Monday, December 12, 2016

The 2016 Polls Were OK

Because Donald Trump won the electoral college and because it takes weeks for the full popular vote totals to be counted, the perception has set in that the polls were wildly wrong this year. But they weren't! Here's my layperson's understanding of what happened.

To get a rough sense of how the national polls performed in comparison to recent presidential elections, let's look at the Real Clear Politics national poll average for the last four elections.

RCP Average
Kerry v Bush 2004
Bush + 1.5
Bush + 2.4
Obama v McCain 2008
Obama + 7.6
Obama + 7.3
Obama v Romney 2012
Obama + 0.7
Obama + 3.9
Clinton v Trump 2016
Clinton + 3.2
National polls were only slightly less accurate this year than in 2004 and 2008, and significantly more accurate than in 2012. Ok, but what about state polls? Sam Wang's Princeton Election Consortium used only state polls and calculated that Clinton's margin was 2.2%. This was highly accurate. Wang missed Clinton's actual winning margin by only 0.1%.

Ok, but if the polls were fairly accurate, why did so many data journalists miss what was coming? Part of the answer is that they didn't. We've had over 50 of these presidential elections, and it turns out winning the popular vote is a really good way to become president. Winning it by millions of votes is an even better way to become president. This is what Clinton did, but she lost the election. Every once in a while, the candidate most people vote against manages to thread the needle and win.

This is what Trump did. He had very small margins in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, getting just the right amount of votes in just the right places. Given the size of Clinton's lead, the aggregators were probably right to believe she was the heavy favorite to win the election. Losing the popular vote by millions means you need everything else to fall perfectly into place. For Trump, the stars aligned.

But that doesn't mean there weren't clues before election day that this could happen. Many of the aggregators seem to have missed signs that there was an unusually high chance of a popular vote/electoral college split. Polls showed Clinton outperforming in sunbelt red states that she was unlikely to win in any case, like Texas, and underperforming in important midwestern states like Ohio and Iowa. This opened up the possibility that Clinton would have an unusually high number of "wasted" votes. And that's exactly what happened. The possibility of Trump losing the popular vote while winning just the right number of key swing states was the main reason Nate Silver's fivethirtyeight gave Trump a significantly higher chance than the other aggregators.

Even though aggregations of state and national polls ended up being fairly accurate, there were larger errors in a few swing states. Few observers anticipated that such a large gap would open up between swing states and the rest of the country. Ohio, a state Obama carried twice, ended up being 10 points more Republican than the national vote; Iowa, 11 points more Republican. Those are surprising numbers. But Trump's strength in those states was already apparent before election day, even if the magnitude of his victory there was unexpected.

So the polling industry did not collapse. The polls have had better years, but they've done worse too. They were ok. And that means they continue to be useful instruments. But the aggregators were overconfident in the conclusions they drew from them, underestimating the range of uncertainty created by the interaction of polling, the popular vote, and the electoral college. The pundits failed more than the data failed. The shock many of us felt on November 9 was moral rather than empirical. It was less about what the data indicated was possible, and more about our own inability to imagine that such an indecent outcome could really occur.

All of this might seem like a moot point, but it has implications for political strategy going forward. The more popular candidate lost, and Democrats should act accordingly. They should resist the urge to try to draw profound lessons from this election. They got unlucky, and yes, the electoral college is dumb. They don't need to become more Trumpian in their appeals or move toward his policy positions. He's an unusually unpopular president-elect. They need only resist him and they will reap political rewards while doing the right thing.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

What To Expect From A Trump Presidency

This is going to be bad. Really Bad.
I've noticed that fairly large numbers of people are trying to treat the coming Trump administration as a normal political moment. It's not. What is happening now transcends our normal partisan divides and ideological debates. If our response to this election is no different from how we responded to Romney v Obama or Bush v Kerry, we're seriously misreading the moment.

It is possible that Trump's presidency will not be a disaster. But we should be honest that such a hope is a leap in the dark. It's blind optimism. It is possible that Trump's first 70 years on this earth were the opposite of the coming four years. It is possible that Trump's campaign was a wild ruse telling us nothing about his administration. If, on the other hand, you simply believe that Trump's past behavior and declared intentions are a rough guide to how he will govern, we are entering into the darkest and most dangerous time in modern American history.

