Idolatry and Politics

The current political situation in the United States is quite troubling and sad. This can be illustrated by looking at an identifiable group on each side of the political spectrum. On the “right” are the “always Trumpers”. They repeat the White House’s talking points on every issue.  A clear example is the current spike in the Covid-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths. President Trump has downplayed the severity of the pandemic. He has repeatedly claimed that the high numbers are due to the greater number of tests the United States has administered and that the U.S. has a low Covid-19 rate. The “always Trumpers” have echoed these claims even though they are absolutely false. On a per capita basis, the U.S. has NOT administered more coronavirus tests than most European countries, and the European Covid-19 rate is much less that the rate in the US. In fact, the U.S. has the fourth worst per capita rate in the world. In their desire to support the president, the “always Trumpers” are in denial of reality.

On the other side of the political spectrum are the “never Trumpers”. For them, Trump is so detestable that everythihng he says or does is false and evil. They have such a knee jerk reaction to Trump that they must be against everything Trumpian. For example, Trump has pushed a ¨Warp Speed¨ vaccine for Covid-19 for rapid research and actual production of millions of vaccines. Although it is obvious that Trump is urging this project largely for election purposes, the ¨never Trumpers¨ are unwilling to acknowledge that moving swiftly toward the development and distribution of a safe vaccines is good and necessary.

If people are totally “pro-Trump” or “anti-Trump”, they have abandoned their use of logic and reason. Their absolute political loyalty distorts the use of their minds. From a Biblical point of view, an absolute commitment to any human or institution is idolatry because we are worshiping the creation and not the Creator.

Unless people want to be classified as “pro-Trumpers” or “anti-Trumpers”, it is easy but not helpful to put our “opponents” in one of these categories. It is easy because we can then dismiss any evidence they offer without examining it.  Because too many of us categorize others in this way, we are becoming ever more polarized. When our favorite political party or politician receives a criticism, our default mode becomes a defensive posture. Instead of seeking and acknowledging the points of truth in the criticism, we grasp for any argument that helps our position, no matter how flimsy.

Since both of these extremes are dangerous for the advance of truth in our world, I suggest the following. Identify the three strongest criticisms against your favorite politician or political party. Are there any grains of truth in these criticisms? If so, do we acknowledge and act on them? If not, we are treading on dangerous ground.

Let´s keep seeking the truth and it will set us free.

Figures Never Lie… but Liars do Figure

My father would frequently repeat this quote to me, “Figures never lie… but liars do figure”. During my many decades of life, I have found that this phrase quite accurately describes human nature. In fact, it is logical. We usually try to defend our actions with reasons that we hope are persuasive (if not persuasive to others, at least to ourselves). Sometimes these arguments are valid, but at other times they are illogical rationalizations.

What we do on a personal level also occurs in the broader society. In healthy societies, opposing or alternative points of view are defended and debated in the public arena. These arguments frequently use statistics. Citizens need to think hard to evaluate the merits of the various arguments. In times of deep polarization, like our current situation, we must avoid knee/jerk reactions if we want to reach the truth. How do we evaluate these competing points of view when they involve figures, percentages, and statistics? I have found the following questions quite helpful.

  1. Are the figures accurate?
  2. What do these figures reveal (the merits and purposes of the argument)?
  3. What do these figures omit or hide (the flaws of the argument)?

The Covid-19 pandemic is a good case study, because statistics play such an important role in the national debate. For example, President Trump has often stated, “We do more Covid-19 testing than any other country.” At one level, this is a true statement. Because the United States is a large nation with a sizeable population (roughly 330 million people), the total number of tests administered here (about 40 million tests) is larger than any other country. The intention of the statement is to create confidence in the government, that our political leaders are adequately managing the pandemic, and that the large number of infections is to be expected.

At a more important level, this statement is quite false and misleading. We should compare the percentage of people who have been tested with the total population, in other words, “per capita”.[1] We could then compare “apples with apples”. At a per capita level, the United States is testing for Covid-19 at about the middle of the pack of industrialized nations. Depending on the exact date of comparison, the U.S. has tested more per capita than France, Japan and Sweden, but fewer than Australia, Russia, and Spain. The purpose of this misleading information is to paint a more positive picture of our government leadership than is warranted.

