Why I’m for Hillary

In a couple of posts I’ve tried to explain why I’m not #feelingthebern, at least not to the extent that some of my friends and online acquaintances are. So does that make me a Hillary Clinton supporter only by default? Or is there a positive case to be made for the former first lady, senator and secretary of state?

Yes, I think there is, and for me it boils down to four things:

(1) She’s experienced, smart and realistic. Clinton is arguably more prepared to be president than anyone else in the country (except, that is, for the current president). She has a wide range of experience at the highest levels of government. Her mastery of issues and policy is unmatched by anyone running in either party. And she has a tough-minded and realistic understanding of what a president can accomplish in our current polarized environment.

(2) She’s liberal (enough). Though Clinton has supported some policies that liberals dislike, the overall arc of her career shows her to be a mainstream liberal Democrat. Yes, she’s a moderate in some respects, but contrary to what Bernie Sanders says, it is possible to be a moderate progressive. Though I don’t agree with her on everything, I’m closer to Clinton ideologically than I am to Sanders.

(3) She’s a woman. This matters, both substantively and symbolically. Issues affecting women would probably be more central to a Clinton presidency, and electing a woman as president of the United States would be a major feminist victory in itself. I want my daughter (and my son for that matter) to see that a woman can hold the highest office in the land.

(4) She can win. Some recent polls notwithstanding, I’m still convinced that Hillary has a better shot than Bernie at keeping the White House out of Republican hands. Clinton’s performance in front of the House committee investigating the Benghazi pseudo-scandal is just one of many examples of her unflappability in the face of nasty attacks. Bernie, by contrast, is still an unknown quantity in a really tough election fight. This isn’t dispositive for me, but it’s definitely a consideration.

Clinton has been fairly criticized for being too close to big business in general and Wall Street in particular, for being too hawkish on foreign policy and for some questionable decisions that create at least the appearance of ethical shadiness. These things worry me.

But there are no perfect choices in politics. Who you prefer will depend a lot on how much weight you give to particular strengths and weaknesses. For me, Clinton’s experience and pragmatism outweigh Bernie’s zeal and idealism. Many of my fellow Democratic voters have decided otherwise. Reasonable people can disagree here.

And like I said before, I’ll happily pull the lever for Bernie in November if he manages an upset. But this April, when the Maryland primary rolls around, I’ll be ready for Hillary.

(I’ll try to post on something non-political soon–I promise! :))

Does the Democratic Party need to exorcise the specter of socialism?

Democrats should be wary of embracing Sen. Bernie Sanders’ democratic socialism, argues Princeton sociologist Paul Starr.* “Socialism” isn’t just another term for New Deal liberalism, he says, but a distinctive political and ideological outlook that is at odds both with the liberal tradition and economic and political reality.

Sanders’ own political journey recapitulates the evolution of socialism itself: communal living on an Israeli kibbutz, touting the state socialism of Eugene Debs, affiliations with the Socialist Workers Party, and now advocating a program of extensive redistribution and regulation as a nominal Democrat.

Starr argues, however, that Sanders’ proposals, such as his tax and health plans, are outside of the mainstream even when compared with the European social democracies he upholds as models. For instance, Scandinavian governments have largely made peace with capitalism, financing generous welfare states with wealth produced by a relatively low-regulation market economy. (This point has also been made by libertarian writer Will Wilkinson.) But Sanders doesn’t talk as though he recognizes any external constraints on the feasibility of his plans–other than those that stem from the greed of the rich or the venality of establishment politicians.

Sanders’ causal attitude toward the real-world obstacles to implementing his policies has caused considerable consternation among some high-profile left-of-center economists and policy writers. But it reflects the moral fervor that animates his campaign. That is, Sanders’ socialism is not first and foremost an economic plan to be evaluated according to the canons of technocratic rationality; it’s a moral vision based on the value of economic equality. The revolution trumps (pardon the expression) the petty bean-counting of wonks.

But this single-minded focus on equality distinguishes socialism (democratic or otherwise) from liberalism, according to Starr:

At its core, liberalism has a concern for liberty. While liberals have expanded public programs, they also have sought to strengthen rights that limit arbitrary power, both governmental and private. Liberals do not sanctify the free market, but they care about preserving the incentives that stimulate innovation and investment and make possible a flourishing economy.

