Friday, June 22, 2018

President Trump Turns on the Charm at the "Protecting American Workers Roundtable"

President Trump at Minnesota Round Table
President Donald Trump turned on the charm in his June 20, 2018 meeting at the American Workers Roundtable in Duluth, Minnesota. He brought up positive points about his policy (which he exaggerated, but politicians do that) while he interacted with other Roundtable members.  This created the impression that he was listening to the public, that he was on people's side, and that his policies were good for the country. This was Trump's rhetoric at its persuasive best. Did he get plenty of facts wrong? Yes. Are his foreign trade policies wise? Probably not. But he was very persuasive.

1.  Is the Tariff Really a Good Idea? Probably Not . . .  But . . .

Almost all economists think that unfettered free trade is very good for the economy. Nevertheless, the American public has never been excited about free trade.

So, President Donald Trump's "America First" policy is nothing new. The protective tariff is one of the oldest controversies in American politics, and the tariff remains a popular policy– a winning presidential campaign theme, and not for the first time.

Henry Clay
Henry Clay's famous speech "In Defense of the American System," which he delivered over three days (!) in February 1832 in the United States Senate, advocated nationalism and high tariffs to protect American industry.

Now, no statistics are available to support the tariff, since tariffs are generally bad policy for the nation as a whole, but there are plenty of individual people who will benefit from the tariff,  or who think they will benefit from the tariff. This gave President Trump an opening big enough to drive a iron ore truck into, and he did just that during the Roundtable.

2. President Trump Worked His Audience

This was, of course, as one might expect, a very friendly audience. Let's look at how Trump worked his audience. First, he spoke, for the most part, in the calm, yet enthusiastic, rational style that one would expect at a business Roundtable. This was not a fire-breathing, angry speech like the ones that he gives at political rallies. He sounded like a businessman solving problems, which is, of course, what many of his supporters wanted all along.

Also, he recognized local leaders who were present, including Mayor Robert Vlaisavljevich, Minnesota representatives in Congress, various local officials, and blue-collar workers. This made the meeting sound friendly and collegial. In a clever move, he recognized Kelsey Johnson, the President of the Iron Mining Association. Since President Trump had recently announced high tariffs to protect the iron and steel industry, Ms. Johnson's support was a foregone conclusion. Mr. Trump also recognized various union members. This was quite a coup: industrial unions have traditionally voted Democratic, but industrial unions are also traditionally pro-tariff. He did this in a way that was casual and friendly:

"We’re joined by wonderful union members and workers at the great American steel and iron mining companies: Adam Morse, Dean Carlson, and Mike Tichy.  And also we have Craig Jussila.  Where’s Craig?  I love that name.  That’s not bad, right?  Jussila.  That’s pretty good.  Good.  That’s about the easiest one they gave me today.  (Laughter.)"

Mr. Trump then commented that ordinary citizens would benefit from his work:

"Today, we’ll hear from citizens who are thriving as a result of our efforts to put American workers first.  We’re putting America first again, folks.  You know, we’re respected again, as a country.  Okay?  (Applause.)"

Mr. Trump then commented on the booming economy and the low unemployment rate. Fair enough. Like many Republican politicians, he emphasized that strength made success possible. He rambled a bit about his usual talking points, including border security, Obamacare, and tax cuts. Again, fair enough. He complimented his audience, and moved toward a discussion:

"We’re very proud of this state and the people of the state of Minnesota.  They are incredible people.  And you have some tremendous stories to tell.  And maybe we’re going to start, Kelsey, with you, and you’ll sort of lead us around the table, okay?"

Ms. Johnson said, "Thank you.  And I can’t thank you enough for the Section 232 and the steel tariffs."  She commented about her industry's increasing productivity and employment. She said that she liked the tariffs better than the previous quotas, leading Mr. Trump to respond that: "Well, I don’t like the quotas as much as the tariffs." Thus, he agreed with her, playing off of her comments. Instead of lecturing, he interacted.

He then called on Adam Morse, a truck driver. Morse thanked Trump for the "America First" policy. Trump complimented Morris on his hat, a baseball cap with a pro-Trump slogan. Morse commented:

"The tax plan is working, and I’m seeing a difference in my paycheck.  So thank you for that.  And you’re right about regulation.  We are — if certain groups get their way about sulfates and regulations in Minnesota, we’re going to be out of a job, and the Iron Range will suffer.  We’ll be out of business."

