Rules for Who Gets In Are Complicated

Imagine if the U.S. government used for immigration policy Notre Dame’s reasons for not inviting President Trump:

The decision by the University of Notre Dame to invite Vice President Mike Pence to be this year’s graduation speaker and recipient of an honorary degree was surely not made lightly. The last six presidents have all been invited to the school’s commencement exercises, so the decision to invite someone other than President Donald Trump represents a change from the norm. And that is precisely why it was the correct decision.

The first thing to remember about the decision is that it affects not only the Indiana university’s standing, but the actual students whose families and friends will be gathering that day. There were some protests eight years ago, when newly inaugurated President Barack Obama attended the commencement exercises, but those protests were mostly on the internet and at the margins. The day itself was not ruined for the graduates.

Can anyone really think that Trump’s presence would not elicit a different kind of protest? Is it not likely that the protests would be so vociferous and widespread that the day would be marred for the students who should be the focus of the day?

I am sure that consideration weighed heavily on the decision-making process, which is not to say Notre Dame is likely to award a heckler’s veto to anyone. It is a mere acknowledgement that a man for whom a central campaign theme was the demonization of other people elicits a kind of visceral response, not because some people are too politically correct or thin-skinned, but because that visceral response is what Trump was after. He stoked the flames and cannot now wonder that people recoiled from the prospect of being burned.

Lots can go wrong if you invite POTUS. Nothing can go wrong with open borders?

But don’t forget welcoming the stranger.

Welcome the stranger.

Trump is strange.

Welcome Trump.

How to Tell the Difference between Turkey and the U.S.

You don’t read about President Erdogan in the pages of Washington Post, New York Times, or New Yorker:

As Turkey heads toward a constitutional referendum designed to grant its leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan even greater powers, the polls predict a neck-and-neck race.

That doesn’t mean their chances are equal. While the April vote is likely to be free, whether it will be fair — given rising repression of political dissent and the ongoing state of emergency — is another question.

Take the case of İrfan Değirmenci, a well-known news anchor for Kanal D, who explained his opposition to the proposed changes in a series of tweets earlier this month. “No to the one who views scientists, artists, writers, cartoonists, students, workers, farmers, miners, journalists and all who do not obey as the enemy,” he wrote.

He was promptly fired.

Değirmenci’s dismissal has heightened fears among No campaigners that those who oppose the new constitution will be subject to threats and intimidation ahead of the referendum on April 16.

“A lot of people are risking their careers and their future by openly and publicly campaigning for No,” said İlhan Tanir, a Turkish columnist and analyst based in Washington. “There is nothing fair about this.”

Government supporters face no such risk: While Kanal D claimed Değirmenci had been let go for violating the media group’s neutrality rule, Yes supporters have been free to air their views in the pages of Hürriyet, which belongs to the same group.

Hurriyet itself — a newspaper that positions itself as neutral — has muted critical voices: Its editors last week scrapped an interview with Orhan Pamuk, in which the Nobel Prize-winning Turkish novelist explained his reasons for voting No.

So why do elite journalists cover the Trump administration as if we’re living in the television series, Man in the High Castle. Perhaps because they believe in American innocence as much as Jerry Falwell, Jr.

Looks Like Trump is Sufjan’s Choice for POTUS

Mark Tooley reports that Sufjan Stevens opposes Christian nationalism:

Musician Sufjan Stevens blogged last week about politics and faith, decrying the parochialism of American Christianity while unconsciously offering his own brand of uniquely American impatient individualism.

The blog was republished in The Washington Post online, headlined “Stop repeating the heresy of declaring the United States a ‘Christian nation.’”

“You cannot pledge allegiance to a nation state and its flag and the name of God, for God has no political boundary,” according to Stevens. “God is love, period. God is universal, nameless, faceless, and with no allegiance to anything other than love.” He added: “A ‘Christian Nation’ is absolutely heretical. Christ did not come into this world to become a modifier. Look what happened to the Holy Roman Empire.”

