The moral case for welfare


Dear Rebecca:

There’s a case that being truly pro-life means being in favor of government programs that assist the poor. Here’s the latest evidence:

A University of Kansas study supports the suspicions of lawmakers and advocates who believe there’s a link between additional restrictions on welfare benefits and an increase in foster care cases.

The researchers say their initial findings show that while Kansas was reducing the amount of time families could receive cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program and increasing the requirements they needed to meet for that assistance, the number of child abuse and neglect cases went up. Abuse and neglect are the leading reasons why Kansas kids enter foster care.

“It’s remarkable. There is a mirror image,” said Donna Ginther, a KU economist and one of the study researchers. “As the Kansas TANF caseloads drop, the number of reports of abuse and neglect go up. And you see a similar relationship for foster care placements.”

Conservatives often say that such assistance shouldn’t be provided by government, but by churches and other private, optional associations. The problem with that? As assistance to needy families in Kansas has declined in recent years, nobody has stepped up to the degree needed to mitigate the harm.

So we have harm.

Feels like we can and should do better,

How a “culture of temptation” excuses Christian perpetrators

Hi Joel,

I wish every thought I have about Roy Moore would be the final thought I ever have to have about him, but, alas, it’s Monday, and he still hasn’t conceded that he lost the Alabama Senate race to Democrat Doug Jones.

Roy Moore continues to clam that “the battle is not over,” and, indeed, the election won’t be certified until sometime between Christmas and January 3rd. As he has often done in the past, Moore sees himself as playing a key role in God’s plan for the world–which is to make (or, in Moore’s view, return) America to its status as a “Christian nation” and, in doing so, incur God’s supernatural (but also economic and military) blessing on it. He makes himself the hero of that story, comparing himself to the long-suffering Job of the Hebrew Bible. The Republicans who have called for him to step aside are no better than Job’s wife, who encouraged him to “curse God and die” when things got tough.

The Washington Post reports that 80% of white evangelical voters voted for Moore. To outsiders, that seems like a hypocrisy, given the repeatedly verified charges that Moore sexually assaulted children–and the very clear evidence that he dated his wife while she was married to someone else. Many white evangelicals went to the polls believing that the accusations were likely true–and still chose Moore. I’ve written before about the power of whiteness to persuade white women to throw their lot with white men, even men who abuse them, but we also have to consider the question of evangelical support for a man who has personally violated the Religious Right code of sexual ethics. We saw it with Trump, but Moore may seem like even more a surprise, given that he, unlike Trump, claims to be a Bible-believing Christian.

In voting for Trump, white conservative Christian voters didn’t think they were getting a Sunday School teacher. They didn’t even think they were getting a King David–a man “after God’s own heart,” even though he’d committed a lot of sexual sins. Instead, they were voting for a King Cyrus–the Persian king who allowed the Jews in diaspora to return to their homeland to build a theocracy. He himself wasn’t a man of faith, but his policies supported the return of the Jewish people to their ancestral land and the re-assertion of their faith. Christian nationalists like Moore might have preferred a man with fewer ex-wives or appearances in Playboy productions, but they were willing to vote for him to further their larger goals.

Likewise, many white conservative Christian voters who find Moore personally objectionable can stomach his personal behavior in order to advance their shared vision of Christian nationalism. This argument is easier to make, of course, when his political opponent supports abortion rights. After all, then we are comparing a man who sexually assaults children with a man who would murder unborn babies. But, really, many white Christian voters can excuse Moore’s sexual crimes with a shrug of their shoulders. Too many of them know adult men who coerced girls and teens into sex, and many of them know parents who pressured those girls to marry their assailants. To think poorly of Moore would mean thinking poorly about the many men they know who use power and religion to keep minors in abusive relationships.

When confronted by their sexual sins, conservatives often blame feminism, sexual liberation, gay rights, the 1960s. A Senator gets his mistress pregnant and they blame the birth control movement for teaching men that sex comes without responsibility; a TV personality sexually harasses his co-host and they complain that it’s impossible, in the era of women in the workforce, to figure out what is and is acceptable behavior. Here is Claire Berlinski piling it on in her recent attack on the #Metoo movement in The American Interest:

“The absence of any notion of sin (and hence forgiveness), or any notion of male/female complementarity, along with the fetishization of “consent” and the absolute authority of internal states of feeling (the crux of Kennedy’s Obergefell ruling) has rendered us unable to think sensibly about how men and women relate to each other.”

