About the label “Christian”

From time to time in my blog, I’ll make a suggestion to those who practice Christianity about how to transform themselves by the renewing of their mind. This is one of those suggestions.

I’m taking a break from using the label “Christian” to refer to myself. I recommend “follower of Christ.”

“Are you ashamed of being a Christian?” some may ask. Nope (or, rather, no more than normal, given Christianity’s checkered history). After all, I am writing a public blog that focuses on my approach to Christianity. The statement “I am a Christian” encourages you to think of your religion as something you are, something you have as a characteristic of your being. I think it’s more useful to think of Christianity as something you do.

I can anticipate the standard theological reaction to that statement. “Wait a minute, bub. Salvation isn’t earned. You don’t get to heaven based on your own good work. Salvation is through grace by faith, not by works. Once saved, always saved.” Amen and thanks be to God, brothers and sisters. But I’m less concerned with the theology than I am with the all-too-human habits that this theology encourages. Treating Christianity as something you are doesn’t emphasize how important it is for you to pull up your big person pants in the morning (or take up your cross daily, depending on which metaphor you prefer) and do Christianity.

What I mean by “doing Christianity” is not necessarily or exclusively “doing good works.” As I noted in a previous blog entry, you don’t need religion to do good in the world.  In the everyday mundane/sacred world, Christianity is less theology and more practice. It’s a conscious reorientation of your place within your surroundings. It involves linking what you do with other followers of Christ in a mystic community for a higher purpose. The things you do to follow Christ are (at baseline) prayer, meditation, contemplation of sacred writings, reconnection to God.

And so I think “follower of Christ” has its definite advantages because it emphasizes that this is something you choose on a regular basis, not something that is a legacy of a past moment where you were “saved” (I prefer to think that God is still saving me) or something I own (even if it is unearned). Because I believe in grace and forgiveness, I can say “I’m a Christian” every day. It’s a different thing to say “I am following Christ” today. Some days I do that; some days I clearly am pursuing my own agenda. Following Christ (or not) is a conscious choice, not a property of who I am. On any given day, I can lose my status as a “follower of Christ” without losing my status as “Christian.” Re-committing myself to following Christ helps keep me from taking my spiritual birthright as a child of God for granted. It reminds me that Christianity is a discipline.

You may think this is just another example of an academic making a big deal out of words. But one of the central claims of this blog is that words matter (it’s also a central tenet of fundamentalist religion, by the way, which pours over the meanings of particular words). Your choice of words influences your habits of heart and mind. Choosing different words can be an important part of renewing your mind, of seeing the world in a new way.

So I recommend substituting “follower of Christ” for “Christian” as a devotional practice, as a way of reminding yourself how it is incumbent on all of us reconnect with our spiritual source. But I am increasingly aware of the dangers of treating “Christian” as another identity in a world that’s wrangling over competing identities. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about identity politics, and I wonder if Christianity has become first and foremost an identity in today’s society. I’ve seen a lot of Facebook postings along the lines of “I’m a Christian/Liberal/Conservative/Republican/Democrat, and I can’t wait to see who’s brave enough to share this,” and I’m struck by how similarly those identity proclamations function. “Are you or aren’t you? Which team are you on? If you’re not with me, you’re against me.”

Once your religion becomes a badge you wear more than it is a thing you do, bad things tend to happen. Lines get drawn around “my people,” and once those lines are drawn, the tendency is to switch into battle metaphors, to protect your camp against “attacks” from “secular humanists/atheists/Muslims.” And so we need to fight back just like everyone else who is defending their turf these days to preserve “our way of life” from “them.”

Of course the history of Christianity is a history of divisions into “thems” and “us-es.” The Catholic Church broke into East and West; Protestants split off from Catholicism; the Protestant Reformation led to the splintering of denominations (Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists), and those split into separate denominational bodies (in the US, often around the issue of slavery or along liberal/conservative theological lines). At the local level, congregations can split over innumerable issues (my father helped start a new church when a group disagreed about deacon ordination, of all things). Fundamentalism actually depends on schisms, as one group seeks to return to their vision of what the “fundamentals” of their religion are, a vision that has seemingly been lost in the mainline religious community.

Face it: we are much better at dividing than we are at uniting. We are much better at holding onto our labels than we are recognizing the humanity and spirituality of those who worship differently than we do (or those who don’t worship at all). I’ve always been impressed with the Catholic Church’s ability to house liberation theology and charismatic Catholics under the same theological roof. I suspect that this has a lot to do with the centrality of ritual in Catholicism; regardless of whether your beliefs lean toward the progressive or the conservative, Catholics can still share the same mass together. Although there are many, many, many problems with Catholicism, Catholics do take their name seriously, attempting to provide a “universal” road to Christian experience through shared practice.

