Kudos to Democrats for Substantive Symbolism

Sometimes horrific events bring out the better angels of human character. The Democratic baseball team has exemplified this after yesterday’s shooting that left Republican Majority Whip Rep. Steve Scalise in critical condition and wounded three others.

In the moments after the shooting, the Democrats prayed for the victims in their dugout:

 

Later, Rep. Mike Doyle, manager of the Democratic team, invited his counterpart Rep. Joe Barton and the rest of the Republican team to dinner at the Democratic Club in Washington:

Tonight we want to be together. I just suggested to Joe that we’d like to host the entire Republican team down at the Democratic Club. Probably some of them have never stepped foot in that building, but we want to have them to dinner and have both teams be together.

Rep. Barton, whose 10-year-old son was at the practice field where the shooting occurred, was moved. He recalled the birthday gifts his son had received from Democrats and noted that they were like dads to him at the baseball field.

An act such as this may be largely symbolic, but that does not make it empty of substance. It is the kind of thing our politics could use much more of. The Congressional baseball game itself is already a nod in the right direction, and Rep. Doyle’s agenda-free gesture of hospitality is a further step.

It is hard to imagine a better way to resist political toxicity than having our elected officials simply spend time together socially, just being together as friends. The reality is these men and women have a great deal in common. They are accountable to their constituents, yet spend a great deal of time far from home serving them. A degree of sympathy should be easy.

Being friends across the aisle does not mean, of course, that members of opposing parties will agree more. But it does make them more likely to discover where they already agree, as well as to recognize and appreciate good faith in disagreement. More of this would doubtless serve our country well.

Rep. Doyle and his teammates are to be applauded for both the symbolism and substance of their hospitality.

Chasers of Chariots and Horses get Goliath, not David

Politico is out with fresh analysis of the apparently confounding alliance between President Trump and the religious right. This comes in the wake of the President’s appearance at the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s annual event last Thursday, literally coincident with former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

The piece, queasily subtitled “A Match Made in Heaven,” is an even-handed treatment of the segment of religious conservatives that maintains staunch loyalty to President Trump. Writer Tim Alberta recognizes a distinction between what might have motivated evangelical Christians to vote for President Trump in an election with limited options and the affinity that led many to support him so enthusiastically—and that still leads some leaders of the religious right to defend him in practically any circumstance.

Alberta has tapped into a similar cultural marginalization experienced by both the President and conservative Christians. His diagnosis begins thus:

Dismissed by the cultural elite. Disrespected by the mainstream media. Delegitimized by the American left. And desperate to stop the bleeding. This is the story of Donald Trump, the perpetually insecure 45th president whose conquest of the White House was fueled by the contempt of a political class that never took him seriously. But it is equally the story of American evangelicalism, whose adherents feel marginalized in a culture that they believe no longer reflects its core values or tolerates its most polarizing principles.

This is perceptive, if not altogether a new idea. It is illuminating that conservative Christians would identify with someone so unlike them because of a shared sense of alienation. In his remarks, President Trump played on this theme heavy handedly. “We’re under siege. You understand that,” the president said. “But we will come out bigger and better and stronger than ever.”

This may reveal one source of attraction between the President and religious conservatives, but it does not explain such strong allegiance to a leader who has shown such little Christian virtue. Here again, Alberta has uncovered the answer. The article’s quotes from religious leaders are striking:

  • “Donald Trump fights. And he fights for us.” – Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition
  • “I believe we’re winning this battle.” – James Dobson, chairman emeritus of Focus on the Family
  • “They want someone who’s a fighter, and they view Trump as a fighter,” – Travis Korson, senior vice president of Madison Strategies

The martial language makes perfect logical sense. It is only natural for a group that feels marginalized to rally behind strength to defend its cause, even if that involves compromises.

The problem is that Christians are not supposed to behave naturally, but supernaturally. That King David would be mentioned as an example of the “divine irony” of God using flawed leaders for His purposes is indeed ironic. So too is the mention of “spiritual warfare.” What these leaders want is obviously warfare, but it is neither spiritual nor anything like David. They want to fight on the battlefield of politics, and they want to win. If anything, they want their own Goliath—and if a boastful, taunting disposition is any indication, they seem to have him.

If there are any examples from biblical history of self-protecting alliances made with worldly strength, they are negative. (See, for example, the warning to Hezekiah about joining forces with Egypt in Isaiah 30.)

Much easier to find are stories of God delivering His people in His way. At the Red Sea, the Israelites had only to be still while the Egyptian army was destroyed. At the foot of Moreh, Gideon defeated Midian after God winnowed his forces down to 300, leaving no doubt Who was responsible for the victory. And in the Valley of Elah, the young David himself slew Goliath, not because of his superior fighting prowess, but because he came in the name of the Lord of hosts.

This David also wrote in Psalm 20:

Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God. (verse 7, ESV)

David was weaker than Goliath, but defeated him anyway because God willed it. Later, he was weaker than Saul, but refused to kill him when he had the chance because he knew God would not approve. Even though David had been promised the crown, he stayed his hand because he understood that if God can be trusted with the ends, He can also be trusted with the means. The place of testing is where this kind of trust begins, not where it ends. Such was David’s trust.

One wonders if the leaders at the Faith and Freedom Coalition quoted above have ever sung something akin to “God will make a way when there seems to be no way.” If so, their unwavering allegiance to a Goliath-like strongman because “he fights for us”—all while shamefully invoking the repentant David’s moral failure—demonstrates the limits of their belief in those words. This is chasing after chariots and horses, not trusting in God. The greatest tragedy is that it is not even necessary.

Atlantans Unite for Anthem at Soccer Match

What do you do on a stormy Saturday night when the sporting event you’ve been waiting for all day is delayed and the stadium’s public address system isn’t working? If you’re an Atlanta United soccer fan, you sing the national anthem.

That’s what happened this weekend inside Bobby Dodd Stadium before the local team (known as the Five Stripes) went out and thrashed the Houston Dynamo 4-1 in the sport the rest of the world calls football. Local news station 11Alive caught most of it on video:

It was a fantastic feel-good moment, and, as a season ticket holder for Atlanta United (we call ourselves “Founding Members”), it was fun to be a very, very small part of it. For context, it’s important to note that lightning strikes delayed the start of Saturday’s match for nearly an hour. This meant local independent artist Chinua Hawk had to sit on ice, waiting for his chance to sing the anthem in front of a sellout crowd of nearly 45,000 people. It also meant that fans were filing in a bit later than usual, having been forced to find shelter outside the stadium until the gates opened approximately 40 minutes before kickoff. That took a while, and it accounts for the empty seats you see in 11Alive’s video. Even though these seats filled in later, the sight had to be at least a small letdown for Hawk as he took the field to sing.

Then it got worse. He held up the mic and started to sing. Silence. He flipped a switch on the bottom of the mic and tried again. More silence. But this time, it was immediately broken by fans in the Supporters Section—and soon by everyone in the stadium.

If you aren’t familiar with soccer, the supporters section is a place where the die-hards sit (or, more accurately, stand) during games. They take it upon themselves to lead chants, cheers, and songs (yes, songs) for the rest of the crowd. They tend to be highly proficient pre-game tailgaters, and they bring the passion. Think “student section at an SEC football game,” but with a round ball. And songs. That’s them behind the goal on the left side of the video.

Anyway they took the lead, as they always do, and started belting out “The Star Spangled Banner” with gusto. By the second bar, the whole crowd had joined in—including Hawk, who grinned, lowered his mic, and sang along. This was no solemn rendition. It was boisterous and celebratory, entirely appropriate for the occasion. After the match, Hawk called the experience “incredible.” According to 11Alive:

It made me smile because for that moment, we were not divided by politics, racial issues or anything else. We were one, and it was beautiful. I was honored to be one voice among many last night singing together in a unified spirit.

Good for him, and good for the club to invite him back to sing again later this season.

The best part about this is that it was the furthest thing from a political statement. It’s not as if some wave of patriotic fervor swept over the crowd. That would be the Kim Jong-un interpretation of what fueled the spontaneous display. Instead, this was about people being their best pre-political selves. When confronted with a potentially awkward situation, the crowd simply refused to leave the anthem singer to twist in the wind. Even in this small way, regular people showing concern for another and then taking the initiative to do something about it was a reminder of what has always made America great. (And let’s not forget Canada. Canada can be pretty great too.)

Atlanta United uses the tag line “Unite and Conquer,” which is apt since the home crowd looks like…well, Atlanta. There are people of all different skin tones who speak different languages at home. But at Bobby Dodd Stadium, we come together for few hours to enjoy each other’s company and exchange a few high-fives along the way. Oh, and songs. Some of which go viral.

 

P.S. If you’re curious about how the rest of the match went, it went like this:

Unsurprising: Hillary Clinton Blames October Surprise for Her Loss

Hillary Clinton is obsessed with the biggest two-letter word in the English language: if.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on her. Anyone who came so close to the most powerful office in the land would no doubt be in similar torment. But the thrust of her comments to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour suggest that if the former Secretary of State is engaging in any self-flagellation over her mistakes on the campaign trail, it is happening in private. Publicly, she is casting blame elsewhere.

Despite some lip service about “absolute personal responsibility” for the outcome, Secretary Clinton seems rather to believe that if the election had been on October 27, she would now be President Clinton.

