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.

Let Me Get This Straight: The Current Modern Left Logic of Culture War

Okay, let me make sure I have this straight. I have tried to learn from more enlightened persons.

If you don’t approve of abortion, then don’t have an abortion.

If you don’t approve of smoking marijuana, then don’t smoke marijuana.

If you don’t approve of gay marriage, then don’t have a gay marriage.

BUT . . .

If you are a baker, florist, or photographer and you don’t want to participate in a gay wedding,

THEN . . .


I hope we all understand that.

Gay Marriage and Religious Liberty: Two Scenarios

karen mcarthur

Scenario #1

Two men walk into a bakery.  The owner of the bakery, who runs the small shop by herself with some part-time help, comes to the counter.

Bakery owner:  Hello, how are you doing?  May I help you?

Man #1:  Yes, we’re getting married and would like to order a wedding cake.

Bakery owner:  Oh, I’m so sorry.  I would love to make you a cake for almost any other occasion, but I am a Christian and do not wish to participate in a same-sex wedding.  I know you disagree with me, but I feel that weddings are religious in nature and would be uncomfortable being part of your nuptials.  I know that creates some unpleasantness between us.  I regret that.

Man #1:  You are right.  I disagree, but I understand your point of view.  It is unlikely that I will do business with this shop again.  Many of our friends in the gay community will not want to purchase from your store.

Bakery owner:  Yes, I am sure that is true.  I don’t feel I can compromise on this point, but I would happily help you in any other way I can.  Thank you for coming by.  And thank you for respecting my feelings about the issue even if we don’t agree.

Scenario #2

Two men walk into a bakery.  The owner of the bakery, who runs the small shop by herself with some part-time help, comes to the counter.

Bakery owner:  Hello, how are you doing?  May I help you?

Man #1:  Yes, we’re getting married and would like to order a wedding cake.

Bakery owner:  Oh, I’m so sorry.  I would love to make you a cake for almost any other occasion, but I am a Christian and do not wish to participate in a same-sex wedding.  I know you disagree with me, but I feel that weddings are religious in nature and would be uncomfortable being part of your nuptials.  I know that creates some unpleasantness between us.  I regret that.

Man #1:  Oh, you’ll regret it all right.  The civil rights laws of this state are applicable to commercial transactions such as buying wedding cakes.  By not making a cake for our wedding, you will be in violation of those laws.  I shall report you to the authorities.  You will likely have to pay a steep fine and may face further penalties if you repeat this behavior.  I may also initiate a lawsuit in which I will seek damages.

Which is the better culture?  You decide.

Glenn Beck, Meet Coleman Young: A Critique of a Type of Political Purity

coleman young

At the time of this writing, I am teaching a course on public administration and policy.  I had my students read a chapter in a book by Edward Glaeser about the decline of cities.  In that chapter, one discovers a malignant key to American politics.

While Glaeser sympathetically explains the details of Coleman Young’s biography (racism, second class status, repression), he is critical of Young’s leadership of Detroit as its mayor.  Young was a practitioner of racial politics.  Once he became mayor, the white population of Detroit declined dramatically over the years.  And that was fine with him.

Here is the critical point.  Though Young’s racial politics were bad for Detroit, they were good for Coleman Young.  His hold on the mayor’s office became stronger as Detroit lost more and more of its white population.  The racial politics harmed the city and cemented Young’s status.

What does any of this have to do with Glenn Beck?  I noticed a headline proclaiming that Glenn Beck is done with the Republican Party.  Statements of that type are protests against what he views as political weakness from John Boehner and/or Mitch McConnell.  I have certainly heard him say as much on the radio.

Glenn Beck is like Coleman Young in the following sense:  When Glenn Beck stakes out a hard position and bolsters it by declaring his political opponents (even within the party closest to his own views) to be anathema (worthless weaklings!), he simultaneously reduces the opportunity he has to exert a real influence and bolsters his reputation with the subset of Americans he sees as his natural audience.

In order to be a hit as a conservative media personality, you need a few million people.  But in order to actually govern, you have to have several million more.  Tens of millions more.  Glenn Beck has every incentive to take a really hard line, heap scorn on politicians who are not pure enough, and to insist on outcomes which are unlikely to happen.  In so doing, he will increase the affection of his audience, but will close himself off further and further from real influence.

When Rush Limbaugh states that he is “just an entertainer,” I think he is referring to this fundamental problem.  But one cannot be too overt in sketching out the dynamic or the audience will realize that they are actually becoming more isolated from real politics.

Some will read this and will think, I am arguing for a leftward turn.  Not at all.  I am objecting to the method of engagement more than I am the substance.  I am also dealing in certain realities.  I am arguing for domestic diplomacy.  Diplomatic and friendly are good ways to be when dealing with one’s fellow citizens who should be convinced more than they should be conquered.

Politics is fundamentally about addition, at least to the point of developing governing majorities.  Part of how we develop those majorities is through casting a positive vision.  Another part comes through brokering compromise.  (With regard to a great many issues, you can compromise in politics without enduring the stain to your integrity that compromise in theology would entail.)  Still another part comes from being winsome in dealing with partners who don’t fully agree with you and in the way one deals with opponents.  This last part acknowledges the reality that many people in the middle of the political spectrum respond to personality and demeanor more than they do to substance.  That was Ronald Reagan’s secret weapon.  Though his politics was identifiably to the right, his class and good nature spoke volumes to many Americans.

