Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Eating Their Own

The Guardian reports today on family feud that is breaking out among evangelicals:
In his consulting room in a suburb of Montgomery, Alabama, gastrologist Randy Brinson is a worried man. A staunch Republican and devout Baptist, Dr Brinson can claim substantial credit for getting George Bush re-elected in 2004. It was his Redeem the Vote initiative that may have persuaded up to 25 million people to turn out for President Bush. Yet his wife is receiving threats from anonymous conservative activists warning her husband to stay away from politics.

"They've been calling my house, threatening my wife," said Dr Brinson. "The first time was on a day when I was going up to Washington to speak to Republicans in Congress. Only they knew I'd be away from home. The Republicans were advised not to turn up to listen to me, so only three did so."

The reason he has fallen foul of men whose candidate he helped re-elect is that he has dared to question the partisan tactics of the religious right. "Conservatives speak in tones that they have got power and they can do what they want. Only 23% of the population embraces those positions but if someone questions their mandate or wants to articulate a different case, for the moderate right, they are totally ridiculed."

In his office in Washington DC, Rich Cizik, vice-president of the National Association of Evangelicals, the largest such umbrella group in the US, is also feeling battered. His mistake has been to become interested in the environment, and he has been told that is not on the religious right's agenda.

Mr Cizik, an ordained minister of the Evangelical Presbyterian church and otherwise impeccably conservative on social issues such as abortion, stem-cell research and homosexuality, believes concern for the environment arises from Biblical injunctions about the stewardship of the Earth. The movement's political leadership, however, sees the issue as a distraction from its main tactical priorities: getting more conservatives on the supreme court, banning gay marriages and overturning Roe v Wade, the 1973 abortion ruling.

"It is supposed to be counterproductive even to consider this. I guess they do not want to part company with the president. This is nothing more than political assassination. I may lose my job. Twenty-five church leaders asked me not to take a political position on this issue but I am a fighter," he said.

Another Washington lobbyist on the religious right told the Guardian: "Rich is just being stupid on this issue. There may be a debate to be had but ... people can only sustain so many moral movements in their lifetime. Is God really going to let the Earth burn up?"

Is God really going to let the Earth burn up? I suspect that there is a fair number of right-wing religious folk who think the answer to that question is a definite yes. In fact they they can't wait because they are confident they won't be Left Behind. Still, it is heartening to see that there are some evangelicals who are able to see that being the storm troopers for the Republican Party is probably not exactly what Jesus had in mind.

Why Talk About God

While perusing the website of The Center for Progressive Christianity, I saw the following text from an educational flyer of another progressive church (unnamed). The title of the flyer is Why Talk about God?
Most people haven't any interest in religion - mainly because they haven't any interest in God. If asked as part of a survey whether they "believed in God", many would say that they did, but there be would few if any differences in their lives compared to those who deny the existence of God.

For most people, the subject of God is completely irrelevant, and that is an enormous pity. Does God exist? If so, what's he/she/it like?

These are pressing questions for all who bother to think about it, but because so many of the claims made by Christians are so odd and so simplistic, many thinking people shake their heads and walk away. It's obviously not possible to believe everything, even if it were desirable. The Internet is crammed with websites devoted to all sorts of beliefs, ranging from the sensible to the ludicrous. We don't have the time or the energy (or the inclination) to investigate most of these, and so we tend to dismiss them out of hand.

The problem with religion is similar to the problem with fiction: thousands of novels are published in English each year, and without literary critics and judging panels for awards like the Booker Prize, we'd be floundering around without any idea as to what might be worth reading and what probably isn't. Just as we need guides to help us through all the books, we need some way of sorting out the reasonable beliefs from the ridiculous ones.

Only a philistine would dismiss the very idea of religion out of hand: so many people find it meaningful that to see them all as misguided would be hugely arrogant. Although truth isn't established on the basis of a show of hands, there comes a point when the number of hands raised is so great that at the very least it should give us pause for thought.

The great world religions constitute an obvious short list of potentially reasonable beliefs, but even this is too long, unless we are prepared to give all our time to becoming familiar with each of them. The only practical solution is to focus on the religion that is dominant in our own culture. Although we live in what is often called a multi-faith society, the dominant religion is clearly Christianity. So when faced with the phenomenon of Christianity, what is the interested outsider to make of it?

It appears to involve believing in the existence of an invisible super-person, who made everything and who keeps an eye on everything. Stemming from this belief are all sorts of other ones, such as the belief in an immortal soul, so that when we die we simply continue in another form, and (if we're lucky) do so in a glorious place called heaven.

Not surprisingly, many intelligent, thoughtful people refuse to have anything to do with any of this, mainly on the grounds that there is no evidence worth speaking of to support it. Their reaction is perfectly reasonable and raises the question whether this belief in a super-person actually is what Christianity is all about.

God is traditionally thought of as a being (albeit a very special sort of being), and if we think along those lines then he/she/it must presumably "exist", in the same way that other beings or things, like people or chairs, "exist". But there are all sorts of ways of understanding the God symbol, with many thinking of God as a sort of philosophical ideal, much as the ancient Greeks might have done.

If the only version of God some people know is the one heard in Sunday School, it may come as a surprise for them to realise that viewing God as a symbol is possible within the church context. But in all other areas of human thought we allow, even expect, development: the understanding of physics of the primary school child is very different from that of the university student. Because adolescence usually marks the end of religious education, people get stuck in a sort of time warp.

The good news is that there is religious life after Sunday School; the bad news is that we have to work at it. Perhaps the best starting point for a sceptic is not to think in terms of trying to "believe in God". To put the work about God in terms of believing is to shut off all sorts of imaginative ways of imagining God.

A better starting point is the recognition that all of us have depths in ourselves, which is what is meant by the word "soul". These depths are what yearn for the profound and the glorious and are not fed by the banal or the superficial. They are what is reached when we respond to music or art or poetry - or religion, which is a way of organising our search for what is most real or significant.

Although many people are able to do without religion, they would be hugely impoverished if they tried to do without any sense of the profound in their lives. Churches need to become places where people gather, not to reinforce their certainties about a being called "God", but to share in the experience of exploring ways of trying to satisfy their mutual spiritual hunger.

The future for organised religion is bleak, unless we work at re-imagining and re-creating the God symbol, so that it really does speak to the spiritual needs of our time.
I am reminded of Spong's work on re-imagining God. God isn't the omnipotent being up in the sky, but the way we talk metaphorically about the inexhaustible depths of love and peace and strength that we are invited and spiritually nudged to visit, explore, and learn to trust.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Methodists Turn

The Methodists annual meeting begins today in in St. Cloud and glbt rights are on the agenda:
Mary Grant isn't gay and doesn't have a gay child. She's not sure what has led her to push for a broader welcome for gays at her church, Woodbury United Methodist, and in the denomination at large.

"This issue touches my heart," said Grant, 70, of Maplewood. "I want to help change our society's view of homosexuality. God doesn't want exclusion and condemnation."

But to Dale Droogsma, also a Methodist, homosexuality is like alcoholism. "You love and help the person, but you don't OK the behavior," he said.

Droogsma, 52, of Elk River, was caught by surprise recently when his pastor, the Rev. Phil Strom of Elk River United Methodist Church, told his congregation that this week's convention of Minnesota Methodists will include votes on whether to back ordination of gays and gay marriage.

People on both sides will open the state Methodists' annual convention today in St. Cloud. Their votes during the session, which lasts through Friday, will constitute a recommendation to the denomination's General Convention, which meets in 2008.

The struggle for justice and equality continues.

The Lost War

The last few days reporting on the war in Iraq has been depressing, to say the least. The CBS crew loses two and a reporter is critically injured in an attack. Despite hints from the government that troop levels are going to go down, we learn this morning that they are going up because of the deteriorating situation in Ramadi:

In Ramadi, "Zarqawi is the one who is in control," the sheik said, speaking to a Washington Post special correspondent in Ramadi. "He kills anyone who goes in and out of the U.S. base. We have stopped meetings with the Americans, because, frankly speaking, we have lost confidence in the U.S. side, as they can't protect us."

Another sheik, Bashir Abdul Qadir al-Kubaisi of the Kubaisat tribe in Ramadi, expressed similar views. "Today, there is no tribal sheik or a citizen who dares to go to the city hall or the U.S. base, because Zarqawi issued a statement ordering his men to kill anyone seen leaving the base or city hall," he said.

A 3500-member armor brigade is being moved in from Kuwait. It won't do any good. At least that's the conclusion this report makes in Sunday's Washington Post:

Every morning the streets of Baghdad are littered with dozens of bodies, bruised, torn, mutilated, executed only because they are Sunni or because they are Shiite. Power drills are an especially popular torture device.