October 27 was, of course, the day before FBI Director James Comey’s letter to Congressional investigators indicating that there were still a few loose ends to tie up in the Bureau’s investigation into the private email server Secretary Clinton used while she was the nation’s chief diplomat. She told Amanpour that the timing of the letter and “Russian WikiLeaks”—with a dash of general misogyny thrown in for good measure—led to her failing grade in the Electoral College.

Does she have a case? That depends on what your definition of the word “if” is. Political scientists will be debating the impact of the Comey letter for a long time.

But if Secretary Clinton insists on rehashing the “what ifs” of the 2016 campaign, here are a few that she really ought to consider:

  1. What if Secretary Clinton hadn’t participated in misleading the country about the cause of American deaths in Benghazi, Libya? The decisions she and the rest of the Obama administration made on the night of September 11 and 12, 2012 may or may not have been justified by what they knew at the time. But in the aftermath, she was reflexively dishonest. Then her irritated “What difference, at this point, does it make?” line during the investigation (the same investigation that ultimately uncovered her…unorthodox…email setup) did not reflect well on her. Speaking of which…
  2. What if Secretary Clinton hadn’t taken so much effort to set up a private email server instead of using a secure government account? It’s hard to discern any motive for doing such a thing other than wanting to avoid oversight of her email communications. Oops. Most charitably, this was a gray area. But it was an unforced error—nobody made her do it. No server means no investigation, and no investigation means no Comey letter. If she wants someone to blame, she should look in the mirror.
  3. What if Secretary Clinton hadn’t shown utter contempt for religiously conservative voters? The Democratic Party platform may not be friendly to most religious conservatives, but at least President Obama made some effort to reach out to people with traditional Christian beliefs in his campaigns. Secretary Clinton, though, thought “religious beliefs…have to be changed.” And even though it was only last week that DNC chairman Tom Perez essentially kicked anyone with pro-life sentiment out of the party, the signs were there in the Clinton campaign. This came through loud and clear in its slavish devotion to Planned Parenthood—which, incidentally, was Secretary Clinton’s next speaking engagement after the interview with Amanpour. She was never going to win a majority of white evangelical voters, but in a year when a substantial number of conservative Christians said “Never!” to the Republican nominee, a few could have made a difference. It was a missed opportunity.

So, Secretary Clinton, it’s understandable that you’d be thinking about the election, replaying it over and over in your mind, analyzing all the possible different scenarios that would have put you in the White House. But the truth is, it wasn’t the Comey letter, it wasn’t the Russians, and it wasn’t us that cost you the presidency. It was you.

Current “Repeal” Bill Leaves More Uninsured than Actual Repeal

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that if the existing GOP health care bill becomes law, 24 million fewer people will have health insurance in 2026 than if the Affordable Care Act were to remain in place. This makes sense, of course, if for no other reason than uninsured people would no longer be criminals (sorry, tax evaders) – a powerful incentive to be insured.

But The New York Times points out something interesting. The figure of 24 million is actually 1 million more future uninsured than if the ACA were simply repealed as promised, returning federal health care regulation to what it was in 2010.

It’s not as if the status quo in 2010 was exactly healthy, so to speak. Among other problems, the unfair tax treatment of personally paid policies and lack of competition across state lines supplied inflationary pressures then as they do now. Rather than addressing these, however, the ACA layered on an entirely new set of undesirable features. Now, in addition to all the preexisting distortions in the health insurance market, the ACA:

  • Mandates coverages (contraception, for example) that not everyone wants or needs, making premiums higher for everyone
  • Requires first-dollar coverage of routine/preventative care, insulating providers from market competition
  • Fines (sorry, taxes) consumers for choosing not to buy a product

Never mind other issues, like driving competitors from the market and the whole “if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor” fiasco. It really is remarkable that congressional Republicans are unwilling to make the case that 2010 is a better starting point for meaningful reform than 2017 – especially since they promised a “repeal.”

But there is something else going on here as well, something that is probably too far downstream to be pulled back up. The entire debate about health care has gotten shoeboxed into language about health insurance. Under the de facto terms of this debate, More Insurance (whether defined as “more things covered by the policy” or “more people with a policy”) = Better Health Care. But this is a false equivalence.

For example, the Washington Post reported in December that life expectancy actually declined in 2015, for the first time since 1993. And this at a time when the uninsured rate was plummeting, thanks to the ACA’s mandate (sorry, tax).

Now it may not be fair to blame the ACA for literally causing more deaths. But the point remains that the relationship between health insurance and health outcomes is far more complex than a simple linear correlation. Walking the path to true, meaningful reform that improves outcomes means challenging the very terms of the political debate. Unfortunately, this is looking increasingly unlikely.