While I think Starr may overstate his case a bit here (a passion for equality is not necessarily at odds with a commitment to liberty), Sanders does seem to operate on a different set of assumptions than mainstream liberals. Do current business practices require stronger oversight are are they fundamentally illegitimate? Is there any limit, in principle, to the scope of authority the government should have to manage economic outcomes? Can capitalism be harnessed for more equitable growth, or is it essentially immoral? This is an long-running debate between liberals and socialists, reformers and radicals.

My own inclinations are toward the incremental progress and messy compromises of reformist liberalism. Pure socialism, in any of its forms, has little appeal to me, and I’m a moderate by both temperament and conviction. I also share the concerns about the feasibility of Sanders’ proposals, not to mention his appeal to a chimerical “political revolution.” (There’s also his evident lack of interest in foreign affairs and other aspects of the actual job of being president.)

But at the same time, liberals should listen to and benefit from more radical critiques and ideas. The New Deal wasn’t socialism (and neither was the Great Society or Obamacare), but progressive reform in the U.S. has often been influenced by more radical movements, with liberals in many cases co-opting (and moderating) ideas advocated by socialists and other more radical leftists. Abraham Lincoln, in some ways the pragmatic liberal reformer par excellence, was pushed in a more progressive direction in part by radicals in his own party as well as by activists like Frederick Douglass** (the course of the war had something to do with it too). Without this pressure, Lincoln might’ve pursued a restoration of the pre-war status quo instead of making the abolition of slavery a reality.

I don’t plan to vote for Sanders (unless he wins the nomination, which currently appears unlikely). But I’m glad he’s injected some more radical ideas into the race. The vast wealth disparities that characterize our new Gilded Age threaten values that everyone on the left side of the political spectrum holds dear. By putting the issue of inequality front and center, Sanders has done liberalism–and the country–an important service.
*Starr is the author of Freedom’s Power, a very good book on the history and ideas of liberalism.
**Douglass also came to value Lincoln’s pragmatism, however. A good book on the Lincoln-Douglass relationship and their different approaches to political change is James Oakes’ The Radical and the Republican.

Trump’s politics of fear vs. the pope’s politics of solidarity

There’s something fitting about Donald Trump’s feud with Pope Francis. The public personas of the two men could hardly be more different. Francis exudes openness, compassion and humility, while The Donald is all vulgarity, braggadocio and sneering contempt. But even more, Trump’s brand of politics represents much of what Francis has spent his pontificate opposing.

Trump’s appeal is based largely around fear: fear of immigrants, fear of Muslims, fear of Muslim immigrants, etc. And his proposed solutions are just as blunt and indiscriminate: build a wall, “bomb the shit out of them.”

Francis, by contrast, has spent much of his tenure outlining and exemplifying a politics of hope and solidarity. Solidarity with immigrants, with the poor and with the natural world. In Francis’s view, our well-being is inseparable from the well-being of our fellow creatures, both human and nonhuman. This is the context in which to understand the pope’s comment that “a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.” Jesus crossed boundaries between people and broke down walls, so Francis is in good company here.

This isn’t to say that Christians can’t disagree in good faith about politics–including immigration policy. But when politics is rooted in fear and demonizing others, it should forfeit its claim to Christian support. All politicians traffic in fear to some extent of course, but Trump has elevated it to the animating principle of his campaign. His candidacy has been almost entirely bereft of any appeal to the better angels of our nature, something the Republican Party used to know a little about.

Prayer and action

God always and already does everything for all of God’s creatures (including us) that it is possible and appropriate for God to do. However, here we have to pay the price of saying that God is not one finite agent among and alongside others. Finite agents (such as you and I) can do things that God cannot do. We can make a peanut butter sandwich. Can God? We can take the peanut butter sandwich across the street and give it to a hungry person. God cannot. Here’s the principle: If it’s the sort of thing that you and I can do, then we’re responsible for doing it. (Clark Williamson, Way of Blessing, Way of Life, p. 130)

“We do not know how to pray as we ought,” said Paul, which is why “the Spirit aids us in our weakness” (Rom. 8:26). Asking God to do things that we are readily capable of doing is a good example of “not knowing how to pray as we ought.” God is always doing for us everything that it is possible for God to do for us, such as love us. Praying for God’s love, then, makes perfect sense, as long as we understand that asking for it is a condition of our receiving it, not of God’s offering it. Love is a strange kind of gift–it has to be wanted to be received.

