Dr. King, Congressman Lewis and Other Creative Extremists

Dr. King, Congressman Lewis & Other Creative Extremists

I was up in the air on the 2017 Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Flying somewhere over Iowa, between Clinton and Waterloo, our flight pattern took us over the Skunk River.  For some reason then my thoughts turned to the presidential inauguration this week.

What might Dr. King say about our nation’s current dilemma in leadership?  Only a few days ago Congressman John Lewis indicated he would not be attending the presidential inauguration of Donal Trump and said he considered the election of the president-elect to be illegitimate.  

What might Dr. King say?  Would he agree with Mr. Lewis?  No one can know for certain — however, let me respond as one who was around when Dr. King was active. If anything, Dr. King might say that John Lewis was too timid — that he should have said more about resisting the impending disregard for fair elections, truth and transparency on the part of anyone who would seek to serve as president.  

I remember well Dr. King’s courage.  I remember that at the time of his death most white folks in the United States thought he was too radical and disagreed with him.  I remember his commitment to the poor, the immigrant, the disenfranchised.  I remember his care for the U.S. Constitution and the need to stand against those who would seek to distort justice.  Dr. King, like Mr. Lewis today, was considered by many well-intentioned persons to be an extremist for justice.  

Writing from the Birmingham Jail in April 1963, Dr. King responds to eight clergymen who indicated that the activities in the struggle for civil rights in Birmingham were “unwise and untimely.”  Does this sound familiar?  Aren’t we hearing the same thing about Congressman Lewis’ comments.

Here is a passage from Dr. King’s letter to the clergy in Birmingham in 1963:

So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime—the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists. [From “Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963]

Prior to re-reading the text of Dr. King’s famous Letter From the Birmingham Jail while flying 32,000 feet in the air, my tendency was to think that perhaps Congressman Lewis had overstated — gone too far.  However, I now think Congressman Lewis’ statement was right, and was that of a courageous extremist.

For what might Mr. Lewis be called “an extremist?”  For asking us to “love the neighbor?”  For asking that our elections be fair and voter suppression to end?  For thinking foreign governments shouldn’t meddle in our democracy, nor be invited to do so by any candidate?  What about Donald Trump, where is he an extremist?  

Always before in my adult life, when I disagreed with the incoming president, I made the distinction between the person and the office.   However, what does it mean that most Americans today seem to respect the office of the presidency MORE than the man who was about to take the oath of office?  What does it mean that patterns of lies and deceptions have become normative?  What does it mean that this person will not be transparent with tax returns, seeks to find a dodge around potential conflicts of interest, challenges the intelligence experts of this nation, denies climate change, seeks to make alliances with known totalitarian practitioners and sees them as preferable to President Obama?

Reading an article by Ned Resnikoff in ThinkProgress (11/27/17) there was research that helped confirm my doubts and Congressmen Lewis’ concerns (see Ned Resnikoff, ThinkProgress, 11/27/16).  What we are facing is a constitutional crisis.  One that Dr. King would have recognized.  Resnikoff speaks of the coming administration’s style as “managed democracy.”  It is a perspective hostile to open, egalitarian standards of governance.  It is the preferred way suggested by Steve Bannon, now White House Chief Strategist, who famously said, “Darkness is good.  Dick Cheney, Darth Vader, Satan.  That’s power.”  Bannon hates a government based on compromise and consensus.  Borrowing from Putin’s crony Valdimir Serkoff, it is an approach that seeks to destabilize, distort, encourage contradictions and lies — always pointing to another as the true enemy or liar.

What happens when no news is to be trusted and all news is called “fake.”  What happens when press conferences turn into diversionary attacks on others or the media?  What happens when judges are accused of bias if you disagree?

The strategy is not new to our electoral process.  Karl Rove was a master at inversion or diversion whereby one’s own candidate’s weakness is projected on to the opponent preemptively.   Okay, that is politics, and as they say “it ain’t beanbag!”  

