Ben Sasse

Demographics and destiny: Big story brewing if many religious colleges are destined to die

Demographics and destiny: Big story brewing if many religious colleges are destined to die

Clayton Christensen of the Harvard Business School predicts that half of America’s colleges will die during the coming decade, due especially to competition from online coursework.

Many will pooh-pooh this dire forecast for institutions that have been so cherished a part of the nation’s culture. But Gettysburg College historian Allen Guelzo contended that the danger is palpable, and increasing, in a recent Wall Street Journal piece (behind a pay wall).

Guelzo said America’s 1,800 private colleges are especially at risk, and the smaller they are the bigger their problem. Though elite private schools boast fat endowments, offer ample scholarship aid and lure plenty of applicants, hundreds of private campuses lack these advantages.

Schools in the Northeast are especially vulnerable. In the past six years, 17 small colleges died in Massachusetts alone, and in recent months three more in New England announced closures. The ghost of Vermont’s debt-ridden Burlington College, which went under in 2016, remains in the news because financial moves by its former head, Jane Sanders, got the blame and she’s married to a would-be U.S. president.

Parents and students may protest tuition increases that exceed inflation year by year, conservatives may bemoan faculties dominated by politically correct liberals and some pundits may question the value of a college degree.

But Guelzo said the big threat is simple demographics. He projects that sagging birth rates will reduce potential college applicants by 450,000 during the 2020s. Private colleges must charge much higher tuitions than tax-supported competitors and will be hammered further if Democrats achieve “free college for all” plans that subsidize public campuses.

Obviously a big story is brewing, and religion writers will want to focus on the 247 Catholic colleges listed by the U.S. bishops’ office and the 143 conservative Protestant campuses linked to the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities. Most are four-year liberal arts institutions, but the counts include some seminaries and other specialized programs. Myriad other schools founded by “mainline” Protestants have only vestigial faith commitments and are of less religious interest.

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About that 'concerned citizen' who nailed Northam: Was there a religion ghost in this big story?

About that 'concerned citizen' who nailed Northam: Was there a religion ghost in this big story?

As the political soap opera in Virginia rolls on and on and on, I think it’s important to pause and remind journalists where all of this started — with an argument about religion, science and philosophy.

I am referring, of course, to Gov. Ralph Northam’s comments about the proposed Virginia legislation that included controversial language about late-term abortions.

In this firestorm about race — a totally valid story, of course — it has been easy to forget the role that abortion played in this equation.

I say this because of a story that ran the other day at The Washington Post that, in my opinion, should have received more attention. Here’s the bland headline from that: “A tip from a ‘concerned citizen’ helps a reporter land the scoop of a lifetime about Northam.” Let’s walk through this, starting with the overture:

The reporter who exposed the racist photo on Gov. Ralph Northam’s yearbook page said a “concerned citizen” led him to the story that has prompted widespread outrage and calls for the Democrat’s resignation.

Patrick Howley, editor in chief of the website Big League Politics, first reported … the existence of a photo on Northam’s page of his medical school yearbook depicting a figure in blackface standing next to another person in a Ku Klux Klan hood.

“It’s very easy to explain,” Howley, 29, said in an interview. …. “A concerned citizen, not a political opponent, came to us and pointed this out. I was very offended [by the photo] because I don’t like racism.”

Ah, but why was the “concerned citizen” acting? Isn’t that the big idea here, perhaps worthy of mentioning in the lede and the headline?

The Big League Politics editor, naturally, wanted to talk about politics. However, to its credit, the Post team dug deeper and hit this:

The source of the tip appears to have been a medical school classmate or classmates of Northam who acted as a direct result of the abortion controversy that erupted earlier in the week, according to two people at Big League Politics, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

“The revelations about Ralph Northam’s racist past were absolutely driven by his medical school classmate’s anger over his recent very public support for infanticide,” one of the two said.

Now, why was the “concerned citizen” so angry about the abortion debate, going so far as to use the “infanticide” language of Northam’s critics?

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I know, I know, it was Twitter: Was New York Times pro right that Jews don't believe in heaven?

I know, I know, it was Twitter: Was New York Times pro right that Jews don't believe in heaven?

I did not watch the State of the Union show last night, in keeping with my long-standing policy that I strive to prevent the face of Donald Trump from appearing on my television screen. I took the same approach to Hillary Clinton throughout the 2016 race.