In one sentence, she blames liberal theology, a rejection of Biblical complementarianism (a kind of religious “separate but equal” for gender), the belief that individuals have the right to bodily autonomy, and gay rights for men’s sexual abuses. Notably, she does not blame the actual perpetrators–you know, men who abuse.

Conservative Christians do the same. When conservative Christian men fail, some of their followers fall away–but others double down, forgetting the commitment to “personal responsibility” that inflects so much of their victim-blaming. They don’t blame the man but the culture, which, they argue, practically invites the sexual abuse of minors. And they aren’t entirely wrong. magazine named a 13 year old girl their “sexiest actress of the year.” She still has baby teeth. We live in a culture that sexualizes children–and children who are vulnerable (economically, because they are queer, because they don’t have parents who are invested in their safety) are far more likely to be exploited. Like other sexual predators, Moore himself selected a child who was fragile, one who was actually at her own child custody hearing.

Image result for roy moore on horseback

Roy Moore is a real man, as you can tell by the way he rides his horse to the voting booth.  Further evidence: real men sometimes fall to temptation, which is abundant in a culture that allows women’s suffrage, contraceptives, and gay Boy Scout leaders. 

Of course, for the rest of us, My culture taught me that it’s okay to sexualize children isn’t a justification for child sex abuse. But for some conservative Christians, it can be exactly the excuse they need to hear. It frames the perpetrator as 1) heterosexual, 2) sexually powerful, 3) and prone to weakness. Both his appetites and his failures demonstrate that he’s a real man. If you’ve ever sat through a revival service and heard the testimony of a born-again sinner, you’ve heard the story: in the end, God saves him, but you’re really listening for the sins. And the more depraved the sin, the greater God’s rescuing love.

And, best of all, this framework ultimately blames the culture–which is, after all, what Christian nationalism seeks to change. We need a culture that represses women and punishes sexual minorities because, otherwise, even good men like Roy Moore might give into temptation and sexually assault kids. Roy Moore might not be the ideal candidate for conservative Christian voters, but at least he’s pushing for the goal.









An Anabaptist Jólabókaflóð: Tom Smith’s faves

Tom Smith lives in the New York City neighborhood that’s located somewhere between Harrisonburg, Va and the Bronx. He’s a counselor at Lower East Side Harm Reduction Center, a program of The Alliance for Positive Change. He spends the rest of his time using mass transit as a poorly lit, mobile reading room. He can be found on Goodreads using the email and on Twitter as @gambolloch.

Here’s some of his favorite reads:

51T8DSgiusLBeatles ’66: The Revolutionary Year, Steve Turner
1966 was a busy year for the Beatles. It was the year they first saw another kind of mind with LSD, compared themselves with Jesus, stopped touring, released Revolver, and began recording Sgt Pepper’s. I had a lot of fun reading this and actually learned a bit more about one of my favorite bands.

Mean, by Myriam Gurba
Mean is a coming-of-age memoir about a lesbian woman of color growing up in white suburban California. It is at times very disturbing, and I offer it with several trigger warnings. Gurba pulls no punches as she talks frankly about her personal experience of racism, homophobia, sexual assault, and trauma. That said, she also manages to write a genre bending piece of nonfiction that is also funny, raw, and beautiful. In the space of a page I went from almost crying to laughing out loud.

The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again, by A.C. Wise
It’s a collection of interconnected stories about a group of women who keep the world safe from evil scientists, robots, and monsters. A.C. Wise writes a fun book that is filled with camp and heart. I would love to see this as a graphic novel or an animated series.

Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee
I’m a sucker for a good family saga and Pachinko delivers. It is a novel that follows several generations of a family from Korea living in Japan in the years before and after WWII. It’s a deeply compassionate book filled with complex characters and a rich narrative.

The Leavers, by Lisa Ko
I became a Leavers evangelist this year. If we met and talked about books, chances were that I was going to bring it up. It’s about Deming Guo, a boy living in the Bronx, whose mother, an undocumented immigrant from China, suddenly disappears without a trace. He’s adopted by a white couple who live in a small town in Upstate New York and is left to rebuild his life as best as can as he struggles with unanswered questions.

Meanwhile, Elsewhere: Science Fiction and Fantasy from Transgender Writers, edited by by Cat Fitzpatrick (Editor), Casey Plett (Editor)
This is a solid collection of SF short fiction that is jam packed with stories from wide variety of genres from space opera to post apocalypse. No anthology is perfect, but I was impressed with how many great stories were included and I have continued to think about many of them long after I finished reading them.


