In Nashville, Evangelicals clashed with toxic fundamentalists—and Evangelicals prevailed
If I had to summarize a complicated, important week at the Southern Baptist Convention’s meeting in a single sentence, it would be this: In a series of contentious confrontations, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination confirmed that it is (for now) more Evangelical than fundamentalist. And that outcome is good news for the church and the nation.
To explain what I mean, let me back up a moment and define my terms. It’s important to understand what “Evangelical” really means, and that requires going back to pre-exit poll Christianity.
How did exit polls corrupt our definitions? When most Americans think of the term “Evangelical,” they’re not thinking so much as a set of theological presuppositions but rather of the sub-group of Americans who respond “yes” to an exit-poll question, a very imprecise exit-poll question. For example, here it is, in 2020:
The problems with the question are obvious. Immediately you lose any sense of the racial diversity of American evangelicalism. Black and Hispanic Evangelicals are lost in “all others,” and they’re far more politically diverse than white Evangelicals. In addition, the question papers over tremendous differences within “evangelical” and “born-again” Christianity itself.
Thus, the word “Evangelical” became primarily a political category, obscuring the historical meaning of the term and eradicating a distinction that is still deeply salient within American Christianity—the cultural, theological, and political difference between evangelicalism and fundamentalism.
I grew up in fundamentalism. I converted to evangelicalism. The difference is profound but often opaque to those who are outside the “born again” (rather than Mainline) Protestant tradition. After all, both the fundamentalist and Evangelical branches of “born again” Christianity believe in the authority of scripture. Both branches are generally politically conservative. That’s why it’s just wrong to frame the differences between the two as “right versus left” or “conservative versus liberal” or much less as a battle between “conservative versus ‘woke.’”
Instead, I’d frame the difference in a number of different ways—“grace versus law,” or perhaps “open-hearted versus closed-minded.” In an earlier newsletter, I described fundamentalists as possessing “fierce existential certainty.” The fundamentalist Christian typically possesses little tolerance for dissent and accepts few sources of truth outside of the insights that can be gleaned directly from the pages of scripture.
As I’ve argued before, I don’t think you can understand the far-left or the far-right without understanding fundamentalism:
I’m increasingly convinced we can’t understand the cultures of the far left or the far right unless you’ve either come from a fundamentalist background or have deep experiences with fundamentalist faiths.
Far-left fundamentalism often manifests itself in the illiberal zeal of the so-called “Great Awokening.” It’s a secular version of the religious intensity of the far religious right, rejecting alternative worldviews with the same ferocity that religious fundamentalists reject secular sources of truth.
You can often distinguish fundamentalism by its emphasis on righteousness and its obsession with the idea that compromise anywhere is compromise everywhere. That’s a key reason internal arguments are so ferocious. Give an inch on young earth creationism, and you’re abandoning scripture. Give an inch on, say, the “the extent to which we can benefit from secular psychology in biblical counseling,” and you’re declaring that scripture is insufficient as a guide for life and faith.
Because compromise is so catastrophic, fundamentalism often manifests itself in Christian politics through a series of moral panics, where issues assume apocalyptic importance. Teach evolution in schools, and we’ll face God’s wrath. God abandoned our nation when we lost school prayer. Gay marriage is the point of no return. Critical race theory threatens the foundations of the church and the republic.
Evangelicals will often share the fundamentalist’s cultural concerns (which is why the distinction between fundamentalism and Evangelicalism is often opaque to those outside the church), but not their political or cultural intensity, nor their apocalyptic fears. Evangelicalism more readily embraces doubt and difference. It is more open to sources of knowledge outside the church.
To stick with the critical race theory example for a moment, the Southern Baptist Convention’s 2019 Resolution 9 on CRT and intersectionality is a classically Evangelical document. It states that “general revelation accounts for truthful insights found in human ideas that do not explicitly emerge from Scripture.” Yet it also declares the truth that “critical race theory and intersectionality should only be employed as analytical tools subordinate to Scripture.”
In other words, while there are things Christians can learn from critical race theory, scripture is still supreme. When CRT conflicts with scripture, then scripture rules.
The fundamentalist rejects this framework. Just as with secular psychology, secular concepts like CRT—springing often from non-Christian scholars—are deemed corrupt to their core. There is nothing we can learn from them that we can’t learn by applying scriptural principles, and thus must be rejected, root and branch.
Moreover, in part because Evangelicals are more comfortable with doubt and difference, they’re often more ecumenical and less prone to see doctrinal differences as dealbreakers for cooperation and fellowship. My introduction to evangelicalism, for example, occurred at my law school Christian Fellowship, where Baptists worshiped side-by-side with believers from virtually every Protestant denomination and tradition.
In my fundamentalist upbringing, many of our leaders wouldn’t have labeled that gathering “Christian.” They would have labeled it a misbegotten fellowship of the lost.
Few fundamentalists are quite that exclusive now, but you can see why fundamentalists often express a deep discomfort with pluralism and experience a constant sense of emergency. Someone is always pulling on a thread of the faith somewhere, and pull hard enough on any thread, and you risk unraveling the entire fabric. Political disputes assume outsize importance. Political differences become intolerable.
Evangelicals often also have a higher view of grace than fundamentalists. They emphasize God’s grace more than God’s rules and are more prone to focus on God’s mercies than God’s judgment.
To see the difference, I’m going to quote below one of the most famous passages in all of scripture—the story of the woman caught in adultery—and I’m going to bold the most salient words to the Evangelical and italicize the most salient words to the fundamentalist:
But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”
Evangelicals and fundamentalists both believe every word of the scripture above, but the Evangelical pastor will often emphasize that while sin is real, no sin is beyond the grace of God. The fundamentalist pastor will often emphasize that while grace is real, don’t doubt for a moment that God hates sin. “Sin no more” were the last words, and thus the core operative command.
