Thursday, April 30, 2009

Christians and Torture

Via Rod Dreher:

Here's a shocker: a new Pew poll finds that Christians support torture more than non-believers do. What's more, Evangelicals are more pro-torture than white mainline Protestants and white non-Hispanic Catholics -- but that Catholics and Evangelicals are more pro-torture than average Americans.

And get this: the more often you go to church, the more pro-torture you're likely to be!

What on earth are these Christians hearing at church?! Very sad indeed.

Very sad indeed.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Safe, Legal, and Early

Over at Beliefnet, Steve Waldman takes note of a curious statistic in the abortion debate:
According to a 2007 survey commissioned by a progressive think tank called Third Way, 69 percent of Americans believe abortion is the "taking of a human life," but 72 percent believe it should be legal.

Let that soak in. Most people think abortion is taking a human life and yet favor the procedure being legal...
Waldman ponders what this means. He suggests that Americans are not immoral or inconsistent, but believe that there are gradations to human life. While most Americans believe that a 6 week old fetus is really a human life, they are more comfortable with the idea of aborting a 6 week old fetus that is is no bigger than a poppy seed, even though it has a beating heart, than they are aborting a 26 week old one that is almost certainly viable outside the womb.

Bill Clinton gave us "safe, legal, and rare" which captures the position of many people in the middle of the abortion debate. But Waldman wonders if we might find more common ground between pro-choice and pro-life activists and find a way to turn down the dial on the culture wars if we found a way to made our abortion laws and policies support a "safe, legal, and early" philosophy. Make abortion easy in the first trimester, more difficult in the second, and nearly impossible in the third unless the mother's life is in danger.

This kind of policy, he says, would require compromises from both sides:
My fantasy is that if the political system embraced the safe-legal-early doctrine, a few activists might even accept the legitimacy of part of their opponents' argument. Pro-choicers who accepted this framework would be implicitly conceding that, for at least part of the pregnancy, there's a "baby" in the womb--and the woman's right to terminate that life is neither absolute nor nine months in duration. With early abortions not only legal but easier, pro-choice activists could then have the confidence to accept what many of them have publicly avoided but privately wanted: reasonable, tightly written prohibitions on third trimester abortions while genuinely protecting the life of the mother.

Open minded pro-lifers would take note of these concessions from their "enemies," viewing them as a sign that these pro-choicers--far from being hideous baby killers--fully embrace a moral dimension to the abortion decision.

Meanwhile, any pro-lifers who accept this framework would be making a concession, too. They'd be saying, in effect, that if the other side can concede that something precious is alive - and becoming more alive with each day - then they could, in turn, acknowledge that reasonable people, of different faiths, can disagree about when exactly that baby becomes alive enough to have legal rights.

Open minded pro-choicers would take note of these concessions, feeling less condemned and more respected.

Would this work? I doubt that many pro-life or pro-choice activists would go along. If you are pro-life and hold religious convictions about when life begins a policy that works just to shift the amount of abortions to an earlier moment in the term doesn't change the facts on the ground. Most pro-choice activists I know adhere to a hard-line on choice issues in political battles but are willing to concede in private conversations that they are not as comfortable with late-term abortions. But their over-riding concern is to protect choice - women control their own bodies - and they fear any compromise that might begin to chisel away at what they consider to be a hard-fought-for right.

My own preference, since I am pro-choice and pro-life but believe that there are indeed gradations of human life in the womb, would be to keep the goal "safe, legal, and rare" and do the work we need to do in religious communities and in our society to support mothers and children in such a way that abortion isn't viewed as a necessary choice. At the same time I could support Waldman's idea of making birth control, Plan B, RU-486, and abortion in the first trimester as accessible and easy as possible so that more unplanned pregnancies are avoided or ended, if that choice is made, as early as possible.

