I saw two yard signs yesterday, one that made me chuckle and the other that made me smile and then shake my head, just short of an eye roll. The more I thought about it, the more it annoyed me.
The first looked just like the ubiquitous, red, white, and blue ones and it looked so real. It read, “Giant Meteor 2020.” Another version out there says, underneath, “Just end it already.” Ha.
The other one that made me glad for a moment also looked real, but was no joke. It said, “Jesus 2020: Our Only Hope.” That’s true and good news, but, in a way, it frustrated me. Let me explain.
Beside the obvious quip that Jesus isn’t running in 2020, this beautifully well-intended sign says, by announcing this true truth — Christ is our only hope, a truth I hold as dear now as I ever have — as an alternative to the signs about which candidates to support, seems to imply that somehow we who believe in Jesus are above the fray. That because we know the ultimate hope and believe in the good news the Bible proclaims we are somehow exempt from the messy choices to be made this side of the new Jerusalem.
(Insofar as it serves as a timely reminder that neither party can provide ultimate hope and resists the overstatement of near messianic claims from the parties and candidates, I’m glad.)
As an evangelical myself, I’m always happy when people bear witness to the salvation offered by the cross, blood, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus the true King. I mean that. (As long as the witness happens in a context of care and dignity, sensibly and kindly shared, of course.) So the sign made me smile, glad for a family that wanted to use the opportunity of putting out yard signs to put one out to point others to Jesus. I get it.
But, in the context of this custom of putting out political yard signs it seemed to maybe carry an implied message that this political stuff isn’t all that important, that Jesus is all that matters. It almost seemed to encourage political disengagement, poking at those who care about Biden or Trump or any number of local folks running. At least the cynical meteor one was a joke.
In the early ’70s we had a saying, inspired by a powerful gospel song by the late, great Andre Crouch. His song was “Jesus Is the Answer” and, like the “Jesus 2020” sign, it speaks true truth.
But then I learned another, harder, question, a necessary reply. It came from a black evangelist who marked my life in life-changing ways, Tom Skinner. Skinner cried, “If Jesus is the Answer, What Are the Questions?” That is, our faith dare not be reduced to cliches or slogans or inspirational bromides, no matter how pious or true. Like the way Jesus Himself is God incarnate in the world, we, too, have to live out God’s Answer in the world. Incarnational faith answers the question, “so what?” It offers real answers to real questions. Saying Jesus is the answer just isn’t enough.
In a way, that was part of the conflict between Jesus and the super-religious faith leaders of the first century. You study the Scriptures, he says to them, but don’t even know what they mean. You sound all religious, but don’t get the point. You want Messiah to come but you ignore me and my teachings. In Matthew 23:23 Jesus explained to these religious right leaders of his day what they were missing, the “weightiest matters of the law” — justice and mercy and fidelity.
Look it up if you don’t believe me. And then ask how the modern day religious leaders who lead people into voting for a white supremacist sexual abuser not known for honesty, let alone justice or mercy, might reply to Jesus. I guess their desire to take over the courts and “own the libs” is more important than hearing Matthew 23:23.
Historian John Fea has explored how and why this came to happen in his book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump (Eerdmans; $18.99; our sale price = $15.19.) It’s a must-read, I think, but he doesn’t explore this part too much — that many of the most vocal supporters of President Trump simply have not offered any Biblical or theologically coherent argument for their enthusiasm for him. Perhaps those arguments can be made, but Robert Jeffress and Franklin Graham and Eric Metaxas and Paula White are simply not fluent in anything approximating Ron Sider’s cautious methodology (described below) of how to develop a Biblically-informed political opinion. Heck, Jerry Falwell, Jr. went out of his way to say bluntly that Jesus does not inform his politics! None of them seem to care about a Christian view of the state as spelled out in Skillen’s The Good of Politics or James K.A. Smith’s Awaiting the King or Oliver O’Donovan’s The Ways of Judgement. They don’t seem to represent any of the five views debated back and forth in Amy Black’s Five Views on the Church and Politics. Why is that? Why don’t our evangelical folk demand more from their leaders, from themselves?
(For what it is worth here is one thoughtful debate between two conservative evangelicals, David French and Eric Metaxas, on whether faithful Christians should vote for President Trump. It is spectacular to listen to, but neither offers a very robustly Christian political philosophy.)
As a trusted bookseller — at least trusted by some — it feel it is part of my job to lay this out there, to invite people to read and study and learn. We can respect one another’s differing views on any number of things if we’ve shared the process of being intentional about thinking through the issues from an overtly Christian orientation. I do not say that those with whom I disagree are evil or have been influenced by the devil. That is what many prominent religious right leaders have said about some friends of mine like Richard Mouw and Ron Sider and Brenda Salter McNeil when they created Pro-Life Evangelicals for Biden. Read Ron’s moving piece about church unity amidst disagreements in his blog post “Jesus Weeps.”
So we need a Christian perspective on voting and civic life that is intentionally shaped by a balanced and full reading of Scripture and church teaching and wisely applied with some conscientious commitment not driven by loyalty to either party or any political philosophy or movement that isn’t connected to the great Christian tradition. It’s pretty simple, really; I am reminding us of the coherence and integration that my dear friend Steve Garber ruminates so beautifully upon in his recent book A Seamless Life. Or, as he puts in the subtitle of his first book, Fabric of Faithfulness, we must “weave together belief and behavior.” Right?
