Politics Feed

Democrats, Democrats

In the wake of Donald Trump's inauguration, I decided to take a moderate position.  It seemed to me that what was most essential in this crisis was reweaving the social fabric and committing to core ideals and virtues.  I even for a while had a podcast making this point.  

I came to this conclusion because Trump, to me, appeared to be a symptom not a cause, so focusing on him and his daily outrages was not going to be long-term helpful.

This also meant that I should set aside some things that matter deeply to me in order to build alliances in a moment when the survival of the republic and the moral order mattered more.  So, for instance, Russell Moore, the head of the Ethics Commission for the SBC, has been a Trump opponent.  I had long viewed Moore as an antagonist to my well-being as gay man, but our shared opposition to Trump matters more in this moment.

But it seems that the Democratic Party and many of the progressive activist folk I've worked closely with for the last couple of decades largely made other choices.  One could see this split occurring even during the 2016 election.  

Back in 2009 I was angered that the Democrats, when they did have power, didn't use it more effectively to achieve longterm goals.  I have also complained many times that the Democrats have failed to play the political game as effectively as the Republicans.  So, I do understand the position of those who think now is a time to fight more earnestly for longterm goals.

But I do worry that it is a failed strategy to solve the immediate needs of the country.  I do hear those that say the leftward tilt of the Democrats will work because it will mobilize more voters who have otherwise stayed home.  Maybe they are right, and some elections so far give evidence of that.  This is an empirical claim that will be answered in time.

Today I read two things that sent me into pondering these questions in more detail.  The first is an article in The Guardian about how Democrats are misunderstanding the moment and how their daily outrage is actually strengthening the Trump coalition.

The second is a good column from David Brooks about how the Democrats needs to decide on a compelling narrative.  I happen to like the one he suggests.  He writes:

Maybe the right narrative could be rebuilding social mobility for the young: America is failing its future. We need to rally around each other to build the families, communities, schools, training systems and other structures to make sure the next generation surpasses this one. People are doing this at the local level, and we need a series of unifying projects to make national progress.

This story pushes people toward reconciliation. It is future-oriented. It points to a task that we urgently need to undertake. 

What are your thoughts on these vital questions?

Perspective of "Death of Liberalism"

These authors point out that for more than a century liberalism's death has been predicted.  But that's nonsense, one reason being that so many different things are a form of liberalism.  This article gives some good historical perspective on our current moment.  And I liked this line, "Even if liberalism does not provide a telos or supreme good toward which we should strive, it helps us avoid greater evils, the most salient being cruelty and the fear it inspires."

On Sessions & Scripture

In my reading this week, I came across this discussion of the truth of religious statements in George Lindbeck's classic The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age.  Reading it made me think of the recent debate around Jeff Sessions's misuse of scripture and why we can call it a misuse.

Thus for a Christian, "God is Three and One," or "Christ is Lord" are true only as parts of a total pattern of speaking, thinking, feeling, and acting.  They are false when their use in any given instance is inconsistent with what the pattern as a whole affirms of God's being and will.  The crusader's battle cry "Christus est Dominus," for example, is false when used to authorize cleaving the skull of the infidel (even though the same words in other contexts may be a true utterance).  When thus employed, it contradicts the Christian understanding of Lordship as embodying, for example, suffering servanthood.

Church as Polis

In the second chapter of Awaiting the King, James K. A. Smith discusses the political nature of Christian worship, which he describes as "a public ritual centered on--yea, led by--an ascended King."  As a corollary to this, "Implicit in the practices of Christian worship is an economics, a sociology, a politics."

One of the most puzzling things for many of us clergy is how we are deeply trained to understand church and worship this way--these are not new or radical ideas in theology or liturgics--but how so many congregants seem completely unformed to understand church and worship in this way.  How did this disconnect arise?

Smith is also making the point that politics (and many other aspects of our culture) are also religious--they are rituals trying to form us in certain ways.  So if the church cedes the political terrain, it is actually allowing forces outside the church to shape people according to narratives that are not the churches.

I like this quote from Richard Bauckham, "Worship . . . is the source of resistance to the idolatries of the public world."

