“Nut Country”: How Dallas silenced Jesus and became the most Christian city in America

By Alan Bean

nut countryWhen evangelist Chuck Templeton visited Dallas in the late 1950s he was deeply disturbed by the city’s extraordinary religious culture.  As he stood chatting with the pastor of Highland Presbyterian Church, a grinning congregant approached with an envelope in his hand.  “That’s for $100,000,” the man announced proudly.  “I just finished an oil deal worth a cool million and that’s my tithe.”

Moments later, the pastor drove Templeton to the most exclusive tailor in Dallas to have him fitted for three expensive suits.  When Templeton realized what was happening, he protested vigorously, eventually talking the pastor down to a pair of cowboy boots.  Templeton had learned through observation and painful experience that lavish gifts come with a price.

There was something unusual about the symbiotic relationship between religion and big business in the Dallas of the 1950s and 60s and nothing much has changed.  In Nut Country: Right-Wing Dallas and the Birth of the Southern Strategy, Edward H. Miller argues that Big-D was a Beta version for the Southern Strategy, a trial run that worked the bugs out of racial politics.

My big question (as the title of this post suggests) is how a fundamentally unchristian political strategy could owe so much to the Christian community.  I would argue that the megachurch culture of Dallas has its roots in the strange dynamics Miller describes in Nut Country.

The title derives from an idle remark John F. Kennedy made to his wife as the couple dressed for their fatal trip to to Dallas: “We’re heading into nut country today.”

A poster circulating in Dallas shortly before JFK was assassinated

A poster circulating in Dallas shortly before JFK was assassinated

Dallas earned a reputation as “hate city” following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, but Miller detects a method behind the madness.  In Dallas, apocalyptic religion, libertarian economics and small government politics were fused into an intoxicating brew that gradually infused and reshaped American politics. Continue reading

Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: A Review

Bonhoeffers black jesusBy Alan Bean

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was the only prominent Christian in Germany to grasp the hideous spiritual implications of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis from the outset.  Martin Niemoller’s famous “first they came for” litany sketched out a typical pattern in Third Reich Germany:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Bonhoeffer realized from the beginning that Jesus stood on the side of the socialists, the trade unionists, the Jews, the Roma, the homosexuals, the intellectually challenged and every other substratum of society targeted by the Nazis.  Karl Barth, the primary author of the famed Barmen Declaration, took a bold stand against the Nazis, and he was not alone.  But as Niemoller’s mea culpa suggests, “the Confessing Church” was primarily concerned with the Nazi’s re-writing of Christian theology; the plight of Hitler’s non-Christian victims was strictly secondary. Continue reading

We don’t hate Kim Davis; we love equal justice

By Alan Bean


My contention that we should cut Kim Davis some slack has raised several hackles.  I wasn’t suggesting that Kim is particularly impressionable, robotic or stupid; I was merely suggesting that she is a normal person who reflects the culture that surrounds her like the air she breathes.

kim davis bookingStill, people want to hate on Kim Davis, the Rowan County Clerk.  Facebook culture personalizes everything.  Most of us don’t think much about immigration policy until Donald Trump says “they have to go.”  Some of us react in horror, others leap off the sofa with a triumphant “yes”, fists pumping.

But the ensuing argument isn’t about immigration policy; its about whether the Trumpster is the man on a white horse we’ve been waiting for since the Gipper toddled into the sunset, or a self-aggrandizing buffoon with a mystifying comb-over.

Here’s my point: while we mock poor Kim for her traumatic romantic history, her atypical wardrobe, her antiquated hairstyle, her homophobia, her bad theology and her faulty grasp of constitutional law, we fail to realize that, in Rowan County, Kim’s ideas are commonplace.  She is sticking to her guns with atypical tenacity, but the guns she is sticking to are standard issue. Continue reading

Give Kim Davis a break; she’s just a pawn in the Dominionist revolution

kim davisBy Alan Bean

Hey liberals, lay off of Kim Davis!

