07 December 2007

Faith in America?

That’s the title of Governor Mitt Romney’s speech yesterday, in which he defended his religion and argued that it should not be a hindrance to his being elected President. (For those of you who weren’t aware, Romney is an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, commonly known as the Mormons.) Many commentators have drawn parallels to John F. Kennedy’s speech to a group of Houston clergy in the 1960 Presidential campaign, in which he defended his Catholic faith. But when one reads both speeches, the parallels quickly disappear.

Romney’s speech was, first and foremost, an attempt to assuage the fears of the conservative Christian element of the Republican Party in his quest for the GOP nomination. Even though Romney said, “I do not define my candidacy by my religion. A person should not be elected because of his faith nor should he be rejected because of his faith”, he actually went on to cast his faith in terms that would render it acceptable to his intended audience. And while he asserted (correctly) that the Constitution prohibits religious tests for political office, he outlined his own theological beliefs in an effort to win over those conservative Christians, stating, “What do I believe about Jesus Christ? I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind.”

Romney invoked America as being a “nation under God”, where God is trusted on the currency and the Pledge of Allegiance (conveniently omitting the fact that “In God We Trust” was only added to the Pledge in the Red Scare era of the 1950s). He decried those who “seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America – the religion of secularism. They are wrong.”

On the other hand, Kennedy spoke of an America in which all persons should be free to practice their faith, or observe no faith practices at all. As he put it,

I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end--where all men and all churches are treated as equal--where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice--where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind--and where Catholics, Protestants and Jews, at both the lay and pastoral level, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.

While Romney asserted that his religion was good enough to match up with the religious beliefs of a portion of his party’s supporters, Kennedy painted a picture of post-religious politics for America. Kennedy stated that the “religious issue” was not nearly as important as “the hungry children I saw in West Virginia, the old people who cannot pay their doctor bills, the families forced to give up their farms--an America with too many slums, with too few schools…”

Kennedy also said, “I believe in a President whose religious views are his own private affair”. Nowadays, however, it seems a virtual requirement for Presidential candidates in both parties to proclaim their own religious faith, so we are subjected to Hillary Clinton’s torturously awkward explanation of her private prayer life, and Mitt Romney’s defense of Mormonism as something conservative Christians shouldn’t fear, and the rise of Mike Huckabee in the polls solely because he happens to be the most avowedly, explicitly conservative Christian remaining in the race.

If there is truly no religious test for public office, would it be possible for an agnostic or atheist to succeed as a Presidential candidate? I seriously doubt it. I’m reminded of the film Contact (based on Carl Sagan’s novel), wherein Jodie Foster’s character loses out on the assignment of piloting the craft to make contact with the extraterrestrial aliens because she refuses to acknowledge the existence of God, while her boss conveniently adopts an acceptable “civic religion” tone in order to garner support.

In the end, then, it would appear that there really is a religious test for high office in America; not a specific denominational test, but a religious one nonetheless. So when it comes to the public political arena, in what do we have faith? Do we have faith in America, in the Constitution, in the rule of law, in moral truths and scientific progress and the noblest aspirations of humanity? Or do we require that faith to be expressed only in acceptably Christian theistic terms? Personally, I’d much rather live in John Kennedy’s America than in Mitt Romney’s.

Oh, and Governor Romney, you’re no Jack Kennedy. (Yeah, click on the link, you know you want to see it.)

P.S. Since it’s that infamous day, and in honor of my grandfather who was serving there on that day, remember Pearl Harbor and give thanks for all those who serve their country, regardless of how wrong-headed the politicians who currently control our nation’s foreign policy might be.

04 December 2007

Oh, evolve already!

Can this still be going on? In Texas, the state science curriculum director has resigned under pressure “after being accused of creating the appearance of bias against teaching intelligent design.” In late October, Ms. Chris Comer forwarded an email about an upcoming lecture by Professor Barbara Forrest, a professor of philosophy at Southeastern Louisiana University and a co-author of Inside Creationism’s Trojan Horse, a book that argues creationist politics are behind the movement to get intelligent design theory taught in public schools. Professor Forrest was also an expert witness in the landmark 2005 case that ruled against the teaching of intelligent design in the Dover, PA schools.

The Texas Education Agency cited Ms. Comer’s forwarded email in a memo that recommended her termination, saying that the forwarding of the email “implies endorsement of the speaker and implies that TEA endorses the speaker's position on a subject on which the agency must remain neutral."

For the sake of further background info, the person who first objected to Ms. Comer’s email forwarding was Lizzette Reynolds, the Deputy Commissioner for statewide policy and programs at TEA, a former employee at the U.S. Department of Education and a former deputy legislative director for then Governor George W. Bush.

My concern is not so much whether Ms. Comer was, in fact, guilty of “repeated acts of misconduct and insubordination”, as TEA officials claimed. My concern is more about why the TEA or any other American educational agency feels the need to “remain neutral” about the teaching of the theory of evolution and the exclusion of the theory of intelligent design.

I have neither the time nor the patience to repeat arguments about why intelligent design is lousy science (if one can even call it “science” to start with), or why attacking evolution as “just a theory” displays a complete and total disregard for the whole of the scientific method itself. I’m mostly just appalled that this debate is still going on in our nation. I wish I could say I’m surprised, but I can’t, not when several of the current Republican candidates for President were willing to go on the record as not believing the theory of evolution. Just remember that saying, “If you don’t believe in evolution, you’re obviously not participating in it.”

If you feel the need to let the State of Texas hear from you, you can fill out their email response form, or call their headquarters at 512.463.9734.

29 November 2007

The Burger King and his serfs

Those of you familiar with the United Methodist Church’s social justice programs may recall a church-endorsed boycott of Taco Bell a little while ago, based on that restaurant chain’s refusal to pay migrant tomato farm workers in Florida an extra penny per pound of tomatoes they harvested. Taco Bell (and McDonald’s) eventually relented, and are now paying that extra penny per pound in a manner that ensures the penny goes directly to the farm workers themselves.

To give you an idea of the workday of the average migrant tomato farm worker, here’s an excerpt from a recent NY Times column:

For 10 to 12 hours a day, they pick tomatoes by hand, earning a piece-rate of about 45 cents for every 32-pound bucket. During a typical day each migrant picks, carries and unloads two tons of tomatoes.

That’s $56 per day, assuming 125 buckets at 32 pounds per bucket. The article goes on to state that the increase of a penny per pound has translated into the workers’ now receiving about 77 cents per bucket, or $96.25 per day. [Note: I have not independently verified any of these figures; I’m merely doing the math based on the facts stated in the article.] So that’s the current situation – workers pick and haul two tons of tomatoes for a little less than $100 per day, or roughly $8 to $10 per hour. Under the prior system, the wages were roughly $4.67 to $5.60 per hour.

However, there’s a new twist. Burger King has adamantly refused to pay the extra penny per pound, and according to the article, “its refusal has encouraged tomato growers to cancel the deals already struck with Taco Bell and McDonald’s.” In brief, “the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange has threatened a fine of $100,000 for any grower who accepts an extra penny per pound for migrant wages.”

Can you imagine any other situation in America where companies would be punished for offering higher wages to their employees? And remember, this new fine structure would not merely maintain a current wage level already in place; rather, it would reverse the gains made in negotiations with Taco Bell and McDonald’s.

The article estimates that paying the additional penny per pound would cost Burger King only $250,000 a year. Let’s see how that stacks up against some other numbers. Burger King’s three principal shareholders are Bain Capital, the Texas Pacific Group, and Goldman Sachs Capital Partners, each owning about 18% to 20% of BKC’s shares; thus, each holding is worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $600 million. According to Forbes magazine, in 2006 Mr. Lloyd C. Blankfein, the Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs, garnered an annual bonus of $27,243,500, bringing his total cash compensation to $43,867,924. Seems as though $250,000 wouldn’t exactly break the bank.

But wait, what about the fact that these migrant workers are, by and large, in this country illegally? If you watched last night’s GOP debate sponsored by CNN and YouTube (I admit I did not), you would have heard much about the supposed plague of illegal immigrants in our nation. In response to one issue, Mike Huckabee’s support of an Arkansas state scholarship program that did not discriminate against children of illegal immigrants, Mitt Romney said, “That’s not your money. That’s the taxpayers’ money!”

Now, stick with me here. Mr. Romney is upset that “taxpayers’ money” is being used to provide government services to illegal immigrant families, who are supposedly non-taxpayers. What about the migrant workers in Florida? Aren’t they also taxpayers? Remember that Florida has no state income tax; it relies on a statewide sales tax for its main revenue source. Mr. Romney, are you telling me that every migrant worker in Florida receives a tax-exempt card enabling him or her to make tax-free purchases in Florida? Or are you saying that if the employers of these workers don’t withhold taxes from their wages, it’s the fault of the workers themselves rather than the corporations that employ them?

Why am I picking on Mitt Romney rather than one of the other GOP candidates who love to rail against illegal immigrants? Because he was one of the founders and, until 1999, the CEO of Bain Capital. Yep, that Bain Capital, the same one that now owns about 19% of Burger King. For the record, Romney’s campaign states that he is "no longer involved in Bain Capital and their investment decisions," yet there’s a delicious irony in the fact that the private equity fund he formerly ran is making money by investing in a company that is profiting from the employment and underpayment of migrant workers (i.e., illegal immigrants) in the tomato fields of Florida. I wonder why that didn’t come up in last night’s debate?

