It's Easier to Vote When It Makes a Difference

@danbalz wonders why this keeps happening:

The Center for the Study of the American Electorate (CSAE) recently issued a dreary summation about participation in the primary elections so far this year. Based on the 25 states that have already held their primaries, the report chronicled a pattern of voter indifference and, in some cases, record low turnout.

I think that our chattering classes have overcomplicated this issue.

Elections are about choices.  In a two-party system, you’re supposed to have two of them.  These choices should represent options which are deemed desirable by a sizable part of the population.  If the vote is for divided government (a common result in U.S. politics) haggling for a reasonable result for everyone should ensue.  If it doesn’t, the winner should put forth an agenda and stand and fall of it.

Unfortunately there are many forces working against this simple formula, and our system is stuck in the worst of two worlds.

The first is that too many of the players in our system (principally large corporations, bureaucrats and interest groups) don’t want things to change, or at least change to their detriment.  Thus they invest a great deal of money (or, in the case of the IRS, use their powers to tilt the table) in keeping things going their way.  The larger the government, the greater the incentive to do this, and the more distasteful turns in electoral results become.

On the other hand, the ideological polarisation of our political system creates a stark choice on paper but in reality leads to gridlock, which in its own way facilitates the status quo seekers.

The result is that people, correctly, come to the conclusion that their choice doesn’t really affect the outcome, or that their choice doesn’t reflect their desires.  In either case they quit voting.  In a country where the legitimacy of the system derives from democratic process, this is a problem, and hand-wringing ensues.  But the choice to drop out is sensible if not desirable.

One other thing that drives this is the marginalisation of the independents, those proverbial swing voters who used to decide elections in this country.  That went by the wayside in 2012.  Personally I think it right stupid to have your elections hang on the choice of 5-10% of the electorate, but that’s the way we’ve done it.

I think we’d do ourselves a favour to stop and consider a simple question: how can two parties fairly represent the opinion range of a country as diverse as this one?  Our system was purportedly designed for no parties, but, as in the case of the UK, the reality is that a two-party system has suited it from the early days of the Republic.  To go to a multi-party system–with the complexities that go with it–would need a parliamentary system.

But that, I suppose, is too unAmerican to contemplate for either side of the aisle.

They'll Bust You for Anything in the U.S.

Including, in some places, DUI on a lawnmower:

 A Northern Colorado man was arrested on suspicion on DUI but it was what he was driving that makes this case unusual. He was driving a lawnmower.

Police said Kenneth Welton was driving drunk from bar to bar along a very busy 8th Avenue in Garden City on a riding lawnmower.

This reminds me of a story I heard about George Jones, the country singer.  When they revoked his license for DUI, he used his riding mower to get himself to and from the liquor store.  AFAIK, they didn’t bust him for it.

This happened, however, in Tennessee and Texas. I guess things are different in a “purple” state where you get cuffed for riding a lawnmower DUI but pot is legal.

If You Don't Want People's Opinion, Don't Ask

A familiar mantra comes from Billy Graham’s grandson:

“The core message of the Christian faith has been lost in the public sector because what we are primarily known for is our political ideology or opinion,” Tchividjian told The Christian Post.

Over the last 30 years, the Religious Right has replaced Christianity’s foremost message of the Gospel with that of a political movement, argued the current pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church.

One thing that gets lost in this debate is the simple fact that the New Testament church didn’t have political action as an option.  The only meaningful political action Imperial Rome knew about was violent overthrow of one kind or another, and the New Testament is consistent in closing that as an option too.

That made things a great deal simpler.  It doesn’t guarantee that being disliked by the government won’t happen; Rome eventually saw Christianity as an existential threat, and we see this in China today.  But no one could accuse the Roman church of trying to change the government until perhaps Constantine, and the Chinese church is similarly innocent.

