Proud to be a Patriot

(In honor of Memorial Day, Proud to be a Patriot, republished from May 27, 2006)

American_flagIf there is one thing we liberal-leaning Christians do worse than evangelism, it's patriotism.  Most of us left-ish Christians think it is our job, in the tradition of the prophets, Jesus, and martyrs of every age, to speak truth to power and make the revolutionary call for the mighty to be thrown down, the powerful to be toppled, and the lowly to be lifted up.  To this end, we revel in identifying the multiple specks in the eyes of George W. Bush, the Republicans, and their Conservative Christians allies.  We despise them and their symbols, making mockeries of their campaign logos and disavowing everything they embrace.

One problem, however.  They embrace the flag.  It is on the lapel of every Republican lawmaker.  It is in the churches, homes, and on the cars of Conservative Christians.  The flag stands for everything American, and the Conservatives claim to have a firm grip on it. 

Of course, the flag is for all Americans, but the Conservatives have co-opted the flag (not unlike the way they have co-opted the Bible) and they have largely succeeded in turning it into a partisan emblem.  But they have done this with our help.  Our liberal ability to be suspicious and critical of the government has led many of us to suffer from an inability to profess proper patriotism.  We throw out the baby with the bathwater, confusing what is patriotic with what is partisan.  The flag is NOT an emblem of war-wanting, empire-seeking, tax-cutting, rich-loving, first-amendment-reducing, gas-guzzling, Texas-swagger, power-hungry Republicans. Shame on them for stealing the flag, and shame on us for letting them.

The flag represents our country, its Constitution, its people.  This flag flies over Americans of all types – rich and poor, black and brown and white, male and female, non-Christian and Christian, law-abiding and criminal, legal citizen and illegal immigrant, and so many more.  This flag points to the freedoms and priveledges emblazoned in the oldest written national constitution in the world – a document that restrains the reach government so that people might live and work and speak and gather and worship and innovate and seek opportunity free from government meddling (try doing that in most other countries).  Wrapped up in this flag is a story of freedom unfolding, a story that continues today.

That is why I am proud to be an American.  I fly the flag on most national holidays (see section six of the flag code – though I don't consider Christmas and Easter to be times for flag-waving – see post on God & Country and a follow-up) and I vote in nearly every election.  As a Lutheran, I recognize the God-blessed vocation of government to restrain evil and provide order to society, and I am thankful for those who serve in goverment. 

On this Memorial Day weekend I am thankful for those men and women who serve in the armed forces, and especially for those who gave their lives serving.  They put their life on the line for the sake of the flag and all it represents, and for that reason I fly the flag in their honor and memory.

On choosing a Supreme Court nominee

Ever since Justice David Souter announced his intention to retire at the end of the current term of the Supreme Court, speculation has been rampant that President Obama will nominate a jurist who is a woman, an African-American, or a Latino in an attempt to bring greater gender and/or cultural diversity to the Supreme Court.

And oh, how that speculation has rankled so many.

"Let's be color-blind," opponents say.  

"The nominee should be chosen on the basis of their legal record, not their cultural background or gender."  

"This is reverse discrimination."  

It is as if large sectors of the white male community are outraged that President Obama would seek to place someone on the Court who is qualified for the job but who is neither white nor male (a Court which, including Justice Souter, currently has seven white males among its nine members).

But just this week we've been reminded that our past is colored by significant wrongs and evils in which we were not blind to issues of race, religion, or gender.  John Demjanjuk, an 89 year-old retired autoworker from Ohio, is now in jail in Germany awaiting trial for war crimes allegedly perpetrated during World War II.  It wasn't that long ago that people were thrown into furnaces because of their religion, or denied jobs because of their gender, or denied the right to vote or marry whoever they chose or live where they desired because of their race.  It wasn't that long ago.

Ours is a nation of laws, and that is why we need the best legal scholars sitting in the bench.  However, legal scholarship is not the only appropriate criteria for nominating somoene to the bench, for our nation's laws have been written, interpreted, and applied in the real world, one in which extra-legal biases exist and thrive.  We need people of diverse extra-legal experience – from professional experience to cultural backgrounds to gender – on the Court.  For laws are neither written nor interpreted in a vacuum, nor do they exist solely for the sake of scholarly debate.  Rather, our nations laws and its Constitution serve not their own interests but the interest of those who are named in the opening words of our nation's Constitution: We the People.

