In some ways, Obama’s desires for a stable home and family are quite conventional, and she uses the conventionally feminine, domestic metaphor of knitting to describe them. “We were learning to adapt, to knit ourselves into a solid and forever form of us,” she writes of the first months of her marriage to Barack. It isn’t easy: in the Robinson-Obama union, the South Side power-walker meets the Hawaii-born ambler; the meticulous planner and striver with an “instinctive love of a crowd” and a desire for family must adapt to the messy, cerebral dreamer who loves solitude and books at least as much as he loves people. Later, the woman who loathes politics must throw her life into her husband’s pursuit of the Presidency.
Things are complicated long before the campaign, as children both complete and unsettle the Obamas’ carefully cultivated “us.” Once Obama gets pregnant, through I.V.F., her resentment at Barack’s distance from the pain of miscarriage and needles gives way to feelings of maternal pride. Upon Malia’s arrival, she writes, “motherhood became my motivator”—yet, three years (and almost twenty pages) later, she is most galvanized by her new full-time job, at the University of Chicago Medical Center. Although she considers staying home when Sasha is born, she instead takes the job, which “[gets her] out of bed in the morning,” though Barack’s comparative absence, as a commuting state and U.S. senator, gets her home in time for dinner. Then, just as Sasha is about to start elementary school and Obama is “on the brink of . . . [firing] up my ambition again and [considering] a new set of goals,” it is decided that Barack should run for President.
Michelle is still driven, but now by a desire not to fail Barack’s growing base of supporters. In an effort to “earn” public approval, she talks a lot about her kids while campaigning—a safe subject for a black woman who was framed in negative contemporary press accounts as an unpatriotic shrew. As the Obamas near the Iowa primaries, Michelle’s growing commitment to Barack’s cause is reflected in her language. Her pronouns shift from “him” to “we”—“Our hopes were pinned on Iowa. We had to win it or otherwise stand down”—and she adopts Barack’s own sermonic listing mode, describing meetings with voters “in Davenport, Cedar Rapids, Council Bluffs . . . in bookstores, union halls, a home for aging military veterans, and, as the weather warmed up, on front porches and in public parks.” Her rhetoric itself knits her and Barack into a “we.”
The book as a whole, however, represents a different moment, and announces her ambition to tell her story in her own way. A long memoir by any measure, “Becoming” not only matches the length of Barack’s first book, “Dreams from My Father,” but it also shows Michelle to be a better storyteller than her husband—funnier, and able to generate a surprising degree of suspense about events whose outcomes are a given (the results of Barack’s first run for President, for instance). Having devoted herself to strategically remaking the office of First Lady, through such initiatives as the White House garden and Let Girls Learn, she now reflects on what she has done and who else she might want to become.
Of course, the choices she makes throughout—to focus more and less on work, more and less on family—are a function of privilege. It is a privilege to decide how much or whether to work, and a privilege to have children, whether through I.V.F. or otherwise. The ability to steer one’s own ship also relies on the sheer luck of evading any number of American disasters: layoffs, mass shootings, prison, domestic violence, lack of health care. Then there are the disasters perpetrated by the U.S. surveillance state, which can undo black women, such as Sandra Bland, or their children, such as Kalief Browder. Under these conditions of hypervisibility, no amount of strategic maneuvering can guarantee one’s safety. And, in light of this, the Obamas’ faith in the American system, and in electoral politics, can seem woefully insufficient.
It comes as something of a relief, then, that, even as Michelle seeks to bind her own story to that of her husband and, through him, to that of the nation, the story of her mother, Marian Robinson, hints at an exit. Robinson is a willfully marginal figure in the text, as she was in the White House—famously reluctant to move in, and evasive of its basic security protocols. She gave everything to her kids (“We were their investment,” Michelle writes of her parents’ devotion to their two children) and stood by her husband, Fraser Robinson III, while multiple sclerosis drained him of strength. And yet, it turns out, she harbored fantasies of leaving. It is here that Obama’s portrait of her mother grows most vivid: “Much later, my mother would tell me that every year when spring came and the air warmed up in Chicago, she entertained thoughts about leaving my father. I don’t know if these thoughts were actually serious or not. . . . But for her it was an active fantasy, something that felt healthy and maybe even energizing to ponder, almost as ritual.” Obama sees this ritual as an internal renewal of vows for Marian, akin to how doubts about God might be said to bolster one’s faith. But the fantasy also represents a wholly other possibility: not a knitting-together but an unfurling, a quiet dream of escape.
This long and rambling essay is about how you change the mind of people who don’t believe in facts or replace the truth with alternative facts. Like the members of the Christian Right who are propping up Trump’s illegitimate presidency.
Why on Earth would Christians claim Trump? Given he clearly is at best a back sliding clueless cluck of a Christian.
Okay so he doesn’t go to church and has never read the bible. But hey at least he supports bible literacy programs in schools. Which may be the stupidest idea I have ever heard.
I say that as someone who went through three years of bible study in school as part of an experiment – we were strongly suspected of reefer madness and hippie sympathies – more religion was the proposed treatment. My high school class wasn’t huge but we were almost 80% Christian kids. The rest were Buddhists, animists, and a handful of atheists.
Three years of bible study and 80% of us were atheists. The rest were Buddhists, animists, and one very lonely Sufi. Zero Christians.
Anybody feel that being forced to learn algebra lead to them loving math? Bible study would kill the Christian faith within a generation.
Full disclosure, I love algebra and use it daily. I read the bible and reflect on it daily. I am the only mathematician out of my class and the only person who isn’t Christian In Name Only (XINO). Most aren’t even that but rather full fledged atheists.
I do have a favourite bible passage. Or rather passages. Luke 10: 25-37.
Which is of course the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Hard to believe anyone who believed in Jesus and the Gospels could read Luke 10: 25-37 and then build a wall to keep immigrants out. But Luke in the original Greek offers some evidence the author was asking a legitimate question. When we say love our neighbour what do we mean by neighbour?
