Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Southern Pride

Longwood - Natchez, MS
Having been born and largely raised in the South, there are days that I miss being there greatly: any time a friend posts pictures of magnolias in bloom, whenever anyone mentions Texas or Carolina barbecue (on which I am blissfully neutral), the last week or so leading up to Mardi Gras, and of course, every time I have to scrape ice or snow from my windshield.

On a trip many years ago, I introduced my wife to the South by touring much of my college stomping grounds - from my alma mater in Hattiesburg, Mississippi to Biloxi and on down to New Orleans. I proposed to her in Natchez, overlooking the river at sunset. We toured several historic sites and plantations, including Beauvoir (the post-war home of Jefferson Davis) and Oak Alley. At Longwood, a tour guide explained that the owner began the construction in 1859 but that the work was never completed because of the Civil War - an event she spoke of very much as if one were describing the Huns invading the Balkans. The Union had destroyed this man's life and dreams; she of course did not mention that his wealth (and the mansion itself) were made possible only by the unpaid and physically demanding labor of his many slaves.

More recent events have made it evident that the South is experiencing a cultural shift, however. In 2001, the state of Georgia removed the image of the "stainless banner" (the second flag of the Confederate States of America, most often known simply as "the confederate flag") from its state flag. Two years ago, the state of South Carolina stopped flying the confederate flag separately in front of the capitol and other government buildings. That same year, I took my daughters to New Orleans and we toured Oak Alley again to find that not only had they reconstructed the slave quarters, but that the content of the tour had changed as well. No longer did it focus only on the owners, but on the work and resourcefulness of the slaves that built it. And just last week, the city of New Orleans removed several statues of confederate figures, most notably the statue of Robert E. Lee atop a 60 foot pedestal in the center of Lee Circle. 

Not everyone is happy about the change. Mississippi state representative Karl Oliver expressed his outrage in a racially charged Facebook post:
"The destruction of these monuments, erected in the loving memory of our family and fellow Southern Americans, is both heinous and horrific. If the, and I use this term extremely loosely, "leadership" of Louisiana wishes to, in a Nazi-ish fashion, burn books or destroy historical monuments of OUR HISTORY, they should be LYNCHED! Let it be known, I will do all in my power to prevent this from happening in our State."
A few hundred people "liked" the rant (including two other Republican state representatives and Mississippi Highway Patrol spokesman Tony Dunn) before it was deleted - an ironic twist, given that the GOP considers itself "the party of Lincoln." But while Mr. Oliver's comments are certainly incriminating, I don't mean to imply that all Republicans, Southerners, or even CSA monument supporters are racists or support violence. It is worth noting that other state officials, both Republican and Democrat, quickly condemned his words.

Still, the removal of these monuments remains controversial. Some consider it the ultimate genuflection to the power of political correctness and a revision of history; others consider it more than a century overdue. As one might expect, the division runs closely along both racial and generational lines.

As someone who has lived in and loves the South, and as someone who strongly opposes the continued veneration of the Confederacy, please allow me to address those who may argue in opposition. I have no interest in arguing over "the War of Northern Aggression". I've heard people argue that the rebellion was not over slavery, although this cause is clearly the most prominent in the charters and constitutions of the confederate states. I've heard them claim they are not racists, and indeed, many of them are not, but the flag is inseparable from the concept of racial superiority. I've heard them speak of Robert E.Lee as some sort of hero against an oppressive government, all but ignoring the oppression of slavery.  Rehashing all of the usual arguments is hardly worthwhile; all that I ask is... why?

Of all that the South can take pride in, why do so many choose to correlate Southern identity with the flag of an aggressor against our mutual country? Why take pride in a "nation" that no longer exists? Why hoist the flag of the enemy that more American soldiers died fighting than against the Nazis in the second world war? Is it just to indicate one is prone to rebel? Given that we rebelled against England, does not the American flag imply enough rebel spirit?

Why continue to present the South by symbols of her darkest hour? We are not opposed to the USA, as the flag suggests - anyone who has lived in the former CSA will know that southerners are quite patriotic. Simply put, it does not represent who we are. Instead of controversy, let us proclaim our contributions.

Modern music, for example, would simply not exist as it does now if it were not for the South. "American" music: country, zydeco, bluegrass, jazz, blues, and rock and roll, were all born in the South (especially in Mississippi and Louisiana). Great authors, such as Faulkner and (Harper) Lee, should be celebrated over the ignorant, which have sadly become our stereotype. Why not lift up our best, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. or Rosa Parks, instead of glorifying the culture that made their sacrifices necessary?

From my perspective, it is quite easy to be a proud Southerner, but we simply can't be defined by a military failure. The removal of these statues aren't an effort to deny history, but rather a sign that we have finally accepted it. As the mayor of New Orleans recently said, "the Confederacy lost and we are better for it."

Yes, the stainless banner is part of our history, but our heritage is far greater.

Sunday, January 22, 2017



Wrote a blog about it. Like to read it? Here it goes.

I have long had issues with the so-called "religious right", but the recent inauguration of President Donald Trump, along with the glowing praises of so many evangelicals, has put me in such a situation that I would feel personally liable if I failed to state my disgust with the apparent racism (or at least, prejudice) that has become acceptable within a group of people who should know better.

This is not about politics. I have many friends who are strongly conservative, and others who are quite liberal (I consider myself a moderate). This has nothing do with party platforms. Given the polls going into Election Day, I can say that I was surprised at the result, but I have not questioned them. I have not suggested in any way that the win was questionable due to Mrs. Clinton receiving three million more votes - everyone was aware of what the Electoral College was prior to the campaign, and President Trump won the contest under the same rules as his predecessors. I refuse to dishonor President Trump by claiming he's "not my president".

This is not about "sour grapes", as I did not vote for Hillary Clinton. While I recognize that she was perhaps the most qualified candidate in terms of experience, I had my concerns about her as well. I voted for a third-party candidate with the full knowledge that my chosen candidate would not be successful. Of course, I had friends on both wings attempt to sell me on the notion that a vote for anyone but Trump was really a vote for Clinton, and vice versa, but in spite of the result, I can still say that my conscience is clear.

