Pedophiles and moral calculus

Last night, Alabama did something I assumed was impossible, and turned their backs on an accused serial child molester. It’s a statement about where our country is at the moment that this was a surprise. There are three lessons I learn from this:

  • Republican cynicism isn’t infinite. While a solid majority of white Alabamians voted for Roy Moore (who in addition to his loathsome treatment of young girls, also said in September that the last time America had been great was “at a time when families were united, even though we had slavery”), just enough of them were sufficiently disgusted that they either stayed home or wrote in an alternate candidate. One or two even voted for the Democrat, Doug Jones.
  • White evangelicals are an aging and dwindling minority. They’re usually more motivated to get to the polls, but in basic numbers, there are more young people and African Americans and other people of color in the country, and once these people are motivated themselves, they will always win in a fair race.
  • Speaking of fair races, we learned last night that even without the safeguards of the Voting Rights Act, there’s only so much work voter suppression can do for Republicans. Whether it’s limiting the number of voting places in Democratic neighborhoods, placing regular voters on “inactive” lists, or any number of other tactics to stack the deck against Democrats, if there’s enough outrage, people will get their votes into the ballot boxes.

That Roy Moore was even on the ballot is a testimony to the terminal rot in the Republican party. I’ve read two prominent conservatives over the last week who have declared themselves politically homeless. (David Brooks, wistful for Reaganomics, says “The rot afflicting the G.O.P. is comprehensive — moral, intellectual, political and reputational.” Peter Wehner, who served under Reagan and both Bushes, just wrote a piece outlining why he could no longer call himself an evangelical Republican.)

It’s important to note that Donald Trump is no longer an aberration within the GOP. When the Republican National Committee decided to get behind Moore after the revelations that he was groping 14-year-old girls, they were basically saying that ethical behavior no longer had anything to do with the party’s ideals and goals. They’ll take all comers in order to hold their majority. Remember . . . this wasn’t the state organization. This was the national organization. No Republican can any longer say their party just has some bad apples. When the party accommodates repulsive characters like this, the party becomes the bad apple.

Evangelicals can no longer afford to think in terms of litmus tests. They have to start using their grown-up brains. If you go into the voting booth thinking abortion is different from every other issue and you must make certain compromises to hold that line, you are being majorly conned. And you’re in danger of betraying everything you think you stand for, including the sanctity of life.

You folks, you white evangelical folks, will not have the power in 30 years that you have today. You won’t have it in three years. You need to decide how you’re going to negotiate that. You need to start preparing your epitaph. Religious movements wax and wane, and whatever God has in store for the world, it’s not going to look like what you’re used to, because it never does. What I’m saying is, if you want the Lord to bless your country and its future, you’re just going to have to do a much better job than you have over the last year of using the plain common sense He gave you.

Careful What You Wish For

Magazine covers highlighted in The Guardian, August 18, 2017

Writing about politics at all requires a daily engagement I’m really not cut out for. But in 2017 it pretty much means you can’t even blink. Less than two weeks ago, the President was promising nuclear fire and fury, and early this week—after a bunch of white supremacists marched through Charlottesville with tiki torches, and a young woman was run over by a truck ISIS-style—he was saying there’s plenty of blame to go around, and trying to decide where he stands on the Confederacy. Kate Timpf, on Fox News (yes, that Fox News), reacting to Trump’s words, said, “I’m still in the phase where I’m wondering if it was actually real life. I have too much eye makeup on to start crying right now.” There’s been a lot of tweeting “this is not us,” but this obviously is us. We made this evil man the President. All I want to do is figure out why, and figure out how never to make such a colossal mistake again.

My current amateurish, uninformed working theory is that if it weren’t for fundamentalists’ singular obsession with abortion, Trump wouldn’t have been elected. Almost anyone could refute this pretty easily, I’m sure, but Trump’s victory was so razor thin—won only in the electoral college, not by popular vote—that, given Mitch McConnell’s constitutionally indefensible decision not to allow even a debate on Obama’s Supreme Court nominee through all of 2016, let alone a vote, I’d say abortion had at least an outsized influence. Without a Democratic candidate as personally charming as Barack Obama, enough people felt so strongly about abortion’s evil that they voted for a man they personally loathed simply to keep the Supreme Court conservative.

