Category Archives: U. S. Politics

ADVENT REMINDERS FOR POLITICALLY-CONSCIOUS CHRISTIANS

I’m not really a politics junkie, but I found the extraordinary divisiveness of the recent presidential campaign mesmerizing (not to mention deeply disturbing).  For Christians, the danger of becoming so engrossed in an election like the one we just experienced is that it’s easy easy to lose perspective.  Unaware, we can gradually forget what we claim to believe about the sovereignty of God as we agonize over the triumph of this candidate or the failure of that one.  This is one reason I called your attention recently to Vince Bacote’s book The Political Disciple.  It is filled with reminders of Biblical truths that will keep us grounded if we cling to them.

Before I forget about it, I thought I would also call attention to another voice that I needed to hear in the aftermath of election day.  Michael Gerson is one of my favorite writers on public life.  A graduate of Wheaton and a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, his op-ed column in the Washington Post is regularly engaging and insightful.  And for those who doubt that a “mainstream media” source like the Post could possibly feature a substantive Christian perspective, Gerson’s editorials consistently prove otherwise.

A case in point was his November 21 piece, “Pushing Back Against the Mortal Risk of Politics.”  With candid humility, Gerson reflects on the ways that, in our fallenness, we so regularly take on the attributes of those we criticize.  The “mortal risk of politics is becoming what you condemn,” he writes, and it’s a danger “not limited to one side of our political divide.”  Gerson goes on to confess,  “I have found myself angry at how [pro-Trump evangelicals] have endorsed the politics of anger; bitter about the bitter political spirit they have encouraged; feeling a bit hypocritical in my zeal to point out their hypocrisy.”

But then Gerson preaches the gospel to himself–and to us–by recalling that “an attitude of fuming, prickly anxiety” should be foreign to followers of Jesus for at least two reasons.  First. “Christian belief relativizes politics.”  He elaborates,

The pursuit of social justice and the maintenance of public order are vital work.  But these tasks are temporary, and, in an ultimate sense, secondary.  If Christianity is true, C. S. Lewis noted, then “the individual person will outlive the universe.”  All our anger and worry about politics should not blind us to the priority and value of the human beings placed in our lives, whatever their background or beliefs.

The practical implications of this truth are clear and convicting: “‘Those people’ are also ‘our people.’ . . . No change of president or shift in the composition of the Supreme Court can result in a repeal of the Golden Rule.”

Second, “Christians are instructed not to be anxious.”  In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught us not to worry about tomorrow, trusting by faith that God is good and that He is in control.  The atheist may see the universe as “indifferent to the lives and dreams of jumped-up primates crawling on an unremarkable blue ball,” but our faith assures us that “that blue ball was touched by God in a manner and form that Homo Sapiens might understand.  And the vast, cold universe is really a sheltering sky.”

Gerson ends with words of encouragement:

After a dismal and divisive campaign season, many of us need the timely reminders of the Advent season: That people matter more than all our political certainties.  That God is in control, despite our best efforts.  And that some conflicts can’t be won by force or votes–only by grace.

NOT A BAD EXAMPLE A CENTURY AND A HALF LATER

I continue to make my way through the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, and just this week made it to the eighth and final volume in the series.  Volume Eight begins in September 1864, in the midst of the presidential campaign of that year.  Abraham Lincoln was seeking re-election to the presidency, but the human costs of the war had exceeded the darkest predictions, and that combined with divisions within his own party, widespread war weariness, and the passionate opposition of northern Democrats made his re-election far from certain.

At the end of August, the outlook for the Union was so grim that Lincoln himself had come to expect defeat.  Although William Sherman’s capture of Atlanta in early September initiated a decisive shift in military momentum and boosted popular support for the Lincoln Administration, the presidential campaign was still one of the ugliest of the century.  Northern Democrats lampooned Lincoln as “Abe the Widow-maker” and held him personally responsible for the deaths of the Union slain.  With a crudity that almost defies description, they hailed him as King “Abraham Africanus the First” and accused him of being a “negro-lover” who advocated miscegenation and the rule of blacks over whites.  In their platform they denounced the war as a “failure” and called for an immediate cease-fire to be followed by negotiations with the South.

Lincoln sat for this photograph less than a month before his Second Inaugural Address.

Lincoln sat for this photograph about three months after his re-election to the presidency.

Here is how Lincoln responded publicly after news arrived of his re-election.  Presidents did not hold news conferences in those days, and Lincoln scheduled no public speeches of any kind in the weeks following his electoral victory.  But on November 10th, 1864, the day after Lincoln learned beyond doubt that he had been re-elected to a second term, a torchlight parade of supporters proceeded to the White where they “serenaded” the victor, prompting Lincoln to deliver a short speech from his balcony.  Here is a portion of what he had to say:

 . . . now that the election is over, may not all, having a common interest, re-unite in a common effort, to save our common country?  For my own part, I have striven, and shall strive to avoid placing any obstacle in the way.  So long as I have been here I have not willingly planted a thorn in any man’s bosom.

While I am deeply sensible to the high compliment of a re-election; and duly grateful, as I trust, to Almighty God for having directed my countrymen to a right conclusion, as I think, for their own good, it adds nothing to my satisfaction that any other man may be disappointed or pained by the result.

May I ask those who have not differed with me, to join with me, in this same spirit towards those who have?

A remarkable example, don’t you think?  Lincoln told his private secretary afterward that his comments were “not very graceful,” but they revealed a largeness of heart and magnanimity of spirit in short supply a century and a half later.

 

HOW A CIVIL-WAR CARTOONIST TAUGHT US TO SEE SANTA

Does the name “Thomas Nast” ring a bell with you? Specialists in U.S. history know him well, but otherwise he’s not much remembered today. But even though we don’t recall him, his influence is all around us at this time of year. I think of Nast every time I pass a mall Santa or tune in to yet another Hallmark movie focused on the North Pole. The reason is simple: Thomas Nast is the artist who showed us what Santa Claus really looks like.

Thomas Nast (1840-1902)

Thomas Nast (1840-1902)

Born in Germany, Nast came to America as a child in the 1840s and quickly showed an aptitude for art. By his early twenties he was working as an illustrator and cartoonist for several prominent national publications, most notably Harper’s Weekly, the self-described “journal of civilization” which as early as 1860 had a circulation upwards of 200,000. Nast was first and foremost a political cartoonist, and he quickly became widely known for his cartoons attacking municipal corruption–most notably his campaign against New York City machine boss William Tweed, who fell from power in 1871, in no small part due to Nast’s devastating campaign against him.

I know Nast best, however, for his cartoons pertaining to the politics of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Here are a few of my favorites that I have long used in my classes dealing with that period of U.S. history:

nast-chicago-convention“Compromise with the South” appeared in the September 3, 1864 issue of Harper’s Weekly.  Less than a week before, northern Democrats had met in convention in Chicago and declared the war a failure.  The party platform called for an immediate ceasefire to be followed by negotiations with the Confederacy with the goal that “peace may be restored on the basis of the Federal Union,” a roundabout way of communicating the party’s willingness for the southern states to return to the Union with slavery intact.  In the center of the cartoon, Confederate president Jefferson Davis clasps hands with a maimed Union veteran to ashamed to raise his head.  Davis’s boot rests squarely on a Union grave marked by a headstone which reads, “In Memory of Union Heroes who have Fallen in a USELESS WAR,” while “Columbia,” meant to be seen as the female embodiment of America, weeps beside the grave.  A staunch Republican, Nast was ridiculing the Democratic platform as a betrayal of Union soldiers and an abandonment of southern blacks.

Nast1“This is a White Man’s Government” appeared in the September 5, 1868 issue of Harper’s Weekly. The title was inspired by the motto of the Democratic ticket in the upcoming presidential election pitting Governor Horatio Seymour of New York against the Republican nominee Ulysses Grant. Determined to portray the Republican Party as radical in its advocacy of civil rights for former slaves, Democratic campaign ribbons proclaimed “This is a White Man’s Country: Let White Men Rule.”

Nast was insinuating that Democratic rule would be built on an unholy triumvirate of objectionable elements. Numerically the largest consisted of ignorant northern Democratic voters, most of them semi-civilized, uneducated recent immigrants who had opposed the war. (Nast’s portrayal of Irish individuals in his cartoons is almost always grossly demeaning. The Irishman on the left, wielding a club labeled “The Vote,” has all the features of a monkey.)

Second in number would be southern white Democrats, almost all of whom had been disloyal to the Union during the late war. (The figure in the middle is supposed to be former Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, first imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.)

The third and smallest element is here represented by a New York City financier named August Belmont, a behind-the-scenes power broker in the Democratic Party. Belmont stands for Fifth Avenue types who had gotten rich during the war and who were willing to buy up the votes of the urban rabble to promote their nefarious schemes. (Notice that Belmont is clutching a wallet stuffed with cash for that purpose.)

