One Christian’s perspective on the day’s news.
1. Senator Edward Kennedy passed away last night from brain cancer. The senior Senator from Massachusetts was regarded by friends and foes alike as one of the kindest and hardest working Senators in the Senate. President Obama released a statement saying: “An important chapter in our history has come to an end. Our country has lost a great leader, who picked up the torch of his fallen brothers and became the greatest United States Senator of our time.” Whether the influence of his policies was for the better or not, he was certainly the most consequential Senator of the past 50 years, at least if consequence is counted in the sheer amount of legislation moved into law. Kennedy may very well have been President if it were not for the Chappaquiddick fiasco and poor timing, but it was precisely the immoral and cowardly acts of that day, some argue, that drove Teddy to work so hard to compensate for his sins.
It is easy to point to personal and political failures, and to what some regard as hypocrisy (his opposition to wind power off the coast of Cape Cod), but it is even easier to point to genuinely worthwhile efforts which Kennedy led or assisted (expanded funding for higher education, nuclear arms control, etc.). A 2009 survey by The Hill, a Capitol Hill publication, found that Senate Republicans believed Kennedy was the chamber’s easiest Democrat to work with and most bipartisan. His kindness to his staffers sets the standard. John McCain called Kennedy “the single most effective member of the Senate if you want to get results.”
Michael Scherer reflects on the most famous moment in Kennedy’s most famous speech. The video is here:
Whether Right or Left, we can all hope that he will rest in peace.
2. “The Fellowship” (sometimes called “The Family”) has received a substantial amount of critical attention in the press recently, partly because of government leaders who participated in Fellowship Bible studies at their C Street property in Arlington, VA., and yet succumbed to temptations and sinned. The Fellowship is reviled and feared on the Christian Left, at least among those who don’t know much about it, and is often portrayed as essentially advocating a theocratic notion of government. It even inspires conspiracy theories similar to those surrounding the Freemasons or the spurious Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
Most reporting on The Fellowship comes from deeply skeptical sources, whether the elite secular media (The New York Times, NPR, etc.) or recently writers such as Jeff Sharlet, who went “undercover.” Sharlet’s writing is filled with atmospherics and foreboding words, taking rather ordinary statements (and some extraordinary ones) and making them sound like they could have been spoken by Hitler himself. Joking self-references as the “Christian mafia” are turned into serious statements, and the need for privacy, which would seem obvious when you are talking about world leaders confessing their sins and seeking support and accountability, is turned into something dark and sinister. Thus Sharlet “exposes” how The Fellowship has developed “friendships” with dictators. Yet The Fellowship largely sees itself as a relationship-building ministry, and hopes that building relationships between people of faith will help to resolve conflicts and bring greater justice to the world. The Fellowship is involved behind the scenes, through the relationships it has built, in trying to address world conflicts, and played a significant role in the Camp David accord. Its mission statement is: “To develop and maintain an informal association of people banded together, to go out as “ambassadors of reconciliation,” modeling the principles of Jesus, based on loving God and loving others. To work with the leaders of other nations, and as their hearts are touched, the poor, the oppressed, the widows and the youth of their country will be impacted in a positive manner.” I think a lengthy quotation is warranted:
So I’ve always suspected the reporting on The Fellowship is largely overblown, simply because I know how the media treats devout and evangelistic Christian groups. Christianity Today has a feature on The Fellowship that is very much worth reading. It is from two members, Frank Wolf and Tony Hall. They write: “For over 25 years we have participated in one of these prayer groups. Small groups are not unique to “the Fellowship,” for they have been a part of Christian community since the time of Jesus. Our own small group is composed of Republican and Democratic members of the Congress, some of whom are now retired. We leave our labels at the door, and we enjoy an hour of reading the Scriptures, personal updates, and prayer. In times of personal and professional crises, these friends have stood by each of us regardless of party affiliation. They did this at their own cost and sometimes at professional risk, but they believe that “there is no greater love than to lay down your life for your friend” (John 15:13).
