Xpatriated Texan - A Maverick Believer in the Garden State

Christian Liberal is not an oxymoron

Location: United States

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Broken Arm over Brokeback

Although I hate to do it, I'll start by directing your attention to an op-ed written by Michael Medved. Medved claims that the non-furor of Conservative Christians over Brokeback Mountainshow that they have matured since the release of The Last Temptation of Christ was released. Temptation was greeted with street protest and loud calls for boycot. Medved claims that Conservative Christians have simply turned away from Brokeback and held tight to their values.

Now, unless Jesus secretly wore a cowboy hat, I think Medved is stretching a bit to compare the two movies. So don't break your arm patting yourself on the back.

To be fair, let's give the Conservative Christian bunch credit for not rioting and bombing KFC in protest of Brokeback chicken. Of course, the only reason Americans do that in our own country is over racial tensions - like Rodney King and Watts and Detroit. Movies? Nah, we just talk smack.

Apparently, Medved doesn't do much research before he writes. The Traditional Values Coalition has been busy hammering at Brokeback like crazy. Somehow, they find a way to blame a movie for people having hid their homosexuality from themselves and their families for decades. The movie is compared to crystal meth, cigarettes, and alcohol abuse

Then WorldNetDaily calls it "raping the Marlboro man". I guess they forgot that the Marlboro man helped kill a few hundred thousand Americans because they still consider him a hero.

Then, of course, Larry Miller banned the movie from his theatres.

Of course, there's no real reason to boycott a movie that is only being shown as a limited release anyway. In its widest release, it only showed in 2089 theatres. By comparison, Madea's Family Reunion opened in 2,194 theatres.

Do you think Brokeback would have had such limited release if they didn't fear right-wing backlash?

It's easy to be gracious when you've got everyone under your thumb. Medved is right that this shows the Christian Right isn't worried about flexing its muscle. At this point, it's strong enough that if they really pushed, they could probably get some censorship bans in place. Doing that, however, would rob them of a political tool.

Progressive Faith Blog Con Announcement

We can now announce that we have a venue in which to hold the Progressive Faith Bloggers Conference - hopefully the first annual event.

Progressive Faith Blog-Con 2006 Carnival

We'll be throwing open the curtain at the Montclair State University Conference Center Friday, July 14 through Sunday, July 16.

The entire event (without catering or housing) will cost $630. So far, about 40 people have indicated their interest in the event. I know, beyond a doubt, that some will not be able to come and some cannot afford to donate anything towards that total. I'm asking those who can to give whatever they can. We have some funding offers that we are pursuing, but I'd rather see what we as a group can do for each other. Additional funds will be used to help pay for housing and transportation costs for those who need the assistance. If you'd like to make a donation, contact me at xpatriated_texan-at-yahoo-dot-com.

The Blog Con is aimed at developing friendships among diverse faiths. As Rachel put it so eloquently: "Faith and politics have the capacity to profoundly divide, or to profoundly connect." We hope to make long-lasting connections during this weekend. A pluralistic society must maintain the infrastructure necessary to discuss and debate what is important to us, what drives us, what defines us as a nation of people, both majority and minority. This is our small attempt at adding to that infrastructure.

It is NOT intended to be a political event. I understand that, in these times, simply having Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists (and whoever else jumps in the mix) together to discuss our values tends to be interpreted as political. Fine. Interpret it how you will. Obviously, some of the issues we care deeply about impact the political world. The intent is not to influence our political leaders, though. It's much more radical than that. We aim to reach out to grassroots America, challenge its prejudices and the comfortable negligence with which it treats matters of faith, and carve out a small space in the public arena where we can speak openly about our faiths and how they impact our lives.

It is a conference for bloggers, by bloggers. Non-bloggers are definitely welcome, but there is a danger that they may get lost in the links (so to speak).

Montclair State University is the second largest public university in New Jersey. You can read more about it here. It's close enough to New York City to make a day-trip if you plan an extra day (because you won't want to miss ANYTHING we do!). The cost to come is - free! Man, you can't find a bargain like that anywhere in New Jersey!

Monday, February 27, 2006

Carnival is Up!

A belated notice that the Progressive Faith Carnival went up yesterday at Pearlbear's Blog.

Progressive Faith Blog-Con 2006 Carnival

Next week will be hosted at Feminary. Don't forget to send in your links!

Friday, February 24, 2006

This, I believe.

The greatest goal of mankind, the highest common denominator of civilization, is the thirst for greater justice.

The call for justice is recognized as one of the building blocks of civilization. To extend justice, people codify laws and empower governments to enforce those laws. The Law of Moses, Hammurabi's Code, Confucius' Antalects, India's Law of Manu - all of the great ancient civilizations and great religions have ever pursued greater justice. The definition of justice evolved, grew, reached for inclusiveness - but such the nature of greatness is that it constantly calls for us to reach beyond our current span and become more than we have ever been. Justice is our (humankind's) foundation of existence.

It moves a person beyond the bounds of singular love. A mother loves her child and will lay down her life unflinchingly - but if she survives the unjust taking of her child's life, she will dedicate every waking moment to the pursuit of justice. Once touched by a profound sense of injustice, even love cannot quell the restlessness that inhabits the human spirit.

Justice calls to all of us. It humbles the mighty and exalts the lowly. It cares not for station nor riches nor popularity. It speaks to us in a wee soft voice and it screams to us from the highest pinnacles of our soul. It is a crushing weight to which we demand to be harnessed.

Do not confuse justice with vengeance. Vengeance is returning an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and a life for a life. Justice is realizing that the full measure of pain cannot be repaid without incurring further debt. Vengeance is a deadly spiral of increasing violence. Justice seeks an end to violence through vigilence; peace through power witheld.

