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To My Dear Friend Brent Chamberlain #4: For want of a vacation!

Dear Brent,

I’ve been thinking about you a lot lately. I miss you terribly. One reason is that as the pandemic starts to lift (Alicia and I are vaccinated, Tilly not yet) we are starting to plan trips (did an 8 hour car trip to North Carolina that went really well a couple weekends ago) and I want to plan more trips with you. Correction: I want to go on more trips with you that you plan. : ) I hope we can do that again some day. To that end, I have two things I’d like to say.

First, we were bummed that we moved last summer because we had been hoping to get a mysterious anonymous postcard in the mail from someplace in Europe–knowing your penchant for the anachronistically charming snail mail postcard. Alicia would ask me regularly if we had seen any unmarked postcards. But she’s stopped asking now that we are in a new house that you don’t know the address for, and we’ve been reluctant to post our home address online. Also, with the pandemic and some things happening at work, I lost a permanent work address for a time so I couldn’t give you that. That has now changed! I am fancy now and have my own office in a psychology building on Penn’s main campus. So, in the future, please send mysterious postcards to the following address. I share an office wall with Dr. Barb Mellers!

Attn: Dr. Jer Clifton, Primals Project Director (the title is not necessary, but I’m adding it for the sake of coolness)

Solomon Labs, 3720 Walnut Street, Room C2

Philadelphia, Pennsylvannia USA 19104

We may or may not take a vacation to wherever a postcard happens to come from over the next few months. We are whimsical like that.

Secondly, several stories keep coming to mind from our trip to England together a few years ago. I think my all time favorite is the convergence of drunkenness and birds.

It was a dark and stormy night. Kevin and Alicia had gone to bed, but you and I were still holding it down drinking scotch in the living room of our cottage. Then we heard Alicia scream and we looked at each other and ran up stairs, drinks in hand just in case some emergency drinking was needed. We burst into Alicia’s room to find her plastered against the wall. She turns and whispers fiercely, “I think there is a bird in our room!”

Things got a little blurry for me at that point. Apparently there were two small and cute birds–a mother and baby? Apparently they had flown through the open window to get out of the rain and at various intervals were behind pieces of furniture, caught in the curtains flapping wildly, or making loud song noises. Apparently at some point at my strong and ignorant urgings we turned off all the lights, thinking that the birds would fly out the window if it was dark in the room and lighter outside, but really all that happened was we lost the ability to see, began to loudly stumble around the room bumping into things, intermittently terrified that we would either hurt or be attacked by tiny birds. Building on my first brilliant idea, I at some point had a second brilliant idea: we just needed more light outside to coax the birds out, so I ran outside into the rain, trying to shine my iPhone light in the 2nd floor bedroom window as I pushed through shrubs surrounding the house. My favorite moment of the evening was me completely drenched, drunk, standing in the rain for a good 20 minutes, shining my iPhone uselessly at a far-away window, and not seeing anyone yet hearing intermittently loud yells, shrieks, flapping, whispers, and stumbling by you and Alicia as you ran ineffectually around in a pitch dark room scared to death of two cute little birds. This would be followed by pauses followed by more loud running around and fearful shrieks. I’m fairly confident that I enjoyed several sips of scotch as I waited in the rain, confident that my plan was on the verge of working.

Come home soon and let’s have more adventures. We have a dedicated guest room now with a queen size bed and we are very proud of it. You are always welcome.

With affection,


And of course some pics:

Tilly wearing Dada’s hat on a recent camping trip.
A better picture of Tilly was needed, though the facial expression is about identical.
Tilly and me planting two container lemon trees. No Alicia pictures were included because I was too lazy to run any Alicia pictures by said Alicia.

To My Dear Friend Brent Chamberlain #3: This Christmas I’m Giving You a Tailored Summary of My Dissertation

Dear Brent,

I’m sitting on my couch the afternoon of Christmas Eve. Alicia is putting Tilly down after we went for a walk in Fairmount Park–explored a new section–and then I made a big breakfast/lunch (pics below). You spent Christmas with us in 2018, so it’s officially been 2 years since we’ve seen you. Merry Christmas friend. I hope you are well, wherever you are. Just as a reminder, we have a spare bedroom that you are welcome to at anytime.

I promised earlier to give you a brief summary of my dissertation, so I thought I would take this chance to share that.

The first chapter examined the primal world beliefs associated with political ideology. This ended up being really interesting and I’ve been encouraged to try and publish it in top journals. Basically, the existing literature–one of the few that have examined primals–has repeatedly found this important correlation between dangerous world belief and conservatism (vs. liberalism) and it was interpreted as causal. Dangerous world belief was thought to describe a pair of worlds in which opposite political behaviors make more sense. For example, it was thought that anti-immigration policies were increased by the belief that the world is dangerous. But my work has found that, first, dangerous world belief is multi-dimensional (this wasn’t known before) and, second, it turns out that the previous research relied on a scale that happens to emphasize precisely the ways that conservatives see the world as dangerous while neglecting the ways that liberals see the world as dangerous (liberals tend to see the world as rife with injustice)–I replicate these findings a few times. Then, when you use my scale, you find that dangerous world belief doesn’t correlate at all with conservatism (i.e., conservatives are no more likely to see the world as more dangerous than liberals). I replicated these results in like 5,000 people across 8 samples with pre-registered hypotheses, so we are pretty damn sure. What’s really cool, however, is that a handful of other primals do correllate with political ideology–this same pattern was observed too across 30 political variables, from attitudes about Trump to thoughts on climate change–and these primals also describe a pair of perceived worlds in which opposite political behaviors make sense. In short, conservatives tend to think that the world is full of differences that matter a lot, whatever the difference is, and liberals tend to think that differences are superficial and meaningless. I propose a new theory on this basis called hierarchy theory that should inform any context in which the forces of preservation clash with the forces of change. : )

Here’s the conclusion of the chapter:

This moment in history is one of relatively intense political polarization. If sorely-needed mutual understanding, compromise, and conflict resolution—not to mention productive psychological research—requires perspective-taking, descriptively establishing how the world looks from liberal and conservative perspectives is of paramount importance. Above studies suggest that decades of perspective-taking efforts were frustrated because the primals of political ideology were misidentified. Conservative attitudes were imagined as partly a reaction to seeing the world as dangerous when conservatives do not actually see the world as meaningfully more dangerous. Now, with the right primals identified, the hope is that perspective-taking efforts can become more fruitful. It starts by imagining what it must be like to see difference differently. Hierarchy theory is an attempt to back up and start down this path. 

Another cool thing about this chapter is that, for random reasons, I got to have lunch a while back with Barack Obama’s sister, who is a friend of a friend in Hawaii. She’s cool. I got to talking about some of this work and about how at the time I thought that I shouldn’t study it now, cause I didn’t really want people to learn about primals in a political context, wellbeing stuff seemed more pertinent, and I didn’t have a way to alter these primals yet anyway. She encouraged me to screw it, that even if we can’t change these primals, it would be useful to have a framework so that we don’t just think the other side is crazy. And indeed, she’s right, so I pursued this now and not later. The world from the conservatives perspective is a lot more consistent than I realized, and they also aren’t driven by fear to the extent that I/we/psychologists/everyone thought. This, in the immortal words of Joe Biden, is a big fucking deal. Marty even started to strategize about what New York Times reporter we should get to feature this research. Crazy shit. My other chapters are not this cool.

