An Open Letter to Donald Trump after the National Prayer Breakfast (from a guy who voted for you . . .)

Dear Mr. President,

         I am writing an open letter to you because you understand social media and because I have at least a chance you might read this.  As I write, we are less than a year away from the election that will either give you a second term or send you into the less distinguished ranks of defeated presidents.  But why do I write to you in the first place?  I want to straighten things out between you and the evangelicals the press ties to you like a gun in a holster on your hip.

         When you ran for the Republican nomination in 2015 and 2016, I thought you were completely out of your league.  I didn’t think you had the knowledge, the network, or the support to become a president.  On the other hand, I always gave you credit that others denied.  I know it takes an impressive person to figure out how to build skyscrapers in the great cities of the world.  But I’ll be straight with you.  I opposed you all the way to the bitter end of the nominating process.  I voted for Marco Rubio, but Ted Cruz was right next to him in my mind.  And then I would have voted for every single one of your opponents before you.  I remember begging people not to vote for you during the primary season.

         When you carried the Republican flag against Hillary Clinton, I sometimes believed the whole thing was an elaborate conspiracy designed to elect her.  I doubted you on judges.  I doubted you on pro-life.  I doubted you had any idea of what to do with the government once you had it.  But you had something going for you.  I knew exactly what to expect from the Democrats.  You, at least, were a wild card.  I didn’t go to early voting because I wasn’t settled.  On the morning of election day, I stood in the booth still not sure what I would do.  But then I remembered that the best human being I have ever known was voting for you (I won’t name the person here).  I held my breath and pulled the lever for Donald Trump.

I’ll never forget election night.  I was stunned when you prevailed.  (I think you were, too.)  But the thing I felt most of all was relief that Secretary Clinton did not win.  I know that many of my neverTrumper friends felt the same way.  At the time, I think even Bill Kristol would have said so. 

According to polls, 81% of white evangelicals voted for you.  That has led to a lot of high and mighty judgment (sometimes from the other 19%) castigating us for the decision we made.  In terms of your policies, I think we did the right thing.  The economy is humming (and benefitting the least of these) thanks to your realistic view of the competitive international tax situation and your insistence on reducing red tape.  You have redressed trade imbalances, especially with China.  You’ve avoided getting us into another Middle Eastern morass, while simultaneously dealing favorably with Israel (quite a feat).  Most important, you have kept your promise on judges.  Both the sanctity of life and religious liberty are stronger than you found them. 

But there is another side to all of this.  And I think this is an area where we have served you poorly.  Some of us have cultivated your friendship without speaking faithfully to you about your words and behavior. (Some call these “court evangelicals,” I suppose.)  Others have attacked you with the most unattractive self-righteousness that would appall us if applied to almost anyone else.  We spend a lot of time talking about loving sinners and hating sin, but I have seen too many who feel free to hate your sin and to hate you AND to congratulate themselves about doing it. 

I want to do the thing that I think should be done, which is to appeal to you in a way that is friendly and direct.  Let’s talk honestly.  It has been important to some to characterize you as a Christian.  I think you’ve passively allowed that, more or less.  But it seems to me you aren’t really comfortable with that designation.  You haven’t experienced a conversion that brings with it a drive toward continuing repentance and personal holiness.  For me, the kingship of Jesus Christ is the most significant fact there is.  (Way bigger than the presidency of Donald Trump, which is YUGE, I know.)  For you, that’s an interesting (and probably weird) claim, I suspect.  What you are is an American (like many Americans) for whom Christianity is an accessory and not an engine.  If you want to correct me on that, you do it and I will take you at your word.  Most conservative churchgoers understand what I’m saying here just as I think you do.

But let me ask you for something.  I am part of the coalition that has voted for you and will likely do so again.  You believe in deals.  So maybe you can make a deal for us.  Please don’t shame us by attending events like the National Prayer Breakfast and turning a meeting based on faith into another avenue for political combat and vindication of your grievances.  I don’t think it is too much to ask you to navigate those waters with more care as part of earning our support.  Just attend and be respectful.  We all enter situations where we don’t necessarily speak the language or feel the feelings.  Those are good times for humility and care. 

And here’s another related thought.  When you went to the National Prayer Breakfast, you’d survived impeachment and given probably the best speech of your presidency for the State of the Union.  My hopes rose when you gave that speech without talking about impeachment.  I thought maybe you’d learned to rise above the fray and maybe even just to be thankful things turned out well for you.  Instead, you jumped right back into the mud the next morning.  People say that a person of a certain age can’t learn anything new, but I have to tell you, I keep expecting you to shock all of us just like you did on election night.  I think you can learn something new. Here’s a Bible verse that might appeal to you and help with that.  It’s Romans 12:20, which reads, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”  Maybe you should try that.

I might also add that you probably underestimate what you could do if you learn that you don’t have to go full New Yorker every time you fight a battle.  My conservative estimate is that greater personal grace and statesmanship would be worth at least five more points at the ballot box.  Anybody with your numbers should be sailing to re-election instead of anticipating a hard-fought battle.

                                                               With respect,

                                                               Hunter Baker

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.

I Regret the Time I Attacked Bill Bennett and Got Noticed.

It was early in the new millennium. I was working for a state-based think tank and desperately wanted to make a name as a political commentator. Looking back from 2019, I’ve had a lot of opportunities and scratched the itch pretty thoroughly, but in those days I was palpably hungry.

I was just beginning to write for the new political websites that were popping up and eagerly sought each opportunity to get something else out into the stream. Every new posting meant two things. First, I would be able to say what I was thinking and have large audiences take notice. Second, I’d get my name out there. The point is that my radar was active. I was ready to move.

