Daniel Schultz

A Wisconsin Republican's bewildering vaccine claim reveals how racism has warped the GOP

It's funny what passes for normal these days. Nearly 100 employees at our local health care system are bucking the company's covid vaccination mandate, complaining that they might get fired for refusing to take a shot. Supporters turned up last week to support the employees, waving Gadsden flags and waving signs reading "Vaccine Mandates = Communism" or "Vaccine Coercion Is Tyranny."

Mostly, I shrug my shoulders at a story like this. The numbers aren't surprising. Protests aren't anything not happening in towns and cities across the nation as it becomes ever clearer that herd immunity against the COVID-19 virus won't be achieved through volunteering or a sense of civic duty. In 2021, this counts as just another day.

Things get interesting, though, when we hear about the politicians getting involved:

Wisconsin Senate President Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, is calling on health care workers opposed to COVID-19 vaccine mandates to take action against them. Kapenga said Friday that health care executives requiring employees be vaccinated against COVID-19 are "bowing to the woke culture being pushed by the left." "I want to encourage the groups that are forming to stick to your principles and don't give in. Based on what I am seeing, it will be impossible for the hospital systems to function without you," he said.

I have to admit being a bit flabbergasted by this. Since when do Republican elected officials encourage labor disputes? And what exactly does "woke culture" have to do with pandemic measures? Well, nothing—and everything.

Think of it this way: civic health is public health. The same factors that determine a community's ability to "define and address public problems" control its ability to protect and improve the health of its people. What else is a pandemic but a public problem?

Sadly, then, it's not a surprise to see the same states struggling to achieve high levels of vaccination also turning up near the bottom of list after list of civic measures: unemployment, income inequality, education, health access and outcomes, voter participation, responsive government, volunteerism. Even in states where vaccination is going well, the same pattern tends to divide urban and rural areas. In places where the government offers little and voters expect less, the infrastructure to create a robust response to a pandemic is simply not there, and the ideology of freedom above all else is very strong.

And ideology it is. It's not just that the covid pandemic has become so ridiculously politicized that one of the leading indicators for vaccine refusal is the erroneous belief that the 2020 election was stolen from the former president, or that the more Republican a county votes, the less likely its citizens are to be vaccinated. It's that multiple Republican governors and legislators are ghoulishly competing to undermine immunization efforts, endangering the lives of children in their states.

Worse is why the governors are in such a race to the bottom. For the radicalized Republican base, opposition to vaccination has become so integral to their partisan identity that it is no longer separable from support for Trump or opposition to supposed government overreach, which is why you see the Gadsden flag—a symbol of rebellion against a distant head of state—at a rally against a private company's employment policies. The average Republican governor hoping to move up the ladder in a presidential primary has no choice but to tack hard right—and then embrace a virtual worship of death.

Even more worrisome, that ideology also comes wrapped in racialized politics. This is where Kapenga's "woke culture" comes in: he's making a causal chain of association for his supporters—vaccine mandates are being pushed on people by Democrats, who are the party of Black people and their white supporters. In other words, it's a sly way of saying that the same people who want "political correctness" want to force you to get vaccinated.

On the one hand, this is simply an example of the astonishing but not longer surprising art of Republican race-baiting. It's almost certainly not an accident that Kapenga's statement came as the Wisconsin state legislature prepared for hearings on critical race theory, another divisive issue Republicans are hoping will stir their base ahead of the 2022 elections.

On the other hand, it seems like there's something deeper at work in the culture here. The political and legal commentator Teri Kanefield put out a fascinating idea in a video blog the other day arguing that since the mid-1950's, the US has been struggling toward becoming a true multi-cultural, multi-racial democracy. It's a tough fight, and one in which Kanefield sees progress, however slow in coming. She urges her listeners not to give into easy cynicism on the subject.

But if Kanefield's right about the direction of American history, there's a dark flip side to it: everything in politics has come to revolve around the question of whether the society should be governed for a white Christian minority or for the benefit of all. Government spending, military policy, education, global warming and now public health all come down to that underlying issue, some for obvious reasons, others simply because one side is for it so the other has to be against it.