Is this too much background? Not at all! There’s one last thing—while fundamentalist influences wax and wane in born-again Christianity (indeed, in most faiths), they often grow in strength in times of social conflict and cultural upheaval.
Do you wonder why legalistic “purity culture” grew in influence in the 1990s? Buffeted by the sexual revolution, families sought certainty and security. Purity culture beckoned with a clear, easy-to-understand path to righteousness and a (presumed) formula for a healthy, happy marriage.
Moreover, the emphasis on single issues and big battles appeals to a certain “hold the line” heroic mindset. It speaks to the heart of those who are drawn to strong stands and dramatic fights. At the risk of nerding out, think of Captain Jean-Luc Picard in this famous dialogue in Star Trek: First Contact:
Before the SBC meeting, perhaps the most insightful preview of the coming conflicts came from my friend Trevin Wax. He identified three big questions that divide Baptists:
- Do Southern Baptist churches unite primarily around doctrinal consensus or missional cooperation?
- Should we engage secular sources of knowledge with a fundamentalist or an Evangelical posture?
- How politically aligned must Southern Baptists be in order to cooperate together?
Note how each either explicitly (in question 2) or implicitly centers around the fundamentalist/Evangelical divide. And how were those questions answered? In virtually every case, the SBC took the Evangelical approach.
First and foremost, in its presidential election, it rejected the more-fundamentalist, culture war candidate of the far-right Conservative Baptist Network, Mike Stone. It also rejected Al Mohler, the legendary head of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mohler isn’t just a seminarian, he’s a leading cultural commentator who consistently takes on the left in matters large and small.
Instead, the convention narrowly elected Ed Litton, a man known far more as a pastor than a culture warrior and who is also known for his efforts at achieving racial reconciliation within the SBC. It also left Resolution 9 intact, failed to adopt any clear condemnation of CRT, and it watered down a pro-life abolitionist resolution that would have wholly rejected any incrementalist approaches to ending abortion.
To understand the magnitude of these votes, black SBC pastor Dwight McKissic tweeted this (he had previously threatened to leave the denomination):
Repeatedly being asked, am I going to remain in the SBC. Integrity demands that I do so. Resolution 9 was/is untouched & Ed Litton, a man who has a good track record & right heart on race, was elected president. Therefore, I will remain. SBC is in good hands with Litton.
In short, as I wrote last week, fundamentalist Baptists charged into Nashville behind pirate flags pledging to “take the ship.” They failed.
The reasons are many and complex, but this explanation—also from Pastor McKissic—resonates:
When Beth Moore & Russell Moore walked away from the SBC, pointing out the fact that the presence of racism & abuse coverups was being tolerated among us, they literally prepared the way for today’s votes of redemption & trajectory. We owe them a great debt of gratitude. Thanks.
It’s also true that leaders like outgoing president J.D. Greear courageously stood and fought, with the conviction all too many fundamentalists claim that Evangelicals lack, for an inclusive SBC that is dedicated to racial reconciliation, abhors sexual abuse, and rejects political litmus tests:
Greear called on white Southern Baptists to “stand with their brothers and sisters of color as they strive for justice.”
He also implored Black and Hispanic pastors not to give up on the denomination as it works through its struggles.
“To our leaders of color, many of you are struggling to stay in a convention you think cares little about you: we need you,” Greear said to a standing ovation. “There is no way we can reach our nation without you.”
Greear also lamented the reputation the SBC has gained as a political organization.
It’s never good when that happens, he explained. “Anytime the church gets in bed with politics, the church gets pregnant, and the offspring does not look like our Father in heaven.”
And he decried not just partisan litmus tests but also the cruelty of political combat:
The exaggeration and lies many of our entity leaders have had to respond to, it makes us smell like death even when our theology is squeaky clean. I hear from Latinos and African Americans wondering why they would want to be part of this fellowship.”
It has to stop, he said. “We are great commission Baptists. We have political leanings. But we are not the party of the elephant or the donkey. We are the people of the lamb.”
The SBC not only reconfirmed its commitment to racial unity, it also took a decisive stand against sexual abuse. The “messengers” (delegates) to the convention decisively rejected the Executive Committee’s attempt to control the investigation into allegations the committee mishandled allegations of sexual abuse.
Instead, as Baptist News reports, they voted to “wrest control of the already announced investigation from the Executive Committee and put it in the hands of a task force to be named by new SBC President Ed Litton.”
That vote lead to a powerful moment—when survivors of sexual abuse embraced after years of courageous advocacy. At long last, transparency and accountability seemed possible:
The SBC meeting represented a victory—especially for those who (to quote one Baptist pastor) hoped to see the convention become “conservative in our convictions but liberal about our love.” But it’s a victory in a battle, not the conclusion of the war. The closeness of the presidential election was a symbol of the strength of fundamentalism, and further cultural conflict and cultural upheaval may strengthen it more still.
But J.D. Greear is right—no church should define itself as the “party of the elephant or the donkey,” and the more that any church does, the more that political disputes will assume apocalyptic importance, the more that American intolerance will grow, and the more that Christians will confuse the pursuit of the biblical justice (which every Christian should seek) with the pursuit of Christian power, which history has shown is often wielded in oppressive and punitive ways.
