According to the Aztecs, improvement doesn’t come from the self

Sebastian Purcell writes:

When Halloween rolled around last year, my wife and I were prepared to be greeted by scores of eager trick-or-treaters. Guided by the thought that too much candy was better than too little, we bought entirely too much, and simply poured the excess on to a platter in our living room. The problem is: I have a sweet-tooth. ‘I can’t stop eating these!’ I said to my wife, peevishly, a few days later. Nearly every time I passed the coffee table, I succumbed to my cravings for a sugar rush, and then I’d feel frustrated and irritated.

When I returned from work that evening, I noticed the platter was empty. ‘Oh, I just took it to work and gave it away to the students,’ my wife said, when I asked. Just like that, my cycle of transgression and guilt was broken.

This little episode illustrates two aspects of Aztec virtue ethics that distinguish it from ‘Western’ forms, such as Plato’s or Aristotle’s. The first is that I did not overcome my vice so much as manage it. The second is that I didn’t manage it on my own, but rather did so (almost entirely) with the help of another person.

While Plato and Aristotle were concerned with character-centred virtue ethics, the Aztec approach is perhaps better described as socially-centred virtue ethics. If the Aztecs were right, then ‘Western’ philosophers have been too focused on individuals, too reliant on assessments of character, and too optimistic about the individual’s ability to correct her own vices. Instead, according to the Aztecs, we should look around to our family and friends, as well as our ordinary rituals or routines, if we hope to lead a better, more worthwhile existence. [Continue reading…]

We need Jimmy Carter now more than ever

Michael Paterniti writes:

Among ex-presidents, Mr. Jimmy blazes on. Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, both men who sandwiched him in office, are dead; George senior teeters; Bill Clinton tremors when tired and, at 71, has begun to fade before our eyes. (Meanwhile, Bill and Hillary have pocketed over $150 million from speeches.) George W. has retreated to a more low-profile, patrician life of painting and occasional aid trips to Africa, while Obama is just beginning a post-presidency that some have projected could be worth roughly $250 million in personal gain and includes the recent announcement of a multi-year production deal with Netflix.

With Carter now in his fourth decade as ex-president, his actual presidency feels more like a footnote, an aberration in the life of a holy man. The public servant in him, the impulse that led him to the presidency in the first place, has thrived in the aftermath of his former Beltway imprisonment. While he rejects pay-to-play speechmaking and appearances, his net worth—reportedly $7 million to $8 million—has come from the 30-plus books he’s written, many of them spiritual in nature. His activism and advocacy across the globe—in particular his success in eradicating Guinea worm in Africa and Asia, from 3.5 million estimated cases in 1986 to 30 last year—led to the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize.

But it’s on these Sunday mornings of Bible study in Plains that you see the real Mr. Jimmy, the humble, hometown Jimmy Carter who some thought, when he first burst on the scene, must have been putting on some sort of bullshit act. At his Plains pulpit, he appears as a silver-penumbra’ed teacher in a time when morals seem suddenly fluid and facts illusory. If our democratic highway has turned bumpy, Mr. Jimmy’s seen it all before: North Korea, strife in the Middle East, Iran, trade wars, stock-market roller coaster, etc. He talks in steadying tones about being a spiritual person in a political world. His mere presence gives perspective. If he’s one of the most vital living links between the past and the present, he’s also the hook-and-loop between different American civilizations, from the Jim Crow South to the New South, from Depression to recovery, from a rural America to an urban one, from post-Nixon doldrums to Trumpian triumphalism. [Continue reading…]

What’s going on at the border is horrifying, but we can’t go numb and turn away

Dahlia Lithwick writes:

As a purely descriptive matter, it’s surely true: We are all going numb. As Donald Trump makes war with Canada and peace with dictators and human rights abusers, the narrative is that everyone’s lost all feeling. Polls show the public believes that Trump paid off a porn star, and they don’t care. They believe that he lies habitually, and they also don’t care. A Pew poll released last week showed that nearly 7 in 10 Americans “feel worn out by the amount of news there is these days,” which is how we end up with real journalists like Chuck Todd pushing a humorous pharmaceutical solution to the problem of constant breaking news destroying our minds.

On Monday alone, we learned that the Trump administration is planning to denaturalize U.S. citizens who—it claims—fraudulently obtained citizenship. Also on Monday, America witnessed a change in immigration policy that will deny asylum to women fleeing domestic abuse, on the grounds that it’s a “private” harm. We witnessed a ramping up and coordinated defense of a Trump administration policy of separating families seeking asylum. That policy is resulting in children being warehoused in cages and ripped away from their parents, as their mothers are told they are bathing. Their. Mothers. Are. Told. They. Are. Bathing. A Honduran father seeking asylum hanged himself in a Texas jail after his wife and 3-year-old were separated from him at the border.

