Proportional Meanness

This is inspired by trying to calculate the sweepstakes for Christians criticizing Christians. As much as Calvinists may suffer from a reputation for orneriness, some of the folks on the progressive side of evangelicalism have a pretty low threshold for deviation from progressive evangelical norms.

I suspect most people who write critically about others, in venues other than book reviews, have some sense of the critique’s degree of importance. How much of a threat is the person about whom you are posting or writing a stand-alone article? Part of the calculation behind criticism is actually preventing the spread of error or harm. But another side of it — and does it take only someone who believes in total depravity (or has seen The Wire)? — is what notoriety and even recognition an author might receive writing the piece. If it is an easy dismissal, one where most people agree — like Donald Trump is a moral cretin, then you need to add value to have your criticism taken seriously and distinguish your perspective from the herd. But if it requires some work to see the problem in the person under scrutiny, then what you gain potentially by criticizing is a reputation for being smart or clever — thinking outside the box. In which case, if Jonathan Merritt criticizes Mark Galli, the former editor of Christianity Today magazine, he will need to work fairly hard since Galli has received lots of praise for writing an op-ed in favor of Trump’s impeachment (those were the days!). To take on Galli could hurt your own standing. But if someone writes about the frivolity and potential danger of Joel Osteen, you don’t have to work all that hard.

Then the question will be where you publish. If you want to impress editors in D.C. or New York, chances are you can’t simply contend against religious celebrities who may be very popular but are not very well known or very interesting to cosmopolitan readers. You may want to rail against Osteen, but editors at The Atlantic or New Yorker will be right to ask why should we or our readers care? If you want to write for a rank-and-file conservative Protestant outlet, you may not have to work as hard since editors may have trouble finding good copy. But you also need to be careful that editors or readers of the publication may like the person you are criticizing. If so you need to write your critique in a way that is plausible even to the admirers of the person you intend to correct.

That seems to leave three layers of calculus: 1) how big or famous is the person you are criticizing? 2) how national or parochial is the publication to which you are submitting your critique? 3) how do you rate in comparison to either the object of criticism or the authors who write regularly for the publication?

If you are a big fish in a small pond and go after an obvious target, say someone like Carl Trueman writing a critical piece of the atheist Sam Harris for New Horizons, then you may have misfired. Who among New Horizons’ readers needs to be schooled in the dangers of atheism.

But if you are a smaller fish in a bigger pond, say a professor at Westminster Seminary writing a critical estimate of Karl Barth for Theology Today, then you need to walk carefully since the editors and readership are inclined to be partial to Barth.

And if you are a big fish writing in a big pond about a little fish, say Stanley Hauerwas writing at First Things about the impoverished theology of Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life, you probably won’t do it. You would be wasting your own learning on someone outside the ranks of professional theology. And even if the readers of First Things regularly publish what your submit, you may not want to waste your capital on a subject that is of little concern to the editors or readers of the journal. You start to publish too many pieces on thinkers, writers, or pastors that are not in your league, you may drop down from the Premier League to the Football League.

So why is it that evangelicals who are minor figures in the national pantheon of thought leaders and public intellectuals don’t see how large or obvious the subtext is when they hammer away at the religious celebrities that secular or Christian progressives find so easy to mock? It is not even a question of loyalty to your tribe however thin the ties may be within tribal evangelicalism. It is a question of thoughtfulness. If you want to impress your cultural superiors, do you really take on subjects that are virtually defenseless (other than having standing from celebrity)?

On the other side of the relationship, why do secular editors publish criticisms from evangelical journalists and academics of pastors and Protestant celebrities about whom none of their readers actually care? Maybe it is a way of “otherizing” the religious whackos and allowing yourself and your readers the chance to feel superior to the religious unwashed. That’s not terribly clever or difficult, though it likely explains the logic behind click-bait. But why evangelical journalists or academics ever want to be used that way is a mystery. I hope they are washing more than their hands (early and often).