There are many such groups on Capitol Hill, in Washington, and throughout the nation, where men and women come for accountability and spiritual support. In these groups every participant has an equal voice and is equally valued, with no regard for public or professional status. Some of the groups in which we have participated have included policemen, pastors, journalists, businessmen, and the unemployed. They often include people from opposing parties and different races or walks of life, all with a common goal of spiritual growth.
Friends from these small groups are more than just encouragers for an hour a week, for they often become extended family to one another, thus the informal use of the term “family.” It is always refreshing to walk into a room where we are valued for our humanity, with no reference to having been a Congressman and an Ambassador; where we matter to God and to brothers and sisters, rather than to lobbyists and activists; where we are asked about the issues of our hearts, such as our marriages and children, rather than our position on taxes; and finally where we matter because God loves us, rather than because we will vote for or with someone.
This seems like precisely the sort of thing that Christians of all political persuasions–Left, Right and center–should affirm and celebrate. James Inhofe: Inhofe, 74, attends a weekly Fellowship study that does not meet at C Street: “We talk about our families, we talk about our backgrounds, we talk about our faith. We get together and support each other and pray together. There is nothing new and sinister about this.”
Yet there are elements that could be improved. World Magazine has a balanced take, dismissing the conspiracy theories and yet remaining critical of The Fellowship for what seems to be an ill-defined theology and ecclesiology. Neither Abraham Vereide nor Doug Coe, the founder and long-time leader respectively, had theological training. The son of another of the group’s leaders, Chris Halverson, has a trenchant observation that “the gospel of the cross” has become, in the precincts of The Fellowship, “the gospel of the Church triumphant.” One wonders whether he read Kierkegaard’s critique of the established church, since it was precisely this abandonment of the ecclesia militans for the ecclesia triumphans that concerned him.
As D. Michael Lindsay (whom I will interview on Friday) writes, the Fellowship is “sort of a free-floating spiritual formation group” that “is very indifferent to local churches.” In addition to “a number of issues raised about their theology,” there are “elements of the Fellowship which indeed are not in line with what we would consider mainstream evangelical theology.” In research for his book Faith in the Halls of Power, Lindsay discovered that lawmakers mentioned the Fellowship more than any other organization when asked to name a ministry with the most influence on their faith: “It has relationships with pretty much every world leader—good and bad—and there are not many organizations in the world that can claim that.”
3. Probably the most disturbing number in the mid-year economic report issued by the White House is the prediction that next year’s deficit will equal $1.5 trillion. And while the White House estimates that the average unemployment for fiscal 2009 will be 9.3%, the average for fiscal 2010 is estimated at 9.8. I cannot harp on the White House for being wrong on its economic projections. The economy is difficult to predict. But they’re being disingenuous when they try to hide in a crowd and say that this recession is worse than all economists expected it would be. There was always distance between the White House and the crowd. The White House projections were far rosier than those made by independent institutions like the CBO — and their rosy projections had more than a whiff of political opportunism, as it has benefited the White House to understate the severity of the crisis in order to keep people on board with the massive expenditures it has authorized or sought to authorize.
4. Interesting: overall charitable giving is down as the economy continues to struggle, but religious giving is up.
5. Yesterday, my interview of Jedd Medefind went live at Patheos’ Evangelical Portal. Jedd was the director of Bush’s Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, and now he is the President of the Christian Alliance for Orphans. He spoke in deliberate, careful, beautiful prose. I was very impressed, and I thought he got right to the heart of issues with adoption and orphan care. Please read it.
6. Bombshell claim. Looks like the claim that the Lockerbie bomber would die of prostate cancer in a matter of weeks may only have been a convenient story. Only one doctor, who was not a specialist in the relevant area, was willing to say that al-Megrahi was dying soon. As Ed Morrisey writes at Hot Air, “It turns out that other doctors had been consulted in the case, none of whom were willing to say that Megrahi was even dying from the disease. In fact, one said he seemed suspiciously asymptomatic for a patient with the kind of diagnosis that Scotland asserted.” Were the Scottish hoodwinked by the Libyans? Or were they furnishing an excuse for a release that was really sought for other grounds?