Another way to not know how to pray is to fail to see the connection between praying and doing justice. A life of prayer divorced from a life committed to working for justice for the neighbor, a life spent in doing what the rabbis called “deeds of loving-kindness,” is inauthentic. One major purpose of prayer is to make us more open to God’s intent to convey blessing and well-being to God’s creatures. A life of prayer requires accompaniment by a life of usefulness to the neighbor. A life of usefulness to the neighbor is a life or prayer, some moments of which we spend on our knees. (ibid., pp. 293-4)

These quotes provide what I think is a helpful way of looking at the relation between prayer and action–something that has come under scrutiny in the wake of the latest horrific mass shooting. Prayer isn’t magic and God doesn’t do for us things that we are responsible for doing ourselves (like establishing a just society). Politicians who call for prayer but not action are not “praying as they ought.”

But at the same time, prayer is, as many seekers of justice attest, a powerful fount of committed activism. In Williamson’s terms, prayer is a channel through which God’s love and will for creaturely well-being flows into the world. True prayer leads not to resignation in the face of preventable evil, but to a life of service to the neighbor, which includes establishing justice in society.

The living Constitution

Garrett Epps’ American Epic: Reading the U. S. Constitution is a fascinating, informative, lucid, provocative, and not infrequently humorous tour through the text of the Constitution, including all twenty-seven amendments. Epps, a lawyer, professor, and correspondent for the Atlantic, isn’t uncritically reverent toward the text–he recognizes that it can be confusing, opaque, and occasionally self-contradictory, as well as containing ideas that are “repulsive.” But neither is he out to debunk it as a tool of anti-democratic elites. The Constitution binds us together as a people, and over its history it has–albeit often fitfully–expanded the reach of democratic self-government and equality before the law.

Epps takes issue with those who treat the Constitution almost as an infallible oracle that provides a single answer to every legal or political question, frequently comparing them to biblical fundamentalists. He approaches it in a more “literary” fashion, seeing the language as producing a surplus of meaning beyond what the original framers may have intended (even assuming we could always figure out what that was, which we can’t). He proposes that different kinds of reading–“scriptural, legal, lyric, and epic”–yield different meanings, none of which can lay claim to being the definitive meaning.

This doesn’t mean that Epps dispenses with legal analysis. He moves meticulously, passage by passage, teasing out possible meanings, some more plausible than others. His close reading of the text often calls into question what “everybody knows” it means, and he recognizes that different and opposed readings (of, say, the Second Amendment) can lay claim to plausibility. Where we come down will, often as not, depend on prior political and philosophical assumptions. “As a whole,” he notes, “its composition spanning two centuries, the Constitution forges a complex language, its words drawing meaning from their interrelation and the gloss of new uses.”

Actually moving through the Constitution, warts and all, and reflecting on the circumstances under which its various parts were composed, probably provides the best argument for seeing it as a “living” document that takes on new meanings in different historical circumstances. It’s not unlike how, to borrow Epps’ frequent comparison, actually reading the Bible closely often calls into question simplistic theories of inspiration or “inerrancy.” Epps’ book is an eye-opening guide to a text that “so many revere and so many fewer have read.”

Not quite feeling the #Bern

Many of my friends, both online and in “real life,” are enthusiastically supporting Vermont senator Bernie Sanders’ run for the presidency. His straight-talking critique of economic inequality and his unapologetically left-wing proposals for addressing it have undeniably tapped into frustrations with the political and economic status quo. He presents a sharp contrast with the cautious centrism of Hillary Clinton, and his candidacy provides, perhaps, a shot at redemption for liberals who have been disappointed with President Obama.

I can see, and to some extent I feel, the appeal of the Bern. His critique of economic inequality is important, and I’d support many of his proposed solutions. And when politics is swimming in big money, his grass-roots approach to fundraising is inspiring.

So why aren’t I, as my title suggests, feeling the Bern?

First, I’m less left-wing than Sanders. That is, I’m not as pessimistic about our political and economic system, and I’m a bit more skeptical about the kind of sweeping programs he’s proposing. I’m still firmly on the left, or at least the center-left, but probably closer to the mainstream of the Democratic Party. (Though I’m persuadable here, and often find value in the critique of those on the further-left.)

Second, I’m not convinced Sanders has the temperament or experience to be president. He often comes across as dogmatic and impatient, and he evinces little interest in the things that actually form the core of the president’s job: running the executive branch and conducting foreign policy. Sanders’ passion is clearly domestic, specifically economic, policy, but in our system of government the president has a very limited ability to enact the kinds of sweeping changes he’s calling for.

