Attica 1971: Heather Ann Thompson’s “Blood In The Water”

I tell my students that there were five radicalizing events that led to me being a sociologist, although I didn’t know it at the time. It started with the assassination of Martin Luther King in April 1968. I was old enough to have been following the civil rights movement and understood how the killing was a reaction to a quest for justice. That was followed just two months later by the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. Because I was Kennedy campaign chairman in my eighth grade history class, I’d gotten my Very-Republican grandmother to drive me to Kennedy headquarters to pick up campaign paraphernalia. And now he was dead. In May of 1970, four students were killed by the Ohio National Guard during a Vietnam War Protest. That introduced me to the idea that government officials might act badly. Between 1972 and 1974, I watched in fascination as the President of the United States had his illegality exposed and resigned the presidency in disgrace.

But one of the most pivotal moments for me happened with the Attica uprising in September 1971. The year before, I had done a research paper in English class about the need for prison reform. I read up on Quaker reform efforts and issues of mistreatment and poor conditions. I had interviewed someone from the Indiana Department of Corrections as a source. Looking back, it wasn’t surprising that one of my first career goals after majoring in sociology was to be a prison administrator working to reform the system from inside.

So when the prisoners at Attica took over cell block D, I was transfixed by the news. There were accounts of how William Kuntsler was helping the prisoners present demands to the prison administration. The situation had the possibility of reaching an amicable conclusion until one of the guards who had been taken hostage died. Even then, we watched to see how a resolution could be found. On the third day, NY State stormed the prison. Over 30 prisoners were killed and hundreds injured. Ten of the 37 hostages were killed in the retaking. The loss of hope in a possible reform movement was very real to me and I was disturbed that (as I heard it at the time) that the hostages had died in “the crossfire” (the prisoners were unarmed).


I just finished reading Heather Ann Thompson’s Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising and Its Legacy. It is a remarkable reselling of the Attica saga with incredibly detailed documentation. It was a finalist for National Book of the Year. It not only filled in lots of details for the story i already knew, but more importantly it showed how much of the story I thought I knew had been manufactured.

More importantly, there is a great deal of this story from 46 years ago that speaks directly to issues of today. I’ll return to those but first let me lay out the structure of the book. It opens with a short history of prison conditions in the late 1960s leading up to the specific concerns at Attica. The next sections tell the story of the uprising and the retaking. Following this, there are the recriminations and the attempts to keep quiet what really happened. The balance of the book deals with the legal proceedings: first, the criminal trials of prisoners, then the civil trials of prisoners against the NYSP, then the attempts for the families of the dead hostages to get some kind of reparation from New York State.

If you’re interested in mass incarceration, the criminal justice system, government, race, and their interactions, this is important but difficult reading. Between the brutality of the retaking to the improper actions by prosecutors to the stonewalling of the families, it’s hard to imagine that the structures of government could act so callously toward human beings. I won’t detail all of the factors here, but do want to explore some themes of from Attica that we must hear today. Because nearly half a century later, the echoes of these themes can be heard very loudly.

Racism is Real: It is stunning how much everyday racism is a part of the pre-uprising Attica story. Complaints about prison conditions were dismissed as being orchestrated by Black Nationalists who wanted to overthrow the government. This isn’t only true of guards and police officers, but are sentiments shared by the Governor, the US Attorney General, and the President. Even the prisoners who were white were punished for being N-lovers. The idea that prisoners at Attica were part of a nation-wide conspiracy is surreal and yet it was easy for people then (and probably now) to believe the worst.

Power is a Dangerous Drug: When the prison was retaken, the brutality of the state police and many guards was hard to take. The Attica uprising occurred one month after Phillip Zimbardo conducted his famous prison experiment at Stanford. He found that people playing the role of guard were likely to engage in brutality and derision of those playing the role of prisoner. Even the guards who weren’t sadistic made no attempt to stop those who were. After Attica was retaken, guards make prisoners run a gauntlet naked and barefoot over broken glass while being beaten with sticks and other weapons. Because they could.

Bad Actors Flourish in Bad Systems: One of the most striking parts of the Attica story is that the State Police intentionally violated their protocols when preparing to retake the prison. They didn’t record who had which weapon. The removed their badges and any other identifying information. When they stormed the prison, they were able to shoot indiscriminately at unarmed prisoners who had just been gassed. Under these circumstances, it would be very difficult for “good apples” to make a difference.

