Red Pew, Blue Pulpit

There’s an interesting article today in “The Courier-Journal” about a new survey done by the Research Services of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.  “Donkeys are often preaching to elephants in Presbyterian churches, a denominational survey says. Specifically, Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 2 to 1 margin among Presbyterian pastors. In contrast, Republicans far outnumber Democrats among Presbyterian members and elders (lay leaders).”

The article goes on the say “Another survey of 10 denominations (five mainline, five evangelical) affirmed those results. Democrats in the pulpit far outnumber Republicans in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.”  Big surprise.  As the ELCA’s vote last summer on the rostering of gays showed at the time, the leadership is often out of step with the members, just as in politics.

The article poses an interesting follow-up:  “How often do these pastors preach their politics?”  Not often in my church, but Republicans have been the object of some derisive comments by my pastor in the pulpit.

Stephanopoulos Blinked

Rarely do the press actually ask President Obama any hard questions, but yesterday on ABC’s “This Week” George Stephanopoulos actually did.  He challenged President Obama’s support of the individual mandate within health reform legislation as a tax.  Obama was having none of it.  Here’s a relevant part of the transcript.

STEPHANOPOULOS: That may be, but it’s still a tax increase.

OBAMA: No. That’s not true, George. The — for us to say that you’ve got to take a responsibility to get health insurance is absolutely not a tax increase. What it’s saying is, is that we’re not going to have other people carrying your burdens for you anymore than the fact that right now everybody in America, just about, has to get auto insurance. Nobody considers that a tax increase.

People say to themselves, that is a fair way to make sure that if you hit my car, that I’m not covering all the costs.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But it may be fair, it may be good public policy…

OBAMA: No, but — but, George, you — you can’t just make up that language and decide that that’s called a tax increase. Any…

STEPHANOPOULOS: Here’s the…

OBAMA: What — what — if I — if I say that right now your premiums are going to be going up by 5 or 8 or 10 percent next year and you say well, that’s not a tax increase; but, on the other hand, if I say that I don’t want to have to pay for you not carrying coverage even after I give you tax credits that make it affordable, then…

STEPHANOPOULOS: I — I don’t think I’m making it up. Merriam Webster’s Dictionary: Tax — “a charge, usually of money, imposed by authority on persons or property for public purposes.”

OBAMA: George, the fact that you looked up Merriam’s Dictionary, the definition of tax increase, indicates to me that you’re stretching a little bit right now. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have gone to the dictionary to check on the definition. I mean what…

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, no, but…

OBAMA: …what you’re saying is…

STEPHANOPOULOS: I wanted to check for myself. But your critics say it is a tax increase.

OBAMA: My critics say everything is a tax increase. My critics say that I’m taking over every sector of the economy. You know that.

Look, we can have a legitimate debate about whether or not we’re going to have an individual mandate or not, but…

It most certainty is a tax increase.  “The Wall Street Journal” has a good analysis of this, but rather than follow through Stephanopoulos pulled his punch.  The key part of the exchange was here:

OBAMA: George, you — you can’t just make up that language and decide that that’s called a tax increase.

STEPHANOPOULOS: I — I don’t think I’m making it up. Merriam Webster’s Dictionary: Tax — “a charge, usually of money, imposed by authority on persons or property for public purposes.”

OBAMA: George, the fact that you looked up Merriam’s Dictionary, the definition of tax increase, indicates to me that you’re stretching a little bit right now. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have gone to the dictionary to check on the definition.

At this point, Stephanopoulos should have said: “No, Mr. President.  The fact that I looked it up indicates that I am not just ‘making up the language,’ as you said,  but that I am using the word correctly.”  Instead Stephanopoulos blinked and put it off on Obama’s critics and gave the President an out that allowed him to once again mischaracterize his political opponents.

