God is a liberal Democrat living in Princeton

Quite a few member of the faculty of Princeton Theological Seminary (PTSem) [1] released a statement that they say represents their views, not the views of the seminary at large. [2] I was glad to hear that because I am preparing to quibble with them and I do not want to quibble with the seminary itself.  I really do like the seminary.

Ordinarily, I would provide a hyperlink to their statement, but, as nearly as I can tell, there isn’t one. That means that you have to go to the official seminary website (ptsem.edu) and enter a search term. Hint: “Trump” will serve as the key word. It is so easy to find that I am not going to reproduce it here—saving us all the extra 608 words that make up the declaration. I do think it is well worth the search because it is a very clear statement of the politics and the theological vision of these faculty members.

I call these “quibbles” not because they are insignificant, but because it is hard to tell what values are genuinely proclaimed in the document. There is so much posturing and such profligate borrowing of words from other settings that I am not really sure how much they and I would wind up disagreeing on the substance of their vision. I do feel on better grounds when I criticize the statement  for the effects it is going to have on the structure of current politics.

I have four “quibbles” in mind for this essay. I could crank up twenty more if time and space were not constraints. [3]

Quibble 1 Is demonizing the opposition the best course?

Nearly everyone I talk to would be harder to talk to if they had read this piece. I suppose somebody has to do that, but then again somebody needs to talk to real conservatives (not Trump supporters) and genuine independents and Democrats Against Hillary and the job of all those people just got harder.

Thank You for Not QuibblingLet me just give one example of demonization. The first paragraph of the declaration gives us this gem: “the god [small g-] of Donald Trump’s [ not President Trump’s] “America first” nationalism is not the God [capital G-] revealed in our scriptures.”

This statement begins with a charge of idolatry: Trump’s “god,” that is, the “god” he worships, is not really God. [4] It continues by saying that Trump “worships” nationalism of the kind that prefers American interests to all others. Being a liberal Democrat myself, I am inclined to believe that multinational treaties are better for moving in the direction of many of the policy goals I like. On the other hand, a preference for bilateral over multilateral goals is not idolatry and if the “America first” slogan means that we should be more forceful in seeing to it that the national welfare is protected in our treaties and trade agreements, I am not prepared to call that by a pejorative religious name. “Idolatry,” means “the worship of images.” It’s a serious charge. It’s not about foreign trade agreements.  President Trump may also prefer “a white Christian America,” but that is not what this phrase means.

I call that demonization. Once again, if this is an elaborate ballet by which the PTSem faculty are playing “bad cop” and they know who is going to take on the role of “good cop,” I have no objection to it. That does seem sophisticated for a seminary faculty, but I am not there and I don’t know.

Quibble 2 What do we owe to “the stranger?”

Specifically, does it mean that modern nation-state violates God’s law by enacting immigration legislation. Is working for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) the rough equivalent to “working for” the Gestapo? That doesn’t make any sense to me at all. I have two problems with this “plank.”

Princeton 4The first is just exegetical. There are no biblical texts anywhere that deal with how a wealthy national economy should handle the hordes of people who can improve their lives by moving there. None. “The stranger” presupposes an agricultural context in small villages in the highlands of Palestine. It isn’t Ellis Island; it isn’t the Rio Grande. Those scriptures need to be reconsidered in a modern context if they are to be used as first principles. Does “immigrant” really equal “stranger” in the biblical sense? Does even “illegal workers” (as in the angry poster above) equal “the stranger?” Of course not.

The second has to do with policy goals. I think national immigration policy should be enlightened and I think it should serve the cultural and economic interest of the host country and that it should stay within the political constraints by which issues are defined and processed. “The stranger” does none of those things. If “the stranger” meant immigrants who are here illegally and who are now having their life situations upset for no reason beyond partisan advantage, then I applaud the sanctuary movement—both its legal and its illegal forms—as a countermeasure. But realistic immigration policy would make that unnecessary and neither Bible nor catechism tells us what that is.  The Congress has not told us either.

Quibble 3 Is President Trump opposed to the “empowerment of women?”

