Thursday, October 28, 2004

Probably Signing Off for a Week

One of this page's authors is swamped with work. The other will also probably not be posting through the election.

Although I think it my Christian duty to be involved in politics, I am finding it difficult to talk about the election at this late date without coming off like a mouthpiece for Kerry (which I am certainly not). There are clearly quite enough spinmeisters and blind advocates for both sides at this point. Given that I think we've already made our arguments concerning the issues (see the archives and selected posts), I think I'll leave this one be....

Lawyers doing Christian Work

In coming out as lawyers, we emphasized our belief that lawyers are well-positioned to help in constructing the Kingdom of God. To make the point more concrete, I cite the following story from my home state of Texas as an example of lawyers "preaching" the Social Gospel, helping "the least of these," and doing what I strongly believe to be God's work.
The Dallas Morning News reports that the consumer protection department of the Texas Attorney General's office (the state's litigation office) has just filed a suit on behalf of low-income Hispanics and recent immigrants. The suit seeks to halt a credit card scam that has cheated thousands of vulnerable Texans out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The scam centered around an advertisement, which ran exclusively on Spanish-language TV and radio stations and which "targeted immigrants," who are "apprehensive about coming forward to a law enforcement agency." The ad promised consumers a "credit card" without regard to their credit record. It suggested that the "credit card" would "help Hispanics get ahead in the world." They could even use it to purchase computers for their children, the ad promised.
Upon calling the 800 number mentioned in the ad, consumers were told for the first time that there was a $299 fee for the card. Given the difficulty many in the targeted demographic have in obtaining credit, it is perhaps unsurprising that many paid the fee. Upon receiving the card, however, the victims discovered that it wasn't really a credit card at all. The card was practically useless: it could only be used to order items from the company's paltry online catalogue. When consumers called to demand a refund, the company simply hung up on them.
The suit seeks to enjoin the company from operating in Texas, the return of the defrauded money to the thousands of victims, and monetary penalties.
The Texas AG's office employs lots of lawyers, and it hires entry-level, recent graduates.

Monday, October 25, 2004

More Tax Breaks for the Rich

As John Kerry speaks about a Christian obligation to help the less fortunate (see post below), George Bush "quietly signs" a $136 billion corporate tax cut. The bill, which was originally intended to help the lagging U.S. manufacturing sector, quickly turned into an all-purpose giveaway, with everyone from NASCAR racetrack owners to importers of Chinese ceiling fans getting a substantial piece of the action. (Yeah, I'm sure cutting taxes on imports will keep those manufacturing jobs in the U.S.!)

The bill is being called "the most sweeping rewrite of corporate tax law in nearly two decades." (Notice the use of the word "rewrite" instead of "reform.") My tax law professor, by no means a liberal Democrat, addressed the bill in class, calling it "as bad a piece of tax legislation as has ever been enacted."

How long will Christians continue to see actions like this as irrelevant to their voting decision?

Kerry Embraces the Social Gospel

John Kerry gave a speech in Florida yesterday which centered on an issue he has not frequently addressed: his religious beliefs. In the course of the speech, Kerry described his commitment to "a Social Gospel", which he defined as "a moral obligation to help those who are less fortunate."

The Kerry campaign acknowledged that, unlike the faith of President Bush, Kerry's religious commitments had not been a focus of the campaign up to this point. However, a campaign spokesman said that Kerry (who generally keeps his faith to himself) decided to come out in the open about his faith now because a vast majority of Americans (one poll says 70%) say that they want a President who is deeply grounded in faith.

This webpage has long derided Kerry (and Democrats generally) for not talking more about religion -- for not challenging the right's dubious claim to the Christian high ground. Kerry is doing it now, and he's doing it in the right way, i.e. by referencing the social gospel. I applaud him and the Democrats. Let's just hope its not too late.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

In the Popular Imagination Democrats are Atheists?

