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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When Schools Do More Than Educate.

One habit I have forced myself to get into since I became a teacher is to read news articles about education. I used to glance over these headlines without much thought because education is one of those issues where everyone has an opinion and until the past few years I could not begin to offer up a coherent view of where I lay on the spectrum. However, as I completed graduate school opinions finally started to coalesce in my brain and if you ever want me to wax poetic on the state of education in America please just ask. With this entry however I want to expand my focus a bit.

Education policy, especially with public schools, invariably comes back to money. Taxes, dollars and cents, overrides, teacher salaries etc. Educating every child equitably is a profoundly expensive task. What gets lost I think in this endless conflict of how much is needed to educate our children is what schools do beyond simply reading, writing, and arithmetic (and social studies! *cough*). Schools do much more than educate.

This past holiday season my school had a food drive for about six weeks. In that time teachers and students collected over a hundred boxes of food for our town’s food bank. We had a “pajama day” where students could pay $5 and wear pajamas to school. That raised over $1700 that went to a fund to help families struggling in the community over the holidays. Our guidance counselors, who work year round serving particularly tricky student situations, sent an email to teachers asking about students we suspect might need some extra support materially over the holidays. Our school nurse provides free healthcare  daily to students. Our cafeteria staff provides meals to students everyday. Our school psychologist and other therapists provide invaluable services to students so they can succeed in the classroom. My middle school is but one school in a small town. But this support happens across the country.

In recent years I have seen the term “government schools” used to deride public schools for their failings and missteps. No public school, including my own, is perfect and I strongly support parents right to choose which school is right for their child. But opposing public schools on the basis that they are simply lackeys of government severely misses the vital work so many schools do. Public schools are not merely “government schools” but community schools. They reflect the community they are in and often the communities and state that surrounds them. The best way for a public school to get better is to have their community get involved and support it.

There are many ways to improve education in this country. Schools and teachers should never stop innovating. But to deride their existence as so inept that they are not be worthy of support risks doing a great disservice to millions of children across the country. This past holiday season I was reminded of all the ways schools do so much more than educate. I hope that as a society we can be mindful of this as we seek to iron out policy and improve our schools and communities.

Rick Warren’s Invocation

So here is another blog about something other than teaching. Yesterday was a historic day and I think it is worth writing about.

Rick Warren, evangelical megachurch pastor from California, gave the invocation at yesterday’s inauguration ceremony. First, let me get my bias out of the way. As a evangelical protestant with a slight liberal tilt I really enjoyed his prayer and have no real issue with it. Now for the analysis.

This prayer, at the start especially, was enormously inclusive.  Right near the beginning he recites in English the Sh’ma, one of the most important prayers in Judaism (its also a verse I like for the record). He than calls God the “compassionate and merciful one”. This is a clear reference to the Qur’an and many Suras that refer to God (Allah) as such. When you include his christian references he ably includes all three Abrahamic religions in his prayer. No small feat for an evangelical methinks.

Most of the middle of the prayer is pretty standard and good. He prays for the first family, the country, for us to uphold good values and asks God to forgive us when we don’t. All very nice so let me fast forward to the end.

At the end he says Jesus’ name in 4 languages (Hebrew, Arabic, Spanish and English) and than closes with the Lord’s prayer. Leading the country in such an explicitly christian prayer likely irked a few people given the ecumenical nature of what is supposed to be, by and large, a political ceremony (however steeped in religious tradition it may be). However I’m largely OK with it and enjoyed the prayer. Here’s why.

Right before he starts the end he calls Jesus, “”the one who changed my life.” He changes tones near the end and makes it very personal. He mentions Jesus not for any superficial gain, not to cynically mention Jesus because “that’s what Christians do.” He does it because Jesus (God) has had such an impact on his life that he cannot help but mention him. He understands it seems by his language that not every American is where he is at but for him its truth and so it seems extremely appropriate for him to end the prayer the way he did. It reminds me of Joshua when he told the Israelites,

“But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”(Joshua 24:15)

I have no reason to doubt Warren’s sincerity in making his prayer and so I won’t. Warren will continue to be criticized for past comments but from my end on inauguration day he did America right, by acknowledging our differences while also staying true to his own, personal, deeply held beliefs.

May we all have something we believe in so much that we can’t help to talk about it because it is just that good.