It's tempting to see this division not as issue-based but simply spoiling for a fight, and in some ways, that's right. Particular issues aren't as important as the battle, and they don't make sense without the bigger context. At the same time, people aren't itching for a fight just to have a fight. The little fights are simply means to picking the big fight. Every time you hear someone railing against tyranny or socialism, mentally replace their words with "Put Black and brown people back in their place!" Likewise, every time someone talks about freedom or Trump saving America again, you should hear "Put white people back on top!"

Like a slow-growing tumor, the battle over race is the cancer that has afflicted American civic health since its inception. For just as long, it has taken a toll on our public health as well, in poverty and disease and civil war. It seems astonishing that it could be allowed to rack up a death toll approaching one million. But given how long we've been sick, and how deeply, the only surprise is how it passes for normal.

How to deal with vaccine resistors

Look, I get it. I do. After months of a medical miracle being rolled out across the nation, after months of incentives and public and private encouragement, and while the specter of death still haunts the land and a new and even nastier variant threatens to take us back to the horrors of last year, there are still some among us who still refuse to get vaccinated. Everything we've seen, everything we've suffered—and they still cannot be convinced to do something that's fundamentally in their best interest.

It's OK to be angry and frustrated and fresh out of patience. Vaccine refusers put their own lives at risk as well as the lives of many others. It's not smart. It's not fair. It's wrong. Worse yet, it's often driven by politics more than anything. At least some of them are thumbing their nose at the very idea of public health, because their guy failed. It's as offensive as it is perverse. So if you're not interested in ever hearing from such people again, much less listening to them with empathy, no one can blame you. Certainly, there is no reason to bear with toxic personalities, if doing so will harm you.

And yet, I am going to suggest that most of us shouldn't write vaccine refusers off entirely. Not everyone has to engage with them all the time, but there are reasons, good reasons, to at least consider the perspective, as wrongheaded as it might seem.

The first is practical, or if you want to be fancy about it, teleological: Doing the right thing to get a desired result. Doctors establish judgment-free zones in talking about vaccines not because they're not appalled. They do it because it works. It might not work all the time, or even often. Humans are wild, irrational bipeds who make wrong choices all the time. But listening with an open mind is the only thing that works at all. Throwing the cold water of judgment is only a way to increase resistance.

That's an important consideration when you remember that not everyone who talks tough about not getting a vaccine will see that refusal through. In a just-released poll, Public Religion Research Institute found that 13 percent of Americans are hard no's on vaccination, about the same number as in March. But the number taking a "wait-and-see" stance, or who say they will get a vaccine if required, has shrunk from 28 percent to 15 percent. Some people can be convinced. That hard kernel of resistors is likely to shrink, too, as the delta variant sweeps through more unvaccinated areas.

Vaccination is not a physician's only concern. Sometimes a respectful exchange about vaccines doesn't result in a patient getting the shot—but it does wind up with them following medical advice on another issue. Doctors listen patiently for a reason.

We also have to ask at a certain point the question of character ethics. Do we really want to be the kind of people who just turn our backs on others and say "Let 'em die"?

I asked my wife that question. "Sometimes," she said. Fair enough. It gets old, she said, being the ones understanding entitled blowhards, not the other way around. But I think most of us would recognize that after some reflection, a stone-cold shrug in the face of mass death cuts against the morality of citizenship we hold dear. Democracies cannot survive when some lives are worth caring about, others not. That makes for unpleasant business, surely, but nobody ever said democracy was for the weak-willed.

It is important to remain in conversation even with terrible ideas to some extent. That's the liberal American character. The minute we start thinking that certain positions, and certain people who hold them, are not worthy of consideration, we become not a liberal democracy, but a nation of authoritarians leaning left and right. I'm confident that most of us would prefer to think of our mental and moral characteristics somewhat differently—that we're more open or compassionate, I mean.

If anything can be described as holy in liberalism, it's listening with empathy, free of judgment, even as we disagree. It is an act of imagination that is sacred. It forces us to develop new ideas about the people we hear out, rather than concentrate on the rightness of our own position. What drives people whose idea of liberty or bodily purity are so important from our own that they value them above their faith, lives and children? What cognitive choices and emotional affiliations must they make to get to such a place? The answer is surely dark and rotten, just the kind of soil from which a generation of politics will grow. Liberals and leftists and radicals will have to come up with creative responses to what is taking ever-deeper root in the conservative movement, and that begins with understanding what's going on in their heads.