I'm originally from a little town in east Texas. My mom still lives there. She tells me that she's nervous about putting a Kerry/Edwards sign in her yard because people in this little town equate Kerry/Edwards support with atheism. My mother is a committed, essentially orthodox Methodist. She's been a go-to-Church-every-Sunday type her whole life. She reads her Bible daily. She supports Kerry/Edwards, but she's anything but an atheist.

Why do people in this little town believe that voting against the President is tantamount to sacrilege? I think it because the Democratic Party has failed to articulate with sufficient persistence and clarity a progressive faith vision. Private groups have done so. See, for example, the group Vote ALL your values:

Some vocal religious groups are claiming that our faith requires us to vote based on a narrow set of issues and values. We need to stand up as progressive people of faith and call Americans to vote ALL their values, including truth at all times, justice for all people, and community among all nations and faiths.

Why hasn't the Democratic Party seized upon this vision? The Democrats have most of the right ideas for people of faith, but they must learn how to explain them in terms of faith.

I'm highly frustrated with the Democrats strategy here. (Do they have one?) The Republicans have catch phrases like "compassionate conservative." The Democrats need something similar: a heavily-repeated soundbite that will have some real staying power in the popular imagination. What do you think? "Godly progressive"? "Family values progessive"? Any suggestions out there?

Friday, October 22, 2004

A little quote for you.

It's too late and I'm too tired to post anything in my own words worth reading, so instead I'll defer to one of the greats:

"The Gospel at its best deals with the whole man, not only his soul but his body, not only his spiritual well-being, but his material well-being. Any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial."
-- Martin Luther King, Jr.

Now think about that.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Why Didn't Jesus Write it Down, Revisited

Like many progressive Christians, I am fond of asking the religious right (who insist on a text-centered Christianity) why Jesus never wrote anything down. How helpful would it be to have for Jesus what we have for Paul: his thoughts precisely preserved, first-hand in text rather than preserved second or third-hand? Why didn't Jesus do this?

Secularists, of course, will say that Jesus never wrote anything down because he was an illiterate carpenter. But, for the faithful, this logic is circular. That is, even if Jesus were an illiterate carpenter, we are still left with the equally perplexing (and functionally identical) question of why Jesus was an illiterate carpenter. If God had wanted Jesus to be well-read and educated, certainly he would have been.

Progressive Christians have explained that Jesus never wrote anything down because God never intended a text-based Christianity. Indeed, we have long pointed to this as a reason that Christians should look at how Jesus lived his life rather than to Paul's letters or to ancient Jewish texts in their search for Christian truth.

But I think that there's more to it than this.

How much time do Christians spend reading and rereading and rereading the Bible? How much time do Christians spend debating the import of obscure passages in the Old Testament? How much time do Christians spend trying to reconcile petty details in the Bible?

Can we justify such abstract intellectualism in the face of a world that is obviously very far from the Kingdom of God? If you have a few spare hours a week, wouldn't it be better to volunteer at a soup kitchen than to commit yourself to a "read-the-Bible-in-a-year" plan or a Bible study group? (What would Jesus do?)

I think that Jesus not writing anything down suggests that we should be acting more and reading and speculating less. I have long believed that Jesus' message was much simpler than the Church has made it out to be. Exceedingly easy to understand, exceedingly difficult to follow:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. Help the poor. Heal the sick.

The message, spoken and lived, was simple. Clear. There was no need to write it down. You don't need to read thousands of pages; you don't need a degree in theology to understand Jesus' message.

Of course, all of this proves too much. I read the Bible for insight on Jesus' life. I read theology. I spend several hours a week on this blog. I implicitly ask you to spend a few minutes a week reading it. But I'm not here to be perfect. Or even consistent. I'm here to raise questions.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004


Gripe of the day. In tax class this morning, the professor is talking to us about deducting interest on debt from your taxable income (i.e. things like: can I deduct the interest I pay credit card companies on my account from my overall income tax burdern? -- you can't, by the way). In asking who a provision allowing for the deduction of interest on student loans would NOT benefit, said professor casually remarkes that law students like us will not benefit from this provision because we will all be firm lawyers making too much money to qualify. The assumption here - that we will all work for giant corporate law firms - was infuriating, but sadly, probably true to a large extent. But it gets worse...

