Beth Moore is a Complementarian, but…

Beth Moore is on a warpath, according to The Atlantic. A righteous, unexpected, contradictory warpath. Moore apparently drew evangelical ire when, in the course of the 2016 presidential campaign, she did not immediately excuse the then-candidate for his boasts about sexual assault. She had committed the cardinal sin of letting her actual morals override her commitment to the Moral Majority, and she was punished for it–with declining attendance at her speaking engagements and with individualized boycotts of her work. But she did not recant; she did not repent. Nevertheless she persisted.

It is, quite frankly, an inspiring story from a figure who (though I knew nothing about her before today) has apparently made a living inspiring people. Unfortunately, the author of the article, Emma Green, cannot seem to contain her bemusement at this backward Arkie Bible-thumper leading the charge against predatory parishioners, pastors, and presidents. Those are, admittedly, not the words Green uses, but the tone is accurate and unmistakable. Green appears particularly taken with the idea that a complementarian might also be an advocate for women, and she approaches Moore with a certain suspicion, as if the whole different genders-different roles thing might be a necessary or convenient façade:

Like other Southern Baptists, Moore considers herself a complementarian: She believes the Bible teaches that men and women have distinctive roles and that men should hold positions of authority and leadership over women in the home and in the church. Yet her husband, Keith, a retired plumber, sees his vocation as helping his wife succeed. “That’s what I do,” he told me. “I lay blocks so O.J. can run.”

The implication is clear. Moore must be a complementarian in name only because she is the breadwinner for her now stay-at-home husband. That is, of course, absurd. Leadership has nothing to do with economic dominance. The apostles were leaders, and they couldn’t even spare a few coins for the poor. In fairness to Green, modern egalitarians aren’t the only one’s confused about this; complementarians too often confuse Victorian gender roles (in which women are domestic and men are entrepreneurial) with biblical gender roles. Both are equally wrong, and many complementarian households (my own included) consist of a wife who makes more or even most of the money for the home. Leadership isn’t about money; it is about service and sacrifice. (Paul says as much.) The analogy Keith Moore uses here is pretty apt, even if his choice of athlete is a little fraught. Sacrificing his body for the glorification of his wife seems a pretty decent parallel for the way Jesus gave himself up for the glorification of the church.

Yet Green cannot see this. She continues to insist that there is some cognitive dissonance involved–if not outright duplicity–in Moore’s approach to her own role in the world. At one point she describes Moore’s complementarianism as an act, saying that “though [Moore] often performs domestic femininity for her audience, in her own life she has balanced motherhood with demanding professional ambitions.” It is feminism (that good old fashion second wave kind) that taught us all that there is no conflict between professional ambition and femininity, but Green conveniently treats Moore as the turn-of-the-century relic the author surely believes she is. Moore must hold to a view of femininity that precludes professional success; after all, that is the straw man that post-modern feminists have internalized in their question to uncouple gender from any culturally neutral mooring. Never mind that Moore’s life suggests neither she nor her audience ever bought into that definition of femininity.

In the end, Green can never seem to approach complementarianism on its own terms, and certainly shows no effort to let Moore define the terms of her own beliefs for herself. Green is concerned only with juxtaposing Moore’s life (which Moore herself understands to be complementarian) with the regressive gender model that Green imagines evangelical Christian women hold. The contrast is never more clear than in this passage at the crux of the article:

Moore may be a complementarian, but she is adamant that Christian men should not treat women “any less than Jesus treated women in the Gospels: always with dignity, always with esteem, never as secondary citizens.”

Following Moore’s self-designation with a quote from Moore, joined as they are by an oppositional conjunction, lets Green paint Moore as a walking, talking, preaching, praying, politicking contradiction. Read the same sentence without the oppositional tone artificially introduced by Green: “Moore is a complementarian, and she is adamant that Christian men should not treat women…as secondary citizens.” The consonance of the two positions is evident if Moore is allowed to set the terms of her own identification and beliefs, something that would seem to accord well with contemporary feminism. But the complementarian advocate for the rights and dignity of women is the square-circle of feminist discourse. It simply cannot exist.

In the final passage, Green hedges, concluding her article by pointing out that Moore is not “a liberal, or even a feminist.” Yet if Green is to be believed she’s not really a complementarian either. I hope someone bothered to tell Beth Moore.

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Safe Ways to be Gay in School

I’m in the midst of doing a bit of research on school discipline, particularly the role that non-behavior factors (e.g. race, ethnicity, gender) in triggering disciplinary action by teachers and administrators. It’s a concept that educational researchers call disproportionality, and it’s a massive and enduring problem in American education.

In the course of this research, I came upon an interesting article published earlier this year by Joel Mittleman titled “Sexual Orientation and School Discipline.” As the title suggests, Mittleman is addressing the question that sexual orientation plays in the application of discipline, specifically using newly available data sets to expand the existing research. That body of research has consistently found that LGBT students face higher levels of exclusionary discipline (suspension and expulsion) than straight students, but it has also found an interesting quirk in that tendency. LGBT girls face these harsher discipline measures than LGBT boys. Given the broader culture’s visceral revulsion when confronted with specifically male homosexuality, this fact surprised me. Yet, Mittleman’s research confirms it.

Mittleman offers the following possible (and to me intriguing) explanation:

Gender nonconformity—in terms of speech, interests, dress, peer groups, and other gendered aspects of identity—is significantly (though imperfectly) associated with sexual orientation (American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 2012).

For boys, more “feminine” gender expression has been shown to yield social sanctions from peers. Pascoe (2007) demonstrates, for example, how the specter of being a “fag” is used to police the boundaries of masculinity among teenage boys. Similarly, in their recent meta-analysis of bullying studies, Toomey and Russell (2016) find that sexual minority boys appear to face higher rates of victimization than sexual minority girls. However, even if gender nonconformity may provoke severe peer sanctions, for those growing up in contexts where boys are treated as potentially criminal from young ages (e.g., Ferguson, 2000), less masculine gender expression could potentially be protective against the more formal behavioral sanctions imposed by schools or the police.