In contrast to every other modern American president, Trump's basic instincts are authoritarian. He does not believe in liberal democracy. He is a demagogue willing to stoke the most dangerous fault lines in our society in order to gain power for himself. We now must hope that his foolishness creates a presidency marked more by simple bungling than by a coherent plan of oppression.

If you are a moderate and peaceful soul inclined to say, "Let's give him a chance," you have already been disappointed. After the election, when asked if his rhetoric had gone too far, Trump responded, "No, I won." Perhaps there is no clearer statement of the moral code of this unrepentant man. Strength and winning are good. Weakness and losing are bad. Innocent human beings are fodder for the whims of the strong.

Trump's early appointments demonstrate his sincerity. He ran as an authoritarian white nationalist. Now he has appointed Steve Bannon as his chief strategist, a radical who proudly declared that his loathsome website was a platform for the racist alt-right crowd. He has brought on retired General Michael Flynn as his National Security Advisor, a man who is explicitly Islamaphobic. He named Jeff Sessions as his Attorney General, a man who supports mass incarceration and opposes voting rights.

So what should we expect from a Trump presidency? Start by assuming that Trump has generally been sincere and will try to govern roughly as he campaigned. He will continue to lie with impunity, and will seek to silence and bully the press to make his lies seem normal. He will continue to create a climate of hostility against nearly everyone who isn't Christian, White, heterosexual, and male. Muslims and immigrants are likely to be targeted with special harshness.

Expect some moments of calm. Expect the media to tell us about Trump's surprising moderation. But four years is a long time. If Trump doesn't launch a proactive campaign of oppression beginning January 20, it is likely to be only a matter of time. It's not that Trump will have a coherent plan to subdue the Republic. Indeed, probably his only clear plan so far is to arrange his affairs to allow maximum corruption and profiteering. This he has already begun to do. If nothing else, he and and his children intend to become very rich. But recall, again, that Trump's instincts are authoritarian and demagogic. There are going to be crises, both foreign and domestic, during the next four years. Trump will not respond well to any of them. Trump's mercurial and vindictive character will come through. And the thought of men like Bannon and Sessions whispering in Trump's ear is not comforting.

It is possible things will somehow turn out more or less alright. But the more likely scenario is that we are entering a very dangerous time. Much of the media will continue to follow after the latest shiny object. We must discipline ourselves to pay attention to the big and important questions:

How is Trump subverting democratic norms?

How is he weakening constitutional protections?

Who is he endangering?

We must be aware of the stories that might occur quietly in the background of a Trump administration, from a Justice Department that will actively support white supremacy, to a Trump family that will enrich itself at the public's expense. Depending how much money Trump can persuade the Republican congress to spend, the economy may be booming. If that happens, most Americans will be satisfied and will let oppression and corruption spread. Will you be satisfied?

How are you going to maintain your integrity?

We must resist. Remember how you felt in the summer of 2015 when Trump came down the escalator? It was an entertainment story. Trump as president was too absurd to seriously consider. Keep that feeling. You were right. It's still absurd. It's still a disgrace. If we lose sight of that basic fact we've lost something important, we've lost some of our own decency.

We must be loving, militant, disciplined, and nonviolent in deed and in spirit. We must pray for Donald Trump. Pray that he will repent of his evil designs. During the next four years we are likely going to need to take to the streets in protest. We are going to need to be organized in our communities and ready to act in solidarity with any group Trump targets. We are going to have to put unprecedented pressure on a Republican congress that has few moral scruples but will respond to power. We must treat an attack on Muslims as an attack on us. We must be prepared to protect the DACA kids from deportation.

The fake world Trump and his most ardent supporters are creating is only going to grow stronger. Just as millions of people have been portraying Trump as a decent man, millions of people will stand ready to explain and excuse any oppression during the Trump administration. If a terrorist attack takes place on U.S. soil and Trump begins putting Muslims in detention camps, millions of our fellow Americans will defend him. If Trump begins murdering Muslim Americans, millions of people stand ready to explain how it's really not as bad as the liberal media makes it seem.

