Monday, December 28, 2020

The Rural-Urban Divide (Why Do So Many Christians Support Trump?, Part III)

This is a third in a series of posts exploring why so many white Christians (and primarily white evangelical Christians) support Donald Trump despite his many sins. The first ("Why Do So Many Christians Support Trump? (Part I)") introduced the puzzle, while the second highlighted how diverse Christianity really is ("Who are the 81%? (Why Do So Many Christians Support Trump?, Part II)").

This post explores the rural-urban divide and how it contributes (but does not entirely explain) why such a high proportion of evangelicals supported Donald Trump. In 2016, voters in rural areas cast their ballot for President Donald Trump rather than Hillary Clinton by a margin of 20 points, and a higher percentage of evangelical voters reside in rural areas than non-evangelicals. This is captured in the graph below, which plots the proportion of rural respondents by faith tradition. It is important to point out, however, that even though white evangelicals are more likely to live in rural areas than individuals from other faith traditions, over 80 percent do not. Thus, the rural-urban divide is clearly not the only factor driving evangelical toward Trump.

The essence of the rural-urban divide is perhaps best captured with the notion that rural America feels as if it has been "left behind," not just demographically and economically but also morally and culturally. Many living in rural communities believe that their way of life is disappearing, that small town values and the sense of community characteristic of that life are becoming a thing of the past.

But there's more to it than that. It's not just a belief that small town values are disappearing, but the perception that they're under attack: That, except for perhaps in a romantic (e.g., Hallmark movies) or nostalgic sense (e.g., weekend escapes), cultural elites (what the theologian/philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher called "cultured despisers") regard small town America with barely-concealed contempt and view rural Americans as uneducated and backward, as holding beliefs that anyone with an ounce of brains would reject.

But that's not all. There is also a widely-held belief among rural Americans that Washington (i.e., the federal government) is broken, lacking in common sense, and absolutely clueless about the needs and wants of rural America. Add to this the perception that Washington is in league with cultural elites to force liberal values (and the political correctness that comes with them) down their throats (what some might term, "legislating morality"), and you can see why many small-town Americans would find the norm-breaking, liberal-elite hating Donald Trump appealing. Consider, for example, the following remarks captured by sociologist Robert Wuthnow in his book, The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America (Note: although the book was published after the 2016 election, he conducted his fieldwork prior to it):
“People up there in Washington, doesn’t matter what party it is, those people don’t know a thing about what’s going on down here in Gulfdale. They don’t want to listen to us. They don’t care!” (p. 97)
“Those people up there in Washington, they think they know more than we do. They treat us like second-class citizens, like we’re dumb hicks, like we don’t know what’s going on.” (pp. 97-98)
“They’re just not listening to us out here.” (pp. 98-99)
“Don't forget us... Maybe our population isn’t as big as cities, but we represent something cities never will.” (p. 99)
“Don’t assume I’m stupid and don’t know anything just because I’m a farmer!” (p. 103)
“[Washington's] a money-hungry, dog-eat-dog place. Lobbyists are ruining it and it’s just gone to pot. We just need somebody with a little gumption. Somebody to go up there and do what a common man knows to do. That’s all we need!” (p. 107)

Returning to the topic at hand, although most evangelicals do not live in rural America, a higher percentage of rural Americans identify as evangelical. As the graph below indicates, evangelicals constitute 44.1% of rural Americans. Thus, the sense that small town values are disappearing and under attack will probably have greater impact on evangelicals than on individuals from other faith traditions (or no faith tradition -- the next largest group of rural Americans is the unaffiliated).

The frustration and anger reflected here is not just a rural phenomenon, however. Many Americans living in urban areas located in the Midwest and South identify more with the values of rural America than they do with values found in cities located in the Northeast and on the West Coast. There is not only a rural-urban divide, in other words. There also is a regional one (no secret there, really).

On a final note, I can't help but wonder what effect the pandemic may have on this divide. Anecdotal evidence suggests that since they can now work remotely, many Americans are leaving cities and flocking to rural America. Will this (slowly) turn some Midwest and Southern states purple? Only time will tell.

Note: For those who would like to explore this topic in greater depth, several books have touched on the rural-urban divide. Here are three worth that are accessible and worth a try:
  1. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, J.D. Vance's memoir of growing up in Appalachia, captures the despair felt by many in rural America, although one shouldn't generalize from his experiences to all of rural America or even Appalachia (see e.g., "Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy"). Netflix just released a movie (directed by Ron Howard, starring Glenn Close and Amy Adams) based on Vance's book.
  2. Arlie Hochschild's, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, explores what she calls the "deep story" of the Louisiana Tea Party supporters she got to know after spending five years (2011-2016) interviewing and living among them. I wrote a brief post about the book a couple of years ago ("Strangers in Their Own Land").
  3. Robert Wuthnow's, The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America, is an excellent analysis of factors underlying the divide. While Vance's book focuses on Appalachia and Hochschild's on Louisiana, Wuthnow's fieldwork (with help from his students) took him all over the United States and as such is probably more representative of rural Americans as a whole.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

The Twelve Days of Christmas Don't Begin Tomorrow

This is my annual reminder that the 12 Days of Christmas are not the 12 days prior to (and including) Christmas Day. Rather, they are 12 days after, running from either December 25th to January 5th or from December 26th to January 6th, depending to which tradition one follows. Either way, the 12 days take us to Epiphany (January 6th), which is when the Wise Men present gifts to the infant Jesus, although he may have been as old as 2-years when they finally track him down (which is why Wise Men shouldn't be in Nativity scenes until Epiphany -- but, of course, most have been taken down by then).

When most of us think about "The 12 Days of Christmas," however, we usually think about the song. The song's origins are unclear, but one story, which has little historical support but's fun to consider, claims that the song originated as a Roman Catholic "Catechism Song" during a time when Catholicism was "strongly discouraged" in England (1558-1829): 

  • The "true love" in the song refers to God, while the "me" refers to those who receive the gifts mentioned in the song from God 
  • The "partridge in a pear tree" refers to Jesus Christ whose death on a tree (i.e., the cross) was a gift from God 
  • The "two turtle doves" refer to the Old and New Testaments - another gift from God 
  • The "three French hens" refer to "faith," "hope" and "love" three gifts of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 13) 
  • The "four calling birds" refer to the four Gospels, which sing "the song of salvation through Jesus Christ" 
  • The "five golden rings" refer to the first five books of the Old Testament, also known as the Torah. 
  • The "six geese a-laying" refer to the six days of creation 
  • The "seven swans a swimming" refer to the "seven gifts of the Holy Spirit." (1 Corinthians 12:8-11) 
  • The "eight maids a milking" refer to the eight beatitudes 
  • The "nine ladies dancing" refer to the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) 
  • The "ten lords a-leaping" refer to the Ten Commandments 
  • The "eleven pipers piping" refer to the eleven faithful disciples 
  • The "twelve drummers drumming" refer to the twelve points of the Apostles' Creed
For a more scholarly take on the song's origins (but far less entertaining), see the Wikipedia article.