Until recently at least we’ve had an electoral representative government where people were allowed to express their opinions in a public forum and act on those in the electoral process.  Christians had the bad taste to do this, and now they are disliked for it.  Looked at another way, they asked for our opinion, we gave it, and they got mad.  (Shouldn’t have asked for it to start with…)

Now our system is breaking down in intransigence and corruption and a creeping fear of debate of any kind over a variety of important topics.  So, shorn of the political option, perhaps American Christianity can revert to its New Testament idea.

One thing that is doubtless influencing Tchividjian’s thinking is that he’s in Ft. Lauderdale now.  There’s little danger of a “religious right” takeover in South Florida, and this has been the case for a long time.  But the land “where the animals are tame and the people run wild” has been a reality check for a long time, and that’s a tradition that continues.

@holysmoke: The "un-English and un-Manly" Hit the Wall

Translated, Church of England Anglo-Catholics:

From the moment the General Synod voted for women priests in 1992, it was inevitable that it would also vote for women bishops…Conservative Anglo-Catholics now face a simple choice: stay in an established Church that has reaffirmed its liberal Protestantism by this vote, or seek full communion with Rome, either as ordinary Catholics or as members of a self-governing Ordinariate that celebrates Mass in Cranmerian English.

Couldn’t have said it better myself, although I’ve tried before.

The “un-English and un-Manly” business comes from David Hilliard’s brilliant piece on nineteenth century Anglo-Catholicism and homosexuality.  But as Damian Thompson goes on to point out:

I hope they move to Rome, but I can understand why many Anglo-Catholics – especially those in gay partnerships – will find it easier to stay put. I just wish they’d ditch the pretence of being Roman Catholics in all but name. Last week I saw their leader, Bishop Jonathan Baker of Fulham, swanning down Notting Hill Gate in a bright pink Roman soutane. I bet Jorge Bergoglio never wore such a garment in the streets of Buenos Aires. And it did make me think that, these days, Anglo-Catholicism is mostly about dressing up.

Some things never change.

Where Your Treasure Is, There Your Church Planting Will Be Also

The Episcopalians haven’t done much church planting these days:

Over on Episcopal Café, blogger Jim Naughton recently asked the question: “Why doesn’t the Episcopal Church plant more churches?”

Arizona Episcopal Priest Susan Brown Snook sparked the conversation by pointing out that in 2012, the entire Episcopal Church planted just three congregations. To place that into perspective, since its formation in 2009, the relatively small Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) — which reports one-eighth the attendance of the Episcopal Church — has planted 488 new congregations. My understanding is that most of the other oldline churches are in a similar state – the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) planted a total of four congregations in its most recent reporting year.

Walton assures us that “It isn’t too surprising that an oldline church would plant less than a newer denomination: oldine churches often have established congregations in most communities…”  But he overlooks a little recent history in his analysis.

Since the Anglican Revolt really got into high gear in 2003, the Episcopal Church has, in round figures, spent around USD 40,000,000 in litigation to keep their property.  And that process in ongoing, as the current trial in South Carolina will attest.  Why is this?

  1. Because they could.
  2. Because Americans attach a special pastiche to “getting justice” in court.
  3. Because the current Presiding Bishop is mean and vindictive.
  4. Because they thought the existing properties were a major draw for the church.

But, if priorities had been different, those funds could have been spent on church planting and other similar activities.  That was one of the hues and cries in my church a little while back: that the central church should support more church planting, although local churches are really better at it.  (It’s possible for the centre to subsidise local church activity, but that’s another post).  And that money could have been supplemented by funds obtained when selling property to seceding congregations.

Successful people and institutions prioritise, and commit their resources to what’s important for them.  Since the Episcopal Church has traditionally had successful people in its naves, you’d think that they’d understand this.  Or perhaps they do; evidently grinding down congregations and dioceses which want to leave the church is a priority for them.  That strategy, however, isn’t one to foster the growth of the church.

So my message to Naughton and people of his style of mind is simple: stop complaining about the lack of church plants and look at where your church is committing its resources.

