Monthly Archives: January 2013

Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine – between overconfidence and despair

At the heart of the controversy within Reformed circles over the two kingdoms doctrine is the assertion of two kingdoms advocates that not all of life’s activities or institutions should be identified with the kingdom of God. Although neo-Calvinism is by no means monolithic on this point, many neo-Calvinists, especially those writing the programmatic rhetoric at formative institutions like high schools and colleges, tend to speak of the creation in general as the kingdom of God, and of all Christian activity as kingdom work. The kingdom, in this view, is simply the realm of God’s authority. Barack Obama’s office as president is just as much a part of that kingdom as is the work of your local pastor because both are under the lordship of Christ. Within this universal kingdom the only legitimate distinction is between those whose work is loyal to the king and those who support the rebellion.

While we can debate the teaching of Scripture on this point, there should be little doubt that these claims are indeed neo-Calvinist, that is, that they break with the two kingdoms emphasis of the great theologian John Calvin. Although Calvin affirms, of course, that having ascended into heaven Christ is supreme over all things, both in heaven and on earth, he consistently clarifies that the kingdom of Christ proper only exists where human beings have voluntarily yielded themselves in subjection to Christ. He also emphasizes – over and over – that while the kingdom is spiritual (i.e., eternal, though not immaterial), the affairs and institutions of this age, including marriage, government, and yes, even cultural knowledge (see his commentary on 1 Corinthians 13) is temporal, transient, and will pass away.

That doesn’t mean Calvin thinks the kingdom isn’t present, or even that all that Christians do in this life should not be a testimony to the coming of that kingdom. On the contrary, Calvin insists that every Christian, whatever her vocation, should channel her efforts towards the cause of Christ. Even government should do all that it can to protect and promote the kingdom, while recognizing that the real work of that kingdom is accomplished through the preaching of the gospel and the ministry of the church.

In his 1560 dedication of his commentary on Acts to Lord Nicolas Radziwill, the chief marshal and head chancellor of Lithuania, Calvin carefully explained the two senses in which the kingdom is present in this age. While affirming that Christ decisively established his kingdom when he ascended into heaven, he acknowledges that the ordinary state of affairs this side of Christ’s return will be one of conflict, persecution, and suffering. He then writes,

When we speak of the kingdom of Christ, we must respect two things: the teaching of the gospel, whereby Christ gathers to himself a church and whereby he governs the same, being gathered together; second, the society of the godly, who being coupled together by the sincere faith of the gospel, are truly accounted the people of God…

This kingdom must always be distinguished from Christ’s broader kingship, which includes what two kingdoms advocates remind us is the temporal, or political kingdom.

For although the Son of God has always reigned, even from the first beginning of the world, yet after that, being revealed in the flesh, he published his gospel, and he began to erect a more famous tribunal seat than before, from which he now appears most plainly and is most glorious.

It is that “tribunal seat” that is represented in the ministry of the church, and it is in the society of Christians that its power is expressed.

But Calvin never suggests that the task of Christians is to somehow turn this world into the kingdom. For Calvin the restoration or renewal of the world begins to take place in the church, through the regeneration of believers, who then testify to their loyalty to that kingdom – and to its imminent transformation of all things – in their lives. Yet the restoration of “outward” or “external” matters, the transformation of all that is fallen and transient, awaits Jesus’ return.

In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries Protestant theologians began to claim Calvin’s theology as warrant and precedent for their attempts to bring the kingdom of God to expression in this age through the social gospel. Everything that the reformer said about obeying God’s law in government, family, or economics was taken as evidence that Calvin himself believed the task of Christians was to transform all of life into the kingdom. To this day some neo-Calvinists make the same claims, failing to recognize the significant extent to which their attitude towards culture and politics breaks with that of Calvin. Yet today there is little excuse for maintaining the naive optimism of the early 20th Century social gospel, though some are deceived by the spirit of our times; most transformationalists therefore tend to be pessimistic culture warriors on the verge of despair.

But if Calvin is our guide, such pessimism and despair is as unwarranted as was the naive cultural confidence that made such despair inevitable. Calvin saw the present manifestation of Christ’s transformation of the world in the church, its government and its society, and he constantly warned his readers and hearers that this side of Jesus’ return, the context for that manifestation would be one of suffering witness. In an age when the West is increasingly turning away from the legacy of Christianity, we would do well to reconsider the wisdom of that warning.