Again, remembering the truck drivers are a traditional Democratic constituency, Morse's comments were telling.  Trump used that comment to create a transition to the next speaker, Commissioner Pete Stauber (who is also a congressional candidate). Stauber commented favorably on Trump's protection of the iron and steel industry. Trump then called on Mike Tichy, an iron miner. Tichy commented:

"Mr. President, it’s an honor, and it’s great to — you’re a man of your word.  Through the campaign, you promised to put the American worker first, and I just want to thank you for that.  All of my fellow miners."

Well, several other people spoke, All on the same general theme. Mr. Trump concluded with a gracious closing statement summarizing the discussion.

1896 Campaign Book
3. The Tariff Can Be a Winning Issue 

William McKinley made the protective tariff his main campaign theme, which I talk about in my book about the 1896 presidential campaign. Abraham Lincoln was pro-tariff just as fervently as he was anti-slavery. Andrew Jackson was pro-tariff. Tariffs have long seemed like the little guy's issue. Free trade sounds like an issue for the big and powerful people. Trump's use of the tariff as a political issue has plenty of appeal, and people who underestimate that appeal are making a mistake. Politicians who support the tariff might wreck the economy or start wars, but they win elections. Lots of elections.

4. Trump Was Very Persuasive

People who underestimate Mr. Trump's persuasive skill are setting themselves up to be disappointed. To no one's great surprise, Mr. Trump's speech in the big political rally later in the day was packed with factual errors, which the mainstream media carefully pointed out. And rightly so.

So, from a communication standpoint, let's look at what Mr. Trump did very well. He interacted effectively in conversation with a variety of people. He was relaxed, friendly, and confident. He introduced a bit of humor. He complimented people and was, in general, quite charming. He hit his usual campaign themes. He maintained eye contact around the room. For the most part, he spoke extemporaneously and effectively. He was nothing like the ranting lunatic depicted in the mainstream media (and which he often acts like during his political rallies). In fact, the ranting political rally later that day got much more attention from the national press.

But I suspect that many people in Minnesota will remember the Roundtable.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Jeff Sessions, Romans 13, Proof-Texting, and the Magic Power of Words

As I commented a couple days ago, I have never been able to convince my fellow communication colleagues that proof-texting is an important rhetorical device. Biblical scholars, in contrast, know that proof-texting is important in conservative religious talk. But religious and political talk often overlap, not only in content, but also in methods. The ways that conservatives think don't necessarily change when they switch between politics and religion. Thus, we have the interesting dust-up between Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who established his point by proof-texting, and his own church, which disagrees. Proof-texting is not so much a fallacy as it is a different way of thinking: for proof-texting attributes almost magical power to words.

Jeff Sessions
In his June 14, 2018 speech responding to Christian leaders who objected to his zero-tolerance policy toward undocumented immigrants, Sessions said this:

"Firstillegal entry into the United States is a crime—as it should be. Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution. I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order."

Here is the relevant passage from Romans 13:1-4 (NRSV):

"Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer."

1. What is proof-texting?

Proof-texting is a method of biblical preaching and analysis that uses little itty-bitty tiny snippets of the Bible to prove big points. Conservative preachers have used this method for centuries. For example, many of us studied Jonathan Edwards' famous sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," in high school. In this firebreathing speech, Edwards warned his congregation that God was angry at them and ready to cast them into hell. The text on which he based his sermon was this: "Their foot shall slide in due time." Edwards began his sermon like this [italics added]: "In this verse is threatened the vengeance of God on the wicked unbelieving Israelites." This verse comes from a lengthy song that Moses sang for the Israelite exiles as he turned his leadership over to Joshua; Moses praises God's power and mercy while threatening harm against those who violate God's laws. But, for Edwards, Moses' complex theological exposition comes down to one simple phrase. That is how proof-texting works. 

2. Why does proof-texting ignore context? 
Writing in the Minneapolist Star-Tribune, Lutheran pastor Richard Jorgensen objects to Sessions' use of proof-texting: "If patriotism is the 'last refuge of a scoundrel,' the biblical proof-text is one of his favorite diversionary tactics." He explains that proof-texting ignores context, leading us to view the Bible one verse at a time, which is a misleading way to read. 

