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Culture Q&A

Eric McLaughlin

Walking in the dark

Living amid pandemics, violence, and medical shortages in Burundi

Illustration by Mark Fredrickson

Dr. Eric McLaughlin is a family medicine doctor at Kibuye Hope Hospital in Burundi, where he has served with his wife Dr. Rachel McLaughlin, an obstetrician, for the last seven years. I spent several weeks with them at their rural teaching hospital, which in recent years has grown tremendously in patient volume. Rachel is constantly on call to perform C-sections. Eric faces regular malaria epidemics and treats a host of other internal diseases, with little diagnostic testing available.

Through Serge, an international missions organization, the McLaughlins are focused on training more Burundian medical specialists. Eric’s book, Promises in the Dark: Walking With Those in Need Without Losing Heart, lays out Christian principles for facing overwhelming need. In February robbers attacked and nearly killed fellow missionary George Watts, who works as a hospital administrator.

Here are edited excerpts of my interview with Eric.

Talk about 2020 in Burundi. It feels like the hardest period of time that we’ve known since we moved to Africa 10 years ago. It’s not just the isolation; it’s the multiple things that have hit us.

What happened to George Watts? On Feb. 22 armed robbers came into our housing area and went straight to the Wattses’ house. They stabbed and strangled George and tied up his family, looking for money. They didn’t find the big haul they thought they were going to find and left. But they were just inches away from taking his life. Members of our team treated George. He needed IV fluids.

How did your team react? Kibuye has felt like a haven for us, so there is all the violation that comes with that. Multiple members of our team were traumatized. I can’t remember a time where I’ve felt so relieved and grateful and full of grief all at the same time. Our home got violated and our teammate is in bad physical shape, and yet I’m so thankful he wasn’t killed, that the gun they brought with them didn’t go off. If x or y happened, things could have spun out of control. But what a ridiculous thing to say: out of control. Was the Lord in control of the situation or not? It happened one way; it didn’t happen the other way.

What’s happened since then? A razor wire fence surrounds our wall now. After the attack the governor of our province, the police and military commanders in our region, everyone, came to Kibuye: a great show of support. But it remains to be seen what the harvest is going to look like in Burundi this year.

How do you face all these difficulties? Psalm 77 stood out to me in some times of prayer surrounding the robbery. It’s a classic psalm of lament. It says, “When I meditate, I groan,” instead of “I find peace.” It talks about not being able to sleep, not having appetite. It says, “I’m going to look back and see what God has done in the past.” The psalmist points to the crossing of the Red Sea, and paints a picture of lightning and thunder and terrifying circumstances. And then at the end of it, it says, “Your way was through the water, your path through the sea, but your footprints were unseen.”

People rebel against helplessness, and there’s an extent to which that’s good.

What advice do you have for people in the West feeling helpless amid this pandemic? People always ask us about the coronavirus and being in a limited-resource setting. The good news is we’re not overwhelmed by being overwhelmed. We’ve lived through multiple malaria epidemics already. The world as a whole feels like it has entered into my world in Burundi, in terms of the amount of uncertainty. I don’t have everything I need to have. I’m making decisions I feel like I shouldn’t have to make. That is the world of African medicine all the time.

What comes next? This is a virus we didn’t know existed months ago: An incredible amount is unknown. How can we see down the road, whether decision x or decision y is the right decision to make? People rebel against helplessness, and there’s an extent to which that’s good. God has given us the tools to fight against something like this that causes disease and destruction. But our knowledge is so imperfect.

What do you do with that imperfect knowledge? I have known more helplessness in my medical work than almost all other American healthcare providers. As a Christian physician who is often helpless to do what I would like to do, I have to trust that there is a bigger story about what is going on, that we’re not alone in this fight, that God is present in His love and He’s for us. And that we are not the end of the line when it comes to taking care of this world, or taking care of the person in front of us. Work as if it all depends on God.

