Monday, December 18, 2006

Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld

Dick Cheney said that Rumsfeld was the greatest Secretary of Defense of all time. And Bush fired him? George, how could you?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Everybody/Anybody But Hillary

Everybody but Hillary has known for a long time that she would run for president in 2008. During the recent election she evaded the question and played the coy innocent whose intentions were barely concealed in her sidestepping maneuvers.First she said her concern was solely with winning reelection to the Senate and serving New York. Finally, she indicated that if her evasions were a problem for people, they should take that into account when they vote. How clever, since at that time her election was assured, and Democrats had no good alternative. Honesty may be the best policy, but apparently it is not considered to be good politics in these circumstances.

It is clearer day by day that she intended to run all along. Well, OK, but for many the cry will be "Anybody But Hillary."

Now with the Obama frenzy rising, she apparently is stepping up the time line to make her move. Short of some major unanticipated event, e. g., the return of Jesus, yes she will finally come to know what everybody else has known all along.

Until further notice my preference is for an Edwards/Obama ticket, but ABH.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Democrats, Take Note

Since 1968, i. e., since the cultural impact of "the 60's," Democrats have nominated presidential candidates from the Upper Midwest, the Northeast, and the Southeast. All from the first two groups lost-- Humphrey, Minnesota, 68; McGovern, South Dakota, 72; Mondale, Minnesota, 84, Dukakis, Massachusetts, 88; and Kerry, Massachusetts, 04. All from the Southeast won on their first try -- Carter, Georgia, 76; Clinton, Arkansas, 92-96; and Gore, Tennessee, 2000. (OK, Carter lost to Bush the Elder in 80 because of stagflation and the Iranian hostage crisis. Gore in 2000 won if you count all the actual votes intended for him.)

So, candidates from the Upper Midwest lost. Candidates from the Northeast lost. Candidates from the Southeast won.

What can we learn from this? The losing candidates were liberal liberals associated with the most progressive elements of those states. The winning candidates were liberal moderates from the least progressive region of the country, but they were successful Democrats who represented the best the South has to offer politically, especially when compared to Southern Republicans -- among the worst of the worst.

What are the implications for 2008? At the moment, for me it suggests a ticket of John Edwards of North Carolina and Barack Obama. OK, Obama is from Illinois, so he has yet to prove himself a vote getter in all sections of the country. I believe he can.

For further analysis, see an earlier post in which I write a prescription for Democrats in 2008.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

These Critics of Religion are Boring

The God Delusion
by Rickard Dawkins and The End of Religion by Sam Harris are both big sellers. They drag out all the tired old arguments we have heard before. Only the details differ. Their shared thesis is fundamentally this: Religion is irrational and does a lot of harm. Ho hum! Yawn, yawn! What we have is a variation on a theme that is as old as Western philosophy. The pre-Socratic thinkers who wanted to replace the myths and legends of the traditional Greek gods with a scientific-rational world-view were the first in a long line of critics who toot the same horn. From Democritus (Circa: 400 BCE) and his notion of reality as atoms and the void to Bertrand Russell (early 20th century) with his "accidental collocation of atoms" in a universe void of meaning and purpose, the denial of a Creator Powerful and Good on the basis of science and reason has been a standard theme of philosophy, though until recent centuries a minority opinion.

Is belief in God irrational? Let us just say that what reason requires in the way of religious belief is a topic about which there can be a real fight. For every Democritus there is a Plato and for every Bertrand Russell, an Alfred North Whitehead. Let Dawkins, Harris, and their ilk confidently proclaim themselves themselves the voice of reason in our time, while the rest of us find them at this stage of the game not a threat but merely boring. As for science, while it provides valuable data that needs to be taken into consideration, science as science settles nothing with respect to the ultimate questions of life, religion, and morality.

Does religion inspire much that is bad? Of course, but it is the source of much good too. It is ambiguous, neither pure devil nor pure angel. Moreover, religion always appears in a historical, cultural context and cannot be understood as a thing in itself and by itself. That is to deal in mere abstractions. So if you want to whip religion for its associations with the bad, go right ahead, but you will have to get in line. I have been doing it myself for at least half a century. But let us tell the whole story.

So if defenders of religion want to debate the likes of Dawkins and Harris, fine, they have a rational case to make; I just hope they make it well. Meanwhile, I find them so boring I am getting sleepy. Yaaaaawwwwwwn!

See Stanley Fish for a demolition of the logic of the professional atheists:, June 19, 2007.

Postscript: An article in The New York Times, November 21, 2006 ( describing a new aggressive mood by scientist in attacking religion as a harmful delusion is remarkable mostly for its apparent identification of religion with fundamentalism and God as an External Engineer or Designer. This betrays not only ignorance about other religion possibilities but a false hope that science as such can provide all people need in their search for meaning and morality. I won't even mention the arrogance and dogmatism displayed by some. In conferences of scientists and theologians I used to attend eminent scientists were always calling for theologians to get better acquainted with science. I never heard anyone suggest that scientists had anything to learn from anybody, much less from non-fundamentalist theologians. Now I am not sleepy and bored; I am exasperated and mad.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Prescription for Democrats 2008

The presupposition of what follows is that politics is the art of the possible. Democrats have taken a beating in recent decades by being too far ahead of an electing majority on matters in the moral- social-cultural area. They have been too much in the control of a variety of interest groups that moved the Democrats into an agenda favored by the more progressive cultural elements in society who tended to be more educated, more prosperous, and to be in the professions -- the "knowledge industries" dealing more with ideas and with providing services that require education or special training than with actually producing goods or providing services as the basic level -- manufacturing, driving trucks, working in dry cleaning establishments, the food industries, and the like. Support for labor weakened; in fact, many saw working people as culturally backward racists. Maybe this is enough to suggest the idea, though much needs to be said.

As a result we lost the most conservative area -- the South -- and became alienated from working people and from far too many of the common folks -- the average Joe and Joan across the country -- the plain, good folks many of whom populated the churches of the middle and lower classes.

As a result we got Nixon, Reagan, and Bush 1 and 2.

I am a democratic socialist and very liberal on the cultural issues. But there are not enough of my kind to elect a Congress and a President, except maybe in San Francisco. You cannot wield political power unless you get it. I am not much in favor these days of being a voice crying in the wilderness with my idealistic vision. There is work to be done in the culture winning more people to liberal ideals of peace and justice, but politics is the art of the possible. Therefore:

In preparation for 2008 Democrats should focus on the following:

1. Declare themselves to be against abortion. They should announce that abortion should be legal, safe, and as rare as possible. The only solution to this problem is to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Hence, Democrats should invite Republicans to joins them in a crusade to prevent unwanted pregnancies by every effective means including sex education that focuses on pregnancy prevention, abstinence, and safe sex.

2. They should forget gun control, oppose a federal constitutional amendment to outlaw same-sex marriage, and otherwise leave the matter up to the states. There is further work to be done in the culture before much progress can be made politically on the issue. Gradually, it will happen starting in the Northeast and the West Coast and slowly work its way through the country, as is happening. Democrats should say as little as possible about prayer in school and the like, and take moderate positions when subjects like this cannot be avoided. The cultural issues have been killing Democrats for decades. Democrats should go slow on them and fight in winnable battles on the liberal-moderate side in areas that offer that possibility.

3. On Iraq they should seek a bipartisan solution or let the Republicans settle it. There is no good policy at this point, and whatever course is taken will leave Iraq in chaos for years. Democrats do not want to get credit for a policy that will lead to further disaster and violence, and there is no policy that will not do exactly that. Both parties must bear the blame if necessary, and Republicans should be seen as having major responsibility for the outcome if a genuinely bipartisan solution is not possible.

4. Domestically, Democrats must return to their New Deal roots to the extent they can find issues on which they can be successful. The heart of the agenda should be on the welfare of families. Helping families is the central focus. Around that can be built the following: increasing the minimum wage, increasing support for child care to enable both parents to work if they want to, strengthening welfare policies to make them more humane, i. e., require work but provide the means to make it possible to get decent jobs at good pay with child care and whatever other support is required, improving the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), support labor in its attempt to organize and to remain strong as a counterpoint to big business, assist families and students in getting a college education, and the like. Finally, they should push environmental and energy initiatives to the limits of winnable possibility.

5. Crucial is a reform of health care. Incremental gains may be all that is politically possible at the moment, but movement should be in the direction of a one-payer system that does something like universalize Medicare. Appeal to business by proposing to take health off their agenda as a cost. We must educate the public on the facts and counteract the myths, dogmas, falsehoods, and scare tactic of free-market zealots and Republicans sponsored by the enormous power of the insurance and drug companies. A universal health care plan can provide better care at lower costs with greater efficiencies than the awful system we have now that leaves 45 million plus people without medical insurance.

This suggests a direction and a set of guidelines -- moderate on social-cultural issue, strong focus on helping middle class and lower income families and individuals.

This would help Democrats become the party of Roosevelt, Truman, and Johnson (the latter on the domestic, not the Vietnam side) again. They won.

