What’s Wrong With Esau?

The story of Jacob and Esau is one I’ve often found troubling.

On the one hand, Jacob is obviously the hero. It virtually says so; he’s the one from whom the Twelve Tribes descend, he’s the one we follow when the two part ways, he’s the one we still name children after to this day. I mean, you find plenty of people named “Jacob” or “Jake” or “Jack” or “James”, but how many “Esaus” do you know?

But on the other hand, Esau looks so much more like hero material. He’s the manly man, out in the open country, a hunter, and later a leader of men, where Jacob seems like a mama’s boy, at home in the woman’s world of the tented encampment. Where Esau seems gloriously wild, Jacob is… domesticated.

Furthermore, Esau always seems so much more honest than the shifty, cunning Jacob. Yes, he’s rash, but even that seems like more promising character material for God to work with than Jacob’s deceptiveness.

And yet the Bible unequivocally singles out Jacob for God’s blessing and Esau for Scriptural censure.

Why? What’s wrong with Esau?

The narrative portions of the Old Testament are frequently fairly opaque when it comes to levelling moral judgment against a person. Perhaps more aware than we that moral judgment of that sort is reserved for God alone, the narrative books are frequently quiet on the morality of an event, simply recording it as having happened.

The prophetic writings of Malachi record that God “loved” Jacob and “hated” Esau. The plot thickens. The situation becomes even more troubling. Doesn’t the Bible teach that God loves everyone? How can it say He hated Esau? What did poor old Esau do to deserve that?

Part of the answer lies in the fact that we are told that “loved” and “hated” may be a bit stronger than the precise sense of the Hebrew. It may more accurately read “Jacob I chose, and Esau I did not choose”.

All well and good, but the question still remains. Why Jacob and not Esau, either as well or instead? Why choose a shifty deceiver over an honest but rash man?

Hebrews 12 may be as close as we’re going to get to an answer. “See to it that no-one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the eldest son…”

Ok, we’re told that he was “godless”. That’s a word which isn’t exactly in the current lexicon enough that we have a firm grasp on its meaning. We think it’s a synonym for “evil” or “pagan” or “atheist”, and we’re apt to throw it around as a general-purpose insult meaning “anyone who doesn’t agree with us”. Godless liberals. Godless communists. Whatever.

What does it actually mean?

Hebrews 12 uses it as a summary statement of his major fault: that he sold his inheritance rights for a bowl of stew.

This apparently wasn’t some boyhood transaction between two kids, in which the ten-year-old persuades the naïve six-year-old to give him his pocket money in exchange for use of the blue crayon. No, for a start Jacob and Esau were twins, and Esau was the elder.

Second, the inheritance rights were a bit more important than pocket money. You’re going to get some more pocket money next week; the inheritance rights are your future. The double portion of the estate that you ought to get as the eldest son when your father passed on. As Abraham’s grandchildren, thousands of sheep, goats, camels and donkeys.

Also, this happened when they were a bit older than ten. Old enough that Esau was out hunting all day without supervision, while Jacob was back home cooking borscht. They may not have been full adults yet, but they were certainly close enough in age to the rite of passage that they knew what they were doing.

And that’s what makes Esau’s deed so incomprehensibly short-sighted as to constitute wilful sin. This is like Bill Gates ceding controlling interest in Microsoft, in exchange for a cheeseburger.

Jacob may be shifty and deceitful, but at least he values what is truly important.

In this scenario, “first sell me your birthright” doesn’t look like the deceitful serpent-whisper of temptation so much as a brother’s verbal sparring with his twin:

“Give me some of that red stew; I’m famished!”

“This is for Dad. Go make your own stew!”

“No! Give me stew now, I can’t wait any longer!”

“Sell me your birthright first!”

It reads like “bow down and lick my feet!” or “donkeys will learn to talk first” or “when pigs fly!”  The “yeah, right!” ludicrous request of someone who’s still cooking.

The incomprehensible thing is that Esau agrees to this.

The Bible seems fairly convinced that, as stupid as it sounds, he actually knew what he was doing. He just didn’t care right then. All he cared about was that he was hungry right then.

Given the situation, that these are Abraham’s heirs in a nomadic encampment the size of a small nation, there’s no way that anyone was going to let the eldest son and presumed heir get to the point of actually starving. Esau’s whining looks just like a petulant two-year-old wanting candy before supper.

This, then, is what’s wrong with Esau. He’s not merely rash or ill-counseled. He’s willing to trade something of ongoing importance (his property rights as the firstborn) and infinite value (including the promises made to Abraham that God had not fulfilled yet) for a bowl of stew. Something to fill his stomach for a few hours.

God can’t work with that, because that sort of mindset will trade away anything that God invests in return for a handful of Satan’s fake “magic beans”.

Even a shifty deceiver is better than that.


The Memory of Sacrifice

Having US Memorial Day so close to Pentecost has the tendency to obscure one or the other.

In practice, Memorial Day is a public holiday, so the more important holy day of Pentecost doesn’t get a look in.

Memorial Day is one of the more accessible US national holidays for me. Akin to Remembrance Day in the UK but with added flag-waving (and commercialism in the form of sales), I can participate without feeling too much like an alien, something that I’ve not yet fully mastered on the Fourth of July.