And so, if in choosing a Supreme Court nominee President Obama has a preferrential option for someone who is experienced at law and intellectually qualified, and who is also a member of a group that has historically been marginalized, that's fine with me.  For our nation's laws must serve the interests of all who pledge allegience to the flag, of all who live in this land, of all who constitute We the People.

Redefining the “Religious Voter”

In building a winning coalition of religious voters, Barack Obama cut
into the so-called God gap that puts frequent worshippers in the
Republican column, won Catholics, made inroads with younger
evangelicals, and racked up huge numbers with minorities and people
with no religious affiliation.

That's the opening paragraph of an Associated Press piece by Eric Gorski posted in the Washington Post's On Faith online section, Obama results show gains in key religious voters.  It offers a basic glance at how religious voters cast their ballots on Tuesday.  I certainly hope and expect more substantive analysis of religious
voters in the coming days and weeks, but perhaps this article represents a modest start to the discussion.

But there's a big problem with that opening paragraph.  Let's review the categories of "religious voters" offered by Mr. Gorski in the AP piece:

  • "frequent worshippers"
  • "Catholics"
  • "younger evangelicals"
  • "minorities"
  • "people with no religious affiliation"

Excuse me?  Are Catholics, younger evangelicals, or minorities not frequent worshippers?  Are minorities to be defined more by their race than by their faith? On the flip side, are white voters to be defined more by their faith than by their race?

Of course, "frequent worshippers" is meant to describe "white, evangelical frequent worshippers" or "white, evangelical, frequent worshippers over age 40."  But by failing to be descriptive in this term, Mr. Gorski connotes that minorities, Catholics, and younger evangelicals are not frequent worshippers.

And to that end, perhaps Mr. Gorski could have led this piece not with the tired, old-paradigm categories of religious voters, but with the essence of this quote, burried in the middle of his report:

"This is a coalition that includes white Christians," [John] Green [a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life] said of
Obama's faith-based bloc. "It's just white Christians aren't the senior
partners in this coalition."

White Christians aren't the senior partners in the religious coalition that supported President-Elect Barack Obama.  White Christians – for now, anyway – are not the driving force in American politics.  Let's repeat that.

White Christians are not the driving force in American politics right now.

I don't doubt that white evangelicals will be back in force in two or four years, but I am glad to see the beginning of a redefinition of the "religious vote."  For Christianity is not just the domain of white, suburban and rural evangelicals concerned about gay marriage and abortion.  Rather, the Christian Church is also home to people of color, young people, and people for whom issues of poverty and social justice are a political priority.

Not only did Barack Obama win on Tuesday, but so did the many religious voters who are not comfortable being lumped together with the Christian Right.  Redefining our terms and recognizing the diverse interests and politics of people of faith . . . that's a change I can believe in.

Election Day Goosebumps

Today I served as a non-partisan Chief Officer of Election at a precinct with about 3500 registered voters.  I had served as a Chief at only one other election – our June primary where less than 300 voters cast ballots.  Today, needless to say, was more demanding than a low profile primary. 

But rather than fatigue, the word best used to describe my feeling is Goosebumps.  Here are a few bullet points, since I lack the coherence to string together a more thoughtful reflection, about the Goosebump-inducing moments of today's experience:

  • the large number of voters born in 1990, 1989 . . . first-time voters.  What a historic moment for those new voters.
  • the visit by a four-member delegation from Romania, here to observe how we ran the polling station.  Talking with these leaders – who twenty years ago were on the cusp of overthrowing a communist dictatorship – was truly an honor and humbling experience.
  • speaking Spanish about the privilege of voting with a Cuban-born US citizen who fled her country shortly after Castro seized power in a military cou d'etat.  To see her anger about what happened in Cuba and her pride in voting as a US citizen . . . . simultaneously heartbreaking and inspiring.
  • nearly 600 absentee voters, approximately 2100 ballots cast on-site today – approx. 77% turnout.  That turnout is so much better than usual . . .
  • a line to vote forming at 5am, an hour before the polls opened.  When we opened the polls at 6am, approximately 150 people were in line waiting to cast their ballot.  (Oddly enough, we had about 1000 voters from 6am-10am, and only about 1000 from 10am-7pm.  No evening rush!  That is incredibly bizarre.  Is there any reporting on that fact?)
  • A bipartisan team of 14 officers – and several partisan poll watchers – and all worked together for the same goal of helping people to vote.  Talk about putting Country First!

Goosebumps.  And now it is time for a shower and some sleep.  G'night

What is the role of government?

One of the more under-discussed issues in American politics is that of the role of government in addressing our favorite issues.  We might agree that education is good or that suburban sprawl is bad or that astroturf is evil, but how do we understand the role of government in regulating or addressing issues of education, sprawl, or astroturf?  This is a fundamental issue, one with which I wrestle considerably, but which I don't think gets enough air-time in our sound-bite political process.  Just becaue the power exists in government to do something, does it mean that government should necessarily do it?

Related to this point, I also wrestle with what Christians should seek from government.  If the Bible and the Christian tradition speak to people of faith, can we rightfully expect or demand of our (secular) government (of a religiously diverse nation) that it enact certain laws or policies "because the Bible says so"?  For exampe, the Bible expresses a deep concern for the plight of the poor, and calls people of faith to care for the needy.  Should Christians, then, implicate the government in responding to that faith-based call to serve neighbor?  Surely there are non-religious public policy reasons to serve the poor, and perhaps Christians should employ those arguments when calling on the government to act for the poor.  Again, just because the power exists in government to do something, does it mean that government should necessarily do it, and does it mean that Christians should seek to use the power of government to enact their priorities? 

I surely believe government has an important role to play in society – duh.  And I think that Christians should be engaged with government.  But I think we need to clearly articulate what we understand the role of government to be.  And I'm not there yet . . .

Perhaps I need a political science class to help me sort this out.

“Barack Obama is a strong, Christian family man”

So said Gov. Ted Strickland of Ohio, at a rally in the southern part of this state (scroll down to the bottom of this Washington Post blog posting).

"Barack Obama is a strong, Christian family man."

My question: How is Obama's faith relevant to his candidacy for the presidency?

My next question: Isn't this identity politics at its worst?

The answer to the second question helps us understand the first.  This is all about identity politics.  Barack Obama – an intellectual, Harvard-educated black man – has a difficult time relating to Joe Six Pack, who is white, and has probably never been to Cambridge, MA.  Part of the political game is about identifying with voters.  Obama needs to relate.

Bowing to political expediency, then, Obama needs to be explicit about his faith, because for many voters faith might be the only part of his persona that appeals to them.  And for many voters personal appeal is just as or more important than policy proposals.  Sad.  But Christian faith makes a personal connection to many voters.  Personal connection yields votes in November.  Votes in November yields power on Innaugeration Day.  Christian faith – in part, anyway – leads to political power.  What would Jesus say about that?

[I'm not arguing that Obama's faith is a political creation.  By all accounts, Barack Obama is a deeply committed man of faith.  But politics has called for him – and his surrogates – to be explicit about his faith on the campaign trail and but faith to work for political ends.]

But this creates another problem.  His "Christian family man" approach to campaigning in Ohio's appalachian region (see also his "Committed Chrisitan" flyer from the Kentucky primary) reinforces – rather than challenges – the notion that
A) we live in a Christian nation (a nation of Christians is not a "Christian nation");
B) we need Christian politicians to lead this Christian nation. 
This faith-based identity politics is a direct affront to our Constitution, creating a de-facto unConstitutional faith-based requirement for the presidency.

And it is a direct affront to Jews, Muslims, and other non-Christians in our country.  The more our candidates perpetuate – rather than challenge, rather than change (to use Obama's word) – the faith-based mypoia of national identity, the harder we make it for religious minorities – or for Christians who do not want to play the faith-based game of identity politics – to claim their rightful place in the American democracy.

Oh, and don't get me started about the ways in which Christian faith gets distorted by politics.  In fact, I fear more for the church than the state when the two get intertwined, but I don't think that either is served the injection of religion into politics.  I've said that before, in many different ways, in my posts on Church & State issues.