Obama’s hard turn to the left – and its high cost to the country

I’m convinced that most Americans were willing to support President Obama in a bipartisan approach to solving America’s major problems in 2013, even if that required taking off the gloves when it came to intransigent Republicans unwilling to compromise. But is the nation going to be as supportive of the president if he presses a hard-left agenda on the country, stepping down from the moral high ground of bipartisanship? CNN’s chief political analyst David Gergen writes:

On the other side of the aisle, many Republicans such as Eric Cantor were respectful of the president after his address but underneath most of them were bristling. They had expected the president to issue a ritualistic plea for bipartisanship and then to begin negotiating with them over federal deficits.

Instead, he made it clear that he will work with them as long as they agree with him and try to run over them if they resist. From the GOP perspective, Obama was virtually dismissive of the nation’s fiscal threats and wasn’t interested in true negotiations. In a tweet after the speech, scholar Ian Bremmer captured their view of Obama’s message to the GOP: “Together, we shall pursue my objectives.”

In short, the divisions in Washington may grow even deeper in the near term, if that is possible, and no one knows what will actually be accomplished.

The harder line the president pushes, the more supportive Americans are going to be of Republicans who refuse to compromise. And even liberals are surprised at just how hard a line Obama took in his second inaugural address.

Certainly the most worrisome implication of Obama’s new stance is the unlikelihood of real progress being made on the nation’s unsustainable deficit spending, and its even more unsustainable commitments in the way of health care and entitlements. Gallup’s study of poll averages indicates that Obama is presiding over an America more polarized than at any point in its post World War II history, with the sole exception of George W. Bush’s fourth year in office. That doesn’t bode well for the sort of compromise we need moving forward.

Most Polarized Presidential Approval Ratings, by Party

But The Economist – seemingly in doubt about its decision to endorse Obama for reelection this past year – questions whether the president even cares.

[I]t seems clear that resolving America’s deficit problems is not high on the president’s list of priorities. In fact he mentioned the deficit only once, about halfway in, and qualified that mention by immediately noting that “we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.”

To a fiscal conservative, that is precisely why the deficit is out of control: continuing to invest for the future, without scaling back the commitments that have been made to the retired, is a conflict that can only be resolved by big tax increases (which Mr Obama himself, as well as the Republicans, have already ruled out) or by everlasting deficits. Choices do, in fact, have to be made.

Senior Republicans now believe that Mr Obama has never been serious about tackling the cost of entitlements, the mandatory categories of expenditure that principally cover pensions and health insurance for the elderly, as well as health care for the very poor. Yet if benefit cuts are off the table, and further tax rises are as well (the Republicans agreed to tax rises worth around $600 billion over ten years on January 1st, in order to avert the fiscal cliff, and they now say no further tax rises can be considered), then the idea of any new bargain seems remote.

CNN and The Economist aren’t exactly hard right publications, enamored with uncompromising Congressional Republicans or ideological Tea Party activists. Indeed, given that conservatives have never trusted Obama, and are not likely to be surprised as he shows his “true colors,” it is increasingly those Americans (and foreign observers) who identify solidly with the pragmatism of middle-of-the-road politics who are most put off (and in some cases, having defended the president, even embarrassed) by this unabashedly ideological approach to politics. What ever happened to that Change Obama was going to bring to Washington, the new kind of politics that so energized and inspired the president’s supporters in 2008? If there has been any change, it seems, it has been for the worse.

What is the Christian position on gun control?

I receive regular emails from a number of Christian organizations and denominations advocating that I take particular political actions or support specific policies. Last week I was inundated with messages regarding gun control, nearly all of which sought to persuade me that my Christian faith requires me to support a particular policy or political stance.

From Sojourners, Evangelical Jim Wallis argued that people seek guns in reaction to their separation from one another. He noted that while we all want to tell our children they are safe, we cannot, until … Until we improve our gun control laws. Then, apparently, we could decisively tell our children they are safe. For Wallis, America would do the right thing here if only we would allow our faith to overcome our politics:

… if people of faith respond differently just because they are people of faith — that our faith overcomes our politics here, and that gun owners and gun advocates who are people of faith will act in this situation as people of faith, distinctively and differently.

