Washington Woodwork

Mezzanine_421

Barack Obama arrived in office on January 20, 2009. He quickly made healthcare reform one of his top priorities. In February he announced his intention to move forward legislation to a joint meeting of Congress. The administration and Congress were not working from scratch. They drew upon plans from the Bush administration and from Romneycare in Massachusetts. But they knew that it took time to get good legislation worked out. Bills were first crafted in June and July. The Senate Finance committee alone met 31 times to work out the details. Seeking to find a bi-partisan compromise, the rafters of the bill drew further upon plans proposed by Senate majority leaders Howard Baker, Bob Dole, Tom Daschle and George J. Mitchell. In September, Obama again addressed congress to express his appreciation of the good work that they were doing. After prolonged debate, the House passed the bill in early November 2009. The Senate, however, continued to debate and amend its version of the bill, only approving it in December of 2009.

Trump took office in January of 2017. The Republicans, without any concern for bipartisanship, have rammed their largely untested and poorly thought out healthcare bill through committees as quickly as possible. It’s March 23rd. Trump has just announced that if he doesn’t get a House vote by tomorrow, he is packing up his things and going home.

Politics, Max Weber once wrote is the “strong and slow boring of hard boards.” The Republicans seem to think it is more like blowing up the lumber mill.

On Not Having Your Cake.

At an event I once attended, Peter Brown mentioned that in the ancient world perceptions about the relation between caloric intake and energy were almost the inverse of those in modern society.

It was one point in a list about how the ancient world would be strange to moderns, but it is one that I have continued to return to over the years, especially when I try dieting.

Modern science identifies calories with energy. In fact, if you look it up, it is defined as a measure of heat energy. And we often think of ourselves as low on energy when we have not eaten. I take it that this is what Brown was talking about. In the ancient world, eating was identified with a loss of energy.

This is one of those interesting situations where it seems to me that common perceptions and science depart (and are probably using different languages, in which energy means two different things). Though there are times when eating can be rejuvenating, the correlation of caloric intake and energy does not work. Eating more does not give you more energy. As anyone who has crashed on the couch after Thanksgiving knows, eating can lead to massive losses of energy.

Of course, the scientist would protest that this is not what they mean by energy. If you don’t work out, the energy you take in when eating is converted to fat, but it’s still energy.

But this has the strange upshot that I am actually weighed down by my energy. The energy suit I wear means I have less energy. And I have to work up the energy to use my energy.

There is definitely something to the ancient inversion of these ideas. To be freed of extra energy is energizing.

Now if I could only channel this into a program that would actually get me to eat less …

The Science of Sex and Gender

A friend posted the below meme on social media, and I thought it really deserved a few corrections. As I public service, I share my response to the picture below.

sex.jpg

Actually the science of sex is far more complicated than this. First, in addition to the binary chromosomal structures usually associated with male and female there are other potential combinations I encourage you to look up Turner syndrome, Trisomy X, and Klinefelter to get some of the other possibilities. But beyond chromosomes, there is a lot more to sex. Chromosomes usually send the signal for the fetus to produce either testes or ovaries, and thus trigger the release of particular hormones. It is the hormones that then give impetus for the formation of genitalia. But even if the chromosomes do line up XX and XY, they don’t always send the signals usually associated with them, and the organs don’t always produce the correlated hormones in the usual quantities. So, it is possible for a person with XX to grow a penis, and for a person with XY to have a vagina, or for there to be a range of other possibilities, including having versions of both. I would encourage you to look up “intersex” to learn about the array of possibilities here.

Now, all of the above has only dealt with what are called primary sexual characteristics. But actually, in public we rarely make judgements about a person’s sex on this basis. Otherwise, we would have to go around taking people’s blood or looking in their pants to make sex judgements. So popular judgments about sex start at secondary sexual characteristics, characteristics that are not directly related to reproduction but which are generally correlated with what we think of as sex types. So, the development of breasts, the growth of facial hair, the Adams apple, etc. Of course, just as there are times when primary sexual characteristics don’t line up as expected in our culturally constructed binary, of male and female, secondary characteristics take us even further from that.

Beyond this, we get to the question of sexual orientation, which has a whole body of scientific literature devoted to it. Really, google it!

But, even that doesn’t get us all the way to where we make popular judgments. To get there, we have to move from what is typically called “sex” to “gender” (the meme confuses these categories). Gender concerns all sorts of other cultural cues that we usually associate with the male/female binary. So: wearing a dress, having long hair, being a tomboy, liking pink, etc. (and by etc. I mean to include a lot, this list runs on and on and on). Since at the level of gender the correlations between male and female are often way off, and entirely different in different cultures, it is much easier to see that these are cultural constructions (did you know that blue used to be the color associated with femininity? This is why old images of the virgin Mary usually have her in blue. Can you imagine Mary dressed in pink? How girly!). Note that the “science” part of the meme explicitly colors the chromosomes in line with our culturally shaped, genderd color constructions, blue and pink, thus providing a visual metaphor of its own utter confusion of all of this!

Notably, people are capable of, and often do, seek to get their experienced gender, secondary, and primary sexual characteristics to line up in more socially expected ways. This leads us into issues of transsexuality, which, again, has a whole set of its own scientific research.

Now, in public judgments concerning sex we usually work from the gender symbols down, not from chromosomes up. This is why you have the paradox that current “bathroom bills” would actually force people we would publicly judge to be women (wearing dresses, having developed breasts, and identifying themselves as women) to go into the men’s restroom (because their chromosomes might not match up the way we expect). The same is true vice versa, where someone we would publicly judge to be a man would be forced to go to the women’s restroom. Further, in order to be applied equally, such laws would require that we check people’s chromosomes or genitalia at the door. We would need the penis police!

All of this comes out of a reductive notion of sex and gender that identifies sexuality and gender with underlying structures that just don’t tell the whole story. THAT is what science says about sex and gender.

Ok, actually it’s not all that it says, but it is enough to show that the meme is wrong in just about every possible way. I encourage you to go out and study the rest!

An Alternative Facts Registry

Below is a running list of instances in which representatives of the Trump administration have uttered documented falsehoods since the election. It is, doubtless, not a comprehensive list. But I have tried to hit the high (low) points. Hopefully I will have opportunity to keep updating it.

Not all the claims below are properly lies. Some are the product of ignorance. Some are born of efforts to provide the appearance of knowledge when knowledge is clearly lacking. Some are doubtless self-delusions, this seems especially the case concerning claims that threaten Trump’s incredibly fragile ego. But some are good old fashioned lies, intended to convince listeners to agree with a conclusion that they would not if they had access to the truth. I have limited the list to fairly direct contradictions of truth, and have left most cases of exaggeration and vagueness to the side. The exceptions are for exaggerations so massive as to constitute a direct contradiction of truth. One last note: I have not catalogued here ever repetition of falsehoods. Quite frankly, to do so would quickly consume one’s entire life. It is a mark of the Trump administration that they not only utter falsehoods, but utter them constantly and repeatedly.

Whatever we are to say about the many different kinds of falsehoods represented, what is clear is that the sheer mass of falsehoods represents something unprecedented in recent American memory. Whether we want to consider the trump administration to be carrying out a war against truth is, perhaps, up for debate. But what is clear is that the Trump administration is at the very least disinterested in truth. And the falsehoods that the administration utters are so all encompassing that the upshot is to destabilize the whole notion of truth. It is, in many ways, like being ruled by the boy who cried wolf. Eventually, even the truth becomes disorienting, because you don’t expect it to be uttered.

  1. Trump claims that there are “probably 2 million” or “even 3 million” criminals living illegally in the U.S. Estimates place the true number at around 800,000. (11/13/2016)
  2. Trump denies previously stating that more countries should get nuclear weapons. (11/14/2016)
  3. Trump claims that the New York Times “sent a letter to their subscribers apologizing for their bad coverage of me.” (11/15/2016)
  4. Trump takes credit for keeping a Ford plant in the US. The plant was never scheduled to move out of the US. (11/18/2016)
  5. Concerning the hacking of the Democratic National Committee, Trump claims “It could be Russia. And it could be China. And it could be some guy in his home in New Jersey.” As of October 7, the US intelligence community had identified Russia as the source of the hacks. (11/28/2016)
  6. Trump claims that he won the Electoral College with a “massive landslide.”(12/11/2016)
  7. Trump claims that hacking charges against the Russians were not brought up (or perhaps was not investigated) before the election. (12/12/2017)
  8. Reince Priebus states that “There’s been no conclusive or specific report to say” Russia was trying to muddy the election. In October 2016 the U.S. Intelligence Community released it’s conclusion of a study showing that Russia had meddled in the election. (12/16/2017)
  9. Sean Spicer asserts that ridership on Washington’s subway system was higher for Trump’s inauguration than on Inauguration Day in 2013. (12/20/2016)
  10. Contrary to the statements of the Secret Service, Sean Spicer claims security measures had been extended farther down the National Mall at Trump’s inauguration, preventing “hundreds of thousands of people” from viewing the ceremony. (12/20/2016)
  11. Concerning his decision not to divest from his business interests, Trump claims “The law’s totally on my side, the president can’t have a conflict of interest.” The Emolument Clause of the Constitution specifies that no President can accept “any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”
  12. Contemplating closing the Trump Foundation, Trump accused news outlets of failing to cover the fact that that 100% of the foundation’s money goes to charity. In fact, The Trump Foundation’s use of money has been widely covered, as when Trump used $20,000 from the Foundation to buy a 6 foot portrait of himself, or when he used  $158,000 in Foundation funds to resolve a lawsuit against him, and when it violated tax law by making political donations. (12/26/2017)
  13. Trump claims that “Intelligence stated very strongly there was absolutely no evidence that hacking affected the election results.” The intelligence report to Trump explicitly noted that it was not written to address that question. (1/7/2017)
  14. Reince Priebus claims that Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta’s email password was “password.” There is no evidence supporting this claim. Podesta was using a Gmail account. Gmail does not allow you to set your password as “password.”
  15. Trump claims New York Times investigative journalist Serge Kovaleski modified a story written 16 years earlier to make Trump look bad. The story has never been changed. (1/9/2017)
  16. Kellyanne Conway claims that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper mad “very clear” that Russian manipulation had “no impact on the election.” Actually, Clapper said there was “no way for us to gauge” the impact. (1/11/2017)
  17. Trump claims that no one but reporters want him to release his tax returns. (1/11/2017)
  18. Trump claims that in the United States there are “96 million really wanting a job and they can’t get” one. The estimate of people seeking jobs in the US is 5.5 million. (1/11/2017)
  19. Critiquing the press, Trump claims that “nobody even talked about” Hillary Clinton getting debate questions prior to one of the Presidential debates. The story was widely covered in the press. (1/11/2017).
  20. Trump claims Rep. John Lewis is all talk and no action, and claims that Lewis’ district is “falling apart” and “crime infested.” (1/14/2017)
  21. Vice President Pence denies that National security adviser Michael Flynn discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador in the months before Trump took office. (1/15/2017)
  22. Trump claims that polls showing his slumping approval rating are “rigged.” (1/17/2017)
  23. Trump takes credit for $1 billion dollar investment by GM that GM explains was planned before Trump won the election. (1/17/2017)
  24. Trump blames past politicians for for “refusing to defend our” border. U.S. Border Patrol budget has tripled since 2001, and the number of border patrol agents has doubled. Southwest border apprehensions have dropped 75 percent from the peak in fiscal 2000. (1/20/2017)
  25. Trump claims that 1.5 million people had attended his inauguration. (1/21/2017)
  26. Trump claims that he holds the “all-time record” for being on the cover of Time Magazine 15 times. He has only been on 11 times, Richard Nixon was on 55 times. (1/21/2017)
  27. Trump claims that “God looked down and he said ‘we are not going to let it rain on your speech’ … and then it poured right after I left.” In reality it rained during the first part of his speech, and there was no downpour afterwards. (1/21/2017)
  28. Trump claims that if the United States had taken Iraq’s oil after the ouster of Saddam Hussein, “you probably wouldn’t have ISIS because that’s where they made their money in the first place.” ISIS is primarily funded by revenues on Syrian oil. (1/21/2017)
  29. Sean Spicer claims that the crowd for the Trump inauguration “was the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period.” (1/21/2017)
  30. Trump claims that media sources used photographs of “an empty field” to make it seem as if his inauguration did not draw many people. (1/21/2017)
  31. Despite earlier tweets by Trump accusing the CIA of spreading false news, Trump claims that journalists were responsible for any suggestion that he was not fully supportive of the work of the CIA. (1/23/2017)
  32. Trump claims that he is “a very big person when it comes to the environment” and to “have received awards on the environment.” The only recorded of an environmental award to Trump is noted in a self-published book by a Trump advisor. The organization denies ever giving Trump the award. (1/23/2017)
  33. Trump claims that he “won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” (1/23/2017)
  34. Sean Spicer claims that there has been a “dramatic expansion of the federal workforce in recent years.” The workforce number has largely been stable across the Obama administration. (1/24/2017)
  35. Sean Spicer claims that there was a report “that came out of Pew in 2008 that showed 14 percent of people who voted were noncitizens.” There is no Pew Research report on the subject. There is an Old Dominion study that concludes that 14% of noncitizens voted in 2008 (a totally different claim than the one Spicer made), and that study has been widely criticized for poor methodology. (1/24/2017)
  36. Sean Spicer claims that Trump won the Electoral College “overwhelmingly with 306 electoral votes, the most since any Republican since Reagan.” Due to defections, Trump received 304 electoral votes. George H.W. Bush won 426 electoral votes in 1988. (1/24/2017)
  37. Trump claims that building the Keystone Pipeline will create 28,000 construction jobs. Estimates are that the project would produce 16,000 jobs of which 4,000 would be construction jobs. (1/24/2017)
  38. Trump claims that Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Border Patrol officers “unanimously endorsed” him for President. (1/25/2017)
  39. Trump claims that the author of a 2012 Pew Study on voting registration now supports his claim that there was voter fraud in the election. The author does not. (1/25/2017)
  40. Trump claims he had “had the biggest audience in the history of inaugural speeches.” His on-site crowd is estimated to have been 70% smaller than Obama’s in 2009. Trump’s inauguration ranks fifth in the history of TV ratings, behind Ronald Reagan. (1/25/2017)
  41. Trump claims that during Obama’s farewell speech in Chicago two people were “shot and killed” in the city. No one was shot and killed during the speech. (1/25/2017)
  42. Trump claims that “millions” of people lost their health coverage because of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). Around 20 million people gained health coverage under the law. (1/25/2017)
  43. Sean Spicer claims that a draft resolution for lifting the ban on U.S. black sites is “not a White House document” and that he had “no idea where it came from.” Three administration members later report that the draft was circulated by the White House to national security staff members.
