There is no doubt about it: secularism in America is on the rise. Meanwhile, church membership continues to decline: the Southern Baptists suffered their worst year in the last century in 2019, losing2% of their members. We still don't know the full results of the pandemic, but it seems to be taking a toll on many churches.
There is, predictably, a lot of hand-wringing about this but not a lot of real answers to the challenges that churches face.
Doctrinaire churches lose young members, and firebrands for change lose the older ones. That means that the doctrinaire ones will soon have lost their members to death, and the pro-chage churches will maintain more balance.
Or is it even a problem to solve? Church membership has gone up and down many times in American history-- in fact, in 1776, only 17% of Americans were church members. But perhaps it is different this time?
According to the New York Times, the first major debate between the Republican mayoral candidates in New York was a real doozy. Curtis Sliwa (above left) and Fernando Mateo got so heated that they both spent a lot of the time muted, and could just be seen pointing fingers at each other. And, yes, I tried to find video of this mess, but failed.
Mateo called Sliwa a "compulsive liar."
Sliwa accused Mateo of not riding the subway.
Mateo then, confusingly, accused Sliwa of actually RIDING the subway (which he does).
Mateo eventually pulled out a prop, "Trumpy Bear," and accused Sliwa of living in "a 320-square-foot apartment with 13 cats." Which, it turns out, is true (except it is 15 cats).
Neither will ever be mayor of New York; the Republican party there is on life support. But the dynamic of two bullies turning on each other is kind of fascinating.
Meanwhile, media elsewhere seem to be falling all over themselves to give other bullies exactly what they want: attention. I was saddened to see that most of the front page of CNN's web site recently was about Marjorie Taylor Green, the uber-bully of the moment on Capital Hill. Her schtick is to attack people, create messes, and keep the attention on herself by whatever means she can find. She has been removed from committees, where the real work is done, and yet as the least powerful person in Congress manages to still be the most-watched.
The way to subdue bullies, of course, is to ignore them. It drives them nuts, and deprives them of the real power they have, which is our attention. Some people say that Marjorie Taylor Green is kind of the right-wing AOC, but there is a key difference: AOC almost always talks about policy. Yes, her policy idea are loved by some and hated by others, but she is usually about that, unlike Green. Of course, for other reasons AOC gets way more attention than her actual power or influence would seem to warrant.
Like some other Republicans, Green's appeal to her constituents is that she "owns the libs," and when CNN obsesses over her it just makes that true. Ignore her! What she says and does really doesn't impact our governance.
Of course, if you really want to see someone interesting in the House who verges on bullying in a pretty fascinating way, I'd recommend former law professor Katie Porter:
I'm devoting Wednesdays on the blog to profiling my former students, alternating between Baylor and St. Thomas.
Rory Ryan had already done a lot by the time he came to law school at Baylor, getting there at about the same time that I did. He was a star athlete in high school at Pius X High School in Lincoln, Nebraska, excelling in both baseball in football. As a running back, he rushed for over 1300 yards his senior year, leading the team to a state championship. From there he went on to play for (and kinda study at) Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa.
He was kind of a sporto, but when he got to law school he just took off academically, becoming one of the most accomplished students during the time I was there. He did research for me and helped on a Supreme Court brief, but that was nothing special-- he did that for most of the professors. He had a unique level-headed intelligence that was fantastic to have in class, and he participated and thrived in just about every activity the school offered.
When he was done he returned to Nebraska to clerk for an 8th Circuit judge, but after that Baylor pulled him right back-- and he has been teaching at Baylor Law ever since, winning teaching awards and accolades. He also does a lot of trial and appellate work along with everything else. I run into Baylor grads now and then, and they always name him as their favorite professor. And I surprised? Not at all. Am I happy and proud? Absolutely!
Rory has something to offer the world, and he is doing just that.
Minor league baseball is pretty important in much of America, in those spaces between the big cities. I love going to minor league games when I can, and I even have a favorite minor league team (the Richmond Flying Squirrels).