In other words, I wait for the transcript of the speech and I read the key parts. This approach is much easier on my aging stomach lining. In other words, I’m interested in what was said — not the Trump dramatics and the talking-heads circus that followed.

This time around, I was interested in what Trump had to say about the current firestorms in Virginia and New York about what U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse has called “fourth-trimester abortion.”

You’ll be shocked, shocked, to learn that fact-checkers at The New York Times were not impressed with Trump’s comments in this area. Click here to see that, and then click here for a conservative academic’s skeptical fact-check of the Times fact-check.

I also checked Twitter a bit, during the speech, and then read all the way through my feed this morning looking for signs of post-SOTU intelligent life.

Thus, I ran into the amazing tweet by New York Times White House correspondent Annie Karmi stating:

Trump Just Ad-Libbed "They Came Down From Heaven" When Quoting A Holocaust Survivor Watching American Soldiers Liberate Dachau. Jews Don't Believe In Heaven.

Wow. I had no idea that there was a Jewish catechism that definitively stated loud dogma on issues of this kind.

I was under the impression — based on graduate school readings on trends in post-Holocaust Jewish life and culture — that trying to say that “Jews believe” this, that or the other is rather difficult. In this case, are we talking about Orthodox Jews, modern Orthodox Jews, Reform Jews, Buddhist Jews, “cultural” Jews, Jewish agnostics, secular Jews or what?

Saying “Jews don’t believe in heaven” is sort of like saying “Democrats don’t believe in God.” I mean, there are Democrats who believe in God, and there’s evidence of that, and there’s some evidence that lots of Democrats don’t believe in God. How would anyone try to make a definitive statement about something like that?

Ditto for Jews and “heaven.”

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Sen. Kamala Harris begins White House campaign: Maybe her 'Knights of Columbus' views are relevant?

Sen. Kamala Harris begins White House campaign: Maybe her 'Knights of Columbus' views are relevant?

There’s quite a bit of mythology surrounding the term “Catholic vote,” whenever journalists discuss American politics.

First of all, there’s no such thing as a typical American “Catholic voter.” At the very least, journalists have to probe the sharp divisions between “cultural” Catholics and those who attend Mass on a regular basis.

In the past, I have shared a “Catholic voters” typology that I learned from an elderly priest who had decades of experience in Washington, D.C. I have edited this a bit:

* Ex-Catholics. Solid for Democrats. Cultural conservatives have no chance.

* Cultural Catholics who go to church a few times a year. This may be an "undecided voters" niche, depending on the economy, foreign policy issues, etc. Leans to Democrats.

* Sunday-morning American Catholics. Regulars in the pew and they may fill some parish leadership roles. This is the key “Catholic,” swing voter candidates are chasing.

* “Sweats the details" Catholics who go to confession, are active in full sacramental life of the church and back Catechism on matters of faith and practice. This is a small slice of “Catholic voters.” Solid for GOP.

All of this matters because Catholics, of one kind or another, are 21 percent of the U.S. population and their votes are crucial in swing states such as Ohio and Florida. In the past, Catholics were a crucial part of coalitions that led the Democratic Party.

This brings us to a Washington Post political-desk report about Sen. Kamala Harris throwing her hat into the already crowded field of Democrats seeking their party’s presidential nomination. The headline: “Sen. Kamala Harris formally opens her presidential campaign with a mix of unity and blunt talk about race.”

This is one of those stories in which it is hard to discuss its religion-news contents, because the story contains a large religion-shaped hole, one of special interest to many Catholics. In particular, it is interesting that the story does not contain these words — “Knights of Columbus.” Hold that thought:

OAKLAND, Calif. — Sen. Kamala D. Harris on Sunday formally announced her presidential campaign, merging lofty and unifying lines aimed at a restive Democratic electorate with a blunt discussion of racism, police shootings and the impact of police brutality.

Harris announced on Monday, the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, that she would seek the presidency. Her appearance in her hometown on Sunday was the ceremonial start, and it became the highest-profile address yet by any presidential candidate.

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Sen. Ben Sasse stands out politically, and religiously, in the post-election GOP

Sen. Ben Sasse stands out politically, and religiously, in the post-election GOP

When journalists have sifted through the tea leaves and the ashes left by campaign 2018, they'll doubtless be watching a singular Nebraskan, Sen. Ben Sasse, 46. He'll be the intellectual leader of Donald Trump-wary conservatives in Congress who embrace the Republicans' 1856-2015 heritage. Sasse will be up for re-election in 2020 (unless he retires).

