Saturday, February 19, 2005

Joining The Peace Corpses

Kudos to Associated Press reporter Maggie Michaels (and her Editor) for getting a valuable perspective-achieving bit of contrasting information into the second paragraph of her story about the suicide bombs that killed 55 Iraqis on the Shiites' holiest day.

She made the point that this was a "significantly smaller" amount of terrorist success than last year on this day when they killed 181.

As grim as it sounds, the fact is that sometimes the true story is not 55 dead, as tragic as that is, but '126 less dead than last year' as we measure progress toward civil society in Iraq.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Conservatives on the March

I am posting this from a computer donated for public use, by, at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., hosted by the American Conservative Union. It is a bit odd, of course, for me to be here, given that I have been so consistent in stating that I am not a conservative. However, this is not as strange as it may seem. For the political meaning of the word conservative, as I have frequently noted, has evolved into something synonomous with the Right. This conference confirms that notion.

It is interesting, for example, that one of the people who just spoke to the assembled masses about Social Security reform was a member of the Log Cabin Republicans. The speaker did not receive a huge ovation for his politely veiled reference to allowing any old kind of "domestic partner" to receive death benefits from Social Security under a new system allowing personal retirement accounts. But that is exactly the point. Although his position on many issues is hardly describable as conservative, his views on Social Security are certainly of the Right.

This brings up what is to me one of the most important questions of the day, for the Right. Can born-again Christians join with Log Cabin Republicans to support changes in Social Security and then go out separately to very different places afterward, and still see each other as true allies? This is a question that should be central to the discussion on the Right, as we seek to consolidate recent successes and create a movement that can truly compose a long-term majority of the American people.

There has been a certain amount of triumphalism among the speakers at the conference, and that is surely understandable given the political success of the Right in recent elections. Seeing the great variety of organizations and speakers at this conference--from Midwestern Eagle Forum traditionalists and the National Rifle Association to Log Cabin Republicans and groups for the legalization of marijuana--clearly this is a movement that includes a large variety of very different people. It suggests the possibility for a true, long-term political majority being established by the Right.

The question is whether these disparate groups can agree on a set of central principles that is sufficiently broad and yet also exclusive enough to sustain a definable mission to which all can assent. When the time for self-congratulation has finally passed, that is the conversation I would like to see on the Right.

Negroponte and Capability

Jay, I'm probably going to end up on the opposite side of Savage here, too. My read on John Negroponte is that he is one of those men who has the ability to get things done. There are a lot of smart, talented people in the world, but the number of them who can really act and achieve goals without excuses is radically lower.

I'm guessing that President Bush got burned on Bernard Kerik and then thought, "The celebrity strategy for this post hasn't worked, I'm going to name a superbly competent person who doesn't care much about image or headlines. Thus, we get Negroponte.

The Director As Auteur? Or Hauteur?

This publication has registered its displeasure with the output of radio personality Dr. Michael Savage, but this time he has gotten it right: what possible advantage to our intelligence gathering and analysis or our overall safety can be achieved by appointing Mr. Negroponte, a veteran diplomat, to the umbrella role of Intelligence Director?

This is a classic example of the desperate need to "do something" metastasizing into doing something foolish and counterproductive. Is it rude of me to recall my immediate opposition to the idea?

What Happened to the Unions?

Yes, you all know it, I love the Lawrence Henry take on America. He's knocked around, been a lot of places, and despite making his way down a bumpy road, he's still here writing, thinking, and doing a little stock-investing. If you don't read his column every week at American Spectator, you're really missing out on the fun history of regular life in the U.S.

Check out his take on the big changes that killed the labor unions. Here's a smidge:

Labor unions just plain missed it. Even if they hadn't missed it, what were they supposed to do? What -- or whom -- were you supposed to organize? A bunch of geeks in a warehouse mainlining Coca-Cola? Which were the real businesses and which were the pipe dreams? If Wall Street couldn't tell yet, and it couldn't, not really, how were unions supposed to figure it out? By the time some sort of manufacturing lines came into existence, those lines were already changing so fast, it was hard to tell the difference between labor and management. Now, of course, the mass jobs, the low-skill jobs, have migrated overseas, and they're just plain gone. Who wants guaranteed overtime? Everybody's got guaranteed overtime. It comes with the territory. Now you want stock options. Now you want career advances. Now you want to strike out and do it for yourself. Pension? Tell me another one. I've got a 401(k) and deferred comp. Job security? There's no such thing. Career types change jobs seven times in a lifetime nowadays.