Then, with a smile on her face, the professor says, "well, at least one of you will hopefully go work in the trenches for legal aid and not make enough to qualify. Ha ha ha," as if no one would be stupid enough to do such a thing. And the whole class laughs. The whole class that is, except for me. I guess I was the only Christian in the room.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Kerry is wrong on abortion.

That's right. I said it. But I don't mean it in the way you're thinking....

I don't mean that Kerry is wrong on protecting Roe v. Wade and on opposing an abortion ban. What I do mean is that Kerry's defense of and rationale for his position is wrong. Kerry has said more than once that he personally opposes abortion (citing his Catholic faith) but that he can't legislate his morality and impose it on others.

What can this possibly mean? Every political decision involves a choice of values, a choice of morals. When we choose to ban murder, it is because we value life. It is because murder is emphatically immoral. When we choose to ban racial discrimination, it is because we value equality and because bigotry is terribly immoral. The government imposes values and morals on people every day, in myriad ways and, where such an imposition is necessary to protect others, this is perfectly proper. Merely saying that opposing abortion is a "moral decision" is no answer.

There are legitimate reasons to oppose an abortion ban. One such reason is the well-supported empirical claim that a ban is an ineffective way to prevent abortions. Why doesn't Kerry articulate this? I suspect it is because it would require him to unambiguously state his opposition to abortion and desire to discourage it. This would probably offend some of the most radical secular liberals who do view the decision to have an abortion as a decision which implicates only the mother's rights.

Kerry's "value choice" position is unsound. But it probably plays to a wider cut of the electorate than my position.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Couldn't Have Said it Better Ourselves

Voting Our Conscience, Not Our Religion

October 11, 2004


South Bend, Ind. - For more than a century, from the wave of immigrants in the 19th century to the election of the first Catholic president in 1960, American Catholics overwhelmingly identified with the Democratic Party. In the past few decades, however, that allegiance has largely faded. Now Catholics are prototypical "swing voters": in 2000, they split almost evenly between Al Gore and George W. Bush, and recent polls show Mr. Bush ahead of SenatorJohn Kerry, himself a Catholic, among white Catholics.

There are compelling reasons - cultural, socioeconomic and political - for this shift. But if Catholic voters honestly examine the issues of consequence in this election, they may find themselves returning to their Democratic roots in 2004.

The parties appeal to Catholics in different ways. TheRepublican Party opposes abortion and the destruction of embryos for stem-cell research, both positions in accord with Catholic doctrine. Also, Republican support of various faith-based initiatives, including school vouchers, tends to resonate with Catholic voters.

Members of the Democratic Party, meanwhile, are more likely to criticize the handling of the war in Iraq, to oppose capital punishment and to support universal heath care, environmental stewardship, a just welfare state and more equitable taxes. These stances are also in harmony with Catholic teachings, even if they may be less popular among individual Catholics.

When values come into conflict, it is useful to develop principles that help place those values in a hierarchy. One reasonable principle is that issues of life and death are more important than other issues. This seems to be the strategy of some Catholic and church leaders, who directly or indirectly support the Republican Party because of its unambiguous critique of abortion. Indeed, many Catholics seem to think that if they are truly religious, they must cast their ballots for Republicans.

This position has two problems. First, abortion is not theonly life-and-death issue in this election. While theRepublicans line up with the Catholic stance on abortion and stem-cell research, the Democrats are closer to the Catholic position on the death penalty, universal healthcare and environmental protection. More important, given the most distinctive issue of the current election, Catholics who support President Bush must reckon with the Catholic doctrine of "just war." This doctrine stipulates that a war is just only if all possible alternative strategies have been pursued to their ultimate conclusion; the war is conducted in accordance with moral principles (for example, the avoidance of unnecessary civilian casualties and the treatment of prisoners with dignity); and the war leads to a more moral state of affairs than existed before it began. While Mr. Kerry, like many other Democrats, voted for the war, he has since objected to the way it was planned and waged.

