Article VI Blog

"Religion, Politics, the Presidency: Commentary by a Mormon, an Evangelical, and an Orthodox Christian"

United States Constitution — Article VI:

"No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

  • The Need To Be Smart

    Posted by: John Schroeder at 06:21 am, May 2nd 2013     &mdash      Comment on this post »

    At The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf responds to a Matt Lewis column with this opening:

    In The Week, columnist Matt Lewis, a conservative who is regularly willing to criticize the right, explains why, despite his occasional frustrations, he isn’t tempted to defect. “I am repelled by the Left’s worldview, which implicitly argues that morality is subjective,” he states. “This is a natural outcome of a rejection of the numinous, but it’s an idea that has consequences. When there are no moral absolutes, we make policy decisions based on efficiency instead of compassion. Or we make decisions based on our own individualistic needs, not on what is right or good.”

    Given his beliefs, I’d never urge Lewis to defect to the left for all sorts of reasons. But I don’t think the one he’s offered is what should hold him. The left encompasses a lot of people who believe in God, while the right has its atheists. I don’t think that there is any single world view that encompasses the whole left. And even if we presumed for the sake of simplicity that it makes sense to talk about “the” world views of the left and right, I don’t think the left embraces moral subjectivity any more than the American right, despite the fact that so many conservatives insist otherwise. How common is moral subjectivity on the left, according to Lewis? It is unclear, perhaps understandably, since he was constrained by writing at column length for print.

    Pending clarification, let’s set the left aside and talk about the American right. To what moral absolutes does it subscribe in practice? Certainly some of the ones that are shared by the whole political spectrum. Slavery is wrong. So is rape. And genocide. Surely we can all agree that, on those significant questions, that neither the American left nor the American right are non-absolutists.

    Friedersdorf then goes on to pick on the supposed “hypocrisies” of the right.  The use of torture in the gathering on information on terrorism being his biggest bug-a-boo, but along the way he also discusses immigration, Gitmo and arms control.  Then he says this:

    In what moral absolute was their position grounded?

    In other words, “How can we preach compassion when we engage in torture or deport the oppressed?”  There are three things at play here that need to be noted.

    First, there is a difference between something being absolute and something being universal.  We must always act in compassion, that’s absolute.  But that does not mean we act compassionately to everyone, that’s universal.  Unfortunately, life presents us with situations where to act compassionately towards some we will be required to act harshly with others.  It is an unavoidable reality.  If a man is standing poised to kill another man, killing the threatening killer is, in fact, quite compassionate towards the intended victim, even if it is extraordinarily cruel towards the actor.  Someone is going to die in this situation, compassion cannot be judged solely on the fact that someone is killed.  Compassion is exercised in the choice of who dies and how.  Morality may be rooted in absolutes, but that does not make it simple, by any stretch.

    The second thing at play here is the where the moral absolutes are rooted.  We cannot argue religion in public anymore, but there was a time we could invoke God.  However, even then, it was not good to argue theology in the public square.  Once we are discussing the complexities of applying our absolutes, the discussion will become theological very rapidly.  Theology, even amongst protestant Christians, is far more diverse today than it ever was at the time when the invocation of religion in the public square was more common.  In fact, there are some schools of theology that have grown not out of the religion in question, but purposefully to develop religious apologia for a political or social issue previously considered anathema to the religion in question.   For example, the last couple of decades have seen scores of theological arguments attempting to make homosexual practice acceptable; something Judeo-Christian thought as rejected as wrong throughout its history.

    Because of the confusion between absolute and universal, the gate-keeping functions inside religion have failed to sort the wheat from the chaff in these arguments and all are deemed valid.  How is a public, largely not trained in how to think about these things, to judge what is a good application of the absolutes and what is not?  Are we to now argue theology publicly?  The result of this dilemma has been the sort of dogmatic approach that leads to the perceptions of hypocrisy that Friedersdorf presents.