This is a little more complicated because the charge is more complicated. If you look at the causal chain that makes up this charge, you will see that the declaration contains a lot of elements. It begins with “the policies and approach embraced by the Trump administration.” That is the element defining the source of the action. It continues with “executive orders and members of the new administration’s cabinet;” these are the means through which the approach is executed. The goal of this actor and these specified means is a whole series of  outcomes, from which I have chosen “the empowerment of women” as my example.

What does “the empowerment of women” mean? I called myself a liberal Democrat, Princeton 5earlier, but I will have to admit to an exception here. The “empowerment of women” has often meant the demand for the professionalization of women—whether any particular woman is attracted to that style of life or not—and the blanket condemnation of women who choose other kinds of life. If these women don’t want what we (liberal Democrats) think they ought to want, then clearly, they have been brainwashed and we are here to set them straight.  I reject that view.

What I would like to see is an aggressive clearing of the way for women to rise in business and government to the levels to which they aspire and to which their talents and their hard work entitle them. Simultaneously, I want every woman to be free to choose the kind of life she aspires to and to be celebrated for that choice. I want, in other words, for some women to be empowered to choose this and for other women to be empowered to choose that. No one I know means that by the phrase “empowerment of women” and when I read these faculty members declaration that they are for “empowerment” and that the Trump administration is against it, I suspect that they mean the old one-sided liberal Democratic pitch. This is the pitch, by the way that caused white women by and large (53%), to vote AGAINST the feminist and FOR the misogynist.

Maybe one more.

Quibble 4 God hates capitalism.

What these authors, quoting Martin Luther King Jr., call “extreme materialism,” is the foundation of the capitalist system. That isn’t the way Adam Smith, the first great theorist of capitalism, thought it ought to be, but that is the way it has been ever since aggregate consumer spending became the principal driver of the economy.

I’m sure “extreme materialism” is bad for the individuals who choose it, but I am not sure it is a proper subject for public policy.

Princeton 7It can be a personal disease; I do know that. People can strip their lives of virtually everything worthwhile just to get more things. But I don’t think I want to say that it is a fault in an economic system based on consumer spending. No recent Democratic president has taken a stand against “extreme materialism.” Some—President Obama is a good example—have preached and modeled the value of other kinds of goals, but the Federal Reserve System has not been given any guidance about how to reduce the materialism of the American consumer; nor has the Department of the Treasury, nor Commerce, nor Labor.

What we would replace “extreme materialism” with is a complicated matter, particularly if we think of it as national policy. A “happiness metric” such as the one California briefly adopted? A family solidarity standard, such as the one columnist Ross Douthit suggested in his New York Times column on February 26? An increase in national virtue, such that spiritual rather than material values are to be pursued? What executive department would you give that to? I suspect these signatories are thinking of Mar a Lago, President Trump’s Florida showplace—just my suspicion—but remember that this charge started with the Trump administration and its members and their policies; they are thought of as the source of the action.

So, in summary, I am not attracted to the faith proclamations of these PTSem faculty. I don’t disagree with them very much. They and I could sit down and have a very civil and productive discussion about them I am sure. But I really don’t like the religious weaponization; I don’t like the demonization of opponents; I don’t like seeing personal standards being treated as if they were legitimate matters for policy adoption.

And most of all, I don’t like the way they make my job harder than it already is. I favor productive and persistent civil discourse across political positions. I do actually talk to conservatives. It won’t take that much to restore the Democrats to national power, but it is going to take a different direction than these seminarians are choosing to provide Democrats with the popular leeway to do anything.

[1] PTS, which you would think would work, is actually owned by Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, so Princeton has had to adjust.

[2] There are 44 full time faculty at the seminary according to the seminary web site. There were 33 full time faculty among the listed signers, along with 13 emeritus professors and 7 adjuncts. That’s 75% of the full time faculty.
[3] Another famous resident of Princeton, Albert Einstein, said that time and space are not really the constraints we had imagined them to be, but I am an essayist and they are real to me.
[4] This will undoubtedly amaze the 80% of evangelical Christians who voted for him.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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