At least that’s my take and what was implied in the last BookNotes post listing what I believe to be thoughtful, balanced, Biblically-responsible books about nurturing the nonpartisan, theologically-informed, Christian mind on matters of political responsibility. Christians need to remember that we vote Coram Deo (before the face of God) and that means doing some intentional consideration of what the Bible really says about the government and what Jesus actually wants. That WWJK isn’t a bad thing to ask at a time like this.
Again, I hope you saw that last BookNotes that listed a whole bunch of good books that offer insight into these perennial questions of what it means to be a Christian citizen, to cultivate the Christian mind and perspective on foundational topics about what the government should be about and to discern a Biblically-shaped view of issues and topics, causes and policies. The one I featured most energetically in that list is the one that a few have ordered this week: The Liturgy of Politics: Spiritual Formation for the Sake of Our Neighbor by Kaitlyn Schiess. It’s so good and I do think it would make for a great on-line study group or book club or Zoom Sunday school class.
In that BookNotes I reminded readers that the Bible is clear that we dare not hold idols, and contemporary ideologies about the state and about the government are often grounded in ideas that may be somewhat true but are elevated to become the “only” thing and thereby function like an idol.
A book that I didn’t mention last time, but could have, is a deep Biblical study of idolatry and the ways idols take shape in public life and in politics. See the brand new paperback, “Here Are Your Gods”: Faithful Discipleship in Idolatrous Times by Christopher J.H. Wright (IVP; $18.00; our sale price = $14.40.)
The first half is drawn from and is a somewhat expanded version of the portion on idolatry from the author’s magisterial, thick, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative. Wright, the publishers, and some readers felt that this was just a needed section that it could be lifted out a re-published as its own monograph. It is very, very good for anyone who wants to understand this theme in the Bible and how it helps us cultivate a more missional vision.
The second of “Here Are Your Gods” is exactly what is needed now, a reflection (first done as a series of serious lectures) on how our contemporary politics is often defined by idolatrous ideas. As the international director of Langham Partnership in the UK, and a globally respected Bible teacher, Chris Wright was asked to lecture on idols and ideology in the years following the staggering Brexit debates and the election of Donald Trump. There are some chapters on “Political Idolatry Then and Now” and some more general chapters on being a people shaped by the living God in a way that helps us “follow Jesus in turbulent times.” It is simply remarkable stuff.
Blurbs on the back include rave reviews by Old Testament scholar Tremper Longman — who calls it a “must read for Christians as they engage in the political process” and Duke Divinity School Bible scholar and eloquent preacher, Ellen Davis. Even John Inazu, author of Confident Pluralism and editor of Common Ground says it “packs a punch for our time.” Idols are, as Inazu puts it, “ciphers within the true created order” and “capable of great harm and destruction.” Indeed, it is why we need to discern our latest found of false gods and repent of our allegiance to them.
As the publisher puts it, Wright, “calls us to consider connections between Old Testament patterns and today’s culture and invites us to join God in the battle against idolatry as part of his ongoing mission to be known and worshipped by all people.”
(And, by the way, there is a full page footnote offering an annotated bibliography on this theme that will be very helpful for anyone doing further research into the theme of idolatry. Wow.)
See, also, by the way, my remarks last week about David Koyzis’s heady Political Visions & Illusions: A Survey & Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies to explore all that in greater detail. The liberals and conservatives, the libertarians and the populists, the Marxists and capitalists all start with some grain of truth, of course. When they overstate that insight and turn it into a movement, connecting it to hope and progress, that’s when we get hints of idolatry and it doesn’t end well.
Our deep allegiance to ideas of individual freedom, say, that we should be free do what whatever we want and that the government is a fundamentally bad institution which oppresses us illustrates, I think, the captivity of our minds to less than Biblical ideas. So we need to listen to Christian scholars who have explored the Bible and the history of theology to get our heads and hearts (and our voting habits) in line with a more coherent Christian perspective. I think this will often look like something other than the typical Democrats and Republicans. So it’s vexing.
It is vexing, but we dare not opt out of being “in but not of” the world. Again, I wonder if that Jesus 2020 sign encouraged being a-political. It doesn’t offer a hint of a Christian perspective on politics and we can’t tell if those who put it up have a comprehensive (or even partial) policy agenda that is informed by what the Bible says on a wide range of issues. Whoever put up that sign — God bless them — maybe should also read a couple of books that I highlighted last time such as The Bible and the Ballot (by Bible scholar Tremper Longman) or The Good of Politics by Christian political scientist James Skillen or at least Vincent Bacot’s little The Political Disciple.