Its juxtaposition this year with Pentecost has got me thinking: is there any real overlap between the two?

Perhaps. Memorial Day is a day to remember the sacrifices of those who have laid down their lives for the country. We celebrate our freedom and honour those serving today, because we owe that very freedom in large part to those who laid down their lives in the past.

Pentecost is our annual celebration as Christians of the Holy Spirit coming upon the early Church. One of His jobs – perhaps the main one – is to point to Jesus Christ. To remind us of His sacrifice which bought our freedom.

I can see a parallel.

Not to say that the sacrifices are the same, because they aren’t entirely, but they are akin.

Jesus didn’t fight in the way that soldiers do, but He did lay down His life. The sacrifices of our soldiers bought the freedom of our country. His sacrifice bought a greater freedom: the freedom to part with sin, be forgiven and made new, be brought into the right relationship with God that we were created for.

So in amongst the commercial selling and the patriotic flag-waving (neither of which are intrinsically wrong), I will be using this day as a prod to memory of another Sacrifice.

The Work of the Spirit

What is the main ongoing work of the Holy Spirit?

Ask different types of churches and you’ll get different answers. Look at the actual practice of those same churches and you may come to different conclusions yet.

Draw people to Jesus. Regenerate the spirits of those who trust in Him. Enable believers to know that they personally are children of God. Empower the believers for miraculous signs and wonders. Empower the believers to live holy lives. Bring the Word of God to the church through prophetic utterances. Make the Scriptures come alive. Convict the world of sin, righteousness and judgment.

They’re all good answers, and most of us would probably agree that all of these are the work of the Holy Spirit today, unless you’re cessationist about miraculous signs.

The difference between our churches on this is mostly a matter of what we emphasise in practice.

More traditional, less Pentecostal/Charismatic type churches tend to emphasise the inward work – enlivening the Scriptures, quickening the spirit, enabling holiness of life – while more Pentecostal/Charismatic churches tend to emphasise the outward – demonstrating the Kingdom of God through miraculous signs and the prophetic word. We acknowledge it all as the work of the Holy Spirit, but in practice we tend to major on one or the other.

Most of the more Pentecostal/Charismatic churches have tended to so emphasise the outward at least in part out of a reaction against the cessationist or pseudo-cessationist milieu in which they came to be. It was a recognition that no, the Bible doesn’t actually say that once the canon of Scripture was completed that no-one could expect miracles any more. God is the same God today as the One who gave life to Lazarus, cleansed the lepers and parted the Red Sea. It might be that we don’t see many miracles today for the same reason that Jesus couldn’t perform many miraculous signs in Nazareth: because of unbelief.

But in some cases the pendulum has swung so far to the outward demonstrations of the Holy Spirit’s work that we have no practical place for His more behind-the-scenes work. We acknowledge in theory that the Holy Spirit’s work in us ought to result in changed lives and holy character, but practically speaking we only talk about His demonstrative work of miracles and healings. When we don’t know what to do, sometimes we seek a prophetic “now” word from the Lord rather than implementing the answers He has already given in the Scriptures. We don’t teach people how to study the Bible; we teach them how to hear from the Lord in prayer.

It’s important that we expect God to show up in miraculous ways. It’s important that we expect God to continue to speak to us. It’s important that we train people to listen to His voice. It’s unnatural when we don’t: He’s the same yesterday, today and forever, and He calls Himself “The Word”.

But part of hearing His voice is learning to recognise who is speaking, and if we don’t know what He’s already said in the Scripture how can we identify if this new word is really Him or not? Part of God showing up is that our lives are changed and we don’t act like we once did, not just that we’re breathless with emotion and feel all tingly.

It’s vital that our emotions be involved in our Christianity. We are whole people, and our whole being must praise His name – emotions too.

But we are whole people, and our whole being must praise His name – mind as well. It’s not enough to really feel emotionally that we are His child, as important as that is. We must learn to be like Him and think our Father’s thoughts as well.

What if the answer to our sung “I want to know You” is “There’s a Book in your hand that’s all about Me. Read it!

What if God shows up in our worship service without all the tingly feelings and bangs and noises?

What if His guidance and speaking comes mediated through His indwelling Presence in other believers and a big discussion and debate like the Acts 15 Council of Jerusalem?

What if the demonstration of His Presence is that we are all pouring out onto the streets to tell people about Him rather than that we’re all bouncing around in here practicing using His gifts on one another?

What if the evidence that we’ve really met with God is Jacob’s evidence? He spent all night wrestling with God face to face in bodily form, and he came away from the expecience not with new power for success and victory, but with a new name and a limp.

Not an empowering, but an impediment.  And not a temporary impediment, but a permanent reminder to him of his new-found dependence on the Lord and of God’s trustworthiness to be all that Jacob needed Him to be. If God were to do that in one of our modern Holy Spirit-led worship services, would we even recognise Him?

Sometimes I’m afraid the answer for a lot of us might be “no”.


Our question for today is “how should a follower of Christ treat the martial arts?”

Is it possible, not to mention wise, to try to combine martial arts like Kendo (“the Way of the Sword”) with the Way of Jesus (“Yesudo”?)?

