American Manicheanism at the RNC

Before Augustine of Hippo acceded to the pleas of his besainted mother Monica and St. Ambrose, he was a Manichean. This religion was a melange of Zoroastrianism, folk traditions, and Buddhism. But above all it was heavily dualistic, visioning the world as a fierce, clear battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil. In some ways they were not unlike the Essenes that some scholars believe influenced John the Baptizer. The traces of the Essenes are not seen as heavily on Christian theology as are the large stains of dualism, and much of that has to do with Augustine’s misreadings of Paul’s epistles. While he didn’t create the notion of original sin, he did propagate the term concupiscence which essentially characterizes the human experience as being an ongoing battle between the lower appetites (what Paul calls sarx or flesh) and the soul; in this way the human person is a microcosm of the heavenly macrocosm, which will play itself out in an apocalyptic battle. Hatred of the body can be laid at the feet of Augustine, although not him alone, and by the Middle Ages flagellation and other bodily mortification were prevalent ascetic practices for monks trying to overcome the power of the flesh to elevate the spirit. This was borrowed directly from dualistic traditions of the ancient world. See, for example, the War Scroll of the Qumran community, which foretells the impending clash between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness. The scroll depicts graphic scenes in which the enemies (the Sons of Darkness) are laid to waste by the heroes (Sons of Light). As they awaited this war, the members of the community lived under strict conditions and practiced extreme austerity. While this paragraph blurs some lines and loses nuance for the sake of expediency, it is safe to say that Gnostic influences can be found all over the formative years of Christian theology and tradition.

One might think that with the advent of science, philosophy, history, and knowledge over the last two millennia human religion–especially Christianity, which has under its umbrella an estimated 33,000 denominations— would have evolved beyond fantastical visions of an Earth that will be little more than a massive Risk board for God and Satan. One might think, but one would be wrong. Gnosticism is on full display at the Republican National Convention that sadly is being hosted in my beloved home state of Ohio. I thank God I am on the other side of the Heart of it All lest I be attacked.

Gird up your loins and give this a look. Or, if that’s too much read the text below. Or both. Your choice. I pride myself on service.

RNC prayer

Derrick Weston has written a good piece on how this is bad theology; Mark Sandlin has offered how he would have delivered the prayer; and the New York Post has reported that a Muslim-led prayer in the same place was met with screams of derision. I don’t want to rehash what has already been done well, but I do want to offer a new perspective that, perhaps, can add to intelligent conversation.

It seems clear that the GOP has abandoned even extreme Evangelical Christianity  in favor of what I’m calling American Manicheanism, a mix of nationalism, apocalyptic Christianity, and a heavily dualist view of politics, society, religion, and policy. It is evident not only in the prayer offered by Burns–notice all the blame assigned to one side; the descriptors are violent and divisive; and the name of God is invoked in a call to destroy so that peace may come–but also the language of Trump, for whom people are either winners or losers. Seriously. The New York Times ran an article detailing the 239 people Trump has dumped upon. We have seen Chris Christie, Newt Gingrich, and a whole host of other people have tried to get back into Trump’s good graces to once again be labeled a winner. Ted Cruz, it seems, did not achieve that with his non-endorsement of the nominee on Wednesday evening. Trump made his displeasure known.

gettyimages-578133654.jpg    Shudder. I keep expecting him to release the flying monkeys. 

These sort of quasi-intellectual posts might be fun, or an opportunity for me to momentarily stop crying over the nearly $150k student loan debt I’ll have by the time I finish the doctorate in early 2018 and show that all this education is not for naught. I can be witty and sarcastic with footnotes! The average person probably does not care that what we are seeing is a repeat of what has happened for millennia when empires begin to teeter. It might make me feel witty to quip that Commodus is about to take over for Marcus Aurelius. Time for guffaws is long over. We are faced with a terrifying situation. Out of fear, the GOP has retreated to their corners to prepare for an epic battle; they believe themselves to be led by a higher power who has charged them with defeating an enemy, one that is sly and difficult to detect. One that is close, familiar, and perhaps was once a friend. They have cast complicated issues as either/or propositions, and depict the world as dark and dire with suffering to come, unless those who are in the right gather together behind a leader and overthrow the demons.And have done so with a buffoon as a candidate who, according to experts, could create chaos in the world.