Note: If you add up the number of gifts for each of the twelve days -- one for the first day, three (1 + 2) for the second, six (1 + 2 + 3) for the third, and so on -- you get 364, which is the total number of days in the year if you don't count Christmas. I learned this watching a Hallmark movie (yes, I confess that I watch Hallmark Christmas movies).

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Songs for the 2020 Christmas Season (Sorted by Category)

Every Christmas, I post a list of songs related to the holiday. Some are traditional, some are modern, some are secular, and some are, well, funny. This time around, I've sorted them into different groups. This proved more difficult than one would think because some probably belong in more than one category. As before, they are all linked to iTunes Preview, YouTube, etc., so you can listen to (preview) or watch) them.

  1. Auld Lang Syne - Colbie Caillat
  2. Blue Christmas - Elvis Presley
  3. Christmas Canon - Trans-Siberian Orchestra
  4. The Christmas Song - Nat King Cole
  5. Frosty the Snowman - Jimmy Durante
  6. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas - Vonda Shepard
  7. Holly Jolly Christmas - Burl Ives
  8. I'll Be Home for Christmas - Michael Bublé
  9. In the Bleak Midwinter - Phil Coulter
  10. I Wonder As I Wander - Sandi Patti
  11. It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year - Andy Williams
  12. I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm - Frank Sinatra
  13. Jingle Bells - Michael Bublé
  14. Let it Snow - Dean Martin
  15. Little Drummer Boy - Bob Seger
  16. Mistletoe and Holly - Frank Sinatra
  17. Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy - Bing Crosby and David Bowie
  18. Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer - Burl Ives
  19. Silver Bells - Andy Williams
  20. Snow - Bing Crosby, Danny Kay, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Allen (dubbed by Trudy Stevens)
  21. There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays - Perry Como
  22. What are You Doing New Year's Eve? - Ella Fitzgerald
  23. White Christmas - Bing Crosby
  24. You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch - Thurl Ravenscroft
  1. All I Want for Christmas Is You - Mariah Carey
  2. Believe - Josh Groban
  3. Carols Sing - Michael W. Smith
  4. Celebrate Me Home - Kenny Loggins
  5. Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) - U2
  6. Christmas Can't Be Very Far Away - Amy Grant
  7. Christmas in Dixie - Alabama
  8. Christmas in Your Arms - Alabama
  9. Christmas is Coming - Vince Guaraldi Trio
  10. Christmas Island - Jimmy Buffett
  11. The Christmas Shoes - NewSong
  12. Christmas Time is Here - Vince Guaraldi Trio
  13. Christmas Waltz - Michael W. Smith
  14. Cold December Night - Michael Bublé
  15. Do They Know It's Christmas - Glee Cast
  16. Extraordinary Merry Christmas - Glee Cast
  17. Feliz Navidad - José Feliciano
  18. Going Home For Christmas - Phil Coulter
  19. Grown Up Christmas List - Amy Grant
  20. The Happiest Christmas - Michael W. Smith
  21. Happy Xmas (The War is Over) - John Lennon
  22. Hey Santa - Carnie and Wendy Wilson
  23. High Plains (Christmas on the High-Line) - Philip Aaberg
  24. This Holiday Night - Margo Rey
  25. It Snowed - Meaghan Smith
  26. Jingle Bell Rock - Bobby Helms
  27. Last Christmas - Glee Cast
  28. Linus and Lucy - Vince Guaraldi Trio
  29. Merry Christmas Baby - Bruce Springsteen
  30. Merry Christmas Darling - The Carpenters
  31. Mister Santa - Amy Grant
  32. Nothin' New for New Years - Harry Connick, Jr. & George Jones
  33. Please Come Home For Christmas - The Eagles
  34. River - Joni Mitchell
  35. Santa Claus in Coming to Town - Bruce Springsteen
  36. Santa Baby - Madonna
  37. Santa Tell Me - Ariana Grande
  38. Skating - Vince Guaraldi Trio
  39. Sleigh Ride - The Carpenters
  40. Snoopy's Christmas - The Royal Guardsmen
  41. Song For A Winter's Night - Sarah McLachlan
  42. Tennessee Christmas - Amy Grant
  43. This Christmas - Vonda Shepard
  44. To Be Together - Amy Grant
  45. Where Are You Christmas? - Faith Hill
Traditional Hymns and Carols
  1. Angels We Have Heard on High - Glee Cast
  2. Ave Maria - The Carpenters
  3. Away in a Manger/Child in a Manger - Michael W. Smith
  4. Carol of the Bells - The Carpenters
  5. Deck the Halls - James Taylor
  6. Do You Hear What I Hear? - Whitney Houston
  7. Emmanuel, God With Us - Amy Grant
  8. The First Noel - Josh Groban & Faith Hill
  9. Go Tell It On The Mountain - James Taylor
  10. God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen - Glee Cast
  11. Greensleeves - Vince Guaraldi Trio
  12. Hark the Herald Angels Sing - Diamond Rio
  13. The Holly and the Ivy - Choir of King's College, Cambridge
  14. It Came Upon a Midnight Clear - Johnny Cash
  15. I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day - Casting Crowns
  16. I Saw Three Ships - Craig Duncan
  17. Jesu, Joy Of Man's Desiring - Amy Grant
  18. Joy to the World - Amy Grant
  19. The Nutcracker Suite - Various
  20. O Come All Ye Faithful - Pentatonix
  21. O Come, O Come Emmanuel - The Piano Guys
  22. O Holy Night - Josh Groban
  23. O Little Town of Bethlehem - Nat King Cole
  24. Pat-a-Pan - Various
  25. Silent Night - Sarah McLachlan
Contemporary Gospel
  1. Almost There - Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant
  2. Breath of Christmas - Amy Grant
  3. Christmas Hymn - Amy Grant
  4. Christmas Was Meant for Children - Sandi Patti
  5. Christmastime - Michael W. Smith
  6. Christ is Born - The Carpenters
  7. God is With Us - Casting Crowns
  8. Little Alter Boy - The Carpenters
  9. Newborn - MercyMe
  10. Sweet Little Jesus Boy - Casting Crowns
  1. Baby, Just Go Outside - The Holderness Family
  2. The Chanukah Song - Adam Sandler
  3. Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer - Elmo & Patsy
  4. I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus - John Mellencamp
  5. Walkin' Round in Women's Underwear - Bob Rivers and Twisted Radio

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

20+ Movies to Watch This Christmas Season (2020)

Here's my annual post a handful of Christmas movies worth watching. Not all are technically "Christmas" movies, but in some way they're related to the Christmas season. As always, I've updated the list from the previous year. This year's additions: "The Bishop's Wife" and "Happiest Holiday."

