On Being Honest Christians in an Honest World

Michael Gerson has an interesting piece in the Washington Post concerning the supposed decline of Christianity.  Essentially he is asserting that Christianity is only declining in the sense that it was assumed - it is "casual Christianity" that is in decline.

To be sure, our culture has changed so it is no longer necessary for those climbers wishing to make it in high society to pay lip service to religion.  We still expect it from political leaders, but on the whole we prefer these days that people practice (or not) according to their actual beliefs.  If you're an atheist, better to just say you're an atheist than to pretend you're a Presbyterian.

But that also means it is no longer possible to maintain the fiction that the United States is a Christian nation.  That doesn't stop some conservatives from trying - or at least trying to maintain the fiction that it was at one point and that all will be well if we can only get back to that golden time.  In fact, at the Protestant chapel service I attended at Annapolis a couple weeks ago, an older gentleman in giving a Bible League award to a midshipman, tried yet again to make that claim.  He mentioned that after Washington was inaugurated, the whole group - president, vice president, congress, and the rest - all trooped off to a church to pray and we need Christian leaders to do that today.

Among those trooping off to pray, how many really believed?  How many were what we now call "Deists" or agnostic or just going along because that's what people did or putting on a show for the common people who needed this religion stuff to be kept in line?  I don't think true religion is the opiate of the people, but Marx was certainly correct when it came to how elites and aristocrats in the west often used religion, and the elites of this nation were no different in that regard.

To be sure, there are obvious Christian concepts regarding community, covenants, morality, ordered liberty, the role of government, and so on which underlie and are embedded in the Constitutional order established in 1789.  There are, in fact, Judeo-Christian concepts embedded in the practice of material science, even though that science has often been used to deny the very foundation on which it is built (and too many modern Christians have accepted this pseudo-conflict - but that's a whole other post).  That doesn't mean this country or its government is or ever was Christian.  

In any event, it is most obviously not, now.  So what do we do?  Gerson offers some suggestions and it merits an extended quote (the links are copied from the original):
One option, clearly, is for conservative Christians to imagine themselves as an aggrieved and repressed remnant. This attitude is expressed as stridency, but it is really the fear of lost social position. America, once viewed as the New Israel, becomes the new Babylon. The church engages the world to diagnose decadence and defend its own rights.
There is, however, another option being explored. Jim Daly, the president of Focus on the Family — once mission control for the family-values side of the culture war — calls Christians to be “a joyful minority.” “We are no longer effective at persuasion because we lack humility,” says Daly. “Some in the faith community are losing legitimacy among younger people because many Christians only speak truth and fail to do truth.” 
And “doing truth” leads back to the personalism at the heart of Christian faith — a belief that every human being is valuable, and broken, and in need of grace. “We must always consider the person,” says Pope Francis, a heavy influence on evangelicals seeking a new model of social engagement. 
A faith characterized by humility and considering the person would be busy enough. The prevailing culture counts both virtues and victims. The broad decline of institutions leaves many people betrayed, lonely and broken — not only unaffiliated with religion but unaffiliated with family, with community and with all the commitments that give meaning to freedom.
I think Gerson is perhaps drawing too sharp a distinction between these options - some of the church's rights at least must be protected if it is to do truth according to the second option.  But we must also be wary of pining away for a faux Golden Age when our Christian faith was assumed and we had no need to either understand it or defend it, but simply mouthed it.  How many sermons have been preached insisting that Christians ought to be different, and obviously so?  Why, then, do so many Christian leaders now seem to long for a time when that difference could not be seen?  Whether it is the modernist Christian leader who thinks we need to get with the times and approve of what the world approves, or the conservative Christian leader who thinks we need to go back to an earlier time when the world approved of what we approve, I think both are in error.  Christians are different, and both the Church and the faith will be better served by asserting the distinction rather than eroding it.

