A Day of Grief in a Season of Grief

Too many Americans have been unable to share their sorrow.

I joined the military later in life. I was 37 years old when I went to my Officer Basic Course at Fort Lee, Virginia. I was 38 when I climbed into the back of a C-130 Hercules to fly into Iraq to begin my deployment with the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment at the height of the surge in 2007. I started that deployment with the conventional rhythms of civilian life thoroughly imprinted in my mind and heart.

Service in a war zone  was a jolting experience in countless ways, but nothing prepared me for the shock of death. It’s not just the sheer extent of the casualties—one man, then another, then another, and three more—all cut down in the prime of life. It’s the unnatural inability to truly mourn their loss. 

Back home, when a family member or friend dies—or even a friend of a friend—there’s a collective and often community-wide pause. Depending on your relationship to the deceased, you’re able to simply stop, to grieve or to share in the grief of others, to try to help bear another person’s burden. There’s a ritual that matters, and it’s a ritual that—ideally—helps a person begin to heal.

At war, however, there is the shock of loss and the immediate and overriding need to focus, to do your job. In fact, the shock of loss typically occurs exactly when the need to focus is at its greatest. At the point of the explosion—or the site of the ambush—there’s a fight for life itself. On the ground and in the air, there’s the symphony of rescue and response. In the relative safety of the TOC (tactical operations center), there’s an urgent need not just to understand but also to direct the fight.

And then, even when that fight’s over, no one stops. The only pause is for the “hero flight”—the helicopter mission that takes your fallen brother home. You stand, you salute in silence, and then you focus again. 

Yes, there are short memorial services, often days later, but nothing about it feels right. Your soul screams for the need to grieve, but your mind answers: Grief is a distraction, and if you’re distracted then your mistakes can cause only more grief. So the cycle moves on, remorselessly. Death, shock, focus. Death, shock, focus. 

It’s a cliché of course to say it, but I never appreciated Memorial Day until I had brothers to remember. I was home on a midtour leave on Memorial Day Weekend in 2008. We’d already taken too many casualties, and I’d had no time to grieve. I was still pushing the grief back. I still had to focus. I wanted to enjoy my time with my wife and kids, and to truly treasure that time, I had to hold back. They couldn’t see what I truly felt.

Then, the dam broke. My son was watching a NASCAR race and before the race started, they played Amazing Grace on the bagpipes, and I just lost it. I had to leave the room. It was too much. But that’s also when I saw the value of this day. It gives us back that pause that we lost. It gives us back that ritual we need. Memorial Day, properly understood, helps us heal. 

As much as it’s a holiday reserved for remembering those lost in war, Memorial Day has lessons for the crisis of the moment.  Memorial Day in 2020 is a day of grief happening in the midst of a season of grief. Today, in all likelihood, COVID-19 will claim its 100,000th American life. That’s 100,000 souls in roughly 10 short weeks. Even worse, for families and communities, there has been something deeply unnatural about the cycle of loss and mourning. 

Sick family members have been whisked away, never to be seen again. Countless thousands have died alone, rather than surrounded by the people they love. Without true wakes, visitations, and funerals, communities have been unable to come together to lift each other’s burdens. There’s an old proverb (the internet says it’s of Swedish origin) that goes like this—“Shared joy is double joy. Shared sorrow is half-sorrow.” In our season of grief, all too many Americans haven’t been able to share their sorrow. 

As the country slowly begins to confront the sheer enormity of its loss, we should learn from the power of Memorial Day. When we can gather again—when we can comfort our neighbors in person—remember not just who they lost but what they lost. They lost a ritual of grief that can never be restored. In the months and years to come, however, we can pause for them—we can pause with them—and give them the moments they need to help them heal. 

Photograph of a memorial to coronavirus victims in Brooklyn by Erik McGregor/LightRocket/Getty Images.

Fact and Fiction About Racism and the Rise of the Religious Right

No, Evangelical activism isn’t built on a lie.