A Thought Ontic

After recommending to Hunter that he include in his doctoral reading list The Lonely Man Of Faith by Joseph B. Soloveitzik (1903-1993), I picked up my own copy and scanned it a bit for insight and inspiration.

This I felt urged to share: "Western man... attends lectures on religion and appreciates the ceremonial, yet he is searching not for a faith in all its singularity and otherness, but for religious culture. He seeks not the greatness found in sacrificial action but the convenience one discovers in a comfortable, serene state of mind. He is desirous of an aesthetic experience rather than a covenantal one, of a social ethos rather than a divine imperative. In a word, he wants to find in faith that which he cannot find in his laboratory, or in the privacy of his luxurious home. His efforts are noble, yet he is not ready for a genuine faith experience which requires the giving of one's self unreservedly to God, who demands unconditional commitment, sacrificial action, and retreat. Western man... insists on being successful. Alas, he wants to be successful even in his adventure with God. If he gives of himself to God, he expects reciprocity. In a primitive manner, he wants to trade 'favors' and exchange goods. The gesture of faith for him is a give-and-take affair and reflects the philosophy of Job which led to catastrophe - a philosophy which sees faith as a quid pro quo arrangement and expects compensation for each sacrifice one offers..."

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Kofi Should Be Canned

If by some unaccountable fluke you have not yet discovered my article in today's Jewish World Review, here it is, linkin' without costin' ya a penny. My message is: get Kofi.

The Ralph Reed Rumor Was Right On.

Ralph Reed is launching his own political career by running for Lieutenant Governor of Georgia. Friends pretty deep in the Georgia political world have known this was coming. My guess is that Dr. Ralph is going to get what he wants. If Haley Barbour can do it in Mississippi, Ralph can do it in Georgia.

He'll likely have primary opposition, but it's hard to imagine anyone else in the party could match his name recognition and "powerful-strong" resume'. There are folks in the Georgia GOP who really hate Reed, but I suspect that's true of most political figures in any party. Part of the problem is that he immediately became the biggest GOP fish when he came back to the state. I'll make the prediction now. Ralph takes the Lt. Gov's office with 53% of the vote.

You can check out his own statement of ambition and aspiration here.

A Musing Grace

The Miami-Dade School Board will hold a vote today to determine if the soda machines should be removed from all the local public schools to help prevent obesity in children.

We have all witnessed this galloping cultural phenomenon of the virtue of health being whittled into a cudgel with which to bludgeon the populace into a grim conformity.

Have we been correct in deeming it merely an amusing spectacle of the finicky badgering the carefree?

Or is this something more insidious, more perfidious, part of an ongoing cultural experiment of postmodern man trying to reconstruct some network of boundaries to replace those that were unwittingly dismantled in the adventure of deconstructing the social fabric? A fabric that was knit by the quest for godliness.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Blegging About Books . . .

Good people of ReformClub land, I am about to enter the post-coursework segment of my doctoral program in Religion, Politics, and Society at Baylor. At this point, we put together a list of 100 or so relevant books (Reformation, Church-State jurisprudence, sociology of religion, political liberalism, American religious history, the Puritans, etc) and study them for a year prior to taking comprehensive exams. I'm working on the list now and would love to benefit from recommendations of books from anyone who cares to Email me.

I have a particular interest in deists, by the way, if anyone knows something about them, all the better.

Mr. Karnick, I'm still waiting for yours!

Rafik Hariri's Traffic Horror

Earlier this week I indicated that it might be valuable to write a full-length article on the history of Syrian domination in Lebanon. They took a long time serving the entree at the wedding I attended tonight, so I snuck home (fifteen minutes away), wrote the article, and got back to my table ahead of the prime rib (well-done and delicious).

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Culture Watch—The Simpsons

In next Sunday's episode of The Simpsons, the town of Springfield legalizes same-sex marriage, and one of the central characters of the series will take advantage of the opportunity. Who that character will turn out to be has been a matter of intense debate in some circles, and it will be even more interesting to see what kind of attitude the story takes toward the issue. It is interesting, for example, why the town decides to legalize the marriages: to increase money from tourism. Simpsons executive producer Al Jean was quoted in the Baltimore Sun as saying, "We don't take a position as much as explore everybody's positions." We'll find out next Sunday on Fox.

