Charism vs. Expertise, Hierarchy vs. Democracy

When the Second Vatican Council opened the Roman Catholic Church to the modern world, it may have bitten off more than it could chew. Not only would the late 1960s make the modern world look not so great (radical terrorists and sexual liberation) and so once again raise questions about the bishops’ discernment. But the modern world is one that is at odds with deferring to elites because of the latter’s authority, and with receiving the teaching of bishops simply by virtue of their office. When the church teaches something that collides with the views of a majority in the church or with the expertise of lay Roman Catholics, can church members and clergy simply expect conformity to church beliefs because the laity is supposed to pay, pray, and obey? In a pre-Vatican II world (more like a pre-1789) that might have been plausible. Rome’s episcopal and Vatican structures are more medieval than modern. But now that the church wants to come along side the modern world, that means accepting modern ideas like majority rule and authority based not on office but knowledge, learning, and study.

One of Bryan and the Jason’s contributors does not like what he sees in the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S.:

American Catholicism is certainly unique. A majority of American Catholics buck the global Catholic trend on capital punishment in their support the death penalty, according to the Washington Post. Yet it would be good for us to remember that we are but one, relatively small part of a global body of Catholics — about 6 percent.

We may be wealthier than Catholics in other parts of the world. We may even be better-educated than the average Catholic worldwide. But that doesn’t make us necessarily better Catholics, nor does it mean we have some outsized claim on commenting on church decisions. Indeed, a truer “conservative Catholicism” would be one that exemplifies humility and self-restraint, rather than self-importance and bluster.

Commentators in the coming weeks and months will continue to debate whether the pronouncement is a “legitimate development,” as one article termed it, or a “reversal,” as other commentators are labeling it. I’m uninterested in raising that debate here (although two of my favorite commentaries, demonstrating a more nuanced, reflective, and unemotive analyses of the decision, can be found here and here). Far more important, I offer, is the manner in which Catholics debate and analyze the Holy Father and the remainder of his pontificate.

One solution to the problem would be for popes and bishops to speak less and narrow their teaching to those matters related to the Creed. But since bishops continue to think they can teach about a whole range of issues and policies (thus substituting the temporality of the church for its spirituality), the church hierarchy will continue to run up against lay church members who may actually know more about banking or climate change or capital punishment than the pope.

And yet, the converts choose to double-down on papal audacity, when? When other church members have lost confidence in the bishops on matters of holiness and church discipline:

We are also angry. We are angry over the “credible and substantiated” report of Archbishop McCarrick’s abuse of a minor. We are angry over the numerous allegations of his abuse of seminarians and young priests. We are angry that “everybody knew” about these crimes, that so few people did anything about them, and that those who spoke out were ignored.

In addition, we have heard reports of networks of sexually active priests who promote each other and threaten those who do not join in their activities; of young priests and seminarians having their vocations endangered because they refused to have sex with their superiors or spoke out about sexual impropriety; and of drug-fueled orgies in Vatican apartments.

As Catholics, we believe that the Church’s teaching on human nature and sexuality is life-giving and leads to holiness. We believe that just as there is no room for adultery in marriages, so there is no room for adultery against the Bride of Christ. We need bishops to make clear that any act of sexual abuse or clerical unchastity degrades the priesthood and gravely harms the Church.

Wouldn’t Pope Francis be better off trying to remedy another sex scandal than to “develop” church teaching in a way that makes most nineteenth-century popes guilty of mortal sin (because they ran a state that executed criminals)?

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America’s Elite Class

Daniel Drezner does not wince when talking about elitism in the United States. His inspiration was the David Brooks column on Italian sandwiches, about which Drezner writes:

Brooks argued that “The educated class has built an ever more intricate net to cradle us in and ease everyone else out. It’s not really the prices that ensure 80 percent of your co-shoppers at Whole Foods are, comfortingly, also college grads; it’s the cultural codes.”