Let me first lay my bias and experience cards on the table. I’ve been a member of the Christian conservative wing of the Republican Party from the moment I could vote until 2016, when the Republican Party left me behind by crossing multiple red lines in its embrace of Donald Trump. Before I became a full-time writer and journalist, I wasn’t just a Christian conservative voter, I was a pro-life activist and constitutional litigator for pro-life and religious liberty legal organizations. 

If there was any American subculture that I knew well, it was American Evangelicalism—especially the most politically engaged branch of the movement—and while I knew it had its flaws (every human movement does), I did not believe that racism was one of them. In fact, I knew it wasn’t. One of the core arguments of the modern pro-life movement is that abortion rights were rooted in part in eugenic racism, in a desire to weed out “undesirable” populations. Pro-life activists are continually pointing and condemning the disproportionate number of abortions in the African American community. 

So imagine my surprise when I began to see an increasing amount of argument that, actually, racism taints the rise of the religious right. Critics claim that the modern narrative of conservative Evangelical activism is built on white supremacy. Rather than Roe v. Wade shocking Evangelicals into action, the true catalyzing event was allegedly the 1970s-era IRS attack on so-called “segregation academies”—the whites-only Christian schools that sprang up across the South in response to federal desegregation orders. 

According to this narrative, Evangelical leaders mainly supported abortion rights. They jumped into the culture war only when the IRS moved to strip the tax exemptions from racially discriminatory schools. Opposition to integration is the poisonous acorn that grew into the mighty political oak of conservative Christianity. . 

Writing this week in GQ, Laura Bassett relied on this very argument to claim that the pro-life movement was “always built on lies.” Parts of her argument were a mess. For example, she initially wrote that George Wallace was a former Republican governor of Alabama and thus attributed his racist arguments in support of abortion the GOP. He was a Democrat, and his claim that black women were “breeding children like a cash crop” advances the pro-life anti-racist narrative. That’s exactly the hate it stands against.

So, what is the truth here? Does the pro-life movement have racist roots? The short answer is “not really.” The longer answer is complicated. As my colleague and our Dispatch Podcast host Sarah Isgur is fond of saying, “Let’s dive right in.” 

One of the most comprehensive arguments for the racist roots of the religious right rests comes from the work of Dartmouth professor Randall Balmer. Indeed, he points to some historical facts that would shock the conscience of many younger Evangelicals—especially younger Southern Evangelicals. 

First, it’s true that major Protestant denominations largely supported abortion rights when Roe was decided, including the Southern Baptist Convention. Here’s Ballmer:

Both before and for several years after Roe, evangelicals were overwhelmingly indifferent to the subject, which they considered a “Catholic issue.” In 1968, for instance, a symposium sponsored by the Christian Medical Society and Christianity Today, the flagship magazine of evangelicalism, refused to characterize abortion as sinful, citing “individual health, family welfare, and social responsibility” as justifications for ending a pregnancy. In 1971, delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention in St. Louis, Missouri, passed a resolution encouraging “Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.” The convention, hardly a redoubt of liberal values, reaffirmed that position in 1974, one year after Roe, and again in 1976.

He continues:

Although a few evangelical voices, including Christianity Today magazine, mildly criticized the ruling, the overwhelming response was silence, even approval. Baptists, in particular, applauded the decision as an appropriate articulation of the division between church and state, between personal morality and state regulation of individual behavior. “Religious liberty, human equality and justice are advanced by the Supreme Court abortion decision,” wrote W. Barry Garrett of Baptist Press.

The true catalyst for Evangelical engagement, Ballmer argues, was a different case entirely—a federal district court case called Green v. Connally. In Green, the court held that “racially discriminatory private schools are not entitled to the Federal tax exemption provided for charitable, educational institutions, and persons making gifts to such schools are not entitled to the deductions provided in case of gifts to charitable, educational institutions.” 

It was at this moment that Paul Weyrich, one of the founding fathers of modern religious conservatism, believed he found the issue that could wake the sleeping giant of American Evangelicalism. Weyrich had a theory about the potential strength of the “moral majority,” but he couldn’t find an issue to catalyze the movement. Again, here’s Ballmer: 

For nearly two decades, Weyrich, by his own account, had been trying out different issues, hoping one might pique evangelical interest: pornography, prayer in schools, the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, even abortion. “I was trying to get these people interested in those issues and I utterly failed,” Weyrich recalled at a conference in 1990.