Or, consider a favorite of mine, the exemplary Just Politics: A Guide for Christian Engagement by Ronald Sider (Brazos; $24.00; our sale price = $19.20.) It clearly outlines a method of thinking Christianly, a process of formation and discernment firstly informed by Christian views of society, a wholistic hermeneutic that allows the Bible to illuminate and reform our general assumptions and attitudes about public life and social institutions (for instance, what is the task of the state?) Next, Sider shows, we need to do a fairly comprehensive study of all the relevant Biblical material on a topic — abortion, creation care, racism, capitol punishment, taxation, warfare, and the like. (This one takes some time since, for instance, we must read the Bible as it itself unfolds and not take texts out of context or fall into cheap proof-texting. And, on some topics, there is a lot of material — there are literally hundreds of verses about poverty in the Bible, many with direct relationship to government. Frankly, given how many verses and how much teaching there is about this, Sider could be stronger in critiquing the Republican platform that seems deaf to these texts, but he restrains himself, offering the process more than weighing in as much as he does in other books.)
Dr. Sider carefully walks us through the steps of thinking Christianly, learning the Bible (on the foundational stuff about society and statecraft and on specific issues) applying it in relevant ways, and then — having done that, studying up on both sides of what social science or political pundits say about the details of this or that side of this or that policy. The goal is to evaluate honestly, through the lens of our Christian worldview and social ethics. It is the cost of discipleship, it seems, to have to do more work than our secular neighbors do, because we are to be informed by our faith, the Scriptures and church teachings, and apply them fairly and conscientiously and honestly to the issues of the day.
After all that, Ron says, we must be humble, since chances are, we missed some insights of theology, missed or misunderstood some Bible texts, failed to understand the consequences of certain policy proposals. Good people can disagree, but we should help hold one another accountable to the process of thinking well about what it means to be stewards of the gift of citizenship. We owe it to God and our neighbors and our great country to be that kind of prudent and responsible salt, light, and leaven who have done our homework.
And so, two signs. Both make us smile as most of us are tired of all the noisy rhetoric and the right-wing or left-wing signage. One invites cosmic disaster, one seeks ultimate hope, but neither help us much this week. If Jesus is the Answer, what are the questions?
I hope that some of our past book recommendations help. And, certainly, I hope that last one and its many links to other book lists on politics and faith would be a resource for you.
TWO MORE BY SERIOUS, CONSERVATIVE, INTELLECTUALS OPPOSED TO TRUMP
There are two books I wanted to announce in that same list of books about faith and politics and Christian approaches to citizenship that I posted the other day, but they are written to a more general audience rather than to those wanting a Biblically-informed perspective on faithful Christian politics. I just wasn’t sure they fit that list.
Both are incredibly informative, serious-minded without being dry or obtuse, and both are written by men who have served in public life as principled conservatives, as Christians, and as Republicans who have now renounced their loyalty to a party that no longer seems to stand for conservative principles. They are making, each in their own way, exceptional cases for why conservatives and all good, patriotic Americans committed to the first things of our great land, ought not support Donald Trump. I think the first I will tell you about is a bit more lively; the second is a deeper dive into the Founders and especially James Madison. But both have lots of passion to heal the polarization and fraying fabric of our cultural moment, and both are hugely important.
No matter who you vote for, these are both very valuable reads and I highly recommend them both. Many of our bookstore fans will find them fascinating and you should read them soon, or later. They are not about the election as such.
Despite their nearly legendary service in the trenches for the GOP and conservative social issues (Peter Wehner as an experienced Republican operative and eventually a staff member of the Reagan and both Bush White Houses and David French in Iraq with the Army Reserves and in famous religious freedom and anti-abortion litigation) they have recently both received horrific death threats, as have their family and children, because they have spoken out as conservative Christians against the President. Let that sink in.
Wehner and French have seen and worked with a lot of politicians on both sides of the aisle, and have collaborated, often combatively, with many of the most significant political players of our day. They are self-aware and mature in their own spirituality and faith and they know the call to serve in the rough and tumble of real political life. They both mistrust President Trump’s character and virtue, his temperament and maturity, his policy understanding and leadership styles. They don’t believe he has it in him to attend to the hard work of governing well. Wehner writes more in his book about this while French is more general about the stress and polarization his movement is exploiting and deepening.
I’m sure many of our readers who tilt conservative on many social issues have heard these arguments from some of the smartest writers of the right — along with the likes of Michael Gerson and David Brooks and Jonah Goldberg and Colin Powell and (maybe) Ben Sasse and Condoleeza Rice. There are conservative leaders who have considered American greatness, current political options, how social and cultural change happens, the trends and forces of the parties, and the price paid to get some policies passed that may be consistent with a conservative agenda and still they have concluded that the Trump-Pence ticket must be resisted. Their ticket, in the view of these conservative “never Trumpers” is not helpful for their party, for the causes they care about, and it is not helpful for the country.
Agree or not, these two surprising books are simply must-haves for anyone who likes reading about contemporary politics and the landscape of modern cultural/social/civic renewal efforts. These are more important than any number of best-sellers like Rage or The Room Where It Happened or Blitz and I very highly recommend them to anyone wanting wise, deeper insights about our civic duties and values. They are great for any political science junkies or public affairs nerds.