Justice is a sense of rightness tempered by mercy. Its goal is not retribution, but restitution; not reprisal, but reconciliation. It demands truth, honesty, and the willingness to confront hubris in ourselves. It demands much of others, but even more from ourselves.

Justice is not - and cannot be - a fad. Justice does not move you in the morning and release you at night. It haunts your dreams. It guides your footsteps. It colors the images before your eyes.

I believe that we will never, on this earth, attain perfect justice. Yet we are not excused from striving for it. It is by no mistake that the Beatitudes place "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice" between the promise of comfort for the mournful and mercy for the merciful. It is also no mistake that it is followed as well by a blessing on those who make peace. It is a difficult thing to look for war and strive for peace, yet it is our commandment to do so.

Dr. Martin Luther King said:

...we have difficult days ahead in the struggle for justice and peace, but I will not yield to a politic of despair...This time we will really confront a Goliath. God grant that we will be that David of truth set out against the Goliath of injustice, the Goliath of neglect, the Goliath of refusing to deal with the problems, and go on with the determination to make America the truly great America that it is called to be...We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

This, I believe: Justice calls to each of us. We cannot fail to deliver an answer; we can only choose whether our answer is to overcome our anger, pain, and sorrow and fight to right what is wrong with the world, so we can teach it mercy. We may be out-manned, out-moneyed, out-maneuvered, and out-managed - but we must not be out-lasted. I believe that greater justice means a greater life and a greater world for all. I believe most people want to make it so. I believe the fear that holds them complacent can be overcome. I believe that, in time, with effort, it will.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

We've Done Enough. We've Paid the Price. It's Time to Bring Our Troops Home.

If you don't live in New Jersey's Nineth District, you've probably never heard of Steve Rothman (unless you happen to watch the Colbert Report on Comedy Central). In a world of flashy politicians, each scrabbling as hard as they can to build a cult of personality around them, he's always struck me as different. When he talks to his constituents, he's calm and thoughtful and almost shy at times when the discussion turns to him. He's much more comfortable discussing the way he helped figure out which locomotive would work best on the new light-rail line than he is speaking about himself.

It's refreshing.

It's also why his press conference today struck me as simultaneously being totally out of character and yet totally authentic and believable and characteristic of his entire career. Flashes of emotion broke through. Anger at the thought of Americans being killed needlessly. Pain at the betrayal of being shown that his faith in the Presidency was misplaced. Humility and compassion as he granted what privacy his back could give to the survivor of one of our fallen.

The cool logic of his position moved me, but even more so, the humanity that slipped through unbidden caught me. It has made me re-think my own position on Iraq. Back in August, I passed around the idea of using our Arabic allies to help bring peace to Iraq. I still think it's a good idea, and I hope someone stumbles across it and puts some serious thought into what it would take to make it reality.

But, alas, I have little input on our foreign policy. Believe it or not, there is no red phone to the West Wing (or even Rothman's office - but I'm willing!). I'm just a simple man looking back at the world and asking, "Why not?"

But the real issue isn't who should or shouldn't take our place. As the Congressman said today, the real question is whether or not we should be staying there until that gets figured out. After listening to him, I have to say, "No, we shouldn't."

The reason for going into Iraq was to remove Saddam Hussein because he was an emminent threat to our safety. Even though that threat has long since been proven overblown (to be generous), the fact remains that he is no longer a threat. I subscribe to the "you break it, you buy it" rule - and Iraq is still broken. However, it is increasingly obvious that the biggest obstacle to gluing it back together is the presence of American forces. It is folly to allow even one more person to come to harm in such a circumstance. As the Congressman points out, there are other things our soldiers need to do.

It is not weakness to admit that you cannot repair something. It is wisdom. Only ignorance and pride prevent us from seeing clearly. It is the solemn duty of our leadership, no matter what party or ideology they subscribe to, to peel back that ignorance, to ease that pride, and to show us that, despite a few thousand years of history, might still does not make right - and sometimes it cannot. We cannot see the mote in our eye, so we give them the tweezers and put our faith in their hands.

Yet it is also our responsibility. We must find our own secrets, sins, and failings that prevent us from finding the reality revealed around us. We do not need to be blind - we can open our eyes and see an amazing world. We must be willing to commit ourselves to the private jihadun-nafs - the intimate struggle to purify one's soul of evil influences - that turns our path from mere vengeance and ever towards greater justice.

The great religions of the world all teach that this is not a volunteer task. To confront injustice in others, we must first confront the injustice within us. The ancient prophets wrote, "Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend," and sometimes we must rely upon our friends to show us where we are blind. Self-deception, by its very definition, is impossible to self-diagnose.

The parable of the Good Samaritan teaches that "friend", "neighbor" and "whoever crosses our path in need" are all synonymous. In this case, I'll have to add the word "Congressman".

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Carnival Time

Get ready for this week's Progressive Faith Carnival!

Progressive Faith Blog-Con 2006 Carnival

This week's carnival is hosted by Pearlbear. Submit your links to ProgFaithCarnival - at - yahoo.com.

We also need volunteers to host the Carnival for upcoming weeks.

Nothing, but Nothing, Excuses Torture

There is no human emotion that is more understood, more likely to evoke sympathetic response, than simple human pain. Show someone a film of physical pain being inflicted and they will flinch. Show them a film of emotional pain being inflicted and they will clench their fists in anger, clamp their jaw, and even shed tears. It may be a stronger reaction if the person in the film is known to the viewer, but it is not necessary. We have all known pain in our own lives and we recognize it.

We also have an instinctual understanding of injustice. We know what is right and wrong. We know the way the world should work is not truly the way it does work, but we also know that helpless feeling of suffering a crushing blow from a hand beyond our ability to strike back at.

