Monday, August 01, 2016

A Response to Wayne Grudem's "Why Voting for Donald Trump Is a Morally Good Choice"

Several of my more conservative Christian Facebook friends have recently posted an essay by theologian Wayne Grudem entitled Why Voting for Donald Trump Is a Morally Good Choice.

I've read some of Grudem's other work and this isn't the first time I've found his arguments to be unconvincing. I wrote the following as a comment in a friend's post of Grudem's essay but have decided to edit it a bit and put it up as a stand-alone post.

Grudem's piece is rather long and this is not a point-by-point rebuttal. Rather, I want to focus on a key concession that Grudem makes early on in his essay:

Grudem says of Trump, "He is egotistical, bombastic, and brash. He often lacks nuance in his statements. Sometimes he blurts out mistaken ideas (such as bombing the families of terrorists) that he later must abandon. He insults people. He can be vindictive when people attack him. He has been slow to disown and rebuke the wrongful words and actions of some angry fringe supporters. He has been married three times and claims to have been unfaithful in his marriages. These are certainly flaws, but I don’t think they are disqualifying flaws in this election."

I would suggest that those are more than mere "flaws." At very least I would consider them to be deep-seated character flaws; the type that ought to disqualify a person from a leadership position of such magnitude. A number of psychiatrists, psychologists and other mental health professionals have analyzed Trump (thanks to a plethora of video documentation of Trump talking about himself) and the most commonly employed description is Narcissist. Narcissistic Personality Disorder is far more profound than a mere "flaw."

I couldn't help but contrast Grudem's depiction of Trump with this statement in 2 Timothy 3: "But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God—having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people."

Without getting bogged down on the eschatological angle, the author of 2nd Timothy (assumedly Paul) makes clear that Christians ought to avoid (rather than endorse) people who display these types of character traits.

I'm not particularly worried about Trump being elected President. I'm relatively certain that it won't happen. But what does concern me to a much greater degree is the damage that Evangelicals have done to their (and the Gospel's) credibility by backing Trump. The culture at large sees the contrast between what conservative Christians seem to consider important and what Jesus seemed to consider important. I'm reminded of when Gandhi was purportedly asked by Stanley Jones how to help Evangelical Christianity take root in India and he responded "I would suggest first of all that all of you Christians, missionaries and all, begin to live more like Jesus Christ." I think conservative Christian's endorsement of Trump will only accelerate the existing trend of Evangelical diminishment and marginalization in American culture.

Setting personality and character aside, Grudem believes that "most of the policies [Trump] supports are those that will do the most good for the nation." That's a valid point. However, those aren't Trump's policies per se (Trump tends to be rather ambiguous when it comes to policy specifics)--those are Republican policies. If Grudem believes that Republican policies will do the most good for the nation he ought to be concerned that putting them behind the persona of Trump--whom a great many Republican policy-makers have distanced themselves from or outright rejected--is going to bring discredit and disfavor to those policies. I think conservatives, and Republicans in general, would do greater service to their agenda by differentiating from Trump as much as possible, as many already have.

In the remainder of his essay, Grudem prefaces nearly every one of his points by saying "Trump has promised..." or "Trump has pledged..." Given the behavioral and character "flaws" of Trump that Grudem delineated early on in his essay, combined with Trump's well-documented history of reneging on promises (multiple bankruptcies, multiple marriages as well as marital infidelities, refusing to pay small businesses who have done work for him, Trump University's many dissatisfied customers, etc.) and Trump's unabashed proclivity for bald-faced "pants-on-fire" lies, it is surprising that Grudem places so much faith in Trump's pledges and promises.

Grudem makes the point that "Christians today have a[n] . . . obligation to vote in such a way that will 'seek the welfare' of the United States." But this imperative can be applied to Christians who are Democrats or Independents (of which I am one) just as easily as Republicans. I watched the Democratic National Convention, as well as the Republican National Convention, and I must say that the DNC was a very religious affair--more so, I would suggest, then the RNC. What was powerfully presented at the Democratic convention was a Christianity that seeks the welfare of the widow and orphan and alien and poor and marginalized; a Christianity of reconciliation; a Christianity of inclusion rather than exclusion. It resonated with themes from Isaiah and Amos and the Sermon on the Mount. 