So Who Are My Mother and My Brothers? Part II

The oldest Pentecostal educational institution that I am aware of is the Holmes Bible College in Greenville, SC.  For many years Dr. Paul F. Beacham was its President, impacting the lives of many of his students.  In his 1950 book Questions and Answers on the Scriptures and Related Subjects (published by the Pentecostal Holiness Church publishing house), he makes a very interesting statement, which I will cite in its entirety:

Q. Did Jesus have any brothers and sisters?

From my study of the matter in question, it is my opinion that Jesus did not have any half brothers and sisters in the flesh.  I know there are people who feel that they have good reason not to accept the idea that I hold, but I feel that while it does not eliminate all questions, there is more support for this than any other view of it.  Without enlarging too much upon the subject, I mention two reasons for holding to the view I have expressed.  First, if the four men and sisters were the children of Mary, this would mean that at least six children were born after Christ, and were grown up sufficiently to be generally known when Jesus was about thirty-one years of age.  This, of course, might have been possible, but I hardly think it is probable.  Second, it hardly seems reasonable that when Jesus was crucified He would have committed His mother to the care of John if there had been several of her own children who could have cared for her.  Since the question is debatable, it is fortunate that no one’s salvation depends upon it, but I have given my opinion.  The persons mentioned as brothers, could have been children of Joseph by a former marriage, but I rather think they were cousins with whom Jesus grew up.  Lot was the nephew of Abraham, but he is called his brother, which was not out of harmony with their manner of expressing relationship (Gen. 13:8, 14:14).

 It is interesting to compare this to Jerome:

You say that the mother of the Lord was present at the cross, you say that she was entrusted to the disciple John on account of her widowhood and solitary condition: as if upon your own showing, she had not four sons, and numerous daughters, with whose solace she might comfort herself? You also apply to her the name of widow which is not found in Scripture. And although you quote all instances in the Gospels, the words of John alone displease you. You say in passing that she was present at the cross, that you may not appear to have omitted it on purpose, and yet not a word about the women who were with her. I could pardon you if you were ignorant, but I see you have a reason for your silence… In Genesis (Genesis 13:8, 11) we read, And Abram said unto Lot, Let there be no strife, I pray you, between me and you, and between my herdmen and your herdmen; for we are brethren. And again, So Lot chose him all the plain ofJordan, and Lot journeyed east: and they separated each from his brother. Certainly Lot was not Abraham’s brother, but the son of Abraham’s brother Aram. ForTerah begot Abraham and Nahor and Aram: and Aram begot Lot. Again we read, (Genesis 12:4And Abram was seventy and five years old when he departed out ofHaran. And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son. But if you still doubt whether a nephew can be called a son, let me give you an instance. (Genesis 14:14) And when Abram heard that his brother was taken captive, he led forth his trained men, born in his house, three hundred and eighteen. And after describing the night attack and the slaughter, he adds, And he brought back all the goods, and also brought again his brother Lot(Against Helvidius, 15, 16)

Obviously Beacham is not arguing for Mary’s perpetual virginity.  But a necessary prerequisite for that idea is that Our Lord be only-begotten in both of his natures.   It is the rare Protestant who will assert that Jesus’ brothers, so designated in the New Testament, are not in fact the sons of Joseph and Mary.

My “Part I” of this discussion is here.

Cold Blooded Politics: The Children's Immigration Mess

It seems that our political scene doesn’t have many slow days anymore, and now we have a daily ration of news about children from Mexico and Central America arriving at our border for a new life.  The Occupant doesn’t want to see them for himself, lest the rest of us do the same via his news entourage.  The DHS alternates between brutal sequestration of the immigrants (from the prying eyes of members of Congress, among other people) to abject confusion trying to keep up with the mass of people.

There’s a great deal of speculation about whether the Occupant sent a signal for this rush to start.  That may or may not be true.  Keep in mind, however, that this is the administration that never let a crisis go to waste (although Rahm Emanuel, the author of that observation, is having a hard time keeping up with the crises facing him in Chicago).  So perhaps some perspective is in order.

Immigration reform has two very important political sponsors from both sides of the ideological divide.  The left wants people in the country who will vote the way they like, and employers want people in the country who will work the way they like.  On the face of it, with our money-sotted political system and pliant media, this should be a slam dunk.  It hasn’t because large portions of the population have realised that neither the left nor the employers find them satisfactory these days, but that never stopped a lot of things from happening in this country.

In spite of that, there was a window of opportunity for this to take place.  Unfortunately it was blown principally because the Occupant, rather self-righteous in the view he sees in the mirror in the morning, kept moving the goal posts to the point where even those on the Republican side of the aisle who wanted this to take place–and they are many–got tired and walked on the process.

In labour relations, that’s called bad faith bargaining, and it’s one of the no-no’s you’re taught not to do at the start.  Unfortunately Americans, too trusting for their own good, don’t understand that people in high places are capable of bad faith negotiations, that trust needs to be established before progress can be made, and that sometimes the best thing to do is to walk.

With that avenue closed, the Occupant decided to play the cards he was dealt in the Executive Branch.  In that he has two advantages: a pliant media and an uncritical electorate.  The current crisis would have been a disaster for him without both.  As it stands it has two important results.

The first is that it takes up a lot of airtime that could be spent on other matters such as the IRS scandal, Benghazi, the weak economy, problems with Obamacare, etc.

The second is that it mobilises his base, which is the road to victory he counts on.  It used to be that, to win elections in this country, you had to win the independents.  One of the little-heralded results of the 2012 election was that the Occupant won without swinging the independents.  Although this lesson is lost on much of the punditry, it wasn’t lost on the Occupant.  Some of the “red state Democrats” may get hung out to dry on this, but the Occupant understands what Bill Clinton did: that what’s good for you as a Democrat President and what’s good for Democrats in the House and Senate are two different things.

Given the humanitarian disaster we’re looking at here, this is cold-blooded politics at its worst.  Americans aren’t used to this either.  Now the Occupant wants several billion dollars to “fix” this problem.  Given his penchant for executive action, the only reason he might ask for it is to make his opponents look bad.  Probably the best response to this would be for John Boehner to adjourn the House and spare us from this and any other stupid legislation until things cool off (in every sense of the word).

As for the Christian response, we shouldn’t fault any humanitarian response we can make.  Chances are DHS will try to play favourites with which church gets in and which doesn’t, but if things get bad enough they may have to hold their liberal noses.

We’re also being told that we’re heartless if we don’t support immigration reform.  As a former employer, I’m certainly ready to do it. But I’ve got a question: how about some economic development for places like Mexico and Honduras?  Are we so provincially arrogant we think that economic progress only happens here?  Why is it that people who can come here and work hard and get ahead can’t do it where they started?

If politics like this become the norm in this country, along with all of the other stunts going on these days, it won’t make as much difference which side of the border you’re on.

The Church as Club: My Response to Frank Matthew Powell

I was recently directed to Frank Matthew Powell’s blog post
Dear American Church…I Am Not Renewing My Membership This Year.  He’s touched on a subject I’ve mon occasion but now need to take up in earnest: the church as a club.

Most people who decry the church becoming a private club have never spent much time in one.  That’s not my problem: I come from a long line of people who spent a lot more time in private clubs than in the church.  This tradition goes back to the nineteenth century, so no nouveaux riches jokes either.  So when I read Powell’s points about the church being a club, I look at it from the standpoint of “is he really being fair to the clubs”?  Or, perhaps, to the church?

So without further introduction let me address his points on his idea (and mine) on the similarities and differences between churches and clubs:

I am not sure Jesus died for a club.  If you were or are Reformed, you actually are, as Reformed theology tells us that Jesus died only for the elect.

