Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Southern Pride

Longwood - Natchez, MS
Having been born and largely raised in the South, there are days that I miss being there greatly: any time a friend posts pictures of magnolias in bloom, whenever anyone mentions Texas or Carolina barbecue (on which I am blissfully neutral), the last week or so leading up to Mardi Gras, and of course, every time I have to scrape ice or snow from my windshield.

On a trip many years ago, I introduced my wife to the South by touring much of my college stomping grounds - from my alma mater in Hattiesburg, Mississippi to Biloxi and on down to New Orleans. I proposed to her in Natchez, overlooking the river at sunset. We toured several historic sites and plantations, including Beauvoir (the post-war home of Jefferson Davis) and Oak Alley. At Longwood, a tour guide explained that the owner began the construction in 1859 but that the work was never completed because of the Civil War - an event she spoke of very much as if one were describing the Huns invading the Balkans. The Union had destroyed this man's life and dreams; she of course did not mention that his wealth (and the mansion itself) were made possible only by the unpaid and physically demanding labor of his many slaves.

More recent events have made it evident that the South is experiencing a cultural shift, however. In 2001, the state of Georgia removed the image of the "stainless banner" (the second flag of the Confederate States of America, most often known simply as "the confederate flag") from its state flag. Two years ago, the state of South Carolina stopped flying the confederate flag separately in front of the capitol and other government buildings. That same year, I took my daughters to New Orleans and we toured Oak Alley again to find that not only had they reconstructed the slave quarters, but that the content of the tour had changed as well. No longer did it focus only on the owners, but on the work and resourcefulness of the slaves that built it. And just last week, the city of New Orleans removed several statues of confederate figures, most notably the statue of Robert E. Lee atop a 60 foot pedestal in the center of Lee Circle. 

Not everyone is happy about the change. Mississippi state representative Karl Oliver expressed his outrage in a racially charged Facebook post:
"The destruction of these monuments, erected in the loving memory of our family and fellow Southern Americans, is both heinous and horrific. If the, and I use this term extremely loosely, "leadership" of Louisiana wishes to, in a Nazi-ish fashion, burn books or destroy historical monuments of OUR HISTORY, they should be LYNCHED! Let it be known, I will do all in my power to prevent this from happening in our State."
A few hundred people "liked" the rant (including two other Republican state representatives and Mississippi Highway Patrol spokesman Tony Dunn) before it was deleted - an ironic twist, given that the GOP considers itself "the party of Lincoln." But while Mr. Oliver's comments are certainly incriminating, I don't mean to imply that all Republicans, Southerners, or even CSA monument supporters are racists or support violence. It is worth noting that other state officials, both Republican and Democrat, quickly condemned his words.

Still, the removal of these monuments remains controversial. Some consider it the ultimate genuflection to the power of political correctness and a revision of history; others consider it more than a century overdue. As one might expect, the division runs closely along both racial and generational lines.

As someone who has lived in and loves the South, and as someone who strongly opposes the continued veneration of the Confederacy, please allow me to address those who may argue in opposition. I have no interest in arguing over "the War of Northern Aggression". I've heard people argue that the rebellion was not over slavery, although this cause is clearly the most prominent in the charters and constitutions of the confederate states. I've heard them claim they are not racists, and indeed, many of them are not, but the flag is inseparable from the concept of racial superiority. I've heard them speak of Robert E.Lee as some sort of hero against an oppressive government, all but ignoring the oppression of slavery.  Rehashing all of the usual arguments is hardly worthwhile; all that I ask is... why?

Of all that the South can take pride in, why do so many choose to correlate Southern identity with the flag of an aggressor against our mutual country? Why take pride in a "nation" that no longer exists? Why hoist the flag of the enemy that more American soldiers died fighting than against the Nazis in the second world war? Is it just to indicate one is prone to rebel? Given that we rebelled against England, does not the American flag imply enough rebel spirit?

Why continue to present the South by symbols of her darkest hour? We are not opposed to the USA, as the flag suggests - anyone who has lived in the former CSA will know that southerners are quite patriotic. Simply put, it does not represent who we are. Instead of controversy, let us proclaim our contributions.

Modern music, for example, would simply not exist as it does now if it were not for the South. "American" music: country, zydeco, bluegrass, jazz, blues, and rock and roll, were all born in the South (especially in Mississippi and Louisiana). Great authors, such as Faulkner and (Harper) Lee, should be celebrated over the ignorant, which have sadly become our stereotype. Why not lift up our best, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. or Rosa Parks, instead of glorifying the culture that made their sacrifices necessary?