This is pretty much what messianic expectations have detailed for thousands of years. A time of crisis; fear gripping the land; and the cries to God to send an agent of delivery. Take a look at Burns’ prayer again; look familiar? But gone are the subtleties and finer points; absent are notions of grace, compassion, and love; peace is pitched as occurring only in the wake of destruction. Blessings are bestowed only upon those with the secret knowledge, the proper pedigree, the anointing of the divine. Hope is placed in the idea that the destruction of the many is necessary for the salvation of the few.

And Trump is expected to win the Evangelical vote.

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Define “Religious”

I talk about religion a lot, often because I am asked to or I am asked questions about religion. For a number of years, even after my conversion and after I became serious about practicing the faith, I hesitated to call myself religious. It seemed to have so many negative connotations for others and even for myself. I actually fell, for awhile, for the New Atheist insistence that to be really religious means to be a fundamentalist, which is absolutely not true and perhaps the topic for a future blog post. But in the past five years, and right around the time I started this blog, I have evolved on my position. Yes, I am in fact religious. As the tagline of this page states, “Reasonably Religious, Religiously Reasonable.”

The origins of the English word religion are interesting. It begins with the Classical Latin religare, which means “to bind.” Religare morphs into religio, which adds a connotation of reverence or high regard. Scholars trace the first written use of it to Cicero, who employs the term in connection to strict observance of local cultic practices. Further, we see that by the time Middle English emerges with “religion,” Old French had added to the word ideas of monastic strictures such that the term has been freighted with all sorts of expectations and requirements, yet without the specific details of what expectations must be met. We know what religion means, but what it is remains to be decided.

At its heart, religion seeks to bind us. To God, to ourselves, to one another. Religion is about relationships, and a sense of obligation and commitment to remain in those relationships even through difficulties. Religion might mean a commitment to certain behaviors and moral codes; it might mean the performance of certain rituals or rites; it can be attenuated by sacred scriptures or other written/oral traditions; and a whole host of other features. And defining religion? Well, it depends on your discipline. The legal definition is very different than the one provided by the IRS. Academic definitions can vary widely; and if you ever want to start some static in a room full of intellectuals, ask whether Buddhism is a philosophy or a religion. Then run. Or get a drink and some popcorn. Either way, something dramatic is going to happen. I used to give the assignment as a final essay to my students, and some of them would hand in the papers with the look of someone who had been crying all night.

I offer all of this because I have spent most of my academic and professional life thinking about and reflecting upon religion. I love having conversations with people in various traditions and disciplines to talk about religion, faith, community, and all the other things that come hand-in-hand with religion. That wonderful yet terrifying creation that has been responsible for some of the most beautiful and more destructive forces in the world. And the more I learn and discover the more I know that I don’t know, and the more that I understand religion can come in ways that are surprising, revolutionary, and unexpected.A religious act can be eating bread in mindfulness, or anointing the body of a person recently deceased. It can be sprinkling water on the forehead of a child, or the passing of an ancestral sword to the next generation. Religion–that which binds us–can be indescribably beautiful.

What it can’t be is the amoral, opportunistic, vapid, insubstantial, self-aggrandizing, Mammon-serving claptrap that Donald Trump displays in his life. He is bound only to himself, to his fragile ego that can only be protected by a worldview that relegates people to being either “terrific” or “losers.” He has never asked forgiveness from God because he does not know how to extend it. Or maybe that should go the other way around. He famously holds grudges for decades, sending quippy notes and emails to rub his perceived success into the face of someone who was inadequately fawning. For him, being religious means winning the Evangelical vote.

If this is not a gut-check time for Evangelical America, I don’t know what is. You’ve been saying to us for years that you vote your values. You have excused horrible treatment of women who seeks abortions, GLBT persons who want to marry, and immigrants who want to have a track to citizenship for years because of your values. And you’re willing to vote for this man, and accept that he calls himself “religious”?

So, I guess I’ve been wrong the past five years. Guess I’m not religious after all.

 

What Would I Have Done?


