Saturday, September 6, 2014

Doubling Down in Mississippi

Chris McDaniel 

Wraps Himself in Bonhoeffer

I have not been a card player since my mother caught me with cards in hand in the church parlor with some worldly kids in the junior high group, revoked my parole, and sent me back to complete my sentence at Pensacola Christian School. My appeal to my father for a full pardon was not granted. However, I have learned from the Internet that "to double down" is a Blackjack term that means to double one's bet and receive another card. 

It is used in politics, however, to mean to make a mistake and then to stand by your mistake and/or keep making it. Here is an example of the use of the term in politics:  "Bulldog Ruff, who is running for dogcatcher, has described himself as an honor graduate of the Academy of Canine Obedience. However, an Academy spokesman told reporters they have no record of Bulldog ever studying at the Academy. Confronted with this information, Mr. Ruff double downed and growled, 'Not only did I attend the Academy and graduate with honors. I was a straight A student.'" 

Something similar happened Friday in Mississippi, a state in which I spent a cumulative 25  years beginning in 1969 when I enrolled at Reformed Theological Seminary (definitely not a honor graduate). For those who don't keep up with Mississippi politics, here is a brief summary of the current contest for the position of United States Senator.

Thad Cochran, 76 years old and first elected to the Senate in 1978, was challenged in the Republican Primary by state Senator Chris McDaniel. McDaniel campaigned against Cochran as a "RINO", not a "true conservative", a part of the "establishment". McDaniel finished the June 3 primary with a lead but did achieve more than 50% so a runoff was held. The Republican "machine" led by former Governor and Chairman of the Republican National Committee, Haley Barbour, cranked up, turned out the vote, and Cochran won by more than 7,000 votes. 

McDaniel, who was confident he would win, cried foul. He refused to concede or give the usual perfunctory endorsement of his opponent. His campaign claimed 

that some associated with Cochran's campaign appealed to Black voters by falsely accusing McDaniel of being a racist (there is always a racial component in Mississippi) and that large numbers of Democrats voted in the runoff. (Note: In Mississippi there is no party registration and primaries are open.) Hence the Cochran campaign engaged in "unfair" tactics and "stole" the election. McDaniel appealed to the Mississippi Republican Executive Committee to certify him as the winner of the runoff, but the Committee stood by its certification of Cochran as the nominee.

McDaniel's legal team went to work and sued Cochran. The judge appointed by the Mississippi Supreme Court to hear the case threw it out on the technical grounds that the challenge was not timely filed. On Friday McDaniel appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court. The same day he posted on his campaign Facebook page the above picture and quotation of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran theologian and pastor  who opposed the Nazis, and was hanged by the regime. Since the runoff McDaniel has cast the contest as not just between "RHINOs" and "real Republicans" but between good and evil, righteousness and wrong, truth and falsehood. His ardent supporters believe this literally, and I have come to think McDaniel does as well.

I am theologically not great Bonhoeffer fan. I do, however, respect him as a man of Christian faith, conviction, and courage. I very much enjoyed the Metaxas biography of him.

I am a big fan of Haley Barber the Governor. I am not so sure I am a fan of his as a political operator (and,
yes, I know his "operating" was a big part of his success as Governor). He plays by Mississippi rules. In Mississippi politics, as in life there in general, you are an insider or outsider. Where you're from, and who your daddy and mama are, are very important. There is a lot owho indirection, maneuvering, eye-winking, and head-nod signaling. Operators usually work, not in the open, but behind the scenes to set things up. There can be a measure of malice and meanness behind the sincere face. Barbour reminds me of the politics I observed in my last Presbyterian presbytery (and BTW Barbour holds his church membership in that same presbytery).

But I digress...

I find the use of the Bonhoeffer quote by McDaniel reprehensible. Bonhoeffer was speaking about the depravity and evil of the Nazi regime. He spoke and acted against a wicked political system. But the McDaniel supporter sees the quote and thinks, "Evil=Cochran and the machine, speaking out and acting = what Chris McDaniel is doing."

McDaniel trivializes good and evil. He reveals a significant lack of historical knowledge and perspective. He shows great disrespect of Bonhoeffer's life, convictions, and death. He misuses the Bonhoeffer legacy.