The goal here is not really to criticize Glenn Beck or Mark Levin or any other political entertainer.  Rather, I would encourage their listeners to remember that what they are hearing on programs of that sort is as much a drug as anything else.  You get ramped up on rhetoric.  You get a charge out of identifying enemies and hearing them argumentatively slain.  Adrenaline is pumping.  Brain waves are bouncing.  But what you don’t get is the attitude that leads to either real progress or victory.

On the Progress of Capitalism

men built america

I have just watched a History channel documentary series on Netflix on The Men Who Built America.  It is interesting to observe that the fortunes made by men like J.P. Morgan, John Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie dwarfed those of the wealthiest men today such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

And yet, despite that massive accumulation of wealth, it is fascinating to see the old Hayekian insights about free markets at work.  The goal of capitalism is not to enable factory girls to make stockings for the queen, but rather to make stockings available to factory girls.  Just that sort of thing happened over time.

So, as we consider the enormous wealth stockpiled (and much of it ultimately given away) by these figures, I cannot help but see how the progress of the free economy benefits all of us.  No matter how great the fortune of a Carnegie, he could not have anything like the transportation options I have had.  He never saw or dreamed of anything like an iPhone.  J.P. Morgan with more wealth than Croesus could not choose from thousands of movies and television shows.  Rockefeller could not within seconds possess almost any text in the world on demand at an affordable price downloaded to a Kindle.  Certainly, none of them could communicate as easily as I can.

My people were just farming the land when these men were financial giants.  But look how the impact of the free economy has built the world we live in and created such amazing possibilities for me and you.

Judging capitalism is not as simple as it looks.  Are there large gaps in wealth which result from a free and competitive system?  Absolutely.  But don’t discount the performance of the system over time.  It does, indeed, tend to lift the mass and not merely the captains of industry.

America, not ‘Murica

freedom of speech

I watched an old video of Hollywood stars (Liz Taylor and Gene Kelly) leading the singing of America the Beautiful back in 1976. My son, Andrew, walked up behind me, observed what I was watching and said, “‘Murica” in what sounded to me to be something of a mocking voice.

I asked him why he said that. He said, “I don’t know, but lots of kids at school say it.” I responded, “Don’t say that. Pronounce the name of your country correctly. Tell your friends I said that. Tell them your dad said that America may be the greatest nation that has ever existed.”

I have many friends who will disagree with what I told Andrew.  They view our country as hopelessly racist, materialistic, jingoistic, and oppressive.  I acknowledge the flaws, though I would offer a defense against the more extreme charges and narratives.  Nevertheless, I am grateful every day that I was born in this country.  Of all the blessings I possess, I never underrate that one.

Update:  There’s something I feel the need to add.  Whatever you might think about the United States of America, I think it is hard to get around the high probability that the U.S. was the key factor in preserving free government in a 20th century where communism and other forms of totalitarianism were aggressive and rising.  We can all be grateful for that, too.

Yes, Everyone Should Learn about Evolution. Even If You Doubt It.

Folks on the political left seem to be less interested in arguing about actual public policies and more concerned with establishing some kind of unworthy mind on the part of their adversaries.  We’ve had the faux contraception wars and now we’ll re-litigate the Darwin controversy for the umpteenth time.  Thus, we have a smirky British journalist asking Scott Walker about evolution (with which his office has virtually nothing to do) while the governor conducts a trade mission.

But let us take the issue seriously.  To the extent that evolution has been some kind of real controversy, it has been so primarily over its treatment in the schools.  William Jennings Bryan, the former Democrat senator, secretary of state, and failed presidential candidate, pushed to keep Darwin out of the classroom.  His reasoning was laudable.  He thought that the ideas of natural selection and the survival of the fittest would have negative consequences for human society.

Should evolution be taught in schools?  I think the answer is that it really should be simply because it is by far the dominant theory.  What is the point of protecting your child from the dominant theory when they will come face to face with it in college or later on via any variety of possible encounters?  Avoiding evolution just creates a stronger front of attack somewhere further down the line.

What would be better?  Stop fighting and let science take its course.  Maybe the theory will undergo a substantial shift and maybe it won’t.  Know what you believe and why you believe it.  Teach the theory and do so fairly.  If you are concerned about communicating social, philosophical, and religious implications that don’t necessarily follow, then go ahead and mark out that territory.  As you educate children in science, educate them also in the limitations of science.  That is simply responsible.

But the way things are right now, we are too often just giving the enemies of the faith the felt pen they use for drawing gross caricatures.  Don’t avoid evolution.  Walk right past it, taking time to give it plenty of eye contact and respect.

The Bull Durham Interview and GOP Candidates

bull durham

Wisconsin governor Scott Walker attended a conference on trade in London.  Heedless of questions of relevance to the occasion, an enterprising reporter asked him for his opinion on evolution.  Walker chose to “punt” and moved on.  As a result, I am moved to go ahead and just fix this problem for everyone henceforth.

Many of us remember the film Bull Durham.  Kevin Costner plays a veteran catcher who has spent most of his career in the minor leagues.  Tim Robbins is a fireball throwing rookie who is headed to the pros.  Part of Costner’s role is to bring the rookie along.  In one memorable scene, he coaches the up and coming star on how to give an interview.  The goal is to keep the player from injuring himself, his team, and his reputation in the interview.

Given the tendency of political interviewers to try and create a sensation with questions about science, contraception, abortion, etc., it is time to coach the interview.

Here we go!

Reporter:  Do you believe in the scientific theory of evolution?