Anti-Trump Fundamentalists and Trump-Friendly Modernists

I never thought I’d agree with Harry Emerson Fosdick, but when he complained that fundamentalists were ignoring political problems for doctrinal purity he might have been describing evangelicals opposed to Trump:

Two weeks ago Great Britain, shocked and stirred by what is going on in Armenia, did as the Government of the United States to join her in investigating the atrocities and trying to help. Our government said that it was not any of our business at all. The present world situation smells to heaven! And now, in the presence of colossal problems, which must be solved in Christ’s name and for Christ’s sake, the Fundamentalists propose to drive out from the Christian churches all the consecrated souls who do not agree with their theory of inspiration. What immeasurable folly!

You could observe a few defects in contemporary American society. What has been happening in this nation for the last thirty years, at least, has not been good. Daniel McCarthy put it well in a recent Spectator piece about the significance of Trump’s presidency:

America has a problem, and it’s not Donald Trump. Suicides and deaths by overdose are up; life expectancy is down. The country that led its allies to definitive victory against both Nazi Germany and imperial Japan in just four years has now been fighting in Afghanistan for nearly 20, with no end to the Taliban in sight. Wall Street prospers but young Americans are deep in debt, manufacturing employment is in decline, and the Great Recession of a decade ago revealed how fragile and irrational the whole financial system is.

For all the talk we hear about ‘polarization’, the policies that led to these grim results were born of bipartisan consensus. Democrats and Republicans might bicker about abortion or guns, but for a quarter-century they were of one mind about free trade and foreign policy: Nato to Nafta and everything thereafter. They each made generous provision for financial and pharmaceutical interests. Enlightened opinion on university campuses and in the major media not only helped shape and amplify the consensus but marginalized practically all dissent from it.

Even today, the architects and propagandists of two and a half decades of policies that led to insecurity, despair and death are unrepentant. Worse, they demand more of the same: an end to Trump’s ‘trade war’ and more shooting wars in the Islamic world and beyond. Drugs and high finance are the future of the US economy, they insist, and manufacturing is better sent abroad.

You have to be a very idealistic democrat not to realize that elites drive society. The question is whether they drive it well or poorly — and with America’s elite, the answer is clear. But what force on earth can reform a corrupt or incompetent elite, one that serves itself and its dreams rather the citizens of the country? Or, perhaps more difficult still, what can compel it to reform itself?

In the midst of these developments, what do evangelical critics of Trump notice? They note incessantly the flaws in the president’s character and the hypocrisy of those who voted for him. According to Peter Wehner, there is no Christian case for Trump, which is true if you also can say there is no Christian case against Trump. The reason is that the president does not have to conform to Christian morality to hold office. Nor does the United States need to follow God’s law to be a legitimate government. But that is not Wehner’s point. His is the fundamentalist one that President Trump is morally suspect and that is the national problem:

The president put enormous pressure on a foreign power to intervene in an American election by harming his political adversary—and Grudem is completely untroubled by that. Can you imagine the outrage of Grudem and other Trump supporters if, in 2012, Barack Obama had coerced, say, China into announcing an investigation into and digging up dirt on Mitt Romney, and then justified it by saying that a president has the power to ask any nation to undertake any investigation?…

Again, the argument made in the editorial is not that Trump’s morally problematic actions in business and in his relationships with women are grounds for impeachment; it is that Trump’s moral transgressions are borderless and, therefore, his actions toward Ukraine are not surprising. And Grudem is simply wrong when he says Trump has not admitted to any immoral actions in business. Last year, a state judge ordered Trump to pay $2 million in damages after Trump admitted to misusing funds raised by the Donald J. Trump Foundation to (among other things) pay off business debts and purchase a portrait of himself for one of his hotels.

Even if you bend over backwards to give Trump the benefit of the doubt, you can’t watch videos or read lists of his lies and come away anything but troubled by how much violence Trump does to truth and reality. To dismiss Trump’s lies as simply manufactured by “fake news” is to perpetrate, even unknowingly, an untruth.

Another never-Trumper, John Fea, is fixated on Trump as a person (and seemingly indifferent to the conditions that made his electoral victory possible):

Here is where we differ Tony. You presuppose some kind of equivalency between Trump and all other politicians. This is why you are constantly saying “Well, what about Obama?” (And this is why I consistently reject this whataboutism). You believe that Trump and Obama (or any other recent president) are playing on the same moral field and thus must be evaluated in the same way. I do not. Trump has sacrificed the moral integrity necessary to deliver a speech like he did today. I agree with Jeff from Maryland when he says: ‘Trump could recite the Gettysburg Address’ and I would not believe him.

So Tony–at what point does a person lose all credibility in your mind? At what point does a person’s actions damage his or her attempts to deliver moral rhetoric to a public audience? I admit that different people will come to different conclusions about when a public figure has reached this level, but I find it hard to believe that it would not happen at some point. I have reached my point of no return with Trump. You, apparently, have not.

The point seems to be that Trump is beneath me. It calls to mind the Pharisee’s prayer, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” (Luke 18:11-12)

But this is all personal — both about the president and the critic. Beyond calculations of personal sanctity, many evangelical critics of Trump have no political or historical imagination to look beyond holiness to social conditions that need attention more than a president’s character.

Wehner and Fea are smart enough. But they are guilty of the narrow outlook that Fosdick saw in fundamentalists. As such, they could never conceive of Trump as Genghis Kahn the way McCarthy does:

Whatever else Trump has done, even his worst enemies will concede that he has injected back into the national conversation fundamental questions about economics, national cohesion and grand strategy that had been treated as closed for a generation. Voters who dissented from the grand consensus had no party and no voice in the media until Trump provided both. But since 2016 only a handful of others, such as Tucker Carlson, have reinforced him. The wealthy and well- educated have been forced to talk about Trump’s issues, yet they do so without admitting any culpability for the country’s plight. This state of denial might see them through the end of this administration but it won’t help them restore the public confidence they forfeited long before the barbarian reached their gates.

You may gain access to the Atlantic or Washington Post by banging on Trump and Jerry Falwell, Jr. But if your political theory is still based on calculations of personal and national holiness, then you have not advanced the ball very far beyond Jerry Falwell (the elder) or Pat Robertson.

Yes, that kind of evangelical.

What Would It Take for Christians to View the World Like This?

Instead of character, the virtues recommended by the Founders, God’s law, or deviations from it, what about war, American workers, and U.S. involvement in the Middle East?

Like a certain percentage of his voters, I had supported Trump in great part because he challenged the Bush, Cheneyite Republican conventional foreign policy wisdom. Trump wasn’t an active Iraq war opponent, and his social milieu in New York was hawkish, but he was clearly lukewarm when prompted by Howard Stern in 2002 to tout the pending invasion of Iraq. In a 2008 interview with Wolf Blitzer, he wondered why Nancy Pelosi hadn’t sought to impeach George W. Bush for lying the country into war with Iraq. He began calling the Iraq war a big fat mistake, most notably in a debate before the 2016 South Carolina primary, perhaps the nation’s most hawkish state. He won that primary, and later the nomination, establishing that pro-war views were no longer necessarily majoritarian in the GOP. His messaging was mixed, ambiguous, perhaps intentionally, perhaps instinctively.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if we could get along with Russia?” he said, a sentiment I shared. He seemed implicitly to acknowledge that the bipartisan policy of trying to expand NATO up to the Russia’s borders and fomenting pro-Western coups in Russia’s neighbors was perilous and self-defeating. But he came across as tough and hawkish too. He praised tough generals and said he would “bomb the shit out of ISIS.” But since ISIS was a genuine enemy, then actively recruiting and training terrorists to kill civilians inside Western countries, hawkishness seemed altogether appropriate. A certain Jacksonian bluster about killing America’s enemies seemed an appropriate way to steer the Republican foreign policy away from neoconservatism and back towards realism….

There was an argument during the last campaign, expressed most notably by Michael Brendan Dougherty, that the worst possible thing for those who wanted a different kind of American conservatism—an end to stupid wars in the Mideast, a more controlled immigration flow, an industrial policy that valued something other than cheap goods and “free trade”—might be a victory for Donald Trump, who campaigned for all of these things. Whether he believed in them or not, Trump recognized that this is what many voters wanted, that this was an open political lane to run in, an untapped yearning. I think, to an extent, he did believe in them, but had no idea, no real plan how to bring them about.

Faced with unrelenting hostility from the Democrats, the media and the permanent class of Beltway bureaucrats which began before he took office, and no real base in the organized Republican Party, he floundered. No wall was built. No immigration legislation was passed. No grand and necessary Rockefellian infrastructure initiatives were initiated. He has hired to key positions Beltway types who had nothing but contempt for him, and they have led him down well worn paths. One of those paths leads to a major war with Iran, an obsessively pursued project of the neoconservatives since long before 9/11.

