Monday, April 30, 2007

Teaching About Religion in Schools

An editorial in USA Today:

It has been a season of consternation about the religious illiteracy of America. Prompting fresh knowledge of our ignorance is Stephen Prothero's new book, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — And Doesn’t . The book cites research showing that even Christians are poorly acquainted with the Bible. Familiar with Benjamin Franklin's aphorism "God helps those who help themselves"? Three-quarters of us, Prothero reports, wrongly believe it comes from the Bible. Only one-half of us can name one of the four gospels of the New Testament. (For the record, they are Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.) Only a third can identify who delivered the Sermon on the Mount. (Answer: Jesus.)

The worry about religious illiteracy is well justified given the powerful influence of faith on American culture and politics. So it's understandable that we're also witnessing a renewed determination to teach about religion in public schools. The Georgia Legislature has approved a law allowing the teaching of the Bible in public schools. According to a recent Time cover story endorsing Bible instruction, public-school courses on the Bible, while far from numerous, are increasingly popular around the country.

That's all well and good, provided the curricula and instructors respect the crucial difference between promoting religion and teaching about religion. But here's a suggestion that will test our seriousness about developing religious literacy in this country. Let's also teach about Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and the world's other major religions. Especially, let's teach students about Islam...

I agree, but still have my doubts about whether it can be done well in a high school setting. Tolerance and respect of others wasn't something I learned from my high school Social Studies teacher.

Hagel on Iraq

Robert Novak gets Sen. Chuck Hagel on the record on Iraq:

After his latest visit to Iraq, with stops in Baghdad, Fallujah and Ramadi, Hagel told me: "This thing is really coming undone quickly, and [Prime Minister] Maliki's government is weaker by the day. The police are corrupt, top to bottom. The oil problem is a huge problem. They still can't get anything through the parliament -- no hydrocarbon law, no de-Baathification law, no provincial elections," which are needed to bring Sunnis into the governing process.

The regional problem, as described by Hagel, is a U.S. policy breakdown with the failure to engage Iran and Syria. "I do know that there are a number of Israelis who would like to engage Syria," said Hagel. "They have said that Elliott Abrams keeps pushing them back." He quoted foreign ministers, ambassadors and former U.S. officials as saying that they believe Abrams "is making policy in the Middle East."

Hagel certainly is no peace-now zealot. "We're not going to precipitously pull out," he told me. "We have [national] interests in Iraq." While he asserted that "we can't get out by the end of the year," he called for "pulling some of our guys out -- not all of them, but you've got to get them out of [Baghdad] at least, get them out of the middle of civil war." If not, Hagel said, "then the prospects of the Republican Party are very dim next year."

What about claims by proponents of the Iraqi intervention that failure to stop the terrorists in Iraq will open the door to them in the American homeland?

"That's nonsense," Hagel replied. "I've never believed that. That's the same kind of rhetoric and thinking that neocons used to get us into this mess and everything that [Donald] Rumsfeld, [Paul] Wolfowitz, [Richard] Perle, [Douglas] Feith and the vice president all said. Nothing turned out the way they said it would."

It is "nonsense," Hagel said, because "Iraq is not embroiled in a terrorist war today." Hagel, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, cited "national intelligence" attributing "maybe 10 percent" of the insurgency and violence to al-Qaeda. Indeed, he described Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds as opposed to al-Qaeda: "They don't like the terrorists. What's happened in Anbar province is the tribes are finally starting to connect with us because al-Qaeda started killing some of their leadership and threatening their people. So the tribes now are at war with al-Qaeda."

"So," said Hagel, "when I hear people say, 'Well, if we leave them to that, it will be chaos' -- what do you think is going on now? Scaring the American people into this blind alley is so dangerous."

Barak Obama's Faith

A good article in the Times.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

What Would Jesus Say?

In today's Star Tribune, Nick Coleman writes about one of the healing moments that came in the aftermath of the St. Peter tornadoes nine years ago: when the Catholic church was destroyed the nearby Lutheran congregation invited the Catholics to join them for worship and then to use their building for their own worship until they had new facilities. But even after the new building was in place the two congregations continued to worship together on Easter.

All of this was too much for Bishop John Nienstedt of New Ulm, newly installed in 2002, and just recently named as the future Archbishop here in the twin cities. Neinstedt disciplined the Catholic priest and then reassigned him to a tiny parish:
That behavior, Nienstedt said in a statement, was a "departure from our church's doctrinal norms for the celebration of our Catholic mass and eucharist."For three consecutive years, during Holy Week, Father Behan did not follow these norms," the statement said.

Behan, a charismatic Irish-born priest who is now 65, promised to stop the practice, Nienstedt said. But after being reassigned to St. Dionysius, a church in tiny Tyler, Minn., Behan "broke his promise and repeated this confusing and non-approved Catholic-Lutheran mass celebration there. When this infraction was reported to Rome, the Holy See ordered father to undergo intensive education in the doctrine and practice of consecration of the holy eucharist."
What would Jesus do? Where in the New Testament does Jesus appeal to doctrine? Doctrine equals death. It doesn't matter whether it is Catholic or Lutheran or Brethren or Fundamentalist doctrine, doctrine is what those in power (or those who wish they were in power) use to squash the movement of the spirit. Doctrine builds walls, keeps people out; the spirit breaks down walls and welcomes them in.

Out of an awful disaster there came a living spirit to break down ancient walls of distrust between Catholics and Protestants. Squashed in the name of doctrine. How sad.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

AIDS Czar Resigns

Deputy Secretary of State Randall L. Tobias is director of U.S. Foreign Assistance and administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). He was the President's point man on AIDS relief, and his views on the subject did not make him popular with many:
As the Bush administration's so-called "AIDS czar," Tobias was criticized for emphasizing faithfulness and abstinence over condom use to prevent the spread of AIDS.
Faithfulness. Tobias, who is married, resigned Friday after it was revealed his cell phone number was on the list of Jeane Palfrey, the woman dubbed the "D.C. Madam." He has admitted having "gals come over to the condo to give me a massage." That's all.

Friday, April 27, 2007

More on Progressive Christianity

This week's e-newsletter article:

Open Circle is a member of The Center for Progressive Christianity. We recently had the founder of TCPC, Jim Adams, with us for a couple of days talking about the growing progressive Christian movement around the country. Over on their website TCPC has a growing list of resource: educational, worship, book reviews, and articles about progressive Christianity.

I want to call your attention to two of these currently linked on the front page of the web site. One is written by Fred Plummer, the president of TCPC, entitled What is Progressive Christianity Anyway. In the article Plummer takes note of the uptick in the number of progressive Christian organizations around the country. After giving of us rundown of these organizations and their purposes, he tells us what for him is the essence of the progressive Christian movement:

I would suggest here that the foundational tenet of progressive Christianity is the ontological understanding that pre-dates Bible, tradition and even religion: that is that all living beings are created by one force, one Spirit, one God and are inter-related and interdependent. This is a universal truth that has been revealed in Jesus and other enlightened teachers and prophets over the centuries. It is one that science makes more of a reality for us every day. But it makes no difference whether one comes to that understanding of reality through Biblical teachings, some scientific revelation or some existential spiritual experience. Once you begin to see the creation this way, everything changes.

It is out of this understanding that we are compelled to work for social justice; it is out of this insight that we begin to see others as we would like them to see us; it is out of this awareness that we can no longer let others suffer without interceding; it is out of this recognition that our compassion for others grows without limits; and it is out of this consciousness that we are even willing to die on behalf of others.

Progress by definition is "to move forward." Obviously this implies movement, transition and usually the need to let go or revise. Progress always means change and change is seldom easy, especially when we are dealing with issues that are so subjective and even sacred in our lives.

The other article, A Startling Vision for the 21st Century Church, is by a UCC pastor in Seattle Washington, Tom Thresher. He describes the particular vision and model his congregation is working out of, which he describes as the Integral Church:

Wonderful things are happening in the progressive Christian movement, and we delight in the renewed vitality inspired by this vision. Yet we feel the need to point beyond even the progressive Christian movement to what we call the Integral Church. Not only does it welcome those who doubt the trappings of the traditional church and gladly receive the wisdom of other faiths, it then integrates both modern doubt and postmodern pluralism with the mythic foundations of our faith. The Integral Church holds all of this simultaneously in a great celebratory dance.