Though a Republican or independent presidential run seems most unlikely, Sasse bids for a voice on the nation's future with his October book "Them," subtitled "Why We Hate Each Other -- and How to Heal" St. Martin's Press). Showing off his chops as a Yale Ph.D. in American history (his dissertation treated President Ronald Reagan and the "religious right"), Sasse analyzes massive disruptions in the economy and the culture that he says will continue to erode Americans' confidence and sense of shared purpose.

As a remedy, he proposes reviving old-fashioned local communities. He also wants Americans to shun destructive media and decries the partisan furies that characterize the Trump era, though the book barely mentions the president or their disagreements. He appeals for vigorous public policy debates that respect the dignity of opponents as fellow citizens. The book’s handling of religious liberty disputes is especially important.

Future media write-ups should emphasize that Sasse is also the most interesting evangelical Protestant in Congress. He previewed “Them” in a 2017 commencement address when The Guy’s daughter graduated from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (for the good stuff, skip ahead to 9:40). Sasse also spoke that year to the Gospel Coalition and in 2016 at Westminster Seminary — California. And here’s what Sasse said on the Senate floor about #MeToo and Judge Brett Kavanaugh.

Journalists will want to peruse his religiously-pitched 2016 interview with World, a Christian newsmagazine. Secular outlets have portrayed Sasse as sort of impressive but lamentably conservative, as in Mother Jones just before the 2016 election when Sasse declined to vote for Trump, slate.com in 2017 and Vanity Fair last month.

“Them” barely mentions a theme The Guy considers essential for a Sasse interview: What’s the role for religion, especially local congregations, in the healthy restored culture Sasse yearns for?

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Is sane political discourse a lost cause? Even a small Himalayan Buddhist nation faces trolls

Is sane political discourse a lost cause? Even a small Himalayan Buddhist nation faces trolls

My fellow Americans, as you well know the 2018 midterm elections are almost upon us. No matter who you support, I recommend sparing yourself additional heartburn by not letting process tie your stomach in a knot (I know, that’s much easier said than done).

It helps to keep in mind something Winston Churchill is credited with saying: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

Democracy also just might be government at its most confusing. Making it far tougher is the enormous amount of misinformation — often just out-and-out lies — purposefully disseminated via the web these days. It’s enough to dissuade me from the notion that that all technical progress correlates with genuine human progress.

No place today seems immune from the havoc that this illiberal nastiness can cause on the left and the right.

Not even once isolated Bhutan, the small Himalayan nation I was fortunate to visit about six years ago, can catch a break. This recent Washington Post story underscores this sad truth. It ran the day of Bhutan’s national election last Thursday.

A small Himalayan nation wedged between India and China, Bhutan is famed for its isolated location, stunning scenery and devotion to the principle of “Gross National Happiness,” which seeks to balance economic growth with other forms of contentment.

But Bhutan’s young democracy, only a decade old, just received a heady dose of the unhappiness that comes with electoral politics. In the months leading up to Thursday’s national elections, the first in five years, politicians traded insults and made extravagant promises. Social media networks lit up with unproved allegations and fear mongering about Bhutan’s role in the world.

It is enough to make some voters express a longing for the previous system — absolute monarchy under a beloved king. “I would love to go back,” said Karma Tenzin, 58, sitting in his apartment in the picturesque capital, Thimphu. “We would be more than happy.”

Bhutan is a devoutly Buddhist nation (more precisely, it adheres to Vajrayana Buddhism, the branch of the faith also found in Tibet). So given the far more deadly social media lies propagated in Myanmar, also a strong Buddhist state, should we assume that there’s something about Buddhism itself that lends itself to this sort of twisted media manipulation?

Of course not. The problem is far more about human limitations than any particular religious constellation.

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Monday Mix: Botham Jean, 'nones' in politics, Catholics demand change, black women and more

Monday Mix: Botham Jean, 'nones' in politics, Catholics demand change, black women and more

After taking off last week for Labor Day, we're back with another edition of the Monday Mix.

For those needing a refresher on this new GetReligion feature, we focus in this space on headlines and insights you might have missed from the weekend and late in the week.

We'll mention this again, too: Just because we include a headline here doesn't mean we won't offer additional analysis in a different post, particularly if it's a major story. In fact, if you read a piece linked here and have questions or concerns that we might address, please don't hesitate to comment below or tweet us at @GetReligion. The goal here is to point at important news and say, "Hey, look at this."