Is political civility … pragmatic?


Thanks for pointing out that Gonzaga program. I’ve been thinking about this paragraph of your post, in particular:

I don’t want to overstate the case: I don’t think that we owe conversation to people who are hostile to us, deny our humanity, or want us to suffer. I don’t think we need to read primers on how to get along at the holidays with family members who think that treating us poorly is okay/

I thought of that again when I read this piece in Vox, which in turn references a Washington Post piece. Here’s the part that won’t surprise you — that you’ll definitely agree with:

Contrary to what some have suggested, white millennial Trump voters were not in more economically precarious situations than non-Trump voters. Fully 86 percent of them reported being employed, a rate similar to non-Trump voters; and they were 14 percent less likely to be low income than white voters who did not support Trump. Employment and income were not significantly related to that sense of white vulnerability.

So what was? Racial resentment.

Even when controlling for partisanship, ideology, region and a host of other factors, white millennials fit Michael Tesler’s analysis, explored here. As he put it, economic anxiety isn’t driving racial resentment; rather, racial resentment is driving economic anxiety.

So what to do with that? The answer of many of my friends on the left has been succinct: Screw ’em. We’re writing them off.

And that’s understandable. For persons of color, especially, voters who act on racial resentment “are hostile to us, deny our humanity, … want us to suffer.”

But here’s the part of the Vox piece that offers a different solution:

 Research also shows it’s possible to reach out to Trump voters — even those who are racist today — in an empathetic way without condoning their prejudice. The evidence suggests, in fact, that the best way to weaken people’s racial or other biases is through frank, empathetic dialogue. (Much more on that in my in-depth piece on the research.) Given that, the strongest approach to really combating racism and racial resentment may be empathy.

One study, for example, found that canvassing people’s homes and having a 10-minute, nonconfrontational conversation about transgender rights — in which people’s lived experiences were relayed so they could understand how prejudice feels personally — managed to reduce voters’ anti-trans attitudes for at least three months. Perhaps a similar model could be adapted to reach out to people with racist, sexist, or other deplorable views, although this possibility needs more study.

But all of this involves a lot of legwork, outreach, and a kind of empathy that people may not be comfortable with in an era of highly polarized politics.

So. What do we know?

• It’s really hard to change people’s views. Really hard. We are a stubborn species, no matter where you exist on the ideological spectrum.

• But: It is possible.

• And: In some cases, the effort may have a payoff that’s beyond political, but even moral.

Empathetic dialogue is hard. Most of us, these days, are so angry that we don’t want to do it. You’re even right, to some extent, that we shouldn’t have to do it – nobody should have to prove their humanity, right?

Right. But if our goal is to nudge society onto a different path than the one it’s currently on, that kind of hard work may be required anyway.


An Anabaptist Jólabókaflóð: Gordon Houser’s suggestions for literary fiction and more

Gordon Houser edits The Mennonite and writes book reviews for the magazine–and still enjoys reading good, challenging books so much that, he says, “when my family asks me for gift ideas for Christmas or my birthday, I generally list books I want.” Below, the author of Present Tense: A Mennonite Spirituality shares some of his current favorites.

Lincoln in the Bardo, which won this year’s Man Booker Prize, is the first novel by George Saunders, the best-selling short story writer. The novel is set in February 1862, following the death of President Lincoln’s 11-year-old son Willie. The grief-stricken president visits his son’s body, which is in the Georgetown cemetery. This creative tale follows Willie and others who have died and are in a kind of purgatory or in-between state called the bardo in the Tibetan tradition. As we learn about these people’s varied lives, we are confronted with our own mortality and what meaning our lives may have.

Exit West is a novel by Mohsin Hamid, who also wrote the novels The Reluctant Fundamentalist and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. The novel is set in in an unnamed city where there is political conflict and refugees are growing in number. The narrative mixes fable with social realism. It’s relatively short, and the prose is deceptively simple. Exit West uses magic realism, as his characters travel to various parts of the world through exit doors, to make real the experience of refugees and includes many insightful nuggets. Here’s one: “…when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.”

Sing, Unburied, Sing, which won this year’s National Book Award for fiction, is a novel by Jesmyn Ward, who won the same award for her earlier novel, Salvage the Bones. Ward sets her fiction in rural Mississippi and employs some magic realism as well. Here she uses the archetypal road novel to explore the lives of Jojo, a 13-year-old boy approaching manhood, and Leonie, his flawed mother, who struggles with drug use while trying to be a better mother. Ward’s lyrical writing glistens from the page: A laugh has no happiness in it, “just dry air and hard red clay where grass won’t grow.”

Now to nonfiction. The best I read is Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann, a rare combination of thorough research and a gripping narrative. Grann explores a piece of history unknown to me, of the murders of members of the Osage Indian nation in Oklahoma in the 1920s who had become wealthy because oil was found on their tribal land. The book reads like a murder mystery, which it is, and it is a page-turner, hard to put down. It’s also infuriating to learn about the injustice perpetrated by greedy men yet encouraging to read about the patient work of FBI agents who eventually solve at least part of the puzzle of who was committing these murders.

Another outstanding book this year is The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison, one of my favorite novelists. This small book is based on the Norton lectures she gave at Harvard University in the spring of 2016. Morrison reflects on how we construct others and why others make us afraid. She delves into her own memories as well as her fiction, including Beloved, Paradise and A Mercy. She also considers the work of such authors as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Camara Laye. She finds hope in narrative fiction, which “provides a controlled wilderness, an opportunity to be and to become the Other.”

In my job as editor of The Mennonite, the monthly magazine of Mennonite Church USA, I read many books for review. One of my favorite, and one particularly relevant to our current state of affairs, is Always with Us? What Jesus Really Said about the Poor by Liz Theoharis. She addresses Matthew 26:6-13, in which Jesus says, “The poor you will always have with you,” which has been seen as justifying neglect of the poor, that poverty is inevitable. But Theoharis argues that this “is actually one of the strongest statements of the biblical mandate to end poverty.”

Another book I liked is The Altars Where We Worship: The Religious Significance of Popular Culture by Juan M. Floyd-Thomas, Stacey Floyd-Thomas and Mark G. Toulouse, which explores the religious significance of popular culture. It’s an intriguing look at how North Americans view religion. The authors write: “Though we claim to serve things that are sacred, in actuality we deem sacred those things that serve us.” The book expands our understanding of religion by noting its presence beyond churches or mosques. It shows its presence in areas such as body and sex, big business, entertainment, politics, sports, and science and technology.

I don’t read a lot of poetry, but this year I picked up a book of poems that won a National Book Award in 2013, Incardine by Mary Szybist. The collection of 42 poems are meditations on Mary the mother of Jesus. They approach Mary from a variety of angles, all the while delving into the depths of human experience. In “Holy,” Szybist laments her own mother’s sickness: “Spirit who knows me, I do not feel you / fall so far in me, / do not feel you turn in my dark center.” In “Here, There Are Blueberries,” she ponders her place in nature and finds solace: “I wonder what I am, that anyone should note me. / Here there are blueberries, what should I fear?”

Above, books from Gordon Houser’s library. 

Can Playing at Civility Make Us More Civil?

Hi Joel,

Given your recent reading in civility, I wanted to share a project happening at Gonzaga University that seeks to promote respectful dialogue across lines of political difference.

Gonzaga is the host of the Institute for Hate Studies, an interdisciplinary endeavor that I’ve been associated with for a few years. This October, the Institute sponsored an international studies on hate scholarship. (Trust me: it’s more fun than it sounds!) As part of that, GU students in media organized a kind of game show focusing on civility.

For the game, individuals were partnered with someone who was very different from them, politically. They had to go through 4 rounds of working together on different tasks, starting with simply finding areas on which they agree. The final challenge required to craft a vision for America’s future of things that they agreed on. The media students then edited the teams’ presentation of their vision into a video that was presented a live audience, which voted to award teams points based on how well they did the task.

Above, Gonzaga students work to promote civility using a gameshow format. 

I don’t want to overstate the case: I don’t think that we owe conversation to people who are hostile to us, deny our humanity, or want us to suffer. I don’t think we need to read primers on how to get along at the holidays with family members who think that treating us poorly is okay.

But there is something noble and worthwhile in practicing the discipline of speaking with those who hold dramatically different opinions.

You can watch the whole episode of Common Ground here.


Why are White Women so Awful?

Hi Joel,

In addition to the immediate sense of relief upon Tuesday’s news that Doug Jones beat Roy Moore in Alabama’s Senate race, lots of us felt anger and shame and weariness at the continued racial divide in voting in that state. As in the 2016 presidential election, white women overwhelmingly voted for a sexual abuser, while African American women turned out in great numbers (and not just turned out to vote but turned out the vote in their organizing) to oppose him. How can white women be so awful?