So I think it’s time to get real about abortion. It has been an undebatable, unexamined issue for evangelicals for far too long. No matter how directly Republican policies contradict Biblical teaching about the poor and dispossessed, how unashamedly the Republican platform worships mammon and how cultishly it protects any damn fool’s possession of as many deadly weapons as he wants, no matter how many millions of refugees are turned back to face death or persecution because of Republican nativist hysteria—basically, no matter how un-Christian the Republican Party is by every other important measure, evangelicals keep voting as Republicans because of that one dog whistle. A politician can do pretty much whatever he wants, including grabbing women’s crotches, as long as he promises he’s going to fight for the babies. This is how we got this archetype of evil for President.

So let’s do some moral algebra. We might start with a few things you may not have been aware of:

  • Abortion first became illegal in the US in 1880. It was not because of religious opposition, but because the medical community felt it was a risky procedure that endangered the mother’s life.
  • Abortion-inducing drugs were widely advertised in 19th-century newspapers, and early, “pre-quickening” abortion was not strenuously opposed by either the Catholic or Protestant leadership. It was only after the mother began to feel movement of the fetus that abortion was morally problematic.
  • Its legal status has not had nearly the effect on the rates of abortion that economic reality’s had. Abortion rates rose substantially during the Great Depression, even though the procedure was illegal, because women would rather lose a pregnancy than lose a child through starvation.
  • Although abortion was illegal in the 1960s, discussion of its morality was much less fraught, and evangelical opposition to it was not a foregone conclusion. In 1968, a professor from Dallas Theological Seminary (of all places), in an issue of Christianity Today(of all magazines), argued that because the destruction of the fetus was not an Old Testament capital offense, it could not be considered murder. “God does not regard the fetus as a soul, no matter how far gestation has progressed.” Yes. This was an evangelical’s position.
  • According to the National Association of Evangelicals, 80% of young evangelicals have pre-marital sex. Almost a third of evangelicals’ unplanned pregnancies end in abortion. This is higher than the rate within the general population, probably because having any birth control seems to a Christian teen like he or she is planning on having sex, and that, of course, would be terrible.

I found these tidbits with a quick web search, and you could find as many facts to support your own position just as quickly. But my aim with them is not to change your mind about the morality of abortion. It’s to get you to think about the issue as qualified, and at least as complex as the many other things Christians seem to be perfectly willing to think about in shades of gray—feeding the poor, sheltering the persecuted, racism, etc. I bring any of these other subjects up, and a Christian says, “Well, it’s not that simple.” I ask her why she voted for Donald Trump, it’s because he’s going to make abortion illegal. Look, first of all, he won’t, and neither will the Supreme Court—ever. And secondly, if it ever did happen, abortion would not stop. The only thing that would happen is more women would die getting it done illegally.

No matter what you feel about abortion, it is not going away. If you want it to be rare—truly rare, and not just legally unavailable—you have to get real . . .

People have to have access to birth control. Venerate virginity all you want, but when that doesn’t work out for your kids, they can’t be so ashamed of having babies out of wedlock that they 1) don’t have birth control around when they need it, and 2) have an abortion to avoid the shame. Because that is truly bent, and it’s pretty much the same kind of thinking that got this asshat into the White House last fall.

Mothers have to have access to childcare. If a pregnant woman knows she doesn’t have the support she needs, she’s going to be way way way more likely to abort. If she thinks she’s going to have to pass some morality test to get that support, she’s also going to be more likely to abort. Men have to step up, of course they do. But many still don’t. Sometimes the grandparents step up. Super (well, not super, but ok). We should do all we can to encourage the family and the church to help out single moms. But this doesn’t mean publicly available childcare is some socialist plot. It’s one more tool! It’s one more thing to help make abortion rare!

Sex education has to be available in school. You afraid your kids are going to be taught that sex is natural, and that homosexuality is just another natural variation, and that if a boy wants to be a girl, it’s ok? Talk about it over dinner. Tell him what’s wrong with that reasoning, I don’t care. I’d disagree back at you, but that’s at least a discussion. Discussion is a good thing! Here’s what you need to think about: in places that don’t have sex ed in the schools, there are more unplanned pregnancies, and more abortions. So the way I see it, you can either have your child exposed to ideas you don’t agree with, but have fewer abortions, or you can raise her not having to hear any of that perverted stuff, and keep killing babies.

There are more ideas, but I know you have to get to the next Facebook puppy, so for now let me just conclude that if you voted for Donald Trump as the great white hope for all the unborn babies, you now have what you wished for. Nazis in polo shirts screaming, “Jews will not replace us!”

Tell me, what baby would want to be born into this world?

