Category Archives: Politics

12.20.2022: Parable of the Sower

The only decor in the little, white-walled church is a black cross and a text mural in large, black, sans serif letters: “Jesus Loves You Beyond Belief.”

The renovation was barely finished in time for the first official Sunday service. Blue painter’s tape still lines open floor ducts, and the tang of newly refinished floors pricks the nose.

Pastor Brian Pell, 30, looks relieved. He’s been working to plant this new congregation for over a year and today is “the launch,” in church-planting lingo. Outside on this mild September morning, on a slightly overgrown dead-end street near downtown Carrboro, churchgoers file past a card table stacked with donuts—not a flood of people, but not a trickle either. By the time the worship band picks up their guitars, about 80 people have turned up.

The scripture for this Sunday is from the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Colossians, displayed on television monitors flanking the stage. It’s a passage about how harsh rules on food, drink, and worship are not the point of the gospel. This suits Carrboro, a kombucha-drinking, Pride flag-festooned town of about 21,000 next to Chapel Hill. When a young woman stands to read the day’s text and starts talking about wives submitting to husbands, people trade confused glances. When she gets to “slaves, obey your human masters in everything,” she realizes her mistake: “Wait a minute, I’m reading Colossians 3! Can we just start the service over?”

The congregation bursts into friendly laughter. This is Vintage Church Chapel Hill/Carrboro’s first service, and the goof breaks the tension—a little wink from the Holy Spirit. The slip is also telling. While Christians might prefer to lead with the agreeable parts of the gospel, sooner or later they run into the awkward fact that Jesus and his disciples were not, ultimately, warm and fuzzy or an easy fit in the 21st century.

Pell knows this as well as anyone. He’d planned to preach straight through Colossians, and would have to confront Colossians 3 the very next week.

Carrboro may seem like an odd place to start an evangelical church, with its rainbow crosswalks, informational lectures on hemp at the local grocery co-op, the spoken-word poetry, “anti-oppression talks,” and craft tables at its monthly “Really, Really Free Market.”

But perhaps all this makes Carrboro an ideal mission field for Christians. In our multicultural, secular age, Pell may convince nonbelievers that the best answer to their postmodern problems is a 2,000-year-old faith.

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Image credit: Maddy Gray

06.11.21: Is There a Way to Dial Down the Political Hatred?

President Biden tends to hammer on the theme of national unity, often in theological terms. On Memorial Day, he described the ongoing battle for the “soul of America,” a conflict between “our worst instincts — which we’ve seen of late — and our better angels. Between ‘Me first’ and ‘We the people.’” In January, in his Inaugural Address, he quoted St. Augustine: “A people was a multitude defined by the common objects of their love.”

That line appears in “The City of God,” in a chapter that laments the fate of a people who drift from heeding their better angels to obeying their inner demons — like denizens of the Roman Empire, which “declined into sanguinary seditions and then to social and civil wars, and so burst asunder or rotted off the bond of concord in which the health of a people consists, history shows,” St. Augustine wrote.

Over the past six months Mr. Biden has been warning us, in his frank and ecumenical way, that Americans have become a bunch of idol worshipers. He’s right. We have transformed political hatreds into a form of idolatry. A team of researchers analyzed a range of survey data and concluded that “out-party hate” now seems to shape American voting decisions more than race or religion do. “The foundational metaphor for political sectarianism is religion,” the researchers wrote in the journal Science last fall, based on “the moral correctness and superiority of one’s sect.” Political hatred has become Americans’ animating faith, a chief source of existential meaning.

The analogy between political sectarianism and religious faith goes only so far. I don’t mean to suggest that every crackpot political opinion deserves the status and legal protection of a religious doctrine or that all dogmatic mind-sets are morally equivalent. It should be possible to hold one party responsible for voter suppression and the Capitol riot while recognizing that pseudoreligious ideologies and purity cults have multiplied on both ends of the political spectrum. This is a commentary not just on the polarization of politics but also on the persistence of humans’ metaphysical needs, even in a secular age — and a nudge to reappraise our prophecies of apocalypse or salvation from a humbler perspective.

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Image credit: Alberto Miranda

09.04.20: The Trouble with Empathy

When my daughter started remote kindergarten last month, the schedule sent to parents included more than reading, math, art and other traditional subjects. She’ll also have sessions devoted to “social and emotional learning.” Themes range from listening skills and reading nonverbal cues to how to spot and defuse bullying.