Ted Haggard's Tragedy

I listened to part of the letter that the Rev. Ted Haggard sent last Sunday to his congregation confessing his violation of what he and his church believed. He spoke of a life-strong struggle with what he called a dark and repulsive side of his nature. The man poured out his heart in sorrow and shame. It was heart-breaking to hear, Members of his congregation expressed their deep shock and grief but offered to forgive him.

What I did not hear anybody say was that he was the victim of an oppressive culture and an oppressive religion that would not allow him to be the person he actually was. Therein lies the deepest tragedy of all. He was forced into a life of conflict and struggle, that eventually lead to deception and finally exposure. All this suffering was the result of bad religion in a prejudiced culture. The answer is not simply in forgiveness and reconciliation but more deeply in liberation from false and destructive ways of thinking about sexuality.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Kerry's Dumb Remark and Republican Dirty Politics

OK, Senator Kerry said something dumb -- again. This time his statement about the failure of college students to study hard leading to to their being stuck in Iraq coveyed something he did not intend, mean, or believe. It was an error, a mistake in statement. His explanation that his gaffe was a "botched joke" about President Bush is entirely credible. The Senator says dumb things sometimes, but he is not stupid. He is not an idiot. To have deliberately meant what his words said -- and what the Republicans sinfully pretend to take him to have meant -- would have been political suicide. Everybody knows that. The Republicans damn well know that, of course they do.

But Kerry gave them a beautiful opportunity to play dirty, and they are exploiting it, although they know quite well that Kerry made an error in speaking and did not intend an insult to people in the military. They know his explanation was credible; heck, they know it is true. But why should mere truth be a barrier to an opportunity to exploit Kerry's dumb statement to divert attention from their sorry record and the debacle of Iraq? The brazen dishonesty of it all is evident to all whose brains are functioning at 30% capacity or more.

The TV news channels hopped on it and will play it out repeatedly because it is the sort of thing they love -- dramatic, emotional, a fight. It is all a sad commentary on the state of politics and American culture.

Unfortunately, Kerry brings a lot of baggage from 2004, and his gaffe plays right into the perception that he is an aristocratic elitist who does not relate easily to the common folks -- skiing in Aspen, windsurfing off Cape Cod, and the like. The only good thing to come out of this is that it reduces his chances of getting the presidential nomination again to somewhere below zero.

I think everybody should take James Carville's advice for 2006: "If you don't like Senator Kerry, don't vote for him."

Just for the record, courtesy of George W. Bush:

"It's in our country's interests to find those who would do harm to us and get them out of harm's way." --George W. Bush, Washington, D.C., April 28, 2005.

"But Iraq has -- have got people there that are willing to kill, and they're hard-nosed killers. And we will work with the Iraqis to secure their future." --George W. Bush, Washington, D.C., April 28, 2005

"I was not pleased that Hamas has refused to announce its desire to destroy Israel."—Washington, D.C., President Bush, May 4, 2006.

"Who could have possibly envisioned an erection -- an election in Iraq at this point in history?" --George W. Bush, at the White House, Washington, D.C., Jan. 10, 2005.

"I stand by all the misstatements that I've made."...Governor George W. Bush, Jr. to Sam Donaldson, 8/17/93

(Taken from the S.F. Chronicle, 5/10/88)

George Bush made one of the all-time misstatements Friday night at the
College of Southern Idaho. Describing his close relationship with President Reagan, Bush said: "For 7 1/2 years I've worked alongside him, and I'm proud to be his partner. We've had triumphs, we've made mistakes, we've had sex."

"Setbacks," he quickly corrected. "We've had setbacks."

Monday, October 30, 2006

Controlling the Nuclear Genie

The nuclear genie is out of the bottle. Does anyone know how to put the genie back in the bottle? Does anyone believe that in the long run Iran, North Korea, other states, and radical terrorist groups can be prevented from getting the bomb and the means to deliver it if they are determined to have it? We must do whatever we can to slow the proliferation, but we are entering a new nuclear age with unknown dangers and no certain solutions.

If only nation-states get nuclear capability, perhaps a resurrected or continuing form of MAD (mutually assured destruction) would work once more as it did when the USA and the USSR confronted each other with missiles aimed at vital targets. Nations have territories with vulnerable cities. They have leaders with instincts of self-preservation for themselves and their homelands and with fears of self-destruction. But how do you retaliate against a terrorist group with a network of leaders scattered widely? When that is compounded with a suicide mentality that cannot be deterred by threats of death, we have a new menace unlike anything we have known in the past. If terrorists are willing to sacrifice their own existence, they may have no qualms against destroying thousands, even millions, of people regarded as enemies of God and Islam.

Islam has rules of war deep in its history that in some respects is like the just war tradition in Christianity. In particular, it forbids the killing of non-combatants, especially women, children, and other Muslims. It requires good cause and has norms of proportionality that limit the destruction that can be wreaked on enemies. But under the novel conditions of the modern world, one can find scholars who are modifying that tradition to cover suicide killings. One can be sure that warrant can be found by learned scholars and lesser intellects for any horror, any form of jihad, that may be perpetrated if it achieves ends sufficient to justify the means

The underlying problem is deep hatred of the United States and its friends that cannot be easily ameliorated. Contrary to zealots who see us as morally pure and attribute the unprovoked perfidy of others to their own self-generated evil, we have contributed to the rise of anti-American feelings by what we have done and not simply by what we are as shining lights of virtue and innocence.

To focus on the Middle East (North Korea requires a different analysis), two major events may be specified. The first is the unwavering, one-sided support of Israel against the Palestinians. The second is the role of the US in overthrowing the democratically-elected prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh of Iran in 1953. We should add to this the presence of American troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other Muslim countries, not to mention US support of Arab regimes considered by the extremists to be corrupt. This is not to deny the reality of internal psychological-cultural factors that may have generated feelings of jealousy, inferiority, humiliation, and hostility in face of the fact that Islam, once a leading force in the advance of civilization, has in recent centuries been in the backwaters of scientific and cultural creativity, as well as military power, as compared to the Judeo-Christian nations.

In the background is the fact that the United States is the only country ever to use a nuclear weapon against another nation. To this should be added the fact that to Muslim eyes it is sheer hypocrisy for the nations that now have nuclear weapons to assume the right of preventing others from acquiring what they already have. This includes Israel, who everybody knows has a nuclear capability, although they do not admit to it. By what logic do we presume to tell others they cannot have what we have? As a matter of practical necessity and realism, it may be necessary to prevent proliferation when we can, but we should not fail to see how all this looks to Muslim eyes. How do we answer their question: If we can't have them, why don't you get rid of yours?

It may be that history will work itself out without a nuclear conflagration and lead to a world free of these horrible weapons. It is clear, however, that for the forseeable future we will live in a dangerous world faced with novel challenges.

If you are having trouble staying awake after you go to bed at night, read an article by Noah Feldman, "Islam, Terror, and the Second Nuclear Age," in the New York Times Magazine, (October 29, 2006), 50ff. Feldman lays out the issues and provides instructive historical background.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

What's Wrong with Bush: An Expert Diagnosis

It is not well known, but I am a world renowned expert in the science of connecting behavior disorders with brain dysfunction. It is my duty as an American patriot to reveal my conclusions about President Bush. Fortunately, like Dr. Frist, who could diagnose Terri Schiavo from a thousand miles away, I have the ability to discern at a distance in a way that requires no brain scans but only a good newspaper.

Mr. Bush suffers from two related disorders, a major dysfunction along with an enabling malady that makes the first one possible. The major issue is that somewhere along the way he developed a severe form of infallibitism. This refers to the inability to recognize or admit to fundamental errors of judgment. So while a large majority of Americans recognize that Iraq is a mess so messy that there is no good way out, the President cannot acknowledge this because of an attachment to discredited dogmas, assumptions, and unrealistic goals. Because his infallibitism is so profound, he cannot admit to his fallibility. He can only confess that some errors were made but not sufficient to undermine the basic justification for our being there and staying there until victory is ours. The Iraq fiasco is so bad, however, that he needs some way to hide his disability.

The inability to use language that corresponds to reality leads him to disguise the deficiency. Here is where the second disorder comes to his rescue. He is also afflicted with semantitis, which stimulates the use of language designed to bridge the gap between his claims and the facts. This disorder made it possible to keep coming up with new justifications for our being there as facts came to to light that undermined each new rationale.

When weapons of mass destruction were not found and then the connection of Iraq with Al-Qaeda in 9/11 was shown to be baloney, a succession of new reasons was generated by his semantitis until now it seems the fate of civilization depends on our victory

Semantitis enables him at the moment to avoid admitting to the morass of Iraq by saying "mistakes were made." When he is finally forced by public opinion, sensible advisors, and a night watching CNN to make significant changes, this will be announced and defended as flexibility in dealing with changing conditions but not a change of strategy.

Semantitis also enables him to change the meaning of the goal from achieving a fully-functioning, stable democracy to creating a sustainable government with tolerable internal conflict while still calling it victory.

Unfortunately after it reaches the advanced stage present in this instance, there is no cure for either infallibitism or semantitis. The best outcome would be to retire the President to Crawford where time in the sun clearing brush and riding around on a horse will make the world safe for sanity.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Debate on Clergy Housing Deduction

Entries appear in chronological order.

