8 Design Principles for Self-Governance

From Elinor Ostrom via Evonomics.

Eight core design principles:

  1. Clearly defined boundaries
  2.  Proportional equivalence between benefits and costs
  3. Collective choice arrangements
  4. Monitoring
  5. Graduated sanctions
  6. Fast and fair conflict resolution
  7. Local autonomy
  8. Appropriate relations with other tiers of rule-making authority (polycentric governance).

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Productive Depolarization: How Transformational Work Can Heal Humanity

Slideshare Presentation

Abstract submitted for Passion Talks 16, held August 12-13, 2016 in Mt. View, California.

America is experiencing a level of political and cultural polarization not seen since the 1960’s.  In this talk, I will explore how productive work can be a powerful tool for breaking down the assumptions, habits, and tribal structures that contribute to social polarization. I will start by presenting a simple conceptual model of the causes of polarizations, then discuss two case studies from my experiences at MIT and Apple demonstrating how to use that model to bring together mutually suspicious communities. I will end with suggestions for how technologists, entrepreneurs, and activists might leverage this model to better achieve their societal and business goals.


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Radical Comprehensivism

By: Billy Rojas

Radical Centrism is many things and from that fact arises the need to
redefine RC philosophy, indeed, to reconceptualize it.  Here is a new way
to think about Radical Centrism, to spell out its implications, and to
talk about it coherently.
This new approach both simplifies RC but also makes its complexities
clear to all. The following verbal road map deserves in-depth discussion,
taking ideas wherever they may lead, but  first we need the map.
This is that map.

What is Radical Centrism like?

RC resembles the following viewpoints, not necessarily closely, but enough
to say that there are obvious similarities. The list is as all-encompassing as
was possible at this time; it may be expanded in greater detail in the future.
In traditionalist American terms, RC is a combination of the ideas of
Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison.
In real life it once took  form in the first term of the presidency of
George Washington when both Jefferson and Hamilton served in
the general’s cabinet. The ideas of Ben Franklin were very much part of how
people thought in that era and, needless to say, the Constitution itself was the
creation of James Madison more than anyone else even though there was
considerable influence from others.
To this we may add the pioneering work of Hannah Adams, the founder
of Comparative Religion in the United States in the early 1800s. Although
I have not studied him in any depth so far, what I know about
John Quincy Adams suggests that he was a prototype for RC also.
In the real world of the 19th century two European enemies help define
Radical Centrism, Louis Napoleon III and Otto von Bismarck. This primarily
refers to Louis Napoleon’s first ten years in office, not his final years when he
became an adventurist who made a number of reckless decisions that
were costly to France. But in those first years Louis Napoleon lived up to his
nickname, “Saint-Simon on horseback,” and the crux of RC in many ways
is Saint-Simonian philosophy that ultimately gave the world the social sciences
and such things as city planning and government sponsored scientific
research and development. The internet, anyone?
Bismarck was not a Radical Centrist in any modern American sense except one,
and it is crucially important:  Do whatever it takes to make things happen for
the good of the nation; let nothing stand in the way. Bismarck’s Realpolitik
was nothing if not flexible and opportunistic, but underwritten with the view
that about everything it is essential to be realistic and let “ideology” follow
from successes and from learning from out mistakes and failures. RC is based
on  principles, of course, and Bismarck’s disregard of most principles whenever
it suited his policies was a huge weakness in his system and led to his downfall,
but he nonetheless taught the extreme virtue of effectiveness.
In some respects you can consider Abraham Lincoln as “America’s Bismarck”
-but with morals. In fact someone who sought diligently to do
what is morally right/
RC is also, in a sense, the direct descendent of the Pragmatism of C.S. Peirce,
William James, John Dewey, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Radical Centrists
are naturally selective in what they borrow from our pragmatist forebears,
but their view that practical considerations are central to any viable politics
is indispensable.  Keep in mind that Pragmatism was not a “liberal” or
“conservative” philosophy. Peirce was a conservative, Dewey was a liberal,
James was an eclectic, and Holmes was liberal OR conservative,
depending on circumstances.
RC is also related to Populism and Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressivism. As a
matter of fact, TR must be regarded as the greatest exemplar of Radical Centrism
in American history.  He was liberal and conservative, forward looking and someone
who had the deepest respect for American traditions. He was pro-industry and
commerce yet was committed to conservation and necessary regulation of
business. And he had no use at all for cronyism, corruption in politics, nor
for limited horizons. He thought globally.
There are criticisms which can be made of Teddy Roosevelt but he was a man
of his times and we should not forget that most Americans of that era were
racialist to some extent, including William Jennings Bryan. What makes TR great,
for that matter which brings respect to Bryan, was that they made exceptions
that paved the way for expanded views of civil rights in later years.
The Populist element in Radical Centrism is associated with its 19th century
democratic ethos, unwillingness to be deferential to monied elites, yet at the
same time focused on the future, on the best available ways to govern the
nation, to run the economy, and make sure that American education serves
people’s needs.  The Populists also understood the importance of Socialist
ideas  -speaking of Democratic Socialism and the Social Gospel- and sought
alliances with America’s working class. About this they were selective,
as are today’s Radical Centrists.
The presidents who best exemplify something of Radical Centrism in the
second half of the 20th century are Dwight D. Eisenhower and  John F. Kennedy.
It should be said that some presidents simply cannot be considered Radical
Centrist in any meaningful way yet were great leaders in their time to whom
we all owe a debt of gratitude, such as James K. Polk
and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Two presidents whom many people would like to forget also deserve mention,
LBJ and Richard Nixon. Each, to some extent, maybe more than generally
acknowledged, had some Radical Centrist values, in Nixon’s case some
that might have become important in future years. However, this does not
stop me from enduring hatred of Nixon for his despicable conduct while in office,
nor from disrespecting Lyndon Johnson’s war policies. Radical Centrist ideas
offer no guarantee that someone won’t make mistake, even horrible errors
of judgement. At least we can look at these two figures as object lessons
in what not to do and learn from their failings.
The social leader who is closest in spirit to RC in modern times was
Martin Luther King, Jr.
American thinkers no longer with us who come the closest to Radical Centrism
include Marylin Ferguson, Michael Kelly, Claire Booth Luce, and (sometimes)
Daniel Bell. We should also mention H.L. Mencken, who, although
he was a self-professed libertarian, was also a champion of American
writers from all over the political spectrum based on the merits of
their work  -which is as much of a Radical Centrist outlook as anyone
can have. Mencken was also unclassifiable in some respects. He certainly
ridiculed creationists during the Scopes trial, but at the same time he
attended Pentecostal camp meeting services nearby and took a
genuine interest in the people there and in what they had to say.
Also Mencken could be funny as hell.
Thus we might add to the list of  “honorary Radical Centrists” the names
of Mark Twain, Groucho Marx, and Johnny Carson.
Among non-Americans who deserve recognition for contributing at least
some ideas to Radical Centrist thought we should single out  John Stuart Mill,
Hegel, Leopold Senghor, and possibly Friedrich Hayek  -although I have
not studied Hayek sufficiently to be make a determination. These names
merely give an impression, there are still others who deserve recognition.
And any list of Radical Centrist forebears would be incomplete without
mention of Sri Aurobindo.
Radical Centrism is like all of this.

