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What Does the Democratic Party Stand for Now? Good Question.

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I spent the past week in Philadelphia, in the halls and in the stadium of the Wells Fargo Center, for nearly every hour of the Democratic National Convention. I heard more than a hundred speakers, and spoke spoken to dozens of people in the halls. After four days, I am not certain that I know what, precisely, the Democratic Party wants to be.

For the past two days, I put this question specifically to delegates and staffers, to the people who ought to know: “What, at core, is the Democratic message coming out of this convention?”

I got no shortage of answers.

“Justice for all,” said Chad Lupkes, a Bernie Sanders delegate from Washington state.

“A party of inclusion that addresses the issues that families are struggling with,” said Susan McGrath, a Florida delegate for Hillary Clinton.

Calvin McFadden, a delegate from Massachusetts, suggested “equality and opportunity for all,” a fight “for the middle class.”

“What I’ve heard over and over is a party that brings us together, that doesn’t divide us, that’s a forward looking party of inclusion,” said Seth Hahn, a Sanders supporter from New Jersey.

These answers were not all issued with confidence. The delegates I spoke to paused, backed up, rephrased. In each case, they settled on general virtues: justice, inclusion, progress, the idea that the party was not so much associated with a particular program but with goodness itself, with a progressive sensibility that will, on the whole, produce virtuous outcomes.

This sense was reflected on the stage, as speaker after speaker appealed not so much to an agenda as an identity: a vision of competence and decency to be trusted with the management of the United States. It is what animated the speeches of Leon Panetta, Michael Bloomberg, Joe Biden, and Elizabeth Warren: figures who represent wildly different visions of American life, but who each asserted that Clinton and the Democratic Party were fighting for the good, whatever that meant to them. “I love Bill Clinton. But I didn’t love his speech Tuesday night in Philadelphia,” wrote Peter Bienart in The Atlantic. “It failed to do what he’s done in every convention speech he’s delivered since 1992: tell a story about where America is today and what can be done to move it forward. He called his wife a great ‘change maker’ but did not define the change America needs right now.”

This ambiguity carried through even to President Barack Obama, in a speech that was criticized, even by some of his and Clinton’s most ardent supporters, for its failure to hew to a concise thesis or vision. “He roamed around, hat-tipping Black Lives Matter and Clinton’s hard work,” delivering “a Bill Clinton-esque performance, meandering around his own record, taking random digs at Donald Trump, and hitting applause lines (YES WE CAN) almost at random,” Salon’s Amanda Marcotte wrote. Rather than a program or a call to action, it was a general paean to democracy and the American spirit, an attempt to align a vote for Hillary Clinton with goodness.

“American exceptionalism and greatness, shining city on hill, founding documents, etc—they’re trying to take all our stuff,” National Review editor Rich Lowry tweeted Wednesday night. Yet on the same night, a DNC video portrayed the party struggling valiantly against all the GOP’s “stuff”—on gun control, on climate change, on health care, even at the risk of costing Obama a second term.

What program, what vision of the United States, can possibly contain all of that? What do the Democrats stand for?

“Nothing,” said one Sanders convention-floor staffer, speaking on condition of anonymity, when I asked what such a large tent stands for. “Whatever you want it to. Whatever you want to hear.”

It’s a tempting answer—cynical, but in line with the possibility that so many people who fundamentally disagree about the priorities and ambitions of American society have all found themselves here to support Clinton for president. But I think the opposite may be true: Over the past few days in Philadelphia, the Democratic Party attempted to promise everything. It made a four-day bid to offer something to everyone, to give every element of the United States some rationale for buying in.

This is not necessarily a good thing. Over the past few days, and the past few months, and all the years that the Clintons have been in public life, it has not been difficult to tell the story about them that you want to. The evidence is there. If you want to believe, then Hillary Clinton is a champion of women and children, an integral member of Obama’s cabinet who helped find and kill Osama bin Laden, a workhorse and a fighter who was widely admired by her colleagues in the Senate, by almost everyone who has ever met her.

If you do not, then she is the senator who voted for the Iraq War, at the cost of a million Iraqi lives. She is the First Lady who called black teenagers “super-predators,” who opposed marriage equality until the moment 51 percent of Democrats were in favor, whose ties to Wall Street and past as a member of Wal-Mart’s board make her an enemy of working people.