However, what is underway now, in our current experience, is so much more pernicious and dangerous.  It has been called inverted totalitarianism: All news media are said to be fake, so trust your prejudices over facts.  Who can know the truth? There are so many distortions and points of view… Or, all politicians are crooks and liars, our guy is so much more entertaining!  He is, so to speak, “a crook, but our crook.”  Reality television comes to Washington and truth is fractioned out of our institutions.  Schools, courts, churches, scientists, the press — all civic institutions are not to be trusted. 

When there is no truth to be trusted and when the people doubt their own moral compass with so many competing and confusing points of view — then those who can continue to distort and create confusion in a post-factual world, they can claim the power to keep their machinery going to their benefit.  It is no wonder that Mr. Trump admires Mr. Putin so fully.

I believe Mr. Lewis spoke and continues to speak a courageous word.  It is a word that is uncomfortable to hear.  John Lewis still has a strong moral compass.  He is still a creative extremist.  I stand with Congressman Lewis.

Our “Peak Crazy” Social Psyche

Our Peak Crazy Social Psyche

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Maligne Lake, Jasper National Park, Alberta Canada

Peak Crazy

Today’s New York Times (September 28, 2016) asks if our national psyche has reached a “peak craziness” with regard to our penchant for accepting conspiracy theories.  “Peak Craziness” was a new concept for me.  A search shows that it is not a widely used idea; however, I find it a helpful one.  It suggests a reaching of a distorted, foolish summit or high point in human experience and discourse.

Upon reading the NY Times commentary it was clear that while conspiracy theories aren’t a new phenomenon in our society, the changes in the way we receive our news and the power of social media, give a credence to conspiracy theories that is dense in saliency and reach.  Our “news” comes at us fast and furiously and these theories become an ordering mechanism for the hurried, anxious or fearful.

One couldn’t help but chuckle on Tuesday morning when Donald Trump complained that his microphone had malfunctioned during his recent debate with Hillary Clinton.  Trump went on to say that “he didn’t want to believe in conspiracy theories” and wondered why he had microphone problems and Mrs. Clinton did not.  It is no surprise, I guess, that the candidate who has been the most active in bringing our nation to a peak craziness around conspiracy theories would suggest that any failure on his part is the result of some conspiracy.   Truth is, that both Mr. Trump and Secretary Clinton have painted pictures of “vast conspiracies” as part of their election narrative. 

While I give more credence to Ms. Clinton’s concerns — whether about the crazed conjecturing about Benghazi, White Water, missing emails, etc. — it seems that she gives too much attention to some vast plot or “hidden hand” that determines present and future circumstance.  Of course, Mr. Trump’s conspiracy theories are more pernicious — filled with racism and xenophobia.  In fact, the record is clear, Trump’s “birther” conspiracy comments, freighted with bigoted attempts to undermine Barack Obama’s legitimacy as president, was a major factor in his staying in public consciousness.  We will no doubt hear of other “conspiracies” as Mr. Trump plays a kind of ideological bumper cars with the truth and our national psyche.

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Spirit Island: Maligne Lake, Jasper National Park

Thinking about the idea of Peak Craziness reminds me of our recent visit to Maligne Lake in Jasper National Park.  Mary Schaffer is said to be the first person of European ancestry to “discover” Maligne Lake.  Using a map provided by Samson Beaver, a First Nations chief of the Stoney People, Mary Schaffer’s small party found this nonpareil site.  The glory of the lake and the surrounding peaks filled them with wonder.  An artist, Mary Schaffer, spoke of this as a place beyond ever fully capturing by words or brush.  Depending on where one stands there are peaks and glaciers in every direction surrounding the lake. 

Near the glacier-fed headwaters is Spirit Island.  The island is a sacred ground for the First Nations people who spoke of this as the temple of the gods.

One wonders if the humanly constructed “peaks of craziness” in our national psyche are blocking our view,  preventing us from seeing the genuine peaks of wonder all around.  Perhaps we need to spend more time on our own Spirit Islands to to see the true beauty of this election season.  There they are, towering beyond all our conspiracy theories, the peaks of shared humanity, the remarkable wonder of democracy — even when messy — and the towering responsibility of citizenship.

