“I think it’s too costly to refight the Civil War. We have paid too great a price in trying to bring people together… I personally feel that we made a mistake in fighting over the Confederate flag here in Georgia. Or that that was an answer to the problem of the death of nine people – to take down the Confederate flag in South Carolina.”
Specifically, Young was speaking of Gov. Roy Barnes’ decision to pull down the 1956 state flag that prominently featured the Confederate battle emblem. The move was a primary reason he lost his bid for re-election, split the state Democratic party, and ushered in the current season of Republican rule. Said Young:
“It cost us $14.9 billion and 70,000 jobs that would have gone with the Affordable Care Act – which we probably would have had if we hadn’t been fighting over a flag… It cost of us the health of our city because we were prepared to build a Northern Arc, 65 miles away from the center of the city of Atlanta – an outer perimeter that would have been up and running now, if we had not been fighting over the flag.
“I am always interested in substance over symbols. If the truth be known, we’ve had as much agony – but also glory, under the United States flag. That flew over segregated America. It flew over slavery….”
Young also had some advice for the “antifa” movement. Boiled down: If you haven’t seen Nazis and Klansmen in the streets before, perhaps it’s because you haven’t been paying attention. We’ve been here before. Said Young:
“I grew up in New Orleans, La., 50 yards from the headquarters of the Nazi party. Before I went to kindergarten, I was having to look in the window on Saturdays, and watch all these folks [shout] “Heil, Hitler!”
“And my daddy said, those are sick people. They’re white supremacists, and white supremacy is a sickness. You don’t get mad, you get smart. You never get angry with sick people, because you’ll catch their sickness. That’s what I worry about with our young people. Anger and this emotional militancy will give you ulcers, give you heart attacks.
“Don’t get mad, get smart. Your brain is the most important thing you have.”
Confrontation doesn’t change mind. Engagement does, Young said. During the press conference, Mitchell had said much the same thing:
“As a community, as a society, we’ve got to speak up and stand against racism, and bigotry, discrimination and oppression in any form, coming from anybody.
“With that being said, we’ve got to find a pathway to reconciliation.”
Afterwards, I approached Mitchell about the petition that had been presented to Mayor Kasim Reed, demanding the renaming of Confederate Avenue in the Grant Park neighborhood of Atlanta. Said Mitchell:
“It’s going to be a community conversation among people who live and own property on that street, and I’m willing to entertain that. I would just caution us, as a city – you can‘t replace an angry, evil mob with what we believe is a righteous mob.
“We have a complicated history as a country, in the South and certainly in Atlanta. There’s so much good and bad intertwined and tangled together. We need to be able to untangle the good and the bad, get rid of the bad, and make it part of the past.”
Have a pandemic and all the government response completely undone the temporal-spiritual distinction? One expression of that differentiation is the separation of church and state (or religious disestablishment) that comes with the U.S. Constitution and early modern political liberalism more generally.
Baptists used to be very adamant about the separation of church and state, sometimes even celebrating a wall if it preserved religious liberty. In 1947 the Southern Baptists called for a Constitutional Amendment to affirm the separation of church and state and “to prohibit sectarian appropriations to non-public educational institutions.” This was likely in the context of certain kinds of state aid going to parochial (read Roman Catholic) schools. Twenty years later, a constitutional amendment was out of the question but a resolution asking Congress to make laws against federal funding going to church-related schools was still in the SBC wheelhouse.
we urge the Congress of the United States to enact legislation which would help clarify responsibility of the judiciary to interpret the meaning of the United States Constitution for separation of Church and State, including constitutionality of federal funds in church-sponsored programs
That now seems like ancient history with all the computer models, hand washing, apocalyptic headlines, and rising rates of death on planet earth. The wall between church and state has come down with a bang and Southern Baptists are apparently fine with it.