Religious Liberty Gets the Scare Quote Treatment

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, some Georgia lawmakers have introduced yet another bill to enact a state religious freedom restoration act (RFRA). This looks to be an even-more-watered-down version than the milquetoast bill Governor Deal lacked the courage to sign last year (which itself was scaled back from the one from which Vice President Pence retreated when he was still Governor of Indiana).

The bill (text here) appears almost literally to copy-and-past from the federal RFRA, which President Clinton signed into law in 1993. As a legislative vehicle, it strikes this writer as dubious, and is probably already doomed anyway.

The interesting part of this, however, is the repeated use of quotes around “religious liberty” by the AJC in its stories. As a cursory review, here are just a few instances where this occurs:

  • Today’s story containing the text of the bill: 3 times, including in the headline
  • Yesterday’s story on the bill’s filing: 4 times, including the headline and the opening sentence
  • Yesterday’s story anticipating the bill’s ultimate fate: 3 times, including the headline
  • Last year’s story on Governor Deal’s veto: 4 times, including the headline and opening sentence

Scare-quoting like this is essentially the paper’s method of saying “yeah, right!” With this styling, the AJC is implying that the purpose of the bill cannot really be religious liberty. It must be something else – like discrimination! Thus, not even subtly, a newspaper is impugning the motives of those in support of the bill rather than weighing the merits of the bill itself. (To their respective writers’ credit, a couple of the stories linked above do actually address substantive arguments against the bill, but only after the scare-quoting.) It is a deliberate editorial choice, and a poor one by a local paper that is capable of excellent work.

Note: As of the time of this writing, searches of the AJC’s archives have yielded no references to the “Affordable” Care Act.

Evangelical Relief Organization Forced to Downsize

World Relief, the humanitarian organization established by the National Association of Evangelicals, announced yesterday that it is closing five offices and laying off over 140 employees. This comes as a result of President Trump’s executive order reducing the number of refugees allowed into the United States during the current fiscal year. While battles in court over the “travel ban” from seven predominantly Muslim countries have made most of the news, this downsizing is due to other provisions in the order.

As one of nine agencies partnering with the federal government to resettle refugees in the United States, World Relief is directly impacted by both the temporary suspension of the refugee program and the anticipated reduction in total refugees (from 110,000 to 50,000) admitted into the country this year. According to Christianity Today, World Relief settled 45 refugees per day in 2016. But now that the flow has stopped – and is unlikely to reach its previous level even when it resumes – the organization was left with little choice but to make cuts.

The people at World Relief see vulnerable, persecuted populations around the world as their neighbors, and they are living out their faith by heeding Jesus’ call to love their neighbors as themselves. Their resettlement model involves matching incoming refugees (whether individuals and family groups) with volunteer teams from local churches. In this way, refugees have a vital support system when they arrive to help them with everything from furnishing their apartments and locating the nearest grocery store to securing transportation and finding jobs. For both the World Relief staff and the volunteers they engage, the motivation is to demonstrate Christ’s love.

There is nothing happy in this news. One can be generally in favor of tighter restrictions on immigration (including refugees) and still be saddened that 140+ people are losing their jobs. Further, refugee resettlement is an area of social service where conservative Christians have been welcomed rather than being shamed for their convictions. It is unfortunate that such an avenue is shrinking.

No Surprise: Neil Gorsuch Believes in an Independent Judiciary

Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut met with Supreme Court Nominee Neil Gorsuch yesterday, and he did not miss an opportunity to highlight a disagreement Gorsuch has with the president who nominated him. Referencing President Trump’s “so-called judge” line about James Robart, Blumenthal said this: “[Gorsuch] certainly expressed to me that he is disheartened by the demoralizing and abhorrent comments made by President Trump about the judiciary.”

The reaction from friends of administration was predictable. The President himself took to Twitter again this morning to blast Blumenthal, calling the representation of Gorsuch’s comments “fake news.” But this seems unlikely given that other senators, including Republicans Kelly Ayotte and Ben Sasse, have had very similar conversations with Gorsuch.

The question here is not loyalty to the administration; rather, it is separation of powers. In recent years, every new administration seems to bring about a corresponding rediscovery of this pre-partisan governing principle by the opposing party. In Gorsuch’s case, his staunch defense of an independent judiciary may well help him be confirmed. Or not.

For his part Senator Sasse keeps speaking eloquently about our exceptional constitutional system. In an interview with NBC’s Katy Tur on Tuesday, Sasse touched on a variety of topics, including the skepticism of power inherent in our republic’s structures and the way that “executive overreach” and congressional abdication have fed each other for decades. He also talked about Gorsuch, and what he said was encouraging. The nine-minute video is well worth watching for Sasse’s grasp of how the current moment fits into a longer historical context. When he is finished representing the people of Nebraska, perhaps Sasse can find work as America’s civics teacher.