Let’s live as a Spirit island people, who work and vote in a world as free of conspiracy peaks as possible.

 

 

Five Queries on a Fine September Day

Five Queries on a Fine September Day

Autumn is in the air.  Just a touch in some places.   Still enough to know change is ahead.  So, change.  I awoke this morning with five questions about change on my mind.  As the leaves turn color and the fresh garden tomatoes dwindle, it seems right to wonder about the future. These are my provincial, idiosyncratic musings in mid-September.  Call these my “dancing with irony” questions.  Both autumn and anomaly are in the air.  So, here goes:

1.  Will it jinx the Chicago Cub’s chances for a world series victory, after waiting over a century, by talking about their great year with marvelous pitching and fine young players?  Woops, I may have just done it!

2. Should Simone Biles, the astonishing 19-year-old gymnast, be given an additional gold medal (or two or three more, and a lot more press coverage) for just being an extraordinary athlete and remarkable human being in a world where Ryan Lochte captures more headlines?

3.  Why are so many of the folks eager to protect the United Methodist Church from changing the Book of Discipline, the very same ones who take any mention of being United Methodists out of their congregation’s names and off their websites and church signage?

4.  Are the people who believe President Obama is a secret Muslim the same folks who believe Donald Trump is a practicing Christian?

5.  How is it that a recent CNN/ORC poll found 50% of respondents asserting that Donald Trump was “more honest and trustworthy” and only 35% thought Hillary Clinton was “more honest and trustworthy,” when careful analysis by PolitiFacts says that 53% of Trumps statements should be rated “false” or “pants on fire” and only 13% of Secretary Clinton’s statements should have this rating?

Might misogyny have something to do with it?   Forgive me, sorry, I promised only five questions. 

Surely things will improve tomorrow!

Mentors of Hope

Mentors of Hope

Visits with my best friends typically include the question, “what are you reading?”  Sometimes I am embarrassed and tongue-tied because I don’t want to admit that I can’t even remember the name of the author or the title of the book in that moment.  I know it is a good book and can even tell you the color of the cover or quote several passages from it.  But the name of the author? — Ah, the joys of being 70 keep coming!  Still, I am grateful for this question and for these friends as they are asking a deeper question, more fundamental question.  It is “who is teaching you these days?”

Good reader, who are your teachers?  This is not asking you who were your teachers? Rather what is informing you today?  No doubt lessons from the past are critical to shaping who we are.  I do remember elementary school teachers like Ms. Kerns, Ms. Schindler, Ms. Williams, Mr. Glass all offered lessons that still shape my living.  Occasionally I hear echoes of Ms. Schindler, third grade teacher saying “Philip, you are too good not to be better!”  What an enduring word — her legacy on my life.

Lessons from today are even more essential — essential to shaping who we will become.  Who teaches us now?  In a time when ignorance and falsehood is the trademark of one Donald Trump, the question “what are your reading?” is critical.  If you find Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy troubling, “what are you reading?”  What gives you perspective beyond the same ole talking heads on television?

So, here are a few folks who are shaping my thoughts today for the future:

  1. Sara Wenger Shenk is president of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary.  In her blog “Practicing Restoration” Sara recently wrote of Beauty in the Borderlands (Wenger Shenk, Practicing Restoration).  Very nice — and full of wisdom like the importance of “caring for the institution you are trying to heal.”
  2. President Wenger Shenk mentions Gregory Wolfe’s Beauty Will Save the World and I am reminded of another wonderful teacher for these times.  I have only started the book but find it so compelling, I can even remember the name of the author!
  3. Then there is the work Connected by Nicholas Christakis and James H. Fowler that points to the power of our networks of friends and their friends who touch our lives in ways that shape our worlds for benefit or disease.
  4. I would mention the daily meditation pieces from Richard Rohr, at the Center for Action and Contemplation – see Richard Rohr meditations.  He has recently challenged my tendency to think too often in binary ways and reminded again of the powerful benefit of paradox for us if we are to find more hope-filled ways forward.
  5. Lastly, I would mention Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History at Revisionist History podcast.  He has just completed the first ten podcasts for this summer season.  They are richly rewarding and will make you think!

