Earlier today President Trump used Twitter to accuse President Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower in the month leading up to the election. This accusation is shocking, but for different reasons to different people. Some people are outraged at how the previous president misused his power against the American people. Others are outraged at how the current president is misusing his power against the democratic system. These two groups are divided by divergent ideas of what is plausible, and shocking claims like this leverage the plausibility gap to make American society even more polarized. (more…)
Everyone who reads the news, or only the President’s twitter feed, knows that there is a major feud between the occupant of the Oval Office and the editors of every mainstream news organization in this country. In a tweet, President Trump even declared the press:
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 17, 2017
“Fake news,” of course, was originally the battle-cry of the mainstream media against alternative sites such as the pro-Trump Breitbart news, a weapon which Trump has now turned on its makers. But the mainstream media is not above the fray: major news outlets have consistently offered the reporting to support Hillary Clinton’s campaign strategy that Donald Trump is unfit for the presidency, even a month after his inauguration.
In a recent press conference (which the news media reported was 77 minutes long!) President Trump mentioned that he was enjoying the give and take with the news media, even as he expected them to publish that he was “ranting” (which the media duly characterized him as doing). It does not surprise me, given what we know of the president’s career and conversational style, that he enjoys some conflict and competion. And he probably knows that his public feud with the media is good for keeping his name on the front page: this is apparently no presidency to become “boring.” It probably even helps the mainstream media with page views, even as it panders to Trump’s political supporters (a smaller group than those who voted for him). So it’s a win-win situation, right?
The only problem is that it is bad for America as a whole. (more…)
I haven’t blogged in a while, largely because I have been busy with other things, but I have been watching US politics rather more than previously, and not liking what I am seeing. The polarization of the two-party system has been expressed in isolated discourses with minimal cross-over, in which vocal members of each group express outrage and ridicule at the other group’s viewpoints, mock the appearance of representatives of the other group, engage in ad hominem (and ad familiam) attacks, and do all this while expressing outrage that members of the other group should treat them in the same discourteous manner. Civility seems to be nearly extinct. If the American way of government is to be saved, and I must admit great appreciation of the freedoms to which we have grown accustomed, we must reclaim civil discourse, not only in the sense of discourse about issues related to the civilian society, but also discourse which is civil in tone, even when disagreeing strongly. (more…)
Now is a good time to pray for America. I have never seen American democracy as weak as it is now. In order for this country to survive, its leaders and its people need to defend its core democratic institutions, and yet I see many leaders and public figures, both Republicans and Democrats, ignoring or even demanding challenges to those institutions, in ways that they think will serve their partisan goals. Partisanship itself can become a threat to the country when it escalates into factionalism. In order to understand this, we might consider a slice of history, that of the longest-lived empire the West has ever known.
Many people have compared the United States to the Roman Empire, but perhaps a more apt, and more sobering, comparison would be with the later Eastern Roman Empire, better known to westerners as the Byzantine Empire. The Roman Empire in the West was quickly overrun by barbarian invasions from the north, and we are simply not in that much danger from Canadians (nor from Mexicans, since that border is well-defended). The Eastern Roman Empire survived the Germanic barbarian invasions just fine. Like the United States, it had much greater military and population resources than its western partner. But it fell in stages, losing large areas of land in the seventh, the eleventh, and the fourteenth centuries, so that it spent the last century of its existence as little more than a city-state. And each of these territorial losses was preceded by factionalism and civil war. If Americans would like to avoid the fate of the Byzantines, we must not let our partisan loyalties escalate into factionalism. (more…)
N.B.: This post is a hypothesis about “what happened” in the US presidential election on Tuesday. It deliberately makes no statement about what ought to have happened, nor should it be read searching for hints regarding my political views.
Numbers, like dead men, tell no tales. As late as the afternoon of election day, mainstream media outlets confidently predicted, on the basis of dozens of polls, a relatively easy victory for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. That is not what happened. Many people were surprised, whether positively or negatively, by Trump’s decisive victory over Clinton, and many are trying to figure out why it happened the way it did. Yet the bare numbers, the responses to opinion polls and the voting tallies, are silent about what chain of events led to these results. All explanations of what happened are necessarily speculative, but this post proposes one mechanism. In particular, it explores the possibility that the mainstream media might have unintentionally discouraged people from voting for Clinton. (more…)
I do not often write on politics, for a few reasons. Devout Christians come to different political views (which are usually matters of wisdom rather than doctrine, anyway). I think faith in Christ is more important than any particular political stance, and I do not want any political disagreement to overshadow more important issues about what Christianity teaches. Furthermore, I know American politics best, but Christianity is global, so discussing American politics reduces what I might say to my fellow Christians around the world. (That all sounds very spiritual, but I also simply do not find politics interesting, most of the time.)
