Locke v Davey considered the reach of Lukumi Babalu [which protected animal sacrifice by a small group in Florida] in a case involving a Washington State scholarship program for gifted students.  The program allowed students receiving a state scholarship to pursue any major, with one exception: a degree in devotional theology.  When Joshua Davey, a scholarship recipient, was denied funding to pursue a theology program at Northwest, a private religious college, he sued, alleging that Washington had violated his Free Exercise right.  Chief Justice Rehnquist, writing for a 7 to 2 majority, found that the Free Exercise Clause and Establishment Clause, read together, offered enough “play in the joints” to allow Washington to exclude a major in devotional theology, “a religious calling” as much as “an academic pursuit,” from the list of endeavors it will support with taxpayer funds. Justices Scalia and Thomas disagreed, finding the exclusion to be a clear violation of Free Exercise principles laid down in Lukumi Babalu [emphasis mine].

Given this history, it’s not surprising that Indiana’s RFRA law was seen as “license to discriminate” by observers in the press, in industry, and social media. People struggled to see the religious freedom arguments because they didn’t involve state compulsion to not practice one’s religion. Furthermore, an expression of ones group’s free exercise will be seen by others as a distinction against another group. This is the conflict between the 1st and 14th Amendments.

Where the 1st Amendment is open to various interpretations given some of the vagaries described above, the 14th appears relatively straightforward, especially considering the Equal Protection clause. If the petitioners can demonstrate that they have been dealt with differentially under the law, the courts (state, Circuit, Appellate, and Supreme) will tend to affirm the claim.

Consider the decision last month where the Federal Appeals Court ruled North Carolina’s Voter ID law unconstitutional. The court ruled that the state had gone out of its way to select those voting processes that were most used by African Americans. Having found a “smoking gun”, the court’s decision was fairly clear.

It’s important in this light to remember that Obergefell, in legalizing same-sex marriage, was technically a 14th Amendment decision. It was actually a ruling on the unconstitutionally of voter initiatives and state laws that singled out gay couples and said that they couldn’t marry. The Windsor decision, that overturned the Defense of Marriage Act follows the same logic.

I wrote recently about Robert Jones’ great new book, The End of White Christian America. Jones documents the past dominance of Protestants (both Mainliners and Evangelicals) in American society and the ways in which that dominance is declining due to demographic and religious shifts in the society. You can watch a C-Span presentation of Jones’ argument here (and hear me ask the question that prompted this blog post!).

The loss of cultural dominance has some dramatic impacts. One of these is a feeling of persecution (or, more correctly, marginalization).Another is a desire to strike back, to protect against further encroachment.

This spring’s Mississippi law is a good example of this latter approach. In April, the legislature passed a law (HB 1523) designed to protect certain “sincerely held religious beliefs”. It was blocked from taking effect by District Judge Carlton Reeves at the end of June. Here is a summary of the law taken from his ruling.

HB 1523 enumerates three “sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions” entitled to special legal protection. They are,

(a) Marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman;

(b) Sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage; and

(c) Male (man) or female (woman) refer to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth (p.11).

Judge Reeves ruled that there were 1st Amendment Establishment Clause issues in privileging a particular religious view for state protection. But most of his decision was based on 14th Amendment Equal Protection issues.

The State’s argument overlooks the fundamental injurious nature of HB 1523 – the establishment of a broad-based system by which LGBT persons and unmarried persons can be subjected to differential treatment based solely on their status. This type of differential treatment is the hallmark of what is prohibited by the Fourteenth Amendment.

As I stated earlier, differential treatment either experienced or anticipated is not difficult to prove. So attempting to carve out special religious conscience clauses are unlikely to pass constitutional muster.

There are, however, other strategies for Christians to navigate these churning seas of cultural change beside holding to our past positions and claiming 1st Amendment protections. Earlier this summer, I wrote about John Inazu’s book Confident Pluralism. While John ends up in some different places that I do, his book is helpful. I’ll repeat the quote I used in my earlier review:

 The goal of confident pluralism is not to settle which views are right and which views are wrong. Rather, it proposes that the future of our democratic experiment requires finding a way to be steadfast in our personal convictions, while also making room for the cacophony that may ensue when others disagree with us. Confident pluralism allows us to function — and even to flourish — despite the divisions arising out of our deeply held beliefs (8, emphasis mine).