So imagine, if you will, a church that gives people permission to be exactly where they are on their spiritual journey and simultaneously offers multiple invitations into possibilities just beyond (and sometimes way beyond) their current comfort level. Imagine if this were done with attention to a suitable spectrum of interior capacities, with "Christian stories" appropriate to different stages of the journey, and with a variety of venues for engaging the social, economic and political structures surrounding us. In other words, imagine a church actively inviting the congregation to move through modern awareness into postmodernity and beyond without abandoning its traditional roots. This is the project of the Suquamish Church (United Church of Christ).

I encourage you to take a look at these articles. Interesting things are happening all around the country among progressive Christians.

Indiana Teacher Disciplined over School Newspaper Article

Amy Sorrell did the right thing by allowing the article to appear in the school paper; she did the understandable thing by signing a "confession" that sounds like it came right out of a very different political system; and she did the right thing again by signaling her strong support of the student who wrote the article:
A high school teacher who faced losing her job after a student newspaper published an editorial advocating tolerance of gays can continue teaching at another school.

Amy Sorrell, 30, reached an agreement that allows her to be transferred to another high school to teach English, said her attorney, Patrick Proctor.

"The school administration has said in no uncertain terms that she's not going to be given a journalism position," Proctor said.

Sorrell, who had been an English and journalism instructor at Woodlan Junior-Senior High School, was placed on paid leave March 19, two months after an editorial advocating tolerance of homosexuals ran in Woodlan's student newspaper, The Tomahawk. Sorrell had been the newspaper's adviser.

School officials in the conservative northern Indiana community about 10 miles east of Fort Wayne said Sorrell did not comply with an agreement to alert the principal about controversial articles.

The agreement she signed includes a written reprimand that says she neglected her duties as a teacher and was insubordinate in refusing to obey school officials' orders.

Sorrell said she is "very proud" of Megan Chase, the student who wrote the editorial calling for tolerance and acceptance of gays, and the Tomahawk's other writers and editors. But she said she could not financially afford to fight the school district over her discipline.

The Failings of Our Generals

A telling comment by Lt. Col. Paul Yingling:
As matters stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.
The work of Yingling's unit in the Iraqi city of Tall Afar was cited by the President as the model for the current surge. But Yingling has an article out in Military Review, an officer's publication, in which he criticizes the generals of "intellectual and moral" failures. It's part of the culture of no accountability in the current administration.

The Return of the Gilded Age

Paul Krugman compares the levels of income inequality today with those of the gilded age, what today's conservatives consider to be the golden age of social Darwinism:

Consider a head-to-head comparison. We know what John D. Rockefeller, the richest man in Gilded Age America, made in 1894, because in 1895 he had to pay income taxes. (The next year, the Supreme Court declared the income tax unconstitutional.) His return declared an income of $1.25 million, almost 7,000 times the average per capita income in the United States at the time.

But that makes him a mere piker by modern standards. Last year, according to Institutional Investor’s Alpha magazine, James Simons, a hedge fund manager, took home $1.7 billion, more than 38,000 times the average income. Two other hedge fund managers also made more than $1 billion, and the top 25 combined made $14 billion.

How much is $14 billion? It’s more than it would cost to provide health care for a year to eight million children — the number of children in America who, unlike children in any other advanced country, don’t have health insurance.

The hedge fund billionaires are simply extreme examples of a much bigger phenomenon: every available measure of income concentration shows that we’ve gone back to levels of inequality not seen since the 1920s.

Once again, this is why a strong progressive government is important.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Truth about Iraq Comes Too Late

It could be that we now have the right general and the right strategy in place in Iraq:
Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said Thursday that conditions in Iraq may get harder before they get easier and will require ''an enormous commitment'' over time by the United States.

Speaking as the Senate debated veto-threatened legislation to start bringing home U.S. forces in October, Petraeus called the war there ''the most complex and challenging I have ever seen.''

Petraeus delivered these remarks in the face of congressional votes to set a deadline for the war. It is certainly refreshing to hear someone speaking the truth about what it is going to take. The problem is that it's too late. We were told a pack of lies about why we ought to go into Iraq; we were told an even bigger bushel of lies about how long it would take, how much it would cost, how we would be greeted, whether we had adequate resources to do the job, and what we were there for. And from others in the Administration, particularly the Vice President, the bold-faced lying continues in the face of every fact to the contrary.

The country has had enough of this war and enough of the lies. Petraeus may be a great general, but he is fighting the wrong war on behalf of a profoundly dishonest and inept Administration. It's time to bring the troops home.

Abstinence Education

Katherine Kersten, the Star Tribune's local conservative columnist, comments today on the recent government study that found abstinence-only education programs in the schools are no more effective than standard sex-ed classes in delaying adolescents' sexual activity. Once again we see an example of today's conservative approach to science: facts don't matter; ideology does.

The study can be dismissed because it was small:

But anyone who wants to make public policy based on this study should think again. Its sample was small and unrepresentative, says Dr. Gary Rose of the Medical Institute of Austin, Texas, a research organization that supports abstinence education.

The study included only four of the more than 900 programs that have received federal support, he says, and three were in communities made up largely of single-parent households.

Naturally, abstinence education would fail in single parent families.(?) No bias there. But what really matters to Kersten is not the effectiveness of abstinence-only education; what matters to her is that abstinence programs deliver the right moral message:

Authentic abstinence curricula take a very different approach. They view sex not primarily as a source of pleasure or self-expression but as a deeply significant act with moral, emotional and psychological dimensions. As a result, they focus on teaching students about the differences between love and sex, and encouraging them to view sexuality as part of a lifelong process of developing intimacy that will culminate ideally in a faithful marriage.

The truth of the matter is that this is a good message - with the understanding that marriage can include same-sex couples. It's a message that I believe parents should deliver to their children from an early age; its a message that religious communities should deliver to their children from an early age; its part of a message that schools should deliver to their children as part of a comprehensive sex education program that teaches children the facts about human biology and sexuality, and that teaches them about the full range of birth control options.

Kersten displays a certain level of naivete here about human nature and about teenage hormones in particular. We want our children to wait to be sexually active until they are mature and in committed relationships. We can and ought to do what we can to encourage them to resist the message of our over-sexed culture. But sometimes teenage hormones do what they do, even to the very "best" of children, including those raised in Kersten's "ideal" homes with a husband and wife who go to church every Sunday.

I want my children to know what I believe about sexual morality, and I also want them to know the facts about sex and to know all of their options. Let's not throw more federal or state money to support something that doesn't work.

Why Our Farm Bill is Making Us Overweight

This article is a couple of days old, but I just saw it this morning. Michael Pollan is the author of The Omnivore's Dilemma; he writes in the New York Times about the way the current farm bill subsidizes food production that contributes to our nation's weight problems, or, in short, why Twinkies cost less than carrots in a grocery store:

A few years ago, an obesity researcher at the University of Washington named Adam Drewnowski ventured into the supermarket to solve a mystery. He wanted to figure out why it is that the most reliable predictor of obesity in America today is a person’s wealth. For most of history, after all, the poor have typically suffered from a shortage of calories, not a surfeit. So how is it that today the people with the least amount of money to spend on food are the ones most likely to be overweight?

Drewnowski gave himself a hypothetical dollar to spend, using it to purchase as many calories as he possibly could. He discovered that he could buy the most calories per dollar in the middle aisles of the supermarket, among the towering canyons of processed food and soft drink. (In the typical American supermarket, the fresh foods — dairy, meat, fish and produce — line the perimeter walls, while the imperishable packaged goods dominate the center.) Drewnowski found that a dollar could buy 1,200 calories of cookies or potato chips but only 250 calories of carrots. Looking for something to wash down those chips, he discovered that his dollar bought 875 calories of soda but only 170 calories of orange juice.