Dear Clergy,

The damn New York Times has stopped preaching and started to meddle. I knew our unfair tax breaks on housing would come to light one day. I see no reason why I should be able to deduct my housing expenses while my neighbor cannot. But when it gets threatened, all the church boards, including mine, rush in to lobby Congress with all sorts of dubious reasons why the clergy housing deductions should be preserved. They act just like any other institution to defend self-interest. It is unjust, but I claim every penny of mine, don't you?



Dear Brother Cauthen,

Sometimes a matter has to be understood in its proper context. The reason you get a housing deduction is that "the community" once believed that it was helpful to have a "settled" pastor in place as the frontier developed. It also gave free land to school boards. This settled pastor also got a given amount of corn and produce from the fields, and very little money. Pastors still get very little money, but no corn or wheat. Then it was recognized that a pastor was not eligible to use his time and energy to participate in the free economic enterprise system of profit and production....meaning, of course, that he would have a smaller salary than other professionals, so he gets special treatment on housing. Often times the housing is owned by the church, so when retirement comes he is out on his ass with no where to go. (You ought to have yours kicked for writing this piece!) When churches start paying pastors really livable salaries and giving them benefits comparable to doctors and lawyers and other professionals (state retirement programs and health insurance comparable to University professors and civil servants of the state) you go right ahead and take your housing deduction and do not feel for one second that you are slighting your neighbor. Both you and your neighbor bring something important to creating, re-creating and sustaining community and this has nothing to do with where the nub of the issue is for our day. I used "his" in describing the "getting it together years" for defining how a local pastor gets compensated because in those days the pastors were all "he". So you may feel free to go back through my paragraph and insert "he/she" to make it up to date. But the housing allowance issue will still come out the same. I think this issue may come under what you used to teach as "contextual ethics."

Peace and blessings to one and all from down here in your home state of GEORGIA
Kenneth Dean, Sr.


My dear apostate Baptist, Colleague, Friend, fellow Southerner, fellow lover of old-time country music,

To steal from Kant, we have here a nest of "dialectical difficulties" that I won't pretend to untangle completely but will make a few marginal comments. I see two arguments in your reply: one about community building and the other about the poor compensation of clergy. Your first argument about settled clergy serving a community-building function meriting state subsidy predates the incomes tax we are talking about and smells like the era of established churches in a state that sees religion as creating disciplined, virtuous, but docile citizens who will not threaten the status quo. That is an argument for the conservative role of religion in society that pleases the state, but it is not one that a Baptist ought to be making. If we fufilled our role as descendants of the OT prophets, Walter Rauschenbusch, and Martin Luther King, Jr. associated with the beloved serminary at which both of us have taught, we would be as often raising hell and disrupting the community -- as you have done more than I have in the past.

In the income tax era, the rationale has been stated in a brochure prepared for Jewish clergy, and I quote:

"History: When the income tax was enacted, clergy salaries were negligible: Many, if not most clergy were given a place to live, minimal provisions, and a very small salary. The fair market value of non-cash items was to be counted as income, but the government recognized that it was unfair to tax clergy on the value of the parish house. Thus the parsonage exemption was created."

Assuming that this is the historical justification, it seems weak to me. Why should the value of a house not be counted as taxable income? It is the functional equivalent of cash paid that can be used to rent or buy a house. In any case it constitutes a direct state subsidy to clergy and indirectly to the religious institutions that employ them. It, in effect, adds income to clergy at government expense. OK, clergy as a whole are poorly paid compared to other professionals. That is a problem, but why is it the state's problem? The near-poverty status of clergy is no justification for a government subsidy unless it is combined with something like your "community building" as a service to the community or some other rationale for uniquely privileging clergy. I have ready rejected that. The argument from poor clergy compensation as such has no merit at all. Lots of working people are as poor or poorer than clergy on the average. Why should they not have a housing deduction too? Of course, we all have more money to spend because of the housing deduction, but to argue that I could not have done X or Y or Z without it is no argument at all. It simply recognizes that the government pays us a certain amount because we are clergy. What is the current justification of the housing bonus? I know of none whatsoever apart from the sheer self-interest of clergy. Just for the record, a housing deduction is in effect a direct grant of money to clergy and eligible religious institutions and as such is a violation of the separation of church and state, understood strictly, as Baptists should interpret it. That is my basic response.

I will offer some concluding thoughts just for the hell of it.

The aides in the nursing home who changed my Mother's diapers are very poorly paid, and they could use a government subsidy to help with housing expense. The same could be said for janitors and maids who clean the toilets of professionals and business types at a pittance of what those who dirty the toilets make. I would argue that such people also contribute to "community." By the way, it should be a law strictly enforced that those who dirty toilets should be compelled to clean them in proportion to their usage. George with a plunger and Laura with a toilet brush in the White House would be a splendid model for America. This task teaches humility, virtue, discipline, and promotes delicacy in using toilets and would be for us all a community-building enterprise. Get this law passed, and I will argue that a housing deduction should be given to all who earn it through toilet cleaning.

By the way not all clergy are poor: In 1995 Pastor Rick Warren of the 18,000 member Saddleback Community Church in California deducted $79,999 for actual housing costs The IRS challenged the deduction, claiming the "“fair market value" (rental per year) would allow only $59,479.

Nevertheless, my fellow-Baptist, you offered the best defense of an erroneous position I have seen lately.

Yours in service to Jesus, our model, who said, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head." Matthew 8:20

Ken Cauthen


Since my impulsive outburst about the clergy housing deduction, I realized how ignorant I was of its history and rationale. Since then I have Googled and learned enough to be an untrustworthy guide. Like so many issues it gets very complicated with many complexities, ambiguities, nuances, subtleties, distinctions, and fine points of law and logic. Courts, Constitutional lawyers, and Judges, including those on the Supreme Court, have argued for and against it. Here is the gist of what I have learned.

1. Exemption of religious institutions from property tax goes back to the beginning of the country. The argument for it is that it is necessary to separation of church and state in establishing sectarian sovereignty as a protection against state action. The tax exemption does not subsidize churches, but leaves them alone. Some judges argue that religion serves a secular purpose that merits state support. Justice Brennan stressed the "secular" benefits to society of these exemptions: these institutions foster "moral or mental improvement" and are "beneficial and stabilizing influences in community life." This is the Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dean's point.(Walz v. commissioner, 397 US 664 (Decided May 4, 1970)

2. In 1921 the parsonage exemption was established in the income tax code, which dates from 1913, enabling clergy to exclude from income the value of the housing provided. Since 1954, the provision had also shielded clergy members from taxes on the entire portion of their paycheck designated by their congregations as a housing allowance, whether they spent it on renting an apartment or buying their own home. But the rules the IRS adopted in 1971 limited the deduction to the smallest of three amounts: the "fair market rental value" of the home, the housing allowance paid to the minister, or the minister's actual housing expenses.

3. In 1996 the IRS ruled that Rev. Rick Warren had exceeded the "“fair rental value"” in his claim and reduced it. On May 16, 2000, the United States Tax Court struck down the IRS cap and ruled that clergy members could deduct "“the amount used to provide a home," however much that might be. The IRS appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco. A great battle ensued in the Court aided and abetted by major Protestant, Catholic, and Protestant church agencies. One question raised was whether the clergy housing deduction was Constitutional. Before the Court could decide, the Clergy Housing Clarification Act of 2002 had been approved unanimously in both houses of Congress and signed into law by President Bush. The law ruled that no limits would hold on past housing claimed but from now on the "“fair rental value" rule would apply.

That'’s where we are now.


1. Some clergy who live in employers provided housing as a condition of employment or for the convenience of the employer are eligible for tax relief under general rules of tax law that have nothing to do with religion. Granting a housing exemption to all clergy prevents discrimination against those who don"’t qualify under that rule.

2. Tax relief favoring religion has deep historical roots. Therefore, "the parsonage exemption is well within the accommodation tradition through the early colonial and national period, including most significantly the dis-establishment era, right up until today. Indeed, the parsonage exemption is part and parcel of the types of reasonable accommodations listed by the three dissenting justices in Texas Monthly. These reasonable accommodations, described by the three justices as those which "'today permeate the state and federal codes, and have done so for many years.'"


1. It is a subsidy to religion in violation of the Constitutional separation of church and state. Legal scholars, Constitutional lawyers, and Judges at every level including the Supreme Court have affirmed this point.

2. It privileges clergy in relation to non-clergy and thus discriminates against them. Others whose work is valuable to society and who may be as poorly paid as clergy have no such advantage. These other low-paid care-givers, community builders, and workers essential to society have to provide for their own housing during working years and retirement without benefit of a housing deduction.

Moreover, clergy are allowed to "double-dip" in that they can count mortgage payments and property tax as part of the housing expenses to be deducted and then deduct them again on their 1040 forms just like everybody else. Granted that, unlike most other people, they do have to pay all their Social Security taxes, but so do all other self-employed persons.

