Religious conservatives should hope Hillary wins

Like Ted Cruz, millions of conservatives who have every reason to reject Donald Trump will vote for the Republican nominee in November. Cruz is just the most recent high-profile Republican to make the case that key differences between the two candidates—particularly on likely Supreme Court nominees—make Trump the better choice.

But Cruz’s and others’ reasoning is short-sighted. While it’s true that Trump’s known policy preferences are more conservative than Clinton’s, and while it’s likely enough that Trump will stick to these preferences, voting for him is still a bad bet for conservatives, and especially for religious conservatives.

Here are two reasons.

The first is that Trump as Republican president will come to represent conservatism. If we vote for him, then he’s in the club, whether we like it or not. And it’s unavoidable that the extent to which he represents conservatism is the extent to which he can corrupt it.

The second reason is that voting for a bad candidate only makes sense on a four-year time horizon.

In all likelihood, a vote for Trump is a vote for four Trump years and 4-8 years of the Democrat lucky enough to run against him in 2020. If Trump does become president, he will quickly become a historically unpopular one. Without popularity, and without the outsider’s appeal he has had this time around, he’ll be easily beaten by almost any Democrat not named Hillary Clinton in 2020. This includes any Democrat who chooses to run on a Sanders-esque platform of full-throated progressivism.

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Hillary Clinton delivers a policy speech at Georgetown University to a sparse audience. (M. Scott Mahaskey/Politico)

On the other hand, a vote for Hillary is effectively a vote for a 4-year term, followed by 4 to 8 years of a (non-Trump) Republican president. Already unpopular, Clinton would have a very difficult time asking Democrat-weary voters for a fourth consecutive Democratic term in the White House, making 2020 a golden opportunity for conservatives.

In other words, a Clinton win in 2016 probably means more total Republican years in the White House between now and 2029. Choosing a bad Democrat over a bad Republican this year allows the possibility of a successful conservative candidate in the next few elections, while the second all but rules it out.

As for the Supreme Court itself (admittedly this is where the Trump temptation has the greatest pull), these four years are not uniquely crucial when the two alternatives are considered.

The thought of Hillary Clinton nominating two or three justices stings. In all likelihood her one-term presidency would end with only three conservatives on the court: Thomas, Roberts and Alito. Her (probably Republican) successor would have limited opportunities to increase that number by replacing liberals. But it becomes clear, taking a twelve-year look, that there are no good options for conservatives now that a damaged candidate has won the nomination.

Trump’s Democratic successor would likely replace Thomas and Alito and possibly Roberts between 2021 and 2029, pushing the court again toward a 5-4, 6-3, or even 7-2 liberal majority (Trump would at very best get the count of conservatives on the court up to 6, as no liberal justice would voluntarily step down during his presidency). Unless we think a Trump presidency would usher in a Republican dynasty in the White House, there’s no good reason to think it would leave the court in better shape a decade from now than a Clinton presidency.

There are some reasonable objections here as to the urgency of the situation. Isn’t it true that we can’t afford four years of Hillary right now? Won’t she irreparably damage the country? Isn’t this election a historic turning point?

Probably not. Every election feels that way. I say this as a Christian who suspects that, in the coming decades, religious institutions will be severely marginalized and believers forced to make painful choices between their faith and major aspects of public life. We know what persecution looks like, and we’re not there yet. Having a conservative president will be almost certainly be more important in 2026 than in 2018.

Bottom line: strategic religious conservatives should not, by voting, sabotage their own movement—particularly when the option remains to sabotage the other side. Let them have four years of Hillary. Don’t let us be stuck with Trump.

Are religious schools like BYU at risk of losing accreditation over same-sex marriage?

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Last week, a superior court in the province of Ontario upheld a decision allowing the Law Society of Upper Canada to deny accreditation to a Christian law school, on the grounds that its Community Covenant, which requires abstention from sex outside (husband-wife) marriage, is a violation of the rights of gay and lesbian students. Trinity Western University, the third oldest university in British Columbia, has found little sympathy among the Canadian public and political class, and is unlikely to win any future legal appeals. The school’s administration has signalled that, if forced, it will cancel the opening of the law school rather than alter the Community Covenant.

While the decision applies to an ecumenical Christian institution in Canada, the significance for American Mormons is straightforward: the sexual standards in the Honor Code at Brigham Young University are virtually identical to those in Trinity Western’s Community Covenant. Is it possible, a Latter-day Saint might reasonably wonder, that in a decade or so BYU will find its own accreditation threatened amidst the legal aftershocks of same-sex marriage?