Of course, to think like this means not taking your cues from the Bible or God’s law (directly anyway). It means thinking less like the way you think a person who believes in Jesus should think than using your academic training, professional experience, insights from experts (who are usually not using w-w). In other words, explicit Christian thinking may be a road block to what’s best for the nation and the world politically and economically. But it does seem to let you think you are doing what Jesus would do when in fact by God’s providence Jesus is using non-Christian policy experts and wicked rulers to get things done.

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?

Constantine as Mr. Rogers

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.

Have The Weak and Strong Turned into the Righteous and the Wicked?

Some churches, in effect, make adherence to the Republican party platform a litmus test for Christian orthodoxy. Most black people are not Republican, so political differences can create barriers to belonging.

If churches want to improve the way they teach their members about race, they should start by examining their understanding of the term.

Ask church leaders to define the words “race” and “racism.” Oftentimes there are as many different answers as there are people answering. The key here is to move beyond a narrow concept of racism as only an interpersonal phenomenon. Christians must acknowledge the ways race operates on systemic and institutional levels. Developing a shared language and definitions is a key to improving racial responsiveness.

Lots of imperatives there, but substituting orthodoxy on race for conformity on political affiliation is hardly in keeping with what Paul commanded in Romans 14:

As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. 2 One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. 3 Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. 4 Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

5 One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7 For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. 8 For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. 9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.

10 Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God;

Maybe the way around this call to forbearance (even tolerance) is to say that Donald Trump is simply evil. If so, then it would be doubly odd to condemn a chief sinner when Jesus hung out with prostitutes, tax collectors, and other deplorables. Since when does following Jesus mean imitating what he will do when he returns on Judgment Day?

One point to remember about the weak and the strong is that it allows for Christians to feel superior. Some are strong, others weak. Not sure how you turn that into some form of egalitarianism. The strong can handle more than the weak, and so have a better grasp of the gospel than those who form certain kinds of legalism.

So if the supremacy of the strong is a biblical idea, what is so bad with talking about some groups being better than others? Is it really so bad (when so many do it) to believe in the supremacy of the educated? American society in most middling to upper institutions runs on the premise that someone who is educated beyond high school will be a better employee, student, leader, manager than someone with less education. That is not hatred (though it can turn into it) of the uneducated. It is a recognition (perhaps debatable) that education is generally a good preparation for lots of human activities.

The point of the weak and the strong in Paul’s epistle seems to be to recognize difference but not let that be the basis for exclusion or cliques in the church.

I understand that people who moved in religious right circles did not handle their (self-understood) superiority very well. But I don’t think the social justice Protestants are setting a great example. If Paul can say “chill” about activities that some Christians deemed sinful, when did the new set of apostles arrive to declare that Paul’s instructions have hit their expiration date?

Pastor POTUS and Mass Shootings

Some bloggers claim to give you historical perspective, and others (like mmmmmmeeeeeEEEEE) simply cut and paste:

In the 19th century, presidents had little involvement in crisis response and disaster management, for both technological and constitutional reasons. Their influence was limited technologically because the country lacked the communications capabilities needed to notify the president in a timely manner when disaster struck hundreds of miles away. Even when the telegraph and later the telephone entered the equation, the nation still lacked the mass media needed to provide the American people with real-time awareness of far-flung events. Naturally, this affected the political call for presidents to involve themselves in local crises.

Then there were the constitutional reasons. In the 19th century, there was a bipartisan consensus that responding to domestic disasters was simply not a responsibility of the commander in chief. In the late 1800s, both Democrat Grover Cleveland and Republican Benjamin Harrison made clear that they did not see local disaster response as a federal responsibility. Cleveland vetoed funding appropriated by Congress to relieve drought-stricken Texas farmers in 1887 for this reason. And Harrison told the victims of the Johnstown flood in 1889 that responding to the disaster, which killed more than 2,000 people, was the governor’s responsibility.

That may be the federal government equivalent of the spirituality of the church: POTUS has limited means for specific ends.

