Evangelicals Have a Trolley Problem

Evangelical support for Donald Trump has made me think about the Trolley Problem. You haven’t heard of the trolley problem? No worries–you were just too busy with your social life to pay attention to your Philosophy 101 course in college. The Trolley Problem is a popular ethics hypothetical. It’s ridiculously easy to find background info about it. Here it is in brief:

A runaway trolley is careening down a track toward five innocent workers. You’re standing to the side and unable to warn the workers. But you’re next to a switch that will divert the trolley onto another track. But this track has one innocent worker on it. Is it more ethical to (1) pull the switch and divert the trolley, thereby killing the one worker, or (2) do nothing, and allow the trolley to kill the five workers?

The Trolley Problem is interesting because your answer reveals your deeper assumptions. Is your driving consideration the consequence of your choice? Then you likely said you’d kill the one person to save the five. But if your driving consideration is the process of your choice, you’d likely refuse to kill a person by pulling the switch.

Things get even more interesting when we tinker with the factors.1 Let’s say you said you would pull the switch to divert the trolley:

What if the one person on the other track was a close family member? Would you change your answer? Why?

What if, instead of pulling a switch, you had to physically push someone in front of the trolley? Would you change your answer? Why?

And that brings us back to Trump. For evangelical Christians who support Trump,2 this isn’t just one isolated choice. It reveals deeper assumptions about their view of the world. For instance, they seem to believe:

  • Only one or two political issues “really matter.” I’m both pro-life and pro-religious liberty. I think both these issues are important. And the Trump administration has made (a little) progress on them. But I think other issues are important: racial reconciliation, sound economic policy, and an immigration approach that doesn’t require separating toddlers from their parents at the border. On all these fronts (and many others) Trump has been a disaster. Supporting him indicates that, so long as a few token steps are made on abortion and religious liberty, literally every other issue can spiral into chaos.
  • The ends justify the means. This sounds harsh–especially because it’s the kind of thing the Religious Right used to lampoon. But it’s hard to escape. Donald Trump is an obviously and deeply immoral person. This is true whether we’re talking about his personal life, his professional life, or his general temperament. He’s consistently severe and impenitent. If you nonetheless throw your support behind him because he’s the only means to your desired end, then you probably believe the end justifies the means.
  • Now is more important than later. Pro-Trump evangelicals often take an apocalyptic tone on the need for Trump: Without Trump, we lose the Supreme Court FOREVER! If Trump fails, then religious liberty is DOOMED! If we don’t cash in our credibility now, then we will NEVER GET ANOTHER CHANCE!

Despite the rhetoric, time will keep passing beyond the 2020 election. Yes, getting Gorsuch was helpful. But there will be other Supreme Court openings. Yes, getting some pro-life executive orders was nice. But later administrations can reverse them. And decades from now, when Trump is long gone and most of his evangelical supporters are too, my generation (and the generations after that) will have to clean up the mess. We’ll have to convince a polarized people that being pro-life doesn’t mean being anti-immigrant. And that religious liberty isn’t just an “excuse for bigotry”. But the legacy of Trump will make those arguments much, much harder. Supporting Trump today suggests you probably don’t care about those problems tomorrow.

Wow, that pop-philosophy talk was fun. But it gets better: my next post will (gasp) give a series of ethics hypotheticals! This blog is about to get really ethical. And really hypothetical….

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1  You all should watch The Good Place on Netflix. In addition to being hilarious, it gives a serious examination of ethical philosophy. In its second season, it devotes an entire episode to the Trolley Problem.

2  I intentionally left this vague as to whether I’m talking about someone who enthusiastically supports Trump, or someone who just plugged their nose and voted for him. Obviously, there’s a big gulf between those two poles, but making these distinctions is beyond the scope of this post…

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Photo from Wikipedia

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Why Yes I Do Have Thoughts on Miss America

I’m about to say something that might surprise you: Whenever I go camping, I do a special call to attract Bigfoot. Oh, that didn’t surprise you? Then how about this:

I know a lot about the Miss America pageant.

Let me explain. My wife’s family is filled with people who’ve been involved in Miss America pageants through the years. Her family still has connections with state organizations, and knows several winners each year.

Therefore, I am duty-bound to watch the pageant every year with this family of experts.

Each year, we make official lists of who we predict will go to the next round throughout the night. I don’t mean to brag, but I may be the best in the family. My sister-in-law will say it’s her, but she’s lying.