I agree with my Post colleague Tim Carman that outside The Anecdote That Shall Not Be Named, the column was “an otherwise temperate take on the restrictions and social codes that keep the middle class in its place.” As a fully paid-up member of this class, there clearly are expected modes of behavior, and not knowing the unspoken rules of the game acts as a barrier to those trying to enter the meritocratic class. It can still be done, but it’s like learning an additional language.

Then Drezner worries that some of the Trump clan may actually stumble their way into the elite class by being able to order the right Italian sandwich meats:

Based on my own conversations, it would seem that most traditional D.C. wonks look at most of the Trump family and see a bunch of wealthy, not-very-bright boors who do déclassé things like eat their steaks well-done and with ketchup. Indeed, there is a whole conservative genre defending the Trumps for some of their gauche tendencies. Most of the Trumps gleefully ignore the cultural codes that Brooks describes, because they are rich enough to not care.

Then we get to Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, and the narrative switches.

The rest of the Trumps might scream bridge and tunnel, but Jared and Ivanka have undeniably mastered the cultural codes of the educated class. It is hard to read a profile of either of them without words like “polished” or “poised” appearing.

Take the opening sentences to Jill Filipovic’s Politico essay from May: “Ivanka Trump is the poised, polished face of a chaotic White House, a bright young mother who many suspect is a voice of reason and moderation among the Steve Bannon acolytes in the West Wing, whispering socially liberal values in her daddy’s ear.” Look at the Post’s Style Section profile of Ivanka from this month: “Ivanka Trump’s office: clean, white, quiet. A zone of punctual start times and promptly offered water bottles, and a conference table at which she conducts meetings. A short, winding walk away from her father’s Oval Office downstairs.” Or as T.A. Frank noted in Vanity Fair, “let’s agree that one of the finest qualities of Jared Kushner is his tailoring. The fit is so good. Even with bespoke work, that’s hard to achieve.”

Let me posit that in mastering the cultural codes of the educated class, Kushner and Ivanka somehow fooled even veteran D.C. observers into presuming that they might actually be qualified and competent as well. Which all evidence suggests is not true.

Drezner believes that expertise on policy is what qualifies someone to rule in America, not expertise in self-promotion, food, or fashion.

As someone who values education, I am hard pressed to knock learning. But my education also tells me that in the United States, you don’t need to be educated to hold public office. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln did not have college educations. Never mind going to the Kennedy School of Government. By the same token, George W. Bush went to Yale and see what good that did him when it came to America’s educated elite.

And don’t forget about those brain surgeons that the Kennedy and Johnson administrations leaned on to devise a policy for the Vietnam War. Sometimes education doesn’t make you a good administrator — just ask any egg-head professor to chair his or her department. See what snafus ensue.

The reality is that with all of Drezner’s brain power, and it is considerable, he could not be POTUS. Well, he could. But he’d have to run for office and somehow portray himself as an ordinary ‘merican because despite the number of college graduates in this fair republic we don’t very often elect Ph.D.’s as POTUS (this is why Senator Sasse where’s not Harvard but Nebraska swag). Last time we did we had Woodrow Wilson and what did he do — used all of his intellectual fire power to fight a war to make THE WORLD, not just the United States, but THE WORLD, safe for democracy (which by the way means that we fought the war not to have educated elites running things)?

Which leads to the real point of this post: the story that the press and scholars are missing is what a novel state of affairs it is to have a POTUS who has no experience with government. Why no feature stories on what it’s like to have to do so many things that you’ve never done before? Or what is it like to be trailed by Secret Service agents? Or what’s it like to live in the White House? Many Americans could possibly imagine being in Donald Trump’s shoes (though what it’s like to be a billionaire is beyond me). We would not have the first clue about running a government as massive as the federal one. And that could be an exciting set of stories. But what we seem to get is reporting about how Trump is subhuman and stupid. Imagine if Bill Gates were POTUS. Would he be prone to the same mistakes? But he’s not the kind of jerk that Trump is so the press goes Jerry Falwell, Sr.