This isn't even about Donald Trump, though I do find him morally detestable. For all of the issues I have with President Trump, I am also forbidden to hate him. He, like everyone else, was created in the image of the God I claim to serve, and if I claim to love God but hate his creation, I make myself a liar. This does not mean that I can't speak out against wrong, even when it comes from our leaders; it simply means that, with God's help, I should strive to avoid becoming hateful towards anyone as a person.

The results of the election don't concern me nearly as much as the heart-wrenching realization that the same professed Christians, from whom I have witnessed countless attacks upon President Obama's character for over eight years now, are openly praising a man like Donald Trump. Such a travesty is only possible by doing one thing: moving the goalpost - by making the standard to which a black man is being held five times higher than the goalpost set for the white man. Or, in the case of Hillary Clinton, the goalpost for a white woman being set higher than that of a white man. But the existence of a sexist double standard can not be used to excuse the existence of a racist double standard ("See? I'm not racist because I also discriminate against a white person!" Or, "I can't be sexist because I also made up lies about Obama and he's not a woman."). Both are detestable, yes, even deplorable, and any person of faith should be speaking out against such injustice rather than employing them in their political rhetoric.

Let me start with perhaps the most egregious example, the unofficial Council of Evangelicals who decide every election who is, and who is not, a Christian. From an interview published in Christianity Today in January of 2008:

CT: You've talked about your experience walking down the aisle at Trinity United Church of Christ, and kneeling beneath the cross, having your sins redeemed, and submitting to God's will. Would you describe that as a conversion? Do you consider yourself born again?
BO: I am a Christian, and I am a devout Christian. I believe in the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I believe that that faith gives me a path to be cleansed of sin and have eternal life. But most importantly, I believe in the example that Jesus set by feeding the hungry and healing the sick and always prioritizing the least of these over the powerful. I didn't 'fall out in church' as they say, but there was a very strong awakening in me of the importance of these issues in my life. I didn't want to walk alone on this journey. Accepting Jesus Christ in my life has been a powerful guide for my conduct and my values and my ideals.
To me, that sounds like someone who gets it - someone who, as Romans says, has confessed with his mouth the Lord Jesus. While the interviewer doesn't elaborate on it, he acknowledges that Obama had an understanding of what sin was, and that he needed to be redeemed. Of course, he could be simply saying what someone wants to hear, but in this sense, so could anyone. So why was the evangelical response to this statement of faith to call him a liar? Evangelical leaders, including Franklin Graham, continued to question his faith, or at the least, state "I can't say whether or not he's a Christian", playing to the unfounded claims that Obama was some sort of secret Muslim infiltrator to America. I saw many people from my own church argue, again without any cause, that he wasn't a Christian, and more importantly, that even if he wasn't a Muslim, that he was against Christians. Some went as far as claiming Obama was the anti-Christ, or perhaps a messenger sent to pave the way for the anti-Christ. In short, their minds had been already closed to the very possibility that Barack Obama could simply be a brother with different political positions than they. There was nothing he could have done or said that would convince millions of "evangelicals" that he was a fellow Christian.

Now, let us compare this with a similar interview with Donald Trump during his campaign: the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa (July 2015). After host Frank Luntz asked Trump if he had ever asked for forgiveness for his actions, Trump replied:

"I am not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don't think so. I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don't bring God into that picture. I don't....
When I drink my little wine - which is the only wine I drink - and have my little cracker, I guess that is a form of asking forgiveness, and I do that as often as possible because I feel cleansed; I think in terms of let's go on and let's make it right."

While I am not questioning President Trump's faith, I have to admit that I am puzzled, with what I know of Christian theology, how one becomes a Christian without asking for forgiveness of sins. Maybe he just misspoke, but the troubling thing, again, was the lack of skepticism among the same evangelicals that never accepted Obama's confession of faith. Conservative Christians largely fell in line, accepting Trump's identification as a fellow Christian without question. They not only lowered the goalpost, they kicked the field goal on his behalf and called it good.

These same people, many of whom continued to entertain the "birther" attempt to de-legitimize President Obama's authority as President (interestingly enough, Donald Trump himself continued to push that false narrative for years) and who demanded that he produce his birth certificate (never demanded of any previous - read "white" - presidents) aren't now asking for Donald Trump's tax returns (which were previously expected of all candidates since Nixon), but they are whining about people attempting to de-legitimize Trump. I could spend hours writing dozens of other examples of evangelical hypocrisy, but it suffices to say that even though most Christians balk at the charge of racism, creating hurdles for the black man and removing them for the white man is the textbook definition.

The same applies for discrepancies with the most recent race against Hillary Clinton. Like nearly all politicians, Mrs. Clinton has said some things that were untrue, and as these occurred in the campaign, I could count on my conservative friends to use them as evidence that Clinton was "untrustworthy" or "a liar". In itself, I take no issue with Christians speaking out against untruths and misinformation. In fact, I highly encourage anyone to stand up for truth, but many (thankfully not all) of my conservative friends made nonsensical statements akin to "She's such a liar, so I'm voting for Trump". One might as well state that because they can't support anti-Semitism, they can't in good conscience vote for Mel Gibson, so they'll just have to vote for Reinhard Heydrich.

Nowhere was the double-standard between these two more evident than in attacks on Bill Clinton's well-known womanizing. Many evangelicals, along with Donald Trump himself, attacked Hillary with Bill's infidelity, as if it was her fault. Meanwhile, evangelicals were lining up behind Donald Trump, who had an affair with his second wife while married to his first wife (and is now on his third). The Republican male may be supported in spite of his philandering, while the Democratic female should be blamed and shamed for HER HUSBAND'S infidelity.

In spite of Jerry Falwell Jr.'s endorsement of Trump, he would have been kicked out of Liberty University (or just about any other Christian college or university) five times over. His marital record would disqualify him from being a pastor at the majority of protestant churches in the United States. And yet, 81 percent of evangelicals (four in five) supported Mr. Trumps bid to lead the entire nation.