In the balance of considerations that can be weighed while guessing the likelihood of a threat to BYU’s accreditation (or tax-exempt status), there’s a major one on the side of optimism: the fact that of any country in the world, the United States has the most robust tradition of religious liberty. As a result, the Canadian decision on TWU is not necessarily a ten-year warning bell for BYU. But there are other facts to consider:

  1. The Canadian decision did acknowledge the religious liberty interest of the university in establishing religious standards as a way of promoting the “collective practice” of Protestant Christianity. Its decision was simply that the sexual liberty of gay and lesbian students—framed in the decision as non-discrimination—was more important.
  2. Similar reasoning is being used more and more often in US decisions. So far it has only been applied to religious individuals and businesses. The line between religious businesses and schools has been blurred before in discrimination cases, however, as when the Supreme Court stripped Bob Jones University of its tax-exempt status in 1983.
  3. Conservatives in Canada in 2005 were assured that legal same-sex marriage would not lead to religious liberty conflicts, so present assurances that US law won’t allow threats to accreditation are hard to interpret as permanent.
  4. Accreditation is granted by quasi-private bodies. The council that accredits BYU acts under the regulatory authority of the Department of Education, but is probably not bound as strictly by the First Amendment as a government actor would be.
  5. As of last month, marriage to someone of the same sex is a fundamental constitutional right in the United States, and the weights of jurisprudence are likely to shift as a result. It’s unclear whether the First Amendment automatically beats the Fourteenth in conflict, especially as the cultural climate becomes more secular by the year.

When confronted with these kinds of scenarios, there are two canonical (and contradictory) responses among Mormons who support same-sex marriage: denial and approval. Rod Dreher, in a more generally Christian context, named the phenomenon:

The Law Of Merited Impossibility is an epistemological construct governing the paradoxical way overclass opinion makers frame the discourse about the clash between religious liberty and gay civil rights. It is best summed up by the phrase, “It’s a complete absurdity to believe that Christians will suffer a single thing from the expansion of gay rights, and boy, do they deserve what they’re going to get.”

While Dreher’s point is made partly for snark’s sake, it should hit close to home in the online Mormon world. More than that, the point matters quite a bit, because the way that American Mormons approach the question of religious freedom could affect the ability of institutions like BYU to operate freely in the coming years and decades.

In April, Elder Hales, speaking at General Conference, left little room for either half of Dreher’s law. In response to those who deny that the space for religious exercise is shrinking:

The general lack of respect for religious viewpoints is quickly devolving into social and political intolerance for religious people and institutions.

As we face increased pressure to bow to secular standards, forfeit our religious liberties, and compromise our agency, consider what the Book of Mormon teaches about our responsibilities.

And to those who don’t mind the encroachment, he insists that it is the duty of Latter-day Saints to push back:

Brothers and sisters, we are responsible to safeguard these sacred freedoms and rights for ourselves and our posterity. …

[I]n your individual capacity, join with others who share our commitment to religious freedom. Work side by side to protect religious freedom.

This is the same narrative that church leaders have been telling at least since 1995, when The Family: A Proclamation to the World was announced in General Conference.

It’s worth acknowledging that, for more skeptical listeners, this language can come across hyperbolic. After all, it’s true that we are manifestly free from fear of persecution in our daily lives as Mormons, at least in most countries where members live. But it’s not enough to point out, as is so often pointed out, that the chance of clergy being forced to perform same-sex ceremonies is remote. This is the most obvious hypothetical conflict of same-sex marriage and religious liberty to come to mind, and maybe the subject of the shrillest paranoia from some members. But it would be a mistake to let it obscure the many realistic ways that the scope of religious exercise could be threatened in the coming years. Among these, the institutional marginalization of BYU is one possibility. Threats to religious tax exemptions could be next in line.

The reason, I think, for denial of the danger on the one hand and apathy on the other is a misunderstanding of what same-sex marriage really means. The degendering of marriage must eventually affect everyone because it both represents and affirms a novel worldview, one in which men and women are interchangeable, human relationships are ordered toward sex and the individual’s identity is authoritative in legal matters. Same-sex marriage lies along the road that was paved by no-fault divorce, premarital sex and legal elective abortion, and other signposts are now appearing ahead.

But regardless of whether we accept this characterization, we will likely soon be forced to accept that some of our liberties are at stake. The cultural and legal space we find ourselves occupying will be no bigger than what we decide now to claim.

“Bad Religion” and Mormon Orthodoxy: A Letter to Ross Douthat

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The following is a letter I recently sent to Ross Douthat.


Mr. Douthat,

I’m a young Mormon who spent much of his Sunday reading Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics.