In a period of history when the temptation is to watch my favorite news channel (Fox or MSNBC or CNN or…. you name it) our communities and our body politic deserve our efforts to think more clearly and not find ourselves trapped in our limited cul de sacs of narrow analysis.  Read on good folks — think more broadly.  Our world deserves the best we can know, even if we can’t always remember the name of the author or the title of the work.  Where do you find hope?  Who mentors you in that direction?

It is all too easy to focus on some issue of discontent.  Okay, I hear your complaints.  What I want to know is where do you find hope — where do you see folks coming together?

I write trusting that in some small way I can act as a mentor of hope today.  I will have my issues of disagreement with others, of course.  I challenge you to join me to read more widely, think more broadly, our world needs you to do so.

Filet

 

Lessons from the House on Park Street

Lessons from the “Soon to Be” House on Park Street

logoHabitat

Some of you have asked about the house I am building this summer.  Well, not me exactly… but the house I am helping our local Habitat affiliate build as a way to celebrate my 70th year.  This, of course, is not “my house” or “my build.”  Soon, some deserving neighbor will call it home — after putting in hundreds of hours of “sweat equity,” they too will have the joy of a home with a manageable mortgage!  Still, I am grateful for those of you who have made a gift so that this work could go forward this summer.  Thank you!

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IT IS GOING WELL!  So much is happening so quickly.  The construction manager Keith Hite is a marvelous teacher.  (Keith teaches building trades at New Prairie High School.)  And thanks to groups like the folks from Alcoa Howmet Corporation in La Porte, the decking was in place and so much more was ready for those of us who were volunteering.  As a result, we are further along than we anticipated at this point.  We are ready for the dozens of volunteers coming over the next several weeks.  (Yes, you can come and help — just contact us at: LaPorte County Habitat website.)

It will surprise no one who has ever been a “Habitat Build” that there is always a great deal of laughter and lessons to be learned.  My great joy was to work with Bill, Jim, Sharon, Carter, Mike and Suzie.  Dozens more will help this summer.  It was Bill who offered me two lessons on my first day as a volunteer.

IMG_1461Lesson #1:  As we were beginning to put together the frames for windows in the walls, Bill looked over and asked “Did you pay for the whole hammer or just part of it?”  I immediately started to laugh because I knew the old joke.  I knew that it would be a good day.  My teacher had arrived.  “Hold the hammer lower and let it swing,” Bill said.  “Use it like you own the whole thing!”  That got us started talking and laughing.  Bill was a marvel to watch and joy with whom to work.

I discovered that Bill had been a volunteer on over TWO HUNDRED HABITAT FOR HUMANITY BUILDS!  He knew both Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity, and Clarence Jordan, Fuller’s co-conspirator at Koinonia Farm in Georgia.  As it turned out I had known both Millard and Clarence as well, and so the morning was filled with stories of how they taught that the gospel should be viewed as a radical document — especially when it comes to how we live our every day lives. We spoke of the “theology of the hammer,” and how Christian action spoke louder than all our words.

Bill told me of his church in Michigan.  He said Millard Fuller had challenged them to build ten houses in one of the early Habitat builds in Africa.  The churches in town were asked to stretch, dream big, and raise $15,000 so that ten (10) houses could be built in Africa.  It took a few months Bill said, but before long they did better than ten houses “We gave Habitat a check for $150,000 so that one hundred (100) houses might be built,” Bill said!  Yes, the gospel should challenge us to think radically and big about our resources and how we use them.

IMG_1468Lesson #2: As lunch time approached and we were expressing gratitude for the volunteers who were by this time raising the front wall together, Bill looked at me and said, “You know, there is only one time I have seen any volunteer asked to leave a build site.”  “When?” I asked.  He said, “there was once a fellow who when asked to clean up a small mistake in a wall being built responded with the words ‘Why? this will be good enough for the type folks who will be living in this house.'”  Bill said it didn’t take long for the construction manager to tell the fella to gather up his tools and not to return.