Underneath the three lies a prostrate black Union veteran, dressed in uniform, clutching the U. S. flag, and reaching out for the ballot box. Nast was arguing for black civil rights by reminding readers that thousands of southern blacks had risked their lives in support of the Union, in stark contrast to the pillars of the Democratic Party.

Harper's Weekly,  October 24, 1874

Harper’s Weekly,
October 24, 1874

Much the same message comes through in this untitled Nast cartoon that appeared in Harper’s Weekly in October 1874. The phrases at the top of the cartoon are all pointed references to the Democratic Party. “The Union as It Was” was a popular slogan of the 1864 Democratic presidential campaign of George McClellan. “This is a White Man’s Government,” as we have already seen, became the primary Democratic rallying cry of the Seymour campaign four years later. “The Lost Cause,” just above the skull and crossbones, refers to diehard former Confederates’ conviction that their cause had been just.

The two white figures that frame the cartoon (labeled “White League” and “K.K.K.”) stand for two white supremacist organizations that terrorized former slaves in the wake of emancipation and Confederate defeat. These contrast starkly with the central focus of the cartoon, two grieving African-American parents weeping over their slain child.

A spelling book lies on the ground near spatters of blood, and in the background are scenes of a lynching and a burning school house. In describing the scene as “worse than slavery,” Nast was telling readers that a Democratic victory would mean the end of Reconstruction and the abandonment of four million former slaves to virtual re-enslavement.

But Nast wasn’t always so sympathetic in his portrayal of African Americans. To be sure, the artist shared the predominant Republican position that the former slaves would be exploited and even brutalized if left to the mercies of the southern white Democratic majority. But as time passed Nast became increasingly disillusioned by political corruption in the Grant Administration and increasingly disenchanted with Republican efforts to install black officeholders in the white majority South.

The drawing below, entitled “Colored Rule in a Reconstructed (?) State,” appeared on the cover of Harper’s Weekly the same year as the previous Nast cartoon (March 14, 1874). It purports to illustrate an alleged episode in South Carolina, the one former Confederate state where, if only for a brief period, African Americans constituted a majority in the state legislature. However much southern blacks might deserve federal protection from white terrorism, Nast seems to be saying, they are far from ready to participate fully in their own government.

Nast3

But Nast didn’t only produce cartoons about politics. His association with Harper’s Weekly lasted from the early 1860s through the mid-1880s, and during those two-plus decades he also contributed thirty or so drawings of Santa Claus. It was only after their favorite cartoonist had brought him to life that Americans agreed on what Santa looked like.

Of course Clement Clark Moore had described “the right jolly old elf” in his 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Readers had learned from Moore about Santa’s twinkling eyes and merry dimples, his soot-tarnished clothes, and–how to put this delicately?–his less than rock-hard abs. And yet it was the cartoonist Nast who translated Moore’s poetic lines into the visual image we take for granted today.

"Santa Claus in Camp" (detail), from the cover of Harper's Weekly, January 3, 1863

“Santa Claus in Camp” (detail), from the cover of Harper’s Weekly, January 3, 1863

But first Nast had to figure out for himself what Santa looked like. His initial attempt came in 1863, at the height of the American Civil War. In “Santa Claus in Camp,” Nast sketched Santa as a large man decked out in red, white, and blue and delivering presents, not to sleepy children, but to Union soldiers. (I call this version “Yankee Doodle Santa.”) In an early post-war rendering (the 1866 cartoon “Santa Claus and His Works”), Nast portrayed Santa more in keeping with the description in Moore’s poem. This Santa is clothed in a dark suit and is literally the size of an elf, so short that he had to stand on a chair in order to reach the stockings hanging from the mantle.

As the years, passed, however, Nast’s Santa grew in stature and exchanged his brown suit for a red one. The 1880 sketch below is probably Nast’s best known Santa and is still reproduced even to this day.

This Nast illustration circulated in Harper's Weekly during the Christmas season of 1880, although appearing on an issue postdated as January 1, 1881.

This Nast illustration circulated in Harper’s Weekly during the Christmas season of 1880, although appearing on an issue postdated as January 1, 1881.

MORE ON THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE

constitution

So let’s talk some more about the Electoral College.

This is one of those rare, heady moments in the life of a U. S. historian when a decent number of Americans seem interested in the American past–in this case, the question of what the heck the Framers of the Constitution were thinking when they devised such an complicated mechanism for electing our president.