Shall It Be The Truth?

Those who share our interest in the portrayal of religious characters in fiction will want to read Wendy Shalit's spirited response in today's Jewish World Review to those who attacked her New York Times Book Review survey of books about observant Jews.

If you have not read the original article, never fear, today's article offers you that link in its opening line. Please accept my strong recommendation; this is well worth your while.

Monday, February 14, 2005

The Retirement of Jerry Falwell . . .

I should say, "the much anticipated retirement of Jerry Falwell." The man is not an effective spokesman for Christian conservatives. I think that much of what drove me to enter the world of Christian public policy and now Christian higher education was the feeling that Falwell and guys like him were failing us all. He can't quit soon enough for me.

Today, I happened onto the Sean Hannity show on the radio. Jerry Falwell and Christian lefty Jim Wallis were going at it. Actually, I should say that Wallis was explaining his left-wing politics while affirming pro-life and pro-traditional marriage views. Falwell was all over him, simply refusing to have a conversation. He insisted that Wallis explain where he goes to church, what time they meet, the address of the church, you get the drift. It was just embarrassing. I'm even more disappointed that Hannity would choose Falwell as the counterpoint. Can't blame that on the liberal media.

Falwell has been effectively taken down in Tucker Carlson's book Politicians, Partisans, and Parasites: My Adventures in Cable News. Carlson says cable news hosts desperately need guests who will drop anything, including a child's birthday party to show up for even a few seconds of air time. He places Falwell in that camp and was disappointed to visit Falwell for an interview and find that instead of an interesting discussion about the growth of the religious right as a factor in American politics, he got a recitation of all the people in television Falwell knows.

You want an evangelical for television and radio? Get Hugh Hewitt. Get Mark Noll. Get George Marsden. Jerry Falwell has had more than enough.

Trouble Is Real

Since Israel -and my one-time residence there- has emerged as a theme today, I would like to address two events that relate to that region.

First, the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister, and billionaire-at-large, Rafik Hariri, by a massive bomb that bespeaks a patron with deep pockets, large staging areas, and effective penetration. The prime suspect is, of course, Syria, a nominally separate country that is actually the suzerain of Lebanon. Hariri resigned his post last autumn because of a dispute with his Syrian bosses. This would seem to be the fallout from the fall falling-out.

Please permit me to recall to your memory the fact that the act which broke the back of independent Lebanese sovereignty was the bomb which killed Bashir Gemayel during the victory party the night he was elected (with Israel's backing) Prime Minister in 1982. This led to the Sabra-and-Shatila massacre and a state of civil war which was only stopped, or at least contained, when Amin Gemayel, milquetoast brother of the charismatic Bashir, agreed to serve as Syria's stooge and occupy his brother's position with no real power.

Second, the report in the Jerusalem Post, not widely circulated here, that Abbas has agreed to unfreeze the bank accounts of Hamas in return for some undisclosed agreement of cooperation with his government. That is probably a development that bears close scrutiny.

Withdrawals From West Bank

The news from Israel, being distributed widely across the wire services, is that terrible death threats by West Bank and Gaza settlers against government ministers have compelled Ariel Sharon to issue a crackdown order. Having resided in Israel myself for a few years (while Sharon was Defense Minister), permit me to decipher this report.

First of all, please note that one government minister received one nasty letter calling him an Arab-lover and one had the tires on his car slashed. How absurd is it to issue a national police order based on one anonymous letter?

The answer is that this is the Israeli equivalent of the Gulf-of-Tonkin method. It has been used frequently in the Israeli government playbook.

This is a simple trick designed to open the door for the government to harass a few settlers so as to soften them up for the eventual evacuation order. Sharon is a general who likes to play offense and do a small preemptive strike to avoid larger confrontations later. Perhaps I'll expand on this in an article later this week.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Getting Religion

In The American Scene, Ross Douthat has written a very insightful response to a "searing indictment of contemporary Christian mores," as he characterizes it, recently published in Books and Culture.