But there is another factor. Suppose that you believe, as many people do, that the Bible is divinely inspired, that God is responsible for every word, and that its truth is both literal and infallible (which are not the same things). In that case, every phrase, every word can be relied on to give truth. Thus, Edwards could  say "Their foot shall slide in due time" and pay little attention to what comes before and after. And Sessions could cite Romans 13, ignoring everything that comes before and after, for, as a conservative Christian, he might believe that every inspired word and phrase is utterly reliable. 

With proof-texting, the words gain a supernatural power of their own. Cultural and literary context don't matter as much. Literalism is a way of thinking, a heuristic to understand texts, and Bible literalists take it very seriously. A liberal Christian will be interested in higher criticism; that is, a liberal Christian will want to understand the Bible's historical, literary, and cultural context. To a literalist, those factors aren't irrelevant, but they become much less important, as Roger E. Olson argues in his essay, "The Absurdity of Higher Criticism of the Gospels..."

So, does context matter? To some people it does; to some people it does not. Sessions ran into a firestorm because he assumed that context didn't matter; to many believers, it did. 

And, as I wrote a couple days ago, conservatives also use proof-texting in political situations. The power of words isn't just in the Bible; it's everywhere. 

First Amendment Issues: Sessions' critics started the dispute by saying that the Bible supported tolerant, loving policies toward immigrants. Sessions accepted their premise - that the Bible applies to public policy - but tried to proof-text his way out of it. I'm sure that many people would prefer to keep the Bible and the government separate. 

P.S.: The NRSV translation of  Jonathan Edwards' verse (Deut: 32:35) doesn't support his view very well, giving us another reason to be careful with proof-texting:

Vengeance is mine, and recompense,
    for the time when their foot shall slip;
because the day of their calamity is at hand,
    their doom comes swiftly.

The Scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U. S. A., and are used by permission. All rights reserved.
Official Department of Justice Photo

Romans 13, Jeff Sessions, and the Cultural Heritage of Conservative Immigration Policy

Jeff Sessions, Dept. of Justice photo
A few days ago, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a lifelong Methodist, cited  Romans 13 in the Bible to justify the imprisonment of undocumented immigrants and the separation of immigrant children from their parents. Since this is still in the news, let's talk about what's going on with Romans 13.

Sessions' Bible interpretation seemed to shock many Christians across the world, while, at the same time, Sessions seems to have been blindsided by the reaction to what he probably thought was an innocent, straightforward, fundamentalist, Bible-based opinion. My question is, why was anyone surprised? Because no one should have been surprised. Why are two sides so polarized about a simple question?

Here is what Sessions said in his June 14, 2018 speech in Fort Wayne, Indiana:

"Firstillegal entry into the United States is a crime—as it should be. Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution. I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order." 

Here is the relevant section for Romans 13:1-4 (NRSV):

"Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer."

Sessions' use of this Bible passage surprised and shocked many Christian leaders. Leaders of his own church, the United Methodist Church, condemned his statement as a gross misrepresentation. It does seem excessive to think that refugees and immigrants have committed such great wrong as to invite "wrath upon him that doeth evil." But none of this should have surprised anyone. Anti-immigration advocates have long cited Romans 13 to support their opinion, and anyone who pays attention to conservative rhetoric would have recognized this as a standard conservative talking point. For example, Ralph and Danielle Drollinger's Capitol Ministries, a nationwide ministry dedicated to "creating 50 biblically based ministries of evangelism and discipleship in the 50 state capitols of the United States of America," says on their website that Romans 13 positively obligates governments to suppress illegal immigration.:

"In terms of immigration, for a government to be pleasing to God and receive His blessing, it has no option but to protect its citizenry from illegal immigration per Romans 13:4 and 1 Peter 2:13-14. It must always protect its borders and punish those who enter illegally."

Simillarly, Charisma News, a popular Christian Right website uses Romans to justify harsh treatment of immigrants:

"The Romans passage gives freedom to countries to punish anyone who breaks those laws. Selective partisan theology would have people believe that good goals or motivations justify the breaking of laws to achieve a good end." 

