Making sense of it all

On Christmas morning, the Washington Examiner (a radical right newspaper) ran an unsigned editorial calling for “a return to shared ideals and the possibility of civility in disagreement” in 2023. We all want that, so I read on to hear their ideas for achieving it. What I heard blamed all our national troubles on a decline in church affiliation and attendance – what they termed faith, but which meant traditional Christian religion.

The writer claims that “unbelief…dimming of conscience…toxic ideologies” all come out of “woke ideology, a form of religion itself” which has replaced “traditional religion with a much darker religion — that excludes redemption.” And what are some of the consequences for our nation?

  • Lack of “love, respect, and common ground”
  • A “divisiveness” in our nation
  • Destruction of “a sense of community”
  • “Polarized and caustic national political conversation”

By faith and religion, this writer clearly means Christian faith and religion – and a specific version that comes from a worldview not all Christians share. If that’s not plain early in the editorial, it is clear by the end:

“Christmas is supposed to generate feelings of respect and kindness for others — the impulse to treat others as they would wish to be treated. Indeed, this impulse is one originating in the Golden Rule that Jesus later propounded as an adult. Where the world says to treat friends well and enemies poorly, and to take revenge on those who have wronged you, the child born on this day taught that vengeance belongs only to God. You, on the other hand, are born for something better: to love your enemies, to forgive offenses from the bottom of your heart, to bless those who curse you, and to love others not just as you love yourself but as he loves you.”

The language the writer uses to talk about “the woke” – substituting that for “liberals” which they use in the same way – seems just the opposite of what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount, which is quoted in this paragraph. The writer even claims that “the woke”:

“Debate whether it is OK to mutilate or sexualize children”
“Exacerbate racial tensions”
“Drive people out of restaurants and give them no peace”

How do we make sense of it all? I grew up learning the teachings of Jesus and have spent more than 50 years as a Christian minister, seeking to follow the teachings and life of Jesus in all I do. My worldview – the way I imagine the world I want to live in – focuses on compassion and justice, empathy and equality, and shared responsibility. Yet this writer, I’m confident, would say that I am “woke” in many ways the editorial condemns.

There is no single definition of the term, but on Facebook today, I found this description of what it means to be “woke”:

“Woke means awakened to the needs of others. To be well informed, thoughtful, compassionate, humble, and kind. Eager to make the world a better place for all people.”

The “shared ideals” this writer refers to seem to come from a different worldview – the one shared by Christian nationalists. They imagine the world as a place where it is good to possess authoritarian power and dominance in family, church, society, and government – where “rugged individualism” (every man for himself) is a core value for the laws and rules in this world. Their “shared ideals” come out of their nostalgic longing for the tradition they inherited – of a white Christian America operating from this worldview.

To make sense of it all, we must acknowledge that the majority of citizens in this nation never enjoyed the privileges and freedoms of that world, nor did the people in power in that world govern it on the basis of the teachings of Jesus. We must understand that authoritarian worldview desires a different world than a compassionate worldview. Therein lies the fundamental differences among us. Can we build bridges between both worlds and be willing to cross over or at least meet in the middle? I don’t know, but I’m willing to try.

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Another resource you may want to explore is a free eBook called “One thing YOU can do,” available for download here. Learn the 2 ways to do that one thing and when and how to do it. … Once you’ve downloaded it, please visit Imagine and learn how you can be part of a growing community committed to opposing religious nationalism and building a better world. … Join us today and get a 30-day free trial subscription.

Done turning the other cheek

“I’m a Christian, and I’m done turning the other cheek.” So said Jack Posobiec at the Turning Point USA’s Amfest 2022 conference yesterday. With those words, he dismissed one of Jesus’ most well-known teachings about nonviolence and love as something not for him. Yet he claims to be a Christian, speaking to thousands of people who claim freedom, family, and [Christian] faith as fundamental values for this nation.