In a post week before last, I shared my opinion that “the Electoral College has no place in modern democracy.”  In making that claim, I was thinking primarily with regard to the Framers’ underlying world view.  My point was not that the Electoral College could not serve some salutary purpose in twenty-first-century America–it is possible that it has had some positive, if unintended, consequences.  Rather, my hope was to underscore that our method of electing our highest officer originated in a set of assumptions about human nature, the natural order of society, and the role of government that a large majority of Americans would now heartily reject.

As a rule, the Framers were skeptical of human nature and suspicious of democracy, which is a major reason why precious few of them supported a direct popular election of the president when the matter came up at the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.  This is also why the Framers tended to think of all national office-holders–including members of the Electoral College–as “free agents” who should make decisions for the good of the people without necessarily being restrained in all cases by the will of the people.

James Madison put it this way in Federalist no. 63:

As the cool and deliberate sense of the community ought, in all governments, and actually will, in all free governments, ultimately prevail over the views of its rulers; so there are particular moments in public affairs when the people, stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, or misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn.  In these critical moments, how salutary will be the interference of some temperate and respectable body of citizens, in order to check the misguided career and to suspend the blow meditated by the people against themselves, until reason, justice, and truth can regain their authority over the public mind?

So, no, it would not be unconstitutional if any or all of the 538 members of the Electoral College decided to cast their ballots on December 19th for someone other than the candidate who received the most popular votes in their home states.  It would, however, be illegal for them to do so in the thirty states that currently mandate by law that electors cast their ballots for the candidate who won the state race.  (The penalties for violating such laws are minimal–typically a fine of $1,000 or less–and it should be noted further that the Constitutionality of such laws has never been tested.)  More than illegal, though, if the outcome of the election was altered thanks to “rogue” electors voting their conscience, tens of millions of Americans would view the process as fundamentally illegitimate.  It would be absolutely constitutional, arguably exactly what the Framers of the Constitution had in mind when they created the Electoral College, but illegitimate nonetheless.  That was my point.

Since I last wrote on this topic nearly two weeks ago, countless commentators have weighed in the Electoral College.  Some have called for its abolition–although as I noted last time, that is simply not going to happen any time soon.  Others have lamented the occasional instances of the Electoral College electing candidates who lost the popular vote but suggest that the danger of abolishing the Electoral College outweighs the potential benefits.  One of the weaker arguments I have seen to this effect came from William M. Daley, former Secretary of Commerce under Bill Clinton and White House Chief-of-Staff under Barack Obama (see here).   (A considerably stronger argument along these lines that came out within a week of the election was by attorney James Hulme and historian Allen Guelzo.  I don’t agree with their reasoning in several respects, but still find their argument worth considering.)

Just this week there have also been pieces highlighting creative efforts to use the Electoral College itself to change the election’s outcome.  In a piece in Tuesday’s Washington Post (“The Electoral College Should be Unfaithful“), columnist Kathleen Parker applauded efforts of the so-called “Hamilton Electors” to persuade Republican electors to join with Democratic electors in support of a Republican moderate.  More creatively, in an editorial on Monday, Michael F. Cannon of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, has floated the idea of Hillary Clinton “releasing” her 232 electors and encouraging them to support a moderate Republican such as Mitt Romney or John Kasich, in which case if as few as 38 Republican electors would join them, the Electoral College might still deny Donald Trump the presidency in lieu of a more qualified, less divisive Republican alternative.  Cannon knows that this is a long-shot, not least of which is that Donald Trump would call his supporters to the barricades, there would be legal challenges beyond imagining, and any moderate Republican willing to accept the presidency by such a process would deemed an imposter by millions of voters.

Only yesterday, John Kasich made clear that he would refuse to play such a role on the grounds that the “election is over.”  He’s almost certainly right.  But think about what he has said.  “The election is over.”  The Framers of the Constitution would have said that the election hasn’t been held yet.  It’s scheduled for December 19th.

MORE ON CHRISTIAN FAITHFULNESS IN POLITICS

In my last post, I recommended a little book by my Wheaton colleague Vince Bacote–The Political Disciple: A Theology of Public Life.  If you’d like a sample of  Bacote’s views on the principles that should guide Christians’ political engagement, check out his online essay “Disciples After the Election.”

Bacote’s essay centers on a single compelling question: “What are disciples of Jesus to do in this time of great division?”  He answers with three sensible suggestions that all American Christians should take to heart.  I’ll not spoil it for you by listing them, but I can’t help sharing his final comments, which present a bracing challenge to the churches of our land.  This season of deep division in the United States “is also a tremendous time for Christians to display public faithfulness,” Bacote writes, and the church’s role in promoting this is vital:

The church can help congregants revisit (or discover) a life of discipleship exemplified by love for neighbor that includes winsome and imaginative public engagement, a posture of humility that attends deep convictions, and a commitment to the flourishing of all humans that runs counter to the cries of those only concerned with their personal rights.