So be angry. Be frustrated. Yell at the clouds. I do all three every time Ron Johnson opens his mouth about covid. But don't ever stop listening to the vaccine refusers entirely, even if you have to block Uncle Jim Bob on Facebook. Because they've got something to say, and however unpleasant it might be, you need to hear it.1

Rev. Daniel Schultz is an activist, minister and writer in Wisconsin. Follow him @pastordan.

The next time you see a story about white evangelicals drifting to the left, recognize it for what it is

Have white evangelicals entered into rapid decline, as claimed by many on the basis of a new PRRI poll? Are their numbers and influence shriveling in the post-Trump era? Probably not. Could those accusations be hurled at nicer people? Probably not.

Pew Research polls are always a big deal. They are very reliable. They tend to be very informative. Their latest drew attention because, as Nate Cohn put it, it was perhaps the "most pronounced version of the conventional narrative we've seen yet: Joe Biden struggling to gain ground among core Democratic constituencies, but making up for it with big gains among GOP groups." As Cohn noted, that may not be the correct interpretation after more analysis, but at the moment, that's what it looks like.

The next time you see a story about white evangelicals drifting left, recognize it for what it is: a public-relations ploy put on by the few liberal evangelicals to burnish their image.


I tend to focus on religious demographics in polls like this, and so I will with this one, for the most part. From the faith angle, there seem to be three important takeaways.

First, the white evangelical base did not break from the GOP. Every two or four years, we have credulous religion-and-politics reports saying that this year is going to be different because evangelicals show signs of liberalizing and maybe Democrats could make headway among them! Donald Trump got 84 percent of the white evangelical vote, up substantially from his 77 percent take in 2016. Romney got 78 percent in 2012, McCain took 74 percent in 2008, Bush got 78 percent in 2004. You get the picture.

If anything, white evangelicals are becoming more Republican. In the past four years, they took a long hard look at Donald Trump and decided he wasn't as bad as they thought. The Pew Report puts it best: "Without such broad support for Trump among white evangelicals, Biden would have beaten him by more than 20 points."

The next time you see a story about white evangelicals drifting to the left, recognize it for what it is: a public-relations ploy, usually put on by the few liberal evangelicals to burnish their public image, even as it's tarred by their fellow adherents.

I'll have more to say about this later, but along the same lines, no, we have not reached the end of white evangelical America, probably not even its rapid decline, and certainly not the passing of the demographic's outsize political influence and power.

That new poll from Public Religion Research Institute indicates that white mainline Protestants have overtaken white evangelical Protestants as the largest Protestant demographic. This is a rather surprising result, to understate things more than a little. The polling is not obviously flawed, but it doesn't quite line up well with survey data from other ways of measuring religious affiliation. Even beyond that, the political implications are far from clear. Hold off on drawing hasty conclusions about that.

Actually (and this lesson two from today's sermon), the swing vote in 2016 was white Catholics, as it is usually the case. White Catholics have been moving to the right for the last few election cycles, but Democrats took a particular hit with them in 2016. Hillary Clinton drew only 31 percent. The president improved that by 11 points. Though that's still a loss by a lopsided 57 to 42 percent, it was arguably the difference that Biden needed in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, possibly Arizona as well.

Was this shift a bounce back from Clinton's unusual unpopularity, the result of disgust with Trump, or identification with the Catholic Everyman Joe? My guess would be a little of each. We won't know if this was a one-time shift until 2024, or if it was unique to Biden until 2028. But if you're looking for evidence that Biden carved into centrists and moderate conservatives, this is it, along with his narrowing of the gender gap.

The real issue for the GOP is that religiously unaffiliated voters are younger. Younger voters are a growing portion of the electorate. And they vote overwhelmingly Democratic.

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Oddly, Biden doesn't seem beholden to his right. Quite the opposite. If he's figured out a way to shift them to the Democrats, it's the start of a durable new coalition, and it will show up in the Catholic vote first. Keep your eyes on white Catholics in 2022.

Last but not least,1 Republicans have a problem with religiously unaffiliated voters. It's only getting worse. Seventy-one percent of agnostics, atheists and "nothing in particulars" voted for Biden, to Trump's 26 percent. Trump's numbers with this portion have been roughly the same since 2016, but Biden's sprang up. No doubt many of them came home to the Democratic Party after voting third-party in 2016.

