God, Guns, and the Gospel

Is God pro-gun?  President Trump seems to think so.  This week Trump attacked Joe Biden, saying that Biden is going to “take away your guns, destroy your Second Amendment, no religion, no anything. Hurt the bible, hurt God. He’s against God, he’s against guns.”

Trump gives voice to a prototypical American myth of a land that loves God, guns, and the gospel.  You can see this mythic complex in cowboy movies and elsewhere.  WWII gave us a song with the lyrics, “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition and we’ll all stay free.”  In 2009, Lynyrd Skynyrd released an album called “God & Guns.”  The title track (covered recently by Hank Williams, Jr.) says, “God and guns keep us strong.  That’s what this country was founded on.”  The song seems to respond to something Barack Obama said about “bitter” and “frustrated” Americans who “cling to guns or religion.”

Of course, religious liberty and gun ownership are protected by the First and Second Amendments.  But the subsequent case law is complicated and contentious.  These complex Constitutional questions are not easily reduced to the simplistic idea that to be an American is to praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.  The First Amendment gives you the right to worship God in your own way.  It protects pacifists, atheists, and militant Christians  The Second Amendment affirms the right to have a well-regulated militia and bear arms.  It does not, however, help us interpret the Bible.

We live in a country where over a quarter of Americans (28%) believe that the Bible should take precedence over the will of the people, according the Pew Center.  So, it is important to note that the Constitution allows Americans to disagree about the Bible.

The Bible is not a useful guide on the question of guns anyway. There is nothing in the Good Book about guns, which didn’t exist back then.  The Bible talks a lot about swords.  But to say that the Bible is pro-sword ignores those passages that suggest turning swords into plowshares (Isaiah 2:4).  I’ve pointed out in my book on the Bible that for many issues, ancient Biblical texts are indeterminate and uninformative.

Of course, guns and swords are part of a larger question of self-defense.  But the Bible is not a useful guide here either.  Some texts show the Jewish people fighting for their survival.  Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans that the political authorities use the sword to execute justice.  But Jesus told Peter to put away his sword.  And Christian martyrs often followed Jesus’s model and submitted to execution.

Some Christians are pacifists.  Others are not.  And the Bible is ambiguous.

A recent book by Michael Austin, God and Guns in America, reminds us of the diversity of Christian belief about guns.  Austin suggest that some Christians hate guns and love God.  But others love guns and love God.  I would add that even atheists disagree: some hate guns others don’t.

That’s why we ought to keep these issues separated, just as the First and Second Amendments are distinct.  On the one hand, religious liberty permits us to interpret the Bible any way we want.  On the other hand, there is the question of self-defense and the “well-regulated militia.”  The issues of legal self-defense and justified violence are complicated enough on their own, without conflating them with unanswerable questions about the Bible. 

But most public argument about this stuff lacks subtlety.  Political slogans, popular music, and prophetic preaching are typically not bastions of critical thinking.  Art and politics pull emotional levers by using affective language and making vague gestures.  Religion does that too, much of the time.  But critical thinking asks us to analyze arguments and carefully excavate the historical sources. 

Smart people continue to debate the Bible and the Constitution while reaching divergent conclusions.  That’s why it is hard to take Trump seriously when he says Biden will hurt God and the Bible.  The Constitution prevents any President—whether Trump or Biden—from taking unilateral action on any of these issues.  And if there is a God, He can probably take care of Himself. 

Saying No to Racism, Brutality, and the Politics of Total Domination

Fresno Bee, June 7, 2020

Evil is contagious and brutality loves company. When George Floyd was killed, one of the officers involved should have said, “Stop it.” But peer pressure and the bandwagon can cause ordinary people to participate in terrible things. It is often easier to look away than to say, “This is wrong.”

So kudos to former Secretary of Defense, Gen. James Mattis and to Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, both of whom spoke out against abuses of power emanating from the White House. Critics may say that this is coming a bit late in the game. But better late than never.

The Rubicon was crossed this past week when the president threatened to deploy the military in pursuit of what he chillingly called “total domination.” The police and National Guard then used tear gas and grenades to drive peaceful protesters away from a church so Trump could pose with a Bible.

The president did not read the Bible at the church, of course. Nor did he cite an equally important document, the U.S. Constitution.