Like me, his name may be new to you, but he is well-known in radical right circles. He says his  podcast, Human Events Daily with Jack Posobiec, “brings you unfiltered and factual updates on how current events will impact our country today and in the future.” Yet the Politifact Scorecard rates his “factual updates” as 100% false or mostly false. The Southern Poverty Law Center says that “his disinformation typically focuses on making his political opponents seem dangerous or criminal, while ignoring or downplaying the corruption of authoritarians.” He also “collaborates with white supremacists and neo-nazis.”

Why would this man be invited to speak at a national conference of Turning Point USA (TPUSA) whose mission is “to identify, educate, train, and organize students to promote freedom”? If you watch some of the highlights from America Fest 2022, it makes sense. The founder and president of TPUSA, Charlie Kirk, has his own show where he says ….

“We are lectured all the time about ‘domestic violent extremism’ as if the right has lots of domestic violent extremists, except that’s just not true. The left is full of people that are willing to use force to intimidate and harm conservatives.”

As Doug Pagitt said in last week’s interview, the Christian right often casts itself in the role of victim in the story they tell of America today. Kirk’s statement alludes to that in saying “the left” wants to “intimidate and harm conservatives.” This is why Posobiec claims it’s time to stop turning the other cheek and fight back. They refuse to be victims of “the left” any longer, as they see it, and they are ready to fight.

Charlie Kirk’s opening speech at Amfest presents a dark narrative of the future for this country. As does this whole movement, he uses fear – the fear of what will happen if they don’t fight back. The speech is 30 minutes, but watch just the first three minutes to experience the dark spectacle of what thousands of people saw and heard at the conference opening.

Watch another 10 minutes or so, and you will hear him describe their opponents as….

“the Marxist, totalitarian left filled with venom, hatred, darkness, resentment, arrogance, and despair … and teaching our children this vile garbage of critical race theory and woke nonsense.” He says “they want power, authority, control, and submission.” And that “their vision is one of despair and confusion, destroying the distinction between good and evil.”

TPUSA describes itself as traditionally conservative, committed to “the principles of fiscal responsibility, free markets, and limited government.” The rhetoric of their conferences, speeches, and podcasts expose them as a radical right group similar to the Reawaken America Tours. In my two days there, I heard the same demonizing of “the left,” with hate-filled language and the call to fight back – with the suggestion that militarized violence is coming.

As I listened to both of these men, I heard them projecting onto their opponents some of what many of us see in this movement – a desire for “power, authority, control, and submission” – and a “vision of hatred and darkness … of despair and confusion.” How is it possible to even talk with each other? I’m not sure it is – not with people who demonize their opponents. What we must do, however, is challenge them. Call out their story of being victims of a power-hungry, hateful, “left” and learn to tell our own alternative story of a better future as we live with empathy, compassion, and justice for all.

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Another resource you may want to explore is a free eBook called “One thing YOU can do,” available for download here. Learn the 2 ways to do that one thing and when and how to do it. … Once you’ve downloaded it, please visit Imagine and learn how you can be part of a growing community committed to opposing religious nationalism and building a better world.

Challenge or Persuade?

I gave up “bridge-building” years ago – at least with people who will never choose to cross over or even meet in the middle. When we are in direct conflict with our goals and values, I can challenge it, but not persuade anyone to change. When it comes to the movement now called Christian Nationalism, I have decided to challenge the movement with a goal of minimizing its power but without a goal of changing it.

At the same time, a new book (Anand Giridharadas, The Persuaders) tells stories of social activists and political leaders who have learned that some people – the “persuadables” – can be persuaded to see another way. Loretta Ross – activist, public intellectual, professor – says that we can do more than “call out” someone with whom we disagree. We can also “call in” with love. Here’s what she says:

“For me, calling in is a callout done with love. You’re actually holding people accountable. But you’re doing so through the lens of love. It’s not giving people a pass on accountability—like you don’t have to pay attention to the fact that they said something racist or that they caused harm to another person. No. It’s not ignoring it. But it’s about seeing a pathway or multiple pathways for addressing accountability through the lens of love.”  (p.47)