My second chapter has already been published in Frontiers in Psychology, which is an open source journal so you can read it easy. This is kinda a paper within a paper. First, the inner paper is a discussion of how primals relate to experiences. Some people have the intuition that primals reflect our backgrounds (e.g., poor people see the world as more barren). But I argue that primals are schemas are used to interpret events in our lives while being themselves largely un-impacted by these events–even trauma probably doesn’t impact it too much, which is against current theory–and then I identify several correlations that would indicate as such. For example, it turns out that rich people and poor people are about equally likely to see the world as abundant (or barren); men and women see the world as equally safe; and so forth. If our primals reflect our lived experience, this probably should not be. However, this doesn’t mean experiences don’t impact primals, just that our primals aren’t some straightforward reflection of our past. For example, having a positive role model who teaches one that the everything is beautiful and fascinating the more you look at things might be very influential, but not because you actually were in a more beautiful or fascinating place–the exposure was to a perspective, not a reality.

Btw, one reason I miss you is that you saw things as beautiful and would point out beauty to those around. I hope you are still doing that.

The outer paper is about how these discussions in psychology of how experience influences X construct of interest is a bit silly because psychology doesn’t really have a way to comprehend and organize a diverse range of experiences for proper consideration–so I made one up. It was useful for my own research purposes so I’m sharing it with others. Basically, all human experience can be sorted into eight buckets defined by three dimensions: how long the event happens (acute/chronic), whether its a positive or negative event, and whether the experience is voluntarily or forced upon you by the world. For example, negative, acute, involuntary events I call Bad Luck events and positive, chronic, voluntary events I call Good Habits. It was fun to come up with and nice to do something that wasn’t just primals related.

My third chapter is super long and a bit unpublishable in its current form (its got literally 11 discussion sections). Basically, if we are going to ever change people’s primals, we are going to have to address meta-beliefs about primals that (likely) reinforce that primals. For example, some people think that seeing the world as dangerous is what keeps them safe. Another example: if I see the world as a shithole, I’ll be happier because I’ll never be disappointed. Study 1 showed that such meta-beliefs purporting the value of negative primals are quite prevalent. It was cool. I found out by asking parents what primals they want to pass on to their children, and a surprising number of parents explicitly desire to pass on negative primals to their children (btw, I expect this is true of teachers too and would love to talk to you about that). Also, very very few parents want their kids to see the world as very positive–most thought that seeing the world as slightly positive was the sweet spot.

So…a second study looked at several thousand subjects and like 50 professions. I looked at suicide ideation, depression, life satisfaction, job satisfaction, job success, and overall wellbeing. The goal was to find any outcome/sample/profession in which more negative primals were actually associated with more positive outcomes. I found (basically) none. Negative primals in almost all cases were associated with worse to dramatically worse outcomes, and this was also true of the difference between slightly positive primals and very positive primals–moderating approaches had no apparent benefit. In other words, it seems that the more positive the better, even if primals are already quite positive.

Why? I think that this is because primals–even really extreme ones–do not force one to interpret events in a particular way. For example, if I think, say, that “Jack is a liar” that by no means forces me to never believe anything he says. There might be tons of exceptions to his lying ways. Likewise for primals. We can see the world as an extremely positive place while losing little ability to recognize problems as they arise. I’m speculating, but I don’t know how else to explain the fact that cops who saw the world as dangerous weren’t better at being cops (and in fact were a bit worse). Likewise across professions. Seeing the world as a shithole doesn’t seem to make you any better at dealing with that shit, it just makes you unhappy.

There you go. Those were my three chapters. I tried to explain them to you like I was in person. I wish we could have had some wine together for this discussion. Thanks for reading. I’m sure you are proud of me. I’ll try to describe how the defense went later.

In the meantime, Merry Christmas friend. I am sitting on my couch thinking of you and hoping you are well. I’m listening to a pandora station we made together in December 2018 when you were here–it’s Christmas choral music, which I don’t see myself making on my own ; ) I miss you. Alicia does too.

With affection,


To My Dear Friend Brent Chamberlain #2: I’m Going to Keep Posting Letters to You

Dear Brent,

How are you friend? I’ve been meaning to write for ages. First things first. 

I fear that, if you are alive and checking my blog at all, you could be getting the impression that I’ve forgotten you when nothing is further from the truth. I think about you everyday—several times a day really—Alicia does too. Besides obvious reasons for not posting (busyness, baby, pandemic, primals research, etc.), the main reason is fairly simple. Unfortunately, its not appropriate to share about it in a public note like this. All I can say is that I became quite unsure how to proceed regarding your disappearance. The good news is that that situation seems to be resolving to the extent it can, and, if I could explain everything, I’m 100% confident you would sympathize and completely understand why my silence does not reflect any diminished affection. So I would ask you to trust my judgement so two things can happen. First, I can accept your forgiveness and understanding (I’ve felt guilty for not sending messages to you). Second, you can accept that great affection for you remains (it does, just accept it asshole). 

Ah…that feels better. 

One of the big things that has changed, however, is the gross tonnage of things that have happened that I want to talk to you about. Another thing that has changed is that my blog is terrible (or maybe that’s not much of a change). 

You might recall that I started this blog a few years out from college (I guess a decade ago now) when I didn’t have an intellectual outlet at all. I was a nerd adrift, actively studying and thinking about nerd stuff with no one to talk to (except Alicia who I bombarded to no end). So I started this blog and the next day I happened to grab that guy on the subway and the blog thing kinda exploded. It was really life-giving for a time. It became a wonderful motivator to write, think, and keep friends and family around the world updated and engaged in a way I found meaningful. 

But times have changed. Going on more serious intellectual adventures and formally writing them up for academic journals seems to have become my permanent full-time gig since the phd started. That’s now just gotten worse since the phd ended (yes I finished my doctorate…more on that later…I’m not joking when there’s much to talk about…Duckworth called my defense my “Michael Jordan moment” cause I was sick and crushed it…damn I’m ruining my a future post…anyway). I had also posted like five anti-Trump blogs in a row (it was drifting away from intellectual adventures) before posting that you had gone missing (I guess I’m calling that “Brent Letter #1”) and no posts since. I felt this pressing ethical obligation to not say anything publicly that was not a message to you but also to say nothing publicly that was not a message against Trumpism (like I’d be normalizing bullying or something). I also was tired at the same time of alienating my Trump-supporting family members. So I just didn’t post. 

But there are a few things that I miss. I continue to devour history lecture series on audible, but don’t have a good outlet for my thoughts on that. I also miss writing informally. I very very much miss bullshitting—I want to be a careful scientist in some domains (blah blah blah) but refuse to relinquish my inalienable right to bullshit (i.e., speak with unreasonable confidence outside of my area of expertise). I also have a terrible memory and this blog has helped me in the past to capture some of my better ideas that I can refer back to later. Another thing that has changed is that I have options to write for real news outlets now if I feel so led, so the urge takes me to speak something important to the moment, my blog is not the best outlet for that anymore anyway. There’s also no need to post updates about my research on primal world beliefs. We’ve made a website at for that. Lastly, another cool thing, there’s no need to platform build through this blog anymore (I’ll do that elsewhere too). So, if the only readers are you, my mom, Alicia who may occasionally come behind me to correct some spelling mistakes, eric, my brother, and Alex L., that’s a win. Boring is fine.

So the idea that I’ve been toying with for a few months is that I would really like this blog to be an outlet for two life-giving activities. First, less importantly, I want to try to post short (like 3 paragraph) reviews of the history lecture series I finish (I’m thinking a rating, rationale, and 2-3 cool things I learned about the topic would be great). For example, I did a deep dive on the crusades not so long ago, devouring several books too. Fucking fascinating shit. A trully unique military/colonial venture that profoundly shaped the modern world but in not at all the way I thought. I could talk to you, Chris Fiorello, Eric Whitaker, and the like about it for hours. So. Much. Fun. I think reviews on stuff like that would kill like 10 birds with one stone for me. I just need to write them quickly and accept that they will be lower quality minimally edited posts (like this one). Writing somewhat terrible prose is kinda fun when I just craft and re-craft my research articles to no end.

The second thing is that I want to write you letters. This also kills a few birds with one stone. I really want you to feel loved wherever you are. I want to continually let you know that you would be welcome back. I want to keep friends and family reasonably updated about my life if they so chose to follow along, and I want/need to scratch this enormous and increasingly irritating itch that I have which is to talk to you about me. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to talk to you about you–really would–but I’ve been told that missing persons make terrible conversation partners–at least while they are missing. So I intend to interpret your going missing as a blanket invitation for me to carry the conversation by talking about myself incessantly. 

I’d also love to talk to you about others, but I’ve found (the hard way) that others often aren’t as comfortable as I am when being publicly vulnerable (and boring) and I’m too lazy to get their permission. So I’m taking the hit and talking about me. Yes. I know. You’re welcome. 

So, to summarize this wordiness, I think I’m going to re-purpose this blog to (a) write you letters about my life and (b) nerdy amateur reviews of history lecture serials. Both sound life-giving. We’ll see if it sticks. It’s hopefully more likely to happen now that I’ve posted this.

In closing, there’s two things you should know.

First, today I was taking a dump when Alicia started screaming upstairs because MSNBC projected Joe Biden the winner of the 2020 election. I’m certainly nervous about going into the winter of this pandemic, the preservation of important norms that accompany the peaceful transfer of power that Trump isn’t respecting, as well as conflicting feelings regarding potential post-election legal action against him, blah blah blah. But those fears are for tomorrow. Today, I am relieved and celebrating. I hope you are too. Have a scotch on me tonight and bill me when I see you next. I’ve been enjoying Glen Moray lately.

Second, fall colors are here and beautiful. Tilly, Alicia, and I need to soon take another run up-state to get a big jug of maple syrup again. If you’re not busy, we’d love for you to join us. Reach out anytime. You will always be welcome. And maple syrup is delicious.

Your friend,


To My Dear Friend Brent Chamberlain #1: You’ve Gone Missing


Brent Chamberlain

(UPDATE: Readers can help by sharing this post with others, as we’d like to cast as wide a net as possible, as well as leaving positive messages for Brent on this post. I’m not confident that, if alive, he would see Facebook comments. Thank you.)

My wife and I have been grieving privately since March. Brent Chamberlain, dear college friend who had become very close over the years, had been missing for a month. After initially thinking he was just blowing off some steam on a trip through Europe, a suicide note emerged. It was postmarked Feb. 28th, Florence, Italy, and is the last known evidence of life. It described his intention to kill himself and brief instructions to dispose of his belongings. We would later discover an intended suicide method.

Brent had been in a rough patch personally, professionally, and financially. Yet he had spent Christmas with us and seemed upbeat, excited about future projects such as going back to school. We were shocked.

But, despite being listed as a missing person in all relevant databases, a body has not been found. This is unusual, and, in combination with a few other weak indicators, suggests maybe Brent did not commit suicide, but feigned death to escape problems. Brent’s brother has diligently poured himself into investigating what happened, contacting embassies, local police, etc., with help from Brent’s ex-husband and myself. After months of searching and grief, we are now announcing that Brent is missing and possibly dead for three reasons.

First, we did not want to prematurely alarm the many people who care about Brent, but it is no longer premature. We thought maybe he would show up any day, but once-promising leads have now come to nothing. His job, apartment, and possessions are gone—two weeks ago we salvaged some things before eviction—and significant time has passed. So, while a funeral is premature, it’s time for everyone else who cares about Brent to know. I hope you understand why we did not announce sooner.

Second, we want to make a public plea:

If you have any knowledge of Brent’s whereabouts or way to contact him, write me immediately at jer(dot)clifton(at)gmail(dot)com.

I can pass along leads as appropriate.  Also, please be on the lookout for him. One theory is that he may have changed his identity and started a bed and breakfast in a hilltop town in Italy, but he could be anywhere at this point.

Third, it’s time for a private plea as well that, dramatic as it is, has to be public. Brent has not checked his email in months. We have no way of contacting him except one. If he is alive, we suspect he would from time to time check this blog. So, what follows is a shameless personal plea addressed to Brent, the same one I emailed him the day we learned of his suicide note, which we now know he never opened. Forgive the sentimentality. I love this man very much.

March 28th, 2019

Dear Brent,

I just saw your suicide note. Alicia and I are in shock. We took off work and have been crying and processing all day. One of the things we did is re-read all the books you gave Tilly at Christmas and the kind notes you wrote in them, trying to discern deeper meaning (Runaway Bunny?). We talked about your visits with us over the last few months. We talked about how wonderful you are and how much we care about you. We talked about how we could have missed this, how you seemed so upbeat at Christmas, about your plans for researching inequality, how maybe we need to study it in your stead (because it’s such a damn good idea that the world needs), how supportive you’ve been to us over the years, how encouraging you were about my research, how you would be Uncle Brent to Tilly. We can’t eat. We just talk and cry and hold our baby. You won’t ever meet Tilly. We talked about what else we could have done. We wish we would have done more. You must have been so unhappy. I’m so sorry.

So here I am, writing to a dead man, on the off chance that something is amiss. We don’t have your body. We don’t actually know if your dead. Your brother is talking to the state department and Italian government. On the off chance that you didn’t do it, or you did it but it didn’t go right and you’re still alive, or you never intended to do it and were trying to escape your former life, or something else, I am writing to you to say that I love you. Alicia and I love you. We’ll tell Tilly about you, too, and we are confident that she will love you, too. There is basically nothing you could do to change that. You are forever a part of our lives Brent, whether you ever read this or not.

But, if you are reading this, you must come back to us. Everything else is nonsense. Divorce happens. Major career setbacks happen. Debt happens. What’s the worst that can happen? I have no doubt that you can find beauty wherever you go. And in those rare instances when you lose sight of it, Alicia and I will remind you. And in those rare instances when you feel overwhelmed, you will turn to us because you trust us, and we will tell you what to do.

Trust me now. The only thing you need to do now is to come back. Email me. Send a postcard. Tell me where you are. And no matter what, I will come get you. This is an iron-clad offer ‘til I die.

And when you do return, I will buy a big house, grow a garden, and you must live with us and teach at the local school. And when you tire of us, you will come spend every Christmas with us, and when you tire of that, which you never will, we will make you come anyway. Life will be beautiful, Brent. Please come live it with us. You make our lives richer. We miss you.

I have attached pictures to shamelessly guilt you into coming back to us. You belong with us, with me and my girls. We are family. We need you. We miss you. Please come home. You will always be welcome.

With all the love in our hearts,

Jer and Alicia and Tilly


You making Alicia’s 2019 Christmas by bringing her gluten-free pastry from New York.