In Philadelphia, this abundance of available narratives was wan not merely a consequence of the Democratic message, but its essence: We will give you what you need to tell the story you want about America. It was the central theme of Clinton’s acceptance speech on Thursday night: I am here for all of you, whoever you are, whatever your ambitions—I am fighting for you. Or, as she put it: “Some people don’t know what to make of me. Let me tell you.” What followed was a sentimental autobiography, and a belief in “better futures,” promises to help all Americans rise up.

What this amounts to, at bottom, is a party that wants to carry on—a party that, per its platform, seesprotecting our values as its core commitment moving forward. “The basic message is continuing on the path from 2008,” Marcus Stevenson, a Sanders delegate from Utah told me. “It’s not a rah rah thing, but it’s the safe way. They’re saying we’re on right path, it’s been positive, it’s a good direction. Nothing dramatic will change, but it’s fine. It’s the path we’re on.”

It is. It is a path that had led to marriage equality, and to the Affordable Care Act, and to a nuclear deal with Iran.But it is the path that has lead to the drone war, too. The path that has led to crackdowns on whistleblowers, to millions of deportations, to wage stagnation, to increasing disparities between our wealthy and our poor.

It is a path that the Democratic Party wagers most Americans can live with, its successes celebrated, and its failure justified by the realities of politics and the demands of expediency. That is good enough, for now.

There are those who see this style of government as a virtue, or at the very least as a reflection of reality, an adult acceptance of the notion that compromise must triumph over ideals. The flexibility of the Democratic Party, its capacity to negotiate the competing interests of all Americans, to produce a national program that is perfect to no one but “good enough” for both is central to its strength.

But in Philadelphia, this flexibility felt stretched to its limits, giving way to contradictions of vision that make it difficult to determine what to trust, what to believe will be taken seriously, what will be betrayed.

When I asked Lupkes, the Sanders delegate from Washington, what “justice for all” meant, he said, “Nobody left behind.” But surely, somebody must be left behind. The Democratic Platform calls for an unprecedented mobilization against climate change, while the Clinton campaign indicates that it intends to pursue a more conservative, market-based plan. The party promises to pursue peace in the Middle East, to uphold the Iran deal, whilepromising to take America’s relationship with Israel to “the next level” and refusing to recognize the occupation of Palestine in its platform. The convention devoted night after night to a vision of inclusion, of acceptance and love for black Americans, LGBTQ Americans, and immigrants, while inviting a Republican to declare that Trump is “no Ronald Reagan,” earning a cheer from the crowd. If you need to know that Trump is nothing like the man who laughed off the AIDS crisis in order to vote for Clinton, the party is happy to help.

“Our cause is your cause,” Clinton said in her speech, referring to Sanders’s call for economic justice. Yet the whole convention represented “one big corporate bribe” where speakers denounced Citizens United while laughing off the possibility that massive donations to the convention influence them.

“Debt free college” was invoked by speakers on the stage at Wells Fargo, but they said it after a Clinton campaign waged in part by asking Bernie Sanders, Sander,s “How are you going to pay for that?”—by calling costly proposals “pie in the sky” sky”,and nonstarters in Congress. This included Sanders college plan, from which Clinton’s recently adopted debt-free education proposal is derived.

On stage, speaker after speaker voiced their support for organized labor; one, Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio, even explicitly named the virtue of refusing to cross a picket line. But outside, Uber ran a tent tent in the parking lot and staffers looked at their phones, waiting for their cars, while a passing Sanders delegate screamed, “Union busters!”

There is, indeed, something for everyone, some reference point for any story you would like to tell about the Democratic Party.

“[Michael] Bloomberg nailed it: vote for the sane and competent one,” a national staffer for Bernie Sanders tells me. “But that means different things to different people. Tough abroad, sane, reliable—that’s enough for the center-right, maybe. Then on the left, you get the most progressive platform ever.”

“She’s almost certainly going to win—and then will she pull one over on the right? I hope so. Or will she disappoint the left?”

Or as Kirk Voorhees, a 56-year-old truck driver told Vox earlier this week: “I just feel like the Clintons have betrayed me over and over… Why will she turn on [special interest groups] when it’s always so easy to turn on us?”

“First, I want to tell you about Donald Trump,” Bob J. Nash told me when I put my usual question to him. A Clinton delegate from Arkansas, he has worked with the Clintons for 40 years—as White House personnel director, as an under secretary of agriculture, as an economic advisor in Arkansas to then-Governor Bill Clinton. He worked for the Clinton campaign in 2007, and again in 2016. “Donald Trump is just simple answers to complicated questions.”

Josh Stanfield, a young Sanders delegate from Virginia, said the same in a different tone: “It’s anti-Trump. There’s a platform, but what Clinton is going to run on is just anti-Trump, anti-Trump, anti-Trump.”