Elements of Radical Centrism

RC is based unabashedly on the principle of “cafeteria politics.” Picking and
choosing good ideas is the essence of  Radical Centrism. The idea is to choose
the very best ideas and concepts and put them together in workable, coherent
ways to create a political program  -or a philosophy of life.
This hardly overlooks the important role of criticism in RC, by which is meant
something along the lines of movie or theater criticism. A production is actually
looked at with care, it is studied, problems are identified and, when possible,
a critique is written that has helpful and productive purpose.
Radical Centrism is also market oriented. This means that we prefer market
solutions to problems. However, it is vital to be objective about market
limitations; some things markets do poorly or not at all. We regard the notion
that markets can solve all problems as false on the face of it.
Similarly the libertarian notion that freedom is the universal solvent for all
political questions we regard as ridiculous. What about responsibility?
What about compassion? What about right vs. wrong? Or is it a matter
or indifference when some people advocate values that undermine the
foundations of American culture? Part of what Radical Centrism is all about
is, to the best of our ability, identifying what is morally right based on
objective criteria, identifying what is morally wrong, then fighting like hell
to see the right prevail and the wrong rejected and totally repudiated.
In effect, to use analogy, Radical Centrism is a ‘missionary religion.’
Actually it isn’t a religion at all, it is a philosophy, but to make a point…
The philosophies as such that have some views in common with RC include:
Existentialism, the idea that there is no substitute for experience.
Existentialists whom Radical Centrists think the most of are Soren Kierkegaard
and Nietzsche, both, however, very selectively. Nietzsche veered far too close
to nihilism and Kierkegaard was often pre-scientific. This has little to do
with Sartre or Heidegger. To the extent that he can be considered
an Existentialist this definitely includes Dostoevsky. In a sense you can
call Radical Centrism “neo-Existentialism” because of RC stress
on adventure and experience. Some things you cannot learn unless
you experience them.
Selectively, with Radical Centrist interpretations, are:
  • Empiricism -the need to rely on concrete evidence and objective logic
  • Realism -an honest outlook on life, including honesty about our perceptions
  • Surrealism -acknowledgement that the unconscious matters in human creativity
  • Scientism -reliance on science to provide reliable answers to questions
  • Historicism -the view that there are patterns in history that have meaning
  • Cosmopolitanism -the attitude that human diversity is generally for the good
  • Ecumenism -in the interfaith sense primarily
Not really philosophies per se, but very important are:
  • Reformism -strong preference for political change through constitutional processes
  • Originalism -interpretation of Amendments by reference to their original intentions
  • Futurism -social forecasting as crucial to viable -testable- political ideas
  • Functionalism -the view that the place of religion in the public square should be evaluated on the merits of what faith groups actually do, the social functions they provide the community, and other objective criteria
  • Transformationism   -considerations about major changes such as enhanced human intelligence,  extended life span, biocomputers as human prostheses, and other developments sometime associated with the “singularity” effect, are also worth serious thought. Maybe not for any near term future, but certainly in the coming decades.
It is essential the Radical Centrists take some interest in all of these possibilities
because eventually there will be no choice but to take them very seriously,
indeed, they will be part of our future.
The science of Sociobiology is indispensable to Radical Centrism at least
as I see RC and understand sociobiology itself. This says that human beings
are the product of evolution, and that there is no real question that
evolution is scientifically valid theory  -that is, an explanation for  what
happened in the archaic past from about 5 million BC to the present
during the rise of Cro Magnon people to world dominance.
Since we are descendents of primates, and still very much are primates,
many  human characteristics reflect this past and are intrinsic to human nature.
There are Alpha males, there are characteristic ways of doing things in
social groups that invariably work in favor of survival, such as the drive
to co-operate, “friendly” competition within groups to sort out the most
capable and identify the weaker members, fierce opposition to encroachments
on territory, female reticence  vs male assertiveness in sexual relationships,
and much else.
In opposition to philosophies that say we are just about infinitely plastic
(or elastic) in terms of what we can make our lives, sociobiology tells us
that there are good ways to do things, bad ways to operate, and a variety
of inclinations and imperatives that are for our good and that basically
are necessary for the survival of the species. This says, in turn, that
philosophies of total elasticity  -such as gender feminism-  are based
on false premises and should be discredited. This also says that anti-evolution
religious dogmas are unacceptable and should be overtly rejected.
On that subject, while not all Church Fathers made an issue out of Creation,
of those that did, like Origin and Augustine, their view was that the story
in Genesis was allegory and not intended to be taken literally. Moreover,
the Bible itself describes evolution in Wisdom of Solomon in the Apocrypha,
a collection of books that the translators of the original KJV insisted belong
in the holy book.  Chapter 19 puts things this way:
“…as the notes of a lute can make various tunes with different names
though each retains its own pitch, so the elements combined among
themselves in different ways, as can be accurately inferred from the
observation of what happened  Land animals took to the water and
things that swim migrated to dry land…”  New English Bible translation.
The RSV has it that “land animals were transformed into water creatures,
and creatures that swim moved over to the land.
We cannot reasonably expect that a writer alive when this was written,
about a century before Christ,  could have phrased things the way that
a scientist like Darwin was able to do in the 19th century. However,
it is no problem at all to see this passage as prefiguring the theory of
evolution. If most Bible commentators seem ignorant of this material
and habitually restrict their opinions to Genesis,  that is too bad for them,
for “Wisdom” offers us directly relevant observations that are consistent
with evolution.
Are we “children of God?” That may be a figure of speech but to the extent
that it presupposes purpose in nature, teleology at work in the on-going
processes of evolution, it can be taken as a statement of truth. That is,
creation, no matter what else may be the case, comes with built-in potential
for the rise of intelligent life and the development of scientific civilization.
Potential, when actualized, is purpose.
This can be conceptualized in many different ways. My preference is based
on the model found in Tantra, a Creator God and Creatrix Goddess who
work in tandem to bring about the world as we know it in the universe
that we are aware of. But Wisdom of Solomon says approximately the same
thing since its subject matter, for the most part, concerns the action of Wisdom
-the Shekhina, aka Holy Spirit in feminine form-   as co-creator along with God,
Together they establish the natural order.  And this order has evolved
to get us where we are today -through natural selection that, as random
as it appears, has had the effect of generating intelligent life and civilization.
Radical Centrism, in other words, presupposes a world view that is consistent
with intelligent religious faith.
At the same time it presupposes a worldview that tells us to be students
of human prehistory and that we need to have basic knowledge of primatology
so that we are better able to identify what we are as “rational animals”
(how Aristotle characterized us) or intelligent mammals. Some things
simply do not work, and gender feminism heads the list.
In other words if you are looking for an affirmation of traditional Christian faith
or traditional Atheism, you will not find it in Radical Centrism. To put it in such
words with, I think, real justification, RC is all about affirming truth, not doctrine.
But this said, Radical Centrism stands for all those American traditions that
have served us well throughout our nation’s history. Mostly this means the
kind of spirit infused into out culture by way of sincere Christians  -who gave
us universities, hospitals, and an ethos of fairness toward all people. But there
also were the contributions of people who were not especially religious or who
held beliefs that were out of the ‘mainstream.’ Hence an entire literature
with figures like Thoreau, Edgar Allan Poe, Jack London, Eugene O’Neill,
Margaret Mitchell, Ralph Ellison, Robert Frost, and Ray Bradbury
Radical Centrism, as much as feasible, rests on a foundation of scientific method.
For a comprehensive discussion of what  this means, and believe me the subject
is vast, see O.E. Wilson’s 1998 book, Consilience. There are a good number
of details in the text to take issue with, and some things Wilson simply did
not see,  but this comes as  close to a Radical Centrist textbook as currently
is available in print in the modern world.
Briefly, scientific method means formulating an hypothesis based on verifiable
observations, then testing that hypothesis to determine if it is true.  The system
of  logic employed is induction  -although  in arriving at a testable hypothesis
deduction is perfectly legitimate. Pragmatism adds that we may also get to
the truth through the process of abduction, working with fragmentary information
and making sense of it through devising alternative scenarios and eliminating
those that prove untenable.
Also important, Radical Centrism is a form of “systems thinking.” Just about
everything in the real world comes to us via systems, whether in nature or
in society. The fundamental question to ask in determining truth of almost
any kind is: How does the system work?  If you don’t know that, you
don’t understand much of anything by definition. And once you do know
how a system operates you can test ideas (values, principles, etc.) in terms
of how they function to get results.
Hence Radical Centrism might be called “evaluationism” because a major part
of its task is to evaluate truth claims and decide which are right
and which are not.
Radical Centrists are free to make borrowings from a number of disciplines,
such as:
Psychoanalysis -especially the use it makes of ancient myths to conceptualize
and understand contemporary psychological realities,
Social Psychology  -which has given us another RC textbook, Jonathan Haidt’s
2012 opus,  The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided 
by Politics and Religion, and
Intellectual History, viz., History of Ideas. This refers to collective memory,
the deep pool of ideas that have made us who we are and that can be
drawn upon  -endlessly-  to learn how human beings think, which ideas
are most successful in the real world, how people learn, and much else.
Radical Centrism is also based on mediation, upon the need we all have
to resolve disputes in win / win fashion as much as possible. This also
means that the skills of negotiation are important, skills in detecting lies,
and skills in identifying unacknowledged psychological “hang-ups” that may
otherwise make conflict resolution impossible.
Radical Centrism also means something like military thinking inasmuch as
our species has engaged in war since the dawn of history. However, “war”
should be taken in a broad sense to include political campaigning, business
strategies intended to win market share against competitors, and so forth.
Not a bad idea to read Machiavelli, at least for self-protection, and the
classic, The Art of War, by Sun Tzu.
Radical Centrism is also  -in the historical sense-  a form of utopianism.
It is vital to imagine possible (relatively) ideal forms of society and work
toward understanding both why we have not achieved such utopias
and what it might take to do so. Utopias give us a vision of what
society could become if we were able to function at our best
in the future.
Radical Centrism is also, perhaps most importantly, a philosophy of education.
Everything that matters, it can almost be said, depends on education, whether
formal schooling or “lifelong learning” based mostly on “independent study.”
Radical Centrism is the opposite of:
  • Anarchism
  • Ayn Rand’s Objectivism
  • Nihilism
  • Obscurantism
  • Moral Relativism
  • Essentialism
  • Deconstructionism
  • Totalitarianism in all forms, Nazi, Communist, or anything else.
Some neologisms that carry a sense of what Radical Centrism is all about:
  • Adaptationism
  • Explorationism
  • Educationism
  • Social Innovationism
  • Self Actualism
This has been a start toward creation of a comprehensive philosophy
of Radical Centrism. To say the same thing, RC is a philosophy
of comprehensiveness. Nothing important should be left out.
Radical Centrism is based on a comprehensive view of the world.
It is related to complexity theory and interactionism, as well as to
a variety of complimentary forms of thought.
It is not a form of “centrism” as usually understood. It is not a process
of triangulation toward the political middle. It is not a system of ideas
based on compromise even if we sometimes need to compromise
for pragmatic reasons.
But some things we will never compromise about in any way whatsoever,
most notably homosexual psychopathology, Islam, a religion based on values
that are antithetical to any kind of decent life for individuals or for society, and environmental despoilation, especially strip mining of coal in mountainous terrain
as found in Appalachia.
The Radical Centrist vision for economics is that of a society in which
the bottom line is “what is best for Americans and other people,”  not
what the powerful can get away with while amassing fortunes that
primarily serve only self-centered interests. Concepts like that in
Kelso’s Capitalist Manifesto -employee stock ownership-  should be
part of how we normally do business in the future.  As should ideas like
that of “Kingdom economics,” morality-centered economics that asks
what is the best for everyone in an economy based on Christian
ethical principles. The objective is fairness and rewards for everyone
based on true merit, not money manipulation, which should be outlawed,
nor upon the kind of economic leverage only available to the rich or
well connected. It means the end of everything once epitomized in the
movie, “Wall Street.”  This is our  goal, the creation of a new kind
of economics, something that needs to be developed that can
actually work and work effectively.
RC is about sharing, about caring about what happens to our fellow Americans
and others. It is about everything that promotes a sense of community,
starting in America as the beacon to the world.
RC is an entirely new political and personal philosophy that is being developed
in the here and now, it is an  “adventure of ideas,” a “work in progress”
and a call for high order creative thought. All of this is Radical Centrism,
nothing else and nothing less. Radical Centrism is intended to lead us
to a new political order for the future.
So, do you want to become part of the creation of a new political philosophy,
or not?  It is your choice.
January 2, 2016

Make Entrepreneurship Central to California’s Workforce

Workforce Action Team 2013 Charter | California Economy, California Economic Summit

Dear Workforce Action Team,

Are we trying to solve the immediate problems of matching people with jobs for current industries, or the long-term problem of creating a population that can prosper decades into the future?  Because a lot of us in Silicon Valley are working on destroying the very industries you hope to train people for now!
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The Economist: Inequality and the world economy – True Progressivism

True Progressivism

A new form of radical centrist politics is needed to tackle inequality without hurting economic growth

Oct 13th 2012 | from the print edition

BY THE end of the 19th century, the first age of globalisation and a spate of new inventions had transformed the world economy. But the “Gilded Age” was also a famously unequal one, with America’s robber barons and Europe’s “Downton Abbey” classes amassing huge wealth: the concept of “conspicuous consumption” dates back to 1899. The rising gap between rich and poor (and the fear of socialist revolution) spawned a wave of reforms, from Theodore Roosevelt’s trust-busting to Lloyd George’s People’s Budget. Governments promoted competition, introduced progressive taxation and wove the first threads of a social safety net. The aim of this new “Progressive era”, as it was known in America, was to make society fairer without reducing its entrepreneurial vim.

Modern politics needs to undergo a similar reinvention—to come up with ways of mitigating inequality without hurting economic growth. That dilemma is already at the centre of political debate, but it mostly produces heat, not light. Thus, on America’s campaign trail, the left attacks Mitt Romney as a robber baron and the right derides Barack Obama as a class warrior. In some European countries politicians have simply given in to the mob: witness François Hollande’s proposed 75% income-tax rate. In much of the emerging world leaders would rather sweep the issue of inequality under the carpet: witness China’s nervous embarrassment about the excesses of Ferrari-driving princelings, or India’s refusal to tackle corruption.

At the core, there is a failure of ideas. The right is still not convinced that inequality matters. The left’s default position is to raise income-tax rates for the wealthy and to increase spending still further—unwise when sluggish economies need to attract entrepreneurs and when governments, already far bigger than Roosevelt or Lloyd George could have imagined, are overburdened with promises of future largesse. A far more dramatic rethink is needed: call it True Progressivism.

Read more at The Economist 

The Democratic Convention’s Message Discipline | NewAmerica.net

Romney may not be a disaster as President, but he is arguably a disaster as a campaigner.

Conversely, Obama’s been such a confused President we forget what a brilliant campaigner he was, upsetting the nightly Clinton machine.

I wish Obama would bring that same clarity to his governing.  I may not care for the result, but at least it would give us something concrete to react against…


The Democratic Convention’s Message Discipline

We’re only one day into the Democratic convention but this much is already clear: So far, the Democrats are better at this.

That’s not an ideological or moral observation. It’s a professional one. Team Romney let their keynoter go 15 minutes before mentioning their candidate’s name. Julián Castro mentioned Barack Obama after two. Team Romney put their most affecting speakers—the folks in Romney’s church—on before the networks tuned in. Team Romney let Paul Ryan give an eat-your-broccoli speech about cutting government spending—including Medicare—and then largely ignored the theme in Romney’s own speech the following night.

Night one of the Democratic convention, by contrast, was tightly organized around a clear message: Romney isn’t like you. The attacks were personal, sometimes sarcastic, sometimes even verging on nativist (who knew Democrats hated Switzerland so much). But they hit Romney where he’s vulnerable. There’s a reason the GOP used to nominate folks like Nixon and Reagan, who had working-class roots. It’s because many voters—not all of them left wing—really do consider Republicans a little too detached from the suffering of ordinary Americans. Most Americans respect businessmen; they recognize that they play an important role in producing wealth. But they also want the government to act as a check on businessmen’s single-minded pursuit of wealth. The GOP used to better understand that. Because of their own backgrounds and personalities, Nixon, Reagan and even George W. Bush connected personally to working-class voters (at least white ones) in a way that partially overcame the GOP’s image problem. But Mitt Romney has not, and will not. In different ways, every Democratic speaker honed in on that vulnerability. And then Michelle Obama masterfully used it to reintroduce America to her husband. The entire subtext of her speech was: Barack Obama and I are like you; we come from families like yours; we’ve lived lives like yours. We’re the un-Romneys.