Miss America, of course, has caused a recent internet stir. The pageant announced it was abandoning its swimsuit competition, and probably the evening gown competition too.

As an accidental pageant expert, I have lots of thoughts.

  • I’m sooooo relieved they cut the swimsuit competition. Let me paint a picture of awkwardness. I’m on my living room couch with my wife, my sister-in-law, and my mother-in-law. On the television is a parade of women strutting down a runway in nothing but bikinis. I’m expected not only to watch each woman, but to pay close enough attention to declare which of them paraded in their bikini the best. And again, I’m sitting directly next to my wife, mother-in-law, and sister-in-law.

As you can imagine, I find this uncomfortable. And when I’m uncomfortable, I cope by making jokes. And the swimsuit competition jokes are simple, because the whole thing is ridiculous. Like how each contestant gives the camera those come hither eyes and does a pony kick before starting down the runway. Or how their “swimwear” is paired with high heels of all things. Or how the token straight guy on the judge’s panel gets a look like he’s a starving man at a steakhouse. Or how no matter what the pageant officials say about “fitness,” we all know the truth: the swimsuit competition is a transparent attempt to get viewers in the “dirty old man” and “pimply teenage boy” demographic.

So yeah, I’m happy they cut it.

  • The evening gown says everything. I’m not sure how I feel about cutting the evening gown. The swimsuit competition was obviously an excuse to ogle the contestants. The evening gown is more complicated. It’s not sexualized, but it does value appearance. Is that a bad thing? Ummm….

The evening gown decision, more than any other, gets to the core purpose of Miss America. Is it a contest to find a well-spoken woman with a decent singing voice? Or is it a pageant, which takes things like beauty and glamour into account? It feels like we should all say that beauty and glamour don’t matter, which means nixing the evening gown. But then, as my wife quipped, doesn’t Miss America just become a lame talent show?

  • Hollywood should follow Miss America’s lead. Regardless of the evening gown, I’m glad Miss America finally admitted what the rest of us have always known: that the swimsuit contest wasn’t about “fitness” so much as “sexual objectification by gross dudes.” I wish other industries would make the same admission. The most obvious example is (cue grumpy old man voice) nudity in films. The rationalization is that it’s “true to life,” and it’s “honest” and “gritty.” Suuuure. But that doesn’t explain why female nudity is so much more prevalent, and why it often seems so superfluous to the story.

As the rest of us know, the nudity in films isn’t about art or realism. Like the swimsuit contest, it’s about snagging teenage boys by treating women like pieces of meat. Miss America finally admitted what they were up to. Hollywood should too (resumes normal voice).

Oh, and in case you’re wondering: my early favorite for this year’s pageant is Miss Oklahoma.

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Photo by Tadson Bussey

Evangelical: Uppercase or Lowercase?

As a proud recipient of a bachelor’s degree in English *cough*, there are certain grammar opinions that I hold to strongly. I’m an Oxford comma partisan.1 I think the rule against ending a sentence with a preposition should be done away with.2

And I believe that evangelical should be lowercase.

I deal with this surprisingly often. When I was preparing my book proposal and writing the sample chapters,3 I went back and forth with friends and readers about whether I should capitalize evangelical. I changed it a couple of times, but ended up firmly in the lowercase camp.

Why? Well, it’s a combination of reasons: both serious and trivial.

  • Evangelical should be an adjective. As you may recall from a previous post, I believe evangelical works best as an adjective instead of a noun. And of course, proper nouns are generally capitalized, while adjectives are not. Refusing to capitalize evangelical, even when it’s used as a noun, reinforces this principle.
  • Evangelicalism shouldn’t be its own tradition. Keeping it lowercase means that I’m not—intentionally or unintentionally—making evangelicalism seem like its own church tradition. Look at the following sentence: “The prayer gathering included Catholics, Lutherans, and Evangelicals.” Capitalizing evangelical makes it seem like it’s every bit as much its own Church tradition as Catholicism or Lutheranism. At the risk of giving an ecclesiastical hot take, it isn’t. In fact, there are Lutherans and Catholics who would also consider themselves evangelicals. Equating evangelicalism with these other traditions doesn’t make sense.
  • It looks better. Okay, cards on the table. In my writing, I use the word evangelical a lot. It’s sprinkled throughout most pages, and often appears in consecutive sentences as different parts of speech. It already annoys me how cumbersome its various forms are–”evangelicalism” is SEVEN SYLLABLES for crying out loud! I don’t want to gunk up my sentences any more than I have to, so I take out all of those clunky capital E’s. It makes evangelical look more manageable. And I think that’s important, no matter how much you roll your eyes.