Trump, many argued, was not merely a Republican: He was unstable, fundamentally unfit for the presidency, outside the bands of ordinary political life. Whether or not this is true, it is certainly the consensus, not only within the convention but in the better part of the national press, in a large section of the Republican Party, from George W. Bush to Mitt Romney to Ted Cruz, who have withheld their endorsements at the risk of allowing another four years of the Democratic administration.

In such conditions, it is tempting to suck up all the available oxygen, to transform your party first and foremost into a vehicle for rejecting a bigoted dilettante whom it is difficult to imagine performing the basic functions of the presidency, much less advancing even modest national goals. With the Republican Party entering what appears to be a long fallow period, why not cast the widest net possible, become the party of patriotic jingoism to some, of “black lives matters” to others, to get through November—perhaps many Novembers—and sort out the specifics after you’ve won.

But this state of affairs, this effort to absorb the full spectrum of the reasonable, is not without its dangers.

The possibility remains that Trump will win the election, that he will win precisely because it is difficult to know what the Democratic Party stands for beyond the notion that America is “already great” and generally intending to get greater. “If people are blaming immigrants for their problems, the correct strategic response is to build a platform that shows people what the actual source of their problems is, and proposes a means of solving them,” wrote Nathan J. Robinson in Current Affairs last week. “If you don’t have a compelling alternate vision and program, then of course people will be susceptible to demagoguery about crime and immigration. Trump and Nigel Farage may have a racist and delusional explanation for the cause of the world’s troubles, but they have an explanation.” Trump voters, at least, have no difficulty saying what their program is, who particularly it will reward, and who particularly it will punish, no matter how deranged.

There is also the danger of winning at an untenable price. We have seen this kind of false confidence before: After the defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964, the punditry declared an era of permanent liberal consensus, only to see Ronald Reagan elected a scant sixteen years later on a nearly identical platform. When a single party absorbs the whole of “reasonable” political opinion, the consequence is rarely a single-party state. The adversarial logic that dictates the terms of American political life will only drive the opposition to the fringes, where there’s oxygen to be found, until the bounds of the “reasonable” are so expanded—eventually, the unreasonable win an election. Defeating Trump is a viable strategy. Praying that no Trump ever wins is not.

Then, of course, there is the danger lurking even in an improbable, permanent success. There is the danger that a party without a clear program, a party that is invested first and foremost in competence, in management, in providing enough for almost anyone to buy in, can by its nature do nothing but manage society as it is. There is a danger that such a party, even with the best of intentions, will tilt toward the interests of the powerful. They always do. There is a danger that such a party will make progress not when it is just, but when it is palatable, that it will stand permanently for good intentions but against the risk and sacrifice required to bring about a nation that did not require so much ambient brutality—from violence, from capital, from empire—just to carry on, no matter the good intentions of its managers. That it will plod on, competent and reasonable, but no more. A hard-working technocrat saying “America is already great, I’m fighting for you,” forever,while some people remain hungry, and some people remain sick. While some people find themselves more accepted in America, and who are grateful for it, while others on the other side of the world are incinerated in the name of American freedom.Because it’s good enough, really, it’ll get a little better sometimes, be reasonable: This is how the world has to be.

“What is the central promise you took away from this convention, the core of what you can expect will be delivered when Hillary Clinton is elected president?” I asked Sarah Parrish, a Sanders delegate from Kansas.

She paused. “I don’t know if I can,” she said.

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84 days ago
chicago, il
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The Democratic Convention Was Senior Week

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The Democratic National Convention began with an emphasis on outsiders—specifically, the much-derided, much-lampooned, mostly young Bernie Sanders dissidents protesting in the arena and on the streets. It ended with Hillary Clinton, the ultimate insider, giving a nomination address that matched the progressive platform her party (thanks to Sanders and his supporters) had ultimately approved. Uniting those two poles—the young and old, the boldly visionary and the cautiously centrist—is the central challenge of the American left, beyond this election. But by and large, the Democrats missed their chance this week to build that bridge, to fully invite the next generation in.

Many of the central themes of Sanders’s year of stump speeches—expanding Social Security, rejecting trade deals that hurt workers, providing debt-free college, reclaiming our democracy from big money—resounded throughout Clinton’s speech. While she identified the critical issues of social and economic justice and even decried systemic racism, she also acknowledged working-class anxieties, while telling Americans that they shouldn’t actually have to go to college in order to get a good job. And she told the nation that we could accomplish these goals if we work with common purpose. “Americans don’t say ‘I alone can fix it,’” Clinton said, referring to a line from Donald Trump from last week’s nomination speech. “They say, ‘We’ll fix it together!’”

