Thursday, November 18, 2004

A Geographical Theory of Winning in 2008

Look at the electoral maps of 2000 and 2004. The geographical pattern is striking, allowing for minor exceptions. The blue Democratic states are the Northeast, the upper Midwest, and the states bordering the Pacific. The red Republican states are the Southeast, Southwest, lower Midwest, mountain and plains states. A pre-Civil War map showing free (blue) and slave (red) states and territories almost exactly matches the electoral map of 2004. While electoral maps of many other years would not be this striking, a geographical factor is present, except in blowout years like 1936, 1972, and 1984. Look at it another way. Democrats won the large cities, while Republicans won the small towns and rural areas, with the suburbs split. Divisions are also noticeable with regard to income, education,, religion, race and ethnicity, age, marital status, and gender, but geography is relevant to many of these as well. Zip code is an important clue all by itself. Since this is a blog and not a book, what can we learn from this? Geography is a useful clue to many other things -- history, economics, religion, and culture. The geography of the South, e. g., was conducive to cotton growing and therefore slavery, which has deeply affected its entire history. Geographical factors account in part for immigration patterns and the Protestant domination of the South. Geography is a component of, if not clue to, how things worked out in other areas with regard to economics, culture, and religion. So what does this mean for 2008? Assuming that the situation will remain much like it is now in terms of red and blues states as is probable, ask how the blue states can be preserved for the Democrats while reaching out to enough other states that can be likely won to win the election. Some decisions are easy. Massachusetts is probably a safe bet if the Democrats don't do something crazy, but forget Utah for a while. Either Florida or Ohio is probably a must, remembering that a shift of only 70,000 votes in Ohio in 2004 would have given the victory to Kerry. Looking toward 2008, Democrats live in tension between holding true to their values and getting elected. How to win without losing your soul -- that is the question. With Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia, we risk losing our soul. With Sen. Hillary Clinton, we risk losing the election. My sentimental favorites at the moment are John Edwards and Barack Obama, but time may question the wisdom of one or both. But to begin with candidates, issues, and values is to get the cart before the horse. We need to start with geographical, historical cultural factors and make a structural analysis of where enough more votes can come from next time to enlarge the number of blue states. Then we can match messenger and message to that purpose.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Dan Rather, CBS, and Media Triviality

Rivals to CBS in dealing with the Dan Rather story remind me of sharks who have tasted blood circling in for the kill. They repeat the Rather fiasco ad nauseum with a hint of glee. They stubbornly cling to their obsession even when guests remind them that they are obscuring the damaging facts about Bush's military service. They continue to pounce on CBS, neglecting the far more important story about the favoritism showed to George W. Bush because of his name and connections, enabling him to have a cushy National Guard assignment that saved him from Vietnam or more onerous duties. He did not even fulfill the obligations he did accept. That story does not depend on the spurious documents aired by CBS. His less than commendable service record has been demonstrated by major newspapers and numerous Internet sources. This lack of perspective on the part of the media is disgusting. Even more egregious is the way both stories divert attention from the disaster in Iraq and the economic mess at home. The poor and middle class have been sold out to the wealthiest Americans and the giant corporations who get obscene tax cuts from an administration that is a catastrophe for ordinary, working-class Americans. The President has basically turned domestic policymaking over to big businesses who want low taxes, reduced spending for average Americans and the poor, and no regulation of their predations. The Bush Administration beguiles lower-income conservatives with one hand on matters like abortion, gay marriage, and gun control while robbing them with the other hand by failing to provide good jobs at decent wages, adequate health care, and other services to improve their everyday lives. Conservatives want poor mothers to work but are not willing to fund the child care and support services essential to their working full time. The rich get the ham, bacon, and pork chops, while the working poor are lucky if they get the pig's feet and lips. Now that's a story the media ought to be telling instead of narcissistically focusing on the Rather sideshow which, after all, is about themselves.

Friday, June 04, 2004

Faith Based Human Charities and Services

The issue of government support for faith-based human services is full of complications, dangers, ambiguities, and subtleties. The beauty of religiously-oriented social ministries is the potential for dealing with people as whole selves, i. e., giving them food for the soul as well as for the body. But this very unity poses the problem of how it is Constitutionally licit for the government to enable the providing of secular bread without funding sectarian religion. If, on the other hand, the delivery of goods and services to the needy is totally divorced from the religious dimension, in what meaningful sense is it any longer faith-based, apart from merely being sponsored by a religious group? Why shouldn't the government fund a church soup kitchen if all that is dispensed is soup? Because, we say, what the church would spend on soup can now be spent on the church bus. But maybe they would just serve more soup. Maybe the soup itself is a witness to the faith behind it, but if it is, is that not a sponsorship of religion? Would the government discriminate against some religious groups? Would giving government money to churches tend to dull the prophetic urge to be critical of the state? Would the government require conformity to certain rules that would restrict church autonomy? What is a religious group? What does faith-based mean? Can we think our way through this thicket without falling into confusion?