I have a call in to the United Methodist Board of Church and Society to see whether the UMC has an official position on this topic, particularly with respect to any boycotts of Burger King. In the meantime, however, may I suggest you avoid Burger King in favor of other fast food (if you must eat fast food, that is). Also, if you’d like to contact BK directly to express your displeasure, their main phone number is 305.378.3000, and their Consumer Relations number is 305.378.3535, or if you’re inclined to write, you can address your comments to:

John W. Chidsey
Chief Executive Officer
Burger King Corporation
5505 Blue Lagoon Drive
Miami, FL 33126

20 November 2007

Too easy, but I couldn't resist

Today's puzzle: How many turkeys can you find in the following picture?

16 November 2007

Food and wine blogging

This segment will soon be known as “What I’m drinking right now”. FYI, that’s a 2005 chateau-bottled Bordeaux, Chateau Pierredon to be specific. I picked up a few of these in the $9 to $13 range recently, in response to my spouse’s desire to have more French wines on hand. We have been drinking a lot of California and Spanish reds of late, most of which tend to be somewhat fruit forward, and said spouse really wanted to get away from all that sweetness.

I was sitting around with friends Wednesday night, having opened a Cotes du Rhone (also 2005 vintage, I believe), and was surprised by how different it tasted vis-à-vis my recent wines. I had almost forgotten the pleasures of a dry, slightly tart, airy French red, and was quite pleased to re-discover them.

Now, I’m always one to rant and rave against the Parkerization of red wines (that being the high-alcohol, high-sugar, fruit-forward style preferred by so many winemakers these days that tends to yield those “scores” of 90), but of late I had only been doing that in the context of California wines. Having plunged back into French reds, I’m reminded of the joys of these wines. It’s almost as if they taste older (even though they’re not) – and not “older” as in a complex palate (although they often have those also), but “older” in terms of the overall flavor profile. Something just tastes more ancient about these “old-world” wines. It’s as if the wine is telling you, “Hey, nice work in California, but just to remind you, this is what folks have been drinking for millennia, and that many wine drinkers can’t be entirely wrong.”

Oh, and the food element of this entry – dinner tonight was a “pizza puttanesca”, a homemade pizza crust topped with leftover homemade puttanesca sauce, mozzarella and parmigiano-reggiano cheeses. For those not familiar, puttanesca sauce (literally translated as “the way a whore would make it”, presumably because of the spicy ingredients) features tomatoes, olive oil, capers, peppers, and copious amounts of garlic. Let’s just say it works really well with the cheeses as a pizza topping. (And yes, I left out the semi-traditional anchovies…sorry, Greg.)

I’ve been considering adding a wine & food element to my blog for a while now, but I don’t want to be diligent enough about wine blogging to compete with the super-serious wine bloggers out there. So, dear readers, you’ll have to be content with an occasional mention of good affordable wines that I’m currently drinking – and if you want more, just speak up.

One final note – I did attend a Beaujolais Nouveau release party last night. The 2007 Nouveau is….well…another Nouveau. It was not remarkable, in either a good or a bad way, so I suppose there’s some hope there. Just don’t make me drink it at Thanksgiving.

Rain of God, part deux

So Wednesday night it rained in the Atlanta area. You may recall that Governor Sonny Perdue gathered a group of dignitaries on the Capitol lawn to pray for rain the day before, in an effort to relieve the severe drought conditions. That’s right, God answered Sonny’s prayers…with a third of an inch of rain. Not exactly enough to cure the drought, but it was enough to have Sonny proclaim the next day that God had answered the prayers of the faithful.

IMHO, if this is your god’s answer to a prayer to relieve a drought, it sounds to me like you need a more potent divine being. As an acquaintance said to me last night (wish I could take credit for this line myself), “It’s like God hit the snooze button”. In other words, it’s as if God said, “Oh right, there are those humans in Georgia wanting me to cure the drought. Let me just give them a few drops, hit the snooze button and roll over. After all, I’m pretty tired from trying to combat hunger, war, poverty, disease, and climate change.”

Are you listening, Sonny? Get yourself a better rain deity, because obviously your current one doesn’t quite have the meteorological pull you were hoping for…

13 November 2007

The rain of God

As many of you are already aware, the state of Georgia is facing a record drought that has caused significant declines in the levels of reservoirs that supply metropolitan Atlanta. The worst-case estimates of the remaining available water describe a scenario wherein Atlanta would run out of water in 80 days if the reservoirs are not replenished with sizeable amounts of rain.

Can you imagine a major U.S. metropolitan area actually running out of water? Can you imagine the civil unrest, the health and safety dilemmas? Clearly, this is a time for government to take serious action.

Enter Georgia’s Governor, Sonny Perdue. Today he is taking action to combat the water crisis. What is he doing, you ask? Is he instituting mandatory restrictions or implementing sweeping conservation measures? Yes, there are some significant restrictions now in place in the Atlanta area – most outdoor watering is banned (except for various commercial uses, including car washes, construction sites, and other activities essential to daily business. But now Perdue really means business, as described in this Atlanta Journal-Constitution article, Perdue “has asked Georgians to pray for rain today, and at lunchtime will convene with various religious and political leaders on the steps of the state Capitol to seek divine intervention in the state's months-long drought.”

That’s right, Georgia has skipped right over the 20th and 19th Centuries, and has leapfrogged all the way back to the era of the Old Testament prophets (see, e.g., Elijah). So what’s wrong with this, you might ask? Why not invoke a little civic religion in an effort to rally the community together (it should be noted that, to Perdue’s credit, leaders of many religious traditions have been invited to join in today’s Capitol rain dance)?

Where do I start? There’s the bad theology, invoking a divine being’s mercy when you haven’t been doing a damn thing to take care of said divine being’s created works, otherwise known as environmental stewardship. How can you go to your god in prayer when you’ve spent the last decades passing legislation that allowed massive sprawl and reckless development throughout the metropolitan Atlanta area with complete disregard for its natural resources and the capacity of the creation to support the ever-expanding suburbs and exurbs? If you want to pray for something, pray for some wisdom to create smart growth policies. Pray for better mass transit to take some of those automobiles off of Atlanta’s roadways and thus reduce the amount of greenhouse gases they’re emitting, which just might help stem the tide of climate change and thus restore some equilibrium to the region’s weather patterns. Oh, and please pray to shut down the Southern Company’s hideous coal-fired power plants in the state, which are some of the worst sources of greenhouse gas pollution imaginable.

OK, let’s say that even if you disagree with the theology and you assume they’ll be repenting of their appalling lack of environmental stewardship and creation care, you might consider this to be harmless nonsense, albeit nonsense. But then, of course, there’s the whole church-state issue. Are you seriously telling me that you’re spending my state tax dollars to hold a rain dance on the state Capitol grounds? Because that’s what this is, a good old-fashioned rain dance, and I won’t be any happier about it if Governor Perdue dons a feather headdress and paints his face. It’s too bad Perdue isn’t eligible for re-election, because I could design a great campaign commercial for his opponents – something along the lines of Nero fiddled while Rome burned, and Perdue did a rain dance while Atlanta dried up. Just imagine the visuals.

This reminds me of the old joke about the guy whose house is in the path of oncoming floods. A rescue team comes along in a jeep, but he says, “No, I’m staying here, God will save me.” Later the waters rise, and as his first floor is flooded a boat comes along to rescue him, but again he protests, “No, I’m staying here, God will save me.” Finally as he’s stuck on his roof, the waters raging around him, a helicopter flies overhead and drops a ladder, but he stands firm in his faith, “No, I’m staying here, God will save me.” Naturally, the guy dies in the floodwaters, and when he enters heaven and meets God, he asks him, “Lord, I was faithful to you, I trusted you, why didn’t you save me?” God replies, “Save you? I sent you a jeep, I sent you a boat, I sent you a helicopter? What else did you want me to do?”

So that’s God’s message to Georgia – you could have repaired your water infrastructure, you could have controlled your urban sprawl, you could have taken better care of the creation and your natural resources. What else did you want me to do?

12 November 2007

Reverend Dollar and Bishop Moneybags

Senator Chuck Grassley of the good state of Iowa has apparently decided that ministers of the Christian gospel shouldn’t be getting rich off the donations of their flocks, at least not if they’re going to maintain tax-exempt status for their congregations. According to Sen. Grassley’s press release of November 6:

Sen. Chuck Grassley, ranking member of the Committee on Finance, has asked six media-based ministries for information regarding expenses, executive compensation, and amenities given to executives. The inquiry is part of Grassley’s long-standing interest in making sure tax-exempt organizations are accountable to donors.

"I’m following up on complaints from the public and news coverage regarding certain practices at six ministries," Grassley said. "The allegations involve governing boards that aren’t independent and allow generous salaries and housing allowances and amenities such as private jets and Rolls Royces. I don’t want to conclude that there’s a problem, but I have an obligation to donors and the taxpayers to find out more. People who donated should have their money spent as intended and in adherence with the tax code."