But who will be the stalwarts who help press this agenda forward? Who are the rising stars who will galvanize the public to make change happen? If it takes a village to bring about transformation, then who are those villagers?

By and large, you didn’t see those people on the convention stage—or anywhere near prime time.The good news is that two rock stars did emerge on the final night of the convention. The bad news is that one of them is the Muslim father of a slain Marine, the other an African-American preacher and rabble-rouser, and neither of them is likely to have a future in elected politics.

What that half-hour or so of convention coverage showed to those who watched the sermon of Reverend William Barber II and the quiet-yet-determined outrage of Khizr Khan—was the best of America, and the rising left: multicultural, emotional, vehement, and striving for excellence. Khan taught a lesson in the power of our diversity, the courage of standing up to bigotry. A Muslim man pulling out the Constitution to call bullshit on Donald Trump told the story Democrats were trying to tell the entire week about the GOP nominee’s extremism—but mostly failing and falling flat—in one unforgettable gesture.

And Reverend Barber, the North Carolina NAACP leader, did what Reverend Barber does: Use scripture to take the moral high ground for the most expansive liberal views—and get the hall (and TV audience) rocking in response. Quoting the prophet Isaiah, he thundered: “What I am interested in seeing you doing as a nation, the Lord says, is pay people what they deserve, share your food with the hungry. Do this and then your nation shall be called a repairer of the breach.” Since 2013, Barber has led the Moral Mondays protest movement in North Carolina, a non-violent resistance to the conservative takeover of the state—and an exemplar of what the Democratic future should look like, fully intersectional and rooted in demanding that the country live up (all the way up) to its professed ideals.

Among the prominent Democrats on stage, only Barber reached out to “the Jewish child and the Palestinian child,” and “those who have no faith but they love this nation.” Only Barber exhorted the crowd to “fight for peace.” It was as liberal a speech as we’ve ever seen at a convention, and significantly, it was cast not in the terms of liberalism and conservatism, but right and wrong. As Clinton did later, Barber admonished the audience that “the watchword of this democracy and the watchword of faith is ‘we’… we must shock this nation and fight for justice for all.”

Looking around the Wells Fargo Center night after night, I could see those fresh shock troops Barber was calling to action—the young activists who’ve been derided all week as “childish,” but who are the future of the liberal movement. Hillary Clinton agreed on Thursday, speaking directly to them: “I’ve heard you, and your cause is our cause. Our country needs your ideas, energy, and passion.”

But the shock troops were only occasionally addressed during the four days in Philadelphia, and their presence wasn’t reflected on the stage. They were intentionally drowned out when they tried to make their voices heard, and pushed to the back of delegation seating.

Nominating conventions are supposed to provide a platform for new leaders to introduce

themselves. But the DNC had too many familiar faces.

On top of that, the House Democratic Leader is 76 and her second-in-command is 77. The Senate Democratic Leader is retiring and his replacement is a spry 65. I’d go on to list the ages of other Democratic members of Congress and governors and state legislators, but the truth is there aren’t many. The bench has been decimated by two washout midterm elections in row.

There’s a torch that will very soon need to be passed to a new generation of leadership—a liberal generation, one to fulfill Clinton and Barber’s best hopes. But those leaders didn’t get a showcase in Philadelphia. Almost every speaker under age 50 gave remarks when delegates were networking and glad-handing rather than paying attention to the stage (Senators Cory Booker and Chris Murphy were rare exceptions). And way too much time was spent on a parade of celebrities, when the party should have been highlighting their future.

That leadership gap, of course, is a problem insidethe party. But Reverend Barber, while exhorting a political candidate on Thursday night, is an activist, concerned with the nation’s moral soul. And we have a proliferation of leaders on the outside, even if some of them made their way into the convention with “No TPP” signs and Bernie Sanders T-shirts. In fact, you could say that Barber was aiming his words at them, the chanters and the idealists and those who engaged in the fight for America for the first time. Reverend Barber wanted to shock their hearts, to exhort them to continue to fight for democracy—whether at the ballot box or in the streets.

Everyone wants to know what the “Bernie-or-bust” types will do in November. I want to know what they’ll do in ten years. Will the Sanders movement have been a lark, a passing fad, or will it spawn a lifetime commitment to social and economic justice? Will the young Sanders folks’ frustration lead to alienation, or will they hear Reverend Barber saying, “We can’t give up on this democracy, not now, not ever”?