This week my friends Alan Noble and Michael Wear, along with others, launched a new initiative they’ve called Public Faith. You can read their vision statement and sign an affirmation here (I did right away!). They rightly lay out a vision that suggests that Christians play a vital role in society without expecting dominance or withdrawal. While I may differ on some policy orientations, there is a great deal to admire here. Consider this paragraph from the opening passage:

Also central to true pluralism is the continued inclusion of people of faith and religious organizations of various backgrounds and beliefs in the American political community. We believe strongly in religious freedom for all as a bedrock principle that will be essential if we are to build a more inclusive America in this new century. Such freedoms include religious minorities—including Muslims—and religions that hold beliefs that are unpopular. Religious freedom is not absolute, and religious freedom should not cause undue harm to achieve political ends, but it should only be infringed upon in the most extenuating circumstances, and only when absolutely necessary. This idea is not new, but reflected in both statutes and our Constitution. Christian institutions deserve full inclusion in American society, and efforts to starve or stigmatize Christian institutions by force of law or government-endorsed marginalization should be opposed (emphasis mine).

This, then, is where I think we end up.

Rather than calling for religious freedom protections on 1st Amendment grounds as a way of defending our past positions in light of social change, we evangelicals need to give more thought to the way the 14th Amendment Equal Protection and Due Process protections could work. That will require us to be far clearer about the harm done by participating in a pluralistic culture that doesn’t share our values. Failure to do so has been why claims of bakers, photographers, and court clerks have not tended to prevail in court.

We have recently seen an example where my 14th Amendment approach may be in operation. This spring a legislator in California introduced SB 1146 which was aimed at Christian Colleges that had Title IX exemption around LGBT acceptance (California has a state non-discrimination law). There was great concern in the Christian community about what such an approach meant for religious freedom and the future of Christian Higher Education. But as the bill made its way through the state assembly, having passed the Senate, accommodations were made that allowed the Christian schools to continue to operate (while requiring disclosure of the exemptions). It really did attempt to find a way to protect both Christian institutions and LGBT students who might consider attending them.

Alan Noble wrote what I think is an excellent analysis in The Atlantic. There were critics of Alan’s article from both left and right, which is how things will go if we pursue the kind of confident pluralism that the coming decades will demand.

We may be approaching the “End of White Christian America” but there is still a solid voice for people of faith in the midst of the coming diversity.


There’s Something More Important Than the Election

[Some faculty members at Spring Arbor were invited to write something about the election for the fall alumni newsletter. Here’s my submission.]

Like much of America, I can’t seem to stop reading about what’s happening in the presidential race. The major candidates have the highest unfavorable ratings of any two candidates in history. Hardly a day goes by without a new revelation about something one of them did or said which has to be fact checked and analyzed.

The polls provide a snapshot of how potential voters are responding to the candidates. It’s possible to sort support for candidates based upon what characteristics are most important to which subgroups. How do white women with college degrees differ from white men without? Which are leaning toward Clinton? Which are encouraged by Trump’s remarks on national security? The stability of polling has allowed many professional analysts like FiveThirtyEight or Real Clear Politics to make probability estimates on how the Electoral College is likely to turn out.

A quick note about political polling from someone who teaches statistics and research methods: Those polls done by professional organizations are actually quite stable and trustworthy. Yes, there is a margin or error to each individual poll but when they are aggregated over time that margin goes down. The key to polling is to have a sample that reflects the voting population in general. These summary analyses have proven very effective at predicting the eventual outcome of the election in November. This is because they are looking at how states are likely to turn out, which is what the Electoral College is based on, and not on each individual voter. (If you want to know more, drop me an email.)

My real problem with polling is that it focuses all of our attention on November 8th. We can make our own predictions on how the election will turn out and be happy or sad about the outcome depending upon which candidate we were backing.

In my opinion, we shouldn’t be so focused on November. The real questions around the presidential election begin to arise on January 20th. How will the new president lead the country to address the many critical issues that require our attention? Can the rhetoric of a political campaign be translated into appropriate policy? Can the president work with members of the opposition party to advance issues on behalf of the common good?

I am what Andrew Hamilton (of musical fame) called a Federalist. That means that I believe that there is a role for the federal government to play in fostering “a more perfect Union”. We haven’t been very good at that in recent administrations, regardless of party. This is why polls show Americans overwhelming believing that the country is “on the wrong track” and why Congress’ approval rating remains in the single digits.