The Books and Culture article, by theology professor Ronald J. Sider, which appears in the January/February issue of the magazine and is available online, is called "The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience" and points out the great difference between what contemporary American evangelical Christians profess to believe and how they behave. Sider cites the now-familiar statistics about tithing, divorce, premarital sex, racism, etc. which show that American evangelical Christians are on the whole only slightly less sinful, according to evangelical doctrines, than other Americans. Sider observes that those churchgoers with the strongest Christian beliefs tend to live less sinful lives. Hence, the answer, Sider says, is to strengthen the faith of individual believers. Sider exhorts his fellow Christians to develop a "longing for holiness" and pray for a revival within the church that will strengthen individuals' beliefs.

It is an interesting article and one well worth reading, but Douthat's analysis of the piece goes to the heart of the matter: the Calvinist origins of American evangelicalism—

"In Protestantism [Douthat writes], and particularly among those churches with a Calvinist stamp, this reality of perptual fallen-ness has often clashed with the emphasis on a single 'born-again' moment, and with the expectation that once a Christian gains true faith, works will inevitably follow. The presence of sinfulness in a Christian community thus becomes an indictment of the community's faithfulness -- and this, in turn leads to what you might call the 'cycle of Protestantism,' in which purity-seeking believers are constantly founding new sects and religious colonies, which expand and thrive but also drift away from their original moral austerity, leading in turn to splinter movements and the founding of a newer, smaller, more austere communities (as New Haven was founded, for instance, as a refuge from the increasing worldliness of Puritan Boston).

"Or alternatively, the inevitable slide into moral laxity leads to a cycle of revivals, in which the community recommits itself to religious rigor for a time, only to drift away again eventually, setting the stage for another revival -- and so on, ad infinitum. And through it all, as the sects and splinter movements multiply, there remains an unspoken belief among the Calvinistically-inclined -- a belief, I might add, that permeates Sider's article -- that a more perfect community, a true and permanent 'City on the Hill,' is just another revival away.

"The Catholic Church, by contrast, takes a rather more tragic view of Christian imperfectability (a necessity, a Protestant might say snidely, given the Church's long history of Grand Inquisitors and Borgia Popes). Catholicism has its saints, of course, but they are exceptions to the rule -- the community of believers is understood to be a community of sinners, not a society of the perfected. The signs and signifiers of the divine reside not in the all-to[o]-human Catholics who show up (or don't) at Mass on Sundays, but in the mystical materials of the Church itself -- in doctrine, in scripture, and above all in the sacraments. There is an expectation that everyone will pray and strive for the sainthood that Sider urges on American Evangelicals, but it's joined to an awareness that most people aren't going to make it. (Hence Purgatory, incidentally . . .)

"The difficulty with the Catholic approach, though I think it's the right one, is that a recognition of the pervasiveness and permanence of sin can easily be elided into a winking, 'it's-not-so-bad' acceptance of sin. And we all know where that got us."

Douthat is entirely correct in his observation that cause of the disjunction between American Christians' beliefs and actions is to be found in evangelicalism's Calvinist origins, and that the weakness of Sider's case is his inability to get past that, which means that all he can do is call for more of the same, another revival within the church. The cycle must continue, if we follow Sider's reasoning.

The moral problem of Calvinism is a theological problem, however, and it is this. All Christians agree that human beings are inherently sinful, and all agree that God is the source of all good things, and of all good works by human beings. Hence, sanctification—the process of cleansing a person and making them holy—follows salvation, not the other way around. (That is to say, a person is not made acceptable to God—holy, clean, sinless—and then saved by God. God saves a person and then begins the process of cleansing and purifying that will be perfected upon each individual's death and entrance into Heaven.)

However, what I call the "magic moment" thesis of evangelical Christianity, in which a person participates in his own salvation in a sense, by "choosing" to "accept God into his life through faith in Christ" puts a huge amount of responsibility on the individual Christian. A Christian, according to Calvinism, must knowingly accept God. That sounds fine and sensible at first hearing, but if it is true, then inevitably a person is an active participant in his own salvation. If salvation requires both God's will and an individual's assent—even if we accept the premise, as Calvinists do, that assent will come only if God wishes it—the individual's act is still an essential part of the process.

