Modest Requests: A Rare Attempt at Fiction

I tend to be the kind of person who shares things I’m thinking or doing, but I have more trepidation with this one. Although I have published probably hundreds of thousands of words of non-fiction, I don’t think I’ve written any fiction since about 1988 in high school. Here we go.

Modest Requests

Henry was a book man.  He was the type of fellow who purchased far more books than he would ever be likely to actually read, especially in an age when his reading competed with streaming video and social media.  It was always easier to do something other than reading, but so great was his attachment to books he continued to compile them.  Even if his consumption of books had lost pace, he still liked the way they looked stacked up in his home and office.  They were beautiful to him.  He’d rather look at a shelf of books than most paintings.

Like almost everyone else, he had begun to buy books from a gigantic online seller where he could find almost anything used or new that he might want.  On one hand, he delighted in the ease of it.  On the other, he resented the slow extinction of the many bookstores that once dotted towns and cities.  Even in a world with EverythingMart.com, he still liked the idea of slowly making his way through a bookstore and letting his eyes run across the titles of all the volumes collected.  The thing about a bookstore is that you could find things you didn’t know existed.  There was a process of discovery.  No, even that is too clinical.  It was more like a quest.

Henry enjoyed the process of working his way through his favorite sections of used bookstores.  He happily regarded the piles of cheap paperbacks on everything from philosophy, self-help, religion, and, of course, the serialized adventures of pulp heroes such as The Shadow, Doc Savage, and the Destroyer.  Henry especially loved the genres of science fiction and the kinds of books written for Christians with an intellectual bent.  C.S. Lewis crossed over those categories and represented a special treasure.  A few hours spent crawling through shelves and aisles would leave him tired and happy, especially if he could walk out with about a dozen cheap books.    

It was on such a day that Henry found something unusual.  On the bottom shelf of a stack of books way in the back of a store, the dustiest part, he saw an old leather-bound book with nothing but a title embossed in gold on the spine.  Although he wasn’t the type of book seeker who collected for profit, he looked at it wondering if it were, indeed, valuable.  The title read Modest Requests.  He was intrigued.  It was late.  He needed to get home for the family meal.  The inside cover had a surprisingly reasonable price considering the handsome cover.  He added it to his pile, paid, and left. 

After dinner with his family and a small tv binge session with his wife (watching an English mystery series), Henry went to the office on the side of the house where most of their books sat on shelves (while others balanced precariously in haphazard stacks in various locations such as nightstands).  He perched on a stool at the small desk and looked over his purchases from earlier in the day.  Again, his eyes fell upon Modest Requests

He opened the book and saw that each page was divided in half with a line running down the middle.  The column on the left had a heading that read “Requests.”  On the other side of the divide, the column bore the title “Answers.”  Before he could really take in the actual content of the material in the columns, Henry did notice that the capsules of text on the left always had parallel writing that simply read “Yes” or “No.”  He also observed that the words in the parallel columns under the headings were all hand-written.  The book appeared to be one in which people wrote as though for record-keeping or as a diary of sorts. 

Deeply intrigued, Henry began to read through the entries in the columns.  After making his way through a few pages, he observed a clear pattern.  It was like this:

Written on the left: “I would like a million dollars.”

Written on the right: “No.”

Written on the left: “I want Jeremy to ask me to marry him.”

Written on the right: “No.”

Written on the left: “I want my sister to open and read the letter I send her asking for her forgiveness.”

Written on the right: “Yes.”

Henry jumped involuntarily.  There was gravity associated with that “Yes.”  After reading through several more entries of this type, he began to feel fairly certain he grasped how the journal worked.  The key to getting an affirmative answer was, indeed, to make a reasonable or “modest” (as the title of the journal indicated) request. 

He thought about what he’d read.  If he took it at face value, there seemed to be some sort of power available that could grant these requests if it chose to do so.  He couldn’t resist taking a chance.  Writing in the right column, he scrawled, “I would like $200,000 to pay off the mortgage on my home.”  That struck him as more modest than asking for a fortune like a million dollars.  Perhaps predictably given what he’d read, but also shockingly and chillingly, an invisible hand (or so it appeared) went to work.  A word appeared in the column on the right next to his expressed desire on the left.  “No.” 

Henry wasn’t sure whether he should burn the book in the face of such apparently mystical power.  Or perhaps he was the victim of some kind of elaborate prank.  Was there a camera recording his reaction?  He carefully put the book away where no one in his household would find it and joined his wife in bed.  His mind was racing.  What sort of modest request would he or could he make?  How should one utilize a power (albeit a constrained one) of the kind that seemed to have become available to him?  He thought and thought until he finally drifted off to sleep, exhausted by possibility.

After reflecting deeply on the nature of his own desires and about what it might mean to make a modest request, Henry arrived at something that had been troubling him for a long time.  He decided to formulate a modest request related to his life and his heart.  And when he finally wrote something that he thought matched the scale and the spirit of what he’d seen in the book, an answer appeared in the left-hand column.  It said, “Yes.

_________________________

Victoria Ten Eyck wrote for one of the premier newspaper companies in the country.  Unlike a long list of once great organizations that now scraped by, Victoria’s paper continued to command large numbers of readers and revenue.  In fact, the technological advancements of the age had ultimately only magnified the influence of the corporation for which she worked.  At this disruption-defying, rich and powerful organization, Victoria was one of the most well- known writers.  That meant she was at the top of her profession and was guaranteed an opportunity to exert some influence on the biggest questions of the day.  In particular, she had become a prominent commentator on issues of human sexuality.  Her Ph.D. in American studies combined with her unusual capability to write in an accessible and entertainingly sharp manner had brought her to this place of prominence on the national scene. 

In addition to her regular job writing op-eds reaching millions, she was a fellow at a national think tank, and occasionally taught seminars at the nation’s finest universities.  Victoria was powerful, well-compensated, and fashionable.  Almost any version of the American elite included her.  She was as comfortable appearing on a campus as she was on daytime television. 

As she scanned through her email and social media channels, Victoria prepared to crank out a column.  She was a fast writer and typically could produce something quotable and relevant in less than an hour. 

Today, though, she was a little unsettled.  She’d had a dream.  Maybe a dream is the wrong way of describing it.  She’d had impressions as she slept.  It was as though she was seeing things through someone else’s eyes or maybe feeling them through their heart.  Some rooms opened up on the inside of her.  Rooms where she didn’t even know what exactly they contained.  But she felt as though she had touched another person.    

Victoria geared up and began typing.  She was going along smoothly until she produced a sentence referring to “fundamentalists whose faith is a cover for bigotry toward LGBTQ+ men and women as surely as white sheets cover the identities of vicious racists.”  It didn’t sit right.  She wasn’t sure why.  This kind of statement was coin of the realm for her.  But now, it just looked ugly and maybe not really fair.  It occurred to her — maybe she always realized this but hadn’t engaged the thought — that bigotry has to do with irrational hatred and that perhaps there could be other relevant motives or explanations other than that to explain the people she was writing about. 

Victoria got rolling again and produced “The authority of scripture is a ridiculous pretext for interpretations that serve nothing other than the causes of oppression and privilege.”  She realized that while she identified strongly with the belief she’d just expressed, it was possible that the people she charged with such malign intent could well be thinking and feeling differently.  It wasn’t like her to wonder about the justice of her advocacy in the direction of those she was criticizing given her overriding confidence in the righteousness of her cause.  And yet, here it was, a concern she couldn’t quite shake.  The license she normally gave herself felt more tenuous than usual.

Perplexed and somewhat stymied, Victoria went down to the lobby for Starbucks.  When she returned, nothing had changed.  But Victoria hadn’t gotten to where she was agonizing over moral dilemmas when the world needed to hear from her regularly.  She closed the file and opened a new one in which she riffed on the need for more female CEO’s in the Fortune 500.  No speedbumps there.  Her fingers flew. 

______________________________________

Henry returned home from work and looked for Modest Requests.  He had been eager to try and formulate another entreaty and to see whether he could cause another “Yes” to materialize on the paper.  But the journal was gone. 

Modest Requests sat among the remnants of a library sale in a half-abandoned downtown area halfway across the country where it waited to be found again.   Someone did find it a couple of weeks later.  Her curiosity drove her to examine the odd volume with the attractive leather cover.  She looked through the entries and noticed the final one, one accompanied by a “Yes.”  It read, “I wish someone important understood people like me better.”

As she paged through the entries in the book and began to form an idea of what might be going on, her imagination began buzzing.  Her thoughts formed concentric circles around what it would take to generate a “yes” and what might be worthy of such an answer.  She began to write.

Mind over Matter: Hunter Gets an MRI

I had a physical at my last trip to the doctor’s office. We talked again about some of the problems I’ve had with my back and knees. That led to an x-ray. The x-ray led to an MRI. I await the verdict.

Happily, I haven’t needed an MRI up until now. So, this was a new experience. I was more interested in the results than worried, which left me in a reasonably good state of mind as I went to the imaging center.

Right away, I got a bit of a shock. As I went through the check-in process, the tablet I was using informed me I would need to pay $542 for the MRI. I asked the receptionist, “Is this right? I was told the procedure was cleared by insurance.” She showed me the price, which was over $900. “You must be making progress toward a deductible.” Alas, alas . . .

But let me tell you, I am grateful for that $542 price tag. It gave me some serious skin in the game. And I needed skin in the game.

I am one of the world’s most fidgety people. Even in my sleep, I probably move more than most people do when awake. I twitch, adjust, shift weight, shake my leg, move my shoulders. I do it all and all of the time.

Before we started, I was worried about claustrophobia. But as she was putting me in the tube, I asked, “Do you have to stay still for this?” The answer was affirmative. You have to stay really still or the pictures will be blurry. I realized that if I went through this procedure as my normal self, living my TRUTH as a fidgety person, then I might as well set fire to the $542 I just put on my credit card.

I went into the tube. My rock should have been the Lord, but I was holding tightly to a different foundation, which was not blowing $542.

The tech put a rag over my face and some headphones with music. As we began, she asked what kind of music I’d like or perhaps a radio station. I knew I wouldn’t want to listen to people talking or words in a song, so I asked for classical music. “My classical CD is broken. I have instrumental.” Thinking about some very good instrumental music I’ve heard over the years, I opted for that. Well, I spent about 20 minutes struggling like crazy not to move while I listened to pure, unadulterated, hokey elevator music.

But still, armed with my desire not to shred $542, I clung to every note of the cheesy versions of pop songs from my childhood. I held onto those notes as if they were pillars or columns. I was like Samson blinded, but forced NOT the pull the temple down because THAT WOULD INVOLVE MOVEMENT and MOVEMENT WOULD MEAN LOSING $542.

The tech gave me hope at one point. She said, “Just another couple of sets.” I wish she hadn’t said that, because that made me think it was almost over. I guess they have some guide for when people are going to lose it, so they offer hope right at that moment.

Amazingly, the confined space never bothered me. I suppose if there is something you dread worse than tight spaces (STILLNESS!), then you can survive a tomb-like MRI. There was a mantra I repeated every time the urge to move became nearly irresistible. “Mind over matter, mind over matter, mind over matter . . .” They used to say that when I was a kid. It worked. Well, it kind of worked. The reality was that I was determined not to blow half a grand by shifting my body (have I mentioned that?).

I emerged with a couple of convictions. First, I don’t want to do it again. Second, if I do have to do it again, I would enter the tube in the classical pose of the dead with my arms crossed over my chest. Imagining myself dead might help with the mind over matter.

No, You Aren’t Better than George Washington.

When I read about protesters vandalizing statues of George Washington, I became angry and offered the following post on twitter:  “If you think you’re better than George Washington, you don’t know yourself very well.”  Almost immediately, the perfect flip response came back: “Well, I don’t own slaves, so I’m counting that as a W.” 

         Ah, yes.  George Washington, one of the bravest and most accomplished men to walk planet Earth, simply can’t stand before even the most callow youth willing to castigate him for owning slaves.  His record is a complete nullity thanks to our enlightenment.  I suggest we think about this.