The presidential race remains close. But the Obama campaign has what the Clinton campaign had in 1992 and the Bush campaign in 2004: clarity of message. It’s a message that makes Romney’s policy views a function of his biography. And in these bad economic times, the Democrats are using it to achieve a kind of political jujitsu. Usually, the president who presides over a lousy economy gets accused of being out of touch. That’s what happened to Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush. But by relentlessly depicting Romney as a detached plutocrat, the Obama campaign has turned that traditional narrative on its head. Notice how Michelle Obama and Rahm Emanuel emphasized that Obama reads 10 letters from ordinary Americans every night. The point was that even if not all of Obama’s policies have worked, at least he cares.

It wasn’t until the 1996 campaign, when I saw them go up against Bob Dole, that I truly appreciated the Clinton campaign’s political skill. We’re seeing the same today. Team Obama didn’t beat Hillary Clinton by accident. The president and his top advisers play this game very well and very tough. The Romney campaign is not awful. But so far, at least, it’s not in the same league.

Article: What Motivates You?

Article: Jonathan Haidt Answers Your Questions About Morality, Politics, and Religion

The National Enquirer does RC

The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but at least a semblance of truth

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Q & A: Ross Douthat on Rooting Out Bad Religion | Christianity Today | A Magazine of Evangelical Conviction

| Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Leave a comment
This isn’t about returning to the past.  It is about relearning how to build the future.

Q & A: Ross Douthat on Rooting Out Bad Religion | Christianity Today | A Magazine of Evangelical Conviction

The CT Interview

Q & A: Ross Douthat on Rooting Out Bad Religion

Why the New York Times columnist wants to see America return to its confessional roots.

Interview by Sarah Pulliam Bailey | posted 4/16/2012 10:01AM

The biggest threat facing America is not a faltering economy or a spate of books by famed atheists. Rather, the country meets new challenges due to the decline of traditional Christianity, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat suggests in Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Free Press). Douthat has taken his own personal tour of American Christianity: he was baptized Episcopalian, attended evangelical and Pentecostal churches as a child, and converted to Catholicism at age 17. He argues that prosperity preachers, self-esteem gurus, and politics operating as religion contribute to the contemporary decline of America. CT spoke with Douthat about America’s decline from a vigorous faith, modern heretics, and why we need a revival of traditional Christianity.

What do you mean when you say we’re facing the threat of heresy?

I try to use an ecumenical definition, starting with what I see as the theological common ground shared by my own Catholic Church and many Protestant denominations. Then I look at forms of American religion that are influenced by Christianity, but depart in some significant way from this consensus. It’s a C. S. Lewisian, Mere Christianity definition of orthodoxy or heresy. I’m trying to look at the ways the American religion today departs from theological and moral premises that traditional Protestants and Catholics have in common.

How did America become a nation of heretics?

We’ve always been a nation of heretics. Heresy used to be constrained and balanced by institutional Christianity to a far greater extent than it is today. What’s unique about our religious moment is not the movements and currents such as the “lost gospel” industry, the world of prosperity preaching, the kind of therapeutic religion that you get from someone like Oprah Winfrey, or various highly politicized forms of faith. What’s new is the weakness of the orthodox Christian response. There were prosperity preachers and therapeutic religion in the 1940s and ’50s—think of bestsellers like Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking—but there was also a much more robust Christian center.

