Wednesday, June 20, 2018

American Fatigue

As I write this column from my mother's home in Phoenix, I am well and fully aware that in a few days, the temperature will be 111 degrees. Last week, the temperature rose almost that high. The conditions are oppressively hot in the desert this time of year.

How appropriate... because America is an emotionally exhausted country. Americans are hot and tired and worn out on both sides of the political divide.

Yes, there are plenty of moderates who haven't been sucked into the extremes of our polity, but among those who regularly participate in our politics -- creating a series of close elections which are likely to continue into the near future -- the emotional temperature of political discussion has become severely overheated. Like a couple in an irreconcilable marriage -- two people doomed to suffer through a bitter divorce -- the competing sides of American politics have nothing charitable to say about the other and don't want the other party to receive any credit, any joy, any redemption.

Political rivalry and intense competition will always create an intense theater of intellectual and ideological combat. Intense dislike of political opponents is nothing new. Moreover, America has suffered through profound divisions before. What we are seeing in the realm of immigration policy is hardly the exact same thing as the Civil Rights Movement -- the issues and dynamics involved are unique in their particular dimensions, to be sure -- but the larger reality of Americans seeing disturbing visual images of treatment toward ethnic minorities is a striking similarity. Cultural transformation and education did not emerge quickly or easily on that set of issues, and a similarly gradual process awaits this nation again.

The key point is to at least be able to initiate this process of growth and understanding, but in this political climate, it is hard to be confident that a 2018 reconciliation can occur.

Making sense of why -- and how -- we got here is the difficult but necessary prelude to any real attempt to bridge the divides which are tearing this country apart.

With that, let's dive into this highly complicated and unsettling conversation. It is not meant to satisfy or reinforce beliefs. It is not meant to make anyone comfortable. Exactly the opposite. We have to be willing to be uncomfortable to grow and stretch and change and evolve, and that's why this is such a crucial starting point for Americans of all worldviews at this moment in our history.

With my preamble over, the first essential point to establish at the heart of this conversation is that Americans don't know what to do with pain. We think of pain most immediately as a physical thing, but if we have learned anything from the suicides of enormously creative, talented, and materially successful people such as Robin Williams, Anthony Bourdain, and countless others, pain is a gigantic internal monster, a beast shredding the psyche, the spirit, and the soul.

The American mind has no clue how to fight this kind of pain, and we are seeing this in the fatigued, exhausted, frayed nature of our politics, like two wild beasts intent on fighting to the death with no intent on stopping.

What does pain do? It often makes us immediately lash out at someone else, so that we don't have to look inward at ourselves to find blame, responsibility or ownership. Pain can be a response to a genuine injustice we have suffered, or to a perceived unfairness which is understandably hard to accept. Feeling pain is universal to the human condition; no one is exempt from it. Feeling pain is not a sin or a deficit. It is not something meant to be denied or wished away. Pain is an inherent part of life, and it is not weakness to feel it or be hammered by it.

Pain is wrenching. It sucks... but it can't be avoided. The great spiritual teachers tell us we have to walk through our pain instead of denying it or ignoring it.

The challenge -- which American society has failed to respond to -- is to process pain in ways which transform suffering into enlightenment, wholeness and healing. That's where we fall short.

Here's how this failure to process pain emerges in our politics, specifically in relationship to the highly emotional occurrences at the U.S.-Mexico border:

I have talked to conservatives and Trump voters on Twitter, as I consistently try to do. In conversations about the immigration issue, multiple people have responded by saying two things in particular:

A) Where was the outrage about repressive immigration policy during the Obama Administration, either from Democrats or from the media?

B) Why are liberals so concerned about religion and what the Bible says now? This isn't mentioned on the abortion debate.

As a Catholic Christian, I profoundly agree with these lines of thought.

Let's start with item A.

Yes, the Obama Administration -- while not quite as severe as the Trump Administration on immigration policy -- was nevertheless extremely repressive and harsh on the issue... just not as much as the current POTUS. It is widely acknowledged by people who have studied and reported on immigration that previous presidents made it easier for Trump to do what he is doing now. Bill Clinton is part of this trend, which has generally provided successively less "soft" approaches to immigration and asylum seeking. Yet, Democrats did not cry out against their President when deportations and confined-space detentions significantly increased relative to the Bush 43 years. The media simply did not apply sustained critical scrutiny toward Obama on immigration; only now, with Trump in office, are we seeing what sustained scrutiny looks like.

It is hard to NOT acknowledge -- if we're willing to be honest with ourselves as a country -- that conservatives and Trump voters bring up a fundamentally valid point about the lack of concern expressed by Democrats and mainstream media on immigration until the occupant of the White House changed from a Democrat to a Republican. Stormy Daniels occupied a lot of space and time in MSNBC coverage very recently, even while it was known that immigration policy was getting much worse. This is a more than fair critique. ICE behavior, procedure and dysfunction were already significant stories (not in terms of being right or wrong, but in terms of representing a change in operations relative to Obama) in 2017, but the Russia frenzy crowded that story out of MSNBC's main line of sight until the issue became too powerful to ignore.

Let's be clear: Whether you agree or disagree with Trump immigration policy, it is true that Obama made it easier (not harder) for Trump to do what he did. It is similarly true that MSNBC and other mainstream outlets didn't grill Obama on this issue (not nearly to the extent that they are finally doing on Trump) and were even late to the party on Trump because of Russia and Stormy Daniels, two versions of ratings catnip.

Now, item B.

Catholic Church leaders aren't constantly visible in American politics, and to be sure, the politics of Catholicism have changed a lot in America since the sex-abuse crisis blew wide open in 2002. Nevertheless, the one issue on which Catholic leaders could reliably be counted to make public appearances or statements over the past few decades has been abortion.

The Democratic Party and politically liberal voters -- many of them Catholics who became ex-Catholics in the wake of the sex-abuse crisis -- have had no use for Catholicism this century. Disgust at the hypocrisy of the institutional Catholic Church has been a central driver of this standoffish attitude. Genuine disagreement with conservatives about the breadth, depth and consistency of applying "pro-life" principles at very different stages of human life has also made American liberals more entrenched in their resistance to Catholic teachings on abortion and more skeptical of the place of religion in informing and shaping political values and priorities.

Now, in this immigration theater of activity, Catholic leaders are finally beginning to speak out in a way reminiscent of abortion. This is not the exact same thing as familiar abortion controversies of the past involving Catholic Democratic politicians such as John Kerry in 2004. Abortion attained a fixed place in political debate for multiple decades. It was not a moving target; it became a predictable element of the culture-clash between the two main political parties and the messy but generally recognizable ideologies they represented.

Immigration -- largely ignored by both parties (yes, by Democrats as explained above, at least to the extent that it was not a needle-moving issue in election campaigns) -- doesn't own that fixed place in our politics. It is a much more fluid topic whose political potency is unknown. We will have a much better feel in November. Yet, in my inbox this week, the appeals and messages from my former Catholic parish in Seattle, various national Catholic legislative advocacy groups, and other Catholic faith groups have piled up. They and their foremost leaders are speaking up against Trump immigration policy.

Meanwhile, MSNBC -- on Monday night -- brought on Father James Martin, the Jesuit writer who is also the editor of the Jesuit publication, America Magazine. Father Martin appeared on Lawrence O'Donnell's nightly show. Liberals on Twitter are referring to the Bible a lot more, especially since Attorney General Jeff Sessions invoked the Bible (Romans 13) on this issue and Sarah Huckabee Sanders also made reference to the biblical nature of this policy.

Conservatives and Trump voters, to varying degrees, are surely noticing this sudden interest in Scripture from Democrats, and as reflected in my conversations with Christian conservatives in recent days, yes, the anger about selective use of religion and the Bible is real.

For the secular liberal person (in many cases from an urban center in the Northeast or on the West Coast) who has never had a use for religion, personally or publicly, it might not ever register that other Americans might be pissed about this abrupt invocation of the Bible by liberal journalists or lefty media outlets. For the many ex-Catholics created this century in the United States -- ex-Catholics, by themselves, comprise one of the largest groups identified by religion in this country -- the invocation of Scripture on this issue is probably welcome, but also a reminder of what is, to these ex-Catholics, Republican and conservative hypocrisy on Christianity and "family values" issues. Evangelicals and conservatives would naturally and reasonably respond by saying they have held down the family values fort for decades and never had any help or support from Democrats who were all too ready or willing to disparage Americans who embraced Christianity.

What you have been reading in this piece is not a personal statement of approval or disapproval of any line of policy or law. What you have been reading is an explanation of the fault lines in our politics as they relate to ideology, primarily through the prism of religion, sometimes through the prism of the media. This is not an endorsement of any person or group, but an attempt to explain various groups' political views to each other and underscore the depth of the divide between or among groups.

This is the portrait of American fatigue we all need to appreciate. Policy fights are important and urgent, but knowing why policy fights -- legitimate tugs of war over a course of action -- have become so impossible to conduct in public discourse represents a problem Americans need to learn (or perhaps re-learn) to solve.

No, the point of this is not to change minds on policy, but to soften the intensity of opposition toward each other. Of course we -- as liberals and conservatives -- will maintain a lot of fundamental disagreements. Of course we will continue to preserve our larger worldviews. Yet, in a time such as this -- on the immigration issue -- we should all be able to agree that separating toddlers from their mothers is immoral. (That's my first and only policy advocacy statement in this piece.)