In light of this frequent misuse of numbers and statistics, what should we expect of each other? I hope that fair minded people will treat the figures accurately and not jump to inaccurate conclusions. Both those who support and those who oppose Trump (or any other leader or policy) should be honest enough to acknowledge all valid and pertinent figures and statistics, in other words, to find common ground. I also expect that people of all sides of an issue would disavow figures that are obviously wrong.[2] We must hold each other and our leaders to the high standard of truth-telling.

We are living in difficult times. The Covid pandemic is just one of our many challenges. If we want to overcome these problems, we must treat each other with serious respect, affirming what is true, rejecting what is not.


[1] Other more useful criteria would be per capita measurements of hospitalizations, ICU usage, and mortality rates.

[2] The president has made claims that are clearly false such as “We test for Covid-19 more than all other countries combined” and, more recently, “99% of Covid cases are totally harmless”. His supporters should have the courage to reject and distance themselves from these outlandish affirmations.

Truthing Along in Love

Most readers of this blog know that I am retiring at the end of this semester. I was invited to give a farewell address of encouragement to my faculty colleagues at Whitworth University which I gave on May 11. Here it is for your enjoyment.

50 years ago, this month, I was a freshman at Ohio University. The war in Viet Nam was escalating and protests were happening all over the country. Then on May 4, 1970 four middle class Kent State University students were killed by the Ohio National Guard. Violent protests erupted including at my campus. To respond to the protests, our university administration shortened the spring quarter and sent all the students home six weeks early.

For the next fifty years, I have always had at least one foot in the world of higher education. Studying, teaching, ministry and ahhh… yes, grading exams and term papers. Five decades later my formal academic career is coming to an end. This week I will probably be grading my last tests and papers. I am again experiencing several weeks of disrupted classes…this time due to the coronavirus.

My dad would frequently say, “Too old, too soon, too wise, too late!”

I have become older, but have I grown up? I have added years, but have I added wisdom? I have become more senior, but have I become more mature? In the letter to the Ephesians 4:15, Paul gives us an exhortation on how we can grow up into maturity and not just grow older. This verse is usually translated as “speaking the truth in love, we will grow up to maturity in Christ”. In order to be more faithful to the original Greek, we must take the noun “truth” and change it into a verb. Something like “truthing along in love, we will grow up to maturity in Christ.”

I would like to limit my reflections to three aspects of truthing along in love

  1. Speaking the truth
  2. Seeking the truth
  3. Living into the truth
  1. The phrase “speaking the truth in love” is an important component. We need to speak truth into each other’s lives. Why? Because we are finite and because we are fallen. We all have blind spots and we need others to enable us to see life more clearly. Because we are fallen and sin permeates all areas of our lives, speaking truth to each other brings healing to our world.

We have one of the best jobs in the world. We get paid to speak truth to our students. We do not primarily teach history, nor literature, nor science, nor Spanish, nor even our beloved Core 350. No, we teach students! History, Science, Spanish and Core 350 are tools of our trade to help shape our students into more mature men and women. To speak academic truth into our students’ lives is relatively easy but to show how this information can and should produce character, wisdom, courage, the making of good choices, a more accurate self-understanding, the building of healthy relationships is harder, but it is just as vital. Let us carefully, cautiously, and humbly speak truth into each other.

  • A second component is seeking the truth. It is equally important but much less common. We must be more than “open to the truth”. We need to actively seek it out. Many public officials and executives do not seek the truth. They surround themselves with Yes Men and Yes Women: people who will tell them what they want to hear, not what they need to hear. How much further down the road would I be now if I had sought out truth and invited more mentors, colleagues, family members and students to pour truth (as well as they understood it) into my life? Some of us have been fortunate to have experienced a good mentor, discipler, spiritual director who poured tough love into our lives.

I am going to ask you to do something. Over the next weeks and months, I ask that you give a standing invitation to a couple of colleagues to speak tough love truth into your life. Something like ¨Friend, I invite you to speak truth into my heart. Where you see something good, reaffirm it. When you see me going astray, lead me back to the right path¨. Begin with a couple of close friends, but then extend the invitation to those who you frequently disagree with. If we actively seek out truth, we can make Whitworth better.