Wallis offers thoughtful theological reasons for his position, and then tells us that he agrees with the judgment of his nine year old son:

“I think that they ought to let people who, like licensed hunters, have guns if they use them to hunt. And people who need guns — who need guns for their job like policemen and army. But I don’t think that we should just let anybody have any kind of gun and any kind of bullets that they want. That’s pretty crazy.”

Not a word on the constitution in this appeal, nor the faintest recognition that inscribed in the American Bill of Rights is the right to bear arms for the purpose – not of hunting, or of serving in government – but of securing the rights of a free people. Faith must not simply overcome our politics, apparently. It must also overcome our constitutional obligations to one another.

The United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society likewise calls me to yield to the “moral imperative” of stronger gun control laws, noting that 47 religious leaders have signed a document declaring their support for legislation that would 1) require a criminal background check on anyone purchasing a gun, 2) prohibit civilians from purchasing “high-capacity weapons and ammunition magazines”, and 3) make gun trafficking a federal crime. This statement, thankfully, addressed the question of the constitution, though only to state that the signers believe that the steps for which they are calling are compatible with the right to bear arms. Fair enough, though more on this would be helpful. But aside from appealing to safety and common sense, the Methodist Church gives me no biblical or theological reason why I should support this policy, nor does the letter signed by the 47 religious leaders do so.

That might be fine if I wasn’t receiving mail from advocacy arm of an even larger Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, suggesting a slightly different response. The ERLC sends me Richard Land’s letter to President Obama, calling for caution. Land declares first that “we [i.e., Southern Baptists] affirm and uphold the Second Amendment’s ‘right of the people to keep and bear Arms.'” In contrast to Wallis, Land declares that “no set of policies or gun restrictions can inoculate us from future Newtown-like killing sprees.”

Yet Land says that Southern Baptists “believe our nation can and should take some preemptive actions to quell gun violence in ways that do not infringe on the Second Amendment.” Among these actions Land identifies numbers 1 and 3 from the letter signed by the 47 leaders, but he notably leaves out the proposed prohibition of high-capacity weapons and ammunition magazines. Land also calls President Obama to respect local authorities and states rights, asks him to consider taking action to constrain graphic violence in video games and other entertainment and urges consideration of stricter measures to contain potential violence on the part of the mentally unhealthy. Yet like the statement of the 47 leaders, Land gives little theological reason for his positions.

So what is the “Christian” position here? Wallis offers the deepest theological analysis of the appropriate Christian response to the problem of gun violence, but he is most dismissive of constitutional concerns. Land is most sensitive to constitutional constraints, but it’s hard to see how his position is distinctively Christian. There does seem to be a consensus among all three groups that there need to be criminal background checks on gun-purchasers and that gun trafficking needs to be a crime.

But what if our “faith” demands more than the constitution allows, as Wallis’s rhetoric might suggest? On the other hand, what if our faith requires us to submit to a constitution that prevents us from legislating policies we might otherwise have good reason to support? At the same time, what if the positions of the United Methodist and Southern Baptist churches owe more to their political convictions (and respective constitutional interpretations) than to any sort of substantive Christian teaching. What if there is no “Christian” position on gun control?

Unfortunately, the inevitable result of all of this ecclesiastical advocacy is a loss of credibility on the part of the churches. We all know that Wallis and the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society lean left, and that Richard Land and the Southern Baptist Convention lean right. We know their respective attitudes toward gun control. And so we take their statements on these matters worth a grain of salt. Nothing has changed except that we all ignore the churches just a little bit more.

In a sense Wallis does hold more credibility because he does not speak for a church. And we do want Christians to reflect on the potential insights of their theology for difficult political problems. Removing religion from political arguments may seem ideal, but in reality it simply obscures the reasons why people support the positions they do, impoverishing public debate. But Wallis’s enormous confidence in the degree to which his own political judgments are the demands of the faith is unwarranted. Unless you already agree with him, he’s probably not going to convince you.

It’s time for American churches (and theologians) to reconsider their claims to authority on matters of politics and policy. The church is charged with the proclamation of the gospel and the whole counsel of God to a suffering and sinful world. The more we waste our “ecclesiastical capital” advocating policies that have little obvious relation with that mission, the more we undermine our own cause.