To complicate the situation, some exit poll data:

  • Most white people with college degrees voted for Moore.
  • 80% of white people describing themselves as born-again Christians voted for Moore–about the same percent of white evangelicals voters who voted for Trump.
  • 76% of Moore voters said that the allegations of sexual assault of children was not a factor in their voting; 15% of voters who said it was an important factor chose Moore.
  • 63% of white women who voted for Moore said that they think the allegations are true.
  • Of those Alabama voters who approve of Donald Trump’s performance as a president, 97% of them voted for Moore–and 27% of them were voting for Moore as an act of support for the president.

The majority of fathers voted for Moore. The majority of mothers voted for Jones. (The Washington Post data didn’t break this down by race, though I’m very interested to see how white mothers compared to African American and Latina mothers on this one.) Men who are fathers were just as okay with voting for a serial sexual predator as were men  who are not fathers, so, no, it turns out that you don’t need a daughter to think it’s wrong to assault girls–and, in fact, having a child doesn’t really convince you that they are worth protecting.

How can educated, white, Christian, and women voters support someone they actually believe groomed children for sexual abuse? How can the majority of fathers vote this way? How can 1 out of 3 mothers vote for Moore? How can white people who should know better (because of their education) and believe better (because of their faith) vote for a man they accept sexually assaulted teens?

In short: how can white women be so awful?

Image result for best scarlett o'hara faces

Above, the worst white woman ever, Scarlett O’Hara. 

The question is only narrowly about Moore or even Trump. Broadly, it’s a question about why we would vote for the dream in which America is great “again”–that is, as it once was, in the past. The sweet version of this story is a Hallmark Christmas movie--small towns where families are intact, crime is low, wages support families, and non-white people make only rare appearances and then in supporting roles. That this has never really been history–and certainly not for African Americans, who, in slavery, were denied the right to their own families and who, ever since Emancipation, have been denied the best paying jobs in our economy–does not matter. Also, conservatives know who to blame for the fact that it’s not our current reality: people of color, immigrants, non-Christians, women, queer people. A vote for Moore wasn’t a vote for sexual assault (though it was certainly a vote that sexual assault isn’t a disqualification) so much as it was a vote for white patriarchy.  When Roy Moore said that the best time for American families was during slavery, he wasn’t saying slavery was good (I mean, he wasn’t saying it.) as much as he was saying when we think about who America is good for, we only count white families.

So of course white men would vote for that. Notice that our post-election conversations aren’t about why white men are so awful. We know the answer: because voting for Moore is a vote to protect their power.

But why would white women vote for white patriarchy?

Three answers:

First, we (I’m speaking here as a white woman) are socialized into both racism and sexism. We benefit from racism, and we internalize sexism. Our culture itself is racist and sexist in the same way that the US is 3.8 million square miles–we could change it, and we can imagine it being different, and it’s been different in the past, but, boy, making that kind of change is hard and even if we made it, we’d have to redraw every map in the world. Socialization works. If we don’t want to be racist and sexist, we have to actively counter that socialization. But messages of sexism and racism come at us from every which way, all day long, and it’s hard to be vigilant, even if you want to not be racist or sexist.

Second, in a white patriarchy, our race will get us farther ahead than our gender, so we stick with whiteness and stick it to women and girls, whatever their race. In a white patriarchy, white men will ally with us as white women (not equal to white men, but as complements to them), whereas solidarity with women of color means that white men have no reason to share any kind of power with us at all.

Finally, many of us would rather be oppressed by a white man than have a person of color be our equal. We know how badly white men will treat us, and we still prefer it to what we imagine our own feelings would be if we were seen as only equal to, not superior to, people of color.  For some of us, we cannot imagine our own lives having the little value we place on black lives; the thought is intolerable. For some of us, feelings of superiority to non-whites placate our suspicion that, economically, we’re pretty powerless–because, at least, after all, we’re white, so there is still someone to look down upon. 

Perhaps we fear the retribution we deserve.  Perhaps we have done some of the work of taking account for the ways in which white women have harmed women of color and benefitted from harm to them and we think, I can’t pay for that. We cannot imagine the grace we would have to receive in order to reconcile what we owe to black women (an impossible task that we must try to do) because we are so selfish ourselves.  Because we have hurt others with injustice, we can’t envision mercy at all for ourselves.