    The bottom line cause of all of this, and the third factor at play, was mentioned in that last paragraph.  It is the failure of the gate-keeping functions inside religion.  This failure has come as a) religion itself has become more personal that societal/cultural, and b) rather than fight inside the church, groups split off and form smaller groups that lack the critical mass to form the institutions needed to perform the function effectively.

    Frankly, in today’s world, there is validity to what Friedersdorf has to say.  It should not be so, but that is a failure that can be laid squarely at the door of the faithful.  We continue to work on our series telling the 2012 election story.  Unlike the 2008 story, the 2012 is not themed so much in politics as it is in the failure of the religious to do and be all that they are supposed to do and be.  Thus that series will lead to a series on where Evangelicalism has failed.  Thus we will leave this third factor at this point and allow the deeper discussion to come at a later time.

    We are not the hypocrites Friedersdorf wants us, or paints us, to be.  However, we have to be a lot smarter about our faith and its application in the public square if we do not want to appear as such.

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    From Tragedy, Truth….

    Posted by: John Schroeder at 06:03 am, April 16th 2013     &mdash      Comment on this post »

    I spent a good deal of yesterday chastising myself for thinking about the politics of the Boston Marathon bombing.  The human tragedy is is immense.  I prayed and I prayed.  Not only for the victims and their loved ones, but for myself that I could resist the temptation.

    I was not really tempted to “make political hay” of this, but I found myself planning political defenses.  I EXPECTED the political opposition to be opportunistic.  I was pleasingly shocked when the presidents statement was, at least in words, an apolitical statement of sympathy and resolve.  But this president has made so much political hay out of so much tragedy that I could not help but note that his tone and demeanor while delivering those words did not necessarily match them.  Therefore, I expect the hay making to begin soon and in earnest.  This is after all, the administration that famously holds, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”

    I then I ran across a piece from Warren Rojas @ Roll Call under the headline:

    No Separation of Church and State When Tragedy Strikes

    The piece reprints eight tweets from Congressman, some of them famously left wing, calling for prayer in the aftermath of the bombing.  There is, of course, no dearth of church-going on the left, they just claim to keep it in “its proper place.”  No doubt these Congressmen will claim they were not acting as representatives of the government, but as individuals moved by what they were witnessing – but these were all on Twitter accounts bearing their offices and titles.  The old adage about there being no atheists in foxholes comes to mind.

    From this there are two important lessons that I think we must make note of right now, if only to preserve them for our future political use.  We are swimming in  a political sea; I do not think it can be avoided.  I do not think we can afford to grant our opposition momentum here.

    Lesson 1 – For our political opposition, religion is a target of opportunity, not conviction.  This means that they often are not attacking religion, but simply attacking our specific religious convictions, often in an effort to divide us one from the other and gain political advantage.  This is bait we swallowed whole in the last election and they reeled us in like catfish.  We have got to get smarter.

    Lesson 2 – There is room to appeal to all but the most hardcore atheists through religion.  But it has to be the right appeal and it has to be sufficiently religiously generic so as to have broad appeal.

    I will not go on about this at length – I will return to praying for those directly affected by this heinous act.  But I will hold onto these lessons.

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    Growing Up, Religious Freedom, and Evangelicalism

    Posted by: John Schroeder at 04:00 am, March 25th 2013     &mdash      6 Comments »

    Last Friday, Jim Geraghty wondered “How Do We Win Arguments in a Fragmenting Culture?” and came up with some interesting observations:

    Every day, you can discover some little subculture that a lot of folks dabble in, and some folks can get completely wrapped up in:

    There are 211 million video-game players in the United States. For perspective, 130 million voted in last year’s presidential election.

    About 35 million Americans and Canadians play a fantasy sport (fantasy football, fantasy baseball, etc.).

    At least 31 million Americans are “foodies,” with an avid interest in food and culinary trends, as of 2008.

    A site of “Bronies” — grown men and women who are really into “My Little Pony” — estimates that there are 7 to 12 million of them in the United states.

    [...]