8. Cal Thomas at the Christian World Magazine reviews a book, by Martin Gross, that sounds very much worth reading, on the various ways in which the American government (regardless of the party in power) has become feckless and unable to serve us well.
9. It appears that Hamid Karzai will win the Afghan election. The bigger question is whether Afghanistan will rupture in the aftermath, and whether we can help the government root out corruption and extend its power beyond the cities in order to occlude the Taliban.
10. Chuck Grassley does not sound optimistic about the chances for a bipartisan compromise on health care reform. He makes a legitimate criticism of the White House for not setting forth its own proposed legislation on the issue and instead leaving the issue to multiple committees so that there is confusion on what is really being discussed. Meanwhile, Joe Klein condemns as “lower than dirt” those who suggest that such health care reform will result in rationing that could prove detrimental to those, for instance, with breast cancer. Yet, even though this sort of rationing is not set forth explicitly in the bill(s) under discussion, it is a justified concern that rationing will be the consequence nonetheless–as it has been in other countries. This is just another illustration of the fundamental presuppositions dividing the two sides on the health care debate. One side assumes that this is a step in the direction of nationalized health care, and therefore speaking of the negatives of nationalized health care is entirely legitimate. On the Left, however, there are those who very much hope that this leads in the direction of national health care, and those, like Klein, who point out that the current proposals do not constitute national health care. From Klein’s perspective, then, speaking of the ‘evils’ of nationalized health care is deception and demagoguery. For those on the Right who believe we are moving toward socialized medicine, however, on the basis of this supposition it is not at all deceptive to speak of those ‘evils’.
In other words, to say that the current legislation does not explicitly authorize funds for abortion, does not mention illegal aliens, and does not speak of ‘death panels’ that would determine which life-saving measures are worth the cost is not to say that the legislation could not lead to government funding of abortion (which, as many have recognized, it certainly would), to expanded coverage of illegal aliens or to ‘rationing’ by government bureaucrats. This is what Democrats have to address. Saying “it’s not in the bill” does nothing to remove the fear that “it will be the consequence of the bill.” Rather than calling the other side liars, un-American, racist, and idiotic, they should address the presuppositions that divide the two sides.
11. Today’s Two-Sides. From the Left, Andrew Sullivan condemning the enhanced interrogation conducted during the Bush administration; I hesitate to recommend Sullivan’s entry, since it is about as rabidly partisan as one can be. He twists Peter King’s words beyond recognition, and conflates the issues of the enhanced interrogation program and the kind of prisoner abuses (beatings, etc.) that always occur when a sufficient number of people are jailing a sufficient number of prisoners. Sullivan also has little tolerance for nuance or perspective, and exaggerates pretty wildly:
“Indeed, much of the American people, especially evangelical Christians, expect less in terms of human rights from their own government than Iranians do of theirs’. In fact, American evangelicals are much more pro-torture in this respect than many Iranian Muslims. This is what Bush and Cheney truly achieved in their tragic response to 9/11: two terribly failed, brutally expensive wars, the revival of sectarian warfare and genocide in the Middle East, the end of America’s global moral authority, the empowerment of Iran’s and North Korea’s dictatorships, and the nightmares of Gitmo and Bagram still haunting the new administration. But what they did to the culture – how they systematically dismantled core American values like the prohibition on torture and respect for the rule of law – is the worst and most enduring of the legacies. One political party in this country is now explicitly pro-torture, and wants to restore a torture regime if it regains power.”
Blaming the Bush administration for all these things is, well, more than a stretch, but Obama has said that Andrew Sullivan is a favorite blogger. Obviously those who abused prisoners should be prosecuted, and many have. Whether waterboarding was justified in the three cases in which it was used is a difficult question to answer, and people of good will can differ. I’m glad that waterboarding was used on only three individuals, and that its use was discontinued. I expect my government not to torture; I guess I must not be an evangelical, by Andrew Sullivan’s lights.
