Feb 192012
 

Last week, presidential candidate Rick Santorum was quoted as saying that, while he takes Obama at his word that he is a Christian, he believes that Obama’s policies are based on “phony theology.”

That statement struck me as somewhat peculiar, but he didn’t say anything further about what he meant at the time. Today, however, he did. In an interview on Face the Nation, Santorum specifically said that this statement referred to Obama’s alleged environmental policy, which elevates “the earth” over “man.”

How does it accomplish this? He said that Obama’s environmental policy says “man” can’t “take resources” when he is supposed to “have dominion over the earth…” And, he rushes to emphasize as we begin to hear the next question, “we should be good stewards over it.”

The last phrase is, of course, the crucial escape clause. It allows him to avoid what would otherwise become an onslaught of pastors, theologians, and scholars who would rush to point out – in response to the first part of the statement (“have dominion over the Earth”) that this does not allow the wealthy and powerful to do as they please with this planet that God loves so deeply. Indeed, we are told in scripture, God’s judgment will come to “destroy those who destroy the Earth” (Rev. 11:18).

My questions now become: Does Santorum truly believe that loosening current environmental regulations satisfies his criteria for good stewardship? And does he really believe that dominion of the Earth belongs to humankind as a whole (as scripture suggests) or simply to the highest bidders? There is, in my mind, a difference between humanity, as a whole, exercising dominion as God’s chosen caretakers, and BP drilling along the Gulf Coast as it pleases.

UPDATE: Brian McLaren weighs in on the subject here, suggesting that it is Santorum's theology of "dominion" that is phony.

Oct 012011
 

I suppose that, on one level or another, it has always been difficult to talk about religion and/or politics. However, I can’t imagine that it has ever been as difficult as it is right now.

In an ideal world, we should be able to identify problems, propose solutions, respond to, reconsider, and compromise those solutions, then and ultimately agree on something that everyone can live with. That form of dialog is the life-blood of democracy.

Yet, as a nation, we seem to be less and less capable of engaging in such dialog. Rather, we are doing little more than yelling at each other – across picket lines, on Facebook, in re-tweets, etc. We have lost the capacity to actually talk about our differences.

Why is that?

I think it is happening because, as citizens, we have become enamored with philosophies, and we are losing our capacity to talk about policies.

When people start talking politics these days, they generally do little more than espouse a particular philosophy. Some of them aren’t bad. Some are very good. Some are awful. But, in the end, they are no more than philosophies: general guiding principals about how our nation ought to function.

What we seldom talk about, however, are policies. These are the specific programs and laws that we propose to change or implement within government.

“Government needs to get out of people’s lives.” That is a popular philosophy. But how does it translate into policy? Do we really want government to stop building roads? Or making sure everyone has sewer service? Or policing gang activity? Or making sure skyscrapers are built so that they don’t collapse? Or ensuring that you don’t get salmonella at your favorite restaurant?

Of course, the people who espouse this philosophy are normally thinking about unnecessary and pointless government regulations that burden the economy – a valid concern. However, the philosophy, as stated, is very difficult to translate into policy.

Why are philosophies so much more alluring than policies? I think there are several, inter-related reasons:

  1. Our personal and work lives are complicated and stressed. We don’t want to take the time to educate ourselves on the way a particular Federal program works, and to look at the statistical evidence on how effective it has been. Its too much work. Yet, we feel the need to somehow participate in the process. Its much easier to wave a dismissive hand at something as “another failed, government program” than it is to understand what it is about and how it might be reformed.
  2. The “news” media panders to this. We are looking for reassurance that our simplistic philosophies are valid. The media responds to this need by giving us talk shows, columns, and even entire news networks that assure us that our philosophies are “correct.” For the most part, when you watch Bill O’Riley or Rachel Maddow, or when you listen to Rush Limbaugh, you are not educating yourself, you are just trying to reinforce your viewpoint that everything boils down to the few, simple political philosophies that you espouse.
  3. Political candidates, likewise, want to avoid policy discussions. Philosophies make politicians popular. Policies offend people. Rick Perry has been awakening to this reality in recent weeks. When he espouses the philosophy of “securing our borders,” conservatives love it. However, when – in the past – the time came to deal with the policy of whether we will educate immigrant Hispanics in Texas schools, the issue became more complicated. In principal, his policy was perfectly coherent: We need to secure the borders better, but if people are going to end up in our State because of the failure of the Federal government to do that, then we want to be compassionate, and allow them to be educated. But that policy is too nuanced, and therefore incomprehensible to most conservatives, who simply think it means he has rejected the anti-immigrant philosophy.

I’m convinced that we will never get anywhere by shouting philosophies at each other. This is because philosophies don’t account for the complexities of the economic and cultural systems in which we live. To make matters worse, we often assume that anyone who is not enthusiastic about our philosophies of choice must be “against” them, but that isn’t always true.

Are you “pro life”? That doesn’t make everyone else “pro abortion.” Some people are offended by abortion, but think its overly intrusive for the government to regulate it. They don’t advocate abortion.

Are you “anti big-corporations”? That doesn’t mean that your conservative friends are “pro big corporations.” They may be indifferent about it, or see it as a minor problem in relation to other issues.

Simply because conservatives are “anti-big government” doesn’t mean that all liberals want government to get bigger. Its wrong to assume that, simply because someone isn’t enthusiastic about your philosophy, that they just “want to increase the size of government.”

Yet, again and again, these are the assumptions we make. If you don’t like my philosophy, you must be vehemently against it. And that’s not normally true. Reality is much more complicated and nuanced than that.

Consider this example:

“We should be compassionate like Jesus!” shouts (or posts) one philosopher.

“The War on Poverty didn’t eliminate poverty!” shouts (or comments) another philosopher.

These philosophies are not mutually exclusive. The first speaker is not against reform that improves the way we respond to poverty. He wants to see it reduced! The second speaker is not against Jesus or compassion. She is worried about wastefulness. They think they are disagreeing, and they are probably angry with each other because of it. But if they ever bother to start talking about policies (how can we make welfare more effective and less expensive? how can we do things that get people to work so they don’t need welfare?) they may discover that they have more in common than they think.

So there you have it. Philosophies are simple. Policies are complex. Philosophies view the world in black-and-white. Policies involve hard work and compromise. Philosophies make good bumper stickers and Facebook posts. Policies don’t.

If our political dialog is going to take us anywhere, we have got to get beyond a culture in which we are all parroting sound-bytes from talk show hosts, and start talking about the nuanced, gritty world where policies are actually made and implemented.

Sep 262011
 

Rabbi Jill Jacobs hits the nail on the head in this piece. Money quote:

The Torah is political because it lays out a vision for a just civil society. It is political because it forms the basis for a social contract. It is political because it concerns itself with relations among human beings as much as with relations between human beings and God. It is political because a liberation struggle stands at its core. It is political because it demands that those with more wealth take responsibility for those with less. It is political because it forbids those with more power from taking advantage of those with less. And it is political because it is a document meant to be lived.

As a member of the Jewish community, she speaks, of course, of the Torah only. However, for the Christian, her remarks are equally applicable all of our scriptures: from the Prophets, to the Gospels, to the Epistles.

She contrasts “political” with “partisan.” The point isn’t that God is on one “side” or another – it is rather that God is always deeply concerned with the way human societies organize their affairs.

Sep 152011
 

I’ve been wondering when it would finally come to light.

For all of the demonizing of illegal immigrants that gets generated among many of our politicians, you would think that the best-case scenario would involve rounding them all up, throwing them into a portal to another dimension, and then throwing away the key.

Not so, it turns out.

Many of the same people who complain about the privileges afforded to illegals in our culture also secretly employ them. As such, any initiatives that could actually expose illegal employment practices (particularly in the agricultural industry) are to be avoided like the plague.

This, then, seems to be the real issue for many conservatives: How to continue to take advantage of the cheap labor that comes from illegals without affording them civil rights, political power, or cultural influence?

For anyone who is even vaguely familiar with the history of slavery in the South, this “problem” ought to sound eerily familiar.

Aug 202011
 

Without doubt, institutional distrust has become the dominant theme in American political culture. Both Right and Left embrace it in their rhetoric. In fact, the only difference between the two predominant political philosophies is the identity of the institutions that are disfavored.