A strict and purist position on these matters is impossible in practical terms. Many lines have to be drawn in shades of gray. We have to do a lot of British "muddling through." Those who look for absolutely clear prescriptions requiring no delicate balancing acts are doomed to perpetual frustration. Or they may be tempted to resort to desperate efforts to find purity of doctrine by suppressing legitimate elements in the total ensemble of principles that govern the nation.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Bush's Supporters Deluded About His Character and Integrity?

A large percentage of Bush supporters consistently give his character and integrity as the primary reason. This is the President who misled us about WMD in Iraq in order to get us into an unnecessary war he had wanted to find some excuse for from the beginning of his tenure. The Washington Post (May 31) documents the claim that Bush is approving TV ads that either lie about or badly distort Kerry's record. Bush has presented himself as a "compassionate conservative" but has already announced proposed cuts in next year's budget that will harm the poor, including nutrition for women, infants and children, and Head Start. He has given huge tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans and run up a gargantuan debt that will hurt Social Security and Medicare. For most Americans the losses from cuts in social programs will outweigh the gains of his tax cuts. The result of Bush's policies will be a transfer of wealth from ordinary folks to the very wealthy. Most Americans will be worse off and the already rich will become even richer, some obscenely so. All thinking people know that you cannot at one and the same time have a war, huge tax cuts, and be "compassionate" toward the poor. Is Bush incompetent and ignorant, or is he a deceiver, a hypocrite deficient in character and integrity? Whatever the answer, it inspires no reason to reelect him in 2004.


Sunday, May 30, 2004

Bush and Prison Atrocities

President Bush says that the atrocities at Abu Ghraid are not representative of America. However, the evidence is that they are not uncharacteristic of what goes on in Texas jails and other states too.

Simply stated, the culture of sadistic and malicious violence that continues to pervade the ... prison system violates contemporary standards of decency.

"That conclusion, written by Judge William Wayne Justice, does not describe Abu Ghraib in Iraq last fall, but the Texas prison system in 1999 when George W. Bush was still governor there." (The Christian Science Monitor, May 20, 2004)

Among more than sixty countries, only Russia has a rate of over 600 incarcerations per 100,000 inhabitants. The US rate in 2002 was 702, with a total prison population of 2,033,331. The top five are:
1 United States 2,033,331
2 China 1,549,000
3 Russian Federation 846,967
4 India 313,635
5 Brazil 308,304

Source: International Centre for Prison Studies, World Prison Brief

Either we are an extremely lawless country, a nation of outlaws and thugs, or there is something wrong here. President Bush should be cautious when he speaks of how unAmerican the events at Abu Ghraib were. The President says Jesus is his favorite philosopher. I suggest he meditate on Matthew 7:1-5. Then perhaps he could rid himself of the pretense of American innocence and proceed to confession, repentance, and a call for a world-wide campaign to humanize prison conditions, beginning with our own. A start would be to do away with the harsh, racially-discriminatory drugs laws that fill our jails, break up families, and set in motion a repeating cycle of tragedy and suffering. Per dollar spent, treatment is far more efficient and effective.

Friday, May 28, 2004

Kerry, the Albatross, and the Trumpet of Uncertain Sound

Added to the fact that John Kerry is an inept campaigner -- weak in substance, style, and personality -- is the fact that he is in a sea with "water, water all around and not a drop to drink." He inherited this albatross from the Democratic past and may not be able to get rid of it. The problem for Democrats began in the 1960's when they started to take liberal positions on the race issue, and the South began its shift to Republican majorities. To race was added in the next decades an ensemble of other cultural and social issues -- Vietnam, abortion, women's liberation, gun control, gay and lesbian demands for justice, prayer in school, pornography, and the like. The problem was that many of the constituencies that Democrats historically appealed to since FDR are cultural traditionalists and were offended by the shift of Democrats toward the progressive side. Southern whites and working class people everywhere, including many Catholics and union members, especially men -- formerly staunch members of the Democratic coalition -- faced a conflict between their economic interests and their traditional attitudes. This disaffection was skillfully promoted by Nixon, Reagan, and now Bush -- aided and abetted by the Christian right, conservative think tanks, radio, etc. -- with great success. Meanwhile the Democrats were becoming more upscale with pro-business attitudes and moderate to liberal cultural views while the unions grew weaker. Conservatives and reactionaries took over the Republican party and marginalized moderate Republicans. Contrary to standard economic theory, people frequently vote their moral values and not simply their economic class self-interests.

Democrats have won the presidency only with moderate Southerners who managed to finesse the problem by skillful combination of some progressive economic policies and pragmatically bobbing and weaving on the cultural issues of interest to women, blacks, gays, lesbians, and many upscale voters (especially those in the knowledge industries). Increasingly bound to business and wealthy donors, the populist message is hard to sell among Democrats and is discouraged by the Democratic Leadership Council, who were fond of Clinton and later Gore, except when he attacked big business.

So now the Democrats confront a baffling question: Why do the masses of ordinary people of modest and low income not get outraged by huge tax cuts for the wealthy, including the estate tax which only rich people pay? One clue is that people vote on taxes depending on whether they think they are being taxed unfairly, not realizing that the Bush tax policies benefit the very rich and deny ordinary folks needed social services. Why don't the poor vote, since that is the only way they can get their interests met? Many lower middle and middle class people vote Republican because of their military militancy, patriotism, and cultural conservatism, but why don't they pressure Republicans to be more attentive to their economic interests instead of passively going along?

Meanwhile, the established parties, especially Republicans, have managed to create a set of political arrangements driven by the power of wealth and incumbency, along with the rigging of congressional districts, that make it difficult for insurgents to win office. Consequently, incumbents can vote for regressive policies without much fear of defeat, except when massive citizen outrage develops, which is all too rare. So the rich enjoy low taxes and disproportionate political power. The result is a society in which both economic and political inequality dominate.

If they could get outraged and moderate their cultural conservatism for a moment, the masses of ordinary working people with modest and low incomes could elect reformers even with all the power of wealth and incumbency against them. They could appropriately tax the rich, provide better health care, guarantee Medicare and Social Security, and in general improve their lot. But it is not likely to happen.

So Kerry has the albatross created by recent history around his neck with a nearly impossible task. Given his uninspiring, inept campaign, and his entrapment by his own past voting record and wobbly views, it looks grim for progressives. St. Paul asks "if the trumpet gives an uncertain sound, who will get ready for battle?" (I Cor. 14:8). With the albatross around his neck and his trumpet giving a muffled sound, we can only hope that Bush will look so bad that the ABB phenomenon will occur, i. e., anybody but Bush. But given Kerry's own membership in the aristocracy, only modest results will follow even then, especially if the Republicans continue to control Congress. The best progressives can hope for in the near future is a Clinton-type president (preferably with his zipper up). This prospect will not change much apart from major demographic shifts or events that shake things up.

See: Thomas Frank, "Lie Down for America:How the Republican Party Sows Ruin on the Great Plains," Harper's Magazine (April 2004), and Christopher Jencks, "Our Unequal Democracy," The American Prospect (June 2004).

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Interpreting the Bible

The country folks I grew up with said, "You can prove anything by the Bible." They were 99% right.

There is only one rule of hermeneutics: No Christian allows the Bible when speaking as the authoritative Word of God for today to teach anything he or she knows or believes strongly (for whatever reasons) to be either untrue or immoral.

A thorough study reveals that 97.3459% of the time the Bible functions as a mirror in which the interpreter finds the Bible to teach what that interpreter believes. I made the study myself listening to Bible-believing people for the last 70 years.

To ask, What would Jesus do? is the same as asking what conclusion do I reach when I appeal to my highest ideals.

If is often true that the higher the authority attributed to Scripture, the more perverse the ethics that result.

Gay Marriage

The opposition to gay marriage is not based on rational or moral considerations. If it were, convincing reasons could be given in support of the position. Three reasons in particular are typically offered, but none is compelling. All fail to make the case.

1. Homosexuality and gay marriage are contrary to nature. Natural law is supposed to provide a rational basis for morality that all competent reasoners can recognize. A good theory, but it doesn't work,since fully rational persons come to divergent conclusions. In the argument over female suffrage, e. g., both the proponents and the opponents appealed to "self-evident" natural law. The test of universality fails. Problems abound:

A. Natural law is always what somebody says it is. There is no universal agreement today about what natural law teaches about gay marriage or many other subjects. What is called natural law regarding homosexuality is nothing more than a cultural belief or individual conviction given transcendent authority by locating it in the very moral structure of the universe and the mind of God. Some natural law claims may indeed reflect an objective order of truth and value, but we cannot be sure of that, and we cannot know for sure which claims,if any, in fact do so. The claim that reason rightly employed will produce universal claims cannot bear close scrutiny, since natural law changes on particular issues with cultural consciousness and interpreters past and present disagree about what natural law requires.

B. Natural law has been used in the past to defend what nearly everybody now recognizes to be evil. Slavery, the denial of the vote to women, and the segregation of the races were said in times past to be in accordance with natural law. Opinions about what natural law requires on particular subjects changes with changing cultural values. The only way to get universal agreement is to stay at some very high level of generality, e. g., that good is to be done and evil avoided. Duh!

Hence, the argument from natural law fails. It is no more than somebody's current opinion.

2. Homosexuality is condemned by Scripture. So it is in Leviticus 20:13 and perhaps in Romans 1:26-27. The problem here is that those who find compelling authority in particular passages must also affirm that gay men be killed like the Leviticus passage says, that men can sell their daughters into slavery (Exodus 21:7)and that disobedient sons should be stoned to death (Deut. 21:18-21. Slavery is nowhere condemned in the Bible, and is everywhere assumed. Those who condemn homosexuality use the supportive texts that are available but conveniently ignore other passages that would require them to do things that are abhorrent to them and most everybody else. There is a lot of bad morality in specific passages. Biblical morality must be judged by what is highest and best in its witness. Paul's best advice was given in Romans 13:8-10 and I Corinthians 6:12. Love of neighbor fulfills the law, and all things are permitted that are not harmful and that are helpful. Responsible same-sex love harms no one; it is helpful for those who find fulfillment in it; and it is the fulfillment of the law of love.