On Friday, at the inauguration, many conservative faith leaders (again including Franklin Graham) stated that Donald Trump won because of God, that his victory in the race was evidence of his being God's choice. Of course, such rhetoric was completely absent from their collective commentary in 2008. In other words, God is with those who are declared so by an elect committee of evangelical leaders. With such evident political double standards, it should be no surprise that among millennials, even the most charismatic Christians are steering clear of the "evangelical" label.

Lastly, I should note that this in not an attack on Republicans, or conservatives, or Christians, or even Trump voters. Many conservatives refused to back Trump, and even some who reluctantly voted for him are still willing to speak out against his attacks on religious freedom, boasts of sexual conquest, infidelity, bullying, untruthfulness, misogyny, and xenophobia. Not all Christians unfairly attacked President Obama (some of us even voted for him), or support Trump, but the statistics remain inverse: roughly 1 in 5 white evangelicals supported Obama in both 2008 and 2012, while 4 in 5 supported Trump in 2016. And the bottom line remains, that we just elected the first thrice-married admitted genital grabber with overwhelming evangelical support. May God forgive our hypocrisy.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Outrage Concerning a Lack of Outrage?

On Tuesday (7/5/16), two major news stories hit the internet. One was that of a black man by the name of Alton Sterling who was shot and killed by two white police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; the other was that of the FBI reaching a decision concerning Hillary Clinton's improper storage of government e-mail. Both stories generated a lot of heated discussion on Facebook and other sites allowing public comment. 

Yesterday (7/6), a friend posted the following observation concerning these stories:
"There is a racial line down my friends newsfeed. Those posting about the Hillary email scandal and those about the shooting of a black man in Louisiana. White and Black, which way do you think it goes?"
Although my friend was doing little more than posting an observation, I began to notice a disturbing trend as more an more people turned their anger toward "white people" who had not spoken out concerning Mr. Sterling's death (or that of another black man, Philando Castile, who was shot at a simple traffic stop near St. Paul, Minnesota the next day). More than once I saw that my lack of comment on the matter was being taken, at least by some, as evidence of racism - or at the least, a lack of empathy - since, at the time these erroneous accusations were being made, I had in fact posted concerning the Hillary Clinton news story, but not the Alton Sterling story.

So, for the record, let me state that the deaths of these two men, and of the five Dallas police officers shortly thereafter, concern me greatly. Any death of any human being, at the hands of another human being, is a tragedy. Period. Even in cases of an individual's demise by their own reckless actions, these people are loved - by a mother, a brother, a child, a friend, a spouse. These events hurt our collective humanity as well, often turning friends and neighbors against one another over differences of opinion or reaction.

These events are nothing new. The fact that nearly everyone in America now carries a camera on them at all times, and that this camera can quickly share photographs, video, and commentary with millions of people is the new aspect. And while I believe there are some positives of us being shown a reality that we may never have to face ourselves, there is also a danger to this ease of communication.

There is an old proverb (ironically often falsely attributed to Mark Twain), that "a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can even put on its shoes." For our generation, this should perhaps be altered somewhat to say "public outrage can go viral before fact can even log on." It's very easy to get millions of people outraged these days, independent of fact - just look at the campaign of Donald Trump. I have friends now who are already convinced that the police were in the right, having absolutely no facts on the incident, already hard at work to assassinate the character of the deceased as well. Others are convinced that the police involved were racist murderers, again, without anyone having the details of the events. This is exactly why I haven't made any comment - it is not for lack of empathy, but for lack of the truth.

This is, ironically, the exact reason I was posting concerning the issue of Hillary Clinton's e-mails and not of the tragic deaths of these men. This is not a racial issue, but one of information. Although Clinton's malfeasance was uncovered some time ago - I waited for over a year for the investigation to run its course. I was then able to report, as I had suspected, that the truth of the issue was neither as innocent as many Democrats had stated nor as damning as the narrative Republicans had been repeating.

In early August of 2014, another black man was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. For weeks, reactions to the death of Michael Brown dominated news feeds and community conversations. Early reports claimed that Brown had surrendered to the police, with his hands up, before he was killed. As a result, public opinion was greatly steered against police officer Darrell Wilson, with everyone from the St. Louis Rams football team to black members of Congress making the gesture "in support" of Michael Brown. The phrase "hands up, don't shoot" quickly became a mantra against police brutality.

By March of 2015, more than one autopsy concluded that the numerous individuals who had claimed to be eyewitnesses to the shooting had in fact fabricated this part of the story. The Department of Justice reported that:
"Investigators tracked down several individuals who, via the aforementioned media, claimed to have witnessed Wilson shooting Brown as Brown held his hands up in clear surrender. All of these purported witnesses, upon being interviewed by law enforcement, acknowledged that they did not actually witness the shooting, but rather repeated what others told them in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. … Witness accounts suggesting that Brown was standing still with his hands raised in an unambiguous signal of surrender when Wilson shot Brown are inconsistent with the physical evidence, are otherwise not credible because of internal inconsistencies, or are not credible because of inconsistencies with other credible evidence. In contrast, Wilson’s account of Brown’s actions, if true, would establish that the shootings were not objectively unreasonable under the relevant Constitutional standards governing an officer’s use of deadly force."
All of this is not to say that I don't believe that racism continues to plague many aspects of our nation, including within law enforcement.  While the Department of Justice did find that the facts did "not support federal civil rights charges against Ferguson police officer Darrell Wilson", it also found that the FPD collectively "engaged in a pattern or practice of conduct that violates the First, Fourth, and 14th Amendments of the Constitution".  In other words, the truth was again found in the middle - Mr. Wilson did not murder a black man in cold blood, but at the same time, those defending the police as "heroes" were also incorrect.

Without detracting from the issue of these shootings, they are in fact complicated by another unfortunate reality: we have contracted an ugly strain of polarization, which flares up with every new tragedy. With every shooting, every court case, and every election, we continue to point fingers at one another, dividing ourselves voluntarily by lines of color, ideology, or religion. More and more people are all too comfortable with assigning guilt (almost always on a group of "those people" to which the judge does not belong), with collectively less concern with the truth.