If they join forces to vanquish Donald Trump, and become those fresh shock troops, the Democratic Party’s future is bright. But if they don’t channel their passion into running for local office, and stay outside the party system, agitating to hold Clinton accountable to her words on Thursday night—maybe, ultimately, that’s OK too. They will still be in the arena, fighting for their vision of this democracy. Social movements lead, and politicians get in front and claim that’s where they were headed all along. You can be stronger together, or stronger apart. As long as you keep up the fight.

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84 days ago
chicago, il
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What Does Hillary Clinton Have to Offer Blue-Collar White Men?


After an analysis of polls gauging support for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the New York Times concluded earlier this week that the Democratic nominee struggles most with one demographic group: working-class white men without college degrees. “Mr. Trump has adopted a message all but perfectly devised to attract these voters,” the article states. “He has a populist message on trade and immigration. He has abandoned key elements of the Republican agenda that hurt the party among white working-class Democrats, like support for cutting the social safety net.”

Gender may be a factor, the article adds, before addressing a final possible explanation:

It is also possible that less-educated white men are reacting to rapid changes in cultural and economic status, completely independent of Mrs. Clinton’s gender. No liberal arts college class on “power, privilege and hierarchy” will tell you that white working-class men have become a disadvantaged group. But many white working-class men do not feel privileged — not in a society where power and status are often vested in well-educated elites along the coasts. From their standpoint, the Democratic Party might look like an identity politics patronage system — affirmative action, immigration, “political correctness,” gender or whatever else.

This formulation understates the antagonism that these voters hear from the cultural left. Liberal-arts classes, numerous left-leaning media outlets, and many social-media progressives don’t merely fail to treat these voters as a disadvantaged class—they speak as if they are playing the entire game of life on the easiest setting, to borrow a characterization of whiteness that is prevalent on college campuses.  

The framework of white privilege can be invoked with insight and subtlety, or with myopia and exaggeration; but either is a lot easier for white people to hear and to assimilate into their worldview if they’re college graduates who anticipate rewarding careers and stable family lives and mostly socialize with the similarly advantaged. They’re told that they ought to be thriving given their race … and they are thriving!

But imagine that you’re a white man from a working-class family who dropped out of college because you couldn’t swing the tuition. You worked construction, but that dried up—you’re presently unemployed, with child-support payments piling up, a sister addicted to pain pills, and a brother who is in jail again for felony drunk driving. You drive a beat up car with a broken turn signal that you can’t afford to fix. You get pulled over regularly, and you’re often harassed by the cops, who hate your tattoos. Would you identify with a coalition that alighted on white privilege as the center of its cultural outlook and that mostly disseminated that worldview through people with more educational, social, and financial capital than you’ll ever have?

Of course you wouldn’t. To do so would seem at odds with all the struggling white people in your familial and social circles. It would seem to imply that failing despite having all the advantages in the world makes you a special kind of loser. It would seem to focus on race to the exclusion of other hugely important factors. And as far as you can tell, when a white family gets their door kicked down and their dog shot in a drug raid, or when a white high school classmate of yours commits suicide, no one in the world of national media much cares.

Then you watch the DNC, where Michelle Obama, Cory Booker, Eva Longoria, and numerous other black and brown people who are much more successful than anyone you know take the stage. This needn’t feel threatening in and of itself to cause alienation. All it takes is being told that you’re the privileged one.

Given the family histories and life experiences of many black, Hispanic, and Asian American voters in the U.S., it’s totally understandable why a political coalition that emphasizes racial and ethnic identity as a source of struggle would resonate. It is understandable why Bernie Sanders’s laser focus on economics seemed inadequate.

And given the family histories and life experiences of many struggling white people without college degrees, it’s easy to see why a class explanation for what’s wrong with America would resonate far more in comparison. Little wonder that this latest incarnation of the Democratic Party has the most trouble with less educated whites, whether they’re right-leaning folks who prefer Donald Trump or Bernie-or-Bust folks.

Alongside the truth that no one single aspect of a person’s identity, whether class or race or a dozen factors besides, can be understood in isolation from all of the others, Democratic leaders this year correctly perceive that highlighting racial, ethnic, and gender diversity will win over a Rainbow coalition that includes college-educated whites.