Blaming Wall Street is Too Easy

Blaming our nation's financial crisis on Wall Street is easy to do.  And perhaps partly necessary.  But it is incomplete.  Not that any politician would do so in an election year, but some blame also needs to laid upon the American people.  Yeah, that's right.  Joe Six Pack.  Hockey Moms.  The folks who live on Main Street and who shop at Home Depot.  You betcha.

You see, we Americans like to spend money.  We don't like to cut back.  The word sacrifice is something we want our war hero politicians to have, but nothing that we want to touch ourselves with a ten foot pole.

George Will touched on this a few days ago:

We are waist deep in evasions because one cannot talk sense about the
cultural roots of the financial crisis without transgressing this
cardinal principle of politics: Never shall be heard a discouraging
word about the public.

Concerning which, a timeless political trope is: Government should
budget the way households supposedly do, conforming outlays to income.
But the crisis came partly because so many households decided that it
would be jolly fun to budget the way government does, hitching outlays
to appetites.

Bethany McLean also did so, on the pages of The New York Times:

I’ll say this upfront: I hope the titans of finance who expect us
little people to save them are ashamed of themselves. But at the same
time, in painting Main Street solely as a victim of a rapacious Wall
Street, we are being hypocritical.

We are all to blame.

. . . .

But who made the decision to
take on that mortgage she couldn’t really afford? Who lied about her
income or assets in order to qualify for a mortgage? Who used the
proceeds of a home equity line to pay for an elaborate vacation? Who
used credit cards to live a lifestyle that was well beyond her means?
Well, you and I did. (Or at least, our neighbors did.)

In response to a post by John Petty (whose blog Progressive Involvement is worth reading) – in which he (wrongly, in my opinion) assails any attempt to blame borrowers for our current crisis – I made the following comment:

From the top down (or the
bottom up?) we are not a country that knows much about sacrifice these
days. From our "need" to have cable or satellite television (at $100 a
month) to the first major war in our history accompanied by major tax
CUTS, we are a nation that resists making sacrifices. Many of my
friends and neighbors – and me, too – buy and consume things we don't
need and which we can't always afford.

I carry credit card debt – some of it is simple life needs, such as
baby formula and diapers. But some of it is fast food and books I won't
finish reading. And I can surely save money by making better decisions
on my groceries – clipping coupons, switching stores, eating less
expensive foods. But I don't do all I could. And I'm just like many
Americans who are living anywhere from slightly to dramatically beyond
our means . . .

The problem is not just on Wall Street. It's on Main Street, too.

And all this boils down to a moral crisis.  We scream at our elected officials to cut our taxes, but then we get angry when bridges collapse.  We buy bigger cars and huger houses, even though we can hardly afford them.  We must buy brand labels, satellite television (with the MLB or NFL packages), multiple cars, the latest and greatest cell phone/MP3 player/swiss army knife gadget.  We can't be bothered with the inconvenience of public transit – which we wouldn't support with our tax dollars, anyway.

Yes, this is a moral crisis.  We have come to expect alot for a little, and now we're going to pay for it.  As our country goes into debt, from whom does our government borrow money to patch up potholes?  China.  What happens when they turn off the credit spigot?  And on a household level . . . what happens when we can't get that eighth credit card, or that car loan for a used car, or that education loan?  What then?  Will we then and only then consider buying generic, taking public transit, or advocating for increased federal support for education?  Isn't that a little late?

We need to start now.  Now with any bailout bill for Wall Street or Main Street, but by cutting down on our own credit card bills.  Eat out less.  Don't buy that extra bag of chips at the grocery store.  Walk more.  Drive less.  Cancel cable television and listen to the radio.  Get more life out of those old pair of shoes.  Buy a $20 Timex rather than a $1000 Omega.  You get the idea.

Change doesn't begin in the White House.  It begins at home.  Let's change our ways at home, first.  Perhaps if the people lead, the leaders will follow . . .

Which Way Is Up?

On the left, Rep. Barney Frank is talking about the "psychological impact" of the economic crisis, reminiscent of former Republican Sen. Phil Graham's much criticized comments about a "mental recession."

On the right, the last two Wall Street investment banks still standing are subjecting themselves willingly to more government regulation and prospects of lower profits as they convert to commercial banks.

The times, they are a-changin'.