I still wonder, though, whether any of the people criticizing Trump, even Drezner, claim to know what to do as POTUS? Do the journalists or professors of foreign policy have white papers on Iran and how to deploy the CIA or State Department? (And if education is a pre-requisite for governing in the U.S., what is our foreign policy supposed to be with poorly educated rulers of other countries? Doesn’t this way of thinking involve a kind of hierarchy that is supposed to be antithetical to social justice?)

The reality is that nothing in American government prepares you for what you might face in the White House along the lines of war and diplomacy, not to mention the vast scale of administering the federal agencies. Jim Kenney, the mayor of Philadelphia has a degree from Lasalle University? Does that mean he’s not fit to hold a higher office? The governor of Massachusetts, Charlie Baker, has a degree from Harvard and an MBA from Northeastern. But can he stand on that great hill of U.S. foreign policy?

What I was hoping would happen with the Trump presidency was a chance to see the federal government through the eyes of a real outsider. The Trump administration might be an occasion for a POTUS self-study. What is necessary for the executive branch of the federal government? What is so complicated as to create barriers to other citizens serving in public office short of getting the right set of degrees and making the right connections? But alas all we are getting is how Trump fails to reassure many Americans that Washington is the capital of the greatest nation on God’s green earth (well, at least a few steps up from Russia).

End of Democracy

Then:

The proposition examined in the following articles is this: The government of the United States of America no longer governs by the consent of the governed. With respect to the American people, the judiciary has in effect declared that the most important questions about how we ought to order our life together are outside the purview of “things of their knowledge.” Not that judges necessarily claim greater knowledge; they simply claim, and exercise, the power to decide. The citizens of this democratic republic are deemed to lack the competence for self-government. The Supreme Court itself—notably in the Casey decision of 1992-has raised the alarm about the legitimacy of law in the present regime. Its proposed solution is that citizens should defer to the decisions of the Court. Our authors do not consent to that solution. The twelfth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Harlan Fiske Stone (1872-1946), expressed his anxiety: “While unconstitutional exercise of power by the executive or legislative branches of the Government is subject to judicial restraint, the only check upon our own exercise of power is our own sense of restraint.” The courts have not, and perhaps cannot, restrain themselves, and it may be that in the present regime no other effective restraints are available. If so, we are witnessing the end of democracy.

And now:

Trump is a child, the most childish politician I have encountered in my lifetime. The parent in this relationship is the American state itself, which allows the voters to throw a tantrum and join forces with the worst behaved kid in the class, safe in the knowledge that the grown-ups will always be there to pick up the pieces.

This is where the real risks lie. It is not possible to keep behaving like this without damaging the basic machinery of democratic government. It takes an extraordinarily fine-tuned political intelligence to target popular anger at the parts of the state that need reform while leaving intact the parts that make that reform possible. Trump – and indeed Brexit – are not that. They are the bluntest of instruments, indiscriminately shaking the foundations with nothing to offer by way of support. Under these conditions, the likeliest response is for the grown-ups in the room to hunker down, waiting for the storm to pass. While they do, politics atrophies and necessary change is put off by the overriding imperative of avoiding systemic collapse. The understandable desire to keep the tanks off the streets and the cashpoints open gets in the way of tackling the long-term threats we face. Fake disruption followed by institutional paralysis, and all the while the real dangers continue to mount. Ultimately, that is how democracy ends.

Back then it was shocking:

On September 26, after the Senate failed to overturn President Clinton’s veto of a ban on partial-birth abortions, Paul Weyrich, Gary Bauer and other leaders of the religious right assembled in the antechamber of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott’s office. The rhetoric could not have been more fiery. As Lott looked on approvingly, Watergate felon and evangelist Charles Colson declared, ‘a nation which sanctions infanticide is no better than China, no better than Nazi Germany.’ Richard John Neuhaus, a Catholic priest, went even further. ‘It is not hyperbole to say that we are at a point at which millions of conscientious American citizens are reflecting upon whether this is a legitimate regime,’ Neuhaus said. ‘That is the solemn moment we have reached.’