Can you believe that this agency gets work?  The five year old in me can’t stop gigglin’. 

I met James Farmer when I was eleven years old. I participated in a walkout over the Persian Gulf War in 8th grade (which I don’t know if I would have done as an adult, but I am still a committed pacifist). I’ve been involved in some form of activism to a greater or lesser extent for most of my life. But I have always wondered what I would have done had I lived through this:


Or this:


I have written about the six degrees of Godwin’s Law within online and political discussions, but it seems obvious that the Trump/Pence ticket will provide an opportunity to answer both questions simultaneously. What will I do? To be sure, there are incomplete comparisons between Trump/Pence and Hitler/Mussolini. Hitler had a clear platform that focused on promoting Aryan supremacy and eliminating all other political parties. We have two parties in this country, and while they are both beholden to corporate interests and corrupted beyond description, there are salient differences. Click here to do your own comparisons. But with the nomination of Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana, we see a political marriage of two extremists much like history saw with the signing of the Pact of Steel in 1932. Mussolini, some historians argue, was not as extreme as Hitler in terms of antisemitism; recently published documents suggest that he was fiercely anti-Jewish. Either way, he did nothing to stop the spread of Nazi policies throughout Europe. Mussolini first influenced Hitler, but by 1940 Hitler was clearly the alpha. Their relationship (along with participation in the Spanish Civil War) shaped Europe and pushed the world toward war.

So how does that relate to now? Donald Trump will say anything to get elected, even if that means contradicting himself within minutes. Mike Pence, though, is a committed hard right Republican. Seriously. Go down the rabbit hole with that last link. The man is terrifying for women, GLBTQ+ communities, POC, and basically anyone who does not adhere to his extremist views. While Trump is clearly a narcissistic opportunist only interested in advancing his brand, Pence is pure ideology. Trump has sent a signal to the Evangelical and Tea Party folks that they will have a place at the table. Trump has sent out the WASP-signal.

We don’t have to wonder, friends. A time of accountability is upon us. But here’s my pledge. I am going to be about hope and love rather than fear and hatred. I will not back down from confrontations and will not be silent because I am concerned about physical safety, but I will not allow the extreme beliefs of others impact my life to such an extent that I do not live as fully and as joyfully as possible. I am committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and if you read this blog you know how my faith functions.

I’m also going to support others in the things they are able to do; not all of us have the same call, the same gifts, the same responsibilities, the same contexts. Let’s affirm each other in the parts that we are able to play, and not push unrealistic expectations on others or ourselves. If LOVE WINS, as we often say, that means that it wins now. In this moment. It is not a goal to which we aspire, but rather is a philosophy we embody in what we do and how we relate to others.

We’re all in this together! Now watch this gorgeous man and feel better about the world

Augustus*/Pilate 2016: The Preferred Ticket of Megachurch Pastors

Listen to this:

If you are anything like me, you are having this reaction:

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So Pastor Robert Jeffress, who once said that trans* friendly businesses were more of a threat than Daesh (no shit), has come out in favor of Donald Trump because he is a strongman. Okay. That’s a stupid thing to want–you’ve got a doctorate, Bob; read a book on the rise of fascism in 20th century Europe–but it is not totally unreasonable. We’ve seen that on all the continents. And while I think it is a ridiculous political desire, I have to admit that it is one that has shaped politics in the past. Generally for the worse, but people do pull the lever for a strongman. Fine

But the asinine contention that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount would not make sense for governance (which is in itself not necessarily a wrongly stated position) because Jesus didn’t claim that it was a governing philosophy shows the danger and limitation of biblical literalism. To wit, Rev. Dr. Strongmanwanter believes that Christians should be against homosexuality because it is in the Bible. Yet Jesus says exactly zero things about homosexuality. But, you might object, there are prohibitions elsewhere. Yes, there are; kinda. But Jeffress argues that the Bible does not say anything about government.

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Yeah, no. Evidence? The Torah. Kiiiiiiinda filled with laws about how the covenant community should be formed and governed. Now, there are a lot of caveats. And Christian fundamentalists most often don’t get that the covenant code is not for us; Jewish fundamentalists often forget that the laws are applicable only in a Jerusalem that contains the Temple. Despite the nuances that most certainly are not being discussed in any real form here, it is safe to say that the Bible is absolutely concerned about how a society is governed.

