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.


August 28, 2013

So, there’s talk going around that we may be on the verge of some sort of military action in Syria. Exciting, especially when one of your offspring is wandering around the middle east.

Anyway, I’ll just repeat something I said earlier:

…it’s a practical mistake and a moral error to get involved in a war unless you’re committed to fighting it to the end. Unless you have a clear goal that won’t be accomplished until your enemy surrenders unconditionally or ceases to exist as a political entity, and you’re willing to put all necessary resources into achieving that goal, you have no business using military force.

Limited wars are immoral wars. If it’s not worth an all-out fight, don’t start fighting.


July 8, 2013

I’m not sure what to think about the immigration bill Congress is currently considering. The biggest problem with illegal immigration is making illegal something that is natural and beneficial. As it stands now, if Joe from Ohio wants to move to Texas to look for a better job, that’s fine, but if José from Oaxaca tries to do the same thing he’s breaking the law. Somehow that doesn’t seem right; everyone should be able to try to find a job wherever they like. On the other hand, Congress is so dysfunctional these days it’s hard to believe that the proposed legislation, another big bill that many Senators don’t seem to have taken the trouble to read, will be any kind of improvement.

Anyway, the real problems that immigration opponents are concerned about don’t really arise from immigration per se. The come instead from “multiculturalism” and the welfare state. “Multiculturalism” pretends to be about respecting other cultures, which of course we should do, but as practiced it’s really more about attacking Angl0-American culture. But people immigrating to a new country should be adopting the culture already there, not expecting those already there to accommodate their preferences. This includes attempting to learn the language commonly used in the host country. (This works both ways; an Anglo who moves to Mexico shouldn’t expect his new neighbors to change to North American values and habits and start speaking English.)

As far as the welfare state is concerned, that’s probably a topic for another post, but while we absolutely have an obligation to help those in need, government involvement always seems to corrupt and distort what might otherwise be charitable actions.

So my immigration policy would be: get the government out of the business of “helping” people, insist that people who move here educate themselves in the principles of American democracy (which unfortunately would put them ahead of a lot of native citizens) and try to learn English, and then let anyone willing to meet those conditions come here and help make our country a better place.


June 30, 2013

One of the (myriad) ways we’ve become a less free society is in the multitude of things for which you need permits or approvals before you can do them legally. This empowers bureaucrats and rule-makers over ordinary citizens, and in some cases comes close to a “guilty until proven innocent” presumption.

One recent example comes from the IRS scandal concerning Tea Party-related applications for 501(c) status. Why should an organization need approval from the IRS before receiving this status? Shouldn’t it work for an organization to just file a promise to comply with the 501(c) rules, and then if in actual practice it violates those rules the IRS could impose fines and other penalties? This certainly wouldn’t eliminate the ability of the government agency to engage in politically-motivated harassment, but at least the people starting these organizations could begin immediately to exercise their rights without having to wait on a corrupt bureaucracy.

Another example is section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which the Supreme Court struck down this week. This section listed several states that had to have all voting-related changes approved by the Justice Department. This section was struck down on the principle that federal laws should apply equally to all states unless there’s some compelling reason. The reason existed when the law was first passed, but the justification had not been updated with any data since 1972. While Holder and other progressives have tried to frame this decision as an attack on voting rights, the sections of the VRA that actually guarantee those rights still stand. Even section 5, that outlines the procedures for Justice Department approvals still stands, and section 3, which as James Taranto points out, allows the government to ask the courts to add jurisdictions that have been proven to engage in discriminatory actions to the list of those requiring approvals, also still stands. All that has been lost is the ability for Justice Department officials to meddle in political decisions made in places that haven’t been shown to discriminate for over 40 years.

There’s an old saying that sometimes it’s easier to get forgiveness that permission, but in the relationship between a government and free citizens neither forgiveness nor permission should be an issue. Actions are either right or wrong, and laws should make behaviors legal or illegal, without a “legal only if we decide to let you” category that makes abuse and oppression easier.