Category Archives: Democratic Party
Does Two Kingdoms Theology Make Christians into Republicans or Democrats? You Can’t Have It Both Ways
We should all be deeply concerned about two kingdoms theology. Its disastrous effects on the church are evident, are they not? Recent evidence indicates that two kingdoms theology explains why some Christians, such as Christian Right pastor Robert Jeffress, support Donald Trump and the Republican Party. As David R. Brockman warns in the Texas Observer, Jeffress “has deployed Two Kingdoms thinking repeatedly since the presidential election” to justify his support for Donald Trump. If you believe Christianity requires that Christians support the Democratic party, that should be deeply concerning.
But wait. Recent evidence also indicates that two kingdoms theology explains why some Christians, such as Andrew White, candidate for governor of Texas, are Democrats. As Larry Ball warns in the Aquila Report, White’s approach “is deduced from what is called two-kingdom theology.” If you believe Christianity requires that Christians support the Republican party, that should be deeply concerning.
These articles advance arguments I have repeatedly heard from the lips of Reformed theologians and pastors. One highly esteemed Reformed scholar told me he is convinced that two kingdoms theology is on the rise because it gives Christians an excuse to support the Republican party despite its unChristian tendencies on poverty and race. Two kingdoms advocates, he believes, are crypto-Republicans. At the same time, numerous pastors have told me they are convinced that two kingdoms theology is on the rise because it gives Christians an excuse to support the Democratic party despite its unChristian positions on abortion and same-sex marriage. Two kingdoms advocates, it turns out, are crypto-Democrats.
I suppose a cynic would say that this is precisely the problem with two kingdoms theology. It complicates the link between the kingdom of God and the politics of this age, and so it allows Christians to support whatever positions they want, regardless of biblical teaching. Real Christians, thoughtful Christians, know which party is the Christian party. Right? Right?
So which party is it? Just how would Jesus vote if he were to become a citizen in 2018 America?
Who’s right, Brockman or Ball? Jeffress or White? Just which side is two kingdoms theology on! Christians demand to know. Partisans purport to reveal the real truth of the matter.
What if it turns out that Christians have substantial disagreements about politics precisely because neither political party faithfully serves the interests of justice, let alone of the kingdom of God? As my friend Mika Edmondson likes to say, if you have an easy time voting for either the Republicans or the Democrats because you are convinced that their policies align so perfectly with the teachings of Christianity, you have been deceived. The real tragedy, as my friend and colleague John Witvliet has put it, is that Christians feel forced to decide which part of a consistent ethic of life they will support and which part they will abandon.
I know. This is anathema for those who are so convinced that their party is the Christian party. And I know that because two kingdoms theology consistently challenges those who sanctify the politics of either the Right or the Left, articles like these will continue to be written and published. But do not be deceived. Brockman and Ball actually have much in common. They are both frustrated that two kingdoms theology refuses to sanctify their own politics.
This suggests to me that two kingdoms theology is actually getting something right, and that we need more of it, not less. It’s time for the church to stop being co-opted by either the Left or the Right. The gospel has much to say about justice and righteousness – and about politics too – but we only get it right when we seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness, refusing to confuse that kingdom with America or with the policies of any political party.
It’s time for the church to be the church. If you are sick and tired of the politicization of the church – if you are eager to see the church faithfully witness to the kingdom and its righteousness as it applies to every area of life, without compromise to any political party – then two kingdoms theology is for you.
“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2)
That’s what the Apostle Paul wrote to a church riven with ethnic, cultural, economic, and, yes, political divisions. That’s what it meant for a church to practice the truth that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (3:28).
The voting patterns of Christians in Tuesday’s elections reveal that this practice did not guide Christian political engagement in 2016. The best predictor of how a Christian voted was not his or her theological beliefs or denominational membership. It was his or her ethnicity. Black and Latino Christians voted for Clinton by massive margins, though not as much as they did for Obama in 2008 and 2012. And white Christians voted for Trump in even stronger numbers than they did for McCain or Romney in years past.
But the biggest indictment of the state of the church following election 2016 is not that the church voted differently based on ethnicity. Indeed, if you are a black Christian who voted for Trump (and I know some who did), or if you are a white Christian who voted for Clinton (and I know some who did), you have no basis for pride, as if by going against your ethnic group you somehow fulfilled your responsibility of bearing your neighbor’s burden.
No, the bigger indictment of the church is the way in which we have castigated and even demonized one another across the political aisle, the way in which we have turned away from one another in anger and in bitterness, the way in which we have refused to do the hard work of understanding one another’s political concerns and so seeking to bear one another’s burdens.