I have neighbours who are wonderful people who treat me great. A bunch of whom are Good Samaritans on steroids. They have vigorously supported wave after wave of immigration and hundreds of immigrant families. Despite being right wing nut jobs.
But others, and remember they all treat me great, hate immigrants and immigration. And I have spent much of my adult life trying to help immigrants put down roots and thrive. And they know that and still treat me great.
They know I am a left winger, a radical environmentalist tree hugger, who works with immigrants. But my neighbours still trust me with their animals 24/7 and their farms/ranches when they are away. And no higher compliment can a rancher offer you. People aren’t simple. Ever.
We really need to enrich the tools we use to think about our fellow humans.
Consider the tricky issue of race. My family is, “An cluaran, an ròs, agus an-còmhnaidh na h-eileanan fad air falbh”. That is nearly untranslatable from the Gaelic. Literally it means something like the thistle, the rose and always the faraway islands. But in the island vernacular it means, “here before time began.”
I am a classic Orkney islander, Gaelic and Norse. I am blonde, pale, blue eyed and freckled. Talk about white privilege. Not to mention my family came to North America in the early 1600s.
Which means we are complicit in arguably the worst genocide of all time. One so bad it created a mini-ice age.
Now ironically my DNA tells a remarkably different tale. I know this because I have been doing modelling and number crunching for a group of scientists trying to use DNA to piece together the complicated history of the Athabaskan people. Or as they are now self identifying Dené.
And in the process we have discovered quite a number of useful markers. And I alone among the research team carry some of them. In fact most of them.
This isn’t like Elizabeth Warren. This is some or all of my grandparents or parents lied. I am a Norse-Gaelic-Aboriginal. A Metis we say here in Canada. And very specifically a Dené.
So my white ancestors came to North America bringing pestilence and death and then partnered up with the surviving aboriginals. And I am the result. I am both perpetrator and victim.
I am also a member of not one but two aboriginal communities. I grew up spending large amounts of time with the Tinglit and Haida. They treated me like a tribal member and to the extent I thought about it I self identified with them. So in an ethnocultural sense I am also aboriginal.
I am white. And I am aboriginal. The Metis kids I grew up with (and hey northern Canada so that is many of oldest and dearest friends) think this is hilarious. And with great welcoming hearts they have been sharing their culture with me. Or rather introducing me to mine.
The point is race is very, very complicated and we insist on talking about it in very, very simplistic terms. We think about many profound issues in exceedingly simplistic ways. It is not serving us well.
The relationship between Trump and the Christian Right is a very good case in point.
I think more and more Americans are coming to understand that involvement of the Christian Right in the Trump presidency is always going to be a blot on both American history and the much longer history of the Christian faith. Whether it is a turning point for positive change or the point America and Christianity plunged off the cliff in each other’s fetid embrace is yet to be determined. It is really up to all of us.
I am just here to testify. To give my two cents worth. My story begins at 9:39 on January 28th, 1986.
Consider this then my tribute to Christina McAuliffe, Dick Scobee, Michael Smith, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnick, Ronald McNair, and Gregory Jarvis. They died that day reaching for the stars, trying to take America and the world into a better brighter future. But what killed them was a bunch of people decided to ignore the facts. Or worse choosing to believe “alternative facts.”
Many Americans have turned believing Alternative facts into a badge of honour in the years since. But the day before the Challenger exploded we still collectively agreed facts mattered. And the engineers and scientists were in total agreement. In the cold the o-rings would fail. And the rocket would explode. A number said it loud and clear, repeatedly. NASA ignored them.
That is now the accepted version of events. Nobody disputes it. What has never been addressed is what impact 6 years of Christian Right rule had had on America’s ability to think? And now we have had what, almost 40 years of Christian Right influence and interference?
But believe it or not that isn’t what my testimony is about. It is about how the same cold front that froze the o-rings and killed the brave crew of Challenger led to me being born again. And how my story of coming to that conversion prepared me to meet the Christian Right in their own churches and share the joy and awe I find in science, technology, engineering, art and math (yes Art). We call it STEAM.
All you need to know for now is that the unusual cold in the US on January 27th, and 28th, 1986 had a negative effect on many people’s travel plans. One of those people had been scheduled to debate a major star of the Christian Right and the leader of the Creationist Movement, Duane Gish in Dinwoodie Lounge at the University of Alberta. Nobody on faculty wanted any part of stepping into the lion’s den.
An hour after the Challenger exploded I got a call from a guy named Dick Peter (who later became Dean of Science at the University of Alberta). Dick wanted to know if with next to no warning and no real preparation time I would meet the incendiary Gish the Fish in open warfare in front of what was likely to be an extremely hostile audience. Of course I said yes. I had seen Gish in action on multiple occasions and new exactly what I was getting into. I was motivated to do it for the crew of Challenger. My personal memorial.
The night of the debate the moderator began by polling the audience. By a show of hands 80+% believed in creation. I was a dead man walking.
Duane would win these debates because first and foremost audiences liked him. He was funny and charming and disarming.
And he cheated. He used what is now known as the Gish Gallop. You simply make misstatement after misstatement as fast as you can so nobody can possibly fact check it all in real time never mind rebut any of it. Gish was the master of alternative facts delivered at auctioneer speeds. It didn’t start with the Trumpites.
He also started every debate by lying about his opponent and trying to get them to say they were atheists. He always stacked each debate audience with fundamentalist Christians. Once he’d labelled you an atheist they were programmed to hate you.
So, when he finally let me speak I introduced myself.
“I was born for the Methodist people, to the Dunkard Clan. My other clans are Church of the Four Square Gospel and Evangelical Presbyterian.”
