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More on the CT editorial, thoughts on 2020 and other ideas
Happy New Year, friends!
My hope is to write an *official* State of the Race overview over the next few days as an exclusive for subscribers, but here I want to provide some thoughts concerning a number of different events and discussions that have percolated over the last couple of weeks.
Also, the image above is from the Piedmont region on our recent trip. It was taken early in the morning while at the top of a vineyard, and the rising sun hadn’t totally cleared the fog.
Christianity Today Editorial on Removing Trump
When the CT editorial by Mark Galli came out, I wrote to you that it was a big deal, and the fact that there was such a big debate over whether or not it is a big deal, is evidence that it is, in fact, a big deal. It provoked several tweets from President Trump, and I’m sure some anxious phone calls from White House staff that resulted in statements and op-eds in response. Mark Galli was everywhere for 72 hours, including major newspapers, cable news and the editorial was even discussed on at least one of the Sunday morning shows.
As I suggested in my previous post on this, how we define “big deal” is important. If skepticism that this is a big deal amounts to doubt that now 40%+ of white evangelicals are going to vote Democratic in 2020, then count me a skeptic! Politically, the import of this editorial begins with the effect it will have on the Christian leadership: does it provoke conversations that would otherwise not occur? Are certain leaders and organizations making plans and acting differently because of what the editorial opened up in terms of explicit opposition to Trump? I think the answer to these kinds of questions is yes. It can already be seen publicly, if you pay attention to who is sharing the editorial. But I’ve been most attentive to the quiet conversations, of which many I’ve heard or been a part of and have to assume there are exponentially more to which I am not privy.
Electorally, I think the environment is such that Trump can be limited to 70-78% of the white evangelical vote, and receive less support from Hispanic evangelicals than he did in 2016. This editorial can be a part of that, which makes it a “big deal.” This is especially true if the Democratic nominee actually makes a case to these voters as well.
Then, of course, as I explained in my previous post, part of what makes this a big deal has little to do with electoral outcomes directly, and more about the Christian witness in relation to those outcomes.
Pushback on some of the pastoral pushback
One bit of pushback I’ve heard, both privately and publicly, particularly from pastors, but also others, suggests that the CT editorial’s direct pronouncement was overly prescriptive and too directly political. Christians should not get involved in such a partisan scuffle, but should focus on God, on higher things, the argument goes.
I have been very public and clear in my defense of pastors who feel it is off-mission to speak to day-to-day political machinations, and I stand by that conviction. I believe—again, generally—the frequency and flippancy of calls to “leave your church if your pastor doesn’t mention (x)” is misguided.
Yet, in the same way I would urge advocates and activists to not place the burden of their calling on pastors, I would also suggest that pastors ought not place the burden of their calling on others. In fact, they should be grateful for institutions like Christianity Today, and organizations that are directly in the political fray. It might be wise for a specific pastor, and even pastors generally, to be more hesitant to use the authority of their position to speak into discrete public policy challenges. I tend to think there’s room for a number of different approaches here that all can amount to a faithful stewardship of the pastoral vocation and leadership of a local church. However, pastors should be careful not to impose their approach—one that factors in unique responsibilities that are not shared by every Christian leader and certainly not every individual Christian—on others and therefore make a general theological edict with the pretense of open-mindedness and being “above the fray.” Third way approaches still amount to a way, and are often no less prescriptive or limiting than any other approach. Additionally, when we suggest that all Christians in positions of influence should stay out of speaking directly and clearly on political issues, what does that suggest to those who actually work in politics? To those who serve in public office? To the Christian in the voting booth? I’ve argued that the message they receive is that politics is an area that is cordoned off from God, the one square inch over which God looks and says “all yours.” This is why so many are ready to put their faith to the side when they vote and when they think about politics. If pastors aren’t supposed to speak to political issues of the day, and leaders associated with Christian institutions aren’t supposed to speak to political issues of the day, can we blame Christians for getting the message that they’re better off taking their political cues from cable news and talk radio hosts?