A healthy American culture needs a healthy church, whether that church leans left or right. As John Adams famously declared, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
He knew that “religious” did not always imply “moral.” By standing with victims of sexual abuse, by defeating the effort to turn the SBC into an adjunct of a thoroughly Trumpist GOP, and by standing against racial division, in a crucial moment the SBC gave the nation hope that a commitment to a faith carries with it a commitment to morality, and that morality can be centered in both justice and grace.
One more thing …
I want to show you concretely what it means to differentiate between open-hearted evangelicalism and furious fundamentalism in American politics—and to show that while a battle was won, the war rages on.
First, here’s Dana McCain at the SBC, speaking about her pro-life convictions with courage and with compassion.
Next, here’s the apocalyptic rage of intolerant, illiberal Christians on full display while they vent their fury at a former vice president whose “sin” was drawing the line at destroying the republic in his service to Donald Trump:
In the collision between these worldviews, I know exactly which one needs to prevail.
One last thing …
Ok, this is an old classic, but JJ lives in my neighborhood, and I ran into her just the other day. She and her husband are delightful folks, and this song is just a wonderful expression of the grace that drew me out of fundamentalism and into the faith is centered around the marvelous mercy of the cross:
Stanford has established itself as the epicenter of computer science, and a farm system for the tech giants. Following major scandals at Facebook, Google, and others, how is the university coming to grips with a world in which many of its students’ dream jobs are now vilified?
At Stanford University’s business school, above the stage where Elizabeth Holmes once regurgitated the myths of Silicon Valley, there now hangs a whistle splattered in blood. More than 500 people have gathered to hear the true story of Theranos, the $9 billion blood-testing company Holmes launched in 2004 as a Stanford dropout with the help of one of the school’s famed chemical engineering professors.
When Holmes was weaving the elaborate lies that ultimately led to the dissolution of her company, she leaned heavily on tech truisms that treat dogged pursuit of market domination as a virtue. “The minute that you have a backup plan, you’ve admitted that you’re not going to succeed,” she said onstage in 2015. But Shultz and Cheung, who faced legal threats from Theranos for speaking out, push back against the idea of pursuing a high-minded vision at all costs. “We don’t know how to handle new technologies anymore,” Cheung says, “and we don’t know the consequences necessarily that they’ll have.”
The words resonate in the jam-packed auditorium, where students line up afterward to nab selfies with and autographs from the whistleblowers. Kendall Costello, a junior at Stanford, idolized Holmes in high school and imagined working for Theranos one day. Now she’s more interested in learning how to regulate tech than building the next product that promises to change the world. “I really aspired to kind of be like her in a sense,” Costello says. “Then two years later, in seeing her whole empire crumble around her, in addition to other scandals like Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica and all these things that are coming forward, I was just kind of disillusioned.”..But the endless barrage of negative news in tech, ranging from Facebook fueling propaganda campaigns by Russian trolls to Amazon selling surveillance software to governments, has forced Stanford to reevaluate its role in shaping the Valley’s future leaders. Students are reconsidering whether working at Google or Facebook is landing a dream job or selling out to craven corporate interests. Professors are revamping courses to address the ethical challenges tech companies are grappling with right now. And university president Marc Tessier-Lavigne has made educating students on the societal impacts of technology a tentpole of his long-term strategic plan.
As tech comes to dominate an ever-expanding portion of our daily lives, Stanford’s role as an educator of the industry’s engineers and a financier of its startups grows increasingly important. The school may not be responsible for creating our digital world, but it trains the architects. And right now, students are weighing tough decisions about how they plan to make a living in a world that was clearly constructed the wrong way. “To me it seemed super empowering that a line of code that I wrote could be used by millions of people the next day,” says Matthew Sun, a junior majoring in computer science and public policy, who helped organize the Theranos event. “Now we’re realizing that’s maybe not always a good thing.”
.. Because membership costs $21,000 per year, the career fairs tend to attract only the most renowned firms.
“Honestly, I think they’re horrific,” says Vicki Niu, a 2018 Stanford graduate who majored in computer science. She recalls her first career fair being as hectic as a Black Friday sale, with the put-on exclusivity of a night club. (Students must present their Stanford IDs to enter the tent.) But like other freshmen, she found herself swept up in the pursuit of an internship at a large, prestigious tech firm. “Everybody is trying to get interviews at Google and Facebook and Palantir,” she says. “There’s all this hype around them. Part of my mind-set coming in was that I wanted to learn, but I think there was definitely also this big social pressure and this desire to prove yourself and to prove to people that you’re smart.”
Stanford’s computer science department has long been revered for its graduate programs—Google was famously built as a research project by Ph.D. students Larry Page and Sergey Brin—but the intense interest among undergrads is relatively new. In 2007, the school conferred more bachelor’s degrees in English (92) than computer science (70). The next year, though, Stanford revamped its CS curriculum from a one-size-fits-all education to a more flexible framework that funneled students along specialized tracks such as graphics, human-computer interaction, and artificial intelligence. “We needed to make the major more attractive, to show that computer science isn’t just sitting in a cube all day,” Mehran Sahami, a computer science professor who once worked at Google, said later.
The change in curriculum coincided with an explosion of wealth and perceived self-importance in the Valley. The iPhone opened up the potential for thousands of new businesses built around apps, and when its creator died he earned rapturous comparisons to Thomas Edison. Facebook emerged as the fastest-growing internet company of all time, and the Arab Spring made its influence seem benign rather than ominous. As the economy recovered from the recession, investors decided to park their money in startups like Uber and Airbnb that might one day become the next Google or Amazon. A 2013 video by the nonprofit Code.org featured CEOs, Chris Bosh, and will.i.am comparing computer programmers to wizards, superheroes, and rock stars.