The Left distrusts large business enterprises, but advocates a strong domestic government that helps to advance social agendas. The Right distrusts government, except, it seems, when it is waging war or otherwise protecting large business interests.

Christians generally fall in lock-step with the political perspective that mirrors their theology. Evangelicals and fundamentalists translate their conservative faiths into Right-wing politics. Likewise, mainliners channel their orientations toward social justice into Left-ward politics.

The system has deftly managed to pit us against each other, by forcing us to choose between two philosophies that (rightly) distrust one set of institutions while they allow another set of institutions to (sometimes literally) get away with murder.

If we are to find our way out of this mess, we need to begin by listening to the ancient voices of our brothers and sisters, many of whom were writers of scripture, as they engaged the large institutions of their own day.

Walter Wink, as I have previously pointed out, is a modern day scholar who has done some tremendous work along these lines. Wink argues that we must view such institutions (what the writers of the Bible often called “powers”) as both created-by-God and as fallen. Our task, then, is not to approach them with naïve trust, nor to demand their immediate dismantling, but to always be seeking a path for their redemption.

If this is correct, then free-market capitalism, which blindly trusts corporate interests, and socialism, which blindly trusts government interests, each pose the same dangers to society.

There is no simple, bumper sticker political philosophy to be found in the ancient perspective. It requires us first to do some serious re-thinking of our religious and political beliefs, and second to give up our ideological idols. Only then can the hard work of institutional redemption begin.

Jul 032011
 

One of my state’s senators has been quoted as stating on today’s Fox News Sunday that “raising taxes grows the size of government.”

Behind the statement is a question about the limited repeals of a handful of tax benefits that – as I understand it – have been dolled out over the last decade or so to corporations and wealthy individuals. For example, one such “temporary” tax break provides significant benefits to own and maintain a corporate jet.

Setting aside the question of whether repealing a temporary tax break constitutes “raising” taxes, is it true – in the current environment – that raising taxes is “growing” government?

Not really. Democrats and Republicans (and I) agree that government needs to be smaller, and they are all – in fact – working as we speak on various proposals that will shrink the size of government. (Well, even that statement isn’t completely true; what they are doing is reducing the rate of future growth of government).

Proponents of repealing these temporary tax perks aren’t aiming for a bigger government. They want to use the revenue to reduce the deficit, thus making it possible to borrow less money to operate our government.

Jul 022011
 

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands:
One nation under God
Indivisible

With liberty and justice for all.

A few days ago, an interesting observation popped up on my Twitter feed. It read something like this: "Don't bother with 'under God' until you can do 'justice for all'."

I've been unable to locate the tweet, so I can't give the author his credit. Still, I think this guy has a point.

If Christians read the Pledge of Allegiance carefully, and if we take that pledge seriously, we will come to understand the pledge as a bold commitment that marries our politics and our faith. The pledge creates a vision of a nation that is "under God," in submission to God's ultimate authority and will. And not only that. It also recognizes that we must, as a nation, be seeking "justice for all." 

"Justice, under God," then, is our pledge. Our sworn duty is to help to build a nation that does such justice. The Christian's political affiliations and parties of choice must be shaped by the Biblical vision of justice – one which protects the weak and poor, welcomes the foreigner, and which takes seriously Jesus' (and, later, Paul's) instructions to live with others in peace and nonviolence.

As Christians, we are already committed to participating in a world where God's will is done on earth, as in heaven. In the pledge, we are agreeing that we will use our influence, large or small, over our nation toward that same end. This ultimately works its way out in the way our candidates and policies of choice balance budgets, wage war, and respond to the foreigners among us.

May 092011
 

I ran across an op-ed piece today which stated that the United States’ debt has actually been higher than it is right now, if you consider it as a percentage of GDP. I was a little incredulous, so I looked it up.

This chart, from usgovernmentspending.com, which appears to be a conservative advocacy group, caused me to change my mind very quickly:

image

Sure enough, as a percentage of our GDP, the federal debt has been higher, much higher, than it is at its current point. This highest spike appears to have happened in the depression/war era where unbalanced budgets that implemented New Deal spending eventually gave way to the ramp-up for WWII.

