lets_make_america_great_again_buttonOur president-elect is not the first to use the slogan “make America great again.” Ronald Reagan used it in 1980 when we were at the height of stagflation, energy crisis, unemployment, an Iranian hostage crisis, and a Russian invasion of Afghanistan. I’m not going to discuss whether this is a similar time, which I think would be a hopelessly futile argument. What I want to explore is an observation Jon Stewart made in an interview with Charlie Rose. He noted that no one ever asked the president-elect “what makes America great?” He went on to observe that what many might understand is that America is in a competition for greatness rather than America’s greatness being a greatness of character connected with its values.

My hunch is that for many people, it is simpler. America is great if we have jobs and feel safe. Even here, the question of our character arises. Do we want America to be great on these terms just for me, or for those like me? Do we want an America where all of its people, from various social classes, and religious beliefs, and countries of origin, and racial identities, and gender identities and sexual orientations to have the opportunity for good work in a country where they feel safe from attack from others? Do we want this kind of America for those with whom we deeply differ?

That seems consistent with the kind of greatness Thomas Jefferson wrote into the Declaration of Independence when he said,

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men [meaning people] are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Jefferson was contending for a country where the basic equality of people was recognized simply because they were human beings, and that this was based not in some particular characteristic they had, but simply that they were created. “Inalienable” means that nothing can, or ought be done to remove these rights from the possessor. Justice in such a country always protects these rights and brings sanction against any who would impair a person’s life, liberty or happiness.

We have not always lived up to this aspiration, yet I think have always been haunted by it. Jefferson, himself a slaveholder who wanted to but never did free his slaves, confessed that the news of the disputes over admitting Missouri to the Union as a slave state came “like a fire bell in the night.” We stole land from the Native people who preceded us here. We withheld suffrage from women. Yet we’ve been haunted by Jefferson’s words from the Declaration. We elected an African-American president and nearly elected a woman to the presidency. In fear, we interned over 100,000 Japanese, stripping them of their property during World War II. In 1988 we apologized and compensated the families of those interned. We’ve boasted of our nation as a nation of immigrants and yet barred our borders, humiliated those who we do permit to come, and then belatedly, we celebrate the ways they have enriched the fabric of our national life. We betray our deepest principles only for them to come back and haunt us.

The other form of greatness Stewart talked about was the idea of greatness as a competition — American dominance in the world, where we control resources, trade, and project our military might into every corner of the world, thwarting others with similar pretensions. Yet such dominance comes at a price, not only in making enemies of others disadvantaged by our dominance, but in the sheer cost of maintaining that dominance, of which our national debt of $20 trillion is but one symptom.

Yet our values haunt us even here. Our claim that all are created equal and have inalienable rights extends far beyond our borders. It gives hope to democracy movements around the world. And yet we also have to face the troubling question of whether our policies and practices around the world have indeed affirmed the equality of others or treated them as lesser beings. Can we possibly be great if we make others less?

The question before us all is whether we will act in ways that betray our deepest principles, leaving us yet more haunting regrets which must be addressed by a future generation? Or will we as a people rise to the vision of greatness that has always inspired us at our best, and expect nothing less of our leaders?


Review: God in the White House

God in the White House

God in the White House, Randall Balmer. New York: Harper Collins, 2008.

Summary: Traces the history of the religious faith and presidential politics from the election of John Kennedy as the first Catholic president up through George W. Bush and the religious-political alliances by which he was elected to two terms as president.

One of the most surprising discoveries in reading this history of religion and the White House was how the religious lives and views of the Presidents were not a significant issue, with few exceptions until the 1960 election campaign between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy. In this history, written in 2008, Randall Balmer traces the changes that occurred in presidential politics where religion became a bigger issue and religious voters, particularly evangelicals, became an important factor.

Balmer begins with the fears aroused in the 1960 campaign that Kennedy, by no means a fervent Catholic, would take orders from the Vatican. On September 12, 1960, Kennedy gave a speech [The text of this and other key presidential speeches referenced in the text are included in a series of appendices] at the Rice Hotel in Houston, Texas, that helped put this issue to rest. In it he said:

“I believe in an America that is neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish, where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source–where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials–and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.”

What Kennedy did was preserve the understanding of the relation of religious faith and politics that had been the status quo. Yet Balmer notes, a group of evangelicals led by Norman Vincent Peale, Billy Graham, and Harold Ockenga, convened first in Switzerland and then at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., to organize opposition to Kennedy. Kennedy’s speech, and the resultant backlash against this group’s efforts may have made the difference in this closely run election.