Candidate:  I understand that evolution is the dominant theory of biological development and that it enjoys tremendous respect among scientists.  Students should certainly learn about important matters such as that one in school.  As it pertains to me personally, I would just say that whatever the course of human development, I believe that we were created by God and that we have souls.  As God’s children, we have rights and dignity.  Part of the job of government is to protect those human rights.  Whatever the scientific theory is, I intend to respect the rights and dignity of my fellow human beings.

Reporter:  Do you believe in banning abortion in all cases, including with regard to rape, incest, and the life of the mother?

Candidate:  I believe that unborn human beings are still human beings with a right to life.  If the life of the mother is seriously endangered by her pregnancy, I don’t think the state should be in the position of deciding between the two.  The mother has to make that decision.  In the matters of rape and incest, I would argue that we are still talking about a human life being at stake and that we should respect that human life even if it is small and weak.  The fetus bears no guilt for the circumstances of his or her conception.  That having been said, there is much we could do to protect the unborn short of impinging upon those controversial exceptions.  We haven’t done enough.

(FULL STOP.  Please do not speculate on whether the female body shuts down conception in the instance of rape or whatever other novel idea captures your fancy.  You are a politician and not a biologist or medical professional.)

Reporter:  Do you think women should have a right to contraceptive products?

Candidate:  If you mean birth control pills and condoms, then it seems to me that women have broad commercial access to those products and they are heavily advertised.  I also note that they are not especially expensive.  If you mean that some other private party, such as an employer, should be forced to purchase those products as part of a contract for employment, then I would suggest that view is indicative of an insufficient regard for rights of conscience and religious liberty.

I Watched All Three Atlas Shrugged Movies: A Confession

who is john galt

Dear readers,

I feel compelled to confess something.  I watched all three Atlas Shrugged movies: Part I, Part II, and Part III.

Perhaps you will feel slightly less shocked when I tell you that I also watched almost the entire run of Chevy Chase’s short-lived late night television show, which flopped spectacularly and caused not the slightest ripple in the Letterman/Leno wars.  There is a certain stubbornness in me when it comes to these things.

It is also known that I am one of those notorious Christians who will occasionally step forth and defend Ayn Rand.  It is so fashionable to bash her as an awful thinker and a terrible novelist my contrarian instincts force me to object.  I will say again that while I disagree with the atheistic and materialistic Rand, I liked the book (other than John Galt’s 60 some-odd pages of small print speech) and think that the author makes some valid points about human freedom and achievement.

However, I have now paid my money to see Atlas Shrugged Part III.  I have a hard time understanding myself.  Why would I stick with a trilogy that has had three complete cast changes in its three iterations?  Three Dagnys.  Three Hanks.  Three Franciscos.  Three Eddies.  Apparently the individualism runs so strong in Objectivist world that we can’t keep a cast together AT ALL.  In any case, I was determined to gut it out.  And now I have.  What is the verdict on Part III?

It was so mind-bendingly terrible that I am sure I will be part of some infamous and small minority who will have seen it.  We open with Dagny Taggart’s jet crashing near the new individualist/materialist/capitalist heaven hidden in the mountains.  The next half hour seems to mostly feature John Galt (tall, handsome, gregarious, lotta hair) carrying Dagny around in his arms.  Though she improbably has basically no injuries, she (previously a fiercely independent person) tolerates being hauled about.  The interactions she has with those who have escaped to Galt’s Gulch suffer from the same problems that many depictions of heaven do.  It’s just kind of silly perfect. I almost felt as though Dorothy had awakened into some supernatural capitalist paradise (and listen, I love me some capitalism, but there are limits).  There is even a box that contains Galt’s engine, but seems to hold the glory of the Lord.  You speak an oath to open it.

There is something else I found utterly bizarre in the film.  Throughout the story, things have been going downhill fast.  And all the time, the state’s power is growing.  We seem to have dispensed with the president and instead have a bunch of non-elected men running the country like some kind of collectivist mafia.  They have all the power the law can give.  Despite that, after John Galt seizes control of a major national broadcast (and gives a speech that would rally few, I suspect), we see Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck opining about how this epic statement from Galt is moving the masses.  I’m thinking to myself, “Okay, we have an all-powerful and semi-dictatorial state, but guys like Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck are still hosting big television programs.  Huh.”

I have already spent too many words, but I need to add that Rob Morrow (of Northern Exposure) plays Hank Rearden this time around.  He has about three lines.  Worth noting, nonetheless.  Oh, and the bad guy from Clear and Present Danger (Joaquim de Almeida) plays Francisco d’Anconia.

I kind of want my money back, but free people accept caveat emptor (buyer beware) and so do I.

In Which Andrew Defeats My Attempt at Mentoring . . .

Years ago, I was present when a female federal judge visited campus to speak with students.  She gave an excellent exhortation and then agreed to take questions.  One student asked, “What advice would you give us about how to be successful?”  The judge paused and said, “I would say that you should live now in a way that respects your future self.”

Sitting in the audience and listening, I was impressed.  I had rarely heard such a good answer to that kind of question.  She elaborated, saying that the choices you make now create the life your future self has to live.  Would your future self thank you for what you did when you were 21?  Or would your future self criticize you for the problems you created or the opportunities you failed to take?

My son, Andrew, had to tell me about a bad test grade this evening.  I decided it was a good time to recycle the advice about your future self.  After explaining the idea, I asked Andrew, “So, what do you think your future self would say to you if the two of you were to meet?”  As he considered the question, I felt pretty proud of myself.

He turned to me and said, “Dad, I think my future self would say, ‘Dude, what are you doing?  You’re going to create a paradox!'”

I lose.

The Best Pastor Joke I Ever Heard

Two men were shipwrecked and managed to paddle themselves to a deserted island in the middle of the ocean.  The two men had markedly different reactions to their plight.

The first man paced back and forth.  His mind raced as he tried to think of some solution to their predicament.

The second man took his shirt off and began to sunbathe.  He gave no indication of stress.

In disbelief, the first man confronted his calm partner.  “What are you doing?  Aren’t you worried about how we’re going to get home?  We’re likely to end up as carrion for vultures!”

The second man simply responded, “I make about $100,000 a week.”

“So what?” the first man replied.  “That doesn’t count for anything where we are now.”

“Maybe you didn’t hear me,” the second man said.  “I make $100,000 a week.”

“You’re deluded, you idiot!” the first man shouted.  “Do you think you can buy your way off this island?  Do you think you can order up a seven course meal???”

“I’m also a Christian,” the second man offered.

“You think being rich and being a Christian is going to get us some supernatural help???  Are you counting on a miracle?” the first man sputtered.

“I guess I didn’t make myself clear,” the second man answered steadily.  “I make $100,000 a week and I faithfully tithe at my church.  I KNOW MY PASTOR IS GOING TO FIND ME.”

(Credit to my pastor Jordan Easley who I imagine snagged this one from the jetstream of humor.)

Krauthammer on the Gas Tax

Charles Krauthammer has written a column declaring that we should increase the gas tax by a dollar a gallon (!) and then make the increase revenue neutral by cutting the payroll taxes by an equivalent amount.  In this way, he reasons, we can reduce the incentive to use gasoline at the same time we reduce the disincentive to work created by payroll taxes.

I absolutely hate this kind of clever public policy planning.  Why?  Because it is nothing more than social engineering.  The idea is that public policy professionals should have their hands on the levers of human behavior tweaking incentives here and there to produce the optimum outcomes.  The whole thing reminds me of scientists in white coats manipulating rats.  “If we alter the maze in this way, then the rats find the cheese 2.5 seconds faster.”

Instead, I propose that we think much more simply and less ambitiously about government.  What are the essential tasks of government?  What are the least intrusive and least expensive ways to accomplish those tasks?  Full stop.

In any case, Krauthammer’s plan disconnects us from the healthy dynamics of supply and demand in such a way as to increase a tendency to look to the government as the provider and sustainer.  We have a beneficial situation in which gas prices have gone down thanks to a higher supply.  The benefit accrues to consumers.  They don’t need some kind of tax increase designed to produce a tax cut.  They can simply enjoy an unexpected surplus by paying less at the pump and paying less for groceries such as milk and bread.

Talking Politics in Mixed Company

There were several academics in the room.  We were there to talk about initiatives aimed at helping students become stronger, more engaged citizens.  Because the group was not large, the moderator asked us to introduce ourselves and to say a little about our institution’s need for such a program.

One professor took the opportunity to bewail the backward atmosphere in which he has been forced to operate.  His state legislature, which is controlled by Republicans (gasp!) has no understanding of the needs of his community college.  He explicitly drew the connection between Republicans and backwardness.

I thought about arguing, but simply sat through his monologue (which was far lengthier than anyone else’s introduction).  In the context of the larger meeting (a lot of academics), I could understand why he would so brazenly assume that everyone would agree with his view of the political situation.  But he should not have done so for the sake of civility if for no other reason.

My point here is not to argue about politics, but rather to say something about manners.  If human beings gather in a group, the chances are significant that political views will differ.  If you make a sweeping pronouncement (Republicans = Backward), then you have insulted the person with a different view.  You may respond, “No, I have the truth on my side!”  The professor in our meeting might say just that.  But he would be wrong.  Even if he were correct about the underlying issue, he would most likely not be correct about his political opponents.

One answer to why Republicans fail to provide his institution with the funding he thinks is adequate would be that they are backward and awful people who hate education.  But there are other answers available.  Perhaps they think that higher education expenses have been out of control.  Maybe some believe that fewer people should go to college and should be encouraged to seek different, parallel opportunities.  Others may question the role of the government as a primary funder of activities aimed at human flourishing.  They may believe the government should do relatively few things and therefore avoid drawing too many taxes from citizens.

Here is the important thing.  You need not agree with any of the reasons I have proposed for why the Republican legislators of this man’s state don’t provide the funds he wants and are therefore backward, knuckle-draggers.  You need only agree that the reasons I have given would not mean that the holder of those views are some kind of idiots or scoundrels.

Being a polite and well-mannered person surely must include at least beginning with the assumption that others’ disagreements with one’s self do not automatically make them evil and/or stupid.

This one goes both ways.  I know Democrats in settings dominated by Republicans who are awfully prickly about politics.  This dynamic helps explain why.  They are angry about certain assumptions being made about people with their political preferences.

Opening Arguments: Love (Doesn’t) Conquer All

I recently participated in a couple of rounds of faculty debate for a fundraiser at Union University.  It was tremendously fun and intellectually stimulating.  In the second round, I had to argue against the proposition that love conquers all.  I am pasting in my opening argument from that debate because I never waste material!  See below.

Thank you to the judges. Thank you to the audience. Thank you to Dr. Drake (the debate coach) and to Dr. Huelin. This is a most challenging assignment. Not only must I argue against the statement that Love Conquers All, but I must also debate Dr. Huelin, who is the kind of scholar most able to offer a compelling case in favor of the proposition. A friend messaged me on Facebook to share her encouraging conviction that YOU’RE GONNA LOSE!

To defeat such a hearty combination of argument and arguer is almost too much for me to face, me a pooooooor po-lit-ick-al HACK. Yet, I say ALMOST. I will sally forth from the ranks and strive for victory for your edification, your entertainment, and the debate team’s fundraiser!

As you judge this debate, I ask that you think carefully whether it is really true that Love Conquers All. Weigh the evidence. I believe the balance may tilt against the proposition.

I have already encountered some persons who think the statement “Love Conquers All” is found in the Bible. It is not. However, we do find the sentence in the Eclogues by Virgil. In a piece of pastoral poetry, Virgil wrote “Love Conquers All. Let us all submit to love.” In the Latin (penalize not my pronunciation you students of classical Christian schools! I went to public school!), Amor Vincit Omnia.

The statement is hardly the centerpiece of the poem. Rather it makes for a nice line in selection X. I might begin the case by noting that Love wasn’t the only thing that Virgil claimed conquers all. He was about 30 when he wrote the Eclogues. As an older man, he wrote the Georgics. In that work, he penned this somewhat similar line: Labor Omnia Vincit – Work Conquers All. It happens that Work Conquers All is the state motto of Oklahoma!  “Virginia is for lovers.”  Maybe love conquers all in Virginia! Another famous formulation that has appeared in Latin is Veritas Omnia Vincit. Truth Conquers All. You may see a theme here. Rendered in the modern vernacular: Awesomeness Conquers All. We can be thankful that Virgil never hopped into a time machine and landed on Madison Avenue or we might be watching TV where an ad would declare – Tide Conquers All . . . stains . . . Let us all submit to Tide!

Here is the key point, if one thing conquers all, something else can’t conquer all. All means all and not all minus one. If love conquers all and work conquers all and truth conquers all, then what happens when love and truth collide, or love and work, or truth and work???

In the context of the poem, the Love that conquers all appears to be romantic love. Leontyne Bennett has argued that “Love conquers all” has served as an excuse for the rudeness of PDA’s, adulterous affairs, easy divorces, and abandoned children. One might recall Woody Allen’s relationship with his adopted daughter. “The heart wants what it wants,” he explained.  That, by the way, is a modern translation of “love conquers all.”

Virgil wrote Love Conquers All. All means good things as well as bad things. Love may conquer loneliness, but might it also not conquer good things such as peace and common sense? On this reading, Love conquers all is a warning. It is a warning not to always yield to the apparent demands of love.

With further regard to romantic love, I would look to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, something of a patron saint of Union University who advised his dearest friend and his bride that “It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.”  Rather than putting his emphasis on the feeling of love, Bonhoeffer pointed to holy respect for the godly office of marriage.

I mentioned that some people think Love Conquers All is the in the Bible. It isn’t, but I have some familiar verses for you. You’ve heard them at nine out of ten Christian weddings. 1 Corinthians 13:4-8

4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8 Love never fails.

I just want to point out that this is not exactly conquering language. Do you think of conquerors as patient and kind? The Americas are full of European influence. Why? Because Europeans effectively conquered the indigenous people groups and replaced their cultures with new ones. Where is the patience, kindness, refusal to dishonor, protection, hoping, and perseverance in conquest?

Let us also deal with something that might be considered a trump card in this debate. 1 John 4 twice tells us that God is love. Am I defeated at this point? If God is love, then how can I possibly say that it is not true that Love Conquers All? My answer is simple. To conquer something means to take it by force or to put the best possible light on it, to win something. But God is never in the position of needing to conquer anything. God is the rightful owner of all that has been created. How can you conquer something you already possess?

To summarize: First, There are multiple candidates for the “conquers all” title, which would seem to nullify the claim. Second, if we mean romantic love conquers all, it does have features of conquest in terms of the damage it can do, but fortunately it does not always prevail. Third, the language of First Corinthians does not suggest conquest. Finally, if God is love, there is no need to conquer. He has all things in his hand.

Resisting Tribal Christianity

I had a class together reading and reflecting on the modern history of South Africa.  One of the disturbing things is to see the exploitation of South Africans and then the elaborate design of a system meant to extract cheap labor from them in order to build wealth for the dominant class.  One of the great tragedies of South Africa is that the Dutch and British parties to the oppression (real oppression, not today’s version which is too easily invoked) came from Christian cultures.  The Church of England still had real significance as did the Dutch Reformed Church.  How could it be that countries so strongly influenced by the faith (at least in theory) could form such rotten fruit on the vine?

Consider the following mid-20th century statement from a white South African:

In every People in the world is embodied a Divine Idea and the task of each People is to build upon that Idea and to perfect it.  So God created the Afrikaner People with a unique language, a unique philosophy of life, and their own history and tradition in order that they might fulfill a particular calling and destiny here in the southern corner of Africa . . . We must believe that God has called us to be servants of his righteousness in this place.

The eye tends to focus on the phrase “servants of his righteousness.”  How could it be that systematic oppression (as a conservative I have never written those words together because of their overuse) of the type carried out in South Africa could ever be connected with any idea of being “servants of righteousness?”  I do not know.  But think of something else.  “In every People” there is this special destiny, this special idea.  Surely, the white South Africans knew that the black South Africans were people.  They knew that they had language, experienced emotions, were capable of self-reflection, wanted justice, etc. in the way that human beings do.  If that is so (and it is self-evident), then what “Divine Idea” could a white South African think attached to the black Africans?  And how might that Divine Idea be pursued by them under the conditions of Apartheid (or its predecessors)?