By contrast, for sexual minority girls, more masculine, “unladylike” gender expression may be interpreted by adults as threatening in a way that requires more formal control. Several of Snapp et al.’s (2015) respondents, for example, argued that gender-nonconforming girls are treated with suspicion and assumed to be aggressors in conflict situations.

Mittleman stresses that this explanation of the findings is speculative and that the study more broadly has limited scientific value (at least in isolation from the broader existing research). Even so, the conclusion is potentially quite significant; “If this is true, then attributing sexual minorities’ discipline rates to a common experience of gender-neutral homophobic treatment may be imprecise.” In other words, homophobia is not the generalized phenomenon in practice that it often appears to be in casual accusations and popular discourse. Instead it manifests in very specific ways that have very specific social utility depending on the context.

What is true in schools is likely equally true in our culture more generally, which among other things may explain why so many conservative Christians cannot make sense of the relationship between their obligation to biblical ethics and their token commitment to a culture of civil liberty.

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Some Advice from Behavioral Economists

The Atlantic had a wonderful article by Joe Pinkser yesterday detailing the result of his research into behavioral economics and interviews with some of the field’s leading intellectuals. Behavioral economics is a sub-discipline of economics that focuses on how psychological, affective, and social pressures come to bear on the way that people spend money. Pinkser’s approach, of course, was not theoretical, focusing instead on changes he made to his own spending and how they stacked up to the practical suggestions of behavioral economists. Though he doesn’t present them as such, Pinkser manages to come up with a wonderfully useful set of tips for how to spend better and smarter (if not always less, necessarily). Here’s what he learned from behavioral economists:

  • Make a record of every purchase. In theory, this is best done before the purchase as part of the decision-making process, but realistically it can be done after the fact. In both cases, the point is to increase the “pain of paying”–a dire way of referring to how conscious you have to be about the money you’re spending. The idea is that the more you think about what you purchase and how much that costs (including relative to total spending), the less likely you are to spend money in ways you’ll regret.
  • Use cash. Or debit cards. Not credit cards. The more real and tangible the cost of an purchase, the more likely you are to think critically about it in advance. With credit cards, the purchase is deferred and the total cost is often not known in advance. But when cash money leaves your hand, the cost is felt immediately. Debit cards, though less effective, balance the convenience of credit cards with the immediate loss of cash (even if it is initially invisible). Pinsker worries about how to build good credit without credit cards, but, on behalf of a younger generation that has accrued plenty of debt before I ever had money to spend, that’s never been a problem I’ve had to worry about.
  • Focus on large and monthly costs when trimming fat. The immediate impulse when trying to cut back on spending is to focus on little luxuries (with Pinsker using the quintessential example of drinking less Starbucks). These efforts can be fine as part of an overall strategy (see below on budgeting), but behavioral economists stress the importance of focusing on big ticket items and recurring costs. In a way that makes them similar to credit cards, monthly costs are often automatic and unseen, slow bleeds on your finances that accumulate as months turn into years turn into decades. The multiple streaming services, the overpriced phone plan, the new car (with that new car smell and new car payment)–these all tend to make a bigger difference in the long run than occasional small purchases.
  • Practice positive budgeting. So much of budgeting is about restrict spending purely for the sake of lowering the outflow of money. Often this is inadequate motivation in and of itself; even if it isn’t for you, it is a decidedly negative way to think about money and spending (something behavioral economists say should be enjoyable). You absolutely must budget, but reframe the purpose of your budget so that it is not about spending less but spending right. Structure it in such a way that it highlights money being set aside for things you really want: an eating out budget, a new video games budget, a travel budget, etc.
  • Build in a discretionary rewards system. On a related note, one way to keep budgeting positive is to frame your discretionary spending (spending that isn’t part of a defined budget category like rent, groceries, gas/transit) as a source for short term rewards. Money leftover at the end of the month, two weeks, or week (whatever your pay or budget cycle) can be peremptorily set aside for a nice short term reward: a fancy dinner or a trip to the cinema. This creates positive motivations for self-control in the short term, the way positive budgeting creates positive motivations in the longer term.
  • Develop a culture that prizes restraint. Pinsker shares this observation about society at large but offers advice for how to achieve it on a smaller scale as well. We often view restraint in “puritanical” terms as the loss of something good, but if we can reframe restraint as a positive virtue and space to create alternative enjoyment, we can take some of the pain out of not-spending. Not going out to eat is a drag; cooking a meal with friends or a spouse is a fun night in. Forgoing the cinema is easier when its recast as movie night (complete with outrageous snacks and raucous commentary). And so on. The more you can treat restraint as an opportunity rather than a burden, the better your spending habits will be.

I was delighted to find that, in the end, I already checked all of those boxes (and have been, for many years, very happy with our household spending habits). At the same time, I found it extremely useful to see these philosophies reinforced by specialists in the field. I offer them here in list form as a friendly reminder to myself and others (who also may already do some or all of these) that the best thing you can do for your budget is be purposeful about how you spend and stay aware of how your emotions and society can unconsciously alter your spending habits. The more we think, the better off we are.

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This President is Not Special

62245941aed440947a34cbcc324d988e--march-signs-peaceful-protestThe current presidency is of a different type than anything that has come before. On this, if on nothing else, the president’s detractors and supporters agree most vehemently. This president is so unique that he requires a higher order of loyalty or a higher order of resistance, depending on your inclinations. Though the fact has rocketed into the news in the last twenty-four hours as an anonymous official has outlined extraordinary measures taken on behalf of national integrity, this reality has been understood since the beginning. It has been demonstrated by the apoplectic popular convulsions on the left and has been articulated brazenly by the then-candidate’s himself when he suggested that he could shoot someone in the street without losing a supporter. In the time since, he has had many moments that have seemed to be the public relations equivalent of cold-blooded public homicide, and he has proven more prophetic than deluded in his estimation of the public’s loyalty. In Sean Spicer’s memorable phrase, this president is “a unicorn riding a unicorn over a rainbow.”