    Mind you, the niche culture has been good for conservatives in a lot of ways. You could argue we’ve become a “niche” culture ourselves, with our own news channel (Fox News) and entertainment programming (“24”, the History Channel’s “The Bible” series, Sarah Palin’s reality show, some would argue “Duck Dynasty”), sports heroes (Tim Tebow, Jeremy Lin) , our own books, our own newspapers, magazines, web sites, morning newsletters . . .

    But by becoming the well-cultivated niche, we’ve become this acquired taste, not always easily appreciated by newcomers and outsiders. Things that we think are absolutely vital, like the debt or Benghazi, end up being ignored by large swaths of the electorate, while things that seem absolutely unimportant to us, like the latest celebrity news, are given enormous attention and focus by millions of citizens who have a vote just like the rest of us. (Right now on YouTube, a guy getting punched by a street performer has 11 million views in three days. Remember, that’s about two-thirds of the audience of the most-watched broadcast television show last week.)

    [...]

    If you are lucky enough to find a way to keep your favorite childhood joy in your life as an adult, good for you. Some kids who grew up loving “Star Wars” ended up working in Hollywood, I’m sure almost every professional athlete loved their sport as a child, and so on. But as one of Harry’s commenters pointed out, “not everyone has the luxury of holding onto their childhood.” Some people had to grow up and put their favorite toys aside and become farmers and lawyers and accountants and doctors and parents.

    Some argued that when television was an endless succession of “Friends” clones, our culture was celebrating an extended adolescence — the carefree dorm-room life extending well into your 20s. Seeing grown adults almost obsessively embrace something designed for children exacerbates this sense that our culture is having a hard time groping with the concept of maturity.

    “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

    Quick, that closing quotation, where’s it from?  Yep, the Bible. (I Cor. 13:11)  Church, religion generally should teach more than theology or even a simple ethical code.  In an age when education is largely propaganda, religion is the only force in society that pushed us towards maturity, some reasonable semblance of adulthood.  This is one of the many reasons to preserve a place for religion in our society.  Geraghty is right, we are rapidly becoming a culture of children.  It shows up in more ways than you might think.  Part of being an adult is wanting to stand on your own.  When you are a child, you accept your parents care and it allows you to pursue childish things.  Apparently now, we accept government care so we can pursue childish things.

    Or is that “bread and circuses?”

    Nor is it “crying wolf” to discuss preserving a place for religion in our society.  Consider this brief blog post at Christianity Today of real university legal cases where, “nondiscrimination policies and religious freedom” have clashed.

    And speaking of crying wolf, at NR’s “Bench Memos” Matthew J Franck reports in three parts, on a “report” by Jay Michaelson which claims, among other things:

    Michaelson writes, “The notion that the U.S. Constitution protects all religious liberty is really a creation of the last 80 years, and the result of the work of marginal religious groups, not mainstream ones.”

    Franck describes the report as:

    …characterized by factual errors, the bullying language of the smear artist, passive-aggressive advancing of and retreat from very grave accusations, and a pervasive begging of important questions.

    You really should read all three parts to get a flavor of this thing.  The problem is a lot of people are going to buy this report.  A lack of education about religion in our schools leaves people free to but all sorts of nonsense in the press about it.  This includes, by the way, claims “marginal religious groups” like the Mormons at least were at one point in history – and even their cases go back more than 80 years.

    Before we move on, there is some pressure that “religious freedom” should be the new theme for this blog.  Thoughts?

    How did we arrive in a place where this kind of nonsense could see the light of publication, let alone, be considered seriously by anyone?  I really think we need to figure that out if we are to figure out how to recover from it.  In pursuit of that question, one of the things that caught my eye was a series, just beginning, at Patheos by Bradley Wright, trying to define “Evangelicalism.“  Being an academic, Wright takes a very scholarly approach to the subject and reports on a number of approaches to the definition.  This piece makes apparent something we have discussed here over and over and over which is it is pretty hard to decide just who is and who is not an Evangelical.

