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Donald Trump and the Evangelical Silent Spring

Back in 1962 Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, a book that exposed the ominous silence caused by the dearth of songbirds returning to northern climes in the Spring. Her book exposed the toxic effects of DDT on all kinds of fragile life forms, and in doing so sensitized the conscience of the nation toward our environmental peril and responsibility. Today we are experiencing another kind of silent Spring, but one that is equally ominous. It is the silence of evangelicals concerning the egregious character and conduct of the president of the United States. It is as if evangelicals have suddenly lost their capacity for moral outrage, lost touch with their purported allegiance to biblical values and virtues.

Let me speak frankly. Not everything the Trump administration has done has been bad. But Donald Trump’s compulsive lying, his apparent incapacity for contrition, his narcissism, his incivility and bullying tactics, his unvarnished hatred for those who thwart his aspirations, his glorying in excess . . . all these things are not just alien to the Christian faith. These spiritually alarming qualities are actually the antithesis of what Jesus modeled and taught. Such moral and spiritual deficiencies are, in short, anti-Christian. It is impossible for any serious evangelical ever to commend such deeply flawed character traits. Evangelicals teach against them all in their churches and homes.

But most seem prepared to tolerate them in Donald Trump. He is the intriguing exception. How do we account for this free pass Trump gets from his evangelical supporters? How did he acquire this Teflon immunity from any real standard of moral accountability? How, for example, can the president of Liberty University grant Trump an honorary doctorate, and rhapsodize that he is a “dream president,” but not call him out on his stunning desecration of evangelical moral ideals on a daily basis? How do we explain this evangelical silent Spring?

Sadly, the explanation appears readily at hand. Trump provides a conduit to political power for evangelicals. So they hold their nose in the face of his odious behaviors and vacuous character. They look the other way as he sows division in the nation, and creates hatred and hostility where the fabric of the nation was once stronger and more united. They smile as he arrogantly declares his shallow understandings of greatness and success.

Evangelicals are complicit in all of this because they have, either knowingly or unknowingly, embraced the dangerous ethical theory of consequentialism. This approach to the moral life assumes that a good end justifies dubious means. Corruption in the short-term can be justified if it holds promise of a greater gain in the end. Lying and deceit are not so serious if they are the necessary price to pay to, say, get a vote-tipping conservative judge on the Supreme Court. A smart person won’t touch the goose that lays the golden egg.

This is where evangelicalism appears today. From a moral perspective, it’s a very dangerous place to be. And that’s for two reasons. The first is that invariably such complicity erodes a community’s own moral sensibilities and consciences. Over time, the outrageous and deeply-concerning behaviors and values of such a President are subtly normalized in the evangelical subconscious. There is a slippery slope that slides downward from outrage to tolerance to amusement and finally to imitation. In the language of Scripture, we are speaking of the risk of a seared (hardened, desensitized) conscience. Once conscience dies, it’s hard to resuscitate. The evangelical community, in many ways so thoroughly adapted to popular American culture, may already be further along that slippery slope than many nostalgic evangelicals realize. We may actually be more like Trump than we would like to admit. After all, you can tell quite a bit about people’s values by what they are prepared to tolerate. You learn a lot about the occupants when the room gets quiet.

The second reason why failing to speak out against Donald Trump’s behavior and character is dangerous for evangelicals is that it will eventually come back to bite them. No one can seriously digest the Book of Proverbs and think that people can escape unharmed from alliances with corrupt figures. Political winds shift, and in time there will be a reaction against Trump politics. When that day comes, evangelicals will be held accountable for their collusion with him, and their complicity with all that his administration did and stood for. The evangelical community in that day will be damned by association, and will have lost the moral right to speak prophetically to the nation.

This is no longer about whether Trump was a better or worse choice than Hillary Clinton. It is not about whether the Democratic agenda is better or worse than the Republican. It is not about whether Nancy Pelosi or Chuck Schumer are endearing figures. It is about whether evangelicals are willing to speak truth to power as it exists today, and risk their own fragile hold on such power for themselves. Evangelicals should walk away from their Machiavellian practices and speak out for what is good and true, even when it seems terrifying to do so. Whether or not they will hold on to power is not their ultimate concern. Doing the right thing is. We have had a silent Spring. May evangelicals find their true voice soon.

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My Bright Abyss

DSCN4959As Earth Day recedes in our rear-view mirrors for another year, I remain impressed and troubled by the following statement by American poet Christian Wiman, in his new book My Bright Abyss (2013). And thanks to daughter Sarah, by the way, for bringing this remarkable volume to my attention:

“What is poetry’s role when the world is burning? Encroaching environmental disaster and the relentless wars around the world have had, it seems, a paralyzing, sterilizing effect on much American poetry. It is less the magnitude of the crises than our apparent immunity to them, this death on which we all thrive, that is spinning our best energies into esoteric language games, or complacent retreats into nostalgias of form or subject matter, or shrill denunciations of a culture whose privileges we are not ready to renounce—or, more accurately, do not even know how to renounce. There is some fury of clarity, some galvanizing combination of hope and lament, that is much needed now, but it sometimes seems that we—and I use the plural seriously, I don’t exempt myself—are anxiously waiting for the devastation to reach our very streets, as it one day will, it most certainly will” (p. 52).