Our never-ending election seasons have encouraged us to look at political life as a repeated pattern of winners and losers. In reality, we have to work together across party lines to deal with the pressing issues facing us as a society.

This is particularly important for Christian voters to remember. Because we live in a representative democracy, our viewpoints are important voices in the public square but are not the only voices. We also need to remember than some of the people with whom we disagree politically are also Christians striving to follow Jesus. Finally, we need to recognize that many outside the church are evaluating Christianity on the basis for how we engage political discussion.

That preamble to the Constitution is really a remarkable paragraph. Its what should be guiding all of us in our thinking about “We The People”. Regardless of the outcome on November 8th, that’s the important challenge before us.


Demography is Destiny: Religion and Politics

White Christian America

This is a really important book.

Every so often, a piece of research comes along that reframes our understanding of religion in America. As I’ve written before, Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s American Grace was one of those. But Robert Jones work in The End of White Christian America sets an even higher bar. We will be reading about the analysis in this book for the next decade.

Robert (Robbie) Jones is the CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute. He grew up in Mississippi and earned an MDiv from Southwestern Baptist Seminary and a PhD in Religious Studies from Emory. In short, he’s an insider to the world of American religion and offers a sympathetic voice.

Jones does something rather unusual in his book. Rather than obsessing over differences between evangelicals and mainline protestants, he puts them together as two branches of the same family. He then examines the family within the backdrop of Catholicism, Mormonism, Black Protestantism, and the Religious Nones.

The book opens considering the status of major religious groups in the mid-twentieth century. It is a story of religious dominance, of a common worldview that seemed to infuse American Culture. Interestingly, he uses architecture as a way of telling that story. Edifices representing religious life that rose above the skyline eventually give way for very pragmatic economic reasons to being just another building on the horizon.

The real story is one of demography. Rather than getting caught up in arguments about the role of conservative theology versus social accommodation, Jones examines what has happened to the religious population in America. He notes, for example, that the percentage of Americans who are White Protestants fell from just over 50% in the mid 1970s to just over 30% in 2014.

Why? The standard demographic reasons: new members don’t come in fast enough to replace dying members. Some decrease in intergenerational stability (younger generations leaving the church). Birthrates that are lower than those among other groups.

Robbie’s book aligns nicely with another I read this spring: Good Faith by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons. Their book opens with data on why traditional evangelical positions are seen as irrelevant at best and extreme at worst. Some of the extreme views are no doubt due to the communication methods some evangelicals have used in defending their positions (a point David and Gabe make in their earlier books about the unchurched and the formerly churched).

But the data they report makes perfect sense when seen through the lens of Robbie’s work. To their credit, the balance of Good Faith attempts to give guidance on how evangelicals can operate within an increasingly pluralistic culture.

Robbie’s book opens with an obituary for White Christian America and ends with a eulogy. His final chapter uses Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ five stages of grief to talk about WCA. It’s easy to see in operation. There is much depression, anger, and bargaining about the decline of Christian centrality in American life. It is no surprise that those most upset about the increasing diversity are from people my generation and older.

The defense of religious freedom is an example of the shifting ground. There has been a presumption that “religious freedom” has meant the freedom to be White Christian America. This is where RFRA laws have gone off the rails because its hard to provide a constitutional justification for a particularized interpretation of whose freedom is protected (more coming in my next post). Major kudos to ERLC president Russell Moore for his robust and far-reaching defense of religious freedom in a recent public meeting.

The shifts in religious alignment have a parallel in political alignment. Thousands of words have been written this year on evangelicals voting Republican, especially for Donald Trump. The truth is that most mainline protestants have tilted Republican as well. But the demographic changes affecting American Religion are also present in our electoral maps.

Robbie JonesWhile on vacation in New York City recently, I got to hear Jones present on the book. Naturally, politics was an important topic of discussion. He shared a chart that showed that White Christian voters will make up 55% of the electorate this year. They are still a majority because as a group they are more likely to vote than other groups. But in 1992, WC voters made up just under 3 in 4 voters. By the 2024 election, they will be in a numeric minority. Even with today’s numbers, it doesn’t take much of a shift in political alignment for the assumed linkage between religion and political party to be breached.