It’s not her fault.

Every authority figure in her moral universe is telling her the same thing: God hates gay marriage and God’s will trumps human law.

Kim believes it because everybody she respects is saying it.

There is something noble about the stand she’s taking.  Kim isn’t the moral equivalent of Rosa Parks or Dietrich Bonhoeffer; but she thinks she is because Mat Staver, the lead attorney with Liberty Counsel, tells her so.

mattstaverjpgMat Staver isn’t a household name, unless your household lives on the fringes of the culture war.  Just prior to the Supreme Courts’ Obergefell decision that made marriage equality a guaranteed right under the US Constitution, Mat Staver was anticipating the worst . . . or, from his perspective, the best.

This would be the thing that revolutions are made of. This could split the country right in two. This could cause another civil war. I’m not talking about just people protesting in the streets, this could be that level because what would ultimately happen is a direct collision would immediately happen with pastors, with churches, with Christians, with Christian ministries, with other businesses, it would be an avalanche that would go across the country.

In Mat Staver’s imagination, the Kim Davis case is the snowball that will spark the avalanche he is praying for.  Mat would love nothing more than to split America in two, essentially reprising the Civil War.

Staver hails from a section of the country where most folks believe the world is 6,000 years old, that evolution is a myth, that the Bible is free from error or contradiction, that men should exercise their God-given authority over women, that gay marriage is the ultimate sin against God, and that states should be free to make and enforce laws in harmony with this Southern consensus.

That’s why Mat Staver is up to his elbows in the fight for teaching “intelligent design” in the nation’s public schools.  He will exploit any issue on the fault-line separating “pagan” and “Christian” values because his goal is to make the world safe for the conservative Southern consensus.

Kim Davis is often described as an “Apostolic Christian”.  Several branches of the Christian family that favor the term “apostolic”, but the reference is most likely to a form of Apostolic Pentecostalism that traces its origins to the New Testament apostles, believes the King James Version of the Bible is the final authority on every subject, and encourages modest clothing while discouraging women from wearing makeup or cutting their hair.  (This explains why Kim Davis doesn’t look like most of the women in your office and, while I’m on the subject, her domestic travails are irrelevant to this discussion.)

Kim’s religion explains her opposition to gay marriage, but does it account for her refusal to issue marriage licenses to gay couples on pain of incarceration?  Apostolic Christians have traditionally respected the authority of public officials and Davis would have faced no recrimination from her congregation if she had followed the law, especially if the marriage license business had been delegated to subordinates.

Kim is taking her stand because the authority figures in her world are guided by a revolutionary political-religious-legal philosophy.  While we’re focusing on Kim we are ignoring the folks behind the scenes who are driving the action.

Mike Huckabee is in on the game.  He calls Kim Davis a civil rights hero who understands the US Constitution better than most liberal politicians.

Marco Rubio says we should find a way to protect the right of public officials to hold true to their religious views.  What way might that be?

In fact, of the seventeen Republican presidential candidates, only two (Carly Fiorina and Lindsey Graham) believe that Kim Davis should do her job or resign.

Jeb Bush doesn’t like where his base is headed, but he can’t say so.  Instead, Jeb is praying for a via media to emerge:

“It seems to me there ought to be common ground, there ought to be big enough space for her to act on her conscience and for, now that the law is the law of the land, for a gay couple to be married in whatever jurisdiction that is.”

But there is no middle ground here.  The Supremacy Clause of the US Constitution states that when state and federal laws conflict, federal law prevails.  As James Madison argued, if the nation had tried to build a society without a supremacy clause of some kind, “it would have seen the authority of the whole society everywhere subordinate to the authority of the parts; it would have seen a monster, in which the head was under the direction of the members”.

Mat Staver disagrees.  So do most of the Republican candidates in the presidential race.  Although most people haven’t heard of “Dominionism” or “Christian Reconstruction”, or “The New Apostolic Reformation”, the basic assumption at the heart of this complicated movement is beginning to take hold in conservative America.

