Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Super Rich

Matt Ygelsias has a chart featuring the four wealthiest Americans. At the top sits Bill Gates, with a combined net worth of $54 billion, followed by Warren Buffet, Larry Ellison, and Christy Walton. Yglesias points out that the gap, even here at the very high end, is enormous. Gates' net worth is more than twice Walton's; Buffett's is just shy. Consider that for a moment. The two wealthiest individuals in the United States are each worth twice the fourth wealthiest.

Yglesias asks what would happen should any of these individuals intervene in politics in a "heavy handed way", which prompts all sorts of outrage among his commenters, who mis the point. I doubt Yglesias is naive enough to believe that these folks don't intervene. In particular, consider Christy Walton. Heir of Sam Walton, her wealth is due in large part to Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart impacts all sorts of economic issues, usually at the local and state level, although their anti-union stance combined with their national presence and enormous resources dedicated to keeping Wal-Mart union-free are a huge factor in keeping labor organization stymied.

All the same, while several comments note that both Gates and Buffett in particular have set up philanthropic organizations to deal with all sorts of social concerns - poverty, women's rights and health, and others - my guess is Yglesias is asking what would happen if, say Bill Gates simply offered up half his net worth - some $27 billion - in a bid to transform our politics. In the first place, he would drop from first to third place on the list, but still have an immense amount of resources with which to do all sorts of philanthropic projects. In the second place, it would create a situation almost without parallel in our history (I say almost, because, at one point during one of the "panics" of the late 19th century, the US government received a loan from financier and steel magnate J. P. Morgan to prevent insolvency).

At a practical, less hypothetical level, we should probably concern ourselves less with these individuals - for all their truly obscene personal wealth fascinates and inspires us - and those far more mundane and relatively common folks, still at the higher end of the income scale, who insist that even having a combined annual income near half a million dollars is not enough to deal with our current economic troubles. Therefore, it seems, we should not be asking of those who can afford to do so to contribute a larger portion of their income so that all of us (including them) can be more economically secure.

That is the question at issue as the Republicans insist that allowing the tax rates to resume their Clinton-era levels, for those who earn $250,000 or more a year, will be a drag on the economy. Please recall, they argued this in 1993. A partial result of the passage of the Clinton-era tax policies was a more robust and sane fiscal outlook, not the least including the elimination of the operating deficit and the prospect, should those surpluses have been allowed to continue, of the eventual elimination of our federal obligations. It seems to me that, quite apart from questions of what would happen if Bill Gates paid every voter in America $100 to vote for his preferred candidates (a pittance, really, of roughly $1.5 billion), we need to be asking this question in light of certain facts.

Friday, September 24, 2010

That Primal Cry

At its best, and perhaps most romantic, interpretation, music is the attempt to leave more than some ephemeral mark upon the Universe. Our passing through this life - it can be meaningless, violent, short.

Or, we can do some thing, some dark matter that cannot be defined, cannot even be named, yet makes its presence known through what it does. Even as we pass, that moment, that transcendent point, declares "I am I know". And it can last forever.

Racism Has Not Gone Away

What too often gets lost in discussions of race and racism is what, in fact, racism is. Racism is not primarily concerned with an individual's feelings or opinions on the status of people of other races. Thus, for example, when Robert Byrd died, I had a conservative blogger challenge me on the difference between Byrd, a former KKK member, and Jesse Helms. Now, I do not know, nor do I really care all that much, what Byrd thought about African-Americans on a personal level. Nor do I really care all that much about what Helms may or may not thought. The difference - and here is where the distinction gets lost - is that one of these two men pursued a career of openness to Civil Rights and the legal and social and political claims of African-Americans after first being opposed to them. The other stood firm in supporting entrenched white power.

Racism is about power. It is about social and political power. Thus, when conservatives point out that, say, black police officers are just as likely to be guilty of racial profile and just as prone to mistreat African-American detainees, this is not a "Ha!" moment. On the contrary, it proves the point that racism is about social power; African-American police officers, by acting out against minority prisoners, are demonstrating their willingness to be co-opted by the state power structure. African-Americans are the target of police violence without regard to the individual status of any given officer.