And so I believe an emphasis on the discipline of Christianity – on following Christ – can help us overcome the tendency to treat Christianity as an identity that needs to be protected. Christianity has simply fallen prey to this too many times. Whether it’s Protestants against Catholics in Ireland or in the U.S. Ku Klux Klan, Christians vs. Islam in medieval and contemporary times, or Christianity against modern secularism, we should loft fewer holy hand grenades at the other side, or rather stop identifying sides in favor of following Christ’s example. Any defense (or – heaven forbid – an offense) that might be necessary for “Christianity” needs to operate in a different way than other turf protections. It needs to look and feel counter to the defensive ways of the world, where identities need shielding often because they feel so vulnerable. Within Christianity, we aspire to hold to an unshakable (and unearned) sense of who we are; we are children of God. We need to reconnect to that mystic truth without using it as a justification for hostility and judgment that seem so much a part of today’s world.

In my blog I’ll try to avoid using “Christian” as a noun, though I may slip into that from time to time simply for linguistic ease. (I will admit that “follower of Christ” can get a little clunky, but that clunkiness is part of the point, encouraging us to think about how we describe ourselves.) Since I’m thinking more about identity, my next blog entry will deal with that from a political standpoint. In the meantime, try taking a break from “Christian” as an identity. Focus instead on recommitting regularly to the discipline of following Christ’s example.

Gratitude is the gateway emotion for spirituality

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If you want to move along a spiritual path, where do you start? Or where do you re-start if you’ve become disconnected from religious practice? Or where do you begin your day when you’re on your path? My advice is to begin with thanksgiving. Gratitude is the gateway emotion for spirituality. And for me, giving thanks begins with noticing the world around you.

Religion is often criticized for doing the opposite, for overemphasizing the promise of “pie in the sky bye and bye” rather than paying attention to the world that we are merely “passing through.” Religion for me is actually fed by attention to the world around me, and that is an endless source of fuel for the religious fire. My glimpses of heaven can wax and wane; my access to the miraculous and beautiful of the material world, however, is only limited by my perception. Religion for me is an encouragement to engage with the world and its splendors.

It’s all too easy to think of ourselves today as the provider of our own world and to think of that world as made up of functional objects for us to use and consume. After all, I earned my place in life; I worked hard and pulled myself up by my own bootstraps. I raised my kids to be good people. I bought and paid for stuff, and I own that stuff.  I, I, I, or as two-year-olds say, “Mine! Mine! Mine!” This way of being-in-the-world encourages you to think of yourself as fully deserving of what you have and to take the world for granted. Today you can sculpt a world in your own image.

As I said in my previous post, religion for me is an awareness of and a participation in the workings of a larger, transcendent universe. Religion involves seeing the world as a gift, not simply something you earned because of our own efforts. Yes, I did buy and pay for my house, but that way of thinking doesn’t acknowledge the limits of my actions and my knowledge. I have so little real knowledge about how electricity or internet signals come into my house or about where sewage goes or the physics of how joists support the frame of my house. I paid for those things, but that doesn’t negate their wondrousness. Owning something and having it in your everyday world doesn’t necessarily domesticate its marvelous qualities.

A religious perspective involves acknowledging your own limits. Sure, I’ve worked hard, but many of the opportunities I have been given have depended on others. I am not a totally self-made man. So many of the universe’s gifts come to me through forces that are beyond my own efforts and knowledge.  Religion involves altering your perspective toward a continuing awareness of the beauties and blessings that surround us. It asks us to repeatedly perform a mental transformation of the mundane into the transcendent.

When people talk about such reenchantment of the world around you, they usually focus on seeing God’s hand in nature: clouds, starlight, the smell of honeysuckle. Such talk typically has a “the best things in life are free” bent to it. But as a film and television scholar, the best things in my life include streaming video and downloadable music (as well as hot showers, good coffee, and, oh yes, clouds, starlight, and the smell of honeysuckle).

I cultivate an attitude that these things made by human hands are miraculous and beautiful and that I can see God’s hand in them as well. These well-made objects are part of my material existence in this world. Yes, I have spent rapturous moments hiking, but religion for me is not a call to see the sacred in nature and to ignore it in the rest of my world. It is a call to transform my whole world (human-made and natural) by a renewing of the habits of my perception. We can talk another time about Christianity’s radical preference for the poor and what that may mean about our place in the material world. For now, I’ll just note that this shift in outlook and response is available to all.

Once you begin to be aware of the miraculousness of the world and to consider how little you have done to deserve it, I believe that prompts an obvious, honest, emotional response: gratitude. I like to begin with gratitude for things I can see, touch, smell; that keeps me grounded in the world. Christianity has a tendency to get fuzzy, to move toward abstractions such as “grace” and “salvation.” Those are enormously important aspects to the practice of Christianity, but it’s hard to start there, particularly if you don’t have that firm a grasp on these theological concepts.

There’s an awful lot of stuff that you have to believe before you can get to a statement like “Christ died for my sins.” I prefer to start small and work my way up toward expressing gratitude for the big theological gifts. Otherwise, it’s very tempting to construct your faith out of churchy language, and I don’t believe that tends to hold up well in trying circumstances.

