The center cannot hold

February 28, 2016

Well, I voted early for the primary. (I’ll be out of town on election day.)

As a follow-up to my last post, here’s another good article about where Trump’s popularity comes from: Trump: Fishtown’s Champion Against Belmont. (Charles Murray, the author I linked to in my last post, wrote a book about the growing divide between the well-educated and well-paid, who live in a place he calls “Belmont”, and the lower working class, who live in “Fishtown”.) I want to hi-light one part of this essay:

Listen up, my fellow religious and social conservatives of the middle class. Trump may well be a false messiah; that’s an easy case to make. But we should try to remove the scales from our eyes and see the conditions that a lot of our fellow Americans live in, and ask why it is that the kind of candidate we have been voting for all these years, and have been pushing, have no credibility with these people. The Democrats tend to think of people like that as racists, and therefore beyond caring about. What’s our excuse?

Charles Featherstone once told me that when he was in ELCA (Lutheran) seminary, he often felt alienated from his fellow seminarians, because of his own hardscrabble, messy background. The others were so very, very progressive, and held on to harsh prejudices against white people who didn’t fit their neat, middle-class progressive mold. Charles was not ordained, in the end, and he’s pretty bitter about it. The other day he wrote this about his experiences, and in it, I saw a lot of myself, and middle-class Christians like me:

I think Lutherans are afraid of the world, of its rough edges, of dirt and grit, of strange smells, of babbling tongues they don’t understand, of crowded and uneven streets, and especially of dark alleys where life is lived in shadow. Lutheran good works generally involve cleaning and tidying and organizing and installing bright lights rather than meeting people where they are in chaotic darkness and then grabbing hold of them and not letting go. Because of this, I would, as an ELCA pastor, never be free to walk in that world and to witness to the love of God the way that I am truly called to do. The ELCA, for all its professed theological and social progressivism, is at its heart a very culturally conservative community — Lutherans believe deeply in certain social norms and expectations, in a right order to the world, and they harshly punish those who don’t adhere and do not conform. They may genuinely be a kind and gentle and tolerant people, but as a herd, they have the power to crush and destroy and marginalize just as easily as anyone. And they do. Far too easily and far too much.

ELCA Lutherans love, but almost always it’s love in box, love that is bounded, love that knows its limits, love that is well ordered and not allowed to overflow and make a mess. It is love that knows exactly who it is for, and why, and how. In the ELCA, love is only for certain people, who behave themselves, are good, and have the foresight to be born into the right, well-ordered, bourgeois circumstances. I said this in my book, and I will repeat it here — Lutherans may preach unearned grace, but their lived confession emphatically states, “If you truly need God’s grace, you clearly have not earned it.”

Note well, Charles Featherstone is a Lutheran complaining about his fellow Lutherans. I think his critique, though, strikes at the heart of a lot of middle-class American Christianity, including my own.

Does Featherstone’s harsh judgment of the liberal Lutherans of ELCA have anything to say to the rest of us Christians who (as I used to do) go nuts when confronted by the fact that lots of people like Donald Trump? Are we missing something important? Have we been far too narrow in our understanding of what it means to live in a Christian society, and of what it means to conserve Christian values? We have done a good job of bracketing off economic questions from social and moral ones in our politics, and now it has come back to bite us on the backside. If Trump, as Ross Douthat has suggested, may be a judgment on the Republican Party, people like you and me should also consider him a judgment on ourselves and what we have done, or failed to do, with our influence in the Republican Party and conservative movement.

I’m afraid what he says about Lutherans applies to a lot of Latter-Day Saints, myself included.

I don’t know how this election will turn out, but it doesn’t look like it will have a good outcome. I still think Trump is a con man who doesn’t really mean what he says (see this for example), but that what he says appeals to so many shows how poorly we as a people have done for one another.

In the end, politics is important but not as important as many other things. I’ll just link to another post, about fathers, as an example of something that politics affects but can’t solve.