Secondly, I recommend these two books to Republican readers, especially if you are concerned about Christian and/or conservative values. These two men are gentleman and scholars, serious Christians who have earned the right to be heard because of their years of hard-ball experience in the world of Republican politics and in the worlds of media and journalism and public affairs. They are demoralized and frustrated by the way their party and even, in some cases, their political movement, has abandoned the higher ground won in other eras of conservative public contributions and lament the way Trump and Fox News have degraded discourse and the intelligence of conservative principles.(Of course they would say this about the the other side as well, but that is not their primary concern in these books; they are writing mostly to their own tribe.) They make a good case, I think, and conservatives owe it to their movement to ponder why these leaders say no to the current status quo within our political class and the citizens who follow them.
Thirdly, I recommend either of these to those of us who tilt left by instinct and who have open minds to hear the best conservative thinkers and their appeal for patriotic values, conservative approaches, wise and prudent policy directives. Agree or not with their deepest convictions or policy ideas, you will benefit from spending time with these men who I believe have earned the right to be heard after years of pondering this stuff and contending for their positions in the public square, US congress buildings, the White House and courts. You know I’ve suggested similar sorts of books like A Time to Build by Yuval Levine and The Decadent Society by Ross Douthat. I’ve written of my admiration for Os Guinness and are glad we’ve sold a few of his Last Call for Liberty: How America’s Genius for Freedom Has Become Its Greatest Threat. As a Jewish rabbi from the UK, Jonathan Sacks isn’t exactly an American conservative, but we’ve commended him (including his brand new Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times.)
Among all of these sorts of eloquent books by respected and respectful conservative thinkers, I think Peter Wehner and David French deserve your consideration. Buy their books. I have read them both and am better for it. And I am more deeply convinced that my opposition to the current incumbent isn’t just my old hippy partisan self kicking in or my gut instinct of being so appalled by President Trump’s ugliness and deceit. It is right to oppose him; French and Wehner coming not from the left but from the right, make that abundantly clear.
The Death of Politics: How To Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump Peter Wehner (HarperOne) $25.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $20.79
If you are unsure about who to vote for, listen to this author who has spent more time in the West Wing and the Oval Office than probably anybody you or I know. He worked in the Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush administrations. He is a legend of integrity and deeply respected as a solid, moderate, evangelical Christian (he gives a shout-out to Phil Yancey for helping with one chapter and he has co-written a book with Wheaton grad Michael Gerson, so is Reformed and evangelical) and is known as a force for good within civic life. The book’s back cover has blurbs from everyone from Jon Meacham to Karl Rove, from Monah Charen to Mark Noll, David Axelrod to Joe Scarborough. Even James K.A. Smith has a nice blurb, hoping the book is widely read.
I will let you discover the joys of Wehner’s own story — he is the son of German immigrants and is deeply, deeply loyal to American values. He tells of some pretty dramatic moments (including being in the White House, serving as a speech writer, the morning of 9-11.) He thinks there are times he got things right; he knows he got some things wrong. He tells of some great regrets (his reflections on the war in Iraq is candid and fair) and explores policy efforts and campaigns within administrations that failed to deliver promises. He laments the hype and spin and “withering polarization” that is deeply harmful to our country. And yet, he is hopeful. One reviewer says (as I cited before when I recommended this months ago) he is like a literary Paul Revere, “raising his lantern in this urgent work.” The work is what we all have to do to renew our democracy and help repair the mess we are now in.
To do this, we need the wisdom in his chapter “In Praise of Moderation, Compromise, and Civility.” I have views that are not particularly moderate and I’m not a fan of compromise, especially on the biggest moral issues. But he is correct. You can read that intersting chapter that includes some social science and some brain studies and some American history and some stuff about the friendship of Owen Barfield and C.S. Lewis and tell me if he’s wrong.
And, we need to know a bit about what politics even is; what’s the government for and what should we expect of those who create our laws and policies? Early on in the book he does go into the foundations of a high view of statecraft, starting with Aristotle and on to John Locke and Abe Lincoln. (If that’s not your thing, hang in there. It’s a political philosophy class made as clear and interesting as possible.) The next chapter, then, is about faith and politics and for many of our BookNotes readers it will be a lovely refresher course, fair and balanced and thoughtful and in some ways even inspiring.
Further in within a very compelling chapter he shows how we have to care about words, about truth, about persuasion. Mr. Wehner has a whole chapter on this called “Why Words Matter” and it brings to mind Marilyn McEntyre’s Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies about stewarding words well. Wehner documents over and over how the current Trump administration disdains the habit and art of using words well, and in his words, “wages war on the culture of words.” (This includes, importantly, of course, the world of ideas, the ideas words convey.) Such a “war against words” and the world of thought leads to devaluing truth, to Mr. Trump’s conspiracy theory nonsense about fake news. As Rudy Giuliani asserted during an interviews with NBC, “Truth isn’t truth.” Wehner continues, “Another of the president’s lawyers, Jay Sekulow, when called out for making a false clam to defend Mr. Trump, replied, “facts develop.””
Comments such as these might be excused as mere slips of the tongue, if not for the fact that the president and all the presidents men and all the presidents women act as if truth were merely subjective, utterly pliable, and completely in the eyes of the beholder. The modus operandi of Trump World is this: If facts exist that are incriminating to Mr. Trump, dismiss the facts. Label them fake news. And go on lying.
This, remember, is coming from a Republican leader who has served in esteemed conservative administrations and been a thought leader for the right for decades. This is an author about whom Karl Rove says “Agree with his prescriptions or not, the reader will finish this book having met a man of faith, integrity, and patriotism.” His call for the patriotic process of persuasion and compromise and civility is good, good stuff. With these virtues he thinks citizens really can help heal the breach. Amen!
If you are undecided about who to vote for, I would highly recommend that you read the last chapter of The Death of Politics first. Even the first handful of pages of that last great chapter about hope, starting on page 189 are vital. He draws on themes from the first chapter which remind us that entering public service and being a political worker is, in fact, a noble calling. Biblically and theologically speaking, he is right about that and I think it needs saying, especially in this day when we tend to think all politicians are crooks or sell-outs or power-mongers and the whole business of how the sausage is made is unsavory at best.
But here is where he goes with this in this important last chapter. I cannot quickly summarize it in a way that does it justice, but I’ll try.
The election of Donald Trump in 2016 was part of a larger trend (started, largely by the Watergate fiasco, but also part of the even larger cultural revolution in the 60s) of Americans distrusting institutions and particularly political institutions and politicians. We get to weigh in on them, vote for or against them, sound off about them, but statistics show that most of our fellow citizens distrust and in many case despise those who are trying to do their best in a complicated world, trying to solve big problems that most of us want solved. From clean water to good roads, from human rights abroad to health care at home, from religious freedom to freedom from crime in the streets, there are tons of civic stuff that we need the government to do (or at least to help with.)
Nobody, by the way, thinks government is the only answer or even primary conduit of social renewal. Nobody thinks “throwing money” at a problem will solve it. That, in my view, is a cheap shot by those who favor smaller government trying to delegitimize the proper role of proper government; we need debates about the principles and polices about “how much” government intervention in any particular sphere or arena is needed — Wehner, again, was shaped as a Reagan Republican, so he’s not always congenial to bigger government — but this nasty critique of government isn’t helpful and Wehner is correct to insist on a more honorable sort of debate. We must resist the cynicism that breeds anger and finally a nihilism about our commonwealth and public institutions.
(I digress a bit from Wehner, here, but I appreciate the quip of Stephanie Summers, Director of the Center for Public Justice, who says that the solution to bad government isn’t necessarily small government. The solution to bad government is good government.)
But here’s the thing: we increasingly mock and distrust those public servants who have tried their best (and often, against great odds, did some very good things, many things we take for granted) and now — with anti-political sentiment at perhaps an all time high — we elect a guy who ran on this very platform, this notion that expertise doesn’t matter, that knowledge about policies is silly stuff, that there is some nefarious deep state that is only about power, that real political achievement just happens because he will will it to be so. (“It’ll be so great,” candidate Trump regularly says. “It’ll be so easy.”)
But, as The Death of Politics shows, the current President doesn’t know much about laws (sometimes not even the ones he is trying to get passed; he has been known to tweet against a legislative initiatives he proposed because he heard something bad about it on Fox News. I kid you not.) He doesn’t seem to know quite so much about the Constitution, either, but, again, you don’t have to take my word for it, or the spicy tell-alls from his former, fired staff. Peter Wehner doesn’t overstate things, but he is greatly alarmed. Here is a President that mocks government, that hates philosophical theory, that enjoys just being a bully. He came to fame by uttering the words “Your fired.” And that captures something of the cynicism that is common to our times and was preached further in his slogan about draining the swamp.
You see, this is what many mean these days by the word “populism.” It’s not a decent concern for the little guy or the common person or localism or the great mid-West, but a movement of people who perceive themselves disaffected by the government who lash out against it and can be lead by a demagogue. (Think of George Wallace, if you are old enough to remember him. Mr. Wehner cites Wallace’s daughter and it is striking to ponder the comparisons with our current President.)
Listen to Wehner:
Populism needs enemies, lots of them, and especially elites who — the narrative goes– are selfish, greedy, insulated, and power-hungry. The out-of-touch elites are viewed as enemies of the people and they needed to be treated as such.
One of the most disturbing books I read about President Trump this year, by the way, was Enemy of the People: A Dangerous Time to Tell the Truth in America which chronicled years of mistreatment of journalists by the President, written by White House correspondent Jim Acosta; the book title is the name of what the President called him, which is a dangerous thing, if you think about it. It is what authoritarians do, sow seeds of hatred against the media. And it is flat out wrong. I couldn’t put that book down! So, yes, populists need enemies, and Mr. Trump is known for hating so many — naming them, calling them goofy and sometimes hateful names. (And in Acosta’s case, inciting violence against him, mob violence, even.) It isn’t just rude, which it is, but it feeds into this populist narrative in ways that are deeply dangerous for the health of our nation, evoking anger and rage and deepening polarization. And furthering our distrust in our elected officials and laws and political processes.
The result is this: many Americans are drenched in a distaste for the actual practice of politics, and among activists in the Republican Party in particular there is an unspoken sense that the activity of governing is somehow illegitimate. This is one of the fundamental differences between the American Right today and the conservative movement that shaped me. It helps explain how Mr. Trump seized on deeply anti-political feelings and leveraged them to his advantage, why Republicans so devalue any focus on policy during the 2016 election, and why Mr. Trump was not penalized but rewarded for his vast ignorance on matters of public policy.