“Much has been written about what Christians have done wrong in public,” Bacote concludes, “but this moment presents the church with an opportunity to show what we can, by God’s grace, do right: to form disciples whose love for God leads to love of neighbor and the flourishing of all.”

bacote-political-disciple

 

CHRISTIAN FAITHFULNESS IN THE POLITICAL ARENA

The religious groups that peopled this country in the 17th and eighteenth centuries generally had well developed theologies of political engagement.  But few evangelicals in America today have such historical resources to draw from.  The Christian traditions that have given evangelicalism its vitality in recent generations have been individualistic, pietistic, and theologically unreflective in their approach to politics.

This is why in a post from last summer I implored evangelical leaders to explain the scriptural precepts and theological principles that guided their course during the recent presidential campaign.  The Scripture calls us to “take every thought captive to obedience to Christ.”  When it comes to politics, we need to know how to think more than what to think.  What Scriptural principles should be shaping our thinking as we strive to live faithfully in the political arena?

bacote-political-discipleJust this morning I finished a wonderful introduction to this crucial question: The Political Disciple: A Theology of Public Life, by Vincent E. Bacote.  Vince Bacote is my colleague–an associate professor of theology and director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics here at Wheaton College.  He has written an invaluable little book for lay Christians who want to think and act faithfully with regard to politics.

Bacote writes clearly, simply, and conversationally about a series of related questions:

  • Should Christians even participate in the public sphere?
  • How might Christian beliefs influence our engagement in the public realm?
  • How should Christians understand their identity?
  • What kind of people should Christians be in public?
  • How might Christians retain hope, given the frustrations of public engagement?

Bacote’s reasoning throughout is judicious, scripturally based, and scrupulously non-partisan.  I highly recommend it.

 

TOCQUEVILLE ON FREEDOM OF THE PRESS

Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

I’ve noted previously that I spent much of the past summer with Alexis de Tocqueville.  Tocqueville wrote about so many facets of American politics and culture that hardly a week has gone by this autumn without something in the news bring one or more passages to mind.

This was the case last week when reports began to come in of an off-the-record summit meeting at Trump Tower in New York between the president-elect and a host of media executives and news anchors.  Reports of the gathering diverge widely.  Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway described the meeting as “very cordial, very productive, very congenial,” but an unnamed source likened it to a “firing squad” in which Mr. Trump attacked his guests mercilessly, and Breitbart News exulted “Trump Eats Press.”

However things went down, there is no doubt that Mr. Trump’s relationship with the press has been more openly hostile than for any major presidential candidate in U. S. history.  He will assume the presidency having pledged to change federal libel laws (something he evidently believes the president can do unilaterally) so that when the “dishonest media” write “negative and horrible and false articles . . .  we can sue them and win lots of money.”

All of which brought to mind Tocqueville’s reflections on the value of a free press in his classic Democracy in America.  The Frenchman was no great fan of American journalists.  “In America,” Tocqueville wrote in 1835,

The spirit of the journalist is to appeal crudely, directly, and artlessly to the passions of the people he is addressing, forsaking principles in order to portray individuals, pursue them into their private lives, and lay bare their weaknesses and vices.  Such abuse of thought can only be deplored.

Sounds a lot like Breitbart News.

And yet, if Tocqueville could not bring himself to admire journalists, he valued journalism, believing that a free press was absolutely integral to the preservation of liberty.  In vol I, part II, chapter III of Democracy in America, Tocqueville argued that it was impossible to curb the excesses of the media without creating a threat to freedom.  “When it comes to the press,” he concluded, “there really is no middle ground between servitude [a press that is wholly subservient to the state] and license [a press that is wholly unrestricted].  In order to reap the priceless goods that derive from the freedom of the press,” he went on, “one must learn to accept the inevitable evils that it breeds.”

Acknowledging that the “destructive tastes” that journalists often indulged and promoted, Tocqueville’s final defense of a free press as unqualified:

The more I consider the chief effects of the independence of the press, the more convinced I am that, among the moderns, independence of the press is the most important, indeed the essential, ingredient of liberty.  A people that wants to remain free therefore has the right to insist that the independence of the press is the most important, indeed the essential, ingredient of liberty.