I loved the book, and if I’m being honest, I might have loved it because it felt like a vindication of my own views on modern religious practice. But your book also gave me a clearer vision of how to move forward as a Christian and a Mormon in the contemporary world. I wanted to express to you how your thesis applies to my religion.

I won’t argue with you that Mormons are heretics to orthodox Christianity, in beliefs and practice. Our temple rites, modern prophets and additional scripture are unique and place us outside any conception of the mainstream. While we believe the church to be a restoration of the original Christian church, it is also true that our religion emerged abruptly in history, in a peculiarly American way.

However, as you mentioned toward the end of your book, Mormons are an unusual example of “vigor and cohesion”. You’ve probably read books like American Grace and are aware that Mormons show an almost unparalleled unity of doctrinal belief among religions in America. Moreover, we really live according to our faith, generally speaking, by paying tithes, involving ourselves in civic life, rejecting alcohol and drugs, remaining chaste, engaging in proselytizing, and studying scripture daily.

I have always felt that the strength of my religion comes from its members’ devotion to (Mormon) orthodoxy, even though our orthodoxy does not fit the Christian religion as it has been inherited from the past. I’m a student of economics and math, and not particularly well read in theology, but I have always felt stirred by words like Chesterton’s, including those you quoted in your book, which characterize orthodoxy as the precarious equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, along a course interrupted by the obstacles of heresy.

This kind of orthodoxy is Mormonism to me, full of balances and syntheses: we are committed to being in the world, as we send out missionaries and devote ourselves to secular education, but we are also of a different world, rejecting contemporary philosophies when they contradict the teachings of Jesus. We are both enterprising and domestic, both outspoken and modest, both charitably disposed and inclined to call others to repentance. We keep a universal, or “eternal perspective”, but we do this by embracing very particular codes of conduct. We seek guidance in both tradition and revelation, in both the Jesus of the New Testament and in the living Christ who still speaks to his people.

We are a little like Catholics, never sacrificing our unity with, and fidelity to, the Church. But like Protestants, we are insistent about the necessity of an individual witness of the truth. We cherish the American ideals that allowed our religion to flourish but we love to watch the religion spread across the world. We worship with a democratic spirit wherein ordinary members, not preachers, speak in our services, and our leaders are unpaid laity—but we also defer to hierarchical authority, which we believe is the authority of God. We have a bit of a persecution complex, but also a conviction that we are in fact God’s chosen people, part of the Church of Jesus Christ, the kingdom to which the Lord will return.

Like the rest of Christianity, the Mormon struggle is as much against our own heretics as it is against secularism. While we have never faced the kind of existential collapse that has afflicted the Mainline churches, there is, in this internet age, a disproportionately loud chorus of well-meaning Mormon voices (along with disingenuous and cynical ones) telling Christ’s apostles that the church should catch up with the times (whatever that happens to mean in the current decade). My personal belief is a little bit Benedictine: I do not expect that the church will move away from orthodoxy, and I suspect that the tent of believers will shrink a little over the next decade or so before expanding again.

On the last page of Bad Religion you invited Americans to return to the Christian religion that is their heritage, and I welcome that call. I’m sure that, as a Catholic, you would rather move about in a country full of practising Presbyterians than lapsed Catholics, and I have similar sentiments. My invitation to you, one of the most important public religious voices in the United States, is not necessarily to expand your view of what orthodoxy is, but at least to take a longer look at the Latter-day Saints. I would be gratified to see you paint a truer portrait than the Glenn Beck-heavy one you painted in Bad Religion. This is, I think, a reasonable request in a world where a Mormon not only won a major party nomination for president, but lived perhaps the most “orthodox” religious lifestyle of any presidential candidate of the last half-century.

If you have gotten this far in this letter, I’m very grateful for your time. I’ll leave you with two links, which you can visit if you have the time and interest. The first is a recent sermon of apostle Jeffrey R. Holland to the worldwide church, which rings, as far as I can tell, in harmony with every teaching of the New Testament. The second is to my website, a collection of essays called Virtuous Society.

Thanks for your eloquent and essential voice.

Tom Stringham

Is There Still a Place for Religion?

A depiction of Abraham, spiritual ancestor of the major monotheistic religions.

A depiction of Abraham, spiritual ancestor of the major monotheistic religions.

If there exists a popular portrait of religion in the West, it is not as bright as it once was. The spirituality that once illuminated the stage of history is now painted dimly, as if an obstacle in the path of progress and material prosperity.

This metaphorical portrait is given commentary by academic voices speaking the language of statistics. Sociologists juxtapose the low religiosity of countries in Northern Europe with their low rates of crime and poverty. Unbelievers in America remark that religious people are over-represented in US prisons—and under-represented among its scientists and thinkers. In the opinion of many researchers, the statistical landscape of religion is bleak.