For months, my social media feed has been filled with tweets and Internet memes that cite Romans 13 to justify strict anti-immigrant policies. (In the wake of this controversy, Romans 13 seems to have strangely vanished from my social media feed. It will, no doubt, return.)

I am not at all surprised that Sessions and Huckabee Sanders misused the Bible to support a distinctly anti-biblical viewpoint. But the entire incident shows that conservatives and liberals are living in different rhetorical universes: liberals seem utterly unaware that anti-immigrant Christian groups are using Romans 13 to justify practices that appall liberals. At the same time, Sessions seemed to have been quite astonished that anyone would object. We hear a lot about conservatives living in a media bubble. But liberals also live in their own media bubble, and seem to be absolutely unaware of what conservatives are thinking – until it is too late and the damage is done.

If conservatives and liberals are going to have any reconciliation, they need to be familiar with each other's rhetoric. They clearly are not. And this failure to recognize, or even be aware of, one another's viewpoints is not only the effect of polarization, but one of its causes.

At the same time, it is quite a stretch to apply Romans 13 to immigration. In Romans, Paul actually says nothing specific about immigration whatsoever. That the Christian Right finds it necessary to stretch a marginally relevant, out-of-context passage to support their viewpoint strongly suggests not only that their view lacks biblical support, but also that, somewhere deep inside, they know that their view lacks biblical support.. Does it not?

The Scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U. S. A., and are used by permission. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Donald Trump's Latest Tweet Echoes Nazi Language

I have always considered attempts to compare President Donald Trump with Adolf Hitler to be outrageous, exaggerated, and utterly inappropriate. Do I need to change my mind? Mr. Trump's Twitter feed today included this little gem:

Now, many reasonable people might think that immigrants are a problem, or that they should complete the paperwork to cross the border legally, or whatever. Fine. But to say that they "infest our Country" is a new twist, and one with a scary heritage. It is horrible to oppress our fellow humans, so the first step in purveying evil is to make the victims out to be something less than human.

1. "Infest" is a word we use for roaches, spiders, and rats. The word "infest" implies that vermin have entered our home. It is not a word we normally use for people and, by using the word "infest," Mr. Trump implies that undocumented immigrants are not people in the full sense. They are an infestation. We don't sympathize with infestations; we call a pest control company. We destroy infestations. We exterminate them.

2. In 1940, as he gave the orders to put the Holocaust into full swing, Heinrich Himmler gave one of the most consequential speeches in history in Posen, Poland. He called on his audience, a group of Nazi SS officers, not to murder the Jewish people, but to "exterminate" them. He called Jews "vermin." He compared a Jew to a "bacterium." One murders people; one exterminates vermin. Himmler's horrifying, supremely evil speech set the Holocaust in motion by talking about the victims as subhuman. My student, Douglas M. Mossman, wrote an excellent thesis at the University of Akron ("Metaphoric Criticism of Reichsfuhrer SS Heinrich Himmler's Address at Posen, 4 October 1940")  about this speech; he noted how Himmler used metaphors to dehumanize Holocaust victims.

3. The 1938 German propaganda movie, The Eternal Jew, described Jews as "rats." Same idea: if you describe people as vermin, you don't need to sympathize with them. 

4. Mr. Trump posits a conspiracy, in which "Democrats are the problem;" because "they don't care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into our country, like MS-13," because, he accused, this would lead to Democratic election victories. The idea that many Democrats are motivated by mercy or kindness has no place in Mr. Trump's conspiracy theory. In this respect, Mr. Trump very much echoes Hitler's dark conspiracy theories.

I still do not equate Mr. Trump with Hitler. But this tweet is very ominous, and decent people should view it as a fair warning. 

By saying that immigrants "infest our Country," Mr. Trump is going down a very, very dark path.

Note my earlier posts about conspiracy theories:

Conspiracy speeches:

Blake Farenthold and the Seth Rich conspiracy theory:

Donald Trump's conspiracy theories: 

Mainstream people don't take conspiracy theories seriously enough:

Mike Leach, the Obama Hoax Video, and Proof-Texting

Washington State Coach Mike Leach recently tweeted a link to a controversial, long-discredited YouTube video that purported to show Barack Obama endorsing the New World Order conspiracy. This was supposedly from a speech that he gave to the Bilderberg Group, which is is a favorite target of conspiracy theorists.