Get Uncomfortable


Ta-Nehisi Coates, who called 9/11-responders “menaces of nature,” to speak at West Point

Now that I’ve written about things I learned from a Trump voter, I’d like to make a case for everyone getting out of their comfort zone the same way I got out of mine. Particularly, this means reading things you don’t agree with straight from the people saying them, and not quoted secondhand. Because if we’re not all doing this—liberals and conservatives, black and white—we’re just in our amen corners whipping ourselves into a frenzy at the same time we’re letting the country get weaker and more dysfunctional by the day.

The headline above is from Fox News. The kernel of the article is that West Point has invited a radical black man to address its cadets. The proof of just how radical he is is in the headline. That’s the sum total of the straight news. The rest is commentary. A general is quoted who expects the radical black man to get a respectful hearing in a way that conservative speakers have not been getting lately at liberal colleges and universities. No matter how cadets may disagree with the statement that the firefighters and cops on September 11 were “menaces of nature,” the general says, they will listen. And then respectfully disagree. This is probably true.

Now, I agree that college students are more unruly than military cadets, and a lot of them are dumber than a bag of hammers, but now for a little context . . .

Coates’ controversial statement about the responders comes from a book called Between the World and Me that he wrote in the form of a letter to his son. It won the National Book Award. I read it last year. The title is a line he pulls from James Baldwin, a great American 20th-century writer whom many white people have not read. (Raise your hand if you’ve even heard of him, some of you.) Baldwin had also published a letter to his nephew back in 1962. Coates and Baldwin are trying to prepare these two young people for being men in the world, and in particular, black men. Coates wrote his long letter soon after a good friend of his named Prince Jones was killed at his own front door by a police officer. Jones was black and had a car the same make as a suspect. That was why the officer shot and killed him. The cop was crooked but was exonerated. So Coates wrote this book, basically telling his son that as a black man he was going to always have to watch his back. He was justifiably angry. In the wake of the death of his friend—who was basically seen as nothing but a Young Black Man, and that seemed enough to shoot him—he wrote: “I could see no difference between the officer who killed Prince Jones and the police who died, or the firefighters who died. They were not human to me. Black, white, or whatever, they were the menaces of nature; they were the fire, the comet, the storm, which could—with no justification—shatter my body.”

If cops saw no difference between bad black men and good black men, why should he see any difference between bad cops and good cops? Ok, disagree with him, but disagree in context. More context? The cop was black, too. It’s very complicated. You’ll find plenty to disagree with. But by the way, reading this blog still doesn’t give you the right to disagree or be horrified. Disagree with the source. Read the whole book. It’s 152 pages, you can finish it in an evening or two. Or read James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time. Even shorter, and it’s a classic. You may then disagree to your heart’s content, and that will be ok.

The thing is? The guy who wrote the Fox News piece almost surely didn’t read the book. Ten to one, he picked up the quote from a conservative column by David Brooks. So if you only read the Fox News story, you are reading Coates not secondhand, but thirdhand. This is how wars gets started, folks. People hearing what they want to hear from people they agree with already, and getting mad as hell.

I write this in the same week the white President of the United States has, citing no evidence whatsoever, accused the black former President of the United States of tapping his phone, after accusing him for years of not being a US citizen. On, apparently, the evidence of his funny name. (Surely not the color of his skin?)

The next time the thought enters your head that some African Americans are way too touchy and need to move on, remember this.

What if, in place of “racist,” we used the word “racist”?

I went to a Bible college. This surprises some people. Well, time passes and things happen. Anyway, although I think my world-view was bound to evolve eventually, I became a skeptic all the more quickly because of a very incurious education in my undergraduate years. This was represented best by a particular sort of Bible professor. He would be a teacher of, say, a New Testament survey course, or a class in apologetics, invariably one of the most popular personalities on campus, often good-looking, sometimes with a spouse ten years his junior. This man was a master storyteller, a clown, a judge, a dad figure—and he’d invariably have students shaking their heads in wonder at his intelligence, without once challenging any of their basic presuppositions. It was a real knack. He (it was, of course, always a he—I do not remember one female professor of Biblical studies on the faculty) always thought of himself as a provocateur. He always wanted to “get young people thinking.” And for all that, actual thought never had anything to do with what he said.