Are you an evangelical Republican who cannot fathom why African American and Latino Christians fear a Trump administration? Then you have a lot of work to do. Are you an evangelical Democrat who cannot understand why poor and middle class white voters feel alienated in twenty-first century America without attributing that alienation to racism or bigotry? Then you have a lot of work to do.
Let me put it this way. If you cannot understand why your fellow Christian voted for the opposite candidate, if you cannot sympathize with his or her vote – even if you strongly disagree with it – you have not loved him or her in the way that Christ has loved you. Jesus was able to pray from the cross for those who tortured and murdered him, “Father, forgive they, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). There was sympathy in that statement. Jesus had the capacity to sympathize with his enemies, even in their demonic act of crucifying the Son of God, because he grasped that given what they knew and believed, they thought they were doing the right thing. And he loved them enough to forgive them for that, and even to take the burden of their sin on himself as he died for them on the cross.
Many Christians are feeling bitterness and anger today. Some are relieved that a person they saw as a grave evil and a threat to American democracy was not elected to the White House. They cannot fathom how so many of their brothers and sisters could have voted for someone who wants to expand abortion rights and fund abortion with federal taxpayer dollars. How can one claim to be a Christian and support such a woman?
Others are fearful that a person they view as a grave evil and a threat to American democracy was elected to the White House. They cannot fathom how so many of their brothers and sisters could have voted for someone who is explicitly racist and misogynist and seems manifestly unfit to govern. How can one claim to be a Christian and support such a man?
These divisions run deep. We cannot move on in the church as if none of this ever happened. Many Christians are wondering how they can remain united in love and Christian friendship with those whose political choices seem so patently offensive.
Let’s be clear about one thing. Big issues were at stake in this election. The disagreements that divide Christians are serious. They are not trivialities that we can lightly set aside. We cannot simply dismiss political concerns as if they have nothing to do with the life of the church.
And yet, Christians who voted for Trump did not do so by and large because they are racists and misogynists. Likewise Christians who voted for Clinton did not do so by and large because they support abortion. Christians who voted either way did so because they felt that only that candidate understood their deepest fears and anxieties. They did so because they were fearful that the other candidate did not have their deepest concerns at heart. Most Christians voted the way they did because they trusted that one candidate had their backs and the other candidate didn’t.
Few Christians took the time to understand how their own brothers and sisters could see things so differently. Few of us practiced the gospel sufficiently to take the time to listen and learn. Few of us were willing to set aside our own fears and anxieties so as to genuinely carry each other’s burdens.
As Jon Foreman wrote in the Huffington Post before the election:
Fear gives birth to fear. Hatred gives birth to hatred. Violence gives birth to violence. “Love is the final fight.” I sing these words every night. They were inspired by a hero of mine named Dr. John M Perkins, a man who refuses to respond to hatred with hatred. A man who understands that the fight for freedom is larger than just one story. It’s a small, fearful mind that refuses to hear any narrative other than their own.
But love ends that cycle. Love chooses to allow someone else into your story. Love listens to a stranger’s story, and allows that story to mix and dance with your own. Dr. Perkins chose to show love knowing he might receive nothing in return. It’s a dangerous, costly response to hatred and violence. But love alone can end that cycle of hatred, violence, and retaliation. Our stories are different, you and I. And we will disagree. But love chooses to listen. Chooses to care. Chooses to acknowledge that your story has the same weight and value as my own.
Can we do this as Christians? We didn’t do it leading into the election. Can we do it under the presidency of Donald Trump? Will Republican evangelicals who see their sisters and brothers – their political opponents – wounded and beaten on the other side of the road and cross over to take up their need as their own, in the spirit of the good Samaritan? Will they stand with them in solidarity, pleading their cause as if it were their own? Will Democratic evangelicals who feel beaten and betrayed accept such an effort at reconciliation and love in a spirit of gospel hope? Will they stand in solidarity with their evangelical opponents, pleading their cause as if it were their own? Do we have the humility to recognize that our own political judgments might not reflect the whole picture, that they might even be wrong?
Many see in times such as this only cause for discouragement and despair. Those whose hope is rooted in the gospel rather than in princes (Psalm 146) must instead see opportunity. Never has it been so clear how much we, as Christians – not to mention our neighbors – need the gospel. Never has it been so painfully evident how little we are practicing the gospel across ethnic, economic, and cultural boundaries.