Christianity did not cause the oppression in South Africa, but it clearly failed to prevent it or really even check its advance.  It seems to me that the tragedy of South Africa helps to highlight the difference between a tribal form of Christianity that tends to underwrite the dominant system and the real thing (which is truly submitted to the lordship of Christ).

Always, always be checking to make sure that you are in the second situation rather than the first. It is easier to float over to the wrong side than you might think. This is why we love Bonhoeffer so much. He knew when to resist tribal Christianity.

On the one hand, it is so very good to have Christ followers such as Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer to uphold as opponents of blatant injustice.  On the other, it is too bad that they stood without the full force of the church behind them for too long.

Fairness to Your Opponent: In Praise of the Heartland Institute’s Treatment of An Inconvenient Truth

It has been several years since I watched Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth on global warming climate change.  The circumstances were interesting.  The Heartland Institute sent me the film on DVD.  I believe they mailed it to many people.  They also sent along a second film as a form of rebuttal.  Just as Heartland intended, I sat down and watched both films.

The Heartland Institute could have simply attacked Gore’s film, attacked his character, selectively cited his words, emphasized weak points, etc.  But instead, they sent Gore’s film (the primary document) and said, “Watch this.”  The strategy demonstrated confidence in their own position and charity toward Gore’s views because they had the integrity to deal with Gore in his own words and in full.

How often do participants in arguments of any kind give such respect to their opponents and their position?  There is another important point worth noting.  While Heartland’s approach to An Inconvenient Truth demonstrated respect for Gore and his side of the argument, it also exhibited respect for me as someone who might really want to understand the issue.  Rather than manipulating me, Heartland dignified me.  They treated me as someone who would like to learn rather than as someone they needed to trick into accepting a point of view.

We should look for similar attributes from people who would like to convince us of something.   In other words, pretty much the opposite of the meme generators who rule social media today.

Mario Batali on Management

Mario Batali sat down with Christopher Kimball of America’s Test Kitchen to talk restaurants, home cooking, and life.  Lots of interesting takeaways throughout.

One thing really caught me.  Kimball asked the chef how he juggled television shows, family, and 20 restaurants.  Batali focused on the eateries and said he hadn’t opened so many restaurants because he was trying to dominate the field.  He had a different reason and it was a good one.

He said that each time he develops a restaurant, he goes through a process of finding really good people and training them.  He teaches them to care about the details the same way he would. The problem is that they become too big for their jobs.  Too big to be an assistant.  Too big to be a second banana in the house.

And so . . . he opens a new place.  The alternative is to see one of his competitors scoop up talent he has grown and then to see them working against him.  Batali’s rationale for growth was the best I’ve ever heard.

When you train up strong people, you have to find appropriate opportunities for them so that they can flourish.

In baseball, we now hear talk about a player’s “wins above replacement.”  In other words, how many more games do you win with this player than with the average performer?  If you have somebody who can significantly outperform the average because of intelligence, experience, attitude, or any other reason, it makes a lot of sense to keep them.

Growing to match the capabilities of your people is one of the best cases for expansion I’ve ever heard.

Bart Campolo Focuses Things for Us

I remember hanging around Robbie Castleman’s house in Tallahassee nearly a quarter of a century ago with a group of IVCF students.  Robbie got it in her mind that she wanted to show us a video of Tony Campolo speaking.  He was full of passion and energy.  His message was directly related to salvation.  Campolo made an impression.

Sometime later, I became aware of him again as one of Bill Clinton’s spiritual advisers.  I can even recall him speaking at one of the inaugurals for the president.  That gave me pause.  Being a spiritual adviser, I understood, especially in the wake of the Lewinsky case.  A minister should not withhold Godly counsel.  But I didn’t understand his choice to speak at the inaugural because I saw President Clinton as a strong voice for abortion rights.  And in my view, abortion rights called for prophetic denunciation rather than political support.

Tony Campolo has long been a beacon for Christians on the political left.  He has supported Democrat politicians, written books about things such as saving the environment with worshipping Mother Nature, and criticized the religious right.

Now, there is news about Tony’s son, Bart, that puts a spotlight on something important.  Bart Campolo has announced that he is has become an agnostic humanist.  The following clip from Jonathan Merritt’s article about Bart is relevant:

The younger Campolo recounts becoming a Christian in high school. He says he was drawn by the sense of community and the common commitment to love people, promote justice, and transform the world.

“All the dogma and the death and resurrection of Jesus stuff was not the attraction,” Bart said.

James Burtchaell once wrote about a similar generational effect.  You have parents who believe and who take on certain commitments because they believe.  But then the next generation wonders why you can’t just have the commitments mom and dad were so concerned about without the accompanying beliefs.  They jettison the faith and keep the ideology.

This is a blade the probably cuts both ways for those of us who have strong political views.  Bart Campolo saw something like the campaign to end poverty and lost interest in the real quest to save the world by shattering the power of sin.  With the kids of someone with a different ideological lens, it could be something like caring more about preserving freedom than about devotion to Christ.

Pondering the situation reminds me of a thought that recurs with greater frequency these days.  I am ready to be corrected, but it seems to me that the church is God’s strategy.  We need to pay much more attention to the church, what happens there, what we do within that community, and how that community witnesses to the world.  And our children should intuit from our priorities that the church is where the action is in the Christian life.

What Makes a Good Podcast?

