The Editorial Board

How California’s recall vote does violence to the spirit of American election law

As a reporter, I have to know who the governor of California is. He, or she, is the chief executive of a state where one out of every eight Americans lives, and has an economy that would be one of the world's largest if California were a country. When it comes to who the governor of California should be, I have no opinion that matters. I am a former California resident, who has long voted in other places. What California voters choose, they get.

As an American, however, I do have an opinion about the process the state is undergoing right now. The law that sets out the mechanism for removing a Golden State governor is anything but golden. It is bad for democracy, bad for California and only encourages bad behavior among opposing political forces.

In the days after September 14, some 40 million Californians and 290 million of the rest of us will find out if Gavin Newsom keeps his job. To drag him in front of the state's voters once again took a massive signature-gathering effort, requiring the collection of at least 12 percent of the total vote cast for the office in the previous election. When the secretary of state, California's chief election officer, certified the collection of more than 1.7 million signatures, the lieutenant governor was required to schedule an election in 60 to 80 days. Inside the state, this machinery is pretty familiar. It was used to unseat another Democratic governor, Gray Davis, and replace him with Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003.

The choice of the largest single portion of voters can say with their ballots, "We do not want to remove this governor," only to find themselves "outvoted" by a fraction of that number.

The recall is, crucially, a two-step process. It asks the voters, in effect, a) "You want this guy to keep his job?" and b) "If you don't, who then?"

That's where it starts to get really difficult.

The first vote requires a sitting governor to attract 50 percent-plus-one vote of the total cast. The second vote is first past the post. The winner is the person who garners the most votes in Round Two. So, it is not entirely out of the question for Newsom to attract 49 percent of the vote, losing his seat, to be replaced by one of the 46 second round candidates who is "chosen" governor by 15 percent of the voters.

The great free-for-all of California's referendum system makes it very easy for anybody who thinks they might see a future governor in the mirror to run in the second part of the ballot, but bars the governor himself, or herself, from appearing there.

Thus, the choice of the largest single portion of voters can say with their ballots, "We do not want to remove this governor," only to find themselves "outvoted" by a fraction of that number.

Newsom opponents, the California GOP, and people who just like to watch this car-wreck unfold, will tell you this is all according to the rules. And they're telling you the truth. The signature drives, the enormous number of candidates, the two-step procedure, it's all set out in state electoral law. Newsom attempted to get his name into the second round but missed a filing date and on appeal was barred from appearing on it.

John Cox, the Republican who lost to Newsom in the last gubernatorial race by nearly 24 percent, is on the second-round ballot. So is Caitlyn Jenner, former world-ranked athlete, reality-television star and political neophyte. Larry Elder, a radio talk-show host and late entrant into the scrum, is among the top polling candidates to replace a governor polling around the 50 percent mark, with around 20 percent of the vote.

Regardless of party affiliation, regardless of who the individual personalities are and individual calculations of advantage, one thing is clear: when a small number of voters can thwart the will of a much larger number of voters, especially on the question of removing a legally elected office-holder, it does violence to the spirit of American election law. And yeah, yeah, yeah, not to the letter of the law.

The recall process, like California's famous or infamous ballot measure system, is a legacy of the Progressive Era of a century and more ago. Vast in size and potential wealth and small in population, California tried to empower voters against the industries that held disproportionate power there, including railroads, mining and oil interests.

If an executive, or legislator, was sent to Sacramento and found not to be doing the people's will, why not have the machinery to replace him? (And to be sure, back then it was always guaranteed to be a him.) These vast earthquakes in state government can be triggered on a whim, by an individual citizen ready to spearhead an effort to remove a disdained official, by a homeowner with a fire in his belly about property taxes, a millionaire pissed off about bilingual education, or now, by a deep-pocketed business ready to spend high to keep its costs low.