I have spent nearly two of the three years since Baghdad fell in Iraq. On my last trip, a few weeks back, I flew out of the city overcome with fatalism. Over the course of six weeks, I worked with three different drivers; at various times each had to take a day off because a neighbor or relative had been killed. One morning 14 bodies were found, all with ID cards in their front pockets, all called Omar. Omar is a Sunni name. In Baghdad these days, nobody is more insecure than men called Omar. On another day a group of bodies was found with hands folded on their abdomens, right hand over left, the way Sunnis pray. It was a message. These days many Sunnis are obtaining false papers with neutral names. Sunni militias are retaliating, stopping buses and demanding the jinsiya , or ID cards, of all passengers. Individuals belonging to Shiite tribes are executed.

Under the reign of Saddam Hussein, dissidents called Iraq "the republic of fear" and hoped it would end when Hussein was toppled. But the war, it turns out, has spread the fear democratically. Now the terror is not merely from the regime, or from U.S. troops, but from everybody, everywhere.

At first, the dominant presence of the U.S. military -- with its towering vehicles rumbling through Baghdad's streets and its soldiers like giants with their vests and helmets and weapons -- seemed overwhelming. The Occupation could be felt at all times. Now in Baghdad, you can go days without seeing American soldiers. Instead, it feels as if Iraqis are occupying Iraq, their masked militiamen blasting through traffic in anonymous security vehicles, shooting into the air, angrily shouting orders on loudspeakers, pointing their Kalashnikovs at passersby.

Today, the Americans are just one more militia lost in the anarchy. They, too, are killing Iraqis...

The sectarian tensions have overtaken far more than Iraq's security forces and its streets. Militias now routinely enter hospitals to hunt down or arrest those who have survived their raids. And many Iraqi government ministries are now filled with the banners and slogans of Shiite religious groups, which now exert total control over these key agencies. If you are not with them, you are gone.

For instance, in the negotiations between parties after the January 2005 elections, Sadr loyalists gained control over the ministries of health and transportation and immediately began cleansing them of Sunnis and Shiites not aligned with Sadr. The process was officially known by the Sadrists as "cleansing the ministry of Saddamists." Indeed, some government offices now do not accept Sunnis as employees at all.

Based on my visits to the ministries, it is clear that an apartheid process began after the Shiites' electoral success. In the Ministry of Health, you see pictures of Moqtada al-Sadr and his father everywhere. Traditional Shiite music reverberates throughout the hallways. Doctors and ministry staffers refer to the minister of health as imami, or "my imam," as though he were a cleric. I also saw walls adorned with Shiite posters -- including ones touting Sadr -- in the Ministry of Transportation. Sunni staffers have been pushed out of both ministries, while the Ministry of Interior is under the control of another Shiite movement, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (its name alone a sufficient statement of its intentions).

Shiites with no apparent qualifications have filled the ranks. In one case in the transportation ministry, a Sunni chief engineer was fired and replaced with an unqualified Shiite who wore a cleric's turban to work. In all cases, this has led to a stark drop in efficiency, with the health and transportation ministries barely functioning, and the interior ministry operating much like an anti-Sunni death squad, with secret prisons uncovered last November, and people disappearing after raids by shadowy government security units operating at night.

Even shared opposition to the Occupation couldn't unite Iraq's Sunnis and Shiites, and perhaps that was inevitable given their bitter history of mutual hostility. Instead, as the fighting against the Americans intensified, tensions between Sunni and Shiite began to grow, eventually setting off the vicious sectarian cleansing that is Iraq today...

The time came on Feb. 22, when the Golden Mosque of the Shiites in Samarra was blown up. More than 1,000 Sunnis were killed in retribution, and then the Shiite-controlled interior ministry prevented an accurate body count from being released. Attacks on mosques, mostly Sunni ones, increased. Officially, Moqtada al-Sadr opposed attacks on Sunnis, but he unleashed his fighters on them after the bombing.

Sectarian and ethnic cleansing has since continued apace, as mixed neighborhoods are "purified." In Amriya, dead bodies are being found on the main street at a rate of three or five or seven a day. People are afraid to approach the bodies, or call for an ambulance or the police, for fear that they, too, will be found dead the following day. In Abu Ghraib, Dora, Amriya and other once-diverse neighborhoods, Shiites are being forced to leave. In Maalif and Shaab, Sunnis are being targeted.

The world wonders if Iraq is on the brink of civil war, while Iraqis fear calling it one, knowing the fate such a description would portend. In truth, the civil war started long before Samarra and long before the first uprisings. It started when U.S. troops arrived in Baghdad. It began when Sunnis discovered what they had lost, and Shiites learned what they had gained. And the worst is yet to come.

What an unbelievable mess we have made. Impeach George Bush. Impeach him now.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Gettysburg Address

I am reading the Gettysburg Address tomorrow as part of my message. It is one of the greatest memorials to the dead ever written. What is interesting to note, though, is that if you go the Library of Congress page on the Address, you will discover that there are five versions of the address written in Lincoln's hand. Two are considered the earliest and most likely candidates for the address Lincoln actually read at Gettysburg. They have some minor but significant differences. Lincoln scholars work like biblical scholars trying to figure out which was the one he actually read and what the changes indicate in his own thinking about the war.

God at the Movies

The New York Times notes this morning that God is in at the movies:

"You don't believe in God?" Tom Hanks's character asks Audrey Tautou, who plays his partner-in-ciphers in "The Da Vinci Code."

"Do you believe in God?" Liev Schreiber's character asks a therapist who doubts that his adopted son, Damien, has devil genes in the new version of "The Omen."

"Get right with God," William Hurt preaches in the small, intense film "The King," but he's playing an evangelical minister, so he's a lot more certain.

With echo upon echo of faith-based dialogue, movie theaters today often sound like church. But what seems like a new willingness to explore questions of faith — as if Mel Gibson's blockbuster "The Passion of the Christ" had made religion safe for Hollywood — has the spiritual depth of the "Daily Show" segment "This Week in God," with its quiz-show-style "God Machine" that spits out religions to satirize.

The article comments that what is surprising about all of these movies, with the exception of The Passion of the Christ, is the skepticism that runs through these movies. What is surprising to me is that anywone would think this surprising. Hollywood is not exactly the Bible Belt. It is full of skeptics - and I am not saying that is a bad thing - and it is no surprise to me that when they approach the subject of religion they do so through skeptical eyes.

The article has this to say about the beliefs portrayed by the lead characters in The Da Vinci Code:

And while the movie's fidelity to the book is the flaw that makes it seem like some lifeless, illustrated version of the swifter novel, one of the film's biggest departures is its blunter dialogue about faith. Akiva Goldsman's leaden script, not Dan Brown's novel, has Robert Langdon (Mr. Hanks) and Sophie Neveu (Ms. Tautou) stop for a chat about whether a deity exists. Sophie answers no to the God question, saying, "I don't believe in some magic from the sky, just people."

By the end, when her skepticism has been challenged, Langdon tells her that it doesn't matter whether Jesus was mortal or divine. "The only thing that matters is what you believe," he says. That line, invented for the movie, sums up its attitude toward faith: a reassuring humanist shrug that says, "Whatever."

Let me point out that Langdon's line to Neveu is taken out of context here and does not refer to belief in God but to belief about her royal lineage that had just been revealed to her. She was going to have to decide whether she believed it. It wasn't just a "we can all believe whatever we want to believe and that's all that matters."

Still, my final comment on the thrust of this article that belief in God is being discussed in these movies is that this is the wrong discussion, or it's not the most important discussion. I say it frequently on Sundays: it isn't what we believe that matters; it's how we live. That is why I don't care if I have evangelical Christians or liberal Christians or Jews or agnostics or seekers in my congregation. It isn't what we believe that matters; its how we live our lives day in and day out.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Dennis Anderson on Conservation Amendment

Why is Dennis Anderson the best writer at the Star Tribune? Because he writes columns like this:
Unchanged this week in Minnesota is the degraded condition of the state's lakes, rivers, wetlands, prairies and forests.

What's new after the Legislature's failure to pass a conservation constitutional amendment proposal are discussions in some quarters to conduct a scorched-earth media and Internet campaign between now and November intended to unseat every legislator whose fingerprints were on the bills in the House and Senate.

Others talk of a modern-day "Boston Tea Party" in which Minnesota's approximately 750,000 hunters and 1 million anglers would be urged not to spend money for gear, gas, bait or lodging -- or movies, the theater or other arts -- in any of the legislative districts of the 10 conference committee members who failed to reach a compromise between competing House and Senate bills.

I believe our time can be better spent.

In fact, after talking to Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, and House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon -- as well as bill authors Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, and Sen. Dallas Sams, DFL-Staples -- I think differences between the two bills can be resolved in coming days.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty has said he will call a special legislative session provided the House and Senate can agree ahead of time to a constitutional amendment bill, and provided Johnson and Sviggum promise no other legislation will be considered.

Today and Sunday in Star Tribune Outdoors we'll look at issues separating Republicans and the DFL on the proposed amendment. You will hear from Sviggum, Johnson, Sams and Hackbarth. Then, by e-mail, you can offer suggestions on how an agreement might be reached.

