Faithless

With the election of Donald John Trump to the office of the President of the United States, liberals are rightly concerned about the future of the Republic. Trump’s inflammatory campaign largely played on the basest aspects of human nature: misogyny, racism, jingoism, xenophobia, islamophobia. Many of his policies and promises are not very different than any Republican who ran in the primary leading up to the general election. But the tone and rhetoric Trump used throughout his campaign strayed into demagoguery and flirted with fascism.

For this reason among others, a movement has arisen among liberals to convince members of the Electoral College pledged to vote for Donald Trump to become “faithless electors,” to cast their vote for someone else or to abstain, and thus to block his victory. The argument goes that this is exactly what the Electoral College was designed for, to block the popular will of the people, whipped into a democratic fervor, from casting a figure into the executive branch who is a threat to the stability and functioning of the federal government. We are told that Electoral College voters should throw themselves between the people of the United States and fascism.

The problem I see with this is that, as I understand it, the Electoral College played the role people say it was designed to play—where electors weighed their conscience against the will of the people—for less than a decade after it was established. This is a historical fact. For practically the entire history of the republic, Electoral College voters have cast their vote based on the popular vote total in their state. The fact the term “faithless elector” even exists tells us how rare it is for someone to break their pledge. For 37 members of the Electoral College to subvert the will of the people they represent would not only be a coup, it would break with two centuries of tradition.

This is important. A nation is not merely made up of enumerated laws and established structures, it is also made up of mores and folkways, culture and tradition, silent and spoken agreements. In fact, a nation like the United Kingdom has no constitution. Their entire system of government is one big tacit agreement. It is a tradition of government rather than a system of government. The United States does have a constitution of course, but it too consists of traditions of governance, one of which is the functioning of the Electoral College. Liberals can talk until they're blue in the face about what the Electoral College was "designed" to do. But that does not describe what it is nor what it has been.

Okay, but if Donald Trump is the threat to the nation liberals claim, perhaps this break with tradition is warranted. Except arguing for the Electoral College to function in this way is equally threatening. This change would open up an entirely new and untested arena of American political gamesmanship. We already have practically unending Presidential campaigns. Are we willing to extend the campaign beyond the point where the people have cast their votes? Imagine the Electoral College opened up to lobbying, to political favors, to private and corporate donations. Does no one see how ripe for corruption an Electoral College would be that is not restrained either by law or the bounds of tradition? Liberals, Democrats, should be the first to see the potential subversion of democracy this represents.

A change in the way members of the Electoral College cast their vote is necessary. Votes should be tied to the democratic will of the entire nation, not based on the will of the people in each state. But then let us build the power and make the argument toward that change, not subvert our institutions for short-term political gain and open them up to the possibility of tremendous abuse in the future.

The Middle Ground Is for Chumps

I don’t know why I feel the need to say anything about tonight’s debate. Or anything at all. I’m experiencing an unusually vicious onslaught of cynicism (which is significant, as I’ve got a high resting cynic rate), so I’m not sure what to say about the state of politics, or the social fabric, or my own ability to figure out how I feel about all things.

I have vacillated between what it means for a person on the far left (me, in this case) to vote in this election. I have been scolded for my privilege when I consider not casting a vote for Hillary. I have been called childish, foolish, idealistic, unsympathetic to the lives of women and minorities, and all other manner of accusatory names by those who consider a vote for Clinton and the Democrats to be the only option for someone calling themselves progressive in these excessively weird and troubling times.

I have tried to tell friends and acquaintances that my being further left makes it hard to stomach the Democrats' move to the center right. I have tried to explain to them that Hillary’s domestic policies and foreign decisions have made voting for her feel unconscionable to me. I am told that my critique of “warmonger” isn’t enough to justify my “protest vote.” I am told I’m making a protest vote.

I am told that my moral agency is nothing compared to my civic responsibility. I’ve been chastised for how they do or don’t line up in the eyes of those upset with me. But this is the new reality, the magnanimous duopoly. We are a people of A or B, of black and white, of love or hate. The middle ground is for no one.