         What if we could resituate you, the young woke person, in history so that you became a man of means in Virginia in the 18th century?  What are the odds that you would have owned slaves?  We don’t need a calculator.  It is almost inevitable that you would have owned slaves.  That was the way the agricultural economy worked.  Men such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson participated in that economy and both clearly had misgivings about the system of which they were a part.  With regard to owning slaves, George Washington was a man of his time.  It might be said of him, though, that he was better than most men in his treatment of his slaves and through the steps he took to ameliorate their conditions.

I say none of this to suggest that owning slaves can in any way be excused, but few of us really rise above the times in which we live in terms of our attitudes.  How many of the great Greek and Roman thinkers argued in favor of slavery?  Would you discount them entirely on that score?  Is there nothing of value in their civilization for that reason?  And what are we doing glorifying those brave Spartans at Thermopylae?  Their civil rights regime would really upset you.  Michigan State needs to get on that immediately.  I think “Ponies” is available as an alternative mascot.

         So, in some ways Washington was a man of his time.  But are you doing justice to the ways in which he was more than a man of his time?  It is likely that you would have owned slaves if you had been similarly situated as the great man Washington.  But how likely is it that you would have accomplished all the good that he did?  How likely is it that you would have the bravery to defy the world’s most powerful empire?  How likely that you would be charmed by the sound of bullets whistling past your ear rather than having your insides melt like water?  How likely is it that through the force of your character and example you would be able to hold together a beleaguered, freezing, starving force of men such as those at Valley Forge?  How likely is it that grown men hardened by war would be undone to see you grasping for your spectacles and remarking that you had grown blind in the service of your country?  How likely is it that you would become the first president of a new republic virtually through acclamation?  How likely that your example would be so strong that the precedent of your two terms functioned as a limit on the office of president for almost a century and a half?  How likely is it that of you would have been written the words, “the first, the last, the best, the Cincinnatus of the west?”  How likely is it that you, first among men in your country and in your time (first among Jefferson, Hamilton, Franklin, and the rest!) would have voluntarily relinquished power and returned to your home in the country?  Suffice it to say, none of these things are very likely.

Yet you, saintly you, claim your “W” (your superiority!) because Washington owned slaves and you do not.  That is quite an accomplishment since you live in a country where slavery has been illegal for over 150 years.  Oh, and you are an anti-racist!  That is also very impressive given that your position accords with that of every company and institution with whom practically any of us has done business.  Check your email box if you have doubts.

On the other hand, let us give George Washington the benefit of living in our time.  I don’t know if you realize this, but Washington in our time would certainly not own slaves and would certainly have virtually all the same beliefs about race and civil rights that we do.  But here is the difference.  Washington would still be Washington (by the way do you want to rename the capitol, perhaps for yourself?).  He would still have his bravery, his fortitude, his endurance, and his ability to provide inspiring leadership to human beings.  He would be a better president than 95% of the people who have held the office and would certainly excel either Donald Trump or Joe Biden. 

But I write all of this really just to encourage you to do one thing.  Check your historical privilege. 

Chick-fil-A vs. Popeye’s Chicken Sandwich: Who Comes out on Top?

On consecutive days I ventured out to Popeye’s Fried Chicken with a friend from work. Why did we go? To finally eat the much-lauded new fried chicken sandwich. (We are both evangelical Christians. Given Chick-fil-A’s bond with that affinity group, I feel I must disclose the connection. I mean, I actually know somebody from the CFA family.)

It was not our intent to go two days in a row. On the first day, I had the regular Popeye’s fried chicken sandwich. My friend had the spicy version. Intrigued by the experience, we both finished lunch thinking we needed to have the full experience and try the one we hadn’t had. Having tried both and both possessing decades of experience with Chick-fil-A, we are able to render a verdict.

But first, I’d like to describe the actual eating of the sandwiches. On the first day, I had the regular sandwich. What grabs you right away is size. We are talking about a big, thick piece of boneless, fried chicken. It is perched on a very good bun with excellent gourmet pickles and something like a thin mayonnaise dressing. The second thing you get is crunch. The sandwich is crunchier than Chick-fil-A. It is a delightful kind of crunch. My primary takeaway was that I had encountered a worthy competitor to Chick-fil-A’s original sandwich. On flavor of the chicken breast, I give the nod to Chick-fil-A, but the superior pickles, plus the bun and the crunch put Popeye’s into the conversation for best chicken sandwich.

However, there was a second day and a second sandwich. I had the spicy chicken sandwich on the next visit. I’m going to go ahead and declare that it is the best chicken sandwich in America and possibly the world. I believe that when Popeye’s created their sandwich, they actually created the spicy version. The spicy Popeye’s sandwich is perhaps the Platonic form of the chicken sandwich.

What makes the difference? I think the key is that Popeye’s has a thin, spicy mayonnaise that goes PERFECTLY with the gourmet pickles in the spicy version. The result is one of the better tasting things I have ever put into my mouth. I will be going back for this sandwich, repeatedly.

My eating partner declared that Popeye’s spicy chicken is better than CFA’s spicy chicken, but that he prefers the CFA original to the Popeye’s regular sandwich. I think I might agree with that, BUT I would put the Popeye’s spicy at the top of the list, period.

There is an important note to add that cannot be avoided. On both days, my eating partner had to wait a long time for his order at Popeye’s. On the second day, he may have had to wait 15 minutes. That NEVER happens at Chick-fil-A. In decades of CFA experience, I have yet to encounter a service failure or slow service. So, regardless of the sandwich, itself, they are unmatched in service and speed.

Christianity and Paradoxes

From my journal written back in 2001:

Tertullian: I believe because it is impossible.

Jews: God’s people, yet most persecuted.

Christ: Fully man, full God. A king with no material kingdom, no army. Innocent of any crime, but crucified. Message of peace and nonviolence, but came to bring a sword and assaulted the moneychangers.

Trinity: How can you have one God in three distinct persons?

Major heroes: Terribly flawed. Moses, David, Peter, Saul/Paul

Christ: Virgin birth. The meek shall inherit the earth. Blood that cleanses. Faith like a mustard seed moves mountains.

Paul: I do what I do not want to do.

Christ: Life after death. Total defeat to win total victory.

A Conversation with Libertarian Christians

I’m not a libertarian, but I’ve always been highly sympathetic to that point of view. I recently discovered a letter I wrote my parents in 1988 in which I talked about how I’d seen Ron Paul addressing a group, had been impressed by his arguments, and was sorry that he could never win. So, while I’m not a full-scale libertarian, I am a bit of a fellow traveler to some extent. (I’m also a fellow traveler with the folks at the American Solidarity Party, so go figure . . .)

For that reason, I was very happy to give a podcast interview to the Libertarian Christian Institute. We talked about faith and politics and particularly about why government is both necessary AND potentially the most dangerous institution in a society by far. I hope you’ll enjoy the conversation.

The Strange Matter of Walt Longmire’s Age

The cancellation of a television program detailing the exploits of Sheriff Walt Longmire, first on A&E and then on Netflix, left me hoping for more.  I began gathering and reading the novels by Craig Johnson.

Walt Longmire is a somewhat different guy in the novels.  Bigger personality, more outgoing, larger guy (about 250 pounds), and a much used sense of humor.  By contrast, the Longmire of the television show is more the strong, silent cowboy type.  A muted Clint Eastwood.

There’s another thing that is different about Walt in the books.  He’s a Vietnam Veteran.  That’s what takes me to the matter of his age.  In the novels, we hear a lot about Walt and Henry in Vietnam.  Both men also played football.  Walt played for the USC Trojans in the early 1960’s.  Let me run that by you again.  Walt played college football in the early 1960’s.

The novels all appear to take place in the period consistent with their publication.  I wondered about that, but saw a reference in 2013’s As the Crow Flies to 9/11 as something that had happened several years ago.

Now, Walt mentions playing football at Southern Cal in 1962.  Let’s assume that was his freshman year by way of giving Craig Johnson the most charitable interpretation.  If Walt was 18 years old in 1962, then he was born in 1944.  Longmire’s first adventure is in 2004.  That means in his first adventure he was about 60 years old.  In his most recent, he’d be about 76.  This is a pretty old age for someone who still chases after bad guys and wins his share of fights.

For my money, Johnson should have just set Longmire’s tales in the 1980’s and 1990’s.  Then, he could easily keep his Vietnam vet character.  Alternatively, he could follow what others have done and update their Vietnam vet characters to Gulf War vets.  In any case, I needed to pick the nit and I have.

Taking Inventory of the Writing Life

vintage letters typo vintage typewriter

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I just had a birthday.  As with many milestones, I find myself taking stock.  Because I know many people hope to write and leave something behind of their thoughts, analysis, beliefs, and feelings, I’m posting a personal inventory.  Maybe it will give you a sense of the possibilities.

When I was just about thirty years old, almost two decades ago, I yearned to publish something and thought that if I were to die without writing a book, I would consider my life a failure.  While I don’t encourage anyone to think of their lives in quite that way, such was my mind at the time.  I still remember the day when I sent an email to the editor of American Spectator offering a correction on an article.  He responded in such a friendly way, I suggested that I might write something for him.  He agreed.  I could almost see the new pathways opening in front of me.  Here is a rough inventory of what I’ve had the privilege to do since that time:

The Online Work (some estimation involved)

American Spectator: 30 pieces plus maybe 100 or more blog items.

National Review Online:  25 pieces inclusive of articles and symposia

The Federalist:  17 pieces

First Things:  One essay plus many blog items for First Thoughts

Public Discourse:  One essay

Quillette:  One essay

The American Interest:  One essay

The Acton Institute:  12 pieces plus blog items

Christianity Today:  8 pieces online

American Greatness:  One piece

Atlanta Journal-Constitution:  One piece

Chattanooga Times-Free Press:  Two pieces

Jackson Sun:  Around 10-20 pieces (full archive unavailable online)

The Gospel Coalition:  5 pieces

Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission:  4 pieces

Mere Comments (Touchstone): many blog items

RedState.com: various blog items

The Reform Club/hunterbaker.wordpress.com: hundreds of blog items

There are others that I can’t recall at this time.

Print Articles in Academic Journals:  6 articles for a variety of journals (Example: Journal of Law and Religion)

Print Articles in Intellectual Journals:  20 articles for a variety of journals (Example: Modern Age)

Book Chapters/Features/Forwards:  14

Books:  3 (The End of Secularism, Political Thought: A Student’s Guide, The System Has a Soul)

Book Reviews of which I’m most proud:  Mike Potemra’s review of The End of Secularism for National Review, S.T. Karnick’s review of The End of Secularism for Books & Culture, and Andrew Klavan’s review of The End of Secularism for Pajamas Media.

Invited Lectures:  43 (So much of the real labor is here.  When people invite you to speak, you tend to write something new for them, which you can find a way to work into an article, a book chapter, a book, etc.)

Now, why would this inspire you?  It seems like an awful lot of work.  Yes, it is a lot of work, but it was done over the course of about 15 years with regular effort.  Nothing superhuman.  Writing begets writing.  If I recall, I may actually have had something ready to go the first time I corresponded with Wlady Pleszczynski at American Spectator.  He published me.  I’ve been going strong ever since.  It seems to me that a big part of the reason some people write a lot is simply because they feel they have the opportunity to publish and have an audience.

I’m deeply thankful for that first opportunity and for everything that came after.  But it is important to note that I’d been preparing for that opportunity with years of education, reading, thinking, analyzing,  (and frankly praying for it), etc.  If you have something good to offer, chances are you’ll be able to seize a moment.

Finding friends who write helps, too.  We tend to engage in the activities our friends undertake.  Writing is like that.  Find a fellowship of writers.  My fellowship started online, but I’ve met many of them over the years in real life and count some of them among my best friends today.

On Suicide: Reflections on Anthony Bourdain’s Death

food chef kitchen soup

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The chef Anthony Bourdain’s death is hard for me to understand and accept.  Perhaps it is so because of my reading of Walker Percy.  Percy invented the concept of the ex-suicide.  The idea is that you can get all the way to the point of committing suicide and then turn back.  You are now a suicide survivor.  You can walk out into the light and air and realize, “I could be dead right now.  Instead, I’m alive.  Whatever happens next, I can compare it favorably with death.”