We still have one “Lasagna by Brent” in our freezer that we can’t eat until you come home and make us more.


We want her to know her Uncle Brent!


She loves music, especially from this instrument. We want you to sing, play, and read to her.


So please come be with us. You belong here. You will always be welcome. Until the end.



Why It Would Be Sinful of Me to Support Trump

I wrote this months ago but have been reluctant to post because I’m worried it may damage some of my relationships. Wary of big claims, I also wanted feedback from a conservative pastor I respect and several others who know the Bible well. The good news is that they are still my dear friends—always. The bad news is that I’ve run out of reasons not to post. Looking at myself in the mirror after November 6th seems to require a good faith effort to articulate what I believe and assume that others will fairly consider it. I hope this article serves for a foil for reflection and useful conversations. Don’t forget to vote. 

This article lays out why I believe that it would be sinful of me to support Donald Trump politically. Unfortunately, it’s not yet clear to me why my reasons don’t apply to others, but I don’t like pissing people off for no reason with inflammatory titles.

Before I get to Bible verses, I want to clarify a few things.

  • First, these are reflections about which actions or values are sins, not who among us are bigger sinners (whew!).
  • Second, my argument is not dependent on recent or controversial information. I will not discuss alleged crimes or scandals like affairs with pornstars, sexual predation, fraud, or abetting Russian cyberwarfare—all of this may be real or scary, but is unnecessary for my argument. All my arguments today could have easily been made at any point during the last few decades.
  • Third, this article is not about policy. I will not discuss the poor, immigrants, race, gender, the environment, trust in American institutions, America’s international reputation, the stability of the global order, and so forth.
  • Fourth, this article is also not about mistakes, whether it be in the form of gaffes, job performance, or basic competence.

Though all these things can be used to make strong cases against Trump, I’m ignoring them. This is a discussion of the biblical text. It is written for Christians. Others can read along, but you are not my main audience.

Defining Sin

My definition of “sin” is simple. It involves no lists of deadly sins or sophisticated historically-informed theories of salvation, atonement, or justification. I don’t claim to know anything about how the mechanics work and, to be honest, sin typologies feel weird. Instead, I define sin as what Jesus was super against (#technicalterm). You can phrase the same thing another way: sin is the opposite of what Jesus was super for (#ivyleagueeducationtotallyworthit).

I expect that, regardless of your own definition of which actions qualify as sin, practically speaking, there’s probably lots of overlap with my definition. For example, one pastor thought my definition missed the mark because sin is more about being in “wrong relationship” with Jesus, but that seems to me to be a distinction without much difference. I’m not sure how one can be in right relationship with Jesus—or one’s wife for that matter—and not care about what they care about. Augustines revived sentiment of “Love God and do as you please” only works when what God wants becomes what pleases you.

Ok. So what did Jesus care about? Well, lots of things. In fact, too many. For example, the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10 suggests that Jesus cared about taking breaks from event prep. Of course, the event prep point was probably secondary to something deeper that Jesus cared about more. This is something lots of “Christians” (i.e., people who say they follow Christ but actually kinda suck at it) miss: you can’t just make a list of all the things Jesus was for and against because it super matters to Jesus what he was super for and super against (#technicaltermforreal).

First, there’s a common sense argument. Nobody, God included, cares about everything the same. Agency and action requires caring about some things more than other things. Second, there’s the biblical argument. Making what is minor major and what is major minor is itself a major thing that Jesus was explicitly super against (#technicaltermforreal). You see this in why Jesus despised who he most despised: the religious authorities of his day, the Pharisees, who constantly screwed this up like it was their super power.

For example, the Old Testament exhorts in multiple places that good Jews should take scripture and bind it on their foreheads, write it on the tablets of their hearts, tie them around their fingers, and tie them as a sign on your hands,and so forth (e.g., Deuteronomy 6:8, 11: 18; Proverbs 7:3, 3:3). So the Pharisees do that. Good? No. Jesus is furious about it in Matthew 23. He yells at them for writing scriptures all over their clothes and making big showy sashes with verses covering them. Why? Because they missed the major point about what was important and focused on a minor point about setting up a reminder system the whole point of which was NOT to forget what was important, which is exactly what they were forgetting.

Another example of Pharisees doing exactly what most irritated Jesus comes a few verses down. It touches on the Old Testament suggestion about tithing saying: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness.” Jesus values some things, in this case justice, mercy, and faithfulness, over other things, like tithing cumin.

What Jesus was Super For and Super Against

The question for us, therefore, is not what was Jesus for and against, but what was he super for and super against (#sin)? Fortunately, while there’s definitely room to debate around the edges, it’s not too hard to figure this out. Major cues are (1) things he said were super important and (2) things he said a lot. For space reasons, I’ll focus on the first.

Probably most scholars, theologians, and pastors would agree that the things Jesus cared most about are decently summarized by four key passages, though other verses could arguably be included. These four passages are (1) the start of the Sermon on the Mount in Mathew 5 where Jesus gives the Beatitudes and rejects Eye-For-An-Eye ethics; (2) the Christ Hymn in Philippians 2 where Paul describes the particular quality of Christ that Christians should strive the hardest to imitate; (3) the fruits of the spirit passage in Galatians 5; and (4) the love chapter in 1 Corinthians 13.

I’ve pasted these passages below (New International Version). I started bolding what I thought relates to Trump, but I stopped because I was bolding like 70% of it. Instead, I ask that you take your time to read and reflect for yourself and think about what Jesus super cared about. What was he most passionate about in these passages? I also provide some quotes from Donald Trump that are not gaffes, but what I think are fair representations of what Trump really thinks about some of these topics and has for years.

Passage 1: The Beatitudes and Eye-For-an-Eye Passage in Matthew 5

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven….You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

Trump on Eye-for-an-Eye

But when somebody tries to sucker punch me, when they’re after my ass, I push back a hell of a lot harder than I was pushed in the first place. If somebody tries to push me around, he’s going to pay a price.
Trump, Playboy, March 1990
For many years I’ve said that if someone screws you, screw them back. When somebody hurts you, just go after them as viciously and as violently as you can.
Trump, How to Get Rich, 2004
My motto is: Always get even. When somebody screws you, screw them back in spades.
Trump, Think Big: Make it Happen In Business and in Life, 2008

My Takeaway

Matthew 5 suggests that Jesus cared enormously about meekness and turning the other cheek. Trump encourages the opposite: self-promotion and attacking people harder than they attack you.

Passage 2: The Christ Hymn in Philippians 2

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.

Trump on the Value of Humility and His Opinion of Himself

Show me someone without an ego, and I’ll show you a loser.
Trump, December 2013
Every successful person has a very large ego.
Trump, Playboy, 1990
Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.
Trump, Republican National Convention, June 2016 
I think nobody knows more about taxes than I do, maybe in the history of the world.
Trump, May 2016
Nobody knows banking better than I do.
Trump, February 2016
Nobody knows more about debt.
Trump, May 2016
I know more about renewables than any human being on earth.
—Trump, April 2016
I understand money better than anybody.
—Trump, June 2016
Nobody knows more about trade than me.
—Trump, March 2016
Nobody in the history of this country has ever known so much about infrastructure as Donald Trump.
—Trump, July 2016
There’s nobody bigger or better at the military than I am.
—Trump, June 2015
I know more about ISIS than the generals do. Believe me.
—Trump, November 2015
I was successful, successful, successful. I was always the best athlete, people don’t know that. But I was successful at everything I ever did.
—Trump, January 2018
I have a very good brain…My primary consultant is myself.
—Trump, MSNBC, 2016
I’m very highly educated. I know words. I have the best words.
—Trump, December, 2015

My Takeaway

Philippians 2 could not be more strongly worded. Paul is saying that if someone wants to claim to be a Christian in any way, shape, or form, then you have to follow Christ not in all ways, or many ways, but in this one super and specific way that is by far the most important: humble yourself. Trumps opinion is the opposite; humility is not just unimportant, but the path of “losers.” Trump very successfully avoids the path of humility and encourages others to do the same.