The recall process can create a coalition of the aggrieved: Newsom may be disliked by some for his breezy Bay Area liberalism, his climate change proposals, or his approach toward controlling the COVID-19 outbreak in the nation's largest state. By triggering the vote in a time away from primaries or elections for other offices, Newsom's opponents need only arouse the most motivated voters, while arguably millions of California's rank-and-file stay home, or fail to mail in a ballot that might save Newsom's governorship.

If Newsom survives the onslaught, he might want to make sure a future governor does not face his current predicament. Tinkering with the machinery of the recall process, for example, to require that an unsuccessful incumbent seeking retention automatically appears on the second round ballot, would go a long way toward preventing next week's entirely possible trashing of the principle of one person, one vote.

By long custom, we elect officials to serve in their offices for set terms. There are no snap elections called by prime ministers, no ability for voters to suddenly decide they only like a US senator for four years instead of six, or a mayor for three years instead of four. Don't like the job he, or she, is doing? We've been trained by long experience to simply look elsewhere when the end of a term rolls around.

Tinkering with the machinery of the recall process, for example, to require that an unsuccessful incumbent seeking retention automatically appears on the second round ballot, would go a long way toward preventing next week's entirely possible trashing of the principle of one person, one vote.

What is the lesson to a California politician? Granted, they include "don't go to a fancy restaurant for a party that appears to violate your own pandemic lockdown rules." (Noted.) But seriously, after two removals in less than 20 years, what future governor will want to try anything hard? What future governor will ask a state for sacrifice of any kind, when a twelfth of a fraction of the population that votes can force you to face another election in the middle of your term? What governor will lead a state by making necessary, but in the short term unpopular decisions, if she can be forced to scramble to save her job, faced by a candidate who might take it with significantly less support?

It's your state, Californians. It's your constitution and electoral system. Not mine. But democracy belongs to us all. It is looking a little fragile right now, as a US senate caucus chosen by a minority of voters continues to enjoy absolute veto power over the agenda of an opposing caucus, one favored by a far larger share of American voters.

When the normal rules of win-and-lose and try-next-time can be short-circuited by power plays defying the will of the voters, it creates cynicism about the people's will, and how that will is assessed.

In two pivotal states, North Carolina and Wisconsin, state legislatures sought to reduce new governors' powers because the legislative majority opposed them politically. In Wisconsin, the case was even worse, because the Republican majority in the legislature was a creature of map-rigging, an unstoppable force elected by a pronounced minority of voters.

If the beefs that begin in states make their way to the Supreme Court, a petitioner will face a court whose majority was chosen by presidents who won office without winning the popular vote, but had their election ratified by an Electoral College that magnifies the disproportionate power given to small and rural states.

Political scientists and theorists have told us for generations that the genius of the American system is that the minority gets a say. The buy-in of all parties comes from the ability to influence outcomes, and resist brute force majority rule. The founders and framers might have found a lot to like in principle, but I wonder what they would have so say about a winning candidate with 25 percent of the vote "beating" a candidate with 45 percent of the vote.

Watch California closely on September 14.

Exvangelicals and the limits of evangelical empathy

If there's one thing growing up evangelical taught me, it's to be suspicious of kindness from Christians. God may, theoretically, love us unconditionally. (Some restrictions apply). But Christian kindness, particularly from the most conversion-focused Christians, tends to come with goals, expectations and conditions that objectify those receiving the kindness. That is, conversion-focused Christians such as evangelicals treat other human beings as means to an end, rather than as morally autonomous equals. It's not always nearly so obvious as requiring that people listen to "the gospel" before receiving aid from a Christian foodbank or homeless shelter, but in some ways, the less obvious manipulation tactics may be all the more insidious.

In the interdenominational evangelical Christian school I graduated from, I learned about "friendship evangelism" — making friends with non-Christians with the goal of building up the kind of rapport that might allow you to convert them. That practice felt sleazy to me even then. But whether through friendship or other means, parents, pastors, chapel speakers at school and teachers all reinforced the belief that we Christians were all "called" to engage in "witnessing," that is, evangelizing, in order to "lead people to Christ." The pressure to witness caused me a good deal of stress as an empathic introvert, but I nonetheless did it on occasion, even handing out tracts in downtown Indianapolis with my senior Bible teacher and other students as a way of fulfilling one of the class's requirements. It took decades of processing before I could articulate that one of the things that most bothered me about proselytizing — besides the clearly abusive belief that God will torture those who don't "accept Jesus into their hearts" forever in Hell — is that this imperative to proselytize inevitably entails objectifying the people targeted for conversion.

The fact that some evangelicals explicitly teach that empathy is a "sin" generated some buzz recently. While I don't recall ever being taught that exactly, the evangelicalism I grew up in was explicitly anti-pluralist. We had the absolute capital-T "Truth," and anyone who deviated from that was "lost." Meanwhile, while we were taught that God loved us enough to die for us so that we could spend eternity worshiping him in Heaven, we also received the countervailing message that on our own we were inherently worthless and every bit as deserving of eternal conscious torment as "the unsaved." I later recognized these teachings as a kind of "negging," the manipulation technique used by abusive male "pickup artists" to make women dependent on them by undercutting their self-esteem. Indeed, I'm not the only person to point out that the kind of Christianity I grew up in is characterized by the dynamics of abusive relationships. It stands to reason that those who are capable of internalizing all this without facing constant, serious qualms will naturally have their capacity for empathy atrophy, if they ever had much capacity for empathy in the first place.

And this will bring me to the ongoing evangelical moral panic over exvangelicals, those who have left the conservative, mostly white evangelical Protestantism we grew up with for more humane religion or spirituality, or, as in my case, for no religion at all. As Blake Chastain, a podcaster and the creator of the popular #exvangelical hashtag, recently noted, anecdotal experience in online exvangelical communities strongly suggests that those who leave the faith are, more often than not, precisely those who took it the most seriously. In many cases, we tried to push for positive change from inside but eventually realized that was a dead end.

Evangelicals are, as a rule, unwilling to face those facts. Most evangelical responses to exvangelicals are petty and dismissive, invoking simplistic tropes that paint us as intellectually unserious, "angry," and motivated primarily by all that sweet, sweet "sexual sin." As Chastain points out, on a recent episode of Mike Cosper's "The Rise & Fall of Mars Hill" podcast, a Baylor University professor falsely claimed that exvangelicals point to marginal experiences rather than systemic issues. He also asserted that exvangelicals discussing our concerns in public "corrupts" our processing. Of course, that is precisely the sort of attitude that allows all kinds of abuse to proliferate in evangelical communities and institutions. Survivors coming forward and then finding and supporting each other is how rot gets exposed.

What I want to emphasize in this piece, however, is that even when evangelicals try to address their concerns about exvies in a kinder, more fair-minded way, they fail. Their failure is both one of empathy and one of theology, although which begat which in any given individual is a chicken and egg question. Really listening becomes impossible when one is already deeply emotionally invested in being correct about "the Truth," and that evangelicals are responding to exvangelicals at all is a sign that they feel threatened by our presence.

Believing that everyone else should believe exactly the same things you do about God is exhausting. It tends to result in hyper-vigilance, which is maintained by cultivating unhealthy habits of mind. "The heart is deceitful above all things," evangelicals tell themselves, quoting Jeremiah. And from the New Testament: "The wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight." "Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools." "Take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ." These are the verses, memorized early and emphasized ad nauseam, that run through evangelicals' heads when they're confronted with the "temptation" to trust their doubts or open themselves up to the possibility that someone who rejects their beliefs might be worth listening to.

This internalized social disciplinary mechanism is in play when evangelicals consider exvangelicals, along with that objectifying imperative to attempt to convince anyone and everyone to become their sort of Christian. And so, when Pastor Ed Stetzer, a Wheaton College professor and until recently an editor for the prominent evangelical magazine Christianity Today, attempts to play "good cop" in the evangelical discussion of exvangelicals, he still falls short of understanding exvangelicals in something like our own terms, and his prose is rife with rhetoric that objectifies and renders exvangelicals as means to an end.

Stetzer's piece is centered around a discussion of Joshua Harris, a recently minted exvangelical who became an evangelical celebrity when he published what became the quintessential purity culture manifesto, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, in 1997. Stetzer expresses personal warm feelings for Harris as well as regret that he's left the faith, romanticizing Harris's days as "the evangelical boy wonder." And frankly, this is already tone-deaf. Most exvies were not evangelical celebrities, and most of us were harmed in one way or another by the purity culture that Harris has only repudiated within the last few years. To be sure, Stetzer notes that Harris canceled a planned $275 course on deconstructing one's faith after widespread criticism from the exvangelical community, but nowhere does Stetzer consider exvangelical criticisms of purity culture, nor does he discuss why Harris himself came to reject it.

When it comes to the specifics of why people leave evangelicalism, Stetzer prefers to focus on Bart Campolo, the humanist son of progressive evangelical Tony Campolo, because Bart "made it clear that he embraced a Christian community, but not the Christian faith." This hints at the common trope that exvangelicals "were never really saved in the first place," and it is a useful launching point for Stetzer to ask parents whether they are properly "discipling"—the word I would use is "indoctrinating"—their children. But as Chastain so powerfully noted in his commentary linked above, it's far more common for exvangelicals to have been very serious, deeply convinced believers than to have simply participated in church without really having internalized or accepted the beliefs. Stetzer apparently doesn't want to face that.

Bart Campolo's story is also useful to Stetzer in another way, one that clearly illustrates the dynamic of treating people as means to an end. According to Stetzer, "Ironically and importantly, Bart stresses that what led him to identify as a Christian was the love that he saw between the members of the youth group he attended." Stetzer then points out how "love" can be used to win converts. "Loving people is often the first step in seeing them understand and accept the gospel. It can't end there, but even Bart acknowledged that it started there."

I've noticed that sometimes even mainline pastors think this way. Take the case of Ryan Burge, who has the odd distinction of being both a Baptist pastor and a sociology professor, who really showed his cards this summer by arguing that churches should hold get-togethers with free food precisely in order to get people to come to, and stay in, church. "I am a big believer that people come to church for the wrong reasons but they stay for the right reasons, and churches should do a better job giving them a lot of wrong reasons to come, whether it be free food or fellowship or whatever it is," says Burge. The context of his statement indicates he is recommending this condescending, manipulative behavior for what he thinks is people's own good, since the pandemic has many of us desperate for connection "and churches already have that built in." But behind these "good intentions" are clear assumptions of Christian normativity and supremacy, and a paternalistic failure to view as morally autonomous agents those who might prefer to find connection outside of churches.

As for Stetzer, after asserting that he believes Harris "to be earnest," he calls for evangelical self-reflection, which he says "should lead us to be more like Christ and less like our worst instincts." Stetzer then wraps up his comments with what amounts to an endorsement of the objectifying practice of friendship evangelism. "Honestly, many will face that moment when a family member or friend leaves the faith. For me, I plan to stay in relationship, continue to be a friend or family member, stay close to Jesus in my own life, and (yes) share the good news if and when it is appropriate."

At the end of the day, evangelicalism is a type of Christian fundamentalism. And any fundamentalist faith is a type of totalizing ideology, and thus destructive of human empathy and dangerous for democracy. The expectation of total submission to the strictures of the faith makes empathy for outsiders — and especially for former insiders — a threatening thing, and anything that a fundamentalist community insists is "the will of God" is something on which its members will brook no compromise in the political arena.

Because this is the type of fear-based faith that evangelicals espouse, they simply cannot truly listen to exvangelicals, no matter how warm and civil they may try to be in discussing us. Letting us speak for ourselves puts their narrow understanding of reality at risk. It is this totalizing aspect of evangelicalism that, I suspect, most of us exvies object to above all, since, after all, it is the root of all kinds of authoritarian evils. In the North American context, this authoritarian rigidity serves to uphold white supremacist patriarchy. It is also, of course, precisely the one thing evangelicals can't give up while remaining evangelicals.

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