I thought of this kind of professor last week when I came across a panel discussion at Biola University, my alma mater, called “Sexuality Matters.” The panel was a Q&A about the school’s position on LGBT sexuality. I think the fact that the term “LGBT” was even on the agenda at Biola is a sign of progress. But the progress, I’m afraid, pretty much stopped there. There were three discussants, all from the university—a psychology professor, someone called a “Vice President of Student Affairs” (some kind of dean?), and a Bible professor named Erik Thoennes. Unless I’m misunderstanding the v.p. position, there were no students. And there were no representatives of the LGBT community. Some people probably thought of this forum as a conversation. It was really, though, a presentation. Without two points of view, nobody was really discussing anything, they were just making plain what was already pretty plain, which is that Biola believes gays and lesbians and transgendered people are all perverts. God loves them as much as he loves people who aren’t perverts, and people who aren’t perverts are still sinners, but LGBT is still just a synonym for PRVRT. This isn’t surprising and it isn’t even disappointing, because to be disappointed a person would have to actually expect something different at a conservative Christian school. It was like this 33 years ago when I graduated, and it is still like this.

Actually, maybe it was a little disappointing. For one thing, the panel actually came together in the first place in large part, if I understand it right, because of the efforts of a student group that would have been unthinkable in my day—the Biola Queer Underground. And one student actually had the temerity to ask why there wasn’t any representative from the BQU on the panel. That question could have led to a very interesting discussion. But instead it led to repetition, and elaboration, and some incredible rhetoric. Which you can listen to here. It was a real tour de force.

Professor Thoennes said the panel didn’t include a gay perspective because homosexuality was a sin, and asking someone to a panel at Biola to represent the sinful side was plainly ludicrous. You wouldn’t invite a liar to represent liars’ point of view, would you? You wouldn’t bring a racist to a discussion on racism to defend the “racist perspective.”

And then he showed his quality. To demonstrate the silliness of the idea, he took text directly from the BQU website, and everywhere the word “gay” was used, he inserted “racist.”

“Our racist identities, which are integral to who we are, are being questioned in terms of their morality. The University’s upcoming decision will affect our daily lives . . .

“Biola claims toward dialogue. However racist students who don’t view racism as sinful aren’t allowed to speak openly without threat . . .”

You really do need to listen to the recording. With the laughter, you can hear how solidly he got the crowd. His church (yes, of course he’s also a pastor) must love him.

But of the many “sins” a Biola professor could have chosen to compare homosexuality to, racism is a particularly troubling one, given fundamentalist Christians’ fraught association with it. Bob Jones University, the alma mater of my Biola advisor in the 70s, still did not allow interracial dating at that time. There were students in my year who agreed with that stance. I’d say in fact that the freedom many fundamentalists feel to condemn racism is a relatively recent phenomenon. To compare the LGBT movement to an odious world-view many fundamentalists (to be frank about it) still hold, shows a very finely tuned cluelessness.

So I suggest we turn Pastor Thoennes’ rhetoric back on itself. What if, when he said this:

“There are some sins I think because our culture sees them as sins we feel a lot of freedom to condemn, and others, because our culture doesn’t see them as sins, we don’t.” 

he were not talking about gay sex, but interracial marriage? What does the following sound like, put in the mouth of Bob Jones III:

“And so what I don’t want us to do in the midst of being kind and . . . loving, is to lack a Biblical backbone because our culture will consider us bigots—to stand up for something that’s consistently being a line drawn in the sand for what Christians will tolerate and what we won’t.” 

What if Erik Thoennes were talking about integration when he said:

“This is a fascinating sin in our culture. There is no other sin I know of that has parades celebrating it, and days at Disneyland!”

It wouldn’t sound too strange at all, actually. It would sound like a lot of fundamentalists 70 or 50 or 30 years ago. It still sounds like a tiny slice of them today. As opposed to Erik Thoennes’ very funny and bizarre exercise, it’s a historically accurate comparison. I can imagine no person in favor of gay marriage being against interracial marriage. I can remember fundamentalists being against it.

It’s interesting how what’s outrageous changes through history, and particularly Christian evangelical history. When Biola was founded, women weren’t allowed to vote. A woman’s place at home seemed quite explicit in the Bible our great grandparents were reading. There are so many things the Bible seems to be clear about to one generation or cultural group that it doesn’t later on or somewhere else. Things are never as plain as they seem. This is one of the first things a young person is supposed to learn when she goes off to college. It’s the opposite of what one is taught at Biola. I’m mystified why a thinking young person would want to waste her time there. As long as she is, though, I hope she’s asking tough questions. God knows somebody needs to.