Two of the six ministries that are the subject of this inquiry are New Birth Missionary Baptist Church and World Changers Church International, both located in my own metropolitan Atlanta area. (Do check out the links, especially the intro from New Birth – I particularly liked their gym that they call the “Samson Fitness Center”.) Not surprisingly, the head honchos of these religious racketeering operations, I mean, um, faithful ministers of the faithful ministries, those being Bishop Eddie Long and Reverend Creflo Dollar (you just can’t make up a name like that) respectively, are objecting to this government intrusion into the free exercise of religion.

What these preachers are preaching is a perverted version of Christianity known as the “prosperity gospel”. In short, the message of the prosperity gospel is that God wants to bless you, and the more faithful you are in responding to God’s call on your life, the more God will bless you, both spiritually and materially. In other words, the more you give, the more you get, and material wealth is a sign of God’s blessing upon you.

It’s way too easy to take some shots at this message. Whether you start with the Book of James or the teaching of Jesus himself, you’ll quickly realize that the message of Jesus is clearly not one of Wealth = God’s Blessing and Approval. But there are plenty of folks out there who desperately want to believe that the prosperity gospel is true. New Birth claims a membership of 25,000, while World Changers claims 30,000. Oh, and New Birth has a 240-acre campus with a $50 million, 10,000-seat sanctuary, and a 22-seat Grumman jet, while World Changers has an $18 million, 8,500-seat World Dome and a 10-seat Gates Learjet.

Reverend Dollar defends his lavish lifestyle this way: "Without a doubt, my life is not average…but I'd like to say, just because it is excessive doesn't necessarily mean it's wrong."

Maybe that’s true; maybe his lifestyle is not wrong. Maybe when Jesus commanded the rich young ruler to give away all his possessions, he really meant that the ruler should give them all to Rev. Dollar and Bishop Long, because they deserved them more than he did. And if you want to preach a religious message that says the faithful should get rich, I say this is America, go for it, that’s your Constitutional right (as wrong-headed as you might be). But you shouldn’t get the protection of nonprofit status under the federal tax laws to promulgate a business empire that makes you rich. That's not religious discrimination; that's simply equal treatment under the law.

06 November 2007

How to lose a “sure thing” election

Today being Election Day 2007 (not that I have any races in which to vote), I thought it would be a good time to lay out a vision of how the Democrats could once again manage to shoot themselves in their collective feet and wind up on their collective posteriors come Election Day 2008.

One would think that given approval ratings for President Bush in the low to mid 30% range and with over two-thirds of those polled saying the country is going in the “wrong direction”, the opposition party (Democratic) would have a pretty darn good shot at retaking the White House in 2008. In fact, one popular online trading/wagering site has a generic Democratic v. Republican matchup running at 62.0% Dem to 36.2% GOP. However, neither party will nominate a generic ticket; they will nominate specific candidates, and that’s where the Dems get into trouble.

Put simply, the problem is Hillary Clinton, love her or hate her. And most of the country does one or the other already. In fact, one survey showed that fully half of those surveyed said that they would NEVER vote for Senator Clinton for President. So, despite national polls showing wide preferences for a generic Democratic candidate over a generic Republican, the actual nominees have very different prospects.

Here’s the nightmare scenario, if you’re a Democrat. Clinton steamrolls her competition in the primaries, and even selects someone relatively “safe” as her running mate – e.g., General Wesley Clark, or Senator Evan Bayh (D-IN), or possibly even Gov. Bill Richardson. There’s really no way she’d choose Obama – why exacerbate potential prejudices by creating a “double minority” ticket? Meanwhile, Rudy Giuliani fights his way to the Republican nomination, and chooses a running mate popular with the Christofascist wing of the party, such as Mike Huckabee, in an effort to shore up his support. Hyper-conservative voters who might have otherwise turned away from Giuliani now have two reasons to vote for him – they like Huckabee, and more importantly, they absolutely loathe the idea of the Clintons’ residing in the White House again. More than any anti-gay-marriage ballot initiative, the presence of Hillary Clinton atop the Democratic Presidential ticket will motivate the religious right to turn out in droves. That support gives Giuliani a few key states, locking up his electoral triumph in 2008.

Oh, and let’s not forget that a Clinton-Giuliani matchup actually brings New York into play. Talk about a Democratic nightmare – imagine trying to cobble together an electoral majority without NY’s 31 electors.

I’ll leave it to your imagination what would happen to the image of America abroad if President Giuliani enters office and decides that the biggest problem with the Bush-Cheney foreign policy was that it wasn’t aggressive enough against Iran. Just remember a year from now, you read here about how it could happen.

29 October 2007

Power going to my head

In a truly Colbert Bump moment, I stand in awe of the influence of my previous post about Greg Ryan (et al.), formerly coach of the U.S. Women's Soccer Team. I say formerly because apparently someone on the U.S. Soccer executive committee saw my post and responded appropriately, as Ryan is now out as the coach. No word yet on the successor, but they haven't yet called me to ask my advice.

I wonder if this trend could work for other things. For example, if I said that President Bush was living in the past and relying on old methods to fight new foes, would he be replaced in a week? Hopefully not, given who his replacement would be...

16 October 2007

Living in the past or the future?

As promised, here’s a rant on our tendency to live in the past. You’ve heard it said that too many generals prepare to fight the last war (see, e.g., the Maginot Line). When your star center fielder, who has been with your team since he was 19 years old, is now a 30 year old who just had his worst offensive season ever and is showing signs of defensive decline also, are you the kind of General Manager who has the cojones to ignore fan loyalty and let that star player walk away? If so, you’re in the ranks of John Schuerholz, who did just that as one of his last official acts as the GM of the Atlanta Braves.

How about if your national football (soccer, for us Yanks) team has not been playing up to its potential in the World Cup, yet has advanced to the semi-finals and actually showed some good sparks in your last match? Do you stay with the players who have taken you there thus far, even though some of them are younger and less experienced than others on your reserve roster? Or do you think back to games that happened a year ago, or three years ago, and say to yourself “Oh yeah, I remember the other times we played this next opponent, we use our other goalkeeper, and we won, so I think I’ll switch the lineup at the most critical position imaginable and replace the keeper who has played the entire tournament”? So you then insert a 36 year old goalie in place of a 26 year old one, but wait, what’s this, you forgot to consider that the goalie who won those previous games for you wasn’t a 36 year old, but was a 35 year old or a 33 year old, and funny enough, reflexes slow down over time. Who would have thought that? If you would have, then consider yourself more prescient than Greg Ryan, coach of the U.S. Women’s national soccer team, who decided to substitute Briana Scurry for Hope Solo in the semi-finals of last month’s Women’s World Cup against Brazil (in case you missed it, Brazil whipped our collective asses 4-0).

Here’s another one – imagine that you lead a religious organization, and you’re facing a contentious issue within your ranks. You could either choose to stay with the traditional beliefs and practices, or you could become a visionary and promulgate a new way forward. For the most part, religious leaders have chosen the former approach. On issues ranging from slavery to women clergy to actually allowing individuals to read the Scriptures for themselves, translated into their own vernacular, it’s always the “revolutionaries” who upset the sanctimonious apple cart and try a new way. A century or so later, we all look back and can’t imagine what the anti-reform elements were thinking. And then the religious authorities turn right around and commit the same damn mistakes once again – yesterday women, day before yesterday blacks, today homosexuals. Talk about not learning from history and being condemned to repeat it…

And then there’s politics. If you want to choose the best candidate to become our next President, do you want the guy or gal who wants to continue to fight the battles of 9/11? Or do you want the candidate who is ready and willing and able to take on the challenges of 9/12 and beyond? See this column by Tom Friedman to read more about why we Americans can’t afford to live in the past, even and especially the tragic past of 9/11. We need a President to lead us into the future, not one who will expend his or her efforts constructing the American version of the Maginot Line.

A Nobel Undertaking – and the Road Not Taken

As you’ve probably heard by now, former Vice President Al Gore is the co-recipient of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. In awarding the Prize, the Nobel Committee said,

Al Gore has for a long time been one of the world's leading environmentalist politicians. He became aware at an early stage of the climatic challenges the world is facing. His strong commitment, reflected in political activity, lectures, films and books, has strengthened the struggle against climate change. He is probably the single individual who has done most to create greater worldwide understanding of the measures that need to be adopted.

By awarding the Nobel Peace Prize for 2007 to the IPCC and Al Gore, the Norwegian Nobel Committee is seeking to contribute to a sharper focus on the processes and decisions that appear to be necessary to protect the world’s future climate, and thereby to reduce the threat to the security of mankind. Action is necessary now, before climate change moves beyond man’s control.

Now that pretty much everyone in the world, with the exception of the Bush Administration, has lauded Gore, speculation is rampant that he will ride this tide of positive publicity right on into a campaign for the White House.

Unfortunately, I’m here to say “not so fast my friend”.

Think about this for a minute. Gore was one of the most qualified candidates ever to run for the Presidency, and was coming off of eight years of relative peace and prosperity. He defeated an inexperienced, inarticulate Texas governor by half a million votes, yet lost the election 5 to 4. Since that time, Gore kicked around for a while searching for some meaning or purpose to his life, and found it with his crusade to raise awareness and turn the tide of global climate change. Since taking this new path, he has been hailed by nearly all the world, and has received accolade upon accolade, culminating with what some consider the most revered honor in the civilized world.