A key insight: If we loosen our grip on wanting the other side to suffer in mortal political combat, we can achieve that "softening" of opposition which will emotionally allow us to agree on at least a few lines which the United States Government should never cross.

Let's try to soften opposition, then... which begins with accepting the reality that it will be very hard to achieve that goal.

Why is "own the libs" such a big deal for a lot of Trump voters? Why, on the other hand, is it so important for liberals to persist in using secular language, self-consciously and very visibly avoiding an embrace of religious language in national political discourse?

We are tired -- emotionally and spiritually -- as a country. That's why.

Over the eight years of the Obama presidency, the lack of media attention to Obama's hard-line immigration policy and numerous other issues which are only now receiving scrutiny under Trump created an enormous, deep and intense source of resentment among conservatives and the voting bloc which pushed Trump into the White House. A number of these people aren't wildly supportive of Trump, and some didn't even vote for him, but when presented with the Trumpian worldview and the view of either Democrats or media outlets which stand on the culturally liberal side of the American landscape, they will lean more toward the Trumpian view than what they see as the intellectually dishonest and morally selective outlook of the liberals.

The purpose of outlining this climate of resentment is not to say that it is right or wrong, but merely that it is emotionally understandable, in the ways which emerge when a marriage breaks apart. The two parties' disagreements in these especially nasty divorces become unshakable declarations of principle, as though it is inconceivable -- and personally repugnant -- for one party in the marriage to ever admit that he or she is at fault for anything. The wrongs done by the other party are always magnified, turned into eternal and profound betrayals which can never be walked back or compensated for.

In this climate of pitched battle, "no concessions -- EVER!" is the first, last and only priority. Much as the most bitter divorce proceedings seek total victory in litigation, current political "discourse," such as it is, seeks total destruction of the other side in a two-party system.

I see this every time I talk to my liberal mother and to liberal people of my mother's generation: They don't understand how anyone could steadfastly maintain such a diametrically opposite set of views. They can't articulate a coherent explanation of a conservative or Republican line of thought. They merely think it's horrible and appalling, and are either unwilling or unable to give expression to the competing worldview they are opposed to.

My teachers in high school and college told me -- this is a great piece of advice for any young person -- that in order to understand a person with whom you disagree, you must be able to explain their philosophy or worldview in the way THEY intend that philosophy/worldview to be applied. In other words, the principles or policies they advocate must be articulated in a way which doesn't demean or diminish said principles/policies. The articulation must contain the positive vision or identity of the philosophy, even if you disagree with the merits of the philosophy. That way, the political opponent understands that you GET -- you really do appreciate -- what their philosophy is trying to achieve.

It doesn't mean you APPROVE of that line of thought, but that you have taken the time to see the world from that OTHER point of view.

THIS is the thing which very rarely enters into current political conversations, and it is the very reason why our political dialogue is essentially a bitter divorce proceeding, soaked in extreme emotional fatigue all the way through. Understanding the depth of fatigue -- flowing from an unwillingness or inability to articulate the opponent's ideal framing of the world -- will help us soften opposition to each other.

One more idea needs to be underscored before concluding this piece, and it also involves the attempt to soften each other's hearts to begin to loosen the entrenchedness of opposition we have toward each other.

That idea: We as Americans often relish election victories more for the fact that our opponents suffer than for the idea that the country will be meaningfully improved.

In 2016, the election was carried out under the banner of "no," the banner of opposition to what each candidate and side stood for. "LOCK HER UP!" versus "DEPLORABLES!" very succinctly characterized the clash of worldviews and animating purposes in play in the election. If asked to provide additional rallying cries on both sides: "BUILD THE WALL!" and "RUSSIAN PUPPET!" would suffice.

The 2016 election was all about "preventing the other side from winning," not about a positive program to enrich citizens. Conservatives might say that building a wall represents positive action, but the very image of building a wall represents a preventative action -- that might be enlightened from a conservative point of view, but the act itself is an expression of, "No, you can't do this," so it is a negative act -- not as a value judgment, but in terms of being a deterrent.

When elections are so thoroughly about preventing the other side from winning, or about preventing groups of people (immigrants) from being able to do various things, the winner of the election is more easily inclined to feel happy not because of the personal victory, but because the other side lost. This is exactly the "broken marriage/bitter divorce" climate of emotional fatigue we have in America.

When I interact with conservatives on Twitter, I see this fatigue, just as I see it when liberals on Twitter refuse to be gracious toward Laura Bush for her comments on immigration, or when liberals wish death or suffering on Republicans, or when liberals think it's okay to harass Kirstjen Nielsen -- the Secretary of Homeland Security -- inside a restaurant.

Conservatives are so emotionally fatigued from the Obama presidency -- and all the body blows they suffered during that time of media neglect of problems such as immigration -- that they want to see liberals suffer. They are not yet emotionally ready to let go of this need to have liberals "see how life is on the other side of the presidency." Dislike of Trump's policies matters less than making sure liberals wallow in the emotional misery conservatives feel they had to deal with when Obama was given kid-glove treatment by a compliant, culturally liberal media. The resentments created by that era are now in evidence. Payback -- the desire to want to have it and dish it out in full -- is motivating a good chunk of conservative animus toward liberals on immigration and other issues where a broader consensus SHOULD emerge... but has not.

It flows from elections being attempts to hurt the other side and deny its contributions or value to the American story.

This is a broken marriage wracked -- and wrecked -- by runaway emotional fatigue.

Is our nation finally ready to seek couples therapy, to be able to honestly and generously articulate what the other side sincerely wants to achieve?

We have to do this... or a bloody Second Civil War WILL manifest itself.

Then the U.S.-Mexico border might become a problem for a whole different set of reasons.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

A Country With A Conscience

This is a story which is relevant to the gun control debate, but deals very little with guns.

In order to understand where this is going, you need to start with a little political history, arrive at some conscious realizations about journalism, gain an awareness of religion's place in developing whole persons, and then make larger connections among different components of American life.


Religion is complicated. Christianity, as Jesus could tell you, is not for the faint of heart -- it caused the carpenter's son to be nailed to a cross.

How complicated is religion? The Reverend Billy Graham, who died on Wednesday at the age of 99, was a Baptist. That Baptist denominational experience was shared by two other old Americans who will not be with us much longer, former President Jimmy Carter and longtime journalist Bill Moyers.

Even within specific Christian denominations, in America and elsewhere, you will find important or memorable figures whose life paths led to very different worldviews, conflicts, hardships and outcomes.

This reality of life is not particular to the early 21st century or to the balance of the 20th century, in which Billy Graham lived. The difference between Graham's lifetime and previous centuries is that the emergence of mass media (20th century) and social media (21st century) enabled so many more individual people to see or learn about public figures and the messages they put forth.

This wider awareness of information, perspectives, and human activity should be a good thing for society. Access to more information, combined with greater exposure to a fuller range of human events, can only help human persons, right?

It has not worked out that way in America.

Though many facets of our society are undeniably improving -- medical technology, rapid communications, light rail, online shopping and payment services -- the way Americans process, litigate and digest political debate is getting much worse.

Sure, political debate has always been contentious and cutthroat. Think of Lee Atwater in 1988 or Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton having a duel (which meant the death of one man) over 150 years before. Think of the Civil War. Think of the Civil Rights Era. Politics has plummeted to very low levels at more distant points in our nation's history, so I do not mean to say that our polity has steadily declined without interruption for the past 50 years. The 1970s, for example, demonstrated the resilience and strength of our political system. When Republicans saw that Richard Nixon had disgraced himself and the Presidency, they acted accordingly. Figures such as Sam Ervin, Howard Baker, Peter Rodino, and Elliot Richardson transcended party affiliation (Ervin and Rodino were Democrats, Baker and Richardson Republicans) in service of higher goals, acting the way citizens hope public officials would act in a time of crisis.

In the 1980s, the United States Senate was populated by men with prodigious intellects and fertile minds who did not fit into very convenient ideological boxes. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Warren Rudman weren't impressive politicians because of where they stood on the political spectrum -- Moynihan, a Democrat, and Rudman, a Republican, would both disappoint their parties' most dedicated voters if they ran for office today. What made them stand out was that they put intellectual heft behind their positions and regarded opponents with respect. Politics was a battle for them, but it was a battle for ideas. Richard Lugar, Sam Nunn, George Mitchell -- these and other figures have positions on various issues that I strongly disagree(d) with, but they were formidable elected officials. I always got the sense that they cared about the material they were discussing. They might not have arrived at the most enlightened conclusion according to my political framework and worldview, but they sincerely pursued what they felt was the best course of action. They did not severely shift their points of emphasis depending on who was in or out of power.

Those kinds of Senators -- those kinds of public servants, in mindset and temperament if not in their ultimate policy recommendations -- are increasingly rare.

In the 1990s, political hot-take shows such as Crossfire and The McLaughlin Group began to take off in popularity. The O.J. Simpson chase occurred in 1994 and showed that news networks could grab eyeballs with a helicopter camera and talking heads. News organizations -- part of media companies publicly traded on the stock market -- realized how cheaply they could produce hour-long blocks of programming instead of investing large sums of money in the kind of enterprise reporting which produced Edward R. Murrow's seminal 1960 CBS News documentary, "Harvest of Shame."