That’s why President Trump’s failure to use religion to sacralize national purpose must be an encouragement to all who reject arguments that make American a Christian nation. John Fea notes that POTUS may be a blessing for mainline Protestants who edit Christian Century:

Theologians have long been wary or dismissive of civil religion, noting that it often functions as a rival religion to authentic faith—it’s a brand of Christian heresy. Civil religion borrows Christian themes but celebrates the stories and martyrs of the nation rather than the church and treats the nation rather than the church as the vehicle of God’s purposes. As such, especially in times of war, American civil religion has been an invitation to hubris and self-righteousness; it can cloak mundane self-interest in religious garb.

Yet because civil religion claims a transcendent purpose for the nation, it has also offered a basis for judging the nation’s failures and spurring it to reform. Because the nation has claimed high ideals for itself, it has invited a moral critique. It was in that tradition that Martin Luther King Jr. blended biblical ethics with democratic principles to condemn racial segregation as a betrayal of the nation’s creed of equality for all. It is in that tradition that protesters took to the streets in recent weeks to insist that the United States fulfill its promise to be a beacon of freedom to refugees from all lands and religions.

Christians have no ultimate stake in the survival of American civil religion. Its demise under Trump could conceivably encourage the church to claim and assert its distinct identity apart from the rhetoric of American politics. Yet insofar as the demise of American civil religion spells the contraction of moral imagination and the loss of a horizon of moral judgment and aspiration, it is hardly a development that Christians can cheer. The collapse of a Chris­tian heresy can lead to things that are far worse.

Just like the broken clock that is right two times each day, every Christian is going to have a 2k moment sometime in her life.

America is not America (part two)

Can we turn anywhere in the past for instruction about refugee and immigrant policy?

No, say the undergraduates at Princeton University:

Trump’s vision for the United States is perniciously fascist — incorporating elements of racism, xenophobia, jingoism, totalitarianism, and misogyny. Worst of all, Trump’s vision is indefinite: His actions have no bounds, and it is unclear when this nation will heal from his actions.

But this is not a departure from Americanism. There is nothing specifically un-American about Trump’s executive orders or rhetoric. The American Nightmare is an American Reality. Only when we realize that “living up to American values” is to sanction Trump may we wake up from this horrid dream.

Immigrant exclusion based on race, religion, or national origin is an American pastime. The Alien and Sedition Acts, arguably the first discriminating immigration act, were signed into law in 1798. Following this was the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act; in response to popular racist and xenophobic anti-Chinese sentiment, the act “required the few nonlaborers who sought entry to obtain certification from the Chinese government that they were qualified to immigrate.” The act was extended into the 20th Century with the Geary Act, and its effects were not effectively reversed until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.

The Chinese Exclusion Act is only one of many governmental measures to marginalize those deemed a “threat” to white civilization. Notably, the United States is guilty of genocide against Indigenous tribes. The Trail of Tears, perhaps the most infamous atrocity committed against an Indigenous tribe, resulted from Andrew Jackson’s abuse of presidential power to seize Native lands and force thousands into what is now Oklahoma. More than 4,000 died on the journey, with hundreds of others dying upon arrival. Trump’s executive orders in support of Keystone XL and the Dakota Access Pipeline is a continuation of the United States’ regnant disregard for indigenous peoples, not an anomaly.