Thus, again, I am hardly impressed with the revelation from White House taped phone conversations during the Johnson Administration that he was pretty free and loose with bigoted comments about blacks. No President did more, except Lincoln, for African-American legal and social and political rights, and he deserves the thanks of all Americans for his political courage on that score.

The recalcitrance of the power structure is remarkable. Talking Points Memo has a story on a hearing before the Civil Rights Commission. Testifying today is former Civil Rights Division Chief Christopher Coates. Appearing without the imprimatur of the Department of Justice (he's still with them, an AUSA), he is arguing that the Bush DOJ sought to apply the Voting Rights Act in a "race-neutral manner." The thing is - the Voting Rights Act is concerned primarily with race. Applying it in a "race neutral manner" does violence to the legislative intent, the spirit, and many of the letters of that law.

The idea that there is a concerted effort among African-Americans to deny poll access to whites is ludicrous. The idea that there is rampant, even systematic, voting fraud in the African-American community is just not borne out by the facts. Yet, the primary motivation for Coates' appearance was to lament the lack of enforcement of a race-neutral approach to the Voting Rights Act. Precisely because the Voting Rights Act, like Affirmative Action, and the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1964, sought to redress particular structural imbalances in matters of access to power, the notion that these laws are to be applied in a "race neutral manner" is simply nonsensical.

Unless you are a white person who feels viscerally threatened by a black person voting.

Thursday, September 23, 2010


Unlike, say, Pascal, whose words could substitute for many a modern who faces the hazards of confession weighed against the many voices of our contemporary life that call even the possibility in to question, I see no reason to think of my faith as a way of hedging my bets. The reason is simple. Being a Christian isn't about weighing options. It isn't about considering one set of interpretive lenses, or way of living, against another, considering the costs and benefits, and moving forward.

Of course, I would also say that I don't agree with Kierkegaard and his 20th century great-grandchildren. That is to say, being a Christian isn't some kind of unfathomable leap in to the unknown. It is ridiculous to argue that, after all the hemming and hawing, all that's left is taking that step off the ledge in to the unknown, wondering if the abyss has a bottom, or if there will be a hand to save us before we find out the hard way.

I am a Christian because I have been touched in my life by the grace of God, understand that in Jesus Christ, the God who created all that is - black holes and colliding galaxies and bacteria and squirrels and even mosquitoes - was uniquely and fully manifest, willingly suffered the humiliation, rejection, and death meted out as human "justice", and rose to take away the power of those things once for all for all creation.

I have been touched by the communities called churches of which I have been a part all my life. I have been touched by individuals who gave me a word of grace, a word of judgment, seen the power of second, third, fourth, fifth chances offered even me, surely one of those who deserve it the least.

I have been touched by the realization that, quite beyond any native capacity I possess, I have reached out and touched the lives of others in ways that humble me. It is at these moments, when I hear testimony from others concerning the impact of something I have said or done or written that I understand St. Paul's insistence that it isn't him doing this stuff, but Christ within him. See, I know what I can and cannot do, and when I hear people tell me or email me or whatever that I have impacted their lives in a way that is positive, I am astounded.

Being a Christian turns ordinary life - working and sleeping, eating and chatting, shopping and sharing, even loving and arguing - in to something extraordinary. World-transforming. Each and every moment of our lives offers the opportunity for this. Even if we aren't aware of it at the time, as Christians our words and deeds can suddenly find themselves in synch with that great wheel that turns the whole Universe. We have no idea how far-reaching some act of ours might reach; the connections among all of us are so complex that treading carefully, with both love and humility seems a far greater option than not caring a whit and acting as if our lives were our own and no one else's.

Finally, I am a Christian because being claimed by the God who created the Universe, who nevertheless sees in me something important, something eternally vital to the on-going project of making human life truly human, of making this world more truly the world God created it to be, leaves me fumbling around for reasons to reject it, yet finding nothing more than the smiling face of God on the other side of all my excuses. I care not a whit whether being a Christians earns me a pass through the pearly gates or not. What happens once this life is ended is in God's hands; Biblical testimony on this matter seems far more concerned with the final consummation of creation, anyway, than whether or not I walk some ethereal city with streets of gold.