We know the hypnotic pull of hatred. We know the narcotic surge of vengeance in our veins. We know what it is like to shed our humanity and let the beast within us all rise to the surface.

We can understand the will to torture. It is a will born of our greatest strength twisted by our greatest failing. Our love for our brothers and sisters of humankind pushes us to embrace the responsibility to protect the weak. Ashamed at our failure, we vow that nothing, but nothing, will allow us to stand between us and our duty. Not even our humanity.

It is at that point that we turn into the monsters our enemy paints us as. In that instant, the shame of failed responsibility mingles with the will to protect and we re-create ourselves in our demon's image. Our talk of human rights and dignity becomes platitudes. Our speeches become pretty words to be enscribed on buildings and memorials. We become sepulchres filled with rotted bones and decaying flesh, scrubbed clean on the outside with rhetoric that ripples from the tongue, but never enters the heart.

It is understandable. But it is not forgivable.

We know that we are weaker alone than we are together. When we choose to seek solitude in order to escape the eyes of those who would hold us accountable, then we have committed ourselves to embracing our demonic possession. Junkies often commit crimes while they are high, but it isn't the drugs that makes them criminal - it is the drug that is a tool the criminal uses to escape responsibility. Drugs keep the fear at bay, they weaken our defenses, they dull our morality.

Torture is not the natural outgrowth of the protective instinct. It is a willful decisionto cause unbearable harm. It is the decision to ignore the limits imposed upon ourselves in times of better judgment.

In a democracy, the leaders are supposed to be responsible to the voters for their decisions. That means, as well, that the voters are then responsible for the actions of their leaders. Our leaders have willfully decided that they will lead us to the pits of hell that lie in the darkest corners of our souls. They will then camp out and make this hell their home - and ours. It matters not what reason is given for doing so. Laws are like morals - either they apply across the board or they are not what they claim to be.

Either torture is justifiable by the shifting pages of human history or it is beyond the pale for civilized people. There is no middle ground.

Nothing, but nothing, excuses torture.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006


Progressive Faith Blog-Con 2006 Carnival

This week's Carnival will be hosted by Virushead. Be sure to get your submission in.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

NM-1: A Crumbling Facade?

Ever hear of Heather Wilson? Chances are, you haven't. New Mexico's First Congressional District isn't widely known for creating controversy. That may be changing.

A review of her record will tend to blow apart the idea that she is not a "real Republican". She tends to not be independent, but generally conservative and she doesn't generally buck the party too hard. She is, as well, a card-carrying member of the Religious Right. Nothing about her voting record indicates much of a concern for human rights or roping in the scope of governmental power.

Her opponent is Patricia Madrid. It isn't good news for Wilson that Madrid is currently polling dead even with her (although I don't care for the science behind this particular poll). The 2004 election showed her winning by a scant 24,000 votes. While she was right in the middle in regards to vote totals of the three Congressional districts, her opponent pulled in close to 40,000 votes more than any challenger. While most of her district is in Torrance County, the majority of the population is in Bernalillo County - mostly within the city of Albuquerque. Benalillo actually went to Kerry (though by an extremely slight margin). Much more sparsely populated Sandoval County went by the same margin to Bush - but with a difference of less than 2,000 votes. Both Torrance and Valencia are pretty safe areas for her, without many votes to mine and large distances between them. That leaves Santa Fe County, which has only a sliver in the First. Still, that County went to Kerry by 71%. With Madrid's electoral victory in 2002 (when she won by a 51%-37% margin) she looks to be in a strong position.

So who cares about New Mexico anyway? Well, I think it's safe to say that Heather Wilson's record indicates that she is acting in exactly the opposite manner that would typically be expected. There is nothing - nothing - in her record to indicate that she would pull away from her party, her President, or giving the government greater police powers. So why is she raising a stink?

Look through the electoral stuff. She's in a bad situation, and standing by her man (George W. Bush) is likely causing a great deal of her problems. With an election coming up and a well-funded and well-seasoned opponent at her heals, she has to step out and make a name for herself. She has to look tough. She has to show that she is her own woman.

There are some, I know, who are cynical about election-year politics. Wilson is likely to be a prime example for that group. If she can convince people in the next nine months that the first seven years of her service was an error, then she may win another two years. This argument says that politicians simply try to dupe us into casting our votes for people we don't really back.

I look at it hopefully, though. A Representative is supposed to work in the interest of the district they represent. As local opinions turn against George W. Bush, Wilson's actions should change. It isn't unprincipled and it isn't throwing the President under the bus - it's simply Wilson doing her job. I find it refreshing that what looked like an inpenetrable barrier of blind support for the President can actually be held in check by something. It is an indication that Republican partisanship isn't as monolithic as is typically portrayed - at least sometimes.

The question for voters is: Will this conscience disappear after the election? I have no way to answer that. That's up to the voters of New Mexico's First District - and it's entirely in their hands.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Of Snow, Oil, and Politics

In case you didn't hear, Jersey got a ton of snow. Fortunately, temperatures are rising and it should melt away fairly soon. Fine by me. I'm not crazy about snow the first day, and nothing on earth looks as bedraggled as three-day old snow piled at the foot of a slush puddle.

Fortunately, I don't have to worry too much about heating bills. We have nice new double-paned windows that are doing a bang-up job of keeping winter outside. Plus, we have enough income that we don't have to make the decision as to whether we should heat the house or eat some food. Life itself is a blessing, but I consider many blessings in addition to that. This is definitely one.

As reported in Tammany on the Hudson, it so happens that the Jersey City Housing Authority was, at the time, considering an offer from Citgo for cheap heating oil. More details today indicate that it might be as much as a dollar per gallon discount. That's a pretty hefty discount.