Who cares about unity anyway? The Significance of the PCA

The Presbyterian Church in America is by far the largest conservative Reformed denomination in the United States. Totaling approximately 300,000 members, it represents a powerful proportion of the combined population of the United States and Canada: approximately 0.09%. If you are confused by the combination of decimals and percentages, take it simply as a decimal: 0.0009. Or if you find fractions more helpful, members of the PCA represent approximately one out of every 1,111 Americans and Canadians.

Perhaps with such staggering statistics in mind, PCA pastor Sam DeSocio suggests that the PCA might be too large and should consider splitting. The PCA is simply too big, containing within itself too many factions, none of which can win control of the denomination, with the result that it has no clear identity. In addition, the PCA’s size makes it hard for the various confessional Reformed denominations to unite together without being dominated by the PCA.

Part of the problem is that presently the PCA is so large that it has decided that it will invite other denominations to join with us, and be received, but that we will not merge with others to form a new organization. If instead of one larger theologically conservative Presbyterian church we were three such smaller groups, it might make it possible for us to better cooperate with many other denominations. What I’m suggesting is that maybe for the sake of framing a larger church we first need to do some demo.

The sort of split DeSocio proposes is therefore not the kind of split that is required when Christians have to defend the gospel, or expel heresy. Rather, it is the sort of split that is needed for better functioning. It’s all for the cause of greater peace and harmony – even unity. Never mind the fact that once denominations split the likelihood of success in getting them back together is about as high as is that of dismantling a federal program or bureaucracy. It’s happened once or twice, but I wouldn’t bet my spending money on it.

To be clear, I’m not trying to pick on DeSocio here, although it might seem like it. I take him at his word that his long-term objective is indeed greater unity. But I’m less concerned with what one person thinks than I am with the general assumptions an increasing number of Reformed leaders appear to hold when conducting these debates. It seems that there is little left of John Calvin’s conviction that unity in the gospel is one of the most fundamental obligations of the church. More precisely, there is little left of the old Reformed consensus that various churches are called by Christ to come together in assemblies of churches called presbyteries, synods, and ultimately national (if not international) assemblies. Our synods and general assemblies today are much more like voluntary associations, parties of like-minded churches, if you will, than like anything representing a confessional, territorial church. In short, we seem to believe that while there are biblical, Reformed principles of church government at the congregational level, these principles are not binding on any broader level.

Note that I’m not even talking about organizational unity with the vast majority of Christians in the world – that would be unthinkable – folks like Baptists, Methodists, Anglicans, Pentecostals, or, obviously, Roman Catholics. I’m not talking about unity with “Reformed” denominations whose allegiance to the orthodox Christian creeds has significantly faltered. I’m talking about unity with Reformed denominations who hold to the Reformed and Presbyterian confessions.

What DeSocio is suggesting is that because the PCA is divided into various factions unified by their respective approaches to church and ministry, the common confessional allegiance is no longer sufficient to warrant organizational unity. Yet as Scott Clark writes in his excellent response to DeSocio’s argument:

What unites the Reformed and Presbyterian churches is not a philosophy of ministry but the Word of God as confessed by the churches. There’s no denying that real differences do develop in the life of a denomination but as these surface the first response should not be to divide but to re-form around God’s Word as confessed by the churches.

This is hard. Remaining united with people with whom you hold significant practical disagreements requires immense patience and humility. It requires the willingness to abandon unrealistic or inappropriate objectives of uniformity or power. As one Reformed elder, who is by no means happy with much of what he sees in the PCA, wrote to me,

Unity takes a lot of humility. I think it is of utmost important for denominations to know what is the basis of their unity and with Scott Clark it is our Confession. So we have to guard the confessions and swallow our pride when things are not as we like, but are not contrary to our confessions.

If unity takes humility, then its opposite is pride, or ambition. And as John Calvin never tires of observing, the main reason why Christians divide from one another – the vice that lies at the heart of virtually every heresy and schism – is ambition. It is often ambition for power, control, or influence that drives one faction against another at a church assembly. It is ambition for worldly success that frequently drives pastors and churches to abandon their more conservative brothers and sisters in order to forge some new path ahead. It is ambition for an unrealistically pure or perfect church that consistently leads others to insist that fidelity with the few is more important than unity with Christ’s whole body, if such unity requires toleration of its flaws and weaknesses.