The Truth is a Common Casualty: The men who stormed the prison had been waiting outside for two days for permission to go in. Such collective behavior gives way to rumor and incitement. Early reports were that the prisoners had brutally attacked their hostages, castrating one and throwing the one who died off the catwalk. Once the retaking occurred, they claimed that the prisoners had slit the dead hostages’ throats. They tried to get medical personnel to change or at least suppress the autopsies that showed that wasn’t the case. When the prisoners got to their criminal trials, the authorities encouraged other prisoners to perjure themselves in exchange for transfers. The lawyers representing the State regularly withheld evidence of wrongdoing. That this story got told is only due to the perseverance of dedicated people who would not allow the story to be quashed, even though it took decades for the truth to get out (and then sporadically).

Political Leaders Will Be Self-Protecting: While there are some good government leaders (I believe Russell Oswald tried his best early on), much of the Attica story involves cover ups and a failure to admit wrongdoing. Attica was seen through a political lens and if the leadership didn’t hold the line, they believed that they would encourage other uprisings. But holding the line meant distorting the truth, obfuscating, or using bureaucratic technique to protect themselves (tricking the hostage widows into signing workers comp agreements so that couldn’t sue was especially galling.)

The Story Takes Time: When news of the uprising broke, it was national news. So was the retaking. Although the news passed along the “died in the crossfire” version of the story when in fact the hostages died due to the gunfire of the policemen and security guards who stormed the prison. The ongoing story of the attempted prosecution of prisoners, the civil suits of prisoners and hostage families, and the various commissions that explored what happened over those days were only known to those paying attention in Upstate New York.

We Believe Criminals are “Other”: So much of the response to the uprising depended upon believing that they were dealing with savages who couldn’t handle common society. That’s why their concerns about proper medical care weren’t heard. They weren’t deserving of proper care. It was striking how many individual stories involved some relatively minor offense that was coupled with a parole violation that landed prisoners in Attica to begin with. But because they were savages, it justified treating them violently and minimizing their chances in court.

Blood in the Water sheds a great deal of light on these horrible days in the American Criminal Justice system. As I wrote above, it’s a painful read. But it also shines a light on our contemporary struggles to create a humane criminal justice system. Reading the book provides new insights on what happens in officer-involved shootings, of press coverage of events, and of politicians who thrive on complaints of lawlessness.

The seven lessons I highlighted above require our attention as a society. It is only in that attentiveness that we prevent events like those in September 1971 from repeating.

Oreos, Family Dollar, and Health Care Reform

Even before the American Health Care Act was officially released this week, I have been pondering a large issue underpinning efforts on health care reform. To be fair, this issue affected the Affordable Care Act as well.

Here’s my issue: Free Markets aren’t Free in all Cases.

Free Market ideas make sense if we think about consumer choices as open and free in a microeconomic fashion. When I go to the grocery store, I get to choose what kind of cookies I buy. Nabisco keeps inventing new versions of Oreos to keep me thinking I need new options. And if Peeps Oreos fails (as it deserves to), they can just stop producing them and keep my brand loyalty.

At the macroeconomic level, markets make sense. If we can find ways of incentivizing private firms toward infrastructure investment, we shift the cost curves allowing them to gain return on investment while meeting a definable public need.

But I’ve been thinking about an segment of the economy where it’s hard to make free markets work. In what I’d call the meso-economic level, it’s hard to understand how we structure appropriate investments and returns that maximize consumer choices (as Hayek and his followers would want).

Efforts at Health Care Reform break down in the meso-level economy. 

The claim that “if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor” treats health care as a microeconomic matter. If I like Birthday Cake Oreos, I get to buy them. That is until Nabisco stops making them (see above).

I can make my point clearer if I switch metaphors. Let’s move from cookies to shopping.

Family DollarThe town where I teach has two independent shopping options: Family Dollar and Dollar General. This is not uncommon for small towns in the midwest (and maybe nationally).

For the fifteen years prior to living in Spring Arbor I lived in Portland, San Diego, and just outside Pasadena. The range of shopping options available was simply too vast to count. There were still Family Dollar stores in San Diego but they occupy a different role in the market.

Once upon a time, J.C. Penny’s and Sears-Roebuck occupied storefronts in small town America (although Spring Arbor might be too small for that). Then Kresge’s gave way to Kmart. Target developed mid-level shopping centers. Walmart used their mass purchasing and efficient distribution system to populate mid-size towns.

Local shop owners couldn’t compete with these national chains and closed down. Then the markets shifted and Penny’s, Sears, and Kmart started shedding stores. They were trapped between the microeconomic market of a small town (that couldn’t produce operating margins) and the macroeconomic priorities of corporate. They were in turn squeezed by super-malls and online behemoths like Amazon.