We must engage Trump supporters with undiminished love and decency. Love is resistance. We must be open-hearted, lacking bitterness or animosity. We cannot rely on the usual norms of respectability that help us be kind to each other. We must love not because Trumpism is reasonable, but because the people who have put their faith in it are human beings made by God, and are infinitely valuable. And so, too, are all the people Trumpism will hurt. In the dark era we are entering, affirming the sacred worth of every person we encounter is an act of resistance.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

What Now, White Evangelicals?

I admire my neighbors so much. The morning after the election, as I walked John to school, I saw people going about their business, many as if nothing had happened. They were headed to work, or taking their kids to school. Some smiled and laughed. Others talked in whispered tones about the disastrous events of the day before. Many were silent.

The quiet fortitude and love of people accustomed to oppression stood in marked contrast to the fear and selfishness that propelled white evangelicals toward their deathly embrace of a new king to rule over them. While my neighbors appeared unbowed by a man threatening violence and oppression against them, white evangelicals appeared to be scared of their own shadows. Behind every corner lurked another possible threat to their privileged position in American life. And so, on Tuesday, they were vigilant.
Let's talk about those white evangelicals.

One of the worst mistakes white evangelical Trump supporters could make is to assume that the blowback they're receiving right now from their fellow Christians is political. It's not; at least, not primarily. For decades, Christians of color have been urging white evangelicals to repent of racism. That repentance--a broad and thorough phenomenon if it is real--is still nowhere in sight. For decades, Christians of color have been demanding that White evangelicals enact systemic reforms in their colleges and churches. Those reforms have usually been too little and too late. For decades, Christians of color have been warning white evangelicals to stop perverting the gospel. The perversion continues apace.

In much of evangelicalism, whiteness has spiritual authority. In these spaces, whiteness connotes theological maturity and biblical literacy. Theology rooted in the specific cultural contexts of American white supremacy is rendered as the default and normative theology, its racial origins and implications made invisible. If a person of color toes the line, preaching the same individualistic theology with its attenuated understanding of sin, society, and redemption, he (and yes, it's usually a he) is eagerly celebrated:

"Look at our model minority."

"Look at our exceptional Negro."

If that person of color seeks to dismantle the social, economic, and spiritual authority of whiteness within the church or institution, all manner of stonewalling and obfuscation ensue:

"This was never the plan. We wanted you on display. We didn't want you to change us."

This broader context of theological error and systemic sin made this week's political events possible. White evangelicals turned out to be Trump's core constituency. Preliminary data indicate that 81% voted for Trump, a higher number than even George W. Bush received. We can debate until we're blue in the face just how much awareness they had of what they were doing. What is clear is that the general environment of racism and ignorance in the communities in which they live and worship prevented them from seeing their fellow Christians as equally valuable human beings. Even more, the humanity of immigrants and Muslims and many others appeared to be little more than collateral damage in white evangelicals' quest to protect themselves.

As my former pastor in Chicago wrote this week, "most ethnic and religious minority American citizens feel that a Trump election is a vote against their identity. It says to them that "America doesn't want you here". It feels like a vote to go back to the way things were (Make America Great Again), when they were treated even worse then they are today."

Some white evangelicals surely knew this and voted for Trump anyway. Others literally did not know. In either case, they have an enormous amount of listening, learning, and reflecting to do.

But what of the nearly 1 in 5 white evangelicals who opposed Trump? We have our own problems:

One of the worst mistakes white evangelical Trump opponents could make is to use this occasion to declare our divorce with evangelicalism. I've already seen people I respect take this route. But you know what? People of color don't need us to assert our innocence. When we look at white evangelicalism and say, "I'm not that!" I understand that we might mean it as a statement of solidarity with people of color, but I worry that we are really making this declaration for ourselves. We don't want to be associated with white nationalism. But if we huffily announce that we're not evangelicals, how does that help people of color? Seriously, what good does it do them? They don't need us to loudly signal to the world our virtue and enlightenment. They need us to be missionaries to our communities where white nationalist idolatry has overrun the church.