At this point in my life I was ABD (alł but dissertation). My thesis was on the treatment of chronic back pain without drugs or surgery (long story how I got there). I was spending significant amounts of time in Window Rock with Navajo healers exploring how they approached the problem.
So I introduced myself to a diverse audience in a classic Navajo way.
Duane turned and looked at me and I saw this moment of fear as I said, “and I am a fundamentalist evangelical Christian.” And as I said it I realized it was actually true. I felt this shutter run through me. The next morning I started the search for a church where I could be born again. And I have never wavered in my believe God spoke to me and through me that night. The audience felt the power of my experience.
And then in flow I introduced my companion, Lark. It is an old debate trick. If you are going to lose a debate bring a cute dog. And Lark was wicked cute. That is her great, great grandson in the picture above and he is a dead ringer. Like Lark and all the dogs in between Butch is a highly trained, brave and skilled search and rescue dog.
Recently I wrote a diary called What is a left wing Evangelical Christian? I followed it up with a piece called What kind of Christian was Martin Luther King? Then I did a stub of a diary asking if thinking has gotten too hard? Which would explain the lunacy of the Trump presidency.
In this third and by far the longest and most personal of the diaries I will try to offer both pragmatic advice for dealing with the Christian Right and inspiration that real change may be in the air. All three are linked to that night 33 years ago. But this testimony is enriched beyond belief by the extraordinary feedback I received from my earlier attempts at diaries. A big thank you to everyone who contributed.
The point I set out to make originally is that not all evangelical Christians are the enemy. Some, like me are life long progressives and natural allies of the left. And even in the Christian Right there are people who stand in opposition to Donald Trump. But before I got there the conversation went off madly in all directions.
Had I reached my destination I had intended to move on to a discussion of how to reduce the impact of right wing Evangelical Christians on American politics. That reduction is not just desirable because the Christian Right fueled the rise of Donald Trump. This group, one that has never made up more than 20% of the population and is down to 15% now according to the US Census Bureau, has held serious power in Washington, D.C., and many state legislatures for decades. They have somehow drowned out the voices of reason again and again.
We call them born again and fundamentalist evangelical Christians.
I was raised by them. I am one of them. I thought I’d left all that behind right until I acknowledged my roots on stage. Then I knew it was forever buried deep inside me.
My parents weren’t evangelicals. I am not sure they were even really Christians. They were deeply spiritual and tried very hard to be good and do good works. They served as leaders of the ultra left wing United Church of Canada but almost never attended actual services. They did however make me attend. And had me baptized.
The United Church became the clock of my life. Sunday’s service. Wednesday’s Christian Boys in Training. Thursday’s Christian Girls in Training. I looked upon these sessions as my best opportunity to acquire a girlfriend. I always managed to be passing just as it ended and believe it or not that worked. Saturday’s Social – usually a dance, but games and punch and cakes and on the walk home necking. And then there was choir practice and bible study (much more interesting than what we discussed in school – it was lead by the Reverend of the time but team taught by Catholic Nuns and the local Rabbi). In any case life had rhythm.
Where do the Evangelists come in? I was the last child of a quite large but very spread out family. My eldest siblings are almost two decades older than me. By the time I was born my parents had very active professional and social lives. And little time for parenting. My older brothers were gone to school and the Air Force. My sisters were into Elvis, the Beatles, and boys.
Which is how my grandparents got such a starring role in raising me. Or trying to at any rate. They weren’t any of them young and I was a handful. Each of my Grandparents came from a different fundamentalist Evangelical Christian church.
My paternal Grandfather was a member of the Church of the Four Square Gospel of Aimee Semple-McPherson before becoming part of an extremist Baptist cult that mercifully has ceased to exist. My Dad’s mother was a Dunkard. My maternal Grandfather an Evangelical Presbyterian and my battle axe of a Grandmother belonged to an ultra fundamentalist splinter of the Methodists.
Lest I sound like I am slagging them let me say for the record my grandparents were all what I would call high impact human beings. My Methodist grandmother taught school, served on the boards of numerous charities, helped run a thriving dairy farm, and earned a first class degree in Physics (unheard of for a woman in her day).
My Mom’s dad was a stone mason who with his own hands built much of Calgary’s history. He was a master blacksmith who could build anything from scratch. When he wasn’t running the dairy farm he designed and built amazing stain glass windows. He was a 27th level Free Mason.
My most fundamentalist grandparent was my Dad’s dad. He was a power engineer, turned Mountain guide. Late in his 60s he became a civil engineer but never worked at it. A truly restless spirit he started breeding Cattle and produced World Champion Bulls for several decades. During his life time he started 16 businesses we know of and 75 years later three are still running but he died penniless. Happy but dirt poor.
And finally we come to my Dunkard grandmother. She was born with an incredible gift. At the World’s Fair in St. Louis Teddy Roosevelt declared her Apple pie “the best pie I have ever eaten”. She cooked for the rich and the famous at places like Maligne Lake Lodge in Jasper and the Palliser Hotel in Calgary. Her fans included movie stars like Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. Maybe the most incredible thing about her was as she travelled the Southern US mastering her craft she collected recipes and each recipe came with stories from the people who created the dish. It is priceless social history. I’ve kept them all these years. I still cook the dishes of course. Deep in Northern Canada.
I was in awe of all of them. They might have been right wing nut job born again fundamentalist Christians but they each had mad skills. I would have followed any of them blindly when I was a child.
I explained this to my audience planning to go on and explain how science saved me. But then life on stage I realized that it wasn’t true. No I had been saved from my fundamentalist grandparents by the Great Goddess Shu. And I blurted that out. Then I had to explain.
Duane tried desperately to get me back on track, to get back to burying me in his alternative facts. But the audience was having none of it. They knew testifying when they heard it. And you don’t interrupt the testimony, ever, for anything.
So I went on. Explaining that my Grandparents agreed on next to nothing. Other than that I should practice their form of uncompromising Christianity. Family legend has it I was baptized in each church.