Ordinarily, I'd have to think that even Hudson County would consider this a no-brainer and go with the incredibly lower price. I'm sure there are some technical problems with existing contracts that would have to be worked out, but that's what lawyers are for. The problem is the source of the offer and the geo-political games that have intruded on the governmental duty of serving its citizens.

Citgo, for those who don't know, is the national oil company of Venezuela. This is not like saying "Wal-Mart is an American company," simply because their headquarters are here. The government of Venezuela actually owns Citgo. Venezuela is currently headed up by a man whose name is Hugo Chavez.

Republicans here in Hudson County echo the concerns of President Bush concerning Chavez - but most of them are patently false (such as Hudson County Republican Chair Jose Arango's claim that Chavez is an "enemy" of the United States). The official Bush Administration position is that Chavez needs to be "contained". This is the position that prompted uber-wingnut Pat Robertson to call for Chavez' assasination.

I don't think Chavez is an enemy of the United States, but he's certainly no friend of George Bush and he's a loose cannon. As such, it would probably be best to consider him an immature and arrogant, possibly slightly insane, actor on the international front.

As a domestic leader, however, Chavez has done much to assist his country. He boosted spending on education programs aimed at wiping out illiteracy. He has taken up the cause of the cayapas, using the military to build roads, lay water and waste pipe, and improve general infrastructure. He has used money from the oil industry to help the poorest Venezuelans. If the wealthy are being hurt, then it is not immediately obvious.

This is not to say that Venezuela is a wonderland. There are problems throughout the economy that will keep it staggering along for many decades. It is also not to say that Hugo Chavez is an angel - he is not, nor does he claim to be. He is a soldier and he views the world, apparently, as a mission to fulfill. He is just as capable of becoming a perennial human rights violator as he is to raise his country from under-development. There is more than a little reason to carefully watch his human rights record.

The question in Hudson County, though, is not whether or not Hugo Chavez is a good man or a bad man. The question is: Does the offer help people in Hudson County? The answer to that is: Yes. Does it also help Hugo Chavez? Possibly. So long as he continues to spend on such efforts as universal education and healthcare and does not descend into a de facto dictator, there is little reason to not do business with him.

After all, our fourth-largest trading partner is China. It didn't stop us from importing 1,163 thousand barrels of oil per day from Nigeria, 641 thousand barrels of oil per day from Angola, or 273 thousand barrels of oil per day from Kuwait. Yet we enforce an embargo against Cuba - and are now apparently asked to do the same voluntarily against Venezuela. What is our schizophrenic point in this? If you speak against us, we will be snotty to you?

No, we should not appease him and let him dictate our policy. However, if any of the American oil companies want to match his offer - and cut into their record profits just a bit - I'm sure the market would put Chavez in a much less favorable light. However, the arguments for trade in China should apply as easily to Venezuela as they do to China - greater interaction will force greater open-ness and allow for greater influence on human treatment of dissenters.

Of course, we would need to implement those policies ourselves before we preach it to the world.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Carnival time!

Progressive Faith Blog-Con 2006 Carnival

Baraka at Truth and Beauty sets up the Carni this week. Take a break and consider the implications for a bit.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Religious Tolerance and the Military

I saw this tidbit in the news today:

The Air Force released new guidelines for religious expression Thursday that no longer caution top officers about promoting their personal religious views.The revisions were welcomed by conservative Christians, who said the previous rules was too strict and lobbied the White House to change them.

I've served in the military (though not in the Air Force). I remember very few, if any, restrictions on religious observation. In fact, I remember our ship's chaplain openly discussing the possibility of having to learn Satanic rites if anyone ever declared that as their official religion. We even had a good laugh about having to requisition goats for sacrifice and trying to coordinate that with flight ops.

I read a bit more - because, you know, some reporters are just wrong. Here's what I found:

The original guidelines issued in August grew out of charges from members of minority faiths that they were targets of slurs and discrimination by the Air Force Academy's evangelical Christian majority.

The original rules called for tolerance of religious "diversity" at the academy and throughout the Air Force. They labeled as "unacceptable" disrespectful conduct based on religious beliefs.

Here's the interesting part:
No such language is contained in the new guidelines.

So Conservative Christians were protesting the call for diversity and forbid disrespectful conduct towards religious minorities? Let's remove the clauses concerning a "live and let live" attitude and what happens?

“We think this is an important and positive move by the Air Force,” said Sekulow, whose Washington,

D.C.-based group gathered more than 200,000 signatures on a petition to protest a requirement in the previous guidelines that all chaplains had to give nondenominational prayers at public events.

Conservative Christians are calling the new set of rules a "Bill of Rights for chaplains". The problem isn't with the chaplains - it's with the individuals who serve in the Air Force. How would you like to be serving in Iraq, a faithful Bhuddist who believes in non-violence, walk over to your chaplain to discuss whether or not you should switch to formal "conscientious objector" objector status, only to be told, "Look, it doesn't matter what you do. You're gonna burn in hell, you heathen. Now get on your knees and beg for forgiveness."

Now, consider this report:

Justice Department attorneys have told a federal judge that an Air Force Academy graduate has no legal standing to sue the Air Force over allegations of proselytizing by chaplains and that the military already has safeguards in place against improper religious pressure.

This means that the US Government is saying that a graduate of the Air Force Academy isn't entitled to file lawsuit for mistreatment at the Academy. This is generally used as a means of someone filing a lawsuit on behalf of someone else - like a sibling filing suit against a husband who beats his wife. The idea is "You aren't involved in this, so mind your own business."

The government motion, dated last week, again asked U.S. District Judge James Parker to dismiss the case. It said Weinstein and his co-plaintiffs haven't shown they would be harmed by the alleged proselytizing and that their claims have no substance.

