NTJ Is Risen!

The “journal” has not suffered another stroke but is simply delayed. The essay below appeared in the Winter 2012 issue and is a possible foretaste of what readers may enjoy in the next number. Consider this post the Old Life Theological Society variation on Advent.

More Scruton, Less Trueman

One of the advantages of reviewing a book several years after its publication is that the evaluation yields early returns on the test of time that book reviews written at the time of a title’s releases don’t. Which is to say, a new title demands attention simply because an author, editor, and publisher pooled resources to bring out a set of reflections that have not been seen before. After a couple of years when the newness wears off, perspective emerges on whether the author’s arguments were worthy of culling those resources. Obviously, since the marketing and publicity of books is tied to the review process, writing a book review three years after a book’s publication will not become a trend.

Still, Carl Trueman’s Republocrat may fail time’s test since it comes from an author who has increasingly collected thoughts originally produced on-line in books. In some ways, blogging and book writing is similar. Both use words, paragraphs, arguments, and depend on a measure of coherence. At the same time, blogs are to books what the sit-com “Friends” is to Shakespeare’s As You Like It. A blog post is like a letter to the editor of a magazine or newspaper. It is here today and though not necessarily gone tomorrow thanks to the comments that posts provoke, it does not achieve the coherence that comes with a series of reflections that an author determines to take the form of a book. Simply stringing together posts and slapping them together in a book would be even less satisfying than a collection of George F. Will columns since the former likely have many arguments that are closer to notes for a book than an example that an author might use for a portion of a chapter. In other words, blogging is ephemeral; book writing is substantial. Readers may go to an old blog post to understand an opinion, but they go to books generally expecting to find arguments that endure beyond the window of a month or two.

The genre and style of blogs are arguably worthwhile considerations for understanding Trueman’s book on evangelicals and American politics since it has the feel of his previous compilations of on-line essays (The Wages of Spin and Minority Report). The style is generally breezy. The tone is often cutting and sarcastic – the word bloggers use is snark. And the arguments feel more off the cuff than systematic. It is in other words, like his other short books, Republocrat is a collection of personal reflections about the way that evangelical Protestants politicize the Christian faith and baptize partisan politics. This may explain why a book that both criticizes evangelical Protestantism and resembles the two-kingdom theology – themes close to the heart of the Old Life Theological Society – does not please as much as it should have. To his credit, Trueman brings an Englishman’s perspective to American-style religion and politics and the chance to see ourselves as outsiders observe us is almost always valuable. Even so, if the book fails to engage even those who are sympathetic, the reason may be that Trueman has fallen prey to writing books based on on-line reflections. The usually personal and occasional arguments of a blog do not translate well into the less subjective and more measured medium of pages between book covers.

Obviously, this is a long-winded way of pointing out the personal nature of Republocrat. Despite his disavowal at the beginning – “Despite the title of this book [Confessions of a Liberal Conservative], I do not plan to spend much time talking about myself” – the book turns into a fairly long series of rants about the heavy-handedness of Fox News, the silliness of the Republican Party, and the scandalous political theology of the Religious Right. These are all subjects worthy of a blog post given its op-ed character and immediacy. But readers of books want sustained arguments. For that reason, Trueman struggles mightily to organize his observations into a coherent whole. The best he can do is by bringing similar topics within chapter designations. This is not to say that Trueman’s punchy and witty reflections on American politics lack merit. If Protestants in the United States had to consider more than we do how Christians from other parts of the world see us, and particularly whether the worries we have really stand up as matters about which Christians worldwide might agree in the name of Christ, American Protestant appeals to faith or doctrine in the public square might be much more circumspect.

Still, Republocrat is not without substance. For starters, Trueman is, as the title suggests, critical of both the Left and the Right. For instance, in the chapter on the Left, Trueman observes astutely how the New Left, particularly in the writings of Herbert Marcuse, shifted the notion of oppression from economic realities to psychological neediness. In the process, an older quest for greater equality among the classes morphed into the politics of identity and the demand for affirmation of race, gender, and sexual orientation. What is odd about Trueman’s discussion of the Left is how much it revolves around European (even British) categories of liberalism and conservatism without explaining what the Right and Left in Europe have to do with Democrats and Republicans in the United States.