Each of the five freedoms of the First Amendment was under assault this week. The threat of total domination and police brutality undermines our freedom to assemble, protest, and petition. Journalists were shot at and arrested, in violation of freedom of the press. And then the president took a battering ram to the Jeffersonian wall of separation between church and state.

Our country needs a crash course in civics. You don’t hold a democracy together by domination. Nor do you unite a secular nation by brandishing a Bible. Cops and soldiers especially should read the Constitution with care. We consent to be governed because we believe that the institutions of government — including the military and police — exist to defend our rights.

That’s why police brutality is so appalling. When the police kill people in their custody, the social contract unravels. That’s also why efforts to create law and order through domination are un-American and counterproductive. Domination does not create consent, it breeds discontent.

The good news is that there are conscientious cops, soldiers and civil servants. Americans of all races volunteer to serve the public and protect the Constitution. Many public servants spoke out against the George Floyd killing and against racial injustice. Some even took a knee with protesters. And now Gen. Mattis and Adm. Mullen are reminding us of the need to reaffirm our commitment to the Constitution.

But this is not easy. Mullen’s statement opened a difficult can of worms. He said of the military, “They will obey lawful orders. But I am less confident in the soundness of the orders they will be given by this commander in chief.”

If a cop or solider were given an order to violate the rights of citizens, would he or she refuse? Conscientious disobedience is a deeply American idea. But it is a question that rightly provokes fear and trembling.

The nation began in disobedience to tyranny. Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Howard, the Earl of Effingham, was a British officer who became a hero to early Americans after he resigned his commission rather than fight the colonists. Henry David Thoreau said that if the law causes you “to be an agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, we have “a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” And in 2003, President George W. Bush warned Iraqi soldiers that they would be prosecuted for war crimes and that it would be no defense to say, “I was just following orders.”

This lesson can also be learned from George Floyd’s killing. A uniform does not protect a person from moral condemnation or from legal prosecution. The cops involved were fired and arrested. It seems obvious in retrospect that one of them should have said, “Stop it. This is wrong.”

In the heat of the moment, peer pressure and the bandwagon often prevail. But once the heat has dissipated, the world will condemn those who condone cruelty. And history will eventually shine a more flattering light on those who have the moral courage to say to the creeping shadow of total domination, “Stop it, this is wrong.”

The Problem of Protesting at People’s Homes

Protesters have targeted the private homes of public officials.  This is dangerous and misguided.  It risks violence and misunderstands political power and political protest.

In Idaho last month, after a woman was arrested for protesting COVID-19 restrictions, activists protested at the home of the cop who arrested her.  Last week in Fresno, California, anti-stay-at-homers protested at the apartment of a city council member and at the home of the mayor.  Also last week, a protest was planned at the home of California’s governor. 

There is symbolic value in protesting “stay-at-home” orders at the homes of public officials.  And people have a right to protest on sidewalks and city streets.  But these protests primarily seek to intimidate public officials.  And they are often merely opportunistic.  The Sacramento protesters explained this in a Facebook discussion.  One of the governor’s neighbors said the protesters should protest at the state capital.  An activist replied, “They won’t allow us to protest at the Capital…that’s the whole point of this.”

But a defiant protest at the Capital would be much more impactful, especially if the protesters got arrested for exercising their First Amendment rights.  In fact, 32 protestors were recently arrested in Sacramento for doing just that. 

Courting arrest is the point of civil disobedience as Thoreau explained, in his influential essay on civil disobedience.  When the law is unjust you should disobey it, Thoreau said, and willingly go to jail.  He wrote, “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is in prison.”

This idea influenced Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.  The point of civil disobedience is to break unjust laws civilly and justly.  To be jailed for doing the right thing draws attention to the injustice of the law and the system that executes it. 

But protesting at the homes of public officials does not accomplish this systematic goal.  By focusing on the private homes of public officials, the legal system is ignored, which is where the real power lies.  Individual officials do not make laws, systems do. 

Some public officials may in fact disagree, in private, with the policies they execute in public.  But their duty is to execute the law.  The Idaho cop didn’t make the law.  He only enforced it.  Don’t protest the cop. Protest the law.

Mayors and governors have more power and discretion.  But they are not dictators.  They inhabit a bureaucratic system.  That’s why the proper place to protest is at city hall or the state capital.  Protesting where systems of power reside draws attention to policy problems.

