Friday, July 30, 2010

On the Phone with Anne Rice

Hi, Anne?

Hey, yes - this is Tim!

Yeah, I saw on the news today where you're leaving Christianity... I read your quote where you said, "Today I quit being a Christian ... It's simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I've tried. I've failed. I'm an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else."

Hey, Anne? Can I join you?! (laughter)

I also read where you said, "In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen."

Wow, Anne!

I know you're a practicing Roman Catholic, and not what most evangelicals consider a "born-again Christian" but it seems to me you're not so much ditching your belief in Christ maybe as much as you're tired of us sanctimonious Christians - and yeah, I know I'm one of them - because of the ways we think we're expressing our faith.

Well, what do I mean "born-again Christian?" In the stuff you've said about your faith, you acknowledge that you believe in Jesus Christ the Person, but not Jesus Christ your Savior from sin. Even though a lot of people believe Christ existed and was a good Man, they don't want to recognize their obligation of submission if they acknowledge Him as their Savior and Lord. You know, Anne, you can be both born-again and a Catholic, but you can also be a Catholic without being born-again.

Yes, I know it sounds complicated, and like I'm splitting hairs, but one of the reasons you don't like all of our pontificating - yes, I know it's based on the same root word for the Pontiff, the Pope! - anyway, we pontificate about certain things that Christ says offend Him. Even though we make a lot of mistakes along our pathways of faith, many of us have become convicted that certain issues are non-negotiables.

Birth control? Well Anne, actually, only Catholic priests take a really strong stand against birth control, and they're not even supposed to be having sex anyway! (laughter) Most of us evangelicals also use birth control because we value sexual pleasure more than procreation. We don't see birth control as a part of the feminist movement anymore...

Yes, I know many of us still don't believe a woman should be a pastor over men... or elders... yes, or gay people either... and those convictions are based on scripture that we think is in context with what the entirety of the Bible has to say on those subjects.

Christians are anti-science? Well, Anne... if you're going to believe everything your read in the papers...! I know there's a huge number of evangelicals who desperately claim global warming is a farce, but the science on both sides of the debate - and yes, there is anti-warming science - has yet to be proven. I think a lot of Christians get scared about the economics if the stuff mankind is making and selling also contributes to global warming. We don't appreciate what the Bible means by "rule and subdue the Earth." We don't take seriously our responsibility to treat God's creation as a resource.

Who - who did I vote for? Well, I voted for McCain... yes, I know he was the Republican, but I thought Obama was too liberal, even though he talked about his faith and McCain didn't. You don't have to be a Republican to be a Christian, although I agree, a lot of Christians listen to Rush Limbaugh to much. I'd even guess that many Christians listen to conservative talk radio more than they read their Bibles.

Oh, I know! I don't understand why some Christians are mocking Shirley Sherrod! I don't know why they're supporting that Brietbart character, either. Conservatives mock the liberal media for their biases, yet they ignore how they're being spoon-fed right-wing propaganda. I don't understand why Christians are suckers for that stuff.

Well, I know of a couple of people I believe to be evangelicals who voted for Obama, but not necessarily for his liberal politics. I didn't vote for McCain because he had a squeaky-clean resume, either.

Abortion? Yes, I know most evangelicals are one-issue voters. How do the candidates stand on abortion? That is a valid question, but I'm not a one-issue voter... and yes, I'm anti-abortion and pro-life. I know that's a big feminist issue, but I think if you have a Biblical perspective of the different roles designed for males and females, you don't need to be a feminist; you need to be respectful of everyone. If Christians would set a better example regarding extra-marital sex and caring for orphans, we'd have a more legitimate voice in the abortion debate.

I know Christians don't set a very good example, at least not Christians who are covered in the media. We're all still sinners, we all need grace, and many of us think we're honoring God by standing up for issues we think speak to His character. Yes, a lot of Christians equate capitalism with Godliness, but that's only because a lot of us don't understand the Biblical purpose of wealth. God creates wealth, but a lot of times, we think we do. Even you, Anne, with your wildly successful books and stuff; you wouldn't have any of it if God didn't allow you to.

You've never thought of it that way? Well, what makes you think you're better than the rest of Christianity? Yes, as a group, we are corrupted by infighting, self-centeredness, and hostility, as you claim. But are you so perfect that we should have put up with your faults? I mean, come on, Anne! You write about werewolves and other paranormal stuff that isn't part of the Christian mainstream.

Yes, I know you're part of that hip "I am Second" advertising campaign, but you do realize that isn't Biblical, don't you? I mean, true: we're not first. But, we're not second, either. We're, like, eighth, or eighteenth, or eight hundredth - whatever the number of people in your sphere of influence. Believers are the last... yes, I know it doesn't have the same catchy ring, but that's reality.

I know a lot of us don't know that. YOU didn't know that, otherwise you wouldn't have participated in the "I am Second" campaign! How many other people who claim to be Christians have just as myopic a mindset?

Yes, Anne; if you truly are saved, and you've become tired of all the hype, all of the Republicanization, all of the Christians who claim to be pro-family and then get divorced, all of the bad stuff that believers do: you're like many of us! I want to jump ship sometimes, too! I don't fit in, my blog title is "Outside Looking In!" My life isn't perfect, sin seems to be always taunting me, and I pray and pray for direction but often just don't see it.

But like you said, my faith - and I'm so thankful for this - my faith doesn't rest on the people around me! When I go to church, to Bible study; I'm worshipping and learning as a sinner saved by grace and owing everything to Christ. I do this in the company of other people, but in the presence of God! The difference is that other people look on my sin, too, in disgust - but God sees me through the redemptive lens of his Son, Jesus. I can't peg my sanctification according to what I see in people around me. I need to look to the Author and Perfecter of my faith!

He is first. And we're not second.

Thanks, Anne - I'll pray that the Holy Spirit enables you to see how the blood of our Savior can make all of His people beautiful in God's eyes.

PS - This phone conversation format is not to imply that I know Anne Rice personally.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Arizona's Holding Up A Mirror

At the 11th hour yesterday, a judge sucked the guts out of a daring new law aimed at illegal immigrants in Arizona.

So today, as Senate Bill 1070 goes into effect, only some minor changes will be seen in the way Arizona law enforcement agencies deal with the vexing problem of undocumented aliens.

You may recall that I do not support SB 1070, even though I agree with its basic premise that illegal immigration needs to be stopped. Only a fool could argue that the federal government hasn’t abdicated its responsibility of securing our borders and enforcing existing immigration laws.

As a major gateway for the flood of illegal people, drugs, and contraband entering our country, Arizona has been drowning in a sea of undocumented workers, births to undocumented women, and violent druglords. All while politicians of both Democratic and Republican stripes have been dithering away, worrying that their position on the issue could cost them their jobs – I mean, their congressional seats.

Can New Laws Enforce Old Ones?

If you read Federal District Court Judge Susan Bolton’s ruling at face value, you can see the validity of her analysis. Judge Bolton may be the pro-Obama hack her detractors claim her to be, but she does take pains to point out some obvious facts: that plenty of laws already exist to confront certain aspects of illegal immigration (page 5), that states and the federal government need to cooperate on these issues (page 6), and that the federal government has ultimate authority as the lead organization in securing the borders (page 9).

For all of the right-wing screaming that hers is a liberal ruling, Bolton actually lobs the ball squarely in Obama’s court by validating one of Arizona’s main points of contention: that as president, he is ultimately responsible for this mess and he's not doing anything about it. It may not sound like a major victory to proponents of SB 1070, but Bolton has actually given them some good ammunition to aim towards Washington.

Further in her ruling, Bolton enumerates legal precedence in support of the idea that Arizona does not have the final say in border affairs (page 10). If we are a nation of laws, and if we’re angry that people are breaking those laws by crossing our borders without permission, then we also need to abide by the laws on our books ourselves. One bad law cannot invalidate another bad law. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

And why is SB 1070 wrong? I believe it is wrong because it basically promotes racial profiling. As a border state, Arizona has a large population of legal Hispanic immigrants and native-born citizens of Hispanic descent. By lumping all Hispanics together under a cloud of suspicion does not protect the inalienable rights of legal and native Hispanics, who could be unfairly maligned by SB 1070. How many conservatives would be howling if the bill was directed towards people of white skin?

I Oppose Illegal Immigration, Not Immigration

Let’s be clear about this: at issue isn’t the vilification of immigration and legal immigrants to the United States. If you’re a white or black American, you can bet your bottom dollar that you’re the product of some form of immigration. Even the “Native” Americans came from someplace else. Immigration is how the world has been settled and developed. No problems there. Rather, the issue is the willful refusal to abide by sovereign laws regarding a person’s ability to legally enter and abide in our nation.

True, decades ago, the borders were more porous than they are now, and people came to America on the flimsiest of legal permissions. I’m not even sure if my own father’s father settled in Brooklyn by following proper channels; the story goes that he was a merchant seaman, and at one port of call in New York, he simply walked off the ship and never re-boarded. Of course, things were far different than they are today; immigration quotas were relatively new and the transition between Ellis Island’s famous screening processes (which my father’s mother endured) and today’s sophisticated population parameters was probably even less structured than Arizona’s borders are today.