As millions of students start the school year at home, staring at glowing tablets, families worry that they will miss out on the intangible lessons in mutual understanding that come with spending hours a day with kids and adults outside their own household. We want children to grasp perspectives of people different from themselves. Yet in recent years, empathy — whether we can achieve it; whether it does the good we think — has become a vexed topic.

While teachers attempt to teach empathy through screens, the national context has become complicated in the months since the police killing of George Floyd. “Because our white leaders lack compassion and empathy, Black people continue to die,” wrote a columnist in The Chicago Sun-Times. When Joe Biden posted a video declaring that “the pain is too intense for one community to bear alone,” journalists called the message an effort to “project empathy” — while activists said empathy was not enough.

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Image credit: Geoff McFetridge

12.13.19: What Would Jesus Do About Inequality?

Chapel Hill, N.C. — One Saturday morning this fall, I walked into Chapel Hill Bible Church, an unpretentious complex of brick buildings near the highway. Inside, a conference space bustled with 50 people sitting at round tables. The crowd skewed millennial, mostly (but not entirely) white. I sat next to a hip-looking bearded man wearing a hoodie, who told me he was a nurse at a nearby hospital. My other tablemates included a cybersecurity expert, a doctoral student in speech pathology and an occupational therapist working in public schools.

They had come to talk about how they integrate religious faith with what they do for a living — how the lessons and community of Sunday worship can become “a church for Monday,” in the phrase of the conference organizer, Made to Flourish, a Christian ministry based in Overland Park, Kan., which works with churches in all 50 states. The people at my table already knew one another through a local Christian program called Triangle Fellows, which calls itself “an immersive discipleship and leadership development program for young professionals.”

In today’s evangelicalism, this is where the theological action is: the faith and work movement, the intersection of Christianity with the demands of the workplace and the broader economy — in a society that is one of the world’s wealthiest, yet persistently inhumane. In politics, responses to the American economy’s moral crisis usually split along the lines of the culture war. President Trump, still the darling of white evangelical voters, has hardly wavered from the Christian right’s tradition of faith in a lightly regulated market and weak social safety nets.

The evangelical faith and work movement used to be merely another trumpet for this peculiarly American political gospel. But in recent years the movement has become much more ideologically diverse — and far more interesting. Participants are moving beyond the idolatry of the free market to a conversation about economic justice that doesn’t align so neatly with culture war clichés or party platforms.

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Image credit: Jan Buchczik

04.21.19: Can Black Evangelicals Save the Whole Movement?

By Molly Worthen

Contributing Opinion Writer

Not long ago, when Southern Baptists in Knox County, Tenn., invited Walter Strickland to speak at one of their meetings, he wasn’t sure what to expect. Mr. Strickland, a theology professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., is one of the few African-American scholars teaching at a Southern Baptist seminary. He has made his career in the midst of a culture war: not the familiar clash between progressives and conservatives, but a battle within the ranks of conservative evangelicalism.

When he arrived, he “parked strategically by the exit, facing out,” he told me, in case he needed to make a quick getaway from the roomful of evangelicals who might not like what he had to say about institutional racism. Yet the Knox County Baptists kept him late, peppering him with thoughtful questions. “I almost missed my flight,” he said, laughing.

Many white evangelicals say they want to cultivate diverse congregations and dispel the liberal image of the racist, pro-Trump evangelical. “I think people are hungrier for this conversation,” said Mr. Strickland, who travels around the country to advise Christians on how to recognize and mitigate systemic racism. “The reality of Donald Trump and all the issues we’ve faced since his candidacy have really hardened the hearts of some, but it’s also ripped many people even farther away from conflating the Republican Party with the party of Christ.”

Some of the Christian right’s most prominent leaders have split over Mr. Trump’s racist, xenophobic rhetoric. They disagree over how to fulfill the earthly duties of Christians — especially the obligation to make this fallen world look more like the Kingdom of God foretold in the Book of Revelation, when people “from every nation, tribe, people and language” shall stand together “before the throne and before the Lamb.”

