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Demonstrators protesting the confirmation of Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh chanted outside the doors to the U.S. Supreme Court on Oct. 6 in Washington, D.C. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Whirled Views

Beware mobocracy

Protesting isn’t the same as demanding desired outcomes at all costs

One of the most unsettling images in recent American politics came last Saturday as protesters pushed past Capitol Hill police and tried to claw open the massive doors of the U.S. Supreme Court. 

It struck me as visceral and strange and disturbing.

They were protesting the swearing in of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and though they may not have had a clear plan, I wondered: What would these protesters have done if they had gained entrance to the court?

I’ve reported at dozens of political rallies and campaign events for over a decade, and I’ve seen plenty of juvenile protests, insulting rants (including from candidates), and vulgar slogans on signs and T-shirts.

But I’ve only felt genuinely unnerved a few times, and that’s usually when the mood shifted just enough to introduce the potential for real trouble. 

At Trump’s presidential rallies in 2015 and 2016, he always had a moment when he’d lampoon the press as it sat hemmed in a little pen across from the stage. Reporters expected it, and it carried little sting when he’d call all of the people in the pen miserable and disgusting.

But the reaction from some audience members was sometimes unsettling. I never heard anyone level a physical threat, but I did hear angry bursts of profanity and disgust directed our way that made me watch my back when I walked through the parking lot alone after the events. 

It always turned out fine, but I was always thankful it did.

During the Democratic National Convention here in Charlotte, N.C., in 2012, pro-life activists carried signs and prayed at a busy street corner, where a long row of Planned Parenthood supporters stood across the street chanting back at them. Within minutes, a troop of police officers in riot gear stood between the two groups, hoisting their shields and pulling down their helmets.

It turned out fine, but I was thankful that it did.

And moments like those always remind me of the fragile line we walk in a country that is deeply divided over so many fundamental issues of life and death and everything else. God has shown great mercy in restraining violence from activists across the spectrum of worldviews. The occasional but tragic outbreaks of riots in American cities is always a sobering reminder of how low we could go without God’s help.

This week, former Attorney General Eric Holder didn’t help the climate when he revised former first lady Michelle Obama’s admonition that “when they go low, we go high.” Holder rejoined: “No. When they go low, we kick them. That’s what this new Democratic Party is about.”

Holder clarified he wasn’t encouraging Democrats to literally kick their opponents, but he also potentially encouraged a mindset where trash talk could lead to true trouble. Michelle Obama had a chance to respond to Holder’s remarks, and she rejected his take. That’s not what we’d want to teach our kids, she said.

What do we want to teach our kids? Certainly, we want them to know worldviews matter, the truth matters, and standing up for right virtues is sometimes a messy business. But for Christians, it should also be a mature business.

How we speak to and about those we disagree with—including other Christians—sets a tone. But it can also set a table: If I’m determined to tell the truth, even when it’s unpopular, some people are going to hate me. But if I’m determined to lampoon and belittle people who oppose my views, I’m going to let go of opportunities to love and serve people who need Christ more than they need me. 

That’s a thin line that has nothing to do with politics, but everything to do with the things that ultimately matter the most.

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Alex Brandon/AP

Kavanaugh testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill on Sept. 6 (Alex Brandon/AP)

Whirled Views

Supreme crisis

In a vexing process, conservatives have an opportunity to be careful with the truth while pursuing the truth

What a week in Washington, D.C.

On Monday evening at a restaurant near the U.S. Capitol, a small crowd of protesters ambushed Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and his wife, Heidi, as they made their way to a booth in the upscale eatery. The demonstrators heckled the couple until they left: “We believe survivors!” 

Cruz serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee, the panel set to conduct a public hearing on Thursday regarding accusations that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted a high-school girl, Christine Ford, when he was a teenager. Another woman claims he exposed himself to her during a drinking game as a college student.

On Wednesday, a third woman, Julie Swetnick, claimed she was aware of efforts by Kavanaugh to “spike the punch” and target inebriated girls at parties she attended in the early 1980s. She claimed she was gang-raped at a party where Kavanaugh was present. (She didn’t say that Kavanaugh raped her.) Swetnick said she has witnesses to back up her claims, but she didn’t identify those witnesses publicly. 

Kavanaugh has denied all the accusations, and he called the latest claims “ridiculous and from the Twilight Zone.” 

Back at the D.C. restaurant on Monday, activists demanded to know how Cruz would vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination, as the scene grew intense. The senator guided his wife back to the door, and one activist yelled: “Fascist, racist, anti-gay!” When the pair left, a demonstrator warned other patrons: “This is what’ll happen to you if you support Kavanaugh.” 

Desperate measures during a vexing week.

