Prairie View

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Fragments, Fallout, and Freedom--Part 17


A recent post by a Facebook friend set in motion a cascade of memories and insights for me, some of which I believe relate to what I observe in the current Christian and political world.  I believe that how Christians respond to Covid-19 is related as well.

My FB friend is a professor at a Mennonite university.  He recounted the experience of entering a bookstore, and finding a book that he considered a treasure:  Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter.  This book was required reading for one college class I took sometime around  1980.  Hence the trigger for a memory avalanche.  It was published in 1963 and had been awarded a Pulitzer Prize after that.  I remember finding the book revealing and profound, but I specifically remember only one main idea:  Over time, America has become progressively less and less a society that values intellectualism.  This memory fragment vaulted my thinking straight into the mess that many Christians seem to me to have made of their involvement in politics and the way they deal with a pandemic.  I believe that some Christians are among the Americans who have an anti-intellectual bias, and this has affected their perspective negatively on many crucial issues.

Some of my reading friends will probably conclude about now that I have finally gone right over the edge into heresy, so let's get some caveats in place right away. I would like to reassure readers who are already thinking of many "yes, but . . . " responses to the above thesis. 

1.  Intellectualism is not a replacement for spirituality, relationships with others, common sense, or practical experience.  I see it as an enhancement for all of them.

2.  Intellectualism is not the same as going to college.  Intellectualism values the activity of a mind engaged in rational thinking.  This can happen inside or outside the walls of a classroom.

 3.  Intellectualism deliberately minimizes the role of emotions in evaluating and decision-making.

 4.  Intellectual approaches are limited and can be misguided, but are most often valid and preferable to many of the alternatives, sensationalism and irrationality, for example.

5.  "Knowing" through divine revelation is distinct and different from intellectualism, and is sometimes classed as anti-intellectual. I prefer to think of divine revelation as being different also from anti-intellectualism, since I don't believe a bias against learning (knowing) comes with the territory of divine revelation.

Now for some thoughts on anti-intellectualism:

1.   Anti-intellectualism is not the same as innocence. The former is an acquired bias; the latter is connected to a lack of experience.

2.  Anti-intellectualism is not the same as ignorance.  Ignorance means "not knowing."  Being anti-intellectual includes being suspicious of one who "knows,"  who is not ignorant, in other words.

3.  Anti-intellectualism is fundamentally a pride issue--the idea that we have no need of further learning,  As such, anti-intellectualism is a hindrance to much that is desirable in human experience

4.  Anti-intellectualism can be thought of in terms of its opposites.  Although anti-intellectualism is probably the only true opposite of intellectualism, Google coughed up a quick list of 75-90 words that answer the search for "opposites of intellectualism."  From this list, I filtered out five terms that seem to me to be the most applicable to the issues of politics and pandemics:  unthinking, shallow, short-sighted, materialist, and vulgar (in the old-fashioned sense of the word).  The word imprudent comes from the same site.  Gullible is related also, in my thinking. 


In a pandemic, anti-intellectualism will reveal itself primarily by deep distrust of "experts" and a corresponding reliance on loud voices denouncing experts.  The distrusted experts will include statisticians and scientists.  Everyone who has accumulated degrees in any health-related field will be under suspicion--the more advanced the degree, the greater the suspicion elicited.  The experts will be labeled as fear-mongers, and those who believe them will be labeled as fearful.

Personal autonomy will become a priority with anti-intellectuals during a pandemic.  Any guidance from experts that seems to curb personal autonomy will be countered, contested, and ultimately ignored--as long as the repercussions do not seem too onerous. Loss of freedom will be lamented and actively resisted.  Individual rights will be asserted, claimed, and actively defended.

In a pandemic, anti-intellectuals will magnify the voices of quasi-experts.  For example, someone with knowledge of OSHA laws on workplace safety will be taken as the "voice of reason" on the merits or hazards of mask wearing.  Experts on infectious diseases and results of careful studies will be summarily dismissed if they counter the OSHA guy's quasi-expertise. 

Cautions from experts on how to avoid spreading disease will be discounted by those who are anti-intellectual.  In doing so, the nay-sayers will likely use spiritual-sounding or positive-language terms about living fully, being ready to die, having a different perspective, etc.  They will likely not see the blatant disregard of facts or the selfish beginning and end of their "logic" as problematic. 

During a pandemic, those who are anti-intellectual will plead for their viewpoints to stand on equal footing with all others.  Some will not plead, but invoke thundering rhetoric.  Most Amish or Mennonites will gravitate to the former. 

Higher value will be placed on business activity than on charitable acts and attitudes.

During a pandemic, anti-intellectuals will not see value in quiet, solitary pursuits--because they do not sufficiently prioritize the life of the mind and spirit.


In politics, anti-intellectualism will reveal itself in celebration of coarse, blunt, and offensive language. 

Decisive action will be valued above proceeding thoughtfully and carefully.

Short-term expediency will take precedence over prudent consideration of long-term effects.