It’s not completely an idle question. My 10-year-old daughter is campaigning to take beginners’ Tae Kwon Do classes at the local recreation centre over the summer, and I need to figure out whether this is something I can embrace or if I need to try and find some other outlet for her explosive energy.

I’ve never done any martial arts, not seriously. I got to try the sport of fencing a few times at school, which I suppose might be considered a Western martial art, but that’s as close as I get to experiential knowledge of the subject. Other kids went to karate or judo lessons. I never did. So all I know about it is what I’ve read and what I’ve heard.

There seem to be various Christian stances on the subject of martial arts in general and Eastern martial arts in particular. Many Christians dismiss the idea of martial arts as inherently opposed to the way of Christ, either because it teaches violent solutions and comes in opposition to Jesus’ teaching about turning the other cheek, or because the Eastern martial arts in particular are tainted by their origins in non-Christian religious worldviews. Others say it’s ok for Christians to practice martial arts, that they are not on the whole inherently irredeemable. Which is right?

Should Christians engage in self-defence at all?

I should say that I’m not opposed to violence in absolute terms. I’m in practice a near-pacifist, not a complete one. I tend to oppose violent solutions and the carrying of firearms more from a deep sense of how serious it is to take a life than from any absolute rejection of the idea that there might sometimes be situations in which it’s necessary. I will not carry a gun because I feel that doing so raises the temptation to make your own necessity, not because I am inherently opposed to all violence.

The Bible itself never unequivocally condemns violence in all circumstances. King David was a warrior and a man after God’s own heart. The Apostle Paul wrote that magistrates legitimately bear the sword. Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek does not mean that we should let evil people do whatever they like and never oppose them.

So I’m not philosophically opposed to the idea of personal defence (just the taking of life therein). In fact, for a woman the knowledge that she can take care of herself may be crucial in confidence-building, because men by and large don’t have to worry about things like rape. Society is pretty sick sometimes, and it doesn’t show that much sign of getting better.

Besides, I think that the focus and discipline would do my daughter good. She has a distinct tendency to go from calm to coming out swinging in nothing flat, and one thing that the martial arts are very good at teaching is the Biblical virtue of self-control.

But what about the charge that Eastern martial arts are inherently unChristian because of their origins in Eastern religious thought – Buddhism, Tao, Shinto?

It’s a serious charge. Eastern religious philosophy is fundamentally at odds with Christian teaching because it is rooted in a pantheistic (all is one, therefore all is God, therefore I am God) worldview, and teaches the nullification of self-identity as the means to realise this oneness with the Cosmos.

By contrast, Biblical teaching draws a hard line between the Creator and the Creation. God is the Maker of all things, not their sum. Christian meditation is the filling of the mind with truth, not the emptying of the mind of thought.

Are Eastern martial arts irreversibly tainted by their origins?

Well, back in the First and Second Centuries, the same question was asked about Greek philosophy. Many of the philosophers were functioning pantheists, if not actual pagans. Philosophical ideas of the cosmic Logos, the same ones the Apostle John radically reinterpreted in the opening chapter of his gospel, had more in common with Eastern ideas of chi or Star Wars ideas of the Force than with Jewish/Christian concepts of a personal Creator God. Was the whole discipline of philosophy tainted by its origins in Greek paganism? Many Christians thought so. “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” was the rallying-cry of those opposed to philosophy.

Others said no, that whatever its origins, in practice many philosophical ideas could be used to convey Christian truth, and that the whole system of study could be legitimately applied by Christians to the study of both the general (in the natural world) and specific (in Scripture) revelations of God. All truth is, after all, God’s truth.

It was quite a debate. In the end, the consensus was that even Greek philosophy could be baptised and redeemed, but there are to this day a lot of Christians who seem to embrace the opposing line of reasoning. Don’t do Santa Claus, because his origins are in the ancient pagan winter gods of the Northern European peoples. Don’t watch films, because Hollywood is evil. Don’t celebrate Halloween, because witches. Avoid this, it’s got demons in.

But I’ve pointed out before on this blog that this is a false line of reasoning. It’s known as “the genetic fallacy”: the idea that something or someone is inherently bad because of their origins in something bad. Can anything good come out of Nazareth?

Lamech, seventh from Cain, was the first polygamist and so ruled by the idea of vengeance that he was prepared to kill in response to being struck. Yet his three sons were the creators of the first nomadic shepherding lifestyles (Jabal), the first musical instruments (Jubal) and the first metalworkers (Tubalcain). Abraham was a nomadic shepherd. King David was a harpist. Ehud the judge was a metalworker. More, Jesus describes Himself as “the Good Shepherd”, God is recorded as “rejoicing over us with singing” and as “testing His people as a metalworker tests silver”. It’s irrational and unBiblical to reject something solely because of where it comes from.

This still leaves the issue of the functioning philosophical underpinnings of martial arts practice. Even if the Eastern martial arts aren’t tainted by their origins, aren’t they inseparably joined to Buddhist and Shinto religious ideas opposed to Christianity?

There seems a definite tendency among many Eastern martial arts toward becoming an all-embracing way of life, something that Western martial arts don’t seem to have in the same way. Boxing, the primary Western unarmed martial art, doesn’t come with a whole philosophical religious system attached. It’s solely a physical discipline.