Trueman also lands punches when he mocks the partisan nature of television cable news and wonders why evangelical Protestants are so loyal to Fox News and so suspicious of MSNBC when both networks manipulate politics to drive up ratings and generate advertizing revenue. Though again, part of what accounts for Trueman’s critical eye is the back story of his own experience as a British citizen and upbringing in England where Rupert Murdoch (the owner of Fox) has turned sensationalist journalism and raunchy programming into a highly lucrative formula. But Trueman’s point implicitly is that detecting Murdoch’s scheme should not take a European sensibility. American Protestants, especially Calvinists, should be able by virtue of what they know about human nature to see that the Fox media empire does not measure up well on the scale of family values and traditionalism.

A further useful point concerns the uncritical embrace of free market capitalism by American Protestants, a hug that for Trueman yields a piety that is not exactly characterized by the otherworldliness of the New Testament and that all too easily becomes a prosperity gospel, as in, wealth must be a sign of God’s blessing or favor. He argues effectively that capitalism creates wealth well but it is not a firm foundation for Christian morality or nurture. Capitalism, Trueman writes:

. . . can focus minds on economic prosperity in a way that is not biblical. Nobody wants to be poor — I certainly do not. There is no virtue in poverty considered in itself. But we need to be careful about simplistically identifying either wealth with divine blessing, or the impact of the gospel with economic prosperity. Neither is biblical. The story of Job makes it clear that there is no mechanistic connection between being right with God and enjoying earthly, material bounty. The life of Paul speaks to precisely the same thing. To read of his sufferings in the book of Acts, or his own description of his ministry, especially in 2 Corinthians, is to enter a world where it is not wealth and ease but rather hardship and poverty that flow from his fidelity to the cross.

Trueman also makes the point effectively that for all of political conservatives’ talk about ties between capitalism and personal virtues (such as responsibility, industry, thrift), market economies are also premised on the necessity of consumption. And reliance upon the desires of consumers communicates an ethic very different from, if not hostile to, the Christian religion:

. . . consumerism is good to the extent that it drives our economies and helps in the creation of wealth; but it is always going to tend toward the message that the meaning of life is found in the accumulation of property — a vain exercise, as the Preacher makes clear in Ecclesiastes 2. This is simply another form of idolatry — an ascribing of divine power to things that in themselves do not possess such power.

Yet, for all of these insights into the mind of the Religious Right, Trueman has little to say about an alternative outlook. The best he can do is to observe that Christians should not be so gullible. Trueman’s conclusion is littered with the words, “thoughtful,” “critical,” and “realistic.” He adds to these words the language of imperatives, as in Christians should be wise. This point is not wrong. It is actually correct. But it seems obvious, one that social conservatives would hardly dispute. Still, instead of offering an alternative political outlook, Trueman simply bases his shoulds on the notion that Christians have an obligation to model good citizenship. His biblical rationale for this is the idea that believers must maintain good reputations with outsiders:

. . . a basic New Testament requirement of church leadership, and that general principle should surely shape the attitude of all Christians in whatever sphere they find themselves. Indeed, I look forward to the day when intelligence and civility, not tiresome clichés, character assassinations, and Manichaean noise, are the hallmarks of Christians as they engage the political process.

Had Trueman written less about the conceits of the Religious Right and more about the authors from whom he has learned about politics (or added a section of political reflection), he might have produced a more substantial book. In the introduction, Trueman mentions William Hazlitt, George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, Edward Said, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Terry Eagleton, Nat Hentoff, P. J. O’Rourke, Christopher Hitchens, John Lukacs, Charles Moore, and Roger Scruton as writers from whom he has learned how to think about the world of politics and economics. Exposing these authors and their political perspectives to an audience addicted to Fox News and Rush Limbaugh would have been a worthwhile endeavor. Unfortunately, Trueman missed his chance.

As it stands, that audience will likely dismiss Trueman as little more than a British contrarian, not someone to be taken seriously. In fact, the book’s foreword gives a good indication that this will be the response of American evangelicals addicted to Fox News and Glenn Beck. Written by Peter A. Lillback, to whom Trueman dedicates the book, the foreword attempts to be “suitably contemptuous” for a book with an “oxymoronic” title. First, Lillback notes with good natured glee the self-contradictory qualities of the author:

Here is a man who has memorized the lyrics of Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin, but prefers to sing only the Psalms on the Lord’s Day. Here’s a dean who only under coercion reluctantly walks the 26.2 steps to the president’s office from the dean’s office for fear of being asked to do some extra work, but regularly delights in running 26.2 miles, even if it means there will be icicles hanging from his running shorts and oozing wounds from his ice-nicked ankles. Here is a scholar who relishes the writings of Karl Marx, but who is inherently, instinctively, and immutably committed to the Reformation spirit of Martin Luther and John Calvin. Here is a man who refuses to go to counseling to address these oxymoronic traits, but who nevertheless is soon psychoanalyzed by all who associate with him.

