History Feed

How Democracies Die

How Democracies DieHow Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After hearing the authors on NPR and reading an op-ed, I ordered the book and read it in about half a day.

The opening chapters are revealing, as they use their historical expertise on how democracies failed in Europe in the 1930's and Latin America in the 1960's and 70's to detail how elected officials subvert the system. They also discuss the nations where such attempts were thwarted and how.

They discuss America's history with demagogues and how the system has always been able to check them in the past. They identify the strengths of our system as not the written rules but the values of mutual toleration and forbearance.

Next they relate how since the 1970's these unwritten norms have been assaulted and weakened. Fault is spread around, but they rightly identify the Republican Party as having committed the most egregious attacks upon our democratic norms. In these chapters they illustrate how Donald Trump's election is a symptom and not the cause of our current crisis.

The chapters on how Trump's election and first year parallel the playbook of other authoritarian leaders may be necessary for the historical record, but this reader already grasped all of that before reaching those chapters.

What I looked forward to and found lacking was the ending. As they had given thorough historical analysis of how democracies die, I wanted a similar thorough analysis of how other nations had thwarted the attacks of demagogues or recovered from them. In other words, I was hoping analysis would lead to good, practical advice.

There is some of that, but not in the depth I had been hoping for. And they, unnecessarily, spend time on what policies they think the Democrats need to pursue--their "new" agenda sounding to me a lot like the policies of Hillary Clinton.

One takeaway is that playing hardball will only exacerbate the crisis, as will left-leaning ideological purity. Now is the time for moderation, compromise, and institution-building.

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"Evangelical" Hypocrisy

Much ink has been spilled about "Evangelical" hypocrisy when it comes to Trump.  Of course these are not real Evangelicals but a version of Fundamentalism--I digress.  Here's a column from Michael Gerson contrasting Billy Graham's reaction to Nixon's scandals with Graham's son's open embrace of Trump.

But the best explanation I have yet read is this one which identifies the roots of this form of American religion in the slave-holding South and a break-away from actual Evangelicalism which was abolitionist.  Excerpt:

patriarchal amoralism, not the Bible, not Christian teachings,  is the foundation of this Evangelical sect.  After slavery, it justified the lynching of blacks, segregation, and the vile hatred that we see being fanned today in such churches.  Being patriarchal and authoritarian, it has never in America’s history supported nor nurtured the values of democracy.  Thus  Its “religious” leaders convey the theological values needed to prepare its communities for fascist rule.  This thread has always existed within American society.  It is not new. It is not superficial. It will not disappear. America made a moral compromise at the beginning of its existence. Every century or so, the reality of it gets thrown like acid into our faces. 

Sun, Sand, and Single: An American Woman in Saudi Arabia, 1960-62

Sun, Sand and Single: An American Woman in Saudi Arabia, 1960-62Sun, Sand and Single: An American Woman in Saudi Arabia, 1960-62 by Nancy a Gray
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fun, witty, and insightful glimpse of a lost world. It may only have been a half century ago when Nancy Gray lived in Arabia and visited throughout the Middle East, but the world she experienced--of Beirut as the "Paris of the Middle East" and pre-Revolutionary Iran--is no longer.

She arrived in Saudi Arabia in 1960 to teach school for the Aramco oil company. Initially her exotic expectations are unfulfilled as she struggles to create social connections and find her place. But soon the narrative turns to her series of adventures in the region--from the unique way she visits an island in the Gulf to attending Christmas Eve services in Bethlehem--and the lessons she learns about the region, its history, and its people.

One interesting feature of Nancy's story is how many of her conversation partners are themselves exiles and refugees sharing about the lost worlds of the early 20th century--including the Joneses who organized relief for fleeing Palestinians during the 1948 war or Natalya the refugee from Czarist Russia living a diminished life in Beirut or the Armenian shop owner relating tales of the genocide of his people at the hands of the Turks.

From one smart and witty perspective we receive an intimate view of the turmoil and turbulence of the twentieth century.

Note: It was my privilege and honor to twice workshop portions of this memoir at the Yale Writers Conferences in 2014 and 2015 and to spend many mealtimes in extended conversation with the author, the delightful Nancy Gray.