As someone who is religious, I have sometimes looked away in disappointment from this scene, wishing there was some other pattern to be seen in it. While I have always found compelling spiritual and personal justifications for my religiosity, I have avoided debates about the social effects of faith, suspecting there was little statistical ground to stand on.

I have recently discovered this is not the case. The dramatic patterns of cause and effect, made obvious by a glance at the portrait that was brushed in broad strokes, give way to subtler narratives when the picture is crafted in finer lines by someone with keener eyes.

Two books I have read recently on religion and society have given nuance to my view. Both attempt to uncover the nature and role of religion in the United States. One is American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, both researchers at prominent American universities. The other is American Blessings: How Religion Benefits Everyone, Including Atheists by Rodney Stark, who is one of the best known sociologists of religion.

Despite the ecclesiastical tone of each title, both books are mainly occupied by data and analysis. American Grace is particularly data-heavy, and it is appended by 123 pages of notes and appendices. With little theory or speculation, the authors share their analysis of the newest and best datasets on religion in America. American Blessings is also a statistical work, and it cites more than two hundred academic studies, all of which, according to Stark, use rigorous statistical methods.

Here are the claims of the authors. Campbell and Putnam find that religious Americans are more civically engaged, more generous, more neighborly, and more likely to be happy than irreligious Americans. Stark goes further, making and justifying claims that religion has the effect of lessening crime and delinquency, increasing educational success, improving mental health, lengthening human longevity, preventing suicide and promoting charitable giving and volunteering, even to secular causes. He proclaims (with satisfaction) that religious couples report more enjoyable sex lives than their unchurched peers, and that they are less likely to cheat, divorce, or mistreat their children.

Some of these findings are not surprising: most everyone has agreed for some time that religiosity is linked to generosity and civic engagement. The rest of the claims, however, seem to contradict popular (or at least academic) wisdom. I assumed, for example, before I began studying the question, that religiosity was linked to lower educational success and higher rates of crime and poverty.

What explains the gap between our assumptions and these statistics? According to Stark, most of the claims made about religion in the sociological literature are justified by simplistic analysis of poorly gathered data. Many papers use small samples of individuals, often drawn from non-random sources. More importantly, a great deal of the analysis performed does not control for relevant external variables.

This is a vital criticism. When searching for cause-and-effect relationships in social science data, it is irresponsible not to control for possible confounding effects to find independent relationships between variables. This is more difficult than correlating two sets of numbers: it involves regression analysis, a sophisticated technique with well-established statistical properties that can reveal hidden patterns in data.

It is true, for example, that the US states with the lowest incarceration rates have the lowest levels of religiosity. But when controlling for race, income and other social factors by way of regression methods, Stark finds that religion is actually negatively correlated with violent crime. This apparent discrepancy is resolved by the fact that black and Hispanic Americans represent a hugely disproportionate share of incarcerated Americans, but are also more religious than white Americans. While religious blacks and Hispanics are somewhat less violent than irreligious blacks and Hispanics (as can be confirmed by a closer look at the data), there are so many more minorities in prison than whites that it appears as if religious people commit more violent crime. Naive interpretation of data, even accurate data, can lead to conclusions opposite to reality.

Likewise, little can be inferred from the observation that the Western countries with the lowest religiosity are also those with the lowest crime rates. While there is very little statistical analysis of religion and crime in Europe, the existing literature finds a negative relationship between the two (the cited study is for crime in Sweden). Further, it is important not to be selective with statistics: while the US has a much higher murder rate than the Scandinavian countries, it also has far lower rates of assault and burglary, using 2008 data (according to Stark). It appears that crime has declined in the West over time despite growing irreligiosity, and probably not because of it.

It is also certainly possible that the heresy of our age underlies the slow decay of economic growth rates in the West, the rise of structural unemployment, or the stubbornness of child poverty rates (which are correlated with single parenthood).

The literature on the social effects of faithfulness is of course not settled. It may turn out that some of Stark’s conclusions are wrong, or lack adequate nuance. To that point, it seems to me after more study that the relationship between education and religion is more complicated than he let on: while church-attending students outperform the irreligious, it is also true that individual religiosity decreases as individuals gain higher education.

Nevertheless, a second look at the data is justified. To the extent that social scientists have neglected rigorous analysis in favor of more agreeable correlations, they must re-evaluate their assumptions, and paint their portrait of religious society in finer strokes, and from a wider palette. They will likely find that faith does not cast a shadow on modernity, but rather lights its way.

Is America Exceptional?