    Of the many things Wright discusses, I found this most fascinating:

    Historian David Bebbington defines Evangelical Christianity as having four main qualities (quoted from here):
    * Biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible (e.g. all essential spiritual truth is to be found in its pages)
    * Crucicentrism, a focus on the atoning work of Christ on the cross
    * Conversionism, the belief that human beings need to be converted
    * Activism, the belief that the gospel needs to be expressed in effort

    [...]

    Sociologist Brian Steensland and colleagues point to these characteristics: ”Evangelical denominations have typically sought more separation from the broader culture, emphasized missionary activity and individual conversion, and taught strict adherence to particular religious doctrines.”

    I find both of those pretty good descriptives, and there are a couple of things I want to note about them.  Note particularly that in the sociological description, you do not have to squint your eyes much to see a child taking his ball and going home.  This takes us back to Mister Geraghty.  The predominate religious expression in our nation is a bit childish in its very foundations.  Evangelicalism could be viewed as a collection of niches.  Fracture, schism, and church shopping are prominent features of Evangelicalism.  Is it any wonder then that the culture grows childish?

    Secondly, that historical description is quite a narrow description of what a religion should be about – particularly in comparison to the more robust expressions of Christianity like Catholicism or Mormonism.  This narrowness ceded cultural territory, and hence people can claim that “religious freedom is a modern creation.”

    How we got here has less to do with the pressures of our culture than it has to do with how we choose to exercise our faith.  That is food for deep thought.

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    The Religious Message In The Political Space

    Posted by: John Schroeder at 07:29 am, March 5th 2013     &mdash      2 Comments »

    Chris Cillizza took Ann Romney “to task” yesterday:

    While the media is a convenient (and common) scapegoat, Ann Romney is simply wrong when she says: “I believe it was the media’s fault as well, is that he was not giv[en] — being given a fair shake, that people weren’t allowed to see him for who he was.”

    Here’s why. (Make sure to read WaPo’s Erik Wemple’s piece on Ann Romney too. It’s here.)

    Mitt Romney had two great positive selling points when it came to introducing himself to the American public: his business record and his faith. He talked about neither at any great length — or on the sort of terms that might have helped his chances.

    Let’s start with Romney’s Mormon faith. It was no secret that many within Romneyworld viewed the fact that he was a Mormon as a major reason for why his campaign never caught on among social conservatives in places like Iowa and South Carolina in 2008.

    And so, coming into the 2012 race,  it was clear from very early on that Romney would not speak extensively (or really at all) about his Mormonism. Romney avoided talking about his faith even in openly religious settings; in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, Romney gave his faith only a passing mention.

    We understand why Romney was worried about putting his faith at the center (or somewhere close to it) of his campaign. Mormonism is still a religion with single digit percentages of adherents in the United States and its newness — within the broader scale of spiritual movements — has led to widespread skepticism.

    Still, what Romney never could prove to people during the campaign was that he had a core set of beliefs — that he was something more than just a politician’s politician, willing to bend whichever way the prevailing wind was blowing. And, what’s evident from the stories that were written about Romney’s work with the Mormon church is a) it was and is a huge part of his life and b) his actions were, by and large, quite admirable, and would have endeared him to the general public.

    I am not sure Cillizza’s political math adds up here.  He acknowledges, even if he does not admit, that Romney’s Mormon faith would have been a huge issue, had Romney brought it to the fore in the primary.  And there is evidence that it hurt him significantly in the general.  (Regular readers will recall that in the month or so after the election we looked at numbers indicating that the Evangelical vote did a lot of staying home last November.)  Cillizza seems to think that Romney’s unwillingness to tie this stone around his neck and jump in the water indicated a lack of a core, but what would happened if he had?  Would he have appealed to those that Cillizza seems to think he would have?

    I doubt it seriously.  For Evangelicals, the lack of conviction charge was rooted in and code for Romney’s faith, not a result of his failure to discuss it.  Cillizza clearly does not understand the Evangelical mind, such as it is.  To the average Evangelical, Mormonism is precisely a lack of a core – in the hardcore Evangelical world, if Romney had a core he would be an Evangelical.  So with the base, the move Cillizza proposes would have served only in more stay-at-homes on election day.

