General Revelation

Why don’t Christians have all the truth? Because non-Christians are smart and attend well to creation. Some highlights of recent revelations from people not explicitly illumined by the Holy Spirit or committed to Reformed Protestant epistemology:

First, a great piece on the films of Whit Stillman which includes this:

Though certainly a contemporary filmmaker and not in any sense a stranded nostalgist, Stillman nevertheless displays qualities that, while once common, are now so rare that they put him in stark relief against nearly all of his contemporaries. Perhaps most pronounced is his distinctive affection for his uniformly well-born characters. If revulsion for bourgeois hypocrisy seems an obligatory quality in American independent filmmaking these days, Stillman will have none of it. He offers instead a gentle satire of his characters’ foibles combined with a frank sympathy for their principles. While quite natural in Austen novels and RKO comedies of the 1930s and ’40s, this is rare today. Thus is it all the more striking that Stillman continues to receive critical acclaim from disparate publications and institutions, from a Vanity Fair photo spread for the 25th anniversary of Metropolitan to a volume of effusive essays from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

Second, the short-sightedness of suburban growth:

Since the end of World War II, our cities and towns have experienced growth using three primary mechanisms:

1. Transfer payments between governments: where the federal or state government makes a direct investment in growth at the local level, such as funding a water or sewer system expansion.

2. Transportation spending: where transportation infrastructure is used to improve access to a site that can then be developed.3

3. Public and private-sector debt: where cities, developers, companies, and individuals take on debt as part of the development process, whether during construction or through the assumption of a mortgage.

In each of these mechanisms, the local unit of government benefits from the enhanced revenues associated with new growth. But it also typically assumes the long-term liability for maintaining the new infrastructure. This exchange — a near-term cash advantage for a long-term financial obligation — is one element of a Ponzi scheme.

The other is the realization that the revenue collected does not come near to covering the costs of maintaining the infrastructure. In America, we have a ticking time bomb of unfunded liability for infrastructure maintenance. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimates the cost at $5 trillion — but that’s just for major infrastructure, not the minor streets, curbs, walks, and pipes that serve our homes.

The reason we have this gap is because the public yield from the suburban development pattern — the amount of tax revenue obtained per increment of liability assumed — is ridiculously low.

Last, the folly of an all volunteer military:

When the Gates Commission set up the rationale for the AVF in 1970, it did so at the behest of a president, Richard Nixon, who had come to see the conscript military as a political dagger aimed at his own heart. One could argue that the decision to abolish conscription was a foregone conclusion; the Commission simply provided a rationale for doing it and for volunteerism to replace it.

But whatever we might think of the Commission’s work and Nixon’s motivation, what has happened in the last 16 years—interminable war—was never on the Commission’s radar screen. Like most crises, as Colin Powell used to lament when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, this one was unexpected, not planned for, and begs denial as a first reaction.

That said, after 16 years of war it is plain to all but the most recalcitrant that the U.S. cannot afford the AVF—ethically, morally, or fiscally.

Fiscally, the AVF is going to break the bank. The land forces in particular are still having difficulties fielding adequate numbers—even with lowered standards, substituting women for men (from 1.6 percent of the AVF in 1973 to more than 16 percent today), recruitment and reenlistment bonuses totaling tens of millions of dollars, advertising campaigns costing billions, massive recruitment of non-citizens, use of psychotropic drugs to recycle unfit soldiers and Marines to combat zones, and overall pay and allowances that include free world-class health care and excellent retirement plans that are, for the first time in the military’s history, comparable to or even exceeding civilian rates and offerings.

A glaring case in point is the recent recruitment by the Army of 62,000 men and women, its target for fiscal year 2016. To arrive at that objective, the Army needed 9,000 recruiting staff (equivalent to three combat brigades) working full-time. If one does the math, that equates to each of these recruiters gaining one-point-something recruits every two months—an utterly astounding statistic. Additionally, the Army had to resort to taking a small percentage of recruits in Mental Category IV—the lowest category and one that, post-Vietnam, the Army made a silent promise never to resort to again.

Moreover, the recruiting and retention process and rich pay and allowances are consuming one half of the Army’s entire annual budget slice, precluding any sort of affordable increase in its end strength.

All of these pieces relate to the United States’ growth as a world power and the way we pay (or don’t) for it. Stillman’s movie, Barcelona, is an amusing take on the convergence of economic interest and Cold War policy. And none of it will you (nor should you) find in New Horizons.