1. The Bishop's Wife (Cary Grant, Loretta Young, David Niven)

Dejected by his efforts to raise money to build a cathedral, Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) beseeches heaven for guidance, and is visited immediately by an angel Dudley (Cary Grant). Henry, as a good theological liberal, is skeptical and then becomes annoyed when Dudley wins the attentions of Henry's long-suffering wife, Julia (Loretta Young). Dudley falls for Julia, but in the end Julia tells him it's time for him to go. Dudley leaves, all memory of him is erased, and later that night at the Christmas Eve service when Henry delivers his sermon, Dudley watches from the street. If this plot sounds familiar, it was remade as The Preacher's Wife starring Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston in 1996. 

2. A Charlie Brown Christmas (Charles Schultz)

It's been over 50 years since "A Charlie Brown Christmas" first appeared on TV. It's probably the best of the Charlie Brown movies (although "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" is right up there) and is one of the few Christmas movies that refers to the biblical story. After Charlie Brown asks, "Can anyone tell me what Christmas is all about?," Linus quotes Luke 2:8-14:
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and  the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. 10And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and goodwill towards men.'"
And then Linus concludes, "... and that's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown."

3. A Christmas Carol (George C. Scott, David Warner, Susannah York, Roger Rees)

There are several great versions of Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol," but this is my favorite. Scott is (was) such a great actor. When he (Ebenezer Scrooge) yells, "Mr. Cratchit!", there's little doubt that he holds poor Bob in contempt. And, the supporting cast is quite good. David Warner (who once upon a time played a reporter in "The Omen") is an excellent Bob Cratchit, as is Susannah York as Mrs. Cratchit (Note: two of York's children played two of the Cratchit children). And I really like Roger Rees as Scrooge's nephew, Fred. Finally, Angela Pleasence and Edward Woodward are excellent as the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present, respectively. There are, of course, several other versions are worth considering, such as the one with Alastair Sim as Scrooge ("A Christmas Carol"). When I was kid, I was especially taken with "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol." Jonathan Winters' reading of Dickens's book is also quite good.

4. A Christmas Story (Peter Billingsley, Darren McGavin, Melinda Dillon)

Adapted from a memoir by Jean Shepherd (who narrates the film), the movie is primarily about Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley), a young boy living in Indiana in the 1940s who desperately wants a Red Rider BB gun for Christmas and tries to convince his parents, teachers, and Santa that it's the perfect gift for him, while they counter that he'll shoot his eye out. In 2012, the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." I confess that it isn't one of my favorites, but I'm clearly in the minority.

5. Christmas with the Kranks (Tim Allen, Jamie Lee Curtis, Dan Akroyd)

It's too bad that the movie's producers didn't keep the title of John Grisham's book on which the movie is based: "Skipping Christmas" (see picture at right). The movie's title leads people to expect one kind of movie when in fact it's something quite different. It tells the story of a couple (Luther and Nora Krank) who, because their daughter (Blair) is going to be Peru for Christmas, working for the Peace Corps, decide to skip Christmas (i.e., don't buy a Christmas tree, hold their annual Christmas party, decorate their house, etc.), and use the money they save to go on a cruise. Their decision to skip Christmas sit poorly with their neighbors (especially Dan Akroyd), who pressure them to get into the holiday spirit. A battle, of sorts, plays out between the Kranks and their neighbors. Then Luther and Nora learn that Blair coming home for Christmas (with her fiancé), and they have less than 24 hours to prepare for their annual party. How the neighborhood comes together to pull this off and what Luther does with their cruise tickets speaks to the true meaning of Christmas.

6. Die Hard (Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia, Reginald VelJohnson)

OK. Not your traditional Christmas movie. In fact, there's a debate as to whether it really is (see "Is 'Die Hard' a Christmas Film?"). I obviously fall on the side of those who think it it. It takes place on Christmas Eve, is a battle between good and evil, and includes some traditional (and not so traditional) Christmas songs. It stars Bruce Willis as NY city police detective John McClane, who flies to LA to reconcile with his wife. He meets her at her company's Christmas party, but while he's changing clothes in the men's room, the party's taken over by a terrorist group (headed by Hans Gruber -- played by Alan Rickman, who a few years later played Severus Snape in the Harry Potter movies), which holds them hostage, all except for McClane, who sneaks away before they know he's there. The rest of the movie is the battle between McClane (good) and Gruber (evil) and includes a lot of classic lines ("Come out to the coast, we'll get together, have a few laughs..."; Yippee ki-yay...").

7. Elf (Will Ferrell, Bob Newhart, James Caan, Zooey Deschanel)

This movie is too fun. Will Ferrell is great as someone (Buddy) who thinks he's one of Santa's elves but is actually a human being who, through a twist of fate, was adopted by an elf (Bob Newhart) when just a baby. Unfortunately, he's not a very good at elf things (e.g., making toys), and once he learns that he's not an elf, he heads to New York where his biological father (James Caan) lives. There he falls in love with Jovie (Zooey Deschanel), helps NY recapture the Christmas spirit, and has a heck of a lot of fun along the way (well, most of the time). The movie is also educational. We learn, for instance, that the four main elvish food groups are candy, candy canes, candy corns, and syrup. There's also allusions to other Christmas classics like "Rudolph, the Red Nose Reindeer" and "Miracle on 34th Street" (see #16 and #18 below).

8. The Family Man (Nicholas Cage, Tea Leoni, Don Cheadle)

One of my favorites. It's is a cross between "It's a Wonderful Life" and "A Christmas Carol." It tells the story of Jack Campbell (JC = Jesus Christ?; his boss/advisor is named Peter), played by Nicholas Cage, who chooses to spend the year after graduating from college in London as an investment banker rather remaining in New York with his girl friend (Tea Leoni). Unsurprisingly, the relationship doesn't survive, and when the movie begins (13 years later), Cage is a successful investment banker who loves money and fine things, but cares little for women or family. However, when he wakes up one Christmas morning, he's living the life he would've lived if he hadn't moved to London. He's married (to Tea Leoni), has two kids, and works as a car tire salesman (for his wife's father - Big Ed). Although he initially despises this life, he eventually comes to love it more than the one in which he drove fast cars, wore designer suits, and had his pick of women. The movie's climax occurs after he wakes up back in his old life, tracks down his old girlfriend, and convinces her not to leave for Paris to take a new job.