What was frustrating about this (and some subsequent chapters) is that he spent much of the time simply reviewing the analysis and arguments of someone else, here Oliver O'Donovan.  

A key theme of the chapter is that "The politics of worship is tied to the renewal of moral agency of the people of God, who are formed to be sent."  Unlike some thinkers who focus on the church as polis, Smith reminds us that we aren't separate from the world, we are in fact sent into it to make our mark and try to influence politics and culture for God.

Smith is mainly writing to other NeoCalvinists (Reformed Evangelicals).  Some of his arguments were broadly embraced by Liberal Protestants in the 19th century.  For instance, there is this sentence, also a quote from O'Donovan, which sounded a lot to me like the Congregationalists of the 19th century who were abolitionists, temperance campaigners, suffragists, etc.--"Rule out the political questions and you cut short the proclamation of God's saving power; you leave people enslaved where they ought to be set free from sin--their own sin and others."

The chapter includes a surprising analysis of Cormac McCarthy's magnificent apocalyptic novel The Road.  Smith asks, "Where did these characters [the father and son who are main characters] come from who shine like lights in this brutal darkness?"  He doesn't read McCarthy as claiming they have a natural goodness--rather, they were formed in some way.  What liturgy then shaped them?  Smith cites numerous examples of sacramentality referenced in the novel.

In a side bar on the liturgical calendar he points out "The Christian year is a political rite that invites us to reinhabit the life of our King and learn what it might look like to imitate the strange politics of his kingdom here in the meantime."

He rightly points out near the end of the chapter that worship is not directed against any specific regime but against the entire notion that politics is ultimate for us as human beings.

Awaiting the King

Awaiting the King: Reforming Public TheologyAwaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology by James K.A. Smith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Mixed thoughts about this third entry in the Cultural Liturgies series. One the one hand the book makes good strong arguments for liturgical practice as political theology. On the other, many chapters are detailed reviews of other scholar's arguments that got a little tiresome.

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Rites Talk: The Worship of Democracy

Continuing blogging about James K. A. Smith's Awaiting the King: Reforming Public TheologyHere's the last post.  

Smith contends that the political is "a way of life, a constellation of loves and longing and beliefs bundled up in communal rhythms, routines, and rituals."

Drawing upon Augustine, he contends that earthly politics is a penultimate concern, but it has a way of trying to be an ultimate concern.  I do find this refreshing in this particularly difficult political age, a good reminder that my faith and values are my ultimate concern.

Similar to the criticisms of Michael Sandel (who is not quoted) he believes we need a vision of the good life, which is lacking in much liberal democracy (or has been lost, as it was part of the tradition).  

This chapter furthers his analysis that politics is already religious, a liturgy that is shaping and often misshaping us.

He references the work of Jeffrey Stout that "pragmatism is democratic traditionalism."  I want to read this work.

Christians cannot be separated from contemporary political concerns.  He writes, "to seek the welfare of the city precisely because we are called to cultivate creation."

Loss of a Nebraska Legacy

The Nation details how the current governor of Nebraska, billionaire scion Pete Ricketts, is dismantling the unique legacy of Nebraska state politics--its bipartisanship as embodied in the unicameral Senate.  

It didn't take long after Michael and I moved here for me to begin expressing my regard and admiration for this system.  Particularly coming from the dysfunctions of Oklahoma politics, which have worsened since 2010.  In Nebraska crazy bills generally never made it into serious contention, must less passed.  All Senators of all parties could hold leadership positions and have say in legislation.  Pragmatic rather than ideological solutions to problems were the pursued.  Bills killed in committee weren't surprisingly brought back to life the final day of the session.  Citizens were actively engaged in the hearing process and were fully informed of a bill's progress through the legislature.  And there was a spirit of working together.

I've often spoken highly of this system, as a committed convert, to people living elsewhere.  So sad to see it endangered.

Public theology

"And what if the political is not just some procedural gambit to manage our mundane affairs but an expression of creational desire and need, a structural feature of creaturely life that signals something about the sociality of human nature?"

I've begun reading Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology, the third volume in the Cultural Liturgies project of James K. A. Smith, and I found the Introduction to be quite good.  I'm looking forward to the rest.