  44. Trump claims that at his CIA speech he “got a standing ovation. In fact, they said it was the biggest standing ovation since Peyton Manning had won the Super Bowl and they said it was equal.” Protocol required that CIA representatives not sit down until directed. The President never directed them to sit. The comparison to Peyton Manning is absurd on its face. (1/26/2017)
  45. Trump claims that the murder rate in Philadelphia has been “terribly increasing” when it is near the lowest in the last 30 years. (1/26/2017)
  46. Trump claims that prior to his immigration plan, “If you were a Muslim, you could come in, if you were a Christian, it was impossible.” (1/27/1027)
  47. Kellyanne Conway claims “The No. 1 source of income into Mexico are Mexicans working here and sending the money back.” (1/27/2017)
  48. On three separate occasions, Sean Spicer cites the nonexistent “Atlanta terrorist attack” to support Trump’s travel ban executive order. (1/29/2017)
  49. A senior administration official claims that the implementation of Trump’s immigration Executive Order was “a massive success story … on every single level” (1/29/2017)
  50. Trump claims that in the election: “we did better with the Latino community. … Better than Romney, better than just about for a long way.” Trump got an estimated 28% of the Hispanic vote, in comparison with 27% for Romney, and 31% for John McCain. (1/29/2017)
  51. Kellyanne Conway claims that calling Trump’s immigration Executive Order a “Muslim ban” is “nonsense” because it only targets 7 Muslim countries. The day before Rudy Giuliani explained the origin of the Executive Order saying that Trump asked for a “Muslim ban” that would not be illegal. (1/29/2017)
  52. Trump claims that his travel ban is “similar to what President Obama did in 2011 when he banned visas for refugees from Iraq for six months.” (1/29/2017)
  53. Trump claims he received 84% of the Cuban American vote. The Pew Research center puts the number closer to 54%.
  54. Trump takes credit for cutting $600 million in cost from a Lockheed Martin contract with the government for F-35 fighters. The Defense Department had already announced the cost cuts before Trump became involved. (1/30/2017)
  55. Sean Spicer cites the attack on a Mosque in Canada as support for Trump’s refugee ban, implying that the attacker was Muslim or from the Middle East. This echoed a false FOX news report that the attacker was Moroccan. The attacker was a white nationalist, anti-immigrant, right wing activist. (1/30/2017)
  56. Referring to Trump’s Holocaust Memorial statement which did not mention the Jewish People, Sean Spicer claimed that “by and large, he’s been praised for it.” (1/30/2017).
  57. Trump claims that a Delta Airlines computer glitch significantly contributed to chaos at airports that had been blamed on his immigration executive order. The glitch was reported Sunday night, after the executive order on Friday and massive protests at airports on Saturday. (1/30/2017)
  58. Concerning Trump’s immigration plan, Sean Spicer states that “It’s not a travel ban. It’s a vetting system to keep America safe.” Trump tweets once on this day and once the next day calling his own policy a “ban.” (1/31/2017)
  59. Trump claims he got “substantially more” votes from the black community “than other candidates who had run in the past years.” Trump received 8% compared to 6% for Mitt Romney. (2/1/2017)
  60. Kellyanne Conway cites the nonexistent “Bowling Green Massacre” as a reason for Trump’s travel ban executive order. (2/2/2017)
  61. Sean Spicer characterizes the US raid in Yemen which cost the lives of one Navy Seal and several civilians as “a successful operation by all standards.” (2/2/2017)
  62. Trump tweets that “The Obama Administration agreed to take thousands of illegal immigrants from Australia.” The agreement concerned 1,250 refugees (not illegal immigrants). (2/2/2017)
  63. Sean Spicer states that “Iran’s additional hostile actions that it took against our Navy vessel are ones that we are very clear are not going to sit by and take.” Iran had taken no hostile action toward any navy vessel. The only potentially comparable event in the region was four days before when Iranian backed Houthi rebels in Yemen attacked a Saudi ship. (2/2/2017)
  64. Trump tweets that: “Iran was on its last legs and ready to collapse until the U.S. came along and gave it a life-line in the form of the Iran Deal: $150 billion.” The Iran deal unfroze Iranian assets, the eventual total is estimated to be around $100 billion, and it is estimated that they immediately gained access to between $56 and $60 billion dollars of that money. There is no evidence that Iran was ready to collapse prior to the deal. (2/2/2017)
  65. Citing delayed confirmation of administration nominees, Kelyanne Conway claims: “This is longest that the nation has gone without a secretary of the Treasury, at least in modern times.” This was 14 days after the nomination. In the past it has taken 34 and 35 days till confirmation. (2/2/2017)
  66. Trump says 109 people were affected by travel ban. In reality, it was at least 60,000 people. (2/5/2017).
  67. In response to questions from Senator Patty Murray, Betsey DeVos reports inflated graduation rates for “virtual schools” to counter the claim that they are unsuccessful. (2/4/2017)
  68. Trump tweets: “Interesting that certain Middle-Eastern countries agree with the ban. They know if certain people are allowed in it’s death & destruction!” This appears to be a reference to a false story, posted on Trump’s Facebook page, that Kuwait followed Trump an instituted a ban of it’s own. Kuwait had instituted a ban on immigration from certain countries in 2011, but has since eliminated the policy. (2/4/2017)
  69. Trump claims that sanctuary cities “breed crime.” (2/5/2017)
  70. Trump claims that the press has intentionally stopped covering terror attacks. (2/6/2017)
  71. Trump tweets: “I don’t know Putin, have no deals in Russia, and the haters are going crazy.” Before running for President, Trump often played up his relationship with Putin. In addition to repeatedly traveling to Russia in search of real estate deals, Trump has many deals with investors in Russia. As Trump’s son once said: “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”
  72. Trump claims that his cabinet appointments have faced the longest delay in getting confirmed in the history of the United States. He is wrong by several months. (2/7/2017)
  73. The Trump administration includes the stabbing of Mia Ayliffe-Chung on a list of terror attacks that the media had not covered. Terrorism was ruled out in the original investigation of the crime. (2/7/2017)
  74. Trump claims that the murder rate in the United States is at its highest in 47 years. It’s actually near the lowest in that time period. (2/7/2017)
  75. Nikki Haley, the UN representative from the United States indicated that the United States would not oppose the appointment of Salam Fayyad to a special position at the UN. At the last minute, Haley reversed the US position and blocked the appointment.
  76. After a year of widely covered protests, Trump claims that he does not believe that approval of the DAPL pipeline is controversial. (2/8/2017)
  77. National security adviser Michael Flynn denies having discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador in the months before Trump took office. (2/8/2017)
  78. Trump claims he lost the state of New Hampshire because “thousands” of Massachusetts residents were bused across the state boarder to vote against him. (2/9/2017)
  79. Trump claims Sen. Richard Blumenthal “misrepresented” a conversation with Supreme Court Nominee Niel Gorsuch in which Gorsuch called Trump’s attacks on the judiciary “disheartening” and “demoralizing.” Gorsuch confirms that this is exactly what he said. (2/9/2017).
  80. With reference to Trump’s attacks on the judiciary over his immigration plan, Sean Spicer claimed “when President Obama criticized the Supreme Court for its Citizens United comments in the State of the Union, there wasn’t a similar concern about that.” Obama’s criticized the court’s decision, calling it wrong, Trump has attacked the character of the judges involved, labeling him a “so-called judge” making the comparison problematic from the start. But Obama’s criticism was widely covered in the press. (2/9/2017)
  81. Trump claims CNN reporter Chris Cuomo soft pedaled an interview by failing to ask Sen. Richard Blumenthal about his service in Vietnam. In fact Cuomo had asked about that. (2/9/2017)
  82. When asked about “reports that General Flynn had conversations with the Russians about the sanctions” Trump responds “I don’t know about it. I haven’t seen it. What report is that?” Two days later Sean Spicer states that the White House has been “reviewing and evaluating this issue with respect to General Flynn on a daily basis for a few weeks.” (2/10/2017)
  83. After CNN reported that facts in the Russian dossier were corroborated by investigators, Donald Trump and Sean Spicer respond by asserting that CNN is reporting “fake news” and claiming of the dossier: “It’s all fake news.”(2/10/2017)
  84. Concerning judicial push-back against Trump’s immigration policy, White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller claimed that “This is an ideological disagreement between those who believe we should have borders and should have controls and those who believe there should be no borders and no controls.” Trump’s migration plan has been put on hold, but that hold leaves in place the established immigration laws prior to Trump’s Executive Order. None of the judges involved have the power to, or have indicated any inclination toward eliminating border controls. (2/12/2017)