Living for others, in love, under the shadow of the cross, seems to make all the other choices in my life fall in to place. It makes sense of what can seem senseless. It gives meaning to the empty flow of time, the unfurling of the Universe as it unwinds its course. In the faces and voices of others, whether at my elbow or across the reaches of time and distance, I see those whom God loves, and wants to be fully as God intended.

This is my confession. So help me God.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Good Cases Make For Great Law

A court in Michigan has tossed out a suit against the Shepard-Byrd Hate Crimes Law brought by an individual and three ministers.
"Plaintiffs do not allege that they have been prosecuted under the Act, that they have been threatened with such prosecution or that they intend to engage in any conduct prohibited by the Act," federal attorneys argued.

So . . . we have a law on the books that seeks to address hate crimes. Four individuals who have not committed any crimes under the act, been prosecuted or threatened with prosecution under that act, insisted the law nevertheless was a direct threat against them. Quite apart from the question of their standing to sue (which, it seems, would be the federal attorney's case in making the above quoted statement), I have to wonder how folks on the right will react to this summary dismissal.

Had any of the four individuals who brought this suit actually been facing prosecution under the law, that would be one thing. For example, if one of the pastors in question had been hauled before a federal District Court for prosecution under the law for a sermon in which he carried on about how evil gay folks are, then, at the very least, the judge could consider - on appeal - whether or not the law violated his First Amendment rights.

Eager for headlines, or perhaps ignorant of how the law works (and hiring lawyers who were willing to take money even though they probably understood the law a little better than the plaintiffs), these folks tried to jump right past the issue of how this law persecutes poor Christian ministers from speaking their minds and insist that it does so even absent any application of the law in specific cases.

Quite apart from the spectacle of Christian ministers (for legal and tax purposes, they are called "Ministers of the Gospel", and I know this because that is how my wife describes herself every year at tax time) insisting that a law punishing hate crimes is anti-Christian because it prevents them from speaking out against sexual minorities, this at least reminds some people that the rule of law has two parts - laws and rules. As soon as some poor minister gets hauled before a court, arrested under the terms of the Act, I might have sympathy for them. As it stands, however, getting all sorts of attention, crying, "Poor, poor pitiful me", even though they aren't poor and are not to be pities is actually quite sad.

(h/t, Chuck Currie)

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Music - Some New Some Old

I'd been on a self-imposed drought from iTunes. Until yesterday. I bought three complete releases, and here are some clips that show that I am still eclectic as ever. Hope you enjoy them.

Ray LaMontagne, from God Willing and the Creeks Don't Rise, "Repo Man"

Big Elf, from Cheat The Gallows, this is "The Evils of Rock and Roll" (I saw them open for Dream Theater last year, and they are really, really good - Black Sabbath meets Rob Zombie meets early Alice Cooper)

Finally, The Neville Brothers, Live From Planet Earth and they do a kicking version of this song (as if they wouldn't!), "Yellow Moon"

National Rumor-Panic (UPDATE)

Like many liberals, I've been by turns amused and confounded by the persistent oddness of many anti-Obama activists. Whether Tea Party members, Republican members of Congress who are just odd (like Michelle Bachman of Minnesota or Steve King of Iowa), or media figures like Glenn Beck or disgraced ousted Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, there are mechanisms and forces involved that defy easy categorization. While it is easy enough to rest upon the various anxieties brought on by recession, stubborn unemployment, and the sudden change in major-party leadership at a national level, including having a woman as Speaker of the House and an African-American President, these "causes" or "conditions of possibility" do not account for the persist belief in non-factuals - that the President and his Administration are either, or by turns, communist, socialist, fascist, radical liberation theologians, and Muslims; that the President of the United States was born in Kenya and raised in Madrassas in Indonesia; that he exhibits, in the odd turn of phrase Gingrich used last week, a "Kenyan anti-colonial" ideology.