I agree with this. The middle ground has proved itself inept. Really, that’s where we’ve been living for as long as neoliberalism has made our two major American political parties laughable mirrors of each other. However, admitting that the middle ground is useless doesn’t mean dualism is inevitable. Nondualism, theologically, politically, and socially offers us a three-dimensional way of being. Like the ship in space, we are not limited to forward or backward. We can also float up or down, shirking the bonds of earthly gravity in favor of choices not previously open to us.

You might say that I seem to have made up my mind about the worth of voting for Clinton rather than a minor party option who might offer what I believe to be more responsible and live-giving options on a range of issues. I mostly have, but I have my days. As Adam Kotsko recently pointed out, it’s giving this bourgeois, capitalist system I disdain a lot of credit when I so desperately seek a good candidate. If the system is as ethically bankrupt as I believe it to be, why not ride out the cynicism and vote for a candidate who I acknowledge is better in several key ways than her opponent?

It’s a logical point, albeit a relativist one I struggle to adopt. Holding my nose and marking a ballot for someone I believe to be directly responsible for military policies that left a lot of brown folks across the ocean—women, children, and men alike—dead is still a moral choice. And as I’ve never been one to prefer Mill to Kant, it’s one I’m not sure I can make. But I’ll admit to being unsure how to move as flawlessly as possible despite my being quite the flawed person in a tragically flawed system given power by an overwhelmingly flawed culture.

Nothing is easy here, at least not for me. I don’t begrudge you if it’s easy for you. I don’t give a shit if you’re mad at me because it is easy for you and hard for me.

I’ll probably watch the debates, if for no other reason than to be able to better articulate my own thoughts by engaging in (mostly) silent argument with the person speaking at the moment. I doubt they’ll put anything into focus for me except for, perhaps, my contempt for both candidates and my longing for a better political system that could and should produce a better servant leader. It won’t move me to the middle where most people say they live but so few actually do. Who can survive there anyway? Who’d want to? Not I. Give me the up, the down, the upside down any day. Duopoly and myself in the eyes of those who like the left, right, and middle be damned.

I Don't Pledge Allegiance, To the Flag

I guess I’m not patriotic. That’s what I assume, at least, when I find myself on my usual side of a controversy like the one that erupted recently when a school note involving the pledge of allegiance went viral.

The note was a waiver, sent home to be signed in case the parent/guardian wanted to opt their child out of reciting the pledge. On the paper, a disgruntled mother expressed her disgruntledness, while her brother-in-law, the child’s uncle, snapped a pic and shared it. The rest is news feed history.

The actions of the adults, and the thousands of comments found under internet shares of this story, point to a visceral anger that something is wrong with this country when nationalist traditions like the pledge are questioned. Those who don’t feel this way are deemed “unpatriotic.”

I am one of those who feel completely baffled and out of step with the vitriol. But I’m used to feeling out of step with current American sympathies. I’m a socialist. You know, the devil.

Any time I question our national obsession with capitalism, or our quickness to war, our sense of lofty superiority and international supremacy, or our constant failure of memory and imagination when it comes to our social ills, I’m immediately aware of who disagrees with me. Definitely those on the political right (Republicans, libertarians, alt-right, etc.), and often Democrats don’t like what certain folks on the far left have to say regarding the policies of our country (as well as the morality and ideology behind them). So I’m not surprised when something comes along that upsets large parts of the public but doesn’t bother me (and vice versa).

Still, this pledge thing bothers me; not because kids can opt out, but because it’s still being said at all. From a civics perspective, the pledge strikes me as both socially irresponsible given our global reality and naively jingoistic.

The problem with our culture's tendency to separate every issue into easy dualism (writ large as the two party political system) is that we're often quick to do away with nuance in favor of the snappiest soundbite. In this case, when someone says they don't like the pledge, it's the natural step for an opponent to say "well then you must not like America."

Which in my case is and isn't true. I guess we need some nuance.

The Pledge as Bad Policy

"I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

Though the pledge has gone through several iterations since its first, mostly permanent revision in 1892, this is the current one, last updated in 1954 to capitalize "Nation" and add "under God."

When it comes to the pledge, what we're talking about is a fealty oath, a demand by the State fulfilled by its subjects. The pledge requires loyalty, and unquestioning relationship to the flag and the specific form of government that it represents. The pledge doesn't beg our allegiance for "the best possible version of our Republic" or to "the basic precepts at the foundation of our Republic" but to the Republic itself. This, whether intentionally or not, makes the pledge a nationalist tool for keeping subjects in line whether the Republic is what it should be or not. The Republic is as it stands, and you're to pledge allegiance to it.