One of Rome’s major apologetic arguments during the Reformation was that the Protestant logic of sola Scriptura would – rather than unifying the church under the true gospel – turn every church and every Christian into its own pope. Calvin may have been right to retort that fidelity to the gospel and to Scripture – in short, allegiance to Christ – is a sufficient bond for the maintenance of unity. But, ironically, he seems to have overestimated the interest of his followers in actually maintaining that unity.

Do Reformed Christians still believe that ecclesiastical unity is an obligation, or have we embraced the ethos of American Evangelicalism on this point, more interested in our freedom and independence than in solidarity. When it’s all said and done, the very important question underlying all of this is, Do we care? Does unity matter?

Giving Handouts to the Rich

From The American Prospect:

new report from Smart Growth America, a national coalition that fights sprawl, looks at 50 federal programs that deal with housing and real estate. In total, the federal government spends around $450 billion each year on such programs, counting tax breaks, loans and loan guarantees, and direct investment in real-estate projects….

Who benefits the most from the messiness? Surprise: the rich. For instance, the biggest tax-expenditure program for housing is the Mortgage Interest Deduction, which allows people to deduct payments on their mortgage interest on their taxes. Created in 1913, the MID costs an average of $80 billion annually, and it’s supposed to help families buy a primary home. But 30 percent of the households claiming the deduction claim it on a second home—like, say, a vacation home. Lower-income families have a harder time claiming the deduction, because it requires itemized taxes.

The rich also get a hand when it comes to housing subsidies. Those who make more than $200,000 get, on average, $6,300. For those who make between $30,000 and $40,000, the number drops to only $265.

This is only further evidence that soaring deficits are not the result of America’s safety net, nor the fault of America’s poor.

Avoiding “conservative” radicalism: Walter Russell Mead on the Blue Social Model

If you are interested in the future of the American welfare state and American democracy – i.e., if you want to think carefully about the future of life in this country – Walter Russell Mead’s writing on the decline of the blue model is a must read. As he reports on Via Meadia,

The “death of blue” theme has gotten a lot of attention. Hundreds of thousands of readers have come to these posts, and they’ve been discussed widely in the blogosphere and in print.

Mead’s prose is clear, readable, and gets to the point. More importantly, it represents a broadly conservative, yet helpfully pragmatic perspective on American society, its changing institutions and its evolving possibilities, that provides conservatives with a genuine alternative to utopian attitudes of libertarianism or reconstructionism. And it is now carefully summarized at the American Interest in one well-written summary article. Read it.

Mead argues that what he calls America’s “blue social model” is dying, by which he means that

the characteristic form of 20th century industrial democracy has come unglued, and that the advanced industrial democracies around the world must adjust to basic changes in the way the world works….

Briefly, the idea is that after World War II America was organized around a group of heavily regulated monopoly and semi-monopoly companies. AT&T was the only telephone company; there were three big networks, three big car companies and so on. There was very little foreign competition, and these companies were able to offer stable, lifetime employment to most of their workers. The workforce was heavily unionized, and the earnings of the big companies were divided between shareholders, managers, workers and government in a predictable way. An intellectual and administrative class of planners, social scientists and managers ran the big institutions and administered the government.

Several forces came together to break up this system. Foreign competition, first from rebuilding Germany and Japan after World War II and then from low wage newly industrializing countries around the world, eroded the market position of companies like the Big Three auto manufacturers. The rise of offshore banking eroded the tight financial controls of the postwar era. Growing consumer impatience with the high prices and poor quality offered by monopoly companies like the telephone monopoly led to political pressure to deregulate and introduce more competition. Technological change, especially in information processing and communications, led to disruptive changes that shifted the advantage to nimble and lean companies and left the bureaucratic, slow moving giants of the Blue Age behind. American society became increasingly individualistic, with both the left and the right rebelling against the authority of experts and bureaucrats.

Unlike many in America today, whether on the right or the left, Mead is not pessimistic about America’s future. The United States, he argues consistently, maintains solid economic, political, social, military, and environmental advantages over other countries. Yet the land of the pilgrims and pioneers needs to figure out how to adjust its institutions and policies – as we always have in the past – corresponding to a rapidly evolving world, yet in a manner faithful to American ideals.