They may receive funding from the government‘s economic stimulus package through the loan portion of the plan:
The benefits allotted to small business, nonprofits, and houses of worship include payroll protection and access to a covered loan if the nonprofit organization maintains their employees. The loan can go to cover the cost of group healthcare benefits during periods of paid sick, medical, or family leave, and insurance premiums, employee salaries, rent, utilities, and interest on any other debt obligations that were incurred before the covered period. The program is designed to allow for the loan to be forgiven if used to cover payroll expenses. . . .
In the midst of these uncertain times, this government aid can hopefully provide some needed financial relief for individuals, nonprofits, and churches.
Southern Baptists may also follow government guidelines restricting worship services under no penalty of violating religious liberty:
The current situation facing us is not a case of the state overstepping its bounds, but rather seeking to carry out its legitimate God-given authority. Nowhere, at this point, have we seen churches targeted because of their beliefs or mission. At issue is a clear public objective—stopping the transmission of a dangerous virus by gatherings. . . . .
The situation will almost inevitably lead to even stronger and less voluntary government actions. Could these encroach on religious liberty? That is certainly possible, but not necessarily. To prevent that, we will need more secular leaders to think carefully about why religion is important and more religious leaders to be thinking through the complexities of public health. If we remain on the same ‘team’ when it comes to overcoming this crisis, we can avoid overreach on one side or paranoia on the other. And that’s what we will need.
Any order should include the maximum recognition of the need for clergy and other religious workers to carry out necessary ministry, in the same category as health care workers. Such ministry is necessary. A nursing home patient who is in peril needs a doctor to care for her physically, but also should be allowed to have a pastor pray for her, her priest administer last rites, or whatever the equivalent would be in her religion. We can make such exceptions without creating jeopardy to lives, just as we have in every other time in human history from the Black Plague to the 1918 influenza crisis.
I’m not sure which is more at odds with the First Amendment. Freedom of assembly seems pretty basic to civil liberties. When China cracks down on public protests, Americans shout “authoritarian”! But now, even Southern Baptists seem to be comfortable with government shutdowns of worship. They even seem incapable of wondering if government officials use an emergency for ends other than public health.
At the same time, giving money to churches (or lending money that will not have to be repaid) is about as big an instance of the establishment of religion as Protestants once imagined. Heck, they even worried about using public school buses (with funding from public coffers) to give Roman Catholic students rides to parochial schools.
But not every one is happy. Cue the atheists:
Organizations that advocate for strict church-state separation are criticizing the program.
“The government cannot directly fund inherently religious activities,” argues Alison Gill, legal and policy vice president of American Atheists. “It can’t spend government tax dollars on prayer, on promoting religion [or] proselytization. That directly contradicts the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. This is the most drastic attack on church-state separation we have ever seen.”
According to the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Advocates for government funding of religious institutions argue that denying them aid that is available to nonreligious institutions amounts to discrimination, and the U.S. Supreme Court has recently declined to challenge such support.
“In the last 15 years, the Court has moved increasingly in a permissive direction,” says John Inazu, who specializes in religion and law at Washington University in St. Louis’ School of Law. “There’s just an increased willingness by the court to allow for direct funding of religious entities.”
The powers of COVID-19 seem to be more “total” than the president’s.
One of the gospel allies is surprised at and disturbed by the depth of American Protestants’ attachment to civil religion. The problem is that he and his allies, whenever they evaluate politics, American or otherwise, by Christian categories, enhance American civil religion.
Here’s why. In his famous essay on American civil religion, Robert Bellah wrote:
As S. M. Lipset has recently shown, American religion at least since the early nineteenth century has been predominantly activist, moralistic, and social rather than contemplative, theological, or innerly spiritual. De Tocqueville spoke of American church religion as “a political institution which powerfully contributes to the maintenance of a democratic republic among the Americans” by supplying a strong moral consensus amidst continuous political change.
Put more succinctly:
American civil religion is not the worship of the American nation but an understanding of the American experience in the light of ultimate and universal reality.