When everything is going so well for him, why on earth would Gore want to return to the stage of his most bitter disappointment, his singular failure? Why would he, having found his crusade, his mission in life, want to constrain himself by taking on the office of the President, wherein he would have to deal with so many issues that are less compelling for him than climate change? Why subject himself to the rigors of the campaign trail and the humiliation of intensive fundraising efforts?

As much as I would like to see Al Gore as our next President, I just don’t see it happening. If I had just received a Nobel Prize for what I had been doing the past few years, I think I’d be pretty well inclined to keep doing it. Wouldn’t you?

05 October 2007

Patriotism as fashion statement

There they go again. The pseudo-patriots are all up in arms over Barack Obama’s recent comments about why he no longer wears an American flag lapel pin. In a recent campaign stop, Obama noted that he had been wearing a pin soon after 9/11, but he had stopped doing so because such symbols “became a substitute for, I think, true patriotism.” In a speech about the appalling state of veterans’ health care, he asserted, “My attitude is that I’m less concerned about what you’re wearing on your lapel than what’s in your heart…You show your patriotism by how you treat your fellow Americans, especially those who served.”

I’ve got one of those flag lapel pins myself. I wore it for a while, wanting to reclaim the image of the flag for what I consider to be a more reasonable patriotism, one that is more interested in compassion than jingoism, more concerned with genuine security than with fear-mongering. Eventually I stopped wearing mine too, for the same reasons Obama cites. I do have a yellow ribbon sticker on my car; it reads, “Support the troops. End the war.” (And yes, I got that sticker from John Edwards’ campaign.)

I want to go on an extended rant about empty patriotic symbols and false loyalty tests, but I think I’d wind up with a bigger rant than I have time for right now. Here’s a preview of something else I’ve been pondering, though – it’s time to stop living in the past. Instead, we should live into the future. This applies to politics, religion, and sports (whether that’s choosing not to re-sign a star center fielder with declining skills, or a boneheaded soccer coach’s decision to bench his star goalkeeper). I’ll work on that rant for you in the coming days.

P.S. If you want to read an extensive speech by Obama about a "new beginning" for American foreign policy, check this out. It's really first-rate stuff.

27 September 2007

Virtue ethics and the candidates

My main philosopher-king man KA has put forth a hypothesis, based on virtue ethics theory, that John Edwards is the best candidate for President. While I think that Edwards is an excellent candidate (and I have posted about him previously, and have given him my hard-earned money), I think that perhaps there is a slightly better candidate from a virtue ethics perspective.

I speak of Senator Barack Obama.

While Keith correctly identifies the corruption inherent in the current system and John Edwards’ rhetoric challenging it, I believe the aspirations expressed therein are slightly off point. Politics is the “art of the possible” (Otto Von Bismarck), not the art of the ideal. The ideal would be the complete overhaul (overthrow?) of the current corrupt political system, replaced by a totally public-financed system that serves to elect the best philosopher-king, reigning over a thoroughly enlightened electorate.

The possible is something different altogether. The possible, although still highly aspirational, is the overcoming of the Bush Administration’s Manichaean divide of the world, and of our own nation, into those “with us” and those “agin’ us”, those on the side of “good” and those who align with the “evildoers”. It’s just not that simple. There aren’t white-hat good guys and black-hat bad guys (not outside of country music and talk radio stations). The world is a palette of shades of gray. However, this Administration has taken advantage of (and played upon) our fears to create a dichotomy between the good and the bad, between the virtuous and the evildoers, between the red states and the blue states.

I believe that Barack Obama is the best candidate to bridge that divide. He himself embodies many divides in our nation, being a multi-ethnic son of an immigrant father. He understands and speaks the languages of the streets and of the Ivy League, of the Washington power broker and the community organizer. Obama calls us all to our better angels, to become our best selves. And is that not the heart of virtue ethics?

Submitted for your consideration is an excerpt from Candidate Obama’s 2004 keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. If you can read this without emotion, then go vote for someone else.

It is that fundamental belief: I am my brother’s keeper. I am my sister’s keeper that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams and yet still come together as one American family.

E pluribus unum: "Out of many, one."

Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us -- the spin masters, the negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of "anything goes." Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America -- there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America -- there’s the United States of America.

The pundits, the pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States: Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an "awesome God" in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.

In the end -- In the end -- In the end, that’s what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or do we participate in a politics of hope?

If you go vote for Edwards, I won’t begrudge you one bit. But I would like for you to consider Obama also. At the very least, find a candidate in whom you can believe and place your faith and trust. Don’t shy away; don’t simply vote for the supposedly “inevitable” candidate. Choose wisely.

04 September 2007

And you thought flying coach was bad…

The state airline of Nepal, Nepal Airlines Corporation, had been having recurrent problems with one of its Boeing 757 aircraft (NAC flies the 757-200M); reports indicated that the de-icing device was repeatedly malfunctioning. The airline’s engineers were stumped, until the chief engineer, one PBS Kansakar, found inspiration in a dream. He discussed his proposed solution with top management, who agreed and implemented his plan last Sunday. The airplane is flying once again, and the passengers of Nepal Airlines can rest assured in the high-tech solution of Mr. Kansakar.

What was the source of the problem that the NAC’s chief engineer resolved? Was it an electrical short, tangled tubing, or some other devilish dilemma? No, apparently, the gods must have been angry. Lord Bhairavnath, or Akash Bhairab, the Hindu sky god, was for some reason not pleased. Thus, the corporation decided to offer a traditional sacrifice of two goats, one black and one white, to appease the sky god. An airline official later stated, “The snag in the plane has now been fixed and the aircraft has resumed its flights.” Now the passengers of Nepal Airlines can rest assured that their high-tech Boeing 757 is once again airworthy, because of the offering of a blood sacrifice to the Hindu sky god.

Most educated Westerners will find this story to be supremely silly, and perhaps a bit tragic as well – although one hopes NAC at least held a tasty goat barbecue for its employees after the ceremony. Because after all, we Westerners are far too sophisticated to believe in the existence of a deity that demands a blood sacrifice in order to be appeased and to grant safe passage into the sky for his adherents.

Aren’t we?

03 September 2007

A call to arms (figuratively, that is)

Prompted by my man Keith’s blog entry on the apparent run-up to a massive bombing campaign against Iran and my reading of the most recent analyses, I’ve been pondering what I, or any of us, can do about this.

Were I a member of the inner sanctum of the White House, the closest of advisors to President Bush, surely I could persuade him that this would be a monumentally, historically stupid thing to do. Help Iran’s younger, well-educated, mostly liberal and Western-friendly generation grow up in relative peace and reclaim their country from the nutcase mullahs, and we’ll have a generation of at least semi-friendly relations. Bomb them now, and we’ll create a generation of passionate enemies. For a more sensible approach to combating the Iranian threat, check out this op-ed by Senator Barack Obama - I especially like this statement: "While conventional Washington thinking says we can only talk to people who agree with us, I believe that strong countries and strong Presidents shouldn't be afraid to talk directly to our adversaries to tell them where America stands."

Apparently, that would be an incorrect assumption. Much blogosphere speculation has it that Karl Rove’s recent resignation was in response to his having lost the argument with Vice President Voldemort, I mean, Cheney, over whether to attack Iran. Some speculation also extends to Tony Snow’s resignation, although maybe he really couldn’t manage his family finances to be able to live on only $165,000 a year like he said.

So if Rove can’t stop Chenemort’s (that just sounded better than Voldeney) plans, and if the current plan really is to conduct an overwhelming air attack on Iran with the intent of bombing its military back to the era of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), is there anything that we ordinary citizens can do?

Much as I like the idea of impeaching Bush and Chenemort, there’s absolutely no way it could happen – and removing Bush without removing Chenemort first would be pointless. Politically speaking, you could never get enough votes in Congress to install Nancy Pelosi as President.

Can Congress stop this plan? Not directly. Bush has the power (if not the moral authority) to launch an attack all by himself. There’s no spending authority to revoke that could conceivably preempt the attack.

So where does that leave us? Can we, as citizens, affect our government’s actions? I say yes, and I hope I am right. Here are some modest suggestions to you, dear reader, to take up arms against this sea of troubles and by opposing, end them.

1) Call your Representative and Senators (even if they’re a couple of right-wing wankers like mine) and tell them to go on the record opposing this idiotic preemptive attack on Iran. Call, don’t email – emails come in by the thousands daily and are easy to disregard, but direct phone calls are much less frequent and thus have more impact. The House switchboard is 202-225-3121, and the Senate switchboard is 202-224-3121. Congress can’t stop it, but if enough members of Congress vote on a resolution expressing their outrage and opposition (especially if many Republicans join in), that would at least ratchet up the pressure and media attention on the Administration.

2) Alert the media! Write letters to your local newspaper or other media outlet and express your opposition in no uncertain terms to this impending debacle.

3) Start protesting now, not after the launch. Sign up with organizations like MoveOn.org, gather like-minded citizens, and stage protests around the country.

Can Congressional rebuke, media scrutiny, and public opprobrium actually change this Administration’s plan of attack and thus have the potential to change history? I don’t know, but I’d like to find out. How about you? Isn’t it time to reclaim government of the people, by the people, and for the people?