He he brilliant in noting this:
During the 2016 primary I could not understand how it was that a man who in debate after debate proved he couldn’t string together three coherent policy statements kept getting stronger rather than weaker. The answer is that such as approach can only work with people who disdain the craft of governing. They were looking for “outsiders” who gave voice to their frustrations and rage, even if they had never governed in their lives. Remember, they were (and are) operating on the assumption that governing is simple, lawmakers are foos and knaves, and the system is throughly and endemically corrupt. The federal government is “the swamp” while the political class and civl servants are part of the “deep state.” They system is “rigged.” As a result, the village needs to be (figuratively) burned to the ground. Donald Trump was the appointed arsonist.
Mr. Wehner is correct, both as an experienced leader and as a principled Christian, to say this is “wildly misguided and naive.”
By the way, Mr. Wehner has made it very clear in the book, but for those who need to hear it, he admits:
As I’ve already noted, in many respects government, especially at the federal level, is performing poorly. It is often antiquated, unresponsive, and failing to meet the needs of the citizenry. The unhappiness with government is therefore understandable and to some degree justified.
But the solution isn’t to elect people who are inexperienced, inept, and contemptuous of governing.
And Mr. Trump is contemptuous of governing.
In this rousing chapter, Wehner invites us to “choose citizenship over cynicism.” I think that is exactly right. (By the way, when did we start primarily identifying ourselves as consumers and not citizens?) For the long term sustainability of the American experience, this populist contempt for governing just isn’t helpful. It isn’t right. As he puts it, solving national problems is a “delicate art” and we need those who are sincerely called to the noble vocation of statecraft. And who know how to put together a knowledgeable, pleasant, effective staff to at least try to get things accomplished.
It seems to me that it is in that context that we can have good debates as citizens, all willing to admit the good intentions of the other. Now, in the chaos and contempt and fraying and the lack of any real coherent argument for specified policies, we can hardly have coherent political debates. All we can do is despise the elites or hate the hater. I think I get why Wehner calls his accessment “the death of politics.”
Mr. Biden may not be the candidate I’d prefer and the Democratic platform isn’t as I would want, but after reading this chapter it sure seems to me that we cannot afford more the sloppy politicking, the contempt for expertise, rhetoric of making things great by only being negative. Biden is, in my view, a bit older school politics as normal but it is better in my view than the revolutionary zeal of Mr. Trump and his populist followers.
The rest of the last chapter outlines a number of times this positive approach to statecraft has happened well, not idealistically, never perfectly, but with hope and compromise and some success. He notes some failures. We may want to add other pieces to his quick overview, but he names some things like welfare reform, tax reform, President Bush’s massive foreign assistance program to fight AIDS in Africa, Obamacare. Some of these happened under Republican administrations, some under Democrat ones. He tells a moving story about RFKs trip to visit South Africa during the worst years of apartheid and how it was so consequential.
He describes how we need to now resist the “bread and circuses” approach of politics as theater, as WWF-like entertainment — what did we expect when we elected a reality show star? — and move back to a sense of “the importance of politics, a respect for the craft of governing and the value of competence and excellence.” We must stop denigrating the high calling or public service and recapture a sense of seriousness about the common good. I think this book, The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump, will help.
Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation David French (St. Martin’s Press) $28.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $23.19
I once sent out a tweet disapproving of something I thought David French had written in the National Review and I called it weird. I realized when a friend called me on it that I was totally confusing him with somebody else. As a pretty far right conservative involved in or supportive of Republican administrations that I resisted in many ways, I am guessing I might have thought his views somewhat disagreeable, he was no weirdo. He was, I realized, a good leader and conservative activist and Christian public intellectual.
As I followed him more closely and as he increasingly spoke about his deepest heart and why he wasn’t sure the Republican party and the right wing movement was adequate for these times, or consistent with his own faith in Christ, I realized I had to pay attention. Like Michael Gerson, say, or Peter Wehner (see above), he became known as a principled voice against the oddity of President Trump being chosen in the 2016 primaries, and then, even more oddly, being so eagerly endorsed by a lot of fairly flamboyant fundamentalist and charismatic Christians. French has served in the US Army in a foreign war — he only has a few lines about his tour of duty in Iraq but it is harrowing — and was one of the chief litigators in religious freedom cases and in pro-life causes. Although I am not a Republican, I generally agreed with his views on those projects and know, in fact, some of the sharp and thoughtful Christian folks he has worked with. Like him, I valued much of the insight of Pope John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae. I came to respect him as a principled conservative ethicist and now as a “never Trumper.”
Divided We Fall may help conservatives decide not to support President Trump’s re-election, but it is not about that, mostly. It is, rather, an analysis of the different worlds we seem to inhabit, our mutual narratives, red vs blue, right vs left, Fox vs MSNBC, and an astute study of what to do to repair the breach in a manner consistent with the political philosophy known as Federalism. If French opposed Mr. Trump in 2016 and, now, in 2020, it isn’t because he’s become a lefty, let alone reneged on his pro-life concerns. (In fact, he wrote a very impressive little column in Time magazine insisting that Mr. Trump is hardly anti-abortion and is simply not pro-life. See Donald Trump Is Not Pro-Life.) This from man known by nearly everybody involved in the national level of right-to-life stuff, who not only litigated pro-life court cases, but had the hutzpah to start a pro-life chapter at Harvard Law School when he was a outnumbered conservative student there.