We must "do truth" - and that is more than just caring for the downtrodden victims of our modern brokenness.  Our "doing" is rooted in some convictions about what is true that the broader American and Western culture now rejects - about morals, about the way the world works, about human nature, about beauty. Doing truth, therefore, requires not only an active compassion for those betrayed by the lies of this present darkness, but also a frank, firm, yet compassionate insistence on the light of truth that we are doing.  The doing and the doctrine cannot be separated, nor should they be.


Pick Your Horror Story

A couple in Maryland were accosted by the police.  Their crime?  They let their children play at a neighborhood park and walk home unaccompanied by an adult.  The children are 10 and 6.  Child Protective Services and the police have intruded, making life painful for the family and threatening to dismember it.

Josh Duggar confesses to having sexually molested his sisters when he was a teenager (the crimes committed were while he was between 14 and 17 years old).  At one point he was brought to the police, but never arrested or formally charged.  The statute of limitations ran out before any real action was taken by authorities.  The parents did act to discipline him, but we have only the family's testimony as to whether or not it was effective.

Right there, in those two stories, is the conundrum faced in efforts to curb the abuse of children.  In the former case, there is in fact no abuse but over-eager officials, neighbors who disapprove of the family's choices, and laws that are ambiguous in defining a crime but draconian in defining punishment conspire to create an environment where normal behavior is mislabeled abuse.  There is no recourse for the accused and the expense of fighting the state in order to give one's children a normal childhood is far too high.  This reality is why the general freedom to "go outside and play" that I enjoyed is rarely seen today.  Everything is scripted in "play dates" and organized activities to which one must cart the children in federally approved safety seats, strollers, bike trailers, and cars.

Yet that same system of law means that if it happens inside the home and nobody sees it, or if it is seen and some person lets it go (in the Duggar instance, a cop who was himself later convicted on child porn charges failed to act and his superiors didn't pick up the pieces until too late), nothing happens at all.  A cousin of mine once declared that we should require a license to be a parent.  Great.  The likes of Ted Kennedy get to decide if I'm fit to be a father?  I don't think so.  We cannot simply turn our children over to the state and the intimacy of a family ought to be preserved and protected.

Both of those goals are legitimate - protection of children and of privacy.  Yet, pick your preferred sort of horror story and it seems that our present methods too often get both wrong, invading privacy to protect children from what is not a threat, or respecting privacy to the point that abuse is protected.

I have, in the course of my work, had some dealing with child social workers.  The ones I've worked with have tended to be compassionate and try mightily to balance these two goals in the face of severe ambiguity and some horrific situations.  Neither of these stories is representative of the vast majority of parents, child social workers, or police and we do a disservice to all if we treat them as if they are.  What makes them "news" is less their universality and more their contribution to narratives underlying existing political and social agendas.

But these two stories also highlight again the need for calm, cool consideration.  There is a need to accept that we cannot solve this problem in the aggregate, but only act carefully in the particular.  Sense, judgment, patience, tolerance, care, and compassion must be for all involved.  Not all accusations are valid.  Neither are all protestations of innocence.  Do not rush to judge.  Ask questions before hurling accusations.  Accept that your disapproval does not constitute the definition of "abuse."  And when abuse is found, act.


Proud Day

My youngest son was commissioned an ensign in the United States Navy on Friday after graduating from the Naval Academy.  My wife and I removed his midshipman insignia and replaced them with his officer shoulder-boards.  I placed his cover on his head, then stood aside as he received his first salute.

One of the proudest moments in my life.

This marks three generations of naval officers - my father (Supply Corps, 1961-69), me (Chaplain Corps, 1995-2007), and my son.  It is also part of a family-wide commitment to military service.  Both my brothers served (Marine Corps, 1981-89 and Army, 1986-88), a nephew is on active duty with the Air Force, my other son is in the Navy Reserve, and a niece served in the Marine Corps Reserve (2005-11).  In other words, my father, all three of his sons, and four of his ten grandchildren.

None of us have made a career out of it and none have fired a weapon in combat (I was in combat, but chaplains don't typically carry a weapon), but since 1961 we have done our duty, taking our turn standing the watch and I'm damn proud of that, too.


Going to School for the Money?