Cold War policy isn’t much help either:

There was another way to become a refugee, an immigrant, and eventually a U.S. citizen. According to immigration law, if a migrant was on American soil, even if one had entered illegally, one could claim asylum, arguing that the applicant had a “well founded fear” of persecution if returned home. Only two thousand or so persons won asylum annually in the 1970s. For example, the government denied asylum to most of the Haitian boat people during the 1970s and deported them. After the 1980 refugee act incorporated the new UN definition of refugee status in place of the anticommunist one, and when the civil wars in Central America escalated, the number applying for asylum skyrocketed. More than 140,000 applied in 1995, for example, and by the end of the 1990s the backlog reached several hundred thousand. Haitians came by boat, but tens of thousands of Central Americans illegally crossed the border separating the United States and Mexico. The State Department and the INS insisted they were mostly illegal immigrants who should be deported. INS officials in Florida did modify policy slightly toward Nicaraguans. An official said that he could not deny asylum to Nicaraguans when the United States insisted that the government of that country was undemocratic and that the CIA-backed contras were trying to overthrow it. Nicaraguans still had difficulty in winning asylum status, but their approval rate was more than double that of their neighbors. In 1989, for example, 5,092 Nicaraguans won asylum, compared with 102 Guatemalans and 443 Salvadorans.

Friends of these contestants for asylum insisted that a double standard was being applied: Cubans merely had to get to the United States, but Central Americans had to win their claims on an individual basis. Many undocumented immigrant Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Hondurans, Haitians, and Nicaraguans did adjust their status due to an amnesty for undocumented immigrants passed in 1986. As noted, the law covered those in the United States before 1982, but for others fleeing violence in Central America after that date individual asylum was required, which was even more difficult to demonstrate when the civil wars in Central America ended in the early 1990s. Fewer than 10 percent of Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans were granted asylum in 1999—up slightly from the rate of the 1980s but less than half of the general approval rate. Those who came after the IRCA amnesty were left in limbo, although minor modifications in immigration policy did permit some to remain. Moreover, once these Central Americans won asylum, they were eligible to adjust their status to that of regular immigrants and could then use the family preference system to sponsor their relatives. For example, in 1996 Haitian immigrants numbered 18,386, with 8,952 of these under the family preference system and another 4,815 coming as immediate family members of U.S. citizens who were exempt from the quotas. Comparable figures for Salvadorans were 17,903; 8,959; and 5,519. Data for Hondurans and Guatemalans were similar. The United States did permit Salvadorans and Hondurans the right to stay temporarily in the United States when earthquakes and hurricanes struck in the 1990s. These temporary stays, called temporary protected status (TPS), were not asylum; when TPS ended, the undocumented aliens were expected to go home.

But who cares about history? I know some evangelical historians who care but for some reason their historical perspective means moral disapproval (with a dose of self-approval).

America Is Not America (part one)

Ross Douthat wrote a very good piece on the two U.S. narratives that have vied with each other for the last thirty-five years.

The liberal narrative (with President Obama functioning as story-teller in chief) runs like this:

“That’s not who we are.” So said President Obama, again and again throughout his administration, in speeches urging Americans to side with him against the various outrages perpetrated by Republicans. And now so say countless liberals, urging their fellow Americans to reject the exclusionary policies and America-first posturing of President Donald Trump.

The problem with this rhetorical line is that it implicitly undercuts itself. If close to half of America voted for Republicans in the Obama years and support Trump today, then clearly something besides the pieties of cosmopolitan liberalism is very much a part of who we are.

. . . In this narrative, which has surged to the fore in response to Trump’s refugee and visa policies, we are a propositional nation bound together by ideas rather than any specific cultural traditions — a nation of immigrants drawn to Ellis Island, a nation of minorities claiming rights too long denied, a universal nation destined to welcome foreigners and defend liberty abroad.

Given this story’s premises, saying that’s not who we are is a way of saying that all more particularist understandings of Americanism, all non-universalist forms of patriotic memory, need to be transcended. Thus our national religion isn’t anything specific, but we know it’s not-Protestant and not-Judeo-Christian. Our national culture is not-Anglo-Saxon, not-European; the prototypical American is not-white, not-male, not-heterosexual. We don’t know what the American future is, but we know it’s not-the-past.

Then there’s the conservative narrative (with Trump adding Jacksonian democratic accents):

But the real American past was particularist as well as universalist. Our founders built a new order atop specifically European intellectual traditions. Our immigrants joined a settler culture, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant, that demanded assimilation to its norms. Our crisis of the house divided was a Christian civil war. Our great national drama was a westward expansion that conquered a native population rather than coexisting with it.