Dominionism, narrowly defined, has a limited following on the Right, but the basic tenets of this revolutionary worldview are leavening conservative America: the notion that there is a clearly definable “biblical worldview”, the conception of America as a nation founded by and for Christians; the demonization of the public school system; the assumption that free market capitalism is a biblical concept, a rejection of the theory of biological evolution; and a visceral antipathy to homosexuality and the gay rights movement.

(If you want to learn more about Christian Dominionism, read my primer on the subject, and check out Sarah Posner’s piece on how this philosophy is being taught at Liberty University Law School (Mat Staver’s home base).

Poor Kim Davis doesn’t understand much of this slice of recent history, but her attorney is on the cutting edge of the Dominionist movement and he understands it very, very well.  Mat Staver tells Kim that she is a Christian martyr; and Kim believes it.  She is a pawn in an enormous chess game that few Americans, conservative or liberal, appear to understand.

Ted Cruz, like his dear old dad, is a committed dominionist.  That’s why he is auditioning to be regarded as Kim Davis’s biggest fan.

“Today, judicial lawlessness crossed into judicial tyranny,” he said. “Today, for the first time ever, the government arrested a Christian woman for living according to her faith. . . . I stand with Kim Davis. Unequivocally.”

Ted is fully aware that none of this makes sense if we are playing by the secular interpretation of constitutional law that currently drives the American legal system.  But Ted is marching to a different drummer; talking and thinking as if the dominionist revolution was already over and the Supreme Court can be trumped by biblical teaching (as interpreted by people like Mat Staver).  If people like Cruz repeat their talking points loud enough and long enough, people like Kim Davis will begin to believe it.

Kim the County Clerk is surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses repeating the same talking points.

In the America described in political science classes and the America that prevails in the courtroom, Kim Davis doesn’t have a legal leg to stand on.  But Mat Staver doesn’t belong to that America.  Mat’s heart has been captured by an America that lives on the far side of the revolution.

But we’re not paying attention to Mat Staver, his friends at Liberty Counsel, and the dominionist movement that shapes their thinking.  We’re arguing about the merits and demerits of a simple county clerk who is being manipulated for ideological purposes.

“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”

A Badge Stored in a Drawer: Jacob Furr Celebrates his Father


Jacob Furr is a Fort Worth musician who, frankly, doesn’t look like the son of a policeman.  But he is.  You can find more on Jacob’s music here (he’s terrific).  I wanted to post this recent Facebook post (with permission, naturally) because this blog is often critical of police officers and Jacob’s celebration of his father’s retirement reminded me that cops are normal people with lives and families who do difficult and dangerous work.

By Jacob Furr

My dad has been holding The Thin Blue Line for 30 years and is retiring tomorrow. Even though he’s not on facebook, I’d like to say something publicly about him.

I’ve been hugging my dad through a bullet proof vest for 30 years. The press of handcuffs, extra ammunition clips, mace on his belt against my stomach and the sharp edges of the badge with the sleeping panther on top digging into my cheeks is a sensation I’ll never forget. I have stood beside him in silence at two police funerals and cried thinking “that could have been him”. I will never forget hearing him come home late at night after we were all in bed and then hearing him leave again before the sun had risen day after day. I’m sure there were things that happened in that time away from us that we will never hear about. Moments when he wondered if he’d get home that night.

There were funny moments as well though.

Once when my family came to visit San Francisco, we were walking through the Haight-Ashbury and everyone except Dad entered one of the ridiculous tourist hippy stores. When we came back out into that cool SF air, Dad was standing on the corner with his arms crossed in his oh-so-police-like manner, but with a smile on his face. It seems that while we were inside, he had been standing on the street corner in his shorts, “Life Is Good” t-shirt, and Ranger cap when one of the folks that live on the street walked up and just said “Hello Officer”.

I guess you just can’t turn it off. The mustache must’ve given him away.