Jeff Sessions tells a horrified Hugh Hewitt that this forced separation policy is purely instrumental because we must “send a message” to future asylum-seekers that “if people don’t want to be separated from their children, they should not bring them with them. We’ve got to get this message out.” As Jessica Winter observes, this is the “I only beat her because she made me do it” logic that domestic abusers use to blame their victims. [Continue reading…]

Laura Bush: Separating children from their parents at the border ‘breaks my heart’

Former first lady of the United States, Laura Bush, writes:

On Sunday, a day we as a nation set aside to honor fathers and the bonds of family, I was among the millions of Americans who watched images of children who have been torn from their parents. In the six weeks between April 19 and May 31, the Department of Homeland Security has sent nearly 2,000 children to mass detention centers or foster care. More than 100 of these children are younger than 4 years old. The reason for these separations is a zero-tolerance policy for their parents, who are accused of illegally crossing our borders.

I live in a border state. I appreciate the need to enforce and protect our international boundaries, but this zero-tolerance policy is cruel. It is immoral. And it breaks my heart.

Our government should not be in the business of warehousing children in converted box stores or making plans to place them in tent cities in the desert outside of El Paso. These images are eerily reminiscent of the Japanese American internment camps of World War II, now considered to have been one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history. We also know that this treatment inflicts trauma; interned Japanese have been two times as likely to suffer cardiovascular disease or die prematurely than those who were not interned. [Continue reading…]

Child abuse is now part of America’s official immigration policy

Michael Paarlberg writes:

It’s impossible to look at the Trump administration’s practice of migrant family separation and see it as anything other than what it is: institutionalized child abuse.

By now, there have been real horror stories: parents hearing their children screaming in the next room; a man who committed suicide when his three-year-old was taken from him; children kept in what Oregon senator Jeff Merkley described as a “dog kennel”; a woman being told by a border patrol agent: “You will never see your children again. Families don’t exist here. You won’t have a family any more.”

Enough of these stories have come out that any questions of them being isolated incidents have been put to rest. These are not actions by rogue agents. They are systematic, and they come straight from the top. Indeed, attorney general Jeff Sessions has acknowledged as much, announcing in May a policy which had already been in practice for much of the past year.

Adults caught crossing the border illegally are transferred to criminal custody to be prosecuted for that crime – a misdemeanor – including those exercising their legal right to seek asylum. Their children are taken from them and placed in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services as “unaccompanied minors”. Sessions has equated parents with human traffickers: “If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law.”

The trauma caused by these separations for parents and their children is not an unfortunate byproduct of a necessary legal process; it is the whole point. It is a punishment designed to be as grotesque as possible in order to scare other migrants. [Continue reading…]

Aristotle’s lessons on happiness

Edith Hall writes:

In the Western world, only since the mid-18th century has it been possible to discuss ethical questions publicly without referring to Christianity. Modern thinking about morality, which assumes that gods do not exist, or at least do not intervene, is in its infancy. But the ancient Greeks and Romans elaborated robust philosophical schools of ethical thought for more than a millennium, from the first professed agnostics such as Protagoras (fifth century BCE) to the last pagan thinkers. The Platonists’ Academy at Athens was not finally closed down until 529 CE, by the Emperor Justinian.

That longstanding tradition of moral philosophy is an invaluable legacy of ancient Mediterranean civilisation. It has prompted several contemporary secular thinkers, faced with the moral vacuum left by the decline of Christianity since the late 1960s, to revive ancient schools of thought. Stoicism, founded in Athens by the Cypriot Zeno in about 300 BCE, has advocates. Self-styled Stoic organisations on both sides of the Atlantic offer courses, publish books and blogposts, and even run an annual Stoic Week. Some Stoic principles underlay Dale Carnegie’s self-help classic How to Stop Worrying and Start Living (1948). He recommended Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations to its readers. But authentic ancient Stoicism was pessimistic and grim. It denounced pleasure. It required the suppression of emotions and physical appetites. It recommended the resigned acceptance of misfortune, rather than active engagement with the fine-grained business of everyday problem-solving. It left little room for hope, human agency or constructive repudiation of suffering.

Less familiar is the recipe for happiness (eudaimonia) advocated by Aristotle, yet it has much to be said for it. Outside of philosophy departments, where neo-Aristotelian thinkers such as Philippa Foot and Rosalind Hursthouse have championed his virtue ethics as an alternative to utilitarianism and Kantian approaches, it is not as well known as it should be. At his Lyceum in Athens, Aristotle developed a model for the maximisation of happiness that could be implemented by individuals and whole societies, and is still relevant today. It became known as ‘peripatetic philosophy’ because Aristotle conducted philosophical debates while strolling in company with his interlocutors.