Hhhmmm  A potentially useful college ranking tool...

Be aware that the tool measures pretty much one thing - the average salary benefit from a degree received from the school.  There's a lot of statistical wizardry that goes into it, and it is not the only thing you should use when deciding which college to attend and/or send your children to (there's more to life than money), but it does give a decent snap-shot of where a school ranks in the earning potential of its graduates.  And if you're going to school merely for a shot at a bigger paycheck, however sad I might find that to be, you're going to want to check these results out.

Bear in mind, again, that these are averages.  A degree in puppeteering from Duke may get you a few more dollars every so often, but it's still a degree in puppeteering.  You aren't going to be raking it in on the strength of that major no matter what school gives it to you.

So have a look at the results Brookings has come up with.


Split Conservative Vote Yields Liberal Triumph in Alberta

To the north, in Alberta, the stunning election results go a very different direction.  Since 1971, the Progressive-Conservative Party (sounds like an oxymoron, I know) has governed the province.  They were soundly defeated this last week by the New Democrat Party (a party that makes some of our Democrats sound positively Libertarian).  The CBC report opens with this statement:
When the Progressive Conservative party in Alberta swept to power under Peter Loughheed in 1971 it was definitely a party of the people. But by earlier this year, with Jim Prentice in charge, it had become like the 1950s TV show Father Knows Best, with the role of "Father" played by big business.
This was definitely a factor.  The other major factor is that the conservative vote was split between the Progressive-Conservatives and the Wildrose Party (28% and 24% respectively) allowing the NDP to win a majority of seats with 41% of the popular vote.  The end result is that P-C went from 70 seats to 10, Wildrose went from 5 to 21 seats, and NDP went from 4 to 53 seats, a clear majority in Alberta's 87-seat legislature.

I strongly suspect that the way the P-C Party had strayed from its populist roots is one of the reasons the conservative vote split.  Republicans in the US should take heed.  Big businesses may make nice donations, but unlike the Democrat Party, your voters will not stay loyal in the face of crony capitalism and it is voters, not big businesses, who ultimately decide who gets elected.  Alberta is still a conservative-majority province, but it is not a big-business-majority province.

This is also a shot across the bow of the national conservative party in Canada.  Some attention to holding their coalition together must be paid or that vote will split and it will matter little that conservatives total a larger number of voters if that doesn't also mean a majority of MPs.

The NDP now has an opportunity to thread the needle of keeping the geese (energy companies) laying their golden eggs while not letting them dominate the government.  A difficult path and one that our own Democrat Party at the national level has consistently failed to do.  I don't think Alberta's NDP will have quite the same good fortune as US Democrats, however, in holding on to their voting blocs no matter what they do.

UK Election Results - Clear Majority for Conservatives - Cameron Remains PM

On the other side of the pond, we have rather stunning results.  

Polls leading up to yesterday's election in the United Kingdom indicated the Scottish National Party would likely win all 59 seats in Scotland and the two main parties - Labour and Conservative - would be virtually tied.  Exit polling indicated SNP would win 58 and in the rest of the country Conservatives would win 316 seats to Labour's 250 or so.  All surveys indicated the Lib-Dems (a center-left party) would be thrashed and that UKIP would fail to split the conservative vote.

As the polls closed, the BBC election news was somewhat surprised to see Conservatives with 316 seats likely, but that's still not a majority in the British Parliament, so they were trying to get the Conservative representatives on camera to explain how they'd form a coalition government or try to rule as a minority party (the British Parliament has 650 seats in the Commons).

Actual results are even more stunning.  Conservatives won a clear majority - 326 seats - while Labour lost a net 24 seats.  As expected, the Liberal-Democrats were thrashed, going from 57 seats to 8, and UKIP failed to make even a dent in Conservative voting.  The official take from the Conservative Party is that the economy is starting to improve and people don't want to risk that.  But I also think there were quite a few who thought that voting for Labour would be in effect to vote for SNP as Labour would need them to form a coalition government and SNP would be able to effectively call the shots.