As a rule, processed foods are more “energy dense” than fresh foods: they contain less water and fiber but more added fat and sugar, which makes them both less filling and more fattening. These particular calories also happen to be the least healthful ones in the marketplace, which is why we call the foods that contain them “junk.” Drewnowski concluded that the rules of the food game in America are organized in such a way that if you are eating on a budget, the most rational economic strategy is to eat badly — and get fat.

This perverse state of affairs is not, as you might think, the inevitable result of the free market. Compared with a bunch of carrots, a package of Twinkies, to take one iconic processed foodlike substance as an example, is a highly complicated, high-tech piece of manufacture, involving no fewer than 39 ingredients, many themselves elaborately manufactured, as well as the packaging and a hefty marketing budget. So how can the supermarket possibly sell a pair of these synthetic cream-filled pseudocakes for less than a bunch of roots?

For the answer, you need look no farther than the farm bill. This resolutely unglamorous and head-hurtingly complicated piece of legislation, which comes around roughly every five years and is about to do so again, sets the rules for the American food system — indeed, to a considerable extent, for the world’s food system. Among other things, it determines which crops will be subsidized and which will not, and in the case of the carrot and the Twinkie, the farm bill as currently written offers a lot more support to the cake than to the root. Like most processed foods, the Twinkie is basically a clever arrangement of carbohydrates and fats teased out of corn, soybeans and wheat — three of the five commodity crops that the farm bill supports, to the tune of some $25 billion a year. (Rice and cotton are the others.) For the last several decades — indeed, for about as long as the American waistline has been ballooning — U.S. agricultural policy has been designed in such a way as to promote the overproduction of these five commodities, especially corn and soy.

That’s because the current farm bill helps commodity farmers by cutting them a check based on how many bushels they can grow, rather than, say, by supporting prices and limiting production, as farm bills once did. The result? A food system awash in added sugars (derived from corn) and added fats (derived mainly from soy), as well as dirt-cheap meat and milk (derived from both). By comparison, the farm bill does almost nothing to support farmers growing fresh produce. A result of these policy choices is on stark display in your supermarket, where the real price of fruits and vegetables between 1985 and 2000 increased by nearly 40 percent while the real price of soft drinks (a k a liquid corn) declined by 23 percent. The reason the least healthful calories in the supermarket are the cheapest is that those are the ones the farm bill encourages farmers to grow.

A public-health researcher from Mars might legitimately wonder why a nation faced with what its surgeon general has called “an epidemic” of obesity would at the same time be in the business of subsidizing the production of high-fructose corn syrup. But such is the perversity of the farm bill: the nation’s agricultural policies operate at cross-purposes with its public-health objectives...

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Big Brother and little protesters

The RNC is coming to St. Paul next year and I'm sure Big Brother is getting ready as I'm typing. From today's New York Times:
At the Protest, a Civics Lesson Gets a Twist
Published: April 25, 2007

By the time Bob Curley got to a telephone, he and his son Neal had been in police detention for a full night. They had been arrested while shuffling down a sidewalk in Lower Manhattan with 225 others, protesting the Iraq war without written permission, a fact, and in disorderly fashion, an accusation.

Bleary, Mr. Curley called his wife from a cell that had been specially set up to segregate political protesters from ordinary decent criminals.

The number he tried — the Curley home — was registered on a police log, which court records show was created for calls made by protesters.

The Curleys had come to the city from their home in Philadelphia the day before, Aug. 31, 2004, an annual pilgrimage made by father and son for dinner and a play in Manhattan. Neal, then 17, was about to start his senior year in high school. Because their visit coincided with the Republican National Convention, they decided that before dinner, they’d join a protest march by the War Resisters League from the World Trade Center site.

They didn’t get to dinner, the play or back home that night. A few yards down Fulton Street, they were penned in and arrested. The march and arrests can be seen on a short video.

What cannot be seen is that the people arrested that day — hundreds at a time, about 1,100 across the city — had landed in the jaws of a new and largely invisible intelligence bureaucracy, that the mayor and police commissioner said they had set up to protect the city from the murderous strikes of terrorists. For 18 months, preparations for the convention included police surveillance of political groups across the country, most of whom had no plans to break the law.

The intelligence operation was conducted legally, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has said, and helped make the convention “a huge success” by protecting the rights of protesters and Republican delegates. How much did it cost to send detectives and support teams around the country, with big overtime and travel bills? Mayor Bloomberg’s press office won’t say. The Police Department says there was no budget. The city’s chief lawyer, Michael A. Cardozo, says there was no surveillance program.

Somehow, with no money and no surveillance, police bosses have testified in civil depositions they received intelligence that certain protests would be dangerous.

For example, a deputy inspector said he believed the War Resisters would be joined by another group that “was very prone to disruption and violence.”

Was this true? Some of the War Resisters openly discussed staging a “die-in” at Madison Square Garden, if they were able to get anywhere near it — but many, like the Curleys with theater tickets in their pockets, had no such plans.

As for the notion that violence was in the works, Ed Hedemann, one of the organizers, scoffed. “Government gets information wrong,” he said. “Either they got this information wrong, like the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, or they’re lying.”

THE city was given $93 million in federal funds for security around the time of the convention. “Every agency is trying to figure out their angle,” Mr. Curley said. “It’s the only way you get grant money.”

For their arrests, the Curleys were grouped with “a political science professor, a father from Madison, Wis., who just dropped his daughter off at Pratt Institute, and a toll collector from the Port Authority,” Mr. Curley said. “Women in their 60s and 70s. Gray-haired protesters.”

The police assigned special codes to their arrests to identify them as protesters. They were kept in prolonged custody and fingerprinted, instead of the normal practice of being issued a summons for minor offenses — a policy specifically enacted as a result of the intelligence operation, according to city lawyers.

Two months after the convention, charges were dropped against all 227 people arrested on Fulton Street. Of the 1,806 people arrested that week, 90 percent of the cases were dismissed or dropped after six months. Like hundreds of others, the Curleys are suing, perturbed about the collection of personal information. In response to the suit, the city sought every account of the march that Neal Curley had given — including his college admissions file.

In September 2005, Neal Curley began studies at the University of Chicago. Soon afterward, the City of New York served a subpoena on the school demanding “a complete copy of the application and all related materials, including essays and short answers submitted by Neal Curley.”

A memorable start to college. “And it’s a good way to intimidate middle-class folks from protesting,” Mr. Curley said.

Dear Mr. President

This song by Pink has been out for awhile; it still speaks, and now someone has added video.

Under Bush, OSHA Run by Industry

It simple boggles the mind to realize the depths of the incompetence and malfeasance in the Bush Administration. Everything they have touched has been corrupted or mismanaged, or both. Here is the New York Times on how the Administration has "run" the Occupational Safety and Health Administration:
Seven years ago, a Missouri doctor discovered a troubling pattern at a microwave popcorn plant in the town of Jasper. After an additive was modified to produce a more buttery taste, nine workers came down with a rare, life-threatening disease that was ravaging their lungs.

Puzzled Missouri health authorities turned to two federal agencies in Washington. Scientists at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which investigates the causes of workplace health problems, moved quickly to examine patients, inspect factories and run tests. Within months, they concluded that the workers became ill after exposure to diacetyl, a food-flavoring agent.

But the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, charged with overseeing workplace safety, reacted with far less urgency. It did not step up plant inspections or mandate safety standards for businesses, even as more workers became ill.

On Tuesday, the top official at the agency told lawmakers at a Congressional hearing that it would prepare a safety bulletin and plan to inspect a few dozen of the thousands of food plants that use the additive.

That response reflects OSHA’s practices under the Bush administration, which vowed to limit new rules and roll back what it considered cumbersome regulations that imposed unnecessary costs on businesses and consumers. Across Washington, political appointees — often former officials of the industries they now oversee — have eased regulations or weakened enforcement of rules on issues like driving hours for truckers, logging in forests and corporate mergers.

Since George W. Bush became president, OSHA has issued the fewest significant standards in its history, public health experts say. It has imposed only one major safety rule. The only significant health standard it issued was ordered by a federal court.

The agency has killed dozens of existing and proposed regulations and delayed adopting others. For example, OSHA has repeatedly identified silica dust, which can cause lung cancer, and construction site noise as health hazards that warrant new safeguards for nearly three million workers, but it has yet to require them.

