And Naming the Villains
Written by: Joe Morris Doss

What we are witnessing right now may well be the collapse of the Conservative Movement that has dominated American political and social life for almost three generations.

It began, let us say, with Barry Goldwater’s principled call from “The Conscience of a Conservative.”

The movement balked with JFK, LBJ’s Great Society, and the Watergate reforms, but after events that overwhelmed the United States and the Carter candidacy, it became established under Reagan.

The Conservative Movement captured the Republican Party, which cast aside it’s broadly based tradition to become the conservative party in the United States.

The Conservative Movement expanded on its domination up to this point, at which Trump’s nomination has led to the spectacular splintering during the campaign.

By the time the smoke clears after the election, either the Conservative Movement will have lost enough of its control of the Republican Party to have to search for another way to operate, or the Republican Party itself will break into factions that will lead to its demise sooner than later.

One way or another we will see a major political realignment in the United States, perhaps radical enough to drive constitutional rearrangements.

The Villains:

  • The decision that equated money with speech, Buckley v. Valeo, 1976. From that point forward money began to control politics. That decision needs to be overturned or to have a constitutional amendment so that we can get money out of elective politics, at least to the extent of other democracies.
  • The billion-dollar-behind-the-scenes controllers of politics, ranging from the use of foundations for personal enrichment and ideological political causes to all sorts of ways to engage in elective politics. The clandestine and manipulative formation of the Tea Party is a good example. (See “Dark Money.”) Particularly offensive is the way they have hidden motives, goals, and activities, while convincing the country to paint all big contributors of money with the same brush – summarized as “Wall Street.”  
  • The Trump-like, fascist-like, white nativists have been given a place at the political table today. During most of American history such radical opinions have been relegated to prejudice, ignorance, and anger over personal losses or social and economic failures. This “extreme right wing” has been at the table since the midterm election during the first Clinton Administration, though normally identified as ideological conservatives. First they were Clinton haters, then they were Obama haters, but their real frustration is broader than persons, political positions, or movements.
  • The fundamentalist Evangelical churches became hypocritically and improperly engaged in elective politics to impose their conservative, and often oppressive, moral and political perspective on society as law. For too many evangelicals – certainly not all, but too many, and certainly for almost all of the leaders in their political combat – this has been a matter of the tail wagging the dog, in that they are part of a culture that is socially, economically, and politically conservative and then learned how to use their religious clout politically, rather than being a of people of faith who are religiously convicted of certain conservative views.
  • The Roman Catholic Church’s long-standing obsession, perhaps prejudices, regarding issues that protect women’s rights and that touch on the hot rail of sexuality and procreation. At the top of that list is the over-any-top, popularly accepted conclusion, that abortion is the killing of children. The Roman Catholic Church has allowed itself to be co-opted by the fundamentalist Evangelical churches in opposing social and cultural reforms, not only undercutting its own institutional moral standing but that of Christianity. The inevitable hypocrisy regarding these positions was revealed in the sexual abuse of children in religious institutions and by the ordained.
  • The “establishment” leadership of the Republican Party, which brought their party to this state of affairs by embracing (1) the billion-dollar-behind-the-scenes political money, (2) the improper engagement of fundamentalist evangelicals, (3) the Trump wing of the right wing, (4) the conservatives of the Roman Catholic Church regarding “the culture wars” while ignoring its repeated calls for social and economic justice, and (5) making full and cooperative use of Fox News and prejudiced radio talk shows as their primary voices.
  • Ronald Reagan, for turning the country from a respect for government as, in Lincoln’s great insight, “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” into “the problem.” This negativity had more to do with the misgovernment of the following era than perhaps any other factor.
  • Fox News, that falsely claimed the objectivity of journalism, was the sole source of news in many areas of the country, and allowed many conservatives to live in a bubble that includes widely discredited ideas like climate change science is a hoax and the President is not an American citizen.
  • Opposition to globalization, instead of coming to grips with the realities in order to prosper America and help the stranger in other lands.