There are no bad guys in this story. People disagree with one another. And some differ in their interpretation of facts. But everyone involved -- certainly Johnson, Sviggum, Sams and Hackbarth -- believe, generally, Minnesota has failed historically to care for its resources and that ramifications of that failure compound daily as the evermore pervasive effects of urbanization, sprawl, modern farming and the commodification of the state's northern forests are realized.

There is plenty of blame to go around for the declining quality of Minnesota's water and forests. In the wake of the failure of the legislature to agree on a constitutional amendment it is tempting to start throwing spears; agreement was near and the stakes are high. But Anderson uses his column to urge patience and brings the two sides together to talk. You can read the rest of his column to see what the unresolved issues are. And don't miss his Sunday column when he talks to the legislative leaders.

Krugman Weighs in on Gore

Paul Krugman comments this morning (subscription only) on Al Gore and his movie, An Inconvenient Truth. After talking about the science of global warming and the possible economic impact of addressing it, he turns to the disinformation campaign being waged by big oil and the right wing against Gore and the movie:

Actually, the right's panicky response to Mr. Gore's film is probably a good thing, because it reveals for all to see the dishonesty and fear-mongering on which the opposition to doing something about climate change rests.

But "An Inconvenient Truth" isn't just about global warming, of course. It's also about Mr. Gore. And it is, implicitly, a cautionary tale about what's been wrong with our politics.

Why, after all, was Mr. Gore's popular-vote margin in the 2000 election narrow enough that he could be denied the White House? Any account that neglects the determination of some journalists to make him a figure of ridicule misses a key part of the story. Why were those journalists so determined to jeer Mr. Gore? Because of the very qualities that allowed him to realize the importance of global warming, many years before any other major political figure: his earnestness, and his genuine interest in facts, numbers and serious analysis.

And so the 2000 campaign ended up being about the candidates' clothing, their mannerisms, anything but the issues, on which Mr. Gore had a clear advantage (and about which his opponent was clearly both ill informed and dishonest).

I won't join the sudden surge of speculation about whether "An Inconvenient Truth" will make Mr. Gore a presidential contender. But the film does make a powerful case that Mr. Gore is the sort of person who ought to be running the country.

Since 2000, we've seen what happens when people who aren't interested in the facts, who believe what they want to believe, sit in the White House. Osama bin Laden is still at large, Iraq is a mess, New Orleans is a wreck. And, of course, we've done nothing about global warming.

But can the sort of person who would act on global warming get elected? Are we — by which I mean both the public and the press — ready for political leaders who don't pander, who are willing to talk about complicated issues and call for responsible policies? That's a test of national character. I wonder whether we'll pass.

When will our long national nightmare be over?

The Empire Takes a Hit

From the New York Times:

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Wash., is selling its headquarters and other property valued at about $11 million as part of its effort to settle claims by victims of sexual abuse by members of the clergy.

The diocese is one of three in the country that have filed for bankruptcy; the others are those in Portland, Ore., and Tucson.


In a report issued in March, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops said that in 2005, dioceses in the United States paid $399 million in settlements with victims of sexual abuse and $68 million in legal fees and support programs for victims, a sharp increase from the year before.

The church's total payments resulting from the sexual abuse scandal have surpassed $1 billion, and many dioceses have yet to reach settlements with victims.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

More Gore

Eric Alterman writes a blog for NBC. He writes about the possibility of Al Gore running again for President:
I went to a dinner for Al Gore last night. After being introduced by his hosts, Harry Evans and Tina Brown, he fielded questions and the first one, from Charlie Rose, was the right one: “What would it take to convince you to run for President in 2008?” Gore gave a long, interesting answer in which he pointed out that the transformation of our political culture into one of short soundbites was not one in which he felt most comfortable or to which he thought he was particularly good at adapting. I fear he’s right about this. To listen to the long, thoughtful, erudite answers Gore gave to questions last night —Chris Buckley asked him about nuclear power; I asked him about the weaknesses of our political and journalistic establishments that allow the Bush administration to get away with its mendacity/extremism/incompetence for so long— is to bring oneself to tears over the contrast between this thoughtful, intelligent, articulate and well-informed would-be statesman, and the purposely ignorant ideologue whom the Supreme Court placed in the world’s most powerful office. But Gore is no good at pithy quips and tries hard to tell the truth, even when it hurts. There’s little value on that in our debased political culture, where Maureen Dowd complains about his coffee tastes, his clothes, about everything except what matters, and she’s on the Good Guys’ team. I have no question that Gore is the person best qualified in America to be president today. And I think he’d be the strongest Democratic candidate, but matching his brave new, liberated, truth-telling self with the demands of contemporary political campaigning would not be easy and may not be possible. And it’s that mismatch, I fear, that may keep him out of the race, though I feel even more certain now, he’s thinking about it.

It's a bird, It's a plane, It's ...

Pat Robertson. First he was able to use his x-ray vision to peer into the future and tell us that this was going to be another bad year for hurricanes. Now he is using his superman strength to leg press 2000 lbs. O.K., he says its the protein shakes he is drinking. In this morning's Star Tribune sports page, Michael Rand checked this out with Cal Dietz, an associate director of strength and conditioning for the Gophers:

"Come on," Dietz said, before adding, "I would say that's highly unlikely."

He said that while standards for leg press measurement vary and there's no world record as a result, an elite athlete likely would max out at 1,000 pounds. He works with men's hockey players, and he estimated 800 pounds would be the top leg press for the strongest player on the team.

So 2,000 pounds, even with a protein shake, is probably an overestimation?

"The claims that people make are absolutely ludicrous," Dietz said.

William Jefferson and the CBC

I have been watching this story unfold and don't quite know what to make of the furor of House leaders over the FBI search of Representative William Jefferson (D-LA). There could be a constitutional issue here, and if so it is appropriate to figure it out. But Democrats need to be very careful here in how they respond to Jefferson. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi was right to call for an ethics investigation and Jefferson's removal from the Ways and Means Committee. Perception is everything here, and he looks very guilty. The guy was hiding thousands of dollars in his freezer, after all. (I have thing hidden in my freezer, too, but that is because they were put there 10 years ago and forgotten about.) If Dems want to make something of the culture of corruption in Washington, they need to be scrupulously non-partisan and be as hard or even harder on their own side. The Congressional Black Caucus appears to me to be missing this point in their anger at Pelosi for her comments and actions regarding Jefferson. As Daily Kos says:

Jefferson is innocent until proven guilty -- in a court of law. In the court of politics, perception is reality and he's not looking so hot right now. Yet the CBC wants to make this about race? How about, this is about the Culture of Corruption. CBC members have been quick to pounce on GOP transgressions, even though only one of them -- Duke Cunningham -- has resulted in a conviction.

It's time to realize that Americans deserve clean and honest government. And that transcends any racial, ethnic, religious, and yes, even partisan boundaries.

Love and Money

David Brooks has an interesting column in the New York Times today (subscription only). He is ready to acknowledge the fact that income equality is getting way out of wack in America and is creating both a class of super-rich and a class of perpetually poor:
Nonetheless, certain conclusions are unavoidable. First, the gap between rich and poor is widening. It's like global warming; you can resist the evidence for a while, but eventually you have to succumb. Second, while standards of living are rising for almost everybody, people at the middle and the bottom of the income scale aren't seeing the gains you'd expect. Third, while mobility rates probably haven't changed much, new stratifications are replacing old ones. Race and sex discrimination matter less, but family background — a child's home environment — matters more.

Once you acknowledge that there is a basic tear in the way the market economy is evolving, you begin trying to figure out the causes. In declining order of importance, they seem to be:

First, the generally rising education premium. The economy rewards people who can thrive in meetings and adapt to technical change. Second, the widening marriage gap. Middle-class people are increasingly likely to raise kids in stable two-parent homes, while kids in poorer families are increasingly less likely to have these advantages. Third, the emergence of millions of low-skill workers in China and India. That's bound to push down low-skill wages. Fourth, changes in salary structures. Employees deemed irreplaceable get big salary raises, while employees deemed fungible do not.

What Brooks fails to address here is the fact that what "the economy rewards" is behavior that is diametrically opposed to supporting stable families. This is the result of the movement from a manufacturing economy to a service economy. The post-WWII economy was built by good paying jobs that were available to people with little education. They could go straight from high school to a factory job, stay put their entire lives, and comfortably support a family. There were always pockets of the population where it didn't work as well, but for much of America it did. And it allowed the baby-boom generation to live comfortably, educate their kids, and have a stable family situation.

For much of America those days are gone. Now, entry level jobs are found in Wal-Mart and Target. There is virtually no opportunity for supporting a family, buying a home, settling comfortably in a community. There is very little opportunity for upward mobility unless you are highly educated. And even then, the security blanket of stable communities and families isn't guaranteed. Movement is a must, often frequently. And a growing swath of the population is simply being left behind as more and more good paying jobs are outsourced. Brooks is right that those who are nimble enough and educated enough can succeed, but at what cost?