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Amity Shlaes

Challenging assumptions

Surprising characters and problematic postures shaped the country’s Great Society

 Illustration by John Jay Cabuay

Amity Shlaes graduated from Yale, became a journalist, and is now a Forbes columnist and the author of five books, including The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression and her latest, Great Society, which spotlights the cracks in Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty and Richard Nixon’s attempts to expand it. Her reporting-honed ability to tell a good story, with human interest and specific detail, makes those history books a delight to read. Here are edited excerpts from our February interview, just before COVID-19 upended our society and economy. 

I suspect you learned a lot about economics through writing for The Wall Street Journal, but was this an interest of yours before? My father built buildings in Chicago. He was a small entrepreneur amid big power interests. I learned the difference pretty early between rent-seekers—institutions that appear to be capitalist but are just interest groups—and true entrepreneurs. I’m very proud to say some of the buildings my father built are very beautiful. He used high-quality brick with good masonry and all the pride of the individual Midwestern entrepreneur.

Did you think of majoring in economics? I probably wouldn’t have been the best econ student, and I thought I had to be the best in the class. I should have just majored in econ or double majored in econ so I had the knowledge, even if I got the occasional B. This is a reason to go to a university that is not tip-top in its reputation. It’s intimidating to go where everyone else is way better at something—nationally ranked dancer, ice skater, concertmaster in the best orchestra at age 14.

I talked with a Harvard economist years ago who said he was deliberately not having any children because he felt each child would lose him a book. You and I each have four children, and yet we’ve written books. Did you ever do a calculation like this foolish Harvard economist? Well, I’m very lucky in the husband department. He wanted lots of children and didn’t mind the work. But the main thing is: Children enrich life, they don’t impoverish it. You’d often be richer in dollars if you’d had no children, but with kids you’re richer in social capital, in happiness. Children keep one abreast: Without my children I’d be pretty isolated as to what’s going on among people in their teens or 20s. Also, it’s very gratifying to see a child do something you hoped to do but never were able to. I have four; I wish I had five, maybe six. 

That’s how I feel. Let’s turn to Great Society. You start out with a discussion of the 1960s TV show Bonanza. Why? It was an enormously popular series that challenged the cowboy assumption up until then: You ride in, you ride out. In Bonanza the question is: Once you are rich, what do you do with your wealth, what do you do for your community? That was also the question of the 1960s. We are the affluent society. What do we do with the money? Do you share it? Do you teach people how to earn money? These are the questions we ask when we talk about society.

Reuther bet that his student wing would be reasonable. Instead it turned out to be violent, anarchist, and silly.

We’ll touch on people, places, and things. People: Who’s the hero of the book? Jane Jacobs. Brilliant writer. She saw that a neighborhood that is called a slum can un-slum—she used that verb, un-slum—if it’s left to its own devices and has enough opportunity and traffic. There’s no limit to what a community can do for itself if left alone and not disturbed with wrong incentives or perverse incentives imposed from far away. 

You’re positive about Walter Reuther, which surprised me. He was a good man. He was the head of the powerful United Auto Workers. He was not corrupt. The existence of such a powerful union was, I would argue, legally corrupt, but that wasn’t really his fault. I liked him. He was not a Communist. He was against Moscow, he was against bad totalitarian governments, but he thought neat social democracy could occur in America. And he worked very hard on the Great Society, which had a socialist component. 

I know how in writing history books we can like people who are wrong. Reuther was wrong. He made a number of wrong bets. He bet that no competition would ever threaten the U.S. auto and he could take the prosperity of the U.S. auto industry for granted. That turned out to be a terrible, fatal mistake. Finally, he bet on the social democratic utopia. He tragically dies when flying to a union retreat he was building, Black Lake. He dies on the way to a utopia he’ll never build and never get to.