The situation with good works is the same. Calvinists, correctly believing that church membership is not a sufficient proof of one's salvation, conclude that, as the apostle James noted, an individual's works are the evidence of one's relationship with God. Well and good. Unfortunately, the onus is then on each individual Christian to show the world that they are right with God. And here is the problem: given that the individual's assent to God's will is a central element in salvation, then it would seem that at least to some degree an individual's struggles with sin are not entirely in God's hands. After all, one must consent to being made holy. And if one is not entirely holy, who is at fault? Surely not God, who is all-powerful and perfectly good. The one who is at fault is the individual whose inherent depravity has caused him to resist God's efforts to sanctify him.

That is indeed the truth about sin, as all Christians would agree. The problem, of course, is that there is no way out of this trap once one enters it. The individual is responsible for his or her own sins, and although God has already forgiven them (as a consequence of the magic moment), no amount of human effort can fully dislodge the sinful impulses from an individual and stop their evil consequences.

Catholicism, as Douthat notes, has an answer. I should say that God's Word provides us with the answer, which Catholics and other pre-Calvin Christian denominations (such as Lutheranism) have not forgotten. It is this: the effectiveness of the Sacraments. Douthat notes that Catholics see God as working "in the mystical materials of the Church itself -- in doctrine, in scripture, and above all in the sacraments," but it is important to note that evangelicals accept the first two completely but have a distinctly different understanding of the sacraments. To them, the sacrament of baptism is an individual's response to salvation, which happens during the moment in which he accepts Christ into his heart.

Communion, similarly, for Calvinist-influenced Christians is a Christian's response to God: it is not a way for God to put something directly into the individual (specifically, the True Presence of the Lord in His body and blood), but rather a way for an individual to show God his personal devotion and witness to others that God is real and cares for each person, an act which God will reward by strengthening that person's faith.

For Christians with pre-Calvinist assumptions, however, the sacraments are real. (We do differ on the number of the sacraments, but all agree on at least two: baptism and communion.) For pre-Calvinist Christians, as I shall call this group for short, God actually works His power in us through the sacraments.

In baptism, the Holy Spirit of God is placed in the individual, and he or she is stamped as a child of God. The individual is taken into the Church universal, the body of Christ, and is thereafter perfectly free to stay or leave. But the actual entry does not require any action on the part of the believer. No act of assent is necessary. Hence, in pre-Calvinist thinking, the Christian has truly had no part whatsoever in his or her salvation. No one can take any credit for being saved, nor for any good works they do, nor even for remaining in the Church.

Of course, as Ross noted, this can give people a tendency toward latitudinarianism, given that all is so easily forgiven.

However, that need not be so, because of the other major sacrament: communion.

In communion, the presence of Christ is in the bread and wine (consubstantiation), or the elements are turned into the real body and blood of Christ (transubstantiation), and when a sincerely penitent believer partakes of them, that strength of God is placed in them anew. Here, too, God is doing all the work. Yes, the believers must confess their sins (privately to a priest or publicly in the liturgy), but God is truly doing the work of renewal.

I recall that Flannery O'Connor once said of evangelicals' idea about communion, "Well, if it's just symbolic, then I don't want no part of it!"

I can understand why, and in her charmingly tart way O'Connor set forth a crucial reason for the perennial laments about the Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience among evangelicals themselves. Evangelical theology places a huge amount of responsibility on the individual Christian, who is, after all, no more than a highly fallible human being who has been redeemed by God and remains always a work in progress. Pre-Calvinist Christians can proceed to the altar for refreshment and renewal, and need bring nothing to the table but their sincere repentance.

Evangelicals, on the other hand, after that "magic moment" in which they ask Christ to come into their life, are perpetually under the gun. Once saved, good works are supposed to follow inevitably, and every failure is a failure of the individual, certainly not of God.

All Christians agree that any sin is a consequence of human depravity, not a shortcoming of God's power or mercy. For evangelicals, however, there is no supernatural recourse, as there is for pre-Calvinist Christians. One can only continue try to try harder. And as both Ronald Sider and Ross Duthout note, at some point such self-sanctification becomes too great a burden to bear.

Given that evangelicals do indeed believe in the supernatural, I would suggest that there is a viable alternative to their agonizing "cycle of Protestantism." That is to recognize that there is true power in the sacraments. It will require a rethinking of very important doctrines, and it will surely subject both the individual and the Church to new hazards borne of human sin; but it will also, in the wonderfully paradoxical way that God often works, remove a great and unhappy impediment to Christians' achievement of "the peace that passes all understanding."

I'd consider that a trade well worth making.