  • Living the truth is quite scarce today, from the White House, down through our institutions and in our homes. Why is that? From our earliest days we learn how to lie, to embellish the truth, to make our information look better and that of others to look not so good.
  • As children we learn that lying saves us from getting punished…in the short run.
  • Commercials on television tell us that product A is better than product B even when it isn’t.
  • On our curriculum vitas, we highlight what makes us look good and we omit that which does not.
  • In our promotion of Whitworth, we emphasize the positive, but do we do not usually mention our warts.
  • If we run for public office (as I did), we are encouraged to select our facts, to speak half-truths, to give misleading answers in order to get more votes.
  • Why is living the truth important? Because people´s lives are at stake. Let´s take Covid-19 as an example. Dr. Fauci has repeatedly warned that if we do not obey told us by public health experts, we will witness thousands of needless deaths.

There is a more eternal reason. During my fifty years in higher education (both secular and Christian), most of the people that I have met (faculty, staff, students, parents) have been attracted to Jesus, but very disappointed and disillusioned by Christians. Our students too quickly become jaded…not primarily by our failures, but by our failure to admit our faults. When we do not admit our mistakes, we turn our holy faith into a Pharisaical farce. We become spiritually proud…and our students learn to imitate that pride and others turn away from the faith. Therefore, let us be quick to confess our sins to each other so that we may be healed.

Sisters and brothers of Whitworth, let us speak the truth, seek the truth, and live the truth so that we may better know the One who is the Truth and who will set us free!

Lessons Learned from the Impeachment Trial

The Impeachment process is over. Although the dust has not settled, we need to ask: What have we learned?

 Lesson #1

We have a divided Congress This was clearly seen in the votes on impeachment. Back in December in the House of Representatives, 230 members voted in favor of Article 1 of impeachment (Abuse of Power) while 197 voted against (a few abstained). That is a 54/46% split in approval of impeachment. In the Senate in January, it was the mirror opposite.  48 senators voted in favor of Article 1, with 52 against.

Lesson #2

It was a strange impeachment trial. In all fifteen previous trials in the Senate (of sitting presidents or others), key witnesses had given relevant testimony. Not in this case. Government officials, like John Bolton and Mick Mulvaney, could have provided information that would either have shown the president to be innocent or guilty of the abuse charges. According to several reliable polls, 75% of the U.S. population wanted witnesses to testify. (In these divided times, this was overwhelming agreement.) Nevertheless, only two Republican senators voted to have witnesses. The remaining Republican senators seemed to be afraid of upsetting the president and in receiving his wrath. Senator Lamar Alexander´s response was typical. He thought the House representatives had proven their case that the president´s actions were ¨improper¨ but he did not believe those actions reached the bar of ¨high crimes and misdemeanors¨. I am disappointed in Alexander and others like him. He believed the president to be guilty but would not allow Bolton and Mulvaney to present their understanding of what really happened to the American public.

Lesson #3

Senator Susan Collins said she hoped that the president would have learned from his mistakes and would act more properly in the future. (Bill Clinton had, at least, apologized to the nation for his wrong actions). Such was not the case. Trump did not apologize. To the contrary, he has maintained that he did nothing wrong. He feels more emboldened to act as if he were ¨above the law¨. For example, his tweets have applied pressure to Attorney General Barr to reduce the sentencing recommendations on his old friend, Roger Stone, who lied to Congress. Barr proclaimed that Trump´s tweets have made it ¨impossible for me to do my job¨.  (Many feel that this was just political theater so that Barr could claim independence from Trump even though he does the president´s bidding on every single issue). The lesson we should learn is that no one is above the law.

Lesson #4

Meanwhile, the Democrats are in the midst of a messy primary tussle. The process in Iowa was a complete debacle. In New Hampshire, Bernie Sanders won a close race against Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar. Bernie´s challenge: How does he persuade the American public that his Democratic Socialism is the good variety (like Social Security or as practiced in much of Europe)? Joe Biden has slipped and needs a victory in South Carolina to go forward.  Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg is hovering over the field hoping for several wins on super Tuesday.

Hang on to your hats. The next few weeks will be a political roller coaster ride.