Related Stories: Obama’s Media Offensive, Karl Rove, “The Washington Post”

Steyn on Kennedy (or Why I Tend to Be Non-Progressive)

In general I would like to change the overall tenor of my blog away from the more polemical, reflections on the news-of-the-day, culture war sort, but something Mark Steyn recently wrote about Edward Kennedy summed up a lot of things for me.   Steyn is acerbic, clever and hilarious, the closest living writer we have to a Twain (in his journalism and travelogues (not fiction)).  I have debated with myself for years if an H.L. Mencken (whom I love though I don’t share his worldview) style of rhetoric and writing is appropriate for a Christian.  At one time I read a lot about Muggeridge, though I have only dipped into him, and have the sense that he may have pulled it off.

Steyn wrote: “If a towering giant cares so much about humanity in general, why get hung up on his carelessness with humans in particular?”  While I really do find that I tend to adopt mediating political and theological positions, though that does not make me a moderate, I am a thorough orthodox Nicene Christian with strongly held beliefs, and though I dislike hubris on either side, I tend to believe political conservatism (for all its faults, failures and excesses) tends to do less harm to humanity.  Basically it’s a slower descent on the road to hell.

Steyn’s quote above nails it for me.  Progressives care deeply about the Poor, and less about the poor.  They are more concerned with Environmentalism than they are the environment.  They love Humanity and hate man.  Jesus Christ was the opposite.  His life and ministry showed an unparalleled concern for concrete humans, and His death showed that that deep care was extended to all Humanity.  This is the arrow of love–it moves from the particular to the general–and without that focus on the concrete, historical person before you; that is, our neighbor, we can not truly exhibit compassion for humanity.

We see this in 1 Timothy 3.  An overseer should be gentle, temperate, faithful, self-controlled and hospitable, among others, all qualities that relate to specific, real, tangible human beings we are in family or community with.  We find an awful lot in Scripture about how to treat persons and not so much about how to treat peoples.  We find almost exclusively teachings on how individuals should relate to individuals and how communities of faith should relate to individuals (e.g. Matthew 18:15-17).  I can not think of a teaching off-hand that deals with our responsibility to our neighbor, family or community mediated through the government, unless it’s Jesus’s teaching to reconcile with another before it lands in court, suggesting, at least, that judicial intervention is a valid and necessary, if undesired, process.

It’s interesting to me that Jesus, Paul and Peter all addressed our obligations to the government, especially when the government they were referring to would be intolerable to us today, as long as it wasn’t in conflict with our obligations to God.  Nowhere I am aware of do they delineate the obligations of government to the individual or the individual’s obligation to other individuals through the government.

Don’t get me wrong; I cherish representative democracy even if it is “the worst form of government except all those others” (Churchill) which contains the “seeds of its own destruction” (Robert Welch) ((No I am not a member of the John Birch Society and know very little about it)), and ours is sliding into an insidious individualism with a destructive bent towards self-gratification and consumerism.  However, nothing we can do will remove the consequences of original sin.   When we try to “fix” problems, especially on a grand scale, we tend to make them worse–the more grand the proposed solution the less grand the outcome.

So, I tend to be generally more conservative politically and more radical (in the sense of the Sermon on the Mount, not French Revolution) personally. Conservatism should be about conservation (and I should say I tend to an older pre-Reagan conservatism, one that at one time would have embraced thinkers like Wendell Berry), and the best way to conserve is to plant.  If democracy does indeed contain within itself the seeds of its own destruction, as all human Babels must, then at least it takes longer for the weeds to flourish because there are just so many vibrant, beautiful plants growing.

Governments do indeed have positive roles to play; some problems (e.g. toxic waste, highways, defense, education) need resources, regulations and direct intervention, but governments deal with people in the aggregate and abstract, and this leads to care for Humanity and carelessness towards humans.  It creates a situation in which people can advocate for health care as a positive right while denying life to millions.  Medical treatment guaranteed to the sick by governmental legislation is not as  legitimate a function of government, if at all, than protecting the innocent or defending those who can not defend themselves.  Because the unborn have been abstracted to fetuses, we have decided they are not human and have no rights.  The first right a government should protect is the right to life.  Even liberty itself comes after that!