As to the fuller meaning of Lesson #2, I couldn’t help but consider the comparison with a leading political candidate who engages in racist statements, refuses to apologize and is still “on the scene” as a leader.  Why doesn’t Donald Trump’s political party have the courage to say, “Leave and don’t return until you are able to apologize.”   The morning paper today carries the powerful statement by Thomas Friedman entitled “Dump the G.O.P. for a Grand New Party.” (See: Thomas Friedman, June 8, 2016, NYTimes).  Here it is, the “Party of Lincoln” saying, “Well, yes, Trump is a racist but we will support him anyway.”  Amazing.  I want to ask, “Are you going to use all of the courage and moral legacy you claim or just a small part of it?”

Thanks to Bill — for his life given to gospel realities.  For me, these will always be treasured as my “Lessons from the ‘Soon to Be’ House on Park Street.”  Let’s keep Building!

 

 

Turning Bad News to Good

First, Confess The Sin of Racism

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Racism in Plain Sight*

It is a clarifying moment… The x-rays are back from this laboratory.  These hypothetical x-rays come from Super Tuesday of the 2016 presidential primaries.  And what can be seen in these images?  There it is — the often hidden, not-so-attractive, practices and support of racism.  Surprisingly this racism comes from those who call themselves Evangelical Christians.  It is painfully clear.  Support for racial bigotry and discrimination is all too apparent in the way they vote and self-identify. 

The voters have spoken: Donald Trump won seven of the twelve primary elections in states.  He claimed the largest percentage of the so-called white Evangelical voters.  Just hours before these elections Trump dodged questions about support he was receiving from the Ku Klux Klan and David Duke, a well known white supremacist.  In what has become a typical media ploy, after he winked his appreciation for the racist support, Trump then changed his tune, saying that he had always opposed racism and, in typical form, he attacked the media saying that he was again being mistreated.

Can there be any doubt that behind the scenes and often breaking into the open racism has been employed to weaken the presidency of Barack Obama?  Like many things, few people are as articulate in identifying such realities as is poet, novelist, conservationist Wendell Berry.

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Wendell Berry**

Berry writes: “A good many people hoped and even believed that Barack Obama’s election to the presidency signified the end of racism in the United States.  It seems arguable to me that the result has been virtually the opposite:  Obama’s election has brought about a revival of racism.  Like nothing since the Southern Strategy, it has solidified the racist vote as a political quantity recognizable to politicians and apparently large enough in some places to decide an election…

Nobody can doubt that virtually all of the President’s political enemies would vehemently defend themselves against a charge of racism.  Virtually all of them observe the forms and taboos of political correctness.  If any very visible one of their own should insult the President by a recognized racial slur, they would all join in the predictable outrage.  But the paramount fact of this moment in the history of racism is that you don’t have to denominate the President by a recognized racial slur when his very name can be used as a synonym.” (Wendell Berry, Louisville Courier-Journal, September 15, 2015.  See more at: Berry, Revival of Racism.

I was stuck by a recent report from the Southern Poverty Law Center that provided the recent history of active hate groups in the United States.  During the first eight years of the twenty-first century there were roughly 150 groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, White Nationalist, Racist Skinhead, and Neo-Nazi.  Their numbers changed very little in the period between 2000 and 2008.  However, in 2009, following the election of our president, the number of hate groups rose to over 500 — and today there are nearly 1,000 such groups in the United States!

I am not saying that white Evangelicals are all racists.  Still it is more than a little suspicious that there is not more resistance among these folks to Mr. Trump’s dog whistle to the racist fringe.  I still remember visiting a family farm, shortly after the election of Mr. Obama.  These were good people, church going folks, active in state politics.  I have known them for years.  As we talked my friends began to share email “jokes” about our president.  The language was crude, ugly, bigoted and demeaning projections.  It was raw, blatant racism in the depiction of our president. I was stunned — didn’t join in the laughter and spoke only a halting word of disagreement.  In hindsight, I wish I had said more.  In hindsight, I understand there are such “God fearing” folks and how they could vote for Mr. Trump.

