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OTHER VIEW: The times Trump's gut got it right

Lord knows we’ve seen plenty of downsides to President Donald Trump’s gut-based leadership style. Shooting from the lip has landed him, and us, in a sea of troubles ranging from the Mueller investigation to the post-Charlottesville, Virginia, meltdown.

But Trump wouldn’t be where he is today if his instincts weren’t sometimes keen. His gut gave him a boost in Washington this last week. And his gut can lead him through the North Korea crisis—if he lets it.

It was instinct that told him to pull the rug out from under Capitol Hill Republicans and strike a debt-ceiling deal with “Chuck and Nancy”—his new besties, the Democratic leaders of the Senate and House. GOP factions wanted to use the risk of a government default to advance some pet causes, but Trump’s gut told him that a brutal hurricane season is the wrong time for shenanigans. Shutdown showdowns and looming defaults represent everything wrong with modern Washington: the partisanship, the grandstanding, the reckless toying with the nation’s reputation. Even people who rank long-term fiscal policy high on their worry list understand that the dance of the debt ceiling is a sideshow, not a solution.

Conservatives were shocked by Trump’s impulsive deal because they keep making the mistake of thinking Trump is on their side. Trump is on no one’s side but his own. And his instincts told him, in a flash of recognition, that the people who put him in office are hungry for exactly this sort of behavior. They want him to deploy his unpredictable, no-apologies, anti-Washington mojo as a hammer to smash the baloney cycle. They want him to shaft the Republicans today and, after he lulls Chuck and Nancy into smugness, shaft the Democrats tomorrow. They measure his success by the volume of howls they hear from the in-crowd, regardless of party.

As for North Korea, Trump’s initial instincts were correct there, too. During the campaign and again as president, he recognized that North Korea’s reckless conduct is principally China’s problem to solve. After all, the Chinese want global influence to match the size of their economy. But how can they be credible on the world stage if they can’t keep their nearest neighbors in line? Mexico and Canada aren’t firing off missiles and stroking H-bombs. China’s hegemony starts in its own back yard.

Unfortunately, Trump has clouded that message and alarmed the world with blustery talk about unleashing “fire and fury” that is “locked and loaded.” The tone of those statements could not be more wrong. They steer attention away from China while lowering the president to the level of Kim Jong Un, a pair of schoolyard tough guys trading apocalyptic yo mamas.

Against that backdrop, some of the best news we’ve had lately was reported by my colleague David Ignatius, a sage and deeply wired analyst of foreign policy and national security. He disclosed that America’s sphinx-like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is hard at work below the radar prodding and encouraging China’s leaders to shoulder the responsibility they claim to seek. Tillerson’s goal is to see China walk Kim to the bargaining table, hold his feet to the fire and then enforce any agreements that are reached.

Apparently, Kim harbors the delusion that his nuclear missiles are going to cow the United States into abandoning its allies in the Pacific and South Asia—a result that would delight the Chinese, although they are rational enough to know it won’t happen. The reality, which China must help Kim see, is that he already has things about as good as they’re going to get. The U.S. role in the region assures a non-nuclear South Korea and a largely demilitarized Japan. Meanwhile, North Korea’s strategic importance to China assures Kim’s future without the need for rattling his nukes. And this status quo can continue indefinitely if Kim abandons his provocations.

At this incredibly delicate juncture, should Trump’s gut tell him to change direction, let’s hope he ignores it. His first impulse was the right one, and no more bluster is needed. If anyone had forgotten about America’s vast and terrible nuclear deterrent power, he has amply reminded them. Any use by Kim of his new arsenal will be punished as only an Ohio-class submarine—with at least 20 Trident II missiles each bearing 10 independently targetable hydrogen bombs—can do. No more need be said on that topic.

Keep the focus on China, not as a problem, but as the key to a solution. It’s true that a successful de-escalation of the crisis will strengthen China, but a stronger China is inevitable. What the world needs now is a better China.

Conservatives were shocked by Trump’s impulsive deal because they keep making the mistake of thinking Trump is on their side. Trump is on no one’s side but his own. And his instincts told him, in a flash of recognition, that the people who put him in office are hungry for exactly this sort of behavior.

Columnists
OTHER VIEW
Stapilus: Religious picture changes, even in Idaho

The meshing of religion and politics is as clear today as it ever has been: To a remarkable degree, poll after poll has found, you can tell how someone votes if you know where (or if) they go to worship.

And this picture is changing fast, maybe faster nationally than it ever has. Idaho is changing, too, and in some ways not at all obvious.

The latest source material for this is a massive report, released last week (at www.prri.org/research/american-religious-landscape-christian-religiously-unaffiliated/), by the Public Religion Research Institute, a “nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to conducting independent research at the intersection of religion, culture, and public policy.” It draws on a survey of more than 100,000 Americans, a huge sample, with detailed results at the state level.

One of its major takeaways is this: “White Christians, once the dominant religious group in the U.S., now account for fewer than half of all adults living in the country. Today, fewer than half of all states are majority white Christian. As recently as 2007, 39 states had majority white Christian populations.”

Idaho, as you may expect, is still one of those majority white Christian states. But the margin is shrinking. When it did a similar survey in 2007, PRRI found that Idaho was 67 percent white Christian (Latino and black Christians were categorized separately). Today, that figure stands at 56 percent.

The trend line is comparable all over. Utah dropped from 68 percent to 61 percent. Less-churched Oregon went from 57 percent to 43 percent. Washington state fell from 55 percent to 42 percent.

Further, an age gap is widening (part of the reason for the change). Many Christian groups are seeing much smaller percentages of affiliation within younger age groups. The report noted, “Only slightly more than one in ten white evangelical Protestants (11%), white Catholics (11%), and white mainline Protestants (14%) are under the age of 30. Approximately six in ten white evangelical Protestants (62%), white Catholics (62%), and white mainline Protestants (59%) are at least 50 years old.” Among evangelicals, this marks a downturn after a generation of steady, sometimes explosive, growth.

The report did also note “the Mormon exception”: “Although Mormons are a predominantly white Christian religious tradition, there is little evidence to suggest that they are experiencing similar declines. Currently, 1.9% of the public identifies as Mormon, a number identical to findings from a 2011 study of Mormons in the U.S. Mormons are also much younger than other white Christian religious traditions.”

That’s significant in Idaho, where Mormons are the largest religious group (at 20 percent of the population) in the state, ahead of evangelical Protestants, who make up 15 percent.

What may surprise a lot of people, though, is that the largest religious-based segment of the population in Idaho, larger than either of those two, is the unaffiliated, at 27 percent. Idaho’s rate is actually higher than the national percentage, which is 24 percent—three times what it was a quarter-century ago. Idaho is one of the 20 states where unaffiliateds are the biggest part of the population. That contrasts with 12 states where evangelicals are the largest group, or 11 where Catholics are, or the one (Utah) where Mormons hold the largest share. Idaho’s share of unaffiliates ranks just ahead of Wyoming and Nebraska—which would be understandable company—but also immediately behind California and Nevada.

These statistics mark some big changes. The effects aren’t likely to manifest immediately, or in the next two or three years. But religion eventually does have a big impact on politics, the economy and much else. Watch for it.