It is not progress to medically treat a person with the flu in the same hospital where an unborn baby is deprived of her life and where another baby is born and another is operated on in the womb.  (While most abortions are done in specialty “clinics,” there are still hundreds of hospitals that perform them, and even if they were not, it’s not progress to treat those who were born while killing others. The hospital was a useful, but unnecessary, comparison.)  Yes, of course, I think the conditions which drive some women to abortion need to be addressed.  That’s why we adopted two older, special needs children out of the public adoption system after they were removed from their mother.

Desipte what Obama said in his address before Congress on September 9th, don’t be fooled into thinking that if we get a national public option we won’t eventually get tax-payer funded abortions.  They already have them in Canada.

Render unto Caesar, but love your neighbor.

Congressmen: Help Us to Help You

Years ago talk of term limits was all the rage when discussing the restoration of American democracy.  I think it’s time to bring such talk back.  Much of the current economic crisis can be laid at the steps of the Capitol building, but we keep electing them over and over.

Just this morning on the way to take the kids to school I heard on NPR that Obama  is definitely going to nominate NH senator Judd Gregg as commerce secretary.  Of course this speculation has been in the news and the hold up was that Gregg did not want his seat to go to a democrat.  Apparently they worked out a deal because both NRP and the AP are reporting this morning that:

Nevertheless, it’s all but certain Lynch will choose a Republican, probably Bonnie Newman. She is a veteran of the Reagan White House who served as Gregg’s chief of staff during his House tenure. Under such a plan, Newman would not run in the 2010 election for the Senate seat. [emphasis added]

NPR added that the reason Newman would not run in 2010 was so that a democrat would have a chance!

If incumbency is such a powerful force that in 2 years time a person would have a lock on a seat–which is basically what happens each time a new person is elected to the House–then we have a problem, and that problem must be part of the nature of democratic elections.

Perhaps there’s some political mechanism embedded into the very structure of democratic elections the way certain people have biological mechanisms which predispose them to addictions.  I don’t know, but it is a political fact that elections advantage the incumbent.

It’s also self-evident that the temptations inherent in power are so strong that few are ever able to resist them for long.  From Richardson to Geithner to Daschle it is clear that we won’t have change in this administration; we won’t have reform.

We can’t because just as the addict becomes controlled by his addiction the politician becomes controlled by a self-interest to remain in power.

Meanwhile, we have Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger who safely crash lands–or should that be crash floats?–a plane into the Hudson and then calls the library to tell them he can’t return the book on professional ethics he had borrowed.

That’s the kind of person we need in office, but it would be wrong to leave him there long.   Human nature is such that no one can avoid corruption, even in a decent and well-structured system.

Many of our elected representatives are honorable, decent women and men who go into politics with a genuine and noble desire to serve the people.  We owe them gratitude and honor (in the same way we owe it to the men and women in uniform), but we rarely give it because they overstay their welcome.  But, just like those who go into combat need respite and relief–and still will never fully heal emotionally and spiritually even if they are never wounded–so our elected representatives need to be helped by relieving them of the temptation to power.

Someone who day after day exposes himself to a toxin for the good of others can not walk away if that toxin is compelling and addictive.  George Washington was able to do it, but he was the exception who proves the rule.  The rest of them need our help.  They can not do it themselves.

We need a Constitution amendment.  Congress has to propose it.  “Ay, there’s the rub.” They have to commit political suicide, and just like with Hamlet it may be  “a consummation Devoutly to be wished,” but the dreams that may come when they have shuffled off their political coils give them pause.  And so, “That makes calamity of so long a [political]  life.”

There must be enough of a grassroots outcry that they are forced to deal with their addiction.  We need a national intervention for their sake and ours.

Greatest Salesman in the World?

There’s a story in “The Washington Post” this morning about President Obama’s meeting with House Republicans yesterday.