This is why evangelicals are so politically active this year. That’s not to suggest that they aren’t sincere in their concerns over Roe or Obergefell and future Supreme Court actions. Its not to suggest that they aren’t concerned about infringements on what they see as life as normal. But they sense that this is a last gasp. As Marco Rubio likes to put it, someone is out to “fundamentally transform” American society.

The challenge is that the transformation isn’t coming from Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. It’s happening in our midst as we become an increasingly pluralistic society.

One of Jones’ big findings out of his data set is that many in WCA are what he calls “nostalgia voters”. They look favorably on how things used to be (albeit selectively). This will no doubt be a major part of Trump’s meetings with evangelicals today.

But demography really is destiny. We aren’t going back to some earlier day when we all agreed on a set of taken-for-granted religious tenets. And a secular constitution doesn’t give us a backstop for that anyway.

The book isn’t perfect, as critics have suggested. By focusing on protestants, the impact of hispanic Catholics in underplayed. The role of immigrants seeing America as a mission field isn’t explored. These are fair critiques.

But I’d argue that when religious leaders and religion writers express concern about the changing nature of religion, they are looking primarily at White Protestants. (Black Evangelicals, for example, have received very little press in this election.)

While Jones addresses the Kubler-Ross stages of grief, he ends the book before we get to acceptance. I think this is an accurate read. But the coming decade will require White Christian America to figure out its place in a changing society, to find the means of prophetic and faithful witness.

It may well be that the biggest influence of White Christian America will come because they have to engage others in the broad conversations about how we live together in an increasingly complex and diverse society.


Seven Confusing Things from Trump’s Acceptance Speech

While I followed a lot of the Republic National Convention via social media rather than watching live, I thought it was an important civic duty to watch Ivanka’s introduction of Donald Trump and to see his speech in real time (without reading the advanced copy). Like everyone else I found it hard to hear, overly dark, harsh, loud, and troubling.

CRJ Trump
Columbia Journalism Review

But mostly I found it confusing. There were a number of things that raised significant questions for me that I wanted someone to explain. If you liked the speech, maybe you can help me. So here is a list of ten things that really confused me.

  1. The Use of Statistics. Trump made references to homicides for 2015 in the 50 largest cities and compared the numbers to 2014. He cited a 50% increase in Baltimore (without a comparison date). But this data was lacking context. There was a passing reference to crime rates declining over time — which is indisputable — but the data appeared cherry picked to support a pre-existing argument. This was true for police shootings and mass shootings as well. On economic news, he talked of 58% of African American youth that were unemployed or 14 million people who have left the workforce without referencing that the former includes people who are in school and the latter includes retirees. In almost every data point shared, my response was “wait, what?”.
  2. Whose Jurisdiction? Trump promised that on January 20, 2017 safety will be restored to our  communities. But I teach criminal justice and know that law enforcement, like education, is a local issue. Presidents may use the bully pulpit to encourage action and may use budget incentives to promote certain behaviors, but controlling crime is not a national issue especially at the presidential level. Unless, of course, a president wants to use the military in crime control and I’m pretty sure that’s not what he meant. He said he would appoint the best prosecutors and law enforcement officers, even though this isn’t the president’s job.
  3. Separation of Powers. One of the words you will not find in the text of Trump’s speech is the word “Congress”. There were no references to asking congress to fast track his policy priorities. There was no recognition of the advice and consent role of the Senate or the budgetary authority of the House. Instead, nearly every “policy” matter was followed with “When I am president, I will…”. But it was not at all clear how those would issues would be turned into law except through executive order.
  4. The problem of small numbers. Many of the personal harm stories shared at the convention had a similar problem. A horrific act occurred to a family that involved an illegal immigrant. Maybe it was a car crash. Or it was the sad story of the young woman in Nebraska who was killed by a formerly deported undocumented immigrant. But making the linkage between the general policy of immigration reform and the specifics of the horrific case was really disturbing. There is virtually no way of stopping one bad actor out of 180,000 immigrants you’re concerned about. The car accident could have occurred due to a range of other people who drove under the influence. To focus on such isolated cases is bad enough (too much of the media does this) but to promise that it will not happen again is hard to fathom.
  5. The Free Market and the Government: Trump rightly complained about companies that felt no loyalty to their local communities. He recognized that there are economic incentives that make taking jobs to another country look like good business. Trump claimed that he wouldn’t allow companies to leave the country without consequences. It’s not clear at all where the authority to stop them comes from or how consequences would be legitimated (to say nothing of passing constitutional muster).
  6. An expanded federal role. He will expand the military, repair infrastructure, rework the TSA, insure quality education for all students, deal with the criminal justice issues, make our neighborhoods safe, expand our investigation into immigrants from terrorism threatened countries, and fix the VA. Doing all this, especially as fast as he said he would do it, would require a massive expansion of the federal workforce and a significant Keynesian investment of federal dollars. Yes, he wants foreign governments to pay their NATO bills and have a review of waste, fraud, and abuse but there’s no way around a massive shift in authority to the federal level from states and localities.
  7. Timing. In his delivered address (as opposed to the prepared text) Trump argued that all of this would happen Soon. This wasn’t a description of things he’d like to do during the first term — these were changes that would be happening within days, weeks, and months of the inauguration. Maybe this is the way things can happen when you have a worldwide business organization with just over 22,000 employees (according to Wikipedia). But the federal government is a huge responsibility and has all kinds of imbedded legal requirements and decision making processes. I really wanted to get some idea that he appreciated that difference in magnitude.