But then, “When ‘the Internal Revenue Service tried to deny tax exemption to private schools,’ Weyrich said in an interview with Conservative Digest, that ‘more than any single act brought the fundamentalists and evangelicals into the political process.’”

IRS actions against Christian schools enraged Jerry Falwell (he operated Lynchburg Christian School) and racially discriminatory Bob Jones University. Evangelicals sent 125,000 letters of protest to the IRS objecting to proposed regulations that would require segregation academies to admit a certain number of minority students. 

Make no mistake, this is a deeply troubling narrative. But let’s keep going. It turns out that while the attack on segregation academies undeniably motivated some people, it could not transform American politics. Not even close. 

Ballmer clearly notes that outright racism could not, in fact, create a mass movement. In his words, he says that Falwell and Weyrich were “savvy enough to recognize that organizing grassroots evangelicals to defend racial discrimination would be a challenge.”

So what was the issue that could mobilize the masses? I’ll give you a hint—it wasn’t defending segregation academies. It was abortion. Again, here’s Ballmer:

By the late 1970s, many Americans—not just Roman Catholics—were beginning to feel uneasy about the spike in legal abortions following the 1973 Roe decision. The 1978 Senate races demonstrated to Weyrich and others that abortion might motivate conservatives where it hadn’t in the past. 

In short, the times were changing. Arguments that didn’t work in the past were working now. Ballmer smartly points to a key film series from Francis Schaeffer and C. Everett Koop called Whatever Happened to the Human Race? It was produced in 1979, but it circulated in Evangelical America for years afterward. I saw it in Sunday school during high school, and it made a profound impact on me.

A young conservative Christian growing up in 1980s America heard nothing about segregation academies. Indeed, when the Reagan administration ultimately led the final legal charge to strip tax exemptions from Bob Jones University—culminating in an 8-1 Supreme Court decision in 1983 holding that the Free Exercise Clause could not protect the university from IRS action against race discrimination—the decision barely raised an eyebrow. The defense of segregation academies ended not with a bang, but a whimper. The defense of life, however, roared on. 

Moreover, let’s take a second look at the Baptist flip-flop on abortion. It’s critical to note that the 1960s and 1970s were a time of enormous confusion, upheaval, and anguish in American Protestant Christianity. The largest denominations were liberalizing theologically at an astonishing rate—and the liberalizing leaders turned out to be dramatically out of step with the masses of men and women in the pews. 

The Protestant Mainline, once the dominant Protestant faction of Christian America, has been bleeding members since the early 1970s at a startling rate. By some measures, the rate of decline is so great that membership could reach near-zero within the next quarter-century:

But which denomination zigged conservative while its Mainline brothers zagged progressive? The Southern Baptist Convention. Books have been written about the “conservative takeover” of the SBC, but it’s clear that the Roe-era SBC underwent a fundamental transformation. 

While the Mainline denominations shrank, the SBC enjoyed a period of remarkable growth—from roughly 11 million members in the mid-1960s, to a peaking above 16 million in the mid-2000s. Membership has since declined to slightly less than 15 million presently, but these numbers indicate rapid seismic shifts in American religious membership and belief. In short, a lot more was going on between 1970 and 1980 than a sudden interest in preserving southern segregation academies. Millions of Christians were leaving their traditional spiritual homes in search of new churches. At the same time, abortion was on the rise. If you think that the “spike” in legal abortions wasn’t that dramatic—look at the raw numbers, from the pro-choice Guttmacher Institute:

So, no, the pro-life movement wasn’t “built on a lie.” It’s not the mighty political oak born from a racist acorn. It’s ultimately the product of the combination of seismic religious and cultural changes and patient religious and political argument. 

To make this claim about pro-life activism isn’t to absolve white American Evangelicalism of any racist taint. But the sins of the past don’t center around abortion. They don’t even center around religious liberty (despite the defense of segregation academies in the 1970s.)  