From my perspective, it is quite easy to be a proud Southerner, but we simply can't be defined by a military failure. The removal of these statues aren't an effort to deny history, but rather a sign that we have finally accepted it. As the mayor of New Orleans recently said, "the Confederacy lost and we are better for it."

Yes, the stainless banner is part of our history, but our heritage is far greater.

Sunday, January 22, 2017



Wrote a blog about it. Like to read it? Here it goes.

I have long had issues with the so-called "religious right", but the recent inauguration of President Donald Trump, along with the glowing praises of so many evangelicals, has put me in such a situation that I would feel personally liable if I failed to state my disgust with the apparent racism (or at least, prejudice) that has become acceptable within a group of people who should know better.

This is not about politics. I have many friends who are strongly conservative, and others who are quite liberal (I consider myself a moderate). This has nothing do with party platforms. Given the polls going into Election Day, I can say that I was surprised at the result, but I have not questioned them. I have not suggested in any way that the win was questionable due to Mrs. Clinton receiving three million more votes - everyone was aware of what the Electoral College was prior to the campaign, and President Trump won the contest under the same rules as his predecessors. I refuse to dishonor President Trump by claiming he's "not my president".

This is not about "sour grapes", as I did not vote for Hillary Clinton. While I recognize that she was perhaps the most qualified candidate in terms of experience, I had my concerns about her as well. I voted for a third-party candidate with the full knowledge that my chosen candidate would not be successful. Of course, I had friends on both wings attempt to sell me on the notion that a vote for anyone but Trump was really a vote for Clinton, and vice versa, but in spite of the result, I can still say that my conscience is clear.

This isn't even about Donald Trump, though I do find him morally detestable. For all of the issues I have with President Trump, I am also forbidden to hate him. He, like everyone else, was created in the image of the God I claim to serve, and if I claim to love God but hate his creation, I make myself a liar. This does not mean that I can't speak out against wrong, even when it comes from our leaders; it simply means that, with God's help, I should strive to avoid becoming hateful towards anyone as a person.

The results of the election don't concern me nearly as much as the heart-wrenching realization that the same professed Christians, from whom I have witnessed countless attacks upon President Obama's character for over eight years now, are openly praising a man like Donald Trump. Such a travesty is only possible by doing one thing: moving the goalpost - by making the standard to which a black man is being held five times higher than the goalpost set for the white man. Or, in the case of Hillary Clinton, the goalpost for a white woman being set higher than that of a white man. But the existence of a sexist double standard can not be used to excuse the existence of a racist double standard ("See? I'm not racist because I also discriminate against a white person!" Or, "I can't be sexist because I also made up lies about Obama and he's not a woman."). Both are detestable, yes, even deplorable, and any person of faith should be speaking out against such injustice rather than employing them in their political rhetoric.

Let me start with perhaps the most egregious example, the unofficial Council of Evangelicals who decide every election who is, and who is not, a Christian. From an interview published in Christianity Today in January of 2008:

CT: You've talked about your experience walking down the aisle at Trinity United Church of Christ, and kneeling beneath the cross, having your sins redeemed, and submitting to God's will. Would you describe that as a conversion? Do you consider yourself born again?
BO: I am a Christian, and I am a devout Christian. I believe in the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I believe that that faith gives me a path to be cleansed of sin and have eternal life. But most importantly, I believe in the example that Jesus set by feeding the hungry and healing the sick and always prioritizing the least of these over the powerful. I didn't 'fall out in church' as they say, but there was a very strong awakening in me of the importance of these issues in my life. I didn't want to walk alone on this journey. Accepting Jesus Christ in my life has been a powerful guide for my conduct and my values and my ideals.
To me, that sounds like someone who gets it - someone who, as Romans says, has confessed with his mouth the Lord Jesus. While the interviewer doesn't elaborate on it, he acknowledges that Obama had an understanding of what sin was, and that he needed to be redeemed. Of course, he could be simply saying what someone wants to hear, but in this sense, so could anyone. So why was the evangelical response to this statement of faith to call him a liar? Evangelical leaders, including Franklin Graham, continued to question his faith, or at the least, state "I can't say whether or not he's a Christian", playing to the unfounded claims that Obama was some sort of secret Muslim infiltrator to America. I saw many people from my own church argue, again without any cause, that he wasn't a Christian, and more importantly, that even if he wasn't a Muslim, that he was against Christians. Some went as far as claiming Obama was the anti-Christ, or perhaps a messenger sent to pave the way for the anti-Christ. In short, their minds had been already closed to the very possibility that Barack Obama could simply be a brother with different political positions than they. There was nothing he could have done or said that would convince millions of "evangelicals" that he was a fellow Christian.