As one might expect, among those who still are allowed to comment on the McDaniel Facebook page, there has been strong protest. But the McDaniel supporting Internet Mississippi Conservative Daily responded:
And when he did (post the Bonhoeffer quote) the rats crawled out from under their rocks! Senator McDaniel quoted a great man of God, which captures his resolve to fight on against any and all obstacles, and now he is being slammed for it, though it is from the same group of hacks who hate him anyway, so nothing really new here... 
But seeing the criticism this picture sparked reminded me of something Senator McDaniel said on the campaign trail, speaking of his many critics: “If they saw me walking on water, they would say it’s because I can’t swim!”
Imagine the flaming darts this man has taken throughout all these many months in his quest to defeat Thad Cochran...
One of McDaniel's strongest Internet supporters wrote in the comments section of the Mississippi Daily Conservative story:
There are no “shades” of Evil. There is not some lighter type of Evil that can be negotiated or compromised with. Evil must be purged. Evil must be annihilated. There can be no pity for Evil. The only terms for dealing with Evil is that Evil MUST CEASE TO EXIST.
Chris McDaniel is fighting EVIL. He is fighting the most diabolical force in existence in this universe since the beginning of time. And he will not yield an inch or a millimeter. This is not the time for compromise. This is the time for complete Victory and complete DESTRUCTION of the EVIL ENEMY. 
 When challenged the same author responded:
I will attempt to explain. Did you ever think that John the Baptist did not have to die? He could have been a politician. He could have compromised with the King and Salome. He might have justified in his mind and said “Yes, these are bad people. But maybe they are not TOTALLY bad. So maybe we should all just get along”. And then his head would not have ended up on the bronze dinner plate. 
What they have done to Chris McDaniel is simply despicable. Never has a Statesman been treated so unfairly. What they did is worse than a lynching. What they did is a crucifixion.
What of McDaniel and his campaign staff? The Bonhoeffer picture and quote remain posted on his Facebook page. A little wisdom would have led him to order his staff to take the quote and picture down, and he would have issued a brief statement to the effect that he is sorry that his staff made this mistake, that he respects Bonhoeffer, and that he is sure that his staff meant no disrespect. Instead, whoever is in charge, whether McDaniel or his staff, has chosen to double down on the inappropriate use of Bonhoeffer.

I doubt that McDaniel's kindergarten teacher would have checked on his report card the box next to "plays well with others." At times I have wondered if there are any mature advisers and whether there are any grownups on his staff. Be that as it may, this is a cautionary story on several levels.

1. It tells us of the danger of mixing the Christian faith and politics. Many of McDaniel's supporters are Christian conservatives who view his campaign as a conservative crusade against entrenched evil. Thad Cochran, a fellow Baptist, personifies the evil that must be defeated. A RINO, anyone who is part of the "establishment" is opposed to what is good and righteous. Now the Republican Party at both the state and national levels must be purged of evil. The Party much be reclaimed from the wicked clutches of the establishment. Righteousness and purity must be restored. This campaign is no longer about political differences. It is about religious conflict.

2. It is a large mistake to listen only to those who agree. It seems that McDaniel and his supporters reinforce one another. He whips up his supporters. They share his crusade outlook and tell him his is a righteous cause. He can't let them down so he presses on. It seems he has developed something of a Messianic complex and his followers look to him as the savior of Mississippi, the Republican party, and potentially the nation. His winnowing fork is in his hand and the axe is laid to the base of the tree. There seems to be nobody who is saying, "This thing is getting out of hand. We need to lower the heat of the rhetoric." McDaniel lacks an exit strategy that he and his followers can live with so they continue to assure one another that they are on the side of righteousness. 

3. There is a destructive tendency when good and evil are absolutized in politics. This fight must now be to the death. If McDaniel somehow should prevail in court and be declared the nominee, he will then engage the "establishment" in mortal combat for the soul of the Party. The enemies now are not just the "Barbour machine", but the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor, the Secretary of State, the Mississippi Republican Congressional delegation, and the Republican National Committee. If McDaniel cannot prevail, his supporters (and likely he) are ready to try to kill off Cochran by supporting the Democrat nominee. They want to divide then destroy the Mississippi Republican Party so they can build it from the ashes. And there remains the possibility that in the end McDaniel will die as a suicidal martyr for truth, justice and the American way.

There are times to double down, and there are times to fold. It's wisdom to know when to do the one and when the other. So far as the use of Bonhoeffer reveals, McDaniel doesn't have it.

1 comment:

Curt Day said...

There are two issues when using Bonhoeffer's quote. First, there is what is cited here the danger of trivializing evil. But the danger on the other side is that we make the evil which Bonhoeffer faced the minimum standard for evil. So we have to find a balance.

But trivializing evil isn't the problem which I see here. What I see is McDaniel's own use of Mississippi politics where one is either an insider or an outsider. In essence, McDaniel's problem is that he has externalized evil. He is to Mississippi politics what the Pharisee was to prayer in the parable of the two men praying.

Implied with his RINO accusation is that the true Republican position is above all fault. Not only is such thinking wrong, it inspires mindless loyalty and authoritarianism in the political party. This can put the Christian who sees fault with Republican positions into an artificial dilemma.