9. The Family Stone (Claire Danes, Diane Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Dermot Mulroney, Craig T. Nelson, Sarah Jessica Parker, Luke Wilson)

This tells the story about a Christmas gathering of the Stone family when the eldest son (Dermot Mulroney) brings his very uptight girlfriend (Sarah Jessica Parker) home with him to introduce her to his family, as well as propose to her with his grandmother's wedding ring. Parker's reception by Mulroney's family -- played by Diane Keaton (mom, who is dying), Craig T. Nelson (dad), Rachel McAdams (younger sister), Elizabeth Reaser (older sister), Luke Wilson (younger brother), and Tyrone Giordano (youngest brother) -- is chilly, to say the least. So chilly, in fact, that Parker begs her sister (Claire Danes) to join her. Mulroney ends up falling for Danes (and vice versa), Wilson for Parker (and vice versa), and McAdams for her ex-boyfriend (and vice versa), who is played by Paul Schneider. Chaos ensues, poignancy follows, and although it was greeted with mixed reviews, it has become a holiday favorite for many.

10. Happiest Season (Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Dan Levy, Mary Holland, Victor Garber, and Mary Steenburgen)

Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis) are a couple who have been dating almost a year. Abby has disliked Christmas since her parents passed away, so on a whim Harper invites her to celebrate the holidays with Harper and her family in her hometown. Harper, however, hasn't to come out to her parents (or sisters) and thus tells them that Abby is her roommate. In the meantime, Abby plans to ask Harper to marry her and has already bought a ring. Complicating things: Harper's Dad (Victor Garber) is running for mayor, and she doesn't want to mess that up by coming out; one of her sisters (Mary Holland) is a bit wacky and has been writing a book for 10 years; her other sister's (Alison Brie) marriage isn't as happy as it appears; and her high school boy friend and (secret) girl friend tend to be around a lot. Daniel Levy of Schitt's Creek fame is also great as Abby's best friend, John. Of course, it is a Christmas movie, so things, for the most part, work out in the end.

11. The Holiday (Cameron Diaz, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Jack Black, Eli Wallach)

Definitely one our family's holiday favorites. This movie tells the story of two women (Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet) who, suffering from guy-problems, swap homes with each other (they don't know on another -- they "meet" through an on-line home exchange website) where they each meet someone and fall in love. Diaz's character (Amanda) lives in LA, is a producer of movie trailers, and breaks up with her boy friend after she discovers that he's cheated on her. Winslet (Iris) is a journalist working in London, who's in love with someone who wants to keep her around but doesn't want to commit. When she learns that he's engaged to another journalist, she becomes suicidal, but luckily chooses to spend the holidays in LA instead. A side story concerns elderly gentleman (Eli Wallach--the "Ugly" from "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly"), who lives near Amanda and whom Iris befriends. It turns out that Wallach is a widowed and retired screen writer whom the screen writer's guild wants to honor. He doesn't want to attend, but Iris talks him into it. I believe Wallach should've at least received a best supporting actor nomination for his role, but this isn't the type of movie that actors and actresses win awards for. One of the biggest surprises is the revelation that Jack Black actually can act. It's too bad he doesn't get more parts like this.

12. Home Alone (Macaulay Culkin, John Heard, Catherine O'Hara, Joe Pesci, Daniel Stern, Robert Blossom)

When adjusted for inflation, Home Alone is the highest grossing Christmas movie of all time at the North American box office. It tells the story of Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin), an 8-year-old boy who is accidentally left behind when his family flies to Paris for their Christmas vacation. Kevin initially relishes being home alone, but soon has to contend with two highly incompetent burglars (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern), whom he continues to foil with numerous booby-traps. The rest of his family doesn't realize they left him behind until they are mid-flight to Paris and then struggle to find a flight back (all her booked). Kevin also ends up befriending Old Man Marley (Roberts Blossom), who is rumored to have murdered his family. Like many holiday favorites, it received a mixed reception from critics, but many consider it one of the best Christmas films of all time.

13. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Boris Karloff)

One of the best holiday movies ever (the animated version, that is, not the one that Opie Taylor directed several years later). In it the Grinch, a cave-dwelling creature with a heart "two sizes too small," lives on Mount Crumpit, a steep mountain above Whoville, home of the Whos. His only companion is his faithful dog, Max. Every year from his perch atop Mount Crumpit, the Grinch hears the "clangy" noisy Christmas festivities that take place in Whoville. Annoyed and unable to understand why the Whos are so happy, he sneaks into town on Christmas Eve and takes all of their Christmas presents, decorations, and food in order to prevent Christmas from coming. However, when Christmas morning arrives, the Whos still celebrate Christmas even though all their presents and decorations have been stolen. Realizing that Christmas is more than gifts and presents, the Grinch's heart grows three times in size, and he returns all the presents and trimmings and joins the Whos for the Christmas feast. There are now three Grinch movies, one with "real people" directed by Ron Howard and starring Jim Cary in 2000, and a 2018 computer-animated version with Benedict Cumberbatch in the leading role.

14. It's a Wonderful Life (Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Henry Travers, Lionel Barrymore)

I'm not sure how much I need to say about this movie since it is so well known. Briefly, it stars Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, a man who has repeatedly given up his dreams in order to help the dreams of others, and whose imminent suicide on Christmas Eve (because of a financial disaster not of his own doing) brings about the intervention of his guardian angel, Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers), who has yet to earn his  wings (he's an angel second class). However, by showing what the world would have been like if George had never been born, Clarence keeps George from committing suicide (and thereby earning his wings). George sees that his life hasn't been a waste but has in fact touched (and improved) the lives of almost all those around him in Bedford Falls. He is, as his younger brother Harry puts it, "The richest man in town." Although the movie opened to mixed reviews, it has become a perennial Christmas classic that captures the true meaning of Christmas. There is a scene at the railroad station when George Bailey learns that his younger brother is not going to take over the family business so that George can go to college. For about 5 seconds, Stewart says nothing; his (i.e., George's) disappointment and frustration only shows in his facial expressions. It's a wonderful example of why Stewart was one of the greatest actors of all time. For more on the movie, see the following post ("It's a Wonderful Life").

