Making America Average Again

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David Wagschal

America Needs a New Normal – and Fast

The political drama taking place south of the border is in so many ways unreal. The spectacle of the Trump administration/family is bizarre – and getting more bizarre. I don’t need to give examples.

Yet Trump and his coterie simply exemplify a much broader disconnect with reality in the American social consciousness.

However bizarre Trump may be, what is truly unreal about contemporary America is how far the bar has dropped on our vision of what society can and should be. Standards has become so skewed, and society’s vision so dimmed, that I think even the progressives in the United States are often not clear about what “normal” is.

So in all the confusion and bizarreness, I feel the need to offer a quick reality check: what is normal, again, for a just, moral and healthy first-world society?

I would offer the following as a few minimum standards:

1) Health care. Health care is free, universal, and admits no difference in levels of service according to people’s wealth or status. It’s basically like electricity or running water. Free, universal healthcare is understood as a simple moral imperative. There’s no real debate — this just is.

2) Wealth and class. The middle and lower classes dominate the income curve, and control the majority of society’s wealth.  Wealth and status differences between and within all classes are comparatively small. Social mobility is high. The political class is drawn mostly from the middle or lower classes. Generally, the upper classes view it to be in poor taste to display their wealth conspicuously – indeed, the upper class is relatively invisible, and class differences are hard to spot in day-to-day experience (i.e. it’s hard to tell class from how people talk, dress, etc.)

3) Employment. Everyone has multiple reasonable and realistic opportunities to obtain stable and secure employment, and all jobs have basically equivalent benefits, proportionate to the level of income/hours. (Health care is, of course, not a “benefit”; see #1 above.)  A dignified, if not lavish, retirement is more or less guaranteed.

4) Firearms. Aside from licenced and controlled hunting rifles/shotguns, which are mostly restricted to rural areas, possession of firearms is exceptionally rare, and is a serious criminal offence.  Handgun licenses might be (rarely) available to collectors, or on designated shooting ranges, but only under extremely controlled circumstances. Military-style weapons of any type are, of course, strictly forbidden.

5) Military. The military is a) highly professionalized and specialized; and b) segregated from civilian society.  It is (therefore) exceptionally effective, disciplined and respected. It is not commonly visible in the civil sphere. With the exception of defence and security positions in government, there is relatively little personnel “bleed” between the military and government – the military and government are very much separate career tracks.

6) Politics and business. Stringent rules are in place to prevent finances from determining elections. Campaign budgets are strictly capped.  Lobbying is limited and highly transparent. “Pay to play” or “pay for access” are equated with corruption, and are criminal offences. The firewall between business and politics is strictly observed, and morally internalized: a business person would be ashamed of even appearing to try to influence a politician via donations or similar inducements, much less actually attempting it. Likewise, a politician would avoid even the appearance of granting privileged access to the wealthy. The input of business on economic, industrial, and financial policy is critically important, but it happens only through transparent, open and regulated channels. Career moves from politics into the corporate sphere is rare, regulated and difficult – there is no “revolving door” between Wall Street and Washington.

7) Prisons. Incarceration rates are low, and incarceration is mostly used for violent offenders – less as a punitive measure. Prisons are never private. Broadly, in fact, only the government can legitimately restrict a citizen’s rights or inflict sanctions. Sanctions against citizens can never, as a point of principle, be delegated to private companies/agents.

8) Education.  Education is mostly public. Private schools, as a whole, are not substantially different in quality from public schools.  Aside from different specializations and sizes, there is comparatively little difference among institutions of higher learning.  (America’s highly stratified university system is, I think, a much larger problem than is generally acknowledged.)

9) Economy. The free market is a cornerstone of a peaceful, free and prosperous society, but it is recognized that markets are complex and must be prudently regulated. Anti-trust, financial, environmental and labour regulations are robust. The free market is not considered a default model for the administration of education, culture, politics, the military or other parts of civil society. Boards of directors have a fiduciary responsibility to assure that the interests of all stake-holders in a company, including society and the broader public good, are represented; share-holder interests are only one interest among others. Banking regulations are strict, and commercial and investment banking are carefully segregated.