One result is that the economic map gets more regionalized. It’s a family trip to the “big” city to hit the Walmart Superstore. What’s left in the small town? Family Dollar.

Family Dollar isn’t a bad company. They buy liquidated or mass quantity or imported products and make them available for lower prices than other outlets. If you travel to Spring Arbor and forgot to buy shampoo, they can bail you out after the other stores close.

But it’s hard to think of them as a free market solution to shopping in the small town.

So when Health Care Reformers talk of not having government in charge of health care, they are counting on my meso-economic markets operating like regular markets. They believe that “promoting competition” will allow lower prices, better access, and higher quality.

Why would that be the case? Because national insurance providers would be motivated to build network relationships with local providers. They would tailor insurance coverage in an a la carte manner to that consumers would buy just what they need.

In short, they are assuming health care is like Oreos. I’ll make choices available from a wide range of health care options and pick the one best for my budget, age, and health condition. Give me a plan that maximizes coverage for sore knees but I don’t need contraception or women’s health care.

But when we shift from Oreos to Family Dollar we see the larger issue. Health care facilities in rural America have a hard time making a go of things. They are closing due to lack of doctors, the difficulty of meeting needs of seniors, and the costs of technology. Unless they are part of a national chain that is willing for them to operate at a loss due to social commitments toward quality health care, they are going to go the way of Kmart.

If so, what will be left behind? Urgent Care clinics that provide minimal outpatient services to deal with patient needs. Serious care will continue to be provided regionally. Even that depends on the macroeconomic competition of national chains.

Or it depends upon the larger society expanding the scale of users in the system. Having more people in the system balances the costs across regions and age groups.  It means that the meso-economic markets can operate at a loss because there is a surplus of insured people who aren’t drawing on the system.

Think of it this way. Health Care choices are not like buying Oreos. Reforms that fail to address regional variation will create a patchwork approach to health care that treat Family Dollar and the Mall of America as equivalent. A national approach to health care will look more like Amazon, where access and costs are spread on a national level (if only we could do surgeries via internet!).

Unless, of course, we are okay as a society with widening mortality rates by region (which is already underway). For all the talk about “Americans Left Behind” over the last year, this regional variation is a significant issue. Those are the very people for whom the meso-economic market doesn’t work.

But they’ll still have Family Dollar to rely on even if they can’t afford health care.


Max Weber and Trump’s Frustrating Month

Like a lot of other people, I’ve spent the month since President Trump’s inauguration trying to make sense of what’s going on. The sudden shift from policy to posturing and from leading all the people to relitigating the November election certainly has been  disorienting.

Yesterday, I was in a meeting with two students who are taking Sociological Theory via tutorial. Our chapter was covering classical German sociologist Max Weber. After dealing with the requisite explanation of Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism, we started talking about rationalization and the forms of social authority.

All of a sudden I had a flash of insight that let me make sense of the Trump phenomenon for the first time since the election.


Weber identified three Ideal Types of authority: Charismatic, Traditional, and Rational-Legal. A charismatic leader has authority based upon the unique characteristics of the individual. Those internal features fit a Great Man theory of leadership. Textbook examples are people like Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Barack Obama.

Traditional authority draws strength from ties to past practice or lineage. The authority stems from some form of pedigree. The son of the tribal chief is the new leader because he is the son. The religious leader exerts authority because he can explain his role through a long litany of prior religious leaders (think Levites).

Rational-Legal authority depends upon one’s ability to work the system. It is this feature that fits with Weber’s focus on bureaucracy.  The greater the technical skill of a leader with rational-legal authority, the better able to make the system work, the stronger the leader. In the words of my favorite quote by sociologist Peter Berger, “only he who truly understands the rules is in a position to cheat.” The key currency is competency. (One of the curiosities of the election is that HRC ran a rational-legal authority campaign when her big challenge was about individual characteristics.) Knowing how the game is played yields authority.

In talking to my students yesterday, I realized that Trump sees himself as a charismatic leader. Years running a family based organization can make you think you’re special. So is putting your name in big letters on buildings around the world. So can starring in a major reality television program. So can spending fifteen months delivering stream of consciousness speeches to adoring crowds.

Except that Trump is not a charismatic leader. The lack of that internal dynamic may be why he continually overstates his own strengths (“first in his class” “least ant-semitic person” “best golfer among the rich guys“). He played the charismatic leader as his public persona for so long that he must go to incredible lengths to maintain the facade. His supporters buy this but others see through it, which is why his overall favorability has dropped below 40%.