While popular in Scotland, England looks to their neighbors up north as ungrateful recipients of excessive largesse from the south.

So David Cameron remains as Prime Minister.  The heads of Labour (Ed Milliband), Liberal-Democrats (Nick Clegg) and UKIP (Nigel Farage) all resigned as party leaders.  This is a major shake-up in U.K. politics and it will be interesting to see how the next few years unfold.


Presidential Politics Thus Far - A Look at Republicans

On the Republican side of the presidential ring, we've got a fair number of declared candidates and several "almost" declared.

The declared candidates are Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, and Ben Carson.

Ben Carson is a fine man, a neurosurgeon, and a political neophyte.  He hasn't run for any office before and running for president is not something for neophytes.  He's already running up against some strong headwinds and I doubt he'll last long.  Mike Huckabee is the Rick Santorum of this cycle.  He'll appeal to some evangelical Christians, but he's yesterday's news and his appeal outside of evangelical circles will be close to zero.  Rand Paul is also a niche market candidate.  The libertarian side of the GOP will love him.  The rest will roll their eyes and move on to the next.  His ability to build a coalition is, I think, severely limited.  And I'd say the same thing for Ted Cruz.  He'll give the party's conservative base plenty of red meat, and in the process also give plenty of red meat to the liberal media and they will chew it well.  His ability to appeal to a broader base is going to be as limited as Paul's and Huckabee's.

That leaves Marco Rubio and Carly Fiorina.  Fiorina has run for office before - senate in California, and lost.  It was an unorthodox campaign, but imaginative and she did well, all things considered.  That doesn't mean it was a close race - this is California.  Boxer won by around a million votes out of 10 million cast (5.2 million to 4.2 million, plus also-rans).  Rubio is currently serving as senator from Florida.  Fiorina has definite skills - she nearly matched Boxer in fundraising in 2010, she's a capable executive, a hard worker, and willing to take risks.  There are possibilities, but she will have to work her tail off to overcome her lack of name-recognition, the fact the party base doesn't really know her, and the inside game of other candidates.  Rubio is the current fair-haired-boy of conservative publications like National Review, but the way he got played on immigration by Democrats in the senate sticks in the craw of a lot of conservatives.  Their enthusiasm is not as great as the old guard might hope.  Still, if the field remains as it is, Rubio is the odds-on favorite.

But it is highly unlikely that it will remain as it is.  There are also several "almost" declared, including Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, and Jeb Bush of Florida.  Other governors reportedly considering it are Rick Snyder of Michigan, Chris Christie of New Jersey, and John Kasich of Ohio.  Rick Snyder just got done failing to push a major tax increase over on the people of his state.  He might as well give up thinking about president as a Republican.  John Kasich is a solid work horse of a governor, but he hasn't caught fire the way Walker has in Wisconsin.  He should drop those plans for this cycle, too.  Christie might actually get in the race, but he won't play as well outside New Jersey as he does in it - not as a candidate, anyway.

Bush and Walker are better known than Jindal at present, but Jindal has other strengths going for him that Bush and Walker don't, not least of which is that he is by far the most optimistic, hopeful sounding of these three.  His work in Louisiana has been in the face of opposition almost as strong as Walker's, but he has preserved his basic optimism and avoided the antipathy Wisconsin's unions have hurled at Walker.  Walker has faced a series of bruising battles, including death threats, harassment of supporters by armed thugs (excuse me, police acting on the orders of thuggish prosecutors), and more.  His presence on stage and the mood of his speeches reflect the wounds these opponents have inflicted, even though they have not succeeded in their war against him.

And then there's Jeb Bush.  A fine man and if he weren't a Bush, he'd be a top contender.  But he is a Bush.  We've had two Bush presidencies.  We do not need a third.  His stance on immigration won't sell with the base.  A Bush-Clinton race next November is the best hope Hillary has of winning.  Against almost any other candidate except Huckabee, she'll be seen as a tired, old warhorse who should be turned out to pasture, not sent back into the fray.  Against Huckabee, she'll sound reasonable, and against Bush she will seem like a fresh candidate.