By all means, there are problems with our society that will require more than outrage. We can't solve these issues by posting insults, accusations, or a volley of snarky Facebook memes. Bumper-sticker talking points aren't helpful, either. A fractured society will simply be unable to correct any of the issues we face; as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "we must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools." So for those of you angered by my lack of commentary on any given subject, please be patient. I know many of you are hurting, and perhaps it is simply human nature to lash out in such situations, saying things we might not otherwise say, but I am your brother, not your enemy. I will gladly stand beside the oppressed, but justice can't be built upon outrage alone. It requires the foundation of truth.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Taking It Back

Who would have ever thought this would happen? It is all but certain now that the nominee for the "family values" party has had three wives, and the likely nominee for the Democratic party will, if successful, return the last president to be impeached by the House of Representatives to the White House. What have we done? Where did we go wrong? How did we end up the prodigal son, finding ourselves in squalor, living among swine? Can't we just go back home and admit the error of our ways?

This isn't the first time I've suggested returning to British rule, but given the state of our politics today, this may just be the first time it gets some serious traction. It's not like I'm suggesting we all move to what is currently the United Kingdom; no need to abandon American regional cuisine, or to live in a land of ubiquitous rain and fog. We need not start "talking funny" by finally speaking "the King's" correctly - although it makes sense as everyone but Sarah Palin already speaks "English" - she "speaks American". All we have to do is admit that we blew it, and ask to come back home. I'm sure that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God Queen of Great Britain, Ireland, and the British Dominions beyond the Seas, Head of the Commonwealth and Defender of the Faith (a lot longer to say than "President Trump", but so much less painful) would take us back with open arms. I hear she's getting soft in her old age.

Sure, we had some good times, even decades to be proud of. We can carry with us all the fond memories of our two-century national rumspringa; no one's taking that away. We've simply run our course, and now have reached that age where we are finally mature enough to know that Mum always knew best. Best of all, the idea has some merit for every mindset in America.

For the religious right, so often lamenting (or even denying the existence of) the separation of church and state, this is your opportunity to finally make Christianity the official state religion! Unlike America, which is prohibited from establishing a national church, Great Britain has had an official state religion for centuries. The Church of England welcomes you. Just be forewarned that you can't have extreme points of view.

If you're a Bernie Socialist, you can finally relax. You may even be able to feel your blood pressure return to normal as you realize that there is no need to re-invent the wheel. Great Britain already has a national health service, and a progressive (yet relatively simple) tax code. You'll even win on gun control.

For traditionalists or history buffs, you can instantaneously multiply your national history and traditions by four or five. We can even return to our first flag, the Grand Union Flag, and consequently need not worry about having to fit in a 51st star for Puerto Rico. We can keep our patriotic colours of red, white, and blue.

If you're a political outsider tired of the same two-party system, the Parliamentary system might be just the thing. Yes, they still have two major parties, but there are a number of other parties represented in Parliament, and they can often break a stalemate by siding with one side over the other. If you're a conservative, you'll be pleased to know that the conservative party not only currently controls Parliament (and thus also names the Prime Minister), but their conservatives are not in the midst of a civil war. And if you're a Trump fan, and just like to see politicians insult each other, these guys wrote the book.

If you like the celebrity gossip, you'll still get a steady stream of all that, but with royals instead of Kardashians. Will and Kate beats Jon and Kate even with only two instead of eight (and they have yet to separate). The BBC can actually still broadcast neutral news, where Fox and MSNBC frequently abandon reality.

As Scotland recently showed us, we can still reject independence. Who says you can't go home?

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Blurred Lines

Recently, the courts ordered Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke to hand over seven million dollars to the estate of Marvin Gaye for blatantly ripping off his 1977 groove "Got to Give It Up". Unfortunately, it stopped short of demanding some compensation to the rest of America for putting the sleazy pick-up line, "I know you want it" into ubiquitous rotation. At least something good came from it - a scholar by the name of Al Yankovic took the opportunity to educate us all on "Word Crimes", a message the nation actually needs to hear.

In another sense, "blurred lines" have been a problem in the past year or two, specifically about issues dealing with religion. Last year the Supreme Court had to weigh in on the objections of Hobby Lobby and other groups dissatisfied with the inclusion of certain contraceptives in mandated insurance coverage (Burwell v. Hobby Lobby). Over the last year, many opposed to the legalization of gay marriage have argued from a religious stance, though the courts continue to overturn prohibitions in state after state. A month ago, New York Public Schools caused a furor by adding two Muslim holidays to the school calendar. And just days ago, Indiana governor Mike Pence signed into law the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (SB 101), which has divided the state, with fault lines fracturing Hoosier communities and congregations. In addition, there are even older discussions with various recent flare-ups, like those about "taking back" what was once a "Christian nation" or "putting God back in schools". At this rate, arguing about religious freedom is on track to overtake baseball as the national pastime (oddly enough, while church attendance continues to decline).

One of the major obstacles in this discussion, if one can call it that, is that both ends of the spectrum are using misleading language, or at the least, intentionally blurring the lines between two concepts. I'm not suggesting that there are always easy answers to conflicts concerning religious freedom, even with more appropriate language, but certainly we could all benefit by taking a fair-minded look at some of these blurred lines:

1. "Christian nation" (or "Judeo-Christian Principles") v "Religious Freedom"

Frankly, I can't understand why there continues to be any assertion that the United States of America is founded in Christianity. Not only does Romans 13 instruct that colonists were to do the exact opposite of arming themselves to demand official representation (and other verses instruct paying taxes even without representation), but John Adams specifically addressed this assumption in Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli, one of our earliest national documents:
"As the Government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tanquillity, of Mussulmen (Muslims) ......"
That's certainly another way to look at it.
There is no mention of Christianity in the Declaration or Constitution, but there are several phrases that show how important the concept of religious freedom was to our founders - most notably the first amendment in our Bill of Rights. Having seen Europe in a constant state of religious conflict, with kings and rulers demanding at least a minimum of identification as Catholic or Anglican, this new experiment sought to welcome all faiths (or none) and require no religious belief.  There was to be no establishment of any official religion.