As an aside that will be of interest to some of our readers: French and his wife have adopted black children from Ethiopia, I believe. When he spoke out — again, as a leading voice in conservative organizations, as a former Marine, as a leader in the right wing of the culture wars — he was mocked, humiliated, and he and his wife got the most vile emails and letters imaginable. He was written a bit about this horrific and painful episodes elsewhere. To get a glimpse into the alt-right followers of President Trump (who he never disassociates himself from, by the way) read this gut-wrenching, awful report, about the price French and his wife have paid to oppose Trump in their circles. The article documents others who have been harassed, alt-right activists photo-shopping pictures of the offenders (like French, his wife, or his children) into racist pornography, and even showing up at their homes. There are vile and awful people on the far left, of course, but to hear of allegedly pro-family and pro-life Trump supporters engaging in such evil trauma-producing stuff was jarring. That even some who were once comrades in arms in the struggle for conservative principles have turned on him is an indication of how deeply ideological and frayed our culture has become, how hot these culture wars are, how our divisions are deeper than maybe many of us realize. A quaint call to public manners, to civility and decency just isn’t enough. This book, perhaps in a manner akin to Os Guinness’s Last Call for Liberty, goes deeper than just lamenting our lack of etiquette.
Divided We Fall isn’t overly breathy, isn’t alarmist or dramatic. Heavens, given what he and his family have gone through — he only gives occasional glimpses and asides in this book — I’d think he’d be writing prose that was fraught and passionate. Yet, it speaks to his character and conservative instincts, I think, to press forward the deepest ideas that matter and to show a moderate and civil tone rather than lash out with rage and prophetic denunciation. It is the sort of book that one reviewer called “admirably measured.”
But French does speak plainly and powerfully. He believes that we must resist the conspiracy-minded rhetoric from both sides and get beyond what Founding Father James Madison addressed in Federalist No. 10: “the violence of faction.””
Yep, French is one of these smart guys that says that kind of thing. He continues:
to understand how to go forward, we must go back — to the wisdom of the Founders, men who knew that factions could tear America apart and conceived (at least in theory) that a solution that must resonate today…
I liked this page when I read it and later realized it is the copy they chose for the back cover.
Allow me to share it with you:
I grew up in rural America, I’ve lived in the heart of Trump country. I’ve lived in America’s bluest precincts. I’m no longer a Republican. I’m not a Democrat. And I’m in neither tribe in large part because I feel that I understand both, and I believe both tribes can and must rediscover a sense of shared community and shared citizenship. But I don’t think it’s inevitable that they will. Simply put, we now face a renewed threat to our national unity. We’re stumbling into the very state of being that James Madison addressed in Federalist No. 10: ‘the violence of faction.’
Madison’s answer is not to pretend we all get along. We do not. His answer, nor is French’s, is not to try to have one side win the culture wars; that will demolish us. (Which is why, if I may add an aside, I do not approve of the recent one-sided polemic by Rod Dreher, Live Not By Lies, or the alarmist one-sided jeremiad about secularism by Albert Mohler, both men I respect, both with new books that only feed “the violence of faction” without a bit of the insight hard-won by Mr. French.)
The answer is a deep and respectful pluralism. In a way, this book provides an antidote to factionalism. It is a political reply to the loss of civil society and social capitol and healthy communities (as documented by books as different as the now nearly iconic Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam and Coming Apart by Charles Murray and the extraordinary Alienated America by Timothy Carney.) He explores the cultural divides and political differences in our land and he realizes we must learn to love, among other things, the First Amendment as it applies to organizations and institutions, allowing them to flourish, making space in a pluralistic society to and for all. As is often said, the freedom of religion clause, allows for freedom for and freedom from religion. The must be no legal coercion, on way or the other.
Early on in the book French tells about a piece in First Things called “Against David French-ism: by an author named Sohrab Ahmari. I remember it. As he notes, “The essay went viral, triggering months of debate in virtually every conservative publication in America.”
Ahmari insists we are in a culture war and his side must win. French, even then, was arguing for civil liberties, classic liberal order, and pluralism. Ahmari says French wants to retreat and to invite defeat of the values he holds.
Here’s David French on page 24:
To put things more bluntly, I recognize pluralism as a permanent fact of American life and seek to foster a political culture that protects autonomy and dignity of competing American ideological and religious communities. Ahmari and many of his allies on the right seek to sweep past pluralism to create (and impose) a new political and moral order, one designed according to their specific moral values — and to the extent that individual liberty conflicts with the “common good” or the “Highest Good” it must be swept away.
That’s a vision for domination, not accommodation. It’s a vision directly contrary to the spirit of Federalist No 10, and it’s a vision that ultimately unattainable. Indeed, as I’ll explain in the pages that follow, the quest for moral, cultural, and political domination by either side of our national divide risks splitting the nation in two (or in three or four.)