As late as the 1960s, liberalism as well as conservatism identified with these particularisms, and with a national narrative that honored and included them. The exhortations of civil rights activists assumed a Christian moral consensus. Liberal intellectuals linked the New Deal and the Great Society to Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. Pop-culture utopians projected “Wagon Train” into the future as “Star Trek.”. . .

But meanwhile for a great many Americans the older narrative still feels like the real history. They still see themselves more as settlers than as immigrants, identifying with the Pilgrims and the Founders, with Lewis and Clark and Davy Crockett and Laura Ingalls Wilder. They still embrace the Iliadic mythos that grew up around the Civil War, prefer the melting pot to multiculturalism, assume a Judeo-Christian civil religion rather the “spiritual but not religious” version.

Douthat wonders if one narrative is any longer possible.

But any leader who wants to bury Trumpism (as opposed to just beating Trump) would need to reach for one — for a story about who we are and were, not just what we’re not, that the people who still believe in yesterday’s American story can recognize as their own.

What he observes though is a truth about liberal progressive narratives that we also see in mainline Protestantism — historical denial (read fake history). The PCUSA can’t talk about the days it opposed Arminianism, refused to ordain women, and possessed Princeton Theological Seminary as its chief intellectual jewel. No mainline Presbyterian today recognizes the names of William Adams Brown, Robert Speer, or Harry Emerson Fosdick. Why? Because they were not who contemporary Presbyterians are. They don’t measure up to the present.

The same goes for political progressives. They have no useful past in the actual institutions of national life because old Americans are not contemporary Americans. It is what it is becomes we are who we are. We have no capacity to say “we are who we were” even in part.

If that’s so, let’s not simply ban the confederate flag. Let’s burn the U.S. flag — what a racist, misogynist, heterosexist, capitalist country. How dare President Obama wear a flag lapel pin.

Even better — let’s move to Mars where we can reboot the human race.

The Nation-State with the Ethic of a Church

What does it mean to be American?

“For the Catholic community, the Gospel mandate to ‘welcome the stranger’ is a searing responsibility, not only in our personal lives, but also in guiding our efforts to create a just society in a world filled with suffering and turmoil,” San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy wrote in a statement about the executive orders.

“For this reason, the historic identity of the United States as a safe haven for refugees fleeing war and persecution is for American Catholics both a source of justifiable pride and an unswerving religious commitment, even as we recognize that at shameful moments in our national history prejudice, fear and ignorance have led our country to abandon that identity.”

We heard Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich state: “It is time to put aside fear and join together to recover who we are and what we represent to a world badly in need of hope and solidarity. ‘If we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities.’ Pope Francis issued these challenging words to Congress in 2015, and followed with a warning that should haunt us as we come to terms with the events of the weekend: ‘The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us.’ ” The cardinal’s statement got so many hits, the archdiocesan website crashed.

What does it mean to be Roman Catholic?

When it comes to religious affiliation, a distinctive pattern has emerged in President Donald Trump’s new administration: Most of the high-ranking appointees to military-related positions hail from a Catholic background.

That includes not only Gen. James Mattis, who was sworn in as secretary of defense in late January, but also the new secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Gen. John Kelly. The pattern holds with the national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who is also a general and grew up in an Irish-Catholic family in Rhode Island.

Other high-ranking Catholics include the Army secretary appointee, Vincent Viola, an Army veteran and major donor to Fordham University; and Gen. Joseph Dunford, who was tapped to serve as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff under President Barack Obama and is viewed as likely to continue in that role.

That so many Catholics ended up in top military positions is not necessarily by design, but it is nonetheless significant, according to several military historians.

