Friday, August 13, 2010

On The Messy Death Of Proposition 8

As California's Proposition 8 moves more and more noisily and messily toward that fabled and oft-mentioned dustbin of history, I wanted to discuss a sound-bite I heard on an NPR story last week. After the verdict, at a rally in support of the law, a speaker said that the courts has taken away the "civil right to vote" by invalidating it. This kind of thing, I am quite sure, resonates not only with supporters of Prop 8, but supporters of legal segregation and all sorts of other current and former discriminatory legal social structures. That's part of the problem with our system of government. We are, in the end, a Republic of laws not of human beings; a Republic, not a democracy. Direct democracy, as practiced in California is part of that state's many problems.

One of the many lessons that should have emerged from the many court battles over racial equality (but apparently need to be learned again and again) is that there is a legal limit to the lengths to which states me express their social preferences. Respect for the legal rights of others is a bar to discrimination, even those kinds of discrimination that are enacted with the full consent of the people.

As for discounting the supporter's "findings of fact", the judge was explicit that it concerned the whole question of standing, important in any legal case. Not just anyone can sue; an individual or group must show that direct harm will ensue either by a law's enactment or repeal; since there was no factual basis for the claims of harm, the judge dismissed the claims of harm and therefore standing. This bodes well moving forward. Also, it seems that an appeal can only be made by the State of California, officials of which refuse to do so, which clouds the future of any appeals process.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Official Political Prediction Post - Please Bookmark For November

I have this recurring fantasy in which, after the fall mid-term elections, I end up on this or that chat show because, unlike the professional pundits, I managed to call the election results correctly months before the elections actually occurred (a boy can dream, right?). In order to do that, though, I need to actually post those predictions, right? Well, here goes.

Both Houses of Congress will remain Democratic, with the party gaining slightly in each. Governorships are harder to call, dependent upon a different set of concerns (for example, in Illinois, corruption at the state level and state legislative inaction are as big as the moribund state of our economy), but I have a suspicion that the Democratic trend will continue (I still think that here in Illinois Gov. Quinn, as well-meaning but ineffectual governor, should have stepped aside; he didn't so, oh well).

Now, here's why I'm swimming against the general tide of opinion on this one. It's really simple and it involves a couple assumptions and a view of the electorate that, for the most part, has held pretty steady. It also comes with the caveat that political campaigns are important as well as the usual warning about unforeseen events causing massive voter shift.

First, while the voters are unhappy at the moment with the institution of Congress, they are even more unhappy with Republican Party than the Democratic Party. The Democratic leadership keeps offering up legislation that is generally popular, and the Republicans keep voting against it. While it might seem like the party has gained a certain amount of legislative leverage this way, they really haven't. They also have no plan, substantive or legislative, moving forward. They are offering nothing as an alternative except the same thing we've been hearing for decades - tax cuts and killing people in far away lands.

This leads to another assumption, before stating which, however, I need to make clear my view of the electorate. Right now, most voters aren't paying attention except to the realities that (a) the economy sucks; and (b) the parties are fighting over things that have little to do with (a). When they start paying attention, for the most part, for all that anti-incumbency seemed to dominate in primaries, the incumbency effect will certainly play in to the hands of the Democrats. Coupled with the utter lack of any agenda whatsoever on the part of the Republicans except for those Tea Party candidates who want to party like it's Berlin in 1933, the Democrats, providing they are intelligent enough to nationalize the campaign (not always a safe bet, to be sure, but still possible) should skate to comfortable margins of victory nationally.

We are at the beginning of one of those basic sea-changes in political opinion that those poli-sci types call "realignment". The 1994 Republican Congressional victory was not the beginning of a Republican trend, but the culmination of the weak but steady preference for that party that had been on-going since the election of Richard Nixon in 1968; it was, in other words, toward the end of one party's cycle of power rather than the beginning of it. Twelve years of Republican control of Congress, with the addition of eight years of George W. Bush as President, and the past two years of the Republicans in Congress opposing any- and everything the President and the Democratic leadership offered is not so much a strategy as it is a sign of desperation. They hope to keep the country screwed up so the voters will blame the party in power and turn around and vote them back in to office. Since it is clear enough which party wants to help and which party does not, combined with the general national Democratic trend, the utter vacuousness of the Republican Party ideologically (save Social Security? didn't George Bush get spanked on that back in 2005?), I think that as long as the Democrats don't do anything truly stupid (OK, again, not always a safe bet), the election results, while certainly stunning to DC insiders, will go this way.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

How Not To Talk About Niebuhr

I have been thinking for quite a while about the appropriation of the name, if not the actual thought, of Reinhold Niebuhr, in our public discourse (he emerged back in the early 1990's when Hillary Clinton, then just the wife of the then Governor of Arkansas, revealed that he and his Union Theological Seminary colleague Paul Tillich had been on her reading list in high school and college) when I ran across an interview with E. J. Dionne and David Brooks (two towering theologians) by Krista Tippett on the NPR program "Speaking of Faith".

All things considered, attempting to discuss the relevance of a theologian as nuanced and complicated as Niebuhr with any journalist is a difficult proposition. In this case, considering the intellects involved, the discussion spans the gamut from A to C. It is also disappointing to consider how many serious commentators on Niebuhr there are that Ms. Tippett could have interviewed, even on a subject as relatively fluffy as whether or not Obama "gets" Niebuhr, or whether or not Niebuhr is still relevant.

Just an example of how truly stupid the discussion really is, Brooks chimes in very early by insisting that Niebuhr would opposed the then-still-a-bill stimulus package before Congress, due to his skepticism concerning the beneficial effects of social engineering. The problems with Brooks' statement are manifold, not the least of them being mischaracterizing the stimulus' goal - fiscal economic stimulus rather than social engineering - but I would prefer to focus on the way Brooks turns Niebuhr's skepticism toward social improvement on its head. For some reason, conservatives love to trot out that old bugaboo "the law of unintended consequences", which in some respects exists in germ in many of Niebuhr's statements concerning the limited benefit that comes from any attempt at social engineering via institutions. While his criticism of the then-regnant liberal belief that social tinkering might just eliminate various ills, whether they are poverty or war or ignorance, certainly seems like the kind of nonsense one reads in modern conservative writings, in fact, his position was far more nuanced.

He viewed with skepticism the seeming utopian claims of liberals concerning the efficacy of reform via social institutions (thus his first major work, a criticism from the left of social engineering and the optimism of a previous generation of liberals is entitled Moral Man and Immoral Society). Yet, he never doubted that social tinkering was not only necessary, but indeed enjoined by what he called, in An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, the "love ethic", or variously the "love commandment". In other words, as Christians, we are never to succumb to the false prophecy that this or that social program, or even social organization (capitalism, communism, what-have-you) will bring in the reign of peace and justice. Yet, we are not, precisely because we are enjoined to love our neighbors unconditionally, supposed to oppose any action whatsoever. Indeed, we must strive after justice always with the understanding the results will fail to live up to the Divine justice we encounter in the resurrected Christ.

This far more nuanced approach to the question, it seems to me, shows that if Brooks has actually read Niebuhr, he has only read one book. Even then, I get the sense he really didn't understand what he was reading.

Opposing Nothing (Oopsie Fixed)

According to TPM, 68% of Americans oppose the building of a mosque at Ground Zero. So, it's probably a good thing that New York Muslims aren't going to be doing that.

Every once in a while, the American people fall for crap, but since they are opposing something that isn't going to happen, I fell a little better.

An included sidebar, as it were - AFA's insistence that no more mosques be built in the US is a bit much. Kind of like the Saudi's outlawing Christian churches, the Bible, and all that. But, then again, these are people who are immune to irony. Hatred is so much easier.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


We finally got internet service at the house. Regular blogging to resume tomorrow.

I really missed the internet.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Reading Reinhold

As I mentioned a couple weeks back, I have been reading through my little collection of writings by Reinhold Niebuhr. I will admit I came to them with the intent of finding his almost total irrelevance to our current social and ethical predicaments. On the contrary, for all his faults and limitations, he is, it seems to me, a voice not heard as clearly as he should be. Nearing the end (only 20 pages left!) of The Nature and Destiny of Man: Vol. 1, Human Nature I am amazed at the depth and nuance he brings to his Christian anthropology, his assertion both of the promise of humanity and the limitations under which we all, singly and as members of social groups suffer. Indeed, I was surprised, as I read his An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, to find that he manages to turn the table on those whom he calls "moralists" (leading lights of American liberal theology in the 1920's; he singles out Shirley Jackson Case, it would seem, as an object lesson) and show how the impossibility of ever truly fulfilling what he Niebuhr calls "the love ethic" of Christianity makes it that much more relevant, not as an ideal toward which we should strive, but as an ever present source of both possibility and judgment. The final chapter of that short book alone is worth all the weeks of reading him.

After I finish the second volume, I hope to read through two longish commentaries upon Niebuhr, one by Christopher Lasch in The True and Only Heaven, the other an overview by Gary Dorrien in the second of his his three volume history of American liberal theology (it is interesting indeed, yet also quite correct, that Dorrien would lump Niebuhr in with the liberals, those of an earlier generation he treated with such disdain) in order to clarify some of my own thoughts on Niebuhr's limitations. I have benefited greatly from my reading and would commend him to any and all who are interested in a marvelously deep, nuanced approach to understanding both the promise and pitfalls of coming to terms with both sin and grace, ethics and politics, in our individual and collective life.

Christian Freedom

I have been giving a whole lot of thought in my absence from the internet to the whole concept of Christian freedom, in particular the freedom from fear. St. Paul's formula - "we are freed for freedom's sake" - applies, it seems to me, most clearly in that aspect of our collective life as the church in which we are confronted by those things that cause dread. Fear of loss of prestige, fear of loss of life, fear, indeed of fear.

Yet, of what are we to be afraid? Of death? The resurrection of Jesus from the dead has, as that same St. Paul noted, removed the sting of death. Since social prestige shouldn't even be on the list of our social wants or desires, any loss of that particular benefit is really a gain.

Yet, ours is a terrified community. We do not speak out for fear of offending some. We do not address the realities of hatred and rage for fear it will be directed upon us. We hide our many wondrous gifts under various bushels in order to keep them from being attacked by those who won't or can't understand them.

While it may sound silly, I have been giving thought to this whole thing because I have come to discover yet another television series - Supernatural - that deals with the confrontation with evil in a way that is surprising. A pair of brothers, raised as "hunters" after instances of supernatural evil, face these spirits and demons and demigods with a confidence and even bravado that is not at all forced. While they recognize that others are indeed fearful in the face of demon possession or the presence of an angry, vengeful spirit, they themselves treat these creatures as nothing more or less than opponents to be defeated. They face them without fear because they know that they can be defeated.

The Church, and the churches, far too often, do not really know that evil does not have the last word. We cower and cringe, afraid even to proclaim the Good News because someone, somewhere, might be offended, or angered, or question its validity. Yesterday, Rev. Matt Johnson gave a speech on his recent work over the past two years connecting with the tiny Methodist Church in Lithuania. Comprising six congregations with only six hundred members, the church does not yet have official status, yet is known throughout the tiny Baltic Republic as "the little church that helps people." Matt told the story of one person, named Vitas, a border guard (and national hero who fought off the attempt of the old Soviet Union in 1991 to reimpose occupation after Lithuania declared independence), who spied a small building with the cross and flame on the door. deciding, for no particular reason he could name, to visit that church, he took his young son with him the next day. Now, he is one of the six Methodist clergy in Lithuania, reaching out to those who exist outside the confines of social acceptability.

When American Christians whine about a government being anti-religious or anti-Christian, they really have no idea what they are talking about. The decades of communist oppression rendered Christianity a weak reed indeed, Jesus no more than a tortured soul promising deliverance from our troubles only in death. The hope and grace embodied in the risen Christ (in many ways part of our unique Wesleyan heritage as a people called Methodist) is something new, life-affirming, vital and constructive in a land that has suffered far too long under the brutal yoke of tyranny. From this one example alone (which could be multiplied in a variety of forms in a variety of lands) the lie to the anti-Christian, and fearful Christian ideology is given clearly enough.

We American Christians have had it so soft for so long, we really have no idea how to act in a situation in which we must preach the Word to a world whose ears have been stripped away. We flail like fish on a streambank trying to reset ourselves to a time when what we had to say resonated with those around us, failing again and again. We have forgotten that the message of faith and love and hope given flesh in the crucified and risen Christ challenges even our most self-satisfied sense of comfort, let alone the anxieties of a nation and society and culture in crisis and decline. Rather than refuse to hear of that decline, the Church has an opportunity to speak a word of peace in the midst of the turmoil that surrounds us.

Yet, we shiver and quake with dread.

Stories like Matt's give me hope that the message of the Gospel can still resound with an otherwise bourgeois, cultured people. It gives me faith to believe the Church can speak a word of peace in the midst of the turmoil of our present chaos. It assures me that the love of God for all creation is still there, even for an American Empire on the fast slide downhill, a reed to which we can cling without the illusions of national exceptionalism or the sin of our unique blessedness by the Divine.

In freedom, we can preach release to those captive by our now two-generation old lie that we Americans will be, forever, the Great Power of the world, a lie we can no longer sustain.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Yet Another Fun Week Still With No Internet

A Federal District Court tossed California's Proposition 8 out this week and with no internet access all I have are news reports on NPR. It seems that the judge not only tossed it, he didn't even acknowledge as judicial fact the facts presented by supporters of Prop 8, something that is usually unheard of. Some folks are saying this is a serious, reversible error, and that may be true.

Bully for him, though.

I swear I live on the only spot on the map where the guy in that commercial who wanders around saying, "Can you hear me now?" would get dead air.

Virtual Tin Cup

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