I had college professor once say, without knowing my dad was an officer, that “all cops are just violent pigs serving the interests of the rich.” That’s funny. I thought they were just like my dad. Working at midnight on Christmas. Standing on the side of a freeway after a fatal car wreck. Finding the jerk who stole your credit card information.

He has been serving all of Fort Worth and its citizens, no matter how rich or poor, for 30 years and it will all quietly end tomorrow. No parade. No mention from city hall. No articles in the Star Telegram. Just another Cop who has served his time hangs up the gun belt that used to sit beside the dinner table one last time.

The reality is that a good, honest man who has worked hard to raise a family on a tiny income will quietly exit the publics’ consciousness and service and put his blue uniform in the closet and his badge in a drawer. He will take a step back from the line between order and chaos and rejoin the citizen population. And nobody will really notice. Because he’s been really good at his job. Hopefully folks wont feel the need to complain to him about the ticket they got last week anymore. Hopefully he’ll learn how to cross his arms without looking like he’s running surveillance for a drug bust. I just hope he feels thanked for risking his life to keep us safe for 30 years.

I, for one, am grateful.

Congratulations dad.

Now go learn how to race rally cars or something fun.

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Sandra Bland isn’t going away

By Alan Bean

sandra-bland-be-my-voiceOver a month has passed since Sandra Bland died in a Waller County jail, the story shows no sign of disappearing.  The incident sparked national outrage when video of Bland’s arrest showed state trooper Brian Encinia intentionally escalating the drama with a justifiably angry Ms. Bland, threatening to “light you up” with his taser, then, once she steps out of her vehicle, throwing her to the ground with so much force that she temporarily lost her hearing.  Bland was then charged with assaulting an officer and hauled off to jail.  But none of this would have attracted much attention if Sandra Bland hadn’t turned up dead three days later.

Questions abound.  Why, a month after his bizarre display of criminally awful police work, has officer Encinia been returned to routine patrol work?  Why hasn’t he been fired and charged with assault?  Even Donald Trump was appalled by Encinia’s police work–and when the Donald thinks an officer’s behavior is appalling attention must be paid.  Trump is an international authority on awful behavior.

People are still asking what really happened inside Sandra Bland’s jail cell?  Did she really hang herself with a trash bag?  And if not, what alternative explanations are on offer?

Waller County Sheriff Glenn Smith

Waller County Sheriff Glenn Smith

And questions have been raised about the men charged with investigating officer Encinia (District Attorney Elton Mathis) and Bland’s peculiar death (Waller County Sheriff, Glenn Smith).  Can DA Mathis watch the video of officer Encinia’s aggressive, unprofessional and ultimately criminal treatment of Ms. Bland and conclude the DPS officer did everything by the book?

And what are we to make of Glenn Smith, the bellicose sheriff who, just this week, told a United Methodist Pastor in town to investigate the case to “go back to your Church of Satan.”  Smith also had a tree cut down to ensure that protesters would feel the full force of triple digit heat.  Can this latter day Bull Conner be trusted with the investigation of the Bland case? Continue reading

“We’re not Ferguson”: Arlington, Texas gets it right (for now)

Police Chief Will Johnson, Mayor Jeff Williams and Pastor Dwight McKissic greet the family of Christian Taylor.

Police Chief Will Johnson, Mayor Jeff Williams and Pastor Dwight McKissic greet the family of Christian Taylor.

By Alan Bean

According to the New York Times, Will Johnson’s swift decision to fire the officer responsible for shooting Christian Taylor represents the standard practice for police chiefs across America. Ever since Ferguson, Missouri was engulfed in months of controversy following the death of Michael Brown, police departments have been bending over backwards to avoid becoming “the next Ferguson”.

Maybe.  But, shortly after Ferguson became front page news, I was on a panel discussion with the Arlington police chief and he was talking about “procedural justice,” the idea that police departments function most effectively when they maintain a transparent dialogue with the communities they serve.  In the course of the discussion I said that in troubled police departments, the problems begin at the top.  Chief Johnson heartily agreed.