Third, and probably most important to my mind, Sanders can’t win. Or at least I’m highly skeptical that he could. Much has been made of his recent surge in the polls: depending on which one you look at, he’s either neck-and-neck with or actually beating Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire and Iowa. But his inroads in other states, ones that are more representative of the electorate, remain stubbornly limited. He seems to have trouble appealing beyond his core base of white, relatively affluent progressives, and these folks don’t constitute a majority of Democratic primary voters, not to mention the electorate as a whole.

Hard-core Sandersnistas will insist that he can win, and that his surge in Iowa and New Hampshire can be replicated in other states. And I’ve had friends tell me that, if presented in an unbiased way to the American public, Sanders’ proposals will handily win a majority in the general election.

Color me skeptical. Barack Obama, despite being a pragmatic, center-left liberal, has been routinely pilloried as a “socialist” for his entire presidency. What do people think will happen if someone who actually identifies as a democratic socialist wins the nomination? The red-baiting will be something to behold.

Essentially, I regard a Sanders nomination as a high-risk/low-reward proposition. The risk is losing the election—probably not in a 1972- or 1984-style blow-out, but decisively—and ushering a Republican into the White House, along with Republican control of Congress. (And have you seen the Republican Party lately?) And the potential upside isn’t as big as some people seem to think. Even if President Sanders is sworn into office in January 2017, he will still in all likelihood be dealing with a Congress, or at least a House, that’s overwhelmingly Republican. This would drastically limit his ability to enact his ambitious proposals, if not put the kibosh on them entirely. The constraints on a President Sanders would be essentially the same (barring some major upsets in congressional races) as they would on a President Clinton, or President Biden, or whoever. And so I’m not convinced the results would be that different.

This doesn’t mean that I think the Sanders candidacy has been a bad idea. I think a robust left wing helps keep liberalism honest and prevents it from drifting too far to the right. Sanders has expanded the range of acceptable policy options and is keeping the issue of economic fairness front-and-center in the campaign. I think this leftward pressure will be good for the Democratic Party in the long run, even if I’m not on board with Sanders as president.

This is my current thinking, at least. I could probably be persuaded otherwise. Heck, by the time the Maryland primary rolls around next April my vote may not matter that much anyway. And if Sanders does actually win the nomination, I’ll vote for him and hope for the best.

How many divisions has the pope?

I believe that climate change is one of the biggest threats to human civilization of our time, if not the biggest. So in that sense I’m glad that Pope Francis’s upcoming encyclical will apparently be a strong endorsement of our responsibility to address it.

Still, I find the excitement around this encyclical to be a bit odd. There seems to be an assumption that this will somehow be a game-changer in galvanizing support for climate action. But if there’s one thing we know about American politics at least, it’s that Catholics’ political behavior is, in general, not detectably different from non-Catholics. Catholic voters as a group vote pretty much the same as the general electorate, and there is no cohesive ideological stance shared by Catholics as such. Among politicians, liberal Catholics like Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi freely disregard the church’s teaching on same-sex marriage and abortion, while conservative Catholics like Rick Santorum and Paul Ryan ignore its views on the environment and economic justice. Everyone’s a cafeteria Catholic, essentially.

Now, people have come up with various ways to nuance this or have deployed subtle arguments about why it’s OK to disagree with the church or the pope on some issues, while others are non-negotiable. Which, as part of an intra-Catholic debate seems totally legitimate. But it also reinforces the point that people will emphasize the parts of the church’s teaching that line up with their preexisting political commitments. Liberals will talk a lot about social justice and the environment, while conservatives will keep emphasizing gay marriage and abortion. What I don’t see a lot of evidence for is that people are going to change their mind on a big issue like climate change based on what the pope says.

Of course I could be wrong, and in this case I hope I am!

Abusus non tollit usum

Christians who are understandably disillusioned with the Christian Right’s approach to politics sometimes draw what is–I think–an improper lesson from it. That is, since the Christian Right wants to use political power to implement an intolerant or destructive agenda, they infer that the problem is political power as such. Christian blogger Benjamin Corey seems to head in this direction in this otherwise sensible post criticizing the Right’s language of “taking back” the country.

Corey says:

If there ever was a time to talk about “taking the country back” it was the time of Jesus– but that wasn’t anything he was concerned with. Jesus spent his time rejecting political power and instead, invested into building an other-worldly Kingdom where the power-rejectors are actually the greatest. Jesus saw his Kingdom, not political rule, as being the solution to all the ills of earth.

Changing the world via political power will always be a future invitation that never fully materializes. But changing the world through investing in God’s Kingdom? That’s an invitation you can accept and experience right now.