What’s the difference? The difference is that today, every nation has laws regulating who can enter it, how many can enter, how long they can stay, and what they have to do if they want to become citizens. Does Mexico just have open border crossings along its sovereign northern edges? When you cross the famous bridges from Texas and California into Mexico, do you not have to stop and receive permission to enter? If somebody from Kansas went down to Mexico City and gave birth, would the Mexican government cover the cost?

SB 1070 is a Symptom, Not the Problem

America is suffering from political impotence. We have developed a system whereby people get elected to represent us not because they want to selflessly vote the conscience of their constituents, but because they relish power and incumbency.

If 70% of Americans oppose illegal immigration, as several polls suggest, then why are we even having this discussion? Why has Arizona felt like they’ve needed to take the law into their own hands? Why haven’t our elected officials taken the steps necessary to secure our borders and enforce the immigration laws already on the books? Why haven’t businesses which hire illegal aliens for cheap (some might say “slave”) labor been significantly penalized? (It's worth noting that the profiling part of SB 1070 is what Bolton ruled against, but she left in place aspects of the bill meant to discourage the employment of illegal immigrants.)

Might it be at least partly because we average voters like low costs for fruits, vegetables, newly-constructed homes, and other things? Do we assume it’s better for business owners to take a greater share of the profits by hiring undocumented workers than paying a capitalistic wage to grunt workers? Do we assume the laws don’t apply to us when we hire lawncare companies which use undocumented workers, and pay cash to illegal Hispanic women to clean our homes on the cheap? When we dine at McDonald’s or Olive Garden, do we ignore the probability that most of the people fixing our meals don’t have legal documentation? Do we really believe that if Americans won’t hire illegal immigrants, they won’t come here?

How much change can we expect if we really don't want to pay for it?

Racial profiling means little to white conservatives, and that’s to our shame. But until we look in the mirror and take a personal stand for what is really right, well-intentioned efforts like SB 1070 will keep missing the mark, politicians will continue to waffle, and illegal immigrants will keep coming.

And it won’t be just Obama’s fault.


Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Integrity Today Means Fewer Rules Later


Three words that, together, can immediately conjure up a host of negative emotions.

In a conversation with a secretary at my church, the topic of IRS guidelines for expenditures came up, and how churches have to jump through more and more hoops when documenting every little expense.

I sympathized with my friend, and I agree that churches and other non-profits who want clean books have been burdened by a lot of busy-work by the IRS. However, I wonder how much of the IRS's suffocating accounting requirements may really be our own fault?

Not mine and my friends', of course; but of taxpayers in general.

Being Accountable

Indeed, when it comes to a lot of the encroachments conservatives accuse the government of making into our private lives and freedoms, how much of this government “interference” is the result of Uncle Sam’s thirst for power, and how much of it comes from our own abdication of personal responsibility?

After all, when a parent tries to teach a child personal accountability, and the child repeatedly fails to convince the parent they’re worthy of trust, a good parent will – albeit temporarily – re-assume control over that area from the child and try to teach the lesson again later.

Of course, when the government and the IRS take control of something, they’re loathe to relinquish that control back to us, so my parental analogy only goes so far. But do you see where I’m going?

My friend at church expressed her frustration over what looked like a matter of micro-management from the church's financial office. On the surface, it could have been misconstrued as maybe a subtle power play.

But I’ve worked in the financial office of a large church before. My boss at the time ran a strict set of books. Sometimes my fellow subordinate and I chuckled at how much documentation our boss insisted on having for every little thing. But then she let us read a church accounting newsletter she subscribed to. Its editors described some of the financial shenanigans churches were trying to get away with, and I realized that while the IRS may suffer from a power fetish, it’s gotten a lot of affirmation for its authority from the very organizations that owe it fiduciary integrity.

Of all the tax entities in America, churches should be the ones that strive to be the most above-board in their accounting, but many churches instead try to see how much they can get away with. That doesn’t sound like holy living to me. A lot of church people forget that taxation itself is actually affirmed by Christ when he told His mockers to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. Churches that have abdicated their responsibility for abiding by this command have instead handed our privilege to be presumed above reproach to the IRS on a silver platter.

Handing Freedoms on Silver Platters to Uncle Sam

Indeed, how many other rights and freedoms have we handed to the government on a silver platter through our society’s abdication of personal responsibility? Just recently, conservatives howled at President Barak Obama’s new restrictions and additional layer of bureaucracy to ostensibly oversee Wall Street after its infamous mortgage meltdown. How much of this additional heavy-handedness could have been avoided if banks, mortgage companies, and home buyers hadn’t all been too greedy years ago?

After a spate of whistle-blowers, near-misses, maintenance problems, and other issues put a spotlight on the cozy relationship between the Federal Aviation Administration and big airlines, some politicians have started calling for stricter oversight of our sprawling aviation industry. Safety experts have generally heralded the news, while as expected, conservative business analysts decry further government meddling into our de-regulated skies. But what is the extent to which airlines have pressured the FAA to overlook, or at least squint at, their minimizing costs by minimizing maintenance and other factors? When passengers who have waited hours on tarmacs pressured Congress to come up with a “passengers bill of rights,” was Congress' acquiescence an overextension of government authority or simply an automatic response to a problem airlines weren’t willing to address themselves?

Today marks the 100th day of BP’s oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Since it began, the Obama administration has been pushing for further regulation and moratoriums on offshore oil drilling activity, claiming that BP’s multiple failures regarding this crisis provide enough proof that oil companies can’t be trusted. Many citizens, politicians, and business interests dependant on the complex offshore oil industry have protested the administration’s actions and fought it in court. Several large energy corporations have pitched money into a $1 billion pot to research state-of-the-art spill response mechanisms to try and demonstrate that they don't need further government oversight. However, two incidents within the past several days in Michigan and New Orleans involving oil spills in waterways don't speak well of an industry which by most accounts has had a duplicitous relationship with the Minerals Management Service, supposedly their government overseer.

Exceptions to the Rule

Which, to a certain extent, creates a case study in what should - and shouldn't - incentivize government “meddling” in affairs like these.

Personally, in relation to the Gulf of Mexico spill, I oppose moratoriums that affect any oil company but BP, because as far as we know, the other players in this industry haven’t spurned prudence like BP has. Yes, there have been accidents and spills, and a certain margin for error must be accommodated for with offshore deep water drilling when we're talking about accessing a commodity which fuels our very way of life. But we've never had anything of this magnitude in US waters, and as time goes by, we're learning more and more about how cavalier and careless BP has been regarding the Deepwater Horizon in particular and their corporate culture in general.

But how can I defend accident-free oil operators when I can't deny that the IRS has the right to apply the same strict reporting standards to all non-profits, not just churches which have proven to have unreliable books? I'm assuming that my church has clean, balanced books, so why should it abide by the same reporting standards as non-profits with tainted books? How can I say that ExxonMobile and other operators should be excluded from restrictions devised in response to a mistake of BP's?

Part of this apparent double-standard comes from the fact that far more non-profits exist than major oil companies. Crooked accounting practices are far more easier to hide than an exploding deepwater rig. In addition, while tax cheats can ruin lives, they rarely take them; whereas oil drilling is dangerous. Yes, tax fraud can cause many people problems for years, just as oil spills can, and I'm not implying that the Minerals Management Service doesn't need to be overhauled with new standards and oversight that affect all players. But as we've seen in the Gulf over these past 100 days, if the same practices and attitudes as BP's were being perpetrated on oil platforms across the globe, we'd be having disasters like this far more frequently. From what we know today, the proof simply doesn't support extending drilling moratoriums past the major culprit in the Gulf disaster, BP.

That's not to say that as the focus intensifies on our energy industry, further problems with other companies won't come to light, and further restrictions won't be forthcoming. If the BP explosion caught other offshore players off-guard, and they've been scrambling to fix their processes and fortify their procedures, then maybe this incident in the Gulf has bought some time for other companies, and they owe BP a favor!

Honesty Isn't Expensive; Cheating Is

The basic issue, however, is being responsible from the get-go. Individuals and corporations shouldn't wait until they're caught before embracing principles and enacting procedures to make themselves and their organizations honest, safe, and even profitable. Apparently, BP thought it was saving money for shareholders by running roughshod over best-practices, but look at how much saving money is costing them now.

Maybe some people want to gamble and risk not getting caught.

Unfortunately, it's those kinds of people who end up making officials like the IRS force everybody to jump through hoops. Setting the rules yourself at the start is a lot easier than somebody else setting them for you later on.


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Quality of Character - Part 2

Faulkner for Congress!

You’ll note that I’ve added an endorsement for Michel Faulker to the top-right hand corner of this blog. Faulkner is an evangelical Baptist pastor from New York City’s Harlem who is running for the congressional seat currently held by Charles Rangel. If that name sounds familiar, maybe it’s because Rangel is the subject of an ethics probe in the House of Representatives for a variety of alleged violations during his many years in Congress.