Then there is this comment on income redistribution:

Some economists believe we should reduce inequality by restructuring the economy — raising taxes on the rich and redistributing money to the poor. That's fine, but it won't get you very far. In Britain, Gordon Brown has redistributed large amounts of money from rich to poor regions, but regional inequality has increased faster under the current government than under Margaret Thatcher.

This misses the point, really. Taking money from the rich might not automatically help the poor but it would address the simple demands of justice. It is simply immoral to have such an enormous gap between the rich and poor. No person or job is worth what the rich are getting paid today. Or even if you allow that the market dictates otherwise, a just society would call on them to sacrifice more of their wealth for the good of the whole.

Moreover, we are creating a class of people in America that is completely divorced from the reality of life for the rest of America. They are insulated from the healthcare crisis in this country that is eating away at the wealth and well-being of every other American. They are insulated from the down-side of the global economy that is holding wages stagnant for most Americans and causing enormous pain for a significant minority whose jobs are being outsourced. They are able to hide and shift their wealth all around the world. They are under no obligation to serve the country in the military or in any other way. We are doing long-term damage to the essence of the American dream of equality if we don't reign them in and bring them back to eating at the same table as the rest of America.

And we don't have to give the money to the poor. We have an enormous debt that is going to choke our children and grandchilden. Better yet, we have a healthcare crisis that is crying out for a single-payer solution. Increasing taxes on the wealthiest to take away the healthcare burden that is hurting families and companies would be a sensible and just action.

Brooks really gets interesting when he talks about the brain formation of children and needing to start at the very earliest ages to get children ready for life, especially poor children:

When you turn your attention to human capital formation, you begin by thinking about job training and schools. But you discover that while learning is like nutrition (you have to do it every day), earlier is better. That's because, as James Heckman puts it, learners learn and skill begets skill. Children who've developed good brain functions by age 3 have advantages that accumulate through life.

That takes us to where the debate is today. How do we inculcate good brain functions across a wider swath of the 3-year-old population? Forty-one states are tinkering with or creating preschool programs. Oklahoma is leading the way with preschool and pro-family efforts. California is considering universal preschool.

Getting this right is tricky. Head Start produces only modest benefits, as a study from the Department of Health and Human Services has reminded us again. Small, intensive preschool programs yield tremendous results, but realistically, they cannot be done on a giant scale.

The problem is this: How does government provide millions of kids with the stable, loving structures they are not getting sufficiently at home?

If there's one thing that leaps out of all the brain literature, it is that, as Daniel J. Siegel puts it, "emotion serves as a central organizing process within the brain." Kids learn from people they love. If we want young people to develop the social and self-regulating skills they need to thrive, we need to establish stable long-term relationships between love-hungry children and love-providing adults.

Two observations here. First, Brooks is essentially saying that for a significant number of children in America, their family situation is so bad that we need to get them out of their homes as soon as possible, by age 3, into preschools where they can get in the preschools what they can't get at home: love, attention, safety, and healthy brain stimulation. That is a remarkable statement about the quality of life in America today.

But then he says that the solution isn't possible because what has proven to work - intensive preschool programs - can't be done on a massive scale. This is where Brooks reverts to typical conservative form. Why can't it be done? Because it would require government involvement, funding, and oversight.

The real question ought to be what is going to happen to these children, their families, and our country if it isn't done. If the situation is as dire as Brooks suggests it is, then we are going to need to bite the bullet to make it happen.

It appears obvious to me that we are approaching a point in our life together in our nation when small-minded politians and small thinking about problems need to give way to vision, dreams, and leaders capable of calling the country to a higher purpose and greater sacrifice.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Joel Stein Watches Da Vinci Code with Preacher

No comment from me. Just an interesting commentary by LA Times columnist Joel Stein:
THERE ARE TWO types of Christians: Those who will let us dance and those who won't. Admittedly, much of my theology comes from "Footloose."

So, while some ministers planned protests outside theaters showing "The Da Vinci Code," senior pastor Ken Baugh of Coast Hills Community Church in Orange County appeared on the "Today" show to encourage people to investigate the movie's claims themselves. When I found out he was considering giving congregants tickets and Starbucks gift cards so they could bring a non-church-going friend to discuss the film, I immediately thought: free nonfat venti chai.

Not only was Baugh willing to see the movie with me on Friday, he mailed me one of the 352 free iPod Shuffles he packed with his eight-part sermon about the inaccuracies in Dan Brown's bestselling book. It was the yuppie version of missionaries bribing their way into Africa.

At the Edwards Aliso Viejo Stadium 20, Baugh and I got huge sodas and buckets of popcorn and scored two of the few remaining seats at the 3:30 p.m. show. In case you ever happen to be in a similar situation, you should know that Baugh is a bit of a talker during a movie. He leaned over not just to correct historical inaccuracies but to tell me that Ian McKellen was a good actor, that the poison put into a flask was "some bad whiskey" and that he'd like to walk around Paris and take digital photos.

When we got to Starbucks after the movie, I learned that even though I'm a Jewish atheist, Baugh and I didn't think all that differently. We both found the movie slow, Hanks miscast and Audrey Tautou hard to understand. Baugh found the cinematography "great," while I thought the grainy, black-and-white flashbacks were a little overused by Ron Howard, and eventually Baugh agreed. "He does need to get a little more creative with that," Baugh said.

Our conversation was far more interesting than the movie. This was undoubtedly because we were hopped up on giant Cokes and venti caffeinated beverages. We easily could have spent the hour in a raving ontological debate about Robin Williams' movie "RV."

It took Baugh only a few minutes to convince me that Brown's conspiracy theory was bunk because I was already disinclined to believe someone who tried to impress me by having a professor of "symbology" riddle out the tricky Fibonacci sequence. And who also tried to convince me that the Holy Grail was a vagina. (I'd dispelled that one by the end of high school.)

The overt feminist themes in the film made us realize we had different ideas about women's roles in society, with Baugh taking a separate-but-equal philosophy and me believing in more of an equal-but-separate school of thought. And, to be honest, the "separate" part was usually my ex-girlfriends' choices. Recently my wife, Cassandra, has placed a "breath pillow" between us on our bed.

I like how open Baugh was to my questions and how eager he was to check out opposing opinions. Deep into a discussion about grace, Baugh said, "Joel, you understand more about Christianity than most Christians do." I protested, and he said, "Dude, you do." It felt wonderfully Californian to be addressed by a preacher as dude.

IN THE END, Baugh felt the anti-Christianity of the book was way watered down for the film and that the movie would do less damage than the Christians who protested it. "I think it reinforces the worst stereotypes about Christianity that we have opinions about things without researching them ourselves," he said. "Their way of speaking the truth is like the Crusaders: to hold a gun to your head and say, 'This is what you believe in.' "

In addition to his "Da Vinci Code" sermons, available on CD or podcast, his church is making short films and has just completed "pub evangelism" by singing Christian rock in pubs in Ireland. This is clearly the church for me, other than the Christ part.

As we finished our second enormous sugary beverages of the day, I told Baugh the film did not shake my nonbelief. He countered by noting that I had sought him out after spending the previous week investigating a Christian video game for a column. "I think God's doing something in your life, and I'm glad to be a small part of it," he said. I liked that thought a lot because it meant that God was paying attention to me. Still, I had to tell him that it wasn't enough to get me to believe. "You are one of the most honest atheists I've ever met," he said. "Most of them come with a lot of anger."

Baugh promised to stay in touch and continue our dialogue. And I really wanted to because it was nice to be reminded that people who believe in Jesus aren't simpletons impressed by magic tricks. And that, as a fourth-generation atheist, my beliefs are just as inherited as anyone's. And that if more people in the world were like Baugh, that wouldn't be a problem.

Neocon Irony

Harold Meyerson has a good post this morning in the Washington Post on the irony of the neocon's failed utopian beliefs about Iraq. You can read it to see the point he is making. What caught my attention, though, was the depressing part about the brain drain in Iraq. The middle class and the educated professionals are leaving as fast as they can get out:

And now, just as middle-class Americans fled the cities in the wake of urban disorder, so middle-class Iraqis are fleeing, too -- not just the cities but the nation. In a signally important and devastating dispatch from Baghdad that ran in last Friday's New York Times, correspondent Sabrina Tavernise reports that fully 7 percent of the country's population, and an estimated quarter of the nation's middle class, has been issued passports in the past 10 months alone. Tavernise documents the sectarian savagery that is directed at the world of Iraqi professionals -- the murders in their offices, their neighborhood stores, their children's schools, their homes -- and that has already turned a number of Baghdad's once-thriving upscale neighborhoods into ghost towns.

Slaughter is the order of the day, and the police are nowhere to be found. "I have no protection from my government," Monkath Abdul Razzaq, a middle-class Sunni who has decided to emigrate, told Tavernise. "Anyone can come into my house, take me, kill me, and throw me into the trash."