But therein lies the opportunity. The opportunity to repent and recover the gospel with a degree of faithfulness and clarity we have not known up to this point. The opportunity to exemplify before a deeply divided country a determination not only to be reconciled in the gospel but to practice the gospel in our political engagement. The opportunity to demonstrate in our politics that we will only support policies that genuinely serve the needs and concerns of all of God’s children, white or black, rich or poor, male or female, Democrat or Republican.
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).
Needless to say, I have received many critical responses to my blog post of October 10, in which I warned that evangelicals should not publicly support Donald Trump due to his consistent track record of misogyny, racism, divisiveness, and demagoguery. Although I received much more support than criticism, I believe the critics deserve a response. Many of them are genuinely distressed. They are being bombarded with the argument – implicit or explicit, rational or emotionally manipulative – that as Christians they must vote for Trump.
To be sure, I was very careful not to say that a person should not vote for Trump, and most readers understood that. A vote for a presidential candidate is highly complex. There are so many issues at stake, so many factors that should inform a thoughtful Christian’s decision, that we can be sure intelligent Christians will disagree here. Each will follow his or her own conscience. And we need to be careful not to judge one another. I have thoughtful Christian friends who are voting for Trump, others who are voting for Clinton, and others who will vote for someone else entirely.
At the same time, many of my critics seem to think that to criticize evangelicals for publicly supporting Donald Trump requires me to criticize Hillary Clinton too – as if the mark of a good moral theologian is to spread moral criticism in as balanced and politically fair a way as possible. Why do they assume this? Is it because they think evangelicals who don’t support Trump must be enamored with Clinton and the Democratic party? I for myself, am well aware of the Democratic party’s flaws and of the flaws of its nominee as well. Yet somehow I’m not worried that most evangelicals have too rosy a view of Clinton. I certainly don’t think they need a warning from me on that count.
The real reason, I think, that many of these critics want to see me criticize Clinton at least as much as Trump is that they actually think there is only one faithful way a Christian can think about this election. There is one primary issue at stake – who will receive the power to make appointments to the Supreme Court, with their consequent significance for matters such as abortion and religious liberty. Beyond this simple calculation of power, in this view, every other issue pales in significance. Since only two candidates have a realistic chance at attaining power, then all votes for other candidates are wasted. We must choose between the lesser of two evils.
Note how much the power calculus drives Franklin Graham’s Facebook argument in defense of Trump (Graham’s post has received nearly 200,000 Facebook shares):
A lot of people are slamming evangelicals for supposedly giving Donald J. Trump a pass. That’s simply not true. No one is giving him a pass. I’m certainly not, and I’ve not met an evangelical yet who condones his language or inexcusable behavior from over a decade ago. However, he has apologized to his wife, his family, and to the American people for this. He has taken full responsibility. This election isn’t about Donald Trump’s behavior from 11 years ago or Hillary Clinton’s recent missing emails, lies, and false statements. This election is about the Supreme Court and the justices that the next president will nominate. Evangelicals are going to have to decide which candidate they trust to nominate men and women to the court who will defend the constitution and support religious freedoms. My prayer is that Christians will not be deceived by the liberal media about what is at stake for future generations.
Note how Graham’s argument goes. First of all, he naively treats Trump’s boasting about sexual assault as a merely moral problem, as if it did not reflect the character and track record he will take with him into the executive office (and as if it will not really affect women in this country). In Graham’s view, Trump said bad things and Trump should apologize for the bad things he said. Once he has done that, we should all forgive and forget.
Second, to Graham neither Trump’s behavior, nor, for that matter, Clinton’s track record of behavior, are relevant issues in the current presidential election. This election is about one thing: power. What is at stake? Power. Who do we trust to use the presidential power to choose judges in a way that serves our objectives? Who do we trust will use power to preserve our religious liberty? To keep us safe so that we don’t have to suffer? Nothing else matters.
Is this sentiment anything other than a lust for power? Is this Christian political engagement?
In fact, it’s an astonishingly thin and naive argument coming from such a prominent evangelical leader. It reveals how little he has learned from his father Billy Graham, who was so manipulated and embarrassed by Richard Nixon. And it reveals just how enslaved many evangelicals remain to the ideology of the Religious Right.
According to Graham’s logic, it does not matter how toxic and divisive is Trump’s effect on America’s political and moral culture. It does not matter that his demagoguery is wrecking the Republican party before our very eyes (because of Trump the Democrats may win both houses of Congress in addition to the White House). It does not matter that vocal support for Trump has so blackened the image of right-wing white evangelicalism that it has shattered its potential effectiveness for Christlike gospel witness. It does not matter that Trump’s rhetoric is tearing the moral, social, and political fabric of our country to shreds. As deplorable as all of this is (and I take Graham and other evangelicals at their word that they think this is deplorable), when a simple calculation of power is at stake, we must make that grab for power. So the logic runs.
