Russell recently wrote a piece on the "culture war" which is the featured article of the July issue of the Religion and Culture Forum. From the introduction: "Three recent books all claim the culture war is over, though they give quite different explanations. I argue that their different interpretations illustrate not why the culture war is over, but rather why it is so endlessly fascinating. In response to these books, this article clarifies what exactly the culture war is, and how to understand in what sense it is still a part of American life." Other scholars will post responses in the coming weeks. The article can be found here.
The Religion & Culture Forum is a digital publication of the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School, which hosts conversations about the relationship between scholarly work on religion and global public cultures.
By David Barr
We are regularly reminded that our politics keep getting more polarized, and explaining why has become something of a national pastime. People blame social media, 24-hour news channels, or the fact senators don’t take time to smoke cigars together anymore, to name just a few. However, I fear we will underestimate the problem and fail to see its full range of consequences as long as we think of it only as a result of these new developments, rather than as something to which we feel a deep pull. It is not an unfortunate accident that these new factors drag us apart. It is in human nature to divide into camps, to be tribal, to want to see the world in terms of the good guys vs. the bad guys. And while I’m certainly not the first person to make that observation, there is one reason for that tendency that hasn’t been getting much attention: we are drawn toward political polarization because it feels good, because it satisfies our consciences.
Let’s think for a second about the National Rifle Association’s controversial new video, “The Violence of Lies.” Much has already been said about this one-minute video; critics say it advocates violence and racism, and defenders deny this and say “clenched fist of truth” is only a metaphor. So let’s break it down. It’s going to get a bit nerdy but bear with me; this video is a revealing piece of rhetoric and it’s worth taking a moment to understand what it’s saying and how.
By David Barr
When I prepared to leave the confines of rural, evangelical middle America for the imposing halls of secular, University-of-Chicago middle America, many of my Christian friends expressed grave concerns about the dangerous ideologies I would encounter there. They mentioned atheism, of course, but their main concerns were post-modernism and moral relativism. I was warned I would encounter people who didn’t believe in objective truth, who thought everything was subjective.
Now, I did run into a lot of that stuff, especially among students with unruly hair, who smoked cigarettes, used “construct” as a noun, and said things like “Foucault.” Even students with normal hair often told me that what I believed was fine, but that there was no way to really know what was true when it came to things like religion and morality.
By Russell Johnson
I once read about a woman who tried to send an email to an accounting firm that said, “I am afraid that we will have to postpone our meeting.” But she hit ‘send’ prematurely, and all the email said was:
I am afraid”
This sort of thing happens to all of us. This week, it happened to President Trump. Shortly after midnight, Trump tweeted, “Despite the constant negative press covfefe”. Everyone immediately recognized that he was trying to type “coverage” and slipped up. He made a typo on social media and hit send before fixing it, which again is not a big deal, even for a sitting president. People had a lot of fun with “covfefe,” but it is a human mistake, maybe even an endearing mistake, for the President to make.
By Russell Johnson
Leading up to Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl performance, countless bloggers wondered about whether or not she would “go political,” and whether or not she should. After her performance, many debated whether or not it was “political,” including one memorable op-ed that argued precisely by being apolitical she made the perfect political statement.
We’ve all heard people get frustrated when a TV show gets political or a company makes a political statement or a Facebook friend makes too many political posts. The general sense is that in these contexts one should stay non-political and if one does address politics, one should do so in a non-partisan way (e.g. saying “make your voice heard, get out and vote” is fine, but telling people how they should vote isn't).
By David Barr
My sociologist friend, Sam, has a great illustration about the persistent effects of racism: he asks his students to imagine that they are watching a game of Monopoly and one player (let’s say the Thimble) is not allowed to buy property for the first five turns, but does pay rent, while everyone else plays under the normal rules, snatching up several of the best properties. Sam asks his students to imagine they are put in charge of the game after the fifth turn and asks them to think about the best way to make sure the game will be fair going forward.
By Russell Johnson
President Trump recently announced that there would be a fifty-four-billion dollar decrease in spending on non-defense programs like foreign aid, the EPA, and domestic agencies. This is in keeping with his campaign promises about fiscal responsibility and working toward paying off the national debt. As President Trump said, "With 20 trillion dollars in debt, the government must learn to tighten its belt.” It is also in keeping with Trump’s repeated claims that President Obama’s spending was suicidally excessive, and that his administration would be leaner and do more with less.