A key quotation from the video shows Obama saying: "ordinary men and women are too small-minded to govern their own affairs, that order and progress can only come when individuals surrender their rights to all-powerful sovereign." That would be exactly what a New World Order conspiracy theorist would expect Obama to say.

Barack Obama, WH photo
However, context matters: what Obama actually said was this:

"But those ideals have also been tested -- here in Europe and around the world.  Those ideals have often been threatened by an older, more traditional view of power. This alternative vision argues that ordinary men and women are too small-minded to govern their own affairs, that order and progress can only come when individuals surrender their rights to an all-powerful sovereign. Often, this alternative vision roots itself in the notion that by virtue of race or faith or ethnicity, some are inherently superior to others, and that individual identity must be defined by 'us' versus 'them,' or that national greatness must flow not by what a people stand for, but by what they are against."

I italicized the section that the video quoted. The hoax video played some other dirty tricks as well, but this one is enough to make my point. Context makes a difference. Obama was actually attacking the totalitarian view that ordinary people cannot manage their own affairs and that a strong sovereign is necessary. By leaving out the context, the hoax video created the impression that Obama was saying the exact opposite. Also, Obama did not give this speech to the Bilderberg Group, but to a meeting of European youth. Since the Bilderberg Group is a bĂȘte noire of conspiracy theorists, deceitfully changing the audience makes the hoax video seem even more sinister. (Note: there are signs that the video's original creators intended it to be a satire/hoax.)

This hoax video has been repeatedly discredited. It nevertheless continues to circulate widely, which is why Coach Leach was able to sign it without a twinge of conscience. Let's talk about what makes such Internet memes persuasive.

1. There are two kinds of argument: inquiry and advocacy. This was the theme of George Ziegelmueller and Jack Kay's excellent textbook, Argumentation: Inquiry and Advocacy. The idea is that we engage in critical inquiry first, and then use the results of the inquiry to advocate our beliefs. That is a wonderful ideal, and I support it wholeheartedly. But inquiry and advocacy are different things. People who spread Internet means are more interested in advocating a position than in learning anything. They begin with a preconceived opinion, usually a ridiculous political opinion, and then dig around for some kind of evidence to support it. That is what happened with this video. Many conservatives want to believe that Barack Obama was a totalitarian, and, since he wasn't, they need to misquote him. This helps them to advocate a viewpoint, even though their viewpoint is not valid.

2. False Internet memes are routinely repeatedly discredited.  The fact that they are discredited means, I am sorry to say, very little to people who believe them. People want to believe things like this video will believe the ridiculous Internet meme, and will dismiss fact-checkers as part of the conspiracy against them. I have had several futile discussions on social media in which I pointed out the factual incoherence of various Internet means, only to be faced by ridicule and name-calling. Communication professor Jon Bruschke points out that when a false claim is discredited, people often remember the claim and forget that it is discredited.

Still, the fact that Coach Leach encountered so much resistance shows that truth does have at least some underlying power. That very many people seem to agree with Coach Leach, is, however, disturbing.

3. Conservatives often rely on a speech technique called proof-texting. Sadly, I have never been able to convince my fellow communication specialists that proof-texting is a real issue. Proof-texting occurs when you take a few sentences, or even a few words, out of context, and use them to prove something. This is very common in conservative biblical interpretation. (For example, this is how Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Donald Trump's press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, were able to misrepresent a passage from Romans 13 in the Bible. I'll write about that later.)  The idea is that words have a magical power of their own, independent of context. If Obama really said these words, then, by the doctrine of proof-texting, he must really have meant them. In proof-texting, context means nothing. Only the exact words carry meaning. To a proof-texter, the words reveal the speaker's true intention.  According to proof-texting, the speaker's intention does not help us interpret the words; to a proof-texter, it is the words that give us the speaker's intention.

So, according to media pundits, mainstream media reporters, university professors, and, in general, people like me, context means everything. Without context, you cannot interpret what people say. But to someone who practices proof-texting, the context means nothing. Proof-texting is a sincere and common way for people, especially conservative people, to understand texts. So, a motivated listener can listen to a hoax video by former President Obama, notice that the actual words are indeed coming out of his mouth, and therefore conclude that he must really have meant them.