Stanford and its students eagerly embraced this cultural shift. John Hennessy, a computer science professor who became president of the university from 2000 to 2016, served on Google’s board of directors and is now the executive chairman of Google parent company Alphabet. LinkedIn founder and Stanford alum Reid Hoffman introduced a new computer science course called Blitzscaling and brought in high-profile entrepreneurs to teach students how to “build massive organizations, user bases, and businesses, and to do so at a dizzyingly rapid pace.” (Elizabeth Holmes was among the speakers.) Mark Zuckerberg became an annual guest in Sahami’s popular introductory computer science class. “It just continued to emphasize how privileged Stanford students are in so many ways, that we have the CEO of Facebook taking time out of his day to come talk to us,” says Vinamrata Singal, a 2016 graduate who had Zuckerberg visit her class freshman year. “It felt really surreal and it did make me excited to want to continue studying computer science.”
In 2013, Stanford began directly investing in students’ companies, much like a venture capital firm. Even without direct Stanford funding, the school’s proximity to wealth helped plenty of big ideas get off the ground. Evan Spiegel, who was a junior at Stanford in 2011 when he started working on Snapchat, connected with his first investor via a Stanford alumni network on Facebook. “Instead of starting a band or trying to make an independent movie or blogging, people would get into code,” says Billy Gallagher, a 2014 graduate who was the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper. “It was a similar idea to, ‘Here’s our band’s vinyl or our band’s tape. Come see us play.’”
..But it’s not just that coding was a creative outlet, as is often depicted in tech origin stories. Working at a big Silicon Valley company also became a path to a specific kind of upper-crust success that students at top schools are groomed for. “Why do so many really bright young kids go into consulting and banking?” asks Gallagher. “They’re prestigious so your parents can be proud of you, they pay really well, and they put you on a career path to open up new doors. Now we’re seeing that’s happening a lot with Google and Facebook.”
By the time Niu arrived in 2014, computer science had become the most popular major on campus and 90 percent of undergrads were taking at least one CS course. As a high schooler, her knowledge of Silicon Valley didn’t extend much further than The Internship, a Vince Vaughn–Owen Wilson comedy about working at Google that doubled as a promotional tool for the search giant. She soon came to realize that landing a job at one of the revered tech giants or striking it rich with an app were Stanford’s primary markers of success. Her coursework was largely technical, focusing on the process of coding and not so much on the outcomes. And in the rare instances when Niu heard ethics discussed in class, it was often framed around the concerns of tech’s super-elite, like killer robots destroying humanity in the future. “In my computer science classes and just talking to other people who were interested in technology, it didn’t seem like anybody really cared about social impact,” she says. “Or if they did, they weren’t talking about it.”
In the spring of her freshman year, Niu and two other students hosted a meeting to gauge interest in a new group focused on socially beneficial uses of technology. The computer science department provided funding for red curry and pad thai. Niu was shocked when the food ran out, as more than 100 students showed up for the event. “Everybody had the same experience: ‘I’m a computer science student. I’m doing this because I want to create an impact. I feel like I’m alone.’”
From this meeting sprang the student organization CS + Social Good. It aimed to expose students to professional opportunities that existed outside the tech giants and the hyperaggressive startups that aspired to their stature. In its first year, the group developed new courses about social-impact work, brought in speakers to discuss positive uses of technology, and offered summer fellowships to get students interning at nonprofits instead of Apple or Google. Hundreds of students and faculty engaged with the organization’s programming.
In Niu’s mind, “social good” referred mainly to the positive applications of technology. But stopping bad uses of tech is just as important as promoting good ones. That’s a lesson the entire Valley has been forced to reckon with as its benevolent reputation has unraveled. “Most of our programming had been, ‘Look at these great ways you can use technology to help kids learn math,’” Niu says. “There was this real need to not only talk about that, but to also be like, ‘It’s not just that technology is neutral. It can actually be really harmful.’”
Many students find it difficult to pinpoint a specific transgression that flipped their perception of Silicon Valley, simply because there have been so many.
- For Facebook it was not only the Russian meddling, but also last year’s Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal, which showed the company’s carelessness with user data.
- At Uber a 2017 blog post by Susan Fowler detailed a workplace rife with sexual harassment, which only compounded growing criticism of the way the company treated drivers and local governments.
- Studies investigated how Apple’s iPhone was becoming addictive among children, causing increased risks of depression and suicide.
- Amazon’s facial recognition software was pitched for government surveillance in 2018, and at
- Microsoft, employees signed a petition protesting the company’s contract with ICE.
- At Google, 20,000 workers walked off the job last November because of the unsavory manner in which the company paid off an executive accused of sexual harassment.
The torrid pace of bad news has been jarring for students who entered school with optimistic views of tech. Nichelle Hall, a senior majoring in computer science, viewed Google as the ideal landing spot for an aspiring software engineer when she started college. “I associated it so much with success,” she says. “It’s the first thing I thought about when I thought about technology.” But when she was offered an on-site interview for a potential job at the search giant in the fall, she declined. Project Dragonfly, Google’s (reportedly abandoned) effort to bring a censored search engine to China, gave her pause. It wasn’t just that she objected to the idea on principle. She sensed that working for such a large corporation would likely put her personal morals and corporate directives in conflict. “They say don’t do evil and then they do things like that,” she says. “I wasn’t really into the big-company idea for that reason. … You don’t necessarily know what the intentions of your executives are.”
- ..Google has hardly been the most damaged brand during the techlash. (The company says it has not seen a year-over-year decline in Stanford recruits to this point.)
- Students repeatedly bring up Facebook as a company that’s fallen out of favor.
- Uber, with its cascade of controversies, now has to “fight to try and get people in,” according to junior Jose Giron.
- And Palantir, the secretive data-mining company started by Stanford alum Peter Thiel, has also lost traction due to Thiel’s ties to Trump and worries that the company could help the president develop tech to advance his draconian immigration policies. “There’s a growing concern over your personal decision where to work after graduation,” Sun says.
“There’s a lot of personal guilt around pursuing CS. If you do that, people call you a sellout or you might view yourself as a sellout. If you take a high-paying job, people might say, ‘Oh, you’re just going to work for a big tech company. All you care about is yourself.’”
Landing a job at a major tech firm is often as much about prestige as passion, which is one reason the CS major has expanded so dramatically. But a company’s tarnished reputation can transfer to its employees. Students debate whether fewer of their peers are actually taking gigs at Facebook, or whether they’re just less vocal in bragging about it. At lunch at a Burmese restaurant on campus, Hall and Sun summed up the transition succinctly. “No one’s like, ‘I got an internship at Uber!’” Sun says. Hall follows up: “They’re like, ‘I got an internship … at Uber …’”
The concerns are bigger than which companies rise or fall in the estimation of up-and-coming engineers. Stanford and computer science programs across the country may not be adequately equipped to wade through the ethical minefield that is expanding along with tech’s influence. Sahami acknowledges that many computer science classes are designed to teach students how to solve technical problems rather than to think about the real-world issues that a solution might create. Part of the challenge comes from computer science being a young discipline compared to other engineering fields, meaning that practical examples of malpractice are emerging in real time from today’s headlines.
Vik Pattabi, a senior majoring in computer science, originally studied mechanical engineering. In those classes, students are constantly reminded of the 1940 collapse of Tacoma Narrows Bridge: A modern marvel was destroyed because its highly educated engineers did not foresee all the possible threats to their creation (in that case, the wind). Pattabi’s CS coursework hasn’t yet included a comparable example. “A lot of the second- and third-order effects that we see [in] Silicon Valley have happened in the last two or three years,” Pattabi says. “The department is trying to react as fast as it can, but they don’t have 30 years of case studies to work with.”
Another issue is the longstanding divide on campus between the engineering types—known as “techies”—and the humanities or social sciences majors, known as “fuzzies.” Though the school has focused more on interdisciplinary studies in recent years, there remains a gap in understanding that’s often filled in by stereotype. This sort of divide is a common aspect of college life, but the stakes feel higher when some of the students will one day be programming the algorithms that govern the digital world. “There’s things [said] like, ‘You can’t spell fascist without CS.’ People will tell you things like that,” Hall says. “I think people may feel antagonized.”
The school’s deep ties to the Bay Area’s corporate giants, long a much-touted recruitment tool, suddenly look different in light of the problems that the industry has created. At the January career fair, members of Students for the Liberation of All Peoples (SLAP), an activist group on campus that aims to disrupt Stanford’s “culture of apathy,” handed out flyers that urged students not to work at Amazon and Salesforce because of their commercial ties to ICE and the United States Border Patrol. (Employees at the companies have raised similar concerns.) “REFUSE to be part of the Stanford → racist tech pipeline,” the flyer reads, in part.
Two students in the group said they were asked to leave the career fair by Computer Forum officials. When the students refused to comply, they say they were escorted out by campus police under threat of arrest for disrupting a private event. A Stanford spokesperson confirmed the incident. “The protesting students were disruptive and asked by police to leave,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “The students were given the option to protest outside the event or in White Plaza. They chose to leave.”
For members of SLAP, the exchange reinforced the ways in which Stanford institutionally and culturally cuts itself off from the issues occurring in the real world. “You might hear this idea of the ‘Stanford bubble,’ where Stanford students kind of just stay on campus and they just do what they need to do for their classes and their jobs,” says Kimiko Hirota, a SLAP member and junior majoring in sociology and comparative studies in race and ethnicity, who participated in the career fair protest. She said many of the students she talked to had no idea about the tech firms’ government contracts. “To me the amount of students on campus that are politically engaged and are actively using their Stanford privilege for a greater good is extremely small.”
The computer science major includes a “technology in society” course requirement that can be fulfilled by a number of ethics classes, and teaching students about their ethical responsibilities is a component of the department’s accreditation process. CS + Social Good has expanded its footprint on campus, teaching more classes and organizing more events like the Theranos talk starring the whistleblowers. Yet the flexibility of the CS major cuts both ways. It means that students who care to take a holistic approach to the discipline can combine rigorous training in code with an education in ethics; it also means that it remains all too easy for some students to avoid engaging with the practical ramifications of their work. “You can very much come to Stanford feeling very apathetic about the impact of the technology and leave just that way without any effort,” Hall says. “I don’t feel as though we are forced to encounter the impact.”
On a Wednesday afternoon, students spill into a lobby in front of a standing-room-only auditorium in the School of Education, where Jeremy Weinstein is talking about the promise and perils of using algorithms in criminal justice. Next year Californians will vote on a bill that would replace cash bail with a computerized risk-assessment system that calculates an arrested person’s likelihood of returning for a court appearance. The idea is to give people who can’t afford to make bail another way to get out of jail through a fairer policy. But such algorithms have been found to reinforce racial biases in the criminal justice system, according to a ProPublicainvestigation. Instead of being a solution to an unfair process, poorly implemented software could create an entirely new form of systemic discrimination. Students were asked to vote on whether they supported cash bail or the algorithm. The class was evenly split. Unlike in most CS classes, Weinstein could not offer students the comfort of a “correct” answer. “We need to deconstruct these algorithms in order to help people see that technology is not just something to be trusted,” he says. “It’s not just something that’s objective and fair because it’s numerical, but it actually reflects a set of choices that people make.”