Here is an example of what I mean: 

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

-- William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

Monday, July 18, 2016

"There is a fundamental disconnect between a mind that drinks from the well of silence, and one that relies almost exclusively on language. A healthy and mature mind functions organically and focuses away from itself, while understanding that language can only ever be provisional, dualistic, and self-referential. Religious language--or any language--thus becomes distorted when silence is no longer the ground from which it emerges and to which it returns. This relationship between silence, language, and behavior is the same for atheist scientists as religious non-scientists: science is a series of metaphors about what we can measure; religion is a series of metaphors about what we can't. Both can be useful; both can inflict horrors on the world."

-- Maggie Ross, Silence: A User's Guide

Sunday, July 03, 2016

"When you begin to see that your enemy is suffering, that is the beginning of insight."
-- Thích Nhất Hạnh

I was already seated when the man and woman came down the airplane aisle and sat directly behind me in the exit row. The man was large, heavily tattooed and was cussing loudly and profusely and saying things like "I just want to punch someone in the face." My first thought was, "What an asshole." But then it occurred to me that this man must be in great inner pain. The outward belligerence was a sign of inward suffering.

As the plane prepared to pull away from the gate a flight attendant walked by and informed the man that he needed to slide his bag fully under the seat. He began to mock and berate her, but she would have none of it. She explained--calmly and firmly as if speaking to a child--that he was seated in an exit row and for the safety of all the other passengers the pathway to the emergency exit needed to be kept clear and if he had a problem with that he could be moved to another seat or removed from the airplane. The man didn't answer, but the woman with him did: "I'm sorry," she explained, "he just learned that his nephew died." The flight attendant expressed sincere condolence but also reiterated that the rules had to be followed. The man was quieter for the rest of the flight, only occasionally eliciting a whispered "Fuck!" I didn't mind. My thoughts had transformed from annoyance to lovingkindness and I tried to keep him in prayer for the remainder of our journey together.

Friday, July 01, 2016

The Emergence of Customized Religion

I had an interesting conversation with a friend today about the future of religion in the Western world, and it sparked these thoughts:

When I was a kid there were four television networks. Then cable TV came along and gave us dozens--and ultimately hundreds--of channels. Then the Internet came and there was viewing on demand. Viewing entertainment became atomized and wildly diverse. Likewise, when I was a kid there were printed newspapers and news magazines. Many are still around but all have diminished greatly now that the Internet has provided us with a plethora of options for obtaining news and information. It used to be that radio stations were the primary source for hearing new music and then you had to go to a record store to buy the recordings (or join the Columbia House Record Club). No you have iTunes and Pandora and Spotify and YouTube, etc. Many other similar examples could be cited, from house shopping to booking travel to getting restaurant recommendations.

What the Internet has given us is disintermediation. The middle-men and gatekeepers and authorities are less and less necessary. They might continue to be around (we still have realtors and travel agents, despite Redfin and Expedia) but they're no longer required, and so their influence is greatly diminished and competition among them for the scraps is fierce.

I think the same goes for religion. It used to be that people tended to remain in the faith of the culture they were born and raised in. Access to travel began to change that, as people were exposed to other options. But now one can easily discover a world of religious ideas and even within a particular religion a multitude of different viewpoints.

One might end up liking and incorporating elements from diverse religious sources. For example, I've been very intrigued by the "secular Buddhism" movement, which has undertaken the excision of speculative and supernatural elements from Buddhism (such as reincarnation, karmic reward/punishment in the next life, supernatural abilities, demigods and demons, etc.) that are not intrinsic to the original core teachings of the Buddha (impermanence, dependent causation, the Four Noble Truths, the Eight-Fold Path, etc.). When those core teachings are uncoupled from the supernatural mumbo-jumbo which (oftentimes) developed at a later date, what remains is a cogent and concise philosophical system and way of life that offers practical results. The "secular Buddhist" movement is akin to movements in Christianity such as the Jesus Seminar and some elements of Progressive Christianity. Similar endeavors have occurred in Judaism and Islam (and, I assume, also in Hinduism, though I'm not sure). The goal is getting to what is intrinsic, practical, applicable and verifiable while eschewing that which is speculative, unverifiable and other-worldly.