Reasonable people will hopefully agree that Jesus was Jewish and was interested in helping to reform and rejuvenate the religion. (Marcus Borg’s Jesus, A New Vision, is a great starting point for people wanting to understand this perspective.) He wasn’t a law-maker, but he was a law-interpreter. In the Jewish tradition this is know as midrash. Notice how Jesus often says, “You have heard it said, but say to you…” and then goes on to say something that emphasizes the Spirit of the law over the letter of the law? That’s midrash. It’s kinda a big deal.

See, we Christian pastors need to read more than the Bible because we are charged with midrash. It is what we do with our sermons. We need to read books about the Bible. About history. Archaeology. Sociology. Linguistics. Literature. And the good pastor knows this; he has an impressive education from schools that I might not have chosen to attend, as I am not a Southern Baptist, but that are accredited by reputable services and that is no joke. Seminaries lose accreditation if they do not follow strict guidelines; schools like Liberty University don’t get accreditation or try to create their own agencies to circumvent the standards. All of this to say that Jeffress knows better. He knows that Jesus’ words directly relate to the power dynamics that exist between people and the religious hierarchy; the people and the Romans; the Jewish hierarchy and the Romans; and how they pertain to the people’s relationships between themselves. I find it most probable that Jeffress has read or is familiar with Walter Wink’s work on the roles power plays in Jesus’ vision of the faith. In a nutshell, Jesus is anti-strongman. Jesus’ entire ministry is about the kin-dom of God, which he imagines (according to John Dominic Crossan) as God sitting on the throne of Caesar.

Jesus was inherently political is the Greek sense of the word; politics is that which relates to the people. In many ways, our weekly liturgy (which means “work of the people”) is a form of politics, because it concerns our relationship with God (and one another). For Jeffress to argue that the Bible supports a “strongman” is ludicrous. If God likes a strongman, why does David win? If God likes a strongman, why did Jesus come as a carpenter and submit himself to the cross?

I don’t like to question other people’s faith, but Jeffress’s words make me think he would have made a great campaign manager for the Romans.

aaaaa

*The author is aware that Tiberias was emperor during Jesus’ ministry and execution. But Tiberius/Pilate doesn’t have the same zing 😉
 

Straining Credulity: Trump the Presbyter

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On January 18, 2016, Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump sojourned to Lynchburg, Virginia to the campus of Liberty University, the brainchild of the late Jerry Falwell, Sr., to deliver an address for Martin Luther King Day. The speech, at least to this author, was Trump’s blatant attempt to ingratiate himself to the Evangelical Right, who are disproportionately represented in the student body. Trump regularly claims that the Bible is his favorite book, but until Monday has refused to name his favorite verse. That all changed at Liberty.

“Two Corinthians, 3:17, that’s the whole ballgame,” he said. “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty,” he continued, conveniently citing the school’s official verse which is displayed prominently throughout campus. Either this is a great coincidence, or Donald found an easy way to avoid cracking open the Bible he purports to respect so much.

I try not to attack other people’s faith stances and attitudes toward religion. I am clearly to the left of many of my colleagues, at least in terms of social issues. I am rather orthodox theologically: I proclaim Jesus Christ my Lord and Savior; I believe that sin and death are not the final words; I confess the four ecumenical creeds that bind Catholic, Orthodox, and Mainline Protestant Christians together; and I serve as a pastor in the denomination to which Donald Trump claims to be “very proud” to belong, the Presbyterian Church (USA).

But I find Trump’s claims that 2 Corinthians 3:17 is the “whole ballgame” to be quite disingenuous. He operates under the assumption that Paul’s “liberty” is the Western, secular, humanist, capitalist liberty of a laissez faire marketplace. Paul was writing within a context in which Christians were deemed atheists because they did not believe in the Roman pantheon of gods. Paul’s liberty–or, more properly, the Christian liberty about which Paul writes–is one that allows a community the freedom to acknowledge and proclaim the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Joseph.