30 August 2007

He's not gay...

My spouse, who wishes to remain blogosphere-anonymous at this point, came up with a fine rejoinder to Senator Craig's protestation "I am not gay" (see previous post for more details).

Simply put, he does have a wife and several children and grandchildren. We believe what he's telling us. He's not gay...he's bisexual! This is clearly a heartfelt plea from a conservative Republican Senator for greater understanding of the peculiar plight of bisexual persons in our society! I'm sure that any day now Senator Craig will introduce a bill in the Senate calling for anti-discrimination protections for bisexuals; maybe he'll even go so far as to includes gays and lesbians in that legislation.

Of course I'm saying all this tongue-in-cheek...and I am reminded of my friend Kevin Isom's hysterical book, Tongue in Cheek (and Other Places): A Seriously Humorous Look at Queer Life. You can click on his name to go to his website (not sure of the frequency of updates there) to read reviews and buy one or more of his fine books.

28 August 2007

Sometimes it’s too easy…

I could go on about this, but let’s try to do it in an efficient manner.

Senator Larry Craig (R-Idaho) pleaded guilty earlier this month to charges arising out of his arrest at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. The official charges were “misdemeanor disorderly conduct” The circumstances, according to the Washington Post, are as follows:

Craig was arrested June 11 in an undercover sting operation organized by Minneapolis-St. Paul airport police who had received complaints of sexual encounters by men in a particular restroom at the airport. The undercover officer was in a restroom stall around noon that day, and a few minutes later Craig entered and sat in the stall next to him. Craig began tapping his right foot, touched his right foot to the left foot of the officer and brushed his hand beneath the partition between them. He was then arrested.

This isn’t the first time Senator Craig has been associated with questionable sexual practices. According to CNN, “In 1982, Craig denied rumors that he was under investigation as part of a federal probe into allegations that lawmakers on Capitol Hill had sexual relationships with congressional pages, saying the ‘false allegations’ made him ‘mad as hell.’” Further rumors of homosexual activity have followed Senator Craig, including reports in the Idaho Statesman alleging, “Craig had engaged in similar restroom sexual encounters with other men. The paper said its most serious finding was the report by an unidentified "professional man with close ties to Republican officials," who claimed to have had oral sex with Craig at Washington's Union Station, probably in 2004.”

The interesting point here isn’t the apparently conflicted sexual orientation of Senator Craig; rather, it’s the hypocrisy inherent in this situation. Again citing CNN,

In recent years, Craig's voting record has earned him top ratings from social conservative groups such as the American Family Association, Concerned Women for America and the Family Research Council.

He has supported a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, telling his colleagues that it was "important for us to stand up now and protect traditional marriage, which is under attack by a few unelected judges and litigious activists."

In 1996, Craig also voted in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act, which denies federal recognition to same-sex marriages and prevents states from being forced to recognize the marriages of gay and lesbian couples legally performed in other states.

Craig has also opposed expanding the federal hate crimes law to cover offenses motivated by anti-gay bias and, in 1996, voted against a bill that would have outlawed employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, which failed by a single vote in the Senate.

Why is this so common? Why do so many of the most stridently anti-gay public figures wind up in compromising situations? Perhaps that’s the wrong way to ask the question – perhaps it’s better to ask, why do so many internally conflicted, repressed homosexuals get married and have kids and then campaign for “traditional family values”? Wouldn’t they be better off if they were able to accept their sexual orientation from the beginning, rather than consider it “sinful” or “evil”? Then they wouldn’t have to hook up with random guys in public restrooms, or campaign loudly for anti-gay legislation in order to prove their homosexual bona fides.

See my previous post about “marriage for the religious, civil unions for all” (as my friend Keith has put it in his blog). Isn’t it finally time to let folks out of the closet and into the light, where everyone can flourish according to his or her own sexuality?

As for Senator Craig and others, they should try reading a little Jung, so they might realize that the more one represses one’s shadow, the more it finds its way out in insidious ways.

26 August 2007

A modest proposal

Here’s a simple solution for a complex issue. First, some background: I watched the Democratic Presidential candidates’ debate on Logo (the “gay” cable TV channel) a couple of weeks ago. Well, OK, it wasn’t exactly a debate, as each of the candidates appeared sequentially rather than together. All of the front-runners and most of the others went a long way toward supporting same-sex partnerships, but very few of them could say “yes” to same-sex marriage (the exceptions being Kucinich and Gravel).

So here’s a thought – if “marriage” is such a holy, sacramental institution, why do all the Christo-fascists want to entrust it to the federal government? Why not leave “marriage” to the religious institutions instead?

Here’s my modest proposal: Do away with all government-recognized marriages. In their place, have governments establish “civil unions” or “domestic partnerships” for all consenting adult couples, be they heterosexual couples or homosexual couples. Then, you would go to the government for your registered civil union, and the government would grant you all the benefits that currently inure to “married” couples. Meanwhile, if you’d like to get “married”, go to your favorite church, synagogue, mosque, temple, or other spiritual congregation and have a marriage ceremony.

There you go, in 80 words, the solution to the entire same-sex marriage debate. Why is this so hard? Why isn’t this a solution we all can’t agree on (well, I know why we all can’t agree, because there are some of us who are completely hateful and bigoted, but maybe we can go with “most of us” instead)? Is it such a radical idea that no one of note can propose it?

Actually, one candidate came fairly close to proposing this in the Logo forum. That candidate was Barack Obama. Senator Obama also had one of the best lines of the entire forum, when he described the so-called Christians who are anti-gay as “taking one line out of the book of Romans and elevating it above the entire Sermon on the Mount”.

So maybe I’ll send this post to Senator Obama and see if he’ll adopt the idea in his own campaign. What do you think? Simple answer, or glossing over too many technicalities? Let me know what you think.

26 July 2007

More imagery

Then again, if you really want to ponder political resemblances, there are these images to consider - more available here...

To the hottie belongs the spoils?

Ever since the Kennedy-Nixon debates, popular pundits have pontificated on the merits of a good-looking candidate. (Obviously, this was not much of a consideration for the country in the Lincoln-Douglas election.) But is this the ultimate example of style over substance? Or, is it simply a reflection of the realities of our current media era? Does the best-looking guy (or gal) always win? Do I sound too much like Carrie Bradshaw yet?

Seriously though, to what extent does appearance matter for the Leader of the Free World? If the most qualified, most compelling candidate happened to be ugly, would we vote for him (assuming it’s a “him”)? Does the omnipresence of the broadcast media compel us toward telegenic pols?

I pondered this question yesterday, as I attended a fundraiser for John Edwards. No, I’m not at the point of making an endorsement just yet, but I do like him enough to toss a few bucks his way. He spoke for about 15 minutes, and spent a considerable amount of time shaking hands and signing autographs thereafter. I think that Edwards is really finding his distinctively populist voice, and his stump speech was pretty solid. And I’m straight as can be, but damn, he is a good-looking guy.

What do you think? Is Mitt Romney more appealing because he looks so good in a ski jacket? Does Obama set your heart aflutter? Is John McCain too weary-looking, or Bill Richardson too dowdy? Would you consider Kucinich except for the fact that he reminds you of Dobby the House Elf?

To what extent does appearance matter? Have style and substance merged in our culture? Is that a bad thing? I’m thinking yes – I’m thinking that Lincoln would never get elected today, simply because of his ugly mug – and what a loss that would be for our nation. How do we get beyond this? How can we cajole the mass media into focusing more on substance and less on style? Maybe if we all read decent newspapers (e.g., the New York Times or LA Times) and listened to the radio (say, NPR) more often, and watched less TV (except for PBS, of course), we’d elevate ourselves? Who knows? Your suggestions are solicited.

21 July 2007

Or maybe the answer is "no religion"...

You'll recall from my last post (or if you don't recall, scroll down to read it first) that in response to the Vatican's recent machinations I challenged my readers to go out and prove that the antidote to bad religion is good religion, rather than no religion. Note that I didn't endorse that assertion; rather, I asked that others take up the challenge to prove it (admittedly, more by their actions than by argument).

However, the first cogent reply to this challenge was from someone arguing for the opposite antidote. My man KA, philosopher (and oenophile) at-large, has this reply to my prior post. I encourage you to go check it out and see what you think. Is all religion a poison, with rationality and philosophy the only antidotes? Is there no such thing as "good religion"? Read, ponder, and offer feedback.

19 July 2007

I’d hate to see the false churches…

I know that The Daily Show and The Colbert Report have both riffed on these topics already, but I can’t resist adding my $0.02 worth. In an ironic coincidence of events that have to make one believe in divine intervention, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles agreed to a monumental settlement of sexual abuse claims less than a week after the Roman Catholic Church reaffirmed its stance as the “one true church”.

The details, for those of you unfamiliar with these stories: On July 10, the Vatican’s office on orthodoxy known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (which Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger headed for two decades before becoming Pope Benedict XVI) issued a document reaffirming its belief that it is the only true church. This was a restatement of the Church’s 2000 document, Dominus Iesus. The Catholic Church proclaims itself to be the only “mediator” of salvation, and notes that other groups (e.g., all Protestant churches) are not real churches at all, but merely Christian “communities”, primarily because they do not have the apostolic succession claimed by the Catholic Church. Oh, and those Orthodox folks? They’re OK, mostly. At least they’re still “churches”, even though they "lack something in their condition as particular churches" because they are not in union with the Pope. The Protestants, however, are right out.