But what about the twentieth-century presidency?

The Austin shooting would remain the deadliest in the nation’s history for 18 years. (In order to abide by a standard definition of “mass shooting,” the following addresses those events identified by the Los Angeles Times in a compilation of mass shootings in the U.S. since 1984.) In July 1984, during Ronald Reagan’s first term as president, a gunman killed 21 people at a McDonald’s in San Ysidro, California. Unlike Johnson, Reagan did not say anything publicly about the shooting. In fact, a search by the New York Times revealed that “[t]he Times did not report any comment from the administration of President Ronald Reagan. His public papers show no statements on the subject in the days following.” McDonald’s suspended its own commercials following the incident, and in this there appears to be some indication of Reagan’s approach to these kinds of matters. When the Tylenol poisonings took place in Chicago in 1982, Reagan had also stood back, letting Johnson & Johnson take the lead in the response. Reagan appears to have been of the view that local tragedies should be handled at the local level, deferring to private-sector entities, when appropriate, to handle problems.

Reagan also appears to have remained quiet after the other two mass shootings during his presidency, one in Oklahoma and one in California. The 1986 Edmond, Oklahoma, shooting appears to be the first one in which a disgruntled post-office employee was the killer, the start of an unfortunate trend of about half a dozen of these shootings that would inspire the phrase “going postal.” Similarly, Reagan’s successor and former vice president, George H. W. Bush, also generally avoided making statements about the four mass shootings during his administration. A January 1989 shooting at an elementary school in Stockton, California, which took place in the last days of Reagan’s tenure, did contribute to a decision early in the Bush administration to issue a ban on the importation of what the New York Times described as “semiautomatic assault rifles.”

Then Bill Clinton turned POTUS into the griever-in-chief:

On a clear spring day, two Colorado high-school students set out to methodically shoot classmates, murdering 13 and then killing themselves. This event was too big and too horrific for a radio address or a brief visit with some of the survivors in another city. Instead, Clinton went to Colorado the next month, just before the Columbine commencement. While there, he gave what appears to be the first major presidential address in reaction to a mass-shooting event. In front of 2,000 people, and joined by First Lady Hillary Clinton, the president told the moving story of a talented young African-American man from his hometown in Arkansas who had died too young. At the funeral, the young man’s father had said, “His mother and I do not understand this, but we believe in a God too kind ever to be cruel, too wise ever to do wrong, so we know we will come to understand it by and by.”

During the speech, Clinton made a number of noteworthy points. First, he recognized that these kinds of shootings were becoming a recurring phenomenon: “Your tragedy, though it is unique in its magnitude, is, as you know so well, not an isolated event.” He also noted that tragedy potentially brings opportunity, saying, “We know somehow that what happened to you has pierced the soul of America. And it gives you a chance to be heard in a way no one else can be heard.” At the same time, Clinton warned of the dangers of hatred: “These dark forces that take over people and make them murder are the extreme manifestation of fear and rage with which every human being has to do combat.” Finally, he expanded on his violence/values dichotomy, exhorting the crowd to “give us a culture of values instead of a culture of violence.” Clinton closed with the story of jailed South African dissident Nelson Mandela, who managed to overcome hatred and become the leader of his country.

All in all, it was a vintage Clinton performance — feeling the pain of the audience, highlighting the importance of values, and trying to bring the nation together in a shared enterprise.

What about Barack Obama and Donald Trump? So far, both have set records:

It is far too soon to know if the Trump administration will surpass the Obama administration’s tragic record of 24 mass shootings in two terms, but Trump’s presidency has already witnessed the worst mass shooting in American history. On October 1, 2017, a 64-year-old man — quite old compared to the profiles of other mass shooters — killed 58 people before killing himself at a country-music festival in Las Vegas.

For the record, the number of mass shootings under the previous presidents runs like this:

Johnson 1
Reagan 3
Bush (I) 4
Clinton 8
Bush (II) 8
Obama 24

That looks like a trend but seemingly 2017 changed everything.