This, of course, is the same God proclaimed by Muslims, the very same Muslims whom Donald Trump wants to keep from entering the country until we, nebulously, “figure out what is going on.” How is that in keeping with liberty? Of course, it is not. But it fits in well with a zeitgeist of American Christian persecution (which, unlike in Syria, does not include beheading but rather the inability to say “Merry Christmas” to anyone without shouting distance).

I cannot imagine that Rev. Dr. King would have been in attendance at Liberty University yesterday, were he still alive, and I certainly don’t think that he would echo Trump’s call to ban an entire religious group from entry into the country because of a woeful understanding of geopolitics and the Constitution of the United States of America. I further stand with the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in his denouncement of Trump’s rhetoric.

Presbyterianism operates on the principle of lay persons serving as elders and deacons for terms of service, usually three years; the term presbyter means “elder.” We are lay-driven and beholden to the Book of Order. We have ancient rules, all of them aimed at creating a community in which the stranger is invited into the community and is encouraged to become a member; we have a long, proud history of being engaged with social justice and civil rights. We are the denomination of Fred Rogers (see the piece by my colleague Rev. Derrick Weston), and we continue to push ourselves to live into the radical message of Jesus of Nazareth.

It simply strains credulity that Donald Trump knows anything about who we are in Christ Jesus.

 

On behalf of my people…

I am a white male. Ten years ago, I added Christian to that self-description. While not wealthy, my family is financially stable; my parents grew up in working class homes and, because of the availability of state-funded scholarships and the low price of tuition, both secured excellent educations. As a result, I grew up with food on the table and a roof over my head. To be sure, I have had a job since I was thirteen years old, but I have never known true poverty. For most of my life, I have lived paycheck to paycheck, but when the bottom has dropped out, my family has been able to swoop in with a safety net. I tell you all of this because I want to make one point crystal clear: I have never known what it is like to be in an economic, racial, or gender minority. As a white, Christian, American male, I’ve most often walked into a room and seen people who look like me; turned on the television and seen people who look like me; and, on the whole, I grew up idolizing musicians, actors, and other celebrities that look like me. I have never known that it is like to “represent” my gender, race, or faith tradition. I’ve never had the pressure of being the only white, Christian male in a classroom, or been the first white, Christian male to perform a specific job or join a particular group. And while in primary and secondary school I was bullied and teased about as much as anyone else, I was able to slink into the background because, well, there were plenty of other white males around me.

So this is new for me: I would like to apologize for my people.

This has nothing to do with liberal white male guilt. It really doesn’t. But it does have to do with the fact that white, Christian males have really been stinking up the place lately. From Representative Darrell Issa’s sham of a “hearing” on women’s health to Rush Limbaugh’s disgusting attacks on Sandra Fluke (the Georgetown law student charged with being a “slut” and a “prostitute” by El Rushbo because she had the audacity to point out that birth control pills can help prevent the development of ovarian cysts), I have found myself wanting to go up to every woman I meet and explain that not all of us are Neanderthals with no understanding of the female reproductive system. While Issa argues for smaller government, he and other white males in legislatures both State and Federal want to insert (literally) Uncle Sam’s influence into the vaginas of women across the country. Yet, many of these males—I return to his rotundity, Rush Limbaugh—seem to have a basic ignorance about the inner workings of the female anatomy. Rush and Bill O’Reilly think that a woman has to take a birth control pill every single time she has sex, as though it operates like a tablet of Viagra. To wit, Rush has screamed repeatedly into his microphone of hate: “Did it ever occur to you [women who find it difficult to pay for necessary contraceptive care] to stop having so much sex?!” Every time I hear this sound bite, I want to run up to a random woman and say, “I’m so sorry for my people. But I can assure you, I understand the difference between a Fallopian tube and a drinking straw. I paid attention in my government-funded health class, and I work hard at my church to make sure that boys are able to say vagina without giggling and that they don’t regard menstruation as ‘Satan’s doing.’”

