On King Street in March

Even though the occasion finds us thousands of miles apart, I'm overjoyed to be celebrating 365 days of marriage to my beautiful wife. Plus, some random thoughts on news consumption and Beth Moore

Yesterday I took a long walk down King Street, the busiest thoroughfare in downtown Charleston, and it was as packed as I’ve ever seen it. Mostly-masked shoppers, restaurant-goers, and tourists were out in full force.

A year ago today, fifty-two Saturdays ago, my wife MW and I walked down King Street together. Charleston was locked down and awaiting the arrival of COVID-19, and for all of us it was a surreal, spooky time. There were no shoppers and tourists on the street, or really anywhere downtown — the city looked like a recently abandoned movie set.

The streets were empty that day, but my heart was as full as it has ever been.

Two hours before that walk, when MW and I stood before 12 close friends and family members and took our marriage vows in a small AirBnB called the “Carriage House,” I was kind of in shock. I couldn’t believe it was really happening. Part of it was the fact that we and our families had scrapped our originally-planned large gathering in Cary, NC and planned this new wedding in less than a week — a relatively complex challenge with a lot of moving parts. There was also the reality that new restrictions were being ordered every day and we weren’t sure until that Saturday morning that our tiny celebration would even be allowed.

Mostly, I just couldn’t believe this wonderful human being — my college acquaintance, turned close friend, turned girlfriend and then fiancée, was actually agreeing to spend her life with me.

Writing this now, I’m still in a bit of a daze. It’s crazy to me that it’s been a year.

I won’t try to capture what this entire year has meant to me — nothing I can write here would be remotely adequate. While COVID limited some of our travel and recreational opportunities, it maximized the amount of quality time we were able to spend together cooking, running, reading, and talking. We went from being a long-distance couple, flying from Chicago and Charleston to see each other once every few months, to spending almost every free moment together. I learned quite a bit about myself — not always pleasant — and every day I saw more and more of my wife’s inner radiance, beauty, kindness, grace, and strength. To the extent the pandemic dictated the circumstances of our wedding and our first year of marriage, its effects have in some important ways been a blessing for us.

Today we’re celebrating with a virtual dinner — I’m back in our Charleston apartment for the next five months and MW is setting up our new place in Kaneohe. Just about two weeks ago, MW flew to Hawaii to start her new job as a junior officer on a submarine, so we were able to spend all of our first year of marriage in the same location — first here in Charleston, then three months in Groton, CT. Given our respective career paths and training schedules, the amount of time we were actually together was pretty extraordinary and we cherished all of it. The fact that we’ll spend large portions of the next three years away from each other makes this past year feel even more precious and worth celebrating — so today is a happy day for us despite our physical distance.

Many of you reading this have played a role in supporting, loving, and praying for MW and me this past year. We appreciate that so much, and thanks for reading this short reflection on our anniversary.

Another thing that happened in March 2020, a year ago, was a fun encounter I had with Beth Moore, the evangelical teacher and author whose books were usually lying around my house growing up and whose study guides I would find my mom meticulously annotating most mornings. It was the last time I attended church in person before COVID took us all virtual for a while, and I was visiting Progressive Baptist Church on the south side of Chicago. Charlie Dates is the pastor there — he’d spoken at my church’s men’s retreat and I’d heard his address to the ERLC’s MLK50 Conference in 2018, and so I wanted to visit his church during my time in the city.

But Dates didn’t give the sermon when I attended Progressive that day, because Beth Moore (of all people) was visiting. She delivered a rousing talk about John 15. After the service, she met individually with congregants, so I talked to her briefly and she was kind enough to record a short “hello” video to my mom.

That remains an incredibly special memory for me, but a bit of poignancy was added to it over the last year as Pastor Dates and Mrs. Moore each left the Southern Baptist Convention at least in part due to certain SBC groups’ persistent expressions of hostility, slander, and dismissiveness towards their perspectives on social/racial justice and political activism. I followed those stories with great interest given my prior membership at SBC churches, the leadership role I held in the SBC’s collegiate ministry group at the Naval Academy, and the fact that I’m currently attending an SBC church (though I am not currently a member).

I won’t say too much here, and would be glad to talk individually with anyone about why this is a significant development to me. Basically I believe it’s important that the American church — especially churches in the conservative or orthodox tradition — remain a place where disagreements about political and social issues do not lead to the breaking of fellowship. I do not believe demanding total conformity on all political and social issues of the day (like whether or not you voted for President Trump, or view racial justice through the lens of Critical Race Theory) from fellow Christians is a sign of theological faithfulness — rather, I am concerned that it’s a sign of an unbiblical tribalism and an illiberal, un-American factionalism or “party spirit” that has the potential to make the church virtually indistinguishable from other zealous cliques in society. I’d be eager to hear your thoughts on these events and patterns as well.

Completely switching gears, or maybe not: I was recently talking to a close friend who told me about a debate within his family about news and media consumption. One side of the family believes that one should read, or watch, sources from a broad variety of viewpoints, and then attempt to discern which viewpoint seems most accurate. As we talked, this seemed like obviously the best strategy to me.

But my friend described another segment of his family that believes one should instead choose a couple of news or media sources that adhere most closely to the truth (that is, his or her worldview), and consistently read only those sources. I told him very definitively that this latter view is terrible because it feeds people’s confirmation bias and echo chambers, it makes people unacceptably closed-minded, and that is what is wrong with America today, etc.