I include some references:

"“In the context of tax benefits, the "“subsidy" label is usually deployed in a conclusory and unconvincing fashion. The First Amendment is best understood as permitting governments to refrain from taxation to accommodate the autonomy of religious actors and activities; hence, tax benefits extended solely to sectarian institutions should pass constitutional muster as recognition of that autonomy. Since it is most compelling to conceive of religious tax exemption as the acknowledgment of sectarian sovereignty, rather than the subsidization of religion, there is no convincing constitutional reason to link that exemption to the simultaneous extension of comparable tax benefits to secular entities and undertakings."

Edward Zelinski, friend of the Court in Rick Warren case. of the Court Opinion in Warren Case

"Therefore, the parsonage exemption is well within the accommodation tradition dating at least to 1601, and extending through the early colonial and national period, including most significantly the dis-establishment era, right up until today. Indeed, the parsonage exemption is part and parcel of the types of reasonable accommodations listed by the three dissenting justices in Texas Monthly. These reasonable accommodations, described by the three justices as those which "today permeate the state and federal codes, and have done so for many years."

1970 court decision SC of USA upholding tax exemption of church property. Letters to the editor.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Trilemma of Democrats

If Democrats have no alternative to the disastrous Bush policies in Iraq, there is no reason to prefer them over Republicans. If they do offer a proposal, it can easily be shot full of holes.

Behind this dilemma lies the fact that the Bush Administration has created such a debacle in Iraq that there is no good way out. All plans are full of hazards. Americans are divided right down the middle on whether to stay or to go. This reflects the fact that neither way looks hopeful. Any course chosen now will have dangers of unknown character and proportions. We have to find the least bad way, and that most certainly does not include continuing the present course which has brought us to the present morass.

Here is where where the third element enters to create not merely a dilemma but a trilemma: for Democrats to suggest that no good option is available to get us out of the mess opens them to the charge of practicing the politics of despair.

What, then, are they to do? There is no way to escape fully the trilemma, but it can be approached in the least damaging fashion. The main point is that the Democrats should offer as the first step not a plan but a procedure for finding the best way forward. It follows that Democrats need to concentrate at the moment on the morass into which the Bush policies have landed us. Objections should be met by pointing out forcefully and repeatedly how ridiculous it is to criticize Democrats for their inability to provide an unambiguous way out a mess Bush has created that it is so disastrous that only imperfect alternatives are possible.

It follows from this that the blunders of Bush, Rice, Rumsfeld, and company have totally disqualified them from being in charge of the future. In support are the following:

1. It was a mistake to go to war in Iraq. A majority of Americans have believed this for some time.

2. The war has been conducted badly with tragic results. Look at the evidence on the ground in Iraq. The situation is bad and getting worse.

3. The war in Iraq and the war on terror are not the same, as much as the Bush crowd would have us believe that it is.. The war in Iraq has made the terror problem worse not better. The intelligence community has confirmed what reporters on the ground have long known -- the Iraq war has produced more jihadists and created more hatred for America around the world.

4. The Bush Administration is so bound to its fallacious dogmas and to a defensive posture that cannot admit to anything but minor tactical errors that it is incapable of finding the new directions that are encessary.

Hence, the Bush agenda must be thoroughly discredited so new leaders can seek the best way out of a bad situation. That would take the form of seeking a bipartisan solution with input from citizens representing diverse opinions. Other vital parties in the area and in Europe must be invited to help find a productive way forward. No solution will be perfect, so it must have wide support moving toward a consensus to the extent that is possible. A bipartisan proposal would mean that both parties would have to accept the blame for any failures that occur.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Rumsfeld Now and Then

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said recently the world faces “a new type of fascism'’ and likened critics of the Bush administration’s war strategy to those who tried to appease the Nazis in the 1930s. In unusually explicit terms, Rumsfeld portrayed the administration’s critics as suffering from “moral or intellectual confusion'’ about what threatens the nation’s security.

Shaking hands with SADDAM HUSSEIN as a emissary of the Reagan administration seeking to align the US with Iraq in its war with Iran.

Shaking hands with Hitler for the sake of "peace in our time."

Monday, September 11, 2006

American TV, 9/11, and Sesame Street

It is September 11, five years after 9/11. The morning shows and news channels were not the same. Well, one thing was the same -- the barrage of commercials. Ah, yes, after all this is America. All commercials are obnoxious, some just relatively less so, and a few -- like Ralph who couldn't believe he ate the whole thing -- are funny enough to make them endurable. Otherwise, bless you, mute button.

All that drove me to C-Span, where I came across an interview with Newton Minow, former Chair of the FCC, famous for his characterization of TV decades ago as a "vast wasteland." He said things had improved in that many more choices were available, but standards had fallen -- too much sex and violence, e.g.

He told a story involving a series of events involving happenstance connections of people who chanced to know each other that ended in a phone call from Barry Goldwater -- arch conservative and libertarian -- to a government agency that secured funding for Sesame Street. After all, it's not what you know but who knows whom. But who would have thought that Barry Goldwater would be instrumental in getting public funding for a PBS program!

Big Bird thanks you, Senator Goldwater, and I thank you. We'll be right back after a this commercial . . . .

Friday, August 04, 2006

Middle East Again

I once heard a story about a man who was exorcised of a demon, and, you know what, seven demons came back.

As of August 4, 2006, the Middle East is in dire straits. What shall we do? In the Hezbollah-Israeli war there are two options: an immediate cease fire or a cease fire only after Israel has rendered Hezbollah impotent. One of these is bad, the other worse. The problem is we don't know which is which.

An immediate cease fire leaves Hezbollah to fight another day so the process will just repeat itself, since Hezbollah is not likely to accept any proposal that guarantees that they quit attacking Israel.

A cease fire after Hezbollah has been decisively defeated means that Arab hostility and hatred of the USA and Israel will grow worse throughout the region, making the prospects of peace even more dim.

In that other war, we are between Iraq and a hard place. There are two options. We can leave or we can stay. One of them is bad, the other worse. The problem is we don 't know which is which.

If we go now, the situation may deteriorate beyond any hope of redemption any time soon. If we stay, the situation may deteriorate beyond any hope of redemption any time soon. In either case a civil war may plunge Iraq into an indeterminate future of chaos and violence.

The problem is that the current situation in both cases has roots in a past that cannot be recovered. In the case of Iraq, it was a mistake for the US to invade to take down Saddam. Now we live with the consequences of that egregious blunder, and all proposed solutions now are fraught with great danger.

In the case of the Israel-Palestine-Arab conflict, the problem goes back to 1947 and 1948 with the expulsion of 700,00 Palestinians from territory now occupied by Israel exacerbated by the later expansion of Israel beyond the 1967 borders.

These past events have created a situation in which we face only options that are bad and worse, and we don't even know which is which, since we don't what the future would bring if one possibility is actualized rather than the other.

Sometimes it is better to live with one demon than to cast it out with the result that it and six relatives come back and take up residence. The problem is we don't know when to attempt exorcism and when not to.

Monday, July 24, 2006

It is all so Stupid

My wife was reading one of the passages from the lectionary for next Sunday. It was the familiar story of David's romp with Bathsheba -- a story irresistible to Hollywood, since it has sex, murder, intrigue, and conspiracy. What caught my ear this time was not the juicy part, but the first verse which begins like this:

In the spring of the year, the time when kings go forth to battle . . . 2 Samuel 11:1a (RSV)

What struck me was how casual and routine this sounded. It is spring, farmers plant their crops, shepherds take their flock out to pasture, and kings go forth to battle. It is just the way things are. That's life.

I put this together with a flight of imagination in which I was invited to participate in one of the endless talk shows with alleged experts who are asked to assess the current situation with Hezbollah, Israel, and Lebanon. My inclination would have been to say, "It is all so stupid, so utterly senseless." Such a remark would have branded me as a nut case totally unable to deal with reality. Actually, I probably would have offered some ordinary, conventional, predictable observations about "reality" like all the rest do, but I would have been thinking, "It is all so stupid . . ."

Bombs destroy the beautiful country of Lebanon and its people, in Haifa and Beirut bodies of men, women, and children are blown to bits or taken to hospitals with burns, limbs missing, barely alive. It is heartbreaking, tragic, and depressing that in two communities who have suffered so much, now suffer more.

Meanwhile, on TV we see diplomats in their expensive, finely tailored suits, safely removed from all the splattered blood and killing, meet, smile, shake hands, kiss each other on the cheek, and when their talking is over, most of the time not much changes, and scared little children still cower in the bomb shelters, and we are watching another commercial on TV.

We get so used to dealing with with things as they are, that it becomes as casual and routine as the observation that when it's spring, kings go forth to war.

So occasionally we need to step back from "reality" to be reminded that it is just plain stupid, senseless, that people should destroy each other and their material creations.

We so easily forget that there are other possibilities. What is the Good News proclaimed to a largely unlistening, unresponsive world but that there is another way? Christians do not accept Wolf Blitzer's reports on CNN as the final point of reference. A realm of transcendent ideals stands in judgment of immediate facts and points the way to peace, justice, and harmony. It is the failure of the human race -- all tribes and nations -- to hear this Word that finally explains our predicament not some particular bad tactic or failed policy.

If we could all, especially the kings of the earth, occasionally submit ourselves to the judgment of ultimate facts and possibilities, when we come back to the immediate reality -- as we must -- then we might approach it with a little more perspective, a little better sense of what we are doing, and perhaps start being a little less stupid.