Nor is it possible to dismiss these persistent public statements as the result of simple ignorance, or racism. It is not "the media's fault", because that would entail blaming not just those channels of information that reinforce these odd ideas - AM talk radio, FOXNews - but the entire gamut of sources from which we gain our information about the larger world, including the internet and the mainstream press both of which have done an admirable and persistent job exposing these claims as false. While the phenomenon of "agnotology" certainly accounts, at an individual level (and perhaps group level as well) for some of the persistence, it cannot account for all of it.

I have been re-reading, for the first time in several years, Jeffrey Victor's marvelous study of the Satanic cult conspiracy theory, Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend. One key to unraveling the confounding persistence of rumors of Satanic cult activity - including ritual child abuse, murder, cannibalism, and the infiltration of government and society to undermine its values and mores - is understanding specific events as examples of what Victor calls a "rumor panic". He offers various examples of rumor panics as illustrative, a famous one being the Satanic ties of Proctor & Gamble. Now, at the link, this is offered up as an example of the intellectual heft of agnotology; even in the face of evidence that falsifies each and every claim made by those who insisted P&G was actually a front for Satanism. These beliefs persisted, boiling up every few years as those original fliers, over thirty years old now, continuing to circulate.

As the various mechanisms behind rumor-panics are explained, and as one particular rumor-panic - a Satanic cult panic in the far western New York town of Jamestown, in 1988 - is studied in detail (including a chronology of the development of the rumor panic dating from the previous autumn), it dawned on me that these mechanisms and social and social-psychological triggers might just be present in the various outbursts of strange statements and conspiratorial theories surrounding our President.

I think this is at least an interesting possibility, worthy of deeper study.

UPDATE: Oh my God. I think it safe to say that someone has replaced Doug Feith as the stupidest fucking guy on the planet.

I am including this as an update on this post because it demonstrates how truly stupid people somehow have seats of authority - in this case, the op-ed page of The Washington Post - abdicate their responsibility to think critically about our politics and society. This gobbledygook is really horrible. In a just world, Richard Cohen would get the ax.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Soak The Rich (UPDATE)

I was reading this post by Yglesias and I got thinking about all the fake outrage on the right over things like sex and gays and Pres. Obama instituting Sharia Law from his personal mosque at ground zero. You know who the real culprit behind our cultural malaise is?

Paris Hilton's Dad, who happens to be filthy rich.

If ever there were a poster child for the dangers inherent in too much wealth, Paris Hilton is it. She knows nothing, contributes nothing, yet we are inundated with images of her, clothed and otherwise. We are updated with her goings-on, flitting hither and yon with this young man and that, getting arrested in South Africa for marijuana possession, Las Vegas for cocaine possession.

Now there are wealthy people who also have some moral sense concerning their wealth. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, both among the wealthiest individuals in the world, are actually doing good stuff with all that cash. Plus, you don't hear them complaining that a return to Clinton-era tax levels are going to impoverish them. Or others like them, for that matter.

For the most part, however, our society and culture are being undermined not by undocumented immigrants, or gays and lesbians, or Muslims. It is rich white folk, who have no responsibility, no sense of obligation to the world outside themselves, and whose only goal is the creation of even more wealth by any means necessary. It is not poor who feel entitled to handouts from the government, but rich white folk who feel entitled to stay rich, and even get richer, without anyone ever questioning how that happens, or if the cost to the rest of us is worth their indulgence by the rest of us.

Even more than allowing the marginal tax rates to return to Clinton-era levels, I would return them to their far-more-progressive, pre-Reagan era levels, when the wealthiest paid as much as 70% of their income in taxes. Them that has, should pay up, after all. Why should the rest of us reward these folks, allowing them to have children who will grow up and flood our senses with endless images of their goings-on, their sexual escapades, and have to listen to their insistence they should be indulged simply because they are who they are?

So, yeah, basically, I think higher taxes, in particular for people like Paris Hilton's Dad, are nothing but a plus.

UPDATE: I hadn't even seen this op-ed piece by Paul Krugman, but it fits in well.

Yank My Doodle? Dandy!

It should come as no surprise that Republican Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell's position on masturbation - she's against it - is the source for much teasing from liberals. On the night she won her party's nomination in an upset primary win over Rep. Mike Castle, Rachel Maddow made much hay of O'Donnell's position.

