Saturday, April 30, 2005

Gay Rights Movement Increasingly Conceptualized as Struggle for Equality

In Lawrence v. Texas, the Supreme Court held anti-sodomy laws unconstitutional. It rested its conclusion (at least formally) on privacy rights. In pedestrian terms, the Court held that the government has no business in your bedroom. This view of Gay Rights sees the struggle as being about the liberty of people to have sex with whoever they want, however they want.

It seems to me that this view of Gay Rights is both easier for the Right to oppose and less persuasive on the merits than the alternative vision of Gay Rights. A second vision of Gay rights sees the struggle - not as an heir to the privacy rights of Griswold and Roe - but as an heir to the equality rights of Brown and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Anecdotal evidence suggests to me:

(1) that the Gay Rights struggle is increasingly being conceptualized in terms of equality,
(2) that the articulation of the equality argument is becoming increasingly powerful, and
(3) that the Right will soon find itself facing stunning defeats on the issue because of 1 and 2.

Two recent events prompt these observations.

First, as many are no doubt aware, Connecticut passed a Civil Unions law last week. It became the first state to do so without any judicial prompting. Most interