Monday, January 31, 2011

Listen to the Lyrical Winds

The lighthouse. The alphabet. The ramp and the lever.

Not to mention the bed and the table.

Did you know all of these were invented by Egyptians?

At this very moment, Egypt is roiled in an epic sociopolitical upheaval which, aside from threatening the current government, has compromised security in and around what has been called the "cradle of civilization."

From Cairo's world-famous Egyptian Museum to Luxor and the incomparable pyramids at Giza, Egypt holds many antiquities and artifacts dating from the time of Christ, and beyond. Yet since today's impoverished Egypt contrasts so starkly with its ancient heritage, Westerners tend to forget the role the Nile River Delta has played in our own cultural legacy.

And speaking of cultural legacy, here's another amazing factoid: nearly 300 years before the birth of Christ, Ctesibius of Alexandria invented the pipe organ. Who'd have thought, right? Not the grand, towering instruments we know today, obviously. For one thing, Ctesibius used water instead of electricity to pump air through his ingenious contraption.

Alas, the pipe organ has not fared nearly as well throughout the millennia as Egypt's other inventions, like the table and chair. Those have become universally ubiquitous. Fortunately, the pipe organ isn't as obsolete as the lighthouse, although, judging by popular culture, it might as well be.

Not a Pipe Dream

Indeed, the fact that most pipe organs today can only be found in historic, wealthy, or liberal churches doesn't speak volumes about the instrument's broad appeal. Most any modern church these days can host a rock concert. But it usually takes patrician congregations in what evangelicals consider marginally evangelical, mainline denominations to appreciate the glory and grandeur that is the pipe organ.

Such a shame, when you don't need to be all that educated or rich to appreciate classical organ music.

How do I know? Well, I don't have an Ivy League education, or a six-figure income, or a home in a prestigious ZIP code. I've never taken a music appreciation course, I'm not a bookworm, and I'm not a world traveler.

I don't even like all types of organ music. Kitschy Wurlitzer stuff makes me gag. Most modern, abstract compositions seem too bizarre to even be legitimate music. But there exists a wide body of work in the classical pipe organ repertoire which can be marvellously worshipful, therapeutic, and enthralling. Since I can't profess to be an indiscriminate pipe organ lover, I realize I can't demean people who don't like it at all. I suspect, however, that most of those types of people haven't really ever heard good classical organ music to begin with.

Pedal Pusher

Fortunately, here in North Texas, a surprisingly rich environment of classical church and civic musicianship flourishes, including some of the largest and most significant pipe organs in the world. Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth boasts the world's largest French aesthetic organ. The Meyerson Symphony Center in downtown Dallas features a spectacular pipe organ as its focal point.

And last night, I attended a concert on the two-year-old, $4 million pipe organ at Highland Park United Methodist Church in Dallas, where principle organists from 8 major churches in Dallas' Park Cities enclave displayed the dazzling instrument's virtuosity through a program ranging from Charles-Marie Widor to, of all things, nursery rhymes.

Texas may be many things western and country, but thankfully, one thing it's not is starved of is pipe organs, at least not here in the Dallas - Fort Worth area.

Yet an overwhelming number Biblically-conservative, evangelical congregations actually refuse to consider worshipping with a quality pipe organ. Much of the reason for this has to do, naturally, with the discouraging costs of purchasing and maintaining such a complex instrument. Which, however, still make it a matter of priorities. As I look at the amount of money most congregations pour into their mammoth buildings, acres of underused parking lots, and extensive rosters of paid staff, I suspect money would be far less of an issue if the desire for quality classical music actually resounded among their churchgoers.

Let's not make this a debate over music and worship styles, though. Many battles are won and lost through popularity, and this battle has less to do with democracy and more to do with intrinsic purpose. I believe the best advocacy for classical pipe organ music comes from its ability to depict aesthetics and characteristics of our Creator God like no other instrument can possibly do. In that I find great purpose in the invention of Alexandrea's Ctesibius.

The Answer is Blowing in the Wind

If you've already formed your opinions about pipe organ music without having worshipped in a service accompanied by a professionally-trained organist, then might I suggest something? Unlike many opinions which can have integrity without being dependant on personal experience, classical pipe organ playing cannot be easily dismissed as irrelevant if you've never participated in it live.

If you stop and think about it, a pipe organ is a wind instrument, like a trumpet or fife. There is a color to the tonality of wind instruments which reaches its fullest expression and spectrum in the pipe organ. What makes it, as Mozart proclaimed, the "king of instruments," involves its ability to capture the range of other wind instruments while contributing other qualities of resonance to the overall sound.

Expressive in both subtlety and grandeur, the pipe organ perhaps best approximates the regal splendor of Western estimations of God and His holiness. Depending on how the organ is played, its music can envelop the listener in a way few other instruments can, with decibel levels and intonations diffusing shades of emotion, imagination, and perspective.

Perhaps the loss of the instrument's commonality in our culture helps make it that much more provocative. Maybe because we don't hear pipe organ music every day, those times when we do make it that much more exceptional and impressionable. However, I daresay that a daily diet of live classical organ music would greatly dilute my persistent cynicism, and that's saying something, isn't it?

Hear, Here!

Unfortunately, listening to videos online hardly portrays any music in flattering light. But let's whip through a quick tutorial on the basics of organ appreciation, if for no other reason to hopefully convey to you a quick glimpse of why I think organ music should not be scuttled to the periphery of our society.

First, this is what many people think of when they think of organ music. Here is a grainy, choppy video of Bach's famous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor from the Sydney Town Hall in Australia. Despite the brilliance of Bach's composition, the utter overexposure this piece has had over the years, particularly in unkind contexts like commercials and movies, has diluted how audiences perceive it. Still, if you can strip away other, less beneficent encounters with this piece, hopefully you can capture some of the utter immortality Bach evokes in it.

Next, consider this composition played by organist Jason Payne playing on the Cliburn organ at Fort Worth's Broadway Baptist Church. This time, we're hearing a combination of two venerable hymns played by a younger, less polished artist, but still conveying layers of expression and exuberance which epitomize both the introspective and celebratory opportunities this one instrument can provide.

And if you want to hear something to a tune with which you should be familiar, try this patriotic piece, again by Jason Payne.

Like I said, nothing beats a live experience of good classical organ music, and thus, these YouTube videos are woefully inadequate as eminent supporting proofs for the integrity of the pipe organ. So, if you live in the Dallas - Fort Worth area, why don't you consider these opportunities to hear great organ music throughout the year:
Alternatively, you can check for local pipe organ events where you live by visiting the American Guild of Organists (AGO) website, which lists chapters across the country. Many concerts and recitals are free.

Consider the opportunity to discover that classical pipe organ music is for more than weddings and funerals!

If it wasn't, it wouldn't have survived since 300 BC.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Built Without Bedrock

What was the point?

America's Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission released its official report Thursday on the causes of our Great Recession. And about the only eyebrow-raising item in it comes from current Fed chairman, Ben Bernanke, who considers this crisis worse than the Great Depression.

If President Obama and those who worked on it were expecting an outpouring of affirmation and gratitude, no wonder they're probably disappointed.

Lack of Logic Equals Lack of Integrity

From the start, liberals hobbled the Commission's integrity by insisting on appointing six of its ten members. And Thursday, we saw the fruits of that petty political machination: four dissenters - all of the Commission's Republicans - withheld their affirmation of the final report.

Part of the reason these Republican holdouts couldn't sign off on the effort involves partisanship, naturally. But most of it involves the Commission's overall failure to logically appreciate broader contributors to the financial meltdown apart from the easy target: big bank greed.

For example, likely factors such as the complex global financial games big bad banks were playing in foreign sovereign currencies were generally glossed over. As if today's travails of Greece and Ireland represent mere footnotes.

But the Commission's most egregious snub was summarized in a New York Times article:

"The report does knock down — at least partly — several early theories for the financial crisis. It says the low interest rates brought about by the Fed after the 2001 recession; Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the mortgage finance giants; and the 'aggressive homeownership goals' set by the government as part of a 'philosophy of opportunity' were not major culprits."

Oh, really?

All That Debt? Not a Problem?

When you're tracing the roots of a problem, don't you dig down deep to reach the bedrock upon which the rest of your situation has been structured? In this case, the bedrock was subprime lending, right? Apparently not, according to the six Democratic members of the Commission.

By summarily dismissing the subprime mortgage fiasco, the Commission appears convinced that having so many people buying homes they couldn't afford would never have precipitated a financial crisis of catastrophic proportions. Instead, from their perspective, bundling up the bad debt and selling it to unsuspecting investors was the core precipitant for the Great Recession.

Obviously, the derivatives, swaps, and other financial hocus-pocus concocted by the big bad banks became an insurmountable problem. But correct me if I'm wrong: those bad loans would still have been out there, right? They were the commodity everybody was either trying to ignore, get rid of, lie about, sell, and buy. Right?

Even if the bad loans hadn't been wrapped up into appealing boxes of pseudo-money, and investors hadn't bought up the tawdry inventory of sub-prime loans, wouldn't SOMEBODY still be left holding the bag? Can debt automatically vanish in a capitalistic system? Does the real problem really lie in big bad banks minimizing their own risks through uber-creative pass-the-buck schemes?

With all due respect to the Commission, the problem they picked may have the easiest culprits to vilify, since many Americans revile Wall Street bankers. However, getting back to the bedrock of this case, didn't the real problem consist of mortgage brokers selling loans to customers they knew couldn't pay the debt? And home buyers buying more home than they should have logically known they could afford?

True, investigating subprime mortgages doesn't make for engaging political theater. Doing so would, by extension, implicate many more voters than the relatively few financial wizards at the big bad banks. Confronting irresponsibility is always easier when you can shift the blame.

How Free Should Free Markets Be?

Not to obfuscate the corrupt morality of bankers who gleefully shilled obscenely risk-tainted products to equally greedy, due-diligence-averse customers. But aren't we missing a huge opportunity to fix some gaping problems in our lending industry by refusing to acknowledge the significance of what got this whole thing going in the first place?

Some financiers might counter that since suddenly, mortgages have almost become extinct in the United States, a healthy correction in the industry has taken place. Lenders have sobered up, borrowers again need to prove employment and income, and we're back to playing with real money and genuine credit.

But if most all of the same players remain in the game, who's to say that ignoring fundamental problems won't again become a costly problem? If we're not willing to get a little dirty with reality, who's to say that our next little financial crisis - they seem to be cropping up like clockwork every decade now - won't be even worse? We could be taking two steps forward and one step back.

Here again, die-hard capitalists say periodic volatility is healthy for a lucrative economy. Keeps companies from getting bloated. Helps cultivate ingenuity. Well, if by ingenuity, they're talking about subprime mortgages and credit default swaps, then I guess we truly deserve the moral vacuum our society is becoming.

At this point, Darwinian capitalists would point to the inevitability that free markets are piloted by the most capable people and methodologies in the world. They're like the cream that rises to the top. However, can we automatically assume that capitalism will inevitably bring into leadership those people with the perfect qualifications to match and overcome problems? Or will it just bring to the top those people with the best qualifications in the pool? Doesn't that overlook the real possibility that those qualifications, while being the best available, may still not be sufficient for the task at hand?

What is the extent to which America's free market gurus have convinced society to go ahead and rest assured: capitalism is designed so that the best-qualified people are running the show? What is the extent to which we've all drunk the blind-faith-in-capitalism Kool-Aid?

Another Missed Opportunity?

If anything, this charade of a Commission has only increased my skepticism that capitalism can police itself. Why don't the six Democrats want the subprime mortgage mess implicated? What didn't the Commission find?

I suspect one little scenario they would like to ignore was documented in this amateur YouTube video. It retells the struggle of Republicans who were seeking to strengthen regulatory oversight of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, several years before the mortgage melt-down. Funny, right? Republicans wanting more regulations! They were fiercely opposed, however, by members of the Congressional Black Caucus, with California's Maxine Waters crowing about the success of no-money-down financing.

Subprime lending is the boil Democrats don't want lanced. Why is that? If capitalism is indeed expected to heal itself, how can that happen with such myopic political subterfuge? Sure, it's easy to blame the big bad banks. And yes, if it wasn't for their greed, our economy would probably be much stronger today. But even all the big bad banks combined fail to hold a monopoly on greed.

Conservative financial analyst and American Enterprise Institute scholar Peter Wallison, one of the dissenting Republican members of the Commission, will be submitting his own analysis and interpretation of the impact subprime mortgage schemes played in the staging of our Great Recession.

Let's hope his analysis makes more sense than the Commission's. At least it won't be any worse.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

When Words Speak Louder than Actions

Most laws are made after people abuse privileges.

Think about it. When did most traffic laws start piling up? After people drove their horseless carriages recklessly.

Oddly enough, however - and perhaps befitting the entrepreneurial spirit of America, it wasn't a bureaucrat who first recognized the need for driving regulations, but a private citizen. In fact, he's probably one of the most important people in America's car culture history that you've never heard of.

Does Civility Benefit Commerce?

In 1909, pioneering New York City businessman William Eno published the world's first rules and regulations for drivers. Eno invented the stop sign, the one-way street, and the pedestrian crosswalk, among other innovations that have become ubiquitous in the modern driving experience. Eno recognized that as streets became even more chaotic with the advent of the automobile, stricter procedures and new safety elements needed to be established so commerce could continue to flourish.

Amazing, huh?

The fact that Eno also wrote the first traffic violations guidebook for the New York City Police Department shouldn't be held against him by today's drivers, most of whom have cringed at the telltale flashing of emergency lights in their rear-view mirror.

Still, to think: all of our traffic laws have come from one enterprising businessman's desire to protect people and minimize congestion so private industry could function more efficiently. Kinda puts rules and regulations into perspective, doesn't it?

Fun Before the Thaw

Of course, many people think laws governing behavior are entirely punitive. Consider, for example, some irate snowmobilers in Upstate New York. They've become indignant over a law enforcement sweep which netted 45 citations in one day for various infractions of snowmobile rules.

Back in the mists of time, during my childhood, we lived in a tiny village on the north shore of Oneida Lake, north of Syracuse. It's the largest lake within the state, 22 miles long and up to five miles wide. Despite its surface area, however, Oneida Lake is relatively shallow, which means during the frigid winters, it seems to practically freeze solid. People who venture out across it on motorized vehicles, including snowmobiles, really only risk falling in if it's early or late in the ice fishing season.

Invariably, somebody would get injured out on the lake. Or, one of their "sleds," as they call their snowmobiles, would fall into the lake. One winter, I even recall somebody's pickup truck sinking through the thinning late-season ice.

In addition, although it might seem counter-intuitive, the buzzing whine of snowmobile exhaust systems gets amplified out on the wind-swept ice, particularly since you don't ever hear anything else in the otherwise snow-packed stillness. And particularly when sled owners affix aftermarket enhancements to their machines to make them go faster.

Since this winter has been unusually harsh in the Northeast, snowmobilers have been making a nuisance of themselves out on the lake, disturbing homeowners along the shore. Particularly those ardent enthusiasts who think they can act with impunity.

One of the reasons people like to snowmobile on top of a frozen lake should be obvious: it's wide open. You can quickly become seduced into believing you can do whatever you please in such a vast expanse.

Well, actually, you can't, of course. You've got people out on the ice who, for some reason, derive considerable pleasure from sitting on a sprawling ice sheet, peering over a little hole, trying to fish. You've got other people on their snowmobiles, some of whom may be even less cautious than you. And chances are, all of you are miles from the closest point at which an ambulance can get to you in case you need one.

So some local cops and the state parks police ventured out onto the ice and discovered a variety of infractions by the winter sports enthusiasts.

According to, 14 tickets were issued for equipment violations, including aftermarket mufflers designed to make snowmobiles louder. Cops issued 11 tickets for registration violations, 11 for uninsured snowmobiles, and four for speeding. Perhaps it's a good thing only three snowmobilers were ticketed for being drunk.

Rules and Bad Apples

Inevitably, the story generated a considerable response from visitors to, quickly filling up seven pages. Most people who posted their opinions sided with law enforcement and how a few bad apples usually end up ruining everybody's fun. Rules are rules, and generally, they exist for a reason.

But then, the bad apples themselves came out of the woodwork, posting blather mostly about how rules and regulations have sapped all the fun out of life. About how cops writing tickets has become all about revenue generation. And how people who whine all the time are the ones responsible for ruining everybody's fun.

Indeed, the snowmobilers who sided with their ticketed brethren do have a point: restrictions to most activities usually aren't enjoyable. I don't even like snowmobiles, and I can agree with them on that one.

But you can't deny that most laws are made after people abuse privileges. When New York City's William Eno saw how unwilling most newly-christened operators of automobiles were to abide by simple graces of civility, he saw that somebody needed to craft some guidelines for how to operate these new contraptions in urban areas.

Obviously, enough drivers were rude enough to, in effect, act on behalf of all drivers to force all of them - and, by extension, you and me - to abide by a strict standard of roadway behavior. And unfortunately, as things often do in bureaucracies, rules began piling up faster than Henry Ford could churn out Model T's.

That's a really sad thing about human behavior: we tend to forget about consequences. We tend to act out of selfish impulses, and before too long, we end up being smothered in regulations which actually may be more punitive than if we had simply been a little more patient, a little more cautious, a little less greedy to begin with. This has become the broader story of Wall Street, and of something as regional as snowmobiling.

Somebody once said that actions speak louder than words.

And that's true - unless those actions result in a new set of rules.

Then the rules usually speak for themselves. And often, it's not a pretty sound.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Re-Righting Revisions

Guess what - we have no new material for today. Instead, I've been fine-tuning two essays which have already been posted on this blog.

For those of you who may have read my earlier essay, "Deconstructing the Constitution Myth," please be advised that I have revised significant portions to better reflect my personal viewpoints and clarify some of my terminology. In particular, I was sloppy in my use of the term "living document" when describing the U.S. Constitution.

Hopefully you'll now see that I'm not an advocate of cavalier, sweeping overhauls of the purpose of government - the characterization which some conservatives ascribe to those who normally use the term. Although I'm convinced our Founding Fathers did not intend the Constitution to be a static document, either.

And after a reader pointed out a lack of objectivity on my part regarding my essay about Gerritsen Beach, I decided I indeed could do better, so I've re-worded it as well.

Although I don't like admitting to mistakes, I don't mind trying to see if I can do things better. Hopefully, this is one big learning experience. Thanks for bearing with me!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Churches for Closure?

As if anybody needed further proof of how Christian churches have become more like the world, consider an article in today's Wall Street Journal about the recent spike in church foreclosures.

According to the Journal, almost 200 religious facilities have fallen into foreclosure since 2008. For some perspective, banks foreclosed on only six churches from 2006 to 2008. And before that, hardly any. Yet this may be the tip of the iceberg. Financial experts predict that, like many under-water home buyers, even more churches may default within the next few years as creative financing schemes come due for payment.

To say that this situation is an embarrassment is putting it lightly.

Now obviously, 200 church property foreclosures in two years could be viewed as a drop in the bucket, considering America has over 320,000 congregations. But the statistic to note isn't the 200, but the "hardly any" foreclosures that preceded 2006. In that light, 200 in two years represents a stark number, because it means this is a new problem. And, lest you glossed over the accompanying ominous prediction, it may be just the start: how many church foreclosures will come as variable interest rates begin to reset?

Owe Only Gratitude?

Church debt has always been a polarizing issue. Most evangelicals believe a mortgage for their home is permissible and, as long as you can afford to make the monthly payments, logical. After all, in most parts of the country these days, home prices simply can't be paid in one or two installments.

So, this same reasoning has led church leaders to assume that mortgages for church buildings are acceptable. Particularly if you're in a region with stable land values, your congregation is growing, people are working, and you're not being extravagant in your budget.

But the fallacy of these assumptions involves several things. First, right off the bat, you've probably already said to yourself that extravagance is an extraordinarily subjective term. One person's idea of excess might be somebody else's necessity.

Second, our national economy is cyclical enough for anybody with common sense to not rely on a steady gravy train of good-paying jobs. America's brand of capitalism has warped into a profits-at-any-price race to the bottom in terms of the responsibilities - however marginalized many conservatives have interpreted them as being - businesses have to their employees and communities.

Third, congregations wax and wane for any number of reasons. It could be the charisma of the preaching pastor that sparks growth, but if he leaves, lots of people usually follow. It could be the social aura of the congregation, but beauty and fads are only skin deep. It could even be the excitement of a brand-new building, but all buildings age, and these days, with church construction budges pushed to their limits, they seem to age faster than ever before.

Does the Kingdom of God Even Need All These Churches?

I would suspect that if your church is growing primarily because the Bible, and only the Bible, is being preached, then chances are, your church is not one of these 200, and probably doesn't even have a mortgage.

Which brings up another issue. How is it that some congregations can either maintain - which isn't necessarily a bad thing, depending on their location - or flourish, while others are going belly-up because of bad financial decisions?

Here in Arlington, Texas, new "churches" seem to be popping up all over the place. They meet in strip shopping centers, school auditoriums, and repurposed older church buildings. One of them, funded by Joel Osteen, purchased a mothballed corporate headquarters complex several years ago, removing million of dollars in real estate from our the city's property tax rolls.

Not that I'm strictly opposed to church planting. My own denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, has been exceedingly bullish on church planting, and my church in Dallas has planted at least three other thriving congregations in north Texas. But many of North America's new congregations are entrepreneurial, nondenominational, and unaffiliated with a more pragmatic oversight body that can provide a certain level of discernment. It seems this accountability is greater than what some preachers fresh out of seminary or a church split think they need.

Please forgive my cynicism, but I can't help wondering how many of these start-up churches might really profit centers for guys who would otherwise be, well, salesmen? I'm all for experimentation, innovation, and striking out on your own in the business world. But even though Willow Creek and Bill Hybels insist that such economic and corporate models work for churches, a growing chorus of God-centered church ethicists believe they don't.

Deconstructing Church Growth

For proof, just consider the numbers again: 320,000 congregations in a country of 300 million people. That equates to roughly one church for every 940 people in the United States. With that ratio, you'd think America would be, well, better than it is. Yet as a group, America's contingent of the Church Universal, we're not much different from our hedonistic culture. And doesn't it show?

As many of us get divorced as the unchurched. With an average of only 20% of congregants tithing, we hoard the money with which God has blessed almost as much as the outside world. Like a lot of unsaved people, we tend to begrudge poor people a few scraps from our tables. Like other social climbers, we refuse to live on the wrong side of the tracks.

If you think about it, the guys who go out and do all of the church planting wouldn't get very far if people who loved to church-hop didn't create the illusion of demand.

Ever since the start of the Jesus People movement and the seeker-sensitive contemporary movement, a deconstructionist ethos has been at work in the insular world of North American evangelicalism. Maybe it's because we Americans take such pride in individualism, or youth, or maybe because as our society has fractured along moral fault lines, the stability of our conventional congregational structure has become even more tenuous.

During all of those grand old generations we reminisce about, back when everything was better, perhaps the ideological foundation of the church was being ceded more to the world than we realized. Then, as a more casual approach to doing church evolved, it became easier to classify our fellow believers as either stodgy traditionalists or hip contemporaries. This only further destabilized our relevance as saints in a lost world.

Didn't we also get hijacked by well-intentioned but misguided political diversions like the Moral Majority? And haven't we forgotten how to love our neighbors, even as we've wanted to be both in and of the world? Instead of in the world, but not of it?

Maybe that's all bunk. But however it happened, we've found ourselves at a place where the organized church is expected to carry on the work of discipleship, rather than individual believers. We look to our churches for the framework and identity that we think we need to minister to others. We heap upon our pastors the work of evangelism, while we dabble in service projects so the IRS doesn't strip our 501(c)3's of their non-profit benefits.

Intentional Ministry Without Walls or Roof

Not that I'm innocent of this myself. I'm talking to myself as much as anybody. So many of us believers have made the church an idol that it's no wonder we treat it like any other component of our post-industrial capitalistic universe. That's part of what has made church debt such a palatable concept for many congregations. Which is why 200 church loan defaults in two years should serve as a wake-up call for us all.

If we're treating church as another social organization with maybe a higher plane of consciousness, then maybe we need to re-think why we're going. If we think the ministry opportunities of new buildings justify debt, then maybe we don't understand what purpose brick-and-mortar churches serve.

I believe we're living at the end of the churched age anyway. Many of the buildings congregations continue to construct will probably be empty shells within the next couple of decades, as Baby Boomers die off and their offspring continue to rebuff church as a social exercise or hobby.

I'm not wishing this would happen; I won't mind being wrong. I'm simply drawing conclusions from trends. The Holy Spirit will still be working in the hearts of His people, and the wheat will remain. There just won't be as much chaff in the pews.

Will going into debt for the next twenty years justify the possible scenario of paying off the mortgage when the church closes?

Depends on how we rate our interest, doesn't it?

Monday, January 24, 2011

Brooklyn Rednecks? (Revised)

Gerritsen Beach will never attract hordes of sun bathers.

No palm trees arch over the sandy fringes of the water.

Although a popular fishing spot, you're almost as likely to encounter raw sewage from the nearby TGI Friday's restaurant as you are fish in the murky tides. Even at dusk, if you squint, Gerritsen Beach barely passes for idyllic.

Turns out, that's true both in its scenery, and its civic life.

A Village in a City

With a population of about 7,500, this overwhelmingly white, mostly blue-collar community near the ocean boasts its own volunteer fire department. Although its history can be traced back an impressive three hundred years, most of the area around Gerritsen Beach didn't get developed until after World War I, when summer bungalows were erected en masse for seasonal visitors.

Over time, the bungalows in this colony were winterized and turned into year-round dwellings. Today, these homes, which were built close together, have been carefully enlarged and modernized, each one practically touching its neighbors. Although clean, tidy, and even somewhat quaint, there's hardly any room left for the narrow streets and even narrower sidewalks that make the place look like a crowded town in Asia.

But Gerritsen Beach isn't in Asia. Or in America's rural South. It's in Brooklyn, New York. Yes, if you were to suddenly find yourself plopped along the neighborhood's main drag, Gerritsen Avenue, you'd be hard-pressed to realize you were standing inside a borough of 2 million people, let alone a city of 8 million.

One of New York City's fascinating characteristics involves its many anomalies, hidden in unlikely crevices all over the five boroughs. Gerritsen is a case in point, although not necessarily for the better. Because unfortunately, as cosmopolitan and sophisticated as New York can be, this neighborhood has some of the most simple-minded people you will find anyplace.

While Brooklyn has evolved into a multi-cultural smorgasbord of skin colors, languages, and cultures, Gerritsen Beach has remained fiercely homogeneous. Isolated from Brooklyn's more urban core and nestled among the shoreline reeds of the city's meandering estuaries, it's been hidden from much of Gotham's crime, ethnic strife, and even through-traffic. If not for the occasional hate crime which makes the news, even suspicions that latent racism motivates Gerritsen's self-preservation would largely be ignored.

Not that it's a ritzy, high-dollar haven. Quite the contrary. Gerritsen's housing prices average a stunning 40% lower than Brooklyn's as a whole. Still, the community benefits from both a public and a private elementary school. And although it has no subway service, city buses do ply its streets, providing mass transit access.

On paper, at least, it's hard to understand why minorities haven't flocked to such an affordable and family-friendly place long ago.

Sins of Some Parents No Excuse

Gerritsen Beach's residents would probably insist the lack of change in their neighborhood comes from strong inter-generational family ties, a strong community spirit, and a strong aversion to big-city meddling. However, other neighborhoods have boasted these three strengths in the past, and more, only to be washed in the flood of cultural integration and assimilation. Can Gerritsen's stark white demographic, currently at 90%, be simply a coincidence?

Oddly enough, the residents of Gerritsen Beach don't even treat each other with respect. Take, for example, the temerity some local civic leaders had when they told a construction contractor he could dump his debris in a local city park without a permit. Or the ambivalence by most in the community at reports of teens frequently intimidating the Chinese owner of a local laundromat.

Or Gerritsen's recent infamy as a haven for Halloween hoodlums.

Apparently, for generations, one of the neighborhood's fond traditions has been to let kids run amok on Halloween, pelting vehicles and pedestrians with eggs and potatoes, and spraying shaving cream on parked cars. This past October 31, a local blogger took photos of the mayhem and posted them online after numerous calls from upset residents to 911 went unheeded by the police.

Kids reportedly pelted two Hasidic Jews with eggs, and when a passing motorist stopped to complain that they had egged his car, the brats hit him on his backside with yet another egg. A mother pushing a stroller also got hit, and a window on a passing city bus splintered after being pelted with rocks.

Civic Irresponsibility

You might have expected the parents of these kids to have been aghast at the brazen lawlessness of their offspring. Instead, they turned their ire onto the blogger, Daniel Cavanagh, who himself grew up in the neighborhood. How dare he publicize the private merriment of their children for all the world to see? He's destroying their wonderful community by painting these kids in an unflattering light. Nobody got hurt or killed, and the property damage was minimal. So, what's the big deal?

At a neighborhood association meeting later in November, one of the indignant parents yelled at Cavanagh to leave Gerritsen if he didn't like living there. One of the mothers crassly accused Cavanagh of being a sexual predator because the photos he took of the mayhem featured adolescents.

That same woman - and I'm using the term loosely (watch the video here to see what I mean) - even claimed she was trying to get one of her sons into Xaverian High School, an exclusive private boy's academy in Brooklyn's affluent enclave of Bay Ridge. What were his chances of being selected by Xaverian now that Cavanagh had besmirched his reputation?

Now that this story has gone viral, with even the New York Times mulling the role Cavanagh's blogging has played in fanning its flames, this once insular community can't seem to hide from the derision it's receiving from all over the blogosphere. It's as if their secret reality has exploded in their faces, only they want to keep denying it like they have done for all these years.

Urban Hicks?

Obviously, it would be inaccurate to summarily cast all of Gerritsen's residents in the same dark light. After all, it was the consternation of fellow residents which prompted Cavanagh to document the Halloween event with his camera. And Cavanagh himself appears disgusted with the intransigence of his lifelong neighborhood.

Isn't it still hard, however, to wrap your head around the existence of such a curiously literal backwater in a metropolis like the Big Apple? Who'da thunk such a place could still be found along the Belt Parkway between Coney Island and Kennedy Airport?

Or that rednecks could come with a Brooklyn accent?

Friday, January 21, 2011

Suspicious of Tragedy

Gabrielle Giffords has become a superstar.

All it took was surviving a bullet to the head, fired from a weirdo wanting to assassinate her.

Granted, that's doing it the hard way. And Giffords didn't even have a say in the matter.

She was already a politician - a Jewish Democrat in a state with a reputation for WASPish conservative politics and a Hispanic Catholic heritage. But little did we know.

If anything, the tragedy in Tucson revealed a level of diversity in Arizona that few outsiders knew existed. As historian Allen Ginsberg mused to Mark Shields of PBS Newshour, "We saw a white, Catholic, Republican federal judge murdered on his way to greet a Democratic woman, member of Congress, who was his friend and was Jewish. Her life was saved initially by a 20-year-old Mexican-American college student, who saved her, and eventually by a Korean-American combat surgeon... And then it was all eulogized and explained by our African-American president."

Which says more about the vibrancy of the American electorate than the miserable details of shooter Jared Loughner.

The Story Continues

Today, Congresswoman Giffords was flown to a specialty hospital in Houston, where her astronaut husband lives, and from which he predicts she'll walk in a matter of months. I certainly join with all of civilized humanity and hope that if he's wrong, it'll be by a matter of weeks instead of months.

But as I scan headlines from news organizations around the globe today, almost two weeks after the shooting, the media - and, from what they say, the Tucson community - has yet to find anything more sensationalistic to take its place. And yes, I'm choosing the word "sensationalistic" intentionally. Maybe even, um, sensationalistically.

I'm not trying to begrudge Giffords and the other victims the attention due them as innocents. I'm not saying that an attempted assassination of a United States Congresswoman and the murder of a Federal judge aren't major news stories. I'm not denying that the grief that most certainly continues to wash over the families of those who were injured and killed isn't deep, confusing, and raw.

Why Aren't We Moving On?

I do wonder, however, when it's time to move on from these things. I've already confessed to an ambivalence over President Barak Obama's hosting of a community wake. Was there one when Senator Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968? How about when Representative Leo Ryan of San Francisco was ambushed during the Jonestown cult massacre in 1978?

I also wonder, perhaps because I'm a guy, the extent to which Gifford's photogenic looks and swashbuckling astronaut husband come in to play as news outlets try and capitalize on their highly unconventional lifestyle. It's a lot easier to sell ad space with such pleasing photos than, say, um... and I don't mean to be rude, but take your pick from the current class of congresswomen.

Maybe it's just my cynicism revving in overdrive. Maybe the amount of time I'm spending researching my blog essays on the Internet is beginning to drain me of whatever aptitude for empathy I may have had. Maybe I've become accustomed to smelling the unpleasant odor of politics wafting from prolonged exposure to emotionally-driven news items.

It's not like I begrudge the victims the compassion being bestowed upon them. I'm actually surprised our vapid pop culture has been feeding the media binge on this story as long as it has. And hopefully, the press will get this story completely out of its system before Loughner's long and winding journey through the courts.

Of course, if the media dropped this story like a hot potato, then some victims might feel like the nation doesn't care about them any more. That they've been forgotten.

This would speak to the reliance our society has developed on our media as purveyors of significance. Do you really matter if lots of other people don't know your story?

Wow, I Hate to Admit It

The thing that tipped me off as to the faint hint of politics in the air was President Obama's nationally-televised speech in the wake of the shootings. I'm not a liberal, and I'm not a far-right-wing conservative, but it smelled suspiciously, innocuously, staged for something broader than sympathy.

Not that there was anything wrong with his speech. But maybe there would be more right with it if somebody other than the President had given it. Particularly since he'd been languishing in the polls.

And surprise - now he's not. Rasmussen says as of today, Obama is polling at his highest numbers in almost a year, while CNN says he's up 5 points over November. The Wall Street Journal says that as of yesterday, he is up 8 points over December. Several news outlets credit Obama's Tucson speech for much of these increases.

Let's face it - there's little magic in politics. The pandering formula is probably as old as democracy itself. Some liberals might point to 43's grave address in the National Cathedral after 9/11 as proof that grandstanding over tragedies is a bipartisan affair. Yet to Bush's credit, 9/11's unprecedented horror seared the conscience of the entire world in a way that forever changed how we live. Like it or not, Tucson's current sorrow will soon fade into the background like so many other atrocities do in our violent society.

Until it does, however, I guess Tucson's grief will continue to be, at least in theory, America's. Unfortunately, though, that means when right-wing radio talk show hosts start complaining about Democrats milking this story for every drop of political value, I fear I'll have to take their side on that one.


Please hurry up and get well quick, Gabby!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Obama's Super Bowl Disconnect

Dallas Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, all dolled up for the big game

There's a fine line between prerogative and hubris.

Sometimes, our president doesn't seem to know where it is.

This past summer, President Barak Obama and his family made a spur-of-the-moment visit to Mount Desert Island and Bar Harbor, Maine. Not that MDI, as the locals call it, isn't used to famous and important visitors; shucks, half the island's landowners are famous and important themselves. But on a limited-access island with only 2-lane roads and tight, quaint villages, presidential motorcades and security details tend to be more than smothering. They're downright punitive.

I wrote back then about family friends who, along with other craftspeople and artists, lost out when one of the summer season's most lucrative fairs was abruptly closed by the Secret Service as islanders hastily scrambled to accommodate their presidential visitor. Obama seemed either not to care - or not have a clue - as to the wholesale upheaval of ordinary seasonal life his family's whim elicited on an island of unlimited natural beauty... but severely limited economic resources.

It's this same imperious attitude that has come to the fore now he's informed journalists that he wants to attend this year's Super Bowl here in Arlington, Texas. Apparently, while he was supposed to be hosting Chinese president Hu Jintao, Obama announced that, "if the Bears win, I'm going, no doubt."

Um, Yeah, There's Some Doubt

If the Chicago Bears do win a Super Bowl birth this weekend, and the president does barge in at the last minute on Arlington, this will be the first time a sitting president has inflicted himself and his security protocols on the National Football League's premiere event. And there's a reason presidents have stayed away from the big game. Quite simply, presidents present an extraordinary complication for a venue which gets choreographed and executed down to the last detail.

Living here in Arlington as I do, we've seen and heard about all of the traffic engineering, parking logistics, mass transit arrangements, and security precautions which have been fretted over, analyzed, planned for, and - by now - procured for the Super Bowl. In case you weren't aware, it's not just any old game.

For reasons I won't get into here, Arlington is the country's largest city without any mass transit. So coach buses are being brought in to coordinate the transportation of thousands of people between different ancillary venues and the mammoth Cowboys Stadium. Limousines have been ordered from as far away as Miami to accommodate all of the celebrities who will be descending on our area. Law enforcement agencies from the entire region have been coordinating security procedures and emergency contingencies for at least a year. Even the State of Texas has re-built one freeway through town and widened other roads. It's been one big, huge, expensive, exhaustive, unprecedented effort. And up until yesterday, it was humming along smoothly.

Then, either buoyant from hob-nobbing with China's human-rights-abuser-in-chief, or maybe feigning bravado to disguise outright fear at the prospect, Obama pulls a macho armchair quarterback move by cavalierly upsetting the security applecart. Even if it was only hollow sports banter, he displayed imprudent judgment in front of the media and his foreign visitor. After all, people are paid to take even his jokes seriously.

Which, two years into the presidency, should be very real to him by now.

Presidential Mobility Comes with Responsibilities

I once heard someone wonder if Obama realizes he's actually the president of the United States. He's bowed to Arab royalty, had beer with a loopy Harvard professor and the cop he accused of profiling him, and sends his daughters to one of DC's most exclusive private schools while touting the merits of public education.

He drags his security entourage through a charming old New England hamlet during one of the precious few summer weekends Mainers have to profit from tourism. He exhorts Americans to vacation along the Gulf Coast, even though his family could barely muster a full day there themselves.

Now, he assumes the Super Bowl can readily accommodate his whim, after all the planning has begun implementation with the understanding that he wouldn't be attending? It's not like one's mother-in-law giving two hours' notice she's coming for Christmas dinner. Does he not realize the logistics nightmare he'd be foisting upon an army of people who've already worked extremely hard on this annual circus that is the Super Bowl?

Even 43, George W, didn't attend the college graduations of his own daughters out of concern for all of the extra security and coordination his mere presence would obligate the universities and the families of other graduates to endure. And these weren't po-dunk, unsophisticated colleges. One was Yale, his own alma mater, and the other was the University of Texas at Austin, which boasts 50,000 undergrads.

So, taking all of this into account, do I err in wondering what Obama's hubris might suggest about his ability to govern well?

Might it suggest that he's more impulsive than analytical? Perhaps he's not terribly pragmatic. Maybe he's exceptionally self-centered. He certainly seems to take an awful lot of things for granted.

Southern Hospitality - Grinning Despite Chagrin

Of course, if the President does attend, the NFL will simply spin Obama's enthusiasm as proof of the Super Bowl's broad popularity. Security folks in and around Arlington will quietly soldier on, like they always do, even though we taxpayers may have to fork out even more money for additional overtime. And regional planners, lest they compromise Federal transportation funding by squawking too loudly, will put on their happy faces for the media.

True, it won't be the worst thing in the world if Obama shows up here in Arlington for the Super Bowl. It's not as though our city leaders wouldn't appreciate a presidential visit. But we'd all be a lot better off if, like the rest of the world, he just watched this game on TV.

At the White House, which is already equipped to handle presidents.

Then, come back when we're not hosting 100,000 other guests.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Deconstructing the Constitution Myth (Revised)

Note: this essay has been revised since its original posting to more accurately reflect my opinions and clarify some of the terminology.

Who inside the Washington Beltway despises the U.S. Constitution? How many politicians have we elected who've refused to swear an oath to protect the core document of our government?

If you had to judge by some of the rhetoric of far-right-wing pundits, quite a lot.

We've heard considerable angst in the past several years about electing people who will adhere to the Constitution. As if the people in office now don't. Consider how Red State, a far-right-wing political organization believed to be funded by industrialist heir David Koch, gushed today in an article about Texan Ted Cruz for US Senate:

"It is great news for those of us who recognize the need... to elect actual, proven, limited government, Constitution-respecting conservatives..."

You mean we have conservative politicians who don't respect the Constitution?

"But what makes Ted a truly remarkable candidate are... his extraordinary substantive record exhibited throughout his life, highlighted by his repeated fight for the Constitution and conservative principles..."

I know our conservative hawks like using militaristic imagery, but are they really the only ones wanting to preserve our Constitution?

"That simplicity is rooted in his own life experiences - from his family’s immigrant roots to his own hard work and dedication to the law and the Constitution."

Um, is it really hard work being dedicated to the Constitution? I'm dedicated to it, too, but I've never felt compelled to break sweat over it.

"He is in this race to win it - and he brings to the race a deep knowledge of and commitment to the Constitution and our founding principles..."

Oy, what rhetoric! In case Red State has forgotten, one of the founding principles included slavery, which hopefully even Red Staters would find abominable today.

Our Constitution is Not the Bible

Now, I do know where they're going with this. The neo-conservatives of America have peddled an anti-liberal snake oil to easily-agitated right-wingers which hypothesizes that one reason America is in bad shape is because liberals don't follow the Constitution. They don't respect it, they don't abide by it, they twist words and meanings, and they don't view it as sacred.

Granted, that's an easy way to understand why some politicians in this country, most of whom are Democrats, don't vote the way conservative Republicans want them to vote. It's also an easy way to expose one's intolerant prejudices.

After all, it's one thing for religious conservatives to adhere to a strict interpretation of our holy Bible, another famous literary work to which the Constitution is sometimes compared. But, contrary to what some of us religious conservatives believe, the Constitution of the United States of America is a man-made, man-inspired, and therefore flawed and fallible governmental document. Our Bible is everything our Constitution isn't.

True, the Constitution set remarkably historic precedents and crafted an ingenious balance of powers. But it is not perfect. The original signers professed no claims to its infallibility. They weren't even all in agreement on its final wording. But they knew their unity on this document would be critical for its grander purpose to succeed: the establishment of an innovative system of government for a brave new republic.

One Interpretation or Many?

Surely conservatives understand that one of the differentiations between our political parties and ideological perspectives involves the way people interpret the Constitution. To a certain degree, the worldview through which we all consider the wording of the Constitution varies from individual to individual. Isn't that partly because we supposedly value individualism so much?

But do differing viewpoints denote disrespect? Are conservatives correct in accusing liberals of not being dedicated to the Constitution? Does Nancy Pelosi dance a jig on her personal copy of it every morning? Does Harry Reid secretly harbor evil impulses to burn the original manuscript? Surely President Obama doesn't wish it was never written.

Leave it to petty politics to take such a watershed document crafted in sometimes bitter unity and use it to divide the electorate.

Hyperactive Hyperbole

Hopefully, both liberals and conservatives know language denigrating a perceived lack of respect for the Constitution represents simple hyper-conservative hyperbole.

For example, many Americans don't like rising taxation. But are politicians who keep voting for tax increases defying the Constitution?

Many Americans didn't like it when Dick Cheney made power grabs to increase the authority of the Executive Branch, but conservatives didn't howl that he was violating the Constitution.

Many Americans don't like the increasing amount of Federal regulation over states and businesses, but the Constitution gives Congress vague language to do so.

And for the neo-con military hawks, consider the sloppy wording from Article 1, Section 8:
"To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years." Only two years, huh? Does that mean the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are unconstitutional?

Of course not, you'd retort, disgusted with my impudence. These are issues that have become flashpoints because of the oftentimes vague terminology in the Constitution, you'd reason. Sometimes we don't know exactly what the framers of the Constitution meant in their 18th Century idioms. Sometimes we've had to rework some elements and introduce revised concepts as our country has matured.

And you know what? You'd be exactly correct.

Between the Pale?

Our venerable Constitution has been called a living document by liberals who believe literal, intransigent interpretations of it suffocate its relevance. Conservatives like to bash judges they perceive as liberal by saying they "legislate from the bench" by deconstructing Constitutional phrases and concepts to fit left-wing political agendas.

While I don't doubt that some judges do indeed "legislate from the bench," I suspect conservative judges may do the same thing for right-wing political agendas. Only we might not hear about those as much because liberals can appreciate the organic reinterpretation of the Constitution. Nevertheless, although I think parts of the Constitution can be open to interpretation, I don't believe a wholesale abdication of the original Constitutional Convention's small-government, states-rights mindset befits the overall spirit of the document. Neither, however, can I comfortably camp in the right-wing philosophy that the Constitution has been etched in stone, forever immutable, and eternally complete.

One reason for this lies in the Constitution's own provision for amendments which can be made to supersede the manuscript's original language. Isn't that pretty big proof that our Founding Fathers knew it was going to be changed? Maybe I'm simply betraying a woeful ignorance of American history, but why would you need to change something that is perfect?

Do these changes mean that sometimes, mistakes in governance and legislation are made? Of course it does. About 150 laws have been ruled unconstitutional during the life of our country, although the principle of judicial review, the process by which our Supreme Court determines the constitutional integrity of legislation, isn't, um, actually in the Constitution. However, since judicial review can benefit both the right and the left, nobody really complains about it. Convenient, huh?

Consider this fascinating extract from CQPress:

"While Congress has passed thousands of statutes over more than two centuries, the Court had exercised its power to rule laws or portions of laws unconstitutional only about 150 times by the early 2000s. The congressional statutes invalidated have included many relatively minor laws, but also such major enactments as the Missouri Compromise, a federal income tax, child labor laws, New Deal economic recovery acts, the post-Watergate campaign finance law, statutes to curb pornography on the Internet, efforts to allow victims of gender-motivated violence to sue their attackers in federal court for compensatory damages, amendments to a landmark age discrimination law, and the line-item veto."

Remember, Guys: United We Stand

As you can see, from this list, both conservatives and liberals have been winners and losers in the judicial review game, but has the actual integrity of our Constitution been called into question by these Supreme Court decisions?

We may not like certain pieces of legislation. We may think opposing viewpoints are way off-base. We may struggle to discern any logic in someone elses's assumptions.