Ms. Ross reminds us that most people see themselves as good people with good motivations. Rather than challenge their self-image (if you don’t agree), she says, “help them lean into that internal exploration of themselves and show them how to bolster that self-perception of them being good people by walking them through examples” of how they would choose in certain situations to do what is good. That’s where we find common ground. And she continues:

“You have to be in a loving, healing space to call anybody in. You can’t do it from anger, because it’s just going to end up badly. So you have to assess why you’re doing it. What’s your motivation? Are you trying to help this person learn, or are you actually trying to change them?” … “You can’t change other people. You can’t even change the person you’re married to. You can help people. You can expose people to different information and help them learn—if you do so with love.”  (p.55)

Her story and approach to persuasion with people who seem to be opposed offer a core strategy for engaging people in a movement we oppose. Whether our goal is to CHALLENGE or to PERSUADE, empathy and compassion for the person – even if their words or actions appall us – are necessary. To be in that “loving, healing space,” refusing to let anger motivate us, we engage the person with concern for their good (which is what love is). And our goal is to “expose people to different information and help them learn.”

George Lakoff’s model of Strict Father / Nurturant Parent values – with its moral and political impact – has been a major influence on my thinking and practice since I discovered it 15 years ago. Sometimes I think “these people live in a different world.” In a way, we do live in different “worlds,” with different worldviews – ways of understanding how the world “works” – when we operate out of one set of values or the other. There is always overlap, of course, but it’s important to understand the basic difference. Here’s his summary:

The strict father is moral authority and master of the household, dominating the mother and children and imposing needed discipline. Contemporary conservative politics turns these family values into political values: hierarchical authority, individual discipline, military might.

The nurturant parent model has two equal parents, whose job is to nurture their children and teach their children to nurture others. Nurturance has two dimensions: empathy and responsibility, for oneself and others. Responsibility requires strength and competence. The strong nurturing parent is protective and caring, builds trust and connection, promotes family happiness and fulfillment, fairness, freedom, openness, cooperation, and community development. These are the values of strong progressive politics.

You can find much more detail about Lakoff’s model on our Imagine learning community site, along with an introduction to Christian Nationalism, interviews with national leaders, and other learning resources. I hope you will take some time to see what’s there and decide to join our learning community working for a better world.

Call it hate

The first headline I saw yesterday morning was “Gunman kills 5 at LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs.” An unknown motive so far. Being investigated as a hate crime. Was it? People wonder – and argue.

Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert tweeted: “The news out of Colorado Springs is absolutely awful. This morning the victims & their families are in my prayers. This lawless violence needs to end and end quickly.” Many were quick to point out how public condemnation of LGBTQ folks from “the right” is one reason for such violence. She is not alone in this, but her words are an example. She has repeatedly used language like …. perversion, monstrosity, mutilation, butchering, grope young children – and how such people are “spitting in God’s face.”

Does that not sound like hate? Yet she – and millions of other people who share her views – deny that they hate anyone. At Reawaken America Tour events, the same language dominates the rhetoric with words like enemies, demonic, perverted, evil. If you heard all of this in reference to people like you, would you not experience it as hate? I would. I do.

People who claim the name of “Christian” direct such violent, hate-filled words toward the LGBTQ community, but not to them alone. Liberals and Democrats and “woke” people are public targets of the same language of hate and the violence it provokes. BIPOC communities (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) are openly attacked, not just with hate-filled language, but with violent acts, such as the shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde and the ongoing abductions of Indigenous girls and women.

As they have been for centuries, Jews also bear the brunt of this hatred. Antisemitism has been on the rise for several years, with attacks on synagogues, schools, cemeteries, and Jewish centers. About 10 days ago, FBI Director Wray said that “…antisemitism remains ‘a pervasive and present fact,’ and vowed to protect American Jewish communities against unyielding threats of violence. ‘Jewish people continue to face repeated violence and very real threats, from all kinds of actors … simply for being who they are.’”