In his insightful study One Nation Under God Kevin Kruse of Princeton University outlines the way the Christianity shifted in the twentieth century to become a public spiritual spectacle, useful to politicians and corporate leaders to pursue their goals of power and wealth.  Kruse cites William Lee Miller of Yale Divinity School who spoke of the American people who followed their president, Eisenhower, and “had become fervent believers in a very vague religion.”  (Kruse, p. 68)  Or, as Robert Bellah put it, “Is this not just another indication that in America, religion is considered a good thing but people care so little about it that it has lost any content whatsoever?” (Kruse, p. 68) This vague religiosity has been filled with many things — and as Evangelicalism has gained ascendancy too much of the “vague” content has been long on self concern and short on self criticism.

The vague content of American Christianity — Evangelicalism in this case, has been filled with patterns of thought and behavior that have almost no connection with the message or life of Jesus the Christ.  In fact, the vague content has been filled with shabby self indulgent understandings that are amazingly at odds with the Sermon on the Mount or the Lord’s Prayer

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What would a beliefs x-ray show about a person’s real commitments?***

I do not seek to salvage this word “Evangelical.”  The damage, the identity theft, has been done.   Such a project belongs to others.  Thankfully, they are already at work and know it will take generations to correct what has gone amiss.  As suggested in an earlier post, these elections provide an x-ray into the flawed theological and faith perspectives of such Evangelicals. Sadly, the x-ray comes back saying the illness is at a critical stage.  This religiosity is shaped more by culture, history and prejudice than it is by the scriptures or sound theology.  Honestly, it is more a folk religion than a coherent faith practice.

What are we to do?  What is the church to do? In his column, “The Governing Cancer of Our Time, ” David Brooks speaks of the rise of authoritarianism (Brooks, Governing Cancer).  Over forty years ago, I served as part of a national research project on the church and racism.  In this work we discovered the connections between authoritarianism, status concern and racism in its various forms.  The question became how should the church, the People of God, respond?

We learned three important things:

  1. The church — especially the leaders in the church — must say NO to racism.  That which is obvious and that which is more subtle.  I wonder what difference it might have made if religious leaders and political leaders had stood up against Mr. Trump’s “birther” comments in 2008, or every year since?  One can’t help but think that the current dilemma of the Republican Party was brought about by their own silence and disrespect all along the way.
  2. Sermons and study groups alone have little effect on changing racist attitudes or behaviors.  (Sorry about this preachers and teachers.)  However, when sermons and education are combined with activities that engage parishoners with persons of a different race, especially activities that seek cooperatively to address racism, real change is possible.  We saw it in Chicago, South Bend, Fresno, Dallas and Los Angeles.
  3. Finally, a denomination’s commitment or congregation’s commitment to battle racism can be measured by the way budgets are made and expended.  In 1974 we found that almost all congregations reported they spent more on toilet paper or light bulbs in a year than they did on efforts to address racism.  Nothing much has changed over these four decades in this regard!

Silence.  Vague content to our faith.  Low commitment to change as evidenced in our practices and budgets.  These things, good reader, may be among the reasons for our current embarrassment.

Phil A

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Attributions:
  1. *Women viewing x-ray. Copyright: http://www.123rf.co/profile_rmarmion’>rmarmion / 123RF Stock Photo</a>.
  2. **Photo of Wendell Berry from newsinfo.iu.edu, (Indiana University media)
  3. ***Simulated x-ray of brain. Copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_scottff72′>scottff72 / 123RF Stock Photo</a>
     

When Good News Becomes Bad News

The Evangelical Embarrassment

Evangelical

Agata Gladykowska, stock photo

 

The presidential primaries of 2016 are an embarrassment — to our nation, to thoughtful public discourse and, perhaps most tragically, to the witness of people of faith.  This trend has been underway for quite some time.  In an earlier post, I wrote of “Christian identity theft.”