When Lillback turns to the substance of Trueman’s book, he concedes that the British historical theologian’s “unmasking of the well-camouflaged foolishness on all points of the political spectrum elicit chortles and deserve admiration.” But that does not mean that Trueman succeeds. According to Lillback, Trueman’s opponents may fall “to his wit, words, and wallop,” but just because “Bill O’Reilly is illogical at times and Glenn Beck’s histrionics are more stage than sage, that doesn’t mean there aren’t good reasons to avoid the socialization of medicine and the limitation of the Second Amendment rights.” So Lillback indicates that he will wait for another occasion to “tear apart the straw men” lurking in Trueman’s arguments and for the moment will pick up on a problem that stands out, namely, Trueman’s own admission that he uses “outrageous overstatement to make a point.”

In other words, evangelicals committed to the Republican Party and prone to be persuaded by Sean Hannity will likely react the way that Lillback does – dismissal. Perhaps if Trueman had avoided the popular writing he traffics in on-line and instead applied the considerable intellectual skills he reserves for theology and church history to the subject of politics in the United States, he might have engaged in a significant teaching moment. As it is, Republocrat will inflame more than it instructs, thus leaving the Reformed wing of the Religious Right confirmed in their prejudice that Europeans don’t get us because they are simply jealous of “the greatest nation on God’s green earth.”

Have the Protesters (and city officials) Seen The Wire?

From All the Pieces Matter:

Kwame Patterson: The looting and stuff, that helps nothing. The first thing we do is we loot or own community. They marched down in Fells Point, but it wasn’t looting in Fells Point. Police don’t care about you looting in the hood. That’s the hood. They don’t care about that

It’s the same thing when the LA riots happened It’s like, “y’all looting in the area where y’all live at. That’s stupid. Go to Beverly Hills if you want to prove a point.” Because they ain’t going to let you come to Beverly Hills. They gonna shut you down quick. You looting in Englewood, Compton, they just standing out there watching They just making sure they don’t get too crazy. They just stand out there. But come to Beverly Hills and start looting like that, they gonna shut it down quick, and that’s just what it is. So if you’re going to do that, not that I’m condoning it,, do it where it matters. Thats’s why I’ve never been a big fan of the rioting stuff, because I think it’s stupid. I feel like when they do that, they’re not really about the cause. (311-12)

Ed Burns: Baltimore’s an interesting city. The majority’s African American, and yet, there’s been no programs coming out of Baltimore that would be cutting-edge, new ways of looking at things.

In fact, we adapt programs from Boston and Kansas City, towns that are totally unlike Baltimore They come here and they fall flat on their face. The reason is because this is a very cheap little town, parochial. We don’t think big. We don’t think outside the box Then you’ve got Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland, which are the two big employers here, and nothing’s coming out of them, so it’s the same old crap over and over and over again, same old approach….

There’s this wonderful line from a theologians named Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who got it in his head–he was a German–to leave England in 1944 to come back to confront Hitler. He was [executed] two weeks before the end of the war. He has this line, he says, “if you get on the wrong train, running down the aisle backward is not a solution. You have to get off the train.” We created thee programs back in the sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties, that were the wrong programs. That’s our train, and we tinker with them, but the problem’s way back there and we’re not getting off the train. There’s this whole idea of the war on drugs. I mean, that is our longest war, and that war has more casualties than all together wars combined. . . . We’re not willing to get off of that train because we’ere all experts on the train. We step off the train and now we have to open ourselves up to the problem and rediscover. Now we’re no longer experts. If I had a PhD behind my name or two or three behind my name, I’m not getting off any [bleeping] train. I’ll ride that baby right into retirement. (313-14)

Memories (the way we were debating monuments three years ago)

Andrew Young on monuments, the Confederacy, racism, and Antifa (via):

“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!”
“In 1936.

“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.”

Mingling Church and State while Social Distancing

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.

Civil Religion without Turning George Washington into John Piper

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.

The Nation’s Math Crisis

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.

What Historians Do

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.

For instance, he has been outspoken about the inaccuracies of the Sixteen Nineteen Project:

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.

Spectacle in American Life

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.”

Maybe not Consistency (and its goblin) but How about the Same Standard?

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?

What to Do with Columbus Day

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.