15. Love Actually (Numerous)

A 2003 British Christmas-themed romantic comedy explores several separate stories involving a wide variety of individuals, whom we learn as the movie progresses are connected with one another. The movie begins five weeks before Christmas and plays out in a weekly countdown to Christmas, followed by an epilogue that takes place a month later. The movie includes numerous British stars, including Rowan Atkinson, Colin Firth, Martin Freeman, Hugh Grant, Keira Knightley, Laura Linney, Martine McCutcheon, Liam Neeson, Bill Nighy, Emma Thompson, Billy Bob Thornton, and Alan Rickman. You may be skeptical, but recently FiveThirtyEight called it the greatest Christmas movie of all time ("The Definitive Analysis Of ‘Love Actually,’ The Greatest Christmas Movie Of Our Time").

16. Miracle on 34th Street (Maureen O'Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, Natalie Wood)

Although the 1994 remake of this movie, starring Sir Richard Attenborough (as Santa Claus), Dylan McDermott, and Elizabeth Perkins, is decent, it doesn't come close to the original with Maureen O'Hara and a very young Natalie Wood. The story takes place between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day and focuses on the impact of the Santa Claus hired to work at the Macy's on 34th St. in NY City, who claims to be the real Santa and acts accordingly. For example, he some times he ignores instructions to steer parents to goods that Macy's sells like the time he directs one shopper to another store for a toy fire engine that Macy's doesn't have in stock. And he tells another mother that Macy's rival Gimbels has better skates for her daughter. The film won Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Edmund Gwenn), Best Writing, Original Story (Valentine Davies) and Best Writing, Screenplay. It was also nominated for Best Picture but lost to Gentleman's Agreement with Gregory Peck.

17. On Her Majesty's Secret Service (George Lazenby, Diana Rigg, Telly Savalas, Gabriele Ferzetti, Ilse Steppat)

"On Her Majesty's Secret Service" (OHMSS) is a "Christmas film" of the way that "Die Hard" is (see above): It involves a battle between good and evil, it's set at Christmas (or quite a bit of it is), it includes Christmas songs, and it even throws in a little bit of redemption. It also involves a chase scene through a Swiss village celebrating the holiday and includes some of the skiing scenes ever. Recently, in an article in which The Economist considers whether "Die Hard" is really a Christmas movie, the author makes the case for considering OHMSS as one ("Is 'Die Hard' a Christmas Film?"). OHMSS is, of course, the only movie in which George Lazenby plays James Bond. He was chosen after Sean Connery retired from the role after "You Only Live Twice," although Connery changed his mind and came back to play Bond in "Diamonds Are Forever" (1971) and "Never Say Never Again" (1983). Although OHMSS was a commercial success, its reception was mixed. The film's reputation has improved greatly over time, however. The director Christopher Nolan has named it as his favorite Bond movie, and it has slowly moved its way up the "all-time Bond film lists" ("On Her Majesty's Secret Service", "50 Years Later, This Bond Film Should Finally Get Its Due"), and it's no wonder. OHMSS contains some of the best action scenes of the series (which are similar to those of the more recent Bourne movies), Lazenby plays a capable Bond, Diana Rigg's excellent as his love interest and future (and only) wife, and Telly Savalas's "Blofeld" is by far the best of all the Bond films (although Christoph Waltz's portrayal in Spectre is a close second). It also follows the original novel much more closely than the other Bond films. It's definitely worth a watch.

18. Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer (Burl Ives)

When I was a kid, I couldn't wait for this to come on TV. I only got to see it once a year, and it was a big deal when it came on. Not just for me, but for most of my friends. Now, of course, you can get it (and virtually any other Christmas movie) on DVD or Blue Ray, or download it from iTunes or Amazon, so it (and other Christmas movies) has lost its "specialness." Nevertheless, I still love watching this retelling of the original Robert L. May story ("Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer"), in which Rudolph's rejection by his peers (for his shiny nose) leads him to run away from home with by a similarly-outcast elf (Hermey) whose dreams of becoming a dentist. These two eventually join up with a prospector named Yukon Cornelius, and after a battle with the Abominable Snowman, they return home to the North Pole just in time for Rudolph to lead Santa's sleigh through a terrible snow storm, thus keeping Christmas from being cancelled.

19. The Santa Clause (Tim Allen, Judge Reinhold, Eric Lloyd, David Krumholtz)

Tim Allen stars as Scott Calvin, a cynical, divorced, advertising executive for a toy company, who accidentally causes a guy dressed like Santa Claus to fall to his death from his roof on Christmas Eve. Scott and his son Charlie (who is spending Christmas Eve with Scott) discover a sleigh with eight reindeer on the roof, and they conclude that the man must have been Santa Claus. They also find a card in the Santa's suit, instructing that if something should happen to him, that whoever finds the clothes, should put them on and get in the sleigh. Charlie convinces Scott to follow these instructions, and the reindeer take Scott to children's houses around the world to finish Santa's deliveries. After this, the sleigh takes them to the North Pole where they learn that Scott is the new Santa (because of the clause in the instruction card they found -- that is, the "Santa Clause") and convince his former wife that he's the new Kris Kringle.

20. White Christmas (Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen)

What more can you say about this one? It's got Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas" (not once, but twice); it has Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen dancing (several times); it has George Clooney's aunt singing and dancing; and it tells a nice, heart-warming story that some may think is  a bit corny. But, to paraphrase Kate Winslet's character in The Holiday (see above), sometimes corny is just what the doctor ordered. The song, "Count Your Blessings" (written by Irving Berlin), was nominated for an Oscar (White Christmas won the Oscar 12 years before for the movie, Holiday Inn), but my favorite (aside from White Christmas) is Snow, sung by Crosby, Kaye, Clooney, and Vera-Ellen on the train from Miami to Vermont (pictured above).

And here's three more movies that appear on other lists but I haven't had time to watch but plan to eventually (summaries pulled from Google, Wikipedia, etc.):

21. Christmas in Connecticut (Barbara Stanwyck, Dennis Morgan, Sydney Greenstreet)

While recovering in a hospital, war hero Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) grows familiar with the "Diary of a Housewife" column written by Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck). Jeff's nurse arranges with Elizabeth's publisher, Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet), for Jeff to spend the holiday at Elizabeth's Connecticut farm with her husband and child. However, the column's a sham. Facing a career-ending scandal, not only for herself but for her editor, Elizabeth is forced to comply. In desperation, she agrees to marry her friend, John, who has a farm in Connecticut. She also enlists the help of her uncle, a chef, who's been giving her the recipes for her column. Elizabeth and John plan to be married immediately by Judge Crowthers, but Jefferson arrives, interrupting the ceremony, and it's love at first sight between Elizabeth and Jefferson. To complicate things, Jefferson has a fiancée, but that isn't as straightforward as it seems either.