Of course, one might say that Anthony Bourdain knew as much.  It would be hard to believe he had problems he couldn’t solve with money or perhaps use money to escape.  The more likely problem is Weltschmertz (world-weariness).  When one is tired of the way the world is, that is a difficult problem to overcome.  He had already been down the road of severe drug addiction in the past, so he knew that didn’t offer a constructive solution.

World-weariness presents a powerful challenge, especially to an atheist like Bourdain.  When the atheist concludes that the world is infinitely sorrowful or is doomed to repeat the same mistakes again and again or is disappointed by himself or others, then he asks himself, “Why should there be more?  Why not simply be done with it?”  He is convinced there is nothing on the other side than a fade to black.

I sometimes share the sense of Weltschmertz.  It is especially a problem for those of us who think too much about politics.  There are few arenas of life where one is exposed to as much dishonesty, cynicism, and confirmation of human frailty as politics.  And the same, regrettably, can be true of religion, which has been the other great pre-occupation of my own life.  We find that people we hoped would serve as exemplars and pillars are often all too weak or perhaps all too strong in their own cause.  And thus we hear about the esteemed Christian academic leader (not the spangled televangelist) who earns a very high salary and whose wife has a “fur safe” or some other silly worldly contrivance.  It is enough to utter the words, “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.”

Facebook, which I love and hate, is its own great source of world-weariness.

But there are things that rescue me from the Weltschmertz, from the pain of continuing to live and think.  One is the many, many people who move in a different direction from the world’s prerogatives.

I think of the commitment of some amazing people in the pro-life movement.  They are the ones who advocate for those who will never be able to do a thing for them.  I am humbled by the thought of them working as sidewalk counselors outside of abortion clinics, giving free ultra-sounds at crisis pregnancy clinics, and actually adopting children thus allowing mothers in distress to walk away and yet know that someone is caring for their child.  What a gift it is to be able to hand off a child rather than incurring the weight of death in order to get back on top of one’s own life.  I think about how these people have suffered cynical, Machiavellian treatment at the hands of some parts of America’s elite political establishment, while being reviled by others.

I think about the people who do the hard work of attempting to help people receive an education and get ready for employment rather than just writing off some populations as marginal and consigning them to a lifetime of subsidies.  Such persons are among the most compassionate of all people involved in a political movement and yet are also among the most likely to be charged with heartlessness.

I think about the preachers who never make more than $50,000 to $60,000 a year (and maybe much less) who labor over their sermons with care, who visit the hospitals, who perform the funeral services, who officiate over the weddings, who try to put back together families in danger of falling apart, and who will never, never know an ounce of fame in this world.  How I love such people, the people who do ministry for all the right reasons and who are not captured by the seductive call of materialism.  They probably will never go on a big destination vacation, but have their eyes on the greatest of all journeys to be taken by any people at any time.

It helps me to think about those people.  It helps me to think about God.  Anthony Bourdain lacked the fear of God.  His parents raised him that way.  No matter how desperate a person is, he might come to a halt before going so far as to take everything that he is and throwing it back into the face of the one who made him.  The brilliant Anthony Bourdain didn’t have that fear.  I wish he had.  Fear can be one of our best friends in this life.

But fear is not the only reason to refuse to give in to a pervasive sense of world-weariness.  It is certainly not the best reason.  The best reason not to give in is trust in God.  No matter how dark my feelings are about the world or leaders who disappoint me, I have faith that we will see real justice in the end from the Lord.  The wrong things will be put right.  The proud will be humbled.  The true saints will be exhalted.  We will all look upon God’s work and will say that the creator of justice has done right by his people.  Indeed, we will look upon it and say that he gave us grace in generous, overflowing measure.  Spend this life preparing for the next.

23 Years with a Girl

Like so many great happenings in my life, I met Ruth Elaine Martin around the same time I met Jesus through InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Florida State University.  I recall attending a Bible and Life conference somewhere in Florida.  There was a Christian commune where we stayed for the weekend.  I met Ruth at a nearby fast food place where some of us had gone.  I had one of those M.C. Escher shirts on, the one with the image of the stairs that inexplicably go nowhere.  What I remember about her was her smile.  Even as I write this, I can feel the warmth in that smile.

We became friends after that.  She noticed I was driving around on a temporary spare and convinced me to let her help me change it (I’d been immune to my father’s efforts to teach me).  We became prayer partners (against the rules as a guy/girl combo), but we prayed earnestly and well together.  One day we had dinner with a friend.  Ruth mentioned she was thinking of never getting married and giving her life to medicine.  It was as if she had picked up a steak knife and stabbed me in the heart.  But I didn’t say anything.

About a year later, I found myself hiking on a mountain in California and had a thunderbolt realization that she was the one and had to be the one.  But knowing it and convincing her of it were two different things.

Through God’s providence I finished graduate school in Athens, Georgia and got a job in Jacksonville, Florida only two hours away from Ruth in Gainesville.  By that time, she was a driven and determined medical student.  I visited her at a dorm she stayed in while spending a month rotation in Jacksonville.  The intensity of the students in the building was palpable.  I mentioned it to Ruth.  “These are such serious people.”  She responded, “I’m a serious person.”  She was right.  And she’s still that way.  I love the fact that she cares and is all business when it counts, especially for her patients.

I eventually got that serious girl to include me in her plans.  We’re 23 years into this marriage with as many years as God will give us ahead.  As much as I liked her back then, I like her so much more today.  The serious girl is just as focused and determined as she ever was, but it is a beautiful thing to be married to someone of her character and spiritual commitment.  If you could win the lottery or marry well, I think I’d advise you to marry well, because I wouldn’t trade Ruth for as many millions as you could muster.

Happy 23 years, sweetheart.  Let’s put together 23 more and then maybe another 23 after that.  — HB

Is Chick-fil-A a Worm in the Big Apple?

You can get my take here at the Acton Institute.

But here’s a clip:

To be fair to the author, he’s not crazy about McDonald’s and Starbucks, either. He throws shade at both companies for their “deadening uniformity”. Consumers are also a problem, because of their preference for established goods over things that are “new and untested.” He seems to be saying that if Chick-fil-A has the gall to bring another chain to New York, it should at least have the good taste to adopt the progressive politics he can count on with Starbucks.

Though Our Ears Be Deafened . . .

In Cicero’s On the Commonwealth, Scipio has a dream of heaven where he goes to visit his grandfather.  While there, he is entranced by the music of the spheres.  Sadly, he learns that men have lost the ability to hear it, though it is everywhere:

Men’s ears have been filled with this sound and consequently grown deaf to it.  You have no duller sense than hearing, just as at the point where the Nile plunges from high mountains at the place called Cataract, the race of men that lives there is completely deaf because of the magnitude of the sound.  The sound made by the rapid revolution of the universe is so great that human ears cannot grasp it, just as you are unable to look directly into the Sun, because your sight and sense are overcome by its rays.

 

 

 

To Be Wise, Strong, and Loving: A Prayer for All of Us

I’ve been thinking about a prayer I used to offer each night while putting the kids to bed. You really have to think about what you want to pray for your young children. One of the things I settled on was to ask God that he would help them to become wise, strong, and loving.  I still pray it, but no longer while sitting on the edge of a child’s bed.
If I could pray anything for the people of my country and for myself, it would be this same thing. It seems to me that we are currently far from the goal.
What is it to be wise? To be wise is not to be caught in the grip of one’s passions and to lose discernment in the process. The wise person doesn’t have to know everything, but they do need to be sure that they DON’T know it all. The wise person must be measured and judicious. Wisdom means not jumping to conclusions, prejudging motives, and making too easy denominations of people into friends and enemies. Being wise means seeking understanding rather than casting aspersions and assuming ill will.  To be wise is to give others the benefit of the doubt and to assume they mean well until evil intent becomes obvious (which is quite rare).
 Being strong doesn’t have to do with physical strength, at least not the way I was praying for it.  When I ask for my kids to be strong, I mean that I hope they will learn to be resilient.  Strong people don’t give up easily.  They take their licks from the world and don’t go into permanent retreat.  To be strong is to continue to try to learn and grow.  It is to encounter difficulty and to realize that while the challenge is too big right now, it won’t always be that way.  Strong people intuitively understand that they have inherent value (given by God, in my mind) and that the world is not enough to dissolve them down to nothing.  Strength comes in part from finding joy in overcoming failure.  We also display strength when we make correct use of our will.  Instead of dominating us, it exists to give energy and emotional substance to our reason.
When I ask for my children to be loving, I am looking for them to gain the ability to extend their heart out beyond themselves.  Love is fierce and real for spouse, for family, and for children.  That is true.  But love should not be in partnership with the preference and hatred that can emerge for those we see as being outside of our circles.  Love has to do with seeing every person as a special creation of God.  It means situating yourself within God’s will as a person who reaches out to others and who tries to bring them in to the fellowship of all mankind.  Love doesn’t mean abandoning your beliefs, though, because without conviction love can degenerate into nothing more than sentiment without foundation.
My prayer is that we would gain the wisdom, strength, and love to bear with each other.  We need to utterly deny the sick, emotional satisfaction of seeing others as villains in the Lex Luthor mold.  We need to be resilient enough not to make enemies too easily and to bounce back quickly when our pride is hurt.  We need to love well enough to give up the self-centeredness and tribalism that so easily possess us.  We need to gain the capacity for real friendship even with those with whom we disagree.
I pray these things for my children.  I pray them for you.  I pray them for myself.

 

Trailing Edge Review: Spider Man Homecoming

  1.  I’m just gonna say it at the outset: I greatly prefer the Sam Raimi Spider-Man, which is much more true to the source material.
  2. This Spider-Man is the first one who actually IS the menace J. Jonah Jameson repeatedly claimed him to be.  His reckless incompetence is part of the story here, but it bothers me.  The Peter Parker I knew was deeply responsible after failing to stop the death of his Uncle Ben (now a missing figure).  Now, his destructiveness sets the stage for a new origin of sorts.
  3. I like Zendaya and enjoy seeing her liberated from those Disney shows.
  4. The film is effective at bringing multi-culturalism to the cast.  Makes perfect sense in New York.  MJ is half-black.  Flash is Indian-American.  Pete’s sidekick (previously a non-factor because his secret always made him a loner) is an Asian kid.
  5. Pete has a side-kick.  I don’t like it because it interferes with the tragic nature of Spider-Man.  He can’t be known because of what will happen to Aunt May.
  6. Aunt May is Marissa Tomei.  I miss the Aunt May who was Pete’s one solid source of love in his life and who needed him, too.  She was old and frail, which made her all the more compelling as someone he had to protect.
  7. What is up with the crazy 70’s outfits Marissa Tomei is wearing?
  8. Spider-Man wears a suit that is basically a Stark creation with its own “Jarvis.”  While it provides comic relief and drives the story in certain ways, I can’t stand it.  Please, please let this Iron Spider concept go away.  In the 1980’s we saw Spider-Man develop in ways (see his battle with Titania in Secret Wars) that showed he was one of the most formidable characters in the Marvel Universe.  He doesn’t need Tony Stark’s technology to get there.
  9. The Vulture of long-standing comic fame was a lawyer.  Spider-Man Homecoming presents us with a Vulture who is basically a Trump voter.  The uncaring elites come and take away his honest work, thus earning his lasting enmity and convincing him to do things he would never have otherwise done (like voting Trump?).  But pay attention, the Vulture has gone from being a member of the elite (by implication who feasts on carcasses) to being a working class type guy tired of being oppressed.  What’s wrong with this guy?  Couldn’t he just take unemployment or go on disability???  I hope my sarcasm comes through.  The Vulture has effectively been transformed from a parasite lawyer to a working class criminal.
  10. Is the spider sense gone?  I think the spider sense is gone.  This Spider-Man gets taken by surprise in combat.  Unthinkable.