I fight the urge to really do this, of course, because , once started, it would be impossible to stop. If I apologize for the trans-vaginal probe bills and my people’s basic ignorance of the female anatomy, I most certainly will need to apologize for the nonsense coming out the mouths of Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Mitt Romney. Only white men who have never really known persecution can, with a straight face, accuse the first African-American president (who, in the spirit of full disclosure, is a member of my Christian denomination, the United Church of Christ) of oppressing Christians. Only men who each have multiple graduate degrees can accuse a self-made man like President Obama of “being out of touch” and call him a “snob.” I can see myself, depleted of fluids, hallucinating from the sheer exertion required to continue my apologies, crawling from household to household, crying and gnashing my teeth, assuring the good people of this country that not all of us are so ridiculous. That we not only pay attention to history, but that we place it in its proper context. Assuring all who will listen that there are not vomitoriums across the country filled to overflowing because we just now read President Kennedy’s 1960 speech on the separation of Church and State.

So I apologize, America. I know a good number of white Christian males who are solid, reasonable people. And I am not trying to assume the mantel of a “minority.” I understand that I am still a white Christian male. But I do, in some way, feel like I am surrounded by a bunch of people who are so different from myself. Suddenly, individuals of the same gender and who are covered by skin of the same hue don’t look like me. I have a hard time finding myself in the Congress and on the airwaves.

So the next time you see me or one of my ilk, and our behavior is different from those other white, Christian males you see on television, I totally understand if you turn to your friends and say, Well, he’s not REALLY a white, Christian male.  

Roving Eastwood: Offense on Superbowl Sunday

My father is from Detroit. Even though I am born and raised in Ohio, I grew up rooting for Detroit sports teams, especially the Tigers and the Lions. I would spend as much as three weeks each summer in Detroit, splitting time between my paternal grandparents, who divorced before I was born. While I have never lived there, Detroit is a special place to me. And my family has strong ties to the automotive industry: My paternal grandfather’s second wife, a woman I always considered my grandmother, worked at Ford Tractor for over 30 years.

So as Dad and I sat on the couch this past Sunday, sipping Guinness and eating the most delectable chili I think my father has ever cooked, it was with amazement that we viewed Clint Eastwood’s now famous Chrysler ad. We both remarked on the positive message and artistry of the commercial, and spoke about going next fall to see our Lions play at Ford Field.

I was taken aback, however, when the next day I heard Karl Rove say that he was “offended” by the ad. Rove, who is responsible for some of the most dirty and reprehensible political attacks in modern American politics,[1] said: “I was, frankly, offended by it. I’m a huge fan of Clint Eastwood, I thought it was an extremely well-done ad, but it is a sign of what happens when you have Chicago-style politics, and the president of the United States and his political minions are, in essence, using our tax dollars to buy corporate advertising.”[2] White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, responding to the claims, has made it clear that the Administration had nothing to do with the ad.[3] Common sense could have led up to this conclusion. Clint Eastwood is a well-known conservative; he was mayor of Carmel, California, and at one time George H.W. Bush considered placing him on the presidential ticket, hoping to recapture some of the conservative Hollywood magic delivered by President Reagan.[4] Eastwood himself has made it clear that he is no fan of President Obama, and that the ad was not politically motivated.[5] So the idea that this this “liberal Hollywood” taking up the charge of the liberal president just won’t hold. And Rove is smart enough to know this, so he uses another tactic.

Rove claims that Chrysler has not paid back its loan, thereby intimating that there is not a “real” success story here, or that the automotive industry is akin to the Wall Street firms that were bailed out and then issued record bonuses without repaying their own debt. In truth, Chrysler has repaid $10.6 billion of its original $12.5 billion dollar loan. While Rove may complain that this is not a full repayment—and he would be correct—the fact is Chrysler has repaid all of the money provided under the Obama Administration (about $4 billion dollars was lent by the Bush Administration).[6] Now certainly, this is splitting hairs, and a reasonable person could argue that the first money lent should be the first money repaid. If this is the case, there is still about $1.9 billion outstanding, not a paltry sum, and it falls to the current president to recoup the funds. With that acknowledged, Rove’s claim fits into a larger game: He is attempting to inflict political amnesia on the American people, associating the “auto bailout” with only the Obama Administration. This seems odd, given that GM and Chrysler are back on top, in terms of sales, production, and stock prices.[7] Why is the loan to American car companies still seen as such a horrible sin? Do we object to growing numbers of automotive jobs? Is an increase in consumer confidence about American cars something to lament? What is more American than an ad about the reemergence of American cars owed to the efforts of the American people airing during America’s greatest single sporting event?