Almost anything that is good for business and for making money will be considered a good thing.  Anything that places limits on making money will be seen as a bad thing.

Manual labor will be seen as more honorable than working at jobs that primarily require "soft" skills. Sometimes this value requires wearing blinders, if people touting this value actually are themselves preoccupied with activity that does not involve manual labor. 

Great emphasis will be placed on improving of one's circumstances by individual effort.  People who are unable to accomplish this are thought to have expended too little effort. 

Helplessness is not regarded with compassion, but with disdain. 

Derogatory labels and sweeping generalizations will be applied to all who are perceived to be "other" than oneself--especially politically. 


I know that the above lists are incomplete, but for now, they'll need to stay that way.

Before I leave this space, I want to acknowledge several more things: 

1.  Highlighting anti-intellectualism as I have done leaves me wide open to accusations.  I'm trying to prepare for that, but I already know that I don't like hearing accusations directed at me.  I'm committed to being honest in hearing such, however.

2.  Stability might be considered the best outcome of anti-intellectualism.  Think about it.  The anti-intellectual person does not welcome thinking about change or implementing it.  If change is minimized, less disruption occurs than otherwise.  "No disruption" can serve as one definition for  stability.  Stability can be a good thing, but if it means that atrophy sets in, stability is no longer a good thing.

After all this thinking about intellectualism versus anti-intellectualism, I hope none of us choose to live fully in either camp. Living in the good pleasure of the Heavenly father's ways requires leaving those camps in pursuit of better things.  Truth and love are two of those better things.


Sunday, June 07, 2020

Fragments, Freedom, and Fallout--Part 16


Edit:  I've added a second link near the end of this post.  I hope you find time to listen.

Regular blog readers might remember an earlier incomplete and accidental post on voting.  It didn't say much of anything, except that I wanted to write about voting.  In the time since then I've done a lot of praying, observing, reading, listening, and thinking, and I'm finally ready to write about voting.  Unfortunately I still don't know what to write.  That is, I still do not have a definitive, "here's what you need to know and do" recommendation.  I'm actually not sure that such a truth for all circumstances exists.  What I hope to share are several realities that have become clearer to me over time, and I believe they have moved me at least one whit closer to feeling some measure of settledness on the matter.  I have alluded to some of these issues in earlier posts.

1.  Christian responsibilities toward leaders are much more clearly taught in Scripture than are specific civic responsibilities related to choosing leaders.  Many American Christians see voting for elected leaders as a civic responsibility.  While I realize that some legitimate defense for this is possible, I believe that seeing participation in voting as the ultimate proof of a citizen's desire to effect good in the world is a mistake.  Some have gone so far as to say, "If you don't vote, you have no right to find fault with ________ (any civic circumstance, position, or leader)."  I don't buy it.

Christians are called to effect change by being part of the kingdom of God, first and always.  Sometimes that may call for speaking truth or carrying out action in civic areas.  For other Christians,  however, deliberately separating oneself from civic matters in preference to Kingdom work is perfectly legitimate and honorable.  This is consistent with the Anabaptist tradition established and practiced in the 1500s, and constantly since then in some quarters.

2.  Partisan loyalties almost always interfere with one's ability to consistently embrace and promote Christian principles.  I would go so far as to say that I question the rationale of any partisan Christian who would not admit to having discovered this by experience.  At some point, either partisan loyalty or Christian identity must be compromised if consistency is to be maintained to either identity

3. Not voting is one of the few places where a clear line can be drawn by Christians who mindfully prioritize God's Kingdom over all earthly kingdoms.  When that line is maintained, the result is, I believe, great freedom to speak truth into any situation, and to hold up a standard of righteousness on all fronts.  On the contrary, disengaging from a candidate whom one has voted for is extraordinarily difficult.  The same is true for critiquing a policy that is held by the party which you or "your" candidate identifies with.

The default followup to voting for anything/anyone is to defend having done so, no matter what evidence surfaces that a policy or individual is on the wrong side of God's moral law.  Any policy or position held by the "wrong" party or candidate is, in turn, extremely hard to affirm if one has already voted against them. Repentance is, of course, the alternative to the default followup.  I need not enlarge on how difficult that course of action is.  That's probably why it is rarely in evidence.

4.  Voting forces some measure of compromise on voters.  I don't mean to paint compromise as always being negative, but the fact remains that most things in earthly kingdoms are flawed and most offices and rights are subject to abuse and appropriation for selfish purposes.  To participate in these systems calls for making many choices between bad and worse alternatives--not between righteous and evil ones.  I say that with sincere respect for people serving in the civil realm who do act with integrity. It's a tough job.  The burden of compromise is not one I wish to take on in the political arena.

5.  Christians who vote cancel out the votes of other Christians.  I don't have to go beyond my own family to see how this works.  We have three children, some of whom vote.  I don't make it a policy to quiz them on their voting habits.  I'm positive though that vote canceling has happened in the past in votes cast by our offspring. Can you tell that we didn't indoctrinate our children very effectively on such matters?  I admit to living with a lot of ambiguity over these matters in the past.  I still do, despite writing this post.