Despite the apocalyptic tone of what was, after all, an open meeting convened by the most powerful Republican in Congress, the gathering in Lott’s chambers attracted little notice. But this meeting was not an isolated or aberrant event. It was a harbinger of a political development that has now reached fruition: a full-fledged war between two leading groups of conservative intellectuals over the basic question of what constitutes a moral conservatism and a moral society.”

Now, it’s sensible:

A country designed to resist tyranny has now embraced it. A constitution designed to prevent democracy taking over everything has now succumbed to it. A country once defined by self-government has openly, clearly, enthusiastically delivered its fate into the hands of one man to do as he sees fit. After 240 years, an idea that once inspired the world has finally repealed itself. We the people did it.

What’s the big deal? Didn’t the Hebrews and the Greeks teach us that democracy was more problem than solution?

How the World Might Have Changed if the Apostles Had Religious Liberty

I don’t want to deny that it’s a tough world out there for believers. Have to worry about the flesh, the devil, and the world. So having also to keep an eye on California state legislators can make Christian piety a real challenge.

Still, the U.S. Christian tendency to play the persecution card doesn’t make sense of the greatness of American society (no need for Trump). In case Old Life readers did not know, the California legislature was proposing to expand the rights of LBGT students in ways that would have compromised restrictions that Christian institutions placed on their students, faculty, and staff.

And now the good great news. Enough people in California and elsewhere lobbied the California legislature to remove the controversial provisions of the bill:

Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) is removing a provision of his bill that sought to take away the exemption of religious schools to anti-discrimination laws. Instead, he will press forward with the amended bill that would still require such schools to disclose if they have an exemption and report to the state when students are expelled for violating morality codes.

“The goal for me has always been to shed the light on the appalling and unacceptable discrimination against LGBT students at these private religious institutions throughout California,” Lara said.

“I don’t want to just rush a bill that’s going to have unintended consequences so I want to take a break to really study this issue further,” the senator said. He said the requirement for schools to report expulsions based on morality codes to the state Commission on Student Aid will give him information on how common such cases are.

The senator said he will pursue other legislation next year, possibly including the provision dropped Wednesday.

Lara’s decision came after a half-dozen universities formed a new committee called the Assn. of Faith Based Institutions and contributed $350,000.

The group has flooded the districts of members of the Assembly Appropriations Committee, including Chairwoman Lorena S. Gonzalez (D-San Diego), with mailers saying the bill violates religious freedoms and urging voters to contact their Assembly person.

“Stop state control of private education,” says one mailer to Gonzalez’s constituents. Her committee is scheduled to vote on the bill Thursday.

The institutions include Azusa Pacific University, Point Loma Nazarene University and William Jessup University.

After Lara’s announcement, the universities released a letter to the Senator that said “Pending review of this new language, we are pleased to change our position on this legislation from “oppose unless amended” to `support.’ “

What makes democracy great is that it can reverse falling sky.

If It's Obvious It Can't Be True

So what is up with the Trumpophobia? This post made me think about posting about Donald Trump. Lots of people are trying to figure out how serious Christians who self-identify as evangelical could support a politician as raucous, impolitic, and self-important as Trump. I too sometimes wonder about it.

But when you connect Trump to Calvinism you’ve gone a bridge too far:

In the mind of the populist Calvinist, then, Trump is one of God’s “elect,” a billionaire because he is one of God’s great men on earth.

You’ll find echoes of this idea in the theology of the group known as “The Family” or “The Fellowship,” which sponsors the annual National Prayer Breakfast, and supports some of the most corrupt dictators on the planet. (Jeff Sharlet’s outstanding reporting exposed the group’s influence on Capitol Hill.)

For the record, let me say that the Pentecostal tradition to which Palin belongs is antithetical in many ways to traditional Calvinism. Yet, through the influence of the philosophy of Christian Reconstructionism (which theologized both capitalism and segregation along Calvinist thought lines) throughout the religious right, it’s fair to say that Calvin’s big-man theory of redemption holds sway in that religious universe.