Lisa Mundey, a military historian at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, said the appointments reflect broader social trends. “I think what is interesting is how well Catholics are integrated into society [now] than they were historically,” Mundey said. A key turning point was the election of John F. Kennedy as president in 1960, which especially paved the way for other Catholics to serve in key government posts, according to Mundey.

Another watershed moment was the end of the draft and the birth of the all-volunteer army, in 1973. Since then, more of those who serve in the military have been making their careers there, according to Mundey.

The armed forces provide an environment that is friendly to the expression of faith, according to William Leeman, a military historian at Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island, who formerly taught at West Point. “They seem very comfortable with their religion, in the sense that it seems to be a more conservative environment,” Leeman said.

For those in the military, their faith can help them get through the hardships they face, becoming an important part of their service, Leeman said.

The cafeteria is opening a franchise near you soon.

Mencken on Life and Death

Yesterday, January 29, 2017, was the sixty-first anniversary of H. L. Mencken’s death. He contemplated mortality frequently and even considered suicide. For the last eight years of his life, after suffering a massive stroke, he lived like a kind of dead man, since he was so incapacitated that he could not do what made him tick for most of his life — read and write. His candor about the meaning of life is still remarkable:

All men who, in any true sense, are sentient strive mightily for distinction and power, i.e., for the respect and envy of their fellowmen, i.e., for the ill-natured admiration of an endless series of miserable and ridiculous bags of rapidly disintegrating animo acids. Why? If I knew, I’d certainly not be writing books in this infernal American climate; I’d be sitting in state in a hall of crystal and gold, and people would be paying $10 a head to gape at me through peep-holes. But though the central mystery remains, it is possible, perhaps, to investigate the superficial symptoms to some profit. I offer myself as a laboratory animal. Why have I worked so hard for years and years, desperately striving to accomplish something that remains impenetrable to me to this day? Is it because I desire money? Bosh! I can’t recall ever desiring it for an instant: I have always found it easy to get all I wanted. Is it, then, notoriety that I was after? Again the answer must be no. The attention of strangers is unpleasant to me, and I avoid it as much as possible. Then is it a yearning to Do Good that moves me? Bosh and blah! If I am convinced of anything, it is that Doing Good is in bad taste.

Once I ventured the guess that men worked in response to a vague inner urge for self-expression. But that was probably a shaky theory, for some men who work the hardest have nothing to express. A hypothesis with rather more plausibility in it now suggests itself. It is that men work simply in order to escape the depressing agony of contemplating life – that their work, like their play, is a mumbo-jumbo that serves them by permitting them to escape from reality. Both work and play, ordinarily, are illusions. Neither serves any solid or permanent purpose. But life, stripped of such illusions, instantly becomes unbearable. Man cannot sit still, contemplating his destiny in this world, without going frantic. So he invents ways to take his mind off the horror. He works. He plays. He accumulates the preposterous nothing called property. He strives for the coy eyewink called fame. He founds a family, and spends his curse over others. All the while the thing that moves him is simply the yearning to lose himself, to forget himself, to escape the tragic-comedy that is himself. Life, fundamentally, is not worth living. So he confects artificialities to make it so. So he erects a gaudy structure to conceal the fact that it is not so.

Imagine what such candor would do to claims of American greatness or critics of presidents who claim to be great. It would take away the pump that inflates so much of American life into a cosmic struggle between justice and injustice. Don’t most hyperventilators on the left at least agree with Mencken that no God exists. Do they continue to walk with Mencken and conclude that without the divine, no meaning is left either to esteem U.S.A. or berate President Trump. It’s all folly. As Mencken also wrote:

The basic fact about human existences is not that it is a tragedy, but that it is a bore. It is not so much a war as an endless standing in line. The objection to it is not that it is predominantly painful, but that is it lacking in sense. . . . The end is always a vanity, and usually a sordid one, without any noble touch of the pathetic. The means remain. In them lies a secret of what is called contentment, i.e., the capacity to postpone suicide for at least another day. (Prejudices, Sixth Series “The Human Mind: On Suicide”)