Fencing doesn’t come with an entire system of governing your life by studying the sword’s path in the way Kendo seems to. Though in fairness I should mention that the Mediæval chivalric code may count as this sort of all-embracing way of life.

Even there, there’s a difference, though. The problem is not so much the “way of life” aspect of it (though if it becomes an idol it needs to be torn down) as what that way of life entails. The code of chivalry is, at least in theory, based on Christian ideals of fairness, justice, mercy and service. The chivalrous knight hands the sword back to his disarmed adversary, so that he might not win through mere fortuitous chance. Faith is one of the primary knightly virtues. Similarly, boxing has its Marquis of Queensbury rules. Most Eastern martial arts seem to teach you to take any advantage, to win at all costs no matter what you have to do to your opponent to get there. Eye-gouging and the destruction of an opponent’s joints are (so I’ve read) considered fair and legal. Different rules apply.

Similarly, many Eastern martial are all about using the physical discipline for spiritual ends. Saving your own soul through physical training and the nullification of self in meditation for the sake of “focus”. Self-help spirituality. Nirvana with fists flying.

It’s a different world.

Here, though, I need to recognise that there are different Eastern martial arts, and lumping them all together makes as much objective sense as treating the sports of boxing and wrestling as the same thing as Mediæval quarterstaff-fighting and the knightly code.

I don’t know enough about the differences to present an overview, but it certainly seems through my reading on the subject as though certain styles are more intrinsically linked to non-Christian worldviews than others. More physical styles such as (apparently) karate and tae kwon do are far easier to divorce from their Eastern religious philosophical roots than more “inward” styles such as aikido and tai chi.

A lot, presumably, will depend on the instructor. There are practitioners of Karate who say that it is irrational to attempt to practice the physical discipline without embracing the religious philosophy, and there are Christian practitioners who say that it is unChristian to suggest that the spirit of karate is not going to bow before the Risen Christ. We are the physical vessels of the Lord of the Universe; only the occult is in fact irredeemable. Followers of Jesus can and must bring redemption to all things, taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ and taking ground for the Kingdom of God.

The immediate fact of the matter is that I don’t know the local instructors. If they’re going to treat it as purely a form of sport or exercise – and from what I’ve read, Tae Kwon Do seems the martial art most naturally bent in this direction anyway – all well and good. But if they’re going to begin classes with self-emptying meditation, talk about “balancing your chi” and imbue my daughter with a pantheistic worldview, then I will have problems with that.

I guess the thing to do is to find someone to ask.

No Strings Attached

For a time before the advent of superhero films, special effects or even aerodynamics, the Ascension must have been truly astonishing.

We’ve all grown up in the era of Superman, Thor, Green Lantern, Iron Man and movie CGI. The idea of Jesus rising bodily into the air is a bit ho-hum. We’ve seen it a thousand times on the big screen. What – not even any bad guys to fight? Yawn. Bo-ring.

Even taken out of the realm of special effects, we’re accustomed to the idea that people can fly. Wilbur and Orville’s accomplishment is old news, so much so that the idea of flying between continents in a thing someone has built is… routine. Before that, the Montgolfier brothers’ hot air balloons sent people into the air for the first time. The idea of a jetpack isn’t too far-fetched; just a matter of working out the details. We have, as they say, the technology.

But in 30 AD, that was all far in the future. The idea of humans flying was the province of dreamers and magicians; the only things that flew were birds and bats.

And here is Jesus rising bodily into the air. No jetpack, no broomstick. I got no strings on me.

The point is that Jesus’ Ascension would have been completely outside their experience. No wonder they were left standing around gaping into the sky.

Even for us, I suspect it would be rather less humdrum if we saw it with our own eyes in the harsh light of afternoon rather than on a big screen in a darkened cinema. When it’s your Teacher, your boss, your friend whom you’ve known and hung out with on a daily basis for three-plus years.

Even for One who had cleansed lepers, given sight to the blind and raised the dead, this was new territory. Even for the Risen Christ who either walks through walls or teleports from place to place, this is unprecedented. Different from the post-Resurrection now-you-see-Him, now-you-don’t, it provides a finality and closure to the forty days of Appearings. That phase is over. The Son is going into heaven so that the Spirit can be sent.

There are numerous places I could go with an Ascension Day post: the Great Commission. The promise to be with us. “This same Jesus will return in the same way you saw Him go”. But what I wanted to do here is recapture some of the sense of surprised astonishment that those first disciples must have felt.

Unexpected Connectivity

Last Friday was my birthday, and I got LEGO, which automatically means it was excellent.

This is probably going to be another LEGO-nerdy post, so if you’re not interested, feel free to stop reading now.

Still here? Great!

In terms of sets, I got only one, but it’s an awesome one that I’ve wanted ever since I discovered it: the LEGO Ideas Exo-Suit originally designed by the amazing Peter Reid.

Building has certainly come a long way from the days of the original 1979 Space Cruiser and Moonbase. In those days, the 338 pieces of the Space Cruiser made it a huge set; now you get almost that many in a low-end to midrange model.

What’s the difference? In a word, greebles.