The fundamental tenet of peripatetic philosophy is this: the goal of life is to maximise happiness by living virtuously, fulfilling your own potential as a human, and engaging with others – family, friends and fellow citizens – in mutually beneficial activities. Humans are animals, and therefore pleasure in responsible fulfilment of physical needs (eating, sex) is a guide to living well. But since humans are advanced animals, naturally inclining to live together in settled communities (poleis), we are ‘political animals’ (zoa politika). Humans must take responsibility for their own happiness since ‘god’ is a remote entity, the ‘unmoved mover’ who might maintain the universe’s motion but has neither any interest in human welfare, nor any providential function in rewarding virtue or punishing immorality. Yet purposively imagining a better, happier life is feasible since humans have inborn abilities that allow them to promote individual and collective flourishing. These include the inclinations to ask questions about the world, to deliberate about action, and to activate conscious recollection. [Continue reading…]

Americans least likely to think we have a responsibility to accept refugees? So-called ‘Christian’ evangelicals

The Washington Post reports:

In February 2017, as debate raged nationally over President Trump’s decision to curtail immigration to the United States, the conservative Christian Broadcasting Network dipped into the Bible to share what that sacred text said about refugees.

“Treat refugees the way you want to be treated,” it said, quoting Leviticus. “Invite the stranger in” (Matthew) and “Open your door to the traveler” (Job).

The first comment in reply to the article captures the tone of the rest of the feedback the site received: “Shame on CBN for this very poorly written article full of political rhetoric. This is not a Biblical issue.”

At the time, polling from Pew Research Center showed that about 56 percent of Americans believed that the United States had a responsibility to welcome refugees into the country. In the year since, that figure has dropped and is now at a bare majority, 51 percent.

But Pew’s new research includes a fascinating detail: No group agrees less with the idea that the United States has a responsibility to accept refugees than white evangelical Protestants. [Continue reading…]

Rev William Barber and the Poor People’s Campaign

The Guardian reports:

In his prayer at the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem last week, a prayer delivered against a backdrop of violence in Gaza, the evangelical pastor Robert Jeffress said Donald Trump was a moral leader who stood “on the right side of you, O God”.

Half a world away, outside the Capitol in Washington, the Rev William Barber led a moment of silence for the 60 Palestinians killed by Israeli soldiers.

As one group of faith leaders celebrates the fruits of a decades-long alliance with the Republican party, another is mounting a multi-faith challenge to the dominance of the Christian right, in an attempt to recapture the moral agenda.

“There is no religious left and religious right,” Barber, a pastor and political leader in North Carolina, told the Guardian. “There is only a moral center. And the scripture is very clear about where you have to be to be in the moral center – you have to be on the side of the poor, the working, the sick, the immigrant.”

Frustrated by conservative Christians’ focus on culture wars over issues such as abortion and gay marriage, Barber leads an ascendent grassroots movement that is trying to turn the national conversation to what they believe are the core teachings of the Bible: care for the poor, heal the sick, welcome the stranger. [Continue reading…]

In rebuke of Trump, Tillerson says lies are a threat to democracy

The New York Times reports:

In a veiled but powerful rebuke of President Trump, former Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson warned on Wednesday that American democracy is threatened by a “growing crisis in ethics and integrity.”

“If our leaders seek to conceal the truth, or we as people become accepting of alternative realities that are no longer grounded in facts, then we as American citizens are on a pathway to relinquishing our freedom,” he said in a commencement address at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va.

Even small falsehoods and exaggerations are problematic, Mr. Tillerson said. (Mr. Trump is prone to both.)

“When we as people, a free people, go wobbly on the truth even on what may seem the most trivial matters, we go wobbly on America,” Mr. Tillerson said.

“If we do not as Americans confront the crisis of ethics and integrity in our society and among our leaders in both the public and private sector — and regrettably at times even the nonprofit sector — then American democracy as we know it is entering its twilight years,” Mr. Tillerson warned. [Continue reading…]

How ‘evangelical’ became synonymous with ‘hypocrite’

Michael Gerson writes:

One of the most extraordinary things about our current politics—really, one of the most extraordinary developments of recent political history—is the loyal adherence of religious conservatives to Donald Trump. The president won four-fifths of the votes of white evangelical Christians. This was a higher level of support than either Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, an outspoken evangelical himself, ever received.

Trump’s background and beliefs could hardly be more incompatible with traditional Christian models of life and leadership. Trump’s past political stances (he once supported the right to partial-birth abortion), his character (he has bragged about sexually assaulting women), and even his language (he introduced the words pussy and shithole into presidential discourse) would more naturally lead religious conservatives toward exorcism than alliance. This is a man who has cruelly publicized his infidelities, made disturbing sexual comments about his elder daughter, and boasted about the size of his penis on the debate stage. His lawyer reportedly arranged a $130,000 payment to a porn star to dissuade her from disclosing an alleged affair. Yet religious conservatives who once blanched at PG-13 public standards now yawn at such NC-17 maneuvers. We are a long way from The Book of Virtues.