Like the revelations that she claims to have "dabbled in witchcraft" when she was younger, however, I have to wonder why anyone really cares. So, she's against masturbation. Big deal. So, she claims to have spent time playing around with something teenagers call witchcraft. OK. What is far more important, to me, is that she has no ideas, no sense of public service, merely voices typical right-wing nonsense on all sorts of issues, and would be an embarrassment to the Senate, which can't afford too much more embarrassment, considering the members of the body from Oklahoma.

My guess is that Maddow aired the clips about masturbation for shock value, as well as an adolescent joy at pricking the pretensions of TV viewers. After all, isn't there a Beavis & Butthead quality to the whole, "She said 'masturbation'," thing? It would get Maddow ratings points, draw attention to a non-issue that indicates, if nothing else, an obsession with individual sexual ethics that is far outside most people's concern, and ensure that liberals, entranced by Maddow's show, would bring up this particular obsession throughout the campaign.

Our nation is in crisis and some liberals are going after one hapless Republican candidate because she sees stamping out masturbation as a positive moral crusade.

It is at moments like this I despair for the United States.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


I read this review of Jonathan Franzen's new novel, Freedom, and decided to settle, once for all, why it is I did not like his previous novel, The Corrections, and am further unimpressed by him as a writer, and even as a human being. I will grant that I understand why many people like Franzen, his writing, his subjects. As the author of the Freedom review notes, however, there are two general camps on Franzen: those who like or even love him, and those who cannot stand him. I was taken to task, derided as a culture-Philistine, for my adamant refusal to find anything worthy to say about Franzen's award winning book. Since then, I have read (or perhaps re-read, because I still subscribed to The New Yorker when it appeared) this essay (subscription required) by Franzen recounting the lingering death of his father. It echoes much of the fictional material in The Corrections. Finally, some personal experience and reflections have only reinforced my earlier, aesthetic judgment.

The Corrections, for all that it attempts to encompass the coterminal collapse of a family, it's fortunes, the mental and emotional demise of its pater familias, and simultaneously comment on similar goings on in our culture and society, fails in my estimation for one simple reason - the characters exhibit no traits worthy of sympathy. Indeed, both parents, the two brothers and sister, their various struggles with life, mid-life, parenting, marriage, are rendered in a simultaneous attention to physical detail and absence of any human heart that left this reader feeling not just cold, but disgust. Reflecting the narcissism that is rampant in America in the post-war, and particularly the post-Vietnam, era, they are void of any center, searching for meaning without any emotional involvement; seeking equanimity and finding the chaos of life more a bother than an opportunity; there seems little to bind parent to child, or sibling to sibling beyond a vague sense that it has always been this way. They cannot even be called automatons. If they were, that would be understandable. Under the circumstances, they aren't even comprehensible, let alone pitiable.

Reading Franzen's article on his father's demise from Alzheimer's disease, I realized the one thing missing from both the fictional family disintegration and the factual account of his father's death - I got no sense that Franzen felt anything about what was happening. It simply was, like the detailed descriptions of the surroundings. In fact, I finished Franzen's New Yorker piece wondering why he had bothered. I got no sense that he did now in retrospect, or in the past, ever love his father. This was the story of an event, not a loss. It recounts the inconveniences his father's illness (as well as his mother's constant seeming badgering about it) created in his own life. I got the sense that Franzen would rather have not bothered. In The Corrections, I got the same impression. None of the characters exhibited any emotive qualities at all (beyond a vague anger and frustration over interruptions in their own never-ending search for meaning).