The road to 2018 began -- for journalism, yes, but also for the theater of politics journalists were ostensibly supposed to cover. Politics has become more and more of a shouting match, with cable "news" shows populated almost entirely by talking heads, to the near-total exclusion of enterprise reporting in the vein of Murrow. Only 60 Minutes carries on the Murrow (and Don Hewitt) legacy among non-PBS mainstream outlets. Good reporting on non-PBS American TV (in other words, what you don't see on Frontline, Nova, or other programs) is largely the province of fringe/niche outlets.

What we have as a result is a fragmented society in which access to information merely means "access to information from ideologically friendly and emotionally convenient sources," not from any outlet which might challenge the mind or offer inconvenient truths.

What facet of human experience is SUPPOSED to confront the mind with inconvenient truths, even more than journalism? Religion is not the only answer, but it is an answer for many, and -- in its best moments -- has often been the best answer throughout the centuries.

I can't speak for Muslim or Jewish brothers and sisters, but the Christian message is not a convenient one at all. The central figure of Christianity was nailed to a piece of wood and crowned with thorns. He is celebrated even today at Christmas -- in kids' pageants you might have attended, and at the Vatican's midnight papal mass -- as being born in a manger, outdoors in the cold, with farm animals, a product of being given no indoor place to sleep. The story of Jesus -- called Christ by Christians -- is an enormous overturning of linear human expectations.

Christians believe Jesus is the Son of God. Linear human expectations would embrace the idea that if a being was the Son of God, He would be omnipotent and dominate the world. Jesus, though, flips everything upside-down and turns it inside-out. "Though being in nature God, he did not deem equality with God something to be clung to," a quote from Scripture in Paul's Letter to the Philippians. Jesus is the humble child born with no crib for a bed -- he is ignored by the world in birth and, decades later, hated by the world in his public and humiliating death, led to say, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Jesus dies alone, misunderstood, naked, in immense suffering... some Son of God.

That, however, IS the point of Christianity. It is a message of humility and suffering -- not for the sake of suffering itself, but because that is the way to holiness... not to violence. Leadership is servanthood. Power is magnified not by accumulating it, but by giving it away. "I am in your midst as One who serves," Jesus said.

Peter cut off the ear of the servant of the high priest in the hours before Jesus's death. Jesus saw this and told Peter to put his sword away, because those who live by the sword will also perish by it.

Jesus is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and yet he succinctly uttered words of nonviolence to Peter -- an enduring expression of anti-war, anti-retaliation principles -- precisely before he himself was going to be violently put to death by an oppressive government in a community where the religious leaders were all too happy to see him die.

It is true that today is very different from Jesus's time in so many ways -- too many ways to count. While certain aspects of Jesus's life and the Gospel stories contain a timeless and unchanging resonance, the particular complexities and difficulties of modern life are profound, and not always easily reconciled with the past. We can't retro-fit the Bible to claim that Jesus had a direct, exact answer for every political issue under the sun.

Yet... even the most liberal and conservative people -- either within Christianity or outside it -- could reasonably agree on this much: Jesus did not condone physical violence as a general way of life. This didn't mean he didn't get angry. It didn't even mean he was incapable of physical violence against an inanimate object -- the tables he overturned in the temple when he saw the moneychangers disgracing a holy place. However, Jesus was and is consistent in speaking against committing physical harm to other human persons.

Even in a context of self-defense -- when it is acknowledged that a person can kill another person without moral stain or guilt -- taking the step of ending another human life should never be taken lightly. Phrased differently, one must identify or conclude that all reasonable options other than killing the person have been exhausted or do not credibly exist. Taking a life must be a last resort, not a first inclination.

Any competent and historically aware teacher of Christianity will uphold this.

I am now ready to offer a few words on guns, the topic consuming our nation's politics after the Parkland (Florida) shooting earlier this month.

Some people (liberals, generally) think the age for legal gun ownership should be moved to 21. Others (conservatives, generally) think the age for legal gun ownership should remain at 18, and that the legal drinking age should also be lowered to 18. Most Americans agree (though not on the same terms) that entrusting an American with a beer should not come later than trusting an American with a firearm.

I have my own opinions on policy recommendations such as these -- along with many other aspects of the issue of gun control -- but those opinions are irrelevant.

What I care to stress, on this day of Billy Graham's death, and in a time when American religion is torn apart from both ends of our polity -- secular liberals spitting on and insulting Christians and/or religious people; conservative evangelicals supporting Donald Trump in large numbers despite everything they knew about him on Election Day 2016 -- is something which is simple on a conceptual level, but hard to live out in practice.

Surely, Billy Graham would note -- if he had the chance to preach to one more stadium full of people, some staunchly conservative and others devotedly liberal -- that regardless of one's stance on guns, it is important that anyone who picks up a gun must cultivate and acquire a well-developed conscience.

We can agree on this, right? I sure hope we can.

Yes, I have my opinions on what sensible gun policies should be, and to be sure, formulating good policy on guns is hardly an irrelevant or minimally important consideration in American life right now. It's a very big deal.

Yet, it is -- in a powerful and permanent sense -- secondary to something else: conscience formation.

I realize our nation is not at a point where conscience formation is taught particularly well, or pervasively, or carefully, or with general freedom from a strong ideological influence. Nevertheless -- speaking purely on a conceptual level -- it should be unassailable that if a person has a well-formed conscience rooted in moral discipline and the self-control of impulses, s/he will not carelessly use a gun or go on the kind of rampage we have seen all too often in the past 20 years in the United States.

Let me reiterate one more time: I am NOT saying that religious faith is the only thing which matters here, to the exclusion of any considerations about gun reform legislation. No, the policy component of this topic is hugely important. Moreover, the 2018 elections will put this topic front and center, especially if the Parkland students are savvy and resourceful in carrying out their activism.

What I AM saying -- in a spirit of trying to bring our fractured country together -- is to tell both liberals and conservatives that no matter what we do in realms of policy, we need to be more conscious of the need to educate our children in the ways of conscience formation, moral and ethical decision making, dealing with pain, and befriending the stranger or loner who carries -- and conveys, in his/her eyes, face, and gait -- great sadness or hurt.

Our society needs to confront guns and take concrete steps to limit the ability of guns to spray large numbers of bullets in a very short period of time, which enables a lot of lives to be wiped out in seconds. Yet, in a context of "first things" -- the most central way to heal a problem -- Americans have to know how to display self-control (so that teenagers realize shooting up a classroom is never the answer to their pain). Americans also have to realize, in looking at other people, that the frustrated or lonely person "over there" is not someone they don't have to care about. That person "over there" in the corner could be tomorrow's next shooter if he doesn't know how to handle his pain or sadness or confusion.

Conscience formation is not just about the internal management of emotions, but about obligations to a community, to one's brother and sister, to one's neighbor... which, Jesus said, represents everyone, not just our family or the people we know really well... OR, for that matter, the people only WE agree with under the same political banner or within the same political tribe.

On the day when Billy Graham died, Americans on my Twitter feed continued the very familiar process of political mortal combat on both sides of the gun control issue. No one person committed a grave sin, or any sin for that matter. Good people on both sides (I hate to use the Trumpian term, but it is true -- there ARE good people on both sides of this) reiterated their positions, generally expressing the familiar exasperation with the opposing side's stance.

Gun-control advocates on the left and second-amendment defenders on the right are not about to agree on everything, or even most things... but in honor of Billy Graham, a man who sincerely tried to preach the Gospel of Jesus for everyone, can we at least agree that regardless of our positions on guns, we need greater conscience formation in American life, so that our young people are more equipped to handle difficult interpersonal realities and heavy emotional burdens... and so that they won't be as easily inclined to kill someone, even if their emotions might be tearing them apart? (It can't go without saying that while these shootings happen, law enforcement captures other would-be shooters before they carry out attacks. One stockpiler of weapons was apprehended earlier this month.)

Without litigating the gun-control issue here -- or on Twitter -- can we work through our grief and our shared dismay to be more attentive to the pain and alienation in the lives of young people, and to make moral and emotional education -- not just textbook education -- a centerpiece of how we walk with our children during a very emotionally volatile and delicate period in their lives?

Surely we can agree on that.

I hope that in this context of withering contempt and increasingly bitter divisions in our political culture, Americans can find this shared common project of improved moral education and emotional self-management for their children and grandchildren.

Billy Graham would certainly think we need it.

Monday, January 15, 2018

The Post, Daniel Ellsberg, and a Principled Consistency

Americans live in a tumultuous time, an age in which the hypocrisy and blindness produced by political tribalism have been laid bare in much of the country.

A new movie – highlighting a part of our history which is nearly half a century old, but owns timely connections to the present day – offers younger generations a great opportunity to understand what it means to fight for principle in season and out of season, when convenient… and especially when not.

“The Post,” the new Steven Spielberg film, will naturally grab attention for the Washington Post’s role in the publication of the Pentagon Papers. However, one must not forget that before the Post and the New York Times went to court, someone leaked the documents. That person? Daniel Ellsberg, a consultant to the makers of “The Post.”

When Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, Richard Nixon was President of the United States. The presence of Nixon in the White House is significant for many reasons, but within this discussion, it is primarily important because it was easy for the American left to oppose Nixon.