The problem in Ferguson (and thousands of other communities across the nation) is the deep mutual mistrust between law enforcement and poor communities of color.  As David Kennedy argues in his book Don’t Shoottoxic narratives, rooted in crude stereotype and broad-brush generalization, often persist within both police culture and poor black neighborhoods.  Both sides assume the worst about each other and that’s why a single tragic incident can set off a firestorm.

In Ferguson, law enforcement ratcheted up the tension by attempting to intimidate protesters into submission.  “Comply or die” was the implied message.  This approach, naturally, fans the flames of protest.  Activists respond by becoming even more confrontational, police officers respond in kind, and the situation spirals out of control.

Will Johnson wants to avoid this scenario, and this week his decisive action did just that.

No one knows why Christian Taylor stomped on cars at an Arlington car dealership, then drove his vehicle inside the dealership through a glass door.  When several police officers arrived at the scene the goal was to containment.  No one’s life was in danger, so the obvious strategy was to block all avenues of escape and give the perpetrator time to realize the hopelessness of his situation.

But Brad Miller, a 49 year old officer in training, didn’t grasp the logic of that strategy.  Seeing the broken glass where Christian Taylor had driven his Jeep into the dealership, Miller decided to enter the building alone with the goal.

Two big mistakes.  First, the officer acted without communicating with his fellow officers; secondly, he hadn’t thought things through, had no arrest strategy and wasn’t prepared for a confrontation.  Instead of deescalating a dangerous situation, he was putting a confused man in the kind of comply-or-die situation that never ends well for anyone.

According to his family, Christian Taylor was a good kid.  An ‘A’ Student at Angelo State University.  A gifted athlete.  A devout Christian who prayed for his community every day.  Taylor had no history of mental illness and, so far as anyone knows, wasn’t abusing drugs or abusing alcohol in the days prior to the incident.

Most likely, the young man was in the grips of a psychotic break.  Confronted by an armed officer, he held up a set of keys and announced that he was going to steal a car. Sane people don’t talk like that, nor do they drive their vehicles into car dealerships.  In short, Christian Taylor wasn’t in his right mind and was unlikely to respond positively to verbal commands.

And that is why Brad Miller had to be fired.

The officer’s pastor spoke at the community prayer service sponsored by Arlington’s Cornerstone Baptist Church, and had nothing but praise for Mr. Miller.  He had always wanted to be a police officer and decided that, even at 49, it wasn’t too late to realize that dream.  Now, that dream is as dead as Christian Taylor and Miller must live with self-doubt and remorse for the rest of his life.

Rushing into a building without communicating with your superiors is a classic rookie mistake.  Miller wanted to show his stuff.  He was willing to place himself in danger even though police protocol counseled otherwise.  He doesn’t have the temperament for police work (many officers don’t) and he showed it in the worst possible time in the worst possible way.  Chief Johnson made the right call.

But, handled poorly, this case could easily have become another Ferguson.  Initially, the Taylor family complained to the Manchester Guardian that police officials were giving them the silent treatment.  But there turned out to be a very good reason for the initial silence: Chief Johnson wasn’t going to speak publicly until he had his facts, and his talking points, straight.

Alan Bean (center) in conversation with Rev. Dwight McKissic (Left) and Arlington Police Chief, Will Johnson.

Alan Bean (center) in conversation with Rev. Dwight McKissic (Left) and Arlington Police Chief, Will Johnson.

Pastor Dwight McKissic should be praised for pulling together a community service characterized by message discipline.

No one spoke substantively until a full hour of worship had set the emotional and theological foundation for the evening.

No one, in the absence of good information, tried to explain Mr. Taylor’s bizarre behavior.

No one, save Chief Johnson, described the tragic events and the chief;s performance was flawless.  He described how the operation should have been handled.  He explained the linkage between officer Miller’s poor judgement and the end result.  And then, for a full hour, he answered carefully vetted questions from the community.