Caveat: A friend trained and proved in political observation warns that, “At this point, I think we are witnessing the “splintering” of the conservative movement, more than its “collapse.”  I say this because they are still in control of most state governments and may (or may not) still control at least one of the national legislative branches after the November elections.  The conservative movement has trouble with high turnout (e.g., presidential) elections, but usually bounces back in off year elections when voting by progressives declines. After the approaching elections, we may conclude that they are so split that they have collapsed, but it may be too soon to say.”


It Comes Down to the Abortion Issue
Written by: 
Joe Morris Doss

The official positions each American church community has taken on issues facing the next President are quite well documented, available, and clear. The fundamentalist evangelicals have decided to vote for Trump despite deep reservations about his actual Christian beliefs and commitments because they agree with him politically. A few examples should suffice: The members are almost all white, dominated by the leadership of men, and demand that America conform to the way they think and live; they are for sending away undocumented aliens and building a wall against Mexico; anti-evolutionist, there is little respect for science – which is pitted against “religion” and “revelation” – and there is almost no concern for protection of the environment or prevention of further global warming; social and economic justice are issues that cause resentment. The stated reason many fundamentalists give for voting for Trump is to prevent appointments a Democrat might make to the Supreme Court, and the primary focus there is on overturning Roe v. Wade.

Almost without exception, the official positions taken by Protestant mainline denominations oppose Trump because of the church’s prophetic tradition and its concern for social and economic justice, especially protection of minority rights. Again, theologically, most agree with the right of women to decide on issues regarding their own bodies, including the right to an abortion and use of contraception. Increasingly mainline Protestant churches are open to marriage equality and rights for LGBT persons.

It is faithful Roman Catholics who face a choice that will force them to choose between opposing but official positions. On the one hand, there are issues of justice and reconciliation that the National Council of Bishops has consistently supported with brilliant theological statements, guiding the faithful to vote for candidates who will follow the dictates of each statement. Perhaps the most dramatic instance of a declaration of belief regarding the issues came from the Pope: “A person who thinks only about building walls… and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel.” This was a stunning, but not surprising, rejection of Trump’s signature position. It did not take a careful examination of the context for the statement to realize that it was pointing to other such issues in which simple human compassion, internationalism, justice, and equality are rejected by the Republican Party nominee. The Pope came precariously close to taking a stand on the election.

On the other hand, there is the Roman Catholic Church’s position regarding human sexuality and the role of women (e.g. contraception) that gets summarized in the question of abortion. Since Roe v. Wade abortion has been the signature position for this denomination. Many American faithful have taken a position so extreme that they actually claim murder when a woman decides to have an abortion. The issue has become YUGE, as Trump would say, overwhelming all others.

Push now has come to Shove: Is allowing a women to have an abortion such an absolute wrong that it trumps – as it were – all of the wrongs and dangers that the church has long identified but that Trump now supports? Is changing the law of the land on abortion, two generations after it has been established, so crucial that it is worth having a man with Trump’s temperament, political and governmental inexperience, and remarkable ignorance hold the office of President? Will Roman Catholic leaders put out a word, however nuanced or blared out, for how the faithful should choose between wrongs? It is going to be interesting to see the faithful Roman Catholic choose.


Powers and Principalities

Written by: Joe Morris Doss

Americans feel that we, as individual citizens, lack agency – a sense that we have too little say in what is going on and that we are relatively helpless to do anything about what bothers or concerns us. At the Threshold is offering a series that is intended to examine the causes of that frustration.

Perhaps there has been no time since the medieval era in which people are more given to believe in “powers and principalities.” This is a biblical term, but we modern folk are not likely to use it in reference to angels, demons, and things that go bump in the night. Nevertheless the powers and principalities that are “out there” today are as feared and admired with a sense of awe, as circumvented by manipulative enchantments and charms, and as worshipped as objects of faith, hope, and love, as in any age of yore. These powers and principalities seem as invisible, as ineffable, and as uncontrollable as any otherworldly creatures that ever may have been presumed to come into the human realm. It seems impossible to get a handle on them, and yet it feels that they run our lives far more than decisions that are made, either by ourselves or by human beings we can hold accountable. Here is the point for our purposes: People, institutions, and whole populations, feel robed of agency by what is experienced as “powers and principalities.”

We should start with the biblical use of the term. William Stringfellow, a 20th century attorney and lay theologian offers a concise but clear summary of the classic Christian understanding: “…that dominion which human beings receive from God over the rest of creation…is lost to them in the fall and, as it were, reversed, so that now the principalities exercise dominion over human beings and claim in their own names and for themselves idolatrous worship from human beings. People do not create the principalities nor do they control them; on the contrary, people exist in this world in bondage to the principalities. No one escapes enduring the claims for allegiance and service of the principalities.” (Essential Writings, Orbis Books, Modern Spiritual Masters Series)

If that doesn’t sound like modern life, let us examine his point in terms of our more familiar experiences. Do we not share a feeling that there are certain forces and dynamics over which we have no dominion even while they are working to determine what is to come? Bright and good willed people can be found throwing up their hands and saying that it doesn’t matter who gets elected to office, that events are going to take over anyway. There is the historical determinism of influential thinkers like Karl Marx, who promised us that forces of history are leading to foregone conclusions for human society. Darwin’s theory of evolution, still mysterious and misunderstood by most of the masses, has taught us that certain processes of mutation and selection are the driving forces for forms of life, including human life, that are fashioned in a struggle out of which the fittest survive – and that evolution is still, and will always be, at work. Freud, Jung, and Adler helped us see how “powers and principalities” work from within “the mind” and will never be fully within a person’s self-control. Scientist like Einstein demonstrated the truth that everything is relative; quantum mechanics has forced recognition that “common sense” observation, like the long standing axiom that “a thing cannot be in the different place at the same time,” has to yield to the reality that we can rely on no more than probabilities, and mathematically trained metaphysicians like Whitehead have informed us that there really is not even such a thing as a “thing,” since all that exists is in a process of constant change, and everything is relational instead of “individual” or strictly particular.

How much these theories have reached home to create a sense of what are the “powers and principalities” for our era can be seen in very practical terms when we consider institutions. No wonder we have become so frustrated with institutions, be they great corporations, governmental agencies, ecclesiastical organizations, nations, unions, universities – you name it. Institutions are all about their own survival. They are not about us, or anything of value beyond themselves. Finally, everything else is secondary to the preservation and glorification of the institution, and anyone having some relationship or connection to it must commit herself or himself to the cause of the institution – which, again, always comes down to its survival. As the song goes, the worker simply “…gives their soul to the company store.” As far as the institution is concerned, anyone and everything can be sacrificed in that great cause. The rationale for the institution can be couched in terms of the good it can do  and often does, and everyone within it or called to serve it by participation, perhaps simply by being a customer, can be assured that the institution is good for them in important ways. But finally it is dehumanizing because the way it actually functions is not for us, or even about us; its life and its mission is all too much for the cause of the institution, in and of itself.

Ideologies can, and are likely to, be principalities. We may take the prevailing American myth of a holy nation, religiously “justified” and called to empire. Where there is such profound and sustained confusion over a nation’s character and mission genuine religion will know it as blasphemy and idolatry.

Deep-seated social realities over which we have little dominion, like racism, can be one of the powers and principalities. Racism is not simply a personal and social problem, but a problem with the Gospel.

Such “powers that be” are active characters in the drama of history and in each of our personal lives. We can try to deny them, or acknowledge them, or resist them, or – and this not only is the easiest but the normative path – yield to them and play along as though they give us purpose and a station in the universe.

But if you are a Christian, you have discovered good news to set you free to work in partnership with God for the good of the created order and its completion the age Jesus introduced and is to come. You have the model of Jesus, who withstood the powers of his day, not only identified in terms of an occupation by the Roman Empire, but in all that had been formed and turned loose to make for a future that did not become the kingdom in which God’s will is “done on earth as in heaven.” You have the example of the early church which, with all of its human flaws, understood and set forth a pattern of resistance to the “powers and principalities” they had to face – understanding, for example, (and it cost many of them their lives) that to proclaim, “Jesus is Lord,” meant that Caesar was not.

To be sure, your faith is not a claim that the “powers and principalities” no longer have dominion over you, but that with faith and understanding you can enjoy awareness and the larger picture of your personal role and value in the process of history. You can belong in the universe, even one corrupted and corrupting. You can have confidence that God will take your contribution and transform it into the divine creativity. You can have faith in the strong evidence within the created order that the greatest power and principality, in heaven and on earth as it were, is the phenomenal universal force of an unlimited lover.

What you and I need and yearn for is the supporting power of the community of faithful we term “church.”

Ah, that is why At the Threshold calls for reform. It is a call for the church to become what it claims to be: the community of those given the gift of discernment regarding the negative forces of the “powers and principalities” of our time, and the faith that we have been set free.


Group Think
Written by: Joe Morris Doss

All good people agree,
     And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We,
     And everyone else is They.

          Rudyard Kipling

We perceive a lack of personal agency when we feel certain about our point of view, find that decisions and actions taken on behalf of the whole contradict it or fail to satisfy it, and are imposed on us.

We may begin to address our frustration by considering why we feel so sure about the matter. Very likely, the reason will have little to do with reason or information; instead it usually will turn out to be due to the agreement within our social circle and within the culture with which we identify. If the great majority of people we associate with regularly, and with whom we feel we belong, think the same way, contrary political and social imposition is likely to feel like insufferable wrongheadedness, or even a matter of moral right and wrong. This comes from something termed, accurately enough in the language of the street (if not in textbooks): “group think.”

Today “group think” is a prevailing concern for a nation that is deeply divided along just such lines. That whole communities and segments of society are so segmented is painfully experienced. Yet we find ourselves as participants in the divisions. As individuals we all know the tendency to pick among the plethora of information sources now available to use those that can be relied upon for agreement and reinforcement of the social, political, and religious perspectives of our circles.

The open conversations and comments about issues at controversy today, say in a locker room, invariably are going to sound like there is agreement that goes so far beyond the point of mere consensus that the points of view are being offered as assumptions. But depending on where they are being propounded, (e.g. small town exercise club, basket ball gym, country club, college faculty club) such opinions will express the exact opposite points of view, falling on the contrary ends of respective spectrums.

When your point of view is supported on the rigidly solid ground of “group think” and yet you find yourself on the losing end of a decision, the frustrating sense of a lack of agency is going to be inevitable and probably accompanied by the feeling that you and yours are being awfully wronged.

Perhaps the largest grouping in which thinking seems to be fixed in agreement, with no acceptable room for disagreement, is – and has long been – within regions. How else can it be that white Southerners in the U. S. always vote as a single party block – as Democrats from the Civil War up to the Civil Rights Movement and since then as Republicans? How else is there to explain that an engulfing number of white Southerners identify as conservatives and seem to feel that being a conservative is morally correct while anything else is relatively immoral? How is it that racial prejudice and injustice can remain so much more prevalent in the South than anywhere else?

I do not believe the questions can be answered in a way that identifies most people in a whole region as inherently conservative, or inherently right, or inherently wrong, or inherently evil. It is due to cultural “group think.”

One last word, and it is absolutely central to the whole, and ongoing, story of Christianity. It is central to the good news of God in Christ; it is Gospel. Giving into “group think” is really, painfully, stupid. No other word will do. We all do it, and that stands as evidence that we all can be pretty stupid. When we free ourselves from “group think,” we are going to experience a most humanizing freedom, shockingly refreshing. There is a social price to be paid, for sure. One will be accused of being a bad citizen of one’s own society – and very probably made to feel like that indeed is so. One may even have to pick up a bit of the cross. But such a citizen will discover that truth and freedom are worth the price.

It is the truth that will set us free, not “group think” conformity.