It is this sort of logic that requires people like me to warn evangelicals about Trump in a way that we don’t have to warn them about Clinton. We are not in danger of exchanging our gospel witness for lust for power when it comes to Clinton. But we are in grave danger of doing just that when it comes to Trump. Christianity Today recently put it quite well:
[T]here is a point at which strategy becomes its own form of idolatry—an attempt to manipulate the levers of history in favor of the causes we support. Strategy becomes idolatry, for ancient Israel and for us today, when we make alliances with those who seem to offer strength—the chariots of Egypt, the vassal kings of Rome—at the expense of our dependence on God who judges all nations, and in defiance of God’s manifest concern for the stranger, the widow, the orphan, and the oppressed. Strategy becomes idolatry when we betray our deepest values in pursuit of earthly influence. And because such strategy requires capitulating to idols and princes and denying the true God, it ultimately always fails.
Enthusiasm for a candidate like Trump gives our neighbors ample reason to doubt that we believe Jesus is Lord. They see that some of us are so self-interested, and so self-protective, that we will ally ourselves with someone who violates all that is sacred to us—in hope, almost certainly a vain hope given his mendacity and record of betrayal, that his rule will save us.
Again, the point here is not that you should not vote for Trump. I am not so much concerned with who Christians are voting for as I am with how they are arguing – and thinking – about this election.
As Christians we are called to witness to the lordship of Christ in everything that we do. And as Paul makes quite clear in Philippians 2, that does not mean seizing power and lording it over our neighbors, whatever the cost; it means humbling ourselves, taking up the form of a servant, and seeking justice and peace in accord with love. It doesn’t mean doing whatever it takes politically to make sure that we won’t suffer in the future. It means suffering at the hands of power as the very way in which Christ has called us to serve.
What does this mean in terms of voting? For one, it means that we need to be wary of all “lesser of two evils” calculation. The logic of the lesser of two evils argument assumes that power is our primary objective. Yet for Christians, faithful witness to Christ’s lordship is the ultimate concern. Sometimes fidelity to Christ means that we choose the path of less power, the path of greater suffering, because that is the path that love for our neighbors demands, and because that is the path that Christ himself took. You can indeed vote in good conscience for a candidate who has no realistic chance of winning. Perhaps that precisely what Christlike citizenship demands.
Second, lets at least be honest with ourselves. If you vote for Trump you are voting for Trump. If you vote for Clinton you are voting for Clinton. You are supporting that candidate, with all that he or she stands for, in light of who that candidate’s track record shows him or her to be, for the office of president. You may not personally like it, but that’s what a vote means. That’s how it is legally registered. Enough with all of the rationalization that says – I’m not voting for Clinton, I’m just voting against Trump, or vice versa. If you can’t look your neighbor in the eye as a Christian and defend your positive vote as an act of love, then you probably can’t defend your conscience before God either.
Finally, pace Graham (has he learned nothing from the last forty years?), political power is not the primary thing at stake for Christians in this election. At stake is the simple question of whether or not we will love and serve our neighbors faithfully, as befits those who claim to be followers of Christ.
But even so. Even if power was the primary concern, there are many thoughtful Christians – especially Latinos, African Americans, and women, but many white evangelical men like me too – who somehow doubt that identifying ourselves with Donald Trump and dogmatically, even stubbornly, supporting him for the highest office in the land (and the world) genuinely advances any of the causes we really care about (life, human dignity, the rule of law, prosperity, religious liberty), let alone the kingdom of God. And to paraphrase Paul, I think that we too have the Spirit of God.
The New York Times reports today that the Democratic Party across the country is erasing its ties with its founders. No longer will the annual party dinners commemorate Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson (as the Republican dinners commemorate Abraham Lincoln). The party wants to be more inclusive, and according to former Democratic Congressman Barney Frank, this is an honest nod to the fact that the politics of racial and sexual identity now trumps the classic Democratic emphases on democracy and economic equality.
Both Jefferson and Jackson were slave-owners, of course, and Jackson played a leading role in the forced removal of thousands of Native Americans from the southeast.