The anxious paralysis of which he speaks is surely not confined to poets.

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50th Anniversary of Vatican II

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of Vatican II, the most recent and arguably among the most radical of the so-called “ecumenical” councils of the Roman Catholic Church. Now is an appropriate moment to assess the impact of the Council five decades on, and to reflect on its implications for historically-testy Roman Catholic-evangelical Protestant relations.

Eventually Vatican II generated 16 authoritative documents, each voted on by the Council and circulated by the Pope. By introducing so many radical changes to the Catholic church, and pointing in so many promising new directions, it has given everyone hope for a new beginning in the long-standing quest for greater harmony and fellowship among Christians everywhere. A few years ago Mark Noll, perhaps our top evangelical church historian, and a member of the faculty at the University of Notre Dame, coauthored a book entitled Is the Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Roman Catholicism (2005). It is a hopeful reminder that we should never regard any church’s convictions or dispositions as etched in stone. We are all on journeys and we are all still moving toward the light.

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The Exploitation of Billy Graham

My previous blog was a warning against mixing pulpits and politics. I feel even more strongly so this week. A few days ago an aged Billy Graham allegedly came out in support of (Mormon) presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, calling all Christians (read evangelicals) to vote for him in the upcoming election. There are so many things wrong about this. Frankly, it just doesn’t sound like something the Billy Graham we have come to know and admire would do or say, especially in this final season of his very long life. I’m guessing that the 93-year old evangelist and his reputation are being exploited by right-wing politicos and certain key family members. Whatever is really going on in the backrooms, it is further proof of the Republican captivity of the contemporary evangelical church.
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Pulpits and Politics Don’t Mix

The fifth annual “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” is coming up again this weekend. It’s organized by (mostly conservative evangelical) Christian pastors concerned that their rights to free speech from the pulpit (and, they would say, freedom of religion) may be at risk from an intrusive government and a dubious amendment back in 1954 to a pivotal section of the federal tax code.

The specific legislation in question, 501(c)(3) states that tax-exempt organizations (like churches) are prohibited from “participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.” The Alliance Defending Freedom, the organization supporting these pastors, is trying to goad the government into attempting to act on this legislation. They are gunning for a showdown on freedom of religion. I confess to very mixed feelings.
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Go Green, $ave Green

I’ve got a great new book to recommend to you, but first I have to set it up. Patience, please! Here we go. We know our planet is in peril. The growing human population of the earth, combined with the consumerist habits of this ever-increasing population, means that our current way of life is unsustainable. Either we change direction or we are all going over the cliff. This assessment, while not pretty, is beyond dispute among rational people.

Against this backdrop, Christians are finally beginning to pay attention.  More of us are thinking about the environment, and wondering whether we have an obligation to do something about its ominous degradation. This is indeed worth considering carefully. After all, Christianity is the world’s largest religion. The inferences we twenty-first century Christians draw from the wellsprings of our faith will have an enormous effect, constructive or destructive, on how the global environmental crisis will play out.
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Sad for Alberta

 

Alberta

 

Tar Sands

 

Alberta is just one of Canada’s ten provinces, but it has always held a special place in the national mythology. I am grateful that I was among the hundreds of thousands of Canadians who escaped from drab Toronto, and eventually found my way to this great province. That’s why I’m so sad about what’s happening there today. I am speaking, of course, of the moral and environmental disaster of the Alberta tar sands.

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Why the Keystone Pipeline Is a Bad Idea

pipeline.jpg

The Keystone XL Pipeline is part of an ambitious plan to bring down from Alberta, Canada massive amounts of liquified tar to be refined into fuel to supply America’s appetite for energy. Like many Americans and Canadians, I am opposed to the Keystone Pipeline project. Like brushing your teeth with bleach, it is a bad idea.

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Fixing the Moral Deficit

 Fixing Deficit

America has a serious budget deficit. But at its root it is a moral deficit. Ron Sider, the gracious provocateur, has done it again. His Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (IVP, 1977) challenged the complacency of affluent North American Christians concerning the plight of the poor in America and overseas. The prolific president of Evangelicals for Social Action has just published Fixing the Moral Deficit: A Balanced Way to Balance the Budget (2012). It’s a timely and prophetic proposal to a nation paralyzed by its politicians and a potentially fatal inertia. America’s root problem, argues  Sider, is a moral one. And the really disturbing thing is that most of us are part of it.

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Can Institutional Cultures Change?

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There’s a provocative article in the latest Atlantic (March 2012) on “Why Companies Fail.” The reason why corporate turnarounds are so difficult and rare, according to author Megan McArdle, is the stubborn persistence of dysfunctional corporate cultures. These cultures are the hardest things of all to change. She cites Detroit automaker GM as a case in point. It was bailed out by the government less than two years ago, and freed from most of its excessive overhead and liabilities. But its stock value has fallen by a third since then. The reason? GM still thinks and acts like GM. It is still the same old culture on the inside.

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