  85. Trump tweets: “While on FAKE NEWS @CNN, Bernie Sanders was cut off for using the term fake news to describe the network. They said technical difficulties.” This appears to be an instance where Trump has taken a story from an actual Fake News site: infowars.com. In the actual interview with CNN, Bernie Sanders critiques Trump for calling CNN a fake news network. Afterwards there are technical problems. (2/12/2017)
  86. Kellyanne Conway reported that “The president is very loyal. He’s a very loyal person. And by nighttime, Mike Flynn had decided it was best to resign.” Steven Spicer reported that Flynn’s misrepresenting facts to the Vice President “led to the president asking for and accepting the resignation of Gen. Flynn.” Either the President stood by Flynn and Flynn decided to resign, or the President decided and asked for Flynn’s resignation. Only one of these accounts can be true. (2/14/2017)
  87. Defending Trump against charges of falsely answering questions about what he knew about Michael Flynn (see #77 above) Sean Spicer states: “What he was asked specifically is was he aware of a Washington Post story.” The question Trump had been asked was actually “What do you think of reports that General Flynn had conversations with the Russians about the sanctions before you were sworn in?” The Washington Post report came up later, but it was not the focus of the question Trump was answering when he denied knowledge of Flynn’s situation. (2/14/2017)
  88. Commenting on recent ICE raids, Trump states: ‘‘We’re actually taking people that are criminals, very, very, hardened criminals in some cases … I said at the beginning, we are going to get the bad ones, the really bad ones, we’re getting them out and that’s exactly what we’re doing.” He has this exactly backwards. The ICE raids that happened in February were planned before he became President. The one change that appears to be that these raids picked up at least one “dreamer” with no criminal record that was protected under the Obama administration. (2/14/2017)
  89. Trump claims that it is “really a horrible thing to watch the tremendous amount of increase” in autism rates among children. The rate has increased largely due to the fact that (1) more people with autism are getting properly diagnosed and (2) the definition of autism has been broadened to include more cases. In short, its a good thing that rates are increasing. It indicates that we are better at identifying autism. (2/15/2017)
  90. Trump tweets that the New York Times and the Washington Post are “failing.” Both papers have seen spikes in readership recently. In January, the Washington Post “fact checker” page beat its previous readership record by 50%.
  91. Trump tweets that Democrats made up the story of Russian manipulation during the presidential election. It was not Democrats, but the CIA who concluded that manipulation occurred. (2/16/2017)
  92. Trump claims he had “the biggest electoral college win since Ronald Reagan.” Trump received a smaller share of the Electoral College votes than  George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. (12/16/2017)
  93. Trump claims that for the 2016 election,”People came out and voted like they’ve never seen before.” The 2016 vote witnessed around 60% voter participation. Voter participation in the Untied States reached its height in the late 1800s, at around 80%. Turnout for the 2016 election was lower than it was for either the 2008 or the 2012 election.
  94. Trump claims the 9th Circuit Court “has been overturned at a record number. I have heard 80 percent.I find that hard to believe, that is just a number I heard, that they are overturned 80 percent of the time.” Only .01% of the 9th Circuit’s cases are reviewed by the Supreme Court. 80% OF THIS .01% are overturned. That is not a record. The Supreme court generally overturns 70% of cases they review, and they have overturned as many as 85% and 87% from other courts. (12/16/2017)
  95. Trump claims “We had Hillary Clinton give Russia 20 percent of the uranium in our country.” Russia bought Uranium One, a company that owns enough mines that they have 20% of the production capacity in the United States (not 20% of the uranium). Clinton was secretary of state at the time, but she didn’t have the power to approve or reject the deal. The State Department was only one of nine federal agencies that signed off on the deal, and only Obama had the power to veto it. (12/16/2017)
  96. Talking about his immigration executive order, Trump claims that “The roll out was perfect.” The roll out was marked by large protests at airports across the United States, disrupting travel. The original version of the executive order did not make exceptions for green card holders. The White House later corrected for this. The Directer of homeland security later acknowledged that there were problems with the roll out. (2/16/2017)
  97. Trump states that “This administration is running like a fine-tuned machine.” That week Trump’s National Security Advisor was sacked (or voluntarily resigned) after misleading the Vice President concerning calls to the Russians. The next candidate for National Security Advisor turned down the administration. Trump’s nominee for Labor Secretary withdrew from the confirmation process due to evidence that he had employed illegal immigrants. Trump himself has noted that the administration has an unprecedented number of leaks. (2/16/2017)
  98. Trump states: the media has “a lower approval rate than Congress, I think that’s right, I don’t know. I think they have lower — I heard lower than Congress.” Trump gives himself an out here by admitting that he does not know what he is talking about, but it’s worth noting because it is a false claim that he has made before, and in less qualified terms. 55% of people view Congress negatively, only 9% view it positively. 36-40 % of people have a negative view of media sources, around 20% view media sources positively. (2/16/2017)
  99. Trump claims that “I inherited a mess. It’s a mess. At home and abroad, a mess.” It is hard to quantify what constitutes a “mess” but as a comparative statement this is clearly false. Barack Obama inherited a nation engaged in two wars and the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression. Trump inherited an unemployment rate of 4.8, down from 10 at its most recent height. The Dow Jones at Trump’s inauguration was up 200% over its low during the Obama administration. (2/16/2017)
  100. Trump claims that Alex Acosta, his new nominee for the Secretary of Labor “is a member and has been a member of the National Labor Relations Board ” Acosta is not currently on the Board. He served on the board from 2002-2003. (2/16/2017)
  101. In response to an AP story about a Department of Homeland Security memo outlining the use of National Guard troops to aid in deporting undocumented immigrants, Sean Spicer denies the report and states: “I wish you guys had asked before you tweeted.The Associated Press had contacted both the White House and the Department of Homeland Security multiple times, beginning 24 hours before it reported the story. (2/17/2017)
  102. While reviewing problems other countries face with immigrants, Trump mentions “what’s happening last night in Sweden.” There was no incident in Sweden the night before. (2/18/2017)
  103. Trump claims that the “dishonest media” has “published one false story after another, with no sources, even though they pretend they have them. They make them up in many cases.” Main stream media outlets have relatively high ethical standards, as is shown in the cases of the firing of Dan Rather, the removal of Bryan Williams, and the dismissal of Billy Bush. There have been no documented cases of stories being reported by these outlets without sources. (2/18/2017)
  104. Trump claims “We’ve allowed thousands and thousands of people into our country. And there was no way to vet those people. There was no documentation. There was no nothing.” The United States has had one of the most rigorous vetting systems for any country in the world, it takes two years or more to complete. (2/18/2017)
  105. Trump suggests that the country is more optimistic under his presidency, stating: Look at what’s happening in every poll when it comes to optimism in our country.” One recent poll pegged 54% of Americans as uncertain or pessimistic about the future of the country. Gallup polls suggest that consumer confidence has fallen in the last month and that Trump has one of the lowest approval ratings of any President at this point in his tenure.(2/18/2017)
  106. Trump claims he did “very well” with women in the election. Existing poling data disagrees. (2/18/2017)
  107. Concerning reports of Trump campaign contacts with Russia, Trump claims: “I never get phone calls from the media. How did they write a story like that in The Wall Street Journal without asking me or how did they write a story in The New York Times, put it on front page?” Both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal repeatedly contacted the White House asking for comment on their stories. (2/18/2017)
  108. Donald Trump writes: “large scale immigration in Sweden is working out just beautifully. NOT!” Sweden has taken in far more refugees than the United States. There is no evidence that immigration is the cause of major social problems in Sweden. (2/20/2017)
    Mostly False