Sunday, April 26, 2009


This post on today couldn't have come at a better time!
I'm reposting it for anyone else who has ever been hurt...including by a former church.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Jesus Dying at the Movies

Over at GetReligion Douglas LeBlanc draws favorable attention to an essay by Joshua Land that looks beyond the culture war response to Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ and Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ and appreciates them both for their artistic vision and message, different as they were.

LeBlanc offers up two snippets from the article, the first about Gibson's movie:

With the notable exceptions of Jim Caviezel (The Thin Red Line) as Jesus and Monica Bellucci as Mary Magdalene, the cast is composed mostly of little-known actors, but far more problematic from a commercial standpoint was Gibson’s decision to shoot the film entirely in the languages of the first century — Latin, Hebrew, and Aramaic — only agreeing to English subtitles after some resistance. The overall look and tone of the film, as well as its content, are closer to those of a medieval Passion Play than to anything else in contemporary cinema. The chiaroscuro-heavy visual style is derived from Baroque painting, particularly the work of Caravaggio, whom Gibson and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel have cited as an influence.

… But whatever one thinks of The Passion of the Christ, Gibson deserves more credit than he’s gotten for refusing to compromise his singular vision, to the point of risking some $30 million of his own money. That the film wound up grossing more than 10 times that amount at the domestic box office in no way negates the fact that its maker conceded nothing to commercial considerations. Indeed, it’s safe to say that for many millions of viewers, The Passion of the Christ is the only true art film they’ll ever see.

I am not sure exactly what qualifies as a "true art film." I can appreciate, though, the comparison made between Gibson's movie and the medieval Passion Play, both of which focus heavily on the suffering of Jesus. And I can also appreciate the fact that for many Christians, the suffering and blood and death of Jesus is the whole point, or one half of the whole point along with the resurrection, of their Christian faith. But it is precisely because this is so that I don't think Gibson was risking very much by making this movie. It may very well be where his faith is centered too, and he wanted to give artistic expression to his faith. But I don't think there was ever any doubt that a movie made by Gibson about the suffering of Jesus would wind up grossing more than 10 times what Gibson put up of his own money.

The Last Temptation of Christ was most visibly controversial because of its portrayal of Jesus having impure thoughts about the women in his life. But according to Land that was not the most controversial aspect of the story. LeBlanc gives us this paragraph from Land's essay about this movie:
Far more disturbing to the discerning viewer is the film’s highly unorthodox vision of who Jesus is. Both the Kazantzakis novel and the Schrader screenplay begin by pondering the central mystery of Christianity, the Incarnation — the notion that Jesus was simultaneously fully human and fully divine. The subject has been a matter of intense theological controversy since the early days of Christianity but the Kazantzakis-Schrader version of Jesus is clearly skewed toward the human end of the spectrum. The Jesus of The Last Temptation of Christ is a Nietzschean superman who struggles to overcome fear, doubt, and self-loathing, and only gradually becomes aware of his divine nature and purpose on earth. When we first see him, he is making crosses for the Romans to use for the execution of Jewish prisoners. Prone to sudden seizures, he’s a masochist who wears a belt of nails to punish himself for his sins — much closer in spirit to Scorsese’s Jake La Motta than to anything resembling God in the flesh.
I suppose this is why I like this movie the most of all the Jesus movies I have seen. Because I think that this is the way, the only way, it works. For Jesus and for us. We become divine gradually, if we become divine at all, as we struggle to overcome our fear, doubt, and self-loathing. Jesus didn't become less human in this process, though. He became more human, more deeply human, and hence he also became more divine.

The whole Land essay is interesting and worth a read. I came away from it with a greater appreciation for Mel Gibson's movie especially. But I'll take Kazantzakis' and Scorsese's vision of Jesus over Gibson's any day. I guess that makes me a highly unorthodox Christian.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The Resurrection of Jimmy Carter

In the last few days I have seen two bloggers, conservative Rod Dreher and progressive Kevin Mattson, recall and praise Jimmy Carter's famous (or infamous) "malaise" speech and lay claim to it as a conservative, no progressive, statement of values.