I was not alive when the Pentagon Papers were leaked, but part of my life’s work – specifically at a soup kitchen run by the Seattle Catholic Worker – gave me an awareness of Philip and Daniel Berrigan and other peace activists in the Vietnam era. Ellsberg gravitated toward these circles in the course of his life. Leaking the Pentagon Papers marked the biggest product of his personal, moral and spiritual epiphany.

In his earlier professional years, Ellsberg served in the Marines before moving to the RAND Corporation, which worked with the Pentagon. As the 1960s unfolded, Ellsberg -- once a proud member of the military-industrial complex – evolved into a person who realized how dishonest the government was, and how dangerous U.S. military policy had become. Ellsberg wasn’t the first American in the Vietnam era to experience such an awakening and conversion, but he became the paramount military whistleblower of his time.

That he was at odds with a Republican administration makes it easy for contemporary American liberals to regard Ellsberg as the hero he is and – moreover – deserves to be.

This is where hypocrisy and blindness enter the story.

One would naturally look at Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning – people Ellsberg has praised as heroes – and draw a straight line to the Pentagon Papers, which “The Post” will explain to generations of younger Americans.

Yet, among many establishment Democrats, Snowden and Manning are viewed as malicious wrongdoers, not principled whistleblowers resisting the Military-Surveillance State. One does not need a grand explanation for this political reality: A Democrat – also the first African-American President of the United States – was in office when Snowden and Manning (morally) broke laws as Ellsberg did.

Snowden is an easy target because he has taken refuge in Russia, which Democrats now oppose with more vigor than Republicans, in a tidy inversion of American politics relative to the anti-communist fervor of the late 1940s and the 1950s. Democrats – while having legitimate and urgent reason to support Robert Mueller’s investigation of the Trump White House – have gone well beyond a reasonable and measured approval of specific FBI activities. They have supplanted Republicans as cheerleaders for the Deep State, for institutions which (in the FBI’s case) once urged Martin Luther King to kill himself, or (in the CIA’s case) brought about violent, anti-democratic coups such as the one which toppled Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973.

Democrats and liberals are entirely right to accuse Republicans of being hypocrites on family values and Christianity. “The Post” will hopefully make Democrats recognize their contemporary blind spot on two whistleblowers Daniel Ellsberg regards as heroic, but receive a fraction of the praise Ellsberg is accorded.

Perhaps the next Snowden – taking the torch from Daniel Ellsberg – will be viewed in a more positive light. “The Post” has a chance to remind American liberals what they are supposed to support and oppose… no matter which party occupies the White House.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Sports, Politics, Tactics, and the Emotional Mind: A National Conversation

Warning: This will be a necessarily long essay, because there's a lot to process one month into the Trump presidency. Whether you like it or loathe it, this presidency marks a rare, urgent point in our nation's history. We've never elected someone like this before -- again, that point stands whether you're happy about the occasion or absolutely crushed.

Warning No. 2: In case you haven't noticed, political discussions tend to get very heated very quickly (which is a big reason this essay is being written). This essay will not attempt to litigate various political matters through a frame of right or wrong -- not in terms of making declarations, at any rate.

Liberals will generally believe X. Conservatives will generally believe Y. No one needs to be told what they think is right or wrong -- you wouldn't believe something if you thought it was wrong. You all come to this text -- or any text you read on anything -- with your own set of strongly-held beliefs. 

So: In THIS essay, statements of political affiliation, ideological leanings, or emotional tendencies are not meant to convey approval or disapproval, nor are they meant to convey that one side is inherently better or worse than another. They are meant to simply lay out broad and generalized positions of adherence/inclination/aspiration on the parts of the two competing parties and ideologies in this country. Yes, individual voters and sub-groups naturally proliferate within these two larger umbrellas. Referring to only two ideologies and parties does not represent endorsement of a two-party system. Similarly, references to only two ideologies and parties do not represent an intent to ignore more granular and real differences within the parties and our larger framework of American polity.

Audience Note: This is primarily intended for those who are politically liberal, because I am a liberal and am more emotionally vested in seeing liberalism flourish. However, being a child of God and a citizen of the world before (and above) being a liberal, it's important to represent my values in a way which includes conservatives and various people I disagree with on matters of pure policy. Conservatives can read this as interested onlookers who very much have something of value to say to liberals... and ought to be heard by liberals.

Conservatives merely need to know that liberals are my primary audience here.

The preamble is over. Let's begin...


One of the greatest things about sports is that they represent one of the few remaining socially cohesive pursuits for large communities of people who otherwise wouldn't want to have anything to do with each other.

Rooting for your favorite tennis player; supporting your favorite school basketball team; roaring with delight at a football game (or match, for international readers) -- these communally shared passions transcend politics. You might not know it -- how would you? -- but that fan sitting three seats away from you in the stadium holds political views that are 180 degrees opposite yours. Yet, when your team scores, you both yell like banshees and high-five, because that's what fans do at the stadium.

YOU'RE ON THE SAME SIDE IN SPORTS, in ways you'd never be in other theaters of existence. 

Speaking from personal experience, I am not a fan of sports (not the ones I cover), but a journalist. Yet, when I write about American college football -- a sport loved predominantly by people in the South and the industrial Midwest, with cultural views and orientations much more conservative than mine -- who cares? We're all lovers of college football, with a passion for sharing knowledge and conversing about the topic. Sports overpower politics -- my readers and Twitter followers would rather have fun than be ideological purists... as it should be.

That's one thing sports teaches me about politics, but that's just the surface of a much deeper and larger reality.


The image of being at a sporting event (and on Twitter, though we're not "in the stadium," we're all essentially gathered around the field/court/arena anyway) is particularly instructive because it strips us of our particularities and inequalities. 

The spiritual masters offer this as an exercise for building empathy and strengthening our "spiritual muscles": 

Look into the eyes of the complete stranger next to you at a restaurant or on a bus or in any public setting. You're not being creepy. Look into the eyes of that stranger and hold the gaze for at least 30 seconds. When you do that, simply think, "This person is made of the same stuff as I am. I don't know what is going on in this person's life, but we both look out at the world from these eyes every day. I want the best for this person, just as I'd want the best for everyone else, for every other pair of eyes which tries to make sense of a confusing, difficult world on a daily basis."

A particular realization to make on the heels of that spiritual exercise flows from a story which recently made the rounds: A man who professed to have hated Muslims experienced a change of heart when he personally met Syrian and Afghan refugees.

This is not meant in any way to shame conservatives. It is meant to express a simple and universal emotional truth of human life, one which happens to have a heavily spiritual undercurrent: The power of the personal encounter is supreme in its ability to change hearts.

We argue with each other on Twitter or Facebook or other realms of the internet, and our interactions are generally very distant. Yes, many of us make friendships online, but the cross-boundary conversation -- with someone who holds diametrically opposed views or comes from a substantially different life background -- is extremely hard to pull off. The personal encounter is the best way to break down barriers. This applies to any person, regardless of ideology or creed. 

Sports certainly have their flaws -- and to be sure, subsections of sports fans display the same kind of tribalist instincts which corrode American politics -- but sports remain better than most at helping us connect with people from different backgrounds. A fundamental reality of American sports is that most of the ticket-buying public is white, while the large majority of professional athletes is black.

Sports are not this tension-free oasis of joy where everything is sunny and just and right, but the purity of competition enables winners and losers to walk away from a game by shaking hands, the loser waiting until next year and the winner acknowledging that the losing fan's team put up a good fight.

Our politics........ do not exactly operate this way, to say the very least. 

This is a different kind of competition. It's far more consequential than sports... which is why the Trump-Clinton election was and continues to be such a psychically resonant event across the spectrum of emotional reactions. The stakes of the 2016 American presidential election -- now being fought for on a daily basis in the midst of a remarkable 24-7 news cycle -- were so large that, with perfect reasonableness, many Americans have plunged into depths of emotions they might not have known they were capable of.

This is not a value judgment of any American, merely a reflection of reality: Many Americans treated the result as a death, a cause for mourning and grieving the way one would lament the loss of a friend or beloved family member at a relatively early age. My mom suffered a heart attack before the election and needed about 10 days to emerge from a state of shocked misery after November 8. When Stephen Colbert (whom I like, and whom I know many conservatives dislike) did his Election Night special on the Showtime cable network, he saw members of the audience -- who gathered expecting a Clinton victory -- weeping when it became apparent Trump was going to win. Colbert later remarked that he had nothing to say to or for an audience which was so emotionally set on one outcome. The freight train of what felt like death to many American liberals had just hit them full force. People I talk to in Seattle -- my normal city of residence and one of America's most liberal cities -- won't shy away from saying that yes, they've been grieving over the election. Their words, not mine.

Therefore, if the outcome of Clinton-Trump felt like death, Trump and his voters are -- in the eyes of many American liberals -- murderers. Murderers of a dream, murderers of political norms, murderers of various ideas previously felt too sacred to violate. On an emotional level, it is completely understandable that most liberals view Trump voters as "f***ing sexist misogynistic racist scumbags," which -- for the sake of brevity -- will henceforth be referred to in the acronym "FSMRS."

This brings us not to the final point of this essay (there will be a section on tactics later), but to its central ground: If guided by the spiritual exercise above -- looking into the eyes of another person for 30 seconds and wanting the best for that person, regardless of his or her circumstances or views -- it is imperative for American liberals to not regard Trump voters as FSMRS.

As I have remarked on Twitter to liberals unwilling (very understandably, I might add...) to listen to Trump voters, "Empathy might seem like capitulation to or approval of an opponent, but it is nothing more than respecting the whole of the individual person." To amplify that remark, one can empathize with any person even in the midst of intense disagreements or conflicts. Moreover -- and getting to the very center of this essay -- the spiritual masters would tell us we SHOULD do precisely that. Empathy with and for opponents -- those different from us -- ought to be one of our fundamental aims as spiritual beings... at least if we value spiritual fulfillment and self-actualization as a core goal in our lives.


Here comes the source of a great deal of tension and dissonance, flowing from the above point: Many American liberals possess an agnostic, if not outright secular, identity on the spectrum of religious views and beliefs. Plenty of American liberals are ex-Catholics; moreover, the numbers of ex-Catholics exceed many individual mainline Protestant denominations in America. Ex-Catholics, if they ever wanted to form a church community as a bloc, would constitute one of the nation's larger mainline denominations. The sex abuse crisis, combined with decades of narrow-worldview preaching from old white European men, have caused a substantial exodus in American Catholicism. (Again, this is not a value judgment, merely a notation of the demographic shifts and their causes.)

Many other American liberals didn't need the sex abuse crisis to push them from a churched background and into an unchurched or unaffiliated position. They were always skeptical of religion itself or appalled by atrocities committed in the name of religion (or both). Purely in terms of what liberals and conservatives say they believe (again, we're not going to judge sides or assess their levels of fidelity -- that's for you, as individuals, to resolve on your own terms...), liberals occupy the vast majority of secular-or-atheist ground. It's not exclusively their terrain, but much more prominently so.

Why mention this if speaking primarily to a liberal American audience? Forget about whether people live up to their values or not -- that's a different essay for another writer to compose. This much is true: The language of spirituality -- which connects to values and principles -- has a lot to say to American liberals in terms of how to handle Trump voters on an emotional level. Thus begins a difficult but necessary (pretty much all necessary tasks in life are difficult, right?) walk through the complexities of interaction with opponents. They're harder to do in an online setting than in person, but in person, they're still extremely difficult because of the directness of personal encounter.

A key point: This is not (yet) a matter of pragmatic politics or effective tactics. I am remaining in and focusing on the realm of spirituality before going to the political and tactical realms, because I locate and value spiritual work as the most important work a person will ever do. Phrased differently -- and for a more secular audience -- I value treating people well as sufficient religious expression (which is something I know will meet with disagreement from theological conservatives). 

Why? As a number of wise priests have told me over the years, "Spoken prayer is irrelevant without meaningful action and behavior toward others." 

Private faith and private piety, if not ever translated into a loving embrace of the very people it is hardest to love, aren't worth a dime. That's not an attack on faith -- it's an attack on a poor and incomplete representation of what faith is supposed to be, and what it is supposed to create in the believing individual.

Let's then explore why the language of spirituality has much to say to American liberals (especially in that secular-or-agnostic range of cohorts) in terms of how to handle Trump voters as persons.


First off, yes, I think religion in the United States is taught very poorly. If you look at the post beneath this one on this blog's homepage, you'll find an essay on the very topic. The reality (my opinion, of course, not a fact in the way 2 plus 2 equals 4...) that religion is taught very poorly does not mean, however, that central concepts of how religion (and more precisely, a generally Protestant and evangelical Christianity) is taught should be ignored. One must use the structure of language to realize the deeper meaning behind words and concepts.

Sin is a big and central concept for evangelical Christians -- probably in any land, but my focus is on America. Within an evangelical Christian framework, Jesus died as atonement for the sins of human beings -- he died for our sins. Easter -- the Resurrection -- is a victory over not just death, but sin itself. The language of evangelical Christianity in America is founded upon the idea that "I can do nothing, but God can do everything." As the Pauline letter to the Galatians says (chapter 2), "I no longer live, but Christ lives in me." Personal acceptance of Jesus Christ as one's Lord and Savior washes away the stain of sin symbolized by the blood sacrifice of the Lamb of God on the cross. Alone, men and women are flawed and imprisoned by sin; once they accept Jesus, they have salvation. It's a highly personal testimony to the need to be freed from sin and obedient to God. 

While portions of these beliefs represent the bedrock of Christianity in virtually any denomination, other specific details do not flow across all denominations. Yet, this concept of sin forms the bridge to an understanding not just of how the evangelical mind works, but to how American liberals and Trump voters can at least stop hating each other in the wake of months of entirely understandable venting.


A good and honest catechist (someone who teaches the doctrines and precepts of the Christian religion) will tell you the following about evil and sin:

Evil is a force which people can strengthen or perpetuate in spite of good intentions or innocence in terms of personal conduct.

Example: Person A tells a lie to Person B with the full intent of preserving some dark secret or larger truth. Person a tells the lie because s/he thinks Person B, if knowing the full truth, will commit an act of violence toward Person C. However, Person B somehow learned the truth before Person A told the well-intentioned and protective lie. Person B murders Persons D and E, this other couple which got entangled with Person C.

Person A meant to protect Person C, but through a well-intentioned act, unleashed forces which led to the deaths of two people (D and E), not just one.

Person A wasn't evil. Person A didn't do something most reasonable people would identify as evil. Yet, Person A contributed to evil, and moreover, to more evil than what s/he had hoped to initially avoid.

Sin is something much more focused: Sin, in its purest catechetical definition, means "knowing something is wrong and doing it anyway." To put a finer point on this definition, this means "having a full grasp, with a fully-formed and developed conscience, that an act is wrong and, without sufficient/careful/prolonged re-examination of conscience, committing the act."

In secular language, we'd call this "snapping" or "losing it." Sin, though, necessitates full and true awareness of the wrongness of an act and diving headlong into the act, damn the consequences.

This brings us to the gulf -- the yawning, endless chasm -- between American liberals and Trump voters. How does the concept and language of sin enter into it?


Trump voters can be viewed and dissected in many ways and from many angles, but of interest here is the fact that 81 percent of American evangelical Christians voted for Trump. This fact is itself a strong reason why so many American liberals can't stand religion and/or left a church community, but what gets lost for many American liberals (though hardly all of them -- many are very deeply rooted in a more liberal expression and awareness of Christianity...) is that the motivations of evangelicals are not their own.

This is how the immediate inclination to label ALL Trump voters "FSMRS" can be softened and ultimately (over a long period of time) broken down. 

If you've ever taken a class or attended a retreat which in some way focused on conflict resolution or conflict negotiation -- whether marriage counseling or business communication or anything else under the sun -- you will hear this principle if the therapist or the leader of the seminar is any good: 

In communication, the primary (not exclusive, just primary) burden lies with the sender to convey the message in the way s/he wants the receiver to absorb it. The two parties -- sender and receiver -- do not have to agree on the correctness of what is being said, but they must share an understanding of both the point AND its intent.

People on opposite sides of ANY political divide have always tried to rip each other's throats out because they always stand on opposite groundings, opposite foundations from which their language and their subsequent framing of issues flow.

American liberals looked (and still look) at the whole of the Trump candidacy, and all the appeals to abhorrent behavior, and conclude that it is 100-percent unacceptable for anyone to vote for this man under any circumstances, and that a vote for Trump makes a person -- inherently and immediately -- an FSMRS.

American evangelicals probably want Trump to speak more politely, and they certainly don't approve of his sexual assault, but as Democrats did under Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky affair, they make the point that personal conduct and fitness for the presidency are two different things. (Again, I'm not here to litigate this, only to explain what both sides think and why...)

Evangelicals then make the point that ending abortion -- which they see as a profound and central moral evil in this country -- justifies voting for Trump in spite of his abhorrent personal conduct and all the other unsavory aspects of his candidacy. For evangelical Christians, at least those of a conservative bent in red states throughout this country, it is -- both literally and figuratively -- a matter of Gospel truth that abortion is the biggest reason to vote for or against political candidates in the United States of America.

Right or wrong, liberals and evangelical Christians largely (there are some liberal Catholics who oppose abortion and evangelical Christians who don't regard the issue as the all-important litmus test) perceived Trump through entirely different lenses, just as they do in most elections for most candidates. 

This is the gap in communication which reflects our nation's deep and -- I fear -- deepening divide. 

Both sides in America's political war think the other side is living in sin. Evangelicals would use the term "sin"; American liberals use FSMRS or other variations. However, neither side is, because one has to KNOW something is wrong and then do it in order to sin. 

Votes are value judgments in which people weigh various factors against each other and try to choose the best representation (or in many cases, the "not as bad as the other guy" representation) of their views. If processing information and context the way an American liberal would -- in an upbringing belonging to many liberals (urban, coastal, unchurched, watches MSNBC daily) -- that person would almost certainly not share the same thought process of many American evangelical Christians, who live in states with starkly different demographic profiles (rural, inland, a house church or evangelical worship center 10 blocks from home, watch FOX News daily). 

Life experiences; the information pumped into our brains; the kinds of people we do and don't meet on a daily basis; the environments we inhabit and the contexts they supply to inform our value judgments -- these and other fundamental parts of life are so dramatically different for The Two Americas. Even if one side is inherently more moral and correct and knowledgeable than the other, purely as a matter of relationship to facts (which both sides, of course, think of themselves), the other side isn't sinning -- NOT THE PEOPLE ON THE GROUND WHO STRUGGLE WITH LIFE EVERY DAY.