It is absolutely worse than you can imagine there. We have destroyed a country in order to "save" it.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Seniors Its Time to Panic

Just caught this note on the Apple Valley High School daily bulletin:

Seniors-it's TIME TO PANIC!!!
If you have materials checked out or overdue from the library you won't be able to pick up your cap and gown!!! Stop by the Media Center and clear your name!! If you've been ignoring your overdues since 9th grade-it's time to find that book and clear your conscience! Mr. Hagert looks forward to finally meeting you.

Conservation Bill Goes Down

The other day I noted Star Tribune columnist Dennis Anderson's piece on the near certainty of a conservation bill getting through the legislature. It didn't happen. The MN house and senate couldn't agree whether to make it one or two ballot questions (one for "hook and bullet" funding and the other for arts, parks and clean water funding), and whether to take all or part of it out of the existing sales tax or to increase the sales tax. I say a pox on both Dems and Reps for not making it happen. They are both blaming each other but there is plenty of blame to go around.

But we did get funding for those new stadiums, though. Yipee.

Da Vinci Code - The Movie

I saw the movie last night. I mostly enjoyed it, although I enjoyed the book more. What made the book interesting to me was the thorough development of the controversial ideas - that Jesus wasn't considered divine until the time of Constantine, that he was married to Mary Magdalene and they had a child, that the Priory of Scion and Opus Dei were locked in mortal and secret combat, etc. All false, of course, but postulated and described in a believable and enjoyable manner. The movie touched on all of these, but I wonder if someone who hadn't read the book would have been able to make anything of it. The movie was carried along not by the ideas but by the action and the actors. There is no surprise in that, but I enjoyed the book more. I guess that is why I read more books than I watch movies. In fact that was the first movie I had seen since Mel Gibson's ode to sadism, The Passion of Christ. And that was one of the worst, and violent, pieces of fiction I ever seen.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Puerto Rico mixes politics and religion

I tend to think of Puerto Rico as predominantly Catholic territory. But like many parts of Central and South America, evangelicals have made huge strides in converting the Catholics to "true" Christianity. Their influence in Puerto Rican politics is apparently huge, as demonstrated by the surprising part they played in assisting the government in the resolution of a budget crisis. Mayra Montero is a Puerto Rican author. After getting no help from the United States or the Territories' labor unions, the religious groups got involved. In the New York Times, she comments:

Instead, religious groups stepped in. At their urging, a commission was created last week to develop a plan to resolve the deficit, and the governor and leaders of both legislative houses agreed to abide by its recommendations.

Serious debates over taxes, public spending and government bonds were held amid prayers and hymns. Although San Juan's Roman Catholic archbishop took part in the negotiations, the messianic tone of evangelical and Pentecostalist churches predominated. Each session began and ended with a "prayer circle." The speaker of the House told reporters that he was consulting with God about the budget. San Juan's mayor led a mystic march accompanied by a woman with a title like "director of spiritual affairs."

At the Capitol, legislators surrounded a singer of religious music, a "holy man" with miracle-working pretensions who walked around laying on hands. The governor himself joined his opponents to murmur praises, and he was "anointed" by the leaders of evangelical churches who wandered through the Capitol and the executive mansion, La Fortaleza, advising, instructing and eating snacks. If anyone complained about their presence, they threatened to put "100,000 Christians" inside the Capitol to apply pressure.

It worked: on Monday, public employees returned to work after a resolution was reached, though not without a mini-crisis last weekend that was once again resolved thanks to mediation by religious leaders, who declared their work a "great victory of Jehovah, king of kings." The crisis, however, has left behind a bad taste that this country will not forget for a long time.

Although Puerto Rico has always been thought of as Catholic, evangelical churches have flourished recently to the point that there seems to be one on every corner. The evangelical pastors enjoy tax-free church-provided mansions and expensive cars and have received unimaginable privileges from successive administrations. In this crisis, they took advantage of the ineffectiveness of other forces in society and made off with the prize.

This is not to say that evangelicals, Catholics and other religious groups shouldn't help out when there's a crisis — though it is a shame that the governor and the Legislature needed an intercessor to come to an agreement.

But at what price? There is little doubt that one day these religious groups will send an invoice: when Puerto Rico has to decide on matters like gay rights and abortion, they will surely seek restrictions. And then we will find ourselves asking if divine intervention was really worth the cost.

This is most definitely not the direction we want to go.

Concert Review

Last night I attended the Faith Hill/Tim McGraw concert at the Excel. I would have never bought a ticket for that concert, but when Ryan's girlfriend's mom was unable to get herself out of bed due to a back injury, I became the last minute substitution.

I am not a country fan, which didn't matter with Faith Hill because I discovered last night that she is not a country singer. She sang only one song in her set that sounded somewhat country - about waiting home for her man in the kitchen - the rest was pop and rock. I recognized two of her songs, Breathe and The Way You Love Me. She closed her set with a rocking version of Janis Joplin's A Piece of My Heart. Hill has a beautiful voice and when she sings it is all about the voice.

McGraw, on the other hand, has what I would describe as an awful voice. But it was obvious that he is the star of this show. When he came out the place erupted. People sang along with all his songs; he often stopped singing and let the audience sing the verses and the chorus. He also featured his band more, which was o.k. because they were very good. He has more of a twangy, country-like voice, and sang more country-like songs. Still, if this is the face of today's country music it more like the 70's pop music, ala The Eagles.

In fact, all of the pre-concert music was the music I listened to in the 70's. All in all it was an enjoyable evening.

I just read Jon Bream's review of the concert in the Star Tribune (apparently not online yet). For some reason he was fixated on the fact that Hill and McGraw weren't touching each other enough. He gets paid for that?

Friday, May 19, 2006

Have You Noticed?

Have you noticed that it is spring? Have you noticed
the sun has been shining? It's warm? Birds are
singing? Hummingbirds are back? There are goslings
about, and baby rabbits? Flowers are blooming? That
there is new life and stunning beauty all around us
right now?

There is much to think about, tons of work to do, a
bevy of worthy causes that need our attention. But if
you haven't noticed the spring and the warmth and
the beauty, maybe its time to take a break and go
outside and take a walk.

You don't want to miss what is really important in
your life: the gift of this moment. Enjoy it.

Hillary or Al?

Two recent posts I like talking about Hillary Clinton and Al Gore:
Dharma Bums

Arianna Huffington
I am hoping Gore decides to run for President.

Conservation Bill Looks Likely

Dennis Anderson writes on conservation issues for the Star Tribune. He has been one of the lead voices in the state for many years trying to get the sporting crowd and the environmental crowd working together on behalf of the outdoors that both value highly. This year it finally seems to be happening, and he writes today that he thinks it is a near certainty that the legislature will pass a ballot measure that will allow voters to vote on amending the state constitution to dedicate a portion of the state sales tax to conservation. This kind of guaranteed financial support is sorely needed if the state is going to make progress in cleaning up lakes and rivers and protecting land from development. He credits both Republican and Democratic leadership for bridging their differences to move this bill forward. And he sizes up the opposition this way:
This, despite opposition that remains from some labor unions, at least one state business group and two or three guys with a laptop who call themselves a taxpayers league.
Two or three guys with a laptop who call themselves a taxpayers league. Ain't it the truth.

Network of Spiritual Progressives Conference

The New York Times had a disappointing report on the Network of Spiritual Progressives Conference just held in Washington, D.C.:
They had come to All Souls Unitarian Church, 1,200 of them from 39 states, to wrest the mantle of moral authority from conservative Christians, and they were finally planning how to take their message to those in power.

After rousing speeches on Wednesday by liberal religious leaders like Rabbi Michael Lerner of the magazine Tikkun and Sister Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun, participants in the new Network of Spiritual Progressives split into small groups to prepare for meetings with members of Congress on Thursday.

Yet at a session on ethical behavior, including sexual behavior, the 50 or so activists talked little about what to tell Congress about abortion or same-sex marriage. Instead, the Rev. Ama Zenya of First Congregational Church in Oakland, Calif., urged them to talk to one another about their spiritual values and "to practice fully our authentic being."

Kimberly Crichton, a Washington lawyer and Quaker, grew impatient. "I think we would be more effective if we focused on specific legislation," Ms. Crichton said. "Are we going to discuss specific policies?"

Ms. Zenya replied: "What we envisioned this time is saying we are a religious voice. More relationship-building, consciousness-raising."

The man in the pew in front of Ms. Crichton translated: "The answer is, no."

Since the last presidential election, liberals of various faiths have talked about taking back religion from the conservative Christians who helped bring President Bush and a Republican Congress to power.

Yet liberal believers have so far been unable to approach, even modestly, the success of the religious right and command the attention of Congress.

Turnout at the Spiritual Activism Conference is high, but if the gathering is any indication, the biggest barrier for liberals may be their regard for pluralism: for letting people say what they want, how they want to, and for trying to include everyone's priorities, rather than choosing two or three issues that could inspire a movement.