We, as white evangelicals who claim to oppose racism, are the people best positioned to bring our white evangelical brothers and sisters to repentance. It's not anybody else's job to do it. This is all on us. This is our inheritance. Shouldn't we stay and try to make it right? When we bail out, loudly declare that we're done with evangelicalism, we become yet another set of critics lobbing stones from the outside. What good are we then?

Look, I'll be the first to admit I don't know what this means for me or how exactly we should go about these things. When you fight racism as a white evangelical, you will be accused of being too harsh, of being too patient, of being too wishy-washy, of being too radical. You will be constantly misunderstood. The only certainty is that you won't have a comfortable home within white evangelicalism. But maybe we can stay within its fold anyway? I'm struggling through this.

There's another mistake to which a third group of white evangelicals are vulnerable. These evangelicals have tried to keep their head down and bring peace to warring factions, desperately wanting both pro- and anti-Trump evangelicals to get along for the larger good of the church. The worst mistake these moderates could make is to think that there are two morally equal sides suffering from a temporary political disagreement. When the white evangelical church in its predominant expression is living in open and unrepentant sin, bowing down to the gods of whiteness and nationalism, what does it really mean to be a peacemaker? It must not mean giving equal comfort to the oppressor and the oppressed.

This is an exciting time to be a follower of Jesus. More than ever before, I feel assured that the great work of God is proceeding far from the centers of white nationalist Christianity. As God has introduced himself to us as a defender of the needy and a warrior on behalf of the oppressed, let that also be our calling card.

Monday, November 7, 2016

A Final Appeal

Tomorrow we face perhaps the most consequential presidential election since 1864. Two great questions were at stake in that contest over 150 years ago:

Would the republic survive?

Who would be included in it?

Echoes of those questions face us today. Voting for Trump—for authoritarian White nationalism—aligns us with the most destructive political tradition in American history.

Though I’ve always been interested in politics, I’ve never before spoken out about an election as I have this year. But never has someone so completely unfit in every possible way been this close to the presidency. His comprehensive ignorance and foolishness are disqualifying by themselves. Combine that with his cruelty and his publicly declared plans to oppress people, and we have a dangerous brew. His oppressive plans are not abstractions to me. I can't assume it's all talk. I know the people he has maligned. They’re friends and neighbors.
Our community is full of good people. It is not the hellhole of Donald Trump's racist imagination.
I am shocked and grieved that so many American Christians are willing to follow the oppressor because he might be on their team and appoint supreme court justices to their liking. This dream is so consuming that Christians are willing to trample on their neighbors in their rush to see it brought to reality.  

A vote for Donald Trump is a vote for new kinds of oppression, with no realistic prospect of reducing its existing forms. Tomorrow, please care for others and protect your integrity by voting for anyone but him, or abstaining.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Radicalism that Enables Trump

Human beings are complicated creatures. Many Trump voters are probably more upstanding in their personal character than I am. Yet, as a collective political force, Trumpism represents the barbarian horde at the gate. If they break through, it's not clear our civic institutions can withstand the damage.
The Course of Empire -- Destruction. Thomas Cole. 1836
Trump is the warlord leading this frenzy, but he did not start it.

A growing sense of fragmentation in our society and declining trust in our institutions are broad-based, bipartisan, and long-term phenomena, as Daniel Rogers has shown in his book, Age of Fracture.

But the radical conservative movement (a contradictory phrase) has deliberately catalyzed this disintegration. Stoking fear and paranoia, an alternative media apparatus has joined with radicals in congress to tell Americans that science is a hoax, that academia is a secular cesspool, that mainstream media is too biased to have any use, and that the Democratic Party is trying to destroy the country. Now, in the internecine conflict of the Republican Party, we see the radicals eating their own. There is no natural end point to this orgy of destruction.

Last night on Twitter, Matthew Yglesias wrote, "My guess is that in a Trump administration angry mobs will beat and murder Jews and people of color with impunity."

If you're familiar with Yglesias, you know that he is frequently snarky and ironic. So in this case, I assumed he was joking. He wasn't.

If you're not tuned in to political twitter, you might not be aware of what I'm about to tell you. Jewish journalists and journalists of color are being bombarded daily with genocidal racism from Trump supporters. I won't repeat the depravity here. But these journalists have never experienced anything like this before. It's unprecedented. And Trump's campaign knows full well exactly what is happening. Not only have they declined to discourage it, Trump and his son have retweeted some of these White supremacists.