I realize this is a brief departure from the larger flow of the essay, but it's necessary to make the distinction: POLITICIANS AND ELITES, people in positions of great wealth and power, and with unfettered access to all manner of resources, can be said to sin when they do things that cause harm. (This applies to Democratic politicians as well as Republicans. Who sins more? That's not my concern -- this is not an attempt to litigate or make pronouncements on "false equivalences" or like terms.)

The single heroin-addicted mother of three on the sidewalks of New York, or the meth-addicted parents of a single child in Idaho, certainly made bad life choices, but their actions are properly understood as just those -- bad choices -- and not sin... at least if they were poor all their lives and turned to selling and using drugs as both their only financial catapult and their only emotional escape. Their bad choices were the products not of a knowing intent that their actions were wrong; their actions flowed from the tangled intertwining of several life factors that oppress people: lack of education, lack of communal support, lack of good job prospects, lack of awareness on where to attend a parental instruction class at the community center. (If you're in a rural area, is that the first thing which comes to mind? Clearly not for anyone who struggles with life on that profound a level.)

The point of this persistent focus on sin is not just that Americans sin less often than they think their opponents do; it's that much as sin requires fully-formed knowledge and awareness of the wrongness of an act, communication between opposing groups must involve a basic understanding of (not agreement with) the intent of what the other group is trying to say. 

The FSMRS label might feel good and cathartic, but it can't be applied to whole groups of people, because every individual person -- that one pair of eyes on the bus or in a sports stadium -- masks internal thoughts and individual life experiences we can't know about... UNLESS, of course, we sit down in a coffee shop and really listen to that person's life story.

That is the spirituality of respect for the other person. That's the bridge in communication Americans have to walk. That's the understanding of different kinds of language, different cultural framings, different undergirdings of worldviews and thought processes, which so deeply divide Americans. Purely on a spiritual level, it is INHERENTLY GOOD to be more in communion with one another, and to fight less with one another. Moreover, this spiritual good is always emotionally healthful for us. 

Less anger -- living less out of an angry center, that place which makes us want to label opponents "FSMRS" all the time -- makes us more likely to avoid heart attacks and cardiovascular stress. 

Less anger and more peace trigger different chemical reactions in our brains. We become calmer and more measured in our thinking. We generally make fewer mistakes compared to when we are consumed with anger. We make fewer knee-jerk decisions, which correlates to a decrease in mistakes. We sleep better -- physically, yes, but also in the more metaphorical sense of regretting fewer things we say and do.

Ah, but I haven't really addressed the politics and tactics of any of this. That's the next -- and last -- subsection of this essay.


Let's go back to sports to provide a good way of framing effective tactics in politics or anything else we engage in.

Roger Federer has won 18 major tennis championships for many obvious reasons. One essential way of framing his excellence is that he can hit any kind of shot really well. His backhand might be his worst shot... and it has been one of the 10 to 15 best backhands in tennis over the past 13 years. Without getting too deep into tennis for those who don't follow it regularly, let's cut to the chase: Federer is far more adept than most of his peers at hitting any kind of ball. For the non-tennis folks in the crowd, Federer can hit topspin, drive, sliced, chipped, drop, inside-out, inside-in, forehand overhead, backhand overhead, T-serve, wide-serve, kicker, or flat shots with well-above average effectiveness. The constant variety of Federer's game -- as a server or when hitting groundstrokes from the back of the court -- makes opponents unsure of what kind of shot is coming next. Is it the heavy topspin? Is it the hard low drive backhand? Is it the teasing slice or the craved drop shot?

The uncertainty of an opponent -- constantly on his heels -- enables each Federer shot to be more effective. The collective, the presence of abundant variety, becomes not only a weapon, but THE weapon.

Isn't it great to know that on a day -- or against a specific player -- when spins and angles don't work, a pure power approach can? Isn't it great to know that if groundstrokes aren't working great, a good net-rushing attack supported by well-placed serves can do the job? Federer naturally wants to do a few things better than his opponents so that he can win without added stress or complications, but if he's dragged into that long and grueling match, does he have a Plan B when Plan A fails? He often has a Plan C or a Plan D -- not against Rafael Nadal, but against virtually everyone else. This is why he's been so incredibly successful.

The simple question I pose to American liberals, whether identifying with the Democratic Party or not: Why shouldn't political tactics be like this?


This is not a value judgment of Republicans and conservatives, merely an attempt to frame politics and ideology in America: William F. Buckley of National Review (one of the signature conservative publications in the country) once said that he and his magazine had a duty to "stand athwart history, yelling, 'STOP!'" 

This next statement doesn't mean conservatives are "negative" people with fewer ambitions or inferior motives compared to liberals; it is merely meant to frame how our ideologies see the world: Conservatives, for the most part, care about saying "no" more than liberals do. 

This is not about Trump-versus-Clinton so much as the larger debates which occur in matters of finance and culture, setting aside the question of whether politicians in Washington live up to those stated ideas or not.

I'm a Bernie Sanders voter. I believe Bernie when he says we can make college free for all Americans. (The point here is not whether he's right; it's only to frame liberalism relative to conservatism in very broad terms.) More money and resources for more disadvantaged populations -- that's basic liberal framing and thought. It's an oversimplification, but the core truth remains. For conservatives, financial matters are more about cutting taxes and reducing spending. Get more money by being more responsible and saving resources. Reduce regulatory burdens on citizens and businesses. Liberals -- at least in terms of outwardly stated views -- want government to do more, while conservatives want government to do less. 

Realizing that these questions can be flipped in ways which switch the answers, I still think that liberalism is broadly a "YES" philosophy, conservatism a "NO" philosophy within the theater of politics. No liberal should feel superior for this reason, and no conservative should feel s/he is being talked down to -- this is merely a representation of views and orientations surrounding the subject matter.

Because liberals and conservatives are different, and because the presence of only two electorally viable parties undeniably means that competing strains of political worldviews fight within both the Democratic and Republican Party structures (the party machinery at the top and the grassroots underneath), it seems important to have a bigger toolbox of ways to connect with voters, purely as an extension of politics (and removed from the spirituality and emotional health which attach to better relationships with ideological opponents).

This is where language comes into play, and moreover, where Democrats (liberals) need to realize that for all the ways in which they think they are different from Republicans (conservatives), they have been the same in one basic way: They get just as angry at Republicans (FSMRS!) as Republicans get at them!

It is a profound irony, one which is hard to face up to for liberals, but an irony which -- if ever dealt with in the right way -- could create an electoral colossus which would be hard to break for a very long time.


Culturally -- I don't even think any liberals would disagree on this -- liberalism is winning in America. 

Gay marriage. More non-traditional families. Erosion of mainline religion. Shop owners have to sell gay wedding cakes. Millennials and younger evangelicals who believe in climate change. The larger undercurrent of mass culture -- naturally channeled through densely urban areas and in highly commercialized contexts -- is liberal in nature. 

Given these larger underlying pulls, one might think that most of America has Democratic governors and Democratic state legislatures.

Nope -- roughly two-thirds of both are controlled by Republicans.

Well, okay, then, at least there's a Democratic Presi--


House, if not the Sen---

Nope -- not the presidency, not the whole Congress, and not even one chamber of Congress are in the Democratic column, even though mass culture is generally in a much more liberal place compared to the Reagan years.

How can this be? Republicans and conservatives -- while dumb (in my opinion) in terms of shrinking their demographic windows of opportunity with blacks, Latinos, and other minority groups -- have long been a LOT smarter about language and framing situations than Democrats and liberals. 

Moreover, what Trump and (President) Steve Bannon are doing right now -- while presenting a surface picture of incompetence to liberals and independents (and, I think it's reasonable to say, actually BEING incompetent on at least some fundamental levels) -- is nevertheless a masterful way of not just retaining, but increasing support among their voter base.

The very naked LACK of carefulness, of cautiousness, of nuance, in the Trump/Bannon message is a profoundly cathartic release -- for Trump voters, but even conservatives who didn't vote for Trump or support Trump during the election. Why? Because the media -- in their opinion -- was dramatically one-sided during the Obama presidency and is now complaining about how it is being treated. Conservatives, even those of the non-Trump or never-Trump variety, can still appreciate and gain inner satisfaction that the liberal media are getting their long-needed comeuppance. 

Liberals don't have to like any of this, but they need to see it for what it is.

When Trump/Bannon frame the press as the enemy, they -- fully cheered on by their supporters -- are telling the media, "NO! SIT DOWN! YOU BLEW IT! YOU LOST! EAT SOME HUMBLE PIE! MAYBE START DOING YOUR JOB ALL THE TIME, NOT JUST WHEN A REPUBLICAN IS PRESIDENT!"

This is the "NO!" of Republicans in action.

Of course, Hillary won roughly 3 million more votes than Trump. A natural and understandable reaction is to say that "There are more of us than them!" Mathematically, yes, but not in the right states or among the portions of the population who were either unsure about whom to vote for; uncertain of whether they wanted to vote in the first place; or unsure of whether their vote really mattered, given their distrust of Hillary.

Why Hillary lost can be picked apart in a million different ways, such that no one line of analysis can be allowed to exclude various others. However, if forced to choose a particularly prominent reason, Hillary -- though being quite rational about it -- framed most of her campaign as a NO to Trump and his awfulness. (There was so much awfulness to point out, and again, that inclination was rational.)