22. Holiday (Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant)

Holiday is a 1938 American romantic comedy that is a remake of the 1930 film of the same name. I tells the story of Jonathan "Johnny" Case (Cary Grant), a self-made man who has worked all his life, is about to marry Julia Seton (Doris Nolan), whom he met while on holiday in Lake Placid, New York. He actually knows very little about her and is surprised to learn that she is from an extremely wealthy family, the youngest daughter of banker Edward Seton (Henry Kolker). Assured that Johnny is a worthy suitor, Edward approves of the pairing. But, as Johnny's wanderlust surfaces -- he is more interested in traveling than in business -- Edward starts to have doubts. Johnny also begins to wonder if he might not be a better match for Linda (Katharine Hepburn), Julia's outspoken younger sister, with whom he has much more in common.

23. Holiday Affair (Robert Mitchum, Janet Leigh)

Seasonal clerk Steve Mason (Robert Mitchum) catches Connie Ennis (Janet Leigh) in a fraudulent shopping scheme during the busy Christmas rush. But when he discovers that Ennis is a war widow and single mother, he decides not to turn her in. His supervisor takes notice and fires him. Mason befriends Connie and her young son, Timmy, and complicates her plans to marry boring nice guy Carl Davis (like Meg Ryan's fiancé in Sleepless in Seattle). The movie is based on the story Christmas Gift by John Weaver, which was also the film's working title. Set during the Christmas season, the film was not well received on its initial release. However, Turner Classic Movies airing the film over Christmas has led to it becoming a minor holiday classic. A made-for-television remake was produced in 1996.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

A Social Dilemma: Facebook Doesn't Want You to Leave

It's funny. Well, maybe funny's not the right word. A few weeks ago I chose to take a break from Facebook, and after a couple of weeks, I started receiving notifications from Facebook about friends who'd updated their profile, shared a photo, posted an update, shared a link, and so on. Facebook and other social media sites really don't want us not to log on (how's that for a double negative?). And they'll do everything they can to get you log back on. This is detailed in depressing detail in the documentary, The Social Dilemma, which will make you think twice about logging on, or at least logging on as much as you have. It's worth a watch.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Who are the 81%? (Why Do So Many Christians Support Trump?, Part II)

According to a Pew Research Center's analysis of exit polls of the 2016 election, 81% of white evangelicals who voted, voted for Donald Trump ("How the faithful voted: A preliminary 2016 analysis"). The fact that this is only slightly higher than the percentage who voted for George W. Bush in 2004 (78%), John McCain in 2008 (74%), and Mitt Romney in 2012 (78%), suggests there may be nothing new going on here. And that's probably true to some extent, but the enthusiasm that some conservative Protestants have for Trump appears greater than what we saw with Bush, McCain, or Romney. In particular, there are “prophecy voters,” charismatic Christians who believe that Trump is an anointed leader who will play a part in bringing God’s kingdom to earth ("‘Prophecy voters’ forming core of Trump’s evangelical base").

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. People throw around terms, such as "evangelical" and "charismatic," as if everyone agrees as to what they mean, but scholars, who spend most of their time thinking about such things, don't even agree. Plus, how they are captured on one survey can differ substantially from how they are on another. Thus, before continuing this exploration of why so many white Christians voted for Trump, we need to define a few terms first.

Probably the most widely-used classification scheme of religious traditions is the one outlined by Brian Steensland, Jerry Z. Park, Mark D. Regnerus, Lynn R. Robinson, W. Bradford Wilcox and Robert D. Woodberry in their 2000 Social Forces article, "The Measure of American Religion: Toward Improving the State-of-the-Art." Popularly known as "RELTRAD" (religious tradition), this scheme sorts people into 7 broad groups: Evangelical Protestant, Mainline Protestant, Black Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish, other religious groups, and no religion. The sorting is usually accomplished through a series of questions about the survey respondents' religious affiliation.

Although the RELTRAD classification is quite good, it isn't perfect. Take Mainline Protestants for instance. Mainline Protestants are those who attend some of the more historic denominations in the United States: the United Church of Christ (Congregational), the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church USA, the United Methodist Church, Disciples of Christ, American (Northern) Baptist Churches USA, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. Some count the Quakers and the Reformed Church of America as part of the mainline as well. However, although Mainline Protestants are, on average, theologically more liberal than Evangelical Protestants, there's plenty of individuals who identify as evangelical but belong to a Mainline denomination. For example, the United Methodist Church is in the midst of a split among its more conservative (i.e., evangelical) members and it more liberal ones.

The Black Protestant category includes historical Black Church denominations, such as African Methodist Episcopal Church and the National Baptist Convention, along with a number of younger Pentecostal churches, such as the Church of God in Christ and the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World. In other words, they hardly represent a monolithic block and could easily be sorted into a number of subcategories much like Evangelical Protestants. Adding to the confusion is that some Black Protestant churches dually-align with Mainline Protestants. For example, a number of Progressive National Baptist churches (a denomination founded by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1961) also belong to the American Baptist Churches USA.

And then there are the Roman Catholics. Although sorting respondents into this category is relatively straightforward, it ignores the diversity of Roman Catholicism. It runs the gamut from theologically conservative to theologically liberal, and it has its own Pentecostal Christians although they're typically referred to as "charismatic."

And then there are some Christian groups, such as Eastern Orthodox, who are quite similar to Roman Catholics, but because they constitute such a small percentage of the American population, they're sorted into the "other" category, which interestingly also includes Buddhists, Hindus, Mormons, and more (Note: some scholars consider Mormons to be a branch of Christianity, while others do not).

Finally, let's consider Evangelical Protestants. Ideally, this category should be broken down into three subcategories: Fundamentalist, Evangelical, and Pentecostal. As Christian Smith noted in his 1998 study of American Evangelicalism, Fundamentalists tend to be more theologically conservative than Evangelicals and are more likely to maintain a "distance" between themselves and secular society. Evangelicals, by contrast, tend to engage the secular world and, as such, more civically and politically active. Pentecostals share many beliefs with Fundamentalists and Evangelicals, but they also believe that the Holy Spirit can move in and through people, leading them to speak in tongues, which can be seen as a form of divine revelation. Moreover, because they believe that the Spirit manifests itself in both women and men, unlike Fundamentalist and Evangelical denominations, Pentecostal denominations (e.g., Assemblies of God, Four-Square Gospel) have been at the forefront of ordaining women. It is among Pentecostals that we will find the charismatic "prophecy voters" mentioned earlier. That is, they are a subset of a subset of Evangelical Protestantism.