I’m not making a racial statement with this endorsement, just because Faulkner is black and I’m not. I’m introducing him to you because you need to know who he is. Not just because he stands a good chance of winning Rangel’s seat to represent one of New York’s most iconic neighborhoods, but also because this could very well be the first rung on Faulkner’s ladder to wider national prominence.

It's Michel, Not Michael

Although I've met him, he wouldn’t remember me from Adam. Faulkner served as the youth pastor when I first started attending Calvary Baptist Church in midtown Manhattan back in the 1990’s. He later left to pastor a predominantly black church further uptown, and has raised his family in Harlem. Even during his days at Calvary, I remember him being a modest yet determined man, full of faith and conviction, and living a life of integrity. He worked on the groundbreaking mayoral campaign of Rudy Giulianni and has served on numerous committees in the city. Nobody I know who also knows Faulkner has ever had a bad word to say about him.

In this day and age, it’s rare to come across as focused yet as selfless a political operative as Faulkner. Usually, a person running for office has some ulterior motive, whether it’s a desire for financial gain, power, or prestige. Although as I’ve said, I don’t know Faulkner personally, nor have I seen him in years, he will need to have completely changed his personality and mentality to be the self-aggrandizing congressional candidate one would expect a typical urban political candidate to be.

One of the characteristics I so loved about New York’s Calvary Baptist stemmed from the first time I visited in search of a church home: walking through the heavy wooden doors into its newly-renovated sanctuary, I looked around at the majestic mix of peoples, cultures, and ethnicities, and immediately felt at home. Even though I didn’t know a soul there.

Of course, whenever Faulkner would help lead a worship service or preach, I visibly perceived his skin color, but like everyone else at Calvary, skin color didn’t mean much. When you’re able to worship and serve together with race and culture being insignificant factors, you get a glimpse of what true acceptance and progress can be. For Faulkner to play a part in establishing and perpetuating that type of environment spoke volumes to me. And I have it on good authority by friends from Calvary who keep in touch with Faulkner: he hasn’t changed.

Integrity Still Counts

To me, Faulkner represents a stunning opportunity for not only New York’s 15th Congressional District, but for the country as a whole. If he does get elected, I have no reason to assume Faulkner’s integrity won’t be so counter-cultural that he’ll just fade into the background in Washington. Particularly when juxtaposed to incumbent Rangel’s old-style manipulation of the Democratic machine and personal sense of entitlement, not to mention the indictments against him, I expect Faulkner’s personal humility and transparency will be a breath of fresh air. The fact that he’s also a (relatively) conservative Republican from a historically liberal Democratic district would also affirm the progress some conservatives have been making towards balancing economic imperatives with viable social considerations.

Why do I think Faulkner has a good chance of winning? After all, he’s running against decades of cronyism, racism, and a New York media which loves Rangel’s flamboyance. Just because Faulkner is a born-again evangelical won’t automatically hold him in good stead among fellow church-going blacks, many of whom will be suspicious of his Republican affiliation and, even worse, his strong background in cross-cultural and cross-racial collaboration on a variety of issues. But it’s just that collaborative spirit and his grass-roots experience with real issues that can be the groundwork for a platform of honest-to-goodness reform. Reform in a part of New York City which for too long has been told positive change is too elusive, while its well-coiffed representative buys estates in the Dominican Republic and enjoys multiple rent-controlled apartments in one of Harlem’s nicest high-rises.

I’m sure Faulkner has his faults, but they can’t be any worse that those of his opponent. Actually, word on the street has it that even other Democrats are eager to dethrone Rangel, so anti-incumbent fever may be taking hold in Harlem. Still, I wanted to bring Faulkner to your attention as the person to watch in this pivotal Congressional election which, by virtue of its location and population, could attract national recognition.

It's Not About Race Anymore

Even if Faulkner doesn't win Rangel's seat, hopefully by now, you can see why I’m talking about Sherrod, Obama, and Faulkner in the same essay. Racism isn't just about skin color. It's not only how you view yourself, but how you view other people who are different from you. Precious few of us can claim to be righteous when it comes to our personal engagement with the subject. Even though most people profess a considerable level of racial tolerance, deep down, many of us still struggle with stereotypes and assumptions which, to a certain extent, color how we respond to and interact with people from different races.

From what I know about Michel Faulkner and what I've heard from Shirley Sherrod, these are two people who have, to varying degrees of success, moved on from mere skin color to a level of social integration where their spheres of influence have become significant. Before her unwarranted lynching by Andrew Brietbart, yes, Sherrod was what conservatives would consider a liberal Democrat, but she had parlayed a comprehensive command of the USDA system into a recognized platform of civil service. Faulkner, while never the consummate liberal like Sherrod, has risen through the community service ranks in North America's most contentious city and established a reputation based on faith and integrity first, with skin color often only coming into play when people see him on TV.

In the meantime, few people can argue that Barak Obama hasn't banked on his blackness to get into Harvard, crack Chicago's political machine, and assume the presidency. Of these three individuals, Obama has gained the most from being black, but he seems to be the most uncomfortable in his dark skin. Why is that? Is it still too early in his presidency to assume that he prickles too easy when racial subjects surface? Are we blasting his acquiescence to his gaggle of vanilla advisors too soon? Are we reviewing George W. Bush's highly integrated cabinet with too much perplexity at Obama's comparatively white one?

My Blog's First Endorsement

I had heard a while ago that Faulkner was going to run for Rangel's seat in the House. When I saw a friend post Faulkner's campaign fan page on FaceBook, I genuinely got excited. And you regular readers of this blog know I don't get excited about much.

I told my FaceBook friend that not only do I wholeheartedly support Faulkner for his Manhattan district, I'd vote for him for president.

Please visit his website, donate financially to his campaign if you can, volunteer for his campaign if you live in New York City, and follow his progress.

Faulkner definitely stands for change we can believe in! Black, white, everybody.


Monday, July 26, 2010

Quality of Character - Part 1

One week ago today, you and I were just beginning to hear about some NAACP banquet where a black government bureaucrat was videotaped spewing racist vitriol to an appreciative audience.

Today, the instant fury of the Shirley Sherrod saga continues its paradoxical course through our national press, the blogosphere, and private conversations between people who either wish the story would just go away or hope it jump-starts a new dialog on race relations.

Because now, just as fingers are pointing to the reprehensible racism of Andrew Breitbart for first posted the incriminating video clip on his website, they’re also pointing to President Barak Obama, who appears to be inept at the very issue he claimed his election helped resolve: post-segregationist inter-racial strife.

Whether you voted for him or not, on inauguration day, you probably shared a common amazement that the United States of America had finally elected a black person to be president. Sure, many conservatives chaffed at his acquiescence towards Muslims, his former pastor’s hatred of whites, and his privileged education greased by affirmative action quotas. Some could look across the political landscape and easily identify other blacks who would have been better candidates if we were playing the race card. But nevertheless, Obama was the candidate, and Obama was the winner. And whether that made you happy or not, the historical power of his win seemed undeniable.

But it didn’t take long for even liberal blacks to realize that for all of his rhetoric, Obama isn’t the racially-sensitive leader he claimed to be. In fact, he appears to take great pains to mollify right-wing conservatives at the expense of cross-culturalism.

Our first major inkling came when his friend, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., pitched a hissy fit when a neighbor of his called 911 on him, and the responding cops wanted an ID. Instead of telling his black friend to chill out and let the white cops do their job, Obama invited Gates and the cop he accused of racial profiling to the White House for a “beer summit.” The stunt didn’t to diddley for improving race relations; Obama came across as impotent and Gates as petulant. Only the cop emerged unscathed.

Rounding Out Your Inner Circle

Of course, every president buffers themselves with advisers to help provide perspective and background for both national policy and daily issues. With dismay, some blacks acknowledge that conservative Republican George W. Bush had far more black advisers – not to mention cabinet officials – than the liberal Democratic Obama.

I criticize 43 a lot, but one area where he set a great example was his colorblindness. Critics first assumed Bush was trying to ingratiate himself with blacks by having General Colin Powell and then Dr. Condoleeza Rice as secretaries of state – arguably the most visible cabinet post apart from the presidency. However, even liberal blacks who had watched Bush as governor in Texas had to admit that of all his faults, racism isn’t one of them. He picks the best person for the job, regardless of skin color.

Can the same be said of Obama? Virtually all of his top advisers are white. Not that white people can’t provide unbiased analysis of events and issues, and not that blacks are the only people who can validate the black experience. But just as you have business executives advise you on economic matters, doesn’t it make sense that, on average, black people might have a more intrinsic understanding of black society and culture?

For example, most whites had never heard the name “Sherrod” before last week, but within the black civil rights lexicon, Sherrod is a name that at least rings a bell, because Shirley’s husband was a leader in the non-violent student protest movement during the 1960’s. While it doesn’t take a black person to know that, what are the chances a black person with a pedigree good enough to advise the president would at least recognize the name quicker than a white person with a similar historic pedigree? And obviously, none of the whites serving Obama knew this detail from the civil rights era at all. They didn’t even have the presence of mind to Google it – like many ordinary Americans did.

Communicator in Chief?

Which brings us to the second point. Remember when Obama protested being deprived of his Blackberry? Oh, we were going to have our first technology-savvy Executive-in Chief, and communication was going to be state-of-the art.

Well, that ain’t happening, is it? Some media wonks have been blasting the White House and its feeble attempts at contacting Sherrod during the early hours and days of last week’s fiasco. Even though Sherrod was courted by every cable news show, a spokesman for the USDA complained they couldn’t contact her.

How could all of these cable news shows get ahold of Sherrod, when the Executive Branch could not? Do Obama’s people have this much trouble getting ahold of world leaders? And Sherrod wasn’t exactly in hiding. How eager was the White House to actually contact Sherrod and get her side of the story? Was Sherrod refusing to take their calls? Why did it take so long for the White House and the USDA to get on the same page, when even Fox News was proclaiming Sherrod’s innocence? Why did the Obama administration – and the NAACP, for that matter – immediately take the side of a far-right-wing blogger with a Tea Party axe to grind? Obama's people obviously over-reacted by under-reacting: they didn't research the issue, they didn't establish contact with Sherrod for her side of the story, and they didn't contact Brietbart for the video's provenance. With a civil rights issue in the balance.

By the way, these are not my original questions. Sherrod, civil rights leaders, the media, and others are asking these same questions.

Tomorrow: Part Two (related to the Faulkner endorsement you see on this blog)


Friday, July 23, 2010

Kissing the Son

Have right-wing politics begun to crawl into the backseat of America's evangelical church as we speed down our cultural highway?

All the big talking heads from those earnest Moral Majority days have either passed away or faded into obscurity. Although they had valid concerns about our country, they tended to rely more on political parties than the Sovereign One Who laughs at them. Even as they preached the evils of legalism, they insisted they could legislate morality.

Despite the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy Hillary Clinton was convinced the Jerry Falwells of America had amassed, we still got AIDS, high divorce rates, high drug abuse rates, high teenage pregnancy rates, 9/11, and everything else with which they claimed God would plague America. Whether these were legitimate plagues or simply the inevitable fallout from decades of sin by people both inside and outside the church, it's hard to say, because for many leaders of the right, rhetoric often trumped discipline.

Partly as an extension of myopic Moral Majority activism, the evangelical church fragmented as idealistic seeker “paradigms” perpetrated pop culture on congregations nationwide. Eventually, the Republican Party was vilified by even some of its own members for bowing to right-wing special interests and marginalizing its appeal to independents.

We got Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, the biggest government bureaucracy we’ve ever had, and eventually simultaneous wars in the Middle East, along with ownership of GM and a ludicrous Wall Street bailout. Not to mention Rush Limbaugh.

Indeed, looking at our country today, could you guess the Moral Majority ever existed?

Tea and Pie

Not that all has been lost. Despite its kitschy media presence and illogical blowhards like Andrew Breitbart, our underdog Tea Party movement has been a grass-roots coup of sorts. Disenchanted voters of all stripes have emerged to showcase frustrations about over-lobbied legislators and reckless government spending. Although some Republican stalwarts worry Tea Partiers could actually dilute the conservative agenda, Republicans ignore the fact that they've had plenty of opportunities to right our fiscal ship, yet haven't.

Once the envy of pastors everywhere, Willow Creek Community Church’s now-tarnished seeker-sensitive overhaul of Christianity has inadvertently contributed to a backlash towards a more reformed theology, although some neo-Calvinists insist on dragging their electric keyboards along. The evangelical church has also been invaded by an Internet-fueled explosion in trendy preachers and hip ministries each clamoring for an ever-shrinking piece of the Christianity pie.

Which brings us to that part of the Christianity pie that still harbors lingering angst over how we’re supposed to be changing the world for Christ. Despite being accused of colluding with Catholics, respected activist Chuck Colson has launched in an effort to rally conservatives from multiple faiths around core faith values of heterosexual marriage, the sanctity of life, and religious liberty. Renowned PCA pastor Tim Keller helped found The Gospel Coalition in an effort to differentiate socially-progressive, theologically-conservative churches from more liberal mainline ones. And the granddaddy of them all, Focus on the Family, has seen the passing of the political-activist torch from founder James Dobson to… nobody seems certain.

Churches Reconsidering Their Political Roles

If any mortal knows the new political role our evangelical community is supposed to be playing these days, they’re keeping it a well-guarded secret. Indeed, opinions seem to be all over the map when it comes to how conservative religious leaders think we should be responding to issues like illegal immigration and nationalized healthcare.

Down at Florida’s famous Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, the death of founding pastor D. James Kennedy, who in his later years turned his pulpit into a hawkish political platform, made way for the comparatively dispassionate Tullian Tchividjian. As successor to Kennedy's staunchly conservative mantle, Tchividjian's reluctance to wear it came as an insult to some in the congregation. They perceived him as waffling on core social principles, a complaint which contributed to a church split which saw 400 people leave last year. How accurate are the frustrations and disappointments of these disaffected members who think Tchividjian is too soft on controversial topics? It’s hard to tell, since Tchividjian's supporters actually barred six rabblerousers from church property, a petulant move which was later castigated by a denominational committee.

Then there’s Keller, who also founded his own church, but on the liberal bastion of Manhattan Island. In multiple sermons, Keller has espoused what sounds to alarmed right-wing hawks like wealth redistribution, where rich church-goers contribute to the needs of less-wealthy congregants to help prevent poverty from disrupting their faith community. Keller, one of the celebrity pastors in the patriarchal Presbyterian Church in America, has also allowed women to serve Holy Communion, which he excuses as an olive branch to liberal urban females. That and other issues seem to have limited Keller's influence outside of reformed circles.

Media darling Rick Warren, pastor of uber-chic Saddleback Church in - where else? - California, has emerged from the seeker crisis he championed alongside Willow Creek with a far more pronounced public image. Warren has tried to play the political field, confounding some conservatives by hosting an election year summit of presidential candidates, despite being accused of playing in to the hands of Democratic political operatives. Some right-wingers have particularly vilified Warren as being too cozy with liberals on environmental issues like global warming.

Not to be outdone in confounding the conservative movement, the Southern Baptist Convention, that historic bastion of conservative ideology, has come out in support of what amounts to amnesty for illegal immigrants from Central America. Their reasoning is based on passages like Exodus 22 and Deuteronomy 10, which basically say Israel should not discriminate against foreigners in her land.

And then there’s Willow Creek’s own Bill Hybels, who not only has curried favor with Democratic politicians in the past, much to the consternation of conservatives, but has now sided with the Southern Baptists in lobbying Congress for illegal immigrant amnesty. Hybels and Leith Anderson, a pastor from suburban Minneapolis and president of the National Association of Evangelicals, claim to be forging new political alliances with Hispanics, many of whom would probably fit the general profile of conservative voters if... well, they were legal and could vote.

Faith Still Matters

Of course, none of these changes means that evangelical Christians no longer matter as voters. In some respects, it may be beneficial. Having people of faith wrestling over these issues rather than just accepting planks of a political party's platform could even result in believers reading their Bibles themselves to see what God really says - or doesn't say - about legislation we think is important.

The recent support by evangelical organizations for what is considered liberal policy - most particularly seen in the debate over illegal immigration, but also over nationalized healthcare and the environment - represents a marked departure for some people of faith who might have previously been expected to vote along the Republican party line. Having this dependable block of voters now segmented by the issues scares some conservatives who anticipate bigger battles over bigger issues and who think they need bigger numbers of voters to sway influence and policy.

While I personally oppose any form of amnesty for people who have intentionally broken laws to enter our country and contribute to the distortion of pay scales for menial labor, I can understand where the Southern Baptists and pastors Hybels and Anderson are coming from when it comes to respecting the dignity of life, even if you are illegal. However, since all three of these espouse the church growth movement, I suspect ulterior motives are at play in addition to their professed concern over human rights.

Other issues complicate our illegal immigration issue here in the United States which don't negate the validity of scripture referencing foreigners in Israel, but could mean those scriptures don't fully apply, either. These issues include Americans who don't want to pay for the real value of labor, immigration policies which can seem to reward the practice of illegal immigration, the responsibility of sovereign nations south of the Mexican border to curtail their endorsement of their countrymen violating our laws, and the rights of the United States to honor the path to legal residency people from other countries dutifully abide by.

Thanks be to God that we can bring these issues to His throne! To the extent that people of faith whittle away their personal agendas and focus on what glorifies Christ, perhaps the freedom from political partisanship can be one step towards a greater testimony from our lives and churches of His sovereignty and rule over all affairs of men:

1 Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? 2 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying, 3 "Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us."
4 He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision. 5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, 6 "As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill."
7 I will tell of the decree: The LORD said to me, "You are my Son; today I have begotten you. 8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. 9 You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel."
10 Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. 11 Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. 12 Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him. - Psalm 2 (ESV)


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Tape Shows Who's Really Racist

Shirley Sherrod is opinionated. She’s also blunt, bold, and black.

She’s the daughter of a murder victim, a self-avowed tax-and-spend Democrat, and a proud supporter of President Barak Obama.

But one thing she’s not is a racist. At least, not the racist she's accused of being.

Let's Go to the Videotape

Sherrod, who burst onto the national stage this past Monday, has been accused of being a bigoted, self-serving government employee emblematic of all the sinister machinations the NAACP has perpetrated in the name of civil rights.

Back in March of this year, Sherrod, who until Monday was the USDA director for rural development in Georgia, was videotaped giving a speech to a local NAACP meeting in which she appears to brag about not wanting to help a white farmer because of his race.

Apparently, somebody intending to cause mischief whittled down the tape from a 43-minute-long video which kept Sherrod’s comments in proper context to a brief clip of this one statement. The edited video ended up first on conservative, and then on, purportedly as an accurate portrayal of Sherrod’s racist mentality.

However, if you watch the entire 43-minute speech of Sherrod’s, you quickly understand that not only has Sherrod’s story been taken woefully out of context, but Sherrod takes considerable time to explain to her audience her viewpoint that the struggles of rural farmers isn’t about race but about class.

Sure, she pits “us” against “them” and employs a black/white dichotomy in her terminology, but how many white people do the same thing and never get accused of racism? It's not pretty, and it's not ideal, but considering where our country is along the racial harmony continuum, Sherrod's language is hardly incriminating.

Actually, one might find her opinion on class struggles more provocative. Sherrod uses her farmer story to depict her conviction that poor blacks and poor whites need to share their struggle against the richer ruling class. Some conservatives might protest a US government official espousing basic Communist theory, but her analysis of the growing economic inequities in our country isn’t completely without merit, is it?

And yes, she says that back in the late 1980’s, she intentionally only wanted to provide the minimal amount of help to the farmer in question, because he was white. Let him go to his own kind for help, she reasoned. But after she saw that the white lawyer hired by the farmer wasn’t doing anything to help, and with a deadline looming for the farmer to save his livelihood, Sherrod credits God with helping her to see that she needed to go the extra mile for this family despite their – and her – race. So she did, and even the farmer and his wife, who are still alive and remember her with grateful fondness, have come to her defense.

Nobody Checked the Facts

Meanwhile, as the tainted video made its rounds on the Internet, the USDA’s agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack, took what he saw at face value and summarily fired Sherrod. Well, actually, he insisted she resign. The White House, eager to suppress the story for fear of a racial backlash, supported Vilsack. The NAACP, desperate to staunch yet another PR fiasco after its botched assertion that the Tea Party is racist, also quickly castigated Sherrod for her remarks.

At this point on Wednesday afternoon, things have begun to look much better for Sherrod. The White House has backed off of its hard line, the NAACP has apologized to Sherrod and posted a copy of the full speech on its website, and Sherrod has received an apology - and the offer of another job - from the USDA.

In Context

Now, it’s obvious from the videotape that Sherrod is not a poster child for racial harmony. Most of us aren’t. But you have to give credit where credit is due: Sherrod admonishes her audience multiple times about their responsibilities in getting along with people from other races. Her story about the farmer was intended to showcase her changing attitudes about whites and how despite suffering some horrendous experiences as a young adult because of white racists, she should hold no grudges.

As a speech, Sherrod’s presentation held a mix of poignancy, history, maturing morality, and motherly advice, along with some political rhetoric one might expect from any liberal Democrat. But overall, the video shows an unremarkable address by a government bureaucrat in a small town in the middle of nowhere.

Indeed, the video languished in obscurity until conservative blowhard Andrew Breitbart posted it on his website. Breitbart tells CNN that a source he’s keeping anonymous advised him in March of the existence of a blatantly racist speech at a NAACP banquet. However, the video Breitbart obtained was only the short segment of the farmer story taken out of context. Obviously, Breitbard considered this video explosive, and apparently he never bothered to check its authenticity.

Instead, Breitbart claims to have initially taken the high road and withheld the video from public viewing because he didn’t think it necessarily fit any narrative taking place in the United States during this time. However, he found his moment as a controversy between the NAACP and the grassroots Tea Party organization flamed out.

Last week, the NAACP accused Tea Party activists of being racist, an assertion from which even some prominent blacks distanced themselves. Tea Partiers tried to fan the publicity flames of this claim, but the media quickly lost interest. So Breitbart took his cue and posted the video clip featuring Sherrod’s farmer story. And he got the attention he was seeking.

Where's the Accountability?

Is this what politics has come to in the United States? Has the Internet enabled both left-wing and right-wing zealots to parody reality and foment the national conversation into a froth based solely on unsubstantiated, exaggerated, and irresponsible sensationalism?

Breitbart claims that his motivation was not to harm Sherrod but to spotlight rampant racism within the NAACP. When challenged about his lack of due diligence, his reluctance to post the full video, his refusal to apologize to Sherrod, and his suggestion that Sherrod and the media have made up the whole thing, Breitbart inexplicably contends that “it’s not about Sherrod.”

Well, he's right about that. It's not about Sherrod any more; it's about him.

Who's the Bigger Bigot?

For Breitbart to be the consummate American patriot he claims to be, when word of the incriminating video reached his ears, he should have asked a lot of questions. Had the video been legit, it indeed could have lit a tinderbox full of racial tensions.

He should have tracked down the people that recorded it and appeared in it. Any webmaster with any integrity doesn’t just slap videos of this nature online. In addition, the NAACP and the USDA should have vetted the video themselves before publicly overreacting as they did. And the White House should have kept mum and professional until the veracity of all that had transpired was corroborated.

But of all the mistakes made in this episode, the ultimate blame falls on Breitbart. His appalling disregard for Sherrod's civil rights, his woefully unprofessional conduct as a media operative, and his amazing refusal to apologize paint him as a caricature of conservative truculence.

Very few white Americans hold up the NAACP as a model organization of racial tolerance. But if Breitbart was looking for some smoking gun in the video he perpetrated onto the Internet, all he did was shoot buckshot through his balloon of an inflated, spiteful ego. Through his calloused disregard for truth, honesty, integrity, and validity, he sucker-punched a woman who’s more of a Yankee Democrat than a black bigot. And then he challenges CNN to prove the farmer who claims to have been assisted by Sherrod isn’t a fake.

According to his biography* on the Internet, Breitbart fancies himself as a leader of the Tea Party movement.

I’m glad I drink coffee.


*This is a Wikipedia entry, which again, I don't necessarily endorse.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Tax Lesson in Water Pumps

When iconic New York hotelier Leona Helmsley went on trial for tax evasion, she was famously quoted as telling a servant that "only the little people pay taxes."

Nowadays in Pakistan, elites have practically enshrined Helmsley's mantra as the national motto.

Looking for the next big thing in offshore tax havens? Try Karachi or Islamabad. According to yesterday’s New York Times, only two percent of Pakistan’s 170 million citizens pay their income taxes, which supposedly are required of anyone earning over $3,488 per year. That puts Pakistan at second-to-last in the world for tax collection, ahead of only Sierra Leone, which perpetually ranks at the bottom of everything.

Of course, the New York Times being the New York Times, the value of taxation as a mechanism for redistributing wealth takes high priority in the story, but the Times also describes how Pakistani society’s uppermost tiers are crippling the country’s government by not paying taxes on their world-class incomes.

Which would fall on deaf ears among most Americans, except for one big problem: because Pakistan can’t milk their own people for income taxes to fund their country, they’re milking the United States instead. Indeed, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is there right now, handing over a purse with billions of our dollars for civil projects like, well, the stuff we pay taxes for here at home.

Inequitable Taxation, at What Price?

Pakistan sits near the top of the list for the international aid Washington doles out annually. In particular, Pakistan has won huge financial windfalls from both Republican and Democratic administrations by virtue of its key role in the war against terror. Pakistan is considered friendly towards the US, so to curry that favor – and perpetuate it – we’ve been pouring our own tax dollars into that country for years.

One of the Pakistani government officials quoted in the Times piece recalls an era when people in that dusty yet surprisingly enterprising country actually did pay their taxes, but guess when that was? Thirty years ago, before the Iran hostage crisis, Beirut, the first Gulf war: basically, before the whole Muslim world literally exploded onto the international stage, and the United States found itself bankrolling global anti-terrorism initiatives.

These days, most of the taxes collected in Pakistan are paid by the country's merchant class (sound familiar?) but even they don't necessarily see the point of paying income taxes when their rich countrymen don't.

Some economists claim that the American money being pumped into Pakistan's coffers has given birth to a generation that we've enabled to cheat and hoard. For the few Pakistanis still clinging to some semblance of fiscal morality, the current state of financial inequity is foreboding - and laughable. When one official tried to pay his taxes a few years ago, his check was returned to him because the tax office suspected he had sinister motives.

Wow! I wonder how often the IRS refuses to accept payments?

Defense Spending?

It might be understandable if wealthy Pakistanis, by refusing to pay their income taxes, were making a concerted effort to force their government to cut waste and corruption. But can you effectively fight an ineffective bureaucracy with greed?

