College: An Employment Agency with Gothic Towers?

With this item, TheoPol resumes its weekly schedule.

Gasson Hall, Boston College

As the parent of a high-school junior who will be deep into the college search soon enough, I’ve been forced to reflect on the purposes of a college education. My philosophical conclusion is that college is fundamentally about two things: getting into the habit of lifelong learning, and forming or developing yourself as a person. My parental view is less untroubled. I grapple with the idea that college is really about spawning a career and, by the grace of the financial gods, eluding the demons of monstrous debt.

These perspectives are not naturally allied, and increasing numbers of middle-class families are acting on the latter assumption and making stark choices about college.

Last month, the gigantic student lender Sallie Mae issued its annual report, How America Pays for College. Among other sobering results, the study found that students are dropping out of the humanities right and left, stampeding toward degrees such as nursing that would appear to make them more employable. More than ever, families are eliminating college choices—for example, the high-priced liberal arts school that offers a well-rounded education—because of costs. And, for the first time in recent memory, more than half of all college students are living at home.

How are the thought leaders of the liberal arts responding to these realities? In the circles I travel in, some are doubling down on the message that a university is not an employment agency with gothic towers. On the contrary, students are there to discover their passions, to learn how to think and to serve others, according to many of the messengers.

One of the more colorful among them is Father Michael Himes, professor of theology at Boston College. Several times this past summer, he delivered the word to incoming students and their parents at Boston College’s freshmen orientations, one of which I attended in June, not officially as a parent but as a contributing writer for Boston College Magazine. Here’s part of my rendering of the Himes presentation:

After a preamble about how “robust conversation” defines a great university, Himes arrived at his core contention. A great university is not about finding a job or “adding a zero to a starting salary line” or even getting into graduate school, he said. “Don’t get me wrong,” Himes went on in his curiously blended accent, part Brooklyn and part Britain (having grown up in the borough, around relatives from abroad). “It’s terribly important. It’s just not what a university is good at. It’s not what it’s about.” He continued—“It’s about producing intellectuals.” These are people who are never completely satisfied with an answer to a big question and always keep probing. Their rallying cry is, as Himes put it, “Yes, but.”

At a place like Boston College, he said, students ask questions about human existence, about who they want to become, and how they can channel their passions and talents into service to the world. During the Q&A, a parent asked from his seat in a middle row what “we,” parents, should fear most about what lies ahead in college. Himes replied in an instant—“that at no time in the next four years will your student shock you and fill you with horror.” The response brought down the house, although a disproportionate share of the high-spirited clapping and cheering appeared to come from younger hands and voices.

Part of me wonders if this is an ivory tower version of Mitt Romney’s Thurston Howell-like advice to students: “Borrow money from your parents if you have to.” The variation might be—Worried about paying for college and earning a livelihood after you graduate? Become an intellectual! On its face, it’s a non-response.

But leaving aside “intellectual,” the case that Himes makes is not without its practical side. He’s shrewd enough to know that a narrow vocational training for jobs today might not help much tomorrow, and that young people, most of all, need to learn how to think, analyze, communicate, and problem-solve. Or at least that’s the belief of those who take the leap of liberal arts faith.

And then there’s the nagging question of being a person. College students need space and (dare I say) intellectual leisure to reflect on who they are, and what they have to offer to the world. I’m not sure if this could happen if they’re desperately seeking a career from day one. Not an easy question, but an important one, especially if you agree with Himes when he says: “Before you can do something, you have to be someone.” …read more

Can You Hear Me Now, God?

T.M. Luhrmann, author of "When God Talks Back"

In my prayer life, which waxes and wanes, I’ve paid a bit of heed to the old psychiatry joke that when you talk to God, you’re praying, but when God talks to you, you’re nuts. It’s not that I brush off the idea of human beings conversing in a meaningful way with ultimate reality. It’s that the communication lines are more static-ridden than many would like to believe. At times they’re down completely, it seems.

Admittedly, I have tendentious thoughts when I hear people say that God sent them a sign—to pull up stakes and move to Alaska, or turn left at the corner where they found an exceptional parking space. I’m prone to assign such belief to an incredible category that includes George W. Bush supposedly claiming that God told him to invade Iraq. (Was God also wrong about the WMDs?) Somehow I leave out of this dubious category the story of Martin Luther King Jr. on a sleepless night in the winter of 1956, nervously clutching a cup of coffee at his kitchen table, gripped by fear of what might happen to him and his family during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. At that moment (as he often recalled), he heard the voice of Jesus promising: “I will be with you” in the struggle.

But I do think this whole question warrants a serious and thoughtful handling. That’s what T. M. Luhrmann offers in her recently published and highly readable book, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (Knopf).

A psychological anthropologist now at Stanford, Luhrmann spent two years attending services at an evangelical church in Chicago and interviewing members of that congregation. With admirable scholarly detachment, she tackles basic questions like how “sensible people” are able to experience the presence of a powerful yet invisible being. One of her hypotheses is that some people are able to train their minds in such a way that they “learn to identify some thoughts as God’s voice, some images as God’s suggestions, some sensations as God’s touch or the response to his nearness.”

Saw God

Surprisingly for a book about evangelicals, Ignatian spirituality comes up frequently. A number of the congregants interviewed by Luhrmann borrowed freely from the prayer and discernment practices of Jesuits, who, as these men like to say, seek to “find God in all things.” This past spring, while on assignment for Boston College Magazine, I was privileged to sit in on two small groups of undergraduate students as they reflected in this fashion on their lives and encounters with the divine.

The students belong to a campus faith-sharing network called Cura, which derives its name from the Jesuit expression cura personalis (Latin for “care of the person”). One of their favorite exercises is the “Highs and Lows,” which involves conversation about their ups and downs of recent days. Each member of the group also talks about where he or she “saw God.” For one young woman, it was in the warm and relieved smile of a driver who might have gestured differently after having to slam the brakes near Boston Common as the student jogged inattentively into the street, plugged into her iPod.

The Highs and Lows echo an Ignatian exercise called “the Examen” (from the Latin word for examination). It’s a spiritual self-review that involves prayerfully recollecting moments during the day and reflecting on how God was present at those times, followed by a decision to act in some way. “You’re asking God for light, and letting your mind roam over your day. And you’re looking forward to tomorrow, planting that seed,” Jesuit Father Michael Boughton, SJ, who directs Boston College’s Center for Ignatian Spirituality, told me. “Planting that seed” might mean deepening a friendship, reaching out to the poor, or strengthening one’s prayer life, the priest noted.

This is the mode of prayer that I most readily embrace. It has its roots not only in the writings of St. Ignatius Loyola, but also in the spiritual practices of the ancient Stoics, according to a number of authorities. What I like about the five-step Examen is that it leads the pray-er to focus on segments of time (a day, preferably) and to recall how he or she felt during specific moments. Only then can people adequately reflect on the meaning of those experiences and perhaps what God (or the collective unconscious?) was communicating to them.

I also like one of the premises of the daily Examen, which is that such discernment requires continual reflection and reevaluation, because understanding the divine intent is an iffy business. You might get mixed signals or no signals at all. You could be just plain wrong about what God (or the Truth) is bidding you to do, but at least you’ll be engaged in a thoughtful spiritual exercise that is notably free of nuttiness. …read more

Among the Homies

Greg Boyle, S.J.

Over the past week, my thoughts about political matters have taken a sort of geographical turn, after going to see Father Gregory Boyle lecture at Boston College High School. The Jesuit priest is well known for his work with gang members in Los Angeles, far too many of whom he has buried over the years. Speaking to a lively overflow crowd in the school gym on a Tuesday night, Boyle did a remarkable riff on the Beatitudes, the eight “blessed are the … ” declarations by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.

He noted that some translations of the sermon say “happy” instead of “blessed.” And, he pointed out that many biblical scholars are thrilled with neither word, because the more precise (if cumbersome) rendering of the passage from the Gospel of Matthew would be—“You’re in the right place.” That is: You’re in the right place if you’re merciful. You’re in the right place if you hunger and thirst for justice. And so on.

“It’s about social location. It’s about where we choose to stand,” said Boyle, who delivered the second annual Dowmel Lecture sponsored by the New England Province of the Society of Jesus on June 5. Then he offered this bracing interpretation—“The Beatitudes is not a spirituality. It’s a geography. It tells us where to stand.”

In the Lowly Places

Boyle takes his inspiration in part from Jesuit founder St. Ignatius Loyola, who instructed his recruits to “see Jesus standing in the lowly places.” He has inhabited such a place since the mid-1980s, when he arrived in East Los Angeles—often called the gang capital of the world—as a young pastor and quickly decided that presiding over funerals wasn’t going to be his signal contribution to gang members and their families. Two years later, in 1988, he started Homeboy Industries, a now-thriving collection of enterprises that include baking, silk-screening, tattoo-removal, landscaping, and other homie-staffed businesses.

Boyle, a gentle soul who looked pleasantly rumpled in an old black blazer and an unpressed pale-blue shirt, recounted the Homeboy story with grace and wry humor. (The whole story is told beautifully in his book Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, published in 2010 by Free Press).

In the beginning, he went looking for what he called “felony-friendly” employers who might want to hire the young ex-cons, and who were (not surprising to hear) few and far between. Then he got the idea to start some businesses—like Homeboy Plumbing, which didn’t exactly catch on. “Who knew? People didn’t want to have gang members in their homes,” Boyle said, tossing up his hands in mock amazement. “Who saw that coming?”

The Jesuit even made a joke with regard to the leukemia he has recently battled (and which is now in remission). He noted that he when he has an appointment at the hospital, he always gets a ride from a homie—which is “clearly more harrowing than the chemotherapy itself.”

Today, Homeboy Industries employs approximately 300 of those who used to run with gangs. One of its newer ventures, HomeGirl Café, staffed by female ex-gang members (“waitresses with attitude,” Boyle quips), serves about 2,000 customers a week at three sites. The broader organization also provides an array of social services such as tutoring and job training to more than 1,000 homeboys and homegirls each month. The vast bulk of them are on probation or parole.

What Boyle hopes for is hope itself. “Gangs are places kids go where they have encountered a life of misery,” he told the 500 or so lecture goers, among them students who read the Spanish-language edition of his book in a “Spanish Liberation Theology” class at the Jesuit high school, and who turned out wearing black-and-white Homeboy Industries T-shirts. “Nobody ever met a hopeful kid who joined a gang.”

Anyone with a Pulse?

During the Q&A, a young African American man asked the Jesuit if a white guy like him could really connect with these troubled young people of color. Boyle has a ruddy face and a bushy white beard—he could not be mistaken for a homie.

“Who can do this?” he asked rhetorically. “Anyone with a pulse. You can do it,” he said running a finger from one side of the audience to the other (over a crowd that included no slim share of Irish Catholic suburbanites). “If you’re receiving people and loving people, nobody will ever say, ‘You don’t understand.’ ”

The problems of the world are immense, and there will always be plenty of room for debate about the best solutions. But there is perhaps a simpler way of looking at the social challenges, the way of the Beatitudes. As Greg Boyle suggests, the clearest task of faith is not necessarily to take the right stands on issues, which are perpetually open to argument. The unmistakable task is to stand in the right places, with the lowly, despised, and afflicted.

Geography. …read more

The Bonhoeffer Café

Dietrich Bonhoeffer—theologian, pacifist, almost assassin of Adolph Hitler—continues to fascinate. This summer will bring the perennial crop of academic conferences about the German Lutheran’s life and legacy. The Beams Are Creaking, a biographical play about Bonhoeffer, is currently being presented by Houston’s A. D. Players. And I just heard this past week about a new café not far from where I live—Bonhoeffer’s, in Nashua, New Hampshire, which uses proceeds to aid orphans and refugees in impoverished countries.

Bonhoeffer was on the menu this past February at the always-strange National Prayer Breakfast in Washington. During his keynote speech, bestselling conservative author Eric Metaxas claimed that George W. Bush had recently read his 2010 biography of Bonhoeffer. Then he handed a copy of the 608-page doorstop to the man sitting a few feet away from him—Barack Obama—and said jejunely, “No pressure.” With Obama straining to smile, Metaxas also suggested that legal abortion was akin to Nazism.

