Author: Wesley Fryer
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I’m genuinely confused and troubled by the political polarization we see and experience in different ways in our culture, and I’m trying to better understand these dynamics. There are multiple reasons for the fear, anger, and frustration which individuals and different groups feel today. Some of these factors include the emergence of “identity politics,” changing demographics, the power of social media to amplify outlier, vitriolic voices, the general decline of Christendom in the West, and the emergence of a 24/7 global news cycle which inevitably highlights conflict, divisions, and darkness over the better angels of our nature. In writing this post, I’m reminded of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyric for Alexander Hamilton, “I wrote my way out.” In a much less extreme circumstance, I’m writing this post as part of my ongoing effort to process and better understand the cultural change and conflict I see all around, and determine how I can best choose to respond, live, and perhaps lead in this climate of change and uncertainty.
It’s Thanksgiving break, and I’ve been reading a number of articles and listening to several podcasts about “our culture wars,” why evangelical Christians and most Republican party leaders are stubbornly standing by and defending Donald Trump. I have gained a few insights into these questions, and I brainstormed a bunch of ideas on my iPad this morning to try and organize my thoughts. To focus the large quantity of thoughts, articles, and questions bouncing around in my head on these topics, I’ll start by highlighting two recent, related events which both trouble me and challenge me as I seek to understand the emotions as well as beliefs that undergird each one.
Let’s start with the election of Donald Trump and the stubborn insistence of many Republican Party leaders as well as members of our larger community in Oklahoma and the midwestern USA to stand by and support him. Facebook is both a wonderful and challenging platform for idea sharing, and as I type these words I’m very cognizant that a diverse group of people who follow me there who are members of my immediate family, members of our church family and the Sunday School class I’m teaching, and also connected to me because of my work in education and educational technology may read these words. In our hyper-partisan and polarized cultural climate, it’s challenging and often difficult to talk about political issues. One of the reasons for this, I’ve realized, is because talking about political issues today is almost always conflated with cultural issues tied to beliefs, philosophies and worldviews. It’s complicated, but it’s also really important to better understand.
Here’s a restatement of the first of my questions in a personal context: How in the world did so many members of my immediate family choose to vote for Donald Trump for President, when on a “prima facia” basis (yes I admit it, I use that phrase because I was an intercollegiate debater for 4 years in college) Trump is an immoral human being unfit to hold elective office. Trump’s well documented support for torture, as well as his physical inability to listen to or read lengthy summaries of complex issues, are two of the primary reasons I decided unequivocally to not support or vote for him as President, even though I didn’t like many things about Hillary Clinton as a candidate for our nation’s highest elective office either. I think Trump has “unmasked himself” clearly in the past two years as someone suffering from narcissistic personality disorder who is racist, sexist, and generally a morally repugnant human being. The ongoing decision of so many of my fellow Americans to support and defend Donald Trump as our President in the face of so much “evidence” of his ugly and indefensible moral character incites genuine and severe cognitive dissonance in my mind. This is a utilitarian calculus (“the ends justify the means“) which is a moral “bridge too far” for me as a supporter of the U.S. Constitution and follower of Jesus Christ. I know politics in a representative democracy by necessity must involve compromise. Yet the promise offered by Donald Trump to American evangelicals / The Religious Right is unquestionably a Faustian bargain. My upbringing and education has taught me that in deals with the devil, the devil wins. Literally. So this ongoing situation with widespread cultural support for Donald Trump continues to both mystify and frustrate me.
On this topic, I want to commend a few articles and podcasts. First, if you’re not listening to the Ezra Klein Show (@ezraklein) as a podcast, I encourage you to immediately subscribe using PocketCasts (my favorite smartphone app for podcast listening) or whatever app you prefer. Not listening to podcasts or using Twitter to “filter your information feeds” yet? Check out resources for my workshops “Discovering New Ideas” and “Filtering the ExoFlood.” But I digress…
Ezra’s recent article, “The post-Christian culture wars,” is an example of his thinking and helpful synthesis of headlines and political behaviors which continue to confuse me. I’m not saying I agree 100% with everything he says or writes, but in general his perspectives on politics and cultural conflict strike me as both balanced and intellectually informed. Ezra provides multiple links to other articles and media artifacts in his articles, as I generally try to do in my online writing, which offer helpful pathways into the often confusing, always polarizing forest of modern political discourse. Examples from that article include:
- Yearning for Trumpocalypse: what’s behind a viral conservative essay (Vox, Dara Lind @DLind, 12 Sept 2016)
- Donald Trump, Despite Impieties, Wins Hearts of Evangelical Voters (New York Times, 27 Feb 2016)
- Attorney General William P. Barr Delivers the 19th Annual Barbara K. Olson Memorial Lecture at the Federalist Society’s 2019 National Lawyers Convention (US Department of Justice, 15 Nov 2019)
- Can American nationalism be saved? (Vox, Sean Illing @seanilling, 22 Nov 2019)
(As a related aside, I’ve started a new Twitter List named “politics” which currently includes several of these Vox authors. One of my favorite ways to “filter my feeds” today is by following Twitter lists in Flipboard.)