Thoughts from the Treadmill: Dirty Dancing Edition

  1.  How long is this vacation, anyway?  There’s time for a tremendous amount of drama and an awful lot of dance training.  Do people stay at resorts in the Catskills for a month at a time?
  2. Why is Patrick Swayze putting so much effort into a dead-end dance career?
  3. Parents during this time clearly have different expectations regarding knowledge of their teen’s whereabouts than most of us do today.
  4. Isn’t Jennifer Grey headed for the same kind of unexpected pregnancy that landed Swayze’s dance partner in trouble?
  5. What’s all this business with training barefoot on an elevated log?  Is Patrick Swayze training to be a ninja?  Will Jennifer Grey become a ninja, too?
  6. Are they training to become ninjas of dance?
  7. Or is it something deeper they seek?  Is dance merely a pretext for something else?
  8. Are they becoming — dare I say it? — ninjas of love?
  9. Is the film really about Marxism?  The owner of the resort is clearly an oppressor.  Grey’s parents are obviously members of the uncaring, corrupt bourgeoisie.  Dance is setting the proletariat free from the drudgery of labor.  Jennifer Grey is an intellectual from the bourgeoisie who recognizes the real potential of the proletariat in the form of beautiful, chiseled Patrick Swayze.  She clearly thinks that revolution never looked so good.

Donald Trump and Sticks and Stones

trump mic

Being conservative and having Donald Trump for your president is pretty much the opposite of having Ronald Reagan.  Where Reagan was full of class and fought back well when he had to, Donald Trump is on the wrong side of the sticks and stones debate.  He thinks that words are the weapon of choice and frequently wields them with the intent to wound.  When it comes to presidential rhetoric, Donald Trump is a boor.  That’s just a fact.  It’s silly to argue otherwise.

It’s even sillier to have a presidential spokesperson standing on a podium defending the president in a situation like this one.  What’s the point?  The only one who can defend the comments is him.  Why would a reporter even bother to ask a spokesperson about it?  And why would the spokesperson bother to answer?

How should we go about discussing it?  Should I post that I disapprove of his comments?  Should others?  Isn’t it basically obvious?  If anyone defends his remarks with regard to a television host’s purported facelift, then they expose their own lack of class.  Look, we’ve hit upon a self-evident truth!

These days we sometimes talk about signal versus noise.  We’ve gotten the signal.  It’s not the first time.  Donald Trump lacks class and restraint.  That’s known.  I’m not sure why we need belabor the point.  If we choose to have a national freak-out every time the president tweets badly, I contend we’ll just waste our time and satisfy a lot of emotional needs.  We’re endlessly thrashing about in an ocean of noise.

The whole thing makes me think of my wife’s approach to behaviors she disapproves of from our kids (and sometimes even from me).  She just refuses to acknowledge it.  She calls it extinction.  My suggestion is that we just extinguish the behavior from the president by refusing to acknowledge it.  But that won’t happen because there are points that need to be scored.  I get it.

Every second we spend fussing over a non-event like this Mika Brzezinski blow-up is still less time spent talking and thinking about real policy.  The hotter the president runs, the cooler the rest of us need to be.

 

Why I Spend Time on Facebook

I think I’ve been on Facebook just about as long as it is possible to have been on the social media site without being a college student.  (If you recall, that was once a requirement.)  One of the questions that anyone has to ask themselves is why they choose to do the things they do.  What types of activities are worth our time?  I have invested significantly in Facebook and to a lesser extent in Twitter.  To what end?

As I think about how to get down to the essence of what social media offers me, the simplest answer is that it provides me with access to other minds.  The group of people I have collected and who have collected me make up a valuable resource that would be difficult for me to replicate in any other way.  I have a ready-made cloud of various types of people — pastors, professors, politicians, corporate professionals, teachers, mothers, fathers, family members, fellow Christians, sometimes even the occasional celebrity, and many more — from whom I can learn and with whom I can seek to communicate and share.

Let’s start with how social media provides input to me.  Before Facebook and Twitter, I had a morning routine.  I visited about 5-10 different political, news, and religious websites.  Then, I consulted another handful of blogs.  It was a good routine.  It worked for me.  But it was inferior to what I have now.  By merely scanning my Facebook and Twitter feeds, I get a sense of the stories many people I find intelligent and interesting recommend.  These links take me to publications I may not have known exist and expose me to new writers and thinkers.  Is there some chaff with the wheat?  Certainly, but the overall effect is better.  I know too many smart people not to benefit from the things they are reading and discussing.

The personal side is pretty obvious.  Facebook is now the way we hear about so much of what is happening in people’s families, their professional lives, and sometimes their personal struggles.  I absolutely understand the people who choose not to spend time on social media.  There are definitely virtues to it, but staying out also brings a degree of isolation simply because so many people use it as a way of communicating about personal events.

Alright, so what about output?  Some people are Facebook lurkers.  They don’t have a desire to ever make a post and not even really to comment.  They are satisfied to read, observe, and simply be in the know about what’s going on.  And there is nothing wrong with that.  But if you are reading this, then you probably know I’m the opposite.  I am a professor, a writer, a former professional public policy combatant, a husband, and a father.  All of these activities, for me, fall under the Lordship of Christ over my life.  I am accountable to use what I have been given and to be a good steward.  It has always seemed to me that I should enter the fray if I have something to offer and that I should share the things that I have that are good.  It is perhaps not surprising that what people like the most about my Facebook activity are the interactions I share with my children.  Unfortunately, those are spontaneous and I don’t have a great kid moment every day!

Again, though, this is a question of having access to minds.  I feel that I should try to reach out and touch other minds when I have something I think is worth saying.  For me, social media is not some little added activity.  I consider it something like a personal ministry.  I have to be accountable to Union University, to my church, and to others for what I do there, but that only makes sense.  I want to be an integrated person with everything in my life relating to the other parts in a consistent way.  The goal is to speak and write so as to give something that is of benefit to others.  Sometimes that is funny or cute.  Other times it has to do with matters that are urgent and serious.

There is something else, too.  I have found that relationships on Facebook often turn into real relationships.  I’m not sure I could produce an adequate inventory of the people I have met online and through social media and then had an opportunity to meet in person.  Not only have these people very often become some of my closest friends, but they have also been incredibly helpful to me professionally.  We form networks that lead to opportunities to speak, to write, or to put together projects.

If you are reading this, maybe you are asking yourself about your own social media use.  My advice would be simply to use it intentionally and not just passively or reactively.  Sure, it can be entertaining, but it can also be an opening into all kinds of new fellowship, cooperation, and shared influence.  Have a strategy for how you use Facebook and then allow your sense of purpose to help you avoid the mistakes of mockery, unwarranted aggression, and allowing disagreement to too easily turn to disassociation.

 

Chicago Travelogue: Fall Break Edition

We just returned from a four day weekend trip to Chicago.  What was it like for a middle-aged (forties) couple and their two kids (11 and 14)?  Here’s the story.

We left from Jackson, TN late on Wednesday afternoon and drove to Champaign, IL to stay for the night.  On the way, we stumbled into an apparently famous restaurant called the 17th Street BBQ.  While the restaurant has been nationally profiled and the food much lauded, I suffered from the curse or blessing of having grown up during the heyday of Big Bob Gibson’s Barbecue in Decatur, AL.  I have yet to meet the barbecue pork that exceeds it, except maybe its almost across the street rival, Whitt’s.  So, 17th Street, you provided good, warm food to weary travelers and I thank you for that.  It’s not a small thing.

After a stay in a Drury Inn, we took off for Fair Oak Farms, which was only a little out of the way to Chicago.  Ruth had been there before and enjoyed watching baby cows blow through the birth canal and land heavily on straw.  (She has a professional interest.)  We went along for the ride.  This was my first encounter with big time farming.  I’d seen a lot of the smaller version as a kid, but I got to see the pigs all the way from birth to pregnancy.  I also saw the cows living together in a quest to provide massive amounts of milk to the world.  It was clear to me that the cows had it better.  They get to be more or less outside and spend a lot of time riding the carousel where they get hooked up for milking.  The pigs’ life looked more boring.  One thing blew me away in both cases, the agricultural use of information technology is astonishing.  If you thought computers were just for the office, think again.

What’s the best part about Fair Oak Farms?  It’s the food.  They make their own ice cream, milk, and cheese.  We had all of it.  The grilled cheese sandwiches rank in the special category.  I had the sweet, smoky swiss, while the rest of the family ate cheddar.  In both cases, you’ve got world class grilled cheese.  We ate so much dairy we had to delay any pizza for later in the Chicago journey.

After spending several hours at the farm (and that is virtually unavoidable if you want to full experience), we hit the road to Chicago.  We were entering the city between 6 and 7’oclock pm.  My hopes that traffic would be light were entirely unfounded.  Things were pretty good at first, but the closer we got the worse it was.

Tolls.  I have to talk about the tolls.  If you don’t have an EZ-Pass for Chicago, the tolls are absolutely barbaric in nature.  We are all accustomed to being able to throw change into a bucket and then to quickly move on.  These toll booths required that you put each coin separately into a slot.  Doing so with tolls of a few dollars or so at a time made me feel as if all human progress had been lost.  If you had cash, you were going to wait a while.

We decided to get a hotel deal via Hotwire in the tony part of town.  As a result, we got the Hyatt Regency on East Wacker.  It was a little less expensive than usual, but still pretty aggressive price-wise relative to what I’m used to in my interstate Hampton Inn world.  We had the idea we’d drive into downtown and get a parking garage.  Around 7pm, that was an absolute nightmare.  I never pay for valet if I can avoid it.  In this case, after fruitlessly trying to get a parking garage where I could leave the car for a few days, I gave up and gratefully put the car in the hands of the capable men at the Hyatt.  More money, yes, but my sanity was at stake.

Inside, some kind of assistant director spotted us in the check-in line and waved us over to his kiosk.  I think he took to our disheveled, nuclear family appearance and enjoyed getting us set up with a double queen room on the 21st floor.  He recommended we eat at Portillo’s, which turned out to be a restaurant that essentially contained a mini-food court inside.  An American place and an Italian place in one building.  The food was unspectacular, but good after a long day.

We had to get up the next morning for the Shoreline Architectural River Cruise.  It was on the way that I snapped this immortal picture:

double-deuce

The fellow was annoyed, but who could avoid snapping that pic?

In any case, we made it to the cruise, which docked near the Navy Pier and had a tremendous time navigating the Chicago River as our guide regaled us with stories about the town and its eclectic architecture of classical, art-deco, modern, brutalist, and postmodern styles.  After we disembarked, I tipped the gentleman and told him that “I am a professor and I enjoyed your class today.”

This was a shot from the cruise:

file-oct-17-9-10-14-am

After a big cruise, you have to eat.  I had one meal in mind for Chicago.  A bucket list meal.  I had to go to Lou Malnati’s for Chicago-style pizza.  I’d seen it on the Food Network and I wanted it.  Somehow, we got seated within a reasonable period despite the throng that extended well past the lunch hour.  And then we waited and waited for the pizza.  But no problem, that’s part of the experience.  What can I say about it?  First, it’s good.  Let’s get that out of the way.  It’s good.  But you have to compare it with other types of pizza.  I simply find that I prefer the perfect balance of crust, sauce, cheese, and toppings you get from a New York style slice.  Lou Malnati’s has a really good, thick, crunchy crust.  I liked that.  But it is absolutely overwhelmed with meat, sauce, and cheese.  I had the sausage pizza.  Virtually every slice was basically covered with a flat patty of sausage.  It was like a meat crust on top of the crust.  Some people will love that.  But it wasn’t for me.  I’m glad to have tried it.

We also visited the Field Museum.  It is an impressive museum, but it also has a pretty powerfully retro feel to it.  It is very much a museum of the 1980’s in terms of how it presents.  After one has spent much time in the Smithsonian, the Field Museum seems fairly far from the cutting edge.  Plus, it’s expensive.  If I am the calculating tourist, I’d arrange as much of my museum going for Washington, DC as possible.

There were other things, but I think what I’d emphasize in the end is the overall sense of coordinated human achievement you get from visiting Chicago.  The buildings are spectacular.  The way the river intersects the downtown area is beautiful.  Almost all around you there are working monuments to human ingenuity.  If I had it to do all over again, I think I’d spend all of my time touring.  I’d take the cruises.  All of them.  And I’d spend time riding on the sight-seeing buses with the narrated tour.

 

Religious Liberty: The Government Doesn’t Own Us

When I spoke at Southeastern Baptist Seminary last month, I also participated in an interview with Bruce Ashford.  These remarks on religious liberty are excerpted from that interview.

On temptations to curtail religious liberty.