Where, then, will we find the white evangelical Christians who voted for Donald Trump? Most will be found within the traditional Evangelical Protestant denominations, but you'll also find them among Mainline Protestants. And there may be even a few Catholics, Eastern-Orthodox, and Mormons who might self-identify as evangelicals. Finally, there are a number of multi-ethnic congregations that are supposedly "white" Evangelical Protestant churches, and there are plenty of Black Protestant congregations that attract their share of white evangelicals.

In short, who "counts" as a white evangelical is hardly straightforward, suggesting that although there's little doubt that conservative Protestants voted overwhelmingly for Trump, we should take the 81% stat with a grain of salt.

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Why Do So Many Christians Support Trump? (Part I)

Over the last 4 years, I've been puzzled, no, disturbed, no, appalled, by why so many Christians support, and a handful seem to worship, Donald Trump. His presidency will almost certainly be remembered as one of the most corrupt in American history, but a wide-swath of Christians, and in particular evangelical Christians, seem fine with excusing away his many sins. What sins? Consider the following litany by my colleague, B.J. Strawser, an Air Force veteran and philosophy professor, explaining why he would vote for Biden (and not Trump) in this year's election (all of which he posted on Facebook on November 2nd):
  • Biden 2020: He understands and respects our military profession. (He won't pardon convicted war criminals.)
  • Biden 2020: He is a kind and empathetic human being. (He won't mock disabled people.)
  • Biden 2020: He is a decent human being. (He won't defraud charities.)
  • Biden 2020: He will not tolerate hatred and bigotry from his staff. (He won't have an unrepentant White Nationalist as a senior advisor.)
  • Biden 2020: He will fight for both needed, proper police reform and the countless good men & women who serve in our police departments. (He won't encourage police mistreatment of detainees.)
  • Biden 2020: He respects women. (He won't brag about committing sexual assault.)
  • Biden 2020: He respects the American sacred ideal of peaceful protest. (He won't tear gas peaceful protestors so he can pose for a shameful photo-op.)
  • Biden 2020: He will tell us the truth. (He won’t promote dangerous QAnon conspiracy theories.)
  • Biden 2020: He will respect our military; as the father of a soldier can. (He won't disrespect our military, war heroes, veterans, & former POWs.)
  • Biden 2020: He will be dignified and represent us respectfully on the world stage. (He won't be an international embarrassment... that is, he won't suck up to Putin while disavowing our own IC. Sorry, this one really sticks in my craw.)
  • Biden 2020: He will respect the press, even when they represent him in a way he doesn't like. (He won't call the free press the 'Enemy of the People.')
  • Biden 2020: He will act like an adult. (He won't call people names when someone hurts his feelings.)
  • Biden 2020: He will be financially transparent, and has already released the past 22 years of taxes. (He won't refuse to release his taxes.)
  • Biden 2020: He will respect all citizens as equal peers, no matter race, creed, or color. (He won't tell brown-skinned Congresswomen to "Go Back" to where they came from.)
  • Biden 2020: He will respect and heed our nation's intelligence experts. (He won't throw our nation's intelligence community under the bus.)
  • Biden 2020: He is a decent human being. (He won't run ads calling for the execution of 5 innocent black teenagers.)
  • Biden 2020: He is a decent human being. (He won't separate migrant families and put kids in cages.)
  • Biden 2020: He is a decent human being. (He won't prostitute porn stars & then keep them quiet with hush money.)
  • Biden 2020: He respects the rule of law and spirit of the power of the pardon. (He won't pardon a man convicted of lying to cover up his own crimes.)
  • Biden 2020: He will be a calm, reassuring leader in this impossible time. (He won't incite violence against his fellow citizens.)
  • Biden 2020: He will listen to the scientists. (He won't reject science.)
  • Biden 2020: He will take responsibility. (He won't say the buck stops elsewhere.)
  • Biden 2020: He will win honorably. (He won’t lie about supposed voter fraud in a craven plan to throw out legitimate votes.)
What is stunning is that many of the same Christians who blindly support Trump in spite of his many sins, targeted Bill Clinton for his moral failings. Consider, for example, what William Bennett, currently one of Trump's biggest supporters, said about Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal:
It is said that private character has virtually no impact on governing character,” but the truth of the matter is that “a president whose character manifests itself in patterns of reckless personal conduct … cannot be a good president.” (William Bennett, "The Death of Outrage: Bill Clinton and the Assault on American Ideals")

Clearly, in Mr. Bennett's mind, character is no longer a relevant criterion for being President, at least not if they're a Republican. Consider also the Southern Baptist Convention's 1998 Resolution On Moral Character Of Public Officials

Therefore, be it RESOLVED, That we, the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention, meeting June 9-11, 1998, in Salt Lake City, Utah, affirm that moral character matters to God and should matter to all citizens, especially God’s people, when choosing public leaders; and

Be it further RESOLVED, That we implore our government leaders to live by the highest standards of morality both in their private actions and in their public duties, and thereby serve as models of moral excellence and character; and

Be it further RESOLVED, That we urge all citizens, including those who serve in public office, to submit themselves respectfully to governing authorities and to the rule of law; and

Be it further RESOLVED, That we urge Southern Baptists and other Christians to fulfill their spiritual duty to pray regularly for the leaders of our nation (1 Timothy 2:1-4); and

Be it finally RESOLVED, That we urge all Americans to embrace and act on the conviction that character does count in public office, and to elect those officials and candidates who, although imperfect, demonstrate consistent honesty, moral purity and the highest character.
It appears that such resolutions only apply to Democratic Presidents.

Aside from the possible harm Trump has caused to American democracy and how for political reasons he exploited the partisan divide rather than heal it, I'm also concerned what damage he's wrought on Christianity. Or rather, the damage that the support of theologically conservative Protestants for Trump has wrought on Christianity

Robert Jones, a former professor and now head of PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute), has argued that long before Trump's election, the attitudes of younger Americans toward Christianity were becoming increasingly negative and pushing them toward other faith traditions. He notes "that the top three attributes young Americans associated with 'present day Christianity' were being antigay (91 percent), judgmental (87 percent), and hypocritical (85 percent)" (Jones, "The End of White Christian America," pp. 131-132). In short, as David Kinnaman, the President of the evangelical polling firm, the Barna Group, has put it, "Christianity has an image problem" (quoted in Jones, p. 132).