As the president met with House Republicans yesterday in the Capitol basement, Rep. Jeff Flake (Ariz.) got out his BlackBerry and started to Twitter. “President Obama is speaking to House Republicans right now on Democratic stimulus bill,” he wrote on the social networking Web site. “Good salesman, bad product.”

Flake, stopped in a basement corridor as he departed the room, expanded on his Twitter report. “He’s reaching out, he’s genuine about it,” he said of the new president, but “it’s like trying to sell a Ford Pinto.”

That’s an apt description.  Obama is an exceptional salesman pushing a horrible product and millions are lining up to buy it.  In politics, the losing side is always claiming that they didn’t do a very good job of communicating their message.  It never seems to occur to anyone that we understood the message loud and clear; we’re just not buying.

That’s because in our over-commercialized society we believe everything is about sales.  I can’t count the times in my life when I mentioned to others that I am not interested in Sales and they say something to the effect that “Everything is Sales.”

Some years back I got into a heated debate with a friend in Sales who told me that if a product failed it was the fault of the Sales team.  I agreed that it could be but that it didn’t have to be.  VCRs didn’t die out because of an ineffective marketing strategy, for example.  In fact, VHS beat Beta in the video format war for a variety of reasons, some having to do with marketing strategy, but it wasn’t marketing that caused VHS to decline; it was for the same reason you don’t see buggy whip factories anymore: Obsolesce.

Superior salesmanship will only bolster a bad product for so long.  In our everything-is-sales world there is a phenomena that doesn’t fit.  It’s like “the structures of scientific revolutions” in which anomalies that don’t fit the model add up and eventually lead to a paradigm shift.  How do we account for the fact that sometimes growth happens with bad salesmanship?

While there is much that is useful in the various movements that help church growth using more modern techniques, the church is in desperate need of a paradign shift.  The Gospel never becomes obsolete, and it’s not a product to be sold.  It is a relationship to be lived.

Witness John the Baptist.  People flocked to this gaunt, bearded, wild looking man of the desert dressed in camel hair.  What was his message? “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” (Matt 3:2)  He goes on to say in Matt 3:11-12  “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

Speaking of Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God and the Son of Man, the Messiah, not the Great Salesman, what was His message?  In Luke 14: 26-27 Jesus proclaims “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

Whoever does not hate his family can not be my disciple!  Whoever doesn’t carry his cross—keeping in mind that in the context of Roman occupation, this meant going to your death—whoever does not carry his cross can not be my disciple!  Whoever doesn’t give up all of his possessions can not be my disciple! (14:33)  Give up the things you love, the people you love and go die.

No wonder G.K. Chesterton once observed that “Christianity has not so much been tried and found wanting, as it has been found difficult and left untried.”  Give up the things you love, the people you love and go die.   Maybe we should put that on our marquee and watch the crowds come pouring in.

But the thing is, if we take a look at the verse before all this (14:25) we find: “Now large crowds were traveling with him.”  This is a jarring incongruity to the modern media and market driven mind.  Can you imagine a Nike campaign that said “Our latest shoe will pinch your toes, rub your heels and cost a lot of money”?  No one would buy it, and yet people flocked to Jesus.

What was Jesus offering that was so good that people wanted to follow Him if that was His message?  He was offering them nothing less than Himself.  They wanted to be near Him.  They wanted to hear Him.  And they wanted to be like Him.

In the words of Bruce Carroll: “Wounded people everywhere, and when they look at us, do they see Jesus there? Who Will be Jesus to them? Who’ll show the love that restores them again?”

Let us not forget that it was through a rag-tag band of fishermen, tax collectors, lowly outcasts that Jesus changed the world, not a crew of highly trained executive account managers and salesmen.

Obama can pitch a bad product with style and poise, charisma and charm.  Let the Church keep pitching a Carpenter for King no matter how awkward, ugly, incompetent and old fashioned we may be.