He was almost like a father to Tom Hayden. Hayden was one of the founders of Students for a Democratic Society. He and others met on a property owned by the union and put out a manifesto called the Port Huron Statement. It’s rambly and hard to understand with a little bit of Hegel mixed in. Basically it’s “we are a new generation, and we’re going to do what we like because the world looks disappointing to us.” Reuther bet that his student wing would be reasonable. Instead it turned out to be violent, anarchist, and silly—the Weathermen. When a project turns out to support an end that is opposite yours, you’re infuriated. Reuther was furious.

Isn’t this in microcosm almost the history of socialism? You get into it with ideals. You don’t get the results you want. You become thuggish to get people to do what you want them to do. Right. You double down and become thuggish. That’s the story of the unions too. So, I found it enormously instructive. We’ve been running a natural experiment since the 1940s and learning that if you live in the state with a right-to-work law you’re more likely to have employment and more jobs are likely to be created there than in a non-right-to-work state. The AFL-CIO in the 1960s made repeal of right-to-work its primary goal, but Lyndon Johnson ended up being too tired to push through legislation repealing the option for a state to opt out of heavy unionism. 

Your portrayal of Johnson is different from Robert Caro’s. Caro in his books portrays him as a master user of power. In your book he’s a little befuddled. A master user of power is often befuddled, because it’s all about the power. You can’t remember why you’re doing something. Johnson had some principles. He really believed in education spending, in government. He really believed old people should have medical care, and probably from the government. But most of the time he just operated out of sheer ambition and legacy. He was trying to complete the New Deal for the hero of his youth, Franklin Roosevelt, and to show what a great legislator he was. All presidents are a collection of impulses, and the overwhelming impulse of Johnson is ambition.

We often hear the ’60s portrayed as the good old days of bipartisanship, as opposed to today’s polarization. I’m not really thrilled with those days. Should Everett Dirksen be our role model? I like Everett Dirksen, but I’m from Illinois. Everett Dirksen supported civil rights laws that Johnson pushed, but on repealing right-to-work so every state would be under unions, Dirksen said I don’t think so. He’s very old, very ill, and he said I don’t think so. Illinois was a union state, so it took a lot of guts for Dirksen to take that position. 

You’ve raised my estimation of him a bit. Now we need to help the Everett Dirksen library and society. Maybe we need a film.

Or a Broadway play like Hamilton: We’ll just call it Dirksen. Oh, that would be great, yeah.

Let’s talk about Robert McNamara. I want WORLD reporters to operate at street level, not suite level. Robert McNamara seems like the ultimate suite-level guy. It seems he did not really want to hear what was going on at ground level in Vietnam. I am not an expert on the Vietnam War, but we clearly did plan from above: Who dared to dispute McNamaraland and its positions? What I will say is the error on the foreign policy side—arrogance, an unwillingness to take in evidence—was mirrored on the domestic side. We had any number of geniuses who thought their intelligence was better than everyone else’s.

Let’s turn to places. Government housing projects where if you earn more money the rent goes up. Did anyone think what this did to incentives to work more and raise your pay when you’ll have to turn it over to the government? There were terrible, terrible incentives at work. Incentivizing families to break up. If the dad didn’t leave, and he was hiding in the closet—this actually happened—the mom taught her kids to lie and deny the father was present. Incredibly perverse. Public housing encouraged dependence. In the case of heavily unionized St. Louis, economic growth that would have made housing project arithmetic work was missing. Growth migrated to other states, sometimes right-to-work states.

And government housing was supposed to break even. With growth, the Pruitt-Igoe project might have been able to pay for the repair of its elevators so the poor people would not be stuck in the elevators and be mugged by children there. Or had St. Louis produced enough jobs, more dads might have stayed in St. Louis and the boys would have been less likely to join gangs. The problem wasn’t just a crazy welfare law, though it was crazy.

You see property rights as crucial. The residents of Pruitt-Igoe would do better if they owned their houses—however dilapidated the house, however much of a sweat equity project it was. Those housing projects were the opposite of property rights. And to build them, the government bulldozed down whole parts of cities, included shops owned by the people who lived there, churches they attended, and so on.