This is precisely what Thabiti Anyabwile did, for instance, when evaluating the 2016 election. He regarded it as having religious significance, whether or not Trump or Clinton were on God’s side:
I don’t think the goal right now is merely a quiet conscience. I don’t see how such a goal can be met without abdicating a significant moral responsibility to oppose evil. It’s not enough to say, “I had no part in the evil.” We must actually resist the evil as best we can. We’re in that Bonhoeffer-like moment where we can choose peaceful exile in some Evangelical enclave or enter the fray bearing our cross. If we choose exile, like Bonhoeffer, we’ll have no right to participate in our Germany after Hitler. If we choose to bear our cross, we’ll have the right now and later to testify to what’s right in the sight of God.
This may be the way Christians should think about elections — or even the 2016 contest — though it would be good to have some scriptural support. Believe it or not, the Bible has no good examples of democratic elections. But aside from biblical sanctions, Anyabwile looked at the 2016 election as having cosmic and moral significance. That is the way that most Protestants, from flag-waivers to draft-card igniters, have understood American politics. Why? The United States is special and deserves the application of eschatological standards.
The same approach is evident in Thabiti’s friend, Nick Rodriguez. In his defense of a vote for Hillary Clinton, he again raised the stakes of religious meaning (and missed almost altogether any of the policy debates that Trump and Clinton were having):
My hope is that I’ll be able to vote for a candidate who unambiguously protects life in 2020. But until then, I hope that Christians throughout this country will work together to protect us from the threat Trump represents. Our leaders can play a big role in giving us permission and guidance within the law to do this in a way that preserves our witness and honors Christ. And though we strive for a particular result, I pray that we would ultimately trust God with the outcome, and that we would glorify Him with our actions both before and after the coming election.
Imagine writing that for a secular or mixed audience. But just because he’s writing for the audience of the gospel allies does not mean Rodriguez is any less reluctant to view the election not as folly — because as Ecclesiastes tells us all is folly under the sun — but as a clear and meaningful indication of the nation’s goodness (no matter how fallen).
Meanwhile, here is how someone sounded on the 2016 election who was not hampered by civil religion:
If President Trump does keep out of wars like the one the last Republican president started in Iraq, if he limits immigration and helps restore the US labour force to prosperity, he will have done what no other Republican or Democrat could do. On the other hand, should he live down to the worst expectations — getting into wars like Iraq to, as he puts it, ‘seize the oil’, or inflaming racial tensions at home — I have no doubt that he would be even more effectively opposed in his folly than George W. Bush was. The anti-war and civil-libertarian left, which has been conspicuously silent in the Obama years, would roar back to life.
The opposite would be true with President Hillary Clinton: in advancing globalist economics and pushing a foreign policy of interventionism and nation-building, she would have the support of many Republicans in Congress — and of Acela conservatives in the pages of the New York Times and Washington Post. She will reduce the left to sycophancy and make accomplices of the right’s ‘wets’. (Or ‘squishes’, as we call them here.) Whether Trump succeeds or fails as a president, he will force American politics to make a choice between globalism and the nation.
Imagine an evangelical choosing between globalism and the nation without quoting John 3:16, “For God so loves the world.” So the choice must be globe.
Lots of people are throwing around statistics about COVID-19, cases, deaths, ICUs, ventilators, even percentages, a challenge for those who forgot long division. And then there are the software/programming types and computer models that project what yesterday’s and today’s numbers will mean for tomorrows.
Keep in mind though that in country as large and opinionated as the United States, tabulating numbers (which depend on people keeping records) is a challenge. For instance:
In his effort to narrow the stunning divide between the U.S. and other industrialized Western nations on the rates at which they incarcerate their respective citizens, Latzer’s argument is limited to people housed in prisons. His analysis thus quite explicitly ignores the almost 800,000 people who are detained, at any given point in time, in city and county jails across America housing half as many prisoners as state and federal prisons do.