I discovered podcasts a bit late a few years ago, but now listen to many of them either in the car or while walking.  As a teacher of college students, I pay close attention to what seems to work or not work.  How do you maintain attention?  What makes a podcast worth my time?  Do I walk away with something new?  Do I even manage to get through the whole episode?

Keeping these things in mind, I offer the following advice:

  1. If the podcast is about something in particular, then make sure you stick closely to that subject.  I was excited to begin a new fantasy football podcast.  The hosts proceeded to spend the first fifteen minutes (or more as I checked out) talking to a musician friend of theirs about his new tour.  Hey, remember me?  I was here to listen to you talk about fantasy football.
  2. Do not focus on how you feel about doing the podcast, the dynamics of podcasting, etc., unless, indeed, the podcast is about the great emotional rewards or struggles of podcasting.  Listeners are not terribly interested in your psychological state unless the podcast is about you and your psychological state . . . and is advertised as such.
  3. If you have guests, spend most of your time asking the guests questions and letting them answer.  There is very little point in having guests if you are going to talk over them.  You may have so much you want to say that guests don’t make sense for you.  That’s okay.  Just remember not to bother with guests in that case.  Otherwise, you will frustrate the guests and the listeners who have tuned in to hear the them.
  4. One great thing about podcasting is that there aren’t strict time limits.  A podcast interview need not involve cutting guests off at artificial points as a way of getting to a commercial break.  On the other hand, some guests can talk too long, repeat themselves, filibuster, etc.  After a guest has had a full and fair chance to speak, it may well make sense to ask another question, to redirect, etc.
  5. Perhaps the greatest sin involved in podcasting has to do with hosts who make it a regular feature to banter with one another for several minutes at the beginning of each show.  I recall a podcast with a young, hip, Christian approach in which a gang of younger hosts carried along in the “hey, we’re clever” sort of way for quite some time at the beginning of each show.  Many of the bon mots were punctuated by the almost static-y giggling of one of the members of the team.  Real substance is much more satisfying.  If you need to warm up, go ahead and warm up for 5-10 minutes before you hit the “record” button.
  6. Take advantage of the archivability of podcasts.  Podcasts have tremendous evergreen potential.  If done thoughtfully and with an eye to the kind of material that endures, then a podcast from 2006 can remain interesting for a long time.  Because of this feature of the format, it is important to do a good job with labeling.  Apple’s iTunes podcast store only allows for a little room in which to explain what a podcast is about.  When putting your episodes online, make sure that they can be easily browsed by topic.
  7. If you want to hear a master of the form at work, I recommend Russ Roberts, who does the EconTalk podcast.  Roberts is a professor of economics, but he is the kind of person who has read widely and well and understands a good many things about life.  The combination of education, culture, and courtesy in Roberts makes him an ideal interviewer.  He seems to know how to pick people with interesting ideas, the right questions to ask them, and how to help them make those ideas understandable to the listener.  Peter Robinson’s Uncommon Knowledge podcast is likewise highly edifying, but he doesn’t produce nearly as many episodes as Roberts does.  Roberts is the king of high output podcasting that leaves you smarter than you were when you began.

9/11 and Today’s Men in Masks

I remember the morning of 9/11.  On that day, I was employed as a lobbyist with a non-profit organization.  I pulled out the driveway to head to downtown Atlanta.  Almost immediately, there was a news update reporting on a small plane that had hit the World Trade Center.  Interesting, but not a big deal.  Before long, I’d made it to the state department of education to pick up some paperwork.  I don’t remember how it took, but as I drove to our office on the north side of town, a friend from law school called with tremendous urgency to tell me that one of the towers of the WTC had collapsed.  I arrived at my destination to see the second tower fall.

My colleagues and I sat in shock.  The news piled up.  The Pentagon had been directly hit.  There was a rumor about an attack on the State Department (untrue).  We wondered what other shoes might drop.  Would the siege continue?  One thing seemed certain.  I thought life in the U.S. would never be the same.

At first, it seemed my prophecy might be true.  We had booked a trip to the Caribbean well before the tragedy.  Our flight was maybe a week or two after the attacks.  When we went to the Atlanta airport, it was a ghost town.  But there were new inhabitants.  We walked past soldiers with automatic weapons after we checked in with our luggage.  I felt as if I’d moved to some Central American republic of the moment.

Over time, we have adapted to the need for greater security.  Airports are less fun than they once were, but the industry has found ways to become more efficient so as to take some of the irritation away.  We don’t have the level of intrusiveness that I forecast (though some would argue that it occurs without my realizing it, Hello NSA).

The greater cost has been in terms of our national spirit.  Easy victory in the Gulf War of the early 1990’s led us to believe that our response to 9/11 would take the form of another quick hit followed by a victory lap.  And we did get the victory lap (remember Mission Accomplished!?).  But the problem was that we hadn’t won.  The United States learned the same hard lesson that occupiers have been taught throughout human history.  Most of the time, you don’t win.  You are an invader, an intruder.  You aren’t wanted, not even as a liberator.

We don’t seem to be able to solve problems like some benevolent international justice league.  We can’t go knock off the bad guys and then leave while the villagers rejoice.  The only way to win is to take the gloves off.  And we aren’t sure we want that on our consciences.  Taking the gloves off is ugly.  Taking the gloves off hurts people who shouldn’t be hurt.  Lots of them.

More than a decade after 9/11, we seem to have come full circle as we watch men in masks cutting heads off of journalists.  They challenge us.  They goad us.  They threaten.  But they should stop lest they overcome the spiritual restraints we place upon ourselves out of love for God and man.  They should stop before they convince us that limited means cannot achieve a lasting peace.