But despite the relative care with which they execute this outreach, it is associated, in the minds of many working-class white voters, with the rhetorical excesses and substantive exaggerations of the college campus or the web of identity politics. And although Hillary Clinton and her surrogates have messages of uplift for black voters, for Latinos, for gays and lesbians, for the transgender community, and for undocumented immigrants—although they point to all manner of prejudice these groups have overcome and promise their members more progress—does she have any message of uplift for white men without college degrees? As yet, not any as resonant as what Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders offered.

If Hillary can find a way to speak to those voters without alienating her base of support among more highly educated whites, Hispanics, and African Americans, she will win. But prevailing trends on campus and in the media that treat race and gender as the important factors, rather than two important factors, will make her job extremely difficult.

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86 days ago
chicago, il
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Ethical change in the Catholic Church

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In just a little more than three years as the Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis appears to have disrupted what many thought was a straight and unchangeable course of moral teaching in the Catholic Church. Some of the more conservative members of the church are worried that the fundamentals of that teaching are being ignored, or worse, thrown overboard. Francis’s call for a ‘poorer’ church and a world that cares about the environment displays a significant turn in Catholic politics. But it is his frequent comments about personal and sexual morality that seem to upset people the most. Instead of talking about rules and behaviours, he has very clearly shifted the emphasis to people who find themselves in difficult situations.

While some are worried about these changes, others, like myself, are delighted that the reforms in moral theology called for in Vatican II are finally being allowed to take place. The last two documents of that council, Gaudium et spes and Dignitatis humanae, specifically avoided appeal to ‘natural law’ as a source for moral insight, something that both Humanae vitae and Veritatis Splendor attempted to reinstate. Both conciliar documents put forth respect for the human person and human dignity as the fundamental norm of morality. Although the Decree on Priestly Training, Optatam totius, specifically called for more input from scripture in teaching moral theology, hardly any hierarchical document issued under the last two pontificates made any attempt to carry out this recommendation.

Pope Francis recognizes that pre-conciliar moral theology was much too tied up with sins and the laws that were supposedly broken when a sin is committed. He has called attention to the spirit of the laws rather than the sometimes crushing letter of a law being imposed on persons who may not have the opportunity to live up to perfect standards. He appeals to the mercy that God shows to all of us and entreats us all to show mercy to each other. He is continuously looking for new visions to help define ethical living rather than new restrictions on human creativity.

In addressing the contemporary world, the area to which Francis is responding is actually at the level of ethics: how does one talk about morality in the first place? Pre-Vatican II (textbook) morality was about identifying sins that needed to be confessed in the sacrament of penance. It was developed by priest-confessors who taught future pre-confessors how to distinguish what constituted a sin. Their ethical method started with making a judgment about what they heard the penitent confess: what they did or failed to do. The process then moved on to considering any circumstances that might mitigate the guilt of the person, not necessarily the gravity of the sin itself. Finally, they might ask the penitent why they ever considered doing or omitting what they did: what were they attempting to accomplish? In schematic form:

action  →  circumstances  →  intention

Canonization 2014-The Canonization of Saint John XXIII and Saint John Paul II by Aleteia Image Department. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

The type of ethics that Francis is using first asks what people are attempting to accomplish. He recognizes that people won’t do anything if they are not motivated, so unearthing one’s motivation is of primary importance. When motivations are concretized, they are expressed as intentions. The next thing to consider is all of the circumstances within which persons find themselves. What is possible and what is not? What are the available tools or mechanisms at hand to accomplish one’s goals? Finally, it is only in light of all these factors that one can choose which course of action might be the most appropriate. In schematic form:

intention   →  circumstances  →  action

The change that has taken place in the way that Francis approaches moral issues is a change in ethical reflection. It is not simply substituting one set of rules for another. It consists in recognizing that why we do what we do is just as important as the course of action upon which we finally decide.

Textbook morality listed laws and rules that had to be followed without ever explaining where they came from or why they might be important. Addressing people’s motivations and encouraging them to think about what they are attempting to accomplish puts moral issues into an entirely new light. Whereas behaviours are addressed by laws, motivations and intentions are addressed by virtue and character ethics. The most pertinent question is: what kind of persons are we attempting to become and how can we build a community that encourages persons to adopt virtuous attitudes and motivations?

The task that the church now faces is reforming the way that it tries to teach people to deal with moral issues. Simply issuing condemnations or invoking a law is an inadequate way to deal with the complexity of people’s lives and the decisions that need to be made.

Featured image credit: The Vatican by Jeroen Bennink. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

The post Ethical change in the Catholic Church appeared first on OUPblog.