“That’s one thing I observed on the campaign trail. This is West Tennessee that we’re talking about, where I was running [for office]. Part of my logic [was] that these are people who will be very interested in religious liberty.

“But that having been said, I would very regularly get people saying, ‘I’m totally with you on religious liberty, but what about the Muslims?’ I told them, if we embrace this concept of religious liberty, then we also will tolerate the Muslims to build their mosques and to live their lives….’

“Gary Johnson recently said that religious liberty is a ‘black hole,’ meaning that he thinks it authorizes just any unlawful activity. But that’s not really the case. If you look back to the founding fathers and their understanding of religious liberty, the idea [was] that people are entitled to the free exercise of their religion as long as they don’t essentially threaten the peace and safety of the community. So cutting people’s heads? That’s out. Sacrificing virgins? That’s out. Throwing the girls in volcanoes…. But, within the bounds of what we understand as the normal life of religious people, that should be accommodated.

God has given Caesar a certain mandate, but it’s not everything.

“Now, why should we request religious liberty? Well, first of all, if we embrace religious liberty, we are implicitly saying that the government does not own us. We’re kind of taking that Caesar’s coin view of things. Yes, God has given Caesar some things to do. God has given Caesar a certain mandate, but it’s not everything. Some things belong to Caesar. Some things are God’s and jealously guarded as such. And when you embrace religious liberty, you’re saying that, ‘Hey, Caesar, you don’t get it all. Sometimes I’ve got to obey the higher law.’ And it’s better if you acknowledge that.

“And, look, human beings’ integrity means that [we] live according to [our] beliefs. So if the government is going to interfere unnecessarily with you doing that, then it is truly oppressing you. It is oppressing your conscience. It is trying to force you to live in accordance with a code that you do not hold. And there’s something terrible about that….

“John Courtney Murray, the great Catholic theologian, did a lot of work in religious liberty back when it wasn’t popular for Catholics to do so. He said [that] you need to look at the religion clauses in the first amendment as articles of peace. That these are clauses that if we learn to respect them, then we can live in harmony with each other. We don’t have to stamp on each others’ beliefs and force each other to conform in ways that are unnecessary. In that way, it’s easier for us to live together. And in a pluralistic society, that’s even more important.”

The Need to Prepare for What You Want

During the past month or so, I concluded a campaign for Congress, wrote a couple of articles about it, submitted a significant scholarly project, and then spoke at one of the big Southern Baptist seminaries.  In between, there was a lot of teaching.

As I stood in front of the seminary audience of what looked like a couple hundred people or so, I felt the challenge.  Felt the necessity of having had to write something that would be meaningful to them.  Felt the obligation to try and keep their interest.  I had written about 6000 words for that purpose.

When you speak to an audience and have about 50 minutes, that can be a big mountain to climb.  It isn’t the same as teaching.  When you teach, you invite the students into conversation (or at least I do) and between the questions and answers 50 minutes can go by quite rapidly.  But when you carry that ball alone (and the audience is grading you instead of receiving a grade from you), it’s a bigger task.

I thought about how much I wanted to speak to audiences like that one when I was younger.  How I wanted to get the attention of groups and have them listen to what I had to say!  Now that I look back, I realize that was a classic example of the immature desire to do something when you aren’t even close to being ready.

I make no claim to being a great speaker.  For example, I don’t have the gift of memorization.  (It was tremendously comforting to me when I learned the same was true of William F. Buckley.)  But I do make a strong effort to develop the content and to really have something to say.  When I was younger, I think I would have felt fantastic about speaking to a big audience all the way up until the moment when I suddenly realized I didn’t have the rhetorical horse to ride.  (The same was true of the first time I tried to write a book.  I suddenly realized that I barely had enough for a chapter!)

I didn’t begin to hit my stride career wise until I was in my mid-thirties.  But all during those earlier years I was reading, thinking, making attempts at writing, learning from wiser men and women, and generally preparing.  I didn’t know whether all the preparation would bear fruit, but it did.  And now, when the time has come that there is some interest I have something to offer.

So, to follow the title of this piece, I want to offer advice to the young (or maybe even the mid-career or the old).  Perhaps you are like me.  Maybe you are that person who didn’t have a clean path to engineering or accounting or nursing or whatever profession where the steps seem fairly clear.  Maybe you have had some ideas about what you want to do with your life, but you have a lot of uncertainty about how to do it.  My advice is to turn preparing for that life into your hobby.  Read, watch, and learn.  Find smaller opportunities to do the things you hope to do on a bigger and possibly professional scale.

If you spend enough time getting ready, you just might have something to offer when a door opens before you.

 

Information about Hunter Baker for TN Voters

baker union pic

Hunter Baker is an associate professor of political science and university fellow at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. In addition, he serves the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission as a research fellow.

Hunter is married to Ruth Baker, M.D. They have two children, Andrew and Grace, who attended Thelma Barker Elementary School and now attend the Augustine School. They are members of Englewood Baptist Church. His father’s family, the Bakers and Johnstons, have lived in Tennessee for over 200 years, which includes Hunter’s grandmother Winnie who turns 100 this spring in Columbia. The Johnstons still occupy the old family farm in Hohenwald near the Natchez trace.

Baker holds a degree in economics and political science (double major, Florida State University) and graduate degrees in public administration (University of Georgia), law (University of Houston), and politics and religion (Baylor University). He has worked as a corporate analyst, a public policy director, and college dean, in addition to his time on faculty.

He is the author of three books (The End of Secularism, Political Thought: A Student’s Guide, and The System Has a Soul), has contributed chapters to several others, and has spoken in venues around the nation (including Hillsdale College and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary). Baker has also published widely in both popular and academic outlets including National Review, the Federalist, Touchstone, the Journal of Markets and Morality, and the Journal of Law and Religion. His work won him the Michael Novak Award in religion and liberty given by the Acton Institute.

 

The Thinking Man’s Guide to Bernie’s Socialism

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There are good reasons why Bernie Sanders’ version of socialism is catching fire with a segment of the electorate.  One explanation is that Barack Obama’s much ballyhooed healthcare plan (“the big ****in’ deal” as Joe Biden called it) has turned out to be helpful to many fewer people than expected and more costly to many more than believed.  If clever American entitlement engineering doesn’t work, then why not go for the real deal Canadian or British style?  We also might note that while President Obama has not made great strides in terms of socialism, he has certainly put a friendly face on that kind of thinking throughout his two terms in the White House.  His worldview fits more comfortably in that frame than it does in the portrayal of “rugged individualism” that has often inspired Americans.  We used to applaud Horatio Alger’s rags to riches stories, but today the author’s name is mostly a byword for a cruel hoax.

The young, in particular, are interested because they are struggling with a deck that seems to be stacked against them.  Compare Generation X vs. today’s group on education.  My state school tuition was a little over $1000 a year in the late 1980’s.  Their rate is about 10 times that, far more than the typical inflation for other items.  They get out of school with debt.  In addition to their own monetary baggage, they enter into a political community hampered by tremendous leverage of its own assets.  Many states are virtually arrested by their wrong-headed pension deals with state employees (which are full of moral hazard, but that’s another article).  Those obligations grow to unmanageable levels.  And to the extent that the crisis states could have obviated the obligations by prioritizing funding, they instead assumed unreasonable rates of return and increased benefits, thereby worsening the problem.  In addition, the national debt has exploded to approximately $20 trillion.  Social Security is not on a sound footing thanks to regular raiding of the trust fund and a bad funding mechanism.

What are Americans to do?  Bernie Sanders emerges with a seemingly simple answer in the Willie Stark style.  He proposes to take the accumulated cream of American wealth and then to spread it out nice and thin so everybody gets a taste.  He’ll do that with taxes concentrated on the fat cats.  In so doing, he will pay for our underfunded obligations, solve the problem of student debt for higher education, force businesses to pay a wage dictated by politics, and create new entitlements to make life better for everyone.  Attractive though it may seem, there are some serious problems with his answer.

Before I get to the critique of Bernie’s viewpoint, I want to be clear about something.  His socialism is definitely of the half-hearted variety.  Strong socialism would mean government ownership of the means of production.  Britain has some of that and has had more of it in the past.  The state owns the apparatus of health care, for example.  Before Margaret Thatcher, the state also owned industries such as coal production.  To my knowledge, Bernie Sanders does not yearn for the state to own production.  If anything, I think the left has learned that actually owning and running things is a big hassle and entails getting blamed when things are done poorly.  Instead, he simply wants to tax business at a very high rate and tell it what to do whenever the government would like to dictate, such as with wages, labor conditions, maternity/paternity leave, etc.  This model fits with what is often called either democratic socialism or social democracy.

Now, why do I think Bernie’s approach is a bad idea?  There are several problems.  I do not propose to give an exhaustive account, but I will offer a number of cautions.

My first critique relates to democratic socialism’s methodology.  The old socialists had to actually run factories, manage workforces, and deliver goods the public wanted and needed.  Generally speaking, they were not very good at that job.  The variety, quality, accessibility, and desirability of goods they produced was poor.  You need only speak to the clients of those systems to know that.  The social democrats seek to solve that problem by permitting private business, while exerting control over it in an ideological fashion.  We already do this to some degree with our extensive regulatory state.  But Sanders proposes a much higher degree of regulation.  Such a relationship encourages the state to be largely unaccountable.  It is permitted to impose whatever costs it wishes, while simultaneously having essentially no responsibility to actually deliver the goods.  The result is the exertion of power in a wishful and largely infantile fashion.  Give me what I want and you worry about the consequences that follow.

More deeply, I question the easy assumption that the state has a right to act in this fashion.  One of the reasons I am passionate about teaching politics is that I am eager to convince students to think about whether such exercises of power are really legitimate.  Okay, let’s imagine that I have a business located within a society and which produces a product which has value.  What is it about that situation that gives the government the right to place a nearly unlimited potential set of demands upon me?  I look back to the HHS mandate, which has sought to provide contraception to all female employees by simply requiring employers to provide it.  Here’s a novel idea for the state:  why don’t you impose the taxes directly upon the public and then pay for the contraception yourself?

It makes little sense to say that simply because a business operates within a community it should have to meet the many conditions government would seek to impose upon it.  May we demand a business not generate adverse costs for the community, such as pollution?  Absolutely.  But let’s scale back to the individual worker level.  May we insist the enterprise serve a nutritious lunch that follows some version of the dietary pyramid?  No.  Why?  Because employees are adult human beings who do all kinds of things such as make contracts, purchase automobiles, raise children, etc.  They can provide for themselves with the income they make by creating value for their employer.  Certainly, they can figure out their own lunch situation (and contraception habits, too).  The same applies to many other aspects of life.  Would we like to simply dictate that some person or organization with money and resources provide for our needs?  Sure.  But that’s not really a free, adult way of doing things.

In addition to the problem of allowing the government to simply impose the will of a public with potentially bottomless appetites upon the productive sector, there is the issue of taxation.  Ideally, taxation should apply as broadly as possible at as low a rate as possible.  The only time you’d want to tax goods or services differently would be in an attempt to stifle them.  For example, high taxes on smoking tobacco, alcohol, or goods from another country might all be designed to curb our consumption of those things.  If you fail, at least you get the money!  The eager consumers of Bernie’s socialism have it in their minds that they will continue to pay very little, while the fortunes of the dodgy and suspect CEO’s of the world offer an endless bounty that may be tapped to cover all needs.  They’ll drop an extra private jet from the fleet and the rest of us will have health care!  What wise king wouldn’t promote such a deal?

Somehow, the American left has developed the idea that both great progress and a moral statement can be made by placing high taxes on wealthy persons and businesses.  The difficulties with that approach are almost too many to catalog.  But consider a few.  For one thing, there isn’t enough money in the honey pot.  There are some spectacular fortunes out there, but once you start dividing them up by the hundreds of millions and consider the negative impact on incentives, you realize that Margaret Thatcher is correct to say that you eventually run out of other people’s money.