The commemoration of Jefferson and Jackson is as old as the Democratic Party, but it was Franklin D. Roosevelt who sought to mold the party’s image indelibly around them. Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence’s ringing celebration of human equality, and Jackson, the inspiration of modern democracy and the common man, were seen as powerful alternatives to the Republicans’ Lincoln in a time when FDR was trying to forge a coalition of farmers and working class Americans across the country.
But the opportunities facing the Democrats have changed. Now, while the Republican Party becomes increasingly white, the Democratic Party grows in diversity. Given the way in which identity shapes voting patterns, this is not good news for the Republicans. It may seem odd that a major American party would cut its ties with the founding fathers (If the Democrats have their way does America eventually erase Jefferson, Jackson – and Washington too – off its currency? Do the memorials go?), but partisan politics is about the present, not the past. In short, this is predictable.
But what is especially important about this shift is its symbolic meaning. You might think the erasing of ties to Jefferson and Jackson is fundamentally about their role as slave-holders, but the real meaning has just as much to do with the Democratic Party’s rejection of natural law. Remember, again, the words of Jefferson, once thought to be immortal, enshrined in America’s founding document:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
From whence do these rights – this equality – derive? From “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God,” as the previous paragraph declares.
It is no accident that the rejection of Jefferson follows only a few years after the Democratic Party committed itself to gay marriage. The establishment of gay marriage represents the culmination of a fifty-year long shift on the part of the Supreme Court – one enthusiastically supported by the Democratic Party – away from any sort of grounding of human rights and civil law in the laws of nature and nature’s God. Natural rights are out; civil rights are the rage. Natural law is dead; civil law is supreme. Given that morality has no objective reality to it – it is a human invention, not a reflection of a Creator’s purpose for creation – it can only be grounded in subjective reality: individual autonomy.
As Justice Kennedy wrote in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, “liberty presumes an autonomy of self that includes freedom of thought, belief, expression, and certain intimate conduct.” Based upon this “autonomy of self” citizens have no right to use the democratic process to discourage, let alone criminalize, acts they deem fundamentally immoral. But as Robert R. Reilly points out, this formulation is unusual.
Why did Justice Kennedy not simply say that liberty includes these freedoms, or, … that liberty itself is rooted in unalienable God-given rights? Why the presumption of ‘an autonomy of self’ as the supposed foundation for it? What does this mean?
What it means is that the whole trajectory of the Supreme Court’s reasoning about matters of morality during the past 50 years – a span that encompasses the Court’s determination that an adult’s right to privacy (i.e., autonomy) trumps an unborn child’s right to life – constitutes a rejection of the very doctrine of natural rights and natural law that the founding fathers viewed as the foundation for human happiness. The Democratic Party may as well announce that it is erasing its ties with the Declaration of Independence in favor of a new commitment to the autonomy of self.
We have been here before, of course. When it embraced the infamous Dred Scott decision (which ran roughshod over natural rights in declaring that black people are not, in fact, persons at all) on the eve of the Civil War, the Democratic Party engaged in a short-lived experiment to see if a racist will to power could become the foundation for American government. Abraham Lincoln responded by appealing to Thomas Jefferson’s words in the Declaration that all men are created equal, words that he said were prior in authority to the Constitution itself.
Lincoln recognized that while the founding fathers had their flaws (slavery!), it was in the doctrine of the founders that the purpose of America could be realized. The founders got a lot wrong, but they got the most important things right: natural law, equality, human rights as derived from the Creator, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Democrats’ determination to be a party of diversity and inclusion is laudable (and one that the Republicans desperately need to emulate!), but this is not the way to do it.
The Democrats’ desire to erase their party’s ties with Jefferson and Jackson is significant because it constitutes a symbolic rejection of the men who articulated and sought to embrace the self-evident principles of the laws of nature and nature’s God. This is not liberalism. It is the abandonment of liberalism. That’s tragic for the Democratic Party and it is very bad news for America.
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.
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.
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.
The United Kingdom based magazine The Economist, which endorsed Barack Obama for president last year, had this to say about the fiscal cliff deal:
The tax deal enacted this week, which leaves income-tax rates where they are for 99% of households while raising them sharply on the top 1%, was indeed a political victory for Mr Obama. For the first time in more than two decades Republicans had voted for higher taxes, by large numbers in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. The deal raised almost as much money from the rich as Mr Obama had first sought, and he made no meaningful concessions on spending in return.
It was less of a victory for the economy. It leaves in place significant short-term fiscal tightening, while doing almost nothing to arrest the escalating national debt in the long term. Mr Obama himself conceded that at the White House: “We still have deficits that have to be dealt with,” he said, surely his understatement of the year.