Complaining About Laypeople

My wife has a rule in her seminary classroom – no complaining about laypeople.  A money jar sits in the front of the room, where offending students place their fine for griping about the people they're supposed to love and lead.

I like that rule.  Not that the work and relationships of being a parish pastor don't warrant a complaint from time to time, but too often we clergy-types fall into an us-vs-them mentality, exasperated that the accountant on church council or the vocal worship critic doesn't share our sophisticated and nuanced faith perspective (a faith perspective shaped over four years of formal seminary training and perhaps many years of parish or related church leadership experience).   If the laity are uninformed (a broad claim that I am not willing to make), we clergy-types are to blame.  Where will Christians learn about faith and become familiar with the Bible and Christian tradition if not in our churches?  Surely there is a responsibility for all Christians to engage in independent learning and reflection on their faith.  But the church, it seems to me, is the primary location for Christian formation and learning.  If it isn't happening, pastors are largely to blame. 

So that's the rule: don't complain about laypeople.  Look at the log in your own eye first, Reverend Bucko.

Now let's jump to politics.  As I highlighted the other day, the Washington Post Virginia Politics blog highlighted a distinction between how the McCain and Obama campaigns approach distributing lawn signs.  For McCain, the signs were readily available at a rally last week.  For Obama, the signs are given out in exchange for volunteer work, and are largely unavailable to people walking into the local campaign office.

In response to some weeping and gnashing of teeth that appeard on DailyKos (which I don't read) about the dearth of Obama signs in Virginia, the folks at FiveThirtyEight.com wrote a sarcastic and somewhat belittling piece about this lawn sign conundrum: BREAKING: Obama Campaign Organizers Trying to Win Election Instead of Get You Yard Signs.  The article explains why lawn signs are a very low priority for local campaign officials who are trying to get voters registered, garner commitment from voters, organize get-out-the-vote drives, etc. etc..  Signs don't vote.  Signs are pretty irrelevant.  And those who are complaining about the lack of signs . . . don't have a freaking clue what they're talking about.

They might be right.  But they're breaking my wife's rule – don't complain about laypeople.  We political laypeople who want to be supportive might not appreciate the sophisticated workings of a national campaign.  We might not really know what it takes to elect a president.  But whose fault is that?  Instead of blaming us for being igorant slobs, why not take a few minutes to explain to us interested laypeople that signs are relatively irrelevant and show us what is most important?  Explain to us your priorities, and invite us to participate in those priorities.  And then send us online to buy a sign for $20 (a mark-up that more than covers the cost of the sign) and remind us that the local campaign office is not a sign distribution center.  (Or organize a sign sale – much like a Girl Scouts Cookie sale.  How hard can that be?).  It's all about managing expectations, and perhaps the Obama campaign – in Virginia, anyway – hasn't done a good job at managing the expectations of its supporters.

[Anyway, isn't this a problem of their own making?  If they didn't put signs everywhere, we wouldn't want them on our lawns, would we?]

When I worked for Augsburg Fortress Publishers – the publishing ministry of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – I often ran into pastors and lay leaders who didn't fully understand what we did, why we made certain decisions, and why (for example) their favorite curriculum was no longer in print.  I could have just complained about the ignorant fools who didn't understand the complexity of our work.  But it was my job, in part, to explain to them the broader vision and work of our non-profit publishing house, the constraints under which we worked, and to invite them into the mission perspective of our work.  Often those few words helped to remove misunderstandings and establish a better working relationship between us and that congregation.  They may still have prefered to use the discontinued curriculum, but at least now they understood why we no longer published it.  And that little bit of understanding would go a long way toward improving our relationship of mutual support and shared Christian ministry.

So please, Obama campaign people, don't complain about us simple, uninformed, annoying laypeople.  Do a better job at explaining to us your priorities and constraints, and invite us to participate in your priorities.  And if that doesn't work, sell us a sign for a hefty mark-up and say, "Thank you for your support."