Hillary needed more of a YES -- not to the many people Obama helped in urban centers, but in areas of the country which needed more convincing and didn't feel the full benefit of the Obama years. Case in point: Youngstown, Ohio, documented by the instructive must-follow Chris Arnade.

To be clear here: It's not that Hillary shouldn't have said NO to Trump. She needed to. It made sense. The larger point is that for liberals and Democrats, a specific NO has to be situated inside a larger YES. This speaks to having a variety of tactics -- like Federer in tennis, or like the New England Patriots in football -- and finding ways to increase the options one has in reaching voters.


Even conservatives listening in on this conversation would probably acknowledge the following: If Democrats can get non-traditional voters (chiefly those who didn't vote in 2016) to the polls, they have a very good chance of winning in 2018, 2020 and beyond. Naturally, many Democrats are confident that Trump has awakened many millions of these Americans, with most falling in the millennial camp (those in their 20s). 

Logically if not inherently, it is unassailable to point out that Democrats, if they turn out a large percentage of 20-something voters, are likely (not guaranteed, but highly likely) to win more elections. I can't imagine any politically astute person disagreeing with such a claim.

It has long been the case that people in their 20s don't vote as regularly as older people. Being in one's 20s means experimenting, seeing the world, trying to find one's niche. It is not a negative commentary on 20-somethings that they don't vote as much as other older demographics; it just IS. That's the reality. Accordingly, while reaching these voters should obviously be one point of emphasis for Democrats, it can't be the one basket the party throws all its eggs into.

Variety. Federer. Sports tactics. Run the ball if the defense dares you to pass the ball. Use headers in soccer if long kicks outside the penalty box are wildly inaccurate. Pass the basketball into the low post if your 3-point shots aren't falling.

Have a Plan B if not a Plan C. This doesn't mean junking Plan A, merely having more ways to reach people.

Democrats should pursue their Plan A, but in the meantime, what about the need to at least: 1) Get Rust Belt voters to NOT vote for Trump in 2020, and for Republican congressional candidates in 2018? 2) Getting those same voters to vote FOR Democrats in those two upcoming election cycles?

How can understanding Trump voters -- with empathy, with better language, and with a common ground/frame of reference -- NOT be a major part of the Democratic playbook? To focus only on non-voters and millennials would be like hitting only backhands, or running the ball three times into the middle of the line, or shooting only 3-pointers without dribbling to the basket. 

Democrats might say, "Hey, the Tea Party didn't empathize with us in 2010!"

Yes, that's correct... and Obama strolled to re-election two years later. Meanwhile, though, what about candidates in state legislatures and governorships? At these more localized levels, the support for Obama which exists in big urban centers didn't -- and doesn't -- matter. Democrats are woefully out of touch in terms of connecting with voters (and running linguistically conversant YES candidates) in states and legislative districts without built-in demographic advantages. 

One can perhaps allow that Democrats don't need to connect with Trump voters on the presidential electoral level and stick to the non-voter/millennial strategy, but remember: If Republicans win several more stage legislatures in the coming years, they could amend the Constitution without / over Democratic opposition or votes. Democrats -- with the culture war flowing their way -- should not be in this position, but local Republicans have been effective at rallying their more traditionally reliable voter base to:

A) vote!

and B) voice that NO against what they see as this surging liberal tide overtaking their way of life. 

Democrats need to be serious about empathy as an urgent political tactic, They need to read up on George Lakoff (a Berkeley linguist who is on Twitter) and centrist Jon Haidt (a social psychologist at the University of Virginia who is on Twitter), who authored a very important book called The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics And Religion.

These are great jumping-off points for the conclusion of this essay -- all Americans (not just liberals) would do well to read these two thinkers, especially Haidt's book -- but they underscore a key point which neatly ties together this whole essay.

Democrats -- as briefly hinted at above -- might wonder why the Tea Party didn't try to make nice with Democrats in 2010 or future election cycles. Once more, this is not a value judgment, merely an explainer: Liberals and conservatives don't share the same grounding in terms of their worldviews and assumptions. Therefore -- it is the irony at the heart of this piece -- why should liberals rail at Republicans at all? Purely as politics -- not morality or as a gateway to emotional holistic wellness -- it is counterproductive, because it feeds into the conservative NO and heightens the emotional temperature in the room, when reptilian-brain insta-reactions (often our least healthy and accurate actions) are committed. 

Purely as politics, Democrats need to tone down the temperature in the room while steadily appealing to a positive vision. For all the other reasons Hillary was victimized by unfair events -- the Comey letter, the Russian influence, and other legitimate gripes Democrats have -- her remark about "deplorables" will go down as one of the great mistakes in the history of American politics, because it revealed a huge NO, unmasking what conservatives understandably saw as loathing which destroyed the notion that Americans are "Stronger Together," or that -- as Michelle Obama said, "When they go low, we go high!"

Yes, the Obamas -- both of them supremely skilled politicians, gifted with an ability to create empathy around a positive message, much like Bill Clinton ("Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow" and "Build a Bridge to the 21st Century!") -- went high whenever Trump went low.

Hillary? She held her tongue on many occasions -- goodness knows she received scrutiny disproportionate to what Trump merited during the campaign -- but her one slip of the tongue was more than enough to motivate the conservative base (and probably some undecideds from more rural areas) to vote against her.

Democrats have to be relentless -- not in telling Trump voters that they are FSMRS, but that they have much to learn from Trump voters; want to see life through those two eyes on the bus or in a sports stadium; and will work to create a positive message which truly influences those Trump voters' lives, instead of shouting a NO across the political chasm in this country.

Yes, empathy is most important on a spiritual level. It's also very good for holistic human health; but it's also good politics, part of the variety of tactics needed to meet every person in every circumstance across a very divided, very complicated country with a quirky Electoral College system and state legislatures that need to be turned purple, if not blue.

Democrats can't win elections the way Republicans can. Democrats and liberals, after all, see themselves as being different from Republicans and conservatives.

Ironically, if Democrats really did seek a different path -- the road which leads away from FSMRS -- and really did live outside the fear which currently leads them to lash out at opponents (treating Trump voters as the enemy the same way Trump views a free press as the enemy), they might create the most formidable electoral coalition the 21st century will ever see.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The 2016 election and the scandal of American religious education

Roughly two weeks before Election Day, I submitted a column to the Seattle Times, the paper in my city of residence. The op-ed was rejected simply because op-ed spots are scarce in metro daily newspapers. You will note the percentages of the vote assigned to Catholics and white evangelicals. I left those numbers blank until the results came in on Election Day. 

You will also note, of course, that I presumed Hillary Clinton would win. Well, we all know what happened to that prediction. 

The larger point of the essay would have remained intact even if Clinton had shifted small numbers of votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin her way. It’s one of the points worth emphasizing after a shattering, devastating moment in American history.

Following this original version of the op-ed are some added remarks meant to magnify in-group-versus-out-group tensions.



While this embarrassing campaign is done and Donald Trump lost it, Americans should hardly be celebrating. There’s a big difference between a shining example of conduct and, at the other end of the spectrum, barely avoiding a disaster of massive historical proportions.

Take a look at the election results. Hillary Clinton won, but it should be a point of national embarrassment and shame that people who represent themselves as Christian voted for Donald Trump in the numbers they did.

52 percent of Catholics and 81 percent of white evangelicals pulled the lever for someone who displayed appalling conduct – ugly, bigoted, misogynistic conduct – in dozens of different contexts. Christians, as a large nationwide bloc, might not have supported Trump as vigorously as past POTUS candidates, but they certainly did not abandon him.

Let’s quickly clarify: It’s not (automatically) embarrassing that many failed to vote for Hillary, only that they actively chose Trump. Not liking what Hillary offered – especially from a conservative Christian viewpoint – is understandable in a vacuum. In a similar vein, not voting for either candidate – which many Christians surely did – represents a reasonable response.

Voting for Trump, though, when being exposed to his unquestionably disgusting behavior in this election campaign? There is no defense for it. None.

It’s bad enough that he became a major-party nominee, but once he was exposed to a general election campaign, a sane country – especially after the worst October for a U.S. presidential candidate since radio and television were invented – would have dealt Trump a Reagan-Mondale Electoral College loss, and an 80-20 popular-vote defeat. When four of five citizens speak against a demagogue and a clown, it’s easier to brush off the remaining 20 percent as an irrelevant minority.

Given the election numbers – nationally, and especially among Catholics and evangelicals – we don’t live in that kind of country.

How did we get here, then? How did people who claim to follow Jesus of Nazareth – a champion of the poor and outsiders – actively choose Donald J. Trump in such substantial numbers?

We are left with only one grim answer: The quality of religious education in America has never been worse.


This is not about whether abortion or war should be the central Christian litmus test of politicians. The quality of religious education as conducted in churches and at schools is far more a matter of one basic tension American Christianity is largely failing to handle: the in-group-versus-out-group tension.

Imitating Jesus is extremely difficult. It’s not supposed to be easy. However, this reality immediately reveals where religious education has gone so horribly wrong.

The difficulty of the Christian project leads many Christians to celebrate how “they” have the truth and the rest of the world doesn’t. Christian expression becomes a constant battle to resist the world, which promotes – in attitude, word and deed – a “Christian Exceptionalism” which feeds into American Exceptionalism. Being the “in group” – owning the truth while others don’t – is a badge of honor.