Confronted with the hate-induced violence so pervasive in our country, how do people respond when challenged about their hate? They deny that they hate anyone or that their language is hateful. The ideas and language of anything systemic are anathema to this movement. Only individual responsibility matters to them, and hate only exists (in their minds) if an individual consciously hates another person. In their minds, they don’t “hate” their enemies – liberals, Democrats, LGBTQ folks, Jews, or Blacks – for instance – they just oppose them because “they are evil.”

None of this is new, especially in the context of Christian Nationalism, a movement led by people completely convinced they are the defenders of morality, of what God wants, and of what they call “a Christian nation.” Historically, religious certitude of what is true and moral has divided tribes and nations for centuries. More recently, founders of this modern movement in the U.S., like Jerry Falwell, claimed absolute knowledge of God’s will according to their interpretation of “God’s Word.” And their “interpretation” includes what they see as the “evils” of abortion and homosexuality, the “destruction” of marriage and family, and the undermining of white male supremacy (although they deny that term).

Someone asked me recently (as a Baptist minister) what this movement does with the teachings of Jesus. For the same reason, I’ve often asked aloud: “how can Christians act like this?” At the core of this movement is a worldview that allows little space for difference of opinions or empathy for people. It is a rules-based, authoritarian movement, firmly entrenched in one version of traditional Christian religion where the power rests with those who defend “the truth” and oppose “evil”. And in that tradition, there is no room for people outside the boundaries they have set. Far too often, people on the outside become the target of hate-filled language and sometimes the literal target of deadly violence. Let’s call it what it is. Call it hate.

What is a Conservative?

How do we define “conservative” in 2022? Depends on who we listen to. Compared to today’s conservative movement, Ronald Reagan was “center left,” and Dwight Eisenhower was “liberal.” At the National Conservatism Conference in Miami, Florida in September, prominent speakers promoted a new conservative worldview. Here’s a promo for their conference:

Promo for National Conservatism Conference

The Heritage Foundation, founded almost 50 years ago, leads the way. As perhaps the #1 conservative Think Tank for decades, their power to impose conservative policy was apparent when Donald Trump was president. In the 1980s the Reagan Administration used the Foundation’s policy series, Mandate for Leadership, to guide its work. Under President Trump, the Foundation placed its own people in positions of power to enact conservative policies.

Heritage Foundation President, Kevin Roberts, spoke at the conference about “the betrayal by the Republican Party of the families, community, and nation it exists to serve.” He went on to clearly distinguish the Republican Party from the “national conservatism” he was advocating for. Today’s conservatives are no longer Republican in any traditional sense.

A report on the conference in The Daily Signal, the foundation’s media arm, puts the new conservatism on full display in the language and ideas of Kevin Roberts:

“I come today to this convention as president of The Heritage Foundation to extend my gratitude for the ideas and energy national conservatives have injected into the national debate, and my fellowship with principles you advance to rescue America from the barbarians inside the gates of our very own institutions.”

Roberts “commended the national conservative movement for restoring a ‘proper’ public orientation of virtues like patriotism, courage, honor, loyalty, wisdom, religion, and family in American society.” And he spoke of “the rot coming from within: The tragedy of our universities, the stratification of our economy, the gelding of Congress, the farce of our news media, the weaponization of government against its people, and the popular culture against their values; these were all inside jobs.”

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., spoke at the conference as an advocate for Christian Nationalism, part of the larger movement:

“The left is engaged in a project to undo the American Revolution and separate the nation from its biblical, Christian moral heritage. We are a revolutionary nation precisely because we are the heirs of the revolution of the Bible. This is a revolution that began with the founding of the nation of Israel, of Zion, and continued with the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth in the days of ancient Rome.”  