Being told that you will burn forever in a lake of fire is not harmful? That undermines the entire concept that a person owns and has a inalienable right to their own faith! Beyond that, any discussion of issues with the military HAS to take into account the inherent power structure. No one - and I mean no one - is equal in the military. Even people of the same rank are arranged according to seniority.

Weinstein said anytime a senior officer asks to discuss religion, a lower-ranking service member would feel coercion.

The revised guidelines on religion released today by the U.S. Air Force are simply 'dead on arrival.' They blatantly fail to deal with fundamental issues - namely the protection of the Constitutional guarantee of the separation of church and state, and protection for junior officers and enlisted airmen from coercive proselytizing and evangelizing by their superiors.

Context matters. I have friends that attended the Naval Academy at Annapolis. They tell me that the only proper response to any question is "Yes", "No", and "No excuse". In that atmosphere, this is the appropriate response to the removal of "live and let live":

It is because of these continued, now institutionalized offenses and deliberate disregard for the treatment of all Air Force personnel, including Air Force Academy cadets, as well as the Constitution that I first filed suit against the Air Force in October and it is because of these ever-worsening offenses that I will continue to prosecute that litigation vigorously and to speak out publicly.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Renewing a Vision

I've been thinking some lately about goals. One of the images I carry from my childhood is of a poster in some classroom that showed a bullseye target with several arrows hitting the ground in front of it. The caption read, "If you aim at nothing; you're bound to hit it." There's nothing earthshaking in that statement, but it's a nice visual - and sometimes visual aids make all the difference.

As I approach the one year anniversary of this blog, it occurs to me that I've really been aiming at nothing. I've basically used it as a soapbox to spout on whatever topic happens to cross my mind that day. I suppose there's nothing wrong with that - it's led me to thinking in depth about some topics that might not otherwise have stayed in my mind long. But I'd like to be able to say that there's a reason for what I'm doing.

And the truth is, there was a reason when I started blogging. I had discovered long ago that the narrow construction of faith advanced by the Religious Right was just too confining. It was, to me, a hollow religion that required little of its adherents - from my perspective, that list of necessary "to do's" included: 1) Oppose abortion; 2) Fight against the "gay agenda"; and 3) Vote Republican. Even questioning one of these central tenets seems to necessarily lead to charges that a person isn't a "real" Christian or that they need to pray (presumably to change their ways and toe the line) or something similar. To be fair, I want to state that not everyone on the right would fit that mold, but, for me, it was too often the case. I also know that there are plenty of people on the political right that wish the Religious Right would just shut up and go away - and the sooner the better. These groups, from my point of view, seem to have little influence over either the Religious Right or the political right - though the struggle for the latter is much more contested than for the former.

But I also found that the left side of the political divide was also too confining. I discovered that there are some people on the left who just don't "get" religion - or, to be more precise, faith. They believe it is something you wear inside you, never showing it to anyone and never speaking of it to anyone. Any mention of Christianity, in particular, was met with charges of being a right-wing nut-job. Yet some 76% of Americans readily identify themselves as a Christian. Now, this is down significantly from the 1990 survey, but it hardly stands to reason that the Religious Right makes up over three-fourths of our country. It certainly isn't true of me.

There is a small group on the left that are somewhat vocal about simply hating all religion. I know I've gotten my share of hate email because I have the gall to identify myself openly as a Christian. Religion is the "opiate of the masses" and it keeps people fat, dumb, and happily distracted from what their leaders are doing. There is also a group on the left that are simply anti-Christianity - they readily defend Muslims, Hindus, and all manner of minor religions but are caught up in a struggle against "religious oppression". Too often, these groups are the left's equivalent of the Religious Right - fanatics who refuse to see the possibility of any legitimate position that isn't the one they've taken.

The bigger problem with the left, however, is the overwhelming number of "separationists", as I will call them. They will kindly listen to any discussion about faith, values, and politics. Then they will nod sagaciously and say something to the effect that, "I believe that religion and politics should be kept entirely separate." This has led to all types of superfluous arguments about what the meaning of the Constitution is and who meant what when they wrote things down more than 200 years ago. From my admittedly non-neutral position, it's all a bunch of misrepresentations (to be kind) by both sides. A pox on both your houses!

My purpose in blogging, which I've tended to stray from fairly easily, is to show that a person can remain a Christian and still be politically liberal. In fact, I've tried to show that my liberal politics grows directly from my Christian faith. To ask me to leave my faith outside of the polling station is like asking a fish to get out of the water. It shows a complete disregard and misunderstanding of what faith really is.

Because of the recent success of Tim Kaine, Jr in Virginia - who deflected criticism on the death penalty against charges that his Catholicism would prevent him from signing a death warrant by saying that he will obey the law of the land rather than the dictates of his faith - I'm told occasionally that it is possible to do what I hold is impossible. Kaine, I'm told, proves that you can leave your faith outside the door of your politics. Again, I think this completely misses the truth of the issue. If a bill to outlaw crossed Kaine's desk, who really thinks that his faith would not play an important part in his decision to sign it or not? Since Virginia limits its governor to only one term, there would be no electoral consequences. If Kaine is really opposed to the death penalty - regardless of whether it is because of church doctrine or scholastic discipline - then he would sign it and be proud of it.

What Kaine is saying is that his faith teaches him to obey the law of the land and that he is willing to pay the spiritual price for doing so. He isn't leaving his faith behind, he's wearing it like a shroud. It simply leads him to a different stance that what we are used to seeing from someone who is open about their faith.