But like I said they were elderly and I was difficult. Ironically the only affordable, available baby sitter was an ancient Chinese woman (older than my Grandparents as it happens). Anne was considered acceptable because she was a devout Anglican.
There were a remarkable number of things my family didn’t know about Anne. Like she didn’t speak English. Not one word. She just nodded and smiled a lot. And laughed.
And her Cantonese was let’s be kind and say quirky. She taught me her native tongue, Nakhi, and that was what we spoke. By the time I was sent off to spend part of my days with her (age 2) she was living in the back of her grandchildren’s restaurant where she passed her time raising their children, prepping food, and running a huge garden and greenhouse.
Her great grandchildren became my playmates, the restaurant my second home until I went off to university, and the garden and greenhouse where I found peace and wisdom.
You see my fundamentalist grandparents had put me in the care of a llu bu, a female Shaman of the Nakhi people. Anne worshiped Mother Nature who she called Shu. And a bunch of minor Gods she called Shv who were always making mischief. Particularly on anyone who messed with the forests. Except because the Shv were tricksters of the highest order there was frequently collateral damage. Much of it playing out in relationships and communities and the political realm. Her job as a llu bu was to get the Shv out of people’s lives and bring all the people into balance with Shu.
In her late teens Anne entered a Buddhist monastery in Tibet and became a Tibetan Buddhist Monk. On a trip to Shanghai she fell in love, got married and became a Taoist. And rich. Incredibly, opulently rich. Her conversion to the Anglican faith coincided with the Communist Revolution and her personal diaspora to Canada’s frozen north. In which she lost all her material possessions.
Anne for her part thought this odd life arc was a perfectly harmonious circle. “I spent a lot time worrying about stuff that turned out not to matter much,” she used to tell me. Then she would laugh.
Anne believed all these religious things all at once. With great joy and absolute certainty. She was a very happy polytheist who still practiced as a herbalist and Medicine Woman right up to her death at a 109. There were always Shv problems that needed fixing.
Though not a single one of her numerous clients was Nakhi. Anne was the only Nakhi for 5,000 miles in any direction. Nope her clients were all animals. Mostly dogs.
And Anne, Anne was a dog whisper. The gift Anne gave me was she taught me how to talk to the animals. And my grandparents loved it.
You see they did share one thing in common. They could all talk to the animals. And I, the last of the Grandchildren was the only one to have inherited that weird skill. So I went from runt of the litter and general annoyance to adored grandchild.
It was wanting to understand animal whispering that led me to become a scientist. (And you guessed it. The answers turn out to be complex).
And here I paused.
I asked Lark to confirm that she and I could talk. She dutifully barked. I told her she was right I should get back to talking about her.
See Lark was a very famous avalanche rescue dog. One memorable afternoon she dug three people out of an avalanche in Jasper National Park. The deepest was buried in 14 and 1/2 feet of snow.
On stage that night I asked her how that was even possible? Lark spoke. I translated.
“God gave my ancestors a great gift. A nose to see the world through. And millions of years of evolution made me smart enough to know how to use it.”
Then I started into a crash course in canine genetics, evolution, and domestication. With what was known about those amazing noses thrown in. Five minutes with more than 40 facts. State of the art for the time. Mostly superseded by other facts in the years since. But impossible for Gish to rebut.
He actually left the stage before the debate was over. I have no idea why. But I suspect he wasn’t used to being upstaged by a talking dog.
In 2013, shortly after his death, I learned Duane Gish spent the next 27 years referring to me as the spawn of Satan.
I guess that is because by the time Lark and I had finished discussing dog evolution and genetics using the Gish Gallop 90% of the audience was pro evolution. Because would a medal winning hero dog lie to them? Or maybe they were moved by the facts. It is by no means the only time Duane Gish lost a debate. But I have been told it is the only time he abandoned a debate.
But what you may be wondering does this have to do with ending the marriage between Donald Trump and the Christian Right?
President Trump is simultaneously two very different creatures.
- There is Trump the Man. Most Americans grasp that Trump the Man is at best a waste of space and at worst dangerous, malevolent dark matter.
- But there is Trump the Myth. The Mythic Trump is doing Christ’s work making sure America remains a White, Christian State. The Mythic Trump is
- a self made man,
- a brilliant business man,
- a devout Christian,
- a Messianic figure,
- an upholder of the most important part of the constitution (the part that apparently guaranteed a White Christian State).
- He is the reincarnation of King Cyrus of Persia who was supposedly doing God’s bidding without knowing it. And perhaps most frighteningly
- God’s messenger sent to bring Chaos and thus cause the End Times and bring on The Rapture.
Some people believe so strongly in the Mythic Trump they forgive Trump the Man for family separations at the border, a range of criminal acts including running a fraudulent university and a fraudulent charity, selling the US to Russia, grabbing pussy, cozying up to tyrants, and surrounding himself with knaves and dunces. And that is only a partial list.
The question is can anything be done to shatter the myth?
And we all know the facts will never be enough to convince these sort of believers of anything.
I have chosen two articles that should give us hope and that point the way toward separating the man from the myth.
In the first link three sociologists explain their research into what happens when you make voters aware of how much money Donnie got from daddy. Perceptions of Trump’s ability to empathize drop drastically when voters learn what a spoiled rich kid he was and is and will always be. And politicians who aren’t seen as empathetic lose.
In the second a historian reveals the real roots of Trump’s power, Fake History. There is an organized attempt to convince certain Evangelical Christians that the framers of the US Constitution intended the US to be a White Christian state. It is that dubious and frankly fallacious contention that made Trump the President of the United States.
John Fea has made a start on teaching real history to Evangelicals. The article is a cry for help signal boosting his message. We would all be wise to listen and help.
Because the alternative is an unimpeachable, unindictable President.