Sen. Hawley’s words do not fully explain what he envisions as the “revolution of the Bible,” but he continues in the same direction:

“Without the Bible, there is no modernity. Without the Bible, there is no America. The Bible’s centrality in our politics is the question of the age.  The ‘woke left’ is desperate to unseat its influence in American life, to ‘remake’ this nation. It’s doing this by making Americans believe that the country is ‘irredeemably racist and oppressive,’ that men can become women, and that the family is repressive. Their real target in all this, I submit to you, is the inheritance of the Bible. What they particularly dislike about America is our dependence on biblical teaching and tradition. What they particularly dislike about our culture is the Bible’s influence on it. And now they want to break that influence for good.

The conference program included Balasz Orban, political director for Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (no relation to Viktor Orban). He represents a global conservatism. With intended humor, he said their language has no word for “woke” and added that “we are lucky enough to not have to come up with a word. Obviously, we’re doing anything we can do to ensure that it stays that way.”  

He attributed a widespread practice of “kneeling” at sports events as a “woke” influence in their country. And he continued, saying “the radical left further tried to influence Hungary by targeting the country’s children, similarly to what the left does in America. The turning point came when we realized that the woke propaganda was being used against our children. They started targeting our children, brainwashing young kids with ideology.” He “concluded his speech by encouraging leaders and conservatives across the world to stand strong against wokeness coming from America.”

Where will this new conservatism take our nation? Leaders of the movement make no apology for seeking power to change the laws and impose their understanding of morality upon everyone. They like to claim they are the “victims” of “the woke left” – their favorite new term for the rest of us – through the media, arts, education, business, and government, which are all controlled by this imagined “left.” If we do not want that future for ourselves, we must act now to change it.

Common Ground?

With decades of work in conflict transformation, I must ask the question: “Do we have any common ground?” We oppose a movement that threatens democracy around the world. It must be challenged and its power destroyed. Yet a movement is made up of individual people. My question is whether I share any common ground with them and if that might offer hope for transformation.

This authoritarian, radical right movement is not a single entity. It includes radical economic and political conservatives, Christian Nationalists, MAGA followers, militia groups, and people who lust for power and money – all of which must be opposed. Are there not, though, individuals caught up in diverse parts of this movement who share desires and dreams in common with mine?

As I wandered among the vendor stands at Reawaken America and listened to the speakers and watched the people, I knew that at some level we all have similar desires:

  • Health
  • Family
  • Happiness
  • A decent income
  • Freedom from fear
  • Trust in our leaders and confidence in our government
  • Hope for our nation and the world our grandchildren will live in

Dr. Mark Sherwood, with his wife, Dr. Michele Neil-Sherwood, founded the Functional Medicine Institute in Tulsa, Oklahoma (https://fmidr.com/). Their stories, briefly told on their website, sound inspiring, and their commitment to the health of the whole person seems genuine. While I might question some aspects of their practice of medicine, I do not doubt that we share some common ground in what we want for people in this life.

Dr. Mark Sherwood

As Mark Sherwood spoke on Saturday morning, he talked about our desire to live and not die. Who doesn’t share that desire? He talked about abundant living and a desire for a better life and a nation we want for our grandchildren. Even in that context, though, he also talked about “battling tyranny” – meaning the government and current administration. I disagree with that. He used the “Make America Great Again” language and claimed that our problems are because “we fail to put God first.” While I may agree with that last statement, I am sure we mean very different things by what it means.

Among all the speakers those two days, Mark Sherwood’s presentation brought me to ask the question of common ground, not with everyone but with enough people in this broad movement that we might change the trajectory. I doubt that he and I would agree on many questions of politics or religion, but don’t we share common desires for a better life – for health, family, a decent living, freedom, trust in our leaders?

It’s an opening, a place to begin – like the entrance to a dark cave where we don’t know what’s inside – but can we do it together?  I may never sit down and talk with the Sherwoods, but I know a great many people – family and friends – with whom I share common dreams and desires, but disagree on how to move toward them. This is one way forward in our nation. Sit down with people, listen to each other’s stories – our desires and dreams – and create a new story for transformation in our future.