Hopefully it's obvious why such unquestioning nationalism is seriously problematic. When such beliefs have historically emerged as governmental structures, they haven't had the best track records. We don't often speak kindly of fascists, after all (except to cheekily note that they're good at getting trains to places on time).

This jingoistic turn is what separates the practices of saying the pledge from being or feeling patriotic. Patriotism, in its ideal sense, allows for careful and heavy criticism. You can love a place, feel a sense of ownership to it and pride in what it can be, and still be completely honest and aware of its failings. As noted above, the pledge doesn't allow for the kind of free thought, debate, or imagination that a healthy patriotism necessitates. Therefore, equating the pledge and patriotism just doesn't play.

The problem only grows larger when we consider how the conflation of the two has resulted in a terribly rigid sense of what it means to be an American citizen. The inflexibility, combined with the misunderstanding (or even willful ignorance), is what makes the dedication to the pledge dangerous to actual individual and social freedoms.

Justice Robert H. Jackson, writing for the 1943 Supreme Court majority decision[1] to overturn a previous ruling which allowed students to be compelled to say the pledge in school[2], railed against the ideological orthodoxy which would force any American into a prescribed behavior at the expense of other more important, though less tangential, ideals. He wrote,

"If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us."

Prescribed orthodoxy is what makes the pledge a terrible idea in the first place. No formulaic, performative act can distinguish one citizen of a free republic from another—which is why the willingness to say the Pledge is a terrible assessment for political belonging. More than that, this is why it's antithetically American to support the pledge as that which defines loyalty. And if the pledge can't and shouldn't define loyalty, why have it?

The pledge is a false litmus for "true Americanism." This makes it problematic for all citizens over which it holds sway (which is to say all of us).

Unfortunately, the problems with the pledge continue, deeper and deeper down for religious persons. The show of parroted patriotism that is the pledge is one of special import to Christians[3]. Because not only is a pledge of allegiance politically troublesome, it’s idolatrous.

The Pledge as Idolatry

When God sent Moses down from the mountain with a list of commandments, the first two are, roughly, "I am God" and "thusly, no worshipping some other god." For those keeping with the Judeo-Christian heritage, it still stands as an instruction not to worship that which is not God.

Unfortunately for nationalism, this provides a distraction from the necessary worship of the nation. It also doesn't make capitalism too happy, as capitalism demands the primacy of currency, with people and their innate createdness being secondary to their role as money-makers then money-spenders.

Benjamin E. Zeller used the recent Colin Kaepernick[4] controversy to discuss Émile Durkheim's model of religion with the totem as the center. Our Americanism, our sense of civic religion, then, is centered on the flag, the "symbolic referent point for the nation’s self-worship." This symbol is given explicit power via the pledge. The flag is the symbol of the national god to be worshipped, the pledge its scripture, the national anthem its hymn.

Christianity gains its power from being a witness to the truth that Christ stands against the death dealt by national power in favor of the life offered by God. Peace and community are the eternal way, truth, and life. Rome will always only be the cross and the sealed tomb.

The Christian, therefore, cannot both accept the primacy of Christ and that of the state. The pledge is an acknowledgment of servitude above and beyond all else. Reciting it is, then, idolatry to the Christ follower.

This isn't a new concept, as the first Supreme Court challenge to the mandatory recitation of the pledge stemmed from Jehovah's Witnesses children refusing to say the pledge in school in 1935. Yet despite its age, the controversy is still fresh. It's so fresh that stories of people sitting during national anthems, or refusing to say the pledge, or politicians advocating fierce returns to Americanism continue to be front-page news.

The worship of the flag and the Republic for which it stands is at a fever pitch. There is no sector of American life untouched by the call to worship the Americanness of all things. Entreaties to "make America great again," to say the pledge without question, and to sing the national anthem with sacred reverence all require modern Christians to declare dual allegiances, using frighteningly similar religious and civic liturgies to do so.