Later Graham mended fences and called on Kennedy and thus began a history of Graham’s involvement with presidents. Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford were all friends with Graham, even while the role of religion in their presidencies remained subdued. Johnson’s Great Society and civil rights efforts certainly conformed to deep religious impulses even while his involvement in, and deception of the American people in Vietnam contradicted those impulses (even while being couched in language of “moral uplift”). Nixon held regular services in the White House, passed landmark environmental legislation, brought an end to the war, yet also perpetrated a great deception in the Watergate scandal, that embarrassed Graham who supported him and brought down his presidency. Gerald Ford was not a man to wear religion on his sleeve but his pardon of Richard Nixon may have reflected deep conviction and not mere politics, and that, along with the contrast between him and an openly evangelical Carter, probably cost him the election of 1976.

The Carter presidency led to the rise of the evangelicals as a political force as Carter spoke openly of his own faith. Balmer portrays Carter’s deeply principled faith combined with his ineffectual presidency. He also traces the rise of the religious right, galvanized initially, not by abortion, but by threats to the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University because of civil rights violations, laid at Carter’s feet even though it was during the Ford administration that these actions began. Only in 1980, as Ronald Reagan adopted a pro-life stance, did the religious right adopt this issue in alliance with Reagan against Carter, which became a litmus test for Republican Party candidates and cemented an alliance between evangelicals and the Republican Party, carrying through the administration of George H.W. Bush.

The Clinton administration simultaneously welcomed evangelical leaders to the White House, including various personal counselors like Bill Hybels and Tony Campolo during the Monica Lewinsky affair, yet pursued a decidedly non-religious agenda. The narrative then concludes with the George W. Bush presidency, marked by his open appeals to faith, his affirmation of Jesus as his favorite philosopher, his embrace of religious right culture wars issues, even while he countenanced water-boarding and other forms of torture in post 9/11 America.

In his concluding chapter, Balmer turns from the religiosity of the presidents to what it is that the American people look for, and what they overlook, in their presidents. It is clearly, at the end of the day, not moral rectitude. Jimmy Carter was probably the most morally upright of all, evidenced in his concerns for human rights, the Camp David accords and environmental efforts, yet we repudiated him after four years. We re-elected Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush despite personal flaws and deep moral issues raised by their policies. Balmer proposes that a more significant question than what a candidate’s religious faith is, is how does that faith inform their thinking on the national and international issues in which a president must lead. Is faith just a window dressing or does it provide a moral compass? This is a form of questioning that takes significant thought and attention, that cannot be summarized in a soundbite. Yet to do less, Balmer argues, is cheap grace.

Balmer exposes both the dangers of “religious bodies trying to impose their will” and becoming politically captive, and of politicians who pander to these bodies for their votes, even while pursuing their own ends. What is troubling as one reads Balmer is that it appears to me that we are even worse off today than in 2008. Religious groups are still trading support for influence even while candidates with deep moral and lifestyle inconsistencies appeal to religious groups for their support. Given the sorry history of these entanglements, I wonder when people of faith will repent of these political captivities to pursue a more thoughtful engagement with office holders and seekers. Sadly, it does not seem that 2016 is the year where we say, “enough”.

You Say You Want a Revolution


Storming of the Bastille, by Jean-Pierre Houel – Bibliotheque nationale de France

One of the things that has been striking about the campaign rhetoric of at least some of our U.S. presidential candidates and their followers is the language of revolution. I was listening to a call-in show today where a supporter of one of the Republican candidates made the claim “we are the revolution” and “you can’t stop the revolution.” I’ve heard similar language with at least one of the Democratic candidates as well.

I get it. We have a political system that to all appearances is grid-locked most of the time. And this is the danger of dysfunctional political systems. They encourage the frustrations of people who decide finally that the only solution is revolution. It’s a system where there are people who just feel closed out and not heard. Some of the candidates are saying out loud and very publicly the things people have wanted to say and feel have not been heard in our national discourse.

I’m with the Beatles on this one. In the song “Revolution” they say “don’t you know that you can count me out.” I don’t want saviors, strong men, or revolutionaries. Actually, what I want are “good politicians”, in the best sense of those two words. I want people who are skillful in serving the polis, who have a sense of what government can and can’t do for the public good, and are pursuing the best solutions not simply for one portion of the polis, but for the various groups of people who lay claim to the title of “citizen” of this land, with all its rights and responsibilities. I also want people who are not only skillful but good in the sense that they strive for an integrity about their lives, where their walk and talk match up, at least as much as it does for most of us.

I don’t want a revolution. Most revolutions are more destructive than constructive. Our nation’s beginnings may have been one of those rare shining moments, and even then it was violent,  it was oppressive to the native peoples who we displaced, and exploitative of the Africans we forcibly brought here and declared three-fifths of a person in our founding documents. Then a bit over 80 years later, we underwent a second revolution. We called it a “Civil” War. An estimated 620,000 men died in this conflict. Even when revolutions are not violent, they often end up dismantling inefficient but functioning systems for even less functional ones.