But he isn’t. Not really. Not by any appreciable measure. This president is not only not special, not different, not deserving of extraordinary loyalty or rebuke, he is positively typical. His ascendance and style have contravened what Americans had led themselves recently to believe was the “normal” president, but when considered against the canon of distinguished gentlemen who came before him, this president is not unusual.

But wait, you say…

  • He’s governing without a popular mandate. This perhaps caused the most immediate outrage back in 2016, when it became evident that the person whom most people had voted for would not be president. Yet this has a long and fairly consistent history. Four previous presidents have been elected after losing the popular vote, including in the antebellum (John Quincy Adams), postbellum (Rutherford B. Hayes, Benjamin Harrison), and contemporary (George W. Bush) eras. The 2016 election wasn’t even the largest margin of victory for a candidate who never ascended to the office. JQA lost to Andrew Jackson by more than 10% but still managed to outmaneuver him in the electoral bureaucracy. In every case, Republicans (or their proto-Whig ancestors) have played the game better than more popular Democrats. With an example as recently as 2000 (and involving her own husband’s successor), you would think that Hillary Clinton would have paid more attention.

    But that’s the election; what about the man?

  • He’s a philanderer. Sure, and he did what he needed to in order to keep those women quiet and to keep them from influencing the election. If he’s different from other president’s in this regard, it is only that he wasn’t quite as skilled at keeping those affairs secret, though this likely has more to do with the information age than any particular skill on his part. (Consider, for example, Bill Clinton as a parallel.) Other philandering presidents have been careful to keep in on the low. Such was the case with Warren G. Harding, whose affairs weren’t discovered until after his death. Jefferson’s sexual exploits are still being debated, though most agree that he didn’t start his affair with his wife’s teenage slave/half-sister until after he became a widower. You be the judge of how that would play in an Alabama special election, but it’s worth pointing out that thanks to the compromise powers of fellow future president James Madison, at most Jefferson only had 3/5th of an affair.

    Of course, the standard line now is that it’s not the sex but the pay-off that is the problem with the current president. After all…

  • He’s corrupt and surrounds himself with corrupt officials. Corruption is endemic to government, a point I always try to impress upon my students. Forging private-public alliances to further your own power and interests is just effective statesmanship, and the borders for where that ceases to be moral/legal and becomes corrupt are historically recent and entirely arbitrary. Even so, American exceptionalism is such that the US has produced its fair share of especially corrupt presidents and administrations. It’s hard to name a single past president where private finance didn’t produce scandal. Bush II had the specter of Halliburton, Clinton had Whitewater, Richard Nixon had Watergate, and Harding had the Teapot Dome. (Have I gone far enough back to lose you yet?) Speculation about John F. Kennedy’s mafia ties have at least the superficial ring of familiarity when placed next to the current president’s ties to Russian oligarchs. Sometimes the president himself is brought down by this corruption–they got Nixon after all and nearly nailed Clinton on a technicality–but mostly there are a lot of high level incriminations, resignations, and convictions. Scooter Libby and John Poindexter went down for proper crimes; they followed Albert Bacon Fall, the first member of the cabinet to go to prison. Perhaps more telling for those worried about presidential pardoning power is the readiness of future administrations to rehabilitate these figures. Bush II had already commuted Libby’s sentence, but the current administration pardoned him outright. This wasn’t new though; Poindexter’s conviction held for barely survived the year before they were overturned on a technicality. Fall served his time: one whole year for conspiracy and bribery. Earlier patsies didn’t need to be acquitted, since they were merely censured rather than charged. Corruption, scandals, resignations, and convictions are a great American political pastime, and few are immune. Even squeaky clean preacher, school teacher, and Union General James A. Garfield got embroiled in the Credit Mobilier scandal that erupted in the midst of Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency.

    Yet the current president isn’t just flouting the law…

  • He’s actively corrupting the justice system to serve his own ends. Lindsey Graham said in his opening statement for the now ongoing Brett Kavanaugh hearings that if Democrats want to pick judges they need to win elections. (See point #1.) That bit of gritty realism rings true in America politics, and past presidents have been as or more willing to actively “pervert” the justice system to serve their own ends. The practice actually stands at the beating heart of American jurisprudence, going all the way back to the primordial Supreme Court case: Marbury v. Madison. Most of us learned this in school as the case where the court established its right to judicial review (cleverly by refusing to review that case). Lost in that explanation is the last ditch appointment of a group of Federalist judges by outgoing president John Adams to keep the seats from being filled by his ideological rival, Jefferson. Among the intended appointments was William Marbury, a partisan (in today’s terminology) of the most vocal and unabashed type. Jefferson, exploiting a procedural error, instructed Madison to ignore the appointments so he could appoint his own partisans to the bench. It puts the recent stalling of Barack Obama’s nominee in perspective, to be sure.

    The courts always serve the ideological interests of the president who appoints them (and arguably that is precisely what the Constitution intended by giving the president appointment powers). When they don’t, past presidents have been happy to press their case outside the “normal” rules of civil administration. When Andrew Jackson didn’t like a Supreme Court ruling against him, he ignored it and apocryphally said the court had made its decision but couldn’t make him enforce it. When Franklin Roosevelt saw many of his key New Deal provisions struck down by the Supreme Court, he turned to court packing in a failed attempt to force the justice system to do his will. Say what you want about presidential tweets about the courts or about the Merrick Garland controversy or the suitability of Brett Kavanaugh; all of that is happening within the confines of US law. When the president starts ignoring or packing the courts, then…well, even then he’s in presidential company.