You may recall that Carter delivered the speech to a national television audience on July 15, 1979. The country was in the midst of a national energy crisis. Carter had cut short a vacation after truckers and residents had rioted in Levittown, PA to protest fuel costs and rampant inflation. Carter came home and called a national summit of leaders to talk about the country's challenges. Ten days later he delivered the speech. In it he said:

I know, of course, being president, that government actions and legislation can be very important. That's why I've worked hard to put my campaign promises into law -- and I have to admit, with just mixed success. But after listening to the American people I have been reminded again that all the legislation in the world can't fix what's wrong with America. So, I want to speak to you first tonight about a subject even more serious than energy or inflation. I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy.

I do not mean our political and civil liberties. They will endure. And I do not refer to the outward strength of America, a nation that is at peace tonight everywhere in the world, with unmatched economic power and military might.

The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.

The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.

He suggested that there were two possible paths ahead:

...One is a path I've warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure.

All the traditions of our past, all the lessons of our heritage, all the promises of our future point to another path, the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values. That path leads to true freedom for our nation and ourselves. We can take the first steps down that path as we begin to solve our energy problem.

He then proposed a series of steps to be taken to address the energy crisis. These steps included finding and using more domestic sources of energy. including both drilling and the expansion of solar power, and he called for major conservation efforts. He challenged every person to make personal sacrifices to use less energy and he called on the Legislature to bring him legislation mandating various forms of conservation.

So was it a conservative speech or a progressive speech?

Here is conservative Dreher at Beliefnet:

This was not the speech of some America-hating leftist. Carter did not try to tear down the country, he simply wanted it to come together and direct itself toward a goal other than unlimited growth or unending progress. As Andrew Bacevich points out in The New American Militarism, the president recognized the high cost of empire:

In July of 1979, Carter already anticipated that a continuing and unchecked thirst for imported oil was sure to distort U.S. strategic priorities with unforeseen but adverse consequences. He feared the impact of that distortion on American democracy still reeling from the effects of the 1960s. So he summoned his fellow citizens to change course, to choose self-sufficiency and self-reliance and therefore true independence but at a cost of collective sacrifice and lowered expectations.

Self-sufficiency, discipline, sacrifice, conservation, independence, the striving for meaning and purpose beyond material wealth. All of these characteristics were once associated with conservatism, and they were all part of a speech given by a man who was naval officer, farmer and large landowner, small businessman, Sunday school teacher, and Southerner. Does this not sound the background of a conservative?

Here is progressive Mattson at The American Prospect:

You might have heard that the speech was a disaster. That it was all about Jimmy Carter, the "loser" president, shirking his responsibilities. Sean Wilentz writes in The Age of Reagan, "Carter appeared to be abdicating his role as leader and blaming the people themselves for their own afflictions." This interpretation is repeated countless times in history textbooks.

But in fact, the speech worked. It prompted an overwhelmingly favorable response. Carter received a whopping 11 percent rise in his poll numbers. The mail that poured into the White House testified that many citizens felt moved by the speech. One man wrote to Carter, "You are the first politician that [sic] has said the words that I have been thinking for years. Last month I purchased a moped to drive to work with. I plan to use it as much as possible, and by doing so I have cut my gas consumption by 75%."

In the end, Jimmy Carter did blow the situation, but it wasn't because of the speech itself. Rather, he blew the opportunity that the speech opened up for him. Just two days after July 15, Carter fired his Cabinet, signifying a governmental meltdown. The president's poll numbers sank again as confusion and disarray took over. Carter could give a great speech, but there were two things he couldn't manage: to govern well enough to make his language buoy him or to find a way to yoke the energy crisis with concrete civic re-engagement initiatives. Though Americans were inspired by the speech, many were still stumped as to what was expected of them. As Time magazine described it: "The President basked in the applause for a day and then set in motion his astounding purge, undoing much of the good he had done himself."

