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.

Evangelicals are Supporting Trump? I’m shocked, shocked!

Yesterday, my social media feed exploded with news coming out of the Pew Research Center. Based on polling done over the last two weeks, they found that 78% of white evangelicals supported Trump for president, a figure that is actually stronger than that expressed for Mitt Romney at the same point in 2012.

Pew Trump

In fact, white evangelicals are 10 percentage points higher on strong support than was true for Romney. My response to this data is to quote Captain Renault in Casablanca: “I’m shocked, shocked to find out that gambling is going on in (Rick’s club)“.

This data shouldn’t be surprising for several reasons.

First, there is the matter of historical pattern. When we got to the conclusion of the 2012 election, white evangelicals supported Mitt Romney by 79% to 21%. That’s one percent better than Romney did among Mormons! Nothing that has happened in the past four years should have led anyone to expect those patterns to shift substantially.

Second, as I’ve written before, it’s possible that the evangelical vote is actually reflecting a set of other co-variants that correlate with voting Republican: Southern, rural, high school educated, small government, working class, concern over immigration. It’s very difficult to parse the independent impact of an evangelical identity (even controlling for theology and church attendance). To the extent that all of these factors correlate to some degree, this finding would be somewhat expected.

Third, Lydia Bean observed in her book (as I quoted recently) that for many American Evangelicals the perceived moral decline of society is placed at the feet of liberal Democrats. (This is not the case in her Canadian churches.) So when bright line social issues like opposition to abortion and concern over same-sex marriage stand as markers of identity, and the Democrats are on the other side of those arguments, it’s hard to see white evangelicals who might switch parties in the face of Mr. Trump’s personal background and rhetorical style. This helps explain why the evangelical summit was important to Trump. It is in line with Pastor Robert Jeffress saying that “we need a mean son of a you know what” to shake things up. It’s why evangelicals have been telling themselves that we don’t need a pastor in chief. Voting for the other side is a bridge too far.

Fourth, there is a clear alignment between some sectors of the evangelical world and conservative Republican causes. Two weeks ago, Colorado Christian University hosted the Western Conservative Summit. The speakers list is a who’s who of Republican favorites. During the Republican primaries, candidates spoke at a number of Christian universities (who were mostly very careful not to endorse). While other evangelical institutions have gone out of their way to be places of dialogue without party affiliation, they are in the minority.

Fifth, the data reflects shifting age demographics. I just got my copy of The Death of White Christian America by Robert Jones of PRRI in the mail today. While I haven’t read it, I did watch a live event he did at Brookings on Monday (and am pleased to be attending an event in NYC on the 27th). In his remarks, Robbie spoke to why attitudes toward same-sex marriage haven’t shifted as much among White Evangelicals as among other groups. He suggested that there is evidence that some young people are shifting out of evangelical groups because of the evangelical stance on same-sex marriage. The result is that the percentages remain stable because the moderating forces are departing the fold. This is consistent with anecdotal information found in works by Robert Putnam and David Campbell (American Grace), David Kinnaman (You Lost Me), Vern Bengston (Families and Faith), and Wes Markofsky (The New Monasticism). If a segment of millennials feel that evangelicalism is too wedded to partisan politics and thereby leave evangelicalism, the percentage that remain evangelical will show up as more conservative.

Sixth, there is some relationship between race and the electorate. The same day that the Pew Survey was released, an NBC/Marist poll found that Donald Trump’s support among Blacks in Ohio and Pennsylvania had hit 0.0%. To the extent that our churches (both evangelical and mainline) are too segregated, we’d expect the kinds of patterns shown in the Pew data to be consistent.

Sociologists, political scientists, and religion reporters will spend most of the next two years trying to figure out what all this means for the relationship between politics and evangelical faith. If the current FiveThirtyEight model holds, there is a 2 in 3 chance of a Democratic victory.

Since that kind of loss feeds the dominant narrative the Lydia Bean and the Western Conservative Summit describe, it’s hard to see these patterns shifting in the future. I would expect the percentages claiming to be evangelical to shift but not the percentage Republican within that group.


The Promise of Confident Pluralism

I’ve been following the work of John Inazu for about 18 months now. Anytime he posts something in Christianity Today, I know it will be thoughtful, non-reactionary, and optimistic. It’s a breath of fresh air when too much of Christian media is caught up in “sky is falling” analysis.