Now, let us compare this with a similar interview with Donald Trump during his campaign: the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa (July 2015). After host Frank Luntz asked Trump if he had ever asked for forgiveness for his actions, Trump replied:

"I am not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don't think so. I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don't bring God into that picture. I don't....
When I drink my little wine - which is the only wine I drink - and have my little cracker, I guess that is a form of asking forgiveness, and I do that as often as possible because I feel cleansed; I think in terms of let's go on and let's make it right."

While I am not questioning President Trump's faith, I have to admit that I am puzzled, with what I know of Christian theology, how one becomes a Christian without asking for forgiveness of sins. Maybe he just misspoke, but the troubling thing, again, was the lack of skepticism among the same evangelicals that never accepted Obama's confession of faith. Conservative Christians largely fell in line, accepting Trump's identification as a fellow Christian without question. They not only lowered the goalpost, they kicked the field goal on his behalf and called it good.

These same people, many of whom continued to entertain the "birther" attempt to de-legitimize President Obama's authority as President (interestingly enough, Donald Trump himself continued to push that false narrative for years) and who demanded that he produce his birth certificate (never demanded of any previous - read "white" - presidents) aren't now asking for Donald Trump's tax returns (which were previously expected of all candidates since Nixon), but they are whining about people attempting to de-legitimize Trump. I could spend hours writing dozens of other examples of evangelical hypocrisy, but it suffices to say that even though most Christians balk at the charge of racism, creating hurdles for the black man and removing them for the white man is the textbook definition.

The same applies for discrepancies with the most recent race against Hillary Clinton. Like nearly all politicians, Mrs. Clinton has said some things that were untrue, and as these occurred in the campaign, I could count on my conservative friends to use them as evidence that Clinton was "untrustworthy" or "a liar". In itself, I take no issue with Christians speaking out against untruths and misinformation. In fact, I highly encourage anyone to stand up for truth, but many (thankfully not all) of my conservative friends made nonsensical statements akin to "She's such a liar, so I'm voting for Trump". One might as well state that because they can't support anti-Semitism, they can't in good conscience vote for Mel Gibson, so they'll just have to vote for Reinhard Heydrich.

Nowhere was the double-standard between these two more evident than in attacks on Bill Clinton's well-known womanizing. Many evangelicals, along with Donald Trump himself, attacked Hillary with Bill's infidelity, as if it was her fault. Meanwhile, evangelicals were lining up behind Donald Trump, who had an affair with his second wife while married to his first wife (and is now on his third). The Republican male may be supported in spite of his philandering, while the Democratic female should be blamed and shamed for HER HUSBAND'S infidelity.

In spite of Jerry Falwell Jr.'s endorsement of Trump, he would have been kicked out of Liberty University (or just about any other Christian college or university) five times over. His marital record would disqualify him from being a pastor at the majority of protestant churches in the United States. And yet, 81 percent of evangelicals (four in five) supported Mr. Trumps bid to lead the entire nation.

On Friday, at the inauguration, many conservative faith leaders (again including Franklin Graham) stated that Donald Trump won because of God, that his victory in the race was evidence of his being God's choice. Of course, such rhetoric was completely absent from their collective commentary in 2008. In other words, God is with those who are declared so by an elect committee of evangelical leaders. With such evident political double standards, it should be no surprise that among millennials, even the most charismatic Christians are steering clear of the "evangelical" label.

Lastly, I should note that this in not an attack on Republicans, or conservatives, or Christians, or even Trump voters. Many conservatives refused to back Trump, and even some who reluctantly voted for him are still willing to speak out against his attacks on religious freedom, boasts of sexual conquest, infidelity, bullying, untruthfulness, misogyny, and xenophobia. Not all Christians unfairly attacked President Obama (some of us even voted for him), or support Trump, but the statistics remain inverse: roughly 1 in 5 white evangelicals supported Obama in both 2008 and 2012, while 4 in 5 supported Trump in 2016. And the bottom line remains, that we just elected the first thrice-married admitted genital grabber with overwhelming evangelical support. May God forgive our hypocrisy.