Here’s my current synthesis of these dynamics and why many American conservatives / evangelical Christians / Republican voters supported and continue to support Donald Trump: A lot of people are upset and fearful in our current economic and political climate. Life in general seems less certain and more tumultuous. We live in a more diverse society which is both empowered and enabled to share their perspectives, which include highlighting examples of genuine oppression and mistreatment. (I’m thinking primarily of sexist treatment of women in the workplace / society, and racist mistreatment of African Americans by police officers.) In these times of change, many older Americans (predominantly white, often identifying as Christian) yearn for a past they perceive to have been more stable, less ethnically diverse, more supportive of a homogenous / common belief in Christianity, etc. As Ezra Klein pointed out in “The post-Christian culture wars,” many of these people form “the base” for Donald Trump. They want a political fighter who is not afraid “to take off the gloves,” who takes a stand for “white, Christian values” (their words, not mine) in this time of cultural conflict, and will stand up against “the destructive onslaught of liberalism and Democrats working to undermine the American way of life.” (Again those aren’t my words or my opinion, I’m trying to paraphrase here.) Add to this the powerful and pervasive emergence of “identity politics” as highlighted in Lilliana Mason’s 2018 book, “Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity,” and you have the ingredients for our modern vitriolic cultural and political climate.
I need to wrap up this post, because our family is ready to “get on with Thanksgiving activities,” and I want to highlight another recent incident connected to this discussion. A few weeks ago, a family friend posted on Facebook about a local school board’s decision to cancel a Christmas program at the local elementary school all of our kids attended. His mom was our kids’ music teacher, and is a dearly beloved member of our church family as well as friend.
If you view the comments to this Facebook post as well as the original, which I’ve partially archived via screenshots in a Flickr album, you’ll read and hear the anger and frustration of many people (and Christians) in our Oklahoma community which relate to the topics and questions of this post. The linked article from the post, “Edmond school changes holiday concert after group says live Nativity scene is inappropriate,” summarizes the case which involves the inclusion of a live nativity scene in the school’s December Christmas program.
“Teaching students the biblical story of the birth of Jesus and having them regularly rehearse a performance of that story entangles the school with the Bible’s devotional message,” Christopher Line, staff attorney for the Freedom from Religions Foundation, wrote. “Such a performance would be appropriate in a church setting, but not in a public school. We write to ensure that district teachers do not incorporate religious promotion into their lessons and that future school events do not include live nativities or other religious performances.”
“Edmond school changes holiday concert after group says live Nativity scene is inappropriate,” KOCO News Channel 5 Oklahoma City, 12 Nov 2019.
The full letter to the school district’s attorney, who also happens to be a personal friend and member of our church, is linked from the above news article. The issues raised and emotions triggered in this situation relate directly to the overall paradigm of “secular and atheistic / agnostic liberals working to destroy Christianity and the moral foundations of our nation,” which explain why a lot of folks in our community and nation overall are responsive and supportive of Donald Trump’s pledges and actions to stand up for the political agenda of the religious right.
Thanks to an educational law class I took as part of my PhD studies at Texas Tech, as well as experiences in my 20+ year career as a professional educator mostly spent serving in public schools and universities, I have an opinion and perspective on these issues different from many of the commenters on this post. Before I reflect on that, however, I want to highlight a related historical and legal parallel of which this situation reminds me.
I’m teaching an adult Sunday School class this year called “Curiosity and Questions: Jesus and Science.” As part of our studies using Francis Collins’ 2010 book, “The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief,” I’ve been reading and studying more about the Scopes Trial of 1925. I’ve read about half of Edward J. Larson’s 2008 Pultizer Prize winning book, “Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion.” There are a multitude of important ideas relating to religion, science and politics in this book and from this chapter of U.S. history. One of them surrounds the central contention of the lead prosecutor in the case, populist William Jennings Bryan, who argued (among other things) in favor of the majoritarian power of state legislatures and local school boards to dictate what teachers can and cannot teach in the classroom. While 1925 may seem like ancient history to some, the issues and debates of the Scopes trial are quite alive and relevant to our politics today in 2019.
I’ve learned a number of important things the past 4.5 years serving and working in a private school, which include technical topics but also extend into cultural and religious issues. One of these is that compulsory chapel services / school prayer does NOT produce pious or even reverent youth. I think a sizable portion of our older electorate in Oklahoma believes if we just “brought prayer and the Bible back into our public schools” and also brought back corporal punishment / paddling for deviant students, we could restore “the good society / the good culture” which is part of a romanticized past in which Christianity is perceptually the mono-culture. These sentiments are tied closely to perceptions of frustration, anger, and righteous indignation which (as I’ve noted here previously) undergird much of the political base / support of Donald Trump. These are real issues and powerful emotions, but they are (at least in part) built on inaccurate understandings of both history and reality.
Someday, I want to share a standup comedy routine based on these topics. (My wife doesn’t think this is a good idea, or the possibility of attending seminary… and she’s generally a discerning spirit. So for now, I’ll go with that advice… but not perhaps forever.)
Here’s my summary of these issues and both national and local events involving the anger and frustration of Christians with political and cultural change. As Christians, we need to recognize the reality of our postmodern era, which is diverse both demographically and philosophically / from religious perspectives. Our strategy of constructive engagement with “our dominant culture” should not be founded on either fear or anger. Jesus repeatedly exhorted his disciples (and through the ages, “us” as His followers) to not be afraid.
We should neither retreat to the hills, nor respond to political events by supporting someone who promises to defend our values while violating them repeatedly in both words and deeds.
We should NOT allow ourselves to be filled with either fear or anger in these times of seismic cultural change. In the past, majoritarian rule in more homogeneous communities DID mean Christian values and lessons were taught in public schools by public school teachers. The march of history has changed this, and on many fronts these are changes for the good. As a society and culture in the United States, we have been strongly shaped historically by our religious and Christian foundations. However, our path forward in an increasingly diverse and postmodern society should not be paved by actions motivated by fear or anger.
If these prognostications are leading you to suspect I have all these issues figured out or know exactly what our political path forward together should be, awake from thy naive slumber. I don’t. I’m just trying to “write my way out.”
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