John is an associate professor of law and political science at Washington University in St. Louis. I had been eagerly anticipating his book release and when I got my copy on Saturday I read the whole thing in one sitting. It offers as much hope and optimism as i thought it would. For those concerned about religious freedoms in a pluralistic culture, it’s a very worthwhile read.

InazuThe book is an interesting combination of constitutional legal analysis and commitment to certain civic principles. Interestingly, the phrase “confident pluralism” is taken from an amicus brief filed in a famous California law school case, Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, which challenged “all comers” policies when it came to religious groups in secular institutions. The brief was filed by a gay rights group in support of the CLS position.

Here’s how John describes confident pluralism in the introduction to the book:

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).

Important to his argument is the Madisonian balance between the majority and the minority on a variety of issues. Russell Moore of the ERLC made a marvelous defense of religious freedom for Muslims, to the dismay of some listeners. But this is exactly the point about allowing for the inclusion of others into the rights we protect. At the same time, there is legitimate interest in protecting the dissent rights of those who stand counter to the prevailing mood. Much of the religious freedom legislation is caught up in trying to navigate this balance and Inazu explores how Supreme Court decisions have made this balance more difficult.

He argues that the “right to assemble” has been an underdeveloped component of constitutional jurisprudence. John characterizes this right to gather with like-minded others as a key protection in the First Amendment, even though the Court hasn’t recognized it as such. With this perspective, the right of an InterVarsity group to want its leadership to endorse its views or a Christian University to limit student behavior takes on a different light. I have argued the other side of some of these issues based on the law as it stands, but I find John’s argument persuasive.

But he doesn’t leave it there, which is where the pluralism comes in. If all we had were groups that were formed around particular interests, the result would be a balkanized society. Coser’s conflict theory argues that group cohesion is aided by having an out-group to be against. Inazu argues that we need forums, both governmental and private, that allow for robust interaction around issues of import.

[These forums] are an essential part of confident pluralism because they allow citizens and the groups that they form to advocate, protest, and witness in common spaces — and they are insufficiently protected under current constitutional doctrine (9).

His next constitutional issue deals with the limitations of public funding for groups that fall outside the mainstream. He deals with the issue of tax exemption, exploring not only the Bob Jones decision but also a feminist magazine. If public funding is generally available, it should be so without forces pushing conformity.

The public funding requirement insists that generally available resources are made available to any student organization. That principle should protect Christian groups in the current political climate on progressive school campuses. It should also protect atheist or LGBT groups on conservative public school campuses (80).

These constitutional provisions are necessary but not sufficient conditions of confident pluralism. They are accompanied by a set of civic principles that would govern how we relate to those who are different from us.

The exercise of tolerance, he argues, is based on a recognition that we can disagree on ideas and values but not on personal worth. We can differ without demonizing. John describes some speech norms that can help us here, namely by avoiding character attacks and conversation stoppers. To see examples of both of these, go read the comments section on just about anything on the internet. In this light, “political correctness” has become a conversation stopper when I would argue that it really is a significant issue that requires serious attention. More on this in my next post.

We may engage in protests or boycotts to make our voices heard, but these still fall within the constraints of tolerance and speech norms that would govern public forums. In addition, our goal is to actually build working relationships between differing groups even if the value separations cannot be overcome. This part of the book draws on a fascinating history of the connections between Jerry Falwell, Sr. and Hustler publisher Larry Flynt. If they can find ways of developing mutuality, even while disagreeing vehemently on core values, so can any of us.

I have written much, along with many others, about what it means to live in a post-Christian society, to be in a context where religious values are not a default position. I saw research cited today that a significant percentage of a sample was unconcerned with the question “If you were to die tonight…”. The reality is that there are lots of people who don’t think like evangelicals do.

When confronted with that reality, one option is to embrace nostalgia. The PRRI reports that 70% of white evangelicals feel society has gotten worse since the 1950s. Another option is to cry persecution, that “they” are out to get “us”. This requires an understanding of “their” motivations that we don’t often have, finding it far easier to impute motive. A third option is to crave the political and symbolic power to make sure our view is held in favor — making sure our stores say “Merry Christmas”, for example.