Excluding jail inmates in a debate concerning over-incarceration, however, is just as illogical as ignoring foreign-manufactured vehicles from an assessment of the number of automobiles on the road. The place where prisoners are housed (prison versus jail) is just as irrelevant as the place of manufacture of automobiles in arguments over whether we have too many inmates and cars in the United States. To have any real-world significance, each normative inquiry must begin with an accurate appraisal of the empirical phenomenon being assessed. In the case of over-incarceration, that means factoring in the hundreds of thousands of people locked up in jails along with their counterparts in federal and state prisons.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, “County and city jails in the United States reported a total confined population of 745,200 inmates at midyear 2017.” In that same year, the government reported that prisons contained 1,489,363 inmates. Despite the fact that non-lawyers often use the terms “prison” and “jail” interchangeably, prisons are reserved for persons convicted of felonies and sentenced to more than a year behind bars. Jails, by contrast, house less serious convicts serving custodial sentences of one year or less and persons being held on pending charges not yet adjudicated. People in jails and prisons alike are incarcerated and thus directly relevant to debates regarding over-incarceration.
At a time when we are trying to sort through critical cases of COVID-19, ordinary ones, and asymptomatic carriers, remembering that Americans also have trouble counting people who commit felonies may provide comfort. You can always juke the stats.
Sean Wilentz, the George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History at Princeton University, is not a conservative. His ethic background is both Jewish and Irish, so chances are he is not a Reformed Protestant and so does not have a Christian w-w. He’s a Democrat, an egalitarian, and generally progressive. Plus, he’s a darned good historian and will not let partisan politics shape our understanding of the past.
On December 20, the Times Magazine published a letter that I signed with four other historians—Victoria Bynum, James McPherson, James Oakes, and Gordon Wood. Our letter applauded the project’s stated aim to raise public awareness and understanding of slavery’s central importance in our history. Although the project is not a conventional work of history and cannot be judged as such, the letter intended to help ensure that its efforts did not come at the expense of basic accuracy. Offering practical support to that end, it pointed out specific statements that, if allowed to stand, would misinform the public and give ammunition to those who might be opposed to the mission of grappling with the legacy of slavery. The letter requested that the Times print corrections of the errors that had already appeared, and that it keep those errors from appearing in any future materials published with the Times’ imprimatur, including the school curricula the newspaper announced it was developing in conjunction with the project.
The letter has provoked considerable reaction, some of it from historians affirming our concerns about the 1619 Project’s inaccuracies, some from historians questioning our motives in pointing out those inaccuracies, and some from the Times itself. In the newspaper’s lengthy formal response, the New York Times Magazine editor in chief, Jake Silverstein, flatly denied that the project “contains significant factual errors” and said that our request for corrections was not “warranted.” Silverstein then offered new evidence to support claims that our letter had described as groundless. In the interest of historical accuracy, it is worth examining his denials and new claims in detail.
No effort to educate the public in order to advance social justice can afford to dispense with a respect for basic facts. In the long and continuing battle against oppression of every kind, an insistence on plain and accurate facts has been a powerful tool against propaganda that is widely accepted as truth.
The article goes on, almost in the manner of a legal brief, to do the historical equivalent of math assignments — show your work.
Wilentz was also pretty good about the differences between liberalism and socialism. In defense of Hillary Clinton, in 2018 he pointed out the conceit of Sanders claiming to be merely a liberal on the order of the New Deal:
Franklin Delano Roosevelt called himself a Christian, a Democrat, and a liberal. He did not call himself a democratic socialist, or any other kind of socialist. He was, in fact, no socialist at all. Nor was he a conservative or a reactionary, although many on the socialist and communist left charged that he was—including the Communist Party USA, which attacked his New Deal for a time (until Moscow’s political line changed) as American “masked fascization.”
The only Americans who considered Franklin Roosevelt a socialist were right-wing Republicans. “The New Deal is now undisguised state socialism,” Senator Simeon D. Fess of Ohio declared in 1934. “Roosevelt is a socialist, not a Democrat,” Congressman Robert Rich of Pennsylvania announced on the House floor a year later. Roosevelt scoffed at such talk, but in 1939 he paused to present a very concise political dictionary of his own. “A radical,” he told the New York Herald Tribune, “is a man with both feet firmly planted—in the air.” A conservative, he continued, “never learned to walk forward”; a reactionary walked backward in his sleep. A liberal, though, used legs and hands “at the behest—at the command—of his head.” The metaphor was poignant coming from him, but it also emphasized his point: In the face of all adversity, he was every inch a liberal.