“The people at OSHA have no interest in running a regulatory agency,” said Dr. David Michaels, an occupational health expert at George Washington University who has written extensively about workplace safety. “If they ever knew how to issue regulations, they’ve forgotten. The concern about protecting workers has gone out the window.”

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Military Tombstones Can Have Wiccan Symbols

From the Washington Post:

Facing lawsuits by veterans and their families, the Bush administration relented yesterday and agreed to allow the Wiccan pentacle -- a five-pointed star inside a circle -- on tombstones at Arlington National Cemetery and other U.S. military burial grounds.

The Department of Veterans Affairs previously had given veterans a choice of 38 religious symbols, including numerous forms of the Christian cross, as well as the Jewish Star of David, the Muslim crescent, the Buddhist wheel and an atomic symbol for atheism.

But, for nearly a decade, the department had refused to act on requests for the pentacle, without a clear reason. VA spokesman Matt Burns said that approximately 10 applications were pending from adherents of Wicca, a blend of witchcraft and nature worship that is one of the country's fastest-growing religions.

I'd like to see the evidence that Wicca is one of the nation's fastest growing religions. But this is a just ruling.

Spitzer and Gay Marriage

New York's Governor Eliot Spitzer has recently said he is going to introduce a bill in the New York legislature to legalize gay marriage. The New York Times has a good editorial on this here. Here in MN, I think we are one governor away from either civil unions or gay marriage.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Darwinism and Selfishness/Selflessness

As a young child looking at my physician grandfather's artwork depicting Darwinism and also watching untold Sunday nights of Wild Kingdom, the ingrained concept of Darwinism motivated me to achieve well beyond my intellectual capabilities through my 20s.

But suddenly in my 30s--perhaps coincidentally as I felt that I was no longer "on top of the food chain"--Darwinism seemed empty and depressing to me. Darwinism seemed counterintuative to Christian teachings of compassion and care for "the least" is the highest achievement rather than self preservation. (Ironic isn't it?)

This article by Robert Wright in today's New York Times helps me somewhat with the dilemma that a belief in Darwinism creates. Unfortunately there are plenty of "predators" out there who aren't as evolved...

Guest Columnist
Why Darwinism Isn’t Depressing

Published: April 21, 2007
Scientists have discovered that love is truth.
Granted, no scientist has put it quite like that. In fact, when scientists talk about love — the neurochemistry, the evolutionary origins — they make it sound unlovely.
More broadly, our growing grasp of the biology behind our thoughts and feelings has some people downhearted. One commentator recently acknowledged the ascendancy of the Darwinian paradigm with a sigh: “Evolution doesn’t really lead to anything outside itself.”
Cheer up! Despair is a plausible response to news that our loftiest feelings boil down to genetic self-interest, but genetic self-interest actually turns out to be our salvation. The selfishness of our genes gave us the illuminating power of love and put us on the path to a kind of transcendence.
Before hiking to the peak, let’s pause for some sobering concessions. Yes, love is physically mediated, a product of biochemistry. (Why this would surprise anyone familiar with alcohol and coffee is something that has long baffled scientists.) And, yes, the biochemistry was built by natural selection. Like it or not, we are survival machines.
But survival machines are unfairly maligned. The name suggests, well, machines devoted to their survival. In truth, though, natural selection builds machines devoted ultimately to the survival of their genes, not themselves.
Hence love. A love-impelled grandparent sacrifices her life to save a child’s life. Too bad for the grandparent, but mission accomplished for the love genes: they’ve kept copies of themselves alive in a vibrant vehicle that was otherwise doomed, and all they’ve lost is a vehicle that, frankly, didn’t have the world’s most auspicious odometer anyway. Love of offspring (and siblings) is your genes’ way of getting you to serve their agenda.
Feel manipulated? Don’t worry — we get the last laugh.
Genes are just dopey little particles, devoid of consciousness. We, in contrast, can perceive the world. And how! Thanks to love, we see beyond our selves and into the selves around us.
A thought experiment: Suppose you are a parent and you (a) watch someone else’s toddler misbehave and then (b) watch your own toddler do the same. Your predicted reactions, respectively, are: (a) “What a brat!” and (b) “That’s what happens when she skips her nap.”
Now (b) is often a correct explanation, whereas (a) — the “brat” reaction — isn’t even an explanation. Thus does love lead to truth. So, too, when a parent sees her child show off and senses that the grandstanding is grounded in insecurity. That’s an often valid explanation — unlike, say, “My neighbor’s kid is such a showoff”— and brings insight into human nature.
Yes, yes, love can warp your perception, too. Still, there is an apprehension of the other — an empathetic understanding — that is at least humanly possible, and it would never have gotten off the ground had love not emerged on this planet as a direct result of Darwinian logic.
Some people, on hearing this, remain stubbornly ungrateful. They hate the arbitrariness of it all. You mean I love my child just because she’s got my genes? So my “appreciation” of her “specialness” is an illusion?
Exactly! If you’d married someone else, there would be a different child you considered special — and if you then spotted the child that is now yours on the street, you’d consider her a brat. (And, frankly ... but I digress.)
O.K., so your child isn’t special. This doesn’t have to mean she’s not worthy of your love. It could mean instead that other people’s kids are worthy of your love. But it has to mean one or the other. And — especially given that love can bring truth — isn’t it better to expand love’s scope than to narrow it?
I’m a realist. I don’t expect you to get all mushy about the kid next door. But if you carry into your everyday encounters an awareness that empathetic understanding makes sense, that’s progress.
Transcending the arbitrary narrowness of our empathy isn’t guaranteed by nature. (Why do you think they call it transcendence?) But nature has given us the tools — not just the empathy, but the brains to figure out how evolution works, and thus to see that the narrowness is arbitrary.
So evolution has led to something outside itself — to the brink of a larger, more widely illuminating love, maybe even to a glimpse of moral truth. What’s not to like?
Robert Wright, author of “The Moral Animal,” is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and runs the Web site

No More Babies in Limbo

From the Catholic News Service:
After several years of study, the Vatican's International Theological Commission said there are good reasons to hope that babies who die without being baptized go to heaven.

In a document published April 20, the commission said the traditional concept of limbo -- as a place where unbaptized infants spend eternity but without communion with God -- seemed to reflect an "unduly restrictive view of salvation."

The church continues to teach that, because of original sin, baptism is the ordinary way of salvation for all people and urges parents to baptize infants, the document said.

But there is greater theological awareness today that God is merciful and "wants all human beings to be saved," it said. Grace has priority over sin, and the exclusion of innocent babies from heaven does not seem to reflect Christ's special love for "the little ones," it said.

"Our conclusion is that the many factors that we have considered ... give serious theological and liturgical grounds for hope that unbaptized infants who die will be saved and enjoy the beatific vision," the document said.
There is no official Catholic doctrine about limbo, just hundreds of years of tradition. As the article goes on to say, Augustine held in the 4th century that unbaptized infants went to hell. But the Catholic Church softened this view and taught that it wasn't fair to believe infants were condemned to hell when they had no knowledge of sin and salvation. But, on the other hand since they were not baptized there was no straight ticket to heaven either. Hence, limbo. And a stern warning to parents to get your children immediately baptized lest bad things happen to them.

The anabaptist (adult baptism) Brethren tradition could never accept the idea that God would condemn an innocent child to hell. But once you were were old enough to know the difference between right and wrong then it was decision time - for baptism (or not) and hell was back on the table. Many still believe in this kind of God, of course, but I am not one of them.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Soldiers and their Faith

The Star Tribune invites six Minnesota soldiers in Iraq to talk about how the war has affected their faith. Staff Sgt. Thomas Murray is a senior chaplain's assistant:

When we found out in January that we were being extended in Iraq by four months, making a total mobilization of 22 months away from our families, I was angry. Very, very angry. There was no one around me to focus that anger on, so I became angry at the distant powers that left me helpless while they made their decisions to keep me here -- the government, the Army and yes, God. For a while, it was hard to distinguish between God and any other authority that manipulated my life, either without knowing or without caring about the pain their manipulation caused.