Obects of History

Brendan O’Neill, editor of Spiked On-Line, wrote what is probably the most perceptive essay on the Obama phenomena that I have seen:

So there was a dual historic element to the inauguration: there was the real history of it, but more powerfully still there was the projection of a yearning for history on to it, the semi-official and on-the-ground transformation of the inauguration into a clear, unambiguous, internationally recognisable dividing line between then and now, between the old cynical order and something new, between who we were yesterday and who we are today. Ironically, this intense Historification of the inauguration, driven by people’s desire for a sense of purposeful destiny, ended up exposing the absence of genuine history-making today. In the past, people tended to tell stories about what they did during major historic events (as captured in the age-old question ‘What did you do in the war, daddy?’), while the question of ‘where were you?’ was confined to one-off, freak occurrences that took us by surprise (‘Where were you when Kennedy was shot? When Diana died?’). Today, the rush to ‘participate’ in Obama’s inauguration simply to say ‘I was there’ captures the view of history as something that we observe, something that is done on our behalf by other people, something we can be at but not really part of.

Indeed, watching the inauguration yesterday – both the historic and Historic versions – one could be forgiven for forgetting that it was the American people themselves who made this event happen. Increasingly, Obama is discussed not as someone who was elected by the masses, mandated to govern the United States, but as someone who ‘arrived’, who ‘came’, who ‘emerged when we most needed him’. As Maya Angelou put it, ‘And out of [our] great need, I believe he came. Barack Obama came’. There is a religious twist to this view of Obama ‘coming’, and it also strikingly reveals the absence of, or at least the weakness of, a sense of human agency in the Obama phenomenon. The inauguration confirmed both that millions of people want meaningful change but also that they feel incapable of bringing such change about – so they invest all of their hopes and aspirations on to one man instead; one man who, as a woman in DC said when interviewed by a journalist on what Obama should do next, is expected to ‘do everything’. Fundamentally, and contradictorily, Obama represents both people’s urgent and positive desire for a new way of governing, and also their feeling of atomisation, their sense of being the objects rather than the subjects of history.

Political Cartoon

If I could draw I’d make a political cartoon.  A winding road with a car in the right lane with America painted on the roof.  The license plate reads Nixon.  Next panel, same car, license plate reads Carter and it’s in the left lane.  Next panel, back in the right with Reagan/Bush.  Next, back in left with Clinton, next back in the right with Bush 2.  Final panel it’s back on the left with Obama on the plate. Up ahead a sign: Hell-in-a-Hand-Basket 5 miles ahead.

Obama, Oil and Politics as Usual

The primaries have come to NC, and I have to tell you, I never thought I’d pull for a Clinton, but if I weren’t for McCain I’d have to vote for Hillary. Obama is slick, inexperienced and elitist. He’s like one of those infuriating Sprite ™ commercials that tell you “Image is nothing” while using the image of sports stars to sell it to you.

He models “politics as usual” with his empty rhetoric of “run against Washington,” and “vote for change” that uses sound bytes, charm and slogans to pander to voters who think a president can solve all their problems. (Frankly, I already have a Messiah. )

Let’s look at oil, for example. One of his ads claims:

“Since the gas lines of the ’70s, Democrats and Republicans have talked about energy independence but nothing’s changed — except now Exxon’s making $40 billion a year and we’re paying $3.50 for gas. I’m Barack Obama. I don’t take money from oil companies or Washington lobbyists, and I won’t let them block change anymore.”

As reported at the “Chicago Tribune’s” blog this “ad is factually correct. He does not take money from oil companies. A 1907 federal law bars all corporations from giving money to political candidates. However, oil company employees can make donations.” Further, “Obama has taken at least $263,000 from oil company executives, family members and employees since entering the presidential race last year, including $46,000 last month. At least $140,000 has come in chunks of between $1,000 and $2,300, the maximum permitted under federal law.”

He is perfectly willing to take oil money and then dumb down the debate about energy while attacking an easy corporate target. This is the worst sort of political maneuvering. He points to an “enemy,” grossly oversimplifies and distorts the issue and says “They are to blame for your problems, and I am the solution.”