In the 1936 election, FDR masterfully ran as an unabashed liberal and at the same time completely outmaneuvered the left and would-be populists like Louisiana Governor Huey Long, who, before his assassination, planned to challenge Roosevelt in the campaign on a “Share Our Wealth” platform. As Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks related in It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States, the Great Depression “presented American radicals with their greatest opportunity to build a third party since World War I.” But Roosevelt’s New Deal, in its improvisational way, offered a triumphant liberal alternative.
The election of 2016 showed how confused these old labels and distinctions have become. The socialist senator Bernie Sanders, for example, rallying his supporters with a speech at Georgetown University in November 2015, offered a surprising definition of socialism, which consisted of a paean to FDR and the social protections ushered in by the New Deal. “Almost everything he proposed, almost every program, every idea, was called socialist,” Sanders said—as if the right-wing name-calling was the rightful definition.
Somewhere the ghost of FDR burst out laughing, while the ghost of one of Sanders’s other heroes, Eugene V. Debs, scratched his head.
What distinguishes liberals like Wilentz from Leftists like Sanders or writers at the New York Times is an attachment to the United States. He may not think it’s the greatest nation ever. But he seems like you could have a conversation about it. Wilentz would also likely be suspicious of newspapers and magazines that claim to be exceptional in ways formerly reserved for nations.
Someone who attended the National Prayer Breakfast and observed reactions to President Trump wrote this to Rod Dreher:
It was disturbing, and I was equally disappointed by the applause lines, campaign rally atmosphere, and lack of concern by many of my fellow Christian’s at the event. I’m not from or much familiar with the evangelical world so I admit that, but responding with “yeahs”, “amens”, and other affirmations when an obviously angry and contemptuous man is lashing out at his enemies during a PRAYER BREAKFAST WHERE WE JUST TALKED ABOUT LOVING OUR ENEMIES was crazy. I can’t think of another word to describe it. The speech came as close to possible to saying Jesus was wrong about loving our enemies without going there.
I wonder, if Christians could resist the spectacle of the Super Bowl, would be they be better equipped to spot the cringe-worthy feats of presidential politics?
This is one way not to gain such perspective:
See the players as image bearers. I watch guys like Randy Moss with his freakish physical ability and I marvel at the God who made someone who can jump, run, and catch like this guy. I watch Tom Brady dissect a defense in a matter of seconds and throw a pass between two defenders and hit his receiver in stride on his outside shoulder and think of his creator. I look at the size of a guy like Adalius Thomas whose arms are bigger than my thighs (seriously) and watch how quick he is and just think about how amazing the human body is, the way God made it so that we can, by hard work, strengthen, condition, and improve it. I watch a coach like Bill Belichick who has opposing coaches staying up all night trying to be creative because they know the guy is a football genius; I watch him and worship the God who gave him such a great mind.
Or, perhaps you could try to see the image-bearing aspects of Donald Trump and his freakish ability to escape investigations by Special Counsel and Congress. But maybe not.
But if you regarded the Super Bowl this way, you won’t have any trouble with Trump:
The Super Bowl is not just another NFL game. It has become an intensified concentration of vulgarity and ego, with enough athletics in the game and cleverness in the commercials to trick me into watching. It’s simply not what I’m living for.
That was my last Super Bowl.
Now, the question is those who go along with the Super Bowl and draw the line at POTUS. I wonder, for instance, what Michael Gerson, Peter Wehner, and John Fea think this year’s half-time show says about “one nation under God.”
When Barack Obama was the most Christian POTUS in US history:
I am also intrigued by the way this speech is saturated with Christian theology and Biblical references (including multiple references to Jesus Christ). I have said this before, but if we evaluate Obama’s faith in the same way that we evaluate the faith of the Founding Fathers (in terms of references to God, Jesus, the Bible, etc… in public addresses), then Obama may just be the most Christian president in American history. For example, he has mentioned Jesus Christ dozens of times more than George Washington, who only mentioned him once or twice (depending on how you count).