If anybody has an argument for capitalizing evangelical, please let me know. But fair warning: I’ll probably ignore you.

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1  For those stubborn enough to oppose the Oxford comma, I offer the following sentence: “My heroes are my parents, John Elway and JK Rowling.”

2  Ha!

3  Remember: scroll to the bottom of the page and subscribe to this blog so the book can actually get published!

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Photo by Lawrence OP

Stop Calling Kids Movies “Cute”

So last week I finally watched Paddington with my family. I loved it. It’s clever, whimsical, beautifully-shot, and explored serious themes in a sensitive way. In short, it’s a good movie.

You’ll notice one word I purposefully avoided: cute.

*Climbs onto soapbox*

We should stop calling art for children “cute.” Here’s why:

  • It sets a bad precedent. Let’s be honest. When most people describe a kids’ movie or book as “cute,” they don’t actually think it’s good. They usually mean it’s insipid or simplistic, but it’s just for kids so who cares. Talk about setting the bar low. Do you have any idea how easy it is to create something “cute”? Start with a talking baby animal, give it bright colors and a jazzy song, throw in a happy ending and message about believing in yourself, and you officially have a “cute” work of art.

This sets all the wrong incentives for creators. There’s no sense in putting all the time (and therefore money) needed to make a good work of art. As long as it’s “cute,” you’re set. So all the labor-intensive good art gets replaced by the mass-produced “cute” art. And we all suffer for it.

Continue reading “Stop Calling Kids Movies “Cute””

“Evangelical Apocalypse:” Rejecting Both Naivete and Cynicism

This week, Ross Douthat had an article that hit close to home. In fact, he pretty much summed the purpose of this blog. You should read the whole thing: here it is.

For those of you who didn’t follow the link (for shame!) the article is about how Trump’s presidency has been an apocalypse for American evangelicalism. An “apocalypse” in the original Greek meaning is “an unveiling, an uncovering, an exposure of truths that had heretofore been hidden.”

Unless you’ve spent the past three years dwelling in the wilderness and surviving off honey and locusts, you know it’s been a particular apocalypse for evangelicals. It’s easy to assume that this apocalypse will reveal two sides–the good side and the bad side–and that the good side will win. As Douthat explains:

I’d like to tell a simple story that describes the Patterson scandal [link added by me] as an inflection point — after which Moore’s kind of Baptist will inevitably increase while Jeffress’s kind diminishes, as the “judgment” that Mohler describes leads to a general reckoning with the pull of sexism and racism within conservative-leaning churches.

But to assume that’s necessarily going to happen is to fall into the same inevitablist trap that ensnares both arc-of-history progressives and providentialist Trump supporters. Instead it’s wiser to regard an era of exposure like this one as a test, which can be passed but also failed.

I agree. We shouldn’t sit back in a triumphalist assumption that “those evangelicals” will inevitably lose and history will vindicate us.

But the opposite is also true. It’s easy to look at the struggles in the current apocalypse and get discouraged. It can even lead us to apathy and (wait for it) cynicism. But that shouldn’t be our response. As Douthat explained when he accidentally wrote the tagline for this blog:

So the question posed by this age of revelation is simple: Now that you know something new and troubling and even terrible about your leaders or your institutions, what will you do with this knowledge?

That’s what this blog is (hopefully) about. Finding a way to move forward from the disappointment and frustration. But doing so in a way that isn’t naive or cynical. Instead, it’s a way that is clear-eyed and gospel-centered.

The apocalypse should be a call to self-reflection and to prayer. And hopefully, it can lead to renewal.

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Photo by Formula None

Two Cents on a “Controversial” Homily

It’s weird to use the word “controversy” for a 13-minute homily at a nominally-religious famous person’s wedding. But last week, that’s exactly what happened in a certain niche of evangelical social media.

The subject was Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. Here’s a video of his homily. My pastor, Ken Robertson, had a good summary of the controversy on his Facebook page:

Archbishop Curry’s sermon (and the response to it) proves two things, I think:

  1. People are still captivated by passionate proclamation. Preaching is NOT an outdated, less-than form of communicating the gospel: it lies right at the center of God’s work of making all things right. Always has, always will.
  2. People heard very different things in this sermon: everything from “the heart of the gospel” to a “false gospel” (both phrases from my timeline). It almost reminds me of Yanni vs. Laurel!