    But…

  • He’s cozying up to tyrants. The same argument was levied against Adams by Jeffersonians who resented the thawing of American relations with Great Britain. (The British, recall, were the arch-tyrants of the American imagination in the late eighteenth century.) This, of course, was long before the United States began to cozy up to the tyrants that it had put in place throughout Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Southwest Asia. But I guess those tyrants are okay because they’re our tyrants.

    But…

  • The Russians helped elect him; they even funneled him money. Would you prefer it was the China?

    But…

  • He’s filled the government with incompetent toadies and family members. JFK caught flak for appointing his little brother as Attorney General, but that is only because the US had needed only a generation or so to forget its traditional spoils system of government appointments. Until the late nineteenth century (and thanks in part to the assassination of Garfield), the convention in US politics had been to scrub the government clean in each new administration and fill all positions with loyal cronies. Turn of the century reform only went so far, ending the process of a clean sweep but leaving available the highest levels of government for a reboot after every administration. Presidents as recent as Bush II have been accused vocally of cronyism, which it turns out is just another word for presidential appointment power. Invoking Graham again (and again from the recent hearing), where exactly do people expect the president to get his appointees from?

    But..

  • He’s a racist. Never mind all the slave holding presidents. Never mind Woodrow Wilson screening “Birth of a Nation” in the White House. Let’s talk about the most saintly president in US history: Abraham Lincoln (with the big hat). The Great Emancipator, for all the positive effects his actions had for slaves in his times, was not any great warrior for racial justice. He was, as a free soiler, an avowed racist elected by racists to achieve a racist task, something else I struggle to impress upon students. If that strikes you as an offensive suggestion, take the following quote from Lincoln’s 1854 speech at Peoria:

    If all earthly power were given me, I should not know what to do, as to the existing institution. My first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia,—to their own native land. But a moment’s reflection would convince me, that whatever of high hope, (as I think there is) there may be in this, in the long run, its sudden execution is impossible.…What next? Free them, and make them politically and socially, our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not.

    Lincoln was an advocate of colonization, and he makes his point clearly here. He’d prefer to send African-Americans ‘back where they came from’ and could not abide the idea that they should be politically or socially equal. Actual advocates of racial justice at the time understood this, and commented that the worst thing southerners could do for their own cause was to assassinate Lincoln. Historians agree: Reconstruction was more radical in Lincoln’s absence than it would have been in his presence. In other words, while not ALL presidents have been vocal racists, it’s safe to say that most have been (even the one’s we like to pretend weren’t).

    But it’s not just about words. Lincoln freed the slaves, but…

  • He’s actively imprisoning brown children just for looking different. With some modification for the racial color-coding “white” people are so fond of, the same is true of many US presidents (including, again, some of American’s most revered). Think of the little Cherokee children imprisoned, deported, and killed (directly and indirectly) by Jackson. Think about the little Japanese-American children imprisoned and impressed into labor by FDR. They got off better than the tens of thousands of Japanese children who were among the civilian populations deliberately targeted by Harry Truman for execution. Republicans have explicitly embraced the precedent (if not the language) of Dwight Eisenhower’s mass deportation scheme, “Operation Wetback.” They’re also (situationally) fond of pointing out that deportations ballooned to a then record high under Obama. US presidents (and the government in general) have been imprisoning, impressing, and executing people of color (children and adults) since plantation owners first populated this country. It’s the American genesis narrative. Jamestown settlers and Puritans said, “Let there be whites.” And it was so. And it was very, very bad (at least if you’re of African, indigenous American, or Latin American descent).

    But…

But nothing. There is no sufficiently general complaint about the current president that cannot be established in firm presidential precedent. Sure, you could say, “No president has ever tweeted out ‘covfefe” before,” and you’d be right. But there have been inarticulate presidents in the past. For every Calvin Collidge wryly quipping “You lose,” there is a Lyndon B. Johnson making a phone call about his testicles. There have been demagogues and dimwits and puppets in the presidency before, meaning that the current president is in good company no matter which of those you happen to think he is.

None of which is to say that the president is a good man or a good president. By all accounts this presidency is a disaster–whether you think that is because of the man at the helm or because of conspiratorial opposition by Democrats, the deep state, or pedophile pizza shop owners. The president has misbehaved morally, politically, and in all likelihood legally. But this, more than anything is what makes him typical.

As a historian, I look for precedents to cite, but it is important to remember that even without particular precedents the president is clearly “normal” from a Christian perspective. In fact, this president’s gross immorality and the corruption, scandal, violence, and deceit console rather than concern me as a Christian. It is encouraging to see borne out in such an indisputable way David Lipscomb’s observation that “the rule of justice, right and virtue in political affairs is a hallucination.” Our historical ignorance and moral lethargy has led us to believe that civil government (or at least our civil government) is at its heart good. Like an unruly child deserving of our love and guidance, it just needs moral intervention from attentive and engaged Christian stewards to return to the straight and narrow.

It was never on the straight and narrow, and it is dangerous to forget that. There is a tendency to think of the government like we might a person, as if it were imperfect but redeemable. Always remember that Jesus Christ came to earth to redeem people from their sins, but the Bible offers a very different message about civil governments. They are not being redeemed, they are being replaced. When history is brought to its culmination, “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever” (Dan. 2.44).

I hope the president gets redeemed (if he isn’t already). In my best moments, I know I should pray for this. I know I should also pray for him as a ruler, not that he might accomplish his agenda and not that he might be thwarted in it. I should pray that he will govern in such a way as to allow me to continue to live in peace and quiet (1 Tim. 2.2), something that has thus far been possible for me (though clearly not for others). What I don’t pray for is the salvation of the US government. It doesn’t need to be saved from this president. This president is its culmination–historically and morally the distillation of everything it stands for and has always stood for.