Why is this distinction important to recent discussions? In the most simple terms, they contradict each other. Either this is a nation for all faiths, or it is a Christian one. Even if it's not the intent, it is not difficult to infer from such statements that Christians are more "American" than others - that this country belongs to Christians, who simply let others live here. If you cherish religious freedom, as our founders did, then perhaps it is best that we lay off the claims of privilege. Christianity may have, at various times, been treated by the government as superior, but so has the male gender, or white skin. I certainly wouldn't suggest talking about "racial equality" but leading off with "America is a White nation".

2. Biblical Position v Political Position

It's easy to see why these lines get blurred, since a religious stance has at least some claim of protection, while a political position does not (outside of the normal democratic process). While I have often been told that "the Bible says" something, it should be noted that, in just the past few centuries, the Bible has said a lot of things that we no longer claim it says, about slaves, women, charging interest, and so on. Quite often, when I hear someone making some objection on religious grounds, it really comes from political idealism.

One recent example would be the national discussion on the legalization of marriage for homosexuals. If one says that they believe homosexuality is a sin, that could very well be a religious position. There are several verses that indicate as such. However, there is no verse in the Bible that even suggests that Christians should oppose the legalization of "gay marriage". That is a political position.

Interracial marriage in the Bible is not prohibited (and, in fact, Moses married a Cushite), although opposition normally took on a religious tone: 
"Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix." - Judge Leon M. Bazile, 1/6/59
Sadly, that wasn't even settled in the sixties; the Christian Bob Jones University finally allowed students to date someone outside of their own race in 2000. Yes, you read that right: the year begins with a two. The Bible does not explicitly prohibit women voting or working outside the home, nor declare it sinful to sell flowers or cakes to a person who will use it in a wedding that legally unites two persons of the same sex. If someone claims that his religion demands he (or she) take a certain position, then how can it be that others in the very same congregation, following that same religion, are adamantly opposed? Perhaps it is not the religion, but one's politics, that generate such discomfort with certain things.

3. Moral Right v Legal Right

While this will be evident to most people, there still exists a vocal minority that doesn't seem to understand that the laws of the United States are based on the Constitution, not the Bible (oddly enough, this same minority is quite critical of certain nations in the Middle East who operate under "sharia law", the idea that laws should be based on the Qur'an). As such, there will always be a freedom to act or believe outside of what may be condoned by any one particular faith, and perhaps outside what is condoned by any faith.

In America, it is legal to cheat on a spouse. I personally feel such an action is immoral, as do the overwhelming majority of Americans, but it is legally permissible. The Ku Klux Klan can legally spew hateful rhetoric about blacks. It is legal to laugh at a child with Down's Syndrome who has fallen down the stairs. Despicable, but legal - and that's just a few examples on which nearly all Americans can agree.

Even less of a case can be made to ban something legally that people may or may not find morally wrong. Though we had a national era of (alcohol) Prohibition, we corrected our course. A religious person may believe that all other religions are false and thus pose an eternal danger to adherents of those faiths, but most Americans would agree that we are a better nation by allowing all to be legal. On the other side of the coin, students of American history can point to several points in time under which a moral good, such as freeing slaves, was an illegal act.

4. Church v Business

As mentioned above, one of the bedrock principles in the founding of our nation was the concept of religious freedom. The very first amendment reads, in part, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof". You may not know it from hearing some people talk about being "under attack", but churches in America are perhaps the least burdened in the world.

Like other non-profits, churches do not pay income tax. Unlike all other non-profits, houses of worship are exempted from even having to fill out the IRS form 990 that would publicly disclose their sources of income, employee compensation, expenses, and more. Additionally, the courts have recognized a "ministerial exception" to employment discrimination laws, stating that religious groups must be free to choose their leaders without government interference. Obviously, a board choosing a new Catholic priest can't very well be forced to hire an Orthodox Jew.

A business, however, is prohibited from asking an applicant about their religious views. Where a Baptist church can get away with stating upfront, "we will not consider women for this position", a business may not. Much of the current discourse on religious freedom (from both sides) seems to ignore this separation. If gay marriage is made legal, some say, then churches will be forced to perform ceremonies they believe are sinful. Certainly not: a single man has the right to marry an atheist female today, but the Catholic Church will not marry them. Again, churches are unique in American society and law. The far left may feel that we must eradicate the ability of anyone to discriminate, and I would agree that businesses must serve the public equally, but churches must remain protected.

5. Religious Freedom v Discrimination

Even the freedoms guaranteed to Americans in the Bill of Rights are not absolute. Try joking about explosives to the TSA agent checking your bag before you hop on your next flight, and you'll quickly learn that claiming "freedom of speech" will not spare you from the consequences. There are limitations on religious freedom as well. Mormons argued against the government's push to ban polygamy, for example, in vain, and I'm sure many a self-proclaimed Rastafarian has been charged with marijuana possession.

One of the limitations on religious freedom is common law; while one is free to believe as they wish, it doesn't always mean that they may act as they wish. While government can and should make a "reasonable accommodation" for religious objectors, no magnitude of religious fervor can legally excuse discrimination. Ah, but what is (improper) discrimination? There are differing laws in every state, and lawyers make a lot of money every day by arguing what is and is not allowable in those laws. But, interestingly enough, I'd say the best answer comes from religion: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

6. Expressed Contents of Legislation v Feared Consequences of Legislation

My more conservative friends have an excellent point about the recent outrage concerning Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA): a lot of people are freaking out over (almost) nothing. The vast majority of business owners aren't going to turn down money, regardless of their religious beliefs. While it is more broad than the federal statute to which it is often compared, nothing in the bill condones discriminatory practices. It does not prevent judicial recourse, nor does it guarantee that everyone who thinks they have religious grounds for their actions will be ultimately supported by the state. It does little more than set a legal standard by which future lawsuits over certain conflicts will be judged; it sets a framework for resolving questions of religious liberty. Surely, there is a distinction that needs to be made here that the left, as a whole, seems to be ignoring: there is a difference between what a law actually says and what people fear fear may happen as a result of its passage. I completely agree that the text of the law itself carries more weight than speculation about what may or may not happen if something passes (or doesn't pass).