So you start your day (or your path) by being grateful for the blessings (physical and spiritual) around you. This raises an obvious question: thankful to whom? You have admitted that you are not the measure and source of all things. Where do these gifts come from? One could say “natural science” or “the economy,” and religion doesn’t deny those explanations, but it says that they lack something. Different religions propose different versions of the divine, but they all point to a numinous world that exists beyond what you can see.

Gratitude is a grounded entrance toward experience of the spiritual. It connects what you perceive to the forces that provide these gifts, whether you call that “God,” a “higher power,” whatever. It is a source of connection that never ends, regardless of your life circumstances. You can always transform some aspect of your day into a consolation. Developing this habit builds a firm relationship between you and the source of the miraculous, much firmer than abstract theological beliefs. The connection you forge between what you experience and the transcendent becomes a real part of your everyday life.

(For those of you who are in particularly contemporary Christian churches, you may want to put forward “praise” as the best starting place for connecting to God. Praising God certainly does a lot of what I’m saying: it acknowledges your rightful place in the universe in relation to an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent divinity. And as a church musician, I am very aware of the power of corporate praise. Praise is definitely a better way to start a communal worship experience than how most traditional churches services begin: listing announcements for the community. Beginning with praise makes the right statement about a church (God comes first here), and it can be a powerful way to link your life with the life experiences of others. My problem with starting with praise is because there’s so much belief that is implicitly folded into praise. Singing the praises of an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent God is in many ways stepping to the head of the theological line (doing so in emotionally powerful ways, I’ll admit). Gratitude involves many fewer steps: I acknowledge the beauty of the world around me; I recognize the limits of my contribution to those wonders; and I am thankful for the forces that provide them. And so for me thanksgiving has advantages in renewing your spiritual perspective.)

In the modern world, slowing down is a vital part of finding this perspective (called by some an “attitude of gratitude”). Whether through meditation, walking, or other practices, slowing down helps us focus our attention; it alters our perception so that we can cultivate wonder (one of the great purposes of religion. See my previous post). At some point I’ll pass along tips for the discipline of focused, contemplative prayer, but in the meantime I’ll leave you with the possibility that the simple repeated act of thanksgiving can open up a gateway between the world around you and a larger world where you can experience the presence of God.

Why Religion?

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Let’s start with what should be an obvious point: you can lead a good, moral life and make the world a better place without having any connection to religion whatsoever (there are plenty of examples). One can certainly argue that organized religion…well… ORGANIZES people pretty well to do good, but so do lots of secular groups. If that’s all you need religion to do, you can join one of those groups and still sleep in on Sunday morning. If you don’t have a need that religion can fill (and lots of people seem to get along fairly well without religious experience), then I suggest you move on to the other parts of my blog. I’m not going to try to convince you.

I’ll avoid some of the standard discussions about why you need religion — forgiveness of sins, admission into the afterlife. If those are resonant for you, there are lots of other places to look for those appeals. I’m also not going to try to argue logically for religion. There is precedent for that being successful (C.S. Lewis being the most prominent case), but that’s rare. Pascal argued that you might as well wager on the existence of God, but I think that’s not a particularly compelling motivation to stick to religion, which is damn hard work.

Religion is not necessarily illogical, but it is grounded in experience, not pure rationality. And so I will talk in this post about needs (not arguments) that religion is particularly well suited to address. Why religion? Because it can fill certain basic needs in ways that are difficult (but not impossible) to do in the modern era.

One thing to get out of the way first: “religion” to me means “an awareness of and a connection to a world that exists outside the direct perception of our senses.” You’ll notice that I didn’t put the word “belief” in that definition. I’ll return to this a good bit in this blog, but I think that Christianity in particular gets way too caught up in what you “believe” (a fraught and complicated word. More about that another time). And so my definition emphasizes an awareness (ongoing, renewed) that there are forces that exist beyond what we can see.

Mere acknowledgment that there is a God doesn’t quite meet my definition, either. There needs to be (ongoing, renewed) access to or connection with this (literally) super-natural world or else you’re not actively practicing that religion (then it’s more of a passive “belief”). That practice can take multiple forms, depending on your religion: prayer, ritual sacrifice, meditating on sacred texts, devotional music, building a shrine to ancestors, sacred dance, creating iconography, and so on. (“Morality,” if you’re looking for definitions, involves conduct guided by principles. You can have that without a recognition of the divine, as in Confucianism, conservatism, or liberalism.)

Religion can provide a sense of awe and wonder. That may not sound like a particularly strong need, but I think it actually is. We are creatures of habit. Habit helps us be efficient, but it also necessarily dampens our engagement with the world. Phenomena that are pretty astonishing when you think about them (thunderstorms! Highway tunnels under bodies of water! GPS navigation!) become mundane, and then they either become part of the background or they become tiresome sources of frustration. Why do people always have to slow down when they drive through this tunnel? Why does my map app get confused when I’m driving on an overpass where one interstate crosses another? Why doesn’t this software (or hardware or interaction with a service worker) proceed more efficiently? We grind the world more finely, becoming more and more critical, increasingly aware of how less than optimal our existence is. It’s easy for the modern world to become populated with such annoyances; such a world quickly can turn angry, dark, and cynical.