I found myself reading Psalms of lament, such as Psalm 22 ("My God, my god, why have you forsaken me?") and being reminded that pain and anger are not the opposite of faith and love -- indifference is. So my anger ran its course, and I found that I still loved God underneath it. I probably would have lost the connection if I hadn't been schooled in what Lutherans call a "theology of the cross," which points to the suffering and death of Jesus to remind me that the presence of suffering is not a sign of the distance of God.

I kept my faith inspired by reading about the heroes of the Bible, from Moses to David to Paul. All of them remind me that God is big enough to accept the anger and yet, unlike other authorities above me, near enough that I can believe it when he says that he loves me and is still with me.

I think I'm more cynical than I was before coming to Iraq. Ironically, I'm also more appreciative of smaller blessings I might not have noticed before. I've probably become more black and white in my view of the world, which may be a challenge when I return. I will spend more time on my friendships when I return. Back home, friends are nice to have; over here, they are often the difference between life and death, both spiritually and physically.

What will I do when I first get home? I plan to spend all day chasing my kids, then put them to bed and spend all night chasing my wife!

Astonishing Job Loss Numbers

From the Boston Globe:
Three weeks ago, Dawn Zimmer became a statistic. Laid off from her job assembling trucks at Freightliner's plant in Portland, Ore., she and 800 of her colleagues joined a long line of U.S. manufacturing workers who have lost jobs in recent years. A total of 3.2 million -- one in six factory jobs -- have disappeared since the start of 2000.
In just six years. Yet, unemployment numbers are down thanks to increases in service sector jobs:

Even though manufacturing jobs have been declining, the country is enjoying the lowest average unemployment rates of the past four decades. The reason: the growth in the service industries -- everything from hotel chambermaids to skilled heart surgeons.

Eighty-four percent of Americans in the labor force are employed in service jobs, up from 81 percent in 2000. The sector has added 8.78 million jobs since the beginning of 2000.

I wonder what is the ratio of hotel chambermaids to skilled heart surgeons?

The Zimmers

This was the most popular video on YouTube this past week. From the blog Firedoglake:

It all started when documentary filmmaker Tim Samuels was making a hard-hitting series for the BBC about the isolated and disenfranchised elderly in Britan titled Power To The People. He wanted to have a grand finale for his project by bringing together 40 of his subjects to record The Who's My Generation at Abbey Road studios in London to bring attention to their situation and blow some misconceptions of the elderly out of the water. U2's producer and Band Aid's video director jumped on board, the project gained momentum and the recording session went down:

They were then coached from around the country to the North London studios, where the single was painstakingly recorded between band members having to sit out sections due to treatment for various medical problems. One fainted in over-excitement before she even reached the studios.

Don't let that concern you, they all had a blast. Ninety-nine year old Winnifred Warbuton said the recording was "the best day in her life" and frontman Alf Carretta, 90, stated, "I feel like the whole experience has brought me back to life. I was stuck in a rut and now I feel alive again". The man flipping the bird at the end of the video is Britain's oldest working citizen Buster Martin, 100.

Quiet for a Couple Days

I haven't posted for a couple of days. Been busy and in light of the VT shootings other issues didn't seem so important. A few thoughts on other events in the last few days:

1) Gonzales hearings - I listened to portions of them yesterday and read more online. He is either incredibly incompetent or brazenly dishonest. I vote for dishonest. Time after time he didn't remember meetings where his top aides have testified under oath that he was there. What's he got to hide? He is a loyal soldier to the President and what hasn't been revealed yet is the involvement of the White House - Bush and Rove - in the firings. This is why we are getting all the stonewalling. If Congress ever gets its hands on all of those "lost" emails I am betting that heads are going to roll.

2) Abortion ruling - This is why national elections matter. Roe v. Wade has been eroded, but it is probably safe unless one more justice retires while Bush is still President. Although, with the current Congress another Roberts or Alito would never be confirmed.

3) War is lost - Senator Harry Reid is taking a right-wing pounding for publicly saying what everyone aside from Bush/Cheney, Fox News, and a few die-hard neocons know to be the truth. We could spend another five years in Iraq and nothing will change. It isn't just the Baathists and al qaeda who are waiting us out. Its the current government; the Shiite-led coalition has no interest in working out a power-sharing agreement when they know that once the Americans are gone they can take over on their own terms. The war that should never have been fought is lost.

4) Paul was a mystic - I have spent the last couple of days re-reading Crossan and Reid's book In Search of Paul, and was struck this time by their section on the depth of Paul's mysticism; he had frequent mystical experiences where he vividly and intimately saw his Lord. You can't, they say, understand Paul and his vision without seeing Paul as a mystic.

5) State troopers have tintometers - I didn't know that until a few weeks ago when daughter Meagan was stopped on her way back to school in Mankato by a state trooper for no other reason than he said he couldn't see her face as she drove by. He pulled out his tintometer and her window tinting was illegal. She was ticketed and told she would have to remove the tint. At our attorney's suggestion, we called the dealer where we purchased the car - with the tint already on it - and the dealer agreed to pay to have it removed. The deal was done today and the ticket will now go away.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

VT Followup

I talked to my daughter today at her college in MN (I wonder how many parents checked in with their college students yesterday or today, or maybe I wonder if there are any who did not) and she said they had a fire alarm today during a class; the professor remarked that in her years at the school they had never had a fire alarm before. I would imagine VT was a wakeup all for schools around the country.

So something good will come out of this tragedy. But I think there is a limit to what can be done to prevent a repeat. This was not a terrorist cell in action. A lone, very troubled individual snapped and did something awful. Hpurchased firearms and went though the standard background checks and nothing was flagged; no surprise here because he apparently had no criminal history. And, he wasn't purchasing any unusual firearms.

We are learning that his writing at school raised red flags. Is this unusual? It is difficult to tell without context. He is also being described as a loner, but how unusual is that on a college campus with tens of thousands of students?

I am guessing that every college in the country is reviewing its security procedures, and it won't surprise me to see stories in the future of colleges responding much more aggressively to potential threats. As the parent of one and soon to be two college students, I am glad for that. I would rather they err on the side of caution.

Still... sometimes people slip through the cracks and do awful things to themselves or others. We really can't prevent every bad thing from happening, and unless there is obvious negligence on the part of authorities, we really can't blame them when someone snaps and they miss the signs.

A terribly awful thing happened at VT; unfortunately sometimes they do.

Prayers for VT

An awful day yesterday on the VT campus. Prayers for all offered.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Elaine Pagels on The Gospel of Judas

In today's Strib (or for those not in the Twin Cities area and not reading the Strib online...) this interview with Elaine Pagels is interesting and worth posting.

Judging Judas
To Elaine Pagels, the jarring assertions of the newly discovered Gospel of Judas are yet more evidence that early Christians struggled to interpret Jesus' life and death. "Reading Judas" is the latest best-seller by Pagels, a scholar whose work has been unusually popular with general readers.
By Pamela Miller, Star Tribune
Last update: April 13, 2007 – 3:37 PM