I don’t know Obama’s heart, but he sure understands Easter.
When President Trump is wicked and unfit:
what do the court evangelicals mean when they say “we didn’t need a preacher in the Oval Office?” They seem to be suggesting that they don’t need to have a person of Christian character in the office as long as he is delivering on Christian Right policy. The court evangelicals are essentially saying that Trump’s character–the lies, the misogyny, the narcissism, the demonization of enemies–don’t matter. “Sure he is a rough dude, and we don’t like some of his tweets, but look what he is doing for us!” Or “At least he’s not Hillary!” (Christians are not supposed to hate, but they sure hate Hillary).
The court evangelicals have every right to think about politics in this way. They are free to ignore Trump’s many indiscretions because he is delivering on the things they hold dear. But if they are going to take this route they need to stop appealing to the Founding Fathers. These framers of the Constitution understood that the leader of the United States needed to be a person of character.
So far a sliding scale. You can judge a president by affirmations of faith, sins against God’s law, an incapacity to put aside self-interest for the common good.
But don’t forget that none of this matters because the swamp is and always has been a swamp:
In his well-known guide to court life, 16th-century Italian courtier Baldesar Castiglione described the court as an “inherently immoral” place, a worldly venue “awash with dishonest, greedy, and highly competitive men.” One historian has described courtiers of the time as “opportunistic social ornaments”; another described them as “chameleons.”
The skills needed to thrive in the court, in short, are different from the virtues needed to lead a healthy Christian life or exercise spiritual leadership in the church. Most medieval courts had their share of clergy, bishops and other spiritual counselors, and historians agree that their behavior was indistinguishable from that of secular courtiers, whom Damiani described elsewhere as “ruthless, fawning flatterers” in a “theater of intrigue and villainy.”
If politics is truly immoral, why judge Trump for his wickedness? And why would you ever trust anyone else?
I wonder if the sovereignty of tribal nations is part of the Democratic Party’s platform. I am curious mainly after looking at presidential proclamations about Columbus Day. In his 2015 speech, President Obama mentioned working harder to establish and protect tribal sovereignty. I had no idea that native American reservations function (or at least ideally) directly in relation to the federal government and not with states. The reason has to do with trying to recognize their existence and history before the founding of the United States. They were nations before, so the creation of the United States should not change that.
Imagine though, if you tried to make an analogy between tribal sovereignty and national sovereignty. There might be something in there for pondering the status of migrants. (Wikipedia haters, beware):
In Iron Crow v. Oglala Sioux Tribe, the United States Supreme Court concluded that two Oglala Sioux defendants convicted of adultery under tribal laws, and another challenging a tax from the tribe, were not exempted from the tribal justice system because they had been granted U.S. citizenship. It found that tribes “still possess their inherent sovereignty excepting only when it has been specifically taken from them by treaty or Congressional Act”. This means American Indians do not have exactly the same rights of citizenship as other American citizens. The court cited case law from a pre-1924 case that said, “when Indians are prepared to exercise the privileges and bear the burdens of” sui iuris, i.e. of one’s own right and not under the power of someone else, “the tribal relation may be dissolved and the national guardianship brought to an end, but it rests with Congress to determine when and how this shall be done, and whether the emancipation shall be complete or only partial” (U.S. v. Nice, 1916). The court further determined, based on the earlier Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock case, that “It is thoroughly established that Congress has plenary authority over Indians.” The court held that, “the granting of citizenship in itself did not destroy … jurisdiction of the Indian tribal courts and … there was no intention on the part of Congress to do so.” The adultery conviction and the power of tribal courts were upheld.
Heck, there might even be some relevance for church power and two kingdoms, not to mention a little push back for Representative Robert O’Rourke and his comments about religious institutions’ tax status.
Columbus Day may even provide perspective on what to do with historical monuments. The celebration of Columbus Day started in part out of a response to the lynching of Italian Americans in New Orleans, one year before the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America. Can you try to protect people who suffered discrimination by celebrating someone from that group who it turns out inflicted suffering on a minority group? If the historical context for the creation of a monument is important for assessing a statue, doesn’t that give some protection for Columbus statues and the holiday?
Figuring out what to do with Latinos and Hispanics in all this, since it was the Spanish monarchy that underwrote the Italian explorer, is above my paygrade.
One last wrinkle: is it a form of bigotry to think of the mafia when you consider Italian-American identity? It may be, but organized criminals have inspired some of the greatest moving pictures on earth. Don’t forget, though, that other ethnic groups were involved in organized crime.
For Italian vs. Irish mobsters, with a dash of Jewish crime, see Miller’s Crossing.
For Jewish gangsters, see Liberty Heights.
And for Greek, Polish, and African-American gangsters (and boy were they organized), there is always The Wire.
Remember when Presbyterians used to confess this about the civil magistrate?
The civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the Word and sacraments; or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven: yet he hath authority, and it is his duty, to take order, that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire; that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed; all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed; and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administered, and observed. For the better effecting whereof, he hath power to call synods, to be present at them, and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God. (Confession of Faith 23.3)
Of course, imagining Donald Trump presiding over the General Assembly of the PCA might prompt chuckles (moderating debate with Roberts’ Rules, winding up the woke commissioners, Trump supporters’ embarrassment). But even giving “good” presidents this kind of power is precisely why American Presbyterians revised the Confession (at least one reason). The Congregationalist, Barack Obama moderating a General Assembly? The United Methodist, George W. Bush? The Roman Catholic, John F. Kennedy? I don’t think so!
But even in a secular United States, Americans have trouble abandoning the idea of a president’s moral authority. Even those who believe in total depravity struggle with expecting too much of POTUS. Here’s one fairly recent foray into the topic of presidents’ morality at National Public Radio. Surprise, it started with St. Abe:
While Americans often take the idea of the president as a moral leader for granted, Barbara Perry, a presidential historian in Charlottesville at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, says she has traced this concept back to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in 1863.
The North and South were divided in the middle of the Civil War, and Lincoln sought to bring the country together by pointing to our common heritage, Perry says.
“He points to the fact that our common heritage is that our forefathers came upon this continent and created a new nation, dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” Perry tells NPR’s Audie Cornish. “To me it is the ultimate presidential speech of unification, grief, calming — but also uplifting and inspirational.”
What exactly is moral about social unity, grief over soldiers’ deaths, calm reassurance, uplift, and inspiration? That’s a pretty low bar (not low enough for Trump).
“The president is not always successful in the persuasion, in terms of policy outcomes,” Perry says, “but if he can be successful in at least calming and soothing the nation and showing us a way forward — that someday perhaps we will reach the policy point, as we did with President Kennedy and the ’64 Civil Rights Act — he will have been successful.”
So what, ultimately, is the responsibility of a president in critical moments? Perry says the president primarily serves to comfort the American people in times of crisis. We look to the president as a father figure.
“The president is the very first symbol of American government that children comprehend,” she says. “The president, especially in the modern era, comes into our homes — first by radio, then television, now through all sorts of electronic gadgetry — and so we think of him as part of our life. And that’s why it’s so important for him to model the proper behavior for us.”
The only way this makes sense for Christians is to have two standards, one for Christians, another for citizens. The United States relies on conduct that is outwardly moral in some sense. But that is a far cry from the Confession:
Works done by unregenerate men, although for the matter of them they may be things which God commands, and of good use both to themselves and others; yet because they proceed not from a heart purified by faith, nor are done in a right manner, according to the Word, nor to a right end, the glory of God; they are therefore sinful, and cannot please God, or make a man meet to receive grace from God. (Confession of Faith, 13.7)
A president’s moral authority, accordingly, should proceed from true faith, obedience to God’s word, and an aim to give God the glory.
And yet, we have many Americans who expect presidents to be moral at a time when Christians have been “engaged” in politics in a direct way for at least a generation. You might think that a Christian perspective would reduce expectations for a presidential morality. It is exactly the reverse. Many American who have made a living by flouting conventional standards (think Hollywood celebrities) now have no trouble echoing Jerry Falwell, Sr.