But at the same time, Trump promised a fifty-four-billion dollar increase in the defense budget. So we won’t actually be saving any money, merely redirecting it. The fact that the numbers are the same indicates that this is a highly symbolic act, and it tells us something about the state of the two major parties in America—namely that they disagree about the shape of government, not the size.
By David Barr
Questions of capitalism and socialism, if they ever truly went away, came roaring back into the public conversation during the 2016 election. With them came misunderstandings about what these terms mean, and about American history. It seems to me that when liberals (particularly young ones) say ‘socialism’, they have something like contemporary Scandinavia in mind; open, educated, democratic, and with the highest quality of life in the world. When conservatives (especially older ones) hear ‘socialism’, they think of the USSR or North Korea: repressive, totalitarian, and with inefficient economies that collapsed under the weight of oppressive government control. This obviously leads to lots of head shaking by each group at the seemingly unreasonable beliefs of the other.
That phenomenon is certainly worth a post of its own. Right now, however, I’m just going to use the fact that many conservatives interpret 'socialism' in terms from the Cold War as an excuse to make a point about capitalism and communism. I had been pretty sure that nobody wanted to read what I've been thinking about these old Cold War debates, but they seem relevant now that it is clear that those debates still hang over our current ones. I’m now convinced that taking you on a few minutes’ excursion into the mindset of the 1950s can help bring light to our contemporary political conversations. The lesson of the Cold War, I believe, is that the capitalists and the communists were both right…about each other. Let me explain:
We recently had a chance to talk with Bert Phillips on his podcast, HearingUS. The wide-ranging interview covers many of the topics familiar to readers of this blog. We focus particularly on what we take to be common sources of disagreement and misunderstanding about religion and politics and what ethical mindsets and habits we think might help.
The podcast can be streamed here or downloaded from iTunes here.
“Not that I condone fascism; or any –ism for that matter. –Isms, in my opinion, are not good. A person should not believe in an –ism, he should believe in himself.” This quotation, from Ferris Bueller, seems like the natural place to begin when trying to define “Trumpism.”
It is very important that we have the term “Trumpism” to distinguish Donald Trump’s views from the coalition of views that make up the Republican Party. Though it certainly didn’t emerge in a vacuum, Trumpism is different from the more familiar –isms of the American right. That is to say, it's not the same as:
So what is Trumpism? It is worth noting at the outset that Trumpism is not the product of only one mind, and that the Trump administration has a lot of different ideological voices setting the agenda. But arguably the best place to start is with the man himself, so I read Trump’s 2011 book Time to Get Tough. What follows is a summary of what I learned.
by Russell Johnson
In defense of the recent executive order about immigration, Senator Steve Daines wrote, “We are at war with Islamic extremists and anything less than 100 percent verification of these refugees’ backgrounds puts our national security at risk. We need to take the time to examine our existing programs to ensure terrorists aren't entering our country. The safety of U.S. citizens must be our No. 1 priority.” No doubt, the Senator expresses what many in our country are thinking. There is much to be said, and much that has been said, about the effectiveness and rationality of this particular executive order. But I’d like to focus on two truths we must not forget: No matter what we do, innocent Americans are going to die. But there are fates worse than death.
Much has been written about our polarization in values and ideologies, and now much more has been added about our different sources of information and “alternative facts.” This post focuses on another important, but neglected, area of divergence and source of disagreement: the myths we tell that form the context of the values we hold and the facts we accept. My hope is that pointing to myths as an arena of misunderstanding can provide a path forward in cases where agreement and empathy seem impossible.
I can’t stand it when people have their headphones up loud in public places. What’s the point of wearing headphones if everyone around you on the plane can hear your music? Now I’m distracted by your music and I’m distracted because I’m worried about the damage you’re doing to your ears. It’s frustrating…
…but not as frustrating as terrorism.
For you see, no matter how bad something is, there is always something worse. Or so it seems according to the popular rhetorical move I call the “hypocrisy juke.” It goes like this: a person or group protests something, and then someone else dismisses them and calls them a hypocrite because they aren’t protesting another, different thing. (By “protest,” I mean anything from marching with signs to posting about it on social media.) Here are a few examples:
There is a longstanding view that people all have access to the same facts and their political differences are due to different moral values. This may never have been true, but at the very least it is an inadequate framework for understanding contemporary political disagreements.
C.S. Lewis was once presented with an argument for moral progress. We must have developed better moral principles, he was told, since years ago there were witch-burnings but nowadays the majority of Englishmen finds this practice ghastly. His response is instructive: “But surely the reason we do not execute witches is that we do not believe there are such things. If we did—if we really thought that there were people going about who had sold themselves to the devil and received supernatural powers from him in return and were using these powers to kill their neighbors or drive them mad or bring bad weather, surely we would agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, then these filthy quislings did.” He then spells out his point more precisely, “There is no difference of moral principle here: the difference is simply about matter of fact.”