If you were confronted by thousands of people online saying they want you to die, and the Republican nominee encouraged their behavior, how would you feel about the prospect of him becoming president?

It's easy enough to see how this sense of impunity would migrate from the online world to the real one. As President, Trump would have enormous power, the levers of federal law enforcement at his hands. We know that he is vindictive and cruel, a man ruled by his passions. This is an incredibly dangerous combination. At a time when there is broad understanding that police reform is needed, Trump has called for new oppression, more "tough" policing, and nationwide stop-and-frisk. Trump's language and demeanor is perfectly calibrated to create a culture of impunity, not only for police but for ordinary White citizens. And with his plans to oppress people of color publicly declared, Trump has won the support of law enforcement. So it's not just what Trump would do. It's about the permission structure he would create for thousands of police officers who chafe against current restraints.

A Trump presidency is not an abstraction. It would mean new kinds of oppression, and no prospect of mitigating its existing forms. It would mean more death. But Trump supporters can't see this because their radicalism has produced an alternate reality.

On the far right, the following claims are routinely thought to be true:

Democrats are trying to destroy the country.

Democrats who support a moderate kind of capitalism tempered by a social safety net are actually hard leftists or communists.

Barack Obama has purposely stirred up racial tensions.

Whites face more discrimination than people of color.

Voter fraud is a big problem.

There's a Christian twist on this radicalism too. It's a world where "liberal" is an antonym of "Christian" and you can be "pro-life" without actually supporting policies that would reduce abortions.

This post-truth, post-Christian politics enables Trump. If the other side is trying to destroy the country, the logic goes, then we are justified in burning down their institutions in order to save the country. What about the harm to poor people and racial and religious minorities? For some Trump supporters it's just collateral damage. For others, hurting people of color is precisely the point.

I have not given up hope that there are still people on the fence, and even Trump supporters, who will yet do the right thing and withdraw their support. For those who stay with him, have the courage of your convictions as the White supremacists do! Instead of voting for Trump while saying you take racism and sexism seriously, just admit that you aren't prioritizing these concerns.

I know that abortion looms large for many Christians. But if that's the single issue on which you're voting, go ahead and make that honest case. I still haven't heard anyone make this argument.

If people think that the dim prospect of reducing abortions under a President Trump is more important than all other forms of injustice put together--his racism, his misogyny, his gross ignorance, his intention to commit war crimes, his plans to oppress immigrants and Muslims and promote tougher policing--they should say so. What they must not do is wave all this away and create a fantasy world in which Trump didn't run a racist campaign and revel in his own ignorance and cruelty. If White evangelicals think we should elect a biblical fool to the presidency, they should say so, and they should explain why. What we're getting instead is a Maoist approach to truth, where what is true is whatever lie the party has declared for the day. Trump's campaign isn't racist like there was no famine in the Chinese countryside in 1959.

The seriousness of pro-life voters can be measured by the range of solutions we are willing to support. If we can tolerate an ignorant demagogue to advance our anti-abortion politics but cannot tolerate wealth redistribution and health care policies that would reduce the demand for abortions, our politics is not as pro-life as we imagine. Even if you're a single-issue abortion voter, I still think Trump is the wrong choice.

Are you willing to look people of color in the eye and tell them you don't care about them? Because that's what it feels like if you vote for Trump. Are you willing to tell them that they're wrong to be concerned, that you know more about their lives than they do?

There is still time to do the right thing.

(My standard disclaimer: I'm not urging people to vote for Clinton. I'm simply urging Christians not to vote for Trump, and to use our vote, or abstention, to put the interests of others ahead of ourselves).

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Five Takeaways From The First Presidential Debate

Calm before the storm. September 26, 2016.
1) Hillary Clinton made an unprecedented accusation.

Last night, one presidential candidate stood on the debate stage and said of her opponent, "he has a long record of engaging in racist behavior."

This has never happened before. Had this claim been made in any other presidential debate in American history, it would have been completely shocking. It would have dominated the headlines, and pundits of every persuasion would be scratching their heads about such an offensive breach of civility.