In a healthy environment, we would have churches and pastors partnering with organizations and Christian leaders who have a specific mandate to work in politics. This is consistent with, for instance, C.S. Lewis’ discussion of politics in Mere Christianity. It is also a major driving idea behind The AND Campaign. We hope to alleviate some of the burden local churches and pastors feel to be involved in day-to-day politics. This requires a certain transfer of legitimacy and leadership in the area of politics that has to be more or less explicit. In some denominations, this is embedded in the denomination itself, even if it is not always honored practically—this is essentially the role of the ERLC in the Southern Baptist Convention, or the Methodist Church’s General Board of Church & Society. This happens regularly in other areas. Local churches might decide they care a great deal about, say, access to water or serving immigrants. But the local church’s expertise is most likely not in drilling wells, or helping immigrants navigate the legal process, so a church will throw some of their weight behind an organization or effort that does have that specific mandate. The local church can’t do everything, even in areas it thinks is important, but local churches can find ways to point to the leadership of those it trusts to lead in those areas.
All of this is to say: you might not think weighing in on impeachment is appropriate as a pastor, but if you hold that view, it is does not answer the question of how an institution like Christianity Today should act. Furthermore, such a view might even put additional weight on the imperative of institutions like Christianity Today to provide a clear point of view on political issues like impeachment.
Joe Biden’s RNS Op-ed
On New Year’s Eve, I did a segment on NPR’s Morning Edition about Joe Biden’s op-ed for Religion News Service. The op-ed is not revolutionary, but it is a great example of how faith can fit in a campaign’s mission. It is a textbook example of the power of communicating about faith.
For those who don’t understand the resiliency of the former Vice President in this primary, this op-ed really encapsulates why this has been. Principally, many Democratic primary voters feel like they know who Joe Biden is, trust him, and believe he has a solid core. They understand he’s a man who has seen tragedy, whose faith, commitment to family and public service saw him through those times. And he speaks directly from that core here to make a case for confidence that in the face of significant challenges to who we are as a country, he knows what it takes to shepherd America through these challenges as well. That his resilience can be America’s resilience. That’s a powerful message, and this op-ed powerfully weaves in faith to affirm and support the central message of his campaign, and the promise of his candidacy.
The op-ed is a powerful tool for faith outreach. It’s the kind of thing that will be referenced in Christian media, and circulated among people who consider faith when they vote. The references to Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, the scriptural references, and importantly, to his own respect for and experiences with religious institutions, and the way the op-ed describes faith as central to and affirming, to quote the op-ed, his “whole idea of self,” is really powerful for many Christians and Catholics, in particular.
But I would also suggest that we view this kind of communication as not just a matter of faith outreach, but about helping voters understand who the candidate is as a person and what guides them. There are obviously many ways to do this, but faith is a powerful one, and an op-ed like this helps to fill in that picture in a way that’s resonant.
It’s just one more example of how Democrats are emboldened on faith in 2020. There are a number of reasons for this, including the increasing focus on base constituencies and a judgment that the party’s lack of attention to faith in 2016 was a mistake. However, the biggest reason is Donald Trump, and the unique opportunity and challenge he presents. The challenge, of course, is what Democrats see as Trump’s rejection of fundamental American values, or what Biden would refer to as Trump’s testing of the soul of the nation. The opportunity is Democrats feel like they no longer have to be defensive in the values debate, and that includes the opportunity to sort of actively test Republican dominance when it comes to talking about values.
Of course, the op-ed will not be sufficient for some, and it probably shouldn’t be. It certainly doesn’t answer my every question, or erase every disagreement I have with Biden. I’m not arguing here that the op-ed is a silver bullet, but rather that it a) is an indication someone like Joe Biden is at least prepared to not make the same mistakes regarding faith that the party made in 2016, and b) exemplifies that faith outreach is not mystifying or ethereal. In 2017, I wrote for The Atlantic about what faith outreach on a presidential campaign entails for the purpose of demystifying faith outreach.
Star Wars and our politics
So I haven’t seen the new one yet, but I’ve read some of the reviews. Everyone knows I think Alissa Wilkinson is the best movie critic out there, and I can watch a movie, think it was bad, read her review and go, “I get it now. That movie was great, I’m just a doofus.” I’ll also be excited about a movie, read her review of it, see the movie, and shake my fists in the air because she was right again. She’s just that good.
So this is not a critique of Alissa’s critique of Star Wars (I haven’t seen it yet!), but there was something in Alissa’s review of Star Wars that sent me on a thought trail.