Religion is always supposed to promote the opposite attitude.

Being the “in group” should create a wellspring of humility, connected to the experience of grace and the powerful awareness of the need to share the Good News with others – the “out group.”
Truth before profit and power is the essence of the prophetic tradition. Acknowledging one’s limitations in a spirit of humility – rather than lording knowledge over other supposedly less enlightened groups – is the posture of the properly-oriented religious believer. God is supposed to elicit awe at grace, an increased awareness of one’s own smallness even in the midst of one’s infinite, precious value. Such is one of many paradoxes which lie at the heart of authentic religion.

Yet, any church which values the collection plate over the truth takes the opposite view. Keeping the in-group (the donor base) happy instead of being completely vulnerable in service to marginalized people is not authentic religion. It’s a form of being beholden to the power motive and the profit motive. It’s the linear thought process which goes against the paradoxes and counterintuitive truths which undergird the authentic practice of religion, in which God’s ways are not our ways.

Donald Trump has always been concerned about power and profit above all else. A POTUS candidate could not be less Christian. A POTUS candidate – in actions past and present, in his personal life and his public life as a businessman (and then bigoted candidate) – could not represent a profile more perpendicularly opposed to the life and example of Jesus.

That Christians voted for him to the extent they did is all we need to know about the quality of religious education in America.




The reasons WHY those Christians voted for Trump are politically easy to discern, but the complicated part lies in how no one in their lives ever seemed to tell them that racism, religious intolerance, and misogyny are abhorrent to the Gospels and to the God of all creation, not just some of it. Surely, pastors and ministers tell young kids, then adolescents, then college students that treating others with kindness and respect is essential to the Christian life. How do those general exhortations not translate into the various specific components of ethics, morality and integrity in the modern world?

I carry some blame toward individual Christians who voted for Trump, but with that having been said, only a little. The true focus of my anger today is toward religious leaders and teachers across the country, the people who didn’t do a very good job (and still aren’t) of teaching their flocks how to be responsible citizens in the public square, including and especially at the ballot box.


Briefly consider previous POTUS elections in which the United States Catholic Bishops made a very public display out of condemning Democratic Party nominees such as John Kerry (2004) for supporting abortion rights. It’s not that the bishops were wrong to criticize a candidate who was Catholic and opposed Catholic teaching on that issue; the problem was that the very same bishops didn’t devote anything close to the same level of stern criticism to George W. Bush for violating Catholic just war teachings. Many liberal Catholics, within the clergy and among the laity, developed a firm belief that for Catholic leaders in the United States, abortion was the only relevant issue, the only litmus test of a person’s morality, the only basis for assessing candidates in accordance with Christian principles and values.

That inclination – namely, that American religious leaders care only about abortion – has been thunderously validated in the 2016 presidential election.

Yes, the Catholic bishops and megachurch pastors (remember Rick Warren?) were not up front in condemning Hillary’s abortion rights stance. Some might perceive that as enlightened and evolved.

Not really – not to any meaningful extent.

The genuinely disgusting and appalling content of Donald Trump’s campaign made it hard – virtually impossible – for pastors to trumpet an anti-Clinton message from the rooftops. If any relatively conventional Republican candidate (Ted Cruz possibly being the only other exception alongside Trump) had won the nomination, that lack of silence probably would not have existed.
The test of courage and integrity for American religious leaders in this past election season was to be firm and forthright in denouncing everything Donald Trump stood for. Trump did not hide his appeals to base and savage attitudes. Religious leaders did not have to work hard to voice a simple but authoritative line of opposition to his ugliness.

Yet, they chose not to even try.

Catholic or protestant, megachurch or institutional church, mainline or new age, the relative silence from American Christian religious leaders was deafening.

Those pastors, ministers, bishops and other prominent religious figures didn’t have to avoid mentioning Hillary’s stance on abortion if they personally opposed it. They simply could have acknowledged it but then said – as any religious leader ought to have done – that Trump’s pervasive, sustained and fierce appeals to a large number of prejudices and hatreds had absolutely no place in the American public commons and the nation’s political conversation.

If religious leaders were truly guided by the teachings of Jesus, this was not a close call. It was the easiest decision to make.

Barely any prominent Christian group, pastor or shepherd – especially those in positions of institutional ecclesial power or those with evident media visibility – spoke up. Any that did were not given much of a megaphone by a media collective obsessed with the theater of Trump and the bread-and-circus aspect of the political horse race.

It’s a profound scandal. Religious leaders failed the American people. Again.


One thing has to be said about this idea that Christian leaders bear the unique and substantial share of the burden for what has just happened in America, far more than individual Christians who pulled the lever for Trump.

Human beings are not cookie-cutter creatures. We all came from a unique pair of parents, from a unique set of circumstances. Growing up in Seattle and growing up in Lexington, Kentucky – even if in the same income bracket and with the same ethnic profile – will lead to profoundly different life paths.

Many groups make similar journeys in terms of income, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, but the various cross-combinations of those identities instantly add many layers of diversity to the human experience. Even for those who share extended lists of characteristics, however, they do not (with the sole possible exceptions of identical twins who live virtually identical parallel lives and somehow travel very similar paths) possess cookie-cutter thought worlds… because no one does.

Human beings are powerfully individual. We share experiences, but how we process them – and instructively, when those experiences come to us – are different. Some people learn life-changing lessons at age 12, some at 18, some at 23. There is no one speed or setting for human life. Many people can and do live a long time without grasping lessons others understood very early on.
Leaders – preachers, priests, pastors – entered the ministry knowing what they wanted to do and knowing the enormity of the mission they undertook. THEY bear supreme and profound responsibility for the education of their flocks.

The individual people in those flocks – say, for example, a low-education 27-year-old white woman in rural Tennessee who was raised by very conservative parents – might never have had a family figure or a pastor who modeled authentic Christianity and stressed the need to be compassionate. For this (hypothetical) person and many others like her, Christianity was very likely framed as a purity test, a measurement of doctrine and owning the truth other (inferior, unchosen) people lacked. Christianity was a point of pride to be held against the rest of a heathen world, not as a source of humility which leads to a life of serving the vulnerable, frail and marginalized.

As a liberal Catholic, I feel sorry for this person. My heart breaks for this person. Hatred is not felt. Empathy is.

This is not easily arrived at, but I have been fortunate in my life to receive good religious teaching from my parents and religious leaders such as Franciscan priest Richard Rohr. They taught me about humility and the accordingly profound need to realize that if I was that 27-year-old evangelical white woman in rural Tennessee – who received a very different line of religious education from the one I received – I might have voted for Donald Trump, too… and thought I was doing exactly what I should be doing: opposing abortion, valuing the Supreme Court, and opposing those “heathen godless liberals.”

It is not to my credit or honor that I got a great education or hit the jackpot with my parents and had some remarkably thoughtful religious voices in my life through books and retreats. Being equipped with the resources to not vote for Donald Trump and to be in a position to serve the less fortunate (I worked at a soup kitchen for several years before becoming a full-time sportswriter and editor) is not my virtue, but a product of life circumstances I did not earn. In the parlance of Christian faith, I received a lot of grace.

This grace, though, comes with a realization of gratitude... not with hatred toward those in very different circumstances who participated in forces which oppose justice and goodness and moral courage.

The very white evangelicals who put Donald Trump into office largely think that liberals such as myself are wayward souls, enemies of change and morality. The idea of embracing them might seem abhorrent at first glance, but their immersion in an entrenched “us-versus-them” mentality, in which “we are good and THEY are evil,” is what enabled Donald Trump’s politics of resentment and anger to triumph. White American evangelical Christians view religion – Christianity – as a religion of the in-group. Those outside the in-group are hostile forces not worth time, care, service or investment.
The solution to this horrifying event – the way to ensure it won’t happen again – is not to throw hatred back at Trump voters, but to soften those rough edges, to take away the ferocity of the anger of those who voted Trump in the misguided belief that it was the Christian thing to do.

Someone has to model empathy – embracing the out group, not just the in group – to those people if Donald Trump (or anyone who campaigns in the manner he did) is to be refuted and silenced at the ballot box in America. Religious leaders have to teach American Christians in churches and schoolhouses throughout the country that if a “we’re good, they’re evil” mentality exists when one party or group is in power, the other group will be equally inclined and motivated to throw it right back in the face when that party reclaims the presidency, as Trump and the Republicans have.

The cycle has to be broken.

Feeling that “the other side” is an enemy perpetuates the resentment-fueled identity politics which led so many people on one side of the American divide to rebel against the other. When those (white evangelical women) lose their resentment and anger, though, what will the Republicans have left as a motivating reason to inspire their voters? What happens when the sting of in-group Christianity is removed, and “out-group Christianity” – based on the welcoming and embrace of the alien, the foreigner, the LGBTQ person, the mixed-race couple, the Muslims – becomes ascendant?

American Christian religious leaders have not stood up against hatred and bigotry and sexism and misogyny. As a result, it is no surprise that individual evangelicals and Catholics failed to exhibit moral courage. That’s a little bit on the individuals, but it’s profoundly and predominantly on the leaders. It’s reason to be very angry at leadership structures, powerful pastors, and entrenched religious institutions.

It’s reason to be empathetic toward individual Christians who have not been given the guidance and help they need.

This is the full extent of the scandal of American Christian religious education in the year of 2016, the year which elevated a bigot to the United States presidency.