What John Inazu offers is something much harder, something more promising, and something ultimately more Christian. To engage others as valuable people, to find ways of engaging our differences, and managing to live confidently as people of faith in a changing culture.

The Evangelicals(TM) Meet with Donald Trump

Last week, a group of 900 evangelicals attended a session with Republican Nominee Donald Trump. We really don’t know much about most of those in attendance. But we do know something of those who were speakers at the session and those who were named to Trump’s “Evangelical Advisory Board“.

For shorthand, let’s call them The Evangelicals™.

In the past, I’ve written about Industry Evangelicalism, that part of evangelical subculture that is caught up in protecting the boundaries of what “good evangelicals” do, write, and promote. These can be represented by national organizations, periodicals, and major websites.

The Evangelicals™ are a special subset of Industry Evangelicalism, and it’s not surprising to see their connection to Trump. I spend an afternoon last week tracking down the biographies of most of the newly named members of the advisory board. (Note: they didn’t volunteer and haven’t agreed to serve, so being named isn’t an endorsement.)

Faith Leaders Hold Press Conference After Meeting With Donald Trump In NYC
NEW YORK, NY – JUNE 21: (L to R) Sealy Yates, founder of My Faith Votes, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, and Kelly Shackelford, president of the First Liberty Institute, attend a press conference following a meeting with Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at the Marriott Marquis Hotel, June 21, 2016 in New York City. Donald Trump held a private closed-press meeting with hundreds of conservative Christians and evangelical leaders on Tuesday morning. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Here’s a general summary of what I found: their average age is 60. Only three are under 50. Most of them are involved in some form of broadcast ministry. Even the two attorneys on the board specialize in getting evangelical books on to the bestseller lists (one of them was the one that got Mark Driscoll’s book on the NYT). For many, the heyday of their fame was about two decades back.

I’ve been studying the transcript of the June 21st meeting. In the midst of an answer on tax exemption (more on that below), Trump says the following:

And over the course of various meetings, I realized that there are petrified ministers and churches. They speak before 25,000 people, the most incredible speakers you could ever see, better than any politician by far (emphasis mine).

I was struck by how much Trump identifies with ministers with large congregations or prosperous broadcast empires. I wonder how he’d relate to the average evangelical pastor with 75 people in a church start in a Cleveland suburb.

As much as it can be frustrating to make sense of Trump’s verbatim comments, I’m particularly interested in the rhetorical frame used by the other speakers.

I’ve been reading Lydia Bean’s The Politics of Evangelical Identity (I’m using in my sociology of religion class this fall). It’s a fascinating ethnographic study of two congregations in Buffalo, NY and two in Hamilton, ON. It allows a cross-national comparison of theologically similar churches. Lydia found that while all four congregations were concerned about what they saw as moral decline in modern society, the American churches attached blame to liberals in government. This is why she found that the American churches had a default orientation to the Republican Party while the Canadian churches didn’t blame a particular party (they tended to blame the collective church).

This theme is easy to see in statements by The Evangelicals™ last week. Consider the following comments from Ben Carson, Jerry Falwell, Jr. (telling a story about his father),  James Dobson, and Ronnie Floyd:

This is who we are dealing with, ladies and gentlemen. You know, the ship is about to sail off Niagara Falls, full of passengers and everybody’s about to be killed. You know what we have to do? We have to stop the ship — number one. Number two, we have to turn it around. And number three, we have to sail in the other direction. There are a lot of people who think you can do all of that at the same time. You cannot. First, let’s stop the ship. Let’s do that this fall in massive numbers. We can then turn it around. We can then sail it in the other direction. I’m not going to tell you who you should vote for. I’m just telling you to use your brain.

His last national interview was with Christiane Amanpour of CNN just a few days before his death in 2007, and in that interview he joked that he had dreamed recently that Chelsea Clinton had interviewed him and asked him what are the three greatest threats facing our nation. He replied, “Osama, Obama, and your mama.” Now Osama’s gone, Obama’s on his way out, and we have the chance to make sure that Chelsea’s mama goes out of politics with them.