For those unfamiliar with the term, “greebles” is a sci-fi modelmakers’ term for all of the pipes and flanges and nodules and things that contribute to the illusion of functionality. In LEGO terms, I’m using it to refer to all the tiny bits and pieces of clips, pipes, connectors, robot arms and other elements that not only make wonderful meaningless detail but also offer new and unique construction possibilities.

The Exo-Suit, for instance, is assembled almost entirely from the things. In the entire model there are maybe ten or twelve bricks that would have been familiar to me as a child; the rest is all new pieces. And even what would have been familiar is used in unfamiliar ways: 1×1 “eyehole” plates fuse with old-style robot arms, bricks stand on their sides or upside-down, minifigure tools get new life as structural connectors…

It’s going to revolutionise my building.

The other things that are going to revolutionise my LEGO building are the two LEGO books I got for my birthday. The first, Brick Wonders, details various “wonders of the world” built in LEGO. Beginning with the Classical seven Wonders, it goes on to detail other ancient wonders including Angkor Wat, the Great Wall of China and Stonehenge, modern wonders including the Panama Canal and the Hoover Dam, and natural wonders including the Grand Canyon and the Great Barrier Reef.

Along the way, there are lots of instructions for building several mini-models, such as triremes, fountains, wind turbines and Mediæval houses, and it’s these that are going to contribute to revolutionising my building, as well as one crucial piece of information concerning relative LEGO geometry.

Any LEGO builder knows that one standard brick is exactly three of the flat “plates” high. This is basic building geometry and lets you combine plate elements alongside brick elements for different effects.

But what I didn’t know was that two studs’ width is exactly the same as five plates’ height.

Oh, I knew that you could pin a Technic 1×4 brick’s 3 holes vertically to 2 horizontal Technic bricks by sandwiching 2 plates between them, but I hadn’t calculated out the implications of that. Specifically, I hadn’t worked out what that meant in terms of the new-style bricks with studs on the sides: that you could combine vertical and horizontal bricks into a single shape without gaps.

The other book that’s going to revolutionise my building techniques is Peter Reid and Tim Goddard’s LEGO Space: Building the Future.

Yep, this is the same Peter Reid that designed the original Exo-Suit mech, and it tells the story of the exploration of the Solar System and beyond through those early LEGO Space sets, or more precisely, from new creations derived from that unique visual style but making full use of the building capabilities of new bricks.

His vision of the Classic Space LEGO universe is vastly different from my own – I always pictured the action happening on far more distant worlds orbiting other stars – but it might be truer to the LEGO Group’s original concept; after all, it was the “Space Cruiser and Moonbase”. But this is not really going to affect how I perceive the old Classic Space sets. Peter Reid’s LEGO creations are awesomely cool, but his near-space vision is only one possibility among many. Yes, the crater baseplates they used to sell were grey. But all that meant to me was that it probably wasn’t Mars (I did, however, consider spray-painting my crater baseplates orange to make Martian terrain, but I wasn’t sure I wanted anything that permanent).

No, what’s going to change is my whole style of building.

This book, too, has instructions for a number of the models, usually the simpler and less cool ones. But it also serves as a massive visual reference for what might unexpectedly connect to what.

Already my LDD (LEGO Digital Designer – a computer program for building things in LEGO) modeling is changing. Witness the hoverbikes I produced before the revolution (very much in the style of the ones I made as a child) and after (my own unique design, but definitely drawing on Peter Reid’s creations for inspiration):

Hoverbike from before my birthday

Hoverbike from before my birthday

The new Mark 3 Hoverbike

The new Mark 3 Hoverbike

I haven’t had much time around my paid employment to put the new techniques to work in a model using real bricks, but I have several ideas Stay posted on my LEGO blog Square Feet.

If I want to draw a serious lesson from all this, I guess it’s how things can unexpectedly fit together. I often get comments from people wondering how on earth my wife and I are together. Apparently there’s something about the way our relationship works that completely baffles many Americans’ expectations.

Now I have a new metaphor for why it works. It’s like LEGO. You see a modern Master Builder creation with pieces used upside-down and on their sides and in , and it looks like “how on earth did those fit together?”

And then you put on your own Master Builder glasses and begin to trace out the shapes of the pieces, and you go from “what on earth…?” to “Aha! I could do that!”

Maybe that’s the point. Stop freaking out about how it’s so unnatural or bizarre that it works, and maybe learn something you can replicate in your own situation. God, the One true Master Builder, put us together. I guess I should be thankful you weren’t in charge.

A Brit’s Guide to the American Political System

Apparently, ’tis the season to declare your ambition to become President of the USA at the end of 2016.

I seldom feel my foreignness quite so much as when I turn to things political. On the surface, it seems like our two systems ought to be more similar than different. The US is a democracy. Britain is a democracy. Seriously, how different can they be?

The answer is “quite a lot”, actually.

It often amazes me how little grasp most of us actually have on each other’s political systems, and I thought it would be fun to talk through the differences. My family back in the UK occasionally ask questions about US politics, questions that from an American would be strange things to ask. And I’m often asked odd questions by Americans about how British politics works, too. Answering these questions isn’t always easy when the questions themselves assume a completely different setup. It really is a different world out there, and this post is an exploration of a little bit of how.