But to imperiously dismiss somebody or something we oppose as being unconstitutional betrays a farcical view of government of the people, by the people, and for the people.* Being part of this government means making compromises while striving for the common good.

Remember, our Constitution's goal is to "form a more perfect union" (my emphasis added). What unites us should be more important than what divides us, even though we won't get a perfect country out of it.

I'm not blasting neo-cons because I don't like them or disagree with their standards. I don't agree with everything they stand for, but their goals of smaller government, less government meddling in the economy, and personal accountability are laudable. In other words, I tend to interpret our Constitution the same way they do. To the extent that I'd like to see groups like Red State gain political prominence to advocate for these goals, I'd like to see that their arguments are logical, reliable, and worthy of consideration.

Problem is, right-wingers won't win over very many people with inflammatory rhetoric like accusing liberals of being Constitution haters.

Playing politics with the Constitution doesn't make America stronger.

*By the way, does this famous phrase come from the Constitution? Nope - it comes from a speech by Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster in 1830. Abraham Lincoln paraphrased it during his Gettysburg Address.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Fear, Fun, and Faith

Remember back about ten years ago when the "Fear This" bumper stickers were all the rage?

A friend of mine found a large window applique for his Ford pickup that said "Fear Not" in the same typeface as its aggressive prototype.

Clever, huh? And entirely Biblical, too.

Is Fear a Friend of Yours?

Fear. It used to be, well, feared in Christian circles, and for good reason. Even among the faithful, superstitions and plain old ignorance abounded centuries ago, as the grim history of Halloween can attest. Virtually anything that couldn't be readily explained was feared.

These days, however, people of faith actually seek out fear as a form of entertainment. Perhaps as a subconscious way to flaunt all we now know about our material world. I have to admit, however, that I don't enjoy fear. When I lived in New York City, and church friends wanted to go see the latest horror movie, I'd retort, "Why pay to see fear on a screen when we ride the subways at night?!"

Yeah, well, my bluntness did get well-honed in the Big Apple. And being sensitive to the dangers of riding public transit off-hours is wise. My point, however, was that we tolerate fear when we want to be frightened - but how much sense does that make?

As another example, consider people who go to amusement parks for the "scary" rides. Now, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with that. I know people who just love the vertigo-inducing gyrations of the roller coasters and other gravity-defying attractions. Most patrons of amusement parks, though, get juiced by the adrenaline rush which comes from their bodies being subjected to fear-inducing scenarios. I guess it's the same physical sensation people who like horror movies get when the computer-generated monster chops its way towards its victim. Or even those time-worn campfire stories which new generations of campers consider an obligatory part of enjoying God's creation.

Is Finding Fear Fun Scary?

Yeah, we may think it's fun, but where in the Bible is fear pleasurable? In fact, those Bible verses that talk about fear convey the idea that fear is not a luxury or triviality, but either an essential, innate protective mechanism or an emotion that betrays a lack of trust in God.

Although popular church culture says "fear not" is found 365 times in the Bible, depending on the translation, it's actually more like 100 or less. Which, nevertheless, is still a considerable amount. There exist only two times when we're instructed to fear. One is when we're encountering evil, either from external situations or from within ourselves. We're also to fear God in His holiness, but in this sense, the word "fear" can be interpreted as "respect."

During Advent, we're reminded that angels told Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds not to fear. Numerous times, God encourages His Old Testament prophets and the Children of Israel to not fear because He is with them. Yet when Adam and Eve sinned, they were afraid to appear before God, and He knew it. Indeed, we need to fear sin, and maintain a healthy respect for the damage it can do.

Which is why I wonder if we evangelicals sometimes enjoy fear too much. Not that fear equals sin; although, since we're told not to fear, yet we subject ourselves to fear as entertainment, is that sinful? Probably not, but how beneficial is it?

To what extent do we blunt our witness and compromise the ministry of the Holy Spirit to our own souls when we intentionally invite fear into our lives? Fear which may not be serving its proper purpose? Trivial fears which could even run interference with our morality antennae?

Comfortable with Fear

Again, different people can process fears differently. Part if it may have to do with the chemistry and biology of fear and the ways each of us react physically to fear stimuli. For some people, pleasurable fear doesn't seem to have much of an effect.

Or does it?

The more we willingly participate in activities which trigger fear, do we, over time, dilute the natural instincts we're supposed to have to keep us from harm?

Why do horror movies need to continually up the ante when it comes to gruesome scenery, surrealism, and the heinousness of the atrocities committed by their villains? Isn't it because movie audiences become jaded to lesser forms of scary violence?

Does any of this acclimation to danger trickle down to things we're supposed to fear for our own good? Might we become less careful drivers when we get desensitized to car crashes in video games and movies? Might we take unwise, unnecessary risks with potentially dangerous objects or situations? If we become less fearful of negative consequences, might that transfer into how we treat sin? If we're accustomed to dismissing fear and its protective traits, might we eventually become more cavalier with sin as well?

Now, I'm not necessarily trying to draw a direct correlation between your love of roller-coasters and a particular sin pattern in your life. I'm just wondering out loud if, with all of the stimuli which bombard our senses every day, fear isn't one of the more socially-acceptable ones that discretely wears down our defenses. Defenses which can include our ability to resist the Devil.

After all, doesn't fear almost always take the place of something far more edifying and encouraging? It certainly doesn't fit well in the Fruits of the Spirit, which are love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, meekness, and self-control. Of all the things God has given us to enjoy, can you really see fear on the list?

I also think of fellow believers living and serving in dangerous parts of our world, even being persecuted for their faith. How shallow must our faith be where we seek out fear for pleasure, when they're forced to live with it night and day?

Oddly enough, fear can be both protective and destructive. Christ came to free His people from the fear of sin and death, to protect us from destruction.

Why voluntarily submit ourselves to a regressive emotion?

Monday, January 17, 2011

Analyzing an Analysis of Debt

How do you pronounce the word "finance?"

Do you say "FI-nance," or "fi-NANCE?"

Not that it makes any difference. Just as there's more than one way to say the word, there's more than one way to evaluate its numbers.

Take, for example, the complex structure of our national debt, and how we finance it. On the one hand, we like to think it's as simple as home economics: when incoming revenue can't keep up with outgoing expenses, then we're in debt.

For government accounting, however, our illustrious politicians and bureaucrats, not to mention our Wall Street gurus, have crafted debt into an art form, in which debts and deficits can exist more in theory than reality. It's all in how you move the money around... and how much money you can make doing it.

Graphing Political Calculations

Recently, both public sentiment and political momentum have increased the urgency to address America's rampant national indebtedness. Almost everyone agrees that the numbers have gotten too big to ignore. Some of the stimulus for this urgency has come from confusion over China's growing role in acquiring and servicing our debt. Other attention has been focused on the drain entitlement programs such as Social Security have been on our national finances.

Last week, the chart you see above started circulating on conservative websites purporting to support two contentions of many right-wing economists. Its primary objective involves proving that people who alarmingly bewail China's purchase of our debt are basically being sensationalistic. Political Calculations (PC), crafters of the chart, also took the time to break out percentages showing that Social Security and civil service retirements are costing us, according to their scenario, about 24% of our national debt.

But how accurate is this interpretation of our indebtedness? Charts and graphs offer easy ways to misrepresent real facts and figures. What are these numbers NOT saying?

New Player in an Old Game

We've been racking up our national debt for decades now, and a number of countries, including Russia, India, Japan, and Columbia, have been buying it. Literally. China has been, too, but within the past several years, they've leapfrogged over Japan to be our primary foreign lienholder. As of September of last year, they owned 7.5% of our national debt.

Crafters of the above graphic would have us think that this comparatively minuscule percentage proves that the fuss over China's holding of our debt is a tempest in a teapot. And in terms of long-range economic implications, that may prove true. But is it the whole picture?

What this graphic doesn't show is the pace at which China has been acquiring our debt.

Indeed, there is no metric on the graphic to show the increase in debt China has secured in a relatively short amount of time, compared with the overall age of our debt. So, although the numbers appear to show China "only" holds 7.5%, the graphic still doesn't tell us the rate at which they've been buying. And since some experts have become alarmed that China has, within the past three years, purchased nearly ten percent of America's debt, this graphic does nothing to allay that concern, does it?

Is their spending spree for our debt going to continue, or has this been a momentary spurt? Might China's debt ownership be declining from even higher historic percentages? We can't tell from the graphic.

Granted, nobody seemed to be as hysterical about foreign participation in our debt market when the Japanese were the leaders, and it's yet to be proven that this foreign participation isn't in actuality a monetary endorsement of the vitality of our national economy.

Conservatives who argue that China can't afford to call due its loans could very well be correct in positing that this financial arrangement serves as economic insurance for us. And them.

But the graphic doesn't prove or disprove any of this. We just have a percentage captured in time. Informative, perhaps, but hardly insightful.

Entitled to Their Viewpoint

But it's not just the worry over China that this chart fails to eradicate. The other little problem we have regards the percentage of debt that has already been spent on entitlement programs such as Social Security and the Civil Service Retirement Fund, which according to this graphic, stands at 23.9%.

Many conservatives have been railing furiously against Social Security, claiming it's an extravagance we can ill afford to pay our lazy, retired workforce. Again, though, the graphic can be deceptive.

For instance, isn't comparing entitlement debt to China's rather like comparing apples and oranges? Isn't what China owns an amalgamation of existing debt instruments? Social Security's debt represents actual expendatures: the difference between what employees have paid into the system and what the government hasn't specifically funded. Just listing Social Security as a massive black hole of debt doesn't intrinsically devalue the program; it simply means that politicians have lacked the political will to either fund it properly or scale it down to more affordable levels.

If you think about it, the graphic could also break out the debt George Bush's two wars have cost the United States, but it doesn't do that. How much these wars have set us back is anybody's guess at this point, but considering our annual Defense Department expenditures, it's not chump change, is it?

In 2009, Social Security swallowed 20% of the Federal budget, while Defense gobbled 23%. Both are staggering percentages, but on PC's graphic, it appears military spending got lumped into the "U.S. Individuals and Institutions" category. Perhaps to dimly highlight Social Security to the benefit of Defense? Hmm...

An even more curious claim comes from "Sherman Says," one of the readers responding to PC's graphic on According to Sherman Says, the reason right-wingers have such disdain for Social Security rests in corporate America's inability to figure out how to make money from it, like they have with Medicare.

I'm not going to get into that debate, at least not here. However, the reason I bring this graphic up at all is to show how just as the right gets hot and bothered over fuzzy math by left wingers, they can be guilty of doing the same thing.

Whether or not we're selling ourselves down the river while selling our debt to China, does it help the dialog over the issue by tossing about spurious percentages? And while I don't mean to imply that Social Security is a flawless program, fixing it surely becomes a harder proposition by skewing data and distorting comparisons.

Integrity must be present for trust between factions to be established. And we won't fix any of our pressing national problems without trust from all sides of the debate.

After all, a trillion dollars here, a trillion dollars there, and pretty soon, we're talking about real money.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Theology of Profits

Granted, it's not Harvard or the Wharton School of Business.

But Seattle Pacific University's business school features a dean who's remarkably blunt about how Christian businesspeople need to be running their companies.

His name is Jeff Van Duzer, and he's written a book entitled Why Business Matters to God (And What Still Needs to be Fixed). Christianity Today's website has a Q&A article with Van Duzer which features some frank discussions on the purpose of business and how believers can use their companies for God's glory.

Granted, it's a topic which usually flies under the radar at many evangelical churches, since many people of faith pretty much assume that whatever the Republican Party wants is good, and whatever the government wants is bad. Apparently, Van Duzer's church experience has been markedly different, but then living in the Pacific Northwest, I guess it would be. His major purpose in writing Why Business Matters to God is to validate business as a legitimate career path instead of full-time ministry. Here in Texas, at least, that's not a hard sell.

Maybe it's Seattle's post-Christian indoctrination and all that coffee which explains Van Duzer's less conventional - and, surprisingly - more Biblical approach to how commerce can play an integral role in modeling orthodox morality and supporting broad communities. As a business school dean, he's all about free markets, but his theology of profits represents a marked departure from how many Christians currently run their businesses.

Whose Business is Your Business?

For example, Van Duzer has a dim view of ROI strategies and shareholder value:

"A business should serve—internally, its employees, and externally, its customers. A business exists for certain purposes. One purpose is to provide meaningful work. Another is to provide meaningful goods and services. It does not exist to maximize return on capital investment."

That's even different than the view I've espoused in the past, in which I've personally valued a company's profitability above its status as an employer of God's people. Obviously, a business cannot hire staff at the expense of risking bankruptcy. However, is there a balance between putting people to work and the nascent greed which has been quietly tipping the scales towards its own benefit?

Van Duzer continues, "Historically, maximizing shareholder value as the purpose of business has not been the prevailing view. The notion of maximizing shareholder wealth dates back to the 1970s. Companies that existed before that had a different initial understanding of what they were about. This is a recent and fairly destructive idea..."

And even though he's a free-market champion, he thinks businesspeople have enshrined it to the exclusion of Godly principles:

"In fact [elaborating on his belief the free market is in the best position to deliver goods and services], I think the free market is one of the great idols of our age, particularly among Christians in business."

Naturally, Van Duzer had to field the question of whether these somewhat radical views have been dismissed by the business community as heretical:

"I sometimes get accused of being a socialist. But there is a fundamental difference between the view of business I argue for and a socialist economy. In a socialist system, the government is directing the economy. I'm not talking about that. What I'm saying is that individual Christians should align their vocations toward godly desires."

And he comes back to ethics when discussing how Christian absolutes can't be marginalized, even in a tough business environment:

"Christians [should not] accept a position of compromise until it is the very last option. They have to strain for that creative solution that allows them to do it all. Then, when they are absolutely forced to choose the lesser of two evils, they have to acknowledge that nonetheless, they are choosing evil."

Profit Prophet?

Hopefully, these snippets from his interview have piqued your curiosity to read the entire article. Don't worry: I'll stop my own editorializing here to give you more time.

Now, as I've said, the perspective Van Duzer brings to the topic of Christian commerce isn't what you're going to hear in most East Coast business schools.

But seeing as how much of our current economic mess has been crafted by Harvard-educated business school grads, is their opinion REALLY all that superior?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Tragedy Talk and One Girl's Legacy

I was at choir practice last night, and my good friend Matt was in his usual seat next to me. And, as usual, he was surreptitiously texting with his fiance on his iPhone.

Isn't pre-marriage romance sweet?

I'm just kidding. They make a great couple.

At any rate, during a lull in the rehearsal, Matt whispered to me that, as per his betrothed, President Obama was about 30 minutes into a live, televised speech regarding Tucson's mass shooting.

"30 minutes?!" I hissed back. "What's the President got to say about that tragedy to take up half an hour?"

Talk, Talk, Talk

Now, perhaps that wasn't very sensitive of me - expressing consternation over the President's prerogative at being "comforter in chief." Just because I'm not grief-stricken over last Saturday's tragedy in Arizona doesn't mean other people aren't, either. I'm saddened, discouraged, and angry by what Jared Loughner did, of course. But I'm also getting a little disgusted with how political parties have seized on last Saturday's tragedy to make partisan hay while the sun shines.

In the end, most reviews of Obama's speech - even from right-wing pontificator Glenn Beck - have been surprisingly positive, but... couldn't America have gotten along without it? At least, might its consoling platitudes have smacked less of politics if someone other than the President delivered them? Thankfully, at least Obama didn't try to point fingers, unlike his political peers.

Indeed, other Democrats had already maneuvered to - inaccurately, I might add - accuse right wing talk show hosts of inciting a vitriolic atmosphere which nurtured Loughner's hate. Then Sarah Palin proves their point by incorporating the insensitive term "blood libel" while trying to defend her own antagonistic drivel. And, as I quoted on Tuesday, Limbaugh recklessly accused liberals of making Loughner out to be the victim of societal pressures. But of all the things we don't know about Loughner's motives, we do know he didn't listen to talk radio, nor was he a rabid voter. Most likely, he's simply, unfortunately, crazy.

Who's Going to Take the High Road?

Now, this could still be one of those "teachable moments" liberal educators rave about. Because if they didn't resort to the very tactics Democrats accuse them of, the Palin's and Limbaugh's of talk radio do have a valid speck of a point. We Americans have the enviable opportunity - even responsibility - to make our voices heard when we think mistakes are being made, or when we think we know how to make a better mousetrap. What has become bickering and vitriol being slapped across our national consciousness originated in valuable insights into morality and dissatisfaction towards undesirable trends and egregious lapses in judgment.

But who's setting the pace in this exchange of viewpoints?

Might a major part of our national dialog's disconnect be that people of faith have let unsaved entertainers like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck do the "morality talking?" Many evangelical pastors and ministry leaders these days have become too busy building up the memberships of their organizations, trying to appeal to our culture. They risk tainting their charisma by taking unpopular stands on hard issues. They don't encourage their adherents to be "in the world but not of it."

And it seems we shouldn't expect ordinary Americans to try and make much of a difference either in their personal spheres of influence. Indeed, don't even people of faith find it easier to hoot - n - holler in favor of charismatic radio personalities than take deliberate steps to change their own lifestyle? None of the pundits speak the truth in love, and quite frankly, they simply don't speak a lot of truth. Facts get lost in hyperbole, history gets picked over like a Thanksgiving turkey, causal relationships get ignored, and complex issues become square pegs getting hammered through round holes.

And it's all wrapped up in "it's their fault" wrapping with a few incendiary nuggets of sarcasm as the bow.

If the whole point of conservative talk radio is to get thick-headed liberals to consider our perspective, wouldn't it be more effective to strip away all of the clutter with which Limbaugh and his ilk insist on clogging their messages? Oftentimes to me, it seems as though they're more interested in ratings than actually encouraging change.

Sometimes the best way to get people to listen is to whisper.

The Memory of Amber Hagerman

We need to shift gears for a moment.

Fifteen years ago today, Amber Hagerman vanished from the Kroger supermarket parking lot where she had been playing here in Arlington, Texas. Four days after that, her lifeless body was found near an apartment complex with nary a clue as to how it got there.

Today, fifteen years after she disappeared, Amber's death remains a mystery. Nine years old when she died, she would be 24 years old this year.

I can't let the day go by without acknowledging this tragedy which took place right here in Arlington, and out of which came the nationwide Amber Alert system.

Which is proof, I suppose, that sometimes, tragedy can be redeemed for the betterment of society.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Coming Back from Quake and Flood

One year ago, Haiti experienced a powerful earthquake which destroyed vast swaths of the already dysfunctional country.

This week, we're watching the incredible footage of flooding which is ravaging Australia's third largest city, Brisbane.

One year after the massive catastrophe in Haiti, little reconstruction has taken place, and Haitians still crawl around the rubble of their former communities.

Already, in interview after interview in Queensland, Australians are vowing to help each other get back on their feet. Australians work together, they say. We'll do what we can to reflect, regroup, and rebuild.

Why the striking disparity between the lethargic, virtually non-existent rebuilding in Haiti and the incessant talk of camaraderie in Australia?

Chances are, we won't see the outpouring of international aid and calls for financial assistance benefiting Australia's flood victims. At least, certainly not like we did after the tragic earthquake in Haiti. And of course, part of the reason for the different responses to the crises involve the two countries' vastly different economies. But I'm not talking about the grand relief projects that follow natural disasters. I'm talking about the ordinary citizens of these two countries and their strikingly opposite mindsets.

True, whenever disaster strikes in the United States, government officials and civic leaders say that the community is so strong, they'll pull together and get through this thing. In particular, New York City likes to brag about the resiliency of its residents and how they help each other out during a crisis - even though during normal times, they stalk the city's sidewalks as if they loath everyone walking past them.

And while watching video and listening to audio from Australia, hearing them express similar patriotism in English - albeit with that funny accent of theirs - sounds ordinary to us. But even though the French Creole spoken by Haitians is foreign to most Americans, I don't recall seeing any similar effort towards solidarity at any time during this past year of supposed recovery. Have you?

Chances are, within a year, we will not have heard much more about the flooding around Brisbane. But you can count on regularly hearing about the slothful recovery in Haiti as it drags into its second year, and on, and on. Even though Brisbane's flooding is the worst natural disaster in its history, Haiti will trump Brisbane because of its myriad socioeconomic problems and utterly corrupt political culture.

I'm not saying that Haitians don't deserve our support and attention. Well, maybe I'm kinda saying that, because even today, all over the Internet, I've seen photos and videos of Haitians simply wandering aimlessly around their ruins; no shovels, no work groups, no expressed desire to help clean anything up. Maybe that helps explain why hardly anything is getting done. Are they all waiting for somebody else to do the work?

Clearing rubble doesn't require advanced degrees or even a grade-school education, two things we already know Haiti had in woefully short supply. Millions of dollars in already-donated relief funds still sit in bank accounts because, as international agencies have said, they don't want it wasted. They're careful, however, to refrain from saying what they fear it would be wasted on.

Bleeding hearts around the world shake their heads at the sorrow that is Haiti, and at how the post-industrialized world appears to be dragging its feet. But isn't it strange to hear little of that from former president Bill Clinton, who seems to have made fundraising for Haiti his latest career. He's not one to admit defeat, but surely he knows the score.

Watching the flooding disaster unfold in Australia, we can hurt for the people who are witnessing their cars wash away, their businesses get inundated, and their homes surrender to the surge of muddy water. But we know that the industriousness of the Australians will ensure a respectable recovery.

When news of Haiti's earthquake began to spread, I sank a little bit inside as I realized the West will be expected to take care of everything. And that the nightmare that already was Haiti would just get even further institutionalized.

That's not a very uplifting view on humanity, is it? Might money really be the great unequalizer? Perhaps Australia's resiliency could be at least partially ascribed to its affluence, its vastly different history as a penal colony instead of a conquered territory, and it's close association with Britain as a Commonwealth nation.

Whatever the reason for the disparity, somebody's going to be stuck with paying for Haiti's reconstruction. And at least financially, it won't be the Haitians.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Flashpoint: Arizona

By any measure, the attempted assassination of Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was barbaric. This is the United States. We do not kill politicians. Nor do we kill citizens gathered to participate in the ordinary workings of democracy.

As people across the world contemplate what Giffords' shooting means, the task has been made that much harder by the fact that the shooter, Jared Loughner, has been pretty mum about his motives.

That hasn't stopped at least three major viewpoints from coming to the fore:

It has been suggested - mostly by members of the mainstream media - that the vitriol being spouted constantly by right-wing radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck has fomented an atmosphere of petulant animosity in America. Sooner or later, this theory goes, some nut job was bound to crack under the perilous weight of the hawkish propaganda being flung from the far right corners of our society.

Others blame guns, claiming that if we had even stricter gun laws or even banned guns, that shootings like this wouldn't take place. And apparently, Arizona has what some people consider to be extraordinarily loose gun laws, which only make a scenario like we saw Saturday all that more likely.

Still others have wondered out loud if the extreme policy decisions by President Barak Obama, such as his nationalized healthcare legislation, and inability to jump-start job growth have shaken some fundamental moorings of our economy. Being unemployed, Loughner perhaps blamed politicians for his predicament.

Reality Checks

First, let's start with the fact that Loughner is a registered Independent, and the politician he tried to kill is a Democrat. People who register as "Independent" generally aren't passionate enough to kill a politician, are they? Although he may have been seething with anger over some position Giffords has taken on issues, does Loughner's voter history fit the M.O. of a combustable anarchist? Even though it has been rumored he flirted with the idea of becoming a skinhead, and Giffords is Jewish, I can't see a follow-through to murder there, either.

Second, as I've said before, the old mantra is true: guns don't kill people, people kill people. For Loughner to be as crazed as he obviously was to want Giffords and her supporters dead, might he have used some other weapon if he'd been denied access to a gun? Crashed a car into the crowd, for example? Besides, as has been widely pointed out: gun ownership is technically illegal in Mexico... but Mexicans get shot to death all the time.

Third, perhaps the Democratic Party does indeed rely on the government too much for economic stimuli and job creation. Republicans claim, and I believe rightfully so, that free markets respond best to capitalistic innovation, not government machinations. Still, for anybody to hold one government bureaucrat - including a president, but especially a comparatively lowly representative - responsible for what ails them does betray a woefully immature grasp on reality.

When evaluated in light of these considerations, then, isn't the most likely scenario remaining that Loughner is mentally imbalanced? He was even kicked out of his community college and told he needed a doctor's confirmation of his sanity before he would be allowed to return. Enrollment-driven community colleges don't ordinarly risk alienating their students unless they have pretty good reason.

Personally, I've quietly wondered if he didn't have a secret crush on Giffords, who is married to an astronaut, of all people. Maybe I'm naive, but I don't think there's much an unemployed, uneducated college dropout can offer a congresswoman that she can't get from a flyboy astronaut. One that, at least from his media interviews, sounds like he truly valued their marriage relationship, long-distance though it has been.

Action Points

So, for anybody who cares what I think about how America should react to Saturday's tragedy, here's what I consider to be a rational, logical methodology for moving forward. At least until we learn what really prompted Loughner to do what he did.

  1. It wouldn't hurt if talk radio's conservative pundits proactively considered how the things they say can be interpreted by a wide-ranging audience. If they can't say what they want to say without toning down inciteful rhetoric and goofy exaggerations, then their opinions probably aren't worth what their sponsors are paying them. Just yesterday, Limbaugh had the gall to claim that "...Mr. Loughner knows is that he has the full support of a major political party in this country... He knows that...the Democrat party is attempting to find anybody but him to blame. He knows if he plays his cards right, he's just a victim..."

    How can anybody who claims to be sane listen to such mean-spirited, grossly-distorted, and divisive drivel?

  2. Since Loughner's was almost certainly an isolated act, there should be no need to beef up security details for other members of Congress. In addition to costing far more financially than our country can afford at this time, the symbolic cost of having elected officials virtually walled-off from their constituents would send an entirely negative message to all of the other crack-pots eyeing America for chinks in our armor.

  3. Mental illness exists as a real, pervasive, and yet furtive problem in the United States. Granted, considering the reportedly extensive planning Loughner conducted, chances seem slim that his lawyers will be able to prove his actions weren't premeditated - essential to getting an insanity plea. Even though he probably won't be legally certified as insane, however, Loughner almost certainly has severe mental issues.

    Unfortunately, I don't have a clue as to how we bring help to bear on cases like his before it's too late. His community college probably felt they had gone far enough by expelling him. Indeed, even the mentally ill have rights. Perhaps if socially we continue to de-stigmatize mental disorders, more meaningful dialog can take place, instead of spiteful rhetoric from the likes of Rush Limbaugh.

  4. America's cultural infatuation with violence needs to be curtailed. Aggression has been enshrined in our media as the most attractive method for resolving conflict. Particularly now with the proliferation of video games where death is just a click of a mouse, the sanctity of life and permanence of death have been woefully marginalized.

    The reason so much violence takes place in the United States as opposed to other developed countries isn't the fact that guns are popular here, but because we glorify antisocial behavior so much. Loughner didn't need to be denied access to guns; he needed to have been brought up in a culture which taught him proper ways for dealing with anger, frustration, and opposing viewpoints.

In the meantime, our individual and collective responses to the tragedy in Tucson should be measured and respectful - those things Loughner's actions weren't. Some politicians may have itchy fingers, wanting to reflexively make new laws or draw conclusions which could end up being spurious.

Just this afternoon, the Arizona legislature unanimously drafted a law pertaining to the Westboro "Baptist Church"* protest announced for one of the victim's funerals this week. While I understand the emotional component behind such legislation, I also cringe at the free speech ramifications such legislation has.

Because it's not clear what an overreaction to Saturday's killings might look like, isn't that enough of a reason for caution?
*It's neither "Baptist," nor is it a "church."