But also take into account that individuals and businesses are mobile.  They can move.  This is why the high tax dreams of so many “progressive” mayors often fail.  The big money moves outside the city limits.  The same can happen with a state or even a nation.  Corporate inversions are turning American companies into Irish ones, for example, with substantial benefit in terms of lower taxation.  What policymakers like Bernie Sanders need to understand is that taxation is a price like any other price.  If people or organizations are not willing to pay it, then they will pay a lower price offered by another provider.  Nations, in reality, are just like states, cities, and even businesses.  They provide value at a certain rate.  If that price is too high, then people and organizations go shopping.  Pay close attention because I have just explained why some countries have to build walls to keep their people in, rather than building them to keep people out.

Take a moment to consider the “moral” victory of a 35% corporate tax.  It seems obvious that we could stop the corporate inversions tomorrow if we were to impose a 25% tax instead of a 35% one.  But somehow there is something morally significant about the 35% rate.  It is as if the businesses are being punished for doing something bad and must not be allowed to escape that punishment.  If the issue were really about helping to pay the bills of the government, it seems one would prefer the rate that will actually bring more revenue instead of encouraging avoidance.  Remember, tax rates are prices.  If you can’t find people willing to pay your price for a product (in this case, government), then you have to control your costs and reduce the price.  Put government services on sale and you might find more takers willing to pay for them.

There is an answer to the problem I have raised.  One might object that companies should be more patriotic (an unusual claim from the left, but still!) and therefore should not shop around for the best deal when it comes to taxation.  There is a further problem in that today’s corporations compete internationally.   If tax policy threatens to make a corporation less competitive than some of its peers, it will either lose business or find a way to adapt.  Corporate inversions are a way to adapt.  Even a company people on the left would consider “enlightened,” such as Apple Computer run by Tim Cook, operates in such a way as to protect its revenue for investment rather than confiscation.  If Bernie Sanders were to win and have his way in policy, he would have to figure out how to confine our companies to the U.S. and then to protect them from international competition.  That’s a pretty tall order and one that is unlikely to have good results.

But what about the Scandinavian countries with their purportedly wonderful experience with socialism?  I think there are a couple of things to say there.  First, the enhanced welfare states of the Nordic countries owe something (as do all of our welfare programs) to an earlier time in which we were demographically blessed.  We had a post WWII abundance of children to sustain a population of elderly that was much smaller.  When the math is on your side and you have a very large young, healthy, and working population, then you can afford to provide more for those who need it.  Unfortunately, if you look at something like social security, we are coming to a place of having two people working for each beneficiary as opposed to a time when you might have more like 10-12 people working for each beneficiary.  Second, and following the first, the Scandinavian countries are no longer pursuing democratic socialism with the vigor they once did.  The reason is simple sustainability and affordability.  Finally, though not conclusively, the Scandinavian countries face the same issue the rest of us do, which is international competition.  The reality is that the old model may have been a demographic blip.  There is a sense in which Bernie Sanders’ view of the Nordic nations may be trapped in an earlier time, which would not be surprising given his age.  I’m 45 and I think music stopped in the late 1980’s.  He may be suffering from the same thing with regard to public policy.

There are other reasons available to combat Bernie Sanders’ brand of social democracy, but I think the ones I have offered help to make the evaluation of it a bit more sober.  The reality is that his policy is more of an anesthesia to ease the pain of modern life as opposed to a tonic designed to improve our prognosis.  What we need to do is to make it easy to do business, easy to work, easy to pay taxes, and easy to collect them.  We also need to figure where it makes sense to have government spend and where it doesn’t.  It’s no accident that things individuals pay for themselves, such as technology and elective medical procedures (like LASIK), continue to get better and cheaper, while those the government subsidizes like education and health care, become incredibly expensive and without the rate of improvement.

Bernie Sanders is right that there is a problem.  If he weren’t, there wouldn’t be so many people listening to him.  But his solutions are outdated and have a mixed track record at best.

I Am Endorsing . . .

Let’s get one thing out of the way.  I will not be endorsing a Democrat.  I have voted for one Democrat in my entire life.  He was an African-American man running for Sheriff in Jacksonville, Florida.  He ran a tough on crime campaign and did become the top cop.  I hope this lack of endorsement for the party of the left will not too much disappoint my friends who think I am almost reasonable enough to go Democrat.  I’m not.  Not even close.*  🙂

Now, on to the matter of my endorsement (which I imagine may move ten voters if I am lucky, but I am an optimist).  I have to hope that some of those ten are in Iowa, New Hampshire, or South Carolina.  This choice is an agonizing one for me.  I like practically all the candidates in the field.

Trump is an outlier.  He has his charms, but not as a GOP standard bearer.  In any case, Trump is out for me in the primaries.  Talk to me again if he becomes the nominee.

Ben Carson is also out for me.  He is not prepared on a policy level.  Neither is Trump, actually.  My question to Ben Carson is whether he would perform surgery with the level of preparation and understanding he has on policy.  He wouldn’t and shouldn’t.  He’s out.

The rest of the major candidates are live options.  I don’t easily eliminate any of them.  I will tell you honestly that up front I was a Bush man.  I deeply regretted Jeb Bush’s loss in the 1994 Florida governor’s race because I thought he was the best Bush and had the most to offer.  I also had great hopes for his appeal to Hispanics given the make-up of his nuclear family.  But he has either been out of the game too long (since 2006 after two terms as FL gov.) or the field has been too much disrupted by Trump for him to win.  I am not endorsing him because victory appears to be impossible at this point.

I am also not endorsing John Kasich and Chris Christie because I think they are too limited to get enough votes in state after state of primaries.  They can do damage in New Hampshire where they can camp out for weeks, but as the primaries pile up, they will be left behind.  I like both men and think they are well-qualified.  Christie would have run best in 2012 when we were all joyfully watching him blast his detractors in New Jersey on Youtube.  (While I’m at it, Huckabee would have been something in 2012.)

In different circumstances, I think Rand Paul would have done better.  Part of his problem is that he has Ted Cruz pushing for an originalist view of the constitution and for federalism and doing it in a much more interesting way.  That hurts Paul.  In addition, I don’t think he is a match for his father, Ron, as a libertarian evangelist.  He’s out, too, but there is a future for him or someone like him in national politics.  Libertarianism will gain traction in a low-consensus society.  It will also grow in reaction to the burgeoning socialist-lite movement Bernie Sanders is leading.

Carly Fiorina is out because her resume’ just doesn’t match up.  In many ways, she’s Mitt Romney, but less successful in business and not a former governor.  She is really good on the campaign, though.  She needs to run for Congress or find a friendlier state than California.  The future is there for her if she wants it.  She also has been struggling to be on the big stage.

All of this leaves me with Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.  At the beginning of the race, I would have told you that I didn’t want a senator and certainly not a first term senator.  I wanted a governor.  President Obama, in my mind, has demonstrated that executive experience is a must.  But here we have Rubio and Cruz like Kennedy and Nixon.  A couple of young guys rising fast.  Both good at getting votes.  Both men who overthrew establishment opponents.

I like both men.  They are excellent on the debate stage.  Neither will be victims who run around apologizing for their conservative views.  Having been to law school and understanding how our constitution has been warped and twisted, I feel real affection for Ted Cruz because I know he gets that.  Watching him go off on the moderators for their questions in the CNBC debate was amazing.  In addition, I have felt angry with evangelicals who treat Cruz as though he is some theocratic monster.  It isn’t that hard to know what he’s really about.  As I’ve said before, he is really just a Reagan conservative.  Pure and simple.

However, I have decided to endorse Marco Rubio.  My reason is simple.  He is the most conservative candidate who can win.  It’s the old William F. Buckley formulation.  I have been watching politics my whole life.  I still remember watching the 1976 returns come in as I sat on the couch with my mother.  I was so in love with Crossfire in the 1980’s, a friend and I would call each other at the beginning, at the commercial, and at the end to talk excitedly about what we’d seen.  My fascination never abated.  Marco Rubio is the most talented candidate I have ever seen.  Cruz is awfully good.  Rubio is awfully good and then some, plus he doesn’t attract as much enmity.

It is crucial to win now.  We don’t need any more HHS mandates.  Obamacare must be reformed and improved upon.  Perhaps most pressing for me is that I don’t want to see a bureaucrat at the Department of Education issue a regulation that will block access to financial aid for students at Christian colleges and universities.  We also need to win now if only to preserve some balance in the federal court system.

Marco Rubio has the greatest chance to improve the state of the union and to prevent and roll back overreach from an emboldened left.  For that reason, I endorse him.

(There is one caveat to all this.  Ted Cruz has made the point that he is the only candidate who can beat Trump in Iowa.  It seems to me that it would  be wise to prevent Trump from winning Iowa AND New Hampshire back to back.  If I lived in Iowa, I think I would vote Cruz to try and prevent Trump from getting the win.)

Marco Rubio is my guy for the nomination.

 

*Why can’t I vote Democrat?  Two main reasons.  The first is that the Democratic party is decidedly pro-choice.  Morally, I equate that view with something like segregation.  That means it has massive priority that cannot be ignored.  There used to be plenty of pro-life Democrats, but they are nearly extinct.  The second is that the Democratic party is increasingly secular and uninterested in religious liberty.  That again is a situation that has changed.  If we go back 25 years or so, the Democrats probably valued religious liberty more highly than Republicans.  Secular, left-wing liberal values are too antithetical to my own.  I can’t vote that way.

The Year’s Reflection: Writing, Fitness, Life Changes

I turned 45 this past year.  It is hard for me to believe because moments in my memory are so accessible.  I remember sitting in the front row in first grade, being threatened by a bully the next year, listening to a fourth grade teacher rave unhappily about our bad behavior, having a fight at a bus stop in middle school, sitting nearby when a big kid snapped and pounded his tormentor . . . Some of these memories are violent, aren’t they?  Well, they are from my time in public school.  But I also remember my mother’s Christmas cookies, my dad catching probably hundreds of thousands of balls thrown by me in the backyard, and spectacular stained glass windows in an Episcopal church we attended for a while.

These memories are so fresh and yet at 45 I am feeling my own mortality.  I may have sleep apnea.  My knees are a mess.  I have a vicious caffeine addiction that I have nearly extinguished (for the fourth/fifth time?).  I had massive back problems which seem to be largely solved by getting a new mattress.  That’s a long way from the days when I could crash on the floor of a friend’s house.

2015 began and ended with the flu.  I had a severe version about year ago and a much attenuated round this December.  Thank God for a wife and a primary care physician who pushed me to get the vaccine.  It worked this year.

I tried something new in terms of working out in 2015.  I have long been a big walker.  One of my favorite things is to walk about five miles while I listen to music or podcasts.  There were two problems.  One is that I got tired of having to protect my increasingly vulnerable skin from the sun.  The other is that all the pavement pounding seemed to be exacerbating my back problems.

As a result, I finally acceded to my wife’s desire to join a fitness club.  We started going to Gold’s Gym.  It has the advantage of having treadmills with television.  That way, we can get our kids to walk while the Cartoon Network plays in front of them.  They appreciate it since we cut the cord this year.

I thought I was going to be a bike and treadmill guy, but it just didn’t capture me.  Walking inside is not as good as walking outside.  So, I ventured into the room with weight machines.  Since June, I’ve been lifting.  And I have to say — listen my fellow chronic fat fighters — nothing has been better for me in terms of reshaping my body than lifting weights.  My arms, shoulders, and chest are bigger, while my waist is smaller.  I feel taller, more like a healthy beast (at least when I’m not waking myself up with some titanic snore in bed).  The bottom line is that I have had years where I put an enormous amount of walking miles on the scoreboard, but didn’t experience nearly the body improvement I got out of lifting.

The great thing is that it didn’t even require much in terms of overcoming intimidation.  I have done most of the lifting in the room with the nice, padded machines.  Only in the last month have I begun to venture down into the basement where the hulks of Gold’s Gym dwell.  I had to go down there because I made it to the point of using 30 pound barbells and everything upstairs is lighter.  It’s a little weird being down there with people who feel like dedicated professionals, but they go about their business and you go about yours.

A lot of my writing this year translated into speaking.  I began the year speaking at Trinity International University (at the seminary) in Chicago (with snow!) and ended it at a small, start-up great books school in South Dakota.  In between, I delivered a presidential inaugural address at New Saint Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho.  The place is often a hotbed of controversy because of Douglas Wilson’s amazing ability to generate it. I have to say, though, that the town was beautiful and the community around the college seemed very warm and productive in terms of learning. One stop took me back to Houston Baptist University where I had the chance to give “A Graduation Speech before Graduation.”  I’ve sat through so many commencement addresses, I have developed a pretty strong sense of what I’d like speakers to say.  So, I said those things to students at a chapel service in the beautiful Dunham Theater.