Harry Emerson Fosdick in his great hymn God of Grace and God of Glory has this prayerful line, "Cure Thy children'’s warring madness." Yes, that is what it is -- "warring madness." Until that prayer is answered, we will continue as we always have -- when it is spring, the kings of the earth go forth to battle. But it is all so stupid.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Was Israel a Tragic Mistake?

"The greatest mistake Israel could make at the moment is to forget that Israel itself is a mistake. It is an honest mistake, a well-intentioned mistake, a mistake for which no one is culpable, but the idea of creating a nation of European Jews in an area of Arab Muslims (and some Christians) has produced a century of warfare and terrorism of the sort we are seeing now. Richard Cohen, The Washington Post (Tuesday, July 18, 2006, p. A19.

This idea was startling when I read it, and it still is. But is Cohen right? A strong case can be made for the thesis, but what was the alternative given the history of Jewish suffering? Jews deserve and need a home somewhere and somehow as a refuge from tthe hatred and violence shown them, frequently in lands dominated by Christians. Jewish suffering over many centuries is one of history's great tragedies.

The history of the formation of the state of Israel is long and complex, but it involved the settlement of a territory occupied mostly by other people, primarily Arab Muslims. As best I can tell, Jews went from about 1% of the population or less in 1881 to about 33% in 1947, owning about 6% of the land, although disputes rage about exact figures. Resentment and hostility among Arab occupants and surrounding Arab nations were immediate and severe and have not ceased to this day. The expulsion of about 700,000 Palestinians in 1948 and the expansion of Israel especially in 1967 further inflamed the passions of those expelled and dominated by Israel until this very day. Looking back, the present state of things should not surprise us.

The Jewish population of Israel expanded by pushing other inhabitants aside -- the same process by which European whites settled the United States. The difference is that Israel is surrounded by Arab and Muslim nations whose enmity has been unrelenting. The wars that ensued and continue to this very day. have filled the land with blood and tears. Was there a better way to find a place for Jews desperate to escape the pogroms in Russia and persecution elsewhere in Europe, including Nazi Germany? I don't know. Was the project of finding a national home for Jews in Palestine justified in spite of all the hatred, violence, and killing in that troubled land since 1881, when the movement of Jews to Palestine began to increase to escape the persecution they faced in Europe, I am not sure. Whether the process could have been managed at any point in ways that would produce tolerable peace with justice for Palestinians and security of Israel is a question I cannot answer.

The fact remains that Israel exists whether Israel has a right to exist or whether its existence since 1948 is a good thing or was even the best alternative for Jews seeking a place where they could live in peace and prosper. We have "two communities of suffering" (Edward Said) who must deal with each somehow. Right now the prospect does not seem bright, but history if full of surprises, and even this dark moment may conceive new possibilities and hopes we cannot imagine. We can say that the best way forward would be for each community to feel and appreciate the suffering of the other as a preface to mutual accommodations and compromises enabling tolerable conditions of existence for both.

Lacking that and beyond that, the international community must bring pressure on Israel to accept the 1967 borders (with some accommodations benefiting both) as a basis for final resolution. With that established, it could absolutely be insisted that Palestinians cease their violence, and sufficient economic and military pressure put on them to guarantee this outcome. The right of return for the living Palestinians and their descendants of those expelled in 1948 may have to be abandoned but with compensation for their loss.

Some way has to be found to deal with "the Demographic Problem: in the case that Israel withdraws to the '67 border, the Jewish people will not have a Jewish state; the remaining 1.3 million Palestinians within Israel, which currently represent 20% of the Israeli population and will represent twice this amount in the next 20 years, will create a bi-national state within Israel. Instead of two states for two nations, there will be two states for one nation -- the Palestinians."

An alternative has been proposed by shifting the borders so that the maximum number of Palestinians and a maximum number of Israelis will be present in each state.*

This all may be dreaming, and Benny Morris may be right: In the end one must conquer the other and render the vanquished totally impotent to resist the will of the victor.**

Sober reflection on Cohen's suggestion that Israel was a mistake could have salutary effects for both sides in moderating passions and leading to fruitful negotiations to create a livable future, given that the past is what it is and cannot be changed.
* "Today there are many Palestinian settlements within the '67 Israeli border and many Jewish settlements on the Palestinian side. We propose a territory exchange by moving the border so that the maximum number of Palestinian settlements will remain on the Palestinian side and the maximum number of Jewish settlements will remain on the Jewish side, with an exchange rate of 1:1. All this will be done without moving a single person from their home. The only thing that will be moved is the border.

The territory exchange only refers to a 240 square kilometer strip of land along the border but will allow 500,000 Palestinians to not remain a minority in Israel any longer. These Palestinians will remain in their homes, on their land, part of their nation and in their own state. This exchange will minimize the number of Jewish settlers forced to evict their homes, with neither the Palestinians nor the Jews having to lose any territory. This is a win-win situation for both parties."

** Check out the interview with Benny Morris, the eminent Israeli "new historian" who has documented the history of Israeli horrors in expelling the Palestinians in 1948. Morris is absolutely chilling. He argues that Ben Gurion should have thoroughly completed the expulsion of Palestinians at the time and thinks things might have in the long run been better. Theoretically, he favors a two-state solution but believes that Israel must absolutely wall off Israel in the present from the barbarian Arabs who want to annihilate Jews and destroy the state of Israel. After all, America was possible only by the destruction of Native Americans. Sometimes worthy ends, he says, justify terrible means. He thinks in the end one must dominate the other completely if the endless conflict is to cease.

Friday, July 21, 2006

My New Philosophy: Stop Doing This Sh*t

When Lucy of Peanuts gains a new bit of wisdom, she calls it "her new philosophy." Well, I have a new philosophy. Those who know me will be surprised to know that I learned it from President George W. Bush. It is contained in the notorious open-mike gaffe:

"See the irony is what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this sh*t and it's over."

What an insight! Problems can be solved if the perpetrators will just "stop doing this sh*t" That is my new philosophy. Its applications are endless. A few examples:

Running up the deficit, increasing economic inequality, and reducing the amount available for useful social purposes by making the rich superrich with massive tax cuts.

Letting the Israeli lobby determine our policy toward Israel.

Starting unwise, costly wars, e. g. in Iraq, on false philosophical premises and manufactured facts with disastrous results.

Fostering policies that redistribute income from the poor and middle class toward the already obscenely rich.

Letting the idolatry of free market philosophy and the big insurance and pharmeutical companies keep us from having universal health insurance that would be more efficient in getting better health for less money.

Letting the country be dominated by the selfish plutocracy and the cultural backwardness of a reactionary philosophy with right-wing Christians in the forefront.

You get the idea. The most important application is yet to be mentioned.

Since Congress and the President could correct the aforementioned ills, the people need to elect officials who will be guided by the noblest American dreams of liberty, equality, and justice for all so that every citizen can engage in the pursuit of happiness in a world of peace..

When I figure out how to get the voters to do this, that will be my new philosophy. For now I can only say to them: "Stop doing this sh*t."

Monday, July 17, 2006

The Scorpion and the Turtle

This is a repeat from two years ago but seems relevant in the perennially troubled Middle East.

Friday, April 23, 2004

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."

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Arousing Hillary Rodham Clinton

"Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, returning to her red-state ties, chastised Democrats Saturday for taking on issues that arouse conservatives and turn out Republican voters rather than finding consensus on mainstream subjects." So begins an article in The New York Times.

That was a sensible statement that Democrats would be wise to heed.

But I wonder if the Senator would agree with me that among the things that "arouse conservatives and turn out Republican voters" would be Hillary Rodham Clinton running as the Democratic nominee for President in 08?

Saturday, July 15, 2006

TV Hogging Good-Looking Women

The TV industry is using up too many of our good-looking women. This is a national and natural resource that should be distributed equitably. But TV is gobbling up more than its share. Pulchritude should be spread around more evenly.

The pretty, shapely ones are everywhere, no matter what type of program you tune in on, no matter what channel or what time of day or night, they are there. Good-looking women are present as news announcers, reporters, on sitcoms, commercials, drama, soap operas -- you name it -- they are all over the place. Before appearing on camera, they have all been subjected to state of the art cosmetology to get the skin, eyebrows, eyelashes, and hair just right.

Now TV deserves its share of the gorgeous, but it is using up far too much comeliness.

I don't mean to criticize the talent or competence of pulchritudinous women on TV. Most of them are quite gifted and do their jobs well. That is not the point.

Is there a cure for this? Well, TV could hire women for their competence and talent only without regard for their looks. The mere suggestion of this sounds so strange and off the wall that it makes my point about our cultural values more eloquently than I could any other way.

Monday, June 26, 2006

My New Hero -- Warren Buffett

I have never liked Microsoft. I never use any of their products I can avoid -- the near equivalent of escaping death and taxes. I think that, like Wal-Mart, they compete relentlessly and ruthlessly, never mind the dead carcasses left in the wake. I don't shop at Wal-Mart. But I have always liked Bill Gates. That he is giving away his immense fortune to fight disease on a global scale and to improve education adds another feather to his cap (star in the crown for religious types).