    Given the massive burst on same-sex marriage we have seen post election I think it is safe to say that during the general campaign a move to more strongly embrace his faith would have resulted,  as it seems Mormons are enemy #1 for the LGBT crowd, in such vitriolic and spiteful attacks from the left that he would have been forced off message.  The undercurrent from that community was immense as it was.

    I truly believe we have reached a point where overt religious messaging will simply not play in the political space.

    So, what is our message?  Well, let me pull together a few thing and suggest something.

    Conor Friedersdorf has been hosting a bit of a discussion over at The Atlantic on religion and same sex marriage.  The latest entry in the discussion contains this:

    In the ’60s and ’70s I was told and believed I was a deviant. In the ’80s I was told the AIDS epidemic was God’s judgment upon people like me. In the ’90s, DOMA and DADT became law to keep me in “my place.” Today my place is in Congress, on the school board, in the military and yes, at City Hall, applying for a marriage license. My personal struggle for equal treatment has done more than defined my life, it has made me whole.

    “I…me…my…,” is what justifies this person’s political action.  Not “we,” not “us,” not “society or culture.”

    I also ran across this at First Things:

    In Habits of the Heart, written almost thirty years ago, sociologist Robert Bellah and his co-authors came up with a term to describe a new American religion: “Sheilaism.” The phrase comes from an interview Bellah conducted with a woman called Sheila, who described her religion as follows:

    I believe in God. I am not a fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice. . . . My own Sheilaism . . . is just to try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other.

    You don’t have to be a sociologist to appreciate how well Sheila’s comments reflect the mindset of millions of Americans. You can dismiss that mindset as empty and self-indulgent, but in the land of postmodern individualism, Sheilaism has powerful rhetorical appeal.

    Now, if you put those things together, there is no core to appeal to.  Ask yourself this, “What’s Obama’s core?”  From a campaign rhetoric standpoint (his philosophical/ideological core described n his writings aside) it is simple “feed your need” and “”protect you from the boogie man.”  That’s not a core, that’s pandering, but it appeals precisely to the “I…me…my…” crowd.

    Do you remember a couple of weeks ago when we mentioned a Dennis Prager interview with an author?:

    Here is a link to John J Miller’s NRO Interview with Jonathon Last on his new book, “What To Expect When No One’s Expecting.”  I have not had time to watch the Miller interview, but I did hear Last interviewed by Dennis Prager and Last has a startling conclusion.  Of course, the book is about declining birth rates.  Last found that the highest birth rates were amongst the religious.  He pointed to statistics that having a child makes couples demonstrably unhappier and more financially burdened and concluded that only a frame of reference that included something larger than self, which is something only religion can provide, is the only thing that can motivate reproduction.  He went out of his way to say it was not a matter of theological formulation, but simply the understanding that there is more than our individual wants and desires.

    I think it is this “larger than self” message that is the only one that can propel us forward.  That can be religious, it can be civic duty, it can be a simple appeal to the common good is good for the individual, but it is the essential point.

    Romney lives that idea and then some.  The press did not talk about it and Romney did not sell it.  And perhaps that’s the real issue here.  In the end, Cillizza seems to be saying it is not up to the press to investigate and report, but it is up to the candidate to message.  Someone who really understands the idea of “larger than self” takes from it a humility that should prevent “messaging” about it – for to do so would make it appear that even that charity was self-serving.

    So, I think Ann Romney was right after all – and the press is self-serving.

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    The Real Stakes

    Posted by: John Schroeder at 11:28 am, February 4th 2013     &mdash      1 Comment »

    As the Boy Scouts begin their meetings to decide, among other things, if they are going to change their rules on homosexuality, I think it is reasonable to come to understand what is really at stake.  This MSNBC article makes it fairly plain.

    The Boy Scouts of America announcement last week that it may eliminate the exclusion of gays from membership at the national level, leaving the decision to its local units, has drawn a harsh backlash from some of the organization’s more religious conservative members, who are “gravely distressed,” even as more liberal churches hailed the move.