Q The Gospel of Judas is very harsh on the other disciples, charging that the God they worship is actually a lesser angel, one who demands martyrdom in a way the real God would not. What are we to make of this?
A Yes, it is shocking. The author was looking at the Christian leaders of his day and was deeply troubled by their message.
He was saying to them, "The way you interpret the meaning of Jesus' death as a human sacrifice, the way you eat bread and drink wine to reenact it -- all of those things represent a profound misunderstanding."
This gospel is an indictment of the way the Christian message was read at the time, which said, "Jesus died for your sins, he physically rose from the grave, so you should die as a martyr if you can."
Q Judas is portrayed as the only true disciple, the only one who truly understood Jesus.
A We certainly can't reconcile all the pictures of the disciples we get in this and other gospels. It helps to remember that when we read the gospels of Luke or Mark, Peter is the main disciple, but when we turn to John, John is the main disciple. What we're seeing here are different accounts that represent different viewpoints by early Christians loyal to their teachers.
All we know directly about Judas is that he handed Jesus over to the authorities, an act powerful and central to the Christian story. Other things -- his motive, whether Jesus asked him to do it -- all of these things people speculated and reflected on. I don't think any of them really knew the answer.
Q What does the author of this gospel claim about the natures of God and Jesus?
A The picture of God here is not of a God who would refuse to forgive sins without the torture and death of Jesus. Rather, Jesus comes into the world to save and deliver and heal people, to bring them to life. God, the true God, is a being of life and light and infinite goodness. The good news that Jesus has brought, according to this gospel writer, is that everyone has been created in the divine image and that when we die, we go back to God.
But where it differs from other accounts is that this reunion with God does not involve the body. This is not about the corpse stepping out of the grave, but about how beings created in the divine image step back into the world of the divine. The gospel of Judas rejects the resurrection of the body. Is there still an Easter in this? I guess it depends on how you look at it.
Q Some Christians, particularly those who view the Bible as the inerrant word of God, may be deeply disturbed by a book that reveals early Christians in a power struggle to establish orthodoxy. What do you say to them?
A Such people often assume that if Karen King and I are writing about the Gospel of Judas, we must be promoting it. Not so. We are not saying this gospel is better than those in the canon, only that it's something we can think about in the context of the early history of Christianity. Back then, there was a great deal of censorship, and many voices and works were silenced and lost. People struggled with these ideas and discussed them, but later people pretended that only one version was true. That's something for us to think about now.
Q How has your work on the Gospel of Judas and the gnostic gospels affected your own faith?
A Christianity does not look like a single "thing" one has to accept or reject, but rather, a range of traditions, some of which I love and find powerful and spiritually genuine. My work has allowed me to love much about Christian tradition, instead of rejecting all of it because of difficulties I have with certain elements of it.
Pamela Miller • 612-673-4290 •

Friday, April 13, 2007

U.S. Funding to end Poverty Internationally

I just received this letter from The One Campaign--(think Bono and the congressional prayer breakfast of 2005). What an interesting mix of bi-partisan co-sponsors to this anti-poverty legislation.

From The One campaign....

We're close. For months you've been pushing Congress to fund the fight against poverty in 2008. And now we are days away from securing $39.8 billion - $3.9 billion over last year's international affairs budget - the largest increase in recent history.

Six senators, Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Chuck Hagel (R-NE), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Gordon Smith (R-OR), Christopher Dodd (D-CT), and Norm Coleman (R-MN), are taking the lead by writing a letter encouraging their colleagues in the Senate to support this critical funding.

Please take a minute to ask your senator to sign on to this letter.
The international affairs budget contains almost all the funding America devotes to poverty focused development assistance - the money that so directly translates into lives saved and countries transformed. It's not a band-aid for extreme poverty, it's smart aid that attacks it at its roots. By contributing our share to this type of funding, in partnership with other nations, we can put 77 million children in school and save 16,000 lives a day by combating AIDS, TB, and Malaria.

You scored an important victory in March when you convinced the Senate to agree to put $39.8 into the budget. Now they need to translate the budget into real dollars. The Senate Appropriations Committee leadership does just that. They write the check.

Write your senators urging them to allocate $39.8 billion at this critical time.
A year ago ONE members mobilized around a very similar letter and 52 senators signed on in support. This year we're hoping to get 60 senators to co-sign the Feinstein-Hagel-Durbin-Smith-Dodd-Coleman letter supporting the largest increase in recent history.
We have 6 senators now, 54 to go. You can track our progress, as it happens, on the ONE Blog.
Thank you for your voice,

Communion in One Early Church

Church newsletter post:

One of the ongoing projects that we are participating in at Open Circle, along with many other progressive churches, is the re-imagining of Christianity. This project has two major thrusts: first, to rethink the mythic underpinnings of a faith formed in a pre-scientific, pre-enlightenment age and restate it in a way that allows us to have intellectual integrity (or as I sometimes say that makes it possible for us to not have to check our brains at the door when we enter the church); and second, to recapture the diversity and vitality of the early Jesus, pre-orthodox, Christian movement. There was once more than one way to understand oneself as a Christian. There still is.

To give you an example of this second part, I invite you to think about what communion means to you, and if you grew up in a Christian church, how it was interpreted to you. More than likely you heard or learned that communion is about the body and blood of Jesus. We get this understanding from the writings of Paul and the gospels. It's in there, it's authentic, and it is "orthodox."

But in the early history of the Jesus movement it was not the only way to think about communion. We know this because we have an early record of at least one, and probably a network of communities, that practiced communion with a different interpretation. This record comes from a document known as the Didache. The Didache (or the Teaching) was discovered in 1883 in a monastery in Constantinople bundled among a group of early writings. It is dated between 50-100 CE. It's importance for early Christian research ranks right up there with the discovery of the Gospel of Thomas. And the Didache is less controversial; everyone recognizes its importance since it was referred to approvingly by the "Church Fathers;" it sits within what became known as orthodoxy even though it doesn't have an orthodox understanding of communion.

The Didache is a manual for Christian living. It addresses training for new members, regulations for testing the itinerant ministers who regularly visited, and norms for eating, baptizing, fasting, and communing. Significantly the Didache says nothing at all about the work or writings of Paul. The Didache understands Jesus not through the lens of his death and resurrection but through his life; it teaches Christians how to live as Jesus lived. The community or communities that used the Didache understood themselves as Christians, but their Christianity looked different than the Christianity we learn about from Paul.

Communion in the Didache consisted of drinking from a cup that symbolized the knowledge that they were part of the "Holy Vine of David." Eating the bread symbolized that they had life and immortality they enjoy by belonging to the kingdom of God made known to them by Jesus. There is nothing in their communion prayers and rituals, which are carefully described, associating it with the body and blood of Jesus.

There is nothing wrong with associating communion with the body and blood of Jesus, by the way. As long as we can reinterpret the symbols in a way that is meaningful for today. That is not my point. My point is that there once was more than one acceptable way to think about the significance of Jesus and his life and death. Here is a record of a community that was oriented around the life of Jesus; they retold his words and they tried to live as he lived. They called themselves Christians. And they were.

Did I mention that we are going to be celebrating communion during worship this week? Did I also mention that I am beginning a series focusing on what happened after Jesus? How did we get from Jesus to Constantine? I hope to see you Sunday.

Missionary, Militant Atheism

This is what it looks like:
With 40 minutes to go before show time, the 500-seat Alexis de Tocqueville auditorium was already packed. A fan set up a video camera in the front row. A sound engineer checked the microphones.

The star: Michel Onfray, celebrity philosopher and France’s high priest of militant atheism. Dressed entirely in black, he strode onto the stage and looked out at the reverential audience for his weekly two-hour lecture series, “Hedonist Philosophy,” which is broadcast on a state radio station. “I could found a religion,” he said.

Mr. Onfray, 48 years old and author of 32 books, stands in the vanguard of a curious and increasingly potent phenomenon in Europe: zealous disbelief in God.

Passive indifference to faith has left Europe’s churches mostly empty. But debate over religion is more intense and strident than it has been in many decades. Religion is re-emerging as a big issue in part because of anxiety over Europe’s growing and restive Muslim populations and a fear that faith is reasserting itself in politics and public policy. That is all adding up to a growing momentum for a combative brand of atheism, one that confronts rather than merely ignores religion.

Karen Armstrong, a former Catholic nun and prominent British author on religion, calls the trend “missionary secularism.” She says it mimics the ardor of Christianity, Islam and Marxism, all of which have at their core an urge to convert nonbelievers to their worldview.

Mr. Onfray argues that atheism faces a “final battle” against “theological hocus-pocus” and must rally its troops. “We can no longer tolerate neutrality and benevolence,” he writes in “Traite d’atheologie,” or Atheist Manifesto, a best seller in France, Italy and Spain. “The turbulent time we live in suggests that change is at hand and the time has come for a new order.”

As with many fights involving faith, Europe’s struggle between belief and nonbelief is also a proxy for other, concrete issues that go far beyond the supernatural. In this case, they involve a battle to define the identity of a continent...

Fiscally Irresponsible Pawlenty

The Governor knows that under his watch transportation in the state has deteriorated dramatically. But he won't raise taxes to pay for it. The most sorry example of his mess came last year when he tried to convince potential contractors to front money themselves to get the Crosstown project started. Not surprisingly they didn't bite and the project was delayed. Now it is back on but only by taking money from other needed roads projects and delaying them.