Second, politics is the art of the possible. During the eight years of the Reagan presidency, the number of legal abortions increased by more than 5 percent; during the eight years of the Clinton presidency, the number dropped by 36 percent. The overall abortion rate (calculated as the number of abortions per 1,000 women between the ages of 15and 44) was more or less stable during the Reagan years, but during the Clinton presidency it dropped by 11 percent.

There are many reasons for this shift. Yet surely the traditional Democratic concern with the social safety net makes it easier for pregnant women to make responsible decisions and for young life to flourish; among the most economically disadvantaged, abortion rates have always been and remain the highest. The world's lowest abortion rates are in Belgium and the Netherlands, where abortion is legal but where the welfare state is strong. Latin America, where almost all abortions are illegal, has one of the highest rates in the world.

None of this is to argue that abortion should be acceptable. History will judge our society's support ofabortion in much the same way we view earlier generations' support of torture and slavery - it will be universally condemned. The moral condemnation of abortion, however, need not lead to the conclusion that criminal prosecution is the best way to limit the number of abortions. Those who view abortion as the most significant issue in this campaign may well want to supplement their abstract desire for moral rectitude with a more realistic focus on how best to ensure that fewer abortions take place.

In many ways, Catholic voters' growing political independence has led to a profusion of moral dilemmas: they often feel they must abandon one good for the sake of another. But while they may be dismayed at John Kerry's position on abortion and stem-cell research, they should be no less troubled by George W. Bush's stance on the death penalty, health care, the environment and just war. Given the recent history of higher rates of abortion with Republicans in the White House, along with the tradition ofDemocratic support of equitable taxes and greater integration into the world community, more Catholics may want to reaffirm their tradition of allegiance to the Democratic Party in 2004.

Mark W. Roche is dean of the College of Arts and Letters at the University of Notre Dame.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Why you must root for the Red Sox

That's right fans: Christians have a duty to root for the Red Sox over the Yankees.

Now I don't mean to trivialize the faith here by any means, only to interject some fun into a religious blog.

Think of it this way: the Yankees are the "haves" of the baseball world. 26 World Championships, and a payroll that outdistances every other team in the League. They have the most money, the most revenue (NYC is a big market), and they have an uncanny history of great players that allows them to attract whomever they want to play for them. Don't believe me? Out of the single digit numbers available, the Yankees have retired all but two: 6 and 2, both of which are held by two key members of the current Yankee dynasty, manage Joe Torre and shortstop Derek Jeter.

Meanwhile, the Red Sox are the "have nots." I'm not talking about revenue or payroll - the Red Sox have the second highest payroll, afterall. I'm talking about being the little kid that always gets picked on; the underpriviledged; the cursed. They haven't won a World Series since 1918, and they blew their best chance since in 1986 when a ball rolled between their first baseman's legs.

Rooting for the Yankees is like cheering for Standard Oil or Bill Gates - they already have everything. Since sacrifice is a Christian virtue, it is time for them to give it up a little bit.


Saturday, October 09, 2004

Out of the Closet and into the Fire

I love to mix metaphors.

As some of the learned readers of this page probably suspect, the two authors of this blog have no formal training in theology. We are avid readers of Christian thinkers like Bishop Spong and Walter Rauschenbusch, but we remain laypeople. In fact, our chosen field is not renowned for its ethics or Christian responsibility: we're lawyers! (Well, third-year law students to be precise.)

Despite the seeming incongruity of this, both of us chose our profession with Christian principles in mind. Lawyers, like politicians, are in a unique position to affect social structures and can be, if they choose to be, powerful forces in moving our society towards the Kingdom of God. Our choice to become lawyers reflects our conviction that Christianity should be more about action than contemplation.

Why do I point this out now?

Because from this point forward we intend to include commentary on law and legal doctrine as a part of our musings. The law is obscure, complex and often misunderstood by non-lawyers. But our legal structures are institutions of critical importance for the Kingdom of God. With special knowledge on the subject to share, we feel compelled to do so!

Friday, October 08, 2004

Stifling Dissent on the Values Question

AUGUSTA -- The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, Maine canceled a state lawmaker's talk on prescription drugs for the elderly here after learning from his opponent that he is pro-choice on abortion.

State Rep. Arthur L. Lerman, D-Augusta, said he had been invited to address a lady's guild meeting Tuesday at St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church by guild leader Claire Poulin, who had seen him make a similar presentation at another forum for the elderly.

But that invitation was abruptly canceled Monday after Lerman's opponent in the race for House District 57, Republican Michael G. Hein, complained to diocese officials that Lerman's appearance violated Bishop Richard J. Malone's ban on pro-choice candidates in his churches.

(full story)

This webpage has repeatedly called on Christians to reject the narrow definition of "values" offered to us by the religious and political right. Values are about more than sex and abortion. Values include the conviction that we must do something about poverty, war and healthcare for the elderly. That the Bishop refuses to let his parishioners even hear this perspective is unconscionable.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Speak to us Mr. Kerry!

There is a great article in the New York Times today about the Kerry campaign and religion that begins this way:

When President Bush took on the issue of embryonic stem cell research in 2001, he framed it as a moral dilemma. He summoned members of the clergy and ethicists, as well as scientists, to counsel him. He prayed over it. His verdict - he imposed strict limits on medical research using the cells derived from human embryos - paid homage to human life as "a sacred gift from our creator."

When Senator John Kerry highlighted the issue this week, he framed it as a matter of clinical science, surrounded himself with university researchers and doctors in white laboratory coats and disease sufferers. Mr. Kerry seized on the stem cell issue to portray himself as the champion of human reason and scientific progress versus what he called Mr. Bush's stubborn devotion to "extreme right-wing ideology."

The article observes that Kerry "largely avoid[s] discussions of faith" so as not to offend the "secular liberals...who make up part of the Democrats' base [and] often recoil at blending religion and politics." It argues that this decision is misguided given that "nearly three-quarters of the public want a president of 'strong religious faith,' and [that] a swath of independent voters who identify as religious [are] swaying toward Mr. Bush."

I couldn't agree more with the general point, but I want to add a couple of additional thoughts.

First, while I agree that "secular liberals" make up "part" of the Democrats' base, I think the larger part of that base is religious in some way. In any event, I'm quite sure the vast majority of Democrats would classify themselves as "values people." For a while it seemed like the Democrats were gunning to redefine, in a very healthy and social gospelish way, the values issue and that they were refusing to cede it to the Republicans. Now I sense a backing off. That's both a mistake and a miscalculation: I think the Democrats do in fact stand for many important values that aren't appropriately recognized as such, and I think that the base needs to hear them speak in that language.

Second, I wonder if Kerry's sense that he should adopt a "scientific" and "rationalist" stance is a product of his geography. As a native Southerner who has spent the past three years in the Northeast, I believe I know something about the geographic difference between the two regions. Kerry is from "back east," and, more specifically, from elite circles in that region. It may very well be that Kerry's senatorial, Massachusetts constituency is more secular liberal than progressive Christian. But the Kerry campaign has to adjust. It has a bigger constituency now. It has to win over and keep people like me, who strongly believe in God and in values, but who simply define those things differently than those in the religious right. Speak to us Mr. Kerry.

Monday, October 04, 2004

In Defense of Justice Scalia

Yup, you read that right. But no, I do not, of course, defend Scalia's uberconservative jurisprudence. I do, however, want to defend Mr. Justice Scalia against a recent spate of terrible press.

Justice Scalia made some comments at Harvard some days ago which have set off a firestorm of attention, topping the news on legal blogs across the country and engendering op-eds in several major papers. This one in the Trentonian is representative. The Trentonian reports that Scalia said the following in an address in Cambridge: "I even take the position that sexual orgies eliminate social tensions and ought to be encouraged...."

The op-ed then proceeds to use the terms "orgy," "orgies," or "group sex" no less than ten additional times, concluding that "Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia thinks we should be having group sex."