A similar mistake is made by anti-Trumpers who have assailedTrump staff and cabinet member at restaurants and other non-official places.  But a person at a restaurant is not acting in an official capacity.  Politicians, of whatever stripe, have a right to be off-duty.

The tendency to personalize the political reflects our growing inability to distinguish between public and private.  Privacy has eroded in the era of social media and a 24-7 work-world.  Folks who lack a sense of privacy don’t appreciate the distinction between public roles and private persons serving in those roles.  But without that distinction everything becomes political and nothing remains of private life.  When the distinction between policy and personality is effaced, life becomes more polarized and less civil.

Finally, let’s note that protests at private homes are strategically misguided.  Such protests tend to turn off potential sympathizers.  The goal of political protest should be to generate outrage and empathy among possible supporters.  But a protest at a home or at a restaurant defeats that purpose by making the protestors appear to be vindictive bullies.  Public protests and civil disobedience are more effective at persuading others to see the justice of one’s cause.

Peeved protesters may get a thrill from demonstrating at a politician’ domicile.  But their anger is misdirected.  The official at home is not the problem. Rather the problem is what happens when the official is at work.  These protesters would be more effective if they were informed by the history civil disobedience and by a more systematic conception of political power. 

Worrying about football and the flag misses the point of actually being better Americans

Fresno Bee, September 29, 2017

We live in a country where only about half of the eligible voters bother to vote. People actively strategize ways to avoid jury duty. Fewer than 10 percent of Americans have ever served in the military. And the president admitted during his campaign that it is smart to find ways to avoid paying taxes.

And yet here we are fretting about football and the flag. Football does not increase voter turnout. It fills no jury boxes. It can cause brain damage. It includes scantily clad cheerleaders and lots of beer. It’s fun. But it is a diversion and a distraction that has nothing to do with patriotism.

The flap about the national anthem is also a distraction. Singing the anthem is a symbolic gesture. But a song is no substitute for active engagement and critical thinking. 

SINGING THE ANTHEM IS A SYMBOLIC GESTURE. BUT A SONG IS NO SUBSTITUTE FOR ACTIVE ENGAGEMENT AND CRITICAL THINKING.

Standing for the anthem is not going to get people to be more civic-minded. It certainly won’t change racism and sexism in our culture. The song is a battle hymn, not a celebration of democratic values.

There is nothing in the anthem – or in football – that encourages us to spread equality, love our neighbors, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, or respect women. Nor does football or the national anthem teach us anything about the Constitution.

And we are desperately in need of constitutional education. A recent survey from the Annenberg Public Policy Center concludes that 37 percent of Americans cannot name any of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. And only 26 percent of Americans can correctly name all three branches of government.

It is the First Amendment, by the way, that guarantees our right to protest. And the courts have ruled that the First and Fourteenth Amendments give us the right not to salute the flag. In 1943, the Supreme Court held that “patriotic ceremonies” should be “voluntary and spontaneous, instead of a compulsory routine.” To think that patriotic displays should be compulsory is “to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds.”

So here is a proposal: Instead of singing the anthem before games, let’s begin our sporting events with a lesson in the law that appeals to free minds. We could recite the First Amendment or the Preamble to the Constitution. Nothing could be more American than this. This is a nation of laws, after all. Our liberty is grounded in the Constitution.

Of course, thinking is more difficult than singing – and less fun. We want to holler at the high points of the anthem. We want beer and brain-scrambling hits. No one goes to a football game for a lecture.

IT WOULD BE BETTER TO USE OUR SUNDAY AFTERNOONS DISCUSSING JUSTICE, LIBERTY, AND EQUALITY.

So maybe we need something more sexy and aggressive. How about having players recite the fiery words of the American icons of social protest? From the Boston Tea Party to Martin Luther King, Jr., nonviolent social protest is as American as apple pie.

We could have players recite inspiring quotes from Thoreau’s famous essay on “Civil Disobedience:” “Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine.” Or: “There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power.”

Or players could quote from John Adams’ description of the Boston Tea Party. In 1773, Adams wrote, “There is a dignity, a majesty, a sublimity, in this effort of the patriots. The people should never rise, without doing something to be remembered— something notable and striking.”

In previous generations, protests were much more dramatic than taking a knee. Thoreau refused to pay his taxes. Susan B. Anthony was arrested for voting. African Americans sat-in at segregated lunch counters. And the sons of liberty destroyed British property.