"We didn't get on the same page with everyone, and it is about getting on the same page," said the Rev. Tony Campolo, an outspoken liberal Baptist minister from Pennsylvania who once served as a spiritual adviser to President Bill Clinton, and attended the conference. "The thing about the left is that they want everybody to feel good."

The problem here is not that the religious left values pluralism and wants to make everyone feel good. The problem is, or appears to be since this is the only report I have read about the conference, that the leadership of the conference didn't lead. Having attended the annual JRLC (Joint Religious & Legislative Coalition) Day on the Hill events for many years now at the state capitol, where progressives and moderates come together to lobby their legislators, I know it is possible to herd the progressive cats. Every year there are a thousand worthwhile issues, and yet the leadership manages to settle on a few critical issues with supporting talking points for everyone. And they say clearly "stick to the script; these are our issues this time." It sounds like that didn't happen in Washington.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Values Voters

I usually only like George Will when he writes about baseball, but he had a genuinely excellent article today challenging the notion that conservative Christians own the "values voters." The whole article is worth a read. Here are a few excerpts:

It is odd that some conservatives are eager to promote the semantic vanity of the phrase "values voters." And it is odder still that the media are cooperating with those conservatives.

Conservatives should be wary of the idea that when they talk about, say, tax cuts and limited government -- about things other than abortion, gay marriage, religion in the public square and similar issues -- they are engaging in values-free discourse. And by ratifying the social conservatives' monopoly of the label "values voters," the media are furthering the fiction that these voters are somehow more morally awake than others.

Today's liberal agenda includes preservation, even expansion, of the welfare state in its current configuration in order to strengthen an egalitarian ethic of common provision. Liberals favor taxes and other measures to produce a more equal distribution of income. They may value equality indiscriminately, but they vote their values.

Among the various flavors of conservatism, there is libertarianism that is wary of government attempts to nurture morality and there is social conservatism that says unless government nurtures morality, liberty will perish. Both kinds of conservatives use their votes to advance what they value.


Attempts to assign values-seriousness can get complicated: Freedom and happiness are valuable. Arguably, governmental actions that did much to increase freedom and happiness in the past half-century were state laws liberalizing divorce. These made important contributions to the emancipation of men and especially women from mistaken marriages. Perhaps the most important of these laws -- it was among the most liberal and was in the most populous state -- was signed by a divorced governor, Ronald Reagan. What do socially conservative values voters make of that ?

Childhood Classmate Makes Good in Politics


John Eichelberger was a classmate of mine in elementary school through high school. We were in the school district's gifted program together, played on the high school tennis team together, entered Penn State early together, were both Political Science majors, but we did not share politics. He stayed behind in Pennsylvania and I believe went into the insurance business. But he also became active in Republican politics, which is the only game in town in central Pennsylvania if you want to be part of the ruling party. A number of years ago he was elected County Commissioner, and he also served on the Altoona Airport authority, where he had some run-ins with my parents whose property abuts the airport (which isn't in Altoona but Martinsburg, my hometown.)

Yesterday he won a primary challenge over the incumbent State Senator, Robert Jubileer, who has been in the Pennsylvania Senate since I was in high school. Jubileer was a moderate Republican in the mold of the late US Senators Hugh Scott and John Heinz. There is nothing moderate about Eichelberger. But he won by capitalizing on anger at the Republican controlled legislature that last year voted itself a 54% pay increase. It was later forced to roll it back after widespread voter anger, but the damage was done to Jubileer and many of his colleagues.

This was in the New York Times this morning:

Mr. Eichelberger, along with three other conservative challengers, created a campaign document, "Promise to Pennsylvania," modeled after the "Contract With America" that the Republicans used in 1994 to capture Congress.

It called for stricter regulation of lobbyists, term limits, tort reform and the vote of three-fifths of the Legislature before raising taxes. Three of the four signers won. The fourth is clinging to a narrow lead.

"People are just tired of Republicans who don't represent the bedrock conservative values of the party," Mr. Eichelberger said. "They're Republican in name only. If you're going to be a Republican, be a Republican."

I'll have to send him a note of qualified congratulations.

Denominational Split Over Homosexuality

From the AP:
The board of the Pacific Southwest region has voted unanimously to break ties with the 1.4 million-member American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A., concluding a long dispute over homosexuality.

The region covers southern California and five other states with about 5 percent of the American Baptists' 5,800 congregations. The break is effective Nov. 1.

Denominational headquarters in Valley Forge, Pa., said ''a significant number of churches wish to remain American Baptist'' and would form a new southwestern association.

American Baptist policy states that ''homosexuality is incompatible with biblical teaching,'' but southwestern Baptists were upset that, in local situations, practicing homosexuals were ordained to the clergy and held leadership posts in American Baptist agencies.

Episcopalian Crisis

In the current issue of Commonweal Magazine, an Episcopalian talks about the controversy roiling the Episcopal Church and worldwide Anglican community over the ordination of a gay bishop. It is an interesting article. I am posting this excerpt because I appreciate the approach to reading scripture that the author shares:

Given these disagreements, how can Episcopalians resolve their differences? Do we remain within an institution that appears to be falling apart, and one that each side experiences as betraying our own commitment to theological orthodoxy or fairness? As a heterosexual who does not view homosexuality as intrinsically sinful or abnormal, can I continue to value the orthodox tradition that is part of my religious identity within a polity that seems so confused about what the “Christian” church should do?

I know many Catholics ask the same questions about their church’s teachings on contraception and other disputed issues. Autobiography is crucial here. My own views are shaped in part by the Jewish tradition I lived in for most of my life, before I became a Christian sixteen years ago. As I experienced and loved it, Judaism is a tradition steeped in a text but also committed at its core to interpretation and adaptation. The structure of the key Jewish sources through which the Bible is read is inherently dialogical; rabbinic figures debate with one another over the meaning of particular biblical verses, citing alternative verses or different meanings of the same words, different analogies, or diverse human experiences. The goal is seldom theoretical understanding for its own sake, but rather practical understanding to allow the community to remain faithful to a long-standing covenant while living in very different historical circumstances. The Jewish tradition has its own liberal/conservative continuum, but the center of the tradition is one of a continually changing and creative interaction of a community with its authorizing texts. This set of experiences and my personal commitment to open intellectual discussion and debate leave me very uncomfortable with the idea that specific biblical passages are always the determining or sole source of divine guidance or inspiration.

My own journey into Christianity was not motivated by rejection of Judaism but rather by a growing appreciation-aesthetic as well as intellectual, emotional as well as doctrinal-of the Christian story, Christian symbols, and Christian worship. Much to my surprise, I found the central story of Jesus’ incarnation, passion, death, and resurrection to reflect much of what I believed about who God is and how he acts. I found the cross to be a symbol of both redemptive suffering and the interaction between human sinfulness and divine compassion. And in the language of Christian worship, I discovered a voice and an idiom that seemed to express my deepest longings for prayer.

I began to attend Episcopal services while I was engaged to a woman studying to become a priest. It was the language and liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer, with its soaring Elizabethan prose and its broad incorporation of both Catholic and Protestant sensibilities, that led me to the baptismal font and to confirmation in the Episcopal Church. This is not unusual, because Episcopalians are frequently more likely to define themselves in terms of the Book of Common Prayer than in terms of adherence to particular doctrinal statements.

In addition to the liturgical and symbolic power of Episcopal worship, I was drawn to the intellectual power of the tradition, as reflected particularly in the writings and continuing influence of the sixteenth-century figure Richard Hooker. His massive work, Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, is a brilliant effort to define how the Church of England can protect itself from what he saw as the twin threats of Roman Catholic authoritarianism and domination on one hand, and Puritan narrow-mindedness and self-righteousness on the other. A few observations about Hooker’s approach will underscore what is both attractive yet admittedly problematic about the church that continues to be so indebted to his vision.

Hooker looked for positions and principles that could unite diverse individuals, and he tried to distinguish the essential elements that are worth fighting over from the nonessentials that are not. He was uncomfortable assuming bad motives by his opponents, in part because he recognized the gray areas of human life. He wrote that “Our end ought always to be the same, our ways and means thereunto not so.” Hooker saw in the Church of England a sign of “a course more calm and moderate,” providing a model for the other churches that were immersed in “mutual combustions bloodsheds and wastes.”

The substance of his position is reflected in the way he argued his case. The structure of the Laws proceeds by presenting long quotations from key Puritan writers, acknowledging what was reasonable in their position, and then stating the areas of disagreement and trying to indicate why the Puritan view was wrong. He tried to find a position both sides could agree on. And Hooker was not so sure of the truth of his own position that he demonized his opponents, nor did he draw the lines so firmly that those on the other side were viewed as outside the realm of redemption or the true church. Hooker went so far as to believe that Roman Catholics could go to heaven, a highly unpopular position a few decades after the reign of the Protestant-persecuting Queen Mary and around the time of the Spanish Armada.