You're waiting for me to discuss the "redistribution of wealth" aspect of this story, aren't you? Well, I'm going to cut to the chase instead. Nobody like taxes, but can we agree a funding mechanism needs to exist in a society to pay for at least the basic functions of a government? Here in America, just because our monumental bureaucracy boasts an unwieldy and economically-stunting tax code can't really stand as proof that taxes, in and of themselves, are bad. The fact that we have ways of reducing spending, deficits, and debt in America but lack the combined political will to do so isn't the fault of taxation.

Having some of the country’s biggest tax cheats actually write the legislation that lets them get away with their tax evasion may work in Washington, but in Pakistan, where impunity runs even more rampant among the elite, and equitable law enforcement has never been widespread, it's emblematic of a dysfunctional government. Since our tax dollars are partly at stake here, we should have a say in this, don’t you think?

Just because we're trying to encourage Pakistan to help us catch Osama bin Laden and put the Taliban out of business, does that mean we can't expect Pakistan to shoulder a more proportional financial burden for the endeavor? Even if that means Pakistani legislators need to risk political suicide by enacting and enforcing a tax structure which puts more responsibility for the success of our mutual mission on their shoulders? If they're not willing to contribute their fair share, can they complain if they think Americans are trying to run the show?

What can we really expect from Pakistan if they’ve grown to so rely on US money that they can’t raise their own taxes? Is this good stewardship of US Treasury dollars? Is this a good way to nurture the Pakistanis in not only our shared military and security objectives, but also their sovereign obligations as a nation?

While I don't pretend to assume that having a more equitable tax system in Pakistan will generate sufficient revenue to exceed what they're receiving from us, at least there is merit in paying most of your own way, isn't there?

A Liberal Discovers the Solution

When has giving away anything really worked? PBS recently ran a story about self-professed liberal socialist activist Martin Fisher who realized giving away his water pumps to African subsistence farmers didn’t accomplish anything. A number of years ago, Fisher invented a nifty, all-in-one foot-powered water pump which he set about distributing for free in Africa. But before long, he realized that the very farmers he was hoping would expand their meager irrigation systems were simply letting the pumps languish from misuse. The reason? They didn't value the pumps because they hadn't paid anything for them.

In addition, he found himself drowning in the logistical headaches and costs of shipping, warehousing, and distributing his pumps to a people who paid nothing and cared little.

Fast forward to today, and Fisher now sells his same Super MoneyMaker pumps in Kenya for $100 apiece. And they're going like hotcakes. Conventional international aid workers scoffed in disgust, considering Fisher a traitor to the cause. But they can't deny farmers are actually using the pumps, and making their gardens grow. You see, it’s the intrinsic lure of profit potential that gets Fisher's impoverished customers to see the promise of watering their own land, growing crops for their family’s survival, and then expanding their little farm to grow extra vegetables to sell, and so on. Sure, $100 up-front is pretty steep for them, but the cost gives value.

Perhaps this story made news on PBS because capitalism seems so counter-cultural to many human aid activists. However, how many American politicians and bureaucrats have fallen into the same trap in Pakistan, where billions of our tax dollars take the place of what Pakistani citizens should be paying?

Am I crazy in drawing a parallel between selling water pumps and making Pakistan invest more of its own capital into the hunt for terrorists? Of course, the United States gives money to countries all over the world, and this practice is bloated with political considerations and expectations. Some might say we're buying off these countries so they'll go along with whatever coincides with our national interests. However, the tax structures in many of these countries aren't nearly as imperiled as Pakistan's. What is the extent to which we're really shooting ourselves in the foot by enabling an economic quagmire in what could be a pivotal marketplace in the Middle East?

Would it really hurt if, as one of the Pakistani economists proposes to the Times, the American government just shuts off our money spicket and tells them to fund their own treasury?

Maybe this would be just the incentive Pakistan needs to get serious about the war against terrorism.

Isn't that the kind of wealth redistribution Americans can embrace?

Friday, July 16, 2010

Obamas Ruining Maine Weekend

Do you think Michelle Obama reads my blog?

After all, they’re going to coastal Maine this weekend for a quickie vacation, and don’t moms usually plan out family trips?

In this case, however, whoever planned this jaunt to the seaside has royally screwed things up.

First of all, plans were finalized only earlier this week. For the president to travel to a small island. In Maine. In the summer.

There is only one bridge linking Mount Desert Island, the First Family’s destination, to the mainland. There is no airport on Mount Desert Island, so the presidential motorcade will be tying up traffic for miles. Traffic that is already pretty challenging on a normal summer weekend.

Maine’s state motto is “vacationland” because, as I’ve raved myself in this blog, it’s a wonderful place to visit. Nobody is blaming the Obamas for wanting to enjoy some time there; indeed, the Bush family owns an entire island compound further down Maine’s coast in Kennebunkport.

The difference, however, is that the Bush’s compound, being an island, means that they could make presidential visits whenever they wanted and the town’s daily life didn’t grind to a halt. In Bar Harbor, the signature village on Mount Desert Island, this weekend’s sudden appearance by the First Family has turned life upside down.

So Much for Economic Stimulus

Some friends of mine piece together a meager Maine existence by creating and selling handcrafted Maine-themed birds, lamps, and souvenirs. They’re members of the Penobscot Valley Craft Association that had already scheduled a show at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor for this weekend. However, when the Obamas made their last-minute booking at the next-door hotel, suddenly everything was cancelled. Roads were closed. Businesses forced to shutter. Late Wednesday, the College of the Atlantic evicted the craft show.

Of course, having a neighboring hotel hosting the president was something the College of the Atlantic couldn’t control, so they’ve refused to grant refunds to the Penobscot Valley Craft Association and its vendors. Along with the forfeited application fees paid by vendors, my friends are losing revenue by missing what could have been a lucrative summer weekend selling to Bar Harbor tourists in the middle of the season. Plus, because of the Obamas poor timing, none of these vendors have been able to schedule anything else at this late date to replace what they’re now losing. It’s one big economic mess in one of the country’s most economically-starved states.

Way to go, O!

Chump Change You Can Believe In

And you know what, it’s all the fault of the Obama family. You can’t blame anybody else.

You can’t blame the hotel for not passing on the chance to host a sitting president. You can’t blame the village of Bar Harbor for letting the Secret Service shut down streets and businesses for security purposes. You can’t blame the tourists who are already leaving Mount Desert because they know a presidential visit will wreak havoc on the island. You can’t blame the College of the Atlantic for being caught between a greedy hotel and its own budget concerns.

If the Obamas had planned their schedule better, and inquired about staying in a seaside Maine hotel earlier in the year, officials and businesses on Mount Desert Island would have had plenty of time for contingency planning - or suggesting that September is also a nice time to visit.

If the Obamas had realized how important tourism is to Maine’s struggling economy, they would have been more mindful of how their presence would disrupt an already hectic summer weekend there.

And if the Obamas were serious about participating in the president’s plea for Americans to vacation along the Gulf of Mexico because of the oil disaster there, then what are they doing halfway across the continent in pristine Maine?

Besides, doesn’t he have a lot of millionaire Democrat friends on the island they can stay with? It’s not like Mount Desert is bereft of wealthy liberals owning seaside estates. If the family is this disorganized and ineffectual, at least some of their political friends could have helped them out to minimize some of the bad PR coming their way. Staying on the island at all will be a monumental headache for everyone, but at least private oceanfront estates remove the presidential entourage from the close quarters of village life in Bar Harbor.

So enjoy your family’s stay in Maine this weekend, Mr. President. You’ll be the only ones.


Thursday, July 15, 2010

Zero Ground for Mosque?

Well, I’ve kinda gotta agree with the folks who have no problem declaring Manhattan’s 51 Park Place historically insignificant.

Never heard of 51 Park Place? That’s because the Muslims who own it used to call it “Cordoba House,” until their plans for building a mosque and community center at the site hit the fan. According to the New York Daily News, organizers of the effort to replace a 152-year-old five-story building with a $100 million, 13-story Islamic-centric facility changed the project’s name after a contentious hearing before the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) Tuesday.

Contentious, because the proposed site sits a mere two blocks north of Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan.

While it’s used to being the target of public ire, the LPC has found itself in the difficult – and unwarranted – position of being the last line of defense between advocacy groups fiercely opposed to the Muslims’ plans and the Muslims themselves, who claim that the building they want to raze has no historic merit.

Unwarranted, because this issue is larger than what the LPC has the power to decide.

It's a Pretty Unremarkable Building

For the LPC, their decision centers solely on the legitimacy of designating a forlorn, poorly-maintained, ubiquitously old-fashioned structure worthy of salvaging. And it’s a tough call. Granted, at 152 years old, some cities across America would automatically grandfather it in, but at over 400 years old, New York City isn’t bereft of old buildings. Although its address sounds auspicious, Park Place has been whittled down to a mere couple of dark, congested blocks, with its only claim to fame being its anchor skyscraper, the exquisite Woolworth Building, at its intersection with Broadway. It's namesake, City Hall Park, also sits nearby.

Perhaps some historical interest might be that Merck Pharmaceutical Company used to be headquartered in the building during the 1920’s. It’s most recent use, however, was as a store for Burlington Coat Factory. Today, the building sits vacant and shuttered.

Although the LPC has granted landmark status to some questionable buildings in the past, there doesn’t appear to be much for them to decide when it comes to 51 Park Place. Theirs seems to be a final formality before the Muslims get the green light.

Which, since I personally oppose any official establishment of Islam near Ground Zero, makes the end of the road that much more dismaying. It's not the LPC’s place to render a political or religious pronouncement based on the assumed re-use of the site. All of the other community boards with jurisdiction in the matter have already allowed it to progress through New York City’s complex approval process, mostly because there’s little legal reason for them not to.

At 13 stories, the structure won’t be any more detrimental to the already-scarce daylight concerns that environmentalists might have. If the building wasn’t able to capture a viable tenant’s interest during Manhattan’s recently-ended boom years, at what point do its owners have the right to redevelop it – or sell out to someone who will? And although two blocks puts it close to the World Trade Center (WTC) site, it's still far enough way to be visibly obscured.

Respecting History

But what about the Muslim tradition of building houses of worship atop ruins of places they’ve vanquished? What about the domestic terrorism target such a building would present in the crowded canyons of Lower Manhattan, near City Hall and a newly-reconstructed WTC? What about the sheer audacity of having a recreational and religious Islamic center mere blocks from where buffoons acting in the name of Allah destroyed one of the world’s largest business centers and killed almost 3,000 people?

I’ve never supported the assertion that Ground Zero is hallowed ground. Just because so many people were killed in such an atrocious attack there, and since so many human remains were never found, the World Trade Center site is not a military battleground, national cemetery, or perpetual memorial.

I’d worked, shopped, toured, commuted from, and dined at the original World Trade Center. Although its architecture bordered on the dubious, and its origins stemmed from harebrained egotism by the Rockefeller family and monopolistic state agencies, it proved to be a vibrant, essential, and iconic part of Manhattan, and indeed, the entire harbor region.

Ever since September 12, 2001, I’ve believed that the original WTC – or at least, the Twin Towers – should have been rebuilt as closely to its original as possible, with exceptions made for improving traffic flow (a design flaw which became apparent after the center first opened). This would have been the best way to not only reinvigorate a shaken Financial District, but also save money and time by avoiding all of the silly design competitions and political wrangling that inevitably railroaded redevelopment.

Perhaps most importantly, though, restoring the Twin Towers would signal to America’s enemies that you may spite us, but we’re just going to pick up where we left off and keep going. All you’re doing by killing our people is making heroes out of them and fools out of yourselves. Oh yeah; and all those virgins your imams tell you are awaiting you in the afterlife? They’re all men.

(OK, I didn’t think up that last bit – I heard it from some comedian.)

Doing the Right Thing

My point is that yes, Ground Zero has become too important and symbolic a site for a mosque and Islamic rec center to be built in such proximity. A sacred site Ground Zero is not, but profoundly significant nevertheless. If Muslims had any respect for what Americans and lovers of freedom the world over endured on 9/11, they would never have proposed to flaunt the same religion revered by 9/11’s perpetrators so close to the location of one of the world’s most prominent Islamic attack sites.

Yet it’s not for the LPC to tell the Muslims that. And quite frankly, they shouldn’t further exacerbate this dispute by doing so. Unless somebody can dig up something about 51 Park Place at the 11th hour that makes it intrinsically important to the history of Manhattan Island, then the LPC’s decision seems pretty clear.

But theirs won’t be the shame. The shame rests squarely on the Muslims who advocate such a disrespectful and celebratory display of religious self-aggrandizement.

If they genuinely want to establish a place of religious tolerance near the WTC, the Islamic proponents who want a mosque at 51 Park Place should revoke their plans for tearing down the building they’ve bought, and if they absolutely must, construct a simple religious center inside the existing structure instead.

The remainder of their $100 million should go to help our federal government pay the restitution settlement for 9/11 victims.


Wednesday, July 14, 2010

140 Days, Part 2: Whose Sovereignty Is It?

Before I'm burned at the stake, perhaps now would be a good time for me to make a confession. One of the reasons I’ve personally wrestled with these questions involves my own struggle with the concept of God’s sovereignty.

Maybe it’s the Colonial patriot in me that bristles at references to the British monarchy as “sovereigns.” Perhaps we Americans generally have a fuzzy misconception about sovereignty because it’s been so misused throughout world history. Even our own history as a "sovereign nation."

I’ve mentioned in an earlier post that I’ve always been a car nut. When I was a kid visiting family in Brooklyn, I loved seeing all of the foreign luxury cars there that we didn’t have in Upstate New York. I remember seeing the dealership nameplate on them - Sovereign Motorcars, a dealership in Brooklyn - which to my recollection was the first time I’d heard the word “sovereign,” so I immediately associated the term with things that are elusive, exclusive, and not necessarily… well, necessary.

Kind of like British royalty, I’ll admit, but not at all appropriate when considering the sovereignty of our Creator God.

Praying in Acknowledgement of God's Sovereignty

God’s sovereignty exists as part of His character which describes the interaction between His omniscience and omnipotence. He rules over all things because He has the power to do so, and He has the knowledge to do so. He controls all things not to manipulate us, but to express His Lordship over all of His creation for His glory. To the extent that He invites us to participate with Him in the establishment of His kingdom as His redeemed, we can expect that whatever happens to us is for our good and His good pleasure.

How, then, does God’s sovereignty extrapolate to what we pray for regarding our country? That is part of what I’ve been struggling with as I hear preachers drag misguided conservative sentimentality about our Founding Fathers into our present-day desire for change in America.

Dr. Stanley and others have an obligation to challenge us to prayer and remind us of our responsibility as believers and citizens to beseech God’s favor upon our country and our leaders. Have you prayed for our nation, our president, and our other elected officials today?

But how effective are our supplications when we clutter them with what we think are biblical standards, but in reality only serve our own relatively narrow interests?

Praying for Wants Instead of Needs

For example, one of the items Dr. Stanley suggests we pray about involves increasing taxation (Week 8). Can we interpret that wording to be a guise for socialism? After all, a lot of conservative political pundits are using the "s" word lately in their analysis of current events. And even I can agree that though capitalism is not a perfect economic system, it's far superior to socialism. However, are taxation and socialism literally unbiblical?

First of all, I hate to break the bubble of Americans who fear big government, but we’ve passed that demarcation line long ago. The United States already has a massive, yet subversive, entitlement culture. And I'm not talking about the pet evils conservatives like to blast Democrats with: food stamps, public housing, and Social Security.

Do you realize that farming, fossil fuels, and other national industries benefit from whopping government handouts, rigged bid-letting, and other subsidies? And although I agree that such ideas as nationalizing healthcare will do far more harm than good to remedy what ails our healthcare system, if you specifically fear nationalized healthcare, perhaps the real problem is that we believers haven't been actively looking out for the welfare of others. You might recall that hospitals were invented by churches, but as healthcare costs and logistics increased, people of faith let governments take over paying for the care of the sick and dying. Maybe that seemed like a good deal at the time, but we’re sure paying for it now.

Even if America still boasted pure capitalism, do we have a Biblical mandate to implore God to save us from an economic system we don't like? Somewhere in this plea, isn't there a love of money rooting around? Isn't part of the problem we've had here in America our betrothal to the profit motive? Again, I'm not advocating socialism. I'm just wondering that if, as we're presenting our requests to God, we should expect much action on the quality-of-life stuff? Especially taxes, which Christ bluntly told His followers to pay? Especially when we've spent so much of our expendable income on ourselves instead of Christ's Kingdom? Especially when we're lumping it in with far graver issues like abortion (Week 16) and people denying the deity of Christ (Week 12)?

Misplaced Freedoms?

And maybe I'm missing something, but what freedoms have we believers lost lately (Week 10)? I'm aware that a lot of business people like to howl whenever they fail to police themselves and the government has to step in. I know some people think having a nativity set on the village green equates to telling unbelievers they're doomed to Hell unless they repent of their sins. And some people extrapolate the anecdotal stories of parents fighting school prayers as meaning kids need to leave their faith at home.

But would any of us want Muslims forcing Ramadan down our kids' throats in school? Do you want chubby Buddhist statues flanking the doors to city hall? With democracy comes pluralism, and the proverbial your-right-to-swing-your-fist-stops-at-my-nose.

As a nation, we're having to make some adjustments regarding how different faiths get expressed in the public arena, but nobody is losing their rights, are they? Maybe we're being forced to accept people who are different from us, and yes, people feel wickedly comfortable vilifying Christ in public (Week 12). Indeed, for believers in America, we're entering new territory when it comes to our being socially ostracized by heathens, but the Bible tells us that up until now, the American church has been the exception to the rule. The world - including unsaved America - is going to hate Christ and His followers. That's saddening, but not surprising. Should we be asking God to remove that enmity after He's already told us to expect it?

Let Real Faith Shine

What does any of this have to do with the sovereignty of God? Well, allow me to draw some correlations between some of what we say we want America to be and what God expects of us.