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Image credit: Boyoun Kim

07.01.17: Canada’s Polite and Diffident Independence Celebration


By Molly Worthen

The last Presidential election drove many liberals to muse about packing up and fleeing to Canada. Not many actually did so, but Cori Carl had already made good on the fantasy. She and her wife were committed New Yorkers but felt increasingly disillusioned with the “political backlash after Obama,” she told me. A visit to Toronto charmed them. Jobs fell into place, and they moved, in early 2016, after the momentum of the Trump campaign persuaded them that “we don’t want to stick around for whatever’s going to happen,” Carl said. “The conversation and political tide before the election was enough for us to say, ‘You know what, we can move now.’ ”

Carl has embraced her new home with gusto. She’s been scouring bookstores for Canadian histories and recently embarked on a cross-country road trip; when I contacted her, she was driving to Halifax. There should be no better time for newcomers to learn about Canada than the summer of 2017: July 1st marks the hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of Confederation, one of the biggest milestones in Canadian political history. The 1867 agreement, ratified by an act of British Parliament, created the Dominion of Canada and codified the country’s constitution. It marked a crucial step in the slow process of independence from Britain.

Government branders have dubbed the anniversary “Canada 150.” Canadians are celebrating with public art installations, concerts, a multicultural “parade of nations,” international food festivals, and a giant rubber duck scheduled to dock on Lake Ontario. The Canadian clothing company Roots has launched an ad campaign to celebrate “150 years of being nice,” complete with a nationwide search to find “Canada’s nicest person.”

“In the grocery store, the bread I got was in commemorative Canada 150 packaging, and there are a lot of special cookies,” Carl said. But the festivities strike her as “a very surface-level celebration. It’s vague notions of diversity, rather than really getting into Canadian history.”

In some ways, these cheerful tributes to multiculturalism and good manners are just the dose of Canadian civility that American liberals crave. What a relief it must be to live in a country where the head of government spends his time welcoming Syrian refugees and hugging pandas, when our own President is busy trying to ban Muslim immigrants and bullying critics on Twitter.

But this summer of good feelings conceals a complex debate about what the country stands for and what it means to be Canadian. While Americans fight loudly and publicly over the meaning of our history and founding ideals, Canadians—at least the white, English-speaking majority—have learned to avoid the subject. The relative absence of history from Canadian civic discourse is a testament to just how explosive historical debate can be, and a closer look can show Americans how they often misunderstand culture and politics north of the border.

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Image credit: David Kawal/Eyevine/Redux

02.18.17: Where in the World Can We Find Hope?

Leaders of European right-wing populist parties like Marine Le Pen of France (center) gathered at a meeting in Germany in 2017.

By Molly Worthen

Contributing Opinion Writer

Liberal democracy in the West is on the fritz. The leader of the free world larded his recent news conference with false claims, while British legislators dither over their citizens’ reckless decision to leave the European Union. At the same time, nationalist, xenophobic movements across Europe are on the rise — promising, like Donald J. Trump, to stick it to those out-of-touch elites who don’t understand the common people.

What is a mopey, Trumpatized liberal to do? When I need solace, I head (in my mind, anyway) to two beacons of hope: Denmark and Canada. There, too, democracy needs fixing, and thoughtful people are trying to mend the alienation between policy makers and voters — to persuade the experts and the common people not to give up on one another. They have almost convinced me that they might succeed.

It won’t be easy. Even in Denmark, that progressive utopia, liberal confidence in democracy has frayed. The left-wing Social Democratic Party governed Denmark for much of the 20th century, but now it keeps losing elections. “We’ve lost most on this question of immigration, foreigners,” Kristian Weise, who heads Cevea, a center-left think tank in Copenhagen, told me. “The response in the party has been to move to the right, to match the rhetoric and policies of the xenophobic populist right.”

Mr. Weise lamented the progressive elite’s refusal to double down on liberal principles and plainly communicate those principles to voters. “People growing up after 1989 within the Social Democratic movement became very nonideological, because suddenly there were no longer the big contradictions,” he said. “Politics became both technocratic and also very spin-oriented.”

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Image credit: Michael Probst/AP

12.03.16: Can I Go To Great Books Camp?

An 18th-century etching of Adam Smith by John Kay.

By Molly Worthen

Contributing Opinion Writer

KATE Havard is taking a break from American conservatism. “I’m not sure what’s happening with my party right now,” she said from Jerusalem, where she is studying Hebrew. “I need a timeout.” When she returns to her job in Washington at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, she’ll seek refuge among a small group of young conservatives who believe that studying the history of ideas helps them keep Donald J. Trump in perspective.