3. Gay sex and marriage are harmful to society. No good reason can be given to justify this claim. Heterosexual marriage could go on as always. No one would be harmed, and gay people would be greatly benefited. What are the bad consequences that would follow? Who would be hurt? What would be lost that is worth preserving? I have yet to see a persuasive argument that individuals or society as a whole would harmed. What we need is a change of attitude, thinking, and law.

Instead of persuasive reasons, what we get are ungrounded assertions,dogmatic pronouncements, taboo, visceral reactions based on upbringing, cultural traditions, bad religion, and the like, none of which will stand rational scrutiny in light of the highest moral principles of reason and Scripture.

For a more detailed version of these ideas, see:

Friday, May 21, 2004

Misunderstandings of Religion and Politics

Comments in the media on the relation of religion and politics frequently betray ignorance, prejudice, and confusion. Many journalists think there are only two options:

1. faith dictates political policies.
2. faith is a private matter and has no implications for political decision-making.

Some examples:

E. J. Dionne, Jr., in his op-ed piece "Kerry and his church" (The Washington Post, May 4), refers, to John Kennedy's statement that his faith would have no effect on how he governed. This is not Dionne's position, but Kennedy is widely quoted as having the right idea.

Andrew Sullivan, in Time (May 24, p. 94), suggests that John Kerry has to convince the Catholic Church that he is not “too American, I mean in the sense that religious faith is a personal matter, that it can be sealed off from public life, that it doesn’t dictate political views on any one issue or another.” Being American implies on this view a total divorce of faith and politics.

Brian Urquhart, in The New York Review of Books (June 10, p.10), speaking of President Bush’s frequent use of religious language in public discourse, raises the question of “where, in public, personal faith should stop and national leadership begin,” as if the two were opposites on a continuum, so that pure national leadership would totally exclude personal faith.

For the secular purists, the second is the American way. Many suspect the first is a violation of church and state. There is a third alternative that is usually ignored. It can be stated as follows:

3. Religious faith has implications for politics, (the truth in 1 missed in 2.) but in our diverse society of many faiths and no faith, these implications should be stated, not in the religious terms of a particular denomination (the perversion of 1) but translated into the values found in the secular American tradition (the truth in 2). Position 2 implies that persons of faith must get their political values someplace other than their faith. The truth in 2 is that in a pluralistic society like ours politicians should not use the language of a particular religion or denomination. Moreover, religious doctrine as such has no authority in the political arena. The appeal must be to common values resident our secular history and culture. If politicians do use religiously-based language, it may be bad practice, but it is not a violation of church and state.

Some elaboration may be helpful, and while I speak only on Christians, the same would hold true for Jews, Muslims, and others. Christians have membership in two communities. They are believers in the church and citizens in the world. As church members Christians speak theologically in the language their faith provides them. As American citizens they speak the secular language provided by the American political tradition. When they assume one membership, the other is presupposed, and usually there is no reason to make the distinction. They form an organic whole. In ordinary life we move easily between the two sets of language and mix them constantly in ways that cause no confusion. However, when a Christian formally enters the political realm in our pluralistic society, other considerations come into play. Christians must remain true to their faith but speak to people of diverse religious persuasions as well as to pure secularists. Here is how it should go.

Faith has moral, social, and political implications. In church, believers can deal with these implications in religious terms. As citizens in the public sphere, they will speak of these implications in the language of the secular American political tradition as found in the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and other founding documents, writings, presidential speeches, Supreme Court decisions, and so on. They can even quote Jesus, the prophets and the apostles on the campaign trail as cultural figures of our past with sound ideas and values but not, as such, authoritative for secular politics.

The point is that Christian politicians do (should) not say that faith is a purely private matter and does not influence their politics in any way. What a travesty that would be! And it should provide more than a vague moral inspiration to do good things for people. They should say (or at least know in their hearts) that their faith is presupposed in all they say and do, but in politics they will use the language of the American tradition (which does contain some God language after all) to express the political implications of their private religion. As believers they know (or should) that Christian love and biblical justice, e. g., require universal health care, but they will advocate for it in the public sphere not in the language of Jesus, the prophets, and the apostles but submit that it will facilitate life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, will do justice for all, enhance equality, and promote the common welfare in accordance with American ideals.

The notion that faith is a purely private matter and contributes nothing but a moral urge to do what is right and just is an impoverished, insipid view of things. It abstracts faith from the whole of life. It also leaves open the question of where the candidate with a politically irrelevant faith does get his/her ideas, values, and convictions. They come from somewhere. It is legitimate to insist that a candidate must not claim that her/his proposals are valid because the Pope, the Bible, or religious dogma authorizes them and for that reason alone. If someone enters the public arena, the political and policy implications of that personal faith should embody the values of the secular American tradition and be stated in the language that heritage provides. There is enough congruity between Christian political ethics and the highest ideals of American history to make that proposal work. Christians may, of course, reasonably differ on what a detailed elaboration of Christian social ethics will contain.