First, we want our fellow Americans to let us flaunt religious Christian symbolism to the exclusion of other religions. If you were of any other faith, wouldn't that sound suspiciously like a state religion? Doesn't it also fail to address the truth from the popularized expression that Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship? Nativity scenes and Ten Commandments plaques don’t save people. Nor does their absence from the public square deny believers their right to practice their faith in daily life. However, maybe if we churchgoers faithfully practice all 10 of the commandments ourselves, then we might have credibility when it comes to posting them down at the courthouse.

Second, the money you earn isn’t yours to begin with, is it? So aside from our ability as citizens to vote down tax increases (at least in theory), should we be as concerned about rising taxes as we are with abortion? Are the two in the same league when it comes to things that God abhors? I understand that higher taxes will probably cripple the economy, and we need to pray that the Lord will give our leaders wisdom when it comes to making decisions, but believers across the globe manage to survive on far less than we do, and God loves them just as much as He loves you and me.

Third, whose sovereignty are we talking about when we complain about things like taxes, universal healthcare, and nativity scenes? To what extent are we grieving the loss of comforts and expectations rather than challenges to issues intrinsic to our faith? God's sovereignty extends over every matter concerning us here in the United States. After all, that's the reason people like Dr. Stanley have called for this 140 days of prayer. But until we relinquish all of our perceived rights to everything with which God has blessed America, only then can we truly appreciate His authority, His love, and His provision.

We haven't exactly been good stewards of the social, political, environmental, economic, industrial, educational, artistic, and cultural bounty God secured for America through - and even despite - the actions of our Founding Fathers. Have we? Come on now; if you have kids, and they don't appreciate things you've given to them in the past, how likely are you to give them something new and shiny they see online?

Aren't there plenty of things that God can change in us and provide for us that can revolutionize the United States for His glory that have little to do with what Rush Limbaugh wants for America?

I don't want nationalized healthcare, higher taxes, or more government. I do want to protect the institution of marriage. But with divorce rates in the church running neck-and-neck with the unchurched, with faiths like Islam pushing for greater civic recognition, and with spiraling healthcare costs making employers think twice about providing coverage, the answers seem far more complex than many believers want to acknowledge.

I'm praying that God will be our Sovereign.

Thy love divine has led us in the past; in this free land by Thee our lot is cast;
Be Thou our Ruler, Guardian, Guide, and Stay; Thy Word our law,
Thy paths our chosen way.
- God of Our Fathers, "National Hymn," words by Daniel C. Roberts in 1876


Tuesday, July 13, 2010

140 Days, Part 1: Praying w/ Rose-Colored Glasses

Are you doing it? The 140 days of prayer that has been called for by Baptist minister Dr. Charles Stanley?

Of course, a substantial part of the reason Dr. Stanley has felt led to call for this 140 days of prayer is because most of us haven’t been properly praying for our country up until now. We evangelicals in North America have probably evolved into one of the singularly narcissistic and self-obsessed group of believers the world has ever known. We spend so much money, time, and effort on ourselves that our country has indeed wandered off, like a child at a picnic while its parents squabble with each other about who forgot to bring the mustard.

But, enough about us. See how easy it is to get off-track?

Revival or Revolution?

Dr. Stanley’s media ministry, In Touch, is sponsoring a 20-week, 140-day prayer calendar for evangelicals to bring requests to God regarding the state of the United States. And while I’m not going to officially register and join this latest in a growing parade of “bring America back to God” movements, I am participating in praying for our wonderful country.

However, I’ve said it before and I feel it bears repeating: while America has historically been a “Christian” nation, it has not been a “Godly” nation (see Week 15). The distinction needs to be made because we’re laboring under an enormous fallacy if we think the evangelicalism with which we’d like to see dominate the sociopolitical affairs of our nation can be “restored” through prayer.

Prayer indeed is powerful, but to pray for America to return to roots we believe to be “Christian” – in personal faith, not religious distinction – we need to pray for a revolution, not a revival.

Virtually every patriotic preacher on the revival bandwagon today claims that liberal historians get it wrong by saying our Founding Fathers weren’t Christians. But if you listen closely, many of our patriotic preachers are the ones confusing their terms. Most scholars don’t debate the Christian proclivities of George Washington, James Madison, and other key Revolutionary War figures, but were they people we evangelicals would consider “born again?” Probably not.

That’s pure heresy for many Christian believers today, because they want so desperately to believe in the original sanctity of the Founding Fathers and the inherent goodness upon which our nation was founded. But if you don’t want to live in a fantasy world, you have to admit the obvious.

Plenty of resources exist to prove these points, so I won’t argue them here. Just consider:
  1. While the original Pilgrim settlements may have been characterized by Godly desires, their Christian influence waned as subsequent settlers – some of them religious flakes – tried to build their own cult-like kingdoms here on Earth.

  2. As a native New Yorker, it’s to my own shame that the city’s founders included at least one prostitute and a murderer. Not exactly a “Godly heritage,” although many of my Big Apple-bashing friends would probably retort, “well, that explains a lot!”

  3. Just because during that time slavery was considered normal didn’t then - and doesn’t now - make it acceptable. Yes, God sanctioned slavery of Israel’s enemies and debtors, but not the wholesale selling and buying of a race with the explicit intent of exploitation.

  4. Most of the anger in the Colonies against imperialist British rule came from landowners angry over increasing royal taxation. Unfortunately, taxation is not a Biblical justification for instigating a revolution.

  5. Some evangelicals dismiss the widely-accepted correlations between Masonic ceremony and Biblical symbolism as saying the Masons were different back then. And they’re right – the Masons were much more powerful a force in civic life than they are today. While only God knows the true degree of commitment our Founding Fathers had to Him, much of the language and metaphors used in the writings of our nation’s first leaders can validly be ascribed to that time period’s meshing of sacred and ceremonial.

  6. Even if every one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were true-blue, born-again believers in Christ, they left little wiggle room in the documentation they produced regarding the establishment of one faith as the nation’s religion. In other words, they didn’t enthrone Christianity as the Church of America. What they naively assumed was that succeeding generations of Americans would uphold the moral virtues and civic standards by which democracy can flourish. And yes, the argument that morality cannot exist in a vacuum outside of faith does have merit, but the degree to which the Founding Fathers could not foresee the citizenry’s eventual abdication of religious doctrine (which is possible to acknowledge even without faith) is the degree to which our social structures seem to be collapsing all around us today.

  7. Back then, we were “one nation under God” by virtue of the fact that virtually all of the white folk from Europe were still perpetuating religious traditions which stemmed from Roman Catholicism. Whether those traditions actually glorified God is open to interpretation. Certainly, nobody was perfect. The Native Americans didn’t view themselves “under God,” and what a sorry way they’ve been treated by intervening generations of European descendants. African slaves were often provided rudimentary religious instruction, but many of them interwove their overseas superstitions and pagan traditions with what they were learning from whites. Even today, the black evangelical church struggles to pull people of color from the wayward fallacies that have become ingrained in their church culture since slavery.

  8. A popular assumption, espoused by none other that President George W. Bush, is that Muslims worship the same God evangelical believers do. This heresy has come from the pluralistic agenda of religious moderates who like to blunt the authority of scripture, obfuscate the divinity of the Trinity, and otherwise cripple basic tenets of Christ-centric faith. This same watering-down of Biblical truth has created a mythology about the founding of our country that has permeated the thinking of many people desperate for a political solution to America’s current problems. To the extent that Dr. Stanley and others are forcing American believers to make praying for our nation a priority, then the Holy Spirit has fertile ground to help us see that our God does not share His sovereignty and deity with anyone else.

  9. Even if our country was founded by a bunch of secular, evil, hedonist crooks – which I’m in no way suggesting – we’re still bound by God’s command to pray for our nation and our leaders. When all is said and done, it doesn’t matter if our Founding Fathers had burning zeal for Christ or not; the country they set up for us is our nation that we have an obligation to pray for. Why spend so much time arguing for a return to the “Christian principles” of our Founding Fathers when that’s not the point? The point is that God has blessed the United States, yet we cannot take that blessing for granted, nor should we waste it on ourselves. Ours is but one country where believers have been admonished to pray for those in authority over us. To the extent that we’ve been negligent in that responsibility, maybe our current problems are simply the result of that negligence.
Taking a Deeper Look

Sometimes I wonder if we really put more hope in our politicians, our political and economic systems, and our Constitution than we put in God. Why do evangelicals seem to disproportionately get so bent out of shape over economic and family issues? Why are we the ones who wrap the cross in the flag so much?

I know, I know: twenty years of "the world according to Rush Limbaugh" makes my perspective positively dastardly to many conservatives. But is it really because I'm completely wrong, and our Founding Fathers were spiritual warriors? Or is it because we can easily find solace in how we imagine things used to be? Do we find it much easier to blame elected officials, media titans, and civic leaders for our problems than to acknowledge our own failures? Failure to pray more? Failure to live out the Fruits of the Spirit? Failure to preserve the sanctity of our marriages? Failure to protect the widows and orphans? Failure to allow the ox to eat as it plows (treat our workers fairly)?

Before we blame President Obama or Congress, maybe we should look in the mirror?

Tomorrow: Part Two