Of course, hearing this sort of logical defense from the right seems a little convenient...especially after years of trying to say this very same thing to outraged conservatives. The text of the Affordable Care Act does not contain any reference to a "government takeover of healthcare", "taking away the ability to choose your doctor", or establishing "death panels". Changing the top tax rate does not meet any definition of "socialism". States that have legalized gay marriage have not enacted subsequent laws allowing for bestiality.  Nothing in any legislation even proposed has contained the threat of "them coming for our guns". But now, suddenly, people need to focus on what the law actually says, and not on fearful extrapolation? As the Church Lady would say.....

7. Tolerance v Support/Agreement

I know, I know. Tolerance is a bad word. It means that no one can tell anyone else they are wrong about anything. It is just some code word for people who want to cram their beliefs down your throat, right? Part of the liberal agenda? Well, even Mike Pence appealed for tolerance on Sunday, saying, "tolerance is a two-way street". It was the one thing I believe we agreed on.

However, he evaded direct questions about the law he recently signed, and he likewise missed an opportunity to talk about that two-way street. Do critics of the political right, or of evangelical Christianity, still need to disagree with civility? Absolutely. Should people be free to express unpopular views, and to hold uncomfortable beliefs? Of course. That doesn't mean, however, that there can be no criticism. The same first amendment that guarantees us freedom of religion also grants freedom of assembly - people opposed to a law can protest. It also guarantees the freedom of the press - the media can support or condemn. I don't believe exercising these freedoms equate to "intolerance", from either side. According to the "great agnostic", Robert G. Ingersoll, "tolerance is giving to every other human being every right that you claim for yourself." 

Certainly, this does not imply agreement. There is a difference between respectful disagreement and intolerance. Unfortunately, many can't accept that difference. If I buy lunch for a friend who left his wife, am I supporting adultery? Perhaps the better question is this: if some disagreement or sin disqualifies a person from the pool of people I am to serve, then how can I serve others, at all? Who is good? None.

8. My Religious Freedom v Your Religious Freedom

This last point is somewhat of a reversal: in the above points, many people enter the conversation without distinguishing two separate things, where in this case, people tend to draw lines of exception where there can be none. Humorist Dave Barry once remarked that "if someone is nice to you but rude to the waiter, they are not a nice person." In similar fashion, the man who demands religious freedom for his own faith while actively working to limit the rights of others is not a man of principle - he is a man of convenience.

One must enter political discussions in particular with a certain level of forethought, something often absent in heated debates. I can't relay how many times, or example, I have heard people defend a law or executive action by one president, only to condemn another for using the same law or action. Anything we allow for one person, or group, or faith, must be allowable for all; equality is the foundation of justice. So, if a woman tells me that we should have teacher-led prayer in schools, and that if non-believers don't agree they can just sit and listen, I just imagine her outrage when a Muslim teacher asks the students to face Mecca. If you would not be comfortable with giving another faith the floor before a somewhat captive audience, then perhaps you can understand the opposition some have to being subject to yours.

It would be one thing if all beliefs were in fact treated equally, but one need look no further than Indiana's failed attempt to constitutionally ban gay marriages to see that politics trump principles. Even staying within the Christian faith, there are a number of denominations that believe officiating marriage ceremonies for homosexuals is simply the right and equitable thing to do. Yet the state actively worked to limit the freedoms of these churches to do so. It is certainly no coincidence that many feel "religious freedom" must be protected where the action is condoned by the Republican party, but not where the action runs counter to the GOP platform. Can the liberty of certain denominations be legally upheld, while those of others are not?

Again, keeping these things in mind may help improve communication in the charged debates over religious freedom and personal liberties, but spirited differences will continue. In an ideal world, debates about what may be allowed legally would be irrelevant, because people would do the right thing anyway. Of course, that would require some level of humility, grace, and caring about others more than ourselves. If only there was a religion like that.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Burden of Proof

In 2003, the American Film Institute released their lists of the all-time 50 greatest heroes and villains in American movies. The lists themselves could spur many discussions and debates, but it is interesting to note that the greatest hero, according to the AFI, is the principled Southern lawyer Atticus Finch, from To Kill A Mockingbird (1962). Finch represents the perfect man: a gentle, caring father and a model citizen with a hunger for justice and truth. What the list seems to ignore, however, is that heroes typically save the day - and Atticus, while successful in passing on his virtues to his daughter, ultimately fails to convince the jury that Tom Robinson is an innocent man, in spite of sound logic and a heck of a closing argument.

 To begin with, this case should never have come to trial. The state has not produced one iota of medical evidence that the crime Tom Robinson is charged with ever took place... It has relied instead upon the testimony of two witnesses, whose evidence has not only been called into serious question on cross-examination, but has been flatly contradicted by the defendant... 
The witnesses for the State, with the exception of the sheriff of Maycomb County have presented themselves to you gentlemen, to this court in the cynical confidence that their testimony would not be doubted, confident that you gentlemen would go along with them on the assumption... the evil assumption that all Negroes lie, all Negroes are basically immoral beings, all Negro men are not to be trusted around our women. An assumption that one associates with minds of their caliber, and which is, in itself, gentlemen, a lie, which I do not need to point out to you. And so, a quiet, humble, respectable Negro, who has had the unmitigated TEMERITY to feel sorry for a white woman, has had to put his word against TWO white people's! The defendant is not guilty - but somebody in this courtroom is. Now, gentlemen, in this country, our courts are the great levelers. In our courts, all men are created equal. I'm no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and of our jury system - that's no ideal to me. That is a living, working reality! Now I am confident that you gentlemen will review, without passion, the evidence that you have heard, come to a decision and restore this man to his family. In the name of GOD, do your duty. In the name of God, believe... Tom Robinson.
Sadly, but perhaps not surprisingly, the all-white, all-male jury still finds Mr. Robinson guilty. The facts of the case couldn't even create a reasonable doubt for the men who had likely made up their minds before the trial ever began. It should be noted, however, that such a tale of willful ignorance is not exclusive to the rural South, nor to decades past, nor to the subject of race.