Maybe there are direct answers to everyone of the issues I’ve raised. If so, please fill me in.

When did “not being politically correct” become Politically Correct?

In the fast few years, critics from a variety of perspectives have decried a reliance on Political Correctness. The argument seems to be that by being careful with our language or sensitive to how it would be heard, we are avoiding certain conversations we ought to be having, coddling those who don’t want their existing views challenged, or somehow denying individuals free speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.

This attack on Political Correctness has been a useful rhetorical device during the now-ended Republican primary campaign. As this week showed, there is a belief that it is for fear of hurting people’s feelings that we won’t use the phrase Radical Islamic Terrorism. We can’t claim Black Lives Matter because that would disparage police officers and paper over issues that exist with intra-racial crime. We can’t talk of systemic racism in the criminal justice system because that asserts that police officers are working from racist motives.

Politically CorrectYesterday, the Pew Research folks released this data on Political Correctness. It shows that six in ten registered voters find that people are too easily offended by what people say. Not surprisingly, there is a clear partisan divide on this topic. For Republicans nearly 8 in 10 see people as worrying too much about being PC while for Democrats, the number is less than 4 in 10.

This is a complicated topic. Recent topics in higher education news include students requiring “trigger warnings” about readings that might upset them, about political positions taken by professors, about speakers invited to campus or disinvited from campus.

We’ve watched a campaign full of vindictive nicknames and hyperbolic claims. Fact-checking seems irrelevant and the media invents a number of new euphemisms for “lying”.

Those who complain are seen as thin skinned and not understanding what strength looks like. Many of Trump’s supporters claim to like him because he says what he thinks regardless of how it might be taken by others.

I’m still stuck trying to figure out how we got here. It is tempting to blame social media for this. When working in 140 characters, nuance is impossible. And outrageous comments somehow generate more traffic. But our tendency to talk in catchphrases is older than that.

Maybe it relates to the expanded role of the Internet as a tool in position-taking. When sharing an interesting story on social media, I have often written “Don’t read the comments!

I have come to believe that I was wrong. We should always read the comments. Because the harsh statements that people make are indicative of what too many are willing to say in their closed circles.

It’s not just that people aren’t worrying about offending people in the comments section. THEY MEAN TO OFFEND. That’s why the ad hominem attacks on the Bible Thumper or the LibTard are so common. Saying the harsh thing is designed to put the hearer/reader is his or her place.

I still think there is value in Political Correctness. Being Politically Correct means understanding that you are speaking in generalities. It is not politically weak to say we are worried about terrorists who have distorted Islam for their own purposes. It is not weak to argue that police officers would be better served to learn de-escalation techniques rather than shooting counselors laying down in the street.

Being Politically Correct means that you recognize that words matter. They bring stories to life. It is not coddling to suggest that students who have a history of sexual assault should know that what they are reading in class may be too close to their past situation.

Being Politically Correct means that you are careful with your claims so as not to overstate. To say that shootings are a problem in certain cities isn’t as exciting as saying crime is epidemic, but it shows that the speaker cares enough about the truth to keep context. I can worry about homicides in Chicago without making it a national issue (or subtly connecting it to race).