There were big changes in the minor leagues this year as MLB restructured the whole thing, and raising the pay for the players. At the top level, AAA, they have moved many teams closer to their parent team, to reduce travel time. Here in Minnesota they brought the AAA team really close by taking over the St Paul Saints (a team founded an co-owned by Bill Murray).
The downside of the restructure-- and it is a serious downside!-- is that the number of teams was cut from about 160 to 120, so now there are just 4 for each MLB team. The teams that were cut, like the Kane County Cougars, are mostly shifting to "affiliated leagues" like the American Association where the St. Paul Saints used to play.
At any rate, here are my favorite Minor League team names (besides the Flying Squirrels):
One effect of the pandemic-- perhaps one of the most serious ones in the long term-- is that it accelerated our dependence on machines and lessened our dependence on one another. I don't think this is good, and not just because of the whole "Skynet" issue.
We are meant to be social creatures. We aren't the kinds of animals who need to stay away from one another to maintain adequate hunting area. The reason that we became the dominant species is not because we are the most profligate or the most dangerous or the largest or smallest. It is because of intelligence, and the fact that we form societies and act in concert. Both of those things-- the uniquely human nature of our intelligence and the societies we have formed in living with one another-- risk being profoundly corrupted by our increasing merger of ourselves with machines and social distance from one another.
Still, we need to pay attention to the rapidity of these changes. And the most profoundly changed may be in our spiritual lives. For many people, it seems that digital church was pretty much a one-way ticket to disassociation with a spiritual life, a stepping stone to worshipping alone (or not at all).
I hope that I am wrong, and that we will snap back to where we were. We won't know that for a few years, of course. But the unintended consequences of how we dealt with this pandemic may prove to be much greater than we imagined.
One of my favorite writers on criminal justice issues is James Forman, Jr. His book "Locking Up Our Own" is one of the most affecting I have read in the last few years. I remember giving a talk at Yale Law a few years ago and seeing him in the back of the room, and thinking "better step it up!"
If you want to get an idea of his thinking, I recommend either listening to this podcast discussion with Ezra Klein or reading the transcript, both available here.
Though most people did not follow it, there was a huge election in Philadelphia on Tuesday, as reformer DA Larry Krasner was up for re-election in the Democratic primary (which, given a 7-1 ration between Dems and Republicans in the city, essentially determines the general election, as well).
He handily defeated a challenger, Carlos Vega, who was a former prosecutor in Krasner's office-- a prosecutor that Krasner fired when he took office. Vega was heavily supported by the police union (the picture above is of the union's head, John McNesby).
Krasner was targeted by the police union and others because he is a real-deal progressive prosecutor. He had cut the jail population significantly, in part by declining to prosecute several types of low-level crimes. Vega and the police union blamed Krasner for an increase in shootings, but Krasner noted that similar increases happened in jurisdictions with traditional prosecutors who had made no changes.
I do get the sense that the knee-jerk "tough on crime" rhetoric that prevailed nearly everywhere in these kinds of elections has lost its punch in cities with relatively progressive populations.
In the long term, I expect that current trends will continue, and crime will go up or down pretty much across the board, regardless of prosecution or policing styles. What is different, and valuable, is that progressive policing and prosecuting reduces the collateral social costs (and the cost in taxpayer dollars) of traditional law enforcement. It appears that may be enough for citizens in places like Philly.
I'm devoting Wednesdays to profiling my former students, alternating between Baylor and St. Thomas.
Ryan Todd has only been a "former" student for a few days-- he just graduated this past Sunday, on a glorious sunny afternoon on the St. Thomas football field.
At UST, Ryan was in some of my regular classes and also in my clinic this past year. His background is a little different than some of my other students, giving him a special empathy for the people we work with in the clinic. I loved having him in class-- he was the person who would sometimes ask exactly the right question at just the right time, or make a point no one else had thought of. He's a Texan-- he completed this last year remotely from San Antonio-- and that was some common ground for us, as well.