– – – – –

PS.  Yesterday I received a call from a journalist at the Washington Post who saw my blogpost about the lack of Obama materials (the Post reads my little Lutheran blog?).  They might be running a piece about the lack of signs and the concerns that some supporters have about the issue.  I expressed my concerns, with the caveat of "what do I know about these things?  I'm just a volunteer who makes lunch for the office once/week and who gives a small amount of money to the campaign."  I also expressed my concerns about Obamamania, and questioned the lack of available Obama-Biden materials (about which I blogged here).  The weak promotion of the whole ticket seems to contribute to (or derive from) the celebrity mania that surrounds Obama.  But as someone who is leary of Obamamania, I would like materials that emphasize the ticket and/or the party.  Even though Obama is atop the ticket, it's not all about him . . .

UPDATED: See Rick Klau's comment on my previous post responding to some of these thoughts (sentiments I expressed in a a comment over there which grew into this present post).

Obladi, Oblada

Two weeks ago the GOP canceled part of their nomination convention in response to Hurricane Gustav.  On Thursday, September 11, both John McCain and Barack Obama pulled campaign ads from the airwaves and held only civic-minded appearances.  Now Senator Obama has canceled his scheduled appearance on Saturday Night Live out of deference to the victims of Hurricane Ike.  "In light of the unfolding crisis in Texas, Senator Obama has decided it is no longer appropriate to appear on 'Saturday Night Live' tomorrow evening."

I grow weary of the civic piety that drops everything to display deference and concern for the tragedy du jour or for the victims of war and terrorism.  It's not that those who suffer or have died do not warrant our attention – no, they do.  But I think they deserve more than a moment of silence or cancelled appearances by celebrity politicians (on both sides of the aisle).  

[Just think – Obama could open Saturday Night Live with an appeal for people to give to the Red Cross, continue with the sketches and jokes, and throughout the program continue to ask for donations and support for the victims of Hurricane Ike.  But instead of a creative platform for charity appeal, we'll have a last-minute crafted, poorly executed episode of SNL – or perhaps just a re-run.]

You see, despite all the tragedy in the world, life goes on.  Millions of people in our society can't tell their employers that they're taking a day off because of tragedy a few thousand miles away.  I know that I can't afford the luxury of pausing long to remember those who have died while I have three children to care for and a load of work to do.  There's a certain essentialness and blessedness in the work of daily life – work that, despite tragedy, must go on.  (And that's OK.)

At Back to School Night on Thursday, September 11, the school principal opened the program by asking us to stand for a moment of silence to remember the victims of that horrible day.  Not that there is anything wrong with that, but at the end of a day when most of us had already remembered the tragedy – this is the Metro DC area, afterall – I wondered if this pause of civic piety was really necessary.  Do we honor victims more by silence, or simply by doing the good work of building up our schools and teaching our children?  (I also admit to growing weary of patriotic performances of God Bless America during the 7th inning stretch of some baseball games.)

But more.  Why do we not have have grand public displays of civic piety for the 47 million Americans without health insurance, many of whom suffer and die of otherwise treatable conditions?  Why do we not have moments of silence for malnourished families in our wealthy country?  Why not remember with grieving hearts the unacceptably high number of victims of domestic violence, poverty, crime?  We fall all over ourselves to show deference and respect for high profile tragedies, but we often neglect the day-to-day brokenness present in our society.

Today I'm going to Arts on Foot, a community arts festival in Washington, DC.  Despite all the varied tragedy in the world, today I will smile and laugh and likely make a few partisan comments, while otherwise enjoying a Saturday afternoon in the city with my family.  And I will do so in thanskgiving for the Founding Fathers whose vision and soldiers whose sacrifices make such gatherings possible in our free country.  And I will do so also knowing that people in Galveston, TX would do the same if it were not for Hurricane Ike's wicked winds and rains.  

Tomorrow I'll be in church, where a bulletin insert will invite me to donate to Hurricane Gustav relief, a special offering will go to support the work of the Lutheran Church in El Salvador, and prayers will be lifted up for all who suffer sickness, hurt, oppression, and for those who have died.  These acts of prayer and almsgiving will not be a special "drop everything" display of Christian piety.  No.  They are just the simple, everyday acts of Christian faith.  We'll do the same on the following Sunday.  And the Sunday after that.  And the Sunday after . . .

Obladi, Oblada.  Life goes on.  Let us not simply stop and drop everything for momentary displays of deference, but rather strive to live our lives every day, every week with honor, love, respect, care and charity for all.