The problem with the fiscal deal is not so much what the bill accomplishes. Most Americans support higher federal income taxes on the richest 1% of taxpayers, and Congress earns praise for making most of President Bush’s tax cuts permanent. It was for this reason that former Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan joined most of his fellow partisans in the Senate and many in the House in voting for the bill. In a statement explaining his vote Ryan declared,
Will the American people be better off if this law passes relative to the alternative? In the final analysis, the answer is undoubtedly yes. I came to Congress to make tough decisions — not to run away from them.
I think Ryan made the right decision in terms of the vote itself. But fellow rising Republican star Senator Marco Rubio, one of the few Republican senators to vote against the bill, explained his vote in terms of lost opportunity. As the New York Times reports,
Mr. Rubio, in a statement explaining his vote, warned that “rapid economic growth and job creation will be made more difficult under the deal reached here in Washington.” He added: “This deal just postpones the inevitable, the need to solve our growing debt crisis and help the 23 million Americans who can’t find the work they need.”
In the final analysis Congress’s handling of the fiscal crisis, as well as that of President Obama, has been nothing less than abysmal. In the Washington Post Robert Samuelson highlights the inability of Congress to cut spending by pointing to the perpetuation, year after year, of annual subsidies for farmers in the territory of $10-15 billion. Such subsidies made sense in days when farmers faced unusually crippling economic and environmental uncertainty as well as market exploitation in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Today, as my own friends involved in farming confirm, the subsidies are largely unnecessary handouts. Samuelson concludes,
Farm subsidies are a metaphor for our larger predicament. We no longer have the luxury — as we did for decades — of carrying marginal, ineffectual or wasteful programs. We can no longer afford subsidies for those who don’t need them or, at least, don’t need so many of them (including affluent Social Security and Medicare recipients). If we can’t eliminate the least valuable spending, then we will be condemned to perpetually large deficits, huge tax increases or indiscriminate cuts in many federal programs, the good as well as the bad.
What makes all of this most disturbing is how similar the United States’s handling of its fiscal problems is to the recent record of the European Union. Though the problems are different, in both cases, politicians repeatedly pander to short-term fixes while avoiding long-term solutions, even while everyone involved admits that such an approach is unsustainable. We seem to be voluntarily committing ourselves to the laboratory experiment of determining whether or not Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous warnings about the demise of democracy (due to the inability of elected politicians to say no to the demands of the populace, and of unelected bureaucrats to relinquish their own power) are true.
In another article The Economist warily notes just how similar is the track record of the United States and Europe.
For the past three years America’s leaders have looked on Europe’s management of the euro crisis with barely disguised contempt. In the White House and on Capitol Hill there has been incredulity that Europe’s politicians could be so incompetent at handling an economic problem; so addicted to last-minute, short-term fixes; and so incapable of agreeing on a long-term strategy for the single currency.
Those criticisms were all valid, but now those who made them should take the planks from their own eyes. America’s economy may not be in as bad a state as Europe’s, but the failures of its politicians—epitomised by this week’s 11th-hour deal to avoid the calamity of the “fiscal cliff”—suggest that Washington’s pattern of dysfunction is disturbingly similar to the euro zone’s in three depressing ways.
The Economist rightly argues that Republicans and Democrats are equally to blame for the flawed fiscal deal, and that contrary to the view of some, the problem is not that politicians are insufficiently principled but that they are too unwilling to compromise in order to achieve the most important goals.
Viewed through anything other than a two-month prism, it was an abject failure. The final deal raised less tax revenue than John Boehner, the Republican speaker in the House of Representatives, once offered during the negotiations, and it included none of the entitlement reforms that President Barack Obama was once prepared to contemplate…. Democrats pretend that no changes are necessary to Medicare (health care for the elderly) or Social Security (pensions). Republican solutions always involve unspecified spending cuts, and they regard any tax rise as socialism.
There is only one way to prevent the deceptively slow-burning fuse of America’s debt from ending in calamity. Both sides need to remember that they represent the whole country, not just their relative ideological constituencies. Our goal is not to build the kingdom of God, whether as liberals or conservatives understand that kingdom. No one is going to get all of what they want here. We’re just trying to sustain the economic and political stability of the United States of America.
Conservative despair at the thought of four more years of President Barack Obama has been palpable during the past month, with all kinds of hand-wringing about whether or not America is lurching to the left or even in decline. While these sorts of fears and conversations are inevitable, they often revolve more around high profile elections (i.e., the White House) or court cases (i.e., same-sex marriage, forthcoming) than around underlying fundamentals. For instance, passionate pro-lifers not closely in tune with events on the ground tend to despair about the prospects of the movement because they focus on Supreme Court decisions and congressional legislation, but they entirely miss the dramatic success the pro-life cause has enjoyed on the state level in recent years.