The pledge is such liturgy. It simultaneously claims to be a marker of truth and of identity couched within truth. It demands that the flag be both witnessed and the cause of witness. This demand places the flag, for those who pledge allegiance to it, at the right hand of the empire which flies it. All of which makes unflinching nationalistic dedication hard to square when you also claim to worship a carpenter who said caring for the poor and sick, who said loving for God and neighbor, matters more than a flag and the Republic for which it stands ever will.


[1]: It should be noted that this ruling is what makes it ridiculous that a school or teacher need to send home a note to give permission for a child to opt out and not say the pledge. While it's helpful that the note gives parents and children an awareness of their rights, it's unfortunate that it's needed. They don't have to say it now, no opting out necessary. Thanks to a later ruling from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, children under its jursidiction (Alabama, Georgia, and Florida) don't have to stand for it either. (According to Snopes, the school in question sent the notice home in compliance with Florida law, which requires children know their right to refrain from saying the pledge and requires parents know they can excuse their child from saying it. Even though a teacher can't compel them to say it in the first place.)

[2]: Not only is this in keeping with the right to dissent protected by the First Amendment, it's pedagogically sound when teaching children anything as belief-based and intellectually complex as allegiance. Young children aren't fully capable of understanding what allegiances are, and we shouldn't be asking them to swear to anything based on the assumption that they'll support a specific brand of nationalist ideology in the future (which keeps with the sound method to "never teach a child anything you'll have to unteach them later"). To do so is to support indoctrination, something easily accomplished with young, impressionable minds. The Hitler Youth program was successful for a reason.

[3]: I absolutely do not mean to imply that "religious persons" and "Christians" are to be conflated here or in any context, nor do I intend to imply that the pledge is only religiously problematic for Christians. It's just that my context is Christian, and I can't speak for my Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, etc. brothers and sisters. But I'd like to think that any of those who feel the divine life trumps the life of empire would agree with what follows.

[4]: That this controversy has emerged from the world of American sport adds a layer, as the idolatry of the American state has intertwined with the idolatry by Americans of professional sport, particularly American football. The worship of both ride waves of liturgy, each with their own means of consecrating that which is most holy: the flag, the game. In recent years, the worship of these two pillars of Americanism have merged into codependent parts. Tom Suttle notes exactly this in his excellent recent piece.

Donald Trump's Truth

“America is already great.”

From the incumbent party in the White house, this is the refrain we’ve heard again and again in the run-up to the Democratic National Convention and at the DNC itself. In politics, I guess you take whatever opening your opponent gives you.

Except the reality for tens of millions of Americans is that the United States is not great. They are left out and left behind. They turn on the news and talk to their friends and don’t recognize the world they live in. The economic recovery of the last eight years has been a recovery for everyone but them. Their life expectancy has dropped for the first time in American history. Their children will do worse than they have done, not better. Their rates of incarceration are rising year after year. The family, formerly one of the most stable units of social cohesion, is in tatters largely due to economic unrest. The church offers them nothing. Their wages are flat, their healthcare is expensive, and their jobs are drudgery. On one side of the political divide they’re called idiots and on the other they’re spoon-fed a constant diet of fear.

Donald Trump is vile. He’s a cartoon character, a melodrama villain, a charlatan, an incarnation of cynical political gamesmanship, and very likely a fascist who would be an epic disaster for the United States and the world. But he has tapped into a truth that speaks to a huge segment of the American population: America is not great for everybody. This is a truth liberals should recognize (and do when it suits them). But here they do not. Why?

Because liberals lack the basic empathetic imagination to recognize this, blinded as they are by their own ideology of inclusion. The pain felt by people who support Trump expresses itself as racist, nationalist, jingoistic, misogynistic bullshit, and so it is dismissed by liberals. But of course it takes that shape! People are using the only language they have been offered to voice their frustrations.

Liturgy defines a space in which participants may grope and gesture toward truth. “Make America Great Again” is a counter-liturgy offered by a fascist demagogue to a public looking for any meaning, any answer outside the status quo offered by technocratic, neoliberal priest/politicians bowing and supplicating themselves before the vengeful god of The Market. The truth Trump’s liturgy points toward is this: “Our country does not feel 'great already' to the millions of wonderful people living in poverty, violence and despair.” Yes, it’s true this counter-liturgy is chanted by a death cult, but I guess the bad tan and worse hair are too distracting for people to notice.