Meanwhile, down in the Bat Cave, the Los Angeles archdiocese recently announced a settlement of over 500 sexual abuse lawsuits, with a total payment of $660 million. The parties arrived at the settlement just prior to the beginning of the first trial, at which plaintiffs’ attorneys had planned to call Cardinal Roger Mahony to the stand to answer questions about his knowledge of the ongoing abuses and his role in the cover-up thereof. It certainly appears that there was a great deal of motivation to keep Cardinal Mahony off the stand.

So imagine yourself as a Catholic in the LA area. You’ve seen your church’s priests accused of heinous sexual abuse of minors in their pastoral care, and now the money you’ve put in the collection plate all these years is being paid out to settle a series of lawsuits so that the Cardinal doesn’t have to speak about these cases in the public scrutiny of being under oath in an open courtroom. Meanwhile, the Pope has recently reminded you that you’re part of the One True Church, and that you shouldn’t go check out any of those Protestant denominations because, after all, they don’t have the full means of grace and salvation available to them. Sounds to me like some Catholic Church folks somewhere are afraid of losing their grasp on the hearts and minds of their followers.

Is this the only instance of blatant religious hypocrisy of late? Of course not; it’s just the nice juicy one of the moment. And I would be doing you, dear reader, a disservice if I didn’t continue to remind you of the hypocrisy that is rampant in most all institutional religions. Maybe my blogging friends will explore more deeply the psychological and philosophical implications of all of these matters (yes, SI and KA, if you’re reading this, that’s an invitation). For my part, I’ll just challenge you to go out and prove that the best antidote to bad religion is not no religion, but is in fact good religion. Go therefore and do some good in the world today.

19 June 2007

Gearing up for Pride

By the way, if you're looking for me this weekend, chances are you'll find me at our church's booth at the Atlanta Pride Festival. Pride is always a big fun time, and this year should be no different (and when did Debbie Gibson start calling herself "Deborah"?).

Doubtless there are several churches that would question our presence at such an event - after all, doesn't the Bible consider homosexuality to be "incompatible with Christian teaching", as the Methodists say? Well, yes and no - and if you're incapable of saying "well, yes and no" about the Bible, then anything else I have to say is probably going to be irrelevant.

If, however, you're still reading, I'll spare you the painstakingly detailed analyses of various passages of Christian Scripture. Suffice it to say that anything in the Hebrew Scriptures (the "Old Testament", for Christians") is either part of the old Levitical law, and thus no more applicable than the prohibitions against eating shellfish, or is part of a really bizarre mythological story that has nothing to do with gays and lesbians. When it comes to the New Testament, the translations of the Pauline letters that have come down to us over time are wildly inaccurate and/or speculative. Let's face it, there wasn't even a Greek word for "homosexual" back then, so how could Paul have possibly been condemning them? Better readings of the Greek words show that Paul was talking about other things.

And on a broader scope, what if Paul did say that anyway? Paul also endorsed slaves remaining as slaves, and women being subservient to men. Do we have any qualms about disagreeing with those assertions today? Well, some Christo-fascists do, but not many reasonable people. The point is, we (as humanity) grow in our wisdom and understanding over time. Is it possible that we know more about science and genetics than the Apostle Paul? Is it possible that the sun doesn't really revolve around the Earth?

So I'll be at Pride, proclaiming a message of radical love and radical inclusion, and if I can find a t-shirt that says "Don't assume I'm straight" I might just have to buy it - unless it's one of those athletic-cut muscle shirts, in which case I'll find something looser fitting and thus better suited for my non-boy-toy physique.

Other random notes

Among my other accomplishments at Annual Conference this year, I managed to get Rex to go to not one, but two vegetarian restaurants, as well as a Japanese restaurant. I wasn't with him the night he went out for wings, however, so no fault of mine there.

Be sure to check out my good friend Keith's new blog, Philosophy and Hoops - you can find a link on the left side of this page.

Finally, feel free to render feedback about the new template/style. I keep messing with things in hopes of being more inspiring - perhaps better content would be more to the point?

16 June 2007

The last day

First, you’ll be glad to know that the clergy finally finished up their voting, so Rex will indeed be in church on Sunday. They appear to have elected a somewhat more diverse delegation than we laity did (no big surprise there).

We adopted the $25 million budget on Friday with one amendment, adding back in about $600,000 that had previously been taken out of the Church Development item. That’s the fund that helps pay for new churches, mostly out in the suburbs and exurbs. The rationale for this funding is that the growing suburban areas need more churches to serve the growing populations. I suppose that’s all well and good, but I would prefer to see a bit more money spent on the intown churches that have suffered declines over the past few decades due to the changing demographics, but are now starting to rebound because of the influx of gentrification (e.g., Druid Hills UMC). I’m a little tired of sending our money out to the exurbs and not seeing much funding flow back to us in return. As you might guess, I voted against the amendment.

We also passed a motion from the floor to form a task force to study the delegate election procedures. The proponents of the resolution complained about the overt campaigning, particularly the aggressive tactics of the “Vision Team”. Naturally, the conservatives opposed this measure, but surprisingly it passed with a comfortable majority. I suppose that’s a hopeful sign for future conferences. At least now there will be a committee in place to which I can submit my ten-page election analysis and recommendations for future procedural changes. The paper is still in the formative stages – i.e., in my head – but I will put together something, because I really do believe that the current process allows an organized majority to control nearly all of the delegate slots, while effectively shutting out any reasonable representation from a minority bloc.

More comments will follow after further reflection (and rest!). Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to feed the blogger with comments!

14 June 2007

The good, the bad, and…

Let’s get the bad news out of the way first. The laity election has concluded, and all but one of the conservative “Vision Team” managed to get elected (I have to imagine the one guy who didn’t make it feels pretty bad). After the 12th ballot I asked my supporters to direct their support elsewhere, in an effort to focus the votes on one or two particular progressive candidates that I thought might have a shot at getting at least an alternate delegate slot (this wasn’t an original idea of mine, in case you’re wondering). Unfortunately, that didn’t help matters quite enough, although it was kind of encouraging to still receive 30+ votes even after I asked my voters to go elsewhere. Either that, or the people voting for me were just hard of hearing…

The clergy delegation continues to struggle with their choices, although they at least have moved on to the Jurisdictional votes. I can’t really comment on the makeup of their delegation, because I don’t know enough of the clergy who are on it so far. I’ll check in with Rex and have him give me some feedback – or maybe he should just make a guest appearance on my blog?

This morning’s opening music was big fun, though – Latin/Hispanic songs, done all the way through in Spanish, and then repeated in English. They were very up-tempo, with good work on the congas. I skipped out on the laity service – the speaker was some assistant athletic director at UGA, and I figured there would be one too many metaphors comparing the Kingdom of God and spiritual battles to gridiron contests. The “praise band” music that I did hear was not exactly overwhelming. There’s only so many ways you can make a couple of guitars, keyboard and drum kit play verse chorus, verse chorus, bridge, repeat chorus to BIG FINISH!

Good news – the day began (for some of us) at the annual MFSA (Methodist Federation for Social Action) breakfast. As I noted yesterday, this year’s speaker was Katy Hinman of Georgia Interfaith Power & Light. It was good to hear her, and to be with a group of folks who didn’t need convincing about prioritizing environmental stewardship.

Other good news – after much debate, attempts at unfriendly amendments, and opposing speeches, we still managed to pass a good resolution on comprehensive immigration reform, calling for a path to citizenship, protection for workers, and the reuniting of families, along with reasonable security measures. I tend to think the opponents of that resolution actually shot themselves in the foot, as the opposing speakers came off sounding stubbornly nativist. The vote was 703 in favor to 372 opposed.

One other thing I’ve been struck by this week is the number of good women clergy who seem to be leaving the ordained ministry. One that I already knew about has shifted to the UCC, and two others are leaving associate church positions this year to spend time discerning where their call should lead them. I think it’s incredibly unfortunate, to say nothing of shortsighted, that these clergywomen are not receiving more support and encouragement from the denomination, and that conditions are such that they’re leaving in increasing numbers.

Well, that’s all for now from Athens. We’ll vote on the budget tomorrow, and watch the clergy continue to vote for their delegation – it’s entirely possible that I’ll get out of here way before Rex does, so be nice to him when you see him on Sunday.

13 June 2007

Frodo has failed (mostly)

After several additional ballots today, the laity elected their 14-member delegation to General Conference. Only one of the 14 was not on the so-called “Vision Team”, the innocuously named group of hard-line conservatives. This process took ten ballots in total. On the first ballot for Jurisdictional Conference, however, the laity elected all 14 delegates at once! Remarkable? Yes, somewhat. However, we were choosing from a much smaller overall pool of candidates. And just to cut through any potential suspense, no, I was not chosen for either delegation. The conservatives filled 9 of the 14 Jurisdictional delegate slots as well.

For inclusivity reporting purposes, the GC delegation has two African-American women, three white women, and nine white men. Why does this not look to me like the average church attendance? The JC delegation is a little better, with two AA women, two AA men, five white women, four white men, and one Korean man. The very last person elected is a woman about whom I feel very good as a representative, but she is woefully outnumbered.