Add to that the veneration of patriarchy and the strains of authoritarianism that characterize the religious right, and it begins to dawn on one just why Trump so appeals to the self-appointed guardians of the so-called “real America.”

Since when did American politics become so all darned polite, virtuous, and civil? Maybe it should be those things. But ever since we went down the road of partisanship (read two parties), politicians have splattered a lot of mud. Don’t forget that democracy itself is no picnic.

Democracy is that system of government under which people, having 60,000,000 native-born adults to choose from, including thousands who are handsome and many who are wise, pick out a Coolidge to be head of state. It is as if a hungry man, set before a banquet prepared by master cooks and covering a table an acre in area, should turn his back upon the feast and stay his stomach by catching and eating flies. (H. L. Mencken)

It’s as if everyone following politics has turned into classical music snobs and considers Trump the equivalent of Sinatra compared to Pavarotti or Enrico Caruso when in fact we are all used to casting our votes for Jay Z or Lil Wayne. Just yesterday I heard a quotation from Hillary Clinton where she described the options for the United States as among going backward, maintaining the status quo, and moving forward. Guess which one she is. Seriously?

I’m not opposed to making arguments against Trump. I have some myself. I simply wish that all the opposition didn’t begin with “yuck.” That so reminds me of the girls from junior high.

But How Should I Vote?

John Piper thinks we should vote as if we are not voting (no holy hedonism at the polls):

1) We should do it. But only as if we were not doing it. Its outcomes do not give us the greatest joy when they go our way, and they do not demoralize us when they don’t. Political life is for making much of Christ whether the world falls apart or holds together.

2) There are losses. We mourn. But not as those who have no hope. We vote and we lose, or we vote and we win. In either case, we win or lose as if we were not winning or losing. Our expectations and frustrations are modest. The best this world can offer is short and small. The worst it can offer has been predicted in the book of Revelation. And no vote will hold it back. In the short run, Christians lose (Revelation 13:7). In the long run, we win (Revelation 21:4).

3) There are joys. The very act of voting is a joyful statement that we are not under a tyrant. And there may be happy victories. But the best government we get is a foreshadowing. Peace and justice are approximated now. They will be perfect when Christ comes. So our joy is modest. Our triumphs are short-lived—and shot through with imperfection. So we vote as though not voting.

4) We do not withdraw. We are involved—but as if not involved. Politics does not have ultimate weight for us. It is one more stage for acting out the truth that Christ, and not politics, is supreme.

5)We deal with the system. We deal with the news. We deal with the candidates. We deal with the issues. But we deal with it all as if not dealing with it. It does not have our fullest attention. It is not the great thing in our lives. Christ is. And Christ will be ruling over his people with perfect supremacy no matter who is elected and no matter what government stands or falls. So we vote as though not voting.

I appreciate the involved lack of involvement. It strikes me as a way to capture the exilic status of Christians. But when it comes to doing something that may be good for my community, my city, my county, my state, or my nation, this doesn’t amount to much. If it teaches Sarah Palin’s evangelical followers to be less obsessive about the Republican Party, great. But if it allows evangelicals to ignore important differences among policies and candidates, no thanks.

On the other side of the Christian spectrum comes the counsel of the U.S. Roman Catholic bishops:

34. Catholics often face difficult choices about how to vote. This is why it is so important to vote according to a well-formed conscience that perceives the proper relationship among moral goods. A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who takes a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, such as abortion or racism, if the voter’s intent is to support that position. In such cases a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil. At the same time, a voter should not use a candidate’s opposition to an intrinsic evil to justify indifference or inattentiveness to other important moral issues involving human life and dignity.

35. There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position may decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons. Voting in this way would be permissible only for truly grave moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests or partisan preferences or to ignore a fundamental moral evil.

36. When all candidates hold a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, the conscientious voter faces a dilemma. The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate or, after careful deliberation, may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods.