In addition to the speaking, I wrote online mostly for The Federalist, which is a website created by Ben Domenech.  Ben is well known as the editor of The Transom (a daily email service) and increasingly as a national media personality.  I recruited him to create and edit The City back in 2007.  He and I collaborated on that publication (with me writing the back of book reflections) until this year.  Now that neither Ben nor I are at HBU, the college decided to put it under the control of its own personnel.  We had a nice run of about seven years.  Some folks might be curious about my choice of The Federalist as an outlet because it can be a bit edgy (despite being conservative and Christian friendly) in terms of some of the items it publishes.  My logic has been to go where the readers are.  And The Federalist has readers.  One piece I wrote a couple of years back on the liberal arts was shared thousands of times of Facebook.  Bill Buckley quit writing for Playboy when he figured out there were very few actual readers for him to influence.  I don’t have that worry with The Federalist.  Its readers are thinkers and the content is about the text, not pictures.

The dominant theme of the speaking and online writing had to do with Obergefell.  During these last several years, I have been somewhat unique as a Christian conservative in the sense that I worried very little about gay marriage (in and of itself), but worried a great deal about the impact of gay marriage on religious liberty.  I think those concerns have been well-founded.  Gay marriage has the potential to be a lever for removing Christian institutions (other than the churches narrowly as churches) from the entire non-profit charitable and educational life of the country.  While the majority decision in Obergefell offered some reassurance on that score, the warning issued by the Chief Justice in his dissent has a piercing ring to it.

I wrote a chapter for a book put out by the Gospel Coalition on whether Christians can still change the world after Obergefell.  In addition, I wrote essays for the Journal of Christian Legal Thought (“Was Carl F.H. Henry Right?) and for the Journal of Markets and Morality (on whether the idea of Christian America was invented by corporations).  Both of those are forthcoming.

Finally, but not comprehensively in terms of the work, I served as a judge for the Christianity Today Book Awards.  One thing I have learned from that process is that if you think you have a good book to offer, then you should encourage your publisher to nominate it.  While all the books I reviewed were quite good, I’m sure several others would have been worthy of inclusion.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, I agreed with practically everyone else that Russell Moore’s Onward deserved the nod.  But I also liked Stanley Carlson-Thies and Steven Monsma’s recent effort on religious liberty.

On the personal side, I had two opportunities to spend time with Rod Dreher.  His book, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, absolutely wiped me out emotionally when I read it.  We met at an ERLC event and then again when he came to Union University.  He suggested I drive through Louisiana and visit at some point.  Maybe he’ll become our conservative version of Wendell Berry with folks driving over just to take in the spirit of Walker Percy amid the pines and set a spell.

Leaving work aside, I think I’ll finish with something that meant a lot to my wife.  Ruth wants to travel.  I don’t like traveling.  Too much fuss for me.  But I recognized that I needed to go along with it this year.  We planned a trip to Colorado.  Denver was a lot of fun, but the really special part was the YMCA in the Rockies.  Possibly the greatest real estate purchase of all time.  And guess what?  This is a YMCA where the C still stands for Christian.  Most people were there with conferences, but we were just there as tourists.  We hiked, saw wildlife (such as elk and moose), fly-fished (where I caught nothing and Ruth caught seven), heard a John Denver tribute band, played Bingo, and sat by as son Andrew pursued Josh McDowell into a bathroom to ask if he knew his dad.

See you in the funny papers.  (I just realized everybody under 40 has no idea what I mean . . .)

 

 

The Idea of the “Worthless” College Degree

new york public libraryI keep seeing stories about “worthless” college degrees. That’s hard for me to understand when I look at the comparisons between the economic lives of those who have a college degree and those who don’t. College is obviously worth something on the market.

Now, is the college graduate always going to have a better economic future than a technically trained person (such as Rubio’s welder or a plumber or what have you)? No. But in general, the college educated person has a much easier time navigating the job market than those who don’t have such a degree. To choose one indicator, those who have college degrees experience a much lower unemployment rate than those who don’t.  It’s silly to keep arguing that college is worthless.

But let’s go a little deeper.  Let’s assume that you think the content of the learning at college is worthless.  So, take a history major and assume that you believe the information transmitted is of zero worth.  I disagree strongly, but let’s assume it, anyway.  The student who majors in history spends four years showing up on time to class, learning how to take notes, reading, writing, observing how professors think and work, and hanging out with a group of people who are pursuing their education.  At a minimum, the habits and raw skills picked up in the course of such an experience are worth something.

This is where grades come in to some extent.  If you take a student who has majored in something unrelated to the job for which they are applying, I would ask about their grades.  If they have proven they can satisfy their professors through on-time performance, following instructions, and showing up (which is a big deal), then that means something to me.  It means they are willing to learn, can do what they have been asked to do, and can do it successfully.  That’s a person who can function well in the workplace.

Let’s take it further again.  I double majored in economics and political science as an undergraduate.  My learning in those subjects have enriched my life in many ways.  My life as a citizen is better.  I know more and understand more than I otherwise would.  I have a broader range of things I enjoy reading and watching beyond just popular entertainments.  I encounter the world in a more sophisticated way.  The way I evaluate institutions, the things I think about when interacting with a salesperson, the way I think about incentives . . . these are all things that are positively influenced by my education, whether or not I ended up using it in a direct, professional way.

We could go on.  Education is good.  It just is.  The only reason we are getting these stories about it being “worthless” is  because tuition prices are high.  That’s a valid complaint, but don’t make the mistake of turning a dissatisfaction with price into a critique of the substance of higher education more broadly.

But you know what worries me?  The people who write these stories about “worthless” college degrees appear not to appreciate their own education.  But that’s okay.  They’re in good company.  Peter Thiel (who co-founded Paypal and was an original Facebook investor) pays young people not to go to college.  He doesn’t seem to recognize the good his philosophy degree at Stanford did for him.

Socrates at Sportsclips

I put my glasses down on the counter and sat down in the barber’s chair.  Sometimes, it feels as though that act will preclude conversation, as though I had removed hearing aids instead of eyewear.  The young woman cutting my hair in this case felt like chatting.  She asked the standard question about my occupation.  I answered that I teach politics at the local university.  And when you say politics, they tend to get interested.  Everyone has an opinion about politics.

She observed that now must be a big time for me because of the upcoming presidential election and the debates.  I told her that’s true, but that most of my teaching these days has to do with political thought from another age.  One of my colleagues took a job in another city.  Now I find myself teaching Plato and Aristotle.

“How is that different?” she asked.  As an example, I told her about Plato’s proposal for a community of wives and children for the guardians of his city.  He thought it would create greater love and unity.  Every boy will have many fathers.  Fathers will have many sons.  I followed that by explaining Aristotle’s objection to the idea.  He said that a son in such a community would not really be a son, but more like 1/1000th of a son.

Most people I know react by agreeing strongly with Aristotle.  But this woman surprised me.  She said, “I’m a single mom with five kids.  I think I like Plato’s idea where everybody takes care of each other’s children.”  I didn’t stop her to clarify that nobody in Plato’s proposal really has their own children because her admission hit a nerve.

I thought about what it must be like to be a woman with five children, a job, and no husband.  From where she’s standing, a society pulled in much closer by government plans and ideology seems like a good idea.  I don’t blame her.  She’s going to want the government daycare, the public after-school programs, the universal healthcare, and the rest of it.  She feels alone and is looking for allies.  Government is one answer to her vulnerability.

If you are a person who prizes liberty and who wants to keep the government limited (which is where I have always been), it is important to realize that there are a lot of people like the woman who cut my hair.  The challenge she poses is a serious one.

Don’t write her off.  She’s out there working and striving.  The question is whether both sides have something compelling to say to her . . . or only one.

Chubby 44 Year Old Goes to Yoga

Yesterday, after hearing a colleague extol the experience of yoga at Gold’s Gym, where I am a member, I decided to attend a class.  My wife, Ruth, was going to meet me there at 5:30.  Somewhat assured by the idea of having Ruth and a colleague in the class, I decided to commit to the venture.

Upon arriving, I quickly learned two things.  First, this would be HOT yoga (with the thermostat turned way up).  Second, every other person in the class (Ruth didn’t make it and neither did the colleague) was a prime physical specimen.  No body fat on the men or women and bulging muscles on the men.  That left me to serve as the “before” picture in the group.

Nevertheless, I was there and wasn’t going to back out, even if I did look silly in my pleated khaki shorts with a big leather belt.  I forced myself to abandon my reserve just enough to remove my white athletic socks.

The teacher turned down the lights and turned on the soft, global  village sounding music.  I prepared for an experience that I hoped would be relaxing and would help my chronically sore lower back.

Our instructor led us through a series of poses.  With each one she offered us four options.  The first option was the easiest.  I adopted that pose each time (and did not find them all that easy).  Every other member of the class went for the fourth and most difficult pose.  I was generally okay with that dynamic except when it came to our default position.  The rest of the class returned each time to downward dog.  I had to be content with what the instructor called “the child’s pose.”  I must have adopted the child’s pose 20 times or so during our class, which lasted for a hot and difficult hour.  I spent a lot of time as a 44 year old child.  I kind of thought that they should call it “the rickety, stiff, middle-aged person’s pose.”

As a political scholar, I reflected on what we were doing.  It seemed to me that the positions involved a lot of subordinate-seeming bowing and scraping along the floor.  I wondered whether yoga related in some way to the tendency of people in the east to go low before some mighty ruler who commanded worship.  But then we began going through the various warrior poses  in a standing position and my theory was shot.

The verdict was ultimately positive.  My back pain was gone, though temporarily, after we finished.  The resting time at the end of the hour was truly blissful and would have been more so if I’d been less self-conscious.  And I noticed that for at least a couple of hours after the class, I seemed to have a bit of a vibrant buzz.  I wondered if some magical alignment of the spine had plugged my brain into a new power source.

An Open Letter to Christians in the Wedding Trades

Also available as part of a double essay presentation at The Federalist.

Dear fellow Christians in the wedding trades,

I write first to let you know that I understand your plight. You have derived joy and satisfaction over the years by providing cakes, flowers, and photographs for couples getting married. In the rare circumstance that a same-sex couple came to your place of business, you simply politely declined and knew that other providers would happily take the work.

Unfortunately for you, you happen to be trying to make a living during the exact tiny slice of the history of world civilization when gay marriage has become the laser focus of our culture (and especially our cultural elites). In 2008, the current president shared your view. Now, he stands with the folks on the other side of the issue looking askance upon you and your convictions. Hillary Clinton also endorsed traditional marriage. She, too, takes a new view today. The really tough part is that everyone who has changed their opinion, which is a lot of people in just a short time frame, seems to expect you to perform the mental flip, as well. They don’t want to hear your reasoned explanations about the biblical text or about how you will serve gay customers in any regard other than a wedding. They just want you to shut up and adopt the new consensus. Despite their constant complaints over the years about soulless corporations, they deny that your personal convictions and morality should have any application to the way you do business.

You would expect some solidarity from your fellow Christians. And many have chosen to stand with you and to try and protect you from having your faith and conscience trampled. But others have done everything they can to rationalize why you should get with the cultural program. They say that Jesus would bake the cake or that you are simply wrong in thinking that you should abstain from same-sex wedding work. Somehow, they fail to understand that they are effectively establishing themselves as the equivalent of some kind of pope who infallibly interprets the faith for others. There must be more chairs at the Vatican than you think there are. I suspect the reality is that they are embarrassed by you. They are tired of looking out of step. It doesn’t help that here you are trying to be faithful. You’re preventing things from going more smoothly. What are you, some kind of fundamentalist?

At the same time, you are the perfect target for petty bureaucrats looking to make a mark and for policymakers who would rather focus on anything other than balancing budgets, solving pension crises, improving schools, and other difficult and energy-draining tasks. Better to do something that might get a mention in the latest Profiles in Courage volume. And it really doesn’t cost anything. Well, it won’t cost the taxpayers. It will cost you, sure (maybe $135,000 or more), but you’re just a bigot!