Firstly, though, a disclaimer. This is my list. Undoubtedly there will be things that I’ve misunderstood, or got wrong, or exaggerated, or which are Texan rather than American. Equally, there are probably things I’ve misremembered or whitewashed from the UK; I’ve been out of my hime country for almost 15 years now, and distance can warp memory.

This is supposed to be a fairly light-hearted look at a fairly weighty subject; I don’t mean any offence, so please try not to take any if I accidentally do. It’s by no means an exhaustive list, just a sampling of some of the things I find weird, or different, or odd.

Without further ado, then, my personal “guide” (using the word loosely) to the US political system:

  1. Americans vote on everything.

This seems like a “well, duh”. The USA is a democracy, right? Therefore, they vote on who their leaders are.

That’s all well and good, but Americans vote on everything, even down to the local sheriff (like a police chief but a bit different somehow), and probably the dog catchers and primary school crossing guards, too.

I’m only exaggerating a little bit. US ballot forms are a bewildering array of Congresspeople, State government positions, judges, city and county officials, school boards and other positions, with candidates standing for each.

I still struggle to get my head around how a law enforcement officer can have any reasonable authority to enforce the law if people whose friends he might have had to arrest get to vote him out of office. I wonder how the judges that ought in my head to stand to the side of partisan politics and operate law and justice equally to all became holders of an office with visible and expected political partisanship.

It’s weird the offices Americans consider it necessary to have a public vote for. It makes everything seem a lot more party-political, but you could argue that in Britain the partisanship is just disguised. At least in America it does what it says on the tin.

I can’t see that the system works any better than the British system, but it doesn’t work noticeably worse, either. It’s strange to me that you elect your judges rather than appointing them, but then, you don’t have a Head of State who is actually and truly above party politics like ours is. Americans just vote on absolutely everything. It’s the way they are, and it seems to work for them.

This subject leads us neatly on to…

2. The Primaries

The whole primary system is weird to me. Let me get this straight – you’re holding an election to find out who your candidates are going to be in the main election in six months to a year’s time? Right…

You’re only eligible to vote in a maximum of one of these “primary” elections, determined by whether you register to vote as a Democrat or a Republican. If you register to vote as an independent (ie neither party), it may cut down on your junk mail a bit, but you don’t get a vote in who the candidate is going to be.

What party you register as does not affect your ballot in the real election, which leads to the possibility of a kind of tactic analogous to the UK’s practice of “tactical voting” ( This is when the party whose policies you actually favour stands no chance in the local constituency, you might vote for the party who’d be your second choice, in order to minimise the chance of the candidate you really don’t want getting in). In this tactic, people deliberately register as the “wrong” party in order to try to get either the least worst candidate for that party so as to minimise the damage if they get in, or the worst possible candidate in order to maximise your own party’s chances.

The apparent net effect of the primary system is to drive party politics from the extremes. Turnout in primaries is typically lower than in actual elections, even as a percentage of the eligible vote, which means that only the hardcore party faithful tend to vote. Which means that those who want to win have to position themselves to attract their own party’s core and extremists first, providing their eventual opponent in the real election with all sorts of potential ammunition and making themselves look like a nutjob in the eyes of the watching moderates as likely as not.

There may be something of a partial exception to this in Texas, because the state is so much a single-party Republican bulwark that the Democratic party don’t even waste their time and money fielding candidates for many of the positions, leading to the odd situation of a single-party race with the candidate only needing to get a single vote in order to win the election. In these cases, the election is really decided back in the primaries, which means only a tithe of those who have the vote get to pick who the state supreme court judges (for example) are going to be.

In Presidential elections it’s even weirder. Each state has its own primaries, one state after the other, with much the same slate of Presidential candidates. But the issue may well be already decided by the time your state gets around to voting, or your preferred candidate might have already dropped out before you get a chance to vote for them. There seems to be a particular scuffle over the pecking order, and the primaries get pushed earlier and earlier as everyone tries to jump their state to the front of the line.

For the world’s foremost democracy, it all seems a bit unrepresentative. Like using the mechanics of democracy in order to ensure that the least possible amount of people have a real say.

In addition, it contributes to the sense that America is always in election season. Either they’ve just had a primary election, or they’re just preparing for a real one, or they’ve just had a real election, or they’re preparing for another primary. There is no escape.

It’s all very odd. Not to mention frustrating.

3. The President is not a Prime Minister

The inverse of this one sort of scared my wife when we were living in the UK, I think. It’s easy as a Brit to think of the President as more or less like the Prime Minister, with the added benefit of being a Head of State like the Queen as well. He’s talked about as “the most powerful man in the world”, and while there’s some truth in this (he is Head of State for the most powerful single nation on the planet, a nation whose military budget dwarfs that of the next six nations put together), in many ways the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom has a lot more direct power than the President of the United States.

Due to the institutionalised mistrust of authority enshrined in the US political system, the power of the President is carefully circumscribed. Whereas the Prime Minister is always the leader of the majority party in Parliament, and thus has the theoretical backing of a majority of its members, the President need not be from the same party as a majority of Congress: either the Senate, the House of Representatives or both may be dominated by the opposing party.