It’s as if we’ve wiped the lipstick off the pig and are appalled to find something utterly new before us. Let’s not kid ourselves. He’s not special. He’s just a pig.

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A Bit of Horticultural History

Most of the time I have a fairly clear and sure sense of why my work as a historian, my vocation in life, has value–to the individual, to society, to the world. Part of the reason for this is that historians (and scholars in the humanities in general) are constantly being asked to defend their existence, which an increasingly technophilic society cannot seem to comprehend or justify.

Other times, though, I am struck by the absurdity of what I do and by the fact that somewhere, some university department is willing to give me permanent, irrevocable lifetime employment to do it. (At least, theoretically; I’m exactly not drowning in tenure offers.) This morning, for example, I spent most of my time sifting through Victorian gardening manuals in preparation for a conference paper proposal. I understood how my developing topic might benefit historians and especially how presenting it would benefit my career, but I’m not sure what more transcendent value my razor thin comment on current debates in the justly unsung sub-discipline of the History of Gardening might have.

Thankfully, as I often do, I distracted myself by stumbling upon a bit of trivia. It has absolutely no relevance to my topic, but I found this clip from the 1846 Gardener’s Chronicle to be interesting and (as good history so often is) just a little silly:

Edible Bird-nests of China.—Of the great mass of edible bird-nests which are consumed in China, and now also in Europe, the Philippine Isles furnish a considerable portion. Our attention, however, may be more particularly directed to the eatable sea-weeds which are found on the coasts of the Philippines, of the Bashus [W. Indonesia], of the Japan islands, of the Malaccas, &c., and which serve for food to the inhabitants as well as for exportation.

In the markets of Macao and Canton we have seen large boxes of such dried Tangles which had been imported from Japan. The species of algae which constitutes this branch of commerce is the Sphaerococcus cartilaginous…which, abounding as it does in the Indian Ocean, is the common food of the [swallow] (Hirundo esculenta L.), and serves for the construction of its valuable nest. The swallow devours the fresh Tangle, and after allowing it to macerate for some time in its stomach, ejects the mass converted to a pulp or jelly, with which it moulds its nest….In cooking them [the nests] are seasoned with a variety of fine spices, and deservedly hold the first rank among the delicacies of a Chinese table.

The Japanese had the sagacity to perceive that those precious bird-nests were only composed of sea-weeds, and they now prepare the substructure of them by artificial process. The Tangles, which are found in great quantities on their coasts, are gathered, and, after being dried and pounded, are boiled down to a thick jelly, which is drawn or poured out into long threads like macaroni, and then sent into commerce under the name of Gin-shan.

…[The] dry Gin-shan may be broken into small pieces and thrown into broth as it is brought warm to the table. In a minute’s time it swells, and appears like transparent vermicelli. In this state it forms a not unpleasant sort of food, which, though highly nutritive, is easily digested. How great and general the consumption of these edible Tangles must be in Japan appears from the circumstance that in all the geographical or statistical works relating to that empire, wherever they are found, they are mentioned as one of the remarkable products of the country. We have been induced to enlarge on this matter the more particularly as much notice has latterly been excited by the Carrageen Moss, which is nothing but the dried Sphaerococcus crispus, found in vast abundance on the western and northern coasts of the British Isles. In its qualities it would seem to be perfectly analogous to the Sphaerococcus cartilagineus setaceus, yielding like it a rich and nutritive jelly.

The British would need to wait nearly a decade before they could get a first hand look at Japan and realize that birds’ nests (real or artificial) did not form a substantial part of the Japanese diet. Meanwhile, carrageen moss did become part of the British (and global) diet in the form of carrageenan, although its “rich and nutritive” qualities are now widely questioned.

All of which brings me full circle back to a plausible twenty-first-century relevance, which–however thin–is more than enough to reassure me that something I’m doing has relevance to someone somewhere for some vague but probably legitimate reason. And that’s apparently good enough for me.

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On My Relative Good Fortune

While reading Marius Jansen’s biography of Sakamoto Ryōma (1836-1867), I came across this wonderful quote from Sakamoto in an 1863 letter to his sister:

I must say that it’s beyond me the way things work out in a man’s life. Some fellows have such bad luck that they bang their privates on getting out of a bath tub and die as a result. When you compare my luck with that, it’s really remarkable.

That sort of observation really puts my own problems into perspective. Sakamoto would be assassinated a little over four years after penning those words, but I suspect that even he would consider that good luck, at least relatively.

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A Little Lenten Gravity

A week has come and gone in Lent. Though I have made an effort to gear my Lenten fast more toward repurposing than restricting, I found this recent post by Fr. Stephen Freeman tremendously edifying. Fr. Freeman–whose serves the Orthodox Church (OCA) in Oak Ridge, TN–reflects on the spiritual significance of fasting using as a launching point his first Orthodox-style fast during his time as an Anglican. Since I am functionally a crypto-Orthodox Protestant myself, the story struck a special chord in my heart.

Beyond that personal affinity, this observation about the effects of zero gravity seemed to me an especially penetrating metaphor for the importance of fasting (not merely during Lent):

It is said that astronauts, after spending a prolonged time in space, have lingering effects of zero-gravity. Our bodies are made for gravity and require its constant pull for everything from muscle tone to bone density. But we now live in situations in which many forms of natural “gravity” have been reduced or removed. What effect does the long-term ability to have almost any food at any time of year have on the human body? As someone who has spent the better part of my life at a desk, I can attest to the effect of a sedentary existence….

In 2000, the average American ate 180 pounds of meat a year (and 15 pounds of fish and shellfish). That was roughly a third more than in 1959. Scarcity is not an issue in our diet. Our abundance is simply “not real,” and the environment frequently shows the marks of the artificial nature of our food supply. But we have no way of studying what is going on with our souls. What I know to be true is that – as goes the body – so goes the soul. Those who engage the world as consumer are being consumed by the world to an equal measure.