What future does Mead propose?

The first thing to say about a post-blue social model is that it will be liberal. That is to say it will be a further exercise the development of the concept of “ordered liberty” that has been the guiding light of Anglo-American civilization since the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The synthesis of enlightened, forward looking governance resting on the acknowledged and inalienable liberties of the people at the heart of the liberal vision remains the best foundation humanity has yet found for running a society in a world of rapid change.

At the heart of the enduring liberal ideal is a truth that is often forgotten in today’s political debates: the relationship between order and liberty does not have to be zero sum. More government can mean less freedom, and more freedom can mean less government—but things don’t always work out that way….

The secret of Anglo-American civilization has been its ability to combine the two elements of order and liberty at successively higher levels of both. To think constructively about our future we shouldn’t be thinking about a zero sum tradeoff between order and freedom; we should be thinking about how to build the kind of order that extends our liberty in new and important ways.

Mead’s take on the liberal project is profoundly conservative. In a time when some conservatives, including Christian conservatives, are becoming increasingly jaded with the idea of liberal democracy, his perspective reminds us that genuine conservatism is respectful both of the past and of the present. It gives the benefit of the doubt to the social order as it exists – the legacy of the past – while calling for necessary changes that are gradual, that are morally, economically, and politically appropriate, and that do not disrupt the legitimate social fabric. This is in sharp contrast to the sorts of “conservatism” that owe more to the legacy of revolutionary radicalism, whether in their libertarian dreams of dismantling American government or in their theocratic hopes of turning America into the kingdom of God.

If you haven’t done so, go read Mead’s essay.

Spoiling your children, and the decline of civil society

It turns out that spoiling kids, as our grandmothers told us, is actually bad for them. It’s also bad for civil society. It’s one thing financially to assist your children as they move through the stages of life, all the while training them in their work ethic, responsibility, and healthy ambition. It’s a whole other thing to teach them that they are the center of the world, the deserving beneficiaries of their parents (and their society’s) largesse.

Here are two bits of evidence (HT: Via Meadia). First, researchers have reported in Science that China’s one child policy has not been good for the character of the country’s youth.

We document that China’s One-Child Policy, one of the most radical approaches to limiting population growth, has produced significantly less trusting, less trustworthy, more risk-averse, less competitive, more pessimistic, and less conscientious individuals.

Walter Russell Mead writes,

It’s been pointed out many times before that the ranks of only children are large and growing, and that they are outnumbered by, and thus hard pressed to care for, parents and grandparents. Now we find that they are also less inclined to follow the Confucian tradition’s dictates of respect and responsibility for one’s elders. Indeed, this is why the leadership has already enacted laws forcing selfish children to visit their parents regularly or face legal consequences.

The Second bit of evidence? The New York Times reports that students whose parents pay for their college education perform much less well academically.

Dr. [Laura] Hamilton suggested that students who get a blank check from their parents may not take their education as seriously as others.

“Oddly, a lot of the parents who contributed the most money didn’t get the best returns on their investment,” she said. “Their students were more likely to stay and graduate, but their G.P.A.’s were mediocre at best, and some I didn’t see study even once. I wondered if that was nationally true, which led me to this quantitative study, which found that it is.”

Again, Mead comments,

It’s hardly a surprise that 18-year-olds will take advantage of a fully subsidized four-year adventure through parties, booze, and whatever other joys college brings. Keeping young people in a bubble where they don’t have to work for their own money (and by work we don’t mean cushy internships) is a form of child abuse, depriving kids of the character and capability-building experiences they need to become responsible and effective adults.

Of course, by analogy we might draw some national and social implications from this. I’ll leave that to you wise readers.

Withdrawing from Afghanistan

U.S. troops will begin withdrawing from Afghanistan this spring, ahead of schedule.


From Slate:

When one reporter asked if our accomplishments in this war had been worth all the bloodshed, Obama recalled the reason we intervened in Afghanistan in the first place—the 3,000 Americans killed on Sept. 11, 2001, as a result of an attack that al-Qaida had planned on Afghan soil. Our “central goal” ever since, he said, has been to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaida while also bringing Osama bin Laden to justice. Mission accomplished.