From this perspective the enactment of right to work legislation in Michigan yesterday is breath-taking. Imagine Massachusetts following in the way of Mississippi and passing legislation that effectively drove all abortion providers out of the state. Unthinkable? Not too long ago people would have said the same about Michigan when it came to unions. As the Washington Post reports:
The “right to work” effort illustrates the power of Republicans to use state legislative majorities won in 2010 to pursue their policy preferences, even after losing a bitter presidential election.
The defeat is devastating for organized labor, which for decades has been waging an uphill battle against declining membership and dwindling influence.
But it also strikes at the roots of a Democratic Party that relied on unions for financial support and to marshal voters for President Obama’s reelection….
Proponents call their win in Michigan especially significant because the state is the birthplace of one of the country’s most powerful labor groups, the United Auto Workers. Founded in 1935, the union organized auto workers, winning wages and benefits that transformed assembly-line work into solid middle-class jobs.
“This is really a message to every other state that is a closed union shop, that if you do it here you can do it everywhere else,” said Scott Hagerstrom, Michigan director of Americans for Prosperity.
(courtesy: Washington Post)
Expect more of this kind of story in the coming years. Although the Democrats will now control the White House for another four years, Republicans dominate state governments across the country. As a result, while Democratic policies may be advancing in certain respects at the federal level, Republicans are having a better time of it at the state level.
Truth be told, state governments have been polarizing, with more states under one party control (either Democratic or Republican) than at any point in recent American history. This allows both conservatives and liberals to push their agendas in their respective states, enabling ready comparison between concrete policies in different places and therefore turning the states into a laboratory for government. Ultimately it’s the long view that matters here, but the early returns suggest that the most important red states are doing much better than similarly situated blue states. Simply compare Texas with the likes of New York, California, and Illinois, and you get the picture.
As the “blue states” continue to struggle economically, more of them will follow the way of Wisconsin and Michigan (and even, to a certain extent, Illinois) and abandon the “liberal” economic policies of the past. In the long run such a shift would certainly have an impact at the federal level.
My point is not that the United States is becoming more conservative, or that the conservative movement is on the verge of enjoying consistent political success. Politics is rarely linear like that. Liberals and conservatives will each continue to enjoy their respective victories. My point is simply that things are not as bad as many conservatives seem to imagine. Neither America nor the conservative movement is in decline. Life is moving on.
There is a lot of talk out there right now about the Republican failure to attract Latino voters, who voted for President Obama by a whopping 71-27 ratio in the 2012 presidential election. Although whites made up 56% of Obama’s coalition only 39% of them voted for the president, the smallest percentage in the history of any major American political party.
In a column on Slate yesterday Matthew Yglesias pointed out that the main problem is not the issue of immigration:
Pundits are quickly turning to immigration to explain the Republicans’ Latino problem and to offer a possible cure, but the reality is that the rot cuts much deeper. The GOP doesn’t have a problem with Latino voters per se. Rather, it has a problem with a broad spectrum of voters who simply don’t feel that it’s speaking to their economic concerns. The GOP has an economic agenda tilted strongly to the benefit of elites, and it has preserved support for that agenda—even though it disserves the majority of GOP voters—with implicit racial politics.
Now you can disagree with Yglesias’s judgment in that last sentence but there is no question that what he says certainly reflects the way in which many Hispanics, and others, perceive the Republican Party. I have had enough conversations with hard-core conservatives and Republican Party activists to know that there is an element of truth to what Yglesias is saying. There is a subculture within Republican circles that is nativist, uncompassionate, and arrogant. Many conservatives do live in their own bubble, living and worshiping with people who are just like them in so many ways and have trouble connecting politically with those who don’t. The culture of the Democratic Party is quite different.
Yglesias goes on,
Polling suggests that the Latino problem for the GOP is deeper than immigration. John McCain got a scant 31 percent of the Latino vote despite a long record of pro-immigration policies. The best evidence available on Hispanic public opinion, a big election even poll from Latino Decisions and ImpreMedia, makes it clear that this is just a fairly liberal voting block. Just 12 percent of Latinos support a cuts-only approach to deficit reduction, and only 25 percent want to repeal Obamacare. Only 31 percent of Hispanics say they’d be more likely to vote for a Republican who supports the DREAM Act. This isn’t to say Latinos aren’t eager to see immigration reform, it’s just that the lion’s share have bigger reasons for rejecting the GOP.