Trump supporters tend to dismiss moral scruples about his behavior as squeamishness over the president’s “style.” But the problem is the distinctly non-Christian substance of his values. Trump’s unapologetic materialism—his equation of financial and social success with human achievement and worth—is a negation of Christian teaching. His tribalism and hatred for “the other” stand in direct opposition to Jesus’s radical ethic of neighbor love. Trump’s strength-worship and contempt for “losers” smack more of Nietzsche than of Christ. Blessed are the proud. Blessed are the ruthless. Blessed are the shameless. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after fame.

And yet, a credible case can be made that evangelical votes were a decisive factor in Trump’s improbable victory. Trump himself certainly acts as if he believes they were. Many individuals, causes, and groups that Trump pledged to champion have been swiftly sidelined or sacrificed during Trump’s brief presidency. The administration’s outreach to white evangelicals, however, has been utterly consistent.

Trump-allied religious leaders have found an open door at the White House—what Richard Land, the president of the Southern Evangelical Seminary, calls “unprecedented access.” In return, they have rallied behind the administration in its times of need. “Clearly, this Russian story is nonsense,” explains the mega-church pastor Paula White-Cain, who is not generally known as a legal or cybersecurity expert. Pastor David Jeremiah has compared Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump to Joseph and Mary: “It’s just like God to use a young Jewish couple to help Christians.” According to Jerry Falwell Jr., evangelicals have “found their dream president,” which says something about the current quality of evangelical dreams.

Loyalty to Trump has involved progressively more difficult, self-abasing demands. And there appears to be no limit to what some evangelical leaders will endure. Figures such as Falwell and Franklin Graham followed Trump’s lead in supporting Judge Roy Moore in the December Senate election in Alabama. These are religious leaders who have spent their entire adult lives bemoaning cultural and moral decay. Yet they publicly backed a candidate who was repeatedly accused of sexual misconduct, including with a 14-year-old girl.

In January, following reports that Trump had referred to Haiti and African nations as “shithole countries,” Pastor Robert Jeffress came quickly to his defense. “Apart from the vocabulary attributed to him,” Jeffress wrote, “President Trump is right on target in his sentiment.” After reports emerged that Trump’s lawyer paid hush money to the porn star Stormy Daniels to cover up their alleged sexual encounter, Graham vouched for Trump’s “concern for Christian values.” Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, argued that Trump should be given a “mulligan” for his past infidelity. One can only imagine the explosion of outrage if President Barack Obama had been credibly accused of similar offenses.

The moral convictions of many evangelical leaders have become a function of their partisan identification. This is not mere gullibility; it is utter corruption. Blinded by political tribalism and hatred for their political opponents, these leaders can’t see how they are undermining the causes to which they once dedicated their lives. Little remains of a distinctly Christian public witness.

As the prominent evangelical pastor Tim Keller—who is not a Trump loyalist—recently wrote in The New Yorker, “ ‘Evangelical’ used to denote people who claimed the high moral ground; now, in popular usage, the word is nearly synonymous with ‘hypocrite.’ ” So it is little wonder that last year the Princeton Evangelical Fellowship, an 87-year-old ministry, dropped the “E word” from its name, becoming the Princeton Christian Fellowship: Too many students had identified the term with conservative political ideology. Indeed, a number of serious evangelicals are distancing themselves from the word for similar reasons.

I find this desire understandable but not compelling. Some words, like strategic castles, are worth defending, and evangelical is among them. While the term is notoriously difficult to define, it certainly encompasses a “born-again” religious experience, a commitment to the authority of the Bible, and an emphasis on the redemptive power of Jesus Christ.

I was raised in an evangelical home, went to an evangelical church and high school, and began following Christ as a teen. After attending Georgetown University for a year, I transferred to Wheaton College in Illinois—sometimes called “the Harvard of evangelical Protestantism”—where I studied theology. I worked at an evangelical nonprofit, Prison Fellowship, before becoming a staffer for Senator Dan Coats of Indiana (a fellow Wheaton alum). On Capitol Hill, I found many evangelical partners in trying to define a “compassionate conservatism.” And as a policy adviser and the chief speechwriter to President George W. Bush, I saw how evangelical leaders such as Rick and Kay Warren could be principled, tireless advocates in the global fight against aids.

Those experiences make me hesitant to abandon the word evangelical. They also make seeing the defilement of that word all the more painful. The corruption of a political party is regrettable. The corruption of a religious tradition by politics is tragic, shaming those who participate in it. [Continue reading…]

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