37. In making these decisions, it is essential for Catholics to be guided by a well-formed conscience that recognizes that all issues do not carry the same moral weight and that the moral obligation to oppose intrinsically evil acts has a special claim on our consciences and our actions. These decisions should take into account a candidate’s commitments, character, integrity, and ability to influence a given issue. In the end, this is a decision to be made by each Catholic guided by a conscience formed by Catholic moral teaching.

If only the bishops were that careful about associations with Protestants.

So while Piper counsels nonchalance, the bishops raise the stakes and make voting a matter of conscience. In some matters, it could reach that threshold. But once you start raising the specter of conscience, everyone can claim it and compromise — living together — becomes impossible. As I’ve already typed, no thanks.

Postscript: This just in, a two-kingdom perspective.

How then shall we best love our neighbors outside the church? How shall we preserve and protect those lives that are not directly subject to the moral government of the church?

We have no comparable clarity here. Shall we enact laws against abortion? Christians may, in our wisdom, decide it is best to do so. But neither the Church nor her preachers can say unambiguously that such laws must be enacted. She lacks the authority, and the wisdom, to do so. Perhaps such a law will backfire; perhaps it will lead to more abortions, to more deadly abortions. Perhaps it is politically unwise, though being morally just. If she bases her actions on what God’s word teaches, the church must remain agnostic on such questions.

Therefore, the church should be mindful of its members’ dual citizenship, and differing degrees of clarity on how God’s law shall be applied in different aspects of their lives. God’s law is not multifaceted. It is one and simple and true. But our grasp of it, and our application of it to our neighbors in particular times and places, is finite and variable.

Yet while the church is bound and limited in what she may teach, the individual Christian is free. She may engage in politics, may lobby for pro-life causes, may hold civil office. But the church may not compel her to do so.

Yes, thank you.

How Protestants Read

John Fea a while back posted this as his quote of the day:

“Good God! The People of Pennsylvania in seven years will be glad to petition the Crown of Britain for reconciliation in order to be delivered from the tyranny of their new Constitution.” John Adams on the democratic, unicameral 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution that gave all male taxpayers the right to vote. (Adams to Benjamin Rush, 12 October 1776).

I can imagine three major Protestant approaches to interpreting this remark.

1) The nationalist Protestant: “See? This proves the founders really were orthodox Christians.”

2) The experimental Protestant: “See? This proves the founders were not regenerate since they took the Lord’s name in vain.”

3) The two-kingdom Protestant: “See? This shows how fragile the American founding was (and what’s wrong with democracy).”

In other words, what is political should stay political. We don’t have to insert religion everywhere.

Of course, I left out the neo-Calvinist response: “See what happens when you legalize gay marriage? What’s that you say, gay marriage didn’t come along for another two centuries? Two centuries, two kingdoms, what’s the difference?”

What Hath Jerusalem (monarchy) To Do with Athens (democracy)?

Or, what hath Geneva to do with Colorado Springs?

For Whom Would You Vote? (I appreciate the avoidance of the dangling preposition) is a resource provided by the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. Here is the justification:

As the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals exists to foster a Reformed awakening, we want to offer a free resource to help voters to think biblically about their responsibility. In his helpful booklet, “For Whom Would You Vote?,” Dr. Roy Blackwood argues that the checkered history of both good and bad Jewish kings teaches us to be discerning of the character (the just-ness or “righteousness”) of those who rule over us.

Aside from the anomaly of likening the voting process to the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and the naivete of thinking we can ever know our federal candidates’ personal qualities through the haze of sloganeering, advertisements, and photo-ops, is this really an instance of Reformed conviction and reflection? Or is it a case of Calvinistic evangelicals doing what evangelicals do, namely, bring God into the ballot box?

Protestants used to be bothered when Roman Catholics did this, and many American Christians don’t care for Muslim-Americans invoking Allah in public life. So what makes this permissible? What makes it Reformed?