But left-wing activists weren’t the only ones taking drastic steps. Late last week, Ed Whelan, the president of the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC), mounted a defense of Kavanaugh by pointing to a high-school classmate of his as a potential attacker of Christine Ford in the early 1980s.

Whelan named the man and posted photos of him, noting a similarity in appearance with Kavanaugh. He posted floor plans of the home the man may have lived in as a teenager more than 30 years ago, and he suggested the layout matched Ford’s description of the party on the evening she claims Kavanaugh assaulted her.

Desperate measures.

In this case, Whelan seemed to recognize the enormity of his error: He deleted the tweets and apologized for what he called “an appalling and inexcusable mistake of judgment. …” He offered his resignation to the EPPC. Board members asked Whelan to take a leave of absence instead, and said they would review the situation in a month.

For conservatives—including those eager to see Kavanaugh confirmed—the debacle offers an important dose of clarity: In the quest for truth, don’t undermine truth to achieve a desired end. That risks making an idol of something that is important but not ultimate.

It’s true that the debate over Kavanaugh carries high stakes, and his accusers bear the burden of proof when bringing such serious charges against the judge at the very end of his confirmation process. No direct witnesses have corroborated the claims.

Indeed, some conservatives believe Democrats will say anything to topple Kavanaugh. But those same conservatives should be careful not to play loose with other pieces of the case in the quest to defend the judge, even if they believe they are right in their cause.

This involves a commitment to taking great care when speaking about either side of the debate. On the Christian Broadcasting Network last week, Franklin Graham said he didn’t believe that something Kavanaugh may or may not have done as a teenager was relevant to whether he should be confirmed today.

But he also told the network: “There wasn’t a crime that was committed. These are two teenagers and it’s obvious that she said no and he respected it and walked away—if that’s the case, but he says he didn’t do it. … Regardless if it was true, these are two teenagers and she said no and he respected that so I don’t know what the issue is.”

The problem: This isn’t what Ford claims at all. She does say that she and Kavanaugh were both teenagers, but she claims he pinned her down, covered her mouth with his hand, and tried to remove her clothes before she managed to get away. That would constitute a crime, even if committed by a teenager. Ford is certainly not describing a scenario where a teenage boy respected her and walked away.

Again, we don’t know whether this scenario happened or if it happened the way Ford remembers it. The hearing on Thursday will give opportunity to hear from her, and to hear Kavanaugh’s response.

But it still matters how we talk about the claims in an ordeal so full of confusion it’s difficult to see the way forward. (Whatever happened with Ford, it’s at least important for teenage girls to know if they do find themselves in such a scenario, it’s not a harmless situation they should dismiss.)

The one thing that conservatives—particularly conservative Christians—should offer in such troubling days is a commitment to speaking the truth carefully in all circumstances. Often that means insisting on evidence to substantiate claims, and that’s an important part of promoting truth.

But as Whelan learned—and seemed to acknowledge publicly—it also means that anything less than being careful with the truth in an effort to promote the truth runs the risk of undermining a whole cause itself.

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Roberta McCain approaches the casket of her son, U.S. Sen. John McCain. (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

Whirled Views

Last wishes

Despair and hope mark a week of high-profile deaths, including a pro-life teenager’s dying request

From Detroit to D.C., it’s been a time to mourn this week for two well-known American figures.

On Friday morning at the U.S. Capitol, Sen. John McCain’s 106-year-old mother, Roberta McCain, sat straight-backed and dignified in her wheelchair as she looked on the flag-draped coffin holding the body of her 81-year-old son, who died on Aug. 25.

On Saturday morning, McCain’s widow, Cindy, plans to lay a wreath at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial during a public processional to honor her husband’s military service, including more than five brutal years of captivity as a prisoner of war.

Also on Friday, mourners packed the Greater Grace Temple in Detroit for an hourslong service to celebrate the life of singing legend Aretha Franklin, known as the “Queen of Soul.” Earlier in the week, family held another service for Franklin, who died at age 76, at New Bethel Baptist Church—a congregation once led by her late father C.L. Franklin, a preacher and civil rights activist.

Other deaths made headlines for different reasons: The congregants of Inland Hills Church in Chino, Calif., lamented the Aug. 25 death of their head pastor, Andrew Stoecklein, who committed suicide at the age of 30. He leaves behind a wife and three small sons.

Stoecklein had just returned from a sabbatical before his death, and he had preached two sermons on confronting depression, anxiety, and mental illness from a Biblical perspective, while speaking of his own experiences with such battles.

His fellow church leaders released a statement of grief and also gratitude for Stoecklein’s ministry, and they urged anyone suffering emotionally to ask for help. (They included the number for the Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-8255.)

Another early death came in Waco, Texas, on Aug. 26, when 16-year-old Jeremiah Thomas died after a six-month battle with aggressive bone cancer. The Christian teen’s obituary noted that Thomas “did not waste his cancer.”

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