I believe in religious freedom. Faith teaches that there is more to life than just dying with the most toys. There is a "Great Accounting" that comes afterwards. If it does nothing but make use kinder to our fellow humans, then it has not been a waste of time. But because no one on this side of death knows for certain what comes afterwards, we cannot reject the claims of dissenting, or divergent, faiths. We must embrace a society which allows all of us to speak openly about our innermost beliefs - and when some of them conflict with others, we should respect each other enough to allow those differences to thrive.

Faith can be an opiate, and the addicted will give up everything they love for more of it. But it can also grant liberation, tolerance, and understanding. American values include the right to worship as is dictated by the whispers in the deepest corners of your heart. Faith is accountable to no one but God - whatever God your faith follows. It is our right as Americans, and it has remained a vital reason why the "poor huddled masses" reach for our shores. It is a right guaranteed by the United States Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence claims that it is a right bestowed upon humanity by our Creator directly, without intervention by man.

This is why I began blogging: so more people could feel comfortable speaking unpopular truths about their faith and how it impacts their politics. I can't promise I won't stray - in fact, I'll say that I'm very likely to stray before the end of the week. But I will do my utmost to return to that reason. My efforts may occasionally miss the mark, but I will never quit shooting for it.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Words, Actions, and Impacts

If you want to know what a man believes, watch him, and ignore everything that comes out of his mouth that doesn't agree with his actions. It's awfully hard to argue for a "Christian nation" when you start from that perspective.

I'm not alone in this observation.:

"Up to now, the application of religious principles in political debate has been mainly applied to social mores, such as abortion rights, same-sex marriage, intelligent design vs. Darwinism and other similar social issues," Ratliff pointed out in a speech several weeks ago to the Austin Project, a group dedicated to helping at-risk youth.


"But all too often," he added, "those Christians who take strong stands on such issues based on moral or biblical teachings do not then continue the application of such teachings to other issues."


"When considering how much to reduce funding for indigent health care, Medicaid for nursing homes, child abuse protective services or special education for handicapped children, there seems to be little recognition of Christ's teaching that, 'In as much as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to Me also.' "

The column that is linked deals with the details of Bill Ratcliff's speech and how they fit into the politics of Texas. I believe it's of much greater interest outside of Texas, though. President Bush, after all, recently submitted his budget to Congress. It reads like a hit-list against the poor.

Medicare - already underfunded - is going to take a heavy hit:

Saving $65 billion in government benefit programs over five years, including $36 billion from Medicare. Much of the Medicare savings would come from cutting reimbursement rates to hospitals, nursing homes and home health agencies.

Meanwhile, the death business is booming:

In other budget news, The New York Times reports that the Pentagon is tripling its spending this year to nearly $3.5 billion in an effort to combat the use of increasingly powerful and sophisticated homemade bombs that are the #1 killer of American troops in Iraq. The spending bump is an acknowledgement that despite the yearly rise in deaths from the devices, the military's response has not been focused or coordinated enough at the highest levels.

Yet, as Clay Robison notes, the screaming hypocrasy of such moves is not likely to be seen by those on the Religious Right (and many, many others) who clamor about "moral values".

It is counterproductive — and wrong — to punish needy children for being born, which is essentially what state officials are doing when they preach tax relief at the expense of health care.

Some parents are irresponsible, and others are simply unfortunate.

The Bible is absolutely silent on the issue of abortion. It doesn't advocate a strong economy, job growth, or even lower taxes. It teaches social justice and responsibility. It teaches personal responsibility for the things we can control and mercy for the things we cannot.

Texas has lots of churches, synagogues, mosques and charitable people, but it also has 5.5 million residents, including 1.3 million children, who don't have health insurance, the highest percentage of uninsured population of any state.

How much do the religious conservatives and their elected leaders in Austin care? Ask them.

We should ask them in Washington, as well.

"You're part of the problem, or part of the solution," I was taught. I don't see any indication of a Republican majority making things better for children or old people. To my sorrow, I see scant evidence of Democrats fighting the good fight on their behalf.

We'd do well to remember these words:

Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Correction - and further analysis

I incorrectly linked and quoted the wrong State of the Union address this week. Thanks to Enlighten-NJ for pointing this out. I have no excuse for it, other than to say I'm human and it was a dumb mistake and I accept responsibility for it. My apoligies to everyone.

Here is a link to correct that mistake. The paragraph I quoted should have been this one:

Our economy is healthy and vigorous and growing faster than other major industrialized nations. In the last two-and-a-half years, America has created 4.6 million new jobs -- more than Japan and the European Union combined.

Enlighten also says that they (I believe it is a group blog, so the plural is proper) don't understand what I'm talking about - however, that doesn't keep them from saying I don't know what the hell I'm talking about.

I'll try and explain better.

First, "major industrialized nations" is actually improper terminology. Nations are not industrialized - they are groups of people. Countries are. Of the comparative politics books I own, a list of countries considered as "major industrialized" would have to include the UK, Germany, France, and Japan (among others). I include Australia and Canada, though some would dispute that. There is no definitive list, though. They are industrialized, to be sure. As to whether or not they are "major" is left open for debate.

The data I used for my analysis was taken from the official World Bank statistics compilation. They have data available from 2000-4, so those are the years I chose to look at. Enlighten wonders, "What happened to 2005?" It's January. The official statistics for 2005 have not been compiled, checked, and submitted to the World Bank. Usually, they will be released around June.

The US Bureau of Economic Analysis - which Enlighten found through my link, though you won't find any explanation of that in the post - gives the data on GDP growth rates through 2005q4. What is actually cited at his page is the "advance estimate". I didn't include it because it is statistically inaccurate to do so. Here is why:

The advance GDP estimate for the fourth quarter of 2005 is based on source data that are incomplete and subject to revision...Only two months of data were available for most other key data sources; BEA's assumptions for the third month are shown in table A. Among those assumptions are the following:
  an increase in nondurable manufacturing inventories,
  an increase in non-motor-vehicle merchant wholesale and retail inventories,
  a decrease in exports of goods, excluding gold, and
  an increase in imports of goods, excluding gold.