If only Mencken were alive to see this show.
Worse, a minority not only has no more inalienable rights in the United States; it is not even lawfully entitled to be heard. This was well established by the case of the Socialists elected to the New York Assembly. What the voters who elected these Socialists asked for was simply the privilege of choosing spokesmen to voice their doctrines in a perfectly lawful and peaceable manner,—nothing more. This privilege was denied them. In precisely the same way, the present national House of Representatives, which happens to be Republican in complexion, might expel all of its Democratic members. The voters who elected them would have no redress. If the same men were elected again, or other men of the same views, they might be expelled again. More, it would apparently be perfectly constitutional for the majority in Congress to pass a statute denying the use of the mails to the minority—that is, for the Republicans to bar all Democratic papers from the mails. I do not toy with mere theories. The thing has actually been done in the case of the Socialists. Under the present law, indeed—upheld by the Supreme Court—the Postmaster-General, without any further authority from Congress, might deny the mails to all Democrats. Or to all Catholics. Or to all single-taxers. Or to all violoncellists.
Yet more, a citizen who happens to belong to a minority is not even safe in his person: he may be put into prison, and for very long periods, for the simple offense of differing from the majority. This happened, it will be recalled, in the case of Debs. Debs by no means advised citizens subject to military duty, in time of war, to evade that duty, as the newspapers of the time alleged. On the contrary, he advised them to meet and discharge that duty. All he did was to say that, even in time of war, he was against war—that he regarded it as a barbarous method of settling disputes between nations. For thus differing from the majority on a question of mere theory he was sentenced to ten years in prison. The case of the three young Russians arrested in New York was even more curious. These poor idiots were jailed for the almost incredible crime of circulating purely academic protests against making war upon a country with which the United States was legally at peace, to wit, Russia. For this preposterous offense two of them were sent to prison for fifteen years, and one, a girl, for ten years, and the Supreme Court upheld their convictions. Here was a plain case of proscription and punishment for a mere opinion. There was absolutely no contention that the protest of the three prisoners could have any practical result—that it might, for example, destroy the morale of American soldiers 6,000 miles away, and cut off from all communication with the United States. The three victims were ordered to be punished in that appalling manner simply because they ventured to criticise an executive usurpation which happened, at the moment, to have the support of public opinion, and particularly of the then President of the United States and of the holders of Russian government securities.
It must be obvious, viewing such leading cases critically—and hundreds like them might be cited—that the old rights of the free American, so carefully laid down by the Bill of Rights, are now worth nothing. Bit by bit, Congress and the State Legislatures have invaded and nullified them, and to-day they are so flimsy that no lawyer not insane would attempt to defend his client by bringing them up. Imagine trying to defend a man denied the use of the mails by the Postmaster-General, without hearing or even formal notice, on the ground that the Constitution guarantees the right of free speech! The very catchpolls in the courtroom would snicker. I say that the legislative arm is primarily responsible for this gradual enslavement of the Americano; the truth is, of course, that the executive and judicial arms are responsible to a scarcely less degree. Our law has not kept pace with the development of our bureaucracy; there is no machinery provided for curbing its excesses. In Prussia, in the old days, there were special courts for the purpose, and a citizen oppressed by the police or by any other public official could get relief and redress. The guilty functionary could be fined, mulcted in damages, demoted, cashiered, or even jailed. But in the United States to-day there are no such tribunals. A citizen attacked by the Postmaster-General simply has no redress whatever; the courts have refused, over and over again, to interfere save in cases of obvious fraud. Nor is there, it would seem, any remedy for the unconstitutional acts of Prohibition agents. Some time ago, when Senator Stanley, of Kentucky, tried to have a law passed forbidding them to break into a citizen’s house in violation of the Bill of Rights, the Prohibitionists mustered up their serfs in the Senate against him, and he was voted down.
Imagine if Reformed Protestants were a minority.