Those who burn witches and those who don’t, according to Lewis, differ more in their beliefs about what is the case than in their moral values. Many of the disagreements tearing Americans apart this election cycle are differences not of principles but of facts.
A reading from the Psalms: "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.” Psalm 19:1-2
In at least one sense, science is the original human vocation, a call to share with God in his wonder-filled attention to his creation. In Genesis, we see that as God creates, he calls the different things he makes “good.” When creation is finished and God beholds “everything that he had made,” he declares it “very good.” Then he does something remarkable. He places his final creation—Adam—in the Garden of Eden and gives him a task: to name each creature. Thus, God not only rejoices in the goodness of his creative work, he creates beings who can share in knowing and appreciating it in its particularities. Thus, we see that the original, pure communion between God and man is focused, not in on the relationship between the two of them as individuals, but out toward all creation.
Russell (RPJ): I read an interesting article recently from The Washington Post that explained, better than any article I’ve ever read, one important way conservatives and liberals talk past one another. It’s by David Hopkins and Matt Grossmann, who surprisingly aren’t quarterbacks for the Cleveland Browns. It’s worth reading if you have the time, but I’ll summarize their main point now. If you read the article, feel free to skip this summary. These two professors write that Republicans and Democrats in America think differently not just about the issues, but about how to frame the issues. “Each party’s supporters define the terms and stakes of political competition quite differently,” they write, “Republicans believe they’re battling over two opposing ideologies, while Democrats view partisan conflict instead as a fight between different social groups.” Republicans are more likely to think in terms of conservatism vs. liberalism, socialism vs. capitalism, traditional values vs. postmodern multiculturalism. Democrats are more likely to think in terms of men and women, black and white people, the one percent and the ninety-nine percent.
What do we mean when we say “America”? This is a more complicated question than it first appears. To answer it, of course, we need to talk about football.
During the NFL preseason, most professional football players are focused on only one thing: not tearing their ACLs. But this year, Colin Kaepernick caused an uproar for choosing to sit during the national anthem. As he said in interviews, he is disheartened and incensed by racial prejudice in America, in particular with regard to police brutality. “This country stands for freedom, liberty, justice for all,” Kaepernick said, “And it’s not happening for all right now.”
Unsurprisingly, there has been considerable backlash against Kaepernick for this, principally asserting that it is an act of disrespect against America and American veterans. Equally unsurprisingly, there has been backlash against the backlash and protests against the protests. For the moment, I’m not going to protest anything. I simply want to use this as an opportunity to point out a rhetorical effect at play in the conversation.
by Russell Johnson
It’s only August, but we already know who TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year will be. It’s not Simone Biles, it’s not Elon Musk, and it’s not Pikachu.
No, in 2016 no one has been in America’s spotlight more than Donald Trump, and it’s not even close. He has been protested, praised, scrutinized, reviled, endorsed, criticized, quoted, and parodied more than anyone. He is the tap on the knee to which everyone immediately reacts. If 2016 were a novel, Trump would be the main character, and every other character would take their place in relation to him.
It’s hard to overstate the widespread obsession with Trump which has captured the imagination of pundits, news media, and bloggers, especially those on the left. The pull is hard to escape—there’s just so much to say about him. There are so many things to criticize; scholars, artists, and comedians are relishing in the opportunity to unload their full critical arsenal. Finally there is a villain deserving our smug liberal heroics. So we enlist in the war of everyone versus Trump. And as so often happens in wartime, we violate the very principles for which we fight. Some of the casualties of 2016 have been objectivity, charitable interpretation, tolerance, a cooperative approach to governance, and even basic respect.
[ While there's no need to have read my previous post to read this one, folks who have will recognize that this is the second of two posts in response to the claim that the best strategy to end violence on the south and west sides of Chicago is the spread of the gospel through evangelism. -David]
If we are going to think about evangelism as a strategy to fix the problem of violence in Chicago, it makes sense to begin with the question: is a lack of knowledge of the gospel the cause of the shootings among young black men in Chicago? Well, it’s certainly clear that the absence of Christianity cannot cause shootings in the way we talk about one billiard ball causing another ball to move. It cannot be simple cause and effect. If it were, all non-Christians would be shooting people all the time. It would be hard to explain how Japan, for example, is only 2% Christian but has one of the lowest murder rates in the world.