Thinking about it a bit more, though, I realized my own habits are a bit more complex than I wanted to imagine during that conversation. I do attempt to hear a broad variety of viewpoints, for example, I follow Twitter accounts of people from across the political spectrum. I try to comprehend their thoughts and rhetoric — to “hold their idea in my head” for a minute — to ascertain whether there is anything I can gain from them. I also read the New York Times, The Economist, POLITICO, and The Dispatch, and I constantly flip between CNN, MSNBC and FOX when I’m watching TV news (much to the annoyance of others in the room). With each of these sources, I try to be conscious of bias and slant and consume it all with a proverbial “grain of salt” — and I appreciate sources that are honest about their worldview or perspective instead of trying to disguise or deny it it.

There are a few sources, on the other hand, whose published work I consume relatively uncritically and trustingly — because I really do trust the people behind them so much and I know from years of corroboration that they espouse worldviews that I respect and aspire to. Those people are Russell Moore and David French (on issues of culture, politics, and faith) and Kori Schake (on civil-military relations and international affairs). Running not far behind is my friend and mentor David Axelrod (on American political institutions and civil discourse, not ideology or worldview). Insofar as we consider them a “media source,” I would also put sermons from my current pastor Philip Pinckney in that first category.

That’s literally it — it’s a short list.

If one of those five people writes or says something, I spend a lot less time trying to discern whether it is accurate or not and a lot more time thinking about how I should internalize it and apply it to my personal life and professional outlook (or even share it with others). I’ve “opened my heart,” so to speak, to their input and it would take some kind of shocking revelation for me to start rejecting their authority or influence.

What I will not ever do is confer that same status of trustworthiness or authority on an outlet or an organization. The closest I get is with The Economist, because I always learn so much valuable insightful, information whenever I read it and their conservative editorial perspective is close to my own on institutions and international relations. But I still feel like I’ve seen enough of the industry to understand that news and media companies do not and simply cannot always operate according to incentives that are consistent with absolute truth-telling and intellectual honesty. Gone are the days when we can just flip on the TV and accept everything being said as “the way it is,” and because of those modern click/ratings-driven incentive structures, widespread skepticism of the “mainstream media” strikes me as basically well-founded and probably healthy.

However, I do not believe that healthy media skepticism should lead to total disbelief of everything “the media” puts forward — or as a friend put it recently, “when they say something, I just believe it’s probably the opposite.” I believe it’s probably not the opposite. It’s unreasonable to imagine that most people who enter the competitive journalism/news industry and pour their lives into it actually want to tell you the opposite of what’s true. And what’s more, we all trust someone when we consume nearly any fact — the real dilemma is discerning who deserves that from us. Is the purveyor of information someone you actually believe to be a thoughtful, wise steward of authority — that is, the inherent power that comes with a platform? Could we reasonably believe they earned their power and platform through honest, good-faith work? Or is it more likely that they are simply seeking fame through their rhetorical ability, charisma, or marketing skill, having taken a relatively easy or murky path to acquiring their audience and influence? Usually we can’t know for sure, but that’s something I think about a lot when choosing news sources.

Last bit on this, and I apologize for my rambling — I try very hard to avoid news sources that act as “outrage aggregators,” compiling and presenting random, relatively minor instances from around the country or world that are offensive or shocking. I just will not read a story about a Disney actress being “canceled” for a tweet, or an eighth-grader being sent home from school for his views on gender identity, or a McDonald’s employee getting cursed at by a customer about mask wearing. Not to say those stories have zero meaning or importance. If I were a Disney executive, a voter or teacher in that eighth-grader’s school district, or a manager at that McDonald’s, I would care quite a bit about those stories and would do everything I could to resolve the situations.

But I am not any of those things, I’m just an officer in the Navy trying to learn stuff about naval nuclear propulsion plants, preparing to lead a division later this year, and doing the best I can in my very small sphere of influence. I believe carrying around rage or irritation about everything wrong that happens within the United States would negatively impact my ability to make things better where I am — and I think we ought to be be suspicious of people who intentionally make very “localized” instances into national news stories to anger us or to confirm our preconceived narratives about who is “out to get us.”

To anyone who’s read this far, I’m very curious how you get your news. Most of the time when I ask people that, they list a bunch of news outlets — which is of course interesting, but what I really want to know is how you decide what you read and what you ignore. Email me back and let me know!

“Sea state” refers to the conditions on the surface of a body of water — but I also like the way the name evokes the relationship between the Navy and the nation, or Samuel Huntington’s civil-military relations book The Soldier and the State.

Speaking of news sources, I recently started producing a weekly newsletter with about 30 Navy and Marine Corps junior officers in which we are trying to provide news clips and professional development resources to our fellow junior leaders in the armed forces. The newsletter is called SEA STATE and you can read more about it here and subscribe here. We just published our second full issue yesterday and working with the team (which includes MW and sister-in-law MB) has been a lot of fun.

Someone asked me yesterday how much time I spend on these “side projects,” like this Substack newsletter that you’re reading now and SEA STATE. The answer obviously varies from week to week, but it doesn’t feel like that much. With SEA STATE, I spent many dozens of hours in January and February recruiting team members and establishing a process for creating each issue. Since then, each time we’ve actually produced a newsletter, I have worked on it for two or three hours per week max — everything gets done by the other editors, writers, and contributors, who are all amazing, initiative-taking people. All I do is coordinate the assignments at the beginning of the week, review and format the final product for publication, and push “send” on Saturday morning. For the Substack, I just sit here and write it one day a month during an evening or morning when I’m off (two days in this case) and it’s a very helpful way for me to organize my thoughts on a few things.

Anyway — I should probably stop. Thanks for reading this very long newsletter, and please subscribe if for some reason you’d like to get these emails from me in your inbox once a month!

All the best and Happy Sunday,