On Friday January 11th, 2019 the Guardian ran this article on how Trump’s presidency has come to depend on Evangelical Christians.
and Raw Story summed it up thusly.
Let me be clear. Trump wants to weaponize and use Evangelical Christians to extort Republican politicians to ignore his attempted theft of American democracy. Just as he is using the threat of declaring a national emergency to try to over turn the United States Constitution.
Decisive action is clearly needed. The question is what would that action look like?
What gives Evangelicals their grip on Republican politicians is the idea they are a monolithic, single block of voters. Nothing could be further from the truth. But it isn’t just Republicans who believe it. It is Democrats as well.
You need to understand that the terms Evangelical and Fundamentalist are not synonyms. Evangelicals may be Fundamentalists or they may think that Fundamentalists are brain damaged and possibly dangerous. And it is possible to be Fundamentalist and have lost all touch with Evangelical Christianity. It is also possible to be a fundamentalist and an evangelical and still think Donald Trump is Evil and Republicans are in the sway of False Prophets and a False Prophecy.
This link will explain the difference between Fundamentalists and Evangelicals better than I ever could.
John Green resonates for me when he says Fundamentalists are stricter than other Evangelical Christians.
I am going to pause here and once again explain my own religious beliefs. I am an evangelical Christian. To be precise I am a Hussite. Which means I am a Fundamentalist. Our religious practice is both strict and severe thus meeting John Green’s definition for fundamentalist. I am born again. If you can be born again when you have been baptized six times.
I find it hard to credit when I read the lunacy Jerry Falwell Junior spouts off
but he describes himself using almost the exact same language I use. It is important to realize we are living nearly completely different faiths. Well I think one of us needs to change how we describe ourselves.
Why should you care about these doctrinaire differences? Or waste a moment of your life thinking about the lunacy of Jerry Falwell Junior?
There is this significant block of voters just waiting for Democrats to extend an Olive branch so they can rejoin the party. You see until 1980 evangelicals while leaning right valued social justice issues enough some Democratic politicians could reach them. Then in a place called Phildelphia, Mississippi Ronald Reagan became the first politician to play the hate card. And hate took over the Christian Right.
In has taken decades for dissenting voices to emerge in the Christian Right and begin pushing back. I am going to introduce you to just a few. There are many, many more. A modern reformation is happening in real time in America.
Let’s start with Alan Cross and his response to Falwell’s statements.
And the unbelievably brave Karen Swallow Prior:
Then there are the black Evangelical Christians. the only part of the movement where the numbers are rising. And the black evangelical movement is different, very different from the white approach. It remains truer to the original vision of early 20th Century evangelism.
That doesn’t mean they are all actively trying to change things. But again there are brave Evangelicals of Colour who are:
And finally there is the resurgent religious left.
We need to boost these dissenting voices. And we need to do it today.
And we need to stop being bigoted towards the religious right. Don’t think the left depicts the Christian Right as inferior brain dead zombies? Read these links.
And believe me I could go on.
This approach guarantees failure.
And there are other much better options. To read about professional meteorologists using story telling to convert climate change deniers check out the link below. They use narrative to deliver facts. Just like I tried to do that night.
In summary when confronting the Christian Right lead with your story and let the facts ride along.
Let’s rob Trump of this key element of his base.
And believe me it can be done. You see I got my first few speaking gigs that night I debated Duane Gish. Now I take my testimony to congregations and Sunday Schools in Evangelical Christian churches all over western Canada and occasionally in the US. In the 3 decades since I have spoken repeatedly about evolution, Global warming, and yes abortion hundreds of times.
Because you see I too am one those dissenting voices. And people will listen and do listen. And the very core of what I tell them is this:
1. STEAM is great fun.
2. STEAM is useful.
3. STEAM is a gift from God.
4. And God really hates it when we ignore His Gifts. HATES IT!
More and more churches are asking me to speak. In the two years since Trump was elected I haven’t been able to keep up with the demand. You see these churches fear for their youth.
They know that STEAM is the future, the Rapture isn’t happening any time soon, and the Old Testament won’t help their children have a materially better life than they had. They also know young adults are fleeing their faith. Because it doesn’t offer a better future.
They just don’t know what to do about any of that. We need to offer them better options than a retreat into xenophobia, racism, misogyny and hate.
And in closing I want you to know that when the modern reformation catches fire in these communities of frightened parents (and it will) a renewing conflagration is going to sweep across American politics and religion and forever change American history.
Today I leave you with the task of helping we, the dissenters, to ignite that fire.
In the first link three sociologists explain their research into what happens when you make voters aware of how much money Donnie got from daddy. Perceptions of Trump’s ability to empathize drop drastically when voters learn what a spoiled rich kid he was and is and will always be. And politicians who aren’t seen as empathetic lose.
It’s hard to quantify charisma, but by any measure Joel Osteen has some pretty impressive stats. Every week, the man some call “The Smiling Preacher,” draws an estimated 43,500 individuals to his Lakewood Church, which he moved into a former professional basketball stadium just off Houston’s Highway 59 in 2005. Osteen’s weekly sermons are beamed across seven networks in the United States and, by some estimates, reach 95 percent of the nation’s households and more than 150 countries.
The 53-year-old pastor, with his boyish good looks, ubiquitous incisors, and his impeccably coiffed mane of wavy, brown locks, oversees a budget estimated at upward of $70 million. He has penned no less than seven best sellers (most derived from his sermons), has amassed a net worth estimated at $40 million, with book sales and related revenue reportedly exceeding $55 million, and lives in a 17,000-square foot, $10.5 million mansion. All of it is built upon the personality—the words, the wisdom, and in no small part the charisma—of the man the congregants of the nation’s largest charismatic church refer to, simply, as “Pastor Joel.”
So, what is it that makes Osteen different from the rest of us? What is the source of his magical magnetism?
Many—including Osteen himself—might attribute his gifts to the favor of a higher power. After all, charisma, wrote the early 20th century German sociologist Max Weber, who gave the word its most widely used modern definition, is a quality that sets an individual “apart from ordinary men,” and causes others to treat him as “endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.”
But there’s a small but growing group of individuals who have another explanation. Using brain-scan technologies and modern statistical techniques, a band of committed academics in recent years have set out to decipher that mysterious quality from which legendary leadership is born. And some have reached what a previous generation of observers might have considered a dubious conclusion: That it’s possible not just to reverse-engineer charisma, but that it’s something, at least in part, we might learn to master.
“Charismatic tactics can be taught, and the more charismatic leadership tactics used, the more individuals will be seen as leader-like by others,” says John Antonakis, a professor of Organizational Behavior, and Director of the Ph.D. program in management at the University of Lausanne. (Read the Nautilus feature about how we create charismatic leaders and the dangerous consequences of their power.)
By studying well-known charismatics and replicating their actions in the lab, Antonakis has identified a series of what he calls Charismatic Leadership Tactics (CLTs), which range from the use of metaphors and storytelling, to nonverbal methods of communication like open posture and animated gestures at key moments.
t the request of Nautilus, Antonakis assigned a doctoral student, Benjamin Tur, to sit down and code the first 10 minutes of a 2012 sermon by Osteen, “The Power of I Am,” a speech that Oprah Winfrey says changed her life.
The sermon opens with a photographic montage that includes an image of a smiling Osteen, standing with his photogenic family—son, daughter, and wife—autumn leaves cascading joyfully down around them. It moves to snapshots of his son throwing a football, his daughter kissing a puppy dog, and finally lands on Joel standing with his beautiful wife Victoria, her long blonde hair billowing gently in the wind. The screen cuts to a camera slowly moving over a huge multiracial stadium crowd of all shapes and sizes, panning in and resting with the handsome Osteen. That’s when the magic begins.
Osteen is clad in an impeccable Cerulean blue suit, crisp white shirt and purple, paisley tie, and he is at that very moment, extending his arm and open hand outward toward the screen—toward me—toward all of us—beckoning viewers to join him.
“God bless you! It’s a joy to come into your homes,” Osteen says, pointing his index finger E.T.-like at the viewing audience for just a second, flashing a humble smile, then leaning his right shoulder ever so slightly toward the camera, while blinking his long eyelashes rapidly, as if awakening to a bright, glorious morning. “We love you. If you are ever in our area, please stop by and be a part of one of our services! I promise you we’ll make you feel right at home. Thanks so much for tuning in.”
Osteen shambles over to a wooden podium, places a hand gently on its edge, and tells the audience he likes to start with “something funny.”
“I heard about this 92-year-old man,” Osteen begins. “He wasn’t feeling up to par and he went to the doctor for a checkup. A few days later the doctor saw him walking in the park. He had this beautiful young lady by his side and he seemed as happy as can be. The doctor said, ‘Wow you sure are feeling a lot better aren’t you!’ He said, ‘Yes, doctor, I’m just taking your orders. You said, ‘Get a hot mama and be cheerful.’ The doctor said, ‘I didn’t say that, I said ‘You got a heart murmur be careful!’”
With the tone set, Osteen is off, exhorting his followers to hold their Bibles aloft, repeat a prayer, and then launching into an inspirational message.
Right out of the gate, Osteen is using three of Antonakis’ identified tactics: an animated voice, facial expressions, and gestures. All three figure in Osteen’s opening, even before he has launched into his actual sermon. Taken together, the gestures cue the audience that they have arrived on friendly territory, and encourage them to let down their guards. Osteen begins his sermon. “I want to talk to you today about the power of I am,” he says. “What follows these two simple words will determine what kind of life you live. I am blessed. I am strong, I am healthy. Or, I am slow, I am unattractive, I am a terrible mother. The I ams that are coming out of your mouth will bring either success or failure.”
To connect through a verbal message, Antonakis says, a leader must do three things. He must
- “frame” a vision or paint a picture by using metaphor or stories. He must
- express sentiments of the collective. Finally, he must
- deliver it all in an in animated and passionate way. In the minutes that follow, Osteen will continue to do all three.
Of the 12 different CLTs that Antonakis and Tur look for, nine are verbal. They are:
- metaphor and comparison,
- rhetorical question,
- lists and repetitions,
- moral convictions,
- expressing the sentiments of the collective,
- setting high and ambitious goals, and
- creating confidence that goals can be achieved.
Osteen uses on average one charismatic verbal tactic every two sentences. By comparison, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech has well over three times as many verbal signaling techniques per sentence—his language is infused with powerful imagery and metaphor. “Osteen’s speech is rather average when it comes to use of verbal signaling techniques,” the academics say.
But Osteen makes up for his relative poverty of verbal CLTs by the way he delivers his sermon. He takes full advantage of the medium of the television, which allows us to watch him up close.
Antonakis and Tur say that Osteen shows an open body posture and uses representative gestures at key moments; for instance, when he says, “I am so old,” he mimics wrinkles at the corner of his eyes. There is also his voice. He displays variation both in term of pitch and speed, slowing down, using pauses or speeding up. “Like MLK, his voice sometimes vibrates in this preacher style,” Antonakis and Tur say. Finally, there is Osteen’s facial expression. “He is smiling constantly and accompanies that by raising his eyebrows, making his face more expressive.”
In conclusion, say Antonakis and Tur, the handsome Osteen “embodies his speech and smiles constantly throughout the talk. This combination of nonverbal behavior makes the speech captivating for the audience.”
What makes a person magnetic and why we should be wary
That was precisely what John Antonakis, a professor of organizational behavior, and the director of the doctoral program in management at the University of Lausanne who has spent years studying charismatic speakers, told me. “Charismatic techniques can be taught,” he said. Antonakis has identified a series of what he calls Charismatic Leadership Tactics (CLTs), which range from the
- use of metaphors and storytelling to
- nonverbal methods of communication like open posture and animated, representative gestures at key moments.