Now I learn that he and Melinda give Warren Buffett the credit for inspiring them to give back to society. So the hero of the day is the Oracle of Omaha -- the investor genius now worth about 44 billion. He now proposes to give about 37 billion of that away to charitable foundations with 5/6th of it going to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the rest to a number of family foundations.

Also, he supports the estate tax.
He opposed the Bush tax cuts. He thinks a few hundred thousand is enough to leave to his children. He says that is sufficient to enable them to do anything they want but not enough so they can do nothing. He never gives his children more than the non-taxable limit of $10,000 a year, which he does every Christmas.

When asked what he would do if he could change the tax code, he said, "If I really could do it, it would shock you. I'd tax the hell out of personal consumption at progressively higher rates and impose an enormous inheritance tax."

Joining him in favoring the estate tax are William Gates, Sr. (father of Bill), George Soros, and Paul Newman. Paul Newman was once asked why he gave all the profits from his food-making industry to charity, he said, "Why not, I don't need it." Damn, it is hard to hate rich people like that.

Let us not forget the Mouth of the South -- Ted Turner. One day he realized he was a billion dollars richer than he had been the year before and decided to give that billion to the United Nations. It was, he said, his mission to convince other wealthy people to give similar sums to good causes.

Not all who are superrich are favorable to the estate tax. Oprah Winfrey does plan to give her fortune away, but she hates the estate tax, lamenting, "It's irritating that once I die, 55 percent of my money goes to the U.S. government. You know why that's irritating? Because you would have already paid nearly 50 percent (USA Today, June 9, 2000). Double taxation, they say. Never mind, as critics point out, that the bulk of large estates are in capital gains which have never been taxed. Moreover, those who want to abolish the estate tax conveniently forget that the creation of wealth is a social process not solely an individual achievement. Bill Gates is a genius and deserves a reward for his creative work, but does he deserve 50 or a 100 billion or whatever he finally ends up with? All of us who value the computer and buy Microsoft products, like the Windows XP on my machine making it go, have a part in making him rich. Microsoft would not have been possible without all the preceding science and technology which made it possible. Where would the Waltons be without all the customers who shop at Wal-Mart or without computers?

And what about the Waltons? Widow Helen and the four children of Sam, founder of Wal-Mart, have about 16-18 billion each, for a total of about 80-90 billion -- by far the largest family fortune around. They get richer all the time by sums now approaching a billion dollars a year. And where does their money go? They give to numerous charities like The Salvation Army and United Way. But their main activities are to oppose public education and to support charter schools and vouchers. Some observers say their ultimate aim is the privatization of all education, opening up money-making enterprises from which they could benefit. They also support right-wing foundations and causes. They spend enormous sums to elect conservative candidates to office. They have joined with the Gallos (wine) and the Mars (candy, I may have to give up Snickers) families and others in support of repeal of the estate tax, spending generously for the purpose.

So today let us cheer the Gateses, the Buffetts, the Turners, the Newmans, and the Soroses, and their tribe while we boo the Waltons.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Preachers Should Quit Acting as Agents of the State

I did it for years but no more, not only because nobody asks me these days, but because I think it misses a fundamental distinction. When clergy perform marriages and sign a legal document, they are acting as agents of the state. Most of us have done so without thinking much about it. It is just something you do by law and custom. But why should we participate in this egregious violation of the separation of church and state?

Will Campbell is right. A Christian minister should perform a rite of Christian union between two people who pledge their life-long love and loyalty to each other and who intend to spend the rest of their lives together as companions.

If people want a legal document certifying they are legally married in the eyes of the state, with all the rights and responsibility thereunto appertaining, let them go to a officer of the court legally authorized to do do such things.

When church and state are thus separated, then churches need not worry about what the state does about gay marriage. Churches and ministers can do their proper work of performing a Christian rite of union without approval of the state. They can unite a man and a woman, two men, or two women, in a religious ceremony in accordance with they own convictions.

Now it will be a great sign of progress when states and the federal government recognize gay marriage or at least civil unions. But that is a political battle. Let us make it plain that clergy act as agents of the church and not of the state.

Let us quit rendering to Caesar what belongs to God and let Caesar take care of the legalities, and let us take care of our proper business of attending to the relationship of committed couples to each other and to God in the presence of those who love them.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Iraq Debate

What strikes me about the current debate on Iraq is that nearly everyone who states a position seems to assume that there is one and only one policy that is right and practical while all the others would be disastrous. If they have reservations about their own ideas, they remain unspoken. Should we stay indefinitely until political stability and relative peace are achieved? Leave now? Announce a phased withdrawal? Set a date now for a total withdrawal? The truth is that no one knows the best course to follow, for no one knows what the consequences of each would be.

As best as I can tell the arguments for one policy are about as convincing as for any other given what we know and our inability to know what the future will bring. So pundits assume their own insight is impeccable, and politicians try to win points with public opinion and with voters in the coming elections.

We have a tiger by the tail, and it is not clear what we should do to remedy the situation. It was a mistake to go there in the first place, but we did, and now we have to deal with the mess we created the best way we can, and nobody know what that best or least bad way is.

I will grant that qualifying one's position by saying, "On the whole, by and large, generally speaking, taking everything into consideration, in my opinion my proposal is probably best given the uncertainties in the situation" does not make one look like a decisive leader, but it might be closer to what the situation requires. At least one's opponents would not feel obligated perhaps to state an alternative with a confidence and certainty that is foolhardy under the circumstances. The likelihood that debaters will begin noting the probable weaknesses in their policies and the strength of the alternatives is about as likely as Dick Cheney admitting that he has been wrong from the start.

I suppose stating a position and trying to refute all others without acknowledging the complexity, difficulty, ambiguity, and uncertainty in the situation is the way we do things these days. It is not a compliment to our democracy that such is the case.

Ann Coulter

Which of the following are true?

1. Ann Coulter makes one wonder whether women's liberation is a mistake.

2. If we descended from monkeys, Ann Coulter is evidence that the descent has been regressive.

3. Ann Coulter would have no interest in insulting people if there were no money or fame in it.

4. The existence of Ann Coulter should
assure Phil Mickelson that he is not the only idiot in town.

5. Ann Coulter is proof that freedom of speech is not always a good thing.

Ann Coulter should wear a dress that is long enough to cover her knees, keep it pulled down, and shut up.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Can Anything Be Done About it?

Several respondents to my previous pessimistic blog about the state of our country that is in the hands of rich, powerful interests who get their way to the detriment of justice, the general welfare, and world peace challenged me to suggest something positive that could be done. Fair enough!

The realistic answer is that in the short run there is not much we can do that will fundamentally matter. The system is too rigged in favor of the prevailing powers. The background preconditions for radical change do not exist:

(1) deep and fundamental dissatisfaction felt by the masses of people accompanied by aggressive anger and desire for change,

(2)a clear sense of what is wrong and of what and who is responsible for the calamity,

(3)the presence of an available alternative consisting of a transforming vision communicated by able charismatic leaders with organizational skills and with a positive program containing major goals and specific means to achieve them.

We will not see fundamental change of the sort that is required in the absence of a major crisis like that of the great depression that took us from Coolidge and Hoover to Roosevelt in less than a decade. This crisis will create the possibility of a revitalized democracy and economic order that serves all the people. But it will also create the possibility of a fascism based on blood and soil led by demagogues who can identify the evil sources of our troubles internally and externally which must be destroyed. Oh, probably a third way will have us muddling through so that the outcome is not much better, just led by different villains.

In the meantime, we can hope for modest progress around the edges and some incremental gains that will indeed make things better for many and even for us all in some respects. These gains can be of great importance and should not be underestimated or demeaned. This is where the churches and humanitarian organizations fit in. I have worked in both, and positive changes at the margins was all we accomplished at best or even attempted. Churches whose membership include the dominant classes in the culture will not foment revolution -- and that includes Roman Catholics and most Protestants. Zip code is the primary clue to social outlook not church membership. If you find a factor that points to religion, e. g., that most active church people were the ones who voted heavily for Bush, then look for the socio-economic-cultural makeup of those congregations.

The Democratic Party is the best hope for modest improvements, but it is a pitifully weak instrument of justice. The present leadership is anything but inspiring, e. g., Howard Dean. The DP is too beholden to big money and powerful lobby groups, just like the Republicans are. The DP is dominated by a variety of interest groups, each with its own agenda that it singlemindedly presses. The DP has lost touch with many ordinary working-class Americans and average citizens who rightly suspect the party of Roosevelt, Truman, and Johnson is rife with cultural elitism epitomized by that man of the people, that down to earth Joe SixPack, John Kerry and his French wines and windsurfing. The DP is too beholden to the Israeli lobby to offer hope for Middle East Peace. I give you Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, and Harry Reid, among many others, who vote the Israeli lobby line as examples. Check it out.

When the Democratic Party championed civil right, and the feminist and gay rights movement along with abortion, gun control, etc. -- God bless them for it, it lost contact with many white working class folks, especially males, and conservative religious people, who, since they were doing well enough economically and many prospering, decided to vote their cultural values rather than their narrow economic interests. Democrats have not found a way to get them back without alienating major parts of its base. So Republicans have taken over. Still the DP is the best we have.