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95 days ago
intriguing, but probably not true
chicago, il
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The scene: a bustling complex of football fields, late morning on an idyllic sun-dappled summer day. A large collection of the nation's very best high school football players are out here to put on a show with the eyes of the college football world watching. The fields are surrounded by the vibrating buzz of recruiting media, with each outlet trying to outdo the others for the very best in fresh content. But this year, a new outlet enters the fray.

[A 7 on 7 game ends, and the players begin leaving the field]

JIMMY: "Cayden! Cayden! Wait up! Hey dude, my name's Jimmy from FUTUREDUDES.COM, the hottest new recruiting service on the internet, mind if we ask you a couple questions real quick?"

CAYDEN: "Sure, go ahead."

JIMMY: "Thanks dude. You were really spinning it pretty good out there. Do you think that's a testament to the practice reps you put in every day, and also, do you sometimes find that you get a little tired of the overly-simplistic narrative that alliances made World War I much worse than it could have, or should have been?"

CAYDEN: "Uhhhhhhh, well... [shifts weight awkwardly for a couple seconds] I mean, my teammates and I just try to go out there and grind anytime we set foot on a field, and that's no different today. As for the second part, I don't know."

JIMMY: "Cool, cool. You've been getting a lot more interest from some bigger schools lately. Do you think the Great War was the death knell for the classical version of imperialism, and as a follow up, do you consider the modern world we live in today is substantially similar, but in a far more insidious way?"

CAYDEN: "Look, we have another game in a minute, I gotta get back to my team and get ready."

JIMMY: "No problem, can you just take a quick snap on my phone and say "FUTURE DUDES!" really enthusiastically? ... I'll take you walking away as a no, then. Alright, alright, FUTURE DUDES are out here and we won't be deterred. Oh man, JAYDEN! JAYDEN! Dude! Got a minute to talk with FUTUREDUDES.COM?"

[Five-star safety stops to talk, looking slightly annoyed]

JAYDEN: "Yeah, what's up man?"

JIMMY: "Looking a little upset right now, what's going on?"

JAYDEN: "Just took an L out there a minute ago and I'm pissed. I'm a competitor."

JIMMY: "That's what everyone says about you, and it really shows. Hey, do you think the Russian army could've used some of your competitiveness at the first Battle of the Masurian Lakes?"

JAYDEN: "The what?"

JIMMY: "C'mon man, you know, Masurian Lakes? The Eastern Front in World War I?"

JAYDEN: "I gotta go man."

JIMMY: "Alright Jimmy, stay cool, not every interview is going to be a winner, you just need to stay out here and grind until we have enough content to last us through the weekend. Oh man, look, it's Brayden! BRAYDEN! Hold up, dude!"

[runs awkwardly towards four-star defensive end on one knee, clearly preemptively irritated]

JIMMY: "Hey man, Jimmy from FUTUREDUDES.COM, mind if I ask a few questions?"

BRAYDEN: "I'm sorry, future dudes? What is that?"

JIMMY: "The hottest new recruiting resource on the web, man! We're here live and ripping it up!"

BRAYDEN: "Your site's name is future dudes? That's the best idea you had?"

JIMMY: "People love it!"

BRAYDEN: "Seems pretty lame to me. Hey man, I have a question for you, actually."

JIMMY: "OHHHH THE TABLES ARE TURNING! LOVE IT! [turns face back to facebook livestream that's been going this whole time] LOOOOOOVE IIIIIIIIIIT!"

BRAYDEN: "Why the hell do you keep asking questions about World War I? I mean, we're high school football players, and everyone here is talking about football and where we're going for college. I get trying to ask funny and off-beat questions and that's cool, but this seems not so much funny but just weird as hell."

JIMMY: "Boy, this is turning into a real Gallipoli."

BRAYDEN: "No it isn't."

JIMMY: "Looks like we're Verdun here."

BRAYDEN: "Please stop."

JIMMY: "Somme-body can't take a joke."

BRAYDEN: "I gotta go."

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102 days ago
chicago, il
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Garrison Keillor’s Dark Americana

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Before Lake Wobegon was a mythical metonym of the midwestern heartland, it was lost.

Changing trains in Portland in the 1970s, Garrison Keillor left a briefcase containing the draft of a short story, “Lake Wobegon Memoir,” in a bathroom and in a frantic hour of searching could not recover it. As he struggled and failed to recreate the story, it loomed larger and more brilliant in his mind. Later that year he began the radio show A Prairie Home Companion he made it the home of his weekly monologue, “hoping that one Saturday night, standing on stage, I would look into the lights and my lost story would come down the beam and land in my head.”