This US presidential election cycle, however, is surprisingly ugly, and I am not talking about the candidates’ appearances. What are Christians to think and do about it? (more…)
Recent events at Wheaton College have once again raised the question whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. This is a question which I have faced with some regularity, given that I have a small amount of theological training and that I study the mixed society (including Muslims and Christians) of the medieval Middle East. With due regard to Biblical authority and the many learned people who have weighed in on the question, I find the issue to be rather more ambiguous than anyone likes to admit, and dependent upon certain non-obvious answers to tricky questions regarding the nature of worship and the relationship between sense and referent when speaking about spiritual beings, including God. In other words, contrary to what everyone would like to be the case, the answer is not obvious either way.
In any contentious debate, it is useful to reconsider the views that are taken for granted in order to facilitate dialogue. This is especially important for views that are shared by both sides, which may by their falsity enforce a sterile debate. One key tenet in much of the “gay marriage” debates, held by “liberals” and “conservatives” alike, is that each person’s sexuality defines them as a person. Your “sexual orientation” is an essential trait, perhaps the most essential trait, to your human personhood. On reflection, this is preposterous, and both conservatives and liberals should jettison the notion. This will enable much more fruitful discussion on contentious issues.
The US Supreme Court has announced it will finally decide the question of gay marriage for the whole country. This promises to be a landmark case as significant, and as controversial, as the 1973 decision Roe v. Wade. Both liberals and conservatives reportedly cheered the decision, and are readying their best arguments. Some might call me a cynic, but I’d be a whole lot happier if I thought any of the arguments on either side might be anything other than fallacious preaching to the choir, and each of the justices already knows where they sing. (If the justices on the Supreme Court are supposed to be non-partisan, why do they almost always divide the same way along the same partisan issues?) Here I present a couple common arguments on both sides, and why they don’t work. (more…)
(First, a note to the reader: after today this blog will be Out to Lunch, probably for the next couple weeks, as I take care of some physical world tasks that need doing, and I will be without internet access for part of that duration and with very little free time for even more of it. Some readers may feel that the posts have been out to lunch for a while now, but this is not an admission of doctrinal error…)
I particularly appreciated Dr. DeVille’s points #5 and #7 (with honorable mention to #6). Top-level ecumenical contact may often elicit a “who cares?” from the people in the pew. After all, what could such contact possibly accomplish? At this stage, perhaps the best it can accomplish is to provide a model for friendship and cooperation to all Christians. The biggest obstacle to ecumenism is not what so-and-so did to such-and-such back in the X century (whether that’s 431 or 538 or 1054 or 1204), nor even disagreements about ideas and practices (though such disagreements are real). The single biggest obstacle to real church unity is a nebulous congregational sense that those people over there are not like us. I have been asked, in all sincerity, whether Catholics and Evangelicals worship the same God (and the person was very reassured when I gave a positive answer). And the best way to allay misconceptions is to get to know people. (This works equally well for allaying misconceptions about anything, for example racial differences, Islam or other religions, and political partisan differences.) Such conversations can (and perhaps should) start off away from the topic at issue and just involve getting to know another human being. And after you discover that the other person does beautiful handicrafts, or likes the same sports team you do, or has a funny sense of humor, or has excellent taste in wine (or books or music), in other words, after you discover that the other person is a human being, then you can approach the topic at issue with the curiosity to discover how is it that your new friend thinks differently than you. Dr. DeVille gives other very easy suggestions in his piece, so you should go read it.
But Dr. DeVille’s most important point point is #7. Ecumenism is not optional. In addition to our Lord’s prayer in John 17 which he cited, my mainstay is the only command which Jesus added to the Law: “34 A new command I give you: that you love one another, so that just as I have loved you you may love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). Dr. DeVille makes the point that church division hinders Christian witness, because God is one, so why aren’t we? This was exactly my experience. Before I became a Christian (over a decade ago now), I had a ready answer to any Christian friend who asked why I was not Christian: “Those Christians are so divided they don’t even know what they think about anything, so why should I join them and add to the muddle?” But God had grace and mercy on me in my blindness, and he dragged me to himself; only after I was there did I see that there is a deeper unity among all true Christians which transcends denominational structures and differences of dogma (which is not to say that either structure or dogma are inherently unimportant!). I am grateful for God’s grace, and I continue to pray for my family members and friends from that period to find, or rather be found by, the grace that I have. But I also wish to take practical steps to make it harder for people like me to use visible Christian divisions as an easy excuse not to believe. Christians are already one, in the one Holy Spirit of God, but we need to live visibly in light of this fact. Ecumenism is obligatory, not only for pope and patriarch, but for all people.