Not everyone needs religion as an antidote to the soul-killing tendencies of modern life. Some scientists, for instance, can get this sense of wonder from their work by understanding in detail the marvelous interworkings of the world. Most of the rest of us have to accept that someone knows the physics to keep a bridge erect or that someone understands the specifics of how cell division and evolution work. For us, the universe can look like an arrangement of poorly understood but (thankfully) dependable, mechanistic processes. Religion for me is not a denial of science, but it is a reframing of the world. Because I don’t have the scientific training necessary to have a deep sense of wonder produced by my knowledge of the universe’s intricacies, religion helps.

Religion encourages me to see the world as a miraculous set of consolations when times are difficult.  One of my favorite quotes says, “There is no life so hard that is without consolation.” On difficult days, the consolation may be as impersonal and clichéd and brief as a sunset, but that doesn’t mean that these consolations aren’t real. You just have to look for them (as Alice Walker said, the color purple demands our attention and reverence); to remove the filters that prevent you from experiencing wonder (the thought that sunsets are clichés, for instance); and to connect what you see to forces bigger than yourself. If you’re a scientist, you probably don’t need religion to give you a sense of awe. For the rest of us, religion helps to rekindle wonder, which is a marvelous inoculation against anger, cynicism, and despair. If any of these are a problem for you, may I suggest that religion might help.

Religion can also provide purpose (I promise I’ll be less longwinded about this one). Through religion we find a continuing motivation to participate in the great good work of repairing the world through prayer, education, helping the poor and oppressed, working for social justice, and providing solace. As I said at the beginning of this post, many secular organizations do similar work, but I do think that religious purpose does provide some advantages.

Religion allows us to connect our individual efforts through the larger network of forces that operate behind the visible world; this magnifies and sustains our labor. It provides crucial encouragement when we inevitably encounter frustrations and obstacles in trying to change the world around you for the better (particularly when working within volunteer organizations of other humans). Religious purpose expands what you do, putting it in context of something larger than yourself. Again, if you have a strong sense of mission (through your vocation, your political action, whatever), then this may not be a compelling need for you. But if your life lacks purpose and meaning, religion can provide this.

Religion can be an enormous source of comfort. We all need comfort at some point in our lives (maybe the opposite of the quote above might be “There is no life so easy that it is without suffering”). If you have built a network of supportive friends, family, and/or mental health professionals that can sustain you through hard times, good for you. You may not need religion to serve that role. If you haven’t developed that support, religion can help.

It can bring your individual suffering into a larger context, and conversations with God can provide consolation in the quiet moments when no one is around. (And just to be clear, by “conversation” I also include bitching, moaning, complaining, and other unattractive but all too human forms of communication) There’s a danger of thinking of religion as something you activate only in moments of crisis, and there it can fail badly if you haven’t previously built a strong foundation of interaction with God. In fact, one powerful justification for continuing to work on your relationship with God during good times is that it prepares that bond to sustain you during tragedy. Again, religion is more about experience than belief for me, and people have found sustenance in religion for millennia. You might try that, too.

Lastly, religion can provide community. Yes, I do believe that you can practice religion on your own without connection to an organized body (there is a tradition of the hermit monastic, after all). Yes, I do recognize that much violence and oppression has been done in the name of organized religion. But I do believe that the solo practice of religion is difficult. It’s all too easy for religion to warp into a justification of your own preferences and interests if you don’t weigh it against the experiences and revelations of others. I am enormously grateful for the way that worshiping with others provides a regular challenge to my understanding of God. Plus the communal worship magnifies your experience in a way that individual meditation simply can’t duplicate.

I’ve always liked the comparison between a church and a gym. You can develop your body by working out on your home exercise equipment, but many of the most devoted athletes haul their butts to the gym. You participate in a community that way; the community supports you when you don’t feel like exercising, they spur you on toward better discipline. If you’re interested in physical development, the gym is an obvious place to find others who are interested in similar pursuits. You’ll find people who are further along the path, and you can learn from them. You’ll also find people who you can mentor through some of the struggle you have overcome. Throughout this blog I will come back to the notion that I think Christianity is a practice, a discipline. A good spiritual gym is a good place to work on that.

(You’ll note that a lot of the needs I talk about in this post are interrelated. Comfort frequently comes from community, which also can provide purpose, and so on. )

So: if you experience wonder on a regular basis; if you have strong purpose in life; if you’ve got comfort and consolation taken care of; and if you have a community, then I really don’t have much to say to you about the advantages of religion. If any of those are missing, then may I humbly suggest that religion can help. In this blog I’ll lay out what I see as fundamental principles of Christianity (my own religion). I hope that this discussion will usefully clarify certain ways toward experiencing the divine.

Next time: where do you start on a religious/spiritual path?

Small Government Is Good for Some Things, Bad for Others. Big Government Is Good for Some Things, Bad for Others.

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Ok, I will admit that this is a somewhat underwhelming place to start to find common ground for the political left and right, but I suspect that even this limited assertion may need justification in some quarters. At times the rhetoric of either side can admittedly sound like they’re emphasizing either big or small government as the ultimate good.  (Though, to be fair, even Reagan’s famous anti-government sound bite is more limited when put into its original context:  “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Emphasis added.) I’d like to restore a bit of Reagan’s subtlety (and boy, I never thought I’d say that!) to the discussion and move things away from the Grover Norquist I’d-like-to-be-able-to-drown-the-government-in-a-bathtub excesses. There are obvious situations where a smaller government works better than a larger government, and vice versa.

The clear advantage of a more localized government is that it’s more responsive to the specific needs of the community. For example, almost every tiny incorporated town has its own law enforcement and firefighting units. Although this is costly to duplicate these services across multiple townships, the idea is that speedy response is so crucial for these services that even small communities will pay for the added expense.

The obvious related point is that relying on many localized smaller government units is often more expensive than a larger, more centralized government. Although we rarely discuss this, this is self-apparent. The federal Internal Revenue Service is more efficient at collecting taxes than if we dispersed this function. Every large corporation understands this basic principle, that there are economies of scale. Once you build a mechanism for, say, tax collection, it doesn’t cost that much more to run it a lot. There’s simply no way that 50 different state departments of revenue can be as efficient as a single more centralized unit. We could potentially consider cutting down expenditures by expanding the federal government a bit and eliminating the jobs that are duplicated across 50 different tax revenue services (particularly in this electronic era when so much of the individual variation in tax schemes is taken care of by programmable state tax forms). I’m not necessarily advocating such a tax overhaul; I’m just using this as an example of the overall logic. One could think of an emphasis on more localized, smaller governmental units as a jobs program. After all, multiple small government units means broader employment. But we rarely talk about “small government” in this way: as a jobs program that is expensive but worth it (because it is more responsive to the subtleties of local environments).

And so once again I find myself talking about the way we talk about government/politics. The “big vs. small” government question is, like so many political topics, deeply imbedded in code words. “Big government” is typically a code word for the federal government, and “small government” is a code word for state/county/city/town authority. But this slippage allows us to expand government overall (and its expenditures) while we are shrinking “big” (read “federal”) government. The classic example of this is welfare reform under Clinton. By shrinking federal welfare programs, this pushed the burden onto the states. One response was to shift the emphasis onto disability programs (the number of people qualifying for disability has risen dramatically since the Clinton welfare reform), and so we have traded expenditures that are limited in time (welfare) for expenditures that extend for a lifetime. Again, my point here is not particularly about disability; my point is that we should view government as an ecosystem. Any upward or downward pressure on a single part (federal, state, local) can have an effect on the other portions of the system. You can biggen the government overall by reducing “big” government.

There’s another bit of sleight-of-hand involved in the dictum that small/localized government is more responsive to the community. Of course, that depends on who gets to count as the “community.” Having just made a fairly economic argument above, I’ll reiterate what I said in my previous blog post. I don’t think that the big/small government argument is primarily about money. I think it’s about a preference for localized authority or national authority. I believe that there’s often a simple test question that can predict whether you tend to favor small/localized government: would you have been well served by local government 60 years ago? Would you tend to trust that 1950s local government to have your best interest at heart? If so, you are probably more likely to want to return to that form of government.

This is another way to say that race matters. For black people, the local government in the 1950s was a point in recent times when oppression was viscerally felt (though federal redlining programs certainly made their palpable contributions to discrimination). The local government was the one you couldn’t trust to have your back.  It was governors and sheriffs who blocked the path; the federal government stepped in in very powerful and visible ways. The situation is similar for Hispanic Americans, too; the face of discrimination tends to be local (though the federal government is certainly doing more than its share lately). And so part of the racial underpinnings of left and right in America is a question of trust. Although “big government” can’t entirely be trusted either, it’s more trustworthy than the excesses of “small government.” (There’s a similar racial divide in attitudes toward whether the police can be trusted or whether they are suspect. Law enforcement, as noted above, leans local.) This isn’t ancient history; it’s fairly recent, and there has been little in recent history to boost the trust of people of color in localized authority.

Progress in the legal status of races is an obvious example of how the federal government can quickly implement change for the good. (One could certainly argue that the top-down implementation of Brown v. Board wasn’t exactly quick – in fact, it’s still ongoing – but implementing change from the ground up in every school system in America would be unimaginable) It’s hardly the only example, though (for those on the right who are tired of the left constantly returning to the civil rights era). One of the things that a strong federal government is good at doing is enacting minimum standards for living: the minimum wage law, for instance. Although the raw economics of supply and demand would insist that no minimum is needed, such federal laws protect against the excesses of employment and labor. Therefore a town whose politics is dominated by a single employer cannot reduce the cost of labor as much as the industry might like. The federal government limits the possible mistreatment that local authority is capable of, particularly when dealing with those who are not seen as a valued part of the “community.”