And this is why Christians on both sides of the political coin often get sidetracked: whether we realize it intellectually or not, we have grown to see government and political power as being the answer to the world’s problems– instead of the Kingdom Jesus came to establish.

The problem here, as I see it, is that some problems actually do require the use of government and political power. For example, Social Security has kept millions of senior citizens and disabled people from falling into poverty, minimum wage laws ensure that workers’ earnings don’t fall below a certain level, environmental laws set minimum standards for clean air and water, the Affordable Care Act has significantly reduced the number of people without health insurance, etc.

Now, I fully agree that none of these efforts, singly or collectively, has ushered in the Kingdom of God. But does that mean they aren’t important or were somehow not worth doing? That hardly follows, and it’s a weird sort of ethics, Christian or otherwise, that would be indifferent to such outcomes.

What seems to be driving a lot of this anti-political sentiment is a form of Christian pacifism wedded to what I consider to be a shallow analysis of political power. That is, people who have embraced a certain strain of Anabaptist-influenced pacifism sometimes conclude that all political power is inherently coercive in a bad sense and thus something that Christians should eschew. The problem is that social arrangements are always already structured by power (and thus “coercive” if you like).  So “opting out” of politics simply leaves those existing–and often unjust–power relations in place. The only way to change them, as Reinhold Niebuhr argued decades ago, is by an application of countervailing power. This doesn’t mean violence necessarily, but it does mean something more than sweet reason. (I’m not a pacifist myself, but there are meaningful distinctions to be drawn between “violence,” “power,” “coercion,” etc.)

Ironically, the progressive-pacifist analysis of government and power ends up looking a lot like that of right-wing libertarians, who regard any use of government to address social inequities as illegitimate “coercion.” This is probably a tip off that something’s gone wrong here. Political power is certainly prone to abuse. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a proper use.

Odds and ends for a Friday

I realize I’m exactly the type of person you’d expect to like a Sufjan Stevens album, but nonetheless–the new album is really good!

Evangelical Christian groups are working on a statement of theological concern regarding factory farming. I’m no longer a vegetarian (and feel vaguely guilty about it), but I’m all for any efforts to reform how we treat the animals we raise for food.

There’s been some good stuff published to mark the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. Some pieces I found of particular interest were this on why we should mark the surrender of the Confederacy with a national holiday, this one on how the issues that split the country still drive our politics and this one on the surprising divergence of Grant’s and Lee’s reputations after the war.

Yesterday was also the 70th anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s death at the hands of the Nazis. Bonhoeffer continues to inspire Christians of every stripe, who often jostle to claim him as one of their own. But Bonhoeffer was far from a plaster saint and clearly recognized his own complicity in evil. Which, if anything, makes him more relevant for us.

Ready for Hillary?

Recent reading

More #content partly repurposed from my Goodreads page…

The Lion’s World: A Journey into the Heart of Narnia, Rowan Williams

The former archbishop of Canterbury explores the theological underpinnings of Lewis’s beloved fantasy series with his customary erudition and pastoral heart. Williams also does a nice job responding to some recent critics of the series (e.g., Philip Pullman). The purpose of the Narnia books, Williams contends, is to be an intellectual and imaginative “mouthwash” that allows us to encounter the Christian message anew. Probably the best indicator of the book’s success is that it immediately made me want to re-read the Narnia books.

On Niebuhr: A Theological Study, Langdon Gilkey

A clear and engaging exposition of Niebuhr’s theology from a former student (and accomplished theologian in his own right). Gilkey argues that Niebuhr is a more coherent and compelling theologian than he’s often given credit for (as opposed to being a social critic who festooned a largely secular ethical system with pious language). The final chapter helpfully delves into some of Niebuhr’s presuppositions and shows that he remained very much a modernist, despite his strident criticisms of the liberal Protestantism of his day. I came away from this with a renewed appreciation of Niebuhr as a religious thinker.

Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, Katha Pollitt

A comprehensive argument for the right to choose an abortion as essential for women’s full equality. It seems increasingly common for people to call for a “third way” on abortion beyond the extremes of “pro-life” and “pro-choice”; Pollitt, however, compels us to look closely at the concrete effects of various efforts to limit abortion and whether they are driven more by a desire to stigmatize or shame women who have abortions for the “wrong” reasons. She also notes repeatedly that many of the people who oppose legal abortion also oppose policies (e.g., widespread access to birth control, comprehensive sex education, and government support for families) that would do the most to reduce its prevalence. I probably still fall somewhat into the “mushy middle” this book is aimed at, but it definitely nudged me in a more steadfastly pro-choice direction.