6.  Voting is not the best way to act responsibly and effectively in society.  Staying close to the heart of God is.  A related truth is that people who vote sometimes find it far easier to focus on finding the best candidate for shaping society according to their own preferences than on personally living life in a way that maximally influences society toward good ends. 

7.  Voting often means entanglements with the use of force, something that has always been eschewed in the Anabaptist faith heritage.  In America, the executive branch of government is responsible for law enforcement.  Law enforcement always ultimately relies on the use of force to operate.  It's not hard for me to trace a direct line between voting for someone in the executive branch of government and casting a vote for the use of force (the president holds the highest office in the executive branch).  Admittedly, the line is more difficult to trace when votes are cast for office holders in other branches of government (legislative and judicial), but they are all intertwined in some sense.  Taxation is one example of an intertwined function of government that can involve members of all three branches of government.  Unnecessary entanglements with the use of force is one thing I'm happy to avoid by not voting.  Here also I offer my respect for law enforcement officers who act with integrity, with a desire to serve others.

8.  Voting decisions are usually, of necessity, made on the basis of very limited information.  No matter how carefully information is gathered, doing so from a distance is less than ideal. The greater the number of filters through which information passes before reaching the voter the greater the  potential for distortion of that information. More biased "filters" also result in greater distortion.  In local elections this is less of a problem.  The only responsible voter is an informed voter, but becoming an informed voter is incredibly challenging and time consuming.  The easiest thing to do, of course, is to vote a straight party ticket.  I hope we all understand why that's usually a bad idea.

As soon as Hiromi became a naturalized American citizen, he proudly exercised his new voting privileges in the next election.  It was the last time he did that.  Alone in the voting booth, he realized that he knew almost nothing about the people whose names appeared on the ballot.  I think he ended making some willy-nilly markings and escaping as soon as possible.

9.  When Anabaptists begin to view voting as a sacred duty, I believe they have adopted a second-rate option.  In other words, they would do better to become knowledgeable about the well-tested traditions of their own faith heritage, instead of falling over themselves to run after what is currently popular in the fundamentalist and evangelical world.  The mashup of church and state is a prominent feature of conservative politics.  The conservative political world is populated by many whose ideals have very little in common with the "faith of our fathers,"  and  living there is hard to do without absorbing also many of those second-rate values.  To some extent, this is true also of the "liberal" world.  From my perspective it appears that the liberal world is less "mashed-up" with Christianity than the conservative world (please hold your fire). 

Too many Anabaptists seem clueless that an uneven exchange is occurring when they step out of the deep, flowing stream of God-honoring, compassionate living into the shallow rushing torrent of seeking to improve the world through political action.

10.  Anabaptists would benefit from hearing leaders instruct their people on voting.  I don't mean that they should tell people how to vote or even whether or not to vote.  I wish they could simply help clarify the limitations of voting, along with highlighting the things that are right about not voting. Principally, mindfully abstaining from voting can be a help in aligning our commitments and loyalties with Heavenly Kingdom principles.  Voting opens a Pandorra's Box of assaults on such commitments and loyalties.

In Mark 8:15, Jesus warned his disciples against both the leaven of the Pharisees (hypocrisy) and the leaven of Herod (worldliness).  One of the limitations of voting is that it is wholly a creation and mechanism of earthly kingdoms--worldly, in other words.  Prioritizing the kingdom of God means, at the very least, that voting privileges should be held very loosely.  Better tools for changing society exist and should be employed.  Freedom to not vote is worth exercising.


Here's an interview with Dean Taylor that I listened to after I wrote this post.  He's articulate and wise (I suppose you'd expect that from the president at Sattler College) and says some of the same things I tried to say here--plus a lot more.  I had seen an article of his recently which covered some of the same ground and couldn't find it again right now.  Maybe a reader can put the link in the comments if you know where it is.


Today (a day after posting this blog) I listened to a speech by Joshua B. Good that I really enjoyed.  He adds a  lot of depth to some of the issues that I've wrestled with.  I grinned to myself at an early mention of being influenced by Dwight Nisly, whom I've known all his life.  Years ago when I taught the kindergarten class in Vacation Bible School, he was in my class.  He is now a pastor and teacher in New York City.  I don't know Joshua B. Good, but I liked identifying a small thread of personal connection with him through Dwight.

Good does a really nice job of clarifying the difference between Anabaptists and Protestants and Catholics in some of their core understandings of Christian faith.  He addresses voting specifically, as well as many other issues on which the Christian right has spoken in contradiction to the Anabaptist Vision.*  I'm still pondering what he said about participating in the liturgies of nationalism.  I'm not quite at the same place personally as Good is, but I'm not prepared to argue with him. 

Hearing some of where Good has been in the past helps add credence to where he is now, as I see it.  Hint:  He is a Liberty University graduate. 

*Harold Bender wrote a short statement by that name in the mid-1900s.  Since then it has been considered one of the formative statements of American Anabaptism.  Good draws from that document in this speech.