One of the biggest achievements for the Republicans in recent decades comes from their understanding that so much of politics is indeed localized. Concerted efforts to put Republicans on school boards, city councils, and other relatively boring governing bodies have been enormously successful, while too many Democrats have focused their hopes on a string of top-down rulings from the Supreme Court to protect their rights and privileges. And this battle continues today. Only a few years ago, I had dinner with a friend who was considering running for the local school board. My friend was approached by someone who encouraged the potential candidate, saying that “we have to make sure to keep the blacks off the board.” My friend said nothing, and to my shame, neither did I (my only excuse was shock). I was astonished at the brazen openness of acknowledging that certain members of the community should not be represented and the assumption that we were all united in this. Pardon me for feeding the fears of black people, but it’s not paranoia. This shit is still going on, and nice liberal white people like me are complicit.

I’ve been talking about the comparative advantages of “big” and “small” government, but there are also comparable disadvantages. An emphasis on local government opens up many more opportunities for corruption; a larger centralized government maximizes the damage possible by any single instance of corruption. Having many local government units multiplies the number of places where graft, favoritism, and nepotism can enter. As someone who grew up in a small town, I can testify that “who you know” is an incredibly powerful advantage in a community. Having many local police officers opens up multiple opportunities to exert illegal influence on how laws are enforced. People may bemoan the strictures of dealing with the federal government, but having to adhere to federal policies and procedures limits the reliance on “who you know.” Standardized bidding for government contracts opens up possibilities for those who aren’t so cozily on the inside (again, it seems to me that how well you would have been treated by local government 60 years ago is a good litmus test. If you would have benefited from a system of “who you know,” you not so surprisingly think we should emphasize local government. If you would have been excluded from the closed circle of local influence, you are less likely to think of small government as benevolent). The system is hardly flawless, and yet the American federal government is remarkably low in graft and corruption compared to many other nations.

A large federal program, however, does magnify the impact of corruption and ineptitude far past the local level. A strong centralized government can do considerable damage. Everyone’s favorite example of this is the Soviet Union’s unitary, top-down implementation of horribly misguided agricultural policy, which nearly ravaged the food supply in the entire USSR. Regardless of how bad nepotism, incompetence, and corruption is at the local level, there’s a limit to how far its influence can extend. I can see the sense in opposing a large, strong, federal government under a “first, do no harm” mentality. But once again I think it’s useful to think of governance as an ecosystem. If we shrink federal governmental influence, this spreads the opportunity for local governments to favor some people over others. The question is: in what situations are we best served by “big” or “small” government?

My own preference tends toward a trust in the larger federal government, and I do think “trust” is an essential factor in the “big” vs. “small” government argument. One factor that I think has swung in favor of supporting a strong federal government is the recent decline in journalism as a profession. As fewer and fewer journalists are employed and local news organizations shrink or evaporate, the difficult and boring job of keeping tabs on local government becomes harder. With fewer journalists devoted to the arduous work of monitoring city councils, county courthouses, and boards of education, it’s very hard to maintain the necessary oversight that keeps local government honest. One of the advantages of national programs is that they are centralized; a team of journalists can investigate a bureau and know that its influence will be widespread. A national program creates the opportunity for a big splashy news expose; smaller governmental units make for much smaller news stories. Given the state of the infrastructure of journalism at this moment, I think this is a particularly dangerous time for us to move toward more powerful local governments. To do so would be a move to shift power to where there is little likelihood that corruption will be exposed.

I think there is an important argument to be had about the tradeoffs of “big” and “small” government: an argument about money, about efficiency, about whose interests are represented, and about how oversight occurs. The starting point for that argument, it seems to me, is the simple, intuitive, yet seemingly rare admission that “big” and “small” government both have advantages and disadvantages.

(For those of you who have been wondering where the “Christianity” portions of this blog are, my next post will address the question “Why do religion at all?”)

 

The Right and Left Mean Different Things When They Talk about Spending Money

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When I first set about to find common ground between left and right in America, I thought I had an easy answer:  money.  We may disagree about abortion or corporate regulation, but certainly we could all agree that rising debt levels pose a danger to society.  Although Republicans characterize Democratic politics as being all about “taxing and spending,” I don’t know anyone who actually believes that throwing money at a problem will fix it. The left believes that it’s possible to spend money wisely, that paying more up front (on medical prevention, on education, on the environment) can save money in the long run. I knew that it wouldn’t be easy for us to agree on what “wise spending” is. I know that conservatives are often suspicious of the effectiveness of new programs (it is, after all, the job of a conservative to put the brakes on). I also know that liberals can be a bit too in love with the promise of new initiatives. But money would save us.