It is partly from Hooker that Anglicans (including Episcopalians) inherit their long-standing view that Christian authority derives from the interaction of Scripture, the tradition of the church, and human reason and experience. Hooker began with the authority of Scripture, and believed that it was normative when it provided clear guidance. But the Christian tradition’s centuries of reflection on Scripture, and the reasoned consensus and consideration of the contemporary community, are essential once we recognize that the Bible does not provide an unambiguous set of answers to contemporary questions. This tripartite approach is necessary and complex, both because none of these sources is univocal or self-disclosing without extensive interpretation, and because the sources can and do conflict when applied to complex problems. (Even the seemingly unambiguous condemnations of homosexual behavior need to account for the very different meaning of the key terms in much earlier and different cultural contexts, and the difficulties of imagining how the writers may have responded to a different set of potential relationships offered in a different historical situation.)

I was drawn to this broad and somewhat ambiguous view of authority, partly because it reminded me of the exciting and playful element of interpretation that I had so loved in the Jewish tradition, but also because of a temperamental and moral distrust of certainty. My own religious experiences were not unequivocal or overpowering revelations of a Christian God who crowded out or eliminated all other options; my journey into the Christian community was not a story of sudden enlightenment or joyous salvation but rather a long process of exploration, doubt, and subtle but revealing suggestions of a God who had done amazing things and who seemed able to be revealed through mundane and mixed human lives. It was this vision, with all its ambiguity and halting movements, that was embodied in an Anglican tradition and an Episcopal Church that struggled explicitly with the tension between faith and reason, certainty and doubt, unity and diversity.

Another Bad Year for Storms

From God to Pat Robertson to us:

In another in a series of notable pronouncements, religious broadcaster Pat Robertson says God told him storms and possibly a tsunami will hit America's coastline this year.

Robertson has made the predictions at least four times in the past two weeks on his news-and-talk television show "The 700 Club" on the Christian Broadcasting Network, which he founded.

Robertson said the revelations about this year's weather came to him during his annual personal prayer retreat in January.

"If I heard the Lord right about 2006, the coasts of America will be lashed by storms," Robertson said May 8. On Wednesday, he added, "There well may be something as bad as a tsunami in the Pacific Northwest."

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Girls Who Went Away

Last evening's other half of Fresh Air was also interesting. Ann Fessler knew from a young age that she was adopted. What she didn't know was that she was one of the millions of babies who were born in the days before abortion was legal. It was a time when young women who became pregnant outside of marriage were routinely shipped off to birth houses where they gave birth and then were strongly encouraged to give up their babies for adoption. Her new book, The Girls Who Went Away, tells the story of her mother and some of the other women who had this experience. You can listen to the program here. One little tidbit of information that I learned in the segment was that until the passing of Title IX in 1979, it was legal for high schools and colleges to kick pregnant women out of school. I knew it happened; I didn't know Title IX addressed that issue.

Sweatshops in US

I am not a regular reader of Ms. magazine; in fact I don't think I have ever read it. But last evening I was listening to Fresh Air on NPR and Ms. magazine reporter Rebecca Clarren and executive editor Katherine Spillar were discussing the latest issue's cover article about the sweatshops of the Northern Mariana Islands. The Northern Marianas Islands, located in the Pacific, are a U.S. territory. Because its a U.S. territory, the clothing made there can be labeled made in the USA.

But thanks to unusual legislation, the Islands are exempt from the usual American laws regulating minimum wage, tariffs, quotas and immigration. According to the Ms. article, female guest workers are brought from other Asian countries to work in the sweat shops that make the "American-made" clothing. They are also brought in to supply the sex trade that thrives on the islands. And thanks to the lobbying efforts of Jack Abramoff and the legislative maneuvering of his best budy Tom Delay, bipartisan efforts to change the laws were routinely killed in a House committee while Abramoff was arranging junkets for Delay and other House members and their families to enjoy the tourist side of the islands.

You can read the Ms. article, Paradise Lost: Greed, Sex Slavery, Forced Abortions and Right-Wing Moralists here.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Top News of the Day

From The Superficial:

Britney Spears says she's given up Kabbalah and replaced it with her son. Last Friday she made a posting on her official site saying: "I no longer study Kaballah [sic], my baby is my religion."

She probably wasn't too into it in the first place considering she can't even spell it right. Plus after seeing the way her life is turning out what else is she supposed to assume except that Kabbalah has failed her.

Immigration Debate

Last night President Bush tried to put a stop to the damage his fellow Republicans are doing to the Rove strategy of turning millions of hispanic Catholics into reliable Republican votes. The President sees nothing wrong with illegal immigration. He dealt with them as Texas governor by doing nothing. But there has always been a virulent strain of anti-immigration fever in the Republican Party and recently is has grown stronger. This is, after all, a desperate party in search of a winning, if imaginary, issue.

Bush proposed putting National Guard troops at the border. Send in the troops is a favorite Bush solution to imaginary problems. It makes him look strong and Presidential. Never mind that the President has cut funding for the border patrol in his budgets.

Conservative New York Times Columnist John Tierney had the best take this morning on Bush's response to the illegal immigration issue:

He had to throw in the tough border talk and the new ID cards. He had to deal with the new outbreak of xenophobia, the fear that has always been easy for demagogues to arouse because it's such a basic human instinct.

Distrusting foreigners made evolutionary sense when outside clans threatened to bring in disease and encroach on hunting grounds. It made sense during the thousands of years when towns built walls to stop invaders from plundering their wealth and enslaving their inhabitants.

But the immigrants now coming across the Mexican border do not want to sack our cities. They're not about to pillage our granaries or march home with Americans in chains. They just want to mow our lawns and clean our offices.

They're coming to feed us, not take our food, yet we're demanding that our leaders keep them out. No foreign busboys! No Mexican cooks! Stop them before they grill again!

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Governor Bush Loses Vote on Vouchers

The New York Times reports this morning that Florida Governor Jeb Bush was rebuffed by members of his own party on attempts to roll back a voter-referendum passed bill that mandates lower class sizes and on a bill that would increased funding for school vouchers. What caught my attention were the comments of the Republican legislators who joined Democrats in defeating the Governor's initiatives:

State Senator Dennis L. Jones, Republican of Seminole, was one of the Republicans who broke with his party on the issue. During the debate, he pointed out that voters have opposed vouchers in referendums in Colorado, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Michigan, Oregon and Washington State. "Quit using public money to send our kids to private schools," Mr. Jones said, as reported by The Tallahassee Democrat.

State Senator Evelyn J. Lynn, an Ormond Beach Republican and chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, also joined Democrats in voting against the plan. Ms. Lynn said vouchers did not belong in the Constitution and called the plan an attack on the public school system.

State Senator J. Alex Villalobos, a Republican from Miami who opposed both amendments, was fired as majority leader by the Senate president, Tom Lee, Republican of Brandon. Mr. Villalobos said he chose to vote with his constituents and his principles.

"I think what it signals is the senators aren't rubber stamps," he said. "I voted with my district, which is overwhelmingly Republican. How the party line is 'stick it to South Florida schools' is beyond my imagination."

It is refreshing to hear Republicans anywhere acknowledging the fact that voucher supporters are out to destroy the public school system. And on a side note, it always amazes me when I am volunteering at schools with parents who are Republicans and strong supporters of the public schools and strong supporters of state and national politicans who are actively trying to gut funding for public schools.

Friday, May 12, 2006

The Problem with Christianity

Andrew Sullivan, blogger at Time Magazine, the gay, Christian, conservative who once wholeheartedly supported George Bush and the war in Iraq, but who has since seen the error of his ways... has a problem with the religious right. He doesn't like the fact that they seem to have a monopoly on the public voice of Christianity:
Are you a Christian who doesn't feel represented by the religious right? I know the feeling. When the discourse about faith is dominated by political fundamentalists and social conservatives, many others begin to feel as if their religion has been taken away from them.

The number of Christians misrepresented by the Christian right is many. There are evangelical Protestants who believe strongly that Christianity should not get too close to the corrupting allure of government power. There are lay Catholics who, while personally devout, are socially liberal on issues like contraception, gay rights, women's equality and a multi-faith society. There are very orthodox believers who nonetheless respect the freedom and conscience of others as part of their core understanding of what being a Christian is. They have no problem living next to an atheist or a gay couple or a single mother or people whose views on the meaning of life are utterly alien to them--and respecting their neighbors' choices. That doesn't threaten their faith. Sometimes the contrast helps them understand their own faith better.

And there are those who simply believe that, by definition, God is unknowable to our limited, fallible human minds and souls. If God is ultimately unknowable, then how can we be so certain of what God's real position is on, say, the fate of Terri Schiavo? Or the morality of contraception? Or the role of women? Or the love of a gay couple? Also, faith for many of us is interwoven with doubt, a doubt that can strengthen faith and give it perspective and shadow. That doubt means having great humility in the face of God and an enormous reluctance to impose one's beliefs, through civil law, on anyone else.