I saw a story about Bill Bennett in the news. He had been a hero of mine. I loved his promotion of virtue through his books and appearances. According to the report, Bennett was big on playing slot machines. As a righteous young person attentive to even the whiff of hypocrisy, I felt outrage. How could it be that the preacher of virtue and moderation took his speaking fees from evangelizing those good things and fed the money into slots???

As upset as I was, I saw opportunity, too, though. I quickly wrote up a column-sized lament about conservative heroes having feet of clay. I can no longer recall who published it, but I went further in this case. I realized that I could gain a greater audience and perhaps make a name for myself by promoting the piece further. I wrote to the publishers of Real Clear Politics and to Andrew Sullivan. Why did I choose Andrew Sullivan? Because he was a well-known gay writer who would surely appreciate a piece criticizing a lion of the right like Bennett. I cringe now at my opportunism then.

Even though I was a nobody with very few bylines to my name, I got the treatment from Sullivan and from Real Clear Politics. Had Twitter and Facebook been available at the time, I’m sure I would have gone viral with my howl of despair and betrayal. At the time, I was pleased with myself and counted my achievement to be quite a coup.

In retrospect, I regret the whole thing. What did I achieve by participating in the shaming of one of my own heroes? Was I angry? Yes. But I cannot avoid the fact that my own desire for advancement and reputation was at least as important as my moral outrage.

Why do I mention it now? The episode is well forgotten almost two decades later. It’s just that I’ve been noticing something, lately. People at the New York Times and the Washington Post do occasionally publish columns by people in my community (meaning conservative evangelicals). But it should not escape anyone that the pieces by people in my tribe that make it to those august pages are almost always of a particular type. The Times and the Post are game to publish earnest writing from conservative evangelicals criticizing their own people for moral cowardice, for hypocrisy, etc.

Now, it is important to call a spade a spade and to face up to the truth, but we may need to exercise a little discernment in realizing that the elites only want us when we are attacking our own. Further, we should ask ourselves what our motives really are. Maybe our laments should go elsewhere than to those who wish to weaponize them.

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.

What’s Doing the Work in the Trump/AOC Squad Controversy? Is it racism or something else?

Many years ago I served as a teaching assistant for the political philosopher Francis Beckwith. As we talked and spent time together, I learned some of his habits of speech. One thing he would often do was to analyze an argument and then say “what’s doing the work in the argument is . . .” It seems to me that in the Trump/AOC Squad controversy we have a misconception of what’s doing the work.

The AOC Squad, featuring Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley, function as a bloc on the left who agree on a highly critical view of American politics and culture. In essence, they believe the United States is extremely unjust, reparations for slavery are appropriate, socialism is a good guide for economic policy, a green new deal is needed, etc.

Donald Trump responded to them in a ham-fisted and offensive way by encouraging them to go back to their original countries and fix what is broken there. The problem, of course, is that they are American citizens who have been elected to the U.S. Congress. Clearly, he is mistaken or is not mistaken, but is rather trying to offend or whip up negative sentiment against them.

So far, so good. But here is the problem. The president’s remarks, which I agree are offensive and mistaken, have also been repeatedly characterized as racist. So many people I respect and consider guides for my own thinking call these remarks racist.

The use of racism as a critique here doesn’t sit well. It is a crumb in the sheets. It is the tinnitus in the ear. What’s doing the work here? Is it really race?

Let’s perform a thought experiment. Imagine that we had members of the U.S. Congress who were ethnically identifiable as Swedish and Norwegian. Imagine they had names that fit the bill and that they cultivated the identification by way of critique of U.S. cowboy capitalism and militarism. And let’s imagine they, too, were highly critical of President Trump and promised his impeachment.

Let us further imagine that this Bjornsson and Thorsdottir drew exactly the same rebuke from the president or something like it. “Go back to your stupid socialist countries and your minimal world influence. Go back to being irrelevant and useless. You love Scandinavia so much, go back there.”

Viewing the scene, would you conclude that racism was doing the work in Trump’s offensive remarks? I don’t think you would. I think you would conclude that Trump’s hatred of the Scandinavian view of national priorities and his anger at being criticized were doing the work. But you couldn’t say racism, could you? Of course not, it’s a white on white drive by rhetorical shooting.

But in the other aspects, the situation is basically the same. What we have is not the operation of racism, but the operation of jingoism, nativism, and Donald Trump’s own sensitivity to being criticized. I have a hard time understanding why the emphasis is so firmly on the color of the people involved.

Now, I know that many people will be shaking their heads and saying that I’m clueless, but I invite analysis of what I’ve suggested. I agree 100% that what the president said is wrong. I just disagree with why it is wrong. I don’t think racism is essential to the complaint. I suspect racism is the frame we use because it is bombastic and because we largely agree on the heinousness of it. If you are a political opponent of the president, you would rather charge him with racism than jingoism or being thin-skinned. It just resonates so much more strongly.

But again, what’s doing the work?

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.

“Don’t Ban Equality.” Seriously?

By now most folks are aware of the ad run by a couple hundred CEO’s expressing their opposition to Georgia’s anti-abortion law. They characterize the law as “bad for business.” That’s a strange approach since it would seem to pose killing unborn children as “good for business,” which is fairly unsettling.

I also can’t help but think about the language of not banning “equality.” I may have missed something. Can men commit infanticide with impunity? Or to be as even as possible, are they permitted to terminate the pregnancy of their partner on their own initiative? Neither of those things being the case, I don’t think we are talking about “equality.” The letter strains the meaning of language to the limit and beyond.

As ever, the fundamental question is not equality. The fundamental question is the personhood of the unborn child. If the unborn child has personhood, then male/female equality is not really the most pressing issue, is it?