This is enough for now. I invite comments, alternatives, refutations, screams of protest, and bouquets of roses (I like the really red ones.)

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Maldistributed Power and Impossible Justice

We cannot achieve the common good with costs and benefits equitably distributed for many reasons -- lack of leadership and vision, defects in our democratic processes, ignorance, inertia, apathy, and the like. But a major factor lies in the fact that the realities of power and the requirements of justice do not always coincide. Where there is political power unchecked, it will be used to achieve selfish, limited ends that offend justice and thwart the general welfare. It is part of the phenomenon of original sin -- without which we cannot understand what goes on in this world.

Groups with effective power, money, organization, and intense commitment can often get what they want but that justice and the larger good forbid. The intense commitment is very important here. The majority that could prevent this domination are either apathetic, ignorant, or not deeply enough disturbed or lack the required organization and leadership. With potential opposition diluted, the strong, the aggressive, the wealthy, and the well organized get their way all too often. Some examples, please.

We cannot have a reasonable policy toward Cuba because of the power of fanatical anti-Castro Cubans in Florida who hold an effective balance of power in a state that both Democrats and Republicans desperately need in a presidential year. Both countries are thereby harmed.

We have a policy highly favorable to Israel and detrimental to Palestinians because of the effective power of the Israeli lobbies aided by right-wing evangelical Protestants with a peculiar and dangerous view of Scripture. Justice is offended, peace is made less likely, Arab and Muslim hostility to America is increased. The possibility of terrorism and opposition to American interests is enhanced

We cannot have a sane energy policy because of the power of the big oil and automobile companies and others. Thus we neglect alternative energy sources, drive needlessly inefficient vehicles that waste gas, contribute excessively to global warming, and otherwise put our future in jeopardy.

We have needlessly expensive drugs that are not as safe as they could be because of the power of the big pharmaceutical companies in influencing legislation and the FDA to suit their narrow ends rather than the common good.

We cannot have a rational policy on gun control because of the power of the National Rifle Association with its members, money, and fanatical outlook.

We have a terrible prescription drug policy for seniors because of the power of the drug companies and the insurance companies. Note that they were able to prevent Medicare from negotiating with drug companies for lower prices -- a shameful offense against tax payers and common sense.

We cannot have universal health care because of the power of the insurance companies and drug companies. A one-payer plan that universalizes Medicare would be more efficient, less costly, and produce better care.

We cannot find a middle way on abortion because two opposing sides take absolute positions and refuse to compromise, and they are sufficiently well organized and funded to prevent an outcome that would end the stalemate.

We cannot control urban sprawl, air pollution, long commutes, and the like partly because of the power of real estate developers and highway contractors aided by the inordinate love of the automobile and the desire to escape the city. Little that is effective is done until the air is too polluted to breathe, and long commutes and traffic jams become utterly intolerable.

We cannot have a healthy agricultural policy because of the power of giant agribusinesses and the farm lobby and farm-state legislators. Hugh subsidies are paid to rice, corn, wheat, and other growers that enable the big agribusiness corporations to flood other countries with cheap products and devastate their farmers. One rice cooperative (Riceland Foods Inc., Stuttgart, AR) was paid more than $500,000,000, I. e., more than a half billion dollars, between 1995-2004). Much of this subsidy money goes not to modest family farmers but to the wealthy. Charles Schwab of the investment group and his family received $564,000 in federal price supports for rice in 2000. The man is reputedly worth more than four billion dollars.

We have a miserable fiscal policy that produces massive tax cuts that go mainly to those at the top, especially those at the very top, that produces an enormous deficit that future generations must deal with, and that reduce revenues that could be used to benefit the middle and lower income classes. All this is rationalized by a dubious ideology that such policies increase investment and ultimately benefit us all, as if more equitable alternatives were not available that would be equally or more efficacious. The intense commitment of a powerful few prevails over average citizens who either ignore or passively acquiesce in this arrangement and others that result in a redistribution of income and wealth and income to those at the top at the expense of those at the lower middle and bottom. Sometimes this travesty is tolerated by non-affluent voters who are getting other gains, e. g., support of conservative values, from those in power more important to them and not intolerably offensive to or even in agreement with their own ideologies and values.

Perhaps this is sufficient to make the point. Groups deeply committed to causes and interests organize and add dollars to their passion in ways that elect and control those who will serve their interests. They pay close attention to every development that affects their concerns and exert pressure and money immediately in carefully chosen ways to maximum benefits. Meanwhile, the mass of citizens let it happen by their ignorance and apathy, by not being directly affected in ways that arouse their anger and swing their votes. The political system is rigged against effective opposition from people and parties that would upset these nice arrangements.

Beyond that gerrymandering of election districts, the power of incumbency, and other defects in the democratic process either aid or cannot prevent the domination of the government by narrow interests with the organization and money to get their way. Thus justice is not done, and the few benefit at the expense of the many, and, as always, the rich prosper, and the poor are neglected.

Even if we had a perfectly functioning democracy in which each person and group had power and means sufficient to protect their interests but not enough to oppress others, we would still have to deal with the values of the citizenry that may tilt the nation toward policies repressive of minorities and the poor and that are detrimental to the full flowering of freedom, equality, and the welfare of all.

As a white Baptist, I am particularly dismayed that the majority of white Protestants have a history in recent decades of voting for the Republican candidate for President, election after election. If you want to know the political, social, and cultural outlook of Christians, ask first about their zip codes not about how passionate they are about Jesus. I will quit now before I get even more depressed.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Can't Anybody Get it Right on Immigration?

With respect primarily to Mexicans and others further south, conservatives are divided between xenophobic opposition to all them foreigners who don't look like us, despoil our communities, and speak Spanish, on the one hand, and business types who think that an ever increasing pool of unskilled workers means cheap labor costs, on the other hand. Liberals are all over the place. The multiculturalists think diversity is swell -- let a thousand varieties of flowers bloom -- and are blind to the the negative side that may involve loss of cultural unity with accompanying conflict and violence between economic, cultural, and ethnic subgroups. This group includes some progressive Christians who are filled with compassion who think you can leap from love straight to generous social policies without having to take into account all the complexities, ambiguities, conflicts of just interests, and all the difficulties involved in reaching solutions with proximate justice for all affected. Naive idealists think you can have a compassionate policy toward poor immigrants but like the naive multiculturalists are oblivious to the unavoidable side effects, like dragging down the wages of all workers, who may be divided into competing ethnic, racial, and cultural groups whose conflicts may escalate into violence.

Politicians are subject to all the above groups, interests, and values that vary with their region, party, and money sources. They seek for some winning electoral strategy that maximizes support in dollars and votes.

Nearly everyone, including some of the loudest and most obnoxious, risks oversimplifying the issue based on ignorance, self-interest, ideological preferences, and so on and champion solutions as if the truth they see is the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Disinterested theorists and others, including a few politicians, who seek the common good find that no one policy benefits all equally and that the good shared in common is only a small piece of the pie. Pessimists and skeptics like me conclude we must settle for the least bad policy and hope that the struggle of power between all the competing interests will somehow yield something workable and not entirely unjust.

More detailed analysis with more specifics can be found in previous postings.

Sex Trafficking, Prostitution, George Bush, Evangelical Christians, and Reinhold Niebuhr

I can't stand George Bush, and I think right-wing Christians are a block to progress on many moral and social issues. But Nicholas Kristof points out that on the issue of child sex trafficking, Bush, pushed by evangelicals, is doing a lot of good, while liberals, except for some feminists, aren't doing much.

Reinhold Niebuhr is right again. Ambiguity pervades nearly everything.

Monday, 1 May 2006

I am getting a little tired of hearing drug companies on TV proclaim how much they love patients and put them first. Au contraire, profit is the end; patient satisfaction is the means. The prosecution offers three points in evidence:

1. If they love patients so much, why do they spend so much money in ads to persuade them to suggest their newest and most expensive drugs to their doctors instead of older and cheaper alternatives that work about as well?

2. Why do they spend so much money wining, dining, and plying doctors with gifts persuading them to prescribe the aforementioned newer, more expensive drugs instead of cheaper alternatives?

3. Why do they do everything within their power to keep their patents from expiring in order to prevent much cheaper generics from coming on the market?

The prosecution rests.

Immigration and Troubles Ahead?

Religion and Society

Whatever immigration policy is adopted at the moment can be dealt with. More important is what present trends suggest for the future. If the 10-12 million immigrants of illegal status are put on the road to become citizens, in another few years, will there be 10-12 million more and later 10-12 million more? If the answer is negative, how do we propose to keep them out in humane ways? We can and ought to liberalize legal ways for immigrants south of the border to come to the United State, but will it ever be enough to prevent others from coming in droves illegally?

A lot of these questions are speculative, but they are worth raising in order to give us perspective on what we are doing. One of the main issues is whether large numbers of Mexicans and other Latinos will continue to assimilate into American society, culture, and values. Or as their numbers increase, will they create enclaves in which the desire to perpetuate their own culture will become stronger?