What has stymied President Trump in the first month? The Bureaucracy and the Courts. He’s hit with rational-legal authority from one side through leaks from career officials and from those who put proper protocol above the President’s wishes (e.g., Sally Yates). The Courts seem to combine elements of traditional and rational-legal authority, drawing upon both the history of judicial oversight as seen in the constitution and a focus on previous precedent (stare decisis).

The Bureaucracy knows how the system works and can keep the administration from rash action. The Courts legitimize limitations on an activist administration.

If Trump was truly able to draw upon charismatic authority, we’d have an interesting stand-off. In the short term, President Trump might be able to limit the Bureaucracy and outmaneuver the courts (although this is much harder, as Obama discovered). Instead, Trump and those around him pretend he has authority and consistently misplay their hand (like asking the FBI to quash a story).

Given his relatively weak position in Weberian terms, it’s not at all surprising that he thinks the press is his enemy. It’s the only group he has as a competitive foil. The irony is that he used the press to create his pseudo-charismatic authority and they are likely to withhold that status in the days to come.

Dear Republican Congress: Forget the ACA

To: Speaker Paul Ryan

RE: “Repeal and Replace”

News reports consistently observe that finding a comprehensive replacement for the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) is proving more difficult that legislators imagined. I would suggest that this is because Republicans have consistently misrepresented ACA and cherry-picked data in support of that mischaracterization as part of a political strategy. That has kept you from an honest appraisal of the pros and cons of the ACA.

As one example, a frequent talking point claims that the premiums on the exchanges are skyrocketing. Silver plan premiums for Phoenix went up 145% over 2016! (You never mention that premiums for Indianapolis went down by 4%). In addition, you consistently failed to address the ACA’s subsidy provisions that covered those fluctuations. Consider the following excerpt from a chart from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

screen-shot-2017-02-11-at-12-05-33-pm In addition to not being honest about the net impact of the premium coverage (middle columns of the chart) you have consistently blurred the distinction between those with employer-based coverage and those purchasing non-group coverage.

Regardless of these talking points, I’m willing to give you a pass. As you work out details of your new Replace plan, I want you to pretend that the Obama administration never happened. There is no Affordable Care Act (I’ve got a kind of George Bailey image going).

I’m suggesting that your wonderful replacement plan should simply address all of the concerns that existed with health care in 2008. You don’t have to fight Obamacare. You can just “provide common sense solutions that solve people’s problems“.

Let’s start with costs. Here is a Kaiser Family report from 2008 that shows the increasing costs of health care. As you likely know, the premiums paid by families more than doubled over the previous decade while salaries were growing very slowly. Remember, this was before the great recession hit.


Changing this cost curve is challenging, especially without decreasing the quality of care. But you and others have repeatedly criticized the ACA for not reducing costs at the family level. So please examine how we might have made changes in the first part of the century to significantly slow the rate of growth.

Kaiser points out that insurance costs doubled for both employer expenses and the employee contribution over the decade.


Of course, not all Americans have employer-based insurance. Many opt out of insurance coverage altogether. They may rely on emergency care as needed due to the Reagan-era law mandating that care (with its associated cost-shifting to insurance plans). The CDC completed a report on insurance coverage trends and showed the following data on the percentage of Americans uninsured in 2007.


There is a real need to attend to increasing the number of people insured. As those percentages increased, the strains on health care go up. When we look at the fact that these percentages are based off an increasing population, the numbers of people impact go up sharply.

In the CNN debate this week, Senator Cruz suggested that everyone had a right to access health care, in contrast to Senator Sanders’ claim that health care was a right. This is a matter of political debate, but your plan should do something to address the microeconomics of how people purchase plans to drive down the number of uninsured.

One component impacting costs has to do with the avoidance of preventative services. For those without ready access to health care, we wind up with a bizarre version of the old Fram Oil Filer commercials: you can pay me now or you can pay me later. Acute care is far more expensive than preventative care over the long run.

In 2007, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation put out a report on the potential impact of preventative care. Here is the conclusion to their executive summary.


I said we weren’t worrying about ACA but here’s another misrepresentation you’ve made. Increasing preventative coverage for all has a market impact of raising rates in the short term but lowering costs over the long run (or at least inhibiting their growth). To criticize the short-term impact without admitting the long-term benefit is disingenuous.

One other factor that shapes health care in the US has to do with disparity across the states. The Kaiser Family Foundation examined health care expenditures in 2008 and showed the following chart.