This past January, my father became acutely ill. I raced back to my hometown and, along with my oldest and youngest sisters and mother, sat and worried and wondered whether or not we were going to be present at the end. In the time since then, the general downward course of the physical, emotional, intellectual conditions of both my parents has been a source of sorrow, concern, and a much-vaunted topic of conversation among my siblings. I cannot speak for them, but in my case what shakes me to my core is the way the man and woman who occupy my childhood home seem so different from my mother and father as I recall them, I could be convinced they have been replaced by elderly changelings. Not just physically more taxed, even smaller, their emotional and psychological and intellectual capacities are withering each day. I think of who they were. My mother, with a friend being wary of men hiding in bushes only to discover in the papers the next day it was the FBI ready to nab the gangster "Greasy Thumb" Gulick; my father sharing a stage with Claude Rains and Eva Gabor and a TV screen with Boris Karloff, entertaining and educating a generation of 17 year olds; my mother taking care of me through a very bad bout of flu at the age of eight; my father running bodily in to Charles DeGaulle on the streets of New York in 1942. The man and woman they were is not negated by the reality of who they have become in their final years. Yet, I cannot help but feel that time and advanced age are robbing them both of something vital. Finally, all this, at least in my case, is rooted in a deep love and gratitude for both my parents, for being the wonderfully flawed persons they are, the wonderfully flawed parents they were and are, the marvelous human beings who came together and had the five of us and raised five very different human beings.

That is what is missing from Franzen's novel and essay. Quite simply put, I never sense that Franzen feels anything, most definitely love. Not for his father. Not for the characters in his novel, nor the characters for one another. While I recognize that there are, indeed, people like this in our world, I fail to see anything uplifting in holding them up as examples of Homo Americanus because we are, generally (I would like to think) better than that.

Religious Belief And Public Service II

The promised second part . . .
This article in today's Washington Post, while sparking all sorts of thought, has left me feeling ambivalent about its purpose. The Constitution is clear - there is to be no "religious test" for public office in the United States. At the time of the drafting and ratification, this meant that membership in a particular religious denomination was not to be regarded as necessary for being considered for office. It has become increasingly important, however, to offer the public an insight in to the religious life of candidates and elected officials as it has the potential to impact how they view their role and duty in office.

As stated previously, this at least has the potential of opening up a larger conversation on our changing perception of the nature of religious life and public service in a secular republic. At the same time, everyone seems to agree that there should be a dividing line between one's personal set of beliefs and practices as a member of a religious body, and one's duty as a holder of public office. Even George W. Bush, whose personal beliefs were often touted as a positive on his political cv admitted in an interview that, when considering the ramifications of sending the United States to war and what that entailed in terms of the destruction of human life, he set those beliefs to one side. This begs all sorts of questions, not just about Pres. Bush, but about the way even as committed a Christian as he (and I take his commitment as a Christian seriously, regardless of anything else) could insist it is possible to "set aside" a set of beliefs and practices, rather than, say, offer a view of public life as offering a different set of principles and how these two sets, intersecting and conflicting, created both tension and resolution.

The specific questions Linker offers in his article are, upon closer inspection, less "religious tests" than they are a way of gauging a candidate's perception of the very real, substantive ways that the conflicting calls and duties of religious belief and practice and public duty can impact one another. For example, does adherence to a set of religious beliefs that insists on a young earth, created by God over seven twenty-four hour periods disqualify a candidate for office if that office includes overseeing policies on geology, the environment, the impact of global warming, and general science policy? Would someone whose religious beliefs included acceptance of plural marriage - a Muslim or non-reformed LDS - be acceptable?

It is not just membership in more sectarian, or non-western, religions that offer the potential for serious conflict between religious faith and public duty. The mission statement of the United Methodist Church, the second-largest Protestant denomination in the country, reads "Making Disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world"(emphasis added). How comfortable would non-United Methodists, or indeed non-Christians of any stripe, be with someone in a position of authority and power whose religious life entailed evangelism and "the transformation of the world"? Just as John Kennedy's insistence that he didn't take orders from the Pope helped win him the election even as it reduced his Catholicism to seeming to have no role in his life, would a practicing United Methodist, if confronted by this mission statement, be willing to deny its importance, and therefore the importance of his or her religious beliefs and practices, as a potential elected official?

It seems to me that we are embarking on a larger, potentially more thoughtful, discussion of religion and our public life. As long as we are willing to listen to all sorts of voices (even those voices that are angry at the very thought of public servants having religious beliefs impact their avocations), the possibilities for some kind of new consensus about religious belief and our life together are there. We have to be willing to take the risks.