A lot of displacement. Black families were displaced when they were brought to the United States as slaves. Black families were displaced voluntarily but roughly sometimes when they came north for jobs. They were moved into the projects. That’s a lot of displacement. When I teach this I talk about a case involving a little guy who had a variety store. The government came and said we’re mowing you down because you’re blighted. He said, I’m not blighted. This is a going concern. He had a couple of friends who went to the Supreme Court—and they lost.

One more place: Camp David. You have a hilarious chapter about Arthur Burns, Paul Volcker, Herb Stein, Paul McCracken, all the big name economists—and Richard Nixon plays them. Why did Arthur Burns, the Fed Chairman, care so much about getting pats on the back from Nixon? “Played” is the right verb. The president wanted to win the 1972 election. He decides he’s going to loosen money so people have easy credit before the election. Inflation might come after but that will be after the election and he will be back in office and can make it all better, he tells himself. Nixon was a nominal Republican, but he behaved like Juan Peron—looser money before the election.

As in Argentina: inflation and disruption in the economy. The Fed Chairman is supposed to say “stop.” I’m going to raise interest rates to offset your inflationary fiscal policy. Instead Arthur Burns went along. He wanted to stay in the game, too. The other economists all wrote memoirs about it, apologies for their lies in a way, because this was the worst moment for many of them. They all went along and as a result we got purgatory, a.k.a. the ’70s, when people couldn’t afford houses they deserved because they worked hard. When companies couldn’t borrow money and get going. When we began to believe that America was going to run out of energy and everything else, and that our period of expansion was over. All as a result of these perverse policies of the ’60s culminating in Camp David.

People, places, and we just have a moment left for things—and a sad thing, intergenerational poverty. You mention that in the 1960s we had almost a mystical belief in the infinite potential of American society: Poverty, like polio, would be defeated when the right vaccine was found. Yes: One day polio was a problem, then it wasn’t because of Jonas Salk and the other doctors. That’s how we viewed poverty: It was going to be zeroed out. Didn’t happen that way. Poverty dropped in the Great Society, but it’d been dropping just as fast before, and then the drop slowed at around 10 percent. Now, we’ve anesthetized poverty. I don’t disparage food stamps, but I do disparage the expectation that it is okay for a family generation after generation to have food stamps. Because if the parents have that expectation, they are hurting their children. It’s not okay to cut your kids off from hope—and that’s what thinking about benefits instead of thinking about achievement does.

Another ugly thing: adding a trillion dollars of debt every year. When does that end? Eventually we will pay for that. We just don’t know when. Even if our interest rate stays low, our children will have higher taxes because they will have more old people to take care of in Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. So, before you even talk about what will happen to the currency or interest rates, you can see the heavy taxes that someone born today will carry.

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Albert Mohler

Paying the price

Hard decisions have a cost, but fighting for Christian truth is worth it

Illustration by Mark Fredrickson

Albert Mohler earned a Ph.D. degree in systematic and historical theology. In 1993 he became president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is now a member of the World News Group board of directors. Here are edited excerpts of our Q&A at a staff conference in Asheville before the pandemic began.

After 27 years as SBTS president, are you seeing the children of those you originally taught and led? It’s worse than that. Dr. Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Seminary, was my vice president. One of his four sons, Paul, was the most predictably mischievous kid you’ve ever seen: You’d have to say to him, literally, “Don’t stick the screwdriver in the electrical outlet.” I recently named Paul dean of the Billy Graham School at Southern Seminary. There’s tremendous joy in that.

When you first became seminary president, were many professors there sticking something into the electric outlets, theologically? Basically all of them. 

You had to take some hard steps. Francis Schaeffer had helped me to see there are two different trajectories: orthodox Christianity based on Biblical accountability, and the other thing. I was chosen seminary president to support orthodox theology and get rid of the faculty who were trying to take the institution in the other direction.

A tumultuous change? We had helicopters over the campus. PBS did a one-hour documentary. I became infamous at age 33. I was willing to pay that price because I recognized how much depends upon whether this institution turns out preachers who represent the comprehensiveness of the Christian truth claim. 

How did your willingness to pay the price originate? It goes back to when I was 16 in an extremely liberal, agnostic school experiment. No teachers, only facilitators: the school without walls. 

You were naturally good and wonderful, and all the teachers had to do was to bring out that natural goodness, right? Right. And the smell of marijuana in the eighth grade was entirely natural, organic. I was a conservative Christian kid with no idea of what to do with this. It was a perfect mix for worldview confusion. In the midst of all that, Jim Kennedy, the pastor down the street at Coral Ridge, began to help me. He introduced me to Schaeffer.

How did Schaeffer’s Escape From Reason help you? Escape From Reason points to the fault of a Kantian worldview. Immanuel Kant divided all reality into the phenomenal and the noumenal—the phenomenal is the real world, the noumenal is the spiritual world. The deadliness of this: Kant said you can have more or less absolute truth in this phenomenal world, which you can count—two apples and two apples are four apples—but in the noumenal, spiritual, moral world, there are no absolutes. Reason allows us to be rational on the phenomenal level, but on the noumenal level all rules of rationality are off.

Kant wanted moral absolutes. He just couldn’t come up with a way to have them.

That makes Christianity impossible. It makes any moral absolutes impossible. Kant didn’t want that to be so. He wanted moral absolutes. He just couldn’t come up with a way to have them.

Schaeffer cut through all that. He said, essentially, forget the phenomenal and noumenal, just think of a two-story house. In the first story, the modern world wants to say, we have facts and truths: biology, the periodic table of elements, math. But moderns want to say that when it comes to the big questions of existence, God, and morality, there is no basic rational structure.

Justice Anthony Kennedy said we have the right to define our own existence, but you’ve said “ontology trumps autonomy.” In other words, reality is not a matter of individual opinion. I want to get down to being. This principle—ontology trumps autonomy—comes right out of classic Christian theology.

And that brings us to journalism, which should emphasize coverage of reality, not mere personal opinion. How did you become interested in journalism? When I was a senior in high school the yearbook had a picture of me holding the U.S. News & World Report. The cutline underneath said, “Albert Mohler likes to keep up with events in the world.” As a senior in high school I went back and read every 1945 issue of Time because I was really interested in coverage of the end of the war and its immediate aftermath.

Who were your models in commentary writing? William F. Buckley Jr. and George Will. I read them—every single column. I read classical essayists and others and thought, Whatever they’re doing, the way they distill ideas into this column format, this brief essay, that’s what I think evangelicals need.

At age 29 you were editor of The Christian Index, the oldest state newspaper serving the Southern Baptist Convention. My first editorial was titled “The Conflict of Visions,” a term I borrowed from Thomas Sowell. 

Did you have a hard line or a dotted line between news articles and columns? It’s a dotted line. That’s when I realized the choice of stories to cover, which reporter to assign, where it appears in the print newspaper: Those are all editorial decisions.

You soon had a conflict about news coverage. A major group of pastors had a meeting to talk about denominational issues, but without the sanction of the state convention. The state executive director said that wasn’t my business. 

What was your business, according to the state convention leaders? They wanted to reach people to give more generously. They wanted a newspaper that would tell people to go to Sunday school and report on which pastor died, etc. We still did that, but I was trying to help Christians reading this newspaper to think more Christianly. I believe Christians need serious journalism to force them to think.

And to understand the antithesis between Christianity and theological liberalism that J. Gresham Machen brought out almost a century ago in his great book, Christianity and Liberalism. There’s a bust of Machen in my study: Decades after he was dead he helped me to understand what I was really looking at. He brilliantly said there are not two variants of Christianity. Here’s Christianity and here’s some new religion that’s claiming to be Christianity. A 20-year-old seminary student reads that and the light goes on.

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