When taken together, he has shown, they have helped decide eight of the last 10 presidential elections. “The more charismatic leadership tactics used, the more individuals will be seen as leader-like by others,” he said. (Read here how Antonakis breaks down the CLTs of super-popular TV preacher Joel Osteen.)
Tony Campolo had mastered all the tactics. In the 1970s and ’80s, Bart Campolo and his father traversed the country in a beat-up, sky-blue Dodge Coronet, giving sermons wherever they could. Campolo marveled at his father in action. “My dad was one of the most charismatic people in the world,” Campolo said. “I’ve been around black preachers and people like my dad, who can go up and down the spectrum, do the whisper that you can’t help but listen to, tell the joke, then tell the tear-jerking story, and then the fiery fulmination. He can do it all over the map.”
Many of the most important lessons of Bart’s vocation came after the elder Campolo’s sermons were over. That was when Bart’s dad would ask his son what he’d seen, what worked, what didn’t, and why. Like how to read a room.
“You try to figure out who’s the most difficult part of the room,” Campolo said. “Say you’re at a college campus and there’s a bunch of athletes sitting on the back row. If you don’t get to them, they’re going to hurt you all night long.” So before you get up to speak, Campolo said, you go to the back of the room and talk to the potential troublemakers. “You might say, ‘Hey man, why did you choose this school? How did you get here?’ You try to get those people on your side even before you get up on the stage.” Or you seek them out while you’re speaking, making eye contact, reaching directly to them.
Campolo offered another example. “I remember one time I was with my dad and we went to this big music festival and there were probably 10,000 kids on a hillside. There’s Frisbees flying around. There’s all sorts of distractions. The acoustics are such that no matter what you do, the crowd won’t hear itself. He was like, ‘This is going to be tough.’ Then he said, ‘I’m going to get up and the first story I’m going to tell is a heavy, emotional story. If I try humor, since they won’t hear anyone else laughing, they won’t laugh. In a space like this, you have to throw the humor away and go for emotional resonance. You can take a group like this down, but you really can’t take them up.”
Campolo said his dad had a natural gift for leadership. But he was certain where that gift came from. His dad, he said, like another famously charismatic leader, had a desperate need to be liked.
“My dad for a long time was the spiritual advisor to Bill Clinton,” Campolo said. “He and Clinton were and are great friends. I was once in D.C. with my dad and he said, ‘Hey, I’m going to visit the president, you want to come?’ Everybody tells you when you’re in the room with Clinton, you’re the only person in the world. He has this ability, this charisma, that makes you feel like he’s really seeing you, he really feels your pain. Both he and my dad lost their fathers early in life. I think that can create a huge insecurity. It often seems that guys like that need a standing ovation every 10 minutes to feel validated. So that’s part of where charisma comes from. It has to do with the emotional makeup of the person.”
Charisma, though, has two halves. It’s a relationship between the person who possesses it and the people who respond to it. It’s only when the spark meets the kindling that a flame can ignite. A charismatic speaking to a mirror is not particularly exciting. Put one in front of a crowd, however, and you’re in for a show.
Emotion is the accelerant. In a 2005 article in Science, Princeton psychologist Alexander Todorov showed individuals two pictures side by side of competing congressional candidates and asked them to rate their competence solely based on their appearance. Their judgments, which they were capable of forming within a second, predicted with almost 70 percent accuracy which candidate went on to win the election.
“We decide very quickly whether a person possesses many of the traits we feel are important, such as likeability and competence, even though we have not exchanged a single word with them,” Todorov said at the time. “It appears that we are hard-wired to draw these inferences in a fast, unreflective way.” Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, Todorov demonstrated snap judgments carry a powerful emotional charge, as they are associated with activity in the amygdala, a primitive brain structure, the seat of the fight-or-flight response.
Jochen Menges, a lecturer in organizational behavior at the University of Cambridge, terms the emotional impact of charisma the “awestruck effect.” He came up with the concept as a doctoral student in 2008, when he traveled to Berlin to hear Barack Obama speak in the hopes he might glean some new insights about how charismatic alchemy worked. When Obama bounded onto the stage and announced he was not just a citizen of the United States, but a citizen of the world, Menges himself was taken in. For a few minutes, Menges forgot why he was there — he was taken out of himself, became a follower.
When he looked around, he was fascinated. Everything he had read on charisma implied leaders worked their magic by making people feel good emotions. But this was not an animated, energized crowd. The entire crowd seemed frozen in place, entranced. Afterward, a woman next to Menges gushed that Obama’s speech was “amazing,” “wonderful,” and “awesome.” Yet when Menges asked her to name three things she liked about the speech, she couldn’t.
In a TED Talk, Menges explained that charismatic leaders put us in awe. “And because we admire them so much, we tend to hold back our emotions in an almost instinctive effort to show our deference to them, to acknowledge their superior status,” he said.
By recreating the “awestruck effect” in the laboratory — by inducing subjects to visualize and write about charismatic figures, and then showing them emotion-laden video clips — Menges demonstrated something profound. While the subjects’ external emotional expression may have been subdued, the subjective emotional experience of those who were “awestruck” was every bit as powerful as those who were not. Indeed, it was more so, as they simply suppressed it out of automatic deference. Psychologists have long known that when we suppress the expression of our emotions, not only do those emotions increase their intensity, but we suffer a cognitive detriment.
Menges found that students were far more likely to report they remembered the exact contents of speeches delivered by individuals who used charismatic speaking techniques that evoke emotions, than the content of speeches from individuals using a straightforward, non-charismatic mode of delivery. Yet written tests revealed those exposed to charismatic speakers remembered far less than those exposed to the non-charismatic speakers. Even so, when offered the chance to follow each speaker into a coffee room to discuss the ideas of their talks, the students almost never followed the boring speaker — and almost always followed the charismatic one.