This shows the tremendous disparity which is a likely result of population size although there are some other factors going on as well. This shows the difficulty of managing a national approach to health care when we really have 50 independent markets. I know you are in favor of allowing competition across state lines but that would seem to result in picking winners and losers, with lower expenditure states helping subsidize high expenditure states (through the insurers not the government).

This disparity also points out the inherent limitations in any approach to health care funding that uses block grant approach. While that may limit federal outlays for health care, it will have significant repercussions at the state level.

So we don’t need to talk about promises of keeping your doctor or of mandates or of medicaid expansion. Those are all aspects of the Affordable Care Act. While I’d argue that the years since ACA implementation have begun to shift health care in positive ways, I don’t think you can agree.

Instead, I ask you to develop a plan that solves health care issues as they existed in 2008. That requires a plan that lowers the growth in premium costs over time, decreases the number of uninsured, maintains a level of health care quality through preventative care, and that addresses inequalities across the nation.

I look forward to your common-sense solutions.

“Not My President”: Or So He Keeps Telling Me

I can honestly say that I’ve never experienced a week like this. And I cut my political teeth in 1974 watching the Watergate hearings.

A remarkable speech, disputes over crowd size, arguments with Mexico, rogue twitter accounts, an inflammatory official twitter account, trial balloons that fizzle, executive orders that suddenly change the face of US policy, removing ACA signup ads, millions of alleged fraudulent votes, and an immigration ban.

Several of my friends have been struggling to figure out how Christians should respond to this onslaught of events. What is the meaning of Romans 13? What is the nature of our political theology? Too often, their FaceBook commenters ask “what were you doing when Obama was president?” — which is remarkably selective memory but I’ll let that go.

But there was a piece of Trump’s interview with David Muir on ABC that has been stuck in my brain. They were discussing the controversy over the crowd size at the inauguration.

PRESIDENT TRUMP: Not you personally but your network — and they tried to demean the speech. And I know when things are good or bad. A poll just came out on my inauguration speech which was extraordinary that people loved it. Loved and liked. And it was an extraordinary poll.
DAVID MUIR: I guess that’s what I’m getting at. You talked about the poll, the people loving your inaugural speech and the size of your …
PRESIDENT TRUMP: No, because you bring it up.

DAVID MUIR: See, I — I’m not interested in the inaugural crowd size. I think the American people can look at images side by side and decide for themselves. I am curious about the first full day here at the White House, choosing to send the press secretary out into the briefing room, summoning reporters to talk about the inaugural crowd size. Does that send a message to the American people that that’s — that’s more important than some of the very pressing issues?
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Part of my whole victory was that the men and women of this country who have been forgotten will never be forgotten again. Part of that is when they try and demean me unfairly ’cause we had a massive crowd of people. We had a crowd — I looked over that sea of people and I said to myself, “Wow.”
And I’ve seen crowds before. Big, big crowds. That was some crowd. When I looked at the numbers that happened to come in from all of the various sources, we had the biggest audience in the history of inaugural speeches. I said the men and women that I was talking to who came out and voted will never be forgotten again. Therefore I won’t allow you or other people like you to demean that crowd and to demean the people that came to Washington, D.C., from faraway places because they like me. But more importantly they like what I’m saying.
DAVID MUIR: I just wanna say I didn’t demean anyone who was in that crowd. We did coverage for hours …
PRESIDENT TRUMP: No, I think you’re demeaning by talking the way you’re talking. I think you’re demeaning. And that’s why I think a lot of people turned on you and turned on a lot of other people. And that’s why you have a 17 percent approval rating, which is pretty bad.

I could spent time disputing the “biggest audience” claim. I could rebut the claims on the positive polling on the speech. The poll Trump mentions is a Politico/Morning Consult poll and Politico reports: “Trump got relatively high marks on his Friday address, with 49 percent of those who watched or heard about the speech saying it was excellent or good, and just 39 percent rating it as only fair or poor.” Frankly, in comparison to previous inaugurals, those are horrible numbers.

What really got my attention is what I highlighted above. Trump has proclaimed himself president of the people who were forgotten yet came out and voted for him, who traveled from their small towns to Washington to be there for this historic event, who filled the venues were he campaigned. This is not me.

To not privilege their perspective is to demean them and he won’t stand for that (and I guess the ratings are supposed to reflect that). But he has no problem demeaning my positions.