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Hauerwas: Protestants Won. Now what?

Theologian Stanley Hauerwas has an interesting take on Reformation 500 in the Washington Post.  Protestants won.  The RCC has reformed itself to address Luther's critiques. Now what?

That the Reformation has been a success, however, has put Protestantism in a crisis. Winning is dangerous — what do you do next? Do you return to Mother Church? It seems not: Instead, Protestantism has become an end in itself, even though it’s hard to explain from a Protestant point of view why it should exist. The result is denominationalism in which each Protestant church tries to be just different enough from other Protestant churches to attract an increasingly diminishing market share. It’s a dismaying circumstance.

This is an enjoyably provocative essay, but what's missing is an exploration of the ongoing nature of the Reformation, something stressed by most of the traditions.  So though the 16th century issues may have been largely resolved, the Protestant spirit and style opened us up to further developments.  That the RCC may have caught up to the 16th century in the mid-20th doesn't address the 500 years of further development on the part of Protestants.

Hillary Clinton's faith

I was reading the New Yorker article on her latest book. The author referenced a 1993 profile in the Times by Michael Kelly which discussed Hillary's theological worldview (a profile she didn't like). So I googled the article, which is quite revealing. 

One of the great puzzles of the last quarter century is how a basically devout woman got portrayed as something else.  She is a social justice Methodist who was deeply affected by her experiences in youth group.  While in Arkansas she developed close ties with many in religious communities.  This article also discusses how she used to preach and the influence upon her thinking of Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr.  Also how her political liberalism is at root a religious liberalism.  This latter I knew.

What she seems to have not liked about the article is how it presented her crusade to make the world a better place as a kind of benevolent paternalism.  This aspect of the Clinton's (most obvious in the 1996 Democratic convention) is something I haven't liked about them.  Though I now read her moral warnings and defense of virtue as another time when she was warning about something before it became obvious to the rest of (and clearly one reason she is so galled by Donald Trump).  In fact, many of the things she says in the 1993 profile sound like recent David Brooks.  Another puzzle how this left of center person with many ideas in common with the right was so villainized by the right.

95 Theses

Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses: With Introduction, Commentary, and Study GuideMartin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses: With Introduction, Commentary, and Study Guide by Timothy J Wengert
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Timothy Wengert's translation is easy and engaging to read, and his introductions and commentary are informative and helpful. A good refresher as the 500th anniversary of the theses approaches.

My favourite segment was from Luther's 1518 sermon on indulgences, which reveals Luther's fun, fiery pen:

Although some now want to call me a heretic, nevertheless I consider such blathering not big deal, especially since the only ones doing this are some darkened minds, who have never even smelled a Bible, who have never read a Christian teacher, and who do not even understand their own teachers but instead remain stuck with their shaky and close-minded opinions. For if they had understood them, they would have known that they should not defame anyone without a hearing and without refuting them. Still, may God give them and us a right understanding! Amen.

I really enjoy the "who have never even smelled a Bible."

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History of religious liberty

This essay argues that it was not philosophical ideas that gave rise to religious liberty but the changing nature of the political state which made society open to toleration.

A point from the conclusion:

Finally, the history of how religious freedom came to be is a reminder that commitment to liberal values alone is not enough for liberalism to flourish. It requires a suitable political and economic foundation.

A New Gospel for Women

A New Gospel for Women: Katharine Bushnell and the Challenge of Christian FeminismA New Gospel for Women: Katharine Bushnell and the Challenge of Christian Feminism by Kristin Kolbes Dumez
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A revelation that Katharine Bushnell, an evangelical feminist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century developed a complete theological reconstruction and new interpretation of the Bible that anticipated developments of the 1970's sometimes as often as 80 years before. Dumez is trying to recover this forgotten figure and use her as a resource to help 21st century Christian women in the global church to draw simultaneously upon Christian faith from an evangelical hermeneutic and the feminist reconstruction of the faith.

This is a clearly written, well researched book, about a fascinating figure and an entire movement in American political and religious life of which I knew very little.

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