I would say a clear majority of Christians in the U.S. fall into one or many of those camps. Yet the term "people of faith" has been co-opted almost entirely in our discourse by those who see Christianity as compatible with only one political party, the Republicans, and believe that their religious doctrines should determine public policy for everyone. "Sides are being chosen," Tom DeLay recently told his supporters, "and the future of man hangs in the balance! The enemies of virtue may be on the march, but they have not won, and if we put our trust in Christ, they never will." So Christ is a conservative Republican?

Of course not. And I agree with everything Sullivan has said so far. But then he says this:
What to do about it? The worst response, I think, would be to construct something called the religious left. Many of us who are Christians and not supportive of the religious right are not on the left either. In fact, we are opposed to any politicization of the Gospels by any party, Democratic or Republican, by partisan black churches or partisan white ones. "My kingdom is not of this world," Jesus insisted. What part of that do we not understand?
Perhaps the part about whether or not Jesus really said this. I suppose it is asking too much for Sullivan to be up on Jesus scholarship. Regardless, it is impossible to read the gospels and not realize that Jesus was very political. He didn't back any political or religious party of his day. But his words and his deeds were decidedly political in nature, and they were what we would describe today as leftist: a preferential option for the poor, a challenge to the rich to give up their wealth, compassion and care for the sick and hurting over law and order, turn the other cheek, love your enemy, equal regard for women; it's all leftist and politically charged.

Of course, God is not a Republican or a Democrat. We should be very careful to remember that God and Jesus' agenda are not on any side. The words and deeds of Jesus challenge us all to grow in our faith and our practice. But there is already a religious left and I am proud to be a part of it.

I do like the next distinction Sullivan makes:
So let me suggest that we take back the word Christian while giving the religious right a new adjective: Christianist. Christianity, in this view, is simply a faith. Christianism is an ideology, politics, an ism. The distinction between Christian and Christianist echoes the distinction we make between Muslim and Islamist. Muslims are those who follow Islam. Islamists are those who want to wield Islam as a political force and conflate state and mosque. Not all Islamists are violent. Only a tiny few are terrorists. And I should underline that the term Christianist is in no way designed to label people on the religious right as favoring any violence at all. I mean merely by the term Christianist the view that religious faith is so important that it must also have a precise political agenda. It is the belief that religion dictates politics and that politics should dictate the laws for everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike.
Again, Sullivan is naive to believe that religion doesn't dictate politics. If religion doesn't dictate politics then religion is tepid mush. Our faith ought to have consequences in the way we live, the way we think, and the way we vote.

But I like the idea of calling those whose Christian faith impels them to political aims that would force their intolerant Christian belief and practice on everyone Christianists. What they are doing is not Christian, its Christianist.

Slipped Into the Defense Bill

The US House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a $513 billion dollar defense bill yesterday. Included in the bill was a provision that would allow military chaplains to pray in the name of Jesus at public military events. This comes in response to new Air Force and Navy guidelines that allow military chaplains to pray in the name of Jesus at voluntary events, but require them to pray non-sectarian prayers at public events.

Focus on the Family and the Christian Coalition had been pressing the White House to issue an executive order undercutting the new rules, but when the White House didn't act, some members of Congress did. The Chief of Navy Chaplains and the National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces, which provides more than 70 percent of chaplains to the armed forces, both objected to the House bill.

Fortunately, the provision will never make it out of a House and Senate conference committee.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

In the Army Now

From the City Pages blog, The Blotter:

"I told my wife not to worry about it. They're not going to take anybody in the service who's autistic."

-- Paul Guinther, whose 18-year-old autistic son, Jared, was recruited by the Army to be a cavalry scout and is scheduled to leave for basic training August 16

Posted by Corey Anderson at May 10, 2006 01:45 AM

Progressive Christianity

It has been a busy week, and hence no blogging until now. In any case...

Fresh on the heals of Open Circle's explanation to the Northern Plains District of our understanding of Christianity, I just received in the mail the latest issue of The Fourth R, the periodical of the Westar Institute (Jesus Seminar - It includes an article by Hal Taussig, a Methodist pastor currently serving as Visiting Professor of NT at Union Theological Seminary in NY. He has a book on the way on the emerging and growing movement of progressive Christian congregations: A New Spiritual Home. In the article he says that there are now over a thousand self-described progressive Christian churches in the country, to be distinguished from conservative, mainline, and even old-style liberal churches. Below are the five characteristics of this movement, of which Open Circle is a part.

The Five Characteristics of Progressive Christianity
Hal Taussig

1. A Spiritual vitality and expressiveness. The wide-range of churches and groups in this movement--in contrast to the traditional liberal Christians--are not just heady social activists and intellectuals. They like expressing themselves spiritually in meditation, prayer, artistic forms, and lively worship. It is astonishing how similar these spiritual and worship expressions are, even though they come from widely different denominations and parts of the United States. A New Spiritual Home details five aspects of this new spiritual vitality: participatory worship, expressive and arts-infused worship and programming, a reclaiming of discarded ancient Christian rituals (for example baptismal immersion and annointing with oil), a wide variety of non-Christian rituals and meditation techniques, and development of small groups for spiritual growth and nurture.

2. An insistence on Christianity with intellectual integrity. This new kind of Christian expression is devoted to and nourished by a wide-ranging intellectual curiosity and critique. It interrogates Christian assumptions and traditions in order to reframe, reject, or renew them. God language, the relationship between science and religion, and postmodern consciousness are the major arenas of this intellectual vigor.

3. A transgression of traditional gender boundaries. These groups are explicitly and thoroughly committed to feminism and affirmation of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. The feminism is regularly a part of new kinds of family and child-rearing dynamics. The extent of gay-friendliness is illustrated by at least seven national Christian movements devoted to support of GLBTs and rooted in thousands of local churches.

4. The belief that Christianity can be vital without claiming to be the best or the only true religion. In contrast to mainstream Christianity's lukewarm "tolerance" of other religions, progressive Christianity pro-actively asserts that it is not the best or the only. Progressive Christians take pains to claim simultaneously their own Christian faith and their support of the complete validity of other religions.

5. Strong ecological and social justice commitments. The longstanding Christian interest in aiding those who suffer or are poor is continued in progressive Christianity. Similarly, this new movement is committed to old style liberal social justice programming and peace advocacy. In addition, however, there is a passion for environmentalism, including explicit attention to changing life style and consumer patters in order to lessen the human footprint on the earth.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Not the Path, The Practice

I just started reading Karen Armstrong's new book, The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions yesterday at Barnes and Nobles. I plan to read it over a series of visits to the bookstore; I will wait to buy it until the paperback comes out. I can't say much about it yet, although I have enjoyed what I have read so far. In this book she covers what has come to be called the Axial Age, which spans roughly 900 B.C.E. to 200 B.C.E. During this period all the world's great religious traditions (or, like Christianity and Islam, their parents) were born. She covers Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and Judaism and talks about how they all responded to the cultural forces they faced during this period. It is Armstrong's contention that violence, political disruption and religious intolerance dominated Axial Age societies, and that the great Axial Age religions responded by making compassion, love and justice the central tenets of religious practice.

The Axial Age sounds like our age, full of violence, political disruption, and religious intolerance, and I would guess that this is Armstrong's point. I know that she does say at the beginning of her book that all of these religious traditions and their children began by stressing the centrality of the practice of compassion, love, and justice. Beliefs, doctrines, and exclusive truth claims came later.

I can't speak with any authority about other world religions, but with regards to Christianity this is certainly true. One of the insights that comes with reading the Christian scriptures using the skills of biblical criticism is that there is a difference between what Jesus said and did and what the gospel writers and later creeds say about Jesus. A classic example is the Gospel of John where Jesus makes a series of "I am" statements: I am the bread of life; I am the way, the truth, and the life; etc. This is the writer of John and John's community reflecting on the meaning of Jesus to them; Jesus did not make these statements about himself.

Jesus did not talk about doctrine, belief, or make exclusive truth claims. He simply practiced compassion, love, and justice. He acted as if what he called the "kingdom of God" was already here. See it, live as if it is here, and it is here. That is what he did and what he invited his friends and followers to do. It is easier said than done, though. We don't see it, so we think that he is surely going to come back some day to finish the job. Or we make our focus believing in him instead of seeing what he saw and doing what he did. But beliefs, doctrines and exclusive truth claims about Jesus miss the whole point about Jesus. It is compassion, love, and justice.

But to reconnect with what seems to be the thesis of Armstrong's book, I could have very well been born into a Buddhist culture and Buddhist family. And given my personality type and intellectual bent, I would probably be bringing the same passion to learning about the real Buddha and creating community around him. And that would be perfectly o.k. Because, if Armstrong is right and I believe she is, Buddha saw what Jesus saw, and practiced what Jesus practiced. In his own time, in his own culture, in his own language, he found his own path. And I could very well have been born into and walking that path. But the central message was and is the same: compassion, love, and justice. It is not the path that matters; it is the way we live our lives that matters.