And yet when Barack Obama became president, I think there was a conscious effort to undermine our religious liberty. You’ve probably seen it from that time to this. Have you noticed that the president and Democrats and Hillary — yes, Hillary — no longer talk about “freedom of religion”? They talk about “freedom of worship.” Why have they changed that? It’s very small, a one-word change. Well, freedom of worship means that you are confined to your churches and your synagogues, but freedom of religion, as identified in the Constitution, is in the public square, it’s everywhere. So they have tried to limit us to our church activity. So we’re seeing more and more of that.

President Obama was the first black president in American history. And, unquestionably, this was a great triumph for the United States, for civil rights. And we all celebrate that moment. Yet, the nation seems today to be more divided racially and there is more violence in the inner cities than when President Obama was elected.

It’s not just that society is operating in a post-Christian framework. It’s that THOSE PEOPLE have done this on purpose . (Carson makes reference to the fact that Hillary knew Saul Alinsky in college — I didn’t know he went to Wellesley!)

There’s a related issue that runs throughout the comments of The Evangelicals™: tax exemption and religious freedom issues. This is what Trump was referring to in the comment above regarding ministers being afraid to speak out.

You talk about religious liberty and religious freedom. You really don’t have religious freedom, if you really think about it, because when President Johnson had his tenure, he passed something that makes people very, very nervous to even talk to preserve their tax-exempt status. It’s taken a lot of power away from Christianity and other religions.

There are two interesting things in the transcript when it comes to this issue. First, notice that blame is laid at the feet of the Johnson administration. But that is factually incorrect. It is the Johnson amendment that prevents 501c(3) organizations (including but not limited to churches) from advocating for a particular candidate for office. But that was Senator Johnson adding the phrase to the Internal Revenue Act of 1954, approved by a Republican congress and signed by President Eisenhower.

Second, the people in the room don’t feel particularly limited by the Johnson Amendment. In spite of their professed concerns, they are clearly supporting Donald Trump. In his opening prayer for the meeting, Franklin Graham includes these words:

And, Father, we pray this election that you will give a man to be the president of this country who will honor life, who will respect our Constitution, who will respect the authority of the office. And, Father, we pray that your will will be done (emphasis mine).

In past election cycles, this might have passed muster as a generic statement of values. But when the other nominee is a woman, the use of “man” says a lot. And I don’t really think he was talking about Gary Johnson!

In spite of Trump’s claims, the Johnson Amendment applies to churches and not to ministers. They remain free to advocate for a political candidate just like any other citizen. Just not in their official capacity representing their church.

Jerry Falwell, Jr. understands that distinction and gave voice to it:

As you know, Liberty University does not support or oppose candidates for public office — a lawyer makes me say that — but I personally feel strongly that Donald Trump is God’s man to lead our nation at this crucial crossroads in our country’s history (emphasis mine).

Falwell doesn’t seem to be “petrified”. And his lawyer reference made me more than a little uncomfortable as it suggests that he might wish his university could endorse particular candidates.

Another tendency of The Evangelicals™ is to cloud over legitimate governmental processes. In following up a religious freedom question, Mike Huckabee says this:

Just to add, I think the Second Amendment is gonna be gone. These are issues that should be decided by the American people through the ballot box, not by a handful of rogue justices appointed for life. [Applause] And I think we just want to know you’re going to appoint people who will respect the constitutional separation of powers and not allow people to be appointed who would go and legislate from the judicial branch. And I think you can give us some comfort that you’re going to appoint people who respect the Constitution rather than completely ignore it (emphasis mine).

Now I grant that a different configuration of Supreme Court Justices might rule that certain legislative adjustments to gun access might be seen more favorably. But we would have gotten there by duly elected legislators, themselves elected through the ballot box, having passed a law. The Justices would then have to rule on the constitutionality of that legislation. There is no way, as Huckabee hints and Trump elaborates, that “Hillary Clinton is going to abolish the Second Amendment if she becomes president.”  The suggestion here is that SCOTUS would rule the second amendment to the constitution unconstitutional. It boggles the mind.

I’m not addressing the news that John Fea reported last week. Dobson claimed that “he’d heard” that Trump had become a Christian. I honestly can’t figure it out. It was later reported that Paula White was the leader Dobson was referencing. But the leadership of the Trump meeting were all together the night before and nobody makes reference to that significant fact during the meeting? Huckabee does comment at one point, “Some people are very vocal about their faith, and other people are not.” But when has Trump ever been hesitant about sharing the significance of his views in any context? I’ll leave this for others to sort out.