A Potential War with Iran and the Attempt to get Reelected

It is well known that governments that are facing domestic problems often go to war in order to rally public support behind their failing administration. They hope that a majority of their citizens, in a spirit of nationalism, (not genuine patriotism), will overlook the domestic issues and come to the support of the executive branch of the government. This is what happened forty years ago when the failing government of Argentina went to war with England over the Falkland Islands.

In light of this political strategy, the following quote is illustrative:

“Our president will start a war with Iran because he has absolutely no ability to negotiate. He’s weak and he’s ineffective. So, the only way he figures that he’s going to get reelected — and as sure as you’re sitting there — is to start a war with Iran.”

Nevertheless, this quote did not come from a liberal Democrat in a critique against Donald Trump. It was not penned by left wing radicals who hate our current president. No, this was a tweet by Donald Trump on November 16, 2011 in which he predicted that then President Obama would lead our country into a senseless war in the Middle East. President Obama did not fulfill Trump’s prophecy. He refused to start a futile war with Iran for personal political gain. Although Trump was wrong about Obama, he was right about human nature and how many politicians make decisions. Many rulers create international crises for their own personal benefit. Ironically, perhaps Trump was predicting his own behavior in 2020.

Citizens in the United States, and around the world, must learn from history. The war in Iraq was touted as a “just” war that we waged to eliminate Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. There were no weapons of mass destruction. Although Saddam Hussein was evil, our military conflict was not justified. Trump himself opposed that war and campaigned on getting our troops out of never ending, futile and unjust wars in the Middle East. He has just ordered the deployment of thousands of soldiers to the Middle East.

A truly biblical position on political activity comes from Jesus Himself where he warns people to not be naïve. Jesus told them, “The rulers of the world lord it over their subjects, and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors (= Doers of Good). Do not be like them.” (Luke 22:25-26). Jesus calls his followers not to believe everything we hear. We are called to have a healthy dose of skepticism. People must hold their elected officials responsible to tell the truth and to act justly. It is my hope and prayer that we do not fall into an “easy believism”. May we rigorously seek the truth and may the truth win out.

Christianity Today and Trump’s Impeachment

Last week on December 19, the Editor in Chief of Christianity Today, Mark Galli, wrote an editorial that has caused quite a stir. Titled ¨Trump Should Be Removed from Office¨ Galli argued that President Trump has been so immoral that he should leave the presidency either through impeachment or be voted out of office in the 2020 election (see https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2019/december-web-only/trump-should-be-removed-from-office.html)

Christianity Today was founded by the evangelist Billy Graham back in the 1950s and has remained both theologically and socially conservative since its beginning. It is the flagship magazine of the mainstream evangelical movement. Although it is non-partisan, it deals with political and social issues with some frequency. Galli argued that just as the magazine had urged the impeachment of President Bill Clinton some twenty years ago, the time had come to urge that President Donald Trump be removed from office.

Galli was very precise in his analysis. First, he pointed out the bad actions that the Democrats had committed: ¨The Democrats have had it out for him {Trump} from day one, and therefore nearly everything they do is under a cloud of partisan suspicion. This has led many to suspect not only motives but facts in these recent impeachment hearings. And, no, Mr. Trump did not have a serious opportunity to offer his side of the story in the House hearings on impeachment.”

Nevertheless, the actions of Trump were beyond the pale. “The facts in this instance are unambiguous: The president of the United States attempted to use his political power to coerce a foreign leader to harass and discredit one of the president’s political opponents. That is not only a violation of the Constitution; more importantly, it is profoundly immoral.” Galli also points out other sins that Trump has committed: racism, abundant lies, immoral actions against women and in business, slander, etc.

What is at stake, for Galli, is the very integrity and witness of the church. If followers of Jesus pretend that Trump’s sins are “good” or are not important, we no longer contribute to the moral compass of our culture. Instead of Christians adorning the gospel with our lives, we are actually pushing people away from Jesus. Sadly, I have personally seen this happen over and over again, especially with younger generations. Galli knows that for many evangelicals, Trump’s virtues (his appointment of conservative judges and a strong economy) outweigh his vices. He knows that they might still approve of his presidency, but some positive actions do not make a person immune from impeachment. Sincere Christians might disagree on impeachment, but at the very least, they need to have the courage to identify sin when it stares them in the face.