Passage 3: The Fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever[c] you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.

Trump on “Selfish Ambition”

If you don’t win you can’t get away with it. And I win, I win, I always win. In the end, I always win, whether it’s in golf, whether it’s in tennis, whether it’s in life, I just always win. And I tell people I always win, because I do.
—Trump, Trump Nation: The Art of Being The Donald, 2005
I do whine because I want to win, and I’m not happy about not winning, and I am a whiner, and I keep whining and whining until I win.
—Trump, CNN, Aug. 10, 2015

My Main Takeaway

Christ is super against selfish ambition and super for love and humility, which is nearly the identical point made in the Christ Hymn and Matthew 5. Trump takes an opposite view: winning is everything.

Passage 4: I Corinthians 13 “The Love Chapter”

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Some of Trump’s public statements about others just via Tweet for the 8 months prior to July 1st, 2018

This list does not include any twitter insults from July, August, September, or October 2018, like when Trump called his former staff member Omarosa a “dog” and “crazed, lying lowlife,” insulted basketball star Lebron James’ intelligence, called CNN anchor Don Lemon “the dumbest man on television,” and said that former CIA Director John Brennan is “a loudmouth, partisan, hack.”

Steve Bannon is “Sloppy Steve,” “cried when fired,” and “dumped like a dog”
Barack Obama is “Cheatin’ Obama”
Jeff Zucker is “Little Jeff”
Adam Schiff is “Little Adam”
Jeb Bush is “low-energy Jeb”
Chuck Schumer is “Cryin Chuck”
Maxine Waters and Robert Deniro are “low IQ persons”
Ted Cruz is “Lying Ted”
Hillary Clinton is “Crooked Hillary”
Eric Schniederman is “sleazy”
Tim Kaine is “a total stiff”
Clair McKaskil is “phony”
Jeff Flake is a “flake”
Samantha Bee is a “no talent”
Sam Nunberg is “a drunk/drugged up loser”
Nancy Pelosi is “absolutely crazy”
Joe Biden is “crazy Joe”
Maggie Haberman is “a flunky”
Alec Baldwin has a “dying mediocre career”
Oprah is “very insecure”
John Brennan, James Comey, Adam Schiff, James Clapper, and Mark Warner are called at different times “one of the biggest liars and a leakers in Washington”
James Comey is a “slimeball” and “Lyin James”
Jim Acosta is “crazy”
Dianne Fienstien is “sneaky Dianne”
Michael Wolff is “mentally deranged” and “a total loser”

My Main Takeaway

The point of I Corinthians 13 is that love is more important than anything, even faith and hope, let alone cumin-tithing. Without love, you’re just a “clanging symbol.” Trump takes an opposite approach.

The Point

These four passages suggest that, above all, Jesus wanted to promote certain virtues and discredit certain other qualities: humility and love and things that come from them like gentleness and patience vs. pride and what comes from it such as selfish ambition, discord, envy, boasting, and meanness. Promoting the former and discrediting the latter is what Jesus said he cared more about than anything else, even other central stuff like faith and hope.

How Does One Promote or Discredit Values like Humility and Pride?

Everyone has the opportunity to promote or discredit virtues in two spheres: personal and social. In the personal sphere, everyone individually works (or not) on their own growth. But that sphere’s a bit off limits for others except God to judge because it’s often hard to see people’s hearts. In the social sphere, however, it’s different. Here we signal to each other and our children by what we do and say which virtues and vices we should care about and which ones aren’t a big deal. Because everyone can see each other’s signaling, we are influenced by it and must speak up if important virtues are being discredited (as I’m trying to do right now) or we become implicitly supportive bystanders.

So what does it signal socially when a person continues to offer political support for a politician by, for example, voting for the politician, liking the politician’s tweets, being quick to believe and spread the politician’s statements, and so forth. It can depend on a variety of factors of course, depending on the actions and the attitudes. But generally speaking, what these actions signal is that you value and support what that politician represents.

What does Trump Represent?

Trump represents several things that are not bad. For example, Trump is not one bit guilty of drunkenness, one of the vices mentioned above in Galatians 5. Trump’s brother was an alcoholic, Trump’s been known to speak against drinking, and to some people he might be a bit of a symbol of the fight against drunkenness. But the problem is that the one thing that Trump embodies to absurd—even farcical—degrees happens to be the one thing that Christ was also super against (#technicalterm #sin).

Today I stand before the United Nations General Assembly to share the extraordinary progress we’ve made. In less than two years, my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country. America…[laughter]…so true…[laughter]…didn’t expect that reaction but that’s ok.
—Trump, The United Nations General Assembly, September 2018

Trump’s conceit is not the garden variety pride of normal people like me and you. When we are selfish or conceited, we feel disappointed in our selves. We sense it in our stomachs. We apologize and express remorse. And we try to do better next time. The late great John Mccain was an example of this. He hated it when pride and ambition got the better of him, admitted it, and would commit himself to trying to do better next time.

We’ve all played some role in it [the current state of political polarization]. Certainly I have. Sometimes, I’ve let my passion rule my reason. Sometimes, I made it harder to find common ground because of something harsh I said to a colleague. Sometimes, I wanted to win more for the sake of winning than to achieve a contested policy.
—John McCain’s last speech in the Senate, July 2017

If Trump was ashamed of his pride or unkindness, or even kept his exaltation of conceit and selfish ambition to himself, my conclusion would be much weaker or wrong. Voting for him, spreading his statements, and otherwise continuing to support him in the social sphere would be less about an assault on humility and could be more about various sets of policies and we could return at least to somewhat normal politics where we vote for fairly prideful politicians who are ashamed of their slightly higher than average conceit.

Unfortunately, that is not what Trump does, nor should we expect it of him. Being regretful about being prideful is not consistent with his stated views. Instead, Trump is unapologetically narcissistic, sees his narcissism as a great aspect of his personality, and is a symbol of narcissism to billions. While the cross that Jesus chose to die on is (supposed to be) a symbol of love and sacrifice for others, Trump Tower is a symbol of naming things after yourself.

Trump Tower: Donald Trump's Unofficial Headquarters

Trump has named hundreds of large modern buildings and golf clubs after himself, as well as over 250 currently existing companies and many more defunct ones, including “Trump Books,” “Trump University,” “Trump Steaks,” and “Trump Pageants.” These monuments dotting the world are seen as striking symbols of self-promotion.


The ancient Roman way of executing thieves and criminals—-the dregs of society—was to crucify them on a cross. It is the symbol of sacrifice that Christians try to emulate. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only son…” John 3:16a

Two Philosophies

The cardinal virtue that Trump has consistently preached and lived throughout his life is the virtue of “winning” and rewarding winners. His philosophy—if one can call shameless self-promotion a philosophy—is a flavor of an older anti-Christian school of thought made famous by Nietzsche, who thought that the “great man” or “ubermench” should seize glory and power for himself by crushing those who are less important—the act of dominance is itself self-justifying. For that reason, Nietzsche famously hated Christ’s ethics for elevating the weak and the poor.