We Need the President to Fail

trump_sign_-_2016-11-08_30227761783I have heard many times that we must not wish for Trump to fail. America cannot afford a failed Presidency. So we must hope that Trump succeeds.

I understand the sentiment behind such claims. But the claims themselves are a muddle. A great deal hangs on distinguishing exactly what we want to see succeed and what we want to see fail. In times of normal politics, we are able to fairly easily elide the interests of the nation with the interests of the Presidential administration; to treat the President as a synecdoche for the populace. I disagreed with President Bush’s policy in Iraq, but that did not justify me hoping that the policy would fail. Because at the end of the day, President Bush and America shared a set of overarching goals. If Iraq had been democratized, it would have made the world and our nation safer. If I had disagreed with Obama’s plan for healthcare, that would not justify me hoping that it would fail. If we could establish a structure that would cover more people without raising costs, it would be for the benefit of the entire society. In normal cases, it makes sense to say, even if you disagree with the President, you should not wish for the President’s failure.

But we do not live in a normal political time any longer. We live in the age of Trump, a man who not only embraces controversial strategies to realize our national values, but threatens the shape of our national values themselves. Trump has already significantly lowered the state of our national dialogue. He has openly attacked our own intelligence agencies when they dare to challenge his view of the world. He used a stereotypical portrayal of mental retardation to mock a disabled reporter who dared to call him out for spreading false claims. He has used racial slurs an effort to undermine the judicial system where it threatened to hold him accountable. He has endorsed violence against his political opponents. He has explicitly and publicly supported American participation in war crimes: the use of torture and the direct targeting of non-combatants in the war on terror. He has publicly demeaned women and bragged about his ability to commit sexual assault.

In all of these areas Trump is not to be identified with America and America’s interests. He is to be rejected as un-American, un-Presidential, unprofessional, cruel, and at times inhumane.

So, should we wish for Trump to succeed? No. We should wish him to fail and fail spectacularly. We should wish for him to fail in transforming the nation in his own repugnant image. We should wish for the nation to reject him as the racist, sexist, xenophobic tyrant that he is. We should wish that he becomes a pariah such that the American people would never think of electing him or anyone like him again.

Success during this administration will be found in the extent to which America is able to resist and obstruct every move Trump makes. Success comes in remembering a politics not dominated by hatred and bullying so that we might return to it when Trump is banished from leadership. Success means America waking up to the reality of the viciousness and ignorance that led to Trump’s election.

I wish for America’s success during the Trump administration. But I refuse to confuse America’s success with the success of the Trump administration. In times of moral inversion, we must work against institutions that are usually authoritative in order to maintain a semblance of goodness. We do not live in normal times, and we must not forget that.

 

Selling Out Orthodoxy

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Let me begin by confessing. I am an orthodox Christian.  My faith is deepened every time I seriously engage with the creeds, the canon of scripture, and the fathers and mothers of the Church catholic. This has not always been the case.  I entered seminary in the thrall of modernist, naturalist triumphalism.  I associated the historical tradition of the Christian church with naïve, anti-science perspective.  I had confused orthodoxy with the modern strand of Biblical literalism and inerrantism. And, I had confused the traditional faith of the Church with a right wing political program. In short I had confused orthodoxy with modernist right wing conservatism.

Seminary helped me sort much of this out. It taught me about the ways in which the classical confessions of Christianity could be succor for intellectual curiosity instead of a bludgeon for those with whom you disagreed. I learned that the fathers and mothers of the church had often fought against the kind of reductive treatments of our scriptures that were found in modern fundamentalism.  I came to see the orthodox Christian tradition as rich and diverse, certainly not reducible to a particular political platform.

Since then I have often found myself defending orthodoxy to my more “progressive” friends. What you dislike most about this tradition, I tell them, is not really a part of the tradition.  And, in places where the orthodox tradition pushes you, it is best to be pushed, to live into the tension, and to engage in the ongoing dialogue that is orthodox Christianity.

Unfortunately, this is always a hard position to take, often because those claiming to represent orthodoxy make exactly the same kinds of mistakes about the tradition that the enemies of orthodoxy make.  Take, for instance, two recent commentaries on the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, both of which claim that the Conference moved the Church toward orthodoxy.

The Baptists

Writing for the Southern Baptist Convention, Joseph Rossell penned an article entitled Methodists’ Long Arc Toward Orthodoxy. What evidence does he provide to fill out the title? Well, he notes that the General Conference did not change its stance on homosexuality.  He lauds the fact that the Conference did not decide to divest from programs supporting Israel.  And he finds most encouraging the fact that the Conference withdrew from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, a pro-choice organization, and did not renew a resolution endorsing the language of Row v. Wade.

Now, one might wonder, where is the “orthodoxy” in all of this?  Where are the Ecumenical Councils, the Creeds, the Church mothers and fathers? Where is the great tradition of Christianity? Where is there even a mention of the Father, Son, and/or Holy Spirit?  Even the name of Jesus is absent from the article.  The list produced by Rosell is a who’s who of social issues for the Religious Right.  It says nothing about Christian orthodoxy.  It suggests only that the United Methodist Church is shifting to become politically more conservative. The UMC trends more toward the Republican party platform than it did three weeks ago, but there is nothing here to suggest any win for “orthodoxy.”