In the 21st century, the inability (or perhaps more precisely, unwillingness) to reason is more clearly visible through the technological advances of the internet. There are entire sites built around sensational "click bait" - undocumented stories that play on known biases in an effort to generate ad revenue. These sites tell people what they want to hear, which in turn, cause people to feel like there is some legitimate support for their own views; each click is a small but instant pat on the back, an assurance that their views are legitimate, and that the views of others are not. Like Mr. Robinson's jury, the public can remain assured without the interference of fact.

The irony, of course, is that this same internet allows those of us with an interest in reality to obtain reliable information within a fraction of a second. If someone posts that unemployment is getting worse, for example, one can quickly prove the opposite with official numbers from the Department of Labor. A rumor concerning the death of an actress yesterday can be easily squashed by her tweet today. With such access to information, how can these shady sites continue to exist?

In blunt terms, it's because we don't want information, we want to be right. In a 2006 study, researchers at the University of Michigan found that "when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs." In other words, even the strongest evidence will not be enough for some.

Take, for example, the "birther" controversy concerning President Obama's place of birth. In one poll, over 40 percent of those identifying as Republicans believed that Obama was born in Kenya. Of course, there was no documentation to support this claim, but the cry continued to build for Obama to release the document proving he was born in the United States, and he eventually did so. Logic suggests that this would be the end of it, but rather than concede to the evidence, birthers merely suggested that the image was a fake. If Obama had paid for millions of official copies, and all were notarized by raised seal, and mailed directly to every household in America, there would still be many who would suggest they were fraudulent. There is nothing that could be produced that would convince those who refuse to be convinced. 

The desire for evidence is not in itself a problem, but rather the inequitable burden of proof. Nearly anything can be "evidence" to support an idea to which one is already inclined, while mountains of evidence may be easily dismissed if it is contrary to what one wants to see or hear. In terms of these bias-catering websites, they are often shared on social media without a second look (sometimes, it appears that it was sent based on a headline alone, and that the re-poster didn't even read the entire article), and if I attach a contrary synopsis from Snopes to my reply, I can expect to be "informed" that Snopes, of course, is fake. 

In church circles, this inequitable interpretation of "evidence" can be easily seen whenever a well-known church member encounters some significant tragedy. If Jim loses his job one week and his wife leaves him the next, then what does this mean? If another church member had a negative perception of Jim, then this is evidence that God is punishing him for some sin, or at least that Jim's life is falling apart because of some diminished faith. However, if Jim is well liked, then the same circumstances are evidence that - because he is so godly and therefore a threat - Satan is coming at him, trying to destroy his witness. The only difference is how much one likes or dislikes the subject.

Surely, everyone has opinions, and almost by definition believes that such opinions or positions are superior to others (or else, why would you have them?), but as J.P. Moynihan once said, "everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not to his own facts". If two friends who root for opposite teams come together to watch the Super Bowl, there is nothing wrong with each believing that his team will be victorious. But what does it say about our society if, after the game is over, they continue to disagree about who won? Is the sports page now suspect? 

Each of us carries the baggage of personal bias, yet we have a moral duty to at least attempt to reason, to acknowledge the evidence with some measure of fairness. In the name of God, do your duty.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Making It Up As They Go

"I don't know what you mean by 'glory,' " Alice said.
    Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. "Of course you don't—till I tell you. I meant 'there's a nice knock-down argument for you!' "
    "But 'glory' doesn't mean 'a nice knock-down argument'," Alice objected.
    "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."
    "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
    "The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master—that's all."
    Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. "They've a temper, some of them—particularly verbs, they're the proudest—adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs—however, I can manage the whole lot! Impenetrability! That's what I say!" 
-- From Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass (1872) 

I have to admit to feeling rather like Alice recently. 

Yes, I'm aware that people will have varying opinions, and that there will inevitably be different interpretations of written works. There are a number of theologians, for example, that have strong but opposing interpretations of the scriptures on matters more than trivial, from pacifism and capital punishment to divorce and gender roles. In the business world, attorneys representing two different parties bound by an agreement or contract may argue for opposing interpretations of the same document. In politics, elected officials and pundits wage war every day over what the US Constitution does and does not "say". As long as the human race may endure, such debates will never cease.

What concerns me is just how malleable even those interpretations have become, especially with regard to the Constitution. Just as some Christians love to wave the Bible around, and proclaim their love loudly for the Word that they may never even read (yet they are certain of what it says and what it really means), public displays of affection for the US Constitution have become almost a requirement, especially for conservatives. I do not doubt that the men and women who swear to uphold the Constitution of the United States are, in fact, sincere in their devotion to the historical document, but I am concerned that they consider it as clay, rather than of iron. Varying interpretations aside, in order for anything to have any meaning at all, there must at least be some consistency, and consistency appears to have been mortally wounded by situational pragmatism. 

Certainly, there is nothing new with the political flip-flop. Both parties have waffled on a number of issues, and continue to do so, even though curious constituents today have technology at their disposal. One can pull up videos of a politician in campaign mode and compare them to his or her words as an elected official. Fact checking sites like Snopes and PolitiFact can weed out reality from hearsay (or even engineered rumor). One recent example was the change in Senate rules known as the "nuclear option"; we can easily see for ourselves that President Obama and Harry Reid each argued against the very rule change in 2005 (when it would aid the Republican majority) that they supported just a few months ago (when it would be an advantage to Democrats). During the last presidential election, Mitt Romney was attacked by both the right and left for "being for it before he was against it", especially with regard to the hot-button issues of abortion and health care reform. It is obvious that such convenient changes in position plague both parties.