The declaration that our abundance is not real is troublingly accurate. In fact, I don’t think Fr. Freeman need have bothered with the quotation marks. What we have is not an abundance of resource but an abundance of consumptive avarice. It is what William Cronon called an “ecological contradiction”–the use of finite resources as if they were infinite–and what Christians might more simply call sin. Our choice to continue to live in creation as if our actions had no repercussions reflects the kind of moral apathy that seasons of penance and fasting are intended to force us to confront.

It is easy for us to see how to choice to abstain has moral worth, but when Lent is over let’s not forget that choices about how we consume also echo out into our moral universe and reverberate in our soul. The artificial “gravity” we’ve introduced into our lives by fasting will disappear, but it pays to remember that it is the weightlessness not the gravity that is unnatural.

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Marco Rubio booed at town hall. And…?

I woke up this morning to a barrage of headlines in my news feed about last night’s CNN town hall, almost all of which pertained to Marco Rubio–the superstar Republican senator from Florida–being jeered, booed, and castigated for his “pathetically weak” response to the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. It’s easy to see why the focus was on Rubio. A former presidential hopeful and regular figure in the national spotlight had a very rough night at the hands of a crowd that had little patience for half measures and political posturing. But with four other major public figures taking the stage with Rubio last night, a lot was probably missed by drive-by news consumers who catch headlines and soundbites but little else.

1) It’s not too soon to talk about guns. It’s too late.

Rep. Ted Deutch gave voice to the most universal sentiment of the crowd in his opening salvo. With great conviction he delivered an increasingly familiar counterpunch to the tired voices in the national discourse who assume a mock moral high ground in the aftermath of a tragedy to chide reformers with the refrain, “Now is not the time to talk about guns. Now is the time to mourn. How dare you politicize this.” The students, teachers, and families of victims last night were having none of it. They echoed Deutch all night just as they have been laying heavily into lawmakers and pundits in the last week: why didn’t we talk about guns after Sandy Hook, why didn’t we talk about guns after the Pulse shooting, why is it never the time to talk about guns? Deutch minced no words and drew thunderous (speech obscuring) applause when he declared: “The folks in our community don’t want words, they don’t want thoughts and prayers, they don’t want discussions, they want action and we owe it to them [inaudible].”

The criticism spread out like buckshot to an almost infinite host of naysayers who tried to speak on behalf of the victims’ need for peace not politics. Deutch and the crowd together believed that political change was the best hope for peace.

2) The absentees were more significant than the attendees

Deutch’s words must have at least in part been directed at Gov. Rick Scott, who sent his heart out to everyone Wednesday night but refused to talk about reform. When peppered with questions about gun control, Scott said “there is a time to continue to have these conversations” but it apparently isn’t now. No wonder then that he declined to make his way to the town hall (or even to join remotely), given that his presence would have likely been even more grating than that of Rubio.

CNN also noted that the president declined to participate, an inclusion that seemed calculated to try to embarrass the president for being absent. But frankly, I doubt his presence could seriously be expected (given that he didn’t already happen to be at Mar-a-lago at the time) and would probably have been neither appreciated nor productive.

More significant, by far, was the absence of any state legislators. They were too busy, as it turns out, refusing to publicly debate gun control legislation (something the news seemed to find particularly ironic given that the same session declared pornography a public health concern). Given the tremendous latitude that individual states have to enact meaningful gun control–both in terms of restricting purchasing and strengthening enforcement–and the comparative responsiveness of state governments compared to the federal government, the absence of any state lawmakers is perhaps the most important feature of last night’s line up.

The best evidence shows a strong correlation between state level gun laws and a reduction in gun deaths. Gun control activists should stop trying to reproduce Australian gun control in the US and start focusing their attention where it might have results. The absence of Scott and other state level officials should be an embarrassment to them, but it also represents a key weakness in the tactics of gun control advocates.

3) The mundane courage of Marco Rubio

In comparison, at least, Rubio is to be commended: at least he showed up. And, to their credit, the crowd and panelists made sure to give him his due on this before excoriating him for his positions. When fellow Florida senator Bill Nelson (D) reminded the audience of the courage it took for Rubio to show up when no other elected Republican officials would, Rubio protested that he was no hero.

They’re both right. It shouldn’t take any special measure of bravery for an elected official to stand up before his or her constituents, but unfortunately it does. Yet it seems that most politicians don’t have even this mundane level of courage. One reason the president would never be in a meeting like the one last night is because he cannot stomach the perception that he speaks to anything other than massive adoring crowds of red-capped devotees. Even moderate support is considered to be an embarrassment, so that crowd sizes and TV ratings have to be inflated to sustain the illusion of unwavering popularity. The optics always have to be just so.

Maybe Rubio didn’t care about the optics. Maybe he was arrogant enough to believe that he could spin them to his favor. Maybe he genuinely wants to make a turn away from politics to public service. (But probably not.) Whatever the case, he seems to genuinely be walking the walk to go with his big talk of speaking with those who disagree with us, being open to public challenges, and resisting the insularity of the tailored media.

Even if in saying it, he sounded more like he was gearing up for another presidential run than addressing the problem at hand. An especially uncomfortable exchange with a victim’s father had Rubio deploy a reframing tactic–“Fred, first of all, let me explain what I said this week, and I’ll repeat it”–that was better suited to a presidential debate than the public expression of personal and civic grief that characterized the town hall.

4) Jake Tapper misreads the room and misunderstands his role

If Rubio occasionally seemed to forget this was not a town hall on the campaign trail in 2016, he was not the most egregious offender. It wasn’t even the NRA representative, who behaved exactly as everyone wanted and expected her to behave. No, the most out of touch was Jake Tapper.