Now, I am sure that what behavioral scientists call "motivated reasoning" is a major factor when people believe videos like this. If someone really hates former President Obama, and truly believes that he is a totalitarian with dictatorial impulses, it becomes very easy to believe a video like this. But it is proof-texting that makes motivated reasoning possible – and that makes it convincing. And for people who believe that words have magical power – and there are many such people – proof-texting seems entirely fair. Proof-texting, many people believe, lets them gaze into people's secret meanings, just as they think that close Bible reading gives them close insight into the Bible's meaning.

Proof-texting is only one of many techniques for creating conspiracy theories. I'll write about others soon.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Another Student Is Censored! Cait Christenson Not Allowed to Talk about Equity and Reasoned Discourse

Bill of Rights, National Archives
Wisconsin's Tomahawk High School student Cait Christenson, who was one of six (!) female valedictorians, wanted to give a speech in which she praised equitable treatment, listening to other people's perspectives, and dealing with the nation's problems courteously and rationally. Protesting school shootings, she said that the nation needed to put a stop to bullying. For some reason, the school considered all of this to be too controversial. She declined to water the speech down, and instead published the speech in Wisconsin newspapers. This was the second well-publicized case this spring of a student being censored.

Let's look at a few of Christenson's more important statements:

1. She complained that slave children were treated poorly in a previous century:  "The reconstruction amendments were only the beginning of a revolution towards equal rights."

2. She expressed gratitude for women's rights, noted that all of the school's valedictorians were women, and complained about the "glass ceiling."

3. She mentioned "heartbreaking stories in the news of school shootings that have left innocent students and teachers with their life in someone else's hands." She said that the nation needed to confront bullying, but said nothing about gun control, which I thought would be the only comment that might have caused controversy.

4. She mentioned without discussion "The civil rights movement to Black Lives Matter, Women's Suffrage to #metoo, the Columbine Effect to NeverAgain."

5. She urged her audience not to avoid problems, not to remain ignorant, not to encourage stereotypes and not to express slurs against one another, but to "put yourself in their shoes before passing judgment, incriminating, and disrespecting others. It's the golden rule we've been hearing since kindergarten." She suggested that people should "treat everyone with kindness and stand up to the people who need it the most." She expressed hope that her audience would express "what you believe in." She advocated "positivity, acceptance and equity."

I read over the readers' comments about her published speech text. Most of the negative comments said that she was a liberal and that people should not be exposed to her views. I have two reactions: (1) only a few years ago, a conservative Republican could have given a very similar speech without fear of controversy or contradiction. That her views are now considered, by some, to be radical signifies that something very strange and disturbing has occurred in American culture. (2) One of the main reasons that we give speeches is to talk about controversies. Even if people do think that her speech was controversial, that is no reason to censor it. She expressed herself courteously, rationally, and persuasively. It is a sad situation when many people, including teachers who are charged with educating our youth, try to hide from important but controversial questions.

But, now, really! Is saying that American slavery was wrong now so controversial that we can't say it in school? Is it wrong for student who is one of six female valedictorians to say that women should have equal opportunities? Are such views so controversial that students' tender ears need to be sheltered from them?

Also, since conservatives routinely complain (and rightly so) that they are not always welcome on college campuses, it is appalling that schools are now aggressively censoring opinions that seem, at most, only moderately liberal.

There is a reason for the First Amendment, and that reason is to ensure that people can express their opinions. In previous blog posts, I have defended the free speech rights of conservative firebrand  Milo Yiannopoulos and libertarian scholar Charles Murray. I've also noted that, while they often complain about their own free speech rights being violated, conservatives seem to be eager to suppress free speech by liberals. This is all outrageous. We need to hear one another, and shouting down people because they disagree with someone's pre-conceived views is profoundly un-American. This needs to stop.

Schools that suppress reasoned, courteous expression of opinions miss the point of citizenship. They are conducting the opposite of education.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Mixed Reactions to Pence's Speech to Southern Baptist Meeting: Were His Views Truly Biblical? And SBC Resolution 5 . . .

Mike Pence
Yesterday, I wrote about Vice President Mike Pence's speech to the Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting. My point was that he mixed religious doctrines with conservative political policies that were neither religious nor biblical. The Bible does not endorse strong armies, conservative economic policies, high tariffs, and so forth. Yet, Pence created the questionable impression that conservative economic and political policies arose from religion. Looking at the audience's reaction, we can see that, in fact, many of the people saw that his policies were not biblical at all.