Anecdotal evidence suggests that Christianity's image problem has only become worse during the Trump presidency (e.g., see the book, "The Spiritual Danger of Donald Trump: 30 Evangelical Christians on Justice, Truth, and Moral Integrity," ed. by Ronald Sider). Thus, while evangelical Christians may have scored short-term gains (e.g., Supreme Court appointments) by supporting Trump, the long-term damage they have inflicted on Christianity could take several generations to fix.

My plan over the next series of posts is to consider various explanations for why so many theologically-conservative, (predominantly) White Christians supported and continue to support Trump. Some of the causes are demographic. Some are economic. Some reflect pragmatic choices made by Christians who can't stand Trump but see him as a vehicle for pursuing certain policies. Party affiliation also plays a role. But those explanations don't account for everything. There are some who see him as God's anointed agent and come close to worshipping Trump as if he's the Messiah (which, of course, means "anointed one").

I make no promises on how quickly I'll turn these posts out. But I will get them out eventually.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

There Will Almost Certainly Be Upsets

It is a truism that once the playoffs begin, there will be upsets. But this year's baseball playoffs could have a lot since the first round is only a best out of 3. As I've noted previously (and is detailed in Leonard Mlodino's book, "The Drunkard's Walk"), even a 7-game series isn't long enough to guarantee that the best team will win. For instance, if one team is expected beat the other 55 percent of the time, the weaker team will still win a 7-game series about 4 times out of 10. 
Or, if one team is expected to beat another team, on average, 2/3 of the time, the other team will still win a 7-game series about 20 percent of the time. In fact, in this latter case, teams would have to play a series consisting of at least 23 games to guarantee that the best team will win. And in the case of one team having "only" a 55–45 edge, the shortest series that would guarantee that the best team won would be 269 games.

That's why the probability that some of the best teams won't survive the first round of this year's MLB playoffs is pretty high. That's why, there will almost certainly be upsets.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Giants Fans Need to be Patient. Very Patient.

Giants fans need to be patient. Barring a minor miracle, it will probably be a couple of years before the Giants will once again compete for the National League West crown. And it's not because Gabe Kapler's a poor manager (there simply haven't been enough games at this point to know one way or another) or that Farhan Zaidi doesn't know a good prospect from a bad one (he's a large reason why the Giants minor league system is ranked much higher now than it was two years ago). Rather, the primary problem has been that up until recently the Giants have signed long-term contracts, as well as traded prospects for, aging stars with long-term contracts, thus making it difficult to replace older players with younger ones ("Retool or Rebuild: A Choice, Not a Question") (Note: Check out the Dodgers' 2013 roster -- only Kenley Jansen and Clayton Kershaw remain). Consider the following contracts (all of which were signed before the Giants hired Zaidi):
  • Brandon Belt (32 years old), 6-year contract, expires in 2021
  • Brandon Crawford (33 years old), 6-year contract, expires in 2021
  • Johnny Cueto (34 years old), 6-year contract, expires in 2021
  • Evan Longoria (34 years old), 6-year contract, expires in 2022 (team option for 2023)
  • Buster Posey (33 years old), 9-year contract, expires in 2021 (team option for 2022)
  • Jeff Samardzija (35 years old), 5-year contract, expires in 2020
As the list shows, the Giants have several players under contract who are on the downward side of their aging curve ("Aging Curves and Big Contracts"). Baseball players tend to peak in their late 20s. There are exceptions, of course. Hall of Famers tend to peak later, for instance, but there's probably only one future Hall of Famer listed above.

What's frustrating (or should be frustrating for Giants' fans) is that except for Posey's contract, all of these were signed AFTER the players reached their peak. Common sense and simple statistics would've told Giants ownership that most of these were bound to be bad deals. One doesn't have to be an expert to see that Belt and Crawford (and maybe Longoria) are having difficulty catching up with a fastball in the high 90s. And advanced metrics indicate that last season Crawford was only an average major league shortstop in terms of defense -- Note: Posey, Longoria, and Belt all ranked in the top three in the NL at there respective positions  ("SABR Defensive Index: Final 2019 rankings"). And to think there were fans who wanted to sign Madison Bumgarner to a long-term contract after last season! Has anyone noticed how much the velocity on his fastball declined from last year to this year?

So what are the Giants to do? A playoff-bound team might be willing to take on Cueto's contract he continues to pitch well (but the Giants should only do it if they can get some bonafide prospects out of the deal), however it'll be difficult to shed any of the others (Samardzija, of course, is an exception since he's a free agent at the end of 2020). The Giants probably shouldn't try to jettison everyone. Posey's going to be (and probably should be) a Giant for life. He's still one of the best defensive catchers in the game, and if his hip is fully healed, he may be able to put up decent numbers at the plate for a few more years. Plus, he can mentor whoever his replacement is (probably Joey Bart although the Giants drafted another catcher, Patrick Bailey from North Carolina State, back in June).

And they probably should keep Crawford around so he can work with Giant prospect Marco Luciano, who will turn 19 years old in September. Luciano appears to be the real deal. He can field like Crawford, but he also is showing power akin to San Diego shortstop Fernando Tatis, Jr. He'll be 20 years old on Opening Day in 2022, and there's a good chance he'll be ready for the big leagues then ("Giants' Marco Luciano to be MLB's No. 1 prospect in 2022, analyst says"). What about Belt and Longoria? Well, they're still among the best defensive players in the game, but it's unlikely that any team will be willing to take on their contracts, especially if they don't raise their batting averages (both are starting to hit better, though).

Giants fans need to start thinking about the 2020 season as one long tryout. Zaidi will hopefully continue to churn the roster looking for untapped potential (think Max Muncy and Justin Turner). He already may have found a couple of hidden gems in Mike Yastrzemski and Mauricio Dubon. Yastrzemski's been great, but he's 29, so he may only have a few good years left. With luck, he'll prove to be one of the exceptions. The jury's still out on Dubon. He played and hit well last season, but his performance has been underwhelming so far in 2020. His hitting has picked up of late, however, and he has the tools to play multiple positions, much like Chris Taylor of the Dodgers. Then there are the numerous prospects who have yet to make an appearance in the majors, such as catcher Joey Bart, outfielder Heliot Ramos, the aforementioned Marco Luciano, and pitchers Seth Corry, Tyler Cyr, and Sean Hjelle, to mention just a few. There's a good chance that one or more will pan out. Not all of them will. And we won't know which ones will and which ones won't for a couple of years.

Which is why Giants fans need to be patient. Very patient.