Dwight McKissic traveled to Ferguson last year as an observer and, having spoken with him on several occasions, I know he is deeply concerned about racial justice.  But he didn’t want the frayed emotions of the moment to derail a meeting called for the purpose of unity and reconciliation.  McKissic and I both attended a similar event at a Dallas church last year where several families who had lost loved ones in police shootings hurled insults and curses at public officials.  The pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church didn’t want any of that going on in his sanctuary and took effective steps to limit questions to the issue at hand.  Statements were not allowed, only questions, and questioners were briefly vetted before getting a turn at the mic.

Several questioners were representing their Sunday school classes, and their excellent questions, though pointed, were always respectful.

When the service was over, I asked the police chief if he thought the absurd American statistics on police shootings said as much about American society as they say about police culture.  In other words, is one of the reasons American cops are so much more likely to shoot civilians related, to a certain extent, to the violent and chaotic nature of American society?

Johnson agreed enthusiastically with my premise, although we didn’t have time to explore the matter in depth.

Having lived in both Canada (a country with strict gun controls) and the United States, I am painfully aware of the singular aspects of American culture.  The free availability of fire arms is a huge problem, especially in neighborhoods characterized by poverty, unemployment, and crime.

David Kennedy’s, Don’t Shoot is the best analysis of black-on-black violence I have come across.  The mayhem, he believes, is driven by a tiny group of psychopathic personalities who enjoy violence for its own sake.  Most gangs, and most gang members, secretly hate the violence and wish they could escape it; but the realities of street life make it difficult to lay your weapon down.

It should be noted that Christian Taylor, the young man who died in Arlington, didn’t come from the violent world I have just described.  In fact, he was committed to helping people trapped in violent sub-cultures, and he wasn’t armed the night he died.

But police officers don’t just fear violence from gang-bangers; with each passing year, mass killings of the Sandy Hook, and Charleston variety are becoming increasingly common.  Men in battle fatigues carrying semi-automatic weapons think its cool to parade through restaurants and department stores just because the law allows it.

Furthermore, much of the pro Second Amendment rhetoric in the nation is rooted in the insane notion that if everyone was armed, and prepared to spray bullets at the slightest provocation, we’d all be a lot safer.   Although crime rates have been plunging to record low levels, there remains a widespread belief, echoed recently by Donald Trump, that we are in the middle of an unprecedented crime wave.

Violent crime on a mass scale is limited to a small number of neighborhoods in a few American cities: Chicago, New Orleans, Detroit and Baltimore, for instance.  But we have become a nation characterized by fear and what theologians call the myth of redemptive violence.  Our movies, our television dramas and our video games are predicated on the allure of violence.

And the cumulative weight of all this madness makes it hard for police officers (and their significant others) to sleep at night.  You never know when somebody’s going to pull out a piece and start firing.  Police officers in countries like Britain, France, Germany, Australia and Canada have far less to worry about.  America is a wonderful nation in many ways; in fact, we’re are almost as exceptional as we think we are.  But we have sown the wind of violence and are reaping the whirlwind of fear.

Throughout the service at Cornerstone, participants insisted that the solidarity, unity and spirit of reconciliation on display that night must constitute a beginning, not an end.  But how, precisely, do we move forward?  Mayor Williams, Pastor McKissic, Chief Johnson, what’s the next move?

A Review of Richard Rohr’s “Falling Upward”

RohrBy Charles Kiker

I have just completed reading Falling Upward by Richard Rohr. I had never read anything by Rohr before, but kept seeing references to his work, and decided to go into by non-existent book budget and order this one. (My book budget is determined by whatever I decide to purchase at the time—and the time was right for me to order this one.

And I’m glad I ordered this one. So here are some random reflections for whatever they’re worth to whatever reader happens upon them and happens to read them.

The emphasis in the book is on the two halves of life, not necessarily chronologically but more morally and spiritually. But somewhat chronologically because the author feels that it is rare that a young person (say under 40, more likely under 50) can enter into the second half of life as he uses the term.
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