Last week it became clear to the world that there was emerging a diplomatic alternative to controversial US military intervention in Syria. While the public and the political class had already opposed the strike, President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and everyone else now turned their attention toward Russia and its president, grateful for a simpler solution to the Syrian dilemma.

Vladimir Putin’s brief editorial piece in the New York Times, most of which was spent asking Americans to reject military action, came a few days after the revelation, at this moment of retreat. If Putin was attempting to persuade the public, he was wasting his time—Americans strongly preferred a diplomatic solution. If he was attempting to sway the president and his cabinet, he would have found it as effective to speak with them personally or through diplomatic channels, as he has now done.

Mr. Putin was probably sending a different message. This is clear in light of his final paragraph, which was not a conclusion to the foreign policy article he had written above. His message was the following opinion, related only tangentially to his piece:

I carefully studied [President Obama’s] address to the nation on Tuesday. And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.

I will come to the reasons for Putin’s condescension in a moment. But it would be useful, first of all, to examine why anyone cares about the idea of “American exceptionalism” at all, by remembering a few selected superlatives.

America is a relatively new nation. In political terms, however, the United States is the oldest continuous government on earth (leaving aside the microstate San Marino). Since the end of the Revolutionary War, every transition of its power has been peaceful–even the secession of the South following Lincoln’s election did not threaten the federal government or the presidential office. The ideological upheaval of the 19th and 20th centuries did not shake America, and Marxism never infected its government.

The first formal, written constitution was America’s, in 1787. The United States was the first effective liberal democracy, and the first to write in inviolable law the personal freedoms of speech and religion. America’s revolution was more than the first of its kind–it was also uniquely successful by comparison to later movements in France and other parts of Europe. The American Revolution, almost alone, was not characterized by an excess either of liberalism or conservatism, demonstrating in practice the ideals and virtues immortalized in words by America’s fathers.

By any reasonable metric the United States is the most powerful political entity in history. Of the dozen or so superpowers that have existed over the last few millennia, however, America has been the least tempted by conquest, rarely taking advantage of its opportunities to permanently control foreign lands (the Philippines as the main exception). On the other hand, the extent of America’s economic aid to post-war friends and enemies is staggering, considering Western Europe, Japan and the parties to more recent conflicts.

It is almost unnecessary to point out the economic, technological and cultural importance of this New World republic, at least to us who are communicating via a worldwide network created in the US, using American software and electronic devices invented by Americans. The essence of our modern, post-industrial world is American, as any of us non-Americans can admit to ourselves when we look around.

There are other exceptional nations. Great Britain, out of whose empire America was born, has perhaps influenced the world more than any other nation in the last 500 years—and it certainly has a great deal to do with America’s greatness. Otto von Bismarck was correct when he predicted on his deathbed in 1898 that nothing would shape modern history more profoundly than the fact that “the North Americans speak English.” Canada is included in this class of extraordinary Anglophone countries.

Japan’s forty-year rise, following a catastrophic war, was rightly named a miracle, and only a handful of countries have equalled the feat. The Scandinavian countries, the Low Countries and Switzerland, to pick a few salient examples, have managed to maintain extraordinarily peaceful and prosperous societies for at least half a century. Even within this peculiar class of nations, however, America is an exception. There is something to be said for greatness.

Philosophizing on equality and moralizing about modesty, the way Mr. Putin did last week, is nothing rhetorically new. These methods do, however, have the intended effect on Americans, who tend to avoid assertions of their own exceptionalism, so as not to appear the ugly, ego-blinded American.

As someone who has lived in the US for a period and has made efforts to study its history, I can offer an opinion on whether it is an exception. And as a Canadian, I can safely offer an opinion that is favourable to the idea. In a world where cultural cynicism, political arbitrariness and economic narrowness have always been the rule, America was the first, and remains the greatest, exception. Russia, in the company of so many other nations, is not, and has not ever been.

Perhaps Mr. Putin knows this. Maybe he went to the trouble of sending a message to America last week in an effort to dampen his internal anguish. His sadness (and perhaps his envy) is secured by the fact that no one, and certainly no American president, will ever write letters to Russian newspapers to tell them their country is nothing special–there would be no need to state the obvious.

Only extreme success, or abject failure, would really invite impassioned criticisms of a nation’s notability. But America is by no means a failure—that America attracts so much second-world contempt is a witness of its greatness.

America’s flaws, including its great flaws, while not sufficient to make the country unexceptional in our imperfect world, are real. And like everything mortal, America, and its unique vitality, cannot be permanent. But, “whenever the dissolution of the Union arrives”, as John Jay wrote in 1787, “America will have reason to exclaim, in the words of the poet: Farewell! A long farewell to all my greatness!