It’s going to be a long haul until we get through this election. Regardless of who wins, the transition to the next administration will be challenging. The losing party won’t just say, “Better luck in 2020“. They will be upset and likely angry. They’ve been told that we are fundamentally altering what it means to be America (thanks, Marco!).

But being Politically Incorrect will not serve us in the year to come. The least we can do is to remember some of the basic issues of civil discourse as we deal with those other than ourselves.


A Quick Note on “the Johnson Amendment”

Part of recent campaign rhetoric involves a significant misunderstanding of what is known as “the Johnson Amendment”. To hear some tell it, the amendment is a terrific infringement on freedom of religion. This is simply not true.

When I mentioned this on twitter, my interlocutor wryly observed: “You’re trying to make a logical point? In this election?

Call me an idealist; it wouldn’t be the first time.

When I read of Donald Trump or evangelical leaders complain about the amendment, it makes it sound like a deliberate attempt to keep religion out of the public square. It feeds the anti-Democratic biases to continue to attach the regulation to Lyndon Johnson.

Here is the backstory. The federal government has allowed philanthropic gifts to non-profit organizations to be tax deductible since 1918. In the 1943 Tax Law, there were limits placed on the political activities of those organizations as part of their tax exempt status. When the Tax Code came up for review in 1954, then Senator Lyndon Johnson added an amendment to the 501c(3) section that prohibits the organization from directly endorsing a particular candidate or working directly against a particular candidate.

eisenhower_signingThe amendment was considered by a Republican-controlled House of Representatives and the Republican-controlled Senate. It was included in the 1954 Tax Reform Act and signed into law by Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower (this is a generic picture of Eisenhower signing something, not the 1954 Law).

Wikipedia describes the impact of the amendment as follows: “Organizations recognized under Section 501(c)(3) of the U.S. tax code are subject to limits or absolute prohibitions on engaging in political activities and risk loss of tax exempt status if violated. Specifically, they are prohibited from conducting political campaign activities to intervene in elections to public office.

It’s important to keep in mind that the restriction on a tax-exempt organization is limited to its official capacity and not to its leadership. So when people suggest that ministers cannot endorse candidates, that’s false (ask Jerry Fallwell, Jr. or Robert Jeffress). If, on the other hand, Liberty University or Dallas First Baptist endorsed a candidate, then it’s a violation.

While I agree that the city of Houston overreached when going after pastors who opposed the city non-discrimination ordinance, this was part of the logic that was being pursued. Were the ministers, acting in their official capacity within the church, engaged in lobbying? (Which, by the way, was already a legal prohibition before 1954.) It would be difficult to prove and it was a terrible precedent but it’s not unreasonable given the law.

So does that mean that Christian folks have no recourse in the public square? Of course not. They are free to act as private citizens and advocate in any way they please. In addition, they have the potential of forming a 501c(4), which IS allowed to work on behalf of candidates, as long as candidate advocacy isn’t the primary focus.

For example, the Family Research Council is a 501c(3) and can advocate for their concerns by must stop short of political action. On the other hand, Family Research Action is a designated 501c(4) and is allowed to engage in candidate advocacy and position endorsement.

The Republican National Committee Platform this week calls for overturning the “Johnson Amendment”, allowing non-profits to engage in political advocacy without endangering their tax exempt status. The reporting on this is a little unclear. While many sites refer to this as removing limitations on churches, it seems that removing the Johnson language would impact all non-profits. To make allowance for churches to have advocacy but not other groups would have significant challenges to the 1st amendment (non-establishment) and 14th amendment (equal protection).

The distinction between 501c(3) and 501c(4) organizations apply to more than just churches. Planned Parenthood is a 501c(3) and cannot endorse candidates. On the other hand, Planned Parenthood Action is a 501c(4) that endorsed Hillary Clinton.

To recap: the current language on non-profit restrictions of political action was made law under Republican control of government, there is no limitation on ministers or their laity from engaging in personal endorsement of a candidate, other tax-exempt avenues are available for religious folks wishing to organize to impact public policy, and changes to the law would have wide-reaching impacts.

Newt Gingrich might be very interested to learn that dropping the Johnson Amendment would allow his hypothetical mosque to directly advocate for Sharia Law. I really don’t think that’s what the RNC is after.

As my twitter friend observed, I’m yelling into the wind. But maybe it will have some small impact the next time someone tells you that Johnson took away our right to make our religious views known.