The Professor

One expects an analysis with more depth from William J. Abraham, Albert Cook Outler Professor of Wesley Studies at Southern Methodist University.  In addition to being Wesleyan, and thus having a sense of Church tradition which would be understandably atrophied in a commenter from the SBC, Abraham has done sustained work on the concept of orthodoxy.  Indeed, his work on Canonical Theism is part of what lead me to my greater appreciation of orthodoxy.

So, when Abraham now turns to discuss The Birth Pangs of United Methodism as a Unique, Global, Orthodox Denomination what do we find?  Playing the Owl of Minerva, Abraham declares the direction of history, in which the 2016 General Conference has been “a watershed moment.” The United Methodists Church has become a “unique, global, orthodox Methodist denomination.”

What follows, however, is not an account of developing theological maturity in the Church.  It is a narrative of political intrigue, placing the progressives, the moderate Hamiltonians, and the traditionalists and evangelicals against one another.  The key issue, of course, is homosexuality.  The whole thing is enthralling.  There is even the suggestion of a cabal; “a network of progressive bishops who are very effective at controlling” the Council of Bishops.

The narrative climaxes in the clashes of the 2016 General Conference, where “traditionalists and conservatives” ran the field. For the progressives and moderates, Abraham tells us, things could not have been worse. “The orthodox train was barreling down the tracks and all they could really hope for was that someone could get their hands on the emergency brake and stop it reaching the station.” (Yes, he really used the phrase “orthodoxy train.”) The collapse of the left was halted only by the Council of Bishops stepping in and setting up a commission that pushed the resolution of the issue down the road.

Despite Abraham’s key use of the term “orthodoxy” here, his article is long on politics and woefully short on theology.  Aside from ad hominem generalizations about moderates and progressives, Abraham does not bother to engage any actual representatives of either group. And the most substantive support he offers for his claims about the significance of arguments about homosexuality in the church is that: “The issue is theological and moral; theological because it involves its doctrine of creation; and moral because it is a matter of the canonical and ethical practice.”

Abraham does not let this lack of theological substance limit the rhetorical heights of his claims.  What is at issue, he tells us, is “the total repudiation of authentic and canonical Christian teaching.” With our arguments over homosexuality, we face “a fourth schism in the life of the church.” [1] Those who disagree with the conservative position are likened to the Arian heretics of early Christianity.

The total repudiation of authentic and canonical Christian teaching is at issue in our arguments about homosexuality? Really?  Is this issue more central to the canonical tradition than other issues about which we argue? Issues of war and peace? Issues of divorce? Debates about the gifts of the spirit? What justifies suddenly declaring on this issue that those who disagree are as Arius? If we are to take such language seriously, we need it deployed with more seriousness.

What of the claim that the issue involves the doctrine of creation?  Do our arguments about abortion, in vitro fertilization, genetic testing, etc. involve this doctrine any less? Since when has “involving” a doctrine made something central to Christian orthodoxy?

This is not an appeal to orthodoxy, this is dressing a position up as orthodoxy for political purposes.  As Abraham councils, because “orthodoxy” is at stake, traditionalists “are right to eschew merely pragmatic schemes of accommodation and negotiation.” By running the stakes so high, he has made dialogue and compromise seem impermissible. All that is left then, is the play of power.  Not a bad situation for a person who believes that his position is the one with the power.

Orthodoxy Left out in the Cold

There is one further issue that makes it clear that the General Conference 2016 was not about re-claiming orthodoxy. During the General Conference, two separate committees took up the question of whether to recognize the Nicene Creed as a Doctrinal Standard for the United Methodist Church.  The proposal was not supported by either committee, and never made it to a broader vote.

Now, if one were concerned with orthodoxy, the voting down of the Nicene Creed seems like exactly the kind of thing that would garner that person’s attention.  The Southern Baptists predictably don’t make the connection. Abraham offers a weak argument that today’s disputes about homosexuality are like the early Church’s fights over Arianism while failing to mention that the UMC side stepped endorsing the Creed that actually addresses Arianism.

So, for all the whoopla about “orthodoxy” winning at the General Conference, what these articles reflect is the domestication of the language of orthodoxy for the purpose of forcing a conservative conclusion onto ongoing dialogue.  And that is a sad thing, because orthodoxy is something much bigger and better than we can fathom, being so fixated as we are now on the current power plays in our Church.  Unfortunately, so long as it is dragged down to be a mere symbol in those fights, we will never be able to appreciate its full grandeur.

 

———————-

[1] You will be excused for not knowing what the first three were as Abraham has selected (1) divisions over Arianism, (2) divisions concerning the doctrine of salvation by faith, and (3) divisions over the authority of scripture, and has not included the East West Schism or the split between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.  Possibly, Abraham did not want to highlight the fact that most of the things that we think of as “schisms” in the life of the Church actually happen between groups that both maintain their place within some version of orthodox Christianity.

Is what we DO together sufficient for Unity?

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One of the things that I have always appreciated about Wesleyan Evangelicals is that they have always resisted the alternating social quietism and tunnel vision to which their fundamentalist brethren are tempted. While there are tensions in the Wesleyan tradition as to where to place the emphasis between winning souls and offering material ministries to the poor and oppressed. It has always been a mark of Wesleyanism, whether conservative or progressive, that one cannot set aside the social dimension of the Gospel.

Recent discussions, however, have challenged this claim. In discussions about unity in the Church, some Wesleyans have begun to treat our commonality in social ministries as only “superficial unity” or perhaps not even worthy of the word “unity.” Note: what I am most worried about here is not simply the claim that the importance of common social ministries to the poor, etc. in the church is overridden by the divisiveness of our position on homosexuality (which I do take to be wrongheaded on its own).  What concerns me the most is that some have, in the heat of the argument, begun to write off our social ministries as a real ground for unity at all.

So, let’s look at some of what I am talking about. (If you are familiar with these ministries, skip down to past the numbered section).

1) Since 2008, the Church’s mission Imagine No Malaria has raised $68 million in cash, pledges and commitments.  It is one of the largest non-Governmental contributors to the Global Fund to The United Methodist Church.  Its Nothing But Nets campaign has engaged United Methodists across the United States. In 2015 alone, over 1.2 million people benefited from the programs. And Imagine No Malaria has contributed to cutting in half the number of malaria deaths in the past decade.

3) In 2015 UMCOR, the United Methodist Committee on Relief celebrated its 75th anniversary.  It is run on donations, primarily from the One Great Hour of Sharing which is organized across the United Methodist Connexion. This allows UMCOR to avoid the advertising expenses of similar groups like Catholic Charities and the Red Cross, so that donations can go straight to the ministry of the organization.  UMCOR has served vitally in over 100 countries across the globe, and has served a central role in responding to natural disasters in the United States.

4) The 2016 General Conference commissioned 29 new missionaries for the Church.  These missionaries will join the other 350 United Methodist missionaries across the globe who develop churches, serve as chaplains, help develop farming, teach, administrate, and offer health care.  In addition, the Church sponsors Global Mission Fellows (the United Methodist parallel of Americorps), Global Justice Volunteers, and Mission Volunteers for shorter terms. The programs allow members across our connexion to participate directly in our global ministries beyond their local churches.