The good news is that many people do care about your plight. They rally into crowdfunding opportunities and even find new ways to help when some fundraisers are hounded into dropping you by zealous opponents. But I doubt that there is enough crowdfunding to protect all of you, especially if the witch-hunt attitude continues. These neo-Puritans in the service of a new kind of religious zeal probably occupy enough regulatory and judicial positions to generate extraordinary costs and punishments relative to the “offense” of which you have been or will be accused.

Some of you may already be looking to sell your business or are thinking about simply finishing the current lease and choosing a new occupation. Before you do, I would like to suggest an alternative. It doesn’t seem right to accept that one cannot be a baker, florist, or photographer unless you compromise convictions that were well-accepted and widely shared until about five minutes ago.

The easy way out is to simply stop doing weddings. But I think you can probably be a bit more subtle than that. The problem for you is that you believe it is wrong for you to participate in a same-sex wedding. Here’s an alternative to getting out of the wedding business. I propose that if you are a baker, you no longer offer “wedding” cakes. It doesn’t mean you won’t make cakes that are suitable for weddings, but to you it will just be a cake and the client can use it in any way they like. Since you are not offering it as a wedding cake, you can say with integrity that you are not selling a “wedding” cake for a same-sex ceremony. The same logic applies with regard to florists and photographers. Just stop marketing packages as wedding packages or offering wedding arrangements.

Perhaps this strategy seems a little too clever to you. Maybe that is the case, but I believe that if no one else cares about your conscience or integrity, then you are obliged to take steps of your own. This strategy may resonate with the biblical injunction to be “wise as a serpent and gentle as a dove.” Many of us in a variety of occupations may eventually be in need of such stratagems.

Of course, it would be better . . . AHEM (let’s hope some others are paying attention) . . . far better if our fellow countrymen were to decide that conscience is important. Perhaps they could realize that Sweet Cakes not baking a wedding cake for a same sex wedding is hardly Apartheid or Jim Crow at work. Maybe they could distinguish isolated objections based on conscience and faith from massive, formal, and systematic systems of oppression. Maybe they could come to that conclusion. But in the meantime, I offer you my sympathy and my advice. Some people like throwing the book at you, you know? It’s tough when you’re up against someone with a little authority who enjoys their work.

With my prayers and friendship,

A fellow citizen (and a brother) who shares your burden

Reflections on a Week in Colorado: Baker Family Vacation Version

Ruth Baker doesn’t insist on many things, but she was determined about this trip.  “We are going to go on a real vacation.  And this time I don’t mean another place within eight hours of our house.  This time, I want to take the family to see the Rocky Mountains.”

I grew up with trips of 3-4 days within driving distance of our home.  We mostly visited relatives or went to the Gulf of Mexico.  Those experiences, which I loved, formed my feelings about travel.  I begin to get nervous after more than a long weekend away.  I hate spending time in airports and worrying about rental cars.

It didn’t matter.  We were doing this.  After all, my bride had only been asking for a couple of decades.

We packed up four suitcases and at least four backpacks and headed for a Southwest flight out of Nashville.  Ruth and the kids managed to tolerate my need to get to the airport nearly three hours ahead of time.

I sat in an exit row.  Ruth and the kids sat nearby.  I put in my earphones so I wouldn’t hear the engine noise, which tends to fill me with anxiety.  My usual eclectic mix of Christian, electronica, and eighties rock drowned out the ambient sound while Ernest Cline’s novel Ready, Player One distracted me from thinking too much about being many thousands of feet in the air.  (Short review:  Good story with non-stop eighties and nerd nostalgia.  I found that I dreamed about it at night. Fair amount of philosophical and religious disagreement on my part.)

Uneventful flight.  We arrived in Denver.  I was about to go on a forced oxygen diet for the next week.

Baggage claim.  Avis rental car.  The agent asked if we wanted to upgrade from our Buick Regal.  Ruth insisted we did not.  We took all our luggage to the car and filled the trunk.  Not everything would fit.  By the time I sat down and got my seat the way I like it, our daughter had become a sardine in the back seat.  She doesn’t normally speak up for herself, but actually decided to express dissatisfaction.  Ruth went back to the desk and returned with a brand new Ford Explorer (at an increased rate, but who cares!).  (Short review: The new Ford Explorer is the best Ford I have ever experienced.  And this one had seat coolers.  SEAT COOLERS!  My rear end was cool throughout our journeys.)

We made our way into Denver.  Thanks to a recommendation from a friend, we began with a meal at a Mediterranean place in one of those hip parts of town.  You know.  Run down buildings.  Nifty, well-aged neighborhoods.  Creative vibe.  The restaurant featured grape leaves, kebabs, pita bread, all kinds of other wonderfulness.  The dry, rare air and the delicious water caused us to drink about twice as much as we usually would.  As we enjoyed the meal, a freak hailstorm pelted the world outside.  We took it as a good omen.

The next day we went to the Denver Botanic Garden.  It is typically beautiful.  I found myself surprised to see that there was a scripture garden with a Judeo-Christian emphasis.  I wasn’t sure whether something like that would still have a place in Denver.

After the gardens, we went to a doughnut shop that has been discovered by the Food Network.  Voo-doo Doughnuts.  Parking was a semi-nightmare as I had to find a parallel spot for our rented Explorer.  We got inside and waited in a long, snaking queue.  The bottom line is that they do the standards well.  Glazed doughnut.  Good.  Raspberry filled.  Also good.  But they encourage you to pay big bucks for a mixed box that they choose.  You end up with very attractive doughnuts with a ton of icing and toppings like Captain Crunch, bubble gum, bacon, etc.  We didn’t really like any of the jazzed up doughnuts with enough icing to be cupcakes.  Though we are all big fans of doughnuts, the truth is that we pitched most of the souped up versions into the garbage can at a local park.

That evening we encountered something wonderful.  Denver’s City Park is a treasure.  Acres of gorgeous, soft, green grass.  A delightful lake at the center.  We made our way around the water to reach a central grandstand which emanated jazz.  It was interesting to walk through the crowd, which got a little rough-looking at times.  We saw a motorcycle gang.  One guy’s jacket said “Enforcer.”  And it didn’t seem like a joke.  Some of the women had vests that said things like “property of Jack.”  Again, didn’t seem like a funny thing.

We kept making our way through the crowd.  I noticed signs forbidding the use of marijuana in the park and figured that’s probably a pretty serious issue given Denver’s legalization of the drug.  I had seen at least two “green cross” dispensaries offering medical and recreational marijuana.  The biggest thing I noticed as we continued around the lake was the predominance of dogs over children.  Lots and lots of dogs who were clearly treasured and adored.  Not so many kids.  Draw the conclusion you will from that.

The next day we left for the YMCA camp in Estes Park just outside the Rocky Mountain National Park.  It was extraordinarily picturesque.  Just driving from Denver to the area was a spiritual and emotional experience.  As a lifelong southerner, my view of mountains comes from the Appalachian chain.  There is just something about the scale of the Rockies that induces a sense of awe, especially the sheer size of some of the rocks.

Estes Park has the Stanley Hotel, which I will always think of as the Overlook Hotel from Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining.  In the film, the Overlook appears to stand alone and foreboding in the wintry mountains.  Today, it sits just above a semi-schlocky tourist area.  McDonald’s is at its base.  You can’t drive up and check the hotel out.  They have a guard shack to keep out the sight-seers.  I was a little bummed about that.  If the movie were made today, Jack would never go crazy.  He’d just amble down the hill for a combo meal at Taco Bell.

The YMCA camp was much more than I’d hoped.  Maybe the first thing to say is that despite the seeming full secularization of the YMCA as an organization nationwide, the camp we encountered in the Rockies was truly a Christian camp.  There were large numbers of Christian campers eating, praying, praising God, and having a great time.  We saw Josh McDowell at breakfast one morning.  He was clearly there as a speaker.  I watched as he worked on a powerpoint presentation with an assistant.  Though I wanted to talk to him, I am constitutionally opposed to bothering celebrities and appearing like a fanboy.

What happened next is a matter of controversy between me and my son.  Andrew got up from our table and went to the bathroom shortly after McDowell did the same.  He returned to say that he had spoken with the author.  He told him that his father was Hunter Baker, an author and a professor at Union University in Tennessee, and that his dad liked his books.  Andrew claims that McDowell responded that he had read my work and likes it.  As all of this dialogue happened off-stage, I have trouble accepting it.  But I do believe they spoke.  And if I apply the professor’s test in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I should believe Andrew.  Enough of that.

The camp was uplifting and fun.  There was praise and worship.  There were outdoor concerts (with proper homage paid to John Denver).  We hiked and learned fly-fishing.  The whole time I felt astonishment at the natural beauty.  Anytime I wanted to, I could look up and see something breathtaking.  I also got my first view of a coyote and an elk in the wild.  The elk stunned me.  We don’t get a lot of fauna that size in our part of the world.  We also played a fair bit of bingo.  Simple pleasures.  It was a nice detox from the usual routines of electronics, electronics, and electronics.

After leaving the camp, we drove into the Rocky Mountain National Park.  Ruth had been there before and was determined to get above timberline.  I struggled with the thin air all week, but it was at its worst at the high point in the park.  Denver’s mile high air is tough enough, but try 10,000 feet and above.  As I write this blog post, I am drinking in the rich, humid, oxygen soup of West Tennessee.  It is glorious.  Despite the clean, dry, thin air which I felt was slowly suffocating and dessicating me, I loved seeing the tundra at the high altitudes.  We hiked on special paths and climbed boulders.  It felt like being on top of the planet.  The wind was so fierce at points it was almost as though you might get blown into space.  One young man was up there in a wheelchair and had an oxygen cannister.  While I wondered if he should be there in his condition, I also thought that it was a great thing that he could see the same things I was seeing.

Hiking above timberline was the high point (pun intended).  We eased out by stopping in Winter Park where we rode the alpine slide and saw what a ski resort looks like in the summer.  Then, we went through Golden, Colorado where Coors is made.  They are in no danger of losing the massive brewery because Coors depends on the Rocky Mountain spring water for its beer.  The Coors complex was one of the largest commercial operations I have ever seen.  It was like a huge appendage attached to the quaint downtown of the city.

The Baker clan finished by staying at an airport hotel and returning to Tennessee the next day.  Andrew, who likes his predictable world, went on and on about how much he missed all the good things waiting for us at home.  He promised to kiss the ground upon our return.  I suddenly understood all the old newsreel footage of politicians as they pressed their lips to the tarmac upon returning to their native lands.  I’m happy to be back, too.

Learning from a Life Under Communism

I had the pleasure of eating lunch with a new friend today.  He lived the first three decades or so of his life under Communism in Romania.  As a person who writes about politics, I took full opportunity of the chance to pick his brain.

When we began, he told me about how poor he thinks American public education is.  As a parent, he felt his daughter was receiving an education inferior to the one she would have gotten in Romania.  That interested me.  I asked him whether he would say that American society is otherwise superior to what he experienced in the Soviet satellite.  He was quick to affirm that it is.  We talked about shortages of goods, inferior goods, forced adherence to Communist ideology, and other things.

Okay, then, if that is all true, I asked him, then why do you think Romania and its superior educational system came up so short of the U.S. overall?  He responded indirectly by describing life in his former country.  It amounted to a society in which the ultimate goals are political goals.  In other words, politics sets the agenda for the society and for individuals in the society.

If political goals are the most important, I suggested, then it may be the case that some of the things that come with freedom, such as technological progress, would be stunted.  He thought about that.  He said that I was using the word politics, but he would rather speak of corruption.  For him, politics are the occasion for corruption.  If everything requires permission from the state and its functionaries, then the system creates seemingly endless replicas of little political tollbooths.  Each occupant of a tollbooth (and this could be a state official, a doctor, a nurse, a manager, a utilities worker, etc.) recognizes the opportunity to collect a little fee in order to allow you to pass through to the other side.

I said politics.  He said corruption.  There is an interesting relationship there.  Politics is not synonymous with corruption, but politics possesses incredible potential to create opportunities for corruption.  Don’t be too quick to ask politics to do the job that we can do otherwise lest you multiply those little tollbooths.