Take the outrageous claims about up to three million fraudulent votes, none of which could possibly have voted for him but all must have voted for Clinton. Besides the fact that other than inaccurate voter registration rolls (which is what the oft-cited Pew study was about), there is no evidence of voter impersonation (Trump commented on “dead people are registered to vote and voting, which they do” — which Trevor Noah called the worst episode of Walking Dead ever). Trump also misrepresents comments made by Obama in 2008 about election fraud (and he cites it as being in Chicago when it was in Kent, Ohio).

Trump started the inaugural speech by calling out the Washington Establishment. But his later comments make clear that there is only one kind of forgotten American — those that voted for him and his “tremendous movement”.

The questions about dual registration prompted me to do what Bannon and Spicer couldn’t be troubled to do — check my past registrations. I learned that I’m no longer registered to vote in either California or Oregon.

But I’m a doctorally trained sociologist who tends to vote Democratic. In Trump’s eyes, I’m not forgotten, I’m establishment.

I’m a white evangelical male who votes Democratic (which the media and politicians alike ignore).

But whenever Trump repeats his concern for the Forgotten, whenever he advances the personal policies he advocated (which he does because he feels he promised them he would), when he demeans the press, when he gags federal agencies, he has said that people like me and my approach to civic life don’t matter.

He is going to be the President of “His People” and I’m not part of the equation.

He’s told me that He’s Not My President, he’s Theirs. And I’m just expected to just go along for the ride because my side lost.

Idealism, Politics, and Hope: Michael Wear’s Reclaiming Hope

At some point, I’ll find enough perspective to write a reflection on the 2016 presidential election. For now, I’m just struggling with the uncertainty on a new administration where every day brings new questions and puzzles. It’s really hard for a policy wonk like me to figure out what’s likely to happen in the coming months. So many things are up in the air: health care, international trade, the Middle East, market stability, transparent government. And it’s only day three.

The afternoon before the inauguration (best ever! record crowds!) I was pleased when the mail carrier delivered Michael Wear’s Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America. I finished it last night.

As a college student, Michael got to meet then-Senator Obama at a Winter meeting of the DNC. Michael introduced himself as a Christian who believed that Obama should run for president and that he could win (based in no small part on that rousing 2004 DNC keynote). He offered to join the campaign when the day came and badgered just the right amount to be taken up on the offer.

Being an evangelical Christian gave Michael insights into a segment of the American electorate that too many Democrats had been tone deaf toward. He actually wrote some background material that Obama used when having his Saddleback interview with Rich Warren. After Obama’s victory months later, Michael was invited to join the administration in the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnership (OFBNP — a reworking of the office Bush had launched) where he spent the next four years.

Most of the book summarizes the work of the OFBNP, both positive and negative. It shows the difficulty of developing allies within the religious community (especially among evangelicals and Catholics). It shows the difficulty of working in the midst of administration colleagues who were functional religious illiterates. He tells a story of designing a policy document on faith and economics titled “Economic Fairness and the Least of These” and his colleagues couldn’t figure out who “these” referred to. On the evangelical side, he had to navigate prominent evangelical leaders who wouldn’t believe that Obama was a Christian (in spite of his repeated testimonies to the contrary) and actively worked against the president.

As might be expected, the tensions between the OFBNP and the broader community were particularly high around issues of abortion, contraception, and same-sex marriage. It’s not that other issues (like poverty or human trafficking) weren’t important. It’s just that the trigger issues seemed to overwhelm everything else.

Michael, true to his job description, tried to make clear how these policy initiatives would be read by various religious groups (most notably Evangelicals and Catholics). Too often, these concerns did not sway the general sentiment of the political shop. Too many decisions were made in light of protecting the interest of various constituent groups and not in building bridges to new populations. This was especially true in the run-up to the 2012 re-election campaign.

In reading the book, you sense Michael’s early idealism give way to frustration (but, to his credit, never cyncism). His last day with the Obama administration was Inauguration Day 2013. He closes the book with reflections on the Christian notion of Hope and how that changes the political calculus (especially when compared to views expressed by people like Ta-nehesi Coates).

In finishing the book, I found myself with several questions (which I hope Michael might address).