This does not surprise Richard Boyatzis, who studies organizational behavior, psychology, and cognitive science at Case Western Reserve University. Using fMRI, Boyatzis and Anthony Jack, an experimental psychologist, have demonstrated that emotional speakers engage with a neural pathway called the default mode network (DMN). This pathway, also known as the task-negative network, spans multiple areas of the brain (including the amygdala) and is associated with
- thoughts about others, and
- remembering things in the past.
Interestingly, its activation is often found to be negatively correlated with the very circuits we rely upon for analytic thinking — those involved in
- executive functions,
- attention, and
- problem-solving. “
The problem is these two networks have almost no overlap,” Boyatzis said. “They suppress each other.”
In fact, beyond shutting down our ability to reason, some scientists have found that under the right circumstances, charismatics — especially if that charisma stems from our perception of them as a “leader” — can induce a state akin to hypnotism.
.. In 2011, a team of Danish researchers led by Uffe Schjødt, a neuroscientist at Aarhus University, examined the brains of individuals experiencing one of the most extreme demonstrations of charismatic influence — charismatic healing. To do so, the team recruited 18 devoted, young Christians from faiths with a tradition of intercessory prayer (mainly from the Pentecostal Movement), all of whom reported a strong belief in people with special healing powers. They also recruited 18 secular participants, who did not believe in God and were skeptical that prayer could cause healing.
The researchers found profound differences in brain activity based on assumptions made about the speaker. In the Christian subjects, activity spiked in analytical areas of the brain in response to the non-Christian speakers, but plummeted when they listened to the speaker they believed was known for healing powers. These changes were not present in the secular group. The researchers drew parallels to similar experiments done on subjects on hypnosis, noting that hypnotism, when it works, was usually preceded by the massive frontal deactivation — in effect, a “handing over” of executive function to the hypnotist. Further, they found that “the more the Christian participants deactivate their executive and social cognitive networks, the higher they rate the speaker’s charisma post-scan.”
Schjødt explained his findings in the context of a theory called the “predictive coding framework.” The brain is essentially a pattern recognition machine, constantly making predictions. Our perception is a combination of our prior expectations — expressed in the form of these automatic predictions — and actual sensory perception. As long as the sensory information matches the predictions, the brain hums along. When there is dissonance, the brain steps into make a correction. But when we are around people we believe to have special powers or abilities — when we have made an implicit decision that we can trust them — we seem to unconsciously down-regulate our analytical thinking.
.. “If you expect to experience God, or you are in the presence of a charismatic or religious expert, then you believe whatever is going on is correct, and it will lead you to that particular experience, so you don’t invest too many resources in being skeptical and checking,” Schjødt said.
If charisma is a spark, and a willing audience is the kindling, the right chain of worldly events reveals charisma’s full explosive power. In his book Charisma in Politics, Religion and the Media, David Aberbach zeroes in on historical pivot points that set the stage for transformative events ignited by charismatic leaders.
“Charisma touches something deeper in society, which is not always apparent,” Aberbach told me. “The key is there are some unpredictable elements in the life of a country or the life of a group, and when there are moments of particular distress, then certain individuals come forward who would not have come forward previously. They represent something essential in the capacity to deal with the crisis. There is marriage between what is going on between them internally and whatever is going on externally.”
.. A charismatic leader, Aberbach said, “releases the individual of the pressures of life under stress. If you join a group in those circumstances, you feel more protected. But that presupposes the vulnerability of the individual. When individuals feel more secure, they have less need for salvation, less need for a charismatic bond. But when they feel vulnerable, then there is a possibility of a charismatic attachment. This can be very dangerous in certain circumstances.”
Aberbach, a noted academic at McGill University and the London School of Economics, points to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler — two sides of the historical coin — as telling case studies. They both grew out of Depression-era needs of their respective nations. And they illustrate how profound an influence an individual charismatic can have.
“In the case of Roosevelt, he represented the ability to fight back in time of adversity,” Aberbach said. “On a personal level, he had fought back, and he could represent the nation that was fighting back. As a person, he could represent the group. In that sense, he was charismatic. I think that’s what it comes down to. The nation or the group seeks that person that represents them at a given time, and it’s unconscious.”
In the case of Hitler, Aberbach said, “A lot of people felt good when they heard him. It’s often forgotten because newsreel clips often represent him as a sort of raving lunatic. But in fact people were taken into a different kind of realm, a different kind of existence, where they felt one with Germany, they felt a sense of national pride, they felt an aggressive hope in their future.”
Hitler, Aberbach continued, gave people “a target of hatred, which is a convenient means of giving people who feel broken in life a sense of superiority, and also the capacity to blame someone for everything that has gone wrong outside themselves. He takes away personal responsibility, which is great relief for people who feel burdened by responsibility. They needed to forget, they needed to be transformed in a condition of crisis. That’s why crisis and charisma are so closely linked.”
The scientists agreed that charisma grabbed us on an emotional level. They also agreed snap judgments and subconscious fears could be overcome. In his bestseller Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman outlines two separate parallel decision circuits. The brain’s intuitive system is far faster than the rational system. The intuitive system, though, is prone to unconscious factors, based on limited personal experience and tendencies that result in irrational biases. But the slower, more rational system, centered in our prefrontal cortex, can serve as a potent check on unconscious tendencies — when we take the time to analyze them.
That was the final point Bart Campolo wanted to make about charisma: We could learn not to be taken in.
“You’re not going to stamp out charisma,” Campolo said. “The way to protect people from demagogues is not to kill all the demagogues but rather to teach people how charisma works so they can recognize whether it’s being wielded responsibly or abused. I always think charisma is like fire. You can use it to heat your house or you can use it to burn your house down.”