But last night, America shrugged. Even Trump's supporters didn't seem too bothered about it. The reason: it's so undeniably true.

2) "Racial divide" is considered objective; "Racial injustice" is considered opinionated

Introducing the portion of the debate on race, moderator Lester Holt said, "Race has been a big issue in this campaign and one of you is going to have to bridge a very wide and bitter gap. So how do you heal the divide?"

This is, of course, a less relevant question than how you would fix the causes of the divide. Holt could have simply asked, "What would your administration do to reduce racial discrimination?" but this question would have been a violation of racial norms. As long as we talk about the divide, we can each have our own fanciful notions of who and what is responsible for it.

If you think about other issues, it may be more obvious why this rhetoric of division and healing is strange.

"Americans bitterly disagree about climate change. How are you going to heal the divide?"

"Immigration has been a big issue in this campaign and one of you is going to have to bridge a very wide and bitter gap. So how do you heal the divide?"

Notice how these aren't actually questions about climate change or immigration. They're questions about the nation's civic fabric and our ability to get along with one another. And there's a place for those questions! But ordinarily, we ask questions about the issues themselves. Only when it comes to race do we consistently displace the actual issue and turn it into a civic fabric discussion. This is colorblind racial rhetoric in action.

3) We've never seen a liar like this. 

I get it; politicians lie. But we've never seen such brazen contempt for truth from a presidential candidate. Donald Trump is in a class by himself. We owe it to ourselves and our kids to retain the capacity to be shocked by it. We don't yet know the full consequences of this unprecedented behavior. But it is corrosive. I hope Trump supporters will give more thought to what it might mean for our political system to discard any sense of obligation to truth.

4) I'm not sure Trump "lost."

Of course Trump lost the debate by the usual measures of performance. But did he really "lose" in the minds of the people who matter? I don't know. Trump was obviously unfit from day one. What can a candidate who had already disqualified himself do that would cause him to "lose" at this late date?

5) No one will be able to say they didn't know. 

Donald Trump is an ignorant bully. This is a matter of public record. There have been lots of questions about how the race between a flawed but normal nominee and a con man could be this close. Has the media failed to educate the public? Is Hillary Clinton just a horrible candidate? Did the Republican establishment badly miscalculate? As interesting as these questions may be, we spend a lot of time talking about them because we don't want to face what we know deep down: millions of Americans know who Trump is, and they like him for it.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

You Probably Wouldn't Have Supported the Civil Rights Movement

White Americans desperately want to be innocent of any racial wrongdoing. You notice this pretty quickly when you begin to talk about race. Once you look for it, you'll see how often White people are approaching the whole conversation with one goal: establishing their innocence. "My family didn't own slaves. My grandparents immigrated here in the twentieth century. I worked hard for everything I have. Black people have had the same opportunities." Etc.

These kinds of statements tend to be beside the point, and often plainly false. But truth in a literal sense is not the goal of this kind of rhetoric. We use it to claim that we are good, and that we bear no responsibility for racial injustice. We use it to avoid negative feelings. We want to claim innocence not by doing something, but by creating our own reality with our words.

Let's focus on one common trope in the construction of White innocence. It comes in a variety of forms, but the gist of it is this:

I don't support Black Lives Matter, but I would have supported the civil rights movement. 

People believe this with sincerity. But they're almost certainly wrong. Maybe you're one of these people. You praise the civil rights movement but find yourself opposed to the current movement. Let's treat your claim not as something that needs to be true for your emotional well-being, but as something that can be investigated historically. It might be uncomfortable at first. But the truth can set you free.

First, if you're around 70 years of age or above, there isn't anything theoretical about this. You were an adult at the height of the civil rights movement. What did you do?

But most of us are younger. So let's use our imaginations informed by what we know about the historical context of the time.
A normal headlines from the 1960s. Would you have joined the "law and order" chorus?
Most White Americans opposed the civil rights movement. Why do you think you would have been willing to go against the grain and possibly lose relationships with friends or family members?

Even more than they do today, White and Black Americans lived in separate worlds. What about your White small town, rural area, or segregated urban neighborhood would have given you a connection to African Americans or sympathy for their goals? Why do you think you would have been concerned about this issue at all?