If I didn’t have faith that God loves us and will bless us if we turn to him, I would feel pretty depressed about the way the world is headed. Maybe we should just try living the gospel. Who knows, it just might work.


July 5, 2014

A while back in the comments on a blog I read someone described the church as “rigid and Pharisaical” and my first response was “are we talking about the same church?” After further reflection I think I have an idea where this description might have come from.

As human beings, we try to find meaning in everything that happens, and our main tool for doing this is to construct stories to organize our experiences. Since we’re also social animals (most of us, anyway) we share our stories, and some often repeated plots or themes become societal narratives that people use to construct their own stories: instead of piecing our own experiences into unique stories, we find a narrative that’s similar in some way to what happened to us and then tailor our story to conform to that general plot. One example where this seems to have happened is in early Roman legends. Georges Dumézil showed that many incidents in early Roman “history”, such as the founding of Rome or the expulsion of the Tarquins or the career of Marcus Furius Camillus closely parallel myths found in other Indo-European societies. These were probably actual historical events, but as the stories were told and retold people subconsciously altered them to fit the pattern of other similar stories they knew.

Many years ago I noticed that when religious leaders are portrayed in movies or TV shows, they always fall into two stereotypes: liberal, “tolerant”, anything-goes, God-is-love types, and strict, hypocritical, self-righteous types. My personal experience with LDS church leaders doesn’t match either stereotype. Instead, they tend to be strict but humble and loving. After all, if you really love someone and understand that true happiness comes from obedience to God’s laws, you’re not going to say “oh, that’s OK” when they start committing sins.

However, by nature we have a strong tendency to make our experiences conform to the narratives in our society, so many people who see the church’s strictness interpret it as rigidity and enforced conformity. This is unfortunate, because then they are less likely to listen to prophetic counsel and make choices that lead to happiness and exaltation.

Societal narratives arise from human nature and are important tools for helping us make sense of our lives, but when followed too closely and uncritically they can lead us to misinterpret our true experiences.


June 14, 2014

In November 2012, after the election, I kept thinking, “This will lead to bloodshed.” By which I meant, that Pres. Obama’s policies would eventually lead to armed conflicts in many parts of the world. I wish I had been wrong, and I’m afraid this is just the beginning.

Women power

May 1, 2014

For a non-Mormon view on the power of women, sci-fi author Sarah Hoyt: What a Mess of Pottage.


April 27, 2014

I like this: Zion in Her Beauty Rises: Current Discourse on Women and the Priesthood by Ballard, Dew, and Oaks

Tim Bray, Punishing Peter Jackson:

On a recent 10½-hour flight I watched The Desolation of Smaug. Now we have to work out how to punish Peter Jackson for this travesty.

(If you don’t know who Tim Bray is, he helped develop a lot of web technologies. Also, he worked on the project that computerized the Oxford English Dictionary, an enterprise that Tolkien also worked on many decades before digital computers came along.)

Primum non nocere

September 4, 2013

If I were ever to get myself elected to public office, not that that’s likely to happen, my motto for governing would be: primum non nocere. It’s attributed to Hippocrates, although there’s no evidence he ever said it, and means “First, do no harm.”

People seem to think when something bad happens you have to do something to try to fix it. And so for thousands of years when people got sick “healers” would brew up noxious potions or apply leeches or try other absurd things that more often than not only made the patient get worse. Then a couple of hundred years ago some doctors realized they didn’t know enough, and had the courage to step back and observe the course of diseases, while making the sufferers as comfortable as possible, but without trying treatments they didn’t really know would work. This, along with the discovery of microbes and other scientific observations, led to modern medicine, which actually works in many cases. (People still expect doctors to do something to cure them, though. Many drugs are overprescribed, for one thing.)

The same thing happens in politics. Something bad happens, and politicians and bureaucrats rush to pass a new law or implement a new policy or establish a new government program, because we have to do something even if it doesn’t actually do any good, in fact even if it makes things worse. We desperately need politicians and officials who will follow the example of the early scientific doctors and observe and study before trying to fix things.