  1. How can faith groups work with both parties in pursuit of the common good? This strikes me as incumbent upon those religious groups to reach out to political entities from all perspectives as an alternative to being coopted by one political party. Even if one party isn’t open to persuasion at the moment, it’s the prophetic thing to do. We aren’t called to win every argument but to bear witness to the Kingdom.
  2. How do political entities find common ground with evangelical groups on hot topic issues when the faith group is likely to see these as winner-take-all contests? Michael addresses the issue of reducing the need for abortion through adoption and family support. But since abortion is a bright-line issue for evangelicals it feels like anything short of overturning Roe is a compromise of principles. It would be nice if evangelicals and Catholics could celebrate that abortions are at their lowest level since Roe was enacted. Is it asking too much to recognize that demonizing abortion advocates as “baby killers” might not lead to the best governmental policy? Is it too much to ask that contraception coverage be included in insurance programs so that people don’t avoid contraception due to cost concerns? If we are concerned about the common welfare (Michael has a nice passage about Jeremiah’s concern for Babylon), can’t religious groups give some ground?
  3. How do political entities reach out to a variety of constituent groups, religious and non-religious, and explain their principles rather than pitting one group against another? The contraceptive mandate is a good example. There are those groups for whom requiring they cover contracteption become quickly problematic (especially for Catholics). A smart political shop would recognize where the pitfalls lie and figure out how to navigate them for the common good without exploiting particular groups because they are less numerous. Michael describes the number of “final” solutions to the contraceptive mandate — if political folks had more religious savvy, they would have gotten to the no-sign off, insurance provided, solution sooner. (I’m still not sure what to do with those who claim that some contraceptives were abortifacients in spite of significant evidence to the contrary.) At the very least, exempting Plan B might have been a reasonable accomodation that would have still vastly expanded contraceptive coverage and thereby improve health outcomes and rates of unwed births.
  4. How do the shifts described in Robert Jones’ The End of White Christian America change how political and religious groups will work together? If White Christians are a shrinking share of the American landscape, how do we approach religious freedom questions? As Michael observes (as do many others), religious freedom is only meaningful if it is extended to include all religious groups, including the non religious. Far better to see these changes as a reality of modern political life rather than defining them only in terms of a loss of Christian America. The 2016 election saw strong nostalgic sentiment (MAGA!) but our political work will take place in this new reality not some earlier imagined one.
  5. How can we create space for people to have complex views? Michael tells the story of how Louis Giglio was inited to pray at the second inaugural but was then attacked by activists who took offense at comments Giglio had made about LGBT folks nearly two decades before. It kept the spotlight away from the work Giglio had done to advance the cause of human trafficking, especially among evangelicals. Somehow, we need to get away from proof-texting everyone’s comments (although I’ll give anyone a pass who re-posts Trump’s tweets about protesting the 2012 election!). Nobody toes the party line (yes, that’s the word, not “tows”) all the way along. And some may shift position over time or even hold a position privately until it’s politically prudent to advance the position. None of us are 100% consistent over the long-haul.
  6. What will the shifting views of young evangelicals (like Michael) mean for our political future? Today’s millennials, including millennial evangelicals, are committed to issues of justice, diversity, and equal protection. They are put off by overly strident political talk that repeats old tropes. They are idealistic but repelled by politics as usual. I loved Michael’s defense of the two-party system and his call for engagement. Rather than abandoning party, he calls his readers to dive in and attempt to moderate the extreme partisanship within the parties. This gives me cause for the hope where Michael ends the book. My students would very much resonate with the strategies he lays out in his final chapter.

The book was a wonderful read for a political junkie. It fed my desire for inside knowledge and for seeing the sausage get made. I shared in Michael’s frustrations and still end up in an idealistic place.

Politics has always been one of my imagined alternative careers if I weren’t in academia (journalism is the other). Maybe it’s not too late, even for me.

Inauguration Week Lessons from Nebuchadnezzar 

One of the lingering news stories following November’s election revolves around the question, “How did 81% of White Evangelicals support Donald Trump?” There are many answers to this question (I’ve tried to contribute my share). These range from people being staunchly anti-Clinton, to focus on abortion jurisprudence, to why evangelicals like strong male leaders, to concerns of nostalgia voters, to fears about incursions on religious freedom, to the idea that this relationship may be largely spurious (because both identifying evangelical and Republicanism are correlated with other factors — this is the argument I’ve been advancing).

There is, of course, another answer — God did it and evangelicals were open to God’s leading. As the Religion News Service reported yesterday, folks believe God must have been involved because a) Trump beat 17 challengers against the odds (although I’d point out that his polling all the way along made those odds better than supporters imagine) and b) the national polls were so wrong (except they weren’t although some state polls didn’t pick up late movement).

“God raised up, I believe, Donald Trump,” said former U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann after he won the GOP nomination. “God showed up,” the Rev. Franklin Graham said to cheers at a post-election rally.