The Nation-State with the Ethic of a Church

What does it mean to be American?

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

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

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

What does it mean to be Roman Catholic?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cafeteria is opening a franchise near you soon.

That Funny Thing You (military) Do

Is it wrong to be ambivalent about the U.S. military, or at least about the ways that Americans manipulate empathy for soldiers to produce a faux patriotism? A couple of recent incidents rekindled this question (which given its length may need a lot of kindling).

During halftime at the Crisler Center at the University of Michigan, the athletic department decided to honor one veteran recently home from the Middle East. The announcer asked for standing applause on the basis of what this young man had done to keep the United States free. The crowd responded positively, even the university students who one might have thought were more interested in the legacy of pacifists like the Big Lebowski than in the foreign policy of two different White House administrations.

Since I was grading papers and didn’t want to drop my pen again below the seats (occupied) in the row ahead, I remained seated and clapped my hands in a way that an Edwardsian would have charged as simply going through the motions. But as I looked around I wondered if the security guards at the arena would receive a similar standing ovation for making possible a peaceful space to root on our team. Or what about the police of Ann Arbor or Hillsdale who do put their lives on the line everyday also to make the United States a free society (though not everyone sees the police of America that way)? I certainly respect the courage and sacrifice that U.S. soldiers make and it is a calling that is conceivably more dangerous than monitoring fans at a basketball game (though I’m not entirely sure that all soldiers face the same dangers that police do). And while I admire the service that soldiers give to their country, what if I don’t think the United States should have military bases all around the world where the nation puts at risk the lives of her military? I certainly support wars of national defense when foes truly threaten our homeland. But can we really say that regime change in Iraq is protecting national security? It may be indirectly, though which citizen is privy to the intelligence reports that allow the government to make that case? But do I really need to think it my patriotic duty to support soldiers who are functioning in some way as global cops, that is, trying to bring order to other places in the world but not really protecting the security of Michigan’s residents?

When it comes to the military, the churches — my second incident — are not much more discerning about the U.S. military. For Veterans Day, Joe Carter posted 9 things we should know about military chaplains (doesn’t Carter know 7 is the perfect number?). One thing he did not mention, that we really should know, those of us who want ministers to be free and uncompromised in their ministry of word and sacrament, is that OPC or PCA chaplains minister alongside not merely Roman Catholics or United Methodists but also Muslims, Jews, and Wiccans. According to Carter:

The denominations with the largest representation (more than 100, both active and reserve) are: Southern Baptist Convention (787), Roman Catholic Church (350), United Methodist Church (274), Evangelical Church Alliance (174), General Council of Assemblies of God (153), Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (149), and Evangelical Lutheran Church In America (128)

The spread sheet that comes linked to Carter’s post also indicates that the PCA has 1194 active chaplains compared to 2392 Wiccans.

I can appreciate the Defense Department’s reasons for employing military chaplains:

The purpose of chaplaincies. . . is to “accommodate religious needs, to provide religious and pastoral care, and to advise commanders on the complexities of religion with regard to its personnel and mission, as appropriate. As military members, chaplains are uniquely positioned to assist Service members, their families, and other authorized personnel with the challenges of military service as advocates of religious, moral, and spiritual well being and resiliency.”

Since Reformed Protestants (unlike Anabaptists) have no inherent objection to Christians serving in the military (in just wars, anyway), I certainly support provision for the spiritual well-being of soldiers. But if an Orthodox Presbyterian Army private is in a unit in Afghanistan where his only options are an American Baptist, a Rabbi, or a Mormon, I guess I encourage him to go to the Baptist’s services. But is the Department of Defense really providing for the religious needs of soldiers if they don’t have a chaplain for each soldier’s religious tradition or communion? One way around this is to have denominationally or religiously specific units — a unit of Wiccans with their own Chaplain and a unit of conservative Presbyterians with theirs. Another might be to fight exclusively wars of territorial defense — that way soldiers scattered across the United States might worship and receive spiritual counsel at local churches.

But why is it that confessional Protestants are generally so bullish on military chaplaincy? (Hint, the manipulative patriotism that goes with uncritical support of the military.) And why is it synods and assemblies allow men under their oversight to minister in contexts that are far worse spiritually (e. g., doctrinal indifference, religious syncretism) than those liberal Protestant communions (or their ecumenical agencies) that those Presbyterian and Reformed pastors and elders left behind?