Last Saturday Keillor hosted his final show. The original short story, I can only assume, never did reappear. Any writer can attest that words lost captivate more powerfully than words preserved. In decades of monologues and books, Lake Wobegon grew into a creation whose scope may have no equals in modern American literature. And, in a way, it became a cultural phenomenon.

The town and Keillor himself became identified with, even inseparable from, clichés about the upper Middle West. The avuncular narrator mused about the wholesome, decent, neighborly, easily-abased and passive-aggressive townsfolk who populated the Chatterbox Café, ate hot dish, went to church and generally made the best of it, whatever it happened to be, all set among folk-heavy musical numbers, radio dramas, hymns, light verse, and the occasional Civil War march, forms that were retro well before the show began its venerable run.

To plenty of listeners, fans and detractors alike, this sounded like nostalgia—a bucolic island of old genres and old mores in a swiftly moving sea. But at heart, the show and its ever-spreading web of monologues was sadder and sharper than its mild packaging. It was classic Americana, but dark Americana, a Robert Frost heart beating in a vaudeville body. It was about sex and disappointment and death, especially death, with the town’s folkways serving to frustrate or channel sentiments and impulses that could otherwise paralyze you with morbidity, especially if you happened to live on the edge of a prairie. It was elegiac about loves lost or never found, fond but mournful about those things that could only be retained in the half-light of a remembered summer. “Are you happy?” one spouse asks another. “Happy enough for the purpose,” the other spouse replies. Keillor once wrote that he got the name Prairie Home from a cemetery. The show’s charm and uplift, which were real enough, were seldom cheap or unshadowed.

The show’s appeal was strongest, it always seemed to me, among expatriates of the towns it memorialized. That is, among people who left. Keillor himself tried to leave, first ending the show altogether, then later resurrecting it under a different name. But if Lake Wobegon couldn’t be escaped, it could spread out, and that’s what the monologues did, following the town’s exiles as they went to Hawaii, or to California to join “the macrame synod of the Lutheran church.” And the wide world would sometimes pass through. A college basketball star comes home, demonstrating the game in high heels and a dress, and the town wonders how it produces such marvelous young people. A prince of Norway is ceremoniously served lutefisk, which he has never eaten, and discreetly spits it out—if you’ve had lutefisk you empathize—but for that instant the man raised on French cooking “knew what poverty tastes like.”

These stabs at universalizing the localism of the show were uneven, like everything else about the show unavoidably was. And Keillor’s politics could be smug and complacent–I say this as one who pretty much shares his politics–and his persona could become cranky (his late-period social media jokes were not his best). But radio, in its sheer ludicrous evanescence, always checked grandiosity and self-seriousness.

The medium, and its mortality, was the message. In his last show at St. Paul’s Fitzgerald Theater, Keillor imagined himself ushered unwillingly into a home for old radio personalities—a farm report reader, a story-time reader, the Lutheran Whisper Gospel Quartet—and the gag was that he’d forgotten all of them. But I have a memoir to write, he protests. “What’s the point? Nobody cares,” his guide tells him. And true to form, his last monologue was about the dead. Father Emil, long retired from Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility, turned out to have died behind Longstreet’s line at Gettysburg. Jack of Jack’s Auto Repair, not a fan of the show or of Father Emil, turned out to be waiting in the grave plot next to the one being reserved for the narrator.

I grew up with A Prairie Home Companion, and I love the show, but even I only entered its archive of Babel intermittently (almost all of the above citations are from memory; I could describe where I was when I heard them, but not when, and there is no index). When I went to see it live at Ravinia, north of Chicago, I had just that morning helped bury a friend and mentor, a child of South Dakota who had left a prominent legal career to become a Lutheran pastor. And the next week, I knew, we would be sending our foster daughter back to her family after two years. As I wandered in search of ice cream with two squirrelly children, Keillor talked about a baptism at Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church. The infant doesn’t cry, as you well might if someone were to try to make you a Lutheran. “It is a grave obligation to be a Lutheran, and to represent order and justice and kindness and the truth in this world.” At the end of the service, Pastor Liz exhorts the people, saying that there are things that won’t be said if you don’t say them (that one I was able to find in the archives, to fill in the imperfect fragments of memory).

As the book closes on Lake Wobegon, it’s unlikely that anything like it will be attempted again. But, as Keillor’s own work quietly insisted from the start, to lose and to preserve are two paths to the same place.

Benjamin J. Dueholm is a writer and pastor of Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda, Illinois.

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105 days ago
chicago, il
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