Trump was quick to respond to the editorial. He lambasted the magazine with an ad hominem attack using phrases such as “radical left” and “communist”. These comments are absurd! Even those who have a superficial understanding of the contemporary religious scene know that Christianity Today has been and continues to be socially and politically conservative. In a follow up response, Christianity Today’s president and CEO, Timothy Dalrymple, defended the editorial as well as the magazine’s reputation. “President Donald Trump would have you believe we are ‘far left.’ Others have said we are not Bible-believing Christians. Neither is true. Christianity Today is theologically conservative. We are pro-life and pro-family. We are firm supporters of religious liberties and economic opportunity for men and women to exercise their gifts and create value in the world. We believe in the authority of Scripture.”

Given the importance of these issues, I echo the magazine’s call for continued conversation. Let our contributions to the dialogue be respectful and filled with truth and grace. That is the way of Jesus.

Seeking Truth in an Age of Impeachment – What are they trying to hide?

Most people in the United States (and many around the world) are aware that President Donald Trump was impeached on Wednesday by the Democrat controlled U.S. House of Representatives. The vote was overwhelmingly along party lines. He was indicted on two articles of impeachment: (1) abuse of power and (2) obstruction of the Congress. He was accused of abusing his office of president this past summer when he pressured the government of Ukraine to get dirt on his political rival Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden. Trump put a pause on almost 400 million dollars of military aid approved for Ukraine by the U.S. Congress until the Ukraine government publicly announced an investigation of criminality by the Bidens.

Democrats and Republicans are generally in agreement regarding the facts. The White House has issued a fairly complete transcript of the July 25 phone conversation between Trump and Ukraine President Zelenski where Trump stated, “We do ask for a favor though” where he asked that the Ukrainians investigate the Bidens. Nevertheless, Democrats and Republicans vigorously disagree on the motivation behind the favor that Trump requested. Trump claims he was putting a hold on the funding until corruption in the Ukraine government had been significantly reduced. Democrats claim that Trump was illegally using the presidency to get “dirt” on his possible 2020 election rival, Joe Biden and that this illegal action rises to the level of impeachment.

Sadly, it is human nature for us to try to put our best foot forward and to suppress any information that describes us in a negative light. We do it when we write an overwhelmingly positive resumé as we apply for a new job, when we write a commercial to sell our products, or when we are trying to get elected (whether it be for class president or for the U.S. Senate). Nevertheless, this leads to only part of the truth, the part that we want others to see. We try to hide our weak areas, the negative aspects of the truth, those aspects that would hurt our cause.

This is what has happened in the impeachment inquiry. President Trump blocked many witnesses from testifying and he blocked the release of significant emails. This blocking of witnesses continues to unfold as the process moves to the U.S. Senate. The Republicans want to bring to the witness stand the whistleblower, Hunter Biden, Joe Biden, and Adam Schiff. The Democrats want John Bolton, Mick Mulvaney, Rudy Giuliani to appear because they are the key figures who had direct knowledge of why the military aid was suspended. The Republican strategy is somewhat divided. President Trump wants a longer “trial” so that his image might be repaired in a Republican controlled Senate. Majority leader  Mitch McConnell has indicated reluctance to any additional witnesses because some new damning evidence might come out, especially by Bolton and Mulvaney.

There is hypocrisy on both sides. Both want the public to see the testimony of witnesses that reveal the negative actions of the other side. For example, the Republicans accuse the Democrats for not proving their case, but it was President Trump who was blocking the very testimony of those who had first-hand knowledge. To demand that the Democrats should go to the courts in order to legally obtain this information is obviously hypocritical, because this process would be tied up in the courts well past the 2020 election.

Nevertheless, if we really want to know the truth, we should want to know more information, not less, more witnesses who would testify, not fewer. Will the sworn testimony of Hunter Biden, John Bolton, and Mick Mulvaney be embarrassing to their side? Probably. Will it help clarify the issues? For certain! We the people ask the Senate to bring in those persons who will shed light on what really happened. We demand that they stop hiding the facts. The truth will set us free!