The recent focus on the Constitution of the United States, however, has caused these sadly commonplace turnarounds to evolve into something more dangerous. As mentioned earlier, there are a number of different opinions within the church on a number of issues, but the moment one adds, "the Bible says...", the line is crossed. No longer is the speaker giving a personal opinion, but wading into fact (or untruth); such escalation should not be taken lightly. Likewise, when people start throwing the Constitution around, I tend to be more critical of the speaker - and when that speaker becomes self-contradictory from a lack of consistent interpretation, I can't help but notice. 

Graham to Constitution: All of Me Loves All Some of You

Is it possible to simultaneously praise the Constitution and propose trashing some of it? Senator Lindsey Graham (SC) apparently thinks so. In the video below, Senator Graham responds to a prodding Piers Morgan concerning the second amendment.

To clarify, I agree with Senator Graham on the issue of the second amendment, and said as much in a recent post about the gun control debate. Surely, constitutional rights must not be subject to the approval of others. Senator Graham's own words at the end of this video are worth noting: 
"...if my individual rights under the Constitution are limited by the sensibility of others, I don't have a whole lot of rights."
But a subsequent amendment begins:
SECTION 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.
Yet, Senator Graham recently proposed a repeal of the 14th amendment. His apparent devotion to the COTUS extends to some amendments, but not others; his rights are protected, those of others, not so much. To be fair, Republicans split over this issue, with many objecting to the re-write, but it is interesting to note that while the majority of Republicans have labeled President Obama's efforts to expand background checks or to ban certain rifles as "an attempt to repeal the second amendment", none have suggested that Senator Graham's literal attempt to repeal a constitutional amendment makes him a threat to the Constitution. 

Birther Backtrack

No need to go into the history of this one. Anyone of legal voting age in 2008 (and perhaps even some younger) will recall the nationwide outrage over Barack Obama's place of birth. Although there was no Kenyan birth certificate to document the claim, approximately 40 percent of Republicans still believed that Obama was not born in the United States in July of 2010. Why was his birthplace of such interest to conservatives, especially those who considered themselves part of "the tea party"? The answer is found in Article 2, Section 1, Clause 5:
No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.
The interpretation of this clause was that Obama would have had to been born in the United States in order to be eligible for the presidency. I disagree with this interpretation, but again, my issue is not so much with a different view than with gross inconsistency. The Tea Party proclaimed that Obama was an ineligible fraud. So as to not also disqualify John McCain, who was born in Panama, Conservative Daily added a bit of a rider:
The phrase “natural born citizen” is widely interpreted to mean being born on American soil or being born of two American citizens....Therefore, the question becomes whether or not Barack Hussein Obama, Jr. was born in Hawaii or was he in fact born in Kenya and therefore INELIGIBLE to be the U.S. President? 
The message was repeated over and over: his foreign father was of concern; he must be able to produce an American birth certificate in order to be eligible.

Imagine my surprise, then, upon reading that in a recent poll of Tea Party conservatives, the one person with the highest amount of support in the next presidential election was none other than Rafael "Ted" Cruz, the foreign-born son of a white mother who was an American citizen by birth and an ethnic, foreign-born father. Even before this poll, Forbes Magazine pointed out the obvious and unavoidable double standard given the political rise of Senator Cruz. Apparently, the Constitution means just what some choose it to mean, and only until they choose for it to mean something else.

Following Suit

Back in 1998, Republican Whip Tom DeLay was pushing for a vote of impeachment against President Bill Clinton, for lying under oath about his sexual relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky. While some Democrats (and even President Clinton himself) were trying to steer the House response toward "censure", DeLay countered that the only recourse for the House of Representatives to reprimand the President's actions was the process of impeachment. Anything else "violates the rules of the House", Representative DeLay warned. "It's unconstitutional. It's a terrible precedent." An article in the Washington Post (December 15, 1998) echoed the same:
In their decision to remove censure as an option in the debate over how to punish the president, House Republican leaders have found comfort and cover in the Constitution, arguing that voting on the lesser penalty would violate the separation of powers and create a precedent not envisioned by the framers of the Constitution.

What exactly is constitutional? Concerning the process of impeachment, the Constitution states the following:

Article I, Section 2: "The House of Representatives shall chuse [sic] their Speaker and other Officers; and shall have to sole power of impeachment."

Article I, Section 3: "The Senate shall have to sole Power to try all Impeachments. When siting for that Purpose, they shall be on Oath or Affirmation. When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside: And no Person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two thirds of the Members present.

Article II, Section 4: "The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors."

Once again, my point here is not to support President Obama or to take sides one way or the other if the use of executive orders qualifies as "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors". Some believe that the President has acted unlawfully, and some do not, largely by party lines, and the Constitution does give the House of Representatives the sole discretion of deciding what qualifies as an impeachable offense. They are then to vote on it, and if there is more "yea" than "nay", the case goes to the Senate, presided over by the Chief Justice. This is the avenue provided to the House by the Constitution of the United States.

The Constitution does not mention "censure", nor allow for the Speaker of the House to sue the President on behalf of the entire House of Representatives. In spite of this inconvenient truth, the House voted on July 30th to authorize such action. In other words, Speaker Boehner suggested that the President had acted beyond the authority granted to him by the Constitution of the United States, and that in response the House would act beyond the authority granted to it by the Constitution of the United States. While suggesting that the President was trying to circumvent the process of amending law, House Republicans were writing HRES 676, which appears to be an attempt to circumvent the process of impeachment.

Calls to impeach the current president have been fairly constant over the past few years; in fact, the cry to impeach Barack Obama began as soon as he won the 2008 election, before he even took office. Much like Super Bowl Champion hats and T-shits, there were boxes of signs and bumper stickers urging impeachment ready to go in case the McCain/Palin ticket was unsuccessful. In my opinion, while there are some actions by the Obama administration that I can't agree with, nothing is so egregious as to require a vote of impeachment. I understand that many Republicans disagree with that, and they are welcome to make a case for impeachment. Going through the back door, however, is exactly what they claim to be fighting against.