It seems that when this is done one of the byproducts is that a greater degree of compatibility and even complementarity between different faiths emerges. I suppose Unitarians and Quakers have been ahead of the curve in this regard.

So, I think in the future we will see many more options in religion and many of those options will be "mix and matchable," customizable, boutique. Hyphenated affiliations will become more common: Buddhist-Christian, Islamic-Hindu, Sufi-Jew, Wiccan-Catholic, etc. (and why stop at blending two?). Stalwart keepers of the old guard will lament the loss of religious exclusivity, and there will always be purists. They will decry the syncretism and consumerism (sometimes rightly so, sometimes wrongly so). But, I believe, this trend--which is already emerging--will become more and more prevalent. Religious monocultures will surrender space to synergistic polycultures. People will take an active and intentional role in crafting their religion. Ongoing evolution of one's faith will be assumed. A world of resources will be readily available to everyone, to enable them to form and practice their own systems of belief and practice. People will tolerate, maybe even appreciate, one another's faith mosaics.

Is this a good thing? Probably in some ways yes and in some ways no. Is this a bad thing? Probably in some ways yes and in some ways no. But I think it is what it is as an emerging trend.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

"Everyone has experienced at some time in their life, when they were with the person they loved, or perhaps at a time of deep sorrow or pain that there is a peculiar power in silence. Silence comes naturally at times of great significance in our life because we feel we are coming into a direct contact with some truth of such meaning that words would distract us, and prevent us from fully entering into that meaning. The power that silence has is to allow this truth to emerge, to rise to the surface, to become visible. It happens naturally, in its own time and fashion. We know that we are not responsible for making it appear, but we know it has a personal meaning for us. We know it is greater than we are and we find a perhaps unexpected humility within ourselves that leads us to a real attentive silence. We let the truth be.

But there is also something in all of us that incites us to control others, to defuse the power we dimly apprehend in a moment of truth, to protect ourselves from its transforming power by neutralizing its otherness and imposing our own identity upon it. The crime of idolatry is precisely creating our own god in our own image and likeness. Rather than encounter God who is awesomely different from ourselves, we construct a toy model of God in our own psychic and emotional image. In doing this we do no harm to God, of course, as unreality has no power over God, but we do debase and scatter ourselves, surrendering the potential and divine glory of our humanity for the false glitter of the golden calf. The truth is so much more exciting, so much more wonderful. God is not a reflection of our consciousness but we are reflections of God..."

--John Main OSB, Word Into Silence

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The big news/rumor this week is that, according to James Dobson, Donald Trump recently experienced a conversion and has now become "a baby Christian." If true (rather than--perish the thought--a cynical ploy) it makes a Trump presidency even more dangerous in my view. I've been around enough "baby Christians" over the last 25 years to know how unstable they can be as they try to navigate and assimilate an entirely new worldview and make themselves beholden to a plethora of "authorities" telling them what they must now do and how they must now think in order to be a good Christian. 

Hillary may be viewed by conservative fundamentalist Evangelicals as a nominal/liberal Christian, but I would take as President a seasoned nominal/liberal Christian (who knows her Bible, is well-read in Christian theology and has a long track record of church involvement) over an erratic "baby Christian" any day. 

Almost immediately after Saul of Tarsus was converted on the road to Damascus and became Paul, he dropped everything and went away to Arabia, ostensibly for a lengthy period of contemplation, discipleship, reorientation and tempering his previously misguided zeal. If Donald Trump--a man seemingly as complicated and forceful in his own way as Saul of Tarsus--has indeed recently become a born-again Christian, then perhaps (for his own sake as well as for ours) he ought to take a queue from Paul and step away for a while to learn what it means to be a follower of Jesus. I suspect that on election day such an opportunity will be given to him by the voters.