Ironically enough, the Conference passed a resolution tonight calling on General Conference to consider, in their elections and appointments, “members with differing Christian theological perspectives and to perfecting the representation of gender and racial and ethnic groups, taking into account membership elected by the jurisdictions and general conference.”

As for the clergy side, they managed to elect a few more folks to GC, but they have a long way to go. We laity still have to elect five additional reserve delegates, and there’s a chance we can get another progressive or moderate person in that contingent; however, there are exactly five members of the “Vision Team” remaining, so it’s possible that their supporters might simply bloc vote all of them in.

Is there anything good going on in Athens? Well, yes. Today was our Great Day of Service, although that was cut short by the need to return for voting and business sessions. I spent a few hours out at Roots, a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm featuring locally grown, organic, sustainable-farmed produce raised in a co-op structure. Although we didn’t have time to do much work, we did learn a bit about the operations of the farm, and as a lot of the volunteers there were young adults, I think they gained some insights into the nature of our agricultural practices and how those relate to environmental stewardship and creation care.

Speaking of environmental stewardship, tomorrow’s MFSA (Methodist Federal for Social Action) breakfast speaker will be Georgia Interfaith Power & Light’s Director, Katy Hinman. Somehow I’ll manage to get up for a 7:00 a.m. breakfast in order to hear her.

I’ll close with one other positive note: Rex presented the Eleanor Richardson Award for Social Justice today, which is given each year to honor a recipient who has worked for social justice causes in the NGUMC. This year’s posthumous recipient was Rev. Sally Daniel, former pastor of Grant Park UMC and former Conference director of ministry to persons with AIDS. In presenting the award, Rex got to say to the whole Conference that one of Rev. Daniel’s accomplishments was pastoring Grant Park as it became one of the first churches in the Conference to fully welcome and include gays and lesbians. So now there have been two positive references to the inclusion of the LBGT community at AC: one by me in my candidate’s speech, and one by Rex today. We’re not the only ones in the Conference who feel this way, though – despite my mediocre showing in the balloting, I continue to have people come up to me and tell me they thought my speech was great, and that they support my candidacy, and most importantly that they believe in the things I said and hope the Church continues to move in that more positive, inclusive direction. So Frodo may have lost the ring for now, but we must continue to believe and hope and work and strive for the day when love and justice will triumph over fear.

12 June 2007

Selection snafus, etc.

The voting for delegates to General and Jurisdictional Conferences has begun in earnest, and as this is my first election year at AC, I am seeing for the first time how the election process truly dominates all other business. Anytime there is a result to be announced, proceedings are interrupted, the winners are announced, and the next vote is taken immediately.

The election mechanism is a bit tricky, but I’ll try to explain it again here. First, we choose 14 delegates to General Conference. The laity have 43 candidates, so on the first ballot we voted for 14 out of 43. Any candidate receiving a majority of votes cast is elected, so on the first ballot we elected six delegates. That left us with eight more to elect, so on the next ballot we voted for eight out of the remaining 37 candidates (subtracting those already elected). It’s sort of an iterative process, I suppose. The main point is that a candidate must get a majority of votes cast on any given ballot to be elected, so it’s possible to have no delegates elected on a particular ballot. In fact, the second, third and fourth laity ballots had only one delegate each elected, so now we’ve elected a total of 9 (out of 14) General Conference delegates, and in our last ballot of the day we voted for 5 out of the remaining 34.

Got that? That’s the easy side. The clergy, who don’t allow for declared candidates, started with all 1,000 or so eligible clergy on the ballot. However, technical problems with the electronic voting software were so severe that 15% to 20% of the clergy ballots were invalidated. Apparently the software couldn’t handle the large number of candidates. The clergy re-voted their “first” ballot again this morning after being assured that the software bugs were fixed. Alas, that was not to be the case, as the second “first” clergy ballot was also rife with errors. The Bishop took the extraordinary step of asking for some clergy (30 or so) to voluntarily remove their names from the ballot, hoping that would allow the software to function properly. Nearly 150 volunteered, so with that reduced number, they took their third “first” ballot, which finally came out valid. Of course, given the huge number of potential candidates, no single clergy received a majority of votes cast. What they’ll do from here is begin to focus on the top vote-getters as having the most reasonable chance of being elected, and vote accordingly.

The results on the laity side have been pretty predictable, as each of the nine elected delegates so far was on the list of preferred candidates of the conservative bloc. Yours truly is lingering toward the lower part of the order; however, I can take heart in the fact that I’m not anywhere near dead last. I wound up 35th out of 43 on the first ballot, 24/37 on the second, 24/36 on the third, and 22/35 on the fourth. My total votes have been steady in the last couple of rounds, which I tend to interpret as showing a handful of hard-core supporters, since on each successive ballot the voters are allowed to vote for fewer and fewer candidates. In other words, the small numbers of people who are voting for me have me right at the top of their list. If I were to try to extrapolate this into some general insights into the NGUMC, I’d say that there’s a significant progressive element out there, and while it’s clearly in the minority, it’s a solid element.

Another thing I’ve pondered on today is the whole voting structure – i.e., why is it set up for successive ballots of fewer and fewer candidates? If I’m remembering my election law and democracy and governance classes right, I believe that this structure ensures that the majority can control most, if not all, of the elected delegates. Were we just to say that the top candidates are elected regardless of whether they receive a majority, the large number of conservative candidates might cancel each other out, while a small number of liberal candidates could get all the votes of the small liberal bloc, thus electing at least a couple of them. As it is, once one conservative candidate is elected, their votes can get switched over to another conservative candidate on the next ballot, and so on.

For all the talk of wanting to have a “diverse” representation on our delegation, so far the elected delegates are 100% white, and are mostly men. There are a handful of African-American candidates running, and some of them have a decent chance of eventually getting elected. There are also a couple of Asian candidates, one of whom has a shot. Unless I’ve missed someone, however, there are exactly zero Hispanic candidates. This is in spite of the fact that the Conference has been touting its growing Hispanic outreach and ministry. We’ve had Korean, Hispanic, and Indian pastors offer prayers so far this week, but none of them are yet represented on the delegation.

One other note: When the Bishop called for us to consider electing an “inclusive” delegation, the characteristics he noted include gender, race, and age, but funny enough, he didn’t mention anything about being theologically inclusive. So far, at least, there certainly hasn’t been any inclusivity from a theological perspective.

11 June 2007

Monday's proceedings

Annual Conference (AC, for future reference) began with the 42 lay candidates for Delegate to General & Jurisdictional Conference addressing the assembled laity, who numbered roughly 1,000. We each had two minutes to speak, and unlike most of the candidates I had crafted an entirely new address for this forum. I've reprinted it below for your reading pleasure. Most of the other candidates, with a few noteworthy exceptions, repeated the same old tirades, bemoaning the declining membership of our denomination and laying the blame for said decline squarely at the feet of the "ultra-liberals". The conservative bloc was out in force this morning along the sidewalks surrounding the convention center, handing out brochures and "voter's guides" to entering delegates (they're not allowed to distribute campaign literature inside the building, but no such restriction applies to the surrounding grounds). Their main concerns appear to be sexual orientation, abortion, "fiscal restraint" (keeping more money in the local churches and not sending so much to the liberally-inclined national church boards and agencies), and "fair and proportional representation" (getting more clout for the North Georgia Conference).

We cast our first set of votes for delegates (both lay and clergy) this afternoon. Unlike the lay candidates, who make their candidacy known, the clergy do not have declared candidates, and so their ballots contain all 999(!) eligible ordained elders. Results will be made known first thing in the morning, followed immediately by another round of voting. Voting rounds apparently will become fast and furious as we narrow the field of candidates and many of the slots are filled. I'll keep you posted, and will be sure to let you know if I manage to garner anything beyond the low double-digits.

Also today was the annual memorial communion service, honoring those clergy and clergy spouses who have died in the past year. Rachel and Patrick were able to join Rex and me here for that service.

And here's that speech of mine from this morning - enjoy!

Sisters and brothers, good morning! My name is Dan Browning, and I want to talk with you about my faith.

Back at our first Candidates Forum about a week and a half ago, Brother Joe Whittemore said that most all of the votes a Delegate casts at General Conference are based on his or her theology. I agree, so here’s my theology in a nutshell.

God is love. Love God. Love your neighbor. Love your enemies. Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God, and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.

I am convinced that the message of the Gospel is a message of radical, abundant, sacrificial love, and one of radical welcoming and inclusion. And yes, just so you can quote me on the record, I firmly believe that this radical love and inclusion should extend fully to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, just as they are.

Friends, the Book of Discipline is not Holy Scripture. We change the Discipline regularly, as we grow in our collective wisdom and knowledge and discernment as the Church. We stand on the shoulders of the saints who have gone before us, and we rejoice in that, but we must not be content to live in the past. If the Church is to truly transform the world and to manifest the life of the gospel in the world - as we are called to do - then we must reclaim our prophetic voice and be willing to speak truth to power, whether that power resides in our government, our society, or yes, even in our own church hierarchy. And as we take up that sacred calling, we must always be careful to “walk humbly with our God”. Thank you.

06 June 2007

Welcome to my church gang!