I think that was spot on. Especially for we Anglicans in the ACNA, our opinion of the homily has as much to say about our own backgrounds as the homily itself.

Continue reading “Two Cents on a “Controversial” Homily”

Shea Serrano, Trump Supporters, and Double Fundamentalism

We evangelicals like to draw a distinction between ourselves (the normal people) and the fundamentalists (the crazy khaki pants people). Obviously, definitions are complicated, and often sloppy, but a key aspect of fundamentalists is their tendency to isolate themselves from non-fundamentalists. A good summary comes from a slogan that my grandparents heard back when they were young:

Don’t smoke, don’t chew, don’t go with those who do.

To paraphrase slightly, fundamentalists: (1) don’t smoke or drink, and (2) don’t socialize with people who smoke or drink.

Double fundamentalists take it a step further. Their rules are: (1) don’t smoke or drink, (2) don’t socialize with people who smoke or drink, AND (3) don’t socialize with people who socialize with people who smoke or drink.

To make things more concrete, say we have three people: Anne, Bob, and Carol. None of them smoke or drink, but Anne socializes with people who do. Bob, a fundamentalist, could still socialize with Anne. Carol, a double fundamentalist, could not.

Based on my (too) extensive use of Twitter, I’ve noticed a troubling pattern emerging. I’m thinking of one writer in particular: Shea Serrano from the Ringer. For reasons that will soon become clear, I want to emphasize that I like most of his writing a lot.

Continue reading “Shea Serrano, Trump Supporters, and Double Fundamentalism”

Did Anything Even Happen in the Centuries Between Paul the Apostle and Billy Graham?

A few days ago, we dropped our latest Believe to See podcast. Anselm staffer Michelle Hindman joined us to discuss a topic I know far too little about: hagiography, or stories of the lives of saints.

First, you should listen to the whole podcast, which is right here (and it’s embedded at the bottom of this post). Second, I have a few takeaways.

  1. The Catholic Advantage

For many issues, I’m happy to have been raised in the protestant-evangelical world. For instance, when a Catholic friend asked me what happened in the book of Esther, I could explain the whole story to him and it’s significance in the greater meta-narrative of the Bible.

But one area where I need to catch up is in my knowledge of the lives of the saints. Between the Apostle Paul and Billy Graham, evangelicals have a lot of blanks on the timeline. They really miss out on the hagiographies. Or at least, on the official hagiographies (more on that later).

Continue reading “Did Anything Even Happen in the Centuries Between Paul the Apostle and Billy Graham?”

A Few More Imagination Redeemed Reflections

In my last post, I shared some initial takeaways on this year’s Your Imagination Redeemed conference. For this post, I’ll share . . . MORE takeaways from the conference! Here they are:

4. Know Your Goal as an Artist

I was the moderator for a panel on the Christian music and the Christian radio industry. The panelists were musicians whose work doesn’t fit the Christian radio formula. But none of them seemed frustrated by that for one simple reason: their goals weren’t to be on Christian radio.

Instead, they focused on creating music that would actually have an effect on people. As one of the panelists (Hi, Teressa!) explained, she realized her goal at an Andrew Peterson concert. She realized how many of the folks in the audience were welling up at his songs. Her goal was to have a career like that–create music that connected to people on that deep level. Getting on the big radio stations was an afterthought.

Continue reading “A Few More Imagination Redeemed Reflections”

Kids Need Imagination. And So Does the Church. And So Do I.

This past weekend was the Anselm Society’s big yearly conference: Your Imagination Redeemed. It was a blast–speakers and artists from across the country gathered to talk about the role of imagination in the Church.

In an effort to apply as much of what I’ve learned as possible, I’ve decided to share some initial takeaways from the big blob of information that I’m still trying to process.

So here they are, in no particular order:

  1. Imagination is Important

It’s easy to think of imagination as a kids’ trifle. We assume the important things are verifiable, commodifiable facts. This attitude is (especially?) prevalent among evangelicals. The only real Important Things are doctrinal issues. Imagination is important, if at all, only to the extent it aids the Important Things.

One of the keynote speakers, Dr. Anthony Esolen, noted that this humans-as-robots sort of thinking isn’t actually how the world works. Yes, it’s important to teach doctrine. But what really forms us is our imagination.

If we only focus on doctrine and ignore imagination, we’ve given away the game without realizing it.

Continue reading “Kids Need Imagination. And So Does the Church. And So Do I.”