    With more than two-thirds of Scouting groups affiliated with religious bodies, faith plays a large role in the private youth organization.

    And so the “battle lines” are drawn.  It’s the reasonable, loving pro-gay forces against the repressive, Luddite forces of religion.  Make no mistake.  The forces of homosexual normalization have the religious community squarely in its sights.  What makes me sad is that people of faith are not mean to homosexuals, they simply view homosexual practice as aberrant and immoral.  It is the nature of Christianity in all its expressions to understand that  we are all engaged in sinful behavior of one sort or the other.  But it is in fact religion’s job to help us overcome that behavior.

    But that is not the game the LGBT community is choosing to play here.  In their view, if we do not accept their behavior, then we do not accept them.  The responses to such are trite – “Is it ‘unaccepting’ to allow a child to stick their hand in a fire?” and so forth.  We have good arguments, but our opponents choose not to listen to them.

    Perhaps we bear some responsibility for those deaf ears.  We have at times set the LGBT community outside the community of “common” sinners, as if lepers.  In this we were wrong, but the answer is not to change our definition of sin – the answer is to do as Jesus and the apostles did.  Make company of the “leper,” while still seeking to heal them.

    But we must also protect our institutions.  Have you ever wondered what constitutes an institution?  Some, business corporations for example, are pure money machines.  It is the acquisition of wealth that is their reason to exist.  But some institutions exist for other reasons.  University, for example, exists to preserve and advance knowledge.  For them money is but a means to that end.  At least it should be, though I fear that for many the money now drives the mission instead of the other way around.

    Scouting is an institution of a different type.  Like service clubs such as the Rotary or the Jaycees, it is an institution deigned to promote character in its participants.  Often religiously tinged, though rarely overtly of a religion, such institutions exist to create and reinforce good character across religious and cultural lines.  They are first and foremost American institutions.  Not of the government but designed to reinforce the character that is typically viewed as necessary for good citizenship.

    When you mess with the character and morality standards of such an institution, you mess with the very basis of the nation.  Yes, the institution will continue to survive in some sense, but it will be something very different than what it was conceived to be.  You could say that in the moth, the caterpillar still lives, but does it really?  Is it not now so fundamentally changed that you must declare the caterpillar dead?  So it has been with churches that have made the move that the BSA now contemplates – so it will be with the BSA.

    Yes, some troops will still resemble the “old” Boy Scouts, at least for now.  But such changes are a form of institutional entropy.  They drive ever forward and once the energy barrier has been overcome, the entropy inevitably spreads.

    A friend commented to me that many, if not most, of the commercials during last night’s Twilight Zone of a Super Bowl were an indication that we are in a true age of cultural depravity.  Perhaps what constitutes “depravity” is subject to individual interpretation, but freedom means we can create pockets where our view is preserved.  But our opposition on these matters seems determined not to allow us such pockets.  If they would allow us such freedom they would simply form their own institution similar to Scouts, but no, they must change the Scouts.

    Freedom is not what this fight is about.  They wish to transform us at our very core and are willing to eliminate our freedom if that is what it takes.

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    Posted in Religious Bigotry, Religious Freedom, Social/Religious Trends, The Way Forward, Understanding Religion | 1 Comment » | Print this post Print this post | Email This Post Email This Post

    INSUFFICIENT!

    Posted by: John Schroeder at 10:31 am, February 1st 2013     &mdash      2 Comments »

    Yahoo News:

    The Obama administration is announcing a broader opt-out for religious nonprofits that object to providing health insurance that covers birth control.

    The administration is allowing religious nonprofits to offer coverage that does not include contraception. In such a case, a third-party issuer will handle all business related to providing birth-control coverage for women, according to a source familiar with the changes who spoke only on condition of anonymity.

    Religious groups had said the old birth-control coverage rule violated their religious beliefs. Many filed lawsuits or said they would simply not comply.

    What about for profits that have a religious conscience?!  As a business owner sounds like I am still without my religious freedom.

    Yet another in Obama’s ever lengthening list of non-concession “concessions.”

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