Regardless of which side you’re on, we all know that a government has to make choices of priorities and agree on a budget, which is always a compromise. There is no viable alternative.  If we could focus on whether a program was effective and whether it saved money or cost money over the long haul, maybe it wouldn’t matter so much whether that program originated with Democrats or Republicans. We could have a common language to talk to each other, one that we all recognize and respect. That language would be dollars, which work the same way regardless of whether they’re held by a liberal or a conservative. After all, dollars are facts, which seem to be the most precious of currencies these days.

If we on the left agreed to pursue one of the right’s most strongly advocated goals (reducing debt), then conservatives might be able to admit that both sides have made significant contributions to our current fiscal situation. We could maybe get on with the business of deciding how to spend money wisely for our society. We could talk about priorities and the costs of achieving those priorities. If we agree to boost our military, then let’s pay for it. If we agree that it’s important to strengthen our economic safety net, then let’s do that now and not depend on the next generation to pay for that. Such decisions are certainly tough, but keeping an eye on dollars at least would mean that we are making decisions in an honest way.

I also believed we could be at least a little bit smarter than some of the sound bites that circulate about the federal debt, such as: “My family doesn’t spend more than we take in. Why should the government?” This bit of homespun wisdom ignores a basic difference between microeconomics and macroeconomics (after all, these are two different fields for a reason). The federal government doesn’t behave like a family, nor should it. The fed has the ability to print money (which hopefully your family doesn’t!), and that complicates the equation. Those who advocate a totally balanced budget ignore the ways that a certain amount of national debt is a good thing, that it promotes growth. Virtually every economist would agree that a national balanced budget requirement would be a bad thing for the economy, that it would limit our ability to deal with moment of economic stress. We’re a long way from acting like a truly balanced budget, but some talk as if that should be our goal. Most economists would also agree, however, that our current overexpenditures are not a sign of fiscal health.

Cynicism is tempting here.  “People won’t understand the basic difference between micro- and macro-economics.” (As a teacher, I am committed to the idea that we can indeed learn such things. It’s not that tough.) “You’re not going to find that kind of moral courage in politicians today.” “Once you start a program, you can never stop it.” And so on. But this blog is committed to the idea that the way things are today isn’t the way things have to be. I am not going to declare in advance that we lack courage or intelligence or initiative (in spite of evidence to the contrary). To do so would be self-defeating. I believe there is a way for us to talk to each other; we just need to find it.

Unfortunately, I have grown to believe that dollars are not going to be the currency we need to restore a common foundation for debate. I increasingly believe that the left and the right mean different things when they talk about “spending money.” By saying the same words, it gives the appearance that we are talking about the same thing, but we are not. The words are part of the problem.

By portraying themselves as the sole advocate of fiscal responsibility, the Republicans ignore the times that they act in ways that counter that: the tax cuts under Reagan and Trump, the unfunded Medicare drug benefit under George W. Bush, the consistent advocacy for raising the Pentagon’s budget. When Republicans talk about “spending,” they’re usually talking about social programs. They can talk about cutting back “spending” while simultaneously advocating for raising the Pentagon’s budget, as if the words if the words “money” and “spending” don’t mean the same when they apply to the military as when they apply to entitlements. We don’t treat all dollars the same. Most Republicans appear to be fine with increasing expenditures in areas they support, but they need to own and justify these expenditures and not pretend that they are somehow not “increased spending.”

Although conservatives talk a lot about money, I increasingly believe that reducing expenditures is not a primary goal for contemporary conservatism.  We are having a battle over what feels like an aesthetic preference: do you prefer a smaller government or a larger one? Do you like ‘em big or little?  “Money” often coincides with the big government/small government argument, but it doesn’t always, and we do a disservice by pretending that it does.

I had an “aha” moment listening to a story on the podcast This American Life. The story (“Do You Want a Wakeup Call?” https://www.thisamericanlife.org/459/what-kind-of-country/act-three-0) examined a fiscal crisis in the Colorado Springs government. Rather than increase taxes, the local government decided to make residents pay a la carte for basic services such as having a streetlight. A Colorado Springs official told the story of a citizen who thanked her for the new policy as he paid the bill for his street’s lights. She reminded him that he had just paid more money than he would have if his taxes had been increased, and he said that he didn’t care. He preferred a government that didn’t rely on pooled resources (one of the benefits of a larger government), even if that put him at a financial disadvantage. The fact that he was paying more money wasn’t the important thing.

There will be times in this blog when I focus on how the words that we use can create obstacles to our political understanding. I’m very loosely adapting the central insight of Michael Calvin McGee’s concept of the “ideograph,” which refers to the ways that certain individual words can by themselves make arguments. It’s hard to argue against “freedom,” for instance. By associating something with “freedom,” you’re already making an argument in its favor. It’s similarly hard to advocate for a “terrorist,” so if you can make that label stick, you’ve already carved a rhetorical hole for that person that’s hard to dig out of. Such single words can short-circuit reasoned thinking.

I have come to believe that much of our “money” talk does just that, that it allows us to appear to be discussing one thing when really we are discussing another. The recently adopted federal budget revealed that Republicans are more committed to the idea of cutting taxes than they are to responsible monetary policy. The relative lack of honest discussion about the ramifications of tax cuts (increasing the debt for future citizenry) undercuts the argument that conservatives are more concerned with being good shepherds of taxpayer money. The value placed on a smaller government outweighs the publically expressed value placed on spending money wisely.

And so I’m less hopeful about money being a key term to anchor our debate in an agreed upon reality. We can’t use the Republican emphasis on “fiscal responsibility” as a common goal because the Republicans maintain only a loose, flexible allegiance to wise spending. Money is a factor, certainly, but both sides have shown the ability to lay that factor aside when pursuing more central goals.

In this blog, I’ll try to cut through our language and find a firmer common ground. Next time I’ll articulate what I hope is a better starting place.

On politics, on Christianity

The obvious question for someone starting a new blog is: why?  What do you have to contribute that is of value?  What perspective can you add to the mix of voices out there?

I think there are two poles that my blog is likely to circle. One involves politics.  We mourn the lack of dialogue between right and left, but I see very few people who trying to bridge that gap (if you’re one of them, let’s talk!).  Mostly I see people sniping at each other from their respective positions with very little effort to phrase their arguments in ways that can be heard by the other side.

I believe that finding common political ground is a valuable pursuit.  I continue to believe that dialogue is possible. I am a lifelong liberal, and in this blog I will try to weigh liberal principles against my understanding of conservative fundamentals as a way to promote/model an open conversation about both. I hope you’ll listen with an open mind and help me understand where I’m wrong.

This part of my blog is an outgrowth of an email discussion I had with my late father-in-law Bob Catale. Like many relatives nowadays, we occupied different ends of the political spectrum. Unlike many relatives, we maintained a friendship and an intellectual respect for each other, as well as a certain amount of good humor. (As Bob lay dying in his hospital bed, I told him, “In your heart, you know I’m right.” That little riff on Goldwater by a liberal made him laugh.) Bob was incredibly well versed, with graduate training in English literature, history, and criminal justice. He could run laps around me in history (in particular), and so I am grateful for his tolerance of my relative lack of knowledge (I’m a spotty 20th century guy at best). Mostly I think Bob appreciated and enjoyed having a debate with someone who could marshal counter-evidence instead of simply letting him steamroll over their opinions.

After several late-night bull sessions, I decided to instigate an email version of our wide-ranging discussions, seeking to do exactly what I want to do in this blog: boost my understanding and find common ground. We never quite reached consensus in that discussion (which he generously participated in with two-finger typing!), but it helped me think about how such a conversation might proceed. The political portion of this blog is dedicated to the memory of my late father-in-law and his powerful, passionate intelligence.

The other likely focus of my blog is on Christianity. I don’t particularly have anything new to say about following Christ. What I do have (at least according to my wife) is an ability to talk about following Christ without using too much “churchy” language. My wife likes “the gospel according to Greg” as a way to help a relative newcomer find the way toward faith and Christian practice, and so I plan to share my perspective on following Christ in hopes that others might find it useful.  The religious portions of my blog are dedicated to my wife Vivian.

I’ll also probably drop in sundry content along the way (I’m planning a “Three Great Novels about Sex!” post), but I will circle back to those two main topics (on political common ground, on Christianity) repeatedly, so if either of those are of interest to you, I encourage you to join in. (By the way, this is probably not going to be a blog that deals much with the relationship BETWEEN politics AND Christianity, a topic I don’t have a lot to say about)

I want to highlight a couple of words I used above. One is the word “weigh.” I hope to weigh political and religious practices so that we can better see their advantages and shortcomings. I will be critical not only of other positions but also of my own home teams (liberalism, Christianity). We should all take a hard look at our own tribe, I believe, if we are to move forward. And so it is necessary to weigh or “assay,” to use an old verb, one that is at the origin of my favorite written form, the “essay.”

The essay is a time-honored form that feels a bit out of step with the current media landscape. I also feel increasingly out of synch with the timing of communication today. Unlike many people, I seem to be unable to say something interesting in a timely fashion in 120 characters. I also am increasingly aware of my own introversion. While others feel the ability to speak their minds about politics or other topics in real-time conversation, my tongue tends to seize up, unable to convey orally the complexity I see before the conversation moves on. And so I have found myself sitting on the sidelines without “putting myself out there,” and that feels both cowardly and selfish to me. The essay allows me the time to weigh what I have to say, to explore what I really believe through the process of writing. I hope you will take the time to read these meanderings (another time-honored tradition of the essay). I hope that my serpentine pursuit of a better understanding will be interesting, honest, and useful.

That’s the other word I wish to emphasize: “understanding.” Instead of proclaiming a definitive answer, essays seek to understand. They make tentative pronouncements to assay their worth. By putting my not-quite-formed opinions out into the blogosphere, I hope to improve my understanding. By doing this as a blog (which already feels like an old-fashioned media form), I hope to engage with people in pursuit of common ground.