Since I first read Nietzsche in college, my response has been “Hell yeah; guilty as charged; you’re right about the core of Christianity and that’s what I love about it.” As can be seen again and again in both the Old and New Testaments, God vastly prefers “losers”—the poor, prostitutes, tax-collectors, slaves, women, second-sons, and so forth—to “winners”—the rich, the powerful, and the first born. For those of us who easily confuse the importance of tithing one’s cumin or writing verses on clothing, the passages above make the implicit message of the biblical narrative explicit.

Christ’s religion is first and foremost one that elevates meekness, kindness, love, and gentleness. Our greatest hero chose to shed his power, to be born poor among barn animals, and die a criminals death. Humility is our teaching. Humility is what we are about.

So, if I’m right about Trump and about Jesus, what does it mean to support Trump politically?

Based on what I’ve said above, I’ve got to conclude that if I was to support Trump, then I would be signaling in my social sphere—to my friends and family; to Christians and non-Christians; to my fellow-citizens and to the world community; to children; to God—that humility is not that important and is even the path of losers. Boastfulness is not that bad, it’s even good. Treating others as better than yourself is for chumps. Turning the other cheek is just dumb—you should always strike back and way way harder. Unkindness is fine, selfishness works, and bullying is smart. Perhaps most jarringly, laying down your life for others—Christ’s example we are both grateful for and supposed to emulate above all else according to Philippians 2—is the choice of fools.

In 2016, 75% of American evangelicals made the choice to vote for Trump and approval numbers in this community remain largely unchanged two years later. Trump’s rise and continued power would not be possible without this ongoing support.

What about Abortion?

Many Evangelicals might agree with everything I’ve said so far, but also believe that continuing to support Trump is not only not sin, but laudable, because life starts when sperm fertilizes eggs and thus all abortion is murder.

To be honest, I sympathize with this position. It’s an upsetting predicament—how crappy a person am I willing to vote for in order to stop mass infanticide?—because the answer is and should be pretty upsetting. In my opinion, supporting Trump or even a more Trumpy Trump in order to stop some abortions is a logically consistent and respectable religious view.

My only problem with it is that it’s not Christian.

How Much did Jesus Care About Abortion?

As I’ve talked about again and again throughout this essay, Christ cares about some things more than other things. When we forget that, we quickly become cumin-tithing morons Jesus hates. Thus, again, we need to pay close attention to (a) what Christ said he was super for and (b) what he talked about a lot. So let’s look at it? Where does abortion rank in the hierarchy of Christian values?

While Jesus at least talks about tithing and taking breaks from event prep, Jesus says nothing about abortion—ask your pastor. Indeed, in the whole Bible, there are only a handful of oblique references about it. These references come mainly in the Old Testament in collections of songs (especially Psalms 139, 127, and 22)—not something that is supposed to be treated like a philosophical treatise—that suggest that babies at birth don’t instantly go from not-at-all-persons to full-persons. They claim that there is something that becomes each of us that was present in utero. I agree. In fact, I don’t know any liberal (or biologist) who wouldn’t.

Furthermore, it’s extremely hard to argue that there is a biblical case that life starts when a sperm fertilizes an ovum by burrowing through the jelly coat of the egg because Ancient peoples knew that none of these things happened or existed. They also lacked even the most basic comprehension of the developmental stages of the fetus. In other words, He knit me together in my mother’s womb (Psalm 139) is not remotely specific to a trimester.

But hasn’t the Church Thought that Life Begins With the fertilization of the Egg for like 2000 years?

Nope. I want to write a blog post just on this, but here’s a quick and dirty summary of my research so far:

As you might expect, next to nothing was known about fertilization, implantation, and early pregnancy until scientific discoveries in 1875. When we finally did figure it out, there were debates about what stage in the process the word “conception” should be used to describe. Some people thought that it should be used to describe implantation, not fertilization. For a time, that’s exactly what some researchers did, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. In other words, it’s partly a fluke of history that the ancient word “conception” has come to mean what it means today.

While most early Christians thought all abortion was wrong, most defined “abortion” as only possible after “quickening” happens. In fact, early Christians compiled and shared lists of herbs that were thought to terminate pregnancies before quickening and prominent medieval scholars (one became pope) recommended them without seeing a problem with it.

“Quickening” is when mothers first feel the baby kick, which usually happens about four months or so in (15-20 weeks). It was thought by many as the moment of “ensoulment,” when the soul comes to inhabit the body, and scholars debated it for centuries. In the meantime, major thinkers and leaders had different opinions. For example, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Pope Gregory XIV were among those who believed that the fetus had no soul until quickening. Pope Stephen V and Pope Sixtus V came down on the other side. The official position of the church would change every few hundred years or so until the late 19th century, when the Catholic position hardened into what it is today.

Before Roe in 1973, the evangelical position was also fluid. For example, there was a major symposium of Evangelical leaders and doctors in 1968 sponsored by the Christian Medical Society. They described themselves as “conservative or evangelical” and sharing “a common acceptance of the Bible as the final authority on moral issues.” Yet their statement held abortion is appropriate when it “safeguards greater values sanctioned by scripture” including “family welfare and social responsibility” and that “each case should be considered individually.” They also clarify that “from the moment of birth [not conception] the infant is a human being with all the rights which Scripture accords to all human beings.”

And that was not a fringe evangelical group. In 1971 the Southern Baptist Annual Convention passed a resolution that called on evangelicals to work in favor of legislation making allowances for abortion, including cases when the emotional and mental health of the mother would be damaged.

Be it further RESOLVED, That we call upon Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.
Southern Baptist Annual Convention1971
The Christian physician will advise induced abortion only to safeguard greater values sanctioned by Scripture. These values should include individual health, family welfare, and social responsibility…[while] the potential great value of the developing intra-uterine life cannot be denied. There may, however, be compelling reasons why abortion must be considered under certain circumstances. Each case should be considered individually, taking into account the various factors involved and using Christian principles of ethics.
Christian Medical Society Symposium, 1968

Thanks for the History Lesson. What’s your Point?

When it comes to when life begins, church history is far from unanimous and, much more importantly because I’m a good Bible-thumping Protestant, the Bible is nearly silent about it. Of course, while we can draw connections and use the Bible to inform our thinking, the only way that continuing to support Trump is not sin because of abortion is if one could have asked Jesus about abortion and gotten a response in the realm of something like this:

“Oh yeah. Totally. If abortion is on the table—or, more specifically, if the opportunity to have government punish women who have abortions is on the table—you can forget about all this humility stuff. Get really involved in politics. Alter the balance of high courts. Make this the central issue.”

There’s many reasons why that’s crazy and lightyears away from the sort of thing Jesus would say. For example, Jesus hated solving moral problems through political means and said so often (e.g., Romans 13:1). He encourages Christians to stay out of politics, to submit to the governing authorities, and focus on cultivating in themselves (personal sphere) and encouraging in others (social sphere) the personal virtues of love and humility. So, while it might make a modicum of sense for Christians get political to defend humility and love (which would mean getting into politics to be against Trump, which is what I guess I’m doing), there is no Christian justification to get political—something Jesus didn’t like—about abortion—something Jesus didn’t discuss—at the expense of humility and love—the thing that Jesus said was far and away the most important.