Fun With Numbers

Would it surprise readers to learn that Tim Keller and I, according to the intersectionality meter, enjoy more privilege than 96 percent of the rest of Americans? Would it also surprise anyone that Tim Keller and I have more privilege than Donald Trump? Because if you move the slider on Christianity from Christian to Not Christian (sorry Donald), your oppression footprint decreases, from a 5 to a 14, which means Trump has more privilege than 88 percent other Americans. Throw in income, with differences for religion, and here his how the picture changes: Trump (rich) 11, me (moderate) 5, Keller (more than me), 4. So in the intersectionality sweepstakes, Tim Keller has more privilege than Donald Trump and I. (And since Keller and I are Christians, that may make both of us Christian nationalists.)

This fits what Keller himself has even admitted.

Keller acknowledged white privilege and ways he’s benefited from it, but with his characteristic wit he added, “I’m not going to feel sorry for myself because that is a very white thing to do.”

Or:

John [Piper] and I are both old enough to remember the complicity of evangelical churches and institutions with the systemic racism in the US before the civil rights movement. I took my first church in a small town in the South in the early 1970s. The courts had recently ruled that the whites-only public swimming pool, operated by the town with taxpayers’ money, had to be integrated. So what did the town do? It shut the pool down completely, and the white people of the town opened a new private swimming pool and club, which of course, did not have to admit racial minorities. Because I was a young pastor, our family was often invited to swim there, and swim we did, not really cognizant of what the pool represented.

Here’s some more fun with numbers. What does minority and majority populations mean without nationalism? The world’s total population is 7.7 billion. The United States’ population is roughly 330 million. That means Americans (third in total behind China and India) are 4 percent of the world’s population. In majority/minority statistics, that looks decidedly like a minority.

But I get it with power and wealth Americans look a lot bigger and wealthier than the rest of the world’s peoples. Doesn’t some of that size and power extend to minorities within the United States, such that Amish or Armenian-Americans in the United States have more power and wealth than people living in Nigeria or Guiana?

And what about minority groups not based on race or ethnicity but on religion? Are members of the Presbyterian Church in America — roughly 350,000 — a minority compared to Japanese-Americans at 1.4 million, or Korean-Americans, or Chinese-Americans at almost 5 million? Can ethnicity and wealth simply turn those numbers around so that a denomination that is 7 percent the size of Chinese-Americans has the same sort of privilege as — well — Tim Keller?

And don’t even get me started on how flawed Asian-American is as a category?

However you slice it, the numbers only make sense if you start with the United States and its population, which makes you some kind of nationalist.

If You Think 2k is Dangerous, Imagine 1k

John Fea is upset with Jerry Falwell the younger for adopting a 2k position to defend his support for Donald Trump. Here is what Falwell said:

It’s such a distortion of the teachings of Jesus to say that what he taught us to do personally — to love our neighbors as ourselves, help the poor — can somehow be imputed on a nation. Jesus never told Caesar how to run Rome. He went out of his way to say that’s the earthly kingdom, I’m about the heavenly kingdom and I’m here to teach you how to treat others, how to help others, but when it comes to serving your country, you render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. It’s a distortion of the teaching of Christ to say Jesus taught love and forgiveness and therefore the United States as a nation should be loving and forgiving, and just hand over everything we have to every other part of the world. That’s not what Jesus taught. You almost have to believe that this is a theocracy to think that way, to think that public policy should be dictated by the teachings of Jesus.

I am not sure I trust Mr. Falwell to capture all the intricacies of 2k political theology, but his rendering here seems quite sensible. You can have a theocracy of the Old Testament or a theocracy of the Sermon on the Mount. Modern sentimentality inclines more people to favor implementing New Testament laws than Israel’s political and civil codes (ouch!). But either way, if you require the government and rulers to conform to the Bible, you are a theonomist. Mind you, conducting war’s in God’s name or abolishing the sale of alcohol are not items you want on your resume if you are a government-should-conform-to-Christianity advocate, which John Fea is every time he uses the Bible, not the Constitution, against Trump.

So why is Falwell’s view dangerous? Fea explains:

Luther’s Two Kingdom belief, as I understand it, is more nuanced and complex than what Falwell Jr. makes it out to be. (I am happy to be corrected here by Lutheran theologians). In fact, I don’t think Luther would have recognized Falwell Jr.’s political theology.

That really doesn’t explain why Falwell is dangerous.