On the Right, consider Marc Thiessen at the Wall Street Journal. Thiessen points to abuses just as bad that occurred at New York youth detention facilities, making the point that prisoner abuse seems to happen whenever there are prisoners, and the Bush administration is not the first administration under which such abuse has happened. Then, he writes:
While officials at the New York state detention facilities failed to report the abuses (“the ombudsman’s office charged with overseeing the youth prison centers had virtually ceased to function,” the Times reported), the CIA inspector general’s report describes a well-run, highly disciplined CIA interrogation program, where clear guidelines were established and abuses or deviations from approved techniques were stopped, reported and addressed.
Indeed, the CIA report makes clear from its first paragraphs that it was those who ran the program who brought abuses to the IG’s attention: “In November 2002, the Deputy Director of Operations (DDO) informed the Office of Inspector General (OIG) that . . . he had just learned of and had dispatched a team to investigate [REDACTED]. In January 2003, the DDO informed OIG that he had received allegations that Agency personnel had used unauthorized techniques with a detainee, Abd Al-Rahim Al-Nashiri . . . and requested that OIG investigate.”
Once the IG report was completed, the agency referred it to the Justice Department for review for possible criminal prosecutions. This review was conducted not by Bush political appointees. It was conducted by career prosecutors from the Eastern District of Virginia. They recommended against prosecutions in all but one case—that of a CIA contractor, not in the official interrogation program, who had beaten a detainee in Afghanistan. (The detainee later died and the contractor was subsequently convicted of assault.)”
12. Column of the Day: Steven Malanga at the City Journal, echoing my own article on the Moral Dimensions of the Financial Collapse, argues that a flourishing capitalistic market requires a certain constellation of moral virtues–a strong work ethic among them. Three paragraphs from Malanga’s article:
The genius of America in the early nineteenth century, Tocqueville thought, was that it pursued “productive industry” without a descent into lethal materialism. Behind America’s balancing act, the pioneering French social thinker noted, lay a common set of civic virtues that celebrated not merely hard work but also thrift, integrity, self-reliance, and modesty—virtues that grew out of the pervasiveness of religion, which Tocqueville called “the first of [America’s] political institutions, . . . imparting morality” to American democracy and free markets. Some 75 years later, sociologist Max Weber dubbed the qualities that Tocqueville observed the “Protestant ethic” and considered them the cornerstone of successful capitalism. Like Tocqueville, Weber saw that ethic most fully realized in America, where it pervaded the society. Preached by luminaries like Benjamin Franklin, taught in public schools, embodied in popular novels, repeated in self-improvement books, and transmitted to immigrants, that ethic undergirded and promoted America’s economic success.
What would Tocqueville or Weber think of America today? In place of thrift, they would find a nation of debtors, staggering beneath loans obtained under false pretenses. In place of a steady, patient accumulation of wealth, they would find bankers and financiers with such a short-term perspective that they never pause to consider the consequences or risks of selling securities they don’t understand. In place of a country where all a man asks of government is “not to be disturbed in his toil,” as Tocqueville put it, they would find a nation of rent-seekers demanding government subsidies to purchase homes, start new ventures, or bail out old ones. They would find what Tocqueville described as the “fatal circle” of materialism—the cycle of acquisition and gratification that drives people back to ever more frenetic acquisition and that ultimately undermines prosperous democracies.
And they would understand why. After flourishing for three centuries in America, the Protestant ethic began to disintegrate, with key elements slowly disappearing from modern American society, vanishing from schools, from business, from popular culture, and leaving us with an economic system unmoored from the restraints of civic virtue. Not even Adam Smith—who was a moral philosopher, after all—imagined capitalism operating in such an ethical vacuum. Bailout plans, new regulatory schemes, and monetary policy moves won’t be enough to spur a robust, long-term revival of American economic opportunity without some renewal of what was once understood as the work ethic—not just hard work but also a set of accompanying virtues, whose crucial role in the development and sustaining of free markets too few now recall.