The worst outcome is when the vacuum of power in political systems becomes so great that only a strong man can fill it and tyranny rules. In the early nineteenth century, that was Napolean. In the twentieth century, it was Stalin, Hitler, and Mao (the three accounted for over 100 million deaths).

Besides, all this talk about revolutions and quests for strong men and saviors feels to me like it gives politics an inordinate place in our lives. There are so many other important structures to life from neighborhood associations, to trade groups, to religious bodies, to volunteer organizations, to local schools and parents groups, to businesses and groups of artisans and artists and their benefactors. Just how much of our own agency do we really want to give the political powers? Yes, good government provides for liberty and justice for all, for interstate commerce, for defense of our borders, and for the care of those that our private organizations and local structures can’t care for (I realize there is a big discussion here about how much ought government, and our taxes, do here). Important stuff indisputably, but not everything.

There is one place I do want reform. It is electoral reform. This concerns both how districts are shaped, which now is a very partisan activity which means most politicians never represent a true cross-section of the American people. And it concerns how elections are funded. Because of court rulings, I suspect this would take a constitutional amendment. But we have a system that typically allows the rich special access to the people who represent us all. So much of what is broken in our system can be attributed to these things. It’s not sexy, and its not easy to fix this. It will take a long and determined effort.

But count me out of your revolution. To be honest, I’m praying it won’t succeed. And if it doesn’t, maybe it will make us look at all the things we can do in our own neighborhoods, city councils, school boards (all politics is ultimately local), and through all the other social institutions that make up our communities and society. Maybe then we will realize that the work of healing our national discords is our work that cannot be given away to our political leaders.

Wouldn’t that be great?


I’ve No Plans to Move to Canada

Flag_of_Canada.svgThis is not a statement about Canada, which I’ve always loved visiting. I have good friends who make their home there, and they love their country as much or more than I love mine. No anti-Canada rant here. No rant at all really.

Rather, it is a response to the number of posts I’ve seen recently saying, “if ‘______’ is elected president, I’m moving to Canada!” Depending on your politics, you might be inclined to say this for a various of the candidates currently on offer.

Now I suspect that some of this is overstated hyperbole, or just a form of venting frustration with what seems a bizarre political season to many. But I also wonder if it reveals some unsettling, at least to me, suppositions about the political order.

It seems that the assumption behind statements like the one above is that if such and such is elected the nation is going to go to hell in a hand-basket. Now I will totally agree that it is not an inconsequential thing to elect a president, or any other political office holder. I grew up in a city that was more or less a one party town and often elected those beholden to organized crime. And I live in a city, that while far from perfect, has enjoyed several generations of forward looking leadership.

What troubles me in the sentiment is that I feel it puts too much stock in a single area of our public life–the political. It seems that our discourse tends to turn the politicians we like into saviors, and those we don’t into demons. It’s kind of striking to me that believers and atheists both have something in common in this discourse–they talk about politicians as supernatural, or at least as super-human figures. At very least, it seems that something is out of proportion here. A few observations:

  • Under our system, political leaders derive their power from the governed. Even with the problems of campaign finance, we are still the people who put these people in office, or not.
  • At every level, we operate in a system that balances power between executive, legislative, and judicial functions. It’s inefficient, but it does provide mechanisms to check the excesses of a person or group.
  • I also wonder if we put too much stock in these people, perhaps in part because of the way the 24/7 news cycle distorts our view of reality. So many others are pursuing the common good, whether in starting companies, serving communities, creating works of beauty, and, of vital importance, raising the next generation.
  • One of the things this points to is that what makes a country good are not simply our leaders, but an engaged citizenry that is thinking not only of our own good but the common good. This raises the all-important issue of our character as a people, as David Brooks has so helpfully done on his “Road to Character” website.

This is why I’m not planning to move to Canada, or elsewhere. There is so much I love about the city, state, and nation I live in. I will not give away my own responsibility for fostering what is best about these to the political system. Nor will I lodge my hope in any political leader, nor allow their failings to dissuade me from seeking the common good of “the land that I love.”

This post actually began in church this past Sunday. We were singing these lyrics by Chris Tomlin:

You’re the God of this city
You’re the King of these people
You’re the Lord of this nation

What is disturbing to me is that many of those I’ve heard voicing sentiments about going to Canada are people of faith, and I suspect many have sung this song at some point. What I wonder is, do they believe God will still be sovereign over our nation if the person they disdain is elected? Some may chide me for making too much of a “careless” statement. But I wonder about our “care” for our city, state, and nation if we would talk about leaving it if someone we disapprove of is elected. What are we saying about our faith in God and our love for our place?

Something to think about. . .