Bonhoeffer is in perpetual “vogue,” as the Christian literary review Books & Culture has pronounced. That’s an ironic way of commending the clergyman who railed against superficiality in all matters religious, and could not indulge what he called “cheap grace,” the easy path to discipleship.

One lesson of Bonhoeffer’s witness is that the Christian Church must always be a church, must always pay ultimate loyalty to God, not to false gods, which for Bonhoeffer included Nazi ideology. While still in his twenties, Bonhoeffer, who began his theological career at the University of Berlin, emerged at the forefront of the Confessing Church, an ecclesial movement that arose in 1934 with a call for German Christians to resist the Third Reich.

Bonhoeffer’s Choice

There are incongruities in the Bonhoeffer story, and the most tantalizing has to do with the choice that sealed his martyrdom. He was a pacifist who never renounced his belief that violence is antithetical to Christian faith, as revealed by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. And yet beginning in early 1938, he joined in a succession of conspiracies to murder Hitler, while spying for the Allies. This turn from pure nonviolence has led some, including conservative Christians like Metaxas, to fancy that Bonhoeffer would have cheered America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But this conjecture seems to miss an essential point about the man and his thinking. Scholars note that Bonhoeffer—who recorded his thoughts in letters smuggled out of prison—did not rationalize his actions other than to say that the situation was extreme. The theologian felt that his decision to join in the conspiracies against the Fuhrer “was not justified by law or principle, but rather was a free act of Christian responsibility, for which he threw himself on the mercy of God,” Clifford Green, a Lutheran minister and eminent Bonhoeffer scholar who taught at Hartford Theological Seminary, told me a few years ago.

This ethic may be too subtle for retail politics, but it’s powerful still. In the most acute moral emergencies, we can do what we have to do, to stop a tyrant or head off genocide. But let’s not fool ourselves. There will be plenty to atone for, and little cause for self-congratulation.

What is indisputable is that Bonhoeffer accepted “the cost of discipleship,” which are the title words of his 1937 classic. On the morning of April 9, 1945, at the Flossenburg concentration camp, he was stripped, led naked to the gallows, and hung for his part in the plots to assassinate Hitler. At that moment, historians say, Bonhoeffer could hear American artillery in the distance.

He was 39 years old. Two weeks later, the Allies liberated the city. …read more

From a Reporter’s Notebook: Values and Votes in 2012

TheoPol has been out in fora land this week, attending two public forums and a few less-public discussions in Washington and Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. The public highlights were “Election 2012: The Values Behind the Issues,” a forum sponsored by Georgetown University’s Woodstock Theological Center on Tuesday night; and “Is Religious Liberty Under Threat in America?” held one night later at Boston College under the auspices of BC’s Church in the 21st Century Center and Law School. Here are some noteworthy remarks by the notable speakers at those events.

Heard in Georgetown

E.J. Dionne of Brookings Institution and the Washington Post: The Catholic Church’s job in the political order is “to make us all feel guilty about something, to force liberals to think about the life issues and force conservatives to think about the poor. The Church now may be falling down on about half its job, making only half of us [the liberals] feel guilty…. I worry very much that the focus is on attempting to push Catholic social teaching and social justice to the back of the bus.”

Amy Sullivan of Time magazine, referring to explanations by spokesmen for the bishops that they haven’t the time to address both social issues like abortion and matters like peace and justice: ”The bishops are certainly skilled enough to walk and chew gum at the same time.”

David Gibson of Religion News Service, adapting a witticism often heard in relation to American Jews: “Mormons really are like everyone else, but only more so…. They’re clean-cut, clean-living. They lead upstanding lives. They’re the perfect amalgam of the American dream and the Protestant ethic.”

Tom Roberts of the National Catholic Reporter, after citing an Illinois Catholic bishop who compared “extreme secularist” President Obama with Hitler and Stalin: “When you’re using the most extreme language, there’s no way to step back, no way to admit nuance or different ways to think about an issue…. Religion in the public realm is almost destroying itself, because it isn’t real religion. It’s politics.”