This is important to take seriously. It’s not just Latinos and blacks that voted overwhelmingly for Obama. Other racial minorities, such as Asian Americans, did as well. The fact is, while Americans are evenly divided when it comes to Obamacare, most Americans recognized coming into Obama’s presidency that there was a desperate need for health care reform. In addition, most Americans believe it would be acceptable to raise taxes on the wealthy to a certain extent, along with cuts in discretionary spending and even a degree of entitlement reform. But conservatives sometimes simply deride such perspectives. There is a solid block of people who support the Tea Party affiliated Members of Congress who will brook absolutely no compromise with the Democrats on any of these matters.
All that said, I don’t think we can separate the issue of immigration from these other issues. For part of the reason why so many conservatives – those most influential in shaping the Republican primary process that drives Republicans to the right on immigration – oppose immigration reform is their inflexible attitude about these other issues. Conservatives expect people to work hard, act responsibly, and obey the law. They worry a lot about the growing demographic of Americans who don’t seem to share their understanding of what it means to be an American, and the idea that someone would enter this country illegally and then expect the same public benefits as anyone else flies in the face of that fear. It’s not that they are opposed to immigration, as they will tell you. They just think it should be done legally. You can’t give amnesty to someone who has broken the law or you will simply encourage him or her to do it again.
And yet it is all a little bit odd. How many of our ancestors (political ancestors if not literal ones) broke the law when they came to this country, or when they pushed irrepressibly westward? I’m not just talking about the occupation of lands occupied by natives who had little understanding of property ownership. I’m talking about the refusal of Americans over and over to obey the treaties their own country signed with various tribes, the insistence that even if these non-white people had been pushed off their lands multiple times already, they should be pushed off yet again. And what of the mass American migration into Mexican territory that resulted in the Texan secession from Mexico and ultimately in the huge land-grab resulting from the most unjust war in American history? (By my count the territories we seized from Mexico add up to about 130 votes in the electoral college.)
Hispanics in the United States according to the 2010 Census.
Territories seized by the United States from Mexico in 1845-1848.
My point is not to engage in pointless America trashing, nor is it to question the wisdom, virtue, and hard work on which American prosperity is built. Conservatives rightly point out that we can’t turn back the clock and make these wrongs right. As with the case of reparations to former slaves, it is far better to move on and move forward than to continually haggle over the sins of the past. Clemency is just as important a political virtue as is justice.
But then why do so many view illegal immigration so differently? To be sure, there are approximately 15 million people who are currently living in this country illegally. They have broken the law. And yet they now play a vital role in the American economy, performing hard work that many other Americans are not willing to do, contributing far more to this country than they take from it. Many of them have had children here who are now by law American citizens. All of them believe in the American dream, the same American dream that motivated our own ancestors.
Note, virtually no one is proposing amnesty any more than they are suggesting that Americans should abandon any land between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC), the largest organization of Hispanic Christians in the country, makes quite clear that it believes illegal immigration is wrong and that justice requires that America strengthen its control over its border to prevent the continued violation of the law. The NHCLC calls not for amnesty but for reform that will allow people who broke the law in the past nevertheless to become legal residents and eventually citizens of this country, much like our ancestors regularly asked that the government recognize their own rights despite having repeatedly violated the law. As the president of the NHCLC, Samuel Rodriguez, puts it, any solution must include:
first, border protection that puts an end to all illegal immigration including the utilization of infrared, satellite and other technologies in addition to increased border patrols. Second, the creation of a market driven guest worker program and facilitative avenues by which millions of families already in America that lack the legal status can earn such status in a manner that reflects the Judeo Christian Value system this nation was founded upon. Third, an earned citizenship element that will enable current undocumented residents without a criminal record to earn citizenship status by going to the back of the line as it pertains to citizenship applicants, admonition of guilt with corresponding financial penalty, acquiring civic and language proficiency all while serving the local community.
This is not such an outlandish proposal, and given our nation’s history, conservatives have no right to consider it un-American. As Yglesias points out, immigration reform would not automatically bring Latinos into the Republican camp. But as I suggested yesterday, this isn’t ultimately about electoral politics but about virtuous political engagement. It’s about attitude, a spirit of cooperation, and the willingness to help people solve the problems that concern them most. If you don’t have this, you shouldn’t wonder why, despite your glorious political and economic principles, they wander to the other side.