Though Weinstein is a political science professor, he’s one of three educators leading the new version of the CS department’s flagship ethics course, CS181. Teaching with him are Sahami, the computer science professor, and Rob Reich, a political science professor and philosopher. The trio devised the course structure over a series of coffee-fueled meetings as the tech backlash unfolded during the past year and a half. After discussing algorithmic bias, the class will explore privacy in the age of facial recognition, the social impacts of autonomous technology, and the responsibilities of private platforms in regard to free speech. The coursework is meant to be hands-on. During the current unit, students must build their own risk-assessment algorithm using an actual criminal history data set, then assess it for fairness. “We run it like a talk show,” Weinstein says. “There’s a lot of call-and-response, asking questions, getting people to talk in small groups.”
While Stanford’s computer science program has had an ethics component for decades, this course marks the first time that experts in other fields are so directly involved in the curriculum. About 300 students have enrolled in the course, including majors in history, philosophy, and biology. It provides an opportunity for the techies and fuzzies to learn from one another, and for professors removed from the Valley’s tech culture to contextualize the industry’s societal impacts. In the course overview materials, the moral reckoning occurring in the tech sector today is compared to the advent of the nuclear bomb.
The course’s popularity is a sign that the gravity of the moment is weighing on many Stanford minds. Antigone Xenopoulos, a junior majoring in symbolic systems (a techie-fuzzie hybrid major that incorporates computer science, linguistics, and philosophy), is a research assistant for CS181. She wasn’t the only student who quoted a line from Spider-Man to me—with great power comes great responsibility—when referencing the current landscape. “If they’re going to give students the tools to have such immense influence and capabilities, [Stanford] should also guide those students in developing ethical compasses,” she says...While the early years of the decade saw prominent tech executives like Holmes and Zuckerberg teaching students how to lifehack their way to success, the new ethics course will bring in guest speakers from WhatsApp, Facebook, and the NSA to answer “hard questions,” Sahami says “I wouldn’t say industry is influencing Stanford,” he says. “I would say the relationship with industry allows us to have more authentic conversations where we’re really bringing in people who are decision-makers in these areas.”.. Some of the more critical voices from within the industry are also taking on more permanent roles at Stanford. Alex Stamos, the former chief security officer at Facebook, taught a “hack lab” for non-CS majors last fall, helping them understand cybersecurity threats. He’s now developing a more advanced computer science course, to be piloted later this year, that explores trust and safety issues in the era of misinformation and widespread online harassment. Stamos led Facebook’s internal investigation into Russian political interference on the platform and clashed with top executives over how much of that information should be made public. He left the company in August to join Stanford, where he hopes to impart lessons from his time battling a digital attack that was waged not through hacking, but through ad purchases, incendiary memes, and politically charged Facebook events. “One of the things we don’t teach computer science students is all of the non-technically advanced abuses of technology that cause real harm,” Stamos says. “I want to expose students to [things like], ‘These are the mistakes that were made before, these are the kinds of problems that existed, and these are the company’s reactions to those mistakes.’”
Stamos rejects the idea that ethics is the correct framework to think about addressing tech’s most pressing issues. “The problem here is not that people are making decisions that are straight-up evil,” he says. “The problem is that people are not foreseeing the outcomes of their actions. Part of that is a lack of paranoia. One of our problems in Silicon Valley is we build products to be used the right way. … It’s hard to envision all the misuses unless you understand all the things that have come before.”
While he says that Stanford bears some responsibility for the Valley’s tunnel vision, he praises the school for welcoming tech leaders with recent, relevant experiences to help students prepare for emerging threats. “When I was going to school, computers were important, but we weren’t talking about building companies that might change history,” Stamos says. “The students who come to me are really interested in the impact of what they do on society.”
Stamos regularly fields questions from students about whether to work at Facebook or Google. He tells them that they should, not in spite of the companies’ mounting issues, but because of them. “If you actually care about making communication technologies compatible with democracy, then the place to be is at one of the companies that actually has the problems,” he says. “Not working at the big places that could actually solve it does not make things better.”
The tech giants continue to consolidate power even as they face withering criticism. Facebook’s user base growth accelerated last quarter despite its scandals. Uber will go public this year at a valuation as high as $120 billion. Apple, Amazon, and Google are all planning to open large new offices around the country in the near future. And for all the optimistic talk of working at ethically minded startups among students, creation of nascent businesses is at roughly a 40-year low in the United States. Small firms that enter the terrain of the Frightful Five are typically acquired or destroyed.
It is hard to find a Stanford computer science student, even among the ethically minded set CS + Social Good has helped cultivate, who will publicly proclaim that they’ll never work for one of these dominant companies, as all of them offer opportunities for high pay, engaging individual work, and comforting job security. International students have to worry about securing work visas however they can; students on financial aid may need to make enough money to support other family members. And for many others, it’s not clear that anything that’s happened in the Valley is truly beyond the pale. In that sense, the engineers are just like us, aghast at the headlines but still clicking away inside a system that’s come to feel inescapable. “These events feel too big for most students to take into account,” says Jason He, a master’s student in electrical engineering. “At the end of the day, I think for a lot of students who have been paying a lot of money for their education, if the six-figure salary is offered, it’s pretty hard for students to turn down.”