Today is the so-called Super Tuesday, March 1, 2016.  Primary elections are being held in twelve states with hundreds of delegates in play for both political parties.

Over and again it is reported that the Evangelicals are a crucial and determining voting block.  The New York Times this morning says that “Donald Trump’s success with evangelicals is expected to help him dominate” in several of these elections.  REALLY?

The vileness and ugliness of this primary, especially on the Republican side, is so full of meanness and junior high potty mouth jokes as to make mud-wrestling look like a noble enterprise.  But most troubling for me is the use of that word “Evangelical.”

Sadly, this primary has proven to be a DNA test, or an x-ray image, showing the actual make-up and inner organs of many who claim to be Evangelicals.  Really?  Donald Trump represents the best hope for the future among people of faith, the desire to have a God-fearing nation?  Really?  Or, the juvenile, divisive and snarky comments of Mr. Rubio or Mr. Cruz — are these the marks of an “Evangelical?”  Thank God, there are Mr. Kasich and Carson who represent something better; but they seem to have little appeal to those who call themselves “Evangelicals.”

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For Evangelicals the whole of Scriptures was 0nce the guide
Wavebreak Media, stock photo

Evangelical at one time spoke of a person who believed the good news of God’s love for the world, each one and all.  An Evangelical once was a person who sought to follow Christian scripture, especially the major themes.  Today it has been distilled down to a test on two or three current cultural issues, abortion and gay marriage mostly. 

The x-ray machine which is the 2016 Republican Primary, shows that the core of the Biblical story is either ignored or little understood by this group, who claim the name Evangelical. Things like the care of God’s creation, the welcoming of strangers and refugees, sharing with the poor or living a life of service have dropped out of the body.  These organs critical for life have disappeared.  In its place, Mr. Trump and others have substituted fear, racism, xenophobia, distrust and envy.  Good news has become bad news.  This look inside those who call themselves Evangelicals suggests a perhaps incurable soul sickness, a brokenness.  I fear it is a sickness unto death.

Evangelical has been a word of richness and diversity.  Many won’t understand, but Hillary Clinton, as a United Methodist, stands as much (or more) in the classical definition of Evangelicalism as do any of the Republican candidates.  As a United Methodist her heritage links her to the work of John Wesley and Martin Luther.  While both were men of their age — I think it is clear that neither would recognize what has been going on in these primaries as in any way “Evangelical” in its basic theological DNA structure.

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John Wesley (1703-1791) Engraved after original artwork by J. Jackson

Having served as president of a school called “Garrett-Evangelical” I have sought to understand this word and place it in its historical and proper theological context.  The categorization that has been done in recent decades has resulted in a division that seems to allow no breadth of understanding.  I consider myself a “progressive-evangelical,” a place to stand that is, I believe, consistent with Luther or Wesley in their day or millions of Christians outside the U.S. today.

It is tragic that the word has been turned inside out, upside down and backwards in contemporary American thought.  Too long the word has been defined by Fox News and talk radio — too long certain preachers have used the word to divide rather than to heal.  Too long, well meaning pastors and bishops have remained quiet, allowed others to commit identity theft.  Too long, well meaning pastors have said, “It is in God’s hands, you don’t have to worry, it will all work out.” Perhaps it is their own fear that prevents them from speaking against the ugliness of this mean-spirited time.  And now, not surprisingly, “we have sown the wind and are reaping a whirlwind.”

Of course, all of this didn’t happen over night.  In his excellent column, The Governing Cancer of Our Time, David Brooks speaks of the distance we have traveled from our political and civic heritage and speaks of our current situation as “anti-politics” (Brooks, Governing Cancer).

In this column, Brooks notes that politics as a constructive art is in retreat and authoritarianism is on the rise world wide.  What might the church say in such a situation?  Where might Evangelicals seeking to be true to the deeper and richer meaning of the tradition find a constructive voice?  Stay tuned — more to follow.

Phil A