He is writing about how politics is inherently religious and religious is inherently political and what is the best way for the church to do public theology.  A few highlights from the Intro.

"While we often speak of the public 'square,' the metaphor is antiquated and unhelpful. . . .  The political is less a space and more a way of life; the political is less a realm and more of a project."

"The polis is a formative community of solidarity . . . political participation requires and assumes . . . a citizenry with habits and practices for living in common and toward a certain end, oriented toward a telos."

"Politics is a repertoire of formative rites."

"What unites a 'people,' an 'us,' is a project, something we're after together.  We collaborate in a common life insofar as we find goods to pursue in common; and we establish institutions, systems, and rhythms that reinforce the pursuit of those goods."

"Worship is the 'civics' of the city of God."

He believes Christians need to cultivate "a sort of engaged but healthy distance rooted in our specifically eschatological hope, running counter to progressivist hubris, triumphalistic culture wars, and despairing cynicism."

Robert Peel: A Biography

Robert PeelRobert Peel by Douglas Hurd
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Robert Peel, the 19th century British Prime Minister, appeared as a supporting character in a number of things I've read and watched in the last year. I had a growing intuition that Peel is the sort of leader our nation will require in the next generation to recover from our current crisis. So, I wanted to know more about him.

This biography is written by Douglas Hurd, the former Foreign and Home Secretary, writing as a contemporary Conservative politician on the founder of the Conservative party. Hurd's asides comparing Peel and his time to issues in our time are part of the joy of the book.

In short, I have come away from the book hoping that America will find someone like Peel to help lead us in the middle of this century. But, yet, how unlikely that will be because Peel is so singular and rare. We can only hope.

Peel created the modern police force, revised the entire English economy, helped to reform the church, reformed the banking system, completed negotiations with the US settling our northern border, revised the entire English criminal code, and helped open public office to Roman Catholics. But his greatest achievement, according to Hurd, was establishing free trade as the dominant global force it has become.

What Hurd admires most about Peel's position on free trade, is that Peel did not make it a matter of negotiation with other nations, with some quid pro quo. He eliminated English tariffs unilaterally because he felt it the right thing to do. Primarily that it would lower the cost of living for the poor and working classes, helping to improve their lives. And also that the bounties of nature (God's blessings) ought to be able to move about the world freely to the benefit of all.

Peel's form of conservatism was devoted to some key ideals and values, not any dogmatic positions on issues and policies. For he radically changed his mind on major issues more than once--Catholic emancipation and the Corn Laws being the two supreme examples. Where others, such as Benjamin Disraeli, saw hypocrisy and equivocation, Peel saw his changes of mind as furthering the core values.

Those were conservative values of maintaining order and stability and moving slowly and deliberately to change and only when the facts and reason compelled it. Peel studied the French Revolution in-depth, clearly in an attempt to understand what forces had led to it and how to avoid something similar in Britain. So his changes of mind on major issues were often because he realized that to hold dogmatically to a position would invite social discord and lead to the destruction of the things he valued most. He could not grasp why other conservatives did not understand this.

So his concerns to alleviate poverty did not arise from some deep humanitarian feeling--quite the contrary--but because he saw poverty as leading to social disorder and revolution. Therefore poverty should be alleviated.

He was also committed to diplomacy and a quieter, persuasive foreign policy. The more adventurous foreign policy of Palmerston, for instance, appalled him. He thought a strong nation was made stronger by persuading others to adopt its values (Hurd has a little commentary on recent American foreign policy at this point).

In the introduction Hurd writes that 150 years is a relatively short time in the life of a nation (a sentence I marveled at as an American) while making the point that the issues dominant in Peel's day are not completely gone from British life and his solutions created the systems still followed.

Peel was pragmatic, studied deeply, worked hard, led decisively, was convinced by facts and reason to change his mind, and was devoted and loyal to family and friends. Even when he was the leader of the opposition, he argued that it was wrong to oppose everything the Whigs did, that instead the proper role for the opposition was to help for the good of the country to achieve the best legislative outcomes. He also thought that doing so built trust that would lead to electoral success, and he was proven right.

So I read this book with a deep sense of admiration and sadness at the current plight of America and what we lack in our political leaders.

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