Ultimately, the great sin of white southern Evangelicalism is that for generations its faith did not transcend and displace its culture. Instead, all too often that faith was placed in service of the very culture it should have transformed. For more than 100 years, if you were going to draw a Venn diagram of white Southern supporters of Jim Crow and white southern fundamentalists and Evangelicals, you would see an extraordinarily high degree of overlap. 

I emphasize the South not because racism is limited to the South but because no other region of the country so saw such concentration of racism and Protestant religiosity. It’s here (I live in Tennessee) where racism and religion were so thoroughly mixed, and it’s here where you’ll still find the seat of American Evangelical electoral power.

But the Evangelical South—which followed the pro-life lead of the Catholic Midwest and Northeast—is not pro-life because it was racist. Racism is no longer a factor in its support for religious liberty. Battles over segregation academies are largely looked upon with regret and shame. Rather it became more overtly pro-life as it (slowly and imperfectly) started to shed its racist past. 

That racist past still matters, however. It provides one answer to the long-standing question, “Why don’t culturally conservative white and black churches unite on social issues?” Especially in the South, there’s quite simply too long of a history of bigotry and prejudice—or indifference to bigotry and prejudice—to quickly reform a united church. Bygones can’t be bygones, at least not yet.

The consequences of centuries of subjugation are too profound. Millions of black Americans live with them every day. It’s difficult to form political coalitions across lines so starkly drawn, and it’s hard to erase those lines when for centuries they were etched in steel and blood. 

Rest in peace, Ravi Zacharias.

Earlier this week, the world lost one of its leading Christian apologists. Ravi Zacharias died after a brief battle with cancer. I’m going to write more about Ravi in a future newsletter (he played a key role in a religious awakening in the Ivy League that needs its own full story), but I do want to note one deeply meaningful aspect of his ministry. He understood the true role of the Christian apologist more than anyone I’ve ever known.

There’s a vision of an apologist as the church’s gladiator in the marketplace of ideas. He’s the man or woman who walks into hostile territory, takes on the unbelievers on their home turf, and not only walks away unscathed, he may even pocket a convert or two. And Ravi would indeed go virtually anywhere and talk to anyone to defend the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

But there was so much more to his ministry than confrontations with people who did not share his faith. Ravi also served as an apologist for Christianity to the church itself. Countless Christians come of age uncertain of their beliefs. They go to Sunday Schools that vary wildly in quality, listen to pastors who often don’t speak directly to their concerns, and grow up in homes with parents who also struggle to answer the great questions of life.

By taking on the hardest questions—and doing so with particular clarity—Ravi filled the void left by, for example, a youth pastor who couldn’t engage with the problem of pain. He wrestled honestly and thoughtfully with questions about death, hell, and eternal life. It’s not that he answered so clearly that he resolved all debate (no person can do that), but he made countless Christians understand that their faith did indeed have a firm intellectual and philosophical foundation.

I want to briefly acknowledge that he did face some controversies later in life. You can read about them here. Rare indeed is the believer who lives a half-century in the public eye and who does not show that—like we all—he is prone to sin. But that’s all over now. That sin is a crumbling dry leaf that disintegrates before the hurricane of God’s eternal grace. 

Thank you for your life’s work, Ravi. We will miss your presence, but we rejoice as you enter into the eternal joy of Jesus Christ.

One last thing ... 

In a previous newsletter, I mentioned that I’ve been spending time listening to older Christian music. I mentioned the late Rich Mullins. He wrote this song shortly before he died, and it’s a powerful expression of doubt, pain, and—ultimately—faith. Here it is, performed years later, at a tribute concert. Enjoy:

Photograph by Ricky Carioti/Washington Post/Getty Images.

Say What You Really Mean

‘Believe women’ is a symptom of a larger disease.

Yesterday I learned something truly fascinating: I’m far more powerful than I ever imagined. Susan Faludi wrote an op-ed in the New York Times arguing that the hashtag #BelieveAllWomen is a “right-wing trap.” Conservatives, according to Faludi, hijacked the concept of “Believe women,” turned it into “Believe all women” and have now sprung that trap on Joe Biden. 

I was skeptical, but, hey, let’s see the proof. Were feminists truly trolled into going too far? Faludi searched for the origin of #BelieveAllWomen and found only three tweets, each from people with very small Twitter followings. Then, well, look what I did:

Then, in the fall of 2015, Hillary Clinton posted a tweet: “To every survivor of sexual assault … you have the right to be heard. You have the right to be believed.” To which Juanita Broaddrick, who alleges that Bill Clinton raped her in 1978, responded on Twitter on Jan. 6, 2016, “Hillary tried to silence me.” Conservative editor David French, who has a large Twitter following (more than 209,000 followers as of this writing), retweeted Ms. Broaddrick at once — attaching the hashtag #BelieveAllWomen, followed by four question marks.

As Faludi says next, “the breath was on the ember.” Interestingly—while Faludi links Hillary’s tweet and Juanita Broaddrick’s, she does not link mine. Let’s see them all, in sequence. First, here’s Hillary:

Months later, Broaddrick tweeted this:

And, finally, here’s the tweet that Faludi thinks helped light the fire:

Savvy social media users, let’s ask this—which statement was more influential? A tweet from a former first lady, former secretary of state, and favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination (currently with 27.8 million twitter followers) declaring that “every survivor of sexual assault” has “the right to be believed”? Or is it my months-later quote-tweet that got a grand total of five retweets?

But look what I (allegedly) launched. I helped make this happen:

And this:

Faludi argues that the real slogan of the #MeToo movement is #BelieveWomen, and “believe women” is substantially different from “believe all women.” Oh, and moreover, “believe women” didn’t really mean believe women. Here’s Faludi again:

This is why the preferred hashtag of the #MeToo movement is #BelieveWomen. It’s different without the “all.” Believing women is simply the rejoinder to the ancient practice of #DoubtWomen.

No, it’s not meaningfully different without the “all.” “Believe women” is decisively declarative, and it means something different from “hear women” or “respect women.” I shouldn’t have to type this sentence, but “believe” means “to consider to be true or honest” and to “accept the word or evidence of.” 

Words have meaning, and if you don’t intend the meaning, don’t use the word.

In fact, one of my chief problems with our partisan moment is that people are constantly, relentlessly, and transparently saying things we know they don’t really mean. And then, when you call them on it, they fall back to a position contrary to their actual words.

In his newsletter and podcast, my colleague Jonah Goldberg has been doing yeoman’s work calling out the motte-and-bailey fallacies rife in political argument. If you haven’t read Jonah, here’s his excellent definition of the term:

A motte-and-bailey castle is a traditional medieval fortification in which there’s a keep (the motte) surrounded by a field or courtyard enclosed by a smaller outer wall (the bailey). Under normal times, people work, stroll around, gossip about how well-endowed Hodor is, whatever. When invaders come, the peasants grab what they can and run inside the keep, because it’s far easier to defend. 

So in debate, a motte-and-bailey argument is when you make some strong, sweeping statement, and then, when challenged, you withdraw to a much safer and more modest position.

In fact, he defined the term in the context of expressing his own frustrations with “believe women.” If activists merely meant, “take women seriously,” then that’s what they should have said. 

But I don’t want to merely repeat Jonah’s frustrations. I want to get a bit darker. I want to get a bit more cynical about human nature and our political moment. I’ll let you in on a secret—the reason why activists are constantly overstating their case is not simply because they’re short-sighted or dishonest or hypocritical. Activists constantly overstate their case because—if they don’t—no one will pay attention to them

At scale, public indifference and apathy all too often swallows up nuance and precision.

I came to journalism from the activist world. I left commercial litigation in 2004, and from that moment until I joined National Review in 2015, I worked for nonprofits. I mainly litigated constitutional cases and managed constitutional litigators, but I also helped raise money and tried to raise public awareness of our work. One of my jobs was to help my employers break through the background noise of daily life and stand out from every other worthy cause to persuade you to click a link, sign a petition, or write a check. 