Because of potential updates and overhauls to our church's website, I've decided to use this personal blog site as your source for updates during the North Georgia UMC Annual Conference, taking place June 11-15. I'll be posting here frequently throughout the Conference to keep you updated on the latest breaking news from Athens. If you'd like, subscribe to the Atom feed (at the bottom of this page) to have updates automatically sent to you. If you have previously subscribed, you probably need to re-subscribe due to changes in my hosting. Or, if that's outside of your techno-comfort zone, just check back here often. Please send comments, either via this site or by email to me at danielabrowning@gmail.com. And while you're here, feel free to browse around the site for other of my musings, but be forewarned that it's not all orthodox (nor is it entirely G-rated, but it's not too bad).

As most of you know, I have placed my name in candidacy to be a delegate to the 2008 General and Jurisdictional Conferences. Since I'm being honest about my beliefs in my presentations, chances are that I probably won't be chosen by the North Georgia UMC laity to represent them, as my beliefs tend to be a bit outside of the conservative mainstream of the Conference. But, stranger things have happened. In any event, be sure to keep me and Rex in your prayers as we seek to "do the right thing" this week.

Last Saturday the Conference held the first of two Candidate Forums - this one was attended by a hundred or so delegates, and most of the Candidates. The Candidates each had two minutes to speak to the assembled delegates. As we are arranged in alphabetical order, my turn was #2 out of the 42 or so Candidates. Here's what I had to say on Saturday:

Brothers and sisters, good morning! Greetings in the name of Christ Jesus. My name is Dan Browning. I stand before you today as a candidate for Delegate to the 2008 General and Jurisdictional Conferences, and I am not here to ask for your vote.

Now, I’m not asking you to vote against me either. I say this because I really don’t think we should be treating this selection process as electoral politics, not in the way the world does elections. The work that we will entrust to our Conference’s delegates will include the crafting of faithful and just responses to some of the most pressing issues of our time: environmental stewardship and the climate crisis, the death of thousands of children worldwide daily from preventable diseases, the inequity of poverty in our own nation, the continuing work of racial reconciliation, and yes, issues of church finances and administration, and of sexuality and sexual orientation. I, for one, believe that these issues are far too important to be decided by campaign slogans and brochures and cards and letters and emails and websites, or by electioneering and voting blocs and lists of “good” and “bad” candidates.

What I am asking you to do is to pray. Pray to know God’s will. Seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit who lives and moves in and among and through us all. Use your God-given wisdom and discernment as you select delegates from among the declared candidates. I began by greeting you as sisters and brothers, because at the beginning and at the end of the day, we are all sisters and brothers to one another. Always be mindful of that. If we do that, then we truly will be able to “walk humbly with our God”. And above all else, abide in love. Thank you.

05 June 2007

Sunday's homily

By popular demand (OK, not that popular really), I'm reprinting my homily from last Sunday's "Peace with Justice" service at my church. Certain references and names changed to protect the innocent. Comments welcome.


Traditionally here at [insert my church name], [my] Class has a Peace with Justice study each spring, leading up to this Sunday, and our Class takes responsibility for designing the service and bringing the message. You might wonder how the topic of world religions and pluralism fits this theme of Peace with Justice. But really, when you think about it, religion and clashes between religions are the cause or catalyst of so much of the war and injustice and destruction in our world throughout history and even today.

Of course, it’s easy to classify religion that leads to violence and warfare as “bad” religion. Some say the answer or antidote to bad, destructive religion is NO religion. No religion, or atheism, is an increasingly popular alternative, according to today’s bestseller lists. With books by such notable authors as Daniel Dennett, Richards Dawkins, Sam Harris, and yes, Christopher Hitchens all bestsellers, one could be forgiven for thinking that there is a Great Revival of atheism sweeping across the nation.

And we all want to escape from bad religion, the accusatory kind of religion that points a finger and says, “If you don’t believe and act exactly like I do, you’re going to hell in a handbasket”. Many of you probably had some encounters, in college or elsewhere, with the guy who always tried to corner you and say “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life – have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior yet?” While YOU were trying to get AWAY from that guy in college, as many of you know, I WAS that guy.

Some of you have heard this story before, but one of the ways I began to change my beliefs away from what I now consider to be “bad religion” was when I spent a summer in Malta working on converting a bunch of Libyan Muslim college guys. But the more time I spent with them, the more I came to think “Hey, these guys seem to be doing pretty well without my Christianity – they’re trying their best to love God and love their neighbor – maybe the fact that they were born and grew up in Libya and were raised as Muslims isn’t so bad after all?”

One of the main things we’ve been studying in Discovery these last several weeks, as we examined various religions of the world, is whether there is some sort of underlying unity among these religions, or at least whether they have more in common than not. Is it possible, perhaps, that all the great religions are attempting to describe the same singular truth, and they just have different ways of going about it?

According to Buddhist teachings, the notion of separateness is an illusion altogether. This means not only that the separate religions with their separate teachings and traditions and theological statements of belief are illusory, but even that our separateness from each other and from the world around us is illusory.

But this isn’t just a Buddhist idea. Maybe you remember from one of my previous sermons, if you were one of the handful of folks I didn’t put to sleep at the time, some ramblings about quantum theory, and how everything is made of atoms, which in turn are made of subatomic particles like electrons and protons and neutrons, and protons and neutrons are composite particles made of quarks, and that the only difference between objects is how these particles are organized, put together, and which molecules they wind up forming. Furthermore, at their most basic all of these particles are really just energy, so everything we call matter is really just energy organized in different ways, all tied together in this one big underlying field.

In case you’re worried that this is just something I’ve come up with on my own, let me reassure you that I consider this to be very much in line with our United Methodist teachings. John Wesley himself taught the doctrine of prevenient grace, whereby the Holy Spirit lives and move in and among and through ALL of us, even if we don’t recognize it.

Recall the passage from Proverbs that we just read – about how Wisdom is the expression of God’s very Self: When God established the heavens, Wisdom was there. When God drew a circle on the face of the deep, when God made firm the skies above, Wisdom was right there beside God, like a master worker, and was God’s daily delight, rejoicing in God’s inhabited world and delighting in the human race. And then in the Gospel lesson, Jesus talks about the Holy Spirit being the Spirit of Truth, coming to guide us into all truth, taking what is God’s and declaring it to us. What I take from these passages is that wherever there is Wisdom and Truth, there is God.

So this idea of there being some kind of underlying unity to all spiritual seeking and wisdom isn’t just a Buddhist idea or some crazy quantum theory idea. It’s also, I believe, very much of a Christian one, at least the kind of Christianity that I consider to be “good” religion. Look at the symbols of our faith – right here on the communion table, there is one loaf. When Rex celebrates communion in a few minutes, he’ll recite those familiar words: “Because there is one loaf, we who are many are one body, because we all partake of the same loaf.”

So maybe there is something to the notion that the religions of the world are similar in value, similar in Wisdom, and their distinctive thoughts and ideas and patterns and teachings have been shaped by the cultures in which they arose. Most of us were born and raised, to one degree or another, as American Christians. Chances are, if you had been born in India, you probably would have been raised as a Hindu, and if you had been born in Indonesia, you probably would have been raised as a Muslim. Is it possible to consider that maybe these are simply various names for the attempts to grasp the ineffable, eternal common truths about the Divine?

We made some very intentional choices of songs for today’s service. There’s the word Shalom, meaning peace in Hebrew, and the word Salaam, meaning peace in Arabic. And if you were an Arabic-speaking Christian, do you know what you’d call God? That’s right, you’d use the Arabic word for God, which is Allah. So isn’t it possible that when billions of faithful Muslims call on Allah, they’re not worshiping some competing deity, but are in fact calling on the same God that we are when we say God?

As well as being Peace with Justice Sunday, today is also Trinity Sunday in the liturgical calendar. On Trinity Sunday we attempt to grasp the Christian mystery of recognizing three Persons in one, three expressions or manifestations of the triune God, and yet we still proclaim that God is one. If we Christians can call God Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then why can’t others call God “Allah”? Does the name we human beings assign to God really matter? Does our naming of the ineffable divine somehow change its nature and character? I seriously doubt it.

Our first hymn, “Bring Many Names”, by the great contemporary hymn-writer Brian Wren, reflects this understanding: Strong mother God, warm father God, old aching God, young growing God. Notice that God is always God. The descriptions of God in this hymn are merely the author’s attempt to describe the indescribable Divine. As the saying goes, “God is one, but the sages call God by many names”.

I want to close here with some lyrics from my favorite contemporary hymn-writer, an Irishman by the name of Paul Hewson, though most of you know him better as Bono of U2. The song is called One, which is also the name of Bono’s campaign to combat global AIDS and end extreme poverty, particularly in Africa. I actually didn’t know the full background of this song until I looked up the lyrics for this sermon. As Bono describes it, and I quote:

It's a father-and-son story. I tried to write about someone I knew who was coming out and was afraid to tell his father. It's a religious father and son. I have a lot of gay friends, and I've seen them screwed up from unloving family situations, which are just completely anti-Christian. If we know anything about God, it's that God is love.

Hear these words from the song:

One love, one blood, one life
You got to do what you should
One life with each other
Sisters, brothers
One life but we're not the same
We get to carry each other, carry each other