In any religion, there should be a high bar for overturning the most important teachings in that faith. By any reasonable biblical standard I can find, abortion does not come close to that bar. Prophesying in Jesus name, driving out demons in his name, and performing miracles—things Jesus actually talked about more than once and was explicitly a fan of—also don’t make the cut. How do I know? Because Jesus said so at the end of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7.

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

It’s not that Jesus doesn’t care about that miracles and prophesy, he just doesn’t care about that stuff remotely as much as humility. When evangelicals stand at the pearly gates and say, “Did we not elect Trump and get Gorsuch and Kavanagh on the Supreme Court in your name?” I’m predicting a lot of disappointment. The Sermon on the Mount ends with a final word for those who have been faithfully tithing their cumin at all costs.

Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.


I’m an academic whose trained to never introduce new ideas in conclusions. That’s silly. I think a new idea ties all this together nicely.

A folk religion is a form of religious practice that adopts the rituals and trappings of a religion but displaces its central teachings in favor of a variety of culturally-based views. I have argued that the obvious non-controversial center of the true Christian faith is love and humility and that what sin is is treating this center as bad, peripheral, unimportant, or stupid. I have also argued that continuing to support Trump is a strong statement that says exactly that and that abortion—not to mention homosexuality, gun rights, immigration, tax cuts, and so forth—are more important. I’m fine if people ground their views in their religions convictions, but I’m not fine calling their religion Christianity. It’s a folk Christianity, an obvious bastardization of Christ’s central teachings.

Maybe that’s an overstatement, right? After all, it’s just politics. Different strokes for different folks. Who you support politically can’t define you and isn’t damning. Aren’t you just hyperbolizing to make a point, Jer?

God, I hope so. But it’s not about policy or politics. It’s not even about lying or sexual immorality. It’s about actively tearing down the thing Jesus cared about the most…gosh. It’s hard to think of something worse that a Christian could do.

I wish I had a more optimistic note to end on. I look forward to your thoughtful comments.



Jer’s Take on Today’s Indictments

Some friends these days don’t know what news is true, especially Republicans, who don’t trust respected but typically left-leaning outlets like the NYT and the Post, but are beginning to realize that Fox News is crap. To help them out, and to wrap my head around what is happening, I looked through the 29-page indictment released hours ago, retrieved straight from the Justice Department website. Here’s my summary.

Who is being accused of crimes today?

In short, the Russian military. Specifically, the indictment charges 11 high-ranking Russian military officials, including a Major, a Lieutenant Colonel, a Colonel, a Senior Lieutenant, and a Second Lieutenant. It looks like this indictment only includes the leaders and major players within the operation. My speculation: with people this senior, it seems unlikely that Putin could not have known about and approved of this attack. He may have even managed it directly. 

What are they being accused of?

A vast three-pronged cyber attack on the United States for the purpose of damaging one political party to help throw an election to the another political party they liked more.

What did they do exactly?

A lot. The three prongs were (a) damage the party’s major organizations, (b) damage the party’s leaders, and (c) damage the American election apparatus (actual voting systems, state election boards, etc.). The overall strategy for the first two prongs seems to be to steal as many documents they could, hopefully some that are damaging, and then strategically release the docs in order to inflict maximal damage on the political candidate that the Russians didn’t like. Looks like they were less successful at harming the governments machinery around elections (the third prong).

Prong 1: Organizations

The main part of Prong 1 was a successful effort to hack directly into the two most important organizations in the targeted party: the Democratic National Committee (DNC), which focuses on presidential elections, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), which focuses on electing Senators and House members. For example, they had an ongoing malicious presence on at least 13 different DNC and DCCC computers for around 6 months (May-Oct 2016; the election was just after on November 8th). Their ongoing presence on these computers allowed them spy on people as they entered passwords, composed documents, composed emails, financial records, and so forth. They could take screen shots as people worked.

Prong 2: Individuals

The main part of Prong 2 was targeting over 300 individual party leaders, activists, and staff, including 76 individuals with email addresses hosted through the presidential campaign. They gained illegal access to many personal email accounts, stealing tens of thousands of personal and professional emails and documents. For example, they stole 50,000 documents from the chair of the presidential campaign alone (the role of campaign chair is typically understood to be the most important person in a campaign besides the candidate). They tried to gain access to the presidential candidates’ documents too.

Prong 3: Election-Day Systems

The efforts targeting election-day systems was less successful, but in some ways more scary. Two of the defendants attempted to hack these systems directly (e.g., state boards of elections, secretaries of state, and the companies that provide the election software that we use to record people’s votes). At least one state board of elections was successfully hacked. Though we do not know the full damage of this successful hack, we do know that at a minimum information on 500,000 American voters in this state were stolen. One unnamed technology company was also successfully hacked, and we don’t know if the Russians were able to use what they found to change votes. We also know that specific counties in Georgia, Florida,  and Iowa were probed for vulnerabilities. These two Russians also targeted 100 individuals in October, 2018, weeks before the election with similar malicious code that they used to break into the DNC and DCCC. My own wild speculation: perhaps the Russians did not realize how wildly successful they would be at damaging the public image of the target political party and thought they might also try a somewhat last-minute, under-resourced, hail-mary pass to try to cripple Americans’ ability to actually cast and count our votes correctly. I, along with the intelligence community, am very worried about future attacks and the extremely minimal efforts we taken to counter them and Russian aggression generally. 


These Russian military officers then turned to the question of how to publicize all these stolen documents in a way to maximize damage on the American political party they disliked. They planned and discussed dissemination for at least a month before any documents were released. One thing they did is to invent the persona of a fictitious lone Romanian (Guccifer 2.0) as a go-between. The indictment says this “Guccifer” did at least four things:

  • Some unnamed candidate for the United States congress actually reached out to this “Guccifer 2.0” and asked for stolen documents that he/she could use to embarrass his/her political opponent. Guccifer 2.0 then sent that US congressional candidate stolen documents. My speculation: This has gotten very little attention so far, but I imagine the name of this congressional candidate will come to light someday and that person’s career will end. You can’t traffic in stolen bicycles, let alone things stolen by an enemy of the United States for the purposes of hurting the United States. 
  • “Guccifer 2.0” offered a news reporter stolen emails from the presidential candidate’s staff and gave this reporter access to these documents.
  • “Guccifer 2.0” sent 2.5 gigabytes (i.e., a lot of docs) to a lobbyist and reporter, including detailed information on 2,000 major donors to the Democratic party.
  • “Guccifer 2.0” sent stolen documents about the Black Lives Matter movement to a reporter and coordinated with the reporter about how to time the release and publicity of the documents.

In addition to “Guccifer 2.0,” the Russian military distributed stolen documents through an unnamed news organization (some people think this was WikiLeaks, though the indictment does not say).

  • First, the Russians coordinated with this unnamed news organization about timing to inflict maximum damage on the Democratic party. For example, they were highly aware of the divisions between Clinton supporters and Bernie supporters, and aware that in America party conventions are used to heal divisions that arise during party primaries. One quote from the unnamed organization on page 18 reads, “If you have anything Hillary related we want it in the next two days preferably because the Democratic National Convention is approaching and she (Hillary Clinton) will solidify Bernie supporters around her after.”
  • This request was apparently granted. Six days later, on July 22nd, 2016, three days before the Democratic party’s national convention, 20,000 stolen documents were released through the unnamed news organization.
  • From October 7th to November 7th (the presidential election was the next day on Nov. 8), the 50,000 emails from the chair of the Democratic presidential campaign was released by this unnamed organization in 33 “tranches,” which I think means they let it out in drips everyday to make sure it stayed in the news in the month leading up to the election to do maximal damage to the Democratic presidential campaign.

Many other laws were broken in the process of this three-pronged attack, such as identify theft, lying on official documents, and at least $95,000 worth in money laundering (they paid for many things they needed with cryptocurrencies).

So do we now know the extent of Russian meddling in the 2016 Presidential election?

No. These indictments concern the second of at least two major ways Russia attacked us in 2016. Six months ago, the Justice Department indicted 13 Russians who spear-headed the vast social-media effort to disseminate false and misleading information directly to voters (I didn’t summarize that effort, but maybe I should have). Now we have found that the Russian military, led by these 11 officers, led a second major attack, this time a direct and large scale cyber attack on one of our political parties, it’s leaders, and American election-day processes. Hopefully there is not a third big shoe to drop, but we do not know what else the Justice Department will conclude.

So what do we do now? 

If you haven’t already done so, recognize that America was attacked. Treat the threat seriously. Put America before party. Vote against any candidate who does not do the same. (In my view, doing anything otherwise is just straight-up unpatriotic. I don’t mean that as a slur or anything. That’s what the word unpatriotic means.) Encourage others to do the same (that’s why I felt the need to spend the last few hours writing this blog post…also because I’m a huge nerd wanted to read the indictment itself instead of through a media filter).

Practically speaking, I think putting America first here means three things. First, voting for politicians seeking to do everything they can to help investigators finish their work–we can’t defend ourselves if we don’t know how we are being attacked. Second, voting against politicians who claim that efforts to examine how Russian attacked us is “a witch hunt,” “a made up story,” or “an excuse by Democrats for having lost an election they should have won”–we can’t protect ourselves from attacks if leaders deny we are being attacked. Third, we have to take major steps to defend ourselves from future attacks–its not remotely enough just to find out what Russia did and have leaders willing to recognize it. At some point, we’ll have to fight back.


An Open Letter to Trump-Supporting Loved Ones

Dear Trump-supporting family and friends,

These days people keep asking me, “Why aren’t you blogging? I need your help now more than ever processing these strange political times in your always brilliant and delightful way.” They say it with their eyes perhaps, but I get it.

Seriously, despite so much political news to process, having stronger opinions then ever, and the historical momentousness of the times (and I don’t say that lightly), I’ve held back for one huge reason: you. About 80% of my nuclear and extended family, as well as most of my childhood and college friends, are pro-Trump folks. I cherish my relationships with them. Many read my blog. And my opinions alienate them. I’ve seen it on your faces at get-togethers. It makes me deeply sad.

But, at the same time, over the last year I’ve been an ass and a hypocrite-I’ve felt a genuine and deep sadness and constant guilt–for not speaking up on issues I care about. Millions of Americans on both sides of Trump have a similar problem:

As mature humble adults go through life, we make moral space for serious disagreement with others. We have to. Good, smart, respectable people disagree all the time. However, that moral space has to end at some point, otherwise we have no morals. But when does it end? When do we put our feet down, make things super awkward, and say, “Forgive me, I can’t just politely disagree anymore. Wake the fuck up—what you are doing is immoral.”

This post is an attempt to save relationships and my integrity—wow that sounds obnoxiously dramatic. To do that, I need to say two things that do not negate the other.

First, to cousins, uncles, church friends, professors, college friends, and friends I grew up with in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and other loved ones who support Donald Trump: I love you. I always will. Nothing will change that.

Second, to the same people, forgive me, I can’t stay this quiet or politely disagree like what is happening is normal. It’s time to wake up. Supporting Trump is not like supporting other politicians. Its not ok. Either you’ve been conned or you are doing something immoral and, based on my view of the Bible, sinful. (I’m not trying to change your mind right now. We can get into reasons later. I’m merely relating where I am.)

So what do we do? What do friends and family do who disagree so fundamentally about sin and morality? Not talk? Drift apart with mutual disaffection? I completely understand why that tempts us. My views, though loving, are not welcoming, and you may likewise see my lack of support for Trump as beyond the moral pale too.

But I have hope: though I hate that you support Trump, I don’t hate you and I don’t think you hate me either. In fact, I’m convinced we both hate thinking poorly of each other. We hate feeling our loved ones are at odds with our beliefs and values.

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Lincoln, 1861

So where does strained but unbroken bonds of affection leave us? I think I need to try to speak up more about what I believe and participate in the democratic process. I hope you can remember my affection for you and what I say won’t alienate you too much. I also look forward to seeing you at the next reunion or get-together and hearing about your life. I hope you will want to see me too. Please reach out out for a call too for any reason. If you are in the Philadelphia area, and itooks like Alicia and I will be hear for two more years as I finish my PhD, please drop by! We can stick to small talk and go deeper as we feel comfortable. No pressure.

With continued affection,


Nothing like a little brush with death to provide some perspective on life…

Biking home in DC, zipping down the bike lane with my helmet on (cough!), and a taxi door opens. I love that pause before the crunch. You see it coming, but you have no control. I flew maybe 12 or so feet. Epic crash. Loud. About 20 people rush up…and I’m laying there in shock yet without a scratch on me. Ok, my chest is a bit bruised (where the door hit), but yeah. Crazy unscathed. The people were super nice about it, and I learned a valuable lesson:

Care about the right shit. I think I was thinking about dirty dishes that needed doing right before I crashed. Now I’m breathing, and again, and that’s pretty fucking cool. You’re breathing too. Celebrate with me.

Missing Jer on National TV?

I’m on live in 21 minutes on Dr. Drew’s show on HLN (9PM) EST.  They’ve asked me to talk about My 15 Minutes of Fame.  I’m nervous.

50% of Cliftons Head to Sri Lanka

…the other 50% head to Texas.

Yesterday was my last day at Habitat for Humanity International HQ in Atlanta, GA.  Last night Alicia and I packed for Sri Lanka.  We’ve been camping out in our apartment for about 2 weeks on an inflatable bed, eating on folding porch chairs, washing the same dishes over and over, and making meals out of frozen edamamme we’ve had in the back of the freezer for possibly 2 years (Alicia is a genius with random foods). We went to the airport together, and now I am sitting here waiting to board for Chicago, Abu Dahbi, then Colombo, Sri Lanka while Alicia is somewhere else in the airport getting on a plane to Texas.

Alicia still does not have her VISA, but we expect it to likely get to DC at the end of next week.  She will then fly to DC, get her visa at the Sri Lankan embassy, and then fly to straight to Sri Lanka, with us only being apart for a 10 days.  Worst case scenario: Alicia’s visa never comes, I live in Sri Lanka for the summer, and she fullfills her internship requirement in Bolivia or somewhere…hmmm.  Please pray that Alicia gets her VISA soon.  We just had a very sad goodbye.  The emotion kinda surprised us both.

Otherwise, we are very excited.  We will be staying with a young lady named “Ha” in an apartment 2 minutes from the beach.  I will be chillin at the beach and exploring Colombo, Sri Lanka’s major city.  I’ll try to post some pics when I get there.