Economists love assumptions and estimates. Political scientists don't.

It's good to read the instructions on data. Inside this "best guess" you will also find this statement:

The price index for gross domestic purchases increased 3.3 percent in the fourth quarter after increasing 4.2 percent in the third. Excluding food and energy prices, the price index for gross domestic purchases increased 2.9 percent after increasing 2.5 percent.

That means, very simply, that stuff costs more now than it did three months ago, at which time it cost more than it did three months before that. I know - it's no news flash.

You can also read the "Highlights" of the release, available in pdf form here:

The slowdown in GDP growth in 2005 mainly reflected a downturn in inventory investment, a slowdown in consumer spending, and a slowdown in federal government spending.

As Enlighten notes, this reflects a trend of increasing GDP. From 2001q1 through 2005q4, that increase was a total of 13.75%. This compares to a 32.55% growth during Clinton's eight years in office (1993q1 - 2000q4). If we cut off the final two years of Clinton's terms, so we are comparing the same amount of time in office (1993q1-1998q4), we get a cumulative growth rate of 23.83%. Go back to the Reagan era and you get a cumulative growth rate of 15.85% from 1981q1-1985q4.

You won't get those numbers by averaging average growth - you have to use the actual numbers. Averaging averages introduces a consecutively larger error into you figures. These numbers were found by dividing the ending number by the beginning number and subtracting one, then multiplying by 100.

Are we growing faster than other industrialized countries? Not according to the World Bank. Will the inclusion of 2005 data change the analysis? Some. But even if our GDP growth rate holds at 3% for the year, we will do little to pull even with Canada and Australia, and even less to catch up with the World Bank's "High Income" group (because our gain will average in with the entire group's gain). We are well ahead of both France and Germany, and about as far ahead of the UK as we are behind both Autralia and Canada.

As I pointed out - and Enlighten failed to cite - "But, we're improving. Half of our growth over the last five years has come in the last two."

To explain "capital formation", I'll refer you here:

The transfer of savings from households and governments to the business sector, resulting in increased output and economic expansion.

It's a measure of how much capital (money) businesses have on hand to expand. If you want to know the exact data, I'll refer you to the original post, which linked to the World Bank statistics. Forgive me if I insist that my readers have enough intelligence to follow a link and click on choices to create a graph.

As I stated, our inflation is about the same as others, but numerous news stories have shown that real wages are lagging behind. That means, when taken all together, that our economy is not "growing faster than other major industrialized nations". It is, as I said, barely keeping pace. However, as I also said, the last two years have caught us up for lagging behind for the first four years of the Bush Presidentcy. As Enlighten pointed out, and as the data shows, this is changing.

GDP per capita, Enlighten says, shows that we are far ahead. However, that is a weak measurement of anything. The best indication it gives is the rough amount of productivity per person. We're leading the way there, to be sure. However, you have to click through to find out that Enlighten is changing data sources. But there's no historical perspective, either. Have we increased our lead or have we lagged behind? That, after all, was the statement the President made. It's a totally irrelevant factoid. It doesn't tell us anything about what we're studying, nor does it provide any basis for gauging the information that it should tell us. Politically, it's distraction.

Enlighten then brings out the World Economic Forum's "Growth Competitiveness Index". However, the GCI measures only the competitiveness of an economy - not how fast it's growing. It only tells us that we rank second to Finland (another "industrialized country" - is it a "major" one?) in having a competitive economy. Again, it's a distraction and it's superfluous to the issue.

If we turn to jobs - you can see here that the US unemployment rate is actually higher than Japan and the UK. Of course, the President never mentions the unemployed. If you look at data from the US Department of Labor (Most Requested - Nonfarm) (the World Bank doesn't track this); then you will see that in November of 2005 (the last date we have reliable info) there were 134,231,000 jobs in the US (non-farming). In January of 2001, there were 132, 471,000. That's a growth of only 1,760,000 jobs. The President likes to brag about the last two and a half years because that's pretty close to the time we hit bottom in losing jobs - 129,822,000 jobs in July of 2003. Woohoo! He's brought us back from the pit into which he led us.

Enlighten doesn't miss a Republican beat - trotting out both "tax cuts" as evidence that we are doing better because of Bush's action and "9/11" to explain why that isn't true. You can't have it both ways. More than that, you can't have it wrong and pretend it's right. The damage of 9/11 was confined mostly to travel and tourist related industries, as well as banking and security. It was substantial.

First, note that the report Enlighten cites is technically incorrect:

as we now know the first three quarters of 2001 posted negative growth.

See my previous post - or even Enlighten's - to see that it simply didn't happen that way. That's a technicality, as the growth was slight. However, it highlights the fact that you need to read carefully:

There are three reasons for the resilience of the U.S. economy. First, the Federal Reserve cut interest rates three times in the wake of the attacks after cutting rates eight times in the eight months preceding them. Second, in May 2001, President Bush signed into law the first tax cut since 1986 and the Congress passed a stimulus bill, which included business tax cuts, in early 2002.
Finally and most importantly, productivity continued to grow throughout the U.S. recession.

So, small kudos to the tax cut for helping things along.

When compared to the losses sustained in past wars, the costs of the September 11 attacks and the resulting counter-attacks in Afghanistan are small.

If you accept the false recession, which I don't (a definition must mean something, not everything); then you have to also look at this fact:

Despite continued strength in consumer spending and retail sales, the recession was dated as beginning in March 2001, five months before the attacks.