PEOPLE IN CLUBS POUR TIME AND RESOURCES BACK INTO THEMSELVES.   If it’s an equity club, or if it’s owned collectively by the membership (as opposed to, say, the developer) that’s true.  The problem with that (as my mother, of blessed memory, used to point out) is that the membership ends up spending a great deal of money (collected through assessments of the entire membership) on self-aggrandising improvements driven by the “big wigs” in the club.

It’s certainly true that churches have all of this.  That’s one reason many of our churches have expensive physical plant that’s underutilised and hard to pay for.  The obvious “club” solution to the problem would be to keep control in the hands of our Developer, i.e, Jesus Christ.  If we do that, it’s great.  The problem we have is that those in leadership think that they speak with his voice univocally, with no need for advice from the membership.  That’s the situation in churches such as the RCC (although, sadly, elsewhere too).  Somewhere between the two extremes the church–and the club for that matter–need to operate.

PEOPLE IN CLUBS VALUE COMFORT AND SECURITY.  To some extent, that’s the mission of the church: to help bring people the comfort and security that only life in Jesus Christ can bring.  So why is it unreasonable to expect the church to excel in this?

PEOPLE IN CLUBS KEEP CONVERSATIONS IN THE SHALLOW END OF THE POOL.  That they do, indeed.  I would say, however, that the most memorable churches where the shallowness of the conversation matched that of the club are churches where a good part of the membership also holds membership in clubs.  (Episcopalians, I’m talking to you).  We also have those who make life superficial via their theology, but that’s another post…

PEOPLE IN CLUBS SEEK TO MAKE THEIR CLUB THE BEST AROUND.  Competition between clubs is an interesting subject.  My great-grandfather was a member (and Commodore) of the Lincoln Park Yacht Club before he and others switched to the Chicago Yacht Club, where he’d be Commodore (as was his son) and my family members for the next seventy years.  The emergence of the Lincoln Park club forced the Chicago Yacht Club to reinvigourate itself, and the two eventually merged.

One of the things that differentiates American churches from their European counterparts is that the former work in a more competitive environment, which is one reason they’ve flourished the way they have.  We should always want our churches to be the best and work towards that end.  The place where churches get sidetracked is in losing focus on the mission and what we’re supposed to be “best” at.

PEOPLE IN CLUBS ONLY INVITE PEOPLE INTO THEIR LIVES THAT LOOK LIKE THEM.   That’s true, although the definition of “looks like” has changed over the years.  In the past we had clubs driven by ethnic and religious restrictions, which was very much the case when I grew up in Palm Beach and is still true somewhat today.  Those have loosened in private clubs, although our elites, clubbed or not, have other enforced uniformities. The one thing that private clubs do demand is economic conformity, which they do through the dues and admission process.

I think we need to be more reasonable about this: in spite of the Pauline ideal of all things to all men, there are very few Evangelical churches which actually pull this off.  Most of the ones that do are megachurches, and then we hear whining about their shortcomings.  What most churches engage in is more of a “targeted marketing” type of approach, where the local church is aimed at a certain ethnic and socio-economic group, consciously or otherwise. Those of us who have worked in multiethnic denominations (an opportunity for which I am very grateful) know that truly multicultural churches are certainly doable but take a great deal of care.

PEOPLE IN CLUBS ARE DIVISIVE AND ARGUMENTATIVE.  Club people are generally not this way unless either they a) have a lot of money on the round they’re playing, b) three sheets to the wind or c) both.

PEOPLE IN CLUBS VALUE KEEPING EVERYBODY HAPPY.  It’s funny he brought this up, because recently my wife and I brought a friend from the Middle East to our church.  His observation?  He was impressed at how happy everyone was at the end of the service.  In the mosque, everyone was sad.  (One reason Kievan Rus didn’t adopt Islam as their religion was that the Muslims they saw were sad; the Orthodox, not a notoriously “happy clappy” bunch, beat them in that respect).  Why shouldn’t people be happy in church?  Do we want to replicate the mosque?

With those points out of the way, let’s take a few more lessons from the club.