Sunday, May 16, 2004

Kennedy and His Church

President Kennedy has been much and often praised lately because he indicated that religion was a private matter and would not affect his presidential decision making.It is the right way to relate religion and politics say the commentators. I think Kennedy's position is profoundly ambiguous and deeply flawed.

Speaking to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960 at a time when his Catholicism had raised questions about his full adherence to the separation of church and state, John F. Kennedy said that church-state issues were not the most important matters. The real concerns were "the hungry children I saw in West Virginia, the old people who cannot pay their doctor bills, the families forced to give up their farms -- an America with too many slums, with too few schools." These "are not religious issues -- for war and hunger and ignorance and despair know no religious barriers." He asserted that religion is a private matter. He went on to assure the Baptists in this way:

Whatever issues may come before me as President -- on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject -- I will make my decision . . . in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.

To steal from Immanuel Kant, we have here a "nest of dialectical difficulties." Let us analyze these assertions one by one.

1. Kennedy says hunger, health care, war, and the like are not religious issues because they "know no religious barriers." If he means that all great religions urge care and compassion for the needy, that is true. Perhaps he means also that non-religious people may be in favor of feeding the hungry. In any case, that does not mean that they are "not religious issues." Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism all think they are. Jesus certainly thought feeding the hungry was central to faith in God. Matthew 25:31-46 makes it clear that one's eternal destiny depends on just such things.

2. Kennedy further states that religion is "a private matter." If he means that religion is a matter of inward piety and love of God in the hearts of individual persons, that cannot be disputed. But that does not mean that trust in God has no essential connection with morality, social ethics, or politics. Inward, private piety has ethical and social consequences. Individual religion has political implications. The prophets of Israel left no doubt about that.

3. Finally, Kennedy says that he will be guided by his own conscience and that he will not be dictated to by religious authorities. If he means that he will not let Catholic Bishops or the Pope or church dogma dictate his political choices, that is worthy and commendable. But we are entitled to ask what informs his conscience. If it is not in some significant way guided by his religion, then he has some explaining to do about what does inform his politics. Morality and social ethics rest on something, depend on some set of assumptions about right and wrong, good and evil. If his conscience is not guided at all by his religion, then we need to ask what kind of religion he has or is referring to. It does not sound like the Roman Catholic Christianity he professes to believe. Kennedy says he will be guided by what his conscience tells him is the "national interest." But is the national interest totally devoid of moral considerations? I hope not.

Kennedy wants to assert his unqualified belief in the separation of church and state, but he gets tripped up by seeming to confuse this with religion and politics. Given the setting, it may be that the main point he wanted to make was his independence of church authorities and Catholic dogma in governing the country. Perhaps he feared that any mention of a connection between his religious faith and his moral commitments might intensify the problem he was trying to get out of the way. Nevertheless, the statements quoted show little understanding of the complex relation between faith, conscience, morality, and social ethics. They show no awareness that in biblical religion ones relation to God has consequences for how we treat other people, especially the weak, the outcasts, and the sick and hungry. In our time and society that necessarily has a political dimension, since we have to ask what we can do together as a nation to help the helpless, seek peace among nations, and promote justice for all. A purely private, inward piety that does not have social and political implications is not one, I hope, that upon reflection Mr. Kennedy would want to defend.

The missing ingredient, I would urge, is that he should acknowledge that his religion has political consequence but that he would express the implications of his private faith in language and values located in secular American history and traditions, especially those articulated in the founding documents. He should state them as American ideas and ideals not in theological or religious or Catholic terms. This assumes, of course, that there is sufficient congruity between Christian faith and secular American ideals to allow this proposition to work. I assert that there is. In fact, one of the sources of the values enshrined in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence is the Bible.

These simple distinctions and clarifications are absent in most politicians and journalists. They have simplistic views that will not stand close scrutiny in terms of a sophisticated and defensible understanding of the relation of private religious faith to public political policy.

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

John Kerry and his Church

When John Kerry was asked by the Interfaith Alliance about the relation of religious faith to political decision-makind, he made a good statement. Faith, he said, is "your guidepost. . . your moral compass." We must do whatever "make sense to everybody that allows for the full diversity of our country, doesn't speak to one particular religion or one particular belief, but brings people together around a set of values that we share as a nation." Your moral compass is behind what "you transfer into policy, without in fact talking about it every minute and translating it into whatever your article of faith is."

I agree with Kerry, although I would put it a little differently. Religious faith has political implications. But those implications should be translated into language that arises out of secular American history and tradition, especially the founding documents. They should be advocated, not because the Bible, the Pope, or the church says so, but because they represent authentic American values. Given Roman Catholic pressure on him to oppose abortion, the question for John Kerry is whether he will allow his church to dictate his views or whether he will make his own translation of faith into the language of American tradition. Kerry should support pro-choice because it promotes liberty, justice, and the common welfare and is an implication of his religious faith as he interprets it. The other possibility, of course, is that his position on abortion is a matter of pure political expediency! I am not at all suggesting that, although he could not run as a Democrat if he capitulated to the Roman Catholic hierarchy.


The most profound understanding of the relation of religion and politics I know of is found in a speech by Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York in an address at the University of Notre Dame September 13, 1984. He was dealing with the question as to whether he as a Catholic was bound to adopt a position against abortion in accordance with the teachings of the church. His answer was that he was not necessarily bound to do so.

Our public morality, then – the moral standards we maintain for everyone, not just the ones we insist on in our private lives – depends on a consensus view of right and wrong. The values derived from religious belief will not – and should not – be accepted as part of the public morality unless they are shared by the pluralistic community at large, by consensus. That those values happen to be religious values does not deny them acceptability as a part of this consensus. But it does not require their acceptability, either.

. . . the question whether to engage the political system in a struggle to have it adopt certain articles of our belief as part of public morality is not a matter of doctrine: it is a matter of prudential political judgment.

Yes, we create our public morality through consensus and in this country that consensus reflects to some extent religious values of a great majority of Americans. But “no,” all religiously based values don’t have an a priori place in our public morality. The community must decide if what is being proposed would be better left to private discretion than public policy; whether it restricts freedom, and if so to what end, to whose benefit; whether it will produce a good or bad result; whether overall it will help the community or merely divide it.

1. Cuomo clearly recognizes that church and state is not the same problem as religion and politics.

2. He recognizes that religiously-based values have a legitimate place in public political discourse, but they have no privileged status since we have to find a moral consensus in a pluralistic society that includes a variety of religious belief and unbelief.

3. Political policies must be judged by whether they are best for the society as a whole, whether they promote peace, justice, freedom, and equality for all, not by whether they have religious sanction in some specific religion or denomination.

4. Christians as citizens and as public officials have to make an attempt to balance the moral truths they hold against political realities. Pragmatic judgments must be made which may require a compromise of the personal morality they espouse is persons of faith.

Saturday, May 01, 2004

Sharon's Ultimate Goal and Interim Maneuvering

With respect to Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, the fundamental question here is, as always, whether his ultimate intent is to do to the Palestinians what we did to Native Americans – beat them into helpless submission in isolated territories. Avi Shlaim, renowned Oxford University historian thinks it is: “His real agenda is to .. . smash the Palestinians into the ground, and to extinguish hope for independence and statehood.” (The Observer, April 14, 2002) Hence we have to distinguish between his tactical maneuvering for pragmatic purposes and his ultimate goal. Shlaim compiles the evidence in his book, The Iron Wall.

Monday, April 26, 2004

Confusion about Religion and Politics

The issue of church and state is not the same as religion and politics. Confusion on this point is nearly universal among journalists and politicians alike. Church and state has to do with institutions and practices. Here separation is the rule. Religion and politics has to do with the relationship between personal faith and its political expression. In their confusion, many think that separation is the rule here too. Religion, they think, is a purely private, inward matter and has no relationship to politics beyond inspiring a vague moral urge to do good things for people. There is much more to it than that for the serious religious person. Religion is a personal matter, but it also has consequences for social policy beyond mere inspiration. Here is where things get complicated. The truth in the separation position is that the political implications of religious faith should not be expressed in the vocabulary peculiar to a particular religious tradition but should be translated into language found in American history and tradition, especially in the founding documents. Christians in the political realm should not appeal to the Bible, Jesus, the Pope, or any sectarian dogma or value. As such, religious beliefs have no secular authority, are not a legitimate appeal in political discourse in the public realm. Christians, Jews, and Muslims should not argue politically for universal health care by appealing to the Hebrew or Christian Scriptures or the Koran but support it because it would contribute to liberty, equality, and justice for all, would promote the general welfare, enlarge the common good. Hence, personal religion can be expressed legitimately in the public and political arena if its peculiar theological vocabulary is translated into language common to all Americans as defined by our secular history, moral traditions, and social values.

Friday, April 23, 2004

Various and Sundry

The Scorpion and the Turtle: The Middle East and Despair
The best approximate justice possible should be sought for the State of Israel and the Palestinian people. It would help enormously if the United States could say outright that Israel is an oppressor and an occupying power. Unfortunately political realities make it impossible to acknowledge that what the United States did to Native Americans, Israel has done twice in Palestine. The Book of Joshua tells the first story, and the second occurred mainly in 1948 and 1967. Israel insists that the Palestinians must stop the violence before progress can be made toward a Palestinian state. But this assumes that Israel and the Palestinians start as moral equals, forgetting that Israel is an unjust occupier of Palestinian territory. Irresponsibility is exclusive to neither party. The political process is driven by the extremists on both sides, robbing moderates of a prevailing influence. Reasonable, fair-minded Israelis and Palestinians are sick of the suffering and want peace in a practical settlement that will please no one completely but will partially redeem the tragedy of the Middle East.

Is there any hope? The scorpion asked the turtle for a ride across the stream, saying “I cannot swim.” The turtle refused out of fear of being stung by the scorpion. “Don’t be silly,” said the scorpion. “If I sting you, we will both die.” So the turtle gave the scorpion a ride. In mid-stream, the scorpion stung the turtle on the neck. “Now we will both die. Why did you do that,” said the turtle in despair. Replied the scorpion, “Well, that’s the Middle East for you.”

Quasi-Acerbic Oddities 1
Shame on CBS for showing pictures of the dying Princess Diana. But is it not hypocritical for the British tabloids that hounded her for years to be outraged at this violation of her dignity?

The ads for Levitra are getting so explicit they border on the scandalous. Poor Levitra, it has no advantage over Viagra and cannot claim to work for thirty-six hours like Cialis. So what can Levitra do but get more sexy, since everybody knows, sex sells.

Give President Bush credit for setting aside more wetlands, but is it not ironic, not to say annoying, to have him speak on Earth Day -- he who has done everything possible to benefit corporate polluters by trimming back on environmental controls?

Of course, the Bush Administration does not want us to see pictures of coffins containing dead soldiers. It would spoil the illusion they want to foster that this war is almost painless, nearly costless, calling for no sacrifice for non-military families and allowing for generous tax cuts for the wealthy.

What is it with us Americans that we get so upset over Janet Jackson's momentary "wardrobe malfunction" and are so complacent, so accepting, of the constant, pervasive, gross, gratuitous violence in movies and video games and on TV? Why are we so offended by the nano-second sighting of a female breast and so oblivious to the dangers associated with the easy access to guns?

Why are so many Democrats so enthusiastic about a possible presidential run for Hillary Clinton given that she is increasingly a hawk close to Bush on Iraq and military matters? (New York Times, April 23, 2004)

The Bush record at home and abroad should allow Kerry to toss grenades into the President's candidacy. Am I the only one who thinks Kerry keeps throwing cotton balls? Is Kevin Phillips right that Kerry is not capable -- in substance and style -- of going for the jugular, partly because he is himself such a part of the wealthy corporate class whose play-house needs upsetting?

Petty annoyances of daily life
Saturday, April 24, 2004
No one who designs packaging will get into heaven until after they have spent a thousand years trying to open their own products.

Why do companies ask you to put the amount sent in a little box right after amount due? The bill is $23.67, so why don't I say, well, how about maybe $14.54? Look at the check, dummy. It is for the amount due, what did you expect?

And what about all the junky stuffy that comes along with the bill? I put it back in with my payment. Let them dispose of their own trash.

And what about those flaps on the payment envelopes that have to be torn off that ask for your change of address ? I move once for about every 100 of those useless flaps.

And how many things do you have to tear off before you can send bill and payment back? It saves them money, and you do the work. I wish those responsible well while they tear off stuff working beside the package designers for a thousand years purging their sin.

Wednesday, 21 April 2004
Gas Tax So Sensible It Has No Chance.

The one dollar a gallon gas tax proposed by Andrew Sullivan (Time,April 19, 2004,104) is so eminently wise and has so many medium and long-term benefits for the country that it will be soundly ignored, denounced, and screamed at by the Congress, the President, and the bulk of the American public because of our short-sightedness, self-centeredness, and shallow thinking. I would, however, propose a gradual increment of ten cents a gallon over time and maybe consider a fifty cent maximum at the moment to reduce the economic shock.

Hey, there's a war on. What about a little sacrifice on everybody's part instead of placing the burden on middle and lower middle class, low income folks and minorities who fight our wars, shed blood, and die -- often for the foolish schemes of our leaders whose own children get MBA's and law degrees in classes with the offspring of the wealthy instead of dying in battle? Maybe a draft with a minimum of non-health exemptions might sober us up to the costs of war. Just a thought.

Updated: Wednesday, 21 April 2004 6:36 PM EST
Tuesday, 20 April 2004

Woodward and the War, Bush and Bandar

A lot of double-talk and clever seizing of ambiguities of language has taken place since the Woodward book came out.

1. Woodward says Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia was told of the decision to go to war before Colin Powell was. Powell says he was in on the war planning. So both can claim to be right.

2. Prince Bandar is a clever soul and can wiggle himself out of most anything. He is as slippery as a cat fish fresh out of water. He acknowledged that Woodward was right about the hope to lower oil prices before the election but not, mind you, to influence the election but for the good of the world economy. Never mind that he also said the Saudis hoped that every incumbent would win, not that they ever wanted to influence an election, indicating that similar statements had been made to Carter and the first White House Bush.

These details aside, Woodward confirms what Richard Clark and Paul O'Neill have said: the Bush Administration early on was eager to find a reason to topple Saddam Hussein. They seized on every bit of evidence and interpreted (manipulated?) it to serve their cause from the beginning. Cheney was especially obsessed, having been the Secretary of Defense during the first war against Iraq and had unfinished business with that regime. And are we to believe that the younger Bush had no feelings about the guy who tried to kill his Dad, namely, Saddam himself, and that only thoroughly rational strategic considerations entered into his thinking?