It is vitally important that the social and economic pain identified by Trump be met with real solutions (something Trump and the Republican Party are incapable of). But Liberals think they're exempt from understanding Trump's appeal to hurting people because they hate Trump and everything he represents. So they have offered no compelling alternative to business as usual, which is exactly what Hillary Clinton represents.

Look, Hillary Clinton will win this election because she’s tough as nails. Her campaign is a juggernaut and Donald Trump is a joke. She’ll get things done. Republicans are terrified of her because of her political acumen. She will govern effectively and stand as an important symbol for woman and girls for decades to come.

But mark my words, over the next eight years there will be another economic downturn. Liberals will still have offered no voice to people whipping in the winds of abstract, inhumane domestic and international economic policies which primarily seek the ever-increasing accumulation of capital and the enrichment of faceless corporations at the expense of masses of under-educated, economically depressed people.

The situation will get worse, not only for current Trump supporters but for Clinton voters as well. And Democrats will be left holding the bag this time, not Republicans as in 2008. Then a real politician will rise to take advantage of the liturgy first chanted by Donald Trump.

The Myth of Christian Voting

The trend in U.S. politics for the last few decades, from the conservative side at least, has been to court the "evangelical vote" by creating calls to arms around various hot-button social issues. This is often called the ‘culture wars’. A broad name, but complexities, of course, abound.

The usual push-back points are that not all evangelicals are alike, that we have a hard time defining the term evangelical in our modern context, that those who court such a vote are often Christian in name more than deed, that Christians should vote based more on the biblical teachings of Christ and less on the modern social lens through which we try to squeeze the Bible… you’ve heard them all. There are more think pieces on these subjects than one could ever read.

This is all amplified in the case of Donald Trump, as most things are. Trump seems to be courting the evangelical vote effectively, which in this case means he’s able to pull socially conservative folks who also identify as Christians and who, usually, name Christianity as a driving force behind what and who they vote for.

The response in this case has been for more than a few evangelicals to talk about why voting for Trump is antithetical to evangelical beliefs. This New York Times piece has been making the rounds; this one at Ministry Matters is well-written, too.

But both miss the point, which is that being a Christian really isn’t a matter of civic responsibility. The thing is, you are Christian apart from your role in the citizenry, and the two identities have very little to do with each other.

Here, you might say I’m not being practical. You might say, "If I believe that Christ teaches to take care of people, I’m going to vote for people and policies that help others.” And I’ll say, “Of course you are.”

But the thing is, your participation in the life of a nation, in the life of an institutional system, isn’t the same as your life in Christ. It isn’t wholly different, but they aren’t analogous. When Ben Carson spoke about it being necessary for a Muslim who wanted to hold office to renounce their religious allegiance, he missed the point that Christian politicians have to do this, too. In Christianity (though the metaphor is troublesome), Christ is king, and America ain’t dealin’ in kings.

There are lots of reasons—practical, emotional, intellectual, STRAIGHT-UP-BASIC MORAL—to not vote for Donald Trump. But being a Christian has little to do with it. Your identity in Christ isn’t a moralistic one, though how you act communally is undeniably linked. Your identity in Christ isn’t tribal, meaning that it isn’t confined by narrow categorization like party affiliation. Your identity in Christ isn’t governmental, civic, or legislated. Life and identity in Christ is something much more universal and free than any specific policy vote you make or label you choose to associate with. We humans like to put things in boxes because categorizing makes things make sense; unfortunately, the mystical nature of incarnation, of God-Human, makes categorization impossible.

So I don’t think evangelicals should or shouldn’t vote for Trump because I don’t believe in this ethereal voting bloc which is “evangelicals,” nor do I believe in labels which denote things as “Christian” or “secular.” Instead, if Christ is incarnate, in our bodies and our air and our lives lived as liturgy itself, then voting becomes quite secondary. That doesn’t mean that it stops being our civic duty, or our duty to work for our neighbor simply because they’re our neighbor. Some of our decisions will look more like Christ. Some won’t look like Christ at all. None of it is separate from the mind of God. Nothing is outside the realm of the divine life. If Paul is right, then there are no categories. We are who we are, created and free, only bound by the burdening Christianicism with which we have hobbled ourselves.