5) The United Methodist Church is currently associated with 119 undergraduate schools in the united states. This grows out of the call in the 1800s for all annual conferences to build their own colleges to make good on Wesleyan aim of joining knowledge and vital piety. Many of these schools have gone on to do the yeoman’s work in opening higher education to first generation students. The Church also has 13 schools of theology in the United States, including some of the best in the nation and Duke.  Beyond this the Church relates to over 700 different educational institutions globally, including Africa University, which has become a powerful institution in the rise of United Methodism in Africa.

Ok, those examples only scratch the surface of what we do together.  But hopefully they do start to fill out a picture of a Church which is not only doing something together, but reaching out in vital ministries together.

So, what should this count for? Well, such common ministries may not be sufficient for establishing Church unity.  But if you don’t see how they get us a great deal of the way there, I am willing to say that you are not very Wesleyan at all.

First, these are not simple things we do.  They are ways of living the Gospel together.  In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus suggests that “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”  The Connexion of the United Methodist Church allows us to reach out to the least of these (which includes ourselves) on scales that no individual church can dream.  Through these ministries, through our unity in these ministries, we come to approximate the Kingdom of God on a scale that no non-denominational conglomerate can. One imagines the believer, on the day of the judgment of nations, explaining to God that she or he thought that saving God from a death at the hands of malaria was really superficial to the kind of unity in the church he or she was looking for.

Second, it is particularly true that as United Methodists our social ministry to the poor and oppressed can be played off against our common beliefs. The practice of social ministry to the poor and oppressed is central to Wesleyan orthodoxy. Wesley famously claimed that there is no holiness but social holiness.  Feeding and clothing those in need, and seeking justice are two of the means of grace.  Our ministries with the poor and oppressed ought properly to be seen in the Church as a means of grace through which the Church as a whole is invigorated by the work of God. Further, our corporate ministries as a church are one key part of the central concept of our polity: connexionalism. To treat our shared social ministries as superficial is heretical for a Wesleyan.

In fact, I would suggest that our connexional ministries are THE ONLY ministries that can be offered as distinctive to the unity of the United Methodist Church.  Any non-denominational church can offer you a Wesleyan theology and an open communion table.  If you are only after strict adherence to a set of beliefs, it would be much easier to find yourself a small community of like minded people and worship together without all the committees, conferences, and Global Boards. But is only the connexion that can offer a way to live that theology out globally in the way that we do.

Now, before anyone gets too hot and bothered, let me answer my original question.  Is what we do together sufficient for Church unity?  No.  I don’t think it is.  It is, as one would say in philosophy, necessary but not sufficient. In addition to it we need a common core of theology, liturgy, etc. which I believe we also have. But that is an argument for another day.

At the very least, today what I want to do is to get us to stop being so un-wesleyan in the way that we treat our common social ministries. I do not mean to claim that we are the only ones who do such ministries, or that we are the best at them (though there are some areas where we are the only ones, and some areas where we are the best).  All I am claiming here is that are common social ministries are important.  What we do together is not superficial.  It is not unsubstantial.  It is not insignificant for the unity of our Church.  And, whatever the significance of our disagreements about homosexuality, we should stop killing our own tradition by minimizing the significance of what certainly does contribute to our substantial unity.

 

Unity Beyond the Current Order in United Methodism

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Kevin Watson, Assistant Professor at Candler School of Theology, recently published a blog on church unity. Dr. Watson is an important voice in United Methodism, rightly praised highly for his work on the Class Meeting.  As such, it is worth while looking at what he has to say, and offering some criticism.

Here let me focus on his two central claims.

First, Watson suggests that, since the Discipline represents our polity, and since it is shared polity that allows for unity, those (like me) who have advocated for a unity which includes resistance to the current stance in the Discipline are not really in favor of unity.

Watson’s view here has initial plausibility, but is ultimately overly idealistic. The world would be much more orderly if the codes of rules that our societies produce were actually the substance of our societies.  But this is never really the case in any simple way.  Lived societies are constantly negotiated, and rarely fully captured on the page.

This fact is clear enough to anyone who has ever taken a thorough look at the legal code in any modern state.  In North Carolina it is illegal for bingo games to last more than five hours.  In Rhode Island it is illegal to sell toothbrush and toothpaste to the same customer on a single Sunday.  No one actually follows these rules. Does this mean that the unity of these states is compromised? No.  Often times practice does not fit to de jure standard.

The above represent places where the legal standards represent modes of life that we would all agree are (at least) out of date. But that is not always the case.  Often times the implementation of law differs regionally.  Take, for instance, traffic laws.  Anyone who has driven in multiple parts of the country will recognize that driving habits differ depending on where one is, and that what is de facto allowed by police will vary if you live in California or Kansas (for instance).  In some cities if you pull into an intersection while waiting to turn left it can get you a ticket.  In others the police officer behind you will honk if you have not pulled out into the intersection.  This despite the fact that the de jure laws on the books are often exactly the same. And yet the unity of the United States is not threatened by this variation in de facto driving patterns.

Not only this, but the Judao-Christian tradition itself has a long history of violating its own written standards.  Take for instance the Puritans in the early Americas.  Today most people have a dour view of the Puritans as strict legalists. There is some justification for this, and part of it would come from reading their explicit social laws. You would be amazed what you could get killed for according to these documents! But, historians tell us that this is not a particularly good way of getting at what the Puritan societies actually did in practice. In practice, while the law calls for strict punishments, the Puritans exercised a great deal of grace. While the law represented the absoluteness of their moral resolve, when it came down to it nobody actually wanted to carry out capital punishment on the guy who lived down the street. The situation is doubtless the same for many of the laws found in the Old Testament. While critics today enjoy trotting out the relatively minor infractions for which one could be justly killed according to the Torah, history does not record the actual carrying out of these punishments on a regular basis (and with the number of capital offenses, judicial killings would doubtless have been regular occurrences).

But why stay in the distant past or in other denominations?  It turns out that there are lots of rules currently in the Discipline that go unenforced and no one even takes note.  See, for instance, this list of 25 ways United Methodists don’t uphold the Book of Discipline. My point here is not that we should have no enforced standards (we need enforced rules) but that we need more than a simple appeal to The Discipline as is currently stands in order to make sense of how and why we enforce. Not all difference in practice is an attack on substantial unity, and not all unity springs from our shared rules.

So, contrary to what Watson suggests, not towing the line in following the written standards of the Discipline is not necessarily an attack on Church unity.  In fact, the real question for people who make this claim is what is it about the issue of homosexuality that makes it so unique in our social standards that our unity depends on strict enforcement?

Watson’s second claim is that those who advocate for moderation (something like freedom of conscience) on issues of homosexuality have provided no developed theological rational for this possibility.

I don’t believe I have seen someone from this group make a theological argument for why one church can be both for and against same sex marriage and how such a position would express the value of the Church’s unity. I can’t recall a theological argument from someone in this camp that argues that same sex marriage is a matter of indifference to God.

Apparently then Watson believes that moderates need an argument for God’s indifference on the question of homosexuality in order to justify their appeal to agree to disagree.  That is a fascinating claim, and I can think of no reason why it would be true.