Dr. King was a radical traveling protestor. Violence ensued nearly everywhere he launched a campaign. Why would you have believed his statements instead of the statements of the police and other authorities?
Cleveland Sellers, Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael
Most White Americans thought African Americans had all the opportunities they needed. Why would you have thought any differently? Why would you have thought protests were necessary?

The riots of the 1960s were on a vast and deadly scale far beyond anything we've seen in this century. Why wouldn't you have blamed the riots on the movement? 

Dr. King laid the ultimate blame for the rioting at the feet of White America. Would you have agreed with him?
Looting in Philadelphia, 1964.
Wouldn't you have been concerned about the anti-White and anti-police rhetoric of the Nation of Islam?

What about the Black Power movement would have appealed to you?

Wouldn't you have been concerned about Dr. King's communist associations?

The FBI said Dr. King was a dangerous agitator. Wouldn't you have considered the FBI a reliable source of information?

Would you have been bothered by Dr. King's radical critique of capitalism?

The Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act dramatically expanded federal power and reduced the rights of the states. Would you have supported the expansion of federal government power the civil rights movement demanded?

You might think that you would have been stirred to action by the videos of protestors being attacked with dogs and firehoses, or by the death of the four little girls in the church bombing. Perhaps. But I suppose it's fair to ask, how did Tamir's murder move you? You saw that on video too. How did the Charleston church shooting move you?

We could go on for a long time. I think you get the point. There have always been reasons to stand on the side of White supremacy. What most White Americans saw and understood of the civil rights movement was disorder, violence, and unreasonable demands. It was not as simple or clear as you imagine it. The measure of our goodwill is not what we might have done in a movement that is safely in the past. The question is what we will do now in a society that is segregated and unequal.

If you don't agree with the proposition that racial oppression in 2016 is real, you can continue on with your innocence-making project. But you won't be free. You'll be forced to believe lies. For your own protection you'll make up fantasies about your own country. You won't understand the world you live in. That's a miserable way to live.

The truth shall set you free.

See, Christians don't go looking for racial innocence. We believe that there is "none righteous, not one." So our connection to evil doesn't surprise us. We're not surprised that we've passively benefited from unjust systems, or that we have racist ideas. We don't need to approach racial controversies solving for our innocence; Jesus has taken care of that. We are freed to look for truth and stand with the oppressed. We are free to support Black Lives Matter, as everyone should.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Why I'm Still An Evangelical In The Age Of Trump

Part of me thinks if you're a real evangelical you don't need to write about why you still are one. But my path has been winding. For the past decade, whether or not I was an evangelical might depend on the day you asked me, or what I had for dessert the night before. As I've grown older and begun to raise my children, I've grown into my identity. When your children begin to ask you questions, you find you have to answer them one way or another. It turns out that I am still an evangelical. 

It is through evangelicalism that I encountered Jesus and cast what little faith I have into the proposition that he will rescue me from myself. For me, "sinner saved by grace" is not an old-fashioned Sunday school tale. It is the basic claim that shapes every day of my life. Without it, I would live somewhere else, do different work, and have a different kind of family. Without it, I wouldn't know what to do.

There is something wonderful and hard to explain about the rootedness of believing in supernatural religion. I am a person of my time, of course, but I'm also of another time. I can read words written hundreds or thousands of years ago and feel an instant connection. They trusted in Jesus, too, I say to myself, and their experience seems so similar to mine because, after all, Jesus is alive. This foolishness rescues me from the soul-crushing materialism of this confused era. Evangelicalism is not the only place I might have discovered these things, it's just where I did discover them. And so I owe something to it.

But when as a young adult I found out that my faith tradition was broken, I wanted to push it away, reject it. Easier said than done.

Many of us have complicated but ultimately unbreakable bonds with the things that form us. Families, countries, religions, a landscape or a city. There are certain things that are a part of you and you love them with all the frustration and familiarity with which you love yourself. So when I tried to disown evangelicalism, it didn't take. I find that my very best and very worst qualities are tangled together in this evangelical inheritance.