10)  Judiciary.  Access to law is broadly equal for all, and not dependent on wealth. Civil suits are comparatively rare — there is no “culture of lawsuits”. There are numerous alternatives to the formal court system for the resolution of civil matters.

I could go on about race, immigration, refugees, police etc.

For a lot of Americans, I suspect that many of the above standards may seem like pie-in-the-sky.

But they shouldn’t. Most of the above are, to a greater or lesser degree, realities in other developed nations.  (Ok, most countries are still weak on 10, and 2, 3, and 9 have been very much weakened since the ’80s; some countries, like the UK, are also quite weak on 8.)

This means that if the US achieves even most of the above, this will not make America great. This will make America average.

If it excels in the above, this will make America a bit above average.

What would make America great? I don’t think a real proposal is even on the table.

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UTS Round-up: Assorted Links

About the Author
David Wagschal

A few stories that caught my attention this week…

Although no longer our “issue du jour”, a couple of interesting developments for same-sex marriage:

  1. A Pew study that came out this week showing that support for same-sex marriage in the US is growing — even among Evangelicals. Note the age-breakdown in particular.
  2. Speaking of which, Germany legalized same-sex marriage (finally). Bit of a political move, but Merkel has been biding her time on this one.
  3. Which reminds me: for my American friends, did you know that Canada’s Conservatives (pretty much our Republicans) ended official opposition to gay marriage about a year ago?

In politics and economics:

  1. The Atlantic ran a much-shared article on the demise of “White Christian America”.  My worry here: the constant association of “Christian” and the forces that Trump represents. Man, we’ve got a lot of damage-control to do…
  2. But here is an interesting, if not altogether encouraging, article on the growing progressive/liberal political opposition to Trump. (Thanks to a friend at church for sharing this one a few weeks ago!) What is really intriguing here is the hint that some progressive/liberals are trying to find an entirely new way of engaging politically — one that transcends left/right, and one that is not just a left-leaning mirror of the conservative political machine. Hmm.

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UTS Takes on Political Theology

About the Author
David Wagschal

Here’s a question that has been nagging me: has Christianity being playing a role in the erosion of liberal democratic values that we’ve been witnessing across many western democracies?

In the last few months I’ve been prepping for a short studies series at my church on “Christianity in the Public Square”.  I took the opportunity to brush up on “political theology”.

Political theology is the (relatively) new discipline of theology that treats the (relatively) old question of the relationship of the church and the public sphere – i.e. the state, civil society, and broadly the entire socio-political realm.  It’s very popular in today’s academy.

I somehow knew that I wasn’t much going to like what I started to uncover in this literature.

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Christians and Trump: What to Do? [Essay]

About the Author
David Wagschal

Trump. What to do. Part 2.

Last post I outlined my take on the volatile and potentially dangerous political situation in the US.

This raised broader questions: How should Christians respond to such developments? What is the right place for Christianity in the public square?

In this post, I want to focus on some of the theoretical, theological aspects of these questions (questions of “political theology”). In future posts I’ll get back to more nitty-gritty, practical stuff – but I feel like we need to pause and look at the big picture.

  1. Trump: A Big Christian Moral Fail?
  2. Political Theology: Time to Shake Things Up
    1. That Pesky Gospel: No, It’s Not the Blueprint of a Divine Socio-political Order
    2. Christians: You’re as secular as anyone else. And that’s OK.

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Trump: What to Do? (Part One)

About the Author
David Wagschal
Part One: The Problem
  1. A Creeping Authoritarianism
  2. How did we get here? The Root Problems
    1. Trump CEO
    2. Death-throes of American Conservatism?
1. A Creeping Authoritarianism

So I think it’s clear now that the US is in some serious trouble.

Of course everyone is still hoping that things are going to normalize. We hope that Trump is soon going to settle down into a typical, if a bit “spicy”, pro-business Republican. “Yes, he’s going to be aggressive and a bit unpredictable, and he’s going to push boundaries, but fundamentally he’s going to stick to the rules, and play the game. Don’t worry. He’ll be kept in check.”

Perhaps. But the line between hope and denial can be a fine one. If we step back a little, there are a lot of signs that are pointing in a darker direction. It’s getting hard to ignore them.