The legislature has proposed a long overdue gas tax increase. But, according to the Pioneer Press, the Governor has once again signaled that he will veto it:

Gov. Tim Pawlenty signaled Thursday he is willing to compromise with the Legislature to find more money for transportation projects.

But that will not include a gasoline tax increase, Pawlenty said at a Capitol news conference.

"There are some other ways, perhaps, we can find some compromises," the Republican governor said.

The Democratic-controlled House and Senate have both passed transportation bills that call for a 10-cents-a-gallon increase in the gas tax, plus higher license tab fees, a gas surcharge to pay off highway bonds, a half-cent sales tax increase in the metro area for roads and transit and $20-a-year county wheelage taxes.

A House-Senate conference committee is expected to quickly resolve differences in the two bills as early as next week and send a compromise to Pawlenty.

Calling it "their big Kahuna bill," the Republican governor reiterated his pledge to veto that measure.

Then he hopes to find some middle ground on transportation. He favors borrowing to pay for road construction, but he declined to say what other options he would consider.

Notice that the Governor isn't saying that we aren't going to increase transportation spending because there is no money. What he is saying is that he isn't going to ask us to pay for it; he is going to ask our children and grandchildren to pay for it. There is no clearer sign than this that today's crop of Republicans from Bush on down has abandoned once was one of their party's signature issues: fiscal responsibility.

This is what happens when you know that another one of your signature issues - small government - is no longer politically or realistically possible, but you can't bring yourselves to admit it and pay for it. We'll just pretend that we can have a bigger government while funding a small one. Someone else can pay for it.

Lost Emails

Over at Salon, Glenn Greenwald gives the long, long rundown of lost email and documents by the Bush Administration going back years. It's amazing how often the dog eats the homework when someone is being investigated. He also debunks the notion that this email technology is all so new that the Bushies were trying to figure out policies. The Clinton Administration had no trouble figuring it out and doing it right.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

National Poetry Month--Healing by Poetry

April is National Poetry month. Somehow this had almost slipped by me uncelebrated. Here is a great interview with a physician on how poetry helps people heal from Midday on Minnesota Public Radio.

Pardon me while I go find a new volume of poetry to read. I need it desperately--just like I need a good dose of new music!

Less Religious Talk from Candidates Please

Jewish leaders are expressing concerns about the number of presidential candidates who seem to be pandering to religious conservatives by bragging about their religious bona fides:

For Jewish leaders concerned about the growing mingling of sectarian religion and presidential politics, the surging campaign of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is taking some ominous turns.

The Republican Romney, facing polls indicating that only 29 of Americans believe the nation is “ready” for a Mormon president, has been working frantically to reinforce his religious credentials with the conservative Christian leaders who could play a big role in deciding the outcome of key GOP primaries next year.

And those credentials aren’t entirely confined to his positions on the issues so-called “values” voters care about the most.

In a recent conference call with voters in Iowa, he said “my faith includes a fundamental belief that we are all sons and daughters of a loving God,” and added that “I happen to believe that Jesus Christ is my personal savior and the son of God.”

Romney’s urgent quest to prove he is a “genuine” Christian by publicly airing the kind of religious statements once considered personal reflects the growing emphasis on religion in major campaigns and the growing power of a handful of Evangelical leaders who have set themselves up as the religious judges of candidates.

“It’s not just that religion is an important factor for voters; we’re seeing the creation of a de facto religious test for high office,” said Rabbi James Rudin, senior religious adviser for the American Jewish Committee and author of “The Baptizing of America: the Religious Right’s Plans for the Rest of Us.”

They are right to be concerned.

First of all, it ought to be abundantly clear by now that publicly professing one's religious faith has absolutely no bearing on one's fitness for the office of President. Beyond that, whoever is President may be Christian, but when he (or she) is in office, he represents all Americans: Christians, Jews, Buddhists, pagans, and atheists. There once was a time when this idea made American a great place to live. There once was a time when Presidents spoke very little publicly about their religious faith and the country viewed this as a good thing. I long for a return to those days. I don't care what faith the Presidents holds; I just want someone who is competent to do the job. Let's here less talk from the candidates about their religious faith and more talk about what they are going to do to get us out of Iraq and slow the damages of climate change.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Becoming What We Hate

This is what war does to us:
Sameh Amira was fast asleep when he was jolted awake by pounding at the front door. Israeli troops were on a manhunt for wanted militants in the West Bank and decided to draft help.

The terror-stricken 24-year-old Palestinian soon found himself forced onto the front lines of Israel’s shadowy war against militants, a human shield as he led heavily armed soldiers from house to house. “I was afraid I would die,” he said in a recent interview.

For several years, Palestinians had complained about the army’s use of human shields, but proof was difficult to come by. Then in late February, Associated Press Television News captured footage of the incident involving Amira.

Iococca on Bush

He is a Republican and he backed Bush in 2000, but he has had enough:

Am I the only guy in this country who’s fed up with what’s happening? Where the hell is our outrage? We should be screaming bloody murder. We’ve got a gang of clueless bozos steering our ship of state right over a cliff, we’ve got corporate gangsters stealing us blind, and we can’t even clean up after a hurricane much less build a hybrid car. But instead of getting mad, everyone sits around and nods their heads when the politicians say, “Stay the course.”

Stay the course? You’ve got to be kidding. This is America, not the damned Titanic. I’ll give you a sound bite: Throw the bums out!

You might think I’m getting senile, that I’ve gone off my rocker, and maybe I have. But someone has to speak up. I hardly recognize this country anymore. The President of the United States is given a free pass to ignore the Constitution, tap our phones, and lead us to war on a pack of lies. Congress responds to record deficits by passing a huge tax cut for the wealthy (thanks, but I don’t need it). The most famous business leaders are not the innovators but the guys in handcuffs. While we’re fiddling in Iraq, the Middle East is burning and nobody seems to know what to do. And the press is waving pom-poms instead of asking hard questions. That’s not the promise of America my parents and yours traveled across the ocean for. I’ve had enough. How about you?

I’ll go a step further. You can’t call yourself a patriot if you’re not outraged…. Why are we in this mess? How did we end up with this crowd in Washington? Well, we voted for them — or at least some of us did. But I’ll tell you what we didn’t do. We didn’t agree to suspend the Constitution. We didn’t agree to stop asking questions or demanding answers. Some of us are sick and tired of people who call free speech treason. Where I come from that’s a dictatorship, not a democracy.

For more on Iococca on Bush see The Carpetbagger Report.

What Money Can, and Can't, Buy

What it is costing to keep troops in Iraq:
The struggle to entice Army soldiers and Marines to stay in the military, after four years of war in Iraq, has ballooned into a $1 billion campaign, with bonuses soaring nearly sixfold since 2003.

The size and number of bonuses have grown as officials scrambled to meet the steady demand for troops on the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan and reverse sporadic shortfalls in the number of National Guard and Reserve soldiers willing to sign on for multiple tours.

But there are some things money can't buy:
The White House wants to appoint a high-powered czar to oversee the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with authority to issue directions to the Pentagon, the State Department and other agencies, but it has had trouble finding anyone able and willing to take the job, according to people close to the situation.

At least three retired four-star generals approached by the White House in recent weeks have declined to be considered for the position, the sources said, underscoring the administration's difficulty in enlisting its top recruits to join the team after five years of warfare that have taxed the United States and its military.


Einstein and Faith

Next month's book club selection is Einstein and Faith by Walter Isaacson. Time Magazine has an excerpt this week. On whether he was religious:
The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man.
On God:
I believe in Spinoza's God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.
It should be an interesting read.

Gingrich to Gore

Newt Gingrich has apparently morphed into Al Gore. In what was supposed to be a debate yesterday on PBS between John Kerry and Newt Gingrich on climate change, it turns out there was no debate:
Before Kerry got a word in, Gingrich conceded that global warming is real, that humans have contributed to it and that "we should address it very actively." Gingrich held up Kerry's new book, "This Moment on Earth," and called it "a very interesting read." He then added a personal note about saving vulnerable species from climate change. "My name, Newt, actually comes from the Danish Knut, and there's been a major crisis in Germany over a polar bear named Knut," he confided.
Good for him, although I doubt this will increase his chances to run for President among the anti-science crowd that thrives in Republican circles.