I like Jake Tapper, most of all for his level-headedness and his willingness to (if you’ll excused the mixed transportation metaphors) right the ship when things go off the rails. That’s also precisely the reason why he was a terrible choice to moderate this town hall. Repeatedly throughout the night he tried to rein in the excesses of a boisterous crowd, excuse panelists from answering loaded or misdirected questions, and ensure that everyone had the opportunity to be heard.

At one point early on he said, “I’m not going to tell anybody in this room not to feel strongly and – – and not to feel emotional. The only thing I will tell you is…” The line was cringe-worthy, like standing up at a meeting of the NAACP and saying, “Now, I’m not going to say I know what its like to experience racism, but…” Nothing that comes after the “but” (or Tapper’s more characteristically verbose “the only thing…is”) can ever overcome the weight of the introductory clause.

This was not a debate, something that Tapper and the panelists continued to reiterate; it was a corporate act of catharsis. That’s why a substantive engagement with Nelson or Deutch mattered less to everyone involved than venting their white-hot grief at Rubio and the NRA. In that context, the moderator’s job is not to provoke meaningful discussion but to carve out meaningful space for the students, teachers, and families–on a national platform with the icons of their most seething anger right in front of them–to give a distilled voice to the overwhelming sentiment of a nation.

In this, Tapper repeatedly failed, being too true to himself and (in consequence) false to the people who needed that forum most.

5) The NRA did just fine

The real star of the night was not Rubio, who acted as a kind of Journey cover band opening for Bono. Before she ever arrived, Dana Loesch (“the NRA lady”) was already at center stage in everyone’s mind. The NRA (rightly) gets much of the blame for mobilizing the political forces against gun control on a national level. Yet Loesch deserved arguably more credit than Rubio for showing up (particularly since the senator may have been her only constituent in the room) and she made her arguments well to an even more hostile crowd than had faced Rubio.

In the bulk of their substance, moreover, her argument were true, at least as they pertained to this particular case. That is one of the features of the NRA’s genius, to undercut the general argument for gun control with specific arguments about an instance of gun violence. Yes, law enforcement failed to stop what should have been an easily identifiable killer…in this case. Yes, better mental health screening would have prevented the killer from owning a weapon…in this case. Yes, better reporting of state officials to national background check databases would have made it harder for someone to buy a gun…in this case. She was right at almost every turn.

The crowd, of course, didn’t care. They knew that their movement was not about preventing the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting. That had already happened. They needed to stop the next tragedy, the one we aren’t predicting yet, with general laws that will have a general reduction on violent gun crimes. And they’re willing to start just about anywhere. When Rubio told a father that the assault weapons ban would remove 200 gun types from circulation but leave 2,000 similar weapons out there, the father responded, “Are you saying you will start with the 200 and work your way up?” Rubio was not. He was saying that the only solution is the (to him) patently absurd suggestion that we “literally…ban every semi-automatic rifle that’s sold in the U.S.” Wouldn’t you know it, that was the biggest applause line that Rubio or anyone got all night. (Oops.)

Bonus: A little something for history teachers

My favorite moment of the evening came much later, when a social studies teacher rose and, to roaring applause and laughter, posed a question to Loesch in the form of an exam prompt: Define “a well regulated militia,” and “using supporting details” explain how a teenager with a military weapon fits into that definition.

As a history instructor, a found the moment unspeakably fulfilling. Nothing more truly embodies the absurdity of the fact that politically empowered adults need to be led by adolescents to make meaningful progress on gun control. If we’re going to revese the normal order of things, why not hold public figures to at least the same standards we hold high school and college students. In that spirit, I offer these notes to Loesch on her response (as if she were one of my students):

  • Too much fluff in the introduction; don’t try to pad your word count with unrelated information.
  • The reference to George Mason’s definition of a militia is historically rooted but logically unsatisfying (as a primordialist appeal to authority rather than a coherently developed argument)
  • The projection of gender equal language onto the revolutionary period is anachronistic. It suggests the whole argument rests on an unsustainable attempt to collapse the present and the past
  • Answer the entire prompt the first time; I shouldn’t have to direct you to produce a complete answer
  • Strong, self-consistent second half of the answer (once given), but it is unclear how it relates to the initial part of your response.

Grade: C-

To see the town hall or read the transcript, click here.

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The Moral Minority

President Donald Trump attends the Liberty University Commencement Ceremony

Jerry Falwell Jr. pledging allegiance to…God, I hope.

This morning I stumbled on an article by Adam Laats–Professor of Education and History at Binghamton University–in advance of his latest book on conservatives and higher education, Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education. Laats joins a host of other recent commentators trying to make sense of the relationship of socially conservative, “moral majority” white evangelical values voters to the crass, vulgar, grabby,  unrepentant philanderer-in-chief. Using the bipolarity of Liberty University’s relationship to the president as a backdrop (Jerry Falwell Jr.’s ongoing endorsement of the president and the students symbolic and highly significant protests over that endorsement), Laats poses the following questions:

 

Do these protests show a new evangelical outrage at jingoistic, sexist, racially coded appeals to right-wing politics? Or do most college-age white evangelicals—like most of Liberty’s students and alumni—join Falwell in embracing Trump?

The answer, it seems, is yes on both counts, and Laats’ new book (which I’ll be interested to find time to read) explores the history of this paradox, this struggle for the evangelical soul between politically conservative white nationalism and Christian moral protest.

The examples Laats offers in the article demonstrate impressive range, chronologically and geographically, from the colonial establishment of the core of the Ivys to the fundamentalist educational resurgence in the 1920s to Cold War red scares to modern resistance to anti-Muslim bigotry. For every institutional expression of jingoism and xenophobia there is, if not quite an equal and opposite reaction, at least a voice in the wilderness crying out against it.