Religious Belief And Public Service I

This is the first of two posts on this article in The Washington Post. Yeah, I know. The Post. Whoda thunk it?

The general tenor of our public discussion concerning the relationship between an individual's religious beliefs and his or her professional obligations as a public servant usually end up being nonsensical. For far too long the complicated nature of the role of religious belief and practice in the lives of individuals has been, in our public discourse, reduced to insisting that matters of belief are "private", which usually means they have nothing to do with an individual's duty toward others, toward their occupation or avocation, or their sense of justice, the demands of the ethical life, or the relationships within and between the various communities that make up the United States.

I think it is quite telling that many of those who insist that an individual should not, or must not (it is rare that the distinction is clear), consider his or her religious beliefs and practices as part of the guiding principles of public service usually end up quoting Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson, whose importance as part of the Founding generation of the United States is immense, was among many other things, a species of 18th century religious belief known as Deism. Simplifying a bit, Deists affirm the existence of God (or perhaps, better, god) but more as an assertion without content. The specifics of the traditions and rituals associated with religious faith are set to one side as an encumbrance upon the rational life. That God is, is accepted. Who God is, what that existence means for us is left up to the life and thought of each individual.

So, our public discussion of religious belief is beholden upon an antiquated, and intellectually vacuous, notion of "religion", "God", and how these ideas (as if God were an idea only) are part of the make up of an individual's life. Even as our understanding of the dynamics of religious belief, the variety of expressions of belief, the multiple communities that draw people in and nurture their faith, the marvelous swirl of various religions - not just the major branches of Christianity and Judaism, but the rise of Islam in American, non-Western and non-traditional beliefs, paganism, even atheism - our talk is trapped in categories that cannot accept the complex, subtle, and sometimes contradictory ways an individual's set of beliefs and practices impact his or her life.

While there is much to concern more thoughtful citizens when it is reported that a large plurality of Americans, and a majority of Republicans, believe our President is a Muslim, and this is considered a "negative", it does, at the very least, offer an entry to a more thoughtful discussion concerning religion and our public life. Why should it be thought a hindrance if the President, indeed, turned out to be a Muslim? What is distinctive about Islam that would make it antithetical to public service in the United States?

Now, since just two years ago, the accusation against then-Sen. Obama that he was a white-hating non-Christian who accepted the tenets of black liberation theology as practiced in his church in Chicago, it seems the current accusation that he is really a Muslim should be thought more an expression of concern by those who hold the beliefs over the fundamental strangeness of our President being a black man rather than anything particularly odd about either liberation theology or Islam. This is not an accusation of racism; it is, rather, an observation that so much of the angst and vitriol directed at the President and his Administration and policies is steeped in a vague sense that this difference is at the heart of it all.

Yet, even so, we can have a thoughtful discussion about the relationship between membership in a congregation that practices liberation theology as its mission and ministry to the community it serves and the larger public obligations of an individual in public life. Sad to say, too much of the talk about the black theology of liberation was rooted more in ignorance (remember Glenn Beck saying that it didn't have anything to do with Christianity as he understood it?) than a thoughtful consideration of its strengths and weaknesses. Why should then-candidate Obama have felt it necessary to give a speech distancing himself from the church and its pastor, Jeremiah Wright? What is it about the specific claims of liberation theology that might make it antithetical to the demands of public service?

These entry points for a more thoughtful discussion about the intersection between religious life and public duty indicate that at some level the antiquated Deism of Jefferson is no longer a tenable way of understanding. The mix of social and cultural changes, our ever-increasing understanding of the psychology, sociology, and theology of religious belief, and the demands of our Constitution forbidding a "religious test" for public office would seem to beg all sorts of questions and necessitate all sorts of productive - but certainly heated - conversations. I do not foresee any solutions or conclusions coming from such discussions, at least not once-for-all. At the very least, such discussions show that we cannot consider religion "private" in such a way that empties it of meaning. Precisely because so many are vexed over the question of the President's potentially different set of beliefs it should be clear that leaving religion "private" just doesn't cut it anymore.

Virtual Tin Cup

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