Social protest is inconvenient. It forces us to think. As Martin Luther King said, “it creates tension in the mind.” Thinking is not much fun. It is much harder than singing. But it is thinking that spreads the blessings of liberty.

Some have said they will stop watching football now. That’s great. It would be better to use our Sunday afternoons discussing justice, liberty, and equality. These things are more important than football. But these values whither and die when we remain distracted by songs and games.

Christmas culture wars

Let’s avoid Christmas culture wars and be charitable

Fresno Bee, December 17, 2016

At recent rallies Donald Trump has announced, “We are going to start saying Merry Christmas again.” In Wisconsin, Trump spoke from behind a podium with the words “Merry Christmas USA” emblazoned on the front.

Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union forced Knightstown, Ind., to remove a cross from the town Christmas tree. The Christmas culture wars are raging again.

The Constitution provides some guidance. The First Amendment guarantees your right to say “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Hannukah,” or “Bah humbug.” You can plant a cross, a menorah, or a Festivus pole in your yard. However, the First Amendment prevents the government from imposing religion upon us.

But what about Christmas trees? The Indiana town removed the cross but left the tree. Christmas trees seem sufficiently secular to pass constitutional muster.

That tells us something about the meaning of “Merry Christmas.” The phrase can be a religious dog whistle. But it can also have a secular meaning.

Christians want to keep Christ in Christmas. For some, “Merry Christmas” is a proclamation affirming that Christ was born to save us from our sins. But most people are probably not thinking about theology when they offer a friendly “Merry Christmas.”

No yuletide greeting is entirely unproblematic. “Happy holidays” seems inclusive. But it leaves atheists out, since they don’t believe in “holy days.” “Season’s greetings” is more inclusive. But prickly pious types may take offense at such an insipid salutation.

Christ is certainly the root of “Christ-mas.” But what about the word “merry”? Even that word can be offensive since it contains a veiled hint about intoxication. The second-most-famous use of the word is in the phrase “eat, drink, and be merry,” where it points toward drunkenness.

Christmas parties are made merry with mulled wine and martinis. Some enjoy mimosas on Christmas morning. Christmas began as a drinking party. It developed from the Roman Saturnalia, a time of drunken merriment associated with the winter solstice.

Some Christians oppose gaiety. Christmas merriment was banned in England in the mid-17th century by Puritans under Oliver Cromwell. American Puritans such as Cotton Mather condemned the “mad mirth” of Christmas. For Puritans, salvation is serious business. Merriment in this world distracts us from the need to be saved from sin.

Can’t escape religious diversity

This brief history reminds us of religious diversity. Some view this world as a vale of tears. Others embrace the joys of life. We disagree about theology, the value of happiness and the meaning of life.

And that is why we need the First Amendment to the Constitution to guarantee religious liberty and prevent government from imposing religion upon us.

Religious diversity is a fact. According to the Pew Center, only 63 percent of Californians are Christian. Twenty-seven percent are not religiously affiliated. The remaining 10 percent include Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Shamanists, Sikhs and others.

Some non-Christians enjoy a secular version of Christmas. The Pew Center reports that 81 percent of non-Christians celebrate Christmas. Santa Claus, Christmas trees, and eggnog do not require faith in birth of a savior in Bethlehem.

Significant diversity exists even among Christians. Catholics and Protestants celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25. Orthodox churches celebrate it in January. Other Christians – Adventists, for example – believe Christmas celebrations are unbiblical.

Many roots to Christmas traditions

Christmas is not in the Bible, after all. The disciples did not commemorate Jesus’ birthday. Mistletoe, elves and reindeer were adopted from pagan sources, as was Santa Claus.

Christmas is also a product of pop culture. It includes Charlie Brown, Rudolph and Bing Crosby. We might note that Bing’s famous song “White Christmas” was penned by Irving Berlin, a Jewish composer. Berlin also wrote “God Bless America,” by the way.

It is a unique American blessing that we are free to say “Merry Christmas.” But we should use our freedom wisely. Liberty without compassion quickly becomes obnoxious.

Let’s be charitable with regard to religious phrases and symbols. It is rude to force a holiday greeting down someone else’s throat.

“Merry Christmas” is not a threat or a command. It is a toast to be said with a smile, not a sneer. It is an offering of hospitality, not an expression of hostility. In these dark winter months, we need less-malevolent mulishness and more making merry.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article121328108.html