My alma mater doesn’t make the cut in the article, though I hope to see it in Laats’ book. Certainly Harding University fits the paradigm being described above. Here is a university that was founded by a pacifist and Christian anarchist, named after a pacifist and Christian anarchist, that was nearly forced out of existence during World War I for promoting conscientious objection to military service. It is also a university that is now regularly included at or near the top of most lists designating America’s most conservative institutions of higher education. This is largely based on the strength of its American Studies Institute, a pure Americanist Cold War holdover that has attracted as speakers such luminaries as Margaret Thatcher, Condaleeza Rice, Henry Kissinger, and George W. Bush. (I was there when Dubya visited, and let me say that two hours of his personal charisma and folksy charm undid a lot of the personal animosity I cultivated through eight years of watching him enact terrible policies.)

It as also brought in less dignified–but by some warped measures more influential–conservative figures like Sean Hannity. Hannity’s visit, perhaps better than anything, embodied Laats’ depiction of the two opposing poles in evangelical higher education. The radio and TV pundit’s speech (in advance of a live-from-Harding show) was generally well received by an audience primed by years of indoctrination to accept uncritically the marriage of conservative Christian morals and conservative American politics.

The mood changed, however, during the question and answer phase, when a young student got up and asked Hannity if he was aware of the irony or even absurdity involved in delivering a “kill the Muslims before they kill you” sermon (my words not the student’s) at a university founded by pacifists. Hannity gave a dismissive, offensive, and profoundly fallacious response about hypothetical burglars and rapists and sent the student on his way, but illusion of ideological harmony had been shattered. Most of the audience left still agreeing with Hannity–just like most Liberty students will not be returning their diplomas in protest–but everyone understood that xenophobia and Republican politics did not hold uncontested sway over the narrative of Christian conservatism in modern America.

As an anarchist, environmentalist, and pacifist who comes to all of those positions using a decidedly conservative logic, I find myself sympathizing most often with those lonely voices shouting down evangelical hypocrisy from within. Yet it is somehow reassuring to read Laats and be reminded that I am shouting from within and not from beyond the walls of my own faith community. There is a sense of alienation that festers when you’re a conservative Protestant who is nauseated by the current political climate of “dog-whistle racial nationalism” and the role of other conservative Protestants in legitimizing it. It’s good to know that we too stand in the historical fullness of the evangelical tradition even if only as its harshest and most persistent critics, a moral minority fighting an altogether different battle from the outraged, culture warriors who surround us.

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Clean Monday

Scripture:

1 Timothy 4:4-6

For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer. If you point these things out to the brothers and sisters, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, nourished on the truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed.

Exodus 19:10-11

And the Lord said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Have them wash their clothes and be ready by the third day, because on that day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people.”

History:

Richard Clarke Cabot, The Christian Approach to Social Morality, 10-11

The problem we are concerned with is, of course, the problem of chastity, the problem of purity as a virtue. Now there is something paradoxical in this or any other virtue. There is no virtue of any kind unless one feels temptation, no virtue in bravery where there is no tendency to run away, no virtue in truth unless one has a tendency to lie. When one thinks one possesses a virtue one must realize that a virtue means a victory over temptation, and never the absence of temptation. Chastity is more than innocence or ignorance, just as courage is more than insensitiveness to fear. One cannot speak of purity or chastity without making this clear at the outset.

Neither does one mean what is sometimes called frigidity, that is, the knowledge of a given temptation without any personal sense of it, a head knowledge without a heart knowledge. Neither does one mean by chastity anything which is implied in a life led under physical restraint. The murderer who tries to murder and whose pistol misses fire is physically restrained from doing what he intended to do, but so far as virtue is concerned he has as little as the one who succeeds. So anyone physically free from evil relations has not necessarily chastity or purity ; and this is equally true, though less obvious, when one is restrained not by physical bonds but by fear of physical consequences. One who remains in the path of what is called virtue merely for fear of physical consequences has nothing to do with the special topic with which we are dealing today. Neither can we define chastity as the abstinence from certain acts, for if we did there could be no such phrase as “a chaste wife” ; yet we must retain that phrase.

But, if we cannot use purity to mean simply innocence or ignorance, or the abstinence from certain acts, or the results of physical fear or restraint, we have, it seems to me, nothing left for a definition except this: the guidance and inspiration of a consecrating affection. That, I believe, is the ultimate meaning of purity or chastity — that in the presence of temptation one is guided by the power of a consecrated affection, a higher love.

Reflection:

Cleansing and self-mortification are themes of recurring significance at the start of Lent, whether it’s Ash Wednesday or Clean Monday. At the start of the great period of fasting and repentance in the church, the tendency is to focus on purging the evil from our lives. It becomes a kind of spiritual spring cleaning where we sweep the cobwebs out of the untended corners our souls and resolve not to let any immoral dust-bunnies settle in again in the year to come.

And all of that is wonderful. Yet in spite of the fact that this year I feel less like I’m tidying up and more like I’m facing off against a malevolent stink demon, this Clean Monday my thoughts turn less to purging the evil than to consecrating the good. Both are an intrinsic part of preparing ourselves spiritually for the renewed experience of our salvation that comes each Easter. In a recent article, Fr. Stephen Freeman has highlighted the same need to strike a balance, advising that Lent is more than just “fasting and perhaps making a good confession.” It is a call to consecrate our lives and our property to divine purposes. So this year, I hope to fast in a way that stresses less the need to give something up and more the need to repurpose it to righteous ends. I still stand with the Israelites at the foot of the mountain in need of cleansing in anticipation of the Lord’s arrival, but I must try to remember Paul’s words to Timothy that all things are good if we set them apart for God in prayer and Thanksgiving.

Prayer:

I am unworthy—how can I reply to you?
    I put my hand over my mouth.
I spoke once, but I have no answer—
    twice, but I will say no more.

–Job 40:4-5

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