The Protestant and Catholic churches that made a real effort to root their doctrine and practice in historic Christianity were vastly stronger than they are today. Even someone who was dabbling in what I call heresy was also more likely to have something in his religious life—some institutional or confessional pressure—tugging him back toward a more traditional faith. The influence of heretics has been magnified by the decline of orthodox Christianity.

Have evangelicals created a fertile ground for heresy?

People have asked, “Don’t all the trends that you describe go back to the Protestant Reformation?” Since I am a Roman Catholic, I do have sympathy for that argument [laughs]. But it’s important not to leap to a historical determinism about theological and cultural trends. Some of the trends might represent the working out of ideas inherent in Protestantism or grow out of religious individualism that is more Protestant than Catholic. But I don’t think it was necessarily inevitable that we reached this point. It’s a long way from Martin Luther’s On the Freedom of a Christian to Eat, Pray, Love, and a vigorous Protestantism should be able to prevent the former from degenerating into the latter.

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May 2012, Vol. 56, No. 5, Page 36

The CT Interview

Q & A: Ross Douthat on Rooting Out Bad Religion

Why the New York Times columnist wants to see America return to its confessional roots.

Interview by Sarah Pulliam Bailey | posted 4/16/2012 10:01AM


You suggest that Christian leaders from earlier decades contributed to the decline of traditional Christianity by trying to accommodate cultural norms. Would you consider Oprah, Glenn Beck, and others to be today’s accommodationists?

We’re in a slightly different era today. There were tremendous cultural challenges to Christianity in the 1960s and ’70s that both liberals and conservatives struggled to respond to, starting with the sexual revolution. “Accommodationists”—what we think of as liberal Christians, Protestant and Catholic—weren’t out to destroy Christianity. They saw their mission as a noble one, preserving institutional Christianity in a new era. Their choices ultimately emptied Christianity theologically, but they intended to save the faith, or at the very least their own denomination.

The danger for evangelicalism is becoming too parachurch without enough church.

The heretics I write about aren’t detached completely from Christianity. Some of them identify as Christians and like the idea of identifying with Jesus. But they aren’t interested in sustaining any historic Christian tradition or church apart from their own ministry.

Instead of trying to reform and strengthen institutional Christianity, they’re picking through the Christian past, looking for things they like and can use, and discarding the rest.

Why do you claim that one of evangelicalism’s contemporary struggles is an alignment with former President George W. Bush?

The Bush administration represented both the best and worst of a broader evangelical reengagement in politics and culture. It was the fulfillment of this post-1970s era when evangelicals reengaged with the broader culture, returned to the halls of power, and left the fundamentalist past behind. That you had an evangelical President and his speechwriter drawing on Catholic social teaching to shape domestic policy was a remarkable achievement, a sign of what you might call “the opening of the evangelical mind.” And some of the Bush administration’s initiatives, such as its aids in Africa efforts, made a real attempt to achieve a more holistic Christian engagement in politics.

But the administration exposed the limits of using politics to effect broader cultural change. The Bush era was the moment when religious conservatives finally had one of their own in the White House, but it wasn’t a great era for evangelicalism or for institutional Christianity. But it’s pretty clear that institutional religion in the United States has lost more ground than it’s gained in the past 10 to 15 years. While evangelicalism is obviously quite robust, evangelical churches aren’t growing as fast as they were during the 1970s and ’80s. Instead of being a period of revival and renewal for evangelical Christianity, the Bush era looks like a period when evangelical Christianity hit a ceiling.

After 9/11, evangelicals were also particularly tempted toward what I call the heresy of nationalism: that promoting democracy overseas by force of arms would be God’s will, which is at best a theologically perilous idea, and at worst, explicitly heretical.

How has Christianity historically tempered nationalism?

The idea that America has some distinctive role to play in the unfolding of God’s plan is compatible with orthodox Christianity. But it should be tempered by recognizing that America is not the church. It’s fine to see ourselves as an “almost-chosen people,” as Abraham Lincoln put it, but if we decide we’re literally chosen, then we’ve taken a detour away from a healthy patriotism towards an unhealthy nationalism.

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May 2012, Vol. 56, No. 5, Page 36