But this answer was misleading. It sidestepped the fact that, at the end of 2009, Obama sent an additional 33,000 troops to Afghanistan, a surge of nearly 50 percent above the 68,000 already there—and that he did so not to go after bin Laden and al-Qaida (a task that could have been handled with far fewer forces) but rather to pursue a counterinsurgency strategy, at least in the cities, particularly in the southern districts. This strategy involved not only killing and capturing bad guys but also helping to reform the Afghan government and providing the people with basic services—in short, nation-building.

What Obama didn’t mention is that this surge and this strategy were not a success.

Redefining the reasons for fighting a war is nothing new in American history. In 1863 Abraham Lincoln redefined the Civil War as a campaign for the liberation of black slaves in the South, despite insisting up to that point that the war had little to do with slavery. After the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq President Bush increasingly described the Iraq War as a campaign to free the Iraqi people from a brutal dictator and enable them to establish democratic self-government.

In this case, I suspect most Americans are perfectly fine with Obama’s assessment that the nation-building experiment in Afghanistan has failed. To be sure, there are those on the right and the left who will insist that this is a major mistake, that if we leave Afghanistan to the Taliban we will only have to go back there again in a few years. But aside from all of the obvious problems with nation-building and counter-insurgency, Afghanistan is not the only failed state in the world (think Somalia, Mali, and increasingly Syria). It is by no means clear that America has the power to fix one of these countries, let alone all of them.

But as more isolationist minded Americans have long pointed out (including President Bush in the 2000 presidential campaign), just because there is a problem doesn’t mean that problem has a solution, let alone one that our country is capable of solving. In the end, America needs to reduce its involvement in Afghanistan not because we should return to the sorts of isolationist foreign policies that led to disaster in the 1930s and 1940s, but because we need to preserve our strength – moral, economic, military, political – for the sorts of efforts that matter most, and that actually have a chance of success. We survived the withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975 despite the worst prognosticators’ predictions about the domino theory. We will survive this withdrawal as well.

Whatever we might say about the particular failures of leadership and strategy that lie behind the American conduct of the Afghanistan War, or behind Obama’s withdrawal of America from that war, I think most of us will be relieved to (mostly*) turn the last page of this chapter in our history.

* It is likely that 10,000 troops will remain in Afghanistan to assist the country in its continued struggle against Al Qaeda.

The Economist on the Fraying of Marriage in America

From today’s issue of The Economist:

If marriage affected only the two people who choose (or not) to wed, it would be easier to ignore falling marriage rates. But with them come rising out-of-wedlock birth rates. In 2010, 40.8% of all births were to unmarried mothers. Among Hispanics that figure was 53%, and among blacks 73%. In 1965 Daniel Patrick Moynihan, later a Democratic senator from New York, called for emergency federal intervention to aid in “the establishment of a stable Negro family structure”, and justified it in part by an out-of-wedlock birth rate among blacks of 23.6%—half what it is today.

With illegitimate births come single-parent homes, in which 35% of all American children lived in 2011. Children brought up in such homes fare worse than children raised by married parents over a range of academic and emotional outcomes, from adolescent delinquency to dropping out of school. The poverty rate among single-parent, female-headed families is over five times that of married, two-parent families. Nearly 71% of poor families lack married parents. And children brought up in poverty tend to be poor themselves.

Enough said.

Immorality, Deceit, Idealism, and Achievement: The Perplexing Presidency of John F. Kennedy

When asked to rank the greatest occupants of the White House, Americans consistently place John F. Kennedy among the top five, if not the top two or three, presidents in American history. Professional historians, on the other hand, while recognizing Kennedy’s popularity, generally judge him to have been an above average president at best, but by no means comparable to the likes of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, or Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Why the gap in evaluation? In part it’s because historians recognize that while Jack Kennedy masterfully communicated to the public the image of a healthy, youthful, and brilliant family man, husband of the glamorous Jackie Kennedy, father of two, and master of foreign affairs, the reality was quite different.

To be sure, Kennedy masterfully handled the Cuban Missile Crisis, the closest the United States and the Soviet Union ever came to a catastrophic nuclear exchange, resisting the war-mongering of the Joint Chiefs while nevertheless convincing Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev that if the Russians did not withdraw their missiles from Cuba there would indeed be war. He exploited the capital earned from that successful showdown by engineering the first ever nuclear weapons agreement with the Soviet Union, a nuclear test ban that made future detente a genuine possibility. And had he not been assassinated fifty years ago in 1963, he almost certainly would have avoided the escalation of the Vietnam War that occurred under his successor Lyndon Johnson.