In addition, whereas the Prime Minister is a member of the legislature by virtue of the way our system is set up, in America the legislative (law-writing) function of government is carefully kept out of the President’s ambit. He has the limited ability to write administrative rules (called Executive Orders) and see to the enforcement of the law, but he may not create legislation. At all.

A law has to be created in both the House and the Senate, and passed by both chambers before it can become law. Then, even if both houses pass the bill it has to be signed into effect by the President, who holds a veto that only a two-thirds majority of both chambers can override. And then after that the Supreme Court get their opportunity to scotch the whole thing as potentially contrary to the Constitution.

It appears designed to be dysfunctional. The wonder is that anything ever gets done at all, not that so little is managing to get through the whole morass of a system at present.

I know it scared my wife how much authority we Brits are prepared to invest in a single person, but it scares me sometimes how much dysfunction, ineffectuality and chaos Americans are prepared to accept as their government “working properly”. There it is. I find the possibility of genuine anarchy scarier than the possibility of tyranny.

4. The Electoral College is nothing to do with educating voters

When electing a President in America, you don’t directly elect the President. What you’re actually doing is electing people who promise to vote the way the state tells them to in the actual election for President in Washington DC. These “electors” are proportional in number according to the population of the state, with no state, even basically uninhabited ones like Wyoming, getting fewer than three electors. All of these Electoral College votes from a state go to a single presidential candidate, at least in most states. By state, the Presidential nomination is run on a first-past-the-post basis. What this means in practice is that most states tend to lean one way or the other. We know about this in Britain: a donkey would win the election if it stood as the Conservative candidate in Epsom and Ewell, and the same donkey would win in Glasgow if it stood for the SNP. But what the two-party system means is that if you’re a Democrat in Texas or a Republican in Massachusetts, you almost might as well stay home on polling day, because all of your state’s votes are going to be going to the other candidate.

The Electoral College is a relic of the days before instantaneous communications, where horses and sailing ships were the fastest ways to get around and it could take weeks to get to the capital from where you actually lived and voted.

Back then, there was no logistical way to even know reasonably who the candidates were going to be at a remote local level; you needed some way of transferring the power of the free voting of localities to a central location and election without involving continent-wide upheavals every 4 years.

Ok, so it makes sense for 1799, but this is 2014. We can Skype with people on the other side of the world. We have the technology to relay the choice of the people of Texas as soon as the ballots have been counted. The Electoral College is, on the face of it, a bit silly.

Of course, it’s not like Britain doesn’t do a lot of silly things that make no sense any more, just because we’ve always done it that way. For example, the Lord Chancellor, right up until Tony Blair’s government axed the position, sat on a ceremonial beanbag-like seat called the Wool Sack. And we have less excuse, because we can change our constitutional arrangements just by passing a law, whereas America has to set up a Constitutional Convention and go through massive amounts of hoopla and rigmarole if they want to amend their constitution even a little bit, and once you let that genie out of the bottle, anything is possible. But it’s a weird system nonetheless.

5. There are only two parties

Britain has three main ones (the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats – who are not related to American liberal Democrats), three or four regional parties like the Scottish National Party in Scotland or Plaid Cymru in Wales, and several smaller ones like UKIP, the Green Party and so on.

By contrast, US politics is remarkably monochrome. Technically there are other parties – the Libertarian Party (who are like the Republicans on steroids) and the Green Party – but they are so tiny that they effectively don’t count. The Libertarians might get as many votes as the Labour Party in the constituency of Epsom and Ewell, and the Greens wish they could do that well.

What this means is that there aren’t a lot of options. If, for example, you don’t favour abortion on demand as a matter of personal convenience, you virtually have to support the Republican candidate if you want that viewpoint upheld, even if you think the rest of the Republicans’ policies are dumb. As a contrasting example, if you don’t favour large government subsidies to big business, you’d better vote for a Democrat if you want that position upheld, even if you think the rest of the Democratic Party’s positions are what’s ruining the country. If you hold a view other than that espoused by either the Democrats or the Republicans, you don’t really have many options. Technically there’s the option of a write-in candidate, in which you ignore the options presented and write in the name of someone else, but for that to be anything other than a protest vote and wasted ballot, you apparently have to follow certain procedures like approaching the write-in candidate beforehand and getting their permission to be a write-in. Apparently the possibility of Wile E. Coyote for President scares enough politicians that they’ve tried to emasculate the write-in option with procedures.

This is not to say you don’t play “least worst option” in British voting, but you generally have more people to choose between.

6. Organisations are people, too

Perhaps most baffling to me is the way organisations, including profit-making companies, religio-political nonprofit organisations such as Focus on the Family (Yes, I know I keep harping on them when it comes to this subject. They make themselves a target), and apparently everyone else as well, get to tell you who to vote for.

It’s called a political endorsement, and modern US politics seems incapable of even limited functionality without it.

Apparently the idea is that the right of free speech enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution cannot be limited to individuals. Organisations have freedom of speech as well, including corporations, and part of this, apparently, is the ability to say “this is who we think would make a great President” and to back up that stated endorsement with bucketloads of cash in donations. Or just to make the bucketload-of-cash donations without saying a thing, so that no-one really knows that company X or organisation Y is bankrolling candidate Z.