Three weekend reads

1. "We will be a better city once we know the truth and once we come together and heal." The Dallas Morning News is providing in-depth coverage of the police-involved killing of Botham Jean, 26, a black man shot by a white officer who entered his apartment after mistaking it for her own.

That coverage includes the strong religion angle, as Jean was a beloved church song leader and Bible class teacher.

I ran into Morning News journalists both Saturday and Sunday at the Dallas West Church of Christ as I reported the story for The Christian Chronicle. In fact, the Dallas paper's photographer — in his first week on the job — confused me for his own reporter. We both enjoyed a chuckle over that while covering this terrible tragedy.

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If hundreds of evangelicals gather, but don't talk about Trump, do they make a sound?

If hundreds of evangelicals gather, but don't talk about Trump, do they make a sound?

See that question up there in the headline?

It's kind of a Zen question, isn't it? The reality on the ground is that hundreds of evangelicals recently met for an event called Evangelicals For Life that coincided with the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C. There were major groups behind this -- the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and Focus on the Family. It wasn't minor league.

However, if you check out the videos from the conference (click here for some archives), you'll notice that most of the talk at this event focused on abortion and other life-related issues -- but primarily looked at these subjects through the lens of ministry, as opposed to partisan politics.

Oh, there was some political talk about the U.S. Supreme Court, of course. Legislative battles loomed in the background. But if you listened carefully, few people were making references to a certain New York billionaire in the White House. Some of the primary speakers were from the world of #NeverTrump #NeverHillary.

So did anything newsworthy take place at this event?

It would appear not, if you surf around in Google News looking for mainstream -- especially elite -- news coverage. That was the hook for my Universal syndicate column this past week, as well as for this week's "Crossroads" podcast session with host Todd Wilken. Click here to tune that in.

Why the lack of coverage? I mean, there were influential people there -- some Democrats as well as Republicans. We are talking about real, live, evangelical folks.

Ah, but were they REALLY evangelicals, since it appears that many of them are not part of the massive choir of Donald Trump-worshipping "evangelicals" that we read about day after day in the media? After all, 80-plus percent of American evangelicals worship the ground on which Trump struts, right?

Well, I have a theory about that, one centering on the evidence that roughly half of the white evangelicals who voted for Trump in the election really didn't want to. The way I see it, the "evangelical" tent in American life is currently divided into six different camps.

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Spotting a religion ghost in New York Times water-cooler zinger on non-Trump GOP options

Spotting a religion ghost in New York Times water-cooler zinger on non-Trump GOP options

This had to be last weekend's chatter-producing headline in the tense territory defined by the DC Beltway. If you missed it, the New York Times proclaimed: "Republican Shadow Campaign for 2020 Takes Shape as Trump Doubts Grow."

Let me stress that this story was produced by the political desk, with zero visible contributions from a religion-beat professional. I would argue that this shaped the contents of the story in a negative way, creating a big faith-shaped hole. Thus, this is a classic example of a news story that's haunted by a religion ghost. We say "boo" to that, as always.

The key to the story is the chaos and political dirt that follows President Donald Trump around like the cloud that hovers over the Peanuts character named Pig-Pen. During the campaign, this led some Republicans to openly discuss running a third-party candidate against Trump. Others stressed that they were not voting for Trump, but against Hillary Rodham Clinton. Thus, the story opens like this:

 

WASHINGTON -- Senators Tom Cotton and Ben Sasse have already been to Iowa this year, Gov. John Kasich is eyeing a return visit to New Hampshire, and Mike Pence’s schedule is so full of political events that Republicans joke that he is acting more like a second-term vice president hoping to clear the field than a No. 2 sworn in a little over six months ago.
President Trump’s first term is ostensibly just warming up, but luminaries in his own party have begun what amounts to a shadow campaign for 2020 -- as if the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue weren’t involved.
The would-be candidates are cultivating some of the party’s most prominent donors, courting conservative interest groups and carefully enhancing their profiles.

Now, there are multiple parallel universes lurking in phrases like the "party's most prominent donors" and "conservative interest groups." Some of the powers hidden in those words are secular. Some of them are linked to groups defined, primarily, by moral, cultural and religious interests.

But let's start with one simple question: If you were looking for the most vocal supporters of Sasse and Cotton, where would you start?

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