As I wrote on Sunday, commencements are emotional for us teachers. It is also a joy. Part of that is getting to meet the other people in our students' lives: the parents and siblings and children and spouses and fiance's. Sometimes meeting someone's family answers a lot of questions!
I don't know where Ryan will go from here, but his resilience and intelligence will do him well, and the rest of us, too.
On a beautiful spring day, I get to ride my bike to work. I ride along the shore of two lakes along the way. And, as you can see above, I get to see my destination from far away.
One great thing about being a professor is the rhythm of life is so accentuated-- class ends and you are in a new mode of writing and quiet. It coincides with this dramatic change in the world around us, at least in a place like Minnesota.
The neighborhoods are suddenly full of green leaves, the sounds of kids, and the scent of food on a grill. What's not to love?
Today we are having two commencements for the law school: one for the class of 2020, who did not get to have one last year, and one for this year's class. We are doing it outside in the football stadium. That sounds a little overwhelming if you are used to, say, the University of Michigan's stadium, but our stadium is teeny.
There are such mixed emotions with this day. I'm always astonished at the people who are graduating-- how did it go so fast?!? They often don't share my sense of time, of course-- law school is a lot of work-- but I always end up shocked at that. They just got here!
Writing about my former students on Wednesdays has brought me to think about that relationship, between the teacher and the student, and how it has continued beyond school for so many of my former students and I. I'm invested in them, and not just in that first job, but in the whole of their life and vocation in some cases.
This week, one of my former students, a young man, died. It was one of those deaths where no one really says what happened, so you either fill in the gaps or don't. It was tragic, no matter what; so many things that he will not get to do, and people who will miss him. I remember him very clearly as a student, a long time ago, actually, and how his strengths and challenges were so apparent (and balanced toward the former). We all failed a little, I suppose. What little thing might have mattered?
Our lives are connected, after all. If you pull up a blade of grass, it might seem insignificant. But if you pay attention, you will see that it's roots are tangled up with the others; they are all literally connected. Take one out and the field is still beautiful... but is not the same.
It's already a great Spring! After over a year, my parents came to visit this week, and it was fantastic. We are all vaccinated, and the ability to just do normal things with people I love was wonderful. I think reunions like that are happening all over.
Let's haiku about that this week! The people you are getting to see again, the ones you hope to see, or perhaps the ones you miss.
Here, I will go first:
Walked to the creek
Which has changed since they last came
Each step its own joy.
Now it is your turn! Just use the 5/7/5 syllable pattern, and have some fun!
According to the New York Times, violence in Israel and Gaza has escalated yet again. Rockets are being fired into Israel from Gaza, while Israeli planes and artillery shoot into Gaza. It is the worst violence there in at least seven years. Any mythology that the Trump Administration "fixed" the problems there have been exploded.
About 20 percent of the population in Israel (outside of Gaza and the West Bank) are Arab. Jewish Israelis are targeting them for violence, and vice-versa.
The problem, of course, is that the underlying problems and needs there have never really been addressed in a productive way that leads to lasting solutions. Of course, we Americans probably shouldn't be lecturing anyone about that right now, as our own failures to address underlying issues rooted in race have burst to the surface lately.
The rhythm of it all is ancient and eternal: One side hurts or kills people on the other, who respond, and the cycle continues. And it has for far too long, in far too many places.
Last summer was marked by turmoil here. It may be that our hoped-for summer of calm and re-opening, even if realized, may not be shared by those across the oceans.
I'm devoting Wednesdays to profiling my former students, alternating between Baylor and St. Thomas.
Eric Porterfield was a memorable student, in the best way. I remember seeing him do an exercise in practice court (Baylor's 3rd year program in trial advocacy). He made some mistakes and stumbled around a little, but he had three minutes in there which were totally brilliant. I knew that he was a remarkable talent, and chose him to be on an advocacy team I coached. He promptly led the team to the championship and won the prize as best overall advocate. He was a joy to work with.