The debt then gradually “declined” (I put this in quotes because, in real dollars, I don’t think it did) until – interestingly – the Regan/Bush years, where it again began to spike. I have always heard people talk about how the Regan-era growth occurred at the expense of the Federal deficit, but had never seen it illustrated this way. This spike seemed to level off and reverse in (again, interestingly) the Clinton years. Then, in the mid-2000s (Bush 2) it took off again at near pre-war rates.

I believe that conservative political philosophy has an important role to play in the deficit debate. However, I find it somewhat ironic that the party that is now complaining most vociferously about the federal debt is the same one that allowed it to rise dramatically during their own Presidential administrations. (These administrations promised us this wouldn’t happen, because the tax cuts would fuel “supply side” economic growth; the raw numbers suggest they were wrong). I also find it somewhat ironic to hear them complaining that it is Democratic administrations that can’t be trusted to properly deal with the debt.

I primarily disagree with the conservative position on two points. First, I disagree that decreases in spending on social welfare programs is necessary to address the problem. The truth is that these programs are a relatively small item in the budget, and it isn’t necessary to hurt the most vulnerable among us to get the job done.

I’ve already made this point in several previous posts. If we are concerned about unnecessary “welfare,” we need to concern ourselves with social security and medicare benefits that are being paid to people who have independent means of self-support. We also need to be concerned with corporate “welfare” – which comes in the form of tax breaks to some of the most profitable corporations in the world.

The second point where I disagree is that it is unnecessary to raise taxes (particularly on the top 2% of Americans) in order to get the job done. The truth is that, while it is politically expedient to talk about how taxes are now higher than ever, such a statement isn’t true.

This piece illustrates the point fairly well.  Regan and Bush promised to reduce our taxes, and, true to their word, they did. Their administrations did do a very good job of reducing the tax burden on a typical family:

image

They did an even better job of reducing the tax burdens on the very wealthy:

image

We simply don’t pay as much money, as a percentage of our income, as people did about a decade ago.

And how do our taxes compare to other developed nations? The point has been made many times before, but it is worth consideration: we pay much less as a percentage of our GDP than the liberal democracies of Europe. This chart will give you a pretty good feel for the situation:

image

Considering that we are trying to pay for a military budget that is more than 5 times larger than any other single nation …

image

(source: globalissues.org/article/75/world-military-spending)

…it is astounding – a testimony, actually, to our vibrant economic system – that we haven’t yet gone bankrupt.

The reality is, we can’t continue with our current tax system and get the deficit under control at the same time. No other developed democracies are doing it at the rates we are currently paying. Why are we any different?

May 022011
 

I am hopeful that 911 family members can now feel a sense of closure.

I am glad that our military has apparently weakened a very dangerous organization.

I grieve over the lives that have been lost in this 10 year conflict- military and civilian, American and non, allies and enemies.

I worry that, as a nation, we have become addicted to violence as a means of resolving our problems.

I pray for the coming of the Kingdom of Peace.

Apr 132011
 

Well…at last the budget showdown of April 2011 is finished. The result is, as everyone expected, preposterous.

If our nation were a family with a $100 a week grocery budget, and we needed to trim it to $60 a week, then our leaders have just finished an extended, pointed argument over whether we should buy one 20 ounce bottle of Diet Coke each week. The people who wanted to cut out TWO bottles of Diet Coke each week are livid, as are the people who favored getting rid of the People Magazine that is bought at the check out, but who liked the Diet Coke.

The entire exercise was – to put it mildly – pointless.

Here, again, is the reality:

  1. We need more revenue.
  2. We need to deal with Medicare and Medicaid, and the rising cost of health care… and this is critical – we must do it in a way that does not take away benefits from those who need it the most.
  3. We need to deal with Social Security.
  4. We need to cut defense spending.

The corporate and uber-wealthy interests that peddle influence in Washington, and that keep Congress’ campaign funds flush with cash, have no interest in 1 and 4. The people who actually vote for Congress are leery of anything that might affect 2 or 3 dramatically.

Thus, the standoff that may one day be hailed as the beginning of the end of the American Empire.