Lest we think that 9/11 still haunts our economy:
Nonetheless, the U.S. economy bounced back. Within days, consumers and businesses were back up and running.

I know it hurts a lot of people's feelings to hear this, but 9/11 did not totally devastate our economy. Yes, it hurt it. Yes, the tax cuts helped. But, as that very same report notes:

But perhaps the most important driving force behind America's resilience has been strong productivity growth. One of the greatest tests of the strength in underlying productivity trends is the performance in those trends during economic downturns and external shocks to the economy. Clearly, the U.S. productivity performance during the 2001 recession and following the September 11 attacks was spectacular.

But we continued to lose jobs through July 2003 (Most Requested - Nonfarm) Neither 9/11 nor tax cuts had any discernable reaction in the job market. The number of jobs were declining prior to 9/11 and continued long after the terrorist attacks - and the tax cuts - had passed.

I don't have the actual data on how many jobs Japan has created - and if anyone finds good data sources, please share them. However, Japan has a total labor force estimated to be about 66.4 million and the US has 149.3 million - so directly comparing the number of jobs they create is, again, superfluous - especially considering that one of the largest criticisms of the Japanese economy has historically been that it grants "jobs for life" and neglects to create new jobs for younger people and women. Addressing that problem has caused Japan to suffer unreasonably high unemployment rates.

So, Enlighten-NJ, you were correct when you said you didn't know what you're talking about. I accept the unforgiveable error of linking to the wrong text, and I thank you for pointing it out to me. I don't appreciate your uninformed statement to the effect that I don't know what I'm talking about. I'll offer you a deal that will make us both look a bit less foolish - I'll double check the dates on my links, and you take my class and learn a little bit before you open your mouth and show off your ignorance.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

State of the Lie

NOTE: This post contains an error. Rather than erasing it as if it never happened, I attempt to make amends by reviewing the correct text.

I have to admit that I didn't give the President my full attention last night. However, I did review the test of his State of the Union speech, and I found a lot of platitudes and not a few misleading statements. For example:

America's economy is the fastest growing of any major industrialized nation

I used the World Bank's World Development Indicators for the years 2000-4 and analyzed the following countries: United States (US), United Kingdom (UK), Germany(G), France(F), Canada(C) Australia(A), Russian Federation(R). I also looked at the average for "High Income" countries (HI).

In GDP growth, the average over the last five years is:
US - 2.8%
UK - 2.6%
G - 1.2%
F - 1.8%
C - 3.0%
A - 3.2%
HI - 3.2%

So much for the contention that we're growing faster than anyone else. The UK, Germany, and France are all good peers for comparison based on standard of living, income, general economic strength, etc. Canada and Australia are good peers for comparison because they are the second and third most energy intensive economies after the US. HI countries actually include the US.

But, we're improving. Half of our growth over the last five years has come in the last two.

Of the countries listed, only the UK lags the US in capital formation.

France and Germany have lower inflation, with the other countries slightly higher than our 2% average. Oh yeah, Australia and Canada both have a net positive cash-flow (no deficit). Germany and the UK have a lower deficit and France is about even with us.

We aren't growing faster - we're barely keeping pace.

In the past four years, we have provided tax relief to every person who pays income taxes, overcome a recession, opened up new markets abroad, prosecuted corporate criminals, raised homeownership to its highest level in history. And in the last year alone, the United States has added 2.3 million new jobs.

First, the taxes:

Technically, it's correct. What it doesn't take into consideration is that those tax cuts created a huge federal deficit that the government had to borrow - and pay interest on - to cover. That means we haven't gotten a tax cut at all. We've received a tax deferment. We will pay for the uncontrolled spending. Just not during this President's term.

Next, the "recession":

Here's the definition of a recession: "A phase of the business cycle characterized by a general period of declining economic activity. *snip* A recession is officially designated, by the official designators at the National Bureau of Economic Research, as at least six months of declining economic activity.

Well, if you exam the GDP data compiled by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, we haven't had a recession during the Bush Presidency. In fact, we haven't had one since 1990, when 1990 4th quarter GDP shrank 3.0% and first quarter 1991 GDP shrank 2%. Since Bush took office in 2000, we've had three quarters of negative growth, they were 2000q3, 2001q1, and 2001q3. Between each of these quarters, we had a full quarter of growth. Take a look at this chart of monthly GDP growth. We've barely had two months of negative growth in a row at any time since 2000.

No recession. How can we bounce back from a recession that never happened?

Even if you allow the NBER to fudge its previously firm definition and use their official dates - the last recession ended in November of 2001. It was tied with four others for the third shortest recession in history. I would hope, after four years, that we would be recovered. It's no great accomplishment.

Opened markets abroad? Well, according to the World Bank, our exports have shrunk slightly from 11% to 10% of our GDP. The BEA offers a highlights graph that shows a booming deficit in foreign trade (for 2005q3). They offer this explanation:

The deficit on goods increased to $197.9 billion from $186.9 billion, as goods imports increased more than goods exports.

Ok, how many strikes are we giving again?

Prosecuted corporate criminals?

Ok, they got Martha Stewart. The Enron boys have just started their trial. To be fair, WorldCom did get busted. Everything, except for Martha Stewart's conviction, has been incredibly slow to develop and there has been absolutely no action on corporate accountability.

Home ownership rates?

As you can see, the growth in home ownership is very slight - less than 2%. Compare that to over 3% for Bill Clinton's term in office. Compare that to a net loss of home ownership under Reagan and Bush I. More people own homes, but that's due to a growing population, not growing prosperity.

I don't know where the President is seeing all this wonderful growth he babbling about. Perhaps he needs glasses. Perhaps he needs new advisors that don't lie to him.

We definitely need a new President.

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