First Principles

This past week my wife held a conversation using the app Meetup to bring folks together to discuss spirituality and religion. I went with her this week and the question we discussed was, “What is your guiding principle in life?” We had a diverse group of people with various backgrounds and experiences and unsurprisingly the question provoked an interesting and wide-ranging conversation. At first the question came off as a bit challenging for people to fully answer but no one objected to the topic. I think at some level we all want to feel we have clear life principles and goals.

I grew up in a Christian home and have attended church all my life. I was even essentially a missionary overseas for two years after college. I feel like I grew up being taught, and then taking as my own, very clear first principles that have guided my life. These principals include the centrality of a relationship with Jesus for salvation, reading the Bible and praying regularly, and loving others. To give you a landmark these principles could be described as conservative protestant evangelical.

I have been far from the perfect Christian in my life but my adherence to these principals has always been near the forefront of my life. In high school I got into fights about abortion more often than I discussed going out with friends. I developed a huge interest in Christian apologetics in high school in order to better defend my faith. I have always tried to be as best I can to be honest, respectful, and kind to others. Friends and others, even when they disagree with me, have noticed these qualities in me repeatedly. I have grown a lot in the last ten years and I see many pros and cons to these first principals of my life but overall I am grateful for the grounding they have provided me.

The reason I mention the above is I read an article a couple of weeks ago that put these first principles up for a debate that infuriated me. You can read the article here. The article discusses how Trump earned the wide-ranging support of white evangelicals. The same white evangelicals I have been a part of my entire life. The most damning quotation to me in the article reads,

“The clearest example of evangelical ethics bending to fit the Trump presidency is white evangelicals’ abandonment of their conviction that personal character matters for elected officials. In 2011 and again just ahead of the 2016 election, PRRI asked Americans whether a political leader who committed an immoral act in his or her private life could nonetheless behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public life. In 2011, consistent with the “values voter” brand and the traditional evangelical emphasis on the importance of personal character, only 30 percent of white evangelical Protestants agreed with this statement. But with Trump at the top of the Republican ticket in 2016, 72 percent of white evangelicals said they believed a candidate could build a kind of moral dike between his private and public life. In a head-spinning reversal, white evangelicals went from being the least likely to the most likely group to agree that a candidate’s personal immorality has no bearing on his performance in public office.”

Conservative evangelicals whether you agree or disagree typically have incredibly clear and strong first principals. They are rooted in scripture and, if you grow up in church, you hear them from cradle to grave. I do not think all these principals are good or helpful but I think many are. And until November 8th, 2016 I thought most evangelicals followed them. With the advent of the Trump candidacy and now presidency, it is evident that many conservative evangelicals have either rejected, or never had, many of the first principals I thought they did.

I realize, as I have said before, that many evangelicals did not vote for Trump. I also realize why politically, morally, or spiritually many felt they could not vote for Hillary Clinton. What I cannot wrap my head around is why people with the strong first principles that conservative evangelicals supposedly have could justify voting for a man like Trump. As I have written before, he is a leader with the opposite in character, temperament, and ability that any conservative evangelical would want. Or so I thought.

This is not merely a political issue for me. If white evangelicals had gone for Cruz and Rubio I would not be writing this. This is not about a mostly republican base voting for a republican candidate. This is a about a group who promotes clear first principles reject them to vote for a chance at what they perceive as power.

I am beyond disappointed at how all this has gone down but ultimately I am not worried about myself. In spite of everything I will still attend church and believe that , at our best, Christians can do much good in the world. I do worry about our witness to the world though. What does it say to the world when our first principles have to be so soundly ignored and rejected to bring us to a man like Trump? What does it say to our young people? Why should a secular person care about the moral compass of a philosophy that explains away the incompetency and moral failings of our current president?

I do not write this to demean people who voted for Trump. Many did who are not, in fact, evangelicals. He was elected at a specific point in history, via an arcane electoral system. But it needs to be said, as a life-long evangelical, I feel betrayed and this cannot bode well for the church or its mission in the world.

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A Journey in Nostalgia.

canaan summer 2017Teachers get the summer “off” which typically means taking classes or raising their families or working odd jobs to supplement their salaries. Off might be the wrong word but that’s a topic for another entry. I happen to be taking a class on Ancient Greece and to start the class they asked me to read the ambitiously titled, “The Complete World of Greek Mythology.” About halfway through there is a section on the Trojan War and of course the journey home of Odysseus. The author starts the section with a brief discussion of the etymology of the word “nostalgia.” In the typically flowery language of a lifelong academic he explains,

“The English word ‘nostalgia’ has acquired a romantic patina, but its Greek semantic roots have, in combination, a harsher edge: nostos means ‘return journey’, and algos means ‘pain.'”

Needless to say the book has been a bit of a slog. But that breakdown of the word nostalgia has stuck with me the past couple weeks. I have been in many ways nostalgic as I have thought back to memories and experiences from my life and childhood. I’ll just highlight a couple.

When I was a kid my family spent a week at what is today typically called ‘family camp.’ I do not think camp is a super accurate term because we stayed in hotel style rooms and had all our meals made for us but branding is not something I  have dedicated my life to. In any case I loved my week there each summer. There was always good food, good activities, and as I got older a great place to make friends. I went back there as an adult a number of years ago and just the smell of the hallways brought me back, in a wave of nostalgia, to the fun I had had as a kid.

This family camp actually ran an actual summer camp where my sisters and I started attending as kids. I later went through their training program and became a counselor and eventually leadership staff for 6+ summers. I have always thought of this camp as ‘old-school’ in the best possible way. No gimmicks or expensive nonsense here. Just plenty of food, awesome activities and games, and great staff. The camp worship songs we sung were always better sung at camp. This morning at church we sang an updated adaption of a song we sang at camp and the nostalgia nearly knocked me over. I was right back in the camp gym with 200 sweaty campers and staff, reverent and exhausted.

My last example is my families summer house in small town New Hampshire. My great-grandfather bought it in the 1950s as a place to spend his summers in retirement. He enjoyed 18 summers there but four more generations of his family have continued to return there, summer after summer. It’s very old now and it’s not in amazing shape. There is however a photograph of the house in the dining room from what is probably mid-century and it is glorious. The garden is filled with flowers, there’s a stylish car in the driveway. Everything, even in back and white, appears pristine. In moments of nostalgia I long to see the house as it once was, decades ago. I visited it last weekend, however, and sat on the porch on a beautiful afternoon and took a few pictures. The view has not changed much and for that I am incredibly grateful.

I love how the origins of the word nostalgia brought me back the last few weeks. I kind of hate it too. So many images and experiences are indelibly stamped into my consciousness and a smell, a song, a view can bring me right back to remember and experiences those things again with gratitude. But there is undeniably pain there too. A pain at realizing childhood is over, the glory days of that time and place are gone, that things can never quite be what they once were. I think ultimately the tension of the word nostalgia gives it its power. The joy of the memories increases the pain at not being able to go back. But I also think there is maturity in accepting nostalgia for what is it, for being thankful for the good things that have occurred in one’s life. Many have little to be nostalgic about. I hope that whatever we may or may not have nostalgia about we would be motivated to create such moments in the lives of others that they, one day, would have the same mix of feelings I am having this summer.