In Britain this would probably, in the case of a pseudo-charitable organisation like Focus on the Family, result in the loss of tax-exempt charitable status, and in the case of a corporation result in massive and messy public investigations for corruption of the political process. You can say as an individual “I think so-and-so would make a great Prime Minister” and make political donations as an individual, but you’re not supposed to as an organisation.

But here in America, it’s a Constitutionally-guaranteed right. Yay. Corporations, unions and other big monied organisations get to bankroll politicians however they so choose, and tell you that General Motors wants you to vote Republican. Welcome to the Land of the Free, paid for by Monsanto.

In fairness I have to point out that it’s not as though the UK doesn’t have electoral systems and procedures that are manifestly unfair or easy to corrupt. Just not this one that I remember.

7. What Middle Ground?

I touched on this already in talking about the primary system, but it’s one of the main differences in ethos between British and American party politics.

In Britain, the positions of the three main parties on any given issue are comparatively close together and may well overlap in terms of policy. Each party has their own core policies, but in US political terms what you have are three centrist or centre-left political parties.

I think the US political spectrum as a whole is centred further to the right of the British centre, though this could just be an artifact of perception caused by living in what may be the most right-wing state in the nation. But American politics is the politics of extremity. The Republican Party tends towards a rather Ferengi-like economic policy with a very conservative, traditionalist social policy. The Democratic Party tends toward what in Britain would be a left-of-centre economic policy coupled with strongly progressive or liberal social ideas. Apparently, if you’re an out-and-out economic socialist with traditionalist/conservative social views, you’re probably not an American.

8. Political advertising

In Britain, the main parties get a certain number of allotted TV segments in which to communicate their core message to the people. They all get the same number of these “party political broadcasts”, and that’s their TV allotment for this election cycle, apart from if they can contrive to make the TV news in a positive light. They can’t buy advertising space on TV. It’s against the rules. It’s all very even-handed, showcasing the national devotion to the idea of fair play.

In America, apparently even-handedness is an infringement of the freedom of speech, so US political parties have the opportunity to buy as much television advertising space as they can afford. This contributes to driving the political process by how much money a candidate can raise, and tends to make political advertising almost inescapable (unless you live in a virtual single-party state like Texas, where you have exactly the same chance of avoiding it as RMS Titanic had of avoiding icebergs. That is, it’s possible, but it’s probably not going to happen).

US political ads are generally, at least in current practice, an opportunity to try and paint the other guy as dishonest or crooked in some way rather than as an opportunity to talk about what you plan to do. All very disheartening, but it doesn’t have to be that way. People have been turned off from voting for someone by their choice to run negative campaign ads about the other candidate before now, and I think a lot of the current crop could do with being reminded of that. Still, no-one could say they lack opportunities to get their message across. It’s more than a little weird, and in my mind could be better, but there are probably reasons why the British system of allotted broadcasts is unAmerican and would not work. But it offends me the way Americans seem willing to let the power of money be one of the main driving forces of their political process.

9. Polite political interviewers

It often surprises me how comparatively restrained and polite American interviewers are to their politicians.

In some ways this is a good thing. It shows that people by and large still have at least a modicum of respect for political officeholders, and they get to see journalists treating their political leaders relatively respectfully. And in return, the leaders in question tend to actually answer direct questions put to them. The answer may not be all that substantive, but you never hear an American politician saying, “that’s a very interesting question” before going on to ignore it and talk at length about their own (different) talking points.

British political journalists, by comparison, are attack dogs. They need to be, because British politicians are past masters of the art of taking whatever they are asked and ignoring it in favour of talking about whatever they want to. British political interviews are something like a wrestling match in which politician and interviewer vie for control of the conversation through main force. The idea that a politician might actually answer a question is shockingly naïve in the British political sphere.

It’s something of a secret daydream of mine to unleash British political journalists on US politicians, just to watch the feeding frenzy. It would be rather like pushing baby chickens into a barrel full of hungry piranhas.

Having polite interviewers says good things about the honour of the country as a whole, but it’s definitely weird.

10. Red equals Blue

Lastly, something trivial but nonetheless strange.

In America, the colour associated with the conservative Republican Party is red and the colour associated with the liberal Democratic Party is blue.

This is the exact inverse of the UK, where red has always been the colour of the economic left due to its associations with socialism, and blue has always been the colour of conservatism due to its associations of blue-blood traditionalism and true-blue loyalism. The third party, the Liberal Democrats (who are, to reiterate, nothing like American liberal Democrats), use yellow or gold as the third primary pigment, representing a third way beyond the partisan bickering of what were in recent history the two main parties.

In the UK, the colours make some sort of objective sense. In the USA, they’re apparently selected at random.

It still amuses me sometimes, though, to see conservative Republican candidates decorating their political signage with red stars. Stars, of course, have obvious patriotic symbolism, but when they are red, they might have other associations: Part of me is always saying “you forgot the hammer and sickle”.

I have to say, though, that for all this, the system doesn’t necessarily work any worse than the British system. It has its foibles and injustices, but I have no reason to get smug, because so do we. Churchill once characterised representative democracy as “absolutely the worst possible form of government, except for all the other forms of government that have been tried”. It isn’t perfect, but it’s better than anything else. And it’s probably not quite as irretrievably corrupt as some of us like to pretend, either.