Saturday, June 21, 2008

Shakespeare: A Poem

For the best in English writing, Shakespeare gets my vote.
When we want a bon mot, we do Shakespeare quote.
But since none else doth command such note,
Whom besides the Bible doth Shakespeare quote?

Friday, June 20, 2008

Obama a Promise Breaker or Political Pragmatist?

Senator Obama has been widely criticized as a promise-breaker on public finance, thus despoiling his image as a reformer and apostle of a new politics. While recognizing that the reason he did it was that he can raise much more money than Senator McCain and thus boost his chances of getting elected, critics concluded that Obama is just another politician like all the rest.

Journalists are reputed to be cynics, yet one has to laugh at how often they function as absolutists and moral purists on this and many other points. It is all or nothing, saint or sinner, pure or impure. All most could focus on was his flip-flopping and how it belied his alleged aim to transform Washington's way of doing things.

One can look at it this way, but if we assume a larger perspective, the final verdict may be rendered differently. Recognizing that politics is the art of the possible and that one has to gain power before one can exercise it, I have argued in these pages that a worthy politician needs to move between idealism and realism, principles and pragmatism. Obviously, on any given issue at a specific time, one can argue where the praiseworthy politician ought to be located on this double continuum.

Maybe Obama is an idealist who wants to change things for the better. Maybe he does have core principles that he will not abandon. Maybe in the case of campaign finance reform at this particular moment, he felt that realism and pragmatism dictated his decision in the light of the fact that the election may be close and he will need every advantage he can get.

This perspective does not necessarily validate his choice or render it any less regrettable. One can argue with it. Nevertheless, a larger perspective might save us from from a superficial one-issue moral absolutism that obscures deeper truths. Only a comprehensive pattern emerging over time gives us a basis for a sound judgment.

My own view is that the moral imperative that Barack Obama be elected president is so overwhelming that it justifies his pragmatic decision on campaign finance at this juncture in history.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

What Marriage Is: Some Clarifying Theses

When we say X and Y are married, we usually mean that they had a valid civil or religious ceremony performed upon presentation of a state-issued license. That works very well for most ordinary purposes, but upon reflection, it gets more complicated.

A few days ago in California Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, both in their 80's and who had been living together for more than fifty years, secured a license and went though a civil ceremony that gave them the legal status of marriage in that state. I say that in the sense that matters most this couple had been married for a long time. The license and the ceremony meant only that they now had all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities of married people recognized by the state of California.

For a full understanding, we need to recognize three meanings of the term "marriage."

A. Marriage in the fundamental sense means a relationship in which the partners have committed themselves to live in love and loyalty to each other for the rest of their lives. Note that Scripture speaks of what God has joined together, not the state.

B. Marriage in the legal sense means that the partners have met the standards and gone through the procedures required for them to be legally married in a particular state.

C. Marriage in the religious sense means that the partners have met the standards and gone through the procedures recognized by a particular religious community.

Given the disputes going on now all over the country, some clarifying theses may help:

1. People can be married in all three senses.

2. People can be married in sense A. but not in senses B. and C.

3. People can be married in senses B. and C. but not in sense A.

4. People can be married in any set of two but not in the third.

I argue, along with Will Campbell, that churches should explicitly separate A. and C. from B. Ministers of the Gospel should not do the work on the state. Not only does it violate the separation of church and state, it contributes to confusion about what marriage in the religious or fundamental sense means. Marriage does not require the sanction of the state to make it religiously valid. Churches and ministers should make it clear that what they do pertains only to C. If people want to be married legally, let them go the courthouse and take care of it. What we do in C. presupposes A., although we cannot guarantee it, but B. is not strictly a concern. Some people are more truly married in sense (A.) than others who have a legal or a religious certificate or both.

When a minister "marries" a couple in church, what that means, properly understood, is not that the license and the ceremony make them married but that formally and publicly the religious community recognizes what presumably has already been established in their personal relationship.

Hence, with regard to same-sex marriage, the church does not need the permission of the state to recognize a marriage in the fundamental (A.) and religious sense (C.). Churches just need to get out of the business of validating the legal status of marriage. That is the role of the state and not the church, and the church should have nothing to do with it.

Monday, June 16, 2008

President McCain and that 3 AM Phone Call

The temper of John McCain is legendary, and his memory sometimes fails him. Imagine that 3 AM phone call.

President McCain: What the $%$#! Who the *(*&+@ is this waking me up at 3 AM. Drop dead, you &^%$#@%$#.

Voice: Sorry, Sir, but missiles have been launched against us and are headed toward the Capitol and the White House. We have 30 seconds to launch anti-missile defense.

President McCain: You %$*&^%, call the President, so he can do something about it.

Voice: But, Sir, Mr. President, you are the President.

President McCain: Oh %$^&, I am the %$#@ President. Launch anti-missile defense immediately.

Voice: Sorry, Sir, Mr. President, it is too late. We waited 10 seconds too long.

President McCain: Uh Oh. $%^%$ %$#$%^& ^%$#

Today's Quiz: American Voters

Which of the following is true?

1. The great mass of Americans are decent, sound in mind and heart, and when informed will choose what is sensible and in the long run what is right.

2. The great mass of Americans vote their passions and emotions, sometimes against their own economic interests, are easily misled, and often choose leaders based on trivial rather than substantive matters.

Answer: Both are true at different times and in different proportions. The art of getting elected consists in knowing when and to what extent each prevails.

McCain is a war hero. So what?

Please explain to me why the fact that John McCain was tortured as a prisoner of war in any meaningful sense validates his views on Iraq and other foreign policy matters. Logically, there is no connection, but it is commonly assumed that his military service and experience decades ago somehow provide him with unusual insight in the present and future. Why?