The real issue for the GOP is that religiously unaffiliated voters are younger. Younger voters are a growing portion of the electorate (for the first time, Millennials and Gen Xers were the largest cohort last year). And they vote overwhelmingly Democratic.

Don't expect the youth vote to guarantee Democratic dominance any time soon, though. I've grown more reluctant to embrace the idea that demographics are destiny ever since wise people like Rick Perlstein started pointing out that Democrats have been waiting for their inevitable majority—the "Youth Vote"—since the early 1970s.

But the state of play in religion and politics as it stands now is: white evangelicals are essentially the Republican base; the religiously unaffiliated are with the Democrats and white Catholics seem to be the moderate middle that's in play. Given the relative growth rates of each of these demographics, I know which side I'd rather be on.

What Joe Biden's comments reveal about an apparent paradox about racism in America

Last Friday, NBC's "Today" asked the president about United States Senator Tim Scott's claim, after the State of the Union, that America is not a racist nation. Joe Biden seemed to agree. "I don't think America's racist, but I think the overhang from all of the Jim Crow and before that slavery have had a cost and we have to deal with it." This left many befuddled. Derecka Purnell, author of the forthcoming Becoming Abolitionists, asked succinctly: "How can you promise to root out systemic racism in a country that's not racist and where the people aren't racist? Who runs the systems?"

I can't explain, much less justify, that Democratic leaders like Joe Biden and Kamala Harris seem to speak about race differently when they're facing movement activists or the general public. But perhaps I can offer a little insight into the apparent paradox of a non-racist nation that so consistently produces such racist systems and outcomes.

Biden, like most white Americans who haven't thought very deeply about the subject, conflates racism with race-based chauvinism. At the same time, he overlooks his general involvement in systemic white supremacy. Many white folks can't understand the fact that they participate in racist systems because they don't perceive themselves as "racist," that is, holding overtly bigoted attitudes toward people of different races. (Not beside the point, most people also tend to significantly underrate their own bias.)

While the pervasiveness of white supremacy in American society seems blindingly obvious to those already cued into it, it's actually not easy to spot for those who haven't practiced the habit. It involves shrewd cultural analysis, a relatively skilled enterprise, which is why most white people don't take it up seriously until they reach college.

Moreover, one has to be motivated to understand white supremacy. A white person has to want to see it. Think of this as a process of acquiring enough critical perspective to understand the system correctly. The price of that particular ticket is to fix one's own place in the system, to understand oneself as, in some sense, involved in and responsible for its outcomes. That presents a distinct challenge to the ego that many whites mistake for an accusation, rather than a call to see how they have benefited, even indirectly, from "all the Jim Crow and before that slavery." As John points out in his column, this is an experience of shame—of knowing that you and your society have fallen short of deeply held moral standards—that some people are unable to overcome.

To make a very long story short, Black Americans and others pressured by white supremacy understand racism as participation in the system. Many whites think you can't be racist if you don't intend to be racist! It's a fine piece of denial, but there it is.

It adds up to a perfect illustration of what Reinhold Niebuhr called the human capacity for "partial self-transcendence." White Americans can see in the abstract there is a problem with systemic racism. They can see, often with great reluctance and always imperfectly, they have a role in creating the problem. But it's difficult for them, as individuals and legitimately impossible on a social level, to put all of that together to discern a way to overcome it. There are simply too many moving pieces, too much ambivalence, misperception and investment in the ways things are currently.

Oddly, then, "I don't think America's racist" is neither a cynical statement, nor a happily deluded one. It's intended to be aspirational, an affirmation that there still exists enough goodwill to deal with the costs of systemic racism. Roughly translated, it means, "Because we're not a bunch of bigots, we can tackle the bigger stuff."

Unlike Joe Biden, Niebuhr was never sanguine about the prospects of curing social evils. He thought things could be made better, but not finally solved, without divine intervention. He was skeptical of human motivations and often cautious to a fault, notably so about the civil rights movement. But he knew something critical: that to see our problems clearly is less a matter of factuality than one of moral commitment.

On that score, Biden may be closer to the mark than he seems. As a factual matter, saying "America's not racist" simply doesn't hold up against 400-plus years of history. But as a moral issue, Biden's dead-on. Who runs the systems is white people, mostly, and they've rung up a terrible debt. The president knows that, and he sees clearly the challenge of paying it back. He's still committed to doing the right thing, though, and God willing he can inspire some other folks to see things the same way. It might not solve the problem of systemic white supremacy, but it just might make things better.