The Odd Logic of a Graduation Address

I saw an online video which featured a graduation speaker in England. He assured his audience that life has no meaning and that whatever it is you do, it isn’t to your credit or blame because that is just how you were made (by evolution and random circumstance).

For some reason, he kept talking.  He had a list of nine things he wanted to say.  

But I stopped watching and listening because I could not figure out why it would possibly matter if I believed him up to that point.

The Death of the First Wave For-Profit Colleges

In 2012, I wrote a piece on the future of higher education for a journal called Renewing Minds.  With regard to the for-profit colleges, I made the following prediction with some advice:

Contrary to expectations, the institutions that will come under the greatest pressure will ultimately not be the traditional schools (though they will have to grapple with change). The greatest pressure will apply to the entities currently believed to be the wave of the future, which are the (for profit) online programs. If you are considering a long term financial investment in the University of Phoenix or one of its competitors, I would urge you to go elsewhere with your funds.

Within the last month, we have seen the closure of two large entities of the type I describe: Corinthian Colleges and the Anthem system.  The reason is simple.  They were able to make a great deal of money when they had little competition in the convenient “class in your pajamas” market, but they could not survive when the more established names entered the market.  Given a choice, would you take an online degree from Corinthian College or from Florida State University?  The answer is clear.  The higher ed brand names have figured out the vulnerability of the for profit players and are gearing up rapidly to exploit it.  

Gay Marriage Arguments: Blistering Bench Slap or Thrasymachus Redux?

I saw a friend share an article online about Judge Richard Posner blasting away at lawyers charged with defending state statutes regulating marriage in its traditional form.  His posture is not new.  We have seen court after court treat the defenders of traditional marriage as though they had no argument to make outside of prejudice or superstition.  

As I read this last piece, I recalled an exchange from Plato’s Republic in which Thrasymachus challenges Socrates to defeat his highly empirical argument on justice:  “Justice is the interest (or advantage) of the stronger.”  It’s a pretty good argument, really, though Socrates gets the better of the sophist.  At the beginning of the exchange, Thrasymachus tries to prohibit the use of certain arguments by Socrates.  Socrates replies that his brash interlocutor has done something like trying to prevent him from arguing that six times two or three times four is twelve.  

When I look at the public debates over gay marriage, I see something like that dynamic.  The proponents of gay marriage say to the defenders of traditional marriage, “You may not argue from the physical complementarity of the sexes.  Okay, proceed.”  It seems silly to say that you can’t argue from the physical complementarity of the sexes or that such an argument is an obvious non-starter.  Why is it a non-starter?  It seems like a reasonably good argument to me.  You may not be convinced, but it is not a big nothing.  To treat that as some kind of non-argument is to rule out three times four and two times six by way of arriving at twelve.

On Having Children and the Cost/Benefit Analysis


As the years go by, I have come to realize that one of the durable news items has to do with the cost of having and raising children.  Such studies inform us that having a child results in extraordinary expenditures (both direct and indirect).  We may be talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars per son or daughter.  

I can understand the fascination with performing such studies.  Maybe the idea is that a couple can take such information into account and make a highly rational calculation as to whether having children is worth the costs.  After all, if you have the children there is money you will have to spend on them and not yourself.  In addition, your time will be restricted by their needs.  If you have children, you will take less impressive vacations, see fewer high quality stage productions, see fewer films not made by Disney, eat at fewer great restaurants, etc.  All of those things are true.  But I have to say that I would not make the decision to have children on that basis.  

Having children is what might be called a sui generis experience.  It is not really comparable to anything else.  You cannot truly generate parallels between the allure of vacations in Europe, for example, and day to day life as a parent.  

Being a parent is sui generis because it is the only way to experience the mountainous responsibility for new life.  You must provide for the child’s survival, but that is the lowest level.  You are also responsible, to some degree, for how the child will live and who the child will become.  I think that if you do it correctly, you come to care more about your child’s life than your own.

Nothing hurts me more than to see one of my children rejected by others.  Nothing gives me more joy than to see one or both of them happy or successful.  Having a child is high risk.  It is high risk because you are sending part of yourself out into the world, but that part of yourself is more vulnerable, less wise, less capable than you.  And sometimes all you can do is watch.  Parenting is painful.  

But having a child is also high reward.  I wouldn’t trade anything for the first time my daughter realized she could make me laugh or having been able to comfort my son after an early surgery left him disoriented and frightened.  Parenting is joyful.  

That Insufferable Viral “Newsroom” Clip

Hey, everybody. You know that Jeff Daniels clip from The Newsroom that people love to quote? The one that says America only leads the world in defense spending, incarcerated citizens, and belief in angels? I actually heard some puffed up radio host authoritatively reproducing that list without attribution a while ago as though it were the final word on American decline.  

The guy who wrote that bit left a couple of things off. For example, America leads the world in economic output with a population of only 300 million (China and India both have a billion or so). We also lead the world in innovation. IBM is an American company. Intel is an American company. Apple is an American company. We could go on.  The American contribution to the world speaks pretty loudly.  Technology, medicines, agriculture, and more.

But let’s imagine that we did want to indict America.  Why be satisfied with the list provided by the pen of Aaron Sorkin?  Why not harp on our high number of abortions or our high incidence of sexually transmitted diseases, for example?  The answer is obvious.  Such a list would not serve the secular/left orientation embodied in the jeremiad at issue.