Listen to this:
Embracing pluralism means embracing the lessons of history and understanding that not even our great nation is immune to the forces that have fractured unions older than ours. Our nations angriest culture warriors need to know the cost of their conflict. As they seek to crush their political and cultural enemies, they may destroy the nation they seek to rule.
To do this, we have to understand a lot of stuff about the recent demographics, about how we sort ourselves and are shaped by both our geography and our worldviews. He has a chapter on our fears, our violence, our situation in the context of the global world situation. (He looks at Brexit a bit, and a chapter on California, too, which was fascinating.)
And then he tells us about James Madison.
I need to ponder this a lot more. I’m not sure if I’m convinced or if I’m a Federalist, and which kind, really? I’d love to hear what folks at the “Front Porch Republic” have to say about all this. (What’s wrong with secession, authors like the fascinating Bill Kauffman ask in books like his Bye Bye Miss American Empire? The colonies left England, after all. He’s a lover of this land — just read the collection Poetry Night at the Ballpark — and would be sad to see a state leave, but on what moral principle do we want to prevent secession? Maybe that’s an answer more plausible than pluralism… but then, I’d guess the culture wars would evolve even in those bright red or bright blue new states. Hmmm.)
Here is how the publisher describes this complex and thoughtful work:
Two decades into the 21st Century, the U.S. is less united than at any time in our history since the Civil War. We are more diverse in our beliefs and culture than ever before. But red and blue states, secular and religious groups, liberal and conservative idealists, and Republican and Democratic representatives all have one thing in common: each believes their distinct cultures and liberties are being threatened by an escalating violent opposition. This polarized tribalism, espoused by the loudest, angriest fringe extremists on both the left and the right, dismisses dialogue as appeasement; if left unchecked, it could very well lead to secession.
An engaging mix of cutting edge research and fair-minded analysis, Divided We Fall is an unblinking look at the true dimensions and dangers of this widening ideological gap, and what could happen if we don’t take steps toward bridging it. French reveals chilling, plausible scenarios of how the United States could fracture into regions that will not only weaken the country but destabilize the world.
It’s worth having the book just for this story and you may know what happened next. Saturday Day Night Live called to apologize. They wanted Crenshaw on the air the following week, and he agreed. He has some good natured fun at Davidson’s expense. But what happened next is what French called “the act of grace heard around the nation.”
Crenshaw explained the meaning of the words “Never Forget” that are sometimes said to vets. He said that “when you say ‘never forget’ to a veteran, you are implying that, as an American, you are in it with them.” The book continues:
Then he addressed his next words to Davidson: “And never forget those we lost on 9/11 — heroes like Pete’s father. So, I’ll just say, Pete, never forget.”
Davidson’s father was a firefighter. He died trying to save others when Davidson was a young boy. Crenshaw not only honored a true hero but also softened America’s hearts towards Davidson, casting him in a new light. He’s a man who carries his own pain.
A different kind of courage, indeed.
I liked the last chapter of this serious-minded book. It is entitled a “Call to Courage” and Mr. French reminds us that his argument here “is not a call for political moderation.” That’s not quite it. But he does call us all to be more considerate, virtuous, gracious, patient, kind. It was a convicting chapter for me to read in the heat of this current campaign, inviting us to help create a better ethos in the culture, a better political class, a better vision of citizenship and being American. We need, he says, a new kind of patriotism that is driven by care for the common good and is shaped by a humble effort for “cultural repair” and not “toxic politics.
French wonders why in recent years in American politics those who are most engaged and vocal, the committed few, are the ones who get most involved.
(They) have been disproportionately drawn from the ranks of the angriest and most vindictive Americans. The people who truly drive American political polarization represent a small slice of the overall population, but they set the tone for national political discourse.
I wonder if that is true. He ends with a hope and prayer “that the cry for a better way comes before our national bonds are irretrievably broken.”
I think the books I’ve mentioned last week (and in the “review” section at the top of this column) are most helpful and important, going forward, as we say, for this on-going project of learning to think Christianly and care properly and be engaged faithfully in public life.
I think that the Peter Wehner book, (The Death of Politics, is also one of that sort, but aimed at a reader who is perhaps conservative but wanting to move us away from the polarization and know-nothing ineptitude of the Trump movement. He talks about his faith and his faith informs his work, but it isn’t written overtly for a religious audience. He calls for a higher view of the noble calling of being an elected official and insists that we citizens honor that with less cynicism and more hope, not by doubling down on the revolutionary, negative spirit of the populists; not only by resisting President Trump’s foolishness, but by weeding out the bad attitudes about government that many of us have. We need to learn to be better citizens, locally and nationally. As I said, if one is undecided about who they are voting for next week, read ten pages in the last chapter and I think it will be helpful as you discern your own views.
The David French book, Divided We Fall, is going to be urgent in the months after the election. His explanation of Federalism, his admiration for James Madison, his focus on robust pluralism, is wise and insightful. Yes, he is concerned about polarization and anger and cynicism, and yes, he’d blame the alt-right and the current administration for some of that. But this book is going to be enduring as a long-haul strategy to recapture the best of American freedom and unity. He is worried and this is his best effort to show us how to heal the ills of severe, hostile partisanship.
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