The Evangelicals™ are not representative of the evangelical church. It takes about ten minutes of time on the internet to find people of deep Christian faith, who believe in the authority of scripture and the saving power of Jesus, who are able to engage in political discourse without demonizing the other party. They recognize legitimate policy differences and attempt to pursue their Christian values with an eye toward the common good.

The Canadian churches in Lydia Bean’s book see the multiculturalism of contemporary society as a given, even a strength, and are figuring out how to engage that pluralistic culture. I think that’s where many evangelicals find themselves. They may be frustrated by Supreme Court decisions or changing social patterns, but they are trying to find the best way forward as people of faith.

The day before the Trump meeting, John Inazu and Tim Keller posted a piece in Christianity Today titled How Christians Can Bear Gospel Witness in an Anxious Age. When I read it, I realized how different it was in style and rhetoric from that of The Evangelicals™.

My copy of Inazu’s book, Confident Pluralism, came last Saturday and I read it in one sitting. It’s worth a blog post of its own which will come tomorrow.




How Thorsten Veblen Ruined My Trip to France

Okay, that’s clearly an overstatement. I have really enjoyed my three weeks traveling to Paris, Normandy, Strasbourg, and Marseille with our cross-cultural group. It’s been a great immersion into another culture. While my high school and college French didn’t get me to speaking level, it did let me read signs and menus while generally understanding the gist of conversations. And the time with the students and my friend Elisee has been incredibly rewarding.
But I struggled to like the things that you’re supposed to see in Paris. For example, during the Louvre tour you have the possibility of seeing Napoleon III’s “apartments”. As expected, there were lots of tourists with their selfie sticks taking pictures of the incredible decor. 

Maybe I’ve listened to too much Bernie Sanders over the last year, but my mind kept drifting back to the vast inequality that was built into French society in the 18th and 19th centuries. While Louis Napoleon, according to a book I was reading, did care for the common man, it’s clear that his priorities were on building an opulent life — and for that matter, an opulent France. Homes were demolished, parks created, magnificent buildings built. This inequality, combined with an unfortunate outcome to the Franco Prussian War, led to Napoleon’s fall and the creation of the permanent republic.

Around the time of this transition, Thorsten Veblen argued that as economic inequality increases, the wealthy must embrace “conspicuous consumption”. In other words, they must demonstrate their enhanced social status by the obvious pomposity of their lifestyle. This was the subject of the 1980s television series “The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous”.

In my last post, I described the ongoing tensions in French history between the linkage of church and state and the free thinking of the republican movement. There is a similar tension between economic aggrandizement and political turmoil. I’m writing this from Charles De Gaulle airport, where the strike that has colored our time here didn’t spread to the airlines as feared. But the EU changes in the workweek are a direct expression of the contrast between the elites and the common workers.

In my sociological theory class, we spend a unit on Conflict Theory. One of the dynamics that cuts across all theorists in that section is that conflict arises due to “relative deprivation”. In other words, there is a general sense that the rich are very different than you and me, as Fitzgerald observed. But when that difference becomes extreme in the eyes of those left behind, it open the door for conflict, especially when other means of addressing grievances fail.

Yesterday, I toured Chateau Versailles, the “hunting lodge” Louis XIV built. (Interesting fact, not only did Louis have a mistress, he built her a little palace on the grounds.) But by the time his grandson Louis XVI is occupying the place in the 1790s, it’s not hard to imagine why the common people of the revolution thought all this was just a little too much grandeur in light of what was going on around their dinner tables.

Of course, it didn’t help that Louis XIV thought of himself as the Sun King (illustrated by the fence). And the picture above suggests that Louis XVI was not exactly a model of humility. It doesn’t take much imagination to consider what the peasants thought when the entered Versailles and saw that bedroom (how does anyone sleep in there)? Regardless of what Marie Antionette did or didn’t say, the vast gap between the monarchy and the people created situations making bad outcomes for the Bourbons very likely.

Not only did Veblen sensitize me to see conspicuous consumption everywhere I looked but I found myself resenting the fact that the displays I was seeing were supposed to put me in awe of their vast beauty. 

But I couldn’t get there. I just saw an ongoing social condition that I was being invited to ignore. 

Thanks, Thorsten.