I could say some other stuff about The Rise of Skywalker. About its insistence on a morally simple universe where you’re either dark or light, but you only get to be on one side. About its continued mixing of gnostic and biblical imagery, but without a lot to say about either. About how it could have said something intriguing about our contemporary culture, power, or empires, but just doggedly insists on broadcasting the same two messages that Disney movies fall back on time and time again: first, that you have to believe in yourself, and second, that the real Force was the friends we made along the way.
But The Rise of Skywalker isn’t good enough to earn that kind of discourse.
Ouch. But I’m mostly concerned here with the line in italics, which struck me because it’s a criticism I’ve heard of the movie from others, and it’s often pitted directly against what so many thought was great about The Last Jedi. And what people thought was so great about The Last Jedi is that it was evolved storytelling, that included “morally complex” characters. It modernized the Star Wars franchise, many thought.
Here, though, it seems, morally complex characters and evolved storytelling are often just euphemisms for the kind of plot, tone and characters popularly associated with the 1990s HBO series, The Sopranos. It’s the much-praised sophistication of the anti-hero, of the protagonist who has dark secrets, of the villain who we learn is more complicated and can’t really be blamed for how he is. It’s mature art that gets beyond the binaries of good and evil, of pretending like there are always consequences for the bad guys and that the good guys always win out. Scratch that, the real maturity is to know that there are no good guys.
This makes me think of two things. First, I thought of the challenge of building a just moral universe as a storyteller in an environment like this. The most compelling recent example of a show wrestling with this has been the final season of The Affair. Showrunner Sarah Treem was interviewed by Deadline after the final episode aired, and spoke directly to this idea regarding the character of Noah Solloway
When I was thinking about the end of the show, and what would be possible for Noah’s redemption, and if there was a way to get Noah and Helen back together, which is where I started this season with my writer’s room. What would it take for them to be able to get back together? What would it take? Originally, they were like, maybe he becomes an amazing father and Helen gets very busy and he takes over a lot of the family responsibilities. And she starts to date this movie star, and he just has to sit there and take it. The truth was, there was no amount of good fathering that he could do that me and my writers felt would be enough for her to forgive Noah in a way that the audience would feel good about. No amount of taking the kids to school, making their breakfast, all that stuff that was going to make you feel that if they got back together that he wasn’t going to just do it again. I mean leave her, cheat on her again and not see her as a complete person.
The only thing I believed was going to get us to a different person was, we figured out in the writer’s room, if the call was coming from within the house. Meaning, you can defend yourself against almost anybody else. You can defend yourself against public opinion, against coworkers and against your spouse. A lot of marriage is defense, this interesting dance between intimacy and defense, at all times. But defending yourself against your children? When your children are telling you that what you did hurt them, you have to be a certain kind of sociopath to not take that to heart.
These ideas of moral improvement, of earned forgiveness and redemption, are very present in my favorite movie of the year, Little Women. Greta Gerwig has the most remarkable moral compass as a filmmaker. There is a remarkable scene in the movie, after Amy slips through the ice, when Jo comes to terms with the fact that her anger overwhelmed her desire to do good towards her sister, and that it was something she needed to contend with in herself. Jo explicitly refers to her battle against sin, and wonders if she will ever defeat it. Her mother, Marmee, reveals that it doesn’t just happen, and she’s had to work to address anger and its ability to control her actions every day of her life. It was a powerful scene of the pursuit of moral improvement.
This, to me, feels like a healthier prism for storytelling. Not suggesting good and evil do not exist, or being content or even reveling in the fact that characters are both good and evil, but setting the pursuit of moral improvement as a good (this is at the center of one of the greatest sitcoms of the last decade, The Good Place). Of course, I do not think we should require any specific moral vision on art in order to appreciate it, but I do think we should stop pretending like the height of sophistication is moral confusion.
Which leads me to the second thing I thought about in relation to these ideas, predictably, which is politics. Read this response to the CT editorial on Trump from Trump-supporting Christians like Robert Jeffress, and I think you’ll see more than a bit of praise for the rationalization of the anti-hero in it. I think you’ll see more than a bit of moral confusion in it. Everything bad about Trump can be ignored in light of everything that is good about him. These rationalizations represent a Sopranos ethics where Trump doesn’t lack integrity, but is just a leader with “a different kind of integrity.” Trump is some folks’ anti-hero: maybe they had some reservations during the first few episodes, but it’s now season 4. Too much is riding on his success, and they’re way too invested to change the channel now.