Islam and Democracy

Tariq Ramadan is the Muslim scholar who was set to accept a professorship at Notre Dame last year when until he was denied a visa by the US Government. Yesterday he addressed an audience in Georgetown by video hookup and argued that there is no inherent conflict between Islam and democracy:

"There is no contradiction between Islamic teachings and democratic principles. The problem is not the concept; it's the terminology," said Ramadan, 42, a fellow at St. Antony's College at Oxford University. The issue is not the relationship between church and state, he said, but "the relationship between dogma and rationality."

Ramadan listed five "indisputable" principles of Islam that are also fundamentals of democracy: the rule of law, equal rights for all citizens, universal suffrage, accountability of government and separation of powers.

"I'm not saying new things," he added. "This is as old as Islamic tradition."

As the article noted, he did not address his views on the equality of women; apparently they are not so democratic. I am glad to hear the voices of Muslims who argue for democracy and peace; I just wish there were more of them.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

All Are Welcome

Congregations across the country struggle with what to do with sex offenders:
On a marquee outside and on a banner inside, Pilgrim United Church of Christ proclaims, “All are welcome.” Sustained by the belief that embracing all comers is a living example of Christ’s love, Pilgrim now faces a profound test of faith.

In late January, Mark Pliska, 53, told the congregation here that he had been in prison for molesting children but that he sought a place to worship and liked the atmosphere at Pilgrim.

Mr. Pliska’s request has plunged the close-knit congregation into a painful discussion about applying faith in a difficult real-world situation. Congregants now wonder, are all truly welcome? If they are, how do you ensure the safety of children and the healing of adult survivors of sexual abuse? Can an offender who accepts Christ truly change?

“I think what we have been through is a loss of innocence,” said the Rev. Madison Shockley, Pilgrim’s minister. “People think of church as an idyllic paradise, and I think that is a great part of that loss.”

Pilgrim’s struggle mirrors those of other congregations, of various faiths, across the country.

Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said that over the last five years pastors had called him to seek advice about how to deal with sex offenders who had returned from prison and wanted to return to church...

Monday, April 09, 2007

Religion and the Role of Government

EJ Dionne has a good article in Sojourners on the liberal/conservative religious take on the role of government in our lives. The short version is that liberals need to acknowledge the importance of personal responsibility and conservatives need to acknowledge that there are some social problems that only the enormous resources of the government can adequately address:

What is required of progressives? The argument for personal responsibility cannot be ignored, and reforging the link between social and personal responsibility ought to be a battle cry of religious progressives. The poor suffer from high rates of teen pregnancy, fatherless families, and family breakup and they suffer from unjust social structures, large changes in the economy that produce greater inequality, and—in the case of African Americans and Latinos—racism. There is no reason for progressives to be silent about either half of that sentence, and no good reason for conservatives to deny the second half. By speaking out for personal responsibility, religious progressives can challenge their conservative friends to get serious about social responsibility.

But religious progressives also need to challenge the core conservative contention that government help for the less fortunate inevitably produces "dependency." Our nation moved closer to "equality of opportunity" because of extensive government efforts to offer individuals opportunities to develop their own capacities (and to offer minorities and women protection against discrimination). As legal philosopher Stephen Holmes has pointed out, Adam Smith, the intellectual father of the free market, favored a publicly financed, compulsory system of elementary education. After World War II the government's investment in the college education of millions through the GI Bill simultaneously opened new opportunities for individuals and promoted an explosive period of general economic growth. As Holmes put it: "Far from being a road to serfdom, government intervention was meant to enhance individual autonomy. Publicly financed schooling, as [John Stuart] Mill wrote, is 'help toward doing without help.'"

Progressives also need to challenge a core conservative view that private and religious charity is sufficient to the task of alleviating poverty. That is simply not true. In an important 1997 article in Commentary magazine—hardly a bastion of liberalism—William Bennett and John DiIulio made the crucial calculations: "If all of America's grant-making private foundations gave away all of their income and all of their assets, they could cover only a year's worth of current government expenditures on social welfare." What would happen the next year?

They cited a study by Princeton's Julian Walpole of 125,000 charities, each with receipts of $25,000 a year or more. Among them, they raised and spent $350 billion annually. That sounds like a lot until you realize that this is only one-seventh of what is spent each year by federal, state, and local governments.

Bennett and DiIulio, neither of them enthusiasts of the old welfare state, concluded: "It is unlikely that Americans will donate much more than their present 2 percent of annual household income, or that corporate giving will take up any significant proportion of the slack in the event of future government reductions." The title of their article was "What Good Is Government?" Their answer was clear.

The Noble Savage

Steven Pinker, author of The Blank Slate, takes on proponents of "the noble savage" who argue that once we were pure and peaceable but now we are corrupted and violent:
In sixteenth-century Paris, a popular form of entertainment was cat-burning, in which a cat was hoisted in a sling on a stage and slowly lowered into a fire. According to historian Norman Davies, "[T]he spectators, including kings and queens, shrieked with laughter as the animals, howling with pain, were singed, roasted, and finally carbonized." Today, such sadism would be unthinkable in most of the world. This change in sensibilities is just one example of perhaps the most important and most underappreciated trend in the human saga: Violence has been in decline over long stretches of history, and today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species' time on earth.

In the decade of Darfur and Iraq, and shortly after the century of Stalin, Hitler, and Mao, the claim that violence has been diminishing may seem somewhere between hallucinatory and obscene. Yet recent studies that seek to quantify the historical ebb and flow of violence point to exactly that conclusion.

Some of the evidence has been under our nose all along. Conventional history has long shown that, in many ways, we have been getting kinder and gentler. Cruelty as entertainment, human sacrifice to indulge superstition, slavery as a labor-saving device, conquest as the mission statement of government, genocide as a means of acquiring real estate, torture and mutilation as routine punishment, the death penalty for misdemeanors and differences of opinion, assassination as the mechanism of political succession, rape as the spoils of war, pogroms as outlets for frustration, homicide as the major form of conflict resolution—all were unexceptionable features of life for most of human history. But, today, they are rare to nonexistent in the West, far less common elsewhere than they used to be, concealed when they do occur, and widely condemned when they are brought to light...

At the widest-angle view, one can see a whopping difference across the millennia that separate us from our pre-state ancestors. Contra leftist anthropologists who celebrate the noble savage, quantitative body-counts—such as the proportion of prehistoric skeletons with axemarks and embedded arrowheads or the proportion of men in a contemporary foraging tribe who die at the hands of other men—suggest that pre-state societies were far more violent than our own. It is true that raids and battles killed a tiny percentage of the numbers that die in modern warfare. But, in tribal violence, the clashes are more frequent, the percentage of men in the population who fight is greater, and the rates of death per battle are higher. According to anthropologists like Lawrence Keeley, Stephen LeBlanc, Phillip Walker, and Bruce Knauft, these factors combine to yield population-wide rates of death in tribal warfare that dwarf those of modern times. If the wars of the twentieth century had killed the same proportion of the population that die in the wars of a typical tribal society, there would have been two billion deaths, not 100 million.

Political correctness from the other end of the ideological spectrum has also distorted many people's conception of violence in early civilizations—namely, those featured in the Bible. This supposed source of moral values contains many celebrations of genocide, in which the Hebrews, egged on by God, slaughter every last resident of an invaded city. The Bible also prescribes death by stoning as the penalty for a long list of nonviolent infractions, including idolatry, blasphemy, homosexuality, adultery, disrespecting one's parents, and picking up sticks on the Sabbath. The Hebrews, of course, were no more murderous than other tribes; one also finds frequent boasts of torture and genocide in the early histories of the Hindus, Christians, Muslims, and Chinese.
There is no getting around the God-sanctioned brutality of the Bible. And no making excuses for it either. But there are other voices in the Bible as well. We have to read the Bible with discernment and be able to say, "It may be in the Bible, but it is not the voice of God." But Pinker's larger point is well-taken: as we have become more enlightened we have become less violent.