Trump has been…

  • scapegoating the outsider (Mexicans, refugees) and subtly green-lighting a whole host of anti-minority prejudices
  • encouraging nationalism
  • systematically denigrating and bullying all established bases of power that intimidate him or are independent of him (intelligence, army, the central bank, judiciary, congress) — there is a very good article on Bloomberg about this
  • attacking and delegitimizing the press and undermining its trustworthiness and credibility
  • placing relatively inexperienced and politically “unattached” figures in key positions of power, who are therefore almost totally, personally dependent on Trump for their position
  • playing the security card

Does this sound familiar?

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Kicking the Gnostic Habit: The Problem of Faith as Knowledge (Essay)

About the Author
David Wagschal

Three Pillars of the Old Order: Part Three

This post is the final instalment in my three-part series on the central doctrinal pillars of the classical, mainstream synthesis of Christian theology as it has developed since approximately the 4th C. (A bit earlier, to be truthful, but this isn’t history class…)

My central contention in this series is that there is a lot more wrong with this core synthesis than most of us recognize. But if we are going to move towards a new synthesis – which I think is now inevitable – we need to start to engage in a much more open and comfortable critique of these older ideas.

The final pillar in my triad is the idea that Christian faith is a kind of knowledge. This is the subtle but pervasive idea that Christianity is a religion of insight, wisdom, and knowledge. It’s the belief that Christianity is the ultimate “philosophy”, even in the broadest, ancient sense of the word as a wise or holy way of life.

It’s hard to get your mind around the idea that Christianity might not be this, at least not at its core — but once you do, the effect is pretty dramatic.

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5

The Problem with Deification (Essay)

About the Author
David Wagschal

Three Pillars of the Old Order – Part Two

 In this series, I’m exploring a few of the fundamental assumptions of what I call the “classical” or “imperial synthesis”.  This is the doctrinal mainstream of Christianity as it has developed since the 4th century or so. It’s most representative forms are perhaps the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox or Calvinist churches, but its assumptions have permeated most forms of Christianity.

My contention is that some of the core doctrines of this synthesis are much more problematic than is often acknowledged. Yet we are still so deeply “within” this synthesis that we rarely directly and frankly question its central ideas.

Last week I looked at the common notion that Scripture is the revelation of God – and the problematic idea that Christianity is somehow at core an exercise in biblical exegesis. This week: salvation as divine transformation.

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Three Pillars of the Old Order: Part One – Scripture as Divine Revelation

About the Author
David Wagschal

Three Pillars of the Old Order – Part One

I frequently have conversations with friends who ask me: “why have you abandoned the old patristic / Greco-Roman synthesis?”

By “Greco-Roman synthesis”, depending on the conversation, they might mean Catholicism, Orthodoxy, or, for that matter, traditional forms of Calvinism or even Lutheranism.

In all cases they expect that I will launch into a laundry-list of complaints about the institutional problems or moral stances of contemporary churches. They are surprised when I instead answer: “theology.”

Then follows a few uncomfortable moments when they realize that I seriously think we need to question several central pillars of the Great Church synthesis, that is, of the central trajectory of Christian doctrinal elaboration since at least the 3rd/4th C, whether in its eastern or western forms.

Their first reaction is to think I’ve gone a bit crazy. To be fair, even three or four years ago, my reaction would have been similar.

But abandoning the classical synthesis is easier, simpler and maybe more plausible than you might think. Read More…

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Luther Reading List Updated

About the Author
David Wagschal

Time to get this blog going again!

My reading list is still quite modest, and certainly a work in progress, but, voila:

David’s Annotated Luther Reading List – October 2016

Why read Luther?

  1. It’s amazing how few theologians really know anything about him.
  2. His influence, acknowledged or not, is incredibly pervasive (this guy’s already in your head in all sorts of ways).
  3. Luther represents something really very new and different. You may not like him in the end, but after you read him, it’s amazing how Barth or Aquinas, Athanasius or Calvin, Augustine or Pseudo-Dionysius … they all kinda start sounding the same. (Doubt it? Try it.)

Have fun!