After Baylor, he went on to private practice and then got an advanced degree in international civil litigation at Harvard. He now teaches at the University of North Texas, which started a law school in Dallas in 2014-- it's a great and worthwhile experiment in teaching a diverse student body in one of America's great cities.
I hint around now and then about giving a lecture there, and I hope it works out-- it would be great to reconnect with Eric and find out what great things he is working on.
The price of gas has been going up-- and it is going to go up some more, at least in the east. That's because of a hacking attack on the Colonial pipeline, a crucial fuel artery that spans from Houston to New York.
According to the New York Times, the hack was committed by DarkSide, a shadowy Eastern European outfit that hit the pipeline with a ransomware attack (where money is demanded to release the malware they have loaded onto a system). As of yesterday, the pipeline was out of commission for a fourth consecutive day even though the hack was directed at the back office operations of the pipeline rather than its control systems.
In the past, if a foreign adversary wanted to take down a pipeline, they had to use a bomb or other type of a direct attack-- and of course, that would be seen as an act of war. One of the most subtle effects of the online shift in our world is that the same outcome can be achieved silently via the internet. Our huge spending on warplanes, missiles, naval ships, and all the rest may not be especially relevant anymore-- and this new playing field will negate the advantage in all of that which the US has enjoyed for decades.
Can we adjust? So far, it looks like we are behind the ball. Having built a political and economic system that ensures that traditional military machinery will continue to be purchased at great cost, it may be hard for our aim to shift towards the more present danger.
I take the Bible seriously-- I read it and discuss it every week. I find it endlessly fascinating. But like many other people, I had to figure out what it is before it became truly meaningful.
It is a book full of truths, that I look to for guidance and the teachings of Jesus that animate my faith.
That seems pretty straightforward, right? But I should also be clear about what it is NOT (at least to me):
-- Some kind of "instruction book for life," in a simplistic sense. In other words, I don't think clear answers are laid out to life's tough questions. Shoot, if we treat it that way, we might end up with concubines. Rather, it teaches truths and principles that we have to work hard to apply to life; and sometimes those truths and principles takes us to things that are difficult.
-- Also, it's not a work wholly of non-fiction. I know some people are alarmed at that claim, but think about it: Jesus uses parables that are clearly not literally true stories. The book as a whole is collection of poetry, history, legends from deep within a culture, and letters from one person to another (or to a group of people). It's a mix.
-- Finally, it's not an object to worship. Sometimes, it seems like people treat it that way. Rather, it guides us to understanding the worship of God.
I find the Bible endlessly complex and fascinating, full of compelling characters and wonderful stories. The deepest truths I know are there. But to get to those truths takes real work. I remember as a kid seeing a woman with a Bible that was loved to death, with a worn cover and full of side-tabs, and I wondered if that was appropriate.
Texting is fraught with problems (ie, autocorrect), but it's not the only source of miscommunications in our modern age. Shoot, I still get wrong-number calls.
But it's the texts that really get messed up, isn't it? Last year I got a series of texts asking when the shirts would be ready, and finally responded to confirm that the person thought they were texting a dry cleaners.
So let's haiku about these modern miscommunications-- or, if you would rather, the old fashioned kind.
Here, I will go first:
"Wazzzuuuupppp Jerry T?"
Wrote someone from 313;
Wrote back as Jerry.
Now it is your turn! Just use the 5/7/5 syllable formula, and have some fun!
I realize this is strange coming from someone who spent most of his adult life in New Haven, Detroit and Waco, but I'm not crazy about San Francisco. Yes, it has a beautiful setting and some interesting corners, but as a whole it has seemed kind of dirty and unsettling for the last three decades or so that I have found myself there occasionally. Though some people make it sound like there is a sudden downturn in quality of life there-- which may well be true for some-- it always seemed like a place with a lot of rich people and a lot of poor people, and a significant number of both groups are kind of crazy and unpredictable, in their own way. Income inequality was always there, but seems to have gotten worse.