There is still an opportunity, the thinking at Stanford goes, for every company to do good. Nichelle Hall, the senior who declined the Google interview, landed a job working on Medium’s trust and safety team. But she recognizes that she may have set her qualms aside if Google had been her only employment option. “Some of the feedback that CS + Social Good gets is, ‘Oh, the members end up working for Facebook, they end up working for Google,’” says Hall, who’s been involved with the organization since 2017. “People who care about this intersection of social impact and computer science will go to these companies and do a better job than if they weren’t interested in this stuff.”
Impact is the word that I heard more than any other while on campus. It’s how students framed their decision to go to Stanford, to pursue a career in computer science, to do good in the world after graduating. It’s a word that Hoffman used to describe his Blitzscaling class, and one Holmes used to explain to students why she dropped out of school. “I had the tools that I needed to be able to go out and begin making this impact,” she said. It’s the currency of Silicon Valley, that people spend for good and for ill.
The ability to create impact with a few lines of code has long been what separated software engineers from the rest of us, and turned the Valley into a self-proclaimed utopia of young rebels using technology to save the world from its older, antiquated self. But that’s not the image anymore. Now aspiring engineers draw a comparison between their chosen profession and investment banking. The finance industry wrecked the world a decade ago because of its misunderstanding of complex, automated systems that spun out of control—and its confidence that someone else would ultimately pay the price if things went wrong. You see this confidence in Zuckerberg’s incredulous response when anyone suggests that he resign, and in Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s initial refusal to testify before Congress. And you can see it at Stanford, where the endowment has never been higher, the fundraising has never been easier, and the career fair is still filled with slogans vowing to make the world a better place.
Perhaps this entire strip of land known as the Valley will fully calcify into a West Coast Wall Street, where the people with all the insider knowledge profit off the muppets who can’t stop using their products. If today’s young tech skeptics turn to cynics when they enter the working world, such a future is easy to imagine. But—and this is the hopeful, intoxicating, dangerous thing about technology—there’s always bright minds out there who think they can build a solution that just might fix this mess we’ve made. And people, especially young people, will always be enthralled by the romance of a new idea. “We’re creating things that haven’t necessarily existed before, and so we won’t be able to anticipate all the challenges that we have,” says Hall, who graduates in just four months. “But once we do, it’s important that we can reconcile them with grace and humility. I’m sure it will be a hard job, but it’s important that it’s hard. I’m up for the challenge.”
Minorities do not consider the Republican party more religious (22 min)
Most white people don’t identify strongly as Italian. They identified as Methodist or Baptists, but now that religion is less important, political partisanship matters more.
Minorities aren’t looking to political identity for their identity.
Ep 333: Drew Dyck Disciplines Himself
If you become disciplined to pursue a self-interested, bad goal, what does that gain you.
If you think the right things, truth, it will transform their character. But why is it some of the most theologically smart people are A-holes.
Things that Deplete your Willpower:
Decision making, Conflict, Sleep
Flee temptation. If you are always relying on willpower, you will fail.
This is where habits are important
- Pick one thing. Don’t try to do 5 New Year’s Resolutions at once
- You can’t delete Bad Habits, only replace them
- Cue, Routine, Payoff
- Replace social media with Bible reading
- Jesus take the wheel
- Someone says that they will not brush their teeth unless they felt called by the spirit
- Grace is not opposed to effort. Grace is opposed to earning.
- Sanctification is often a slow transformation process.
- I am what’s wrong with the world: G.K. Chesterton
- In the long run, self-discipline is about delayed-gratification. It is easier in the long run.
Evangelicals and the 5 Stages of Grief: (30 min)
We are between anger and bargaining and this Trump Faustian bargain was out of desperation over demographic change.
Sociologists refer to the Driver’s license -> Marriage License Gap
Fewer people are coming back to the church because the gap is longer and people figure out how to live without it.
Reinforce Republican identity and threat, not from Satan or poverty, or oppression, but an enemy of Democrats
- Us vs them, mitigating our fears in the amygdala
- If fear is a big part of your life, you are not living as a Christian
- I am not a fearvangelica
- A lot of people believe that being afraid makes them Godly
- It is very hard to convince someone who is marinating in fear that they don’t need to fear.
- Phil’s Idea: inside out with fearful evangelicals
[While] European mystics and contemplatives often lived in community, they tended to focus on the individual experience of encountering the divine presence. African American contemplatives turned the “inward journey” into a communal experience. . . . The word contemplation includes but does not require silence or solitude. Instead, contemplative practices can be identified in public prayers, meditative dance movements, and musical cues that move the entire congregation toward a communal listening and entry into communion with a living God. . . .
.. This is how Howard Thurman describes the embodied locus of contemplation:
There is in every person an inward sea, and in that sea is an island and on that island there is an altar and standing guard before that altar is the “angel with the flaming sword.” Nothing can get by that angel to be placed upon that altar unless it has the mark of your inner authority. Nothing passes . . . unless it be a part of the “fluid area of your consent.” This is your crucial link with the Eternal. 
. . As I see it, the human task is threefold.
- First, the human spirit must connect to the Eternal by turning toward God’s immanence and ineffability with yearning.
- Second, each person must explore the inner reality of his or her humanity, facing unmet potential and catastrophic failure with unmitigated honesty and grace.
- Finally, each one of us must face the unlovable neighbor, the enemy outside of our embrace, and the shadow skulking in the recesses of our own hearts.
Only then can we declare God’s perplexing and unlikely peace on earth. These tasks require a knowledge of self and others that only comes from the centering down that Thurman advocates. It is not an escape from the din of daily life; rather, it requires full entry into the fray but on different terms. . . . Always, contemplation requires attentiveness to the Spirit of God. .
evangelicalism, a transdenominational effort to faithfully represent Christ in word and deed, shaped my life and outlook, helping me to interpret the world.