Regardless of the differences that Mr. Rove and I may have concerning the wisdom of the auto bailout—especially given the two wars that were started during Mr. Rove’s tenure in the White House which contributed greatly to the country’s current deficit, money that can never be “repaid”—I must say that his use of language seems misplaced and, if I may be so bold, hypocritical. Karl Rove is among those contemporary Republican voices yearning for the time of Ronald Reagan. To wit, through the first ten debates in 2011, the 4othpresident’s name was mentioned 53 times.[8] While there are myriad reasons Republicans invoke the memory of Reagan—appreciation for economic policies, military strength, foreign policy positions—today the prevailing message seems to focus on the optimism of Reagan. For example, at a debate in Florida former candidate Jon Huntsman (R-Utah) waxed nostalgic about Reagan: “I like those days when Ronald Reagan…would ensure that the light of this country would shine brightly for liberty, democracy, human rights, and free markets. We’re not shining like we used to shine. We need to shine again.” Based on Karl Rove’s appreciation for Reagan’s optimism, one could assume that the offending ad calls Americans a bunch of lazy, fat, indifferent slobs. Or even worse, includes an insult to Ronald Reagan.

But such is not the case. Clint Eastwood, in classic Dirty Harry fashion, growls, “It’s halftime in America, too. People are out of work, and they’re hurting. And they’re all wondering what they’re gonna do to make a comeback. And we’re all scared because this isn’t a game. The people of Detroit know a little something about this. They almost lost everything. But we all pulled together, now Motor City is fighting again.” What, exactly, is offensive here? Is it Eastwood celebrating the ongoing recovery of one of the most hard-hit, economically depressed cities in the country, that so stokes the ire of Mr. Rove? What, pray tell, could offend Mr. Rove about the optimism and celebration of strength voiced in the ad, which rightly declares that this great country cannot be knocked out by one punch?

Karl Rove has now found himself in the curious position of denouncing an ad which is meant to rally the American spirit and encourage optimism, Reagan’s most celebrated quality. [9]

Well, I’ll tell you what offends me, Mr. Rove: Corporations being given rights to unlimited speech when an independent filmmaker is arrested at the U.S. Capitol Building at the request of Republican lawmakers.[10] I’m insulted by how, as a result of the Citizens United decision,[11] your Super-PACs American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS are able to fill our airwaves with factually shaky ads, while you are legally protected from disclosing the sources of your contributions. And, honestly, Mr. Rove. If we are going to talk about being offended, let’s be serious. I am offended that children go hungry in this country; I am offended that the reproductive rights of women are under increasing assault. I am offended that the cost of a college education–which you never bothered to complete–now means that a growing number of people in my generation are saddled with debts we may never repay. I am offended that certain Christians claim to be a minority under assault, while at the same time persecution of and violence against LGBT persons continues at alarming rates. I am offended by the loss of statesmanship in this country, by how politics has become an out growth of professional wrestling. And while I readily admit that I like to spend my free time watching classic rasslin’, I like to leave it to the in-shape professionals and not our elected officials. American politics should not be WWE, but it has descended to such a level.

To me, Rove being offended boils down to this: It seems that an American car company cannot be patriotic. Or a conservative cannot take part in an ad celebrating the recovery of the automotive industry because political forces such as Karl Rove regard it as apostasy to party loyalty. It never ceases to amaze me how many times the words “liberty” and “freedom” are bandied about in GOP politics—generally as a way of intimating that we no longer have either—yet “freedom” and “liberty” don’t include the right to acknowledge a reality: Chrysler is back, and our country is trying to recover. That is not a partisan message, it is a sentiment that we all need to hear. We have gone through one of the most trying periods in American history—the most trying in my lifetime—and while we have not yet emerged completely, things are getting better. I think Ronald Reagan would approve of this optimism, regardless of policy opinions.


[1] For a full accounting, see James Moore, Bush’s Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential. The documentary film of the same name is also worth a view.

[10] politico.com/news/stories/0212/72298.html