They are lucky to have Chesa Boudin as the new DA there. I don't think his policies will affect crime one way or another-- after watching that kind of thing carefully for years, I've come to see that in the absence of broad cultural changes or some unseen magic, the policies of a DA don't seem to have much impact on crime (though they do influence the tragedy created by over-reactions to crime-- and he will lessen that).
But places are special to people for often-mysterious reasons. I can certainly understand why a beautiful, mysterious and complicated (in the best way) place like San Francisco can be special to a lot of folks. I hope they can get a handle on some of these continuing problems-- and that the rest of us can get a handle on our own.
I'm devoting Wednesdays to profiling my former students, alternating between St. Thomas and Baylor each week.
Sometimes, I'm lucky enough to get a student who comes to law school with a fully-formed career already in hand. In my very first class, that person was David Moore, and there have been other since him.
One of them was Ted Haller, who came to law school with a successful journalism career already underway. A graduate of Northwestern's prestigious Medill School of Journalism, Ted was working as a television reporter when he came to law school-- and, in fact, kept doing it even as he thrived in school and became a lawyer.
Ted was in my clinic, and brought to bear a sharp eye for narrative-- something that is crucial in framing up clemency petitions. I loved having Ted in class. The most precious thing a person can give us is their story, and I learned a lot from Ted about how to do that well.
Now Ted and his partner Ben Kwan (also a UST grad) have a small firm specializing in employment law, where they represent employees and whistleblowers. It's a key role in our society, and he is excelling at it.
And he hasn't given up TV entirely.... he still has a weekly spot on Channel 9 here, titled "Is It Legal?" And I have to say, it's kind of nice to keep track of a student just by turning on the TV.
After the conviction of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, there was a lot of speculation that the result might perversely stunt reform-- that politicians would see the conviction as having addressed the problem, and would ignore even the most worthwhile changes.
It looks like we are there. Yesterday, a political newsletter here in Minnesota reported that "Senate Majority LeaderPaul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said Thursday that after the conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, the matter no longer had as much urgency as agreeing to a budget..."
The move from in-person church to virtual church was jarring. The move back-- from virtual to in-person-- may be even tougher.
I fear that the lesson many people got from worship in the pandemic is that they do not need to go to church. I feel that pull myself; my faith was sustained in other ways (mostly by the re-formation online of my Sunday School class in Waco) over the past year. We aren't quite comfortable sitting inside yet, we are used to not driving anyplace on Sunday morning, our church didn't really do much for the last year-- there are a ton of reasons people might not go back, and that could be a real disaster for a lot of churches.
This probably seems like a lead-in to a harangue to go back to church. But it's not, in large part because I'm not going back to church yet myself. I feel unsure of my role there, and am still assessing how I have changed in the last year. It has been a spiritual tumult, along with everything else. And much of the hit has been on the things that are social, that bring us together in person. Many of us are probably working out how that will be going forwards. I know that I am.
But, it is both in human nature and in the scriptures that people are called into congregation; we are social animals who thrive among social structures. The question, compounding pre-existing crises within churches, is whether that will be a spiritual call as well. If it isn't.... our religious landscape is going to change a lot.
In 1974, MGM put out a clips-show style mash-up of it's old movies to celebrate its 50th anniversary, titling it "That's Entertainment!". A few sequels followed. Those movies, of course, were mostly about affluent white Americans falling in love, going to parties, traveling, and singing about love, parties and traveling. There was also dancing and swimming.
Some people loved the movies. Others noticed how the old movies didn't really depict many people's lives, then or now. One of the latter was the British band The Jam, who wrote a fantastic song contrasting the movies with their own view of working-class life: