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Protesters rally near the White House on the fourth day of the Republican National Convention on Thursday in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Dean's List

Protester disputes Metaxas account of RNC altercation

And a strange campaign season enters its next phase

UPDATED Thursday, Sept. 3: A man identifying himself as the protester in a video circulating on social media disputes Eric Metaxas’ account of an altercation on the streets of Washington, D.C., after the Republican National Convention last week. 

Metaxas claimed a protester on a bicycle came at him in a menacing way before a video appears to show him swinging at the protester. The protester says that isn’t true. In a note from the protester’s Instagram account, he wrote: “Bottom line, though, is he attacked me. I wasn’t threatening or intimidating them. Sure I was talking [profanity]. But I gave them no reason to attack me. He had to lunge at me to punch me from behind. Charges will be filed.” (The protester didn’t disclose his name in his response.)

Religion Unplugged reported on Thursday that Metaxas sent an email to executive editor Paul Glader, repeating his earlier claims about the protester, and saying that Metaxas did try to “knock him away.” Glader reported Metaxas wrote: “It just happened.”

Below is our earlier report:

Maryland pastor Harry Jackson had a close-up look at an incident Thursday night that has received broad social media attention: He says a protester confronting guests leaving President Donald Trump’s speech at the White House repeatedly rode his bicycle very close toward Eric Metaxas—a Christian author, radio host, and Trump supporter. And a video of the incident appears to show Metaxas taking a swing at the protester. 

Metaxas responded to WORLD’s inquiries about the incident on Monday morning via email, saying he had “chosen to go off social media till now and not to comment on any of this.” He added: “For context, just so you know, the guy came at me with his bike and was very menacing for a long time.” Metaxas said he had been escorting his wife and Maryland pastor Harry Jackson to an Uber ride. 

I spoke with Jackson Monday morning, and the pastor confirmed he had been with Metaxas and his wife that evening. Jackson said after they left Trump’s speech at the White House, they had walked down a D.C. street for about 10 minutes while protesters cursed at them. 

Jackson said they turned down a side street to meet their Uber driver, and a protester on a bicycle kept swerving close to Metaxas while cursing Trump and them. (Jackson described the encounter as the bicyclist “playing chicken” with Metaxas.)

Jackson said the encounter was intimidating enough that he wondered if he would need to use his walking cane to defend himself. He said the protester came within a few inches of Metaxas, but he didn’t know if he physically touched Metaxas. The video only shows about six seconds before Metaxas appears to hit the protester.

The protester posted the video on his Instagram account, showing officers detaining him on the side of the road after the encounter. He wrote: “I got punched by a member of the RNC and get detained by the Secret Service for absolutely nothing.” Another video shows the protester telling police he didn’t touch the man. 

The protester’s Instagram account identifies him by the handle antidote503, and with the location Portland, Ore. He posted a photo and video a few days earlier indicating he was traveling from Portland to D.C. for protests: “@portlandresistance and I have arrived! dc let’s get to it.” (UPDATE: Religion News Service [RNS] reported a man identifying himself as the protester disputed Metaxas’ account. He declined to give his name to RNS, but said: “He attacked me. I wasn't threatening or intimidating. I was on a rented bicycle! He clearly punched me from behind.”

The incident was a strange note in a chaotic night, as other videos showed crowds of protesters surrounding couples and individuals after they left the White House. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said he feared for the safety of his wife and himself as a crowd pressed in on them and the police officers around them, shouting at them. Paul called for an FBI investigation into what he called “interstate criminal traffic being paid for across state lines.”

The virus and the violence

Just two months remain before the Nov. 3 contest, and two issues may take center stage in the campaigns: the virus upending the world, and the violence upending some American cities.

Democratic nominee Joe Biden is making Trump’s response to the coronavirus a centerpiece of his campaign. One of Biden’s talking points: He would have handled it better than Trump. 

Hindsight does give clarity, but on Feb. 29—the day that news broke of the first coronavirus death in the U.S.—I stood shoulder-to-shoulder with other reporters in a Wofford College gym while Biden addressed a crowd of hundreds of people packed onto bleachers at a campaign rally. Two weeks later, the CDC advised against gatherings of more than 10 people.

It all happened fast, and Trump will have to defend his response—a poll in July showed 60 percent of Americans disapprove of how he’s handled the pandemic. But Biden may have more success at persuading voters that his plan going forward will be better than convincing them that he would have shaped a better outcome.

Meanwhile, Trump is making urban unrest a centerpiece of his reelection campaign. During his Thursday night speech, the president warned that Democrats would “demolish the suburbs” and “confiscate your guns.” 

Biden’s gun control plan doesn’t include confiscating all guns, but Democrats may have missed a moment during their own convention when it comes to violence: They rightly lamented some of the tragic deaths of black citizens during police encounters, but they didn’t respond to the violence gripping some cities in the wake of protests. 

Biden has pushed back on criticism that he hasn’t spoken out forcefully enough: He says he condemns all forms of violence. But the issue will continue to surface as the campaign continues. 

Agenda addition

We noted that Trump’s recently released second term agenda didn’t include priorities related to religious liberty, pro-life concerns, or judicial appointments. It seemed odd, given the importance of those issues to some conservatives.

Late last week, the list expanded with a section that includes priorities on life, religious liberty, appointing constitutionalist justices, and protecting Second Amendment rights.

I’ve asked the Trump campaign for comment on the new section (and the concerns that it wasn’t originally included), and we’ll report any response.

Republicans and religion

Vice President Mike Pence’s speech at the Republican National Convention raised some eyebrows on Wednesday night when he mixed Scripture and patriotic language. “Let’s run the race marked out for us,” he began. 

The phrase comes from the opening verses of Hebrews 12. But Pence continued, “Let’s fix our eyes on Old Glory and all that she represents.”  That’s not in the book of Hebrews—the New Testament passage says, “Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.”

Pence added: “And let’s fix our eyes on the author and perfecter of our faith and freedom, and never forget that where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom—and that means freedom always wins.”

The second half of that remark partially echoes 2 Corinthians 3:17: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom.” 

Politicians invoking Biblical language isn’t new: President Ronald Reagan famously compared America to the “shining city on a hill” from Matthew 5. Two weeks ago, Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris said she was committed to “the word that teaches me to walk by faith, and not by sight.” 

As a writer, I sometimes fold Biblical phrases into news stories, but it does require care. When a listener is expecting to hear the word “Jesus” in a Biblical quote, it’s jolting to hear a reference to the American flag instead. It also risks mixing hope in an imperfect, finite nation with the Christian’s eternal hope in a perfect Savior of people from all nations. 

It’s a good reminder that during another tumultuous election season, fixing our eyes on Jesus is the one thing that can keep Christians grounded, even if they do find themselves sometimes divided.

Editor’s Note: WORLD has updated this story since its original posting.

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Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden and wife Jill at the Democratic National Convention Thursday (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool)

Dean's List

Democrats and religion, Trump and QAnon

A political convention and a presidential press briefing leave more questions than answers

Democrats wrapped up their first virtual convention on Thursday night, after four days of mostly remote programming in the COVID-19 era. Republicans will follow a similar pattern next week.

Former Vice President Joe Biden accepted his party’s presidential nomination, promising to “overcome this season of darkness” in the country. Other speakers included Sen. Chris Coons, the Democrat who fills the Senate seat Biden once held in Delaware. Coons spoke of Biden’s faith, saying it “isn’t a prop or a political tool.” He said Biden, a Catholic, is “a man of prayer.”

Democrats addressed religion in their party’s platform as well, with an interesting twist: In the party’s draft platform, the section on civil rights omitted “religion” from the list of categories the party pledged to protect against discrimination. The final version of the platform that Democrats approved this week included the word “religion.” 

The final version also talked about the importance of religious freedom: The document said Democrats will advocate for religious freedom around the world, and “protect the rights of each American for the free exercise of his or her own religion.”

But in the next paragraph, Democrats added: “We will reject the Trump Administration’s use of broad religious exemptions to allow businesses, medical providers, social service agencies, and others to discriminate.”

The document didn’t offer more details, but it does raise the ongoing question of how Democrats would handle religious liberty and conscience protections for some religious Americans.

Trump and Q

On Wednesday, Facebook officials announced they had removed 790 groups connected to QAnon and were restricting thousands more pages related to the outrageous online conspiracy theory popular among some supporters of President Donald Trump. 

On the same day, when reporters asked President Trump his thoughts about QAnon, he said he didn’t know much about the movement, but that he understands “they like me very much, which I appreciate.”  

When a reporter pressed Trump and told him that QAnon followers believe the president is “secretly saving the world from this satanic cult of pedophiles and cannibals,” Trump said he hadn’t heard that, but, “If I can help save the world from problems, I’m willing to do that.” 

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., told The Washington Post: “QAnon is nuts—and real leaders call conspiracy theories conspiracy theories.”

On Friday, when CNN reporter John Brennan pressed Vice President Mike Pence about QAnon, Pence said: “I dismiss conspiracy theories out of hand.” But the vice president also seemed to downplay QAnon, calling it “a shiny object” the media is chasing. 

My colleague, Emily Belz, recently wrote about QAnon, including how some Christians are gravitating to the growing movement, and how churches are unprepared to respond

Donor warning

A recent survey conducted by the Cato Institute and YouGov found a sizable chunk of younger voters think donating to certain political candidates is a fireable offense. Some 44 percent of respondents younger than 30 said business leaders who donate to Trump should be fired. Twenty-seven percent said the same thing about Biden.

Bipartisan glimmer

Lest we think political differences make working together impossible, here’s news from the criminal justice front: A coalition of Christian groups including Prison Fellowship, the AND Campaign, World Relief, and the American Bible Society are partnering on a criminal justice reform push called the Prayer and Action Justice Initiative.

One of the leaders backing the group: Samuel Rodriquez, the head of the National Hispanic Christian leadership conference. Rodriguez led a prayer at Trump’s inauguration ceremony. 

Another backer: Gabriel Salguero, head of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition. Salguero spoke at this week’s Democratic National Convention.

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Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the Democratic Presidential Debate on October 15, 2019. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Dean's List

Undebatable showdown

Canceling presidential debates should be a non-starter, despite growing pressure

During most election years, the month of August brings the unofficial end of summer and the unofficial beginning of American voters paying closer attention to the presidential elections. 

The next two weeks will have two big events: the start of the Democratic National Convention on Aug. 17 and the Republican National Convention on Aug. 24.

But perhaps the biggest event is slated for Sept. 29: the first presidential debate at Case Western University in Cleveland.

In the absence of traditional campaigning during the pandemic, it’s one of the most significant opportunities for voters to hear from both candidates—despite a rippling undercurrent suggesting that Biden should refuse. 

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman urged Biden to refuse to debate unless Trump agrees to release his tax returns and allow a fact-checking team to report any false statements uttered during the debate. 

Former Bill Clinton press secretary Joe Lockhart argued Biden should refuse to debate because he says Trump doesn’t follow the rules or tell the truth. A few days later, The New York Times ran another opinion piece: “Let’s Scrap the Presidential Debates.”

Let’s don’t.

Biden says he’s eager to face-off with Trump, and voters ought to hear from both candidates. Some pundits speculate Biden supporters are concerned about how the candidate will perform under pressure, after a long series of gaffes and moments of apparent confusion.

Biden bristled when a reporter asked if he had undergone a cognitive assessment: No, he said: “Why the hell would I take a test?” Biden said he looked forward to Americans assessing him for themselves. (A story in WORLD shows how both candidates face scrutiny over physical and mental fitness, and how it’s a question that likely will follow both men until Election Day.)

Debates have proven important in the past: In 1984, President Ronald Reagan struggled in his first debate against Democrat Walter Mondale. Reagan was 74 at the time, and speculation swirled about whether his age was affecting his mental sharpness. 

Reagan rallied in the second debate, when the moderator finally asked the question: Given his age and the stress of the presidency, did Reagan have any doubts about whether he was still up to the job?

Not at all, Reagan replied. “And I want you to know also that I will not make age an issue in this campaign,” he quipped. “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” 

Even Mondale, then 56, smiled and applauded. On Election Day, Reagan became the second president in history to carry 49 out of 50 states. 

The political dynamics are very different in 2020, and a debate or two probably won’t deliver a landslide victory to either candidate, but the reality remains: Voters want to see and hear from candidates for themselves.

A post-script to the Reagan era offers a reminder that while discussions of mental fitness often involve jokes and levity, it’s actually a serious issue that calls for more sobriety than scorn. 

Reagan completed his second term, and went home to California. Six years later, he wrote a letter informing the American public he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. He was hopeful, and he remained active, but Reagan was saying goodbye.

He thanked Americans for “the great honor of allowing me to serve as your President.” He spoke of dying whenever the Lord called him home: “I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.” 

Reagan lived another decade. 

But even as he began to falter, he still played golf and took walks in the park. The Toledo Blade reported a 1997 encounter with Reagan relayed by Rostik Dennenburg. 

The young man recalled walking in a California park with his grandfather, Yakov Ravin, a Ukrainian immigrant. He said they spotted the former president in the park, and his grandfather stopped to thank him for all he did to help bring freedom to people who lived in the former Soviet Union.  

Reagan’s reply was simple: “Yes, that was my job.”

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