Readers, that is hard. Narratives get simple, fast. And unless you’re a particularly deft communicator, you quickly learn that shades of gray don’t raise funds. It’s good guys vs. bad guys, and there are two states of being—victory or crisis. The good news is that not all giving is fear-based. There are people who look for hope and give money based on success. Victories raise money. Victories increase engagement.

The bad news is that a giant amount of giving and activism is based on raw fear. There is virtually no market for a problem that isn’t a disaster. Your public will veer toward putting out the raging fire over tossing a few cups of water on smoldering wood. A crisis is thus a terrible thing for a fundraiser to waste, and if a crisis doesn’t exist, it must be made. 

This, in a nutshell, a key reason why both sides of the culture war believe they’re losing. Both sides are constantly inundated with the language of existential threat. Consider how “believe women” manufactures its own Manichaean reality. There aren’t three positions in this dualistic world. There are only two—believe or disbelieve. Which side are you on? 

In short, as Americans look out at a dumbed-down world of sloganeering, hypocrisy, and hysteria, they’re looking at the world they made. Yes, elites have failed. Yes, elites are hypocritical. But Americans have also failed. In many ways, the political market has worked. It has given the people what they want. 

One other thing ... 

I’m a regular reader of Andrew Sullivan’s excellent Friday essays in New York magazine, and while he’s consistently thought-provoking his essay last Friday raised a key point that influences our public debate about COVID-19 more than we appreciate. The wave of death America is experiencing is happening almost entirely out of the public eye:

There’s a strange similarity between the casualties of a plague and those of a war in modern America: we never see the bodies. I have yet to see a Covid19 patient in the terminal phase of the illness; I’ve never seen one being forcibly intubated; I haven’t seen video of the coughing fits of the victims; we never absorb why some are strapped to their beds, so they don’t rip out their ventilators in their desperation to breathe. There are no photos of the dying; and very few that even show the toll of survival. These human beings, old and young, are being shrouded by understandable medical privacy, but also hidden from us.

More:

When and if your parent or grandparent falls ill, and is taken to the hospital, you cannot visit. You cannot comfort or hold; you cannot be there when they panic or lash out at a nurse; you cannot hold their hand as they struggle to breathe; you cannot stroke their head as they die. You cannot ask the questions they cannot, or just hold their hand in the night. There are good reasons for this, in containing the virus, and I fully understand them. But the unintended cruelty of it all is the mark of a plague death. With the elderly, who make up a disproportionate share of the death toll, the isolation can just be an intensification of where they already were: left in nursing homes, segregated from the young, waiting to expire. But the final loneliness must be terrible.

The isolation goes beyond the hospital. There are no real funerals. More than 91,000 Americans have died of a single infectious disease in a mere two months. In normal times, a wave of death that large—concentrated as it is in distinct American cities and states—would also unleash a wave of public mourning. Friends and acquaintances would share in the grief. We’d see the long processions. We’d hold and comfort surviving family members. 

As it is, countless millions of Americans are experiencing mass death entirely as charts and graphs. A gravely sick coronavirus patient is whisked away, never to be seen again—except by their closest family members in small, private memorial services. And if history teaches us anything about death, it’s that we don’t truly feel numbers. We can distance ourselves from statistics. 

This isn’t an argument against reopening. In most places in the United States, reopening isn’t just wise, it’s inevitable. People cannot remain locked down indefinitely. In places like Tennessee—where I live—the medical system was never overwhelmed, the disease did not achieve the kind of community spread it achieved elsewhere, and a prudent opening is entirely proper. I do think, however, that some of the scorn and skepticism about the severity of the disease is an artifact of the isolation that Sullivan so vividly describes. 

One last thing ... 

The Last Dance is over, and I’m convinced. No, not that Jordan is the GOAT. I’m convinced that he did not push off against Bryon Russell in his legendary last shot. Jordan’s right—all of Russell’s momentum is to his left. Jordan’s hand on him was irrelevant. He was stumbling anyway. I’ve been wrong for 22 years.

Photograph by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis/Getty Images.

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