Ms. Havard, 26, said that before she left for Israel, “we’d get together once a week to have a political philosophy study group,” to discuss ancient authors like Xenophon instead of bashing Obamacare. Studying the deep roots of “conservative principles” helps allay the fear “that just because there’s a politician ascendant who totally disregards these things, that means the end of the conservative movement,” she told me. “You have to be hopeful.”

A small but growing number of young conservatives see themselves not only as engaged citizens, but as guardians of an ancient intellectual tradition. The members of Ms. Havard’s group were alumni of a seven-week crash course in political theory offered by the Hertog Foundation, the family foundation of the Wall Street financier Roger Hertog. Attendees discuss authors like Aristotle, James Madison and Leo Strauss and hear lectures by scholars and policy experts. “Our curriculum represents what we think ought to be a high-level introduction to politics, one you rarely find in any political science department,” Peter Berkowitz, the program’s dean, told me.

The Hertog course is one of more than a dozen similar seminars sponsored by conservative and libertarian organizations around the country. Some last for months, others just a few days. Some recruit older participants, but most target college students and 20-somethings.

The syllabuses and faculty range from say, the secular Jewish milieu of Hertog to the libertarian Cato Institute to the Christian traditionalism of the John Jay Institute. But all these programs seek to correct the defects they see in mainstream higher education by stressing principles over pluralism, immersing students in the wisdom of old books and encouraging them to apply that wisdom to contemporary politics.

Liberals have their own activist workshops and reading groups, but these rarely instruct students in an intellectual tradition, a centuries-long canon of political philosophy. Why have philosophical summer schools become a vibrant subculture on the right, but only a feeble presence on the left? The disparity underscores a divide between conservatives and liberals over the best way to teach young people — and, among liberals, a certain squeamishness about the history of ideas.

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Image credit: Universal History Archive/Getty

11.09.16: A State of Alienation

Mint Hill, North Carolina

By Molly Worthen

Contributing Opinion Writer

CHAPEL HILL — The 2016 election pushed the boundaries of common sense in many ways. Here in North Carolina, Donald J. Trump — the religiously indifferent, penthouse-dwelling germophobe — somehow emerged as the victorious defender of the pig farmer and the country church. Meanwhile, our state Republicans spent huge amounts of time stoking fear, not about the sluggish economy or the deteriorating state of public education, but about the grave dangers of open access to public bathrooms.

Both political strategies worked. Absurdity always has its own logic, and in 2016 that logic is the great culture war of our age: thriving, liberal cities versus impoverished rural counties. Mr. Trump capitalized on the mutual alienation between the two North Carolinas. Meanwhile, state Republicans rallied rural voters with their latest anti-city scheme: House Bill 2, drafted hastily last spring after the city of Charlotte revised its nondiscrimination ordinance to protect gender identity.

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Image credit: Travis Dove/NYT

10.08.16: What’s God Got To Do With It?

The audience at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, during a speech by the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II.

By Molly Worthen

Contributing Opinion Writer

Chapel Hill, N.C. — The first debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump featured plenty of magical thinking, but it was a nonreligious event. Neither candidate mentioned God. The second debate may be no different: Voters see Mr. Trump as either a prophet or an angel of death, but the only religion that interests him is his own faith in his “winning temperament.”

As to Mrs. Clinton: The news stories that have dogged her — the email server; Benghazi; the “basket of deplorables” quote — don’t have much to do with religion. She has been private about her Methodist faith, and no earnest Sunday school memories will sway voters who view her as fundamentally untrustworthy.

Yet religion helps explain why Mrs. Clinton has struggled to unite the Democratic base. I’m not talking about the faithful who look for the resurrection of Bernie Sanders, but a real left-wing religious revival. Its prayers, preaching and theological battles look very much like the revival that energized the civil rights movement a half-century ago. Today’s revival is divided against itself, as it was back then.

This revival’s more moderate leaders can’t corral the young radicals who want revolution and who reject not just the Democratic nominee, but the basic assumptions of modern politics. The clash goes deeper than policy or strategy. It is a theological rift: Is religion founded in submission to unchanging principles or is it a protean revolutionary force, a tool of self-empowerment?

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Image credit: Damon Winter/NYT