For those who share this view, Trump’s victory was nothing short of miraculous, especially given that he beat out 16 others in the Republican primaries — some of them evangelical Christians with long political resumes.

“For me, that has to be providence. That has to be the hand of God,” said Paula White, an evangelical pastor Trump has tapped to pray at his inauguration.

God raised up Trump in the same way that God used other Old Testament figures, whether religious leaders or pagans. Today, Sarah Pulliam Bailey and Kirkwood An posted a quiz on the Washington Post “Acts of Faith” page allowing readers to guess which Biblical figures President-Elect Trump had been compared to. They range from (spoiler alert!) King David to King Jehosophat to King Cyrus to Daniel to Paul. I somewhat facetiously responded via Twitter that perhaps Nebuchadnezzar should have been on the list. Then I went back and read the first four chapters of the book of Daniel and was amazed.

We usually read the book of Daniel from Daniel’s perspective and not from Nebuchadnezzar’s. It’s useful to reverse that perspective in light of our contemporary events (it’s not the capital dome in the picture to the left but its fun to imagine).

The first chapter begins with King Nebuchadnezzar overrunning Judah and taking the residents captive. More importantly, he takes sacred items from the Temple to use for his own benefit (using religious language or props has been part of many political campaigns!). He selects Daniel and his friends as leaders in training and mandates a diet that the people are to follow. This puts Daniel in a position to interpret the coming dreams and sets the three Hebrew children up for their coming confrontation with the fiery furnace.

Nebuchadnezzar has his first dream at the beginning of chapter two. He calls his advisors in to tell him what the dream had been and what it means. He expects them to be able to understand what’s in his mind. (Remember, Kellyanne Conway, said that we needed to not pay attention to Trump’s words but his heart). The King threatens any of his advisors who cannot respond to his demands that they “will be chopped up and your houses torn down”.  Lesson One: Don’t put your people in impossible situations.

They tell him that what he asks just isn’t that simple. So the King gives orders to kill every wise man in the kingdom, including Daniel and friends. Because, I suppose, only the King knows best.

Daniel, realizing that time is short, prays to God that the dream and its meaning be revealed. He intervenes on the King’s execution order and interprets the dream. The first dream involves “a huge and terrifying statue” made of gold, silver, and bronze. He goes on to interpret the dream as it relates to the coming generations of rulers on Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar likes this answer and promotes Daniel and his friends. He recognizes God above all else, at least for the moment.

But by the beginning of chapter three, that changes dramatically. Nebuchadnezzar orders a statue to be built in his likeness. It is to be made of gold and measures 90 feet high and 9 feet wide. It is truly a monument to his vanity. Everyone is expected to bow down and worship whenever the music plays.

The president-elect likes big flashy things. And his new advisor Omarosa, Director of African-American Outreach, actually said that Trump’s critics would “bow down and worship him“. Lesson Two: It’s not about you.

Of course, Daniel and friends won’t bow down. That leads to the confrontation in front of the fiery furnace. The King is angered that they would defy him and demanded immediate action. When the three Hebrew children are saved, Nebuchadnezzar again praises God. Although he’s still shaky on the concept, since he suggests that anyone who goes against their God should be chopped to pieces and their houses torn down (this seems to be a pattern with Nebuchadnezzar). Lesson Three:  Sometimes repentance means really changing.

Chapter Four involves Nebuchadnezzar’s second dream. This time he shares with Daniel what it’s about. The mighty tree seemed to grow to the heavens and then a voice came from Heaven ordering that it be cut down. Then “this ruler” will live like the animals, having the mind of an animal for seven years. He will be struck from power until he “learns that God Most High controls all earthly kingdoms and chooses their rulers.” Daniel ends their interaction by encouraging Nebuchadnezzar to “start living right” and “have mercy on those who are mistreated”. Lesson Four: With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility (for others).

At the end of the chapter, Nebuchadnezzar has gone through his animal phase and returned to rule. He closes his letter as follows:

“Praise and honor the King who rules from heaven! Everything he does is honest and fair, and he can shatter the power of those who are proud.”

The story of King Nebuchadnezzar seems to be a story about self-sufficiency, hubris, power, and vengeance. Those traits do not serve him well and leave him exiled from his throne. He does come to his senses at the end, although the family reign ends at the beginning of chapter five as Belshazzar is replaced with King Cyrus.

If some see God’s hand in Trump’s election, they would do well to study these chapters from Daniel very carefully. They remind us all that power is a fleeting thing and depends less on the strength of the leader than his or her compassion.