Let’s say that two Christians agree to disagree on for whom to vote in an election.  Does that mean that they agree that God is indifferent on who gets elected? It’s possible, but not likely. Rather, they probably both believe that (all other things equal) God would prefer their candidate, but they agree to disagree because they are virtuous people who are marked by humility about their own judgments about God’s will in this case and because they recognize that there are other important things that they gain by not leaving the relationship.

But, again why make the issue abstract.  Anyone who is familiar with the United Methodist Church knows that we just do agree to disagree on all sorts of things.  Does that mean that we agree that God is indifferent on those issues? We disagree with each other on the ethics of war, alcohol consumption, abortion, divorce, etc. Are United Methodists therefore obligated to take the position that God is indifferent on these issues? That seems a uniquely absurd conclusion.

Again, the real question here is why, given that we do disagree about such important issues to the Christian tradition as the ethics of war, etc., can we not come to agree to disagree about homosexuality?  In the midst of disagreement between United Methodists of good faith, what is it that deprives us of the humility that would allow us to find substantive unity across our disagreement?

I must admit.  To that I have no answer.

Who Won at General Conference?

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The spin has already started concerning the vote Wednesday at the General Conference.  Within minutes of Conference action, Reconciling Ministries (aligned with the progressive wing of the Church) issued a press release stating that: “This historic action by the Council of Bishops (COB) represents a significant institutional shift in the direction of inclusion and equality.” [1 It took John Lomperis, United Methodist Director for the Institute on Religion and Democracy (a right wing parachurch organization), a bit longer to figure a way to say that it was really the conservatives who had won.

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So who really won at the General Conference?  The Church.

Coming into the Conference the official stance of the Church opposed homosexual weddings and ordination, but in practice many more progressive regions have found ways around enforcing this standard.  There were lots of proposals, but basically four different options on the table for the Church:

(1) Conservatives win – We strengthen enforcement of the current anti-LGBTQ standards in the Book of Discipline.

(2) Progressives win – We eliminate the current standards in the Book of Discipline, and become a Church that universally affirms homosexual ordination and weddings.

(3) Schism – We split into multiple denominations and force individual churches to choose which way to go.

(4) Muddle on – We don’t change the current standard, we don’t strengthen enforcement.  We continue on in our common ministries while de facto recognizing that the Church embraces no one position on homosexuality.

As I have argued in past posts, option # 4 is at present both for principled and strategic reasons the best of a set of bad options for the Church. [2, 3]

Throughout the Conference up to this point we have appeared headed for either option #1 or option #3. [4]  These are not, as I have suggested, unrelated.  The victory of one or the other “side” in our ongoing fight leads inevitably to the collapse of our common ministry as a Church.

But on Tuesday night, in part to avoid the specter of Schism, the General Conference asked the Bishops to lead by presenting their own proposal.  The Bishops retired to executive session, and came forward on Wednesday with their plan. The plan was to refer all discussions about homosexuality to a special commission that would report back its findings to a special session of the General Conference in two or three years.

Some felt that the Bishops had failed in meeting the demand of the moment.  They had not proposed a way to put this all behind us. But the grounding for such complaints is unrealistic.  The Bishops were not, in a night, going to sort out the issues which have plagued the Church for more than a decade. But even beyond that, there is no plan that they could have proposed which would have solved the problems we face.  If the General Conference did not like any of the myriad plans put in front of them thus far, no new plan was going to fit the bill.

I am no great fan of the idea of a commission, though it is clear at this point that the General Conference needs some process beyond the byzantine legislative procedure if it is going to achieve anything more than great power conflict on such issues.  Nor do I like the cost associated with calling a special meeting of the General Conference, though if we have learned anything in the past two General Conferences it is that the quadrennial meeting of the General Conference itself is not adequate for dealing with all, and especially the controversial, business of the Church.

After an extremely acrimonious floor debate, the General Conference voted to accept the proposal from the Council of Bishops, 428-405.

So who won?

It was not progressives who want to convert the Church to a uniform pro-LGBTQ platform. The current official standard of the Church has not changed.  No one will be required to perform gay weddings or accept ordained homosexuals into their pulpit. Indeed, at this point we don’t even know if the commission will be able to find a proposal that will officially recognize the plurality that exists in our church currently. Any proposal from the commission will have to come back to a Conference and face the same contention that exists this time.

But equally, it was not conservatives. At the same time that the General Conference was voting for the Council of Bishops proposal, the Judicial Council was ruling that any attempt to make mandatory minimum punishments for violating the current standard of the church was unconstitutional. Conservatives have thus been blocked from strengthening the regime of punishments in the Church. (Note: further Judicial Council rulings may yet further set conservatives back, but that is another story).  And, like progressives, they have to wait to see what comes out of the commission that has now been created.

I say let them wait. The longer we can prevent one or the other side from winning, the more time we have as a church to minister together and focus on what is essential to the Gospel.  The longer we muddle through, the more time there is for the Holy Spirit to work in transforming us organically rather than from the top down. There are many issues that need still to be addressed before any official solution is possible. But for today, we can celebrate the victory of the Church and continue in ministry together. And, my good God, we might even get to some other issues before the end of the General Conference!

Have We Reached Schism?

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I awoke this morning to the full sound and fury of United Methodist social media. Late last night rumors emerged that the Council of Bishops is considering a plan of schism for the United Methodist Church. These are, at this point, rumors.  Anyone who has watched General Conference before ought to know that threats of schism are par for the course.  Often times, they are part of the power game that is the General Conference these days.  Only time will tell if this is part of the political process, or a serious threat to end the political process.

But before dismissing this as nothing more than politics as usual, it might be worthwhile to look at the power dynamics that would lead to a shift in the calls for schism. Over the last four years, the United Methodist Church has developed a fragile form of de facto compromise over questions of homosexuality. Conservatives control the official stance of the Church.  But liberals have found ways to avoid enforcement of this standard in regions where they predominate.

This system is intellectually incoherent, but it has the makings of a compromise that could not be achieved in any coherent system. In any coherent plan, either one side would gain enough power to lord over the other, or individual Annual Conferences and churches would be forced to explicitly take sides (inevitably leading to schisms within churches). As such, I have advocated for maintaining the status quo as the only realistic alternative for workable unity.

Inevitably, however, at General Conference, the two extremes fight to take over. It is too early to have a accurate picture, but the perception out of many corners of the Conference is that conservatives have taken the upper hand. With the power of African votes combined with American conservatives, conservatives have managed to put their own slate of nominees in key positions, including on the Judicial Council. And, in committee, efforts to close loopholes for enforcement of the official standard of the church have been passing. Progressives have likened it to the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention in the late 1980s.

If there is any truth to the rumors of the recent talk of schism, this would be the reason. If conservatives succeed in closing loopholes, etc, this would end the fragile de facto compromise in which our church lives. With a consolidation of conservative rule, some progressives would rather hit the road than live in a foreign land.

I am still hopeful that this is not the only alternative. The General Conference has yet to vote as a whole on the closing of loopholes, etc. But regardless of what comes of the current rumors of schism, it seems clear to me that the victory of one or the other side in our ongoing debate will lead to the end of our church. At this point, that is a very real threat.