I've found in evangelicalism the harshest judgments and most unexpected acts of grace. I've seen the worst kinds of complacency and the most life-giving zeal. I've found guilt and shame, and soul-restoring peace. I've found infuriating anti-intellectualism and humble scholarship of the first order. I've even found racism and anti-racism.

To many readers this may all sound vaguely strange, possibly even interesting, but disconnected from what they know of evangelicalism. The elephant in the room with us is the "Christian" Right. Many Americans know evangelicalism primarily as a political movement. So it may surprise some people to learn that evangelicals are spending far more time and money working on things like poverty, racism, health care, and education than they are in trying to elect Republicans. World Vision, for example, is an evangelical aid organization with a budget that by itself dwarfs all the activities of the "Christian" Right in the United States. And don't forget the thousands of organizations that are doing exceptional work in every city across the country. They're helping kids, rebuilding communities, fighting poverty, providing health care, and offering college scholarships to students of color.
John Perkins, founder of the CCDA. A hero within evangelicalism, virtually unknown without
From the outside, evangelicalism has looked like a political juggernaut. From the inside, it has looked like a religious movement that treats partisan politics as a sideshow. I don't know quite how to reconcile these competing visions. But communities are always more complicated than they appear from the outside.

An old friend and mentor of mine, himself an evangelical, recently told me that he believes many of the "evangelicals" showing up in polls supporting Donald Trump are cultural evangelicals in the South who are not actually committed Christians. There seemed to be an element of truth in this, especially in the primaries when the data showed regular church attendees were less likely to support Trump. And anecdotally, this seems right even now. It's hard to find Christians in my circles who support Trump. But I don't think that's the story the data is telling now. Though some of us are associated with evangelical communities in which voting for Trump is unthinkable, we have to face the fact that the large majority of church-going White evangelicals are going to vote for him.

This is the culminating act of political self-destruction in a 40 year campaign of harmful politics. When I think of the "Christian" Right, I'm inclined to repurpose a line from Frederick Douglass' first autobiography: "between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference..." Indeed. Despite all the good done by evangelicals in local communities, the dominant political expression of American evangelicalism is hateful and selfish, and unworthy to be called Christian.

This politics is very public. It's what people see, and it's what they associate with evangelicalism. So to all the readers who don't have any particular connection to evangelicalism but know it through its politics: you're right to be offended. I hope, in some small way, it might matter to you to know that millions of evangelicals are offended too.

And we're not just offended. We're bewildered. Evangelical support for Trump is a fascinating and confusing phenomenon because he is a living negation of the values we claim to hold. He embodies with eerie precision the opposite of the qualities we're taught to revere in our savior. Christ's servant's spirit, his humility, his boundary-crossing love, his wrath for oppressors--it's not just that Trump fails to live up to these qualities, as we all do. It's that he's unusually hostile to them.

Evangelicals should not be under the illusion that they will have any credibility to speak to my generation after vocally supporting Trump. I can understand an evangelical quietly and sorrowfully pulling the lever for Donald Trump. I really can. But open advocacy is something else. To this day, I still haven't seen an honest evangelical case for Trump. I'd like to see the case made.

I do not want to offend Trump supporters. But I do want them to be aware that their politics hurts real people, including my neighbors. These folks have names. They're flesh and blood. Supporting Trump hurts them, and I still can't see how it helps anybody else. It's all downside.

So how does a candidate running on an anti-Christian platform win over Christian voters? By appealing to their idols. In the end, Trump's allure cannot be understood apart from White evangelicals' investments in race and patriotism. What I wrote at the beginning of the summer still holds true:
Many White evangelicals are prepared to vote for Trump because they're heirs to a cultural and theological tradition that binds race and nation to faith. Trump may not offer a clean-cut portrait of Christian character, but he is surprisingly forthright in his White nationalism. It is a mistake to assume that Trump's irreligious persona doesn't carry a religious message. To make America great again, to restore America's racial hierarchy--these are religious goals of an idolatrous people.
This, too, is part of my inheritance. Part of what it means for me to be a follower of Jesus is not to run away from my community of faith. It would have been easier in a way to leave evangelicalism and cast stones from the outside. It is harder to stay, confront my own racism, and seek reformation of my community from the inside. But I think that's what I'm supposed to do.