… in Chestnut Hill

The Rev. J. Bryan Hehir of Harvard Divinity School, speaking of the mandate for contraception coverage in President Obama’s healthcare reform law and efforts to reach a compromise with Catholic institutions that oppose the mandate: “You go for the [negotiated] common ground, but if you can’t get to common ground, you keep the law and allow a broad exemption” for all religious institutions.

Cathleen Kaveny of Notre Dame Law School, on that same point: “We’ve got to protect religious institutions, but I keep thinking of the people who work for them and who might not agree with them [about the alleged immorality of artificial contraception]. What do we owe to the people who disagree with them?”

John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter, on the largely ignored question of religious liberty worldwide and the estimated 150,000 Christians who die in sectarian violence each year: “In the past hour, 17 Christians have been killed on this planet.”

Vincent Rougeau, dean of Boston College Law School: “We need to think about how we could engage [and support] Christians and other religious believers around the world,” in a genuine campaign for religious freedom. …read more

Rush Kidder and the Secular Souls

Recent political arguments over religion have turned light on a welter of anxieties about irreligiousness in the United States. As seen on the stump, Republican presidential hopefuls have taken to upbraiding unbelief, or what Newt Gingrich denounced last month as “the growing culture of radical secularism.” Less incendiary but equally worried assessments have come from even-tempered observers like Harvard University law professor Mary Ann Glendon. She wrote earlier this month in America magazine that the “changing religious landscape in the United States … should set off alarm bells” together with what she considers the current assault on religious liberty. The landscape Glendon fears is one with fewer Americans, notably young people, claiming a religious affiliation.

In moments like this it’s useful to go back to first principles. Why should political leaders be so concerned about the growing presence of the undevout? What would be the compelling public interest in throttling back this trend?

One reasonable answer would be that a good society depends on good people, and organized religion has traditionally been the primary source of public virtue. True enough, but there are other sources as well, secular traditions of moral reasoning reflected in philosophical and common sense ethics (more on that in a moment). In any case, what the worriers fail to appreciate is that the secular souls are among us. They’re here to stay—perhaps in greater numbers than ever. This simple fact would seem to call for a more pastoral approach to the nonreligious, as distinct from demonization or handwringing.

One person who understood this better and earlier than anyone was Rushworth Kidder, writer, ethicist, and president of the Institute for Global Ethics in Rockport, Maine. Word came last week that this author of such popular books as How Good People Make Tough Choices died of natural causes, at age 67. I chatted with Rush a few times over the years and interviewed him at length for a 2007 book I did with Bob Abernethy. We titled the section including his remarks, “The Good, without God.”

Rush himself was not without religion—he was a Christian Scientist and one-time columnist for the Christian Science Monitor. But he was keenly responsive to the many people who seek the ethical life apart from religion and spirituality; he spent much of his time over many years with them, in seminars he offered for schools, businesses, and other groups. When we spoke, I asked him about those people who do not have religious reasons for wanting to reason morally. Here’s part of his reply.

It’s probably the oldest question in moral philosophy—why be moral? After all, the manifest advantages of the immoral life are lying all around us. If you want something, just steal it. Why bother to be truthful if you could lie?

Probably the oldest answer to that question is—because that’s what God wants. That was, for a long time, the accepted and rather standard answer in the United States….

Here, in the early twenty-first century, it is still a powerful answer for a lot of people…. But it is not and cannot be allowed to be the only answer. We’re not willing to assume that people who don’t have that framework not only aren’t ethical, but can’t be ethical or in some ways don’t deserve to be ethical. There’s too much of a polyglot and varying theology in this country today, and there are too many people who deliberately have no theology for us to rule them out and say, “Yes, we’re assuming that when you don’t have a god, you don’t have ethics.”

… There are three major ways in which individuals resolve ethical dilemmas, and at least two of these come straight out of the largely secular tradition of moral philosophy. When somebody says, “Look, I try to do what’s best for everybody—the greatest good for the greatest number,” that person is drawing on John Stuart Mill’s utilitarian philosophy. Using a different principle, the teacher who says to a five-year-old kid, “Gosh, Johnny, if I let you do that, I have to let everybody do it,” is actually speaking a fairly pure form of Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative—the idea that the only viable moral decision is one which universalizes what you’re doing, so that if you can’t say you’d want everybody in the world to do what you’re about to do, then you’re about to make an unethical decision. Third, there’s the Golden Rule—do to others as you would have them do to you—which typically comes to us from a religious source but is as commonplace as the Native American adage, “Don’t judge somebody until you’ve walked a mile in their moccasins.”

Just observing the twenty-five thousand people who have gone through our seminars in the past fifteen years, we find them resorting to these three standards again and again. So whether they know it or not, there’s a structure in place, and you’ll notice that nearly everything we’re talking about here has no reference to religion. And we’ve noticed there isn’t any salient distinction between the moral reasoning capacities of people who are religious and those who are not religious.

A Question about the Future

At the end of the interview, Rush added this caveat to his otherwise hopeful assessment of secular moral reasoning:

For me, the question is: Is it possible to lead the ethical life apart from the religious or spiritual life, without simply continuing to drain down the reservoir. In other words, I wonder whether we are, in fact, living off the accumulated moral capital of the past. That capital was largely put into place in a theological context. Yes, I’m sure it’s possible to lead the ethical life now and to help others lead that ethical life. But will we be effective at creating entire cultures of integrity, rather than little pockets of character throughout society, if we try to do it absent a set of theological constructs that posit a divine purpose underlying human ethics? I don’t know the answer to that. …read more

Friending Aristotle

Just in the past week, I’ve spoken at different times with two young people who happened to mention that they’ve deactivated their Facebook pages. “It’s already made me more intentional about relationships,” one Boston College student told me a few days after deciding to log off for good. Acting on one intention, she arranged to have lunch with a friend.

This student is not alone. In December the New York Times ran a piece about Facebook resisters: people who refuse to join or choose to drop out. The prototype for the story was a premed student in Oregon who had a chance encounter with a woman in an elevator. He had never met her, but through Facebook knew that she came from a remote island in Washington State and had recently visited Seattle’s signature tower, the Space Needle. He had also seen family pictures of her older brother.

“I knew all these things about her, but I’d never even talked to her,” the college student told Jenna Wortham of the Times (he and the woman in the elevator had real friends in common). “At that point I thought, maybe this is a little unhealthy.”

These Facebook defectors are grappling with questions both personal and philosophical—questions enlightened by Aristotle more than two millennia ago in his immortal Nicomachean Ethics. What is friendship? Who shall I count among my friends, and why?

At Boston College, political science professor Robert C. Bartlett teaches classes in Aristotle’s Ethics, and he finds that students are most drawn to Books VIII and IX, which deal with numerous aspects of friendship. These days, the question that brews in class is more or less: How many of my 675 friends on Facebook would be considered actual friends by Aristotle? The students can take a good guess at the answer if they’ve kept up with the reading.

Varieties of Friendship

Friends fall into three basic categories, according to Aristotle. There are friendships of utility, based largely on what the friends could do for each other. There are friendships of pleasure, which often bring people together because of a shared hobby or interest. And there are friendships of virtue (Aristotle’s favorite): You like someone because he or she is a good person. You and your friend help each other lead the good, as in ethical, life.

Which of these would best describe some typical Facebook friends, like the kid you ran track with in high school and haven’t heard a lot from since? Bartlett’s sober answer is: none.

Together with University of Houston political science professor Susan D. Collins, Bartlett analyzes Aristotle’s view of friendship in a commentary included in a new and well-received edition of the Ethics, translated by them and published by the University of Chicago Press. (I write about the translation project in the current issue of Boston College Magazine). One of their basic conclusions is that friendship, in Aristotle’s understanding, is active. A friend is a part of your life and has been for some time. As Bartlett and Collins put it, “Friends go through life together.” They wish the best for each other and do things for each other’s sake. (In that sense, all friendships call for virtue, even those based largely on utility and pleasure). And friends “share in sufferings and joys,” the two scholars add.

To the student who wonders about his hundreds of Facebook friends, Bartlett will say they can’t all be real friends; each one can’t be a meaningful part of your life. If that’s true, then what are these friended folks? Simply put, they’re acquaintances (at best), Bartlett submits.

Two Cheers for Acquaintanceships

Many of us would not want to end the conversation right there.

For one thing, acquaintanceships are far from valueless. They can be glimpsed in the rows of parents who unfold their chairs and chat pleasantly on the sidelines at soccer games, and the neighbors who together keep vigilant “eyes on the street,” to use Jane Jacobs’s evocative words. These are not necessarily friends, but they encounter one another along some of life’s familiar pathways. With any luck they help nurture a feeling of civic friendship.

And how should we think about the people with whom we once journeyed more profoundly through life? It’s hard to let go of the belief that our high school or college buddies from long ago are still our friends, even if we know little about their lives today that’s not posted on Facebook. As Bartlett notes, Aristotle assigns the tender feelings we may have for such people to the category of “goodwill,” not friendship. I hear you, Aristotle, but grope for a word richer than “goodwill” to account for the bonds that were, and—in ways not easy to name—continue to be.

All the same, everyone who desires a fuller appreciation of these questions will find a wise and discerning friend in Aristotle. “Without friends,” he writes in the Ethics, “no one would wish to live, even if he possessed all other goods.” …read more

The Exceptional American

In the United States, we the people cling to the idea that cherished values such as freedom and opportunity are somehow distinctively American. The accidental philosopher Yogi Berra expressed this sentiment beautifully in the late 1950s when he heard that the mayor of Dublin (as in Ireland, not Ohio) was Jewish. “Only in America!” he declared.

In many ways the role that religious faith plays in American politics is exceptional too. Unlike their counterparts in most Western democracies, American presidents continue to routinely invoke the deity in their addresses to the nation. Of course leaders of theocracies do the same, but the U.S. presidential invokers of faith also preside over a government that is religiously neutral. That is a rare juxtaposition.

In the American tradition, though, there’s an exception within the exceptionalism on this count. If you look at religiously tinged oratory by presidents at key times in our history, you’ll see that nearly all of them have tried, subtly or unsubtly, to cast their causes in the singular light of divine favor. All except, notably, Abraham Lincoln.

Instead of assuming the God-is-on-our-side posture, Lincoln proclaims in his Second Inaugural Address near the end of the Civil War, “The Almighty has His own purposes.” Instead of presuming to know the whole truth about the crisis at hand, Lincoln lays claim only to the partial truth that “God gives us to see …”

Lincoln is different.

God Talkers in Chief

I recently had occasion to dig through a well-chosen collection of ten major presidential speeches projecting religious themes, courtesy of Boston College’s Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life and Boston College Magazine (which asked me to report on a student-led “God Talk” seminar sponsored by the center). The Boisi staff, including associate director Erik Owens and doctoral candidate in political science Brenna Strauss, selected the items, which are available here.

One set of those texts relates to the theme of “National Crisis and War” and features oratory by FDR, Reagan, Eisenhower, and George W. Bush in addition to Lincoln.

In one entry, Roosevelt delivers a radio message from the White House to a nation still somewhat unalarmed by the Nazi threat. It’s May 1941, seven months before Pearl Harbor. He warns that the Nazis worship no god other than Hitler and that our freedom of worship is at stake: “What place has religion which preaches the dignity of the human being, of the majesty of the human soul, in a world where moral standards are measured by treachery and bribery and Fifth Columnists? Will our children, too, wander off, goose-stepping in search of new gods?”

Similarly, primal religious emotions are painted on our struggles with foes in other commander-in-chief messages. These include Eisenhower’s First Inaugural Address in 1953 (he sees “the watchfulness of a Divine Providence” over America at the height of the Cold War), Reagan’s 1983 “Evil Empire” speech and Bush’s 2002 State of the Union, which introduced “Axis of Evil” into the lexicon.

Lincoln’s Ineffable God

And then there’s Lincoln, who was born 203 years ago on February 12. He’s the warrior-in-chief against the Confederacy, but there’s no Divine Providence watching preferentially over the Union, in his Second Inaugural (March 4, 1865), which is, as many have described, theologically intense. There’s no casting of political nets around God as Lincoln speaks of North and South:

Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.

Lincoln holds out the possibility that North and South alike might continue to pay, and rightly so, for America’s original sin—slavery.

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

He concludes:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Lincoln’s 703-word Second Inaugural is by far the oldest item in Boisi’s “National Crisis and War” packet, and yet, it’s the most modern in its outlook. Theologically, it is freighted with uncertainty, ambiguity, and a sense of moral tragedy (even our deepest convictions cannot capture the truth), but as he probes the divine nature with soberness and humility, Lincoln arrives at a clear-eyed affirmation of religious faith and American purpose. Yes, Lincoln is different. Lincoln is now. …read more

Shades of ’63, in Birmingham, Alabama

Some recent news from Birmingham, Alabama, made me think, What is it about black kids that makes some people want to spray them violently?

NPR’s All Things Considered reported that police assigned to inner-city schools there have been pepper-spraying high school students who get a little out of hand. The prototype for the story was a 17-year-old girl who, one day last winter, was crying in the hallway because some boys had been calling her names. An officer arrived, told her to calm down and handcuffed her—not the surest way to ease distress. And then, “I got maced. My eyes was burning. My face was burning. Like, I couldn’t breathe. And then like, afterwards, I threw up,” she told NPR. This girl was pregnant at the time.

You’d think Birmingham would be especially wary of using weaponry on African American schoolchildren.

In May 1963 the city attracted world attention when thousands of Negro children flooded its downtown to march with Martin Luther King Jr., in nonviolent demonstrations for civil rights. Police attacked with clubs and dogs and—infamously—high-powered fire hoses that slammed the little ones across the pavement. But the spraying didn’t stop the marching. “In Birmingham, the Negro principal of Parker High School desperately locked the gates from the outside to preserve a semblance of order, but students trampled the chain-link fence to join the demonstrations,” Taylor Branch wrote in his magnificent trilogy America in the King Years.

In Place of Hoses

Today, students who face the Birmingham police at their schools are not exactly practicing civil disobedience. They’re usually engaging in routine misbehavior like cursing, talking too loudly, and violating dress codes by wearing, for example, baggy pants.

In other words, they’re doing the kinds of things that might normally earn a trip to the principal’s office. But at certain high schools in Birmingham, they’re being punished not just with detention but also with chemical weapons. The incidents—reportedly more than 100 of them over the past five years—have taken place primarily at a handful of city high schools with predominantly African American student populations.

President George W. Bush spoke of the “soft racism” of low expectations. He was speaking of academic standards in inner-city schools, but just how low are the expectations of those who feel that the disciplinary toolkit in those schools must include inflammatory agents?

Some students are resisting once again. The Southern Poverty Law Center has filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of seven Birmingham students who have been sprayed, alleging that the city’s school system and police department have “created a police state” within the schools. Black students are also speaking up in places like the Washington, D.C., area, where—according to a Washington Post analysis—they are up to five times more likely than white students to be suspended. Lawyers for the Birmingham students say they could find no other school district in the United States where students are being repeatedly punished with mace.

That they are fighting an apparent injustice would be unsurprising to King, whose birthday we observe this coming Monday. “Many children took it upon themselves to participate in demonstrations even in defiance of their parents and school officials,” writes theological ethicist Rufus Burrow in his handy volume Martin Luther King Jr. for Armchair Theologians, referring to the Civil Rights era. “Such behavior only confirmed for King that children not only had a major stake in the struggle against racial injustice but also had a strong awareness of what was going on. They wanted to participate and would do so in defiance of any adults.”

In the Birmingham of 2012, the adults include African American school administrators: they’ve invited the police into the schools to help keep order. That makes this case less than black and white, morally speaking. Still, it is hard to picture unruly white students in suburban districts being routinely shot with canisters of mace. It’s hard to see this clash entirely apart from the narrative of racial inequity in America, apart from the unfinished work of what King often described as “the beloved community.” …read more

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