CLUBS HELP YOU MEET IMPORTANT PEOPLE.  When my great-grandfather and his fellow yachtsmen were working on getting the Canada’s Cup back, they got to meet the Governor-General.  (And, with apologies to David Lloyd-Jones, we did get it back).  The mission of the church in part is to get people to meet the most important person, Jesus Christ.

CLUBS ARE VERY IMPORTANT IN A CLOSED SOCIETY.  Evangelicals have always bristled at the closed nature of private clubs, and churches which seemingly operate like one.  That’s because American Evangelicals have always had the luxury of operating in an open society where an open church works best and we can give the feeling of being “mainstream”.  Well, unless you live in a cave (and I suspect that many of you do) you know that real Evangelical Christianity is not mainstream.  And now many others know that too. With society’s values slipping out of our grasp and the supposedly “levelling” Internet becoming a conduit for just about everything about us being sucked up by the state, unless we plan to be an extra in Apple’s 1984 Superbowl commercial we need to plan for a more closed society, as our bretheren in places like China experience.  Under those conditions entering in may be more difficult, which is a club-like experience.  The Church in the Roman Empire made people go through the catechumenate before baptism and for the most part didn’t worship in the open until after the Edict of Milan, so this isn’t anything new.

THE CLUB AND THE CHURCH CAN BE COMPETITORS.  The aforementioned Episcopalians notwithstanding, in many ways clubs and churches are competitors, seeking to fulfil similar needs and wants.  For many it’s a “both/and” proposition, but for some it’s an “either/or” matter.

I’m not sure that this diatribe will get Mr. Powell where he wants to go.  I’m aware, teaching as I do at the undergraduate level, that (with exceptions) Millenials have been socialised differently, which is one reason churches have struggled to bring them in.  Much of the “back door” problem can be attributed to the way churches sequester their young people in their own church, which makes adult church an alien experience when they’re ejected into it along with their high school diploma.  But trashing the club, or any other social institution, won’t bring us success.  American Christianity has always been a part of civic life, and as that civic life has been crowded out getting people in church is more and more of a struggle.  To address that we will need some institutional shifts, and perhaps there may be a few lessons from those exclusivistic institutions which are private clubs.

David Moyer Does the Right Thing

By throwing the towel in as a priest:

During “The Watch” on Maundy Thursday, I did what I said I would do – in giving to our Lady (as Father Jay Hughes did) my priesthood. Whether I can resume it is up to God in Christ who called me to it many years ago. But in the reality of the present (and I don’t mean this to be some form of theological gymnastics for my benefit), “priesthood,” when a man is called to it, manifests itself in many ways – not just in liturgical ways, and in a designated position of parochial oversight for a particular parish church.

I’ve taken to criticism of some of the more interesting characters in the Anglican/Episcopal drama, and one of them is David Moyer.  His saga with the Episcopal Church was an ordeal, and his attempt to enter the Roman Catholic Church as a priest was blocked by Fr. Jeffrey Steenson, Ordinary for the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter.  But now he has accepted Fr. Steenson’s conditions and entered the Church as a layman.

I’ve written a lot lately about high-profile Tiber swimmings (like this and this) but Moyer’s case is a little different, coming through the Anglo-Catholic world.  But I think it meet and right to note someone who took the advice I gave another wandering Anglo-Catholic, John Hepworth:

There’s life after ministerial credentials, to use the broad term.  These days it’s not hard to make an impact on the Christian world without credentials/ordination, just look at the Anglican blogosphere.  More importantly, though, your relationship with God is more important than the position you hold in the church or the colour of the shirt you wear.  Don’t blow the former for the sake of the latter, for you or anyone else.

In doing this, he’s also put his convictions ahead of his personal desires.  I believe God will honour that, and pray that David Moyer and his family will find blessings and peace in the Saviour.

P.S. The post re Moyer’s stepping down deleted several comments re John Hepworth, which is still, I suppose, an ongoing saga.