Many of us think that decision was tragically wrong. The Bush Administration changed its rationale every time the prevailing one was demolished by the facts. No evidence showed that, even if Saddam had WMD, that he was on the verge of using them, which would have been the only justification for a preemptive strike.

Updated: Friday, 23 April 2004 10:49 AM EST
Sunday, 18 April 2004
How to Relate Religious Faith to Politics

Jesus and Jefferson

1. Religion and politics is not the same issue as church and state. 2. We must distinguish between religious faith and its political implications. 3. It is legitimate for citizens express the social ideals and principles rooted in their religious faith in the political arena, but they should express them in language and values located in secular American history and traditions, especially those articulated in the founding documents.

Church and State
The problem of church and state has to do with institutions and practices. Neither must trespass the boundaries that define its legitiimate sphere of action. Here the concept of separation is valid.

Religion and Politics
Religion and politics has to do with two spheres of activities in the life of the same persons. Citizens who belong to religious groups are also members of the secular society, and this dual association generates complications. Religious beliefs have moral and social implications, and it is appropriate for people of faith to express these through their activities as citizens in the political order. The fact that ethical convictions are rooted in religious faith does not disqualify them from the political realm. However, they do not have secular validity merely because they are thought by their exponents to be religiously authorized. They must be argued for in appropriate social and political terms in harmony with national values.

1. It is sometimes said that it is all right for religious people to have private beliefs about social and political issues, but it is not appropriate for them to try to seek legislation that imposes them on everybody else. This simplistic notion fails to recognize that all attempts to get laws passed are efforts to impose the beliefs of some on everybody, since not many laws have universal consent.

2. Every belief that citizens try to express politically is rooted in some philosophy or religion or some set of assumptions about society and its well-being and, if pressed far enough, about the ultimate nature of things. Ethical convictions do not come from out of nowhere. Reason and conscience are informed by something that is foundational for both.

3. Ideally and in principle, religious believers should not seek to get laws passed on religious grounds but because they express the values of the secular society as defined by its founding documents and traditions as they have come to be embedded in the common life.

4. A two-sided critique is required. Against religious people who explicitly support political policies on religious grounds peculiar to a particular denomination (the Bible, the Pope, church doctrine, and the like), we must insist that our government does not rest as such on the principles of particular religions, denominations, or sects. In this sense, we are a secular state. Against some secular zealots we must insist that religious people have as much right to express the social and ethical implications of their faith in political terms as they have to express their non-religious or atheist philosophies.

5. In practical terms, however, if believers actually convince other voters to support legislation because the Bible, the Pope, or church doctrine mandates it, not much can be done about it except to make an effort to persuade citizens there is a better way.

6. Churches must determine on the basis of their polity and doctrine whether it is legitimate or wise for a church official, congregation, or Denominational body to endorse a particular policy or candidate. But the state must determine whether partisan political activities engaged in officially by religious institutions jeopardize their tax exemption, since it then becomes a matter of church and state.

A more detailed version on this subject can be found at:

Updated: Monday, 19 April 2004 9:08 AM EST
Saturday, 17 April 2004
Ralph Nader: Naked Messiah


1. has a Messiah complex. He believes himself to be the chosen one to restore justice and goodness to the nation.

2. has a fundamentalist mentality. Only he has the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. No deviations from his inspired word are permitted, since those outside his world-view have only distortions of the truth.

3. is a fanatic. He is willing to do untold damage to institutions and people for the sake of pursuing his shining goal. No appeals that he may help elect Bush. who will continue the assault on his dream sway him in the least.

4. is a prophet. He deserves much credit for speaking truth to power for decades. He exposes the painful, disgusting fact that both parties are close to being to bought off by corporate power. He sees clearly what most politicians deny and what most people are not angry enough about. He has been a voice in the wilderness proclaiming the truth that most others miss or try to avoid and has been able to do so because he is not dependent on the predators for his support.

5. is a failure as a politician. Politics is the art of the possible involving compromise and trade-offs and is beset with baffling ambiguities. Politics is the pursuit of the better when the best is impossible to attain, at least right now. It will sometimes settle for the least of two evils when necessary in order to avoid the worst. Nader will have none of this. He has a moral clarity that is illusory in the messy world of government where competing interests struggle with adversaries for a margin of power. He does not know how to combine his idealism with a realism that can actually get something done. He has not learned the lesson taught by Reinhold Niebuhr that sometimes a slightly more just policy than available alternatives may make a great deal of difference for good in the lives of many people. Nader is willing to forgo small gains and to risk even greater injustice in the fanatical pursuit of his fundamentalist vision as the chosen one for this age.

Nader as a prophet is a national treasure. As a messianic politician, he is a disaster. There is a time and place for an ideal moral vision beyond imminent achievement. There is a time to be morally uncompromising, for independent candidates, for idealists in pursuit of a vision not power, BUT NOT IN 2004, when the compelling moral task is to get rid of George W. Bush and to replace him with a better if not perfect alternative.

For more on Nader, see