.. Some of the most impressive moral movements in American politics — the efforts to abolish slavery and to end segregation and the struggle to protect unborn life — have been informed by Christianity
.. Yet the support being given by many Republicans and white evangelicals to President Trump and now to Mr. Moore have caused me to rethink my identification with both groups.
.. I consider Mr. Trump’s Republican Party to be a threat to conservatism, and I have concluded that the term evangelical — despite its rich history of proclaiming the “good news” of Christ to a broken world — has been so distorted that it is now undermining the Christian witness.
.. “Evangelical is no longer a word we can use.” The reason, he explained, is that it’s become not a religious identification so much as a political one.
.. the term evangelical “is now a tribal rather than a creedal description.”
.. the events of the past few years — and the past few weeks — have shown us that the Republican Party and the evangelical movement (or large parts of them, at least), have become what I once would have thought of as liberal caricatures.
.. Assume you were a person of the left and an atheist, and you decided to create a couple of people in a laboratory to discredit the Republican Party and white evangelical Christianity. You could hardly choose two more perfect men than Donald Trump and Roy Moore.
- Both have been credibly accused of being sexual predators, sometimes admitting to bizarre behavior in their own words.
- Both have spun wild conspiracy theories, including the lie that Barack Obama was not born in America.
- Both have slandered the United States and lavished praise on Vladimir Putin, with Mr. Moore declaring that America today could be considered “the focus of evil in the modern world” and stating, in response to Mr. Putin’s anti-gay measures in Russia: “Well, maybe Putin is right. Maybe he’s more akin to me than I know.”
- Both have been involved with shady business dealings.
- Both have intentionally divided America along racial and religious lines.
- Both relish appealing to people’s worst instincts.
- Both create bitterness and acrimony in a nation desperately in need of grace and a healing touch.
.. Rather than Republicans and people of faith checking his most unappealing sides, the president is dragging down virtually everyone within his orbit.
.. Prominent evangelical leaders, rather than challenging the president to become a man of integrity, have become courtiers.
In their eyes, religious conservatives aren’t making a cynical bargain by embracing a president with dubious religious bona fides. They finally have the street brawler they’ve always wanted.
they all centered on returning the country to a better and more comfortable time.
To economic nationalists, it meant going back to an era of high tariffs and buying American. To defense hawks, it meant returning to a time of unquestioned military supremacy. To immigration hard-liners, it meant fewer jobs for foreign-born workers—and, for some of those voters, fewer dark faces in the country, period.
But for many evangelicals and conservative Catholics, “Make America Great Again” meant above all else returning to a time when the culture reflected and revolved around their Judeo-Christian values. When there was prayer in public schools. When marriage was limited to one man and one woman. When abortion was not prevalent and socially acceptable. When the government didn’t ask them to violate their consciences. And, yes, when people said “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.”
.. the president recalled the Founders’ repeated reference to a “Creator” in the Declaration of Independence. “How times have changed,” Trump said. “But you know what? Now they’re changing back again. Just remember that.”
The audience roared with a 20-second standing ovation.
.. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council .. Trump’s greatest impact is legitimizing those people and views that have been marginalized. “Barack Obama used the bully pulpit and the courts to demonize those who held to the very values that made America great. And Trump is doing the opposite,” Perkins says. “What the president and his administration can do is once again make people feel like it’s OK to stand up and talk about these traditional values, and engage in these conversations. Then we can win hearts and minds, and that’s where the transformation begins.”
.. When Moore spoke to a Friday luncheon sponsored by the American Family Association, he was introduced unapologetically as someone who would put Christianity ahead of the Constitution.
.. He raised eyebrows by inviting former White House aides Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, the polarizing promoters of Trump’s “America First” message, to speak at the event, despite neither having any roots in the Christian conservative universe.
.. This shotgun wedding resulted in some predictably awkward moments. Bannon, emphasizing the importance of grass-roots politics in winning elections, raised the 44th president’s former job title. “What’s a community organizer? I’ll tell you what it is. Somebody that could kick your ass—twice.” There were crickets from the audience; it was almost certainly the first time someone had ever used a curse word during a speech to the Values Voter Summit.
.. Erick Erickson, a frequent Trump critic, tweeted, “Sad to see this said at a Christian conference. Where is the grace? Where is the mercy? Where is the Christ?”
.. Many Christian voters embraced Trump not despite his provocative style but because of it, betting on a brash street brawler to win the culture battles they had been losing for generations.
.. And their faith has been rewarded: From abortion policy to religious liberty to judicial appointments, Trump has delivered for social conservatives more than any other constituency, making them the unlikely cornerstone of his coalition.
.. With political victory, however, has come the loss of moral high ground
.. If he wins the Senate seat, a spiritual renaissance in America is unlikely to result. But something else will: a deepening alliance between economic nationalists and social conservatives, two distinct tribes that are growing codependent in the era of Trump. As Perkins now sees it, Republicans will win elections only by merging these factions—hence his inviting Bannon and Gorka to speak.
I know the situation in the world can seem dark today. We are seeing theological regression into fundamentalist religions which believe all issues can be resolved by an appeal to authority (hierarchy or Scripture) and so there is no need for an inner life of prayer. In the United States we have seen the rolling back of a compassionate economic system and the abandonment of our biblical responsibility for the poor, the sick, and refugees. Fear and anger seem to rule our politics and our churches. We see these same things in many parts of the world.
.. The Apostle Paul has a marvelous line: “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20). In so many places, there are signs of the Holy Spirit working at all levels of society. The church might well have done its work as leaven because much of this reform, enlightenment, compassion, and healing is now happening outside the bounds of organized religion. Only God gets the credit.