Small groups who retain their own ways of life can be incorporated without great problems, but will large numbers intensify the desire to have little Mexicos in Los Angeles and other cities? Will there be a growing desire to sing the national anthem in Spanish, create a two-language nation like Canada, and fly the Mexican flag? A nation is enriched by diversity, but it also needs symbols of cultural unity like flags, language, a national anthem sung in the original language, and well as a core of common values.

Immigrants from the south are largely Roman Catholic and many share the views of the church on abortion, sex, women, divorce, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and the like. Would the hierarchy be as favorable to immigration from the South if 90% of them were liberal Protestants on these issues? I don't know; I just wonder. Would ever-increasing numbers of social conservatives retard the progress we have made so painfully and slowly in these areas? Should those of us who are liberal Protestants be concerned about the possibility of adding so many more votes to reactionary policies? Will Hispanics tend more to the Republicans (on social-cultural issues) or Democrats (on economic issues)? Is it not important from the point of view of progressive and liberal folks like me what the answer is?

Would ever-increasing numbers exert an ever greater downward drag on already low wages for immigrants and unskilled Americans already here? One op-ed piece on May 2 commented on the spectacle of immigrant workers protesting in behalf of even lower wages, for that is what will happen in the pool of available workers becomes ever larger.

The worst case scenario might have the following elements:

1. Large enclaves of immigrants form in the big cities and elsewhere who become increasingly militant and resistant to assimilation while making growing demands on government on economic and cultural matters.

2. A backlash occurs among non-Hispanic whites that resists signs of increasingly militant demands for the Mexicanization of American society.

3. Tension moving toward violent conflict emerges between Hispanic and African American groups over jobs, falling wages, and cultural matters.

4. Riots with accompanying violence break out in cities with large numbers of alienated Mexicans and other Hispanics, resulting in burning cities reminiscent of the civil rights era.

If that sound outlandish, recall that tendencies in all these directions were much in evidence in the May 1, 2006, demonstrations, protests, and work stoppages. Mexican flags were much in evidence, and more would have been had not leaders warned against the bad public relations it would engender. Some are all ready in singing the national anthem in Spanish. Voices could be heard saying, "Los Angeles is ours," "we want a new America," "illegal immigrants from Mexico are not illegal, just back on native land," "we have the right to be here," and the like. All this hints that much more activism could be expected in the future. African American groups are already forming in opposition to Spanish culturalization and the competition with blacks over jobs. White militancy is evidence in posses forming on the southern border to keep immigrants out.

Whether this indicates that serious trouble is ahead, I don't know. It would be foolish to dismiss the possibility out of hand.

I speak here not so much of what is right and good as of troubling signs and realistic possibilities. European nations are learning how their liberal policies have created enclaves of alienated Muslims shut off from economic opportunity and at odds with the majority culture on matters of free speech, religion, morals, and the like. Granted the differences with the situation here are significant, it does not mean the similarities harbor no troubles for us.

Thursday, 27 April 2006
Immigration: Problem Without a Solution

Politics and Justice

Immigration at the present, at least with respect to Mexico and countries to the south, is a problem without a good solution. It is complex with many facets and subtexts. What commends itself in some respects is distasteful in others. What helps some groups hurts other groups.

Let us first dispose of some simplistic items. It is said that immigrants take jobs Americans don't want. That is true only if you add "at current wages." And it is not true even then, since Americans in fact do hold most of the kinds of low-paying jobs that unskilled immigrants take.

Signs proclaim that no human being is illegal, refuting a claim nobody is making and ignoring the intended meaning that an illegal immigrant is one who is here illegally not that this human being is illegal, whatever that could possibly imply.

It is also said that we are a nation of immigrants, so we should continue be receptive to others who want to share the same benefits our ancestors found in coming here. Fine, but it neglects two things: all humans beings living today, or nearly all, have ancestors who came from somewhere else, and we have to deal with new immigrants under the conditions that prevail here and now and not at some previous time.

To tackle the problem itself, there is little doubt that adding immigrant workers who will work for very low pay drags down the wages of those already here. If employers can hire workers at a dollar less per hour than they are now paying, it stands to reason they will do so. Employers who benefit in this way are favorable to a large influx of potential workers from the South who can be hired at low wages.

Let us add some complicating factors. Allowing free immigration from Mexico provides a safety valve for the Mexican government and reduces the pressure to improve conditions for their own workers. An author who has studied the problem for years claims that the Mexican government is being cynical. They are happy to have these impoverished people leave and don't want them back.

Mexico has a harsh, punitive policy toward immigrants entering from their southern borders but wants the US to be generous to immigrants from Mexico -- the old double standard issue.

One reason so many immigrants from Mexico will risk everything to get in is that Mexican farmers have been devastated by the subsidies paid to American farmers to grow corn, thus undermining the prices of a major Mexican crop. NAFTA has been hurt many poor Mexicans badly, pitting the interests of poor Mexican farmers against rich agribusiness interests in the United States. Guess who wins.

Both parties in Congress try to figure out how to get the Hispanic vote, so that self-interest rather than the common good tends to dominate.

Turning to solutions, all have drawbacks. To treat the millions of illegal immigrants already here the same as those who are pursuing a legal track would not be fair. To deport them is all but impossible as well as cruel. Any penalty or punishment administered them would only add further hurt to vulnerable people. Building a wall or fence sufficient to keep out all trespassers would be expensive as well as inappropriate given our national values. Completely open or completely closed borders is either impossible or bad policy.

The best solution, of course, would be to make the countries who are supplying unskilled immigrants so attractive that few would want to leave. That will not occur in the near future. Lacking that we have to search for the least bad answer. Practically speaking, the issue will be settled in a political battle in which all interested parties seek the best deal for themselves. Maybe that will, or maybe it won't, produce the least bad solution. In any case, it is what we will have to live with it. One could wish for an outcome that will require everybody to bear the burden imposed by a generous immigration policy and better wages for everybody at the bottom. This burden could be either higher taxes or prices on goods involving immigrant labor, if not job or pay loss.

One final note with two parts can be added. One is that liberals should be cautious about proposing policies that will cost them nothing but require others to take the loss. Middle class and upper class folks and professional people would not have their jobs threatened or their pay cut by a generous policies toward unskilled immigrants in large numbers. So let them be modest in their idealism. I speak in particular to Christians who would go unharmed.

The other point is some Christians want to leap from principles of love and compassion right to generous policies toward unskilled immigrants. I am suggesting that love needs to be mediated through principles of justice that take into account all the complexities involved and the differential gains and losses suffered by various groups. The hope is to arrive at some form of proximate justice that will also have a practical chance of enactment in the power struggle between different self-interested parties vying for what benefits them most.

Elements of tragedy pervade the situation. Skulls of Latinos are scattered in the Arizona desert in border areas testifying to the failure of some immigrants to make it to safety and a job. Would-be immigrants include honest people who want to work make a better life for themselves and their families, a few gang members, criminals, and perhaps now and then a potential terrorist.

I saw on TV a young man who had just entered the country illegally. In all earnestness he said, "I didn't come here to hurt anybody. I just want to work and help my family." One TV show followed a deported immigrant back to his village. The squalor, poverty, and desperation were heartbreaking. The young son was willing to risk his life to come to the United States to work and help his family. Christians will be moved by compassion for such people and be willing to sacrifice in order to help them, but they will not do so without counting the costs involved for everybody and trying to see to it that everyone shares the costs entailed by their loving kindness.

Tuesday, 25 April 2006

Small Scale Frustrations

In the cosmic scheme of things rebates and manufacturers' coupons are a minor evil but nevertheless deserve indignant renunciation.

Rebates are a way of fooling you into thinking you are getting a special deal. It only means the price has been lowered, which is always a good thing, of course. But rebates are an inefficient means to achieve this end. They are trouble for the manufacturer, the retailer, and the customer, adding unnecessary time and cost to a transaction that could be simplified. The giver of the rebate puts off sending your check as long as possible, which means they get your money interest-free for 6, 8, 10 12 weeks or more. Moreover, frequently they resist honoring them anyway. The find all sorts of things that make them invalid. I have been told they have no record of a claim when it was sent with another claim -- which they did honor -- at the same time in the same envelope to the same place on the same deal. I have been told the check has been sent and cleared when I never saw the check at all. I could go on. They are a nuisance and add unnecessary costs that could have been avoided by simply lowering the price. On retailer said to me, "I hate them."

Manufacturers' coupons are even more inefficient. They have to be conceived, designed, printed, distributed, and redeemed. The customer has to look for them cut them out, organize them, search for the exact product, and wait while they are scanned. The the manufacturer pays the store about 7 cents each to process them. This adds up to a whole nest of inefficiencies. The customer is forced to use them or end up subsidizing those who do.

Whey, then, do rebates and coupons flourish? Apparently because they work for the advantage of the seller. It seems there are enough people out there who think they are getting something for nothing to sustain the troublesome process that ends up costing the consumer more in the end. P. T. Barnum said, "There is a sucker born every minute." Those of us who hate them are caught up in a system where we must act defensively by using them to keep from losing more that we would otherwise. Everybody who agrees say, "AMEN."