Ridiculous. Scalia, a practicing Catholic, thinks no such thing. And the news media knows it. The comment was both taken completely out of context and misquoted by the Trentonian, among others.

The context of the comments reveal that Scalia was actually making, in a witty way, a complex point of legal theory. In his speech at Harvard, Scalia criticized a European court decision which ruled unconstitutional a law banning group gay sex. However, Scalia's intellectual opposition to the decision was not (as he put it) because of "the social evil" of the ruling. Rather, he objected to the court's method's -- its "discovering" of untextual rights and its making of moral decisions which, in his opinion, should be made (not by judges) but by the people, through democratic processes. In an attempt at humor, Scalia then quipped that his opposition to the decision would be the same even assuming "for the sake of argument...that sexual orgies eliminate social tensions and ought to be encouraged."

Again, this was simply a different (if ill-advised) way of emphasizing that his opposition to the European court rested on process rather than moral grounds.

Yet, the media seized upon the comments and has, for several days now, reported breathlessly the Justice's support of group sex. Absurd.

What relevance does this have for the social gospel?

Well, for every trumped-up sensationalist article the news media prints about Scalia's orgy comments, there is less public attention available for issues that really matter: the economy, Iraq, the presidential election. People are dying and starving, but our media is reporting on orgy comments that weren't really orgy comments. Another distraction.

Perhaps I am falling into distraction too. But I thought it was worth a post to warn: don't be deceived. This trumped-up sensationalism isn't an isolated incident.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Ban the Bible?

The right is growing ever more desperate and hysterical in its attempt to keep its hold on thoughtful religious people. A pamphlet distributed to voters in Arkansas and West Virginia by the Republican National Committee suggested that Democrats intend to ban the Bible. The AP reports:

the pamphlet included a graphic showing a Bible with the word "banned" across it, and a graphic of a man placing a ring on the hand of another man with the word "allowed" across it.

Republicans did not deny that they authored or sent the pamphlet. Rather, they defended by pointing out that the pamphlet did not specifically mention Democrats.

The pamphlet is actually, if possible, worse than described in reports. I couldn't find a way to paste it into this post, but YOU CAN VIEW THE MAILING <HERE>. It has the word "BANNED" across two different Bibles with the tag "Liberals want to impose their values on Arkansas." Yeah, I'm sure noone knew they were talking about Democrats....

Friday, October 01, 2004

On "Needs"

I keep seeing this car commercial that aggravates me. The new tag-line for GMC trucks is:

"A higher standard of innovative engineering, design, and performance. It's not more than you need. It's just more than you're used to. "

I find the carelessness with which we throw around the word "need" troubling. What does it mean to "need" something, and how can you "need" better performance in an SUV? A need or necessity is something that cannot be done without; surely an SUV's "innovative engineering" doesn't rise to this standard.

And I'm not just pointing out GMC's semantic liberty for the sheer heck of it. I think that our perceptions of our own "needs" is perhaps the greatest barrier to our living the other-centered life Jesus calls us to live.

Its much tougher to help others when doing so means giving up something that we believe we can't live without. Thus, our perception of what it is we need is critically important. The market -- the sellers of cars and cellphones and happy meals -- has an interest in making us believe we "need" more and more things. If we believe we can't do without a cell phone, then we are very likely to buy one....

What's more, society actually organizes itself so as to make new things, if not strictly necessary, then pretty close to it. Practically nobody owned a car 100 years ago. But can you imagine holding down a job in most places in this country without one? Cities -- divided into residential, commercial, and industrial zones and spread out over tens of miles -- have developed on the assumption of automobile ownership.

Market-based economies, then, produce two things in great abundance: goods and needs (real and imagined).

So let's be vigilant and not let television commercials and billboards tell us what we need. Let's keep our perspective and remember that even without a cellphone or GMC's innovative design, we live more luxurious lives than the kings and queens of 300 years ago. By keeping our perception of our own needs down, we open ourselves up to fulfilling the needs of others.