The only thing keeping Republicans from electoral oblivion

United States Rep. Glenn Grothman was kind enough to send his thoughts on DC statehood in an e-newsletter last weekend, as he does for his constituents. If you haven't had the fortune to know the congressman from Wisconsin's Sixth, well, bless you. I first encountered him at a pancake breakfast, where he was picking fights with constituents. He has a long history of making ill-informed, inflammatory statements as a state senator and now as a member of the United States Congress.

Recently, Grothman found himself embroiled in controversy when he accused Black Lives Matter of disliking "the old-fashioned family." He defended that statement on-camera while wearing a jaunty hat he'd worn for in a local St. Patrick's Day parade.

More recently, Grothman garnered negative attention by speaking on the House floor about Cardi B's performance at the Grammys. He said his state office received numerous complaints about the show, and he scolded the FCC for, in his view, not doing its job: "The moral decline of America is partly due to your utter complacency."

If you're guessing by now that Grothman's views on DC's bid to become the 51st state are not exactly advanced, you're right. They're as terrible as you'd expect.

In the interest of space, I'll skip the errors of logic and fact. His anti-statehood argument can be summarized in three points: first, the government is a corrupt force to be kept in check, and its city-seat is not made up of good decent farmers, factory workers, and quarry operators like us. Yes, he really argues that DC is undeserving, because it has only "minimal agriculture, manufacturing and natural resources."

Second, not only is the seat of government a city, it's a city run by greedy incompetent people who'd be satisfied living off the government's teat. Let's break this one down a bit. On the one hand, Grothman says DC is filled with rich, entitled government workers (only about 25 percent of residents work for the feds). On the other hand, he's saying DC is run by Black people, who are therefore terrible at governing. The proof, Grothman says, are negative aspects associated with big cities and their minority populations: failing schools, budget mismanagement, homelessness and crime.

Grothman conveniently omits DC's unique challenges. It's deprived of a tax base due to having government and nonprofit buildings. It's hamstrung by Congressional interference and disinterest in investment. It's divided sharply by race lines with a privileged elite in the Northwest and a ghettoized underclass in the Southeast. But, of course, Grothman is playing to the stands here, allowing his mostly rural audience to indulge their fixed ideas about the evils of big cities. (Grothman himself lives in the hamlet of Glenbeulah. There are 463 residents, 98.7 percent of whom are white.)

Third, again according to Grothman, making a majority Black and brown city the 51st state is a political decision, whereas making states out of small majority white and rural areas like Wyoming or Vermont is a matter of natural law. Never mind that each of these states has fewer residents than Washington, or that Wyoming, like several other states, was admitted in a rushed process in order to give 19th-century Republicans more votes in the Senate. What matters, evidently, is they have abundant agriculture, manufacturing and natural resources, and coincidentally, they're overwhelmingly white.

Grothman is far from the only Republican making such nonsense arguments. United States Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas noted that Wyoming has "three times as many workers in mining, logging and construction, and 10 times as many workers in manufacturing."

"In other words," Tom Cotton said, "Wyoming is a well-rounded, working-class state." United States Representative Mondaire Jones of New York later responded dryly, "I had no idea there were so many syllables in the word "white.'"

It's trendy for Republicans to cling ever tighter to their aging, rural and white base, and to their desire to bake-in as much electoral advantage that that base's wide-ranging geography allows. If you split Los Angeles County into states equal in population to Wyoming, for example, you'd bring 17 states into the union and 34 Senators into Congress, most of which would be Democrats. Fetishizing the virtuous rural dweller over and against the profligate and depraved urbanites isn't just to the Republican advantage—it's the only thing keeping them from electoral oblivion.

The newest battle lines in America's ongoing culture war are increasingly drawn around race, education and residence. But like any conflict, culture wars only work when people fight them. No one is obliged to read Grothman. No one is obliged to listen to Cotton's nativism. Neither offers anything resembling serious thought. So no one is obliged to wage a cultural war with them by dismissing the country folk as somehow less deserving of representation than their cousins in the city. We're all Americans, like it or not, though I suspect the "not" is getting bigger by the day.

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How the religious vote in 2020 could tip 6 swing states

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Pete Buttigieg: Citing ‘Matthew 25’ isn’t a viable Democratic faith outreach strategy

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