The audience applauded many of Mr. Pence's comments, including some of his most politicized points. And we all know that about 80% of White Evangelical Christians voted for Donald Trump in 2016.

Still . . . Pence's politicized, campaign rally-type speech earned him some blowback. Newly elected Southern Baptist Convention President J. D. Greear tweeted about Pence's speech: "I know that sent a terribly mixed signal. We are grateful for civil leaders who want to speak to our Convention – but make no mistake about it, our identity is in the gospel and our unity is in the Great Commission. Commissioned missionaries, not political platforms, are what we do." Pastor Todd Benkert tweeted sarcastically on June 13, the day of Pence's speech: "Thank you @VP for hijacking our unified religious meeting with you[r] partisan political campaign speech. You had an opportunity to offer a unifying non-partisan message but no." Sadly, after Mr. Pence's controversial presentation, the Southern Baptist Convention is considering a proposal to stop inviting political figures at all. It is a shame that Pence's tasteless, inappropriate speech may lead to such an outcome.

Hostile policies toward immigration drove Donald Trump's 2016 election campaign and fear of immigrants motivated many of his supporters. Mr. Trump routinely read a song that he misinterpreted to send the message that immigrants are "snakes." He called for "extreme vetting" of refugees. He promised to build a border wall, paid for by Mexico, to stop immigration from that country. Mr. Pence referred elliptically to that policy when he boasted about Donald Trump's success in "securing our borders." The Trump administration has been separating immigrant families at the border, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions has, appallingly, cited the Bible to support this practice.

Yet, following Pence's speech, the Southern Baptist Convention overwhelmingly approved "Resolution 5 – On Immigration." Unlike Mr. Trump and Mr. Pence, who appropriated Christianity for their own purposes, the Convention based its immigration policy on religious grounds.

Highlights of Resolution 5 included:

"WHEREAS, God commands His people to treat immigrants with the same respect and dignity as those native born (Leviticus 19:33–34; Jeremiah 7:5–7; Ezekiel 47:22; Zechariah 7:9–10); and

"WHEREAS, Scripture is clear on the believer’s hospitality towards immigrants, stating that meeting the material needs of “strangers” is tantamount to serving the Lord Jesus Himself (Matthew 25:35–40; Hebrews 13:2);..." 

Compared to Mr. Trump's "extreme vetting" of refugees policy, Resolution 5 called for sympathy:
"WHEREAS, Longings to protect one’s family from warfare, violence, disease, extreme poverty, and other destitute conditions are universal, driving millions of people to leave their homelands to seek a better life for themselves, their children, and their grandchildren; . . ."

Resolution 5 also called for churches to reach out to immigrants:

"RESOLVED, That we encourage all elected officials, especially those who are members of Southern Baptist churches, to do everything in their power to advocate for a just and equitable immigration system, those in the professional community to seek ways to administer just and compassionate care for the immigrants in their community, and our Southern Baptist entities to provide resources that will equip and empower churches and church members to reach and serve immigrant communities; . . ."

I doubt that the Southern Baptist Convention intended to rebuke Mr. Trump, but they certainly contradicted his presidency's signature policy.

It is also reassuring to see that the Southern Baptist Convention unhesitatingly cited relevant biblical texts that called for, not extreme vetting, but extreme love toward immigrants, for example, Leviticus 19:33034: 

"When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien.  The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God."
I think it is unfortunate when religion and politics become too closely entwined. It is a very good thing for politicians to act according to moral values. It is a very bad thing when politicians hijack religion for their own self-centered agenda, and it is a worse thing if religion allows itself to be hijacked. I often wonder how many people have turned away from Christianity, falsely believing that Christianity requires them to support harsh policies toward immigrants, the poor, and the oppressed, when the Bible clearly and repeatedly says the opposite. Thomas Jefferson's "wall of separation between Church & State" is not just for the protection of the state, but even more for the protection of the church. Christianity should never be an excuse for wickedness, but, instead, should lead us to do good things even against our own desires.

Images: Mike Pence's official portrait; Thomas Jefferson portrait from Library of Congress

The Scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U. S. A., and are used by permission. All rights reserved.