Turn’s out, what’s dangerous is a 2k person who won’t condemn Trump and that’s why John looks for help from a Lutheran who explains that 2k allows you fret about presidents like Trump:

Lutherans must avoid the mistake of the Reformation leaders who failed to cry out against the sins of monarchs. We must exhort all “sword-bearers,” that is, all agents of the state and public servants, from schoolteachers to the president, to live up to the demands of their vocations. Our Lutheran forefathers failed in this task; all the more reason Lutherans today must not.

Conservatives who fear that President Trump may be more like the decadent Belshazzar, feasting while the kingdom falls, than like the liberating Cyrus must pray that Lutherans remember the Two Kingdoms Doctrine. How we discharge the duties of citizenship—whether by accepting the creeping authoritarianism of the last two decades, or by raising our voices on behalf of the laws and democratic norms of our country—is a question of moral conscience, suitable for confession, and demanding repentance if we err.

Even if Lutherans call down God’s wrath on Trump, though, it’s still a judgment call, a question of moral conscience. It does not permit the kind of condemnation that John cites approvingly from Ruth Graham:

At one point, reporter Joe Heim asked Falwell whether there is anything Trump could do that would endanger his support from Falwell and other evangelical leaders. He answered, simply, “No.” His explanation was a textbook piece of circular reasoning: Trump wants what’s best for the country, therefore anything he does is good for the country. There’s something almost sad about seeing this kind of idolatry articulated so clearly. In a kind of backhanded insult to his supporters, Trump himself once said that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” without losing his base. It’s rare to see a prominent supporter essentially admit that this was true.

A reporter for a secular magazine used the I-word? Idolatry? Why that’s a biblical idea, even in the Old Testament, the same portion of Scripture that calls for the execution idolaters.

Why John Fea doesn’t find the use of that word dangerous, I do not know (though again Trump explains a lot). Falwell’s point is that we should not expect the United States to conform to the rules for church members. Among the errors that churches try to avoid (I wish they did it more) are idolatry and blasphemy. But in the United States, thanks to political liberalism, errors like blasphemy and idolatry have rights, or people who worship false gods receive protection from the government to do so.

Once upon a time, Americans thought dangerous governments that required one form of worship and denied rights to people of other faiths. To see Falwell, son of a man who regularly blurred the kingdoms, recognize that the church has different norms from the state is not dangerous but a breakthrough.

Fear’s Double Standard

A prominent theme in John Fea’s book, Believe Me, is that fear drives evangelical politics. The word “white” should go before evangelical because Fea also contrasts white and black evangelicals’ politics. He writes:

Even the most cursory reading of the Old and New Testament reveals that, ultimately, Christians have nothing to fear. Scripture reminds us that we already have a strong protector in times of need. . . . In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father Good pleasure to give you the kingdoms.”

But of course, evangelicals did not believe this when the voted for Donald Trump:

While many of Trump’s evangelical opponents said that they could not tell their children or grandchildren that they voted for such a moral monster, other evangelicals were saying exactly the same thing about voting for Hillary Clinton. On Election Day, long-held fears or threats whose specter had been stoked for decades simply could not be overcome.

Recently, Mike Horton echoed Fea when he wrote under the title, “What Are Evangelicals Afraid of Losing?”:

In a Monday meeting with evangelical leaders at the White House, President Trump reportedly warned of violence against conservative Christians if the GOP loses in November. Evangelicals, he said, were “one election away from losing everything.”

As evangelicals, we would do well to correct the president on this point. If an election can cause us to lose everything, what is it exactly that we have in the first place?

What I don’t understand is why the evangelical voters for Trump, why their fears are a sign of infidelity. We have heard a lot about how evangelicals fear the Trump administration’s immigrant policy, the Southern Baptist Convention’s pastors’ treatment of women and sexual abuse, and the racial bias of police and related shootings.

Someone could argue that these fears about the plight of immigrants, women, and African-Americans are legitimate fears while the socio-economic concerns that motivated evangelicals to vote for Trump were illegitimate.

That may be, but that would also undermine the point that Christians should not be afraid, unless it is that white Christians don’t need to fear but Christian people of color do. Either way, a Christian no matter what his or her race or ethnicity is supposed to trust a sovereign God. If Psalm 23 is true, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,” then it is true for all people who trust God.