Photo: Kennedy and Khrushchev in Vienna, 1961

On the other hand, the president who founded the Peace Corps and launched the project that eventually put a man on the moon was in no small part responsible for the escalation of Cold War tensions in the first place. His scandalous botching of the invasion of Cuba in the Bay of Pigs fiasco significantly reduced America’s moral image in Latin America and in the broader world, giving the Soviet Union moral cover for its own aggressive subversion in third world countries and pushing Fidel Castro’s new regime into the open arms of the Russians. His sending of nearly 17,000 “advisers” to Vietnam set the stage for Johnson’s escalation of that war, and his encouragement of the South Vietnamese generals in their coup against South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem made him partially responsible for the brutal assassination of Diem only a few weeks before his own death from an assassin.

On the domestic front Kennedy was full of great ideas but he successfully enacted none of them. The first genuinely Keynesian president, he introduced the idea later associated with Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party that cutting taxes would actually increase revenue by bolstering the economy. He advocated health insurance for the elderly, federal funding for education, and a cabinet position for housing. He was much more encouraging of the civil rights movement than Eisenhower had been, eventually using his executive authority to ban discrimination in federal housing and calling for a civil rights law to protect African American voting rights.

On the other hand, Kennedy’s leadership on civil rights was nearly as indecisive, calculated, and cautious as had been that of Eisenhower before him, and Kennedy failed to persuade the Democratic controlled Congress to pass even one of his major initiatives. All of them would be enacted during the administration of Lyndon Johnson, the “Master of the Senate”, in 1964-1966 (though in part due to Johnson’s success in exploiting grief over Kennedy’s death). In fact, at Kennedy’s funeral the famous French general and statesman Charles De Gaulle apparently declared that while Kennedy was America’s mask, Johnson was the country’s real face.

Photo: Marilyn Monroe, only the most famous object of Kennedy’s obsessive womanizing, aborted what was probably Jack’s child, shortly before her death.

In his masterful biography of Kennedy Robert Dallek demonstrates just how successfully Kennedy worked to foster an image of health, morality, and honesty to cover a reality that was quite different. Throughout his life Kennedy’s body was wracked with near-debilitating ailments, pains, and degenerative diseases that were successfully kept from public view. Had he run for office a few decades later, he would never have been deemed eligible, let alone elected. The husband of Jackie Kennedy was an obsessive philanderer and womanizer, once declaring to the British Prime Minister that if he went without a woman for three days he got a headache. Not only did his womanizing get him tied up with the mafia, but it led to a near scandal when Kennedy became sexually involved with a young woman invited to nude pool parties at the White House, a woman suspected of being an East German spy. With help from FBI director J. Edgar Hoover Kennedy quashed a potential Senate investigation, while Attorney General Robert Kennedy had the young woman deported and paid off.

The deception, which was not unique to Kennedy’s administration but which was uniquely mastered by the man to whom the press was so friendly, extended to Kennedy’s handling of Vietnam. In contrast to presidents like Woodrow Wilson and FDR, Kennedy sought to minimize public awareness of U.S. involvement in a foreign war, fearing that democratic deliberation on the conflict would tie his presidential hands. He and Bobby Kennedy worked hard to arm twist the press into providing coverage cooperative to the administration’s aims, an abuse of the free press that helped to make it so cynical of later American presidential leadership and its handling of the Vietnam War.

Photo: Kennedy with his wife Jackie and daughter Caroline

Americans still love the Kennedys, especially the one who occupied the White House for those three years, deceptively described by Jackie Kennedy as the recreation of King Arthur’s Camelot. Yet the immorality and the idealism, the tragedies and the achievements highlight the age-old complexities of politics as it has always been conducted under the sun. God steers nations according to his mysterious will, using fallible instruments for his own purposes. In the final analysis, the country was probably in better shape when a rifle shot took the life of Jack Kennedy than it would be following the work of at least the next four occupants of that high office. Things aren’t always as they seem, and events rarely follow the course we might expect. That won’t change in the coming years.

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