I am not a fan of giant multinational corporations. I am way more Paleo-conservative than neo-conservative, but the oil companies are not responsible for the high cost of gasoline at the moment. Anyone who really wants to education himself on the subject should visit the Energy Information Administration, and especially read their Primer on Gasoline Prices.

According to professor of economics, Mark J. Perry, oil companies only receive about 10% profit per gallon, and he says that figure comes from the EIA itself . By contrast, the government received about 20% in taxes. According to economist Thomas Sowell “The government collects far more in taxes on every gallon of gasoline than the oil companies collect in profits. If oil company profits are ‘obscene, as some politicians claim, are the government’s taxes PG-13?”

Another “lie” by misrepresentation is the unquestioned assumption that oil companies make all their profits from the sale of gasoline. The fact is that gas profits are not “windfall” or out of balance with profits by other industries. The factors that really drive the cost of gasoline, like increased demand, global turmoil, commodity speculation and supply are mostly outside of any one government’s control.

To the extent that our government has any influence, Congress has the greatest, but that body is currently controlled by Democrats hoping to get a Democrat elected President. If you listen to the House Energy Independence & Global Warming Committee’s ” Hearing on Oil CEOs and Price Issues,” you’ll get a real feel for the complexity of the issue and the limitations of government. Even so, Congress still has a bigger role. They are participating in Obama’s “politics as usual,” though, and sitting on their hands to help him win the election.

Imagine for a moment that oil prices became stable overnight. Imagine further that oil companies began selling gas at cost. How long would it take them to be broke? If you look at the EIA’s page for petroleum, Americans probably consume about 400 million gallons of gas a day. That’s 146 billion gallons a year. That’s 14.6 billion dollars in profit, from gasoline sales.

If, suddendly, they did not have that revenue, and did not try to recover it by increasing prices on other products, in about 10 years or so, there would be no oil companies, besides OPEC. In the meantime there’d also be no R&D, no investment in refining capacity, no exploration for new supplies and no investment in alternative energy, all things oil companies spend profits on.

The point of this is that the oil companies are not Satan and Obama is not Jesus Christ. By acting as if this issue is really very simple and characterizing the oil companies as the “enemy” Obama is engaging in the worst sort of typical election-cycle pandering.

Maher and Persecution

Bill Maher recently said: “I’d like to tip off law enforcement to an even larger child-abusing religious cult. Its leader also has a compound, and this guy not only operates outside the bounds of the law, but he used to be a Nazi and he wears funny hats.”

Of course the Catholic church is protesting these comments, and they probably should, just not too strongly or vehemently. I’ve heard and read several comments that we should imagine if he had said such derogatory things about a particular race or another religion, like Muslims. Many of them noted that Christians are the only targets left that it’s OK to attack.

That may be true, but we’re also the only group of people whose Leader told us not only to expected it but that we were blessed when it happens, and He also told us how to handle it.

Matthew 5:11-12, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

John 15:20, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.”

First Corinthians 4: 12-13, “When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly . Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world.”

Second Corinthians 4:8-10, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.”

Second Timothy 3: 12-14, “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil man and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and what you have become convinced, because you know those from whom you learned it.”

In Second Thessalonians, Paul says that he boast to all the other churches about the perseverance and faith of the Thessalonians in all the persecutions and trials they had been enduring. In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus explains that the seed that fell on rocky places represents the one who hears the word and receives it with joy, but lacking root, when trouble or persecution comes he quickly falls away.

Persecution is to be expected. People know they can get away with it with Christians, not just because we are acceptable targets, but they also know we’re not going to threaten to kill the person saying it. In fact, we’re not going to put up much protest at all. It’s really only when they try to keep us from the public square that we protest. As long as you don’t try to hinder our voice proclaiming the Word, for the most part, with some exceptions, we’ll take all the insults you throw at us and bless you.

I hope the Catholic church doesn’t overreact.