Short-term losses, though, sometimes hide long-term opportunities. Today that language of civic sacrifice resonates even more powerfully, after eight years of conservative rule grounded in talk about the virtues of free markets and self-interest. Carter's vision of humbled leadership and engaged citizenship also contrasts nicely with the hubris of George W. Bush. A vision of government and citizens working together to overcome a crisis might offer progressives a way to set realistic expectations about what government can and cannot do. It would seem that our current president has started to learn that lesson.

What strikes me after reading Carter's speech again and then the comments of Dreher and Mattson is how in modern understanding both terms conservative and liberal has become unmoored from their meaningful roots.

What does it mean to be a conservative today? For the last eight years it has meant letting the financial markets run free so the rich can get richer and it has meant using America's military power to extend its empire under the guise of defending freedom and promoting democracy in the world. What is conservative about any of that? "Free markets" is a core conservative value, but where in the free market orgy that we have recently experienced were the values of thrift, self-discipline, conservation, sacrifice, honor? These were once known as conservative values too. And where in the Iraq misadventure was any sense of the limits of power, any acknowledgment that fallen human nature cannot just be remade with guns and money? Nothing so demonstrated George Bush's unhingement from anything conservative when he championed a free election in Palestine and then was surprised that the democratically elected government turned out to be Hamas. Democracy doesn't just happen with an election. Any conservative knows this. Culture and tradition can't just be changed overnight.

To their credit progressives have historically been consistent champions of personal freedom. Civil Rights for minorities, equal rights for women, gay rights, workers rights, etc. At its best the progressive vision has worked to remove barriers to equal access and level the playing field so that everyone has an opportunity. But an opportunity to do what? To shop? To have bigger homes and cars and TVs? Too often the progressive message has lacked a connection with a larger vision that we are trying to build something worthwhile here. We are removing shackles and barriers so we can build heaven on earth, so we can create more healthy communities, a more livable planet, a more just social order. But when individual freedom is detached from social vision, we are free to check out and watch TV. Community service and civic engagement are core progressive values. It takes a village to raise a child, but the villagers have to come out of their homes.

It isn't surprising to me that a conservative and a progressive would both claim Jimmy Carter as one of their own. He was both conservative and progressive. He embodied the conservative values Rod Dreher named: "self-sufficiency, discipline, sacrifice, conservation, independence, the striving for meaning and purpose beyond material wealth." But he also believed in the progressive vision that we could put those conservative values to work to bring meaningful and lasting change to our society. He supported the onward march of personal freedom and continued to work tirelessly long after he left the White House to give others the chance to have a piece of the economic and political pie. But the key here is that although he was free himself he continued to work on behalf of the others. Personal freedom connected to social vision.

In any case I am glad to see Jimmy Carter getting another hearing. His 1976 presidential campaign was the first one I worked on and it pained me to watch him be tarred and feathered as his presidency wore on. I have long since come to see that he was not a great President; he was not just a victim of circumstances beyond his control like the hostage crisis that finally undid him. He had a good vision of where the country needed to go, but he lacked the skills to move that vision forward. He ran a brilliant campaign in 1975 but he did not run a brilliant White House. The "malaise" speech, though, was brilliant; it was the follow-up that wasn't.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Too Busy to Pray?

Information Age Prayer can help:

Information Age Prayer is a subscription service utilizing a computer with text-to-speech capability to incant your prayers each day. It gives you the satisfaction of knowing that your prayers will always be said even if you wake up late, or forget.

We use state of the art text to speech synthesizers to voice each prayer at a volume and speed equivalent to typical person praying. Each prayer is voiced individually, with the name of the subscriber displayed on screen.

For $3.95 a month they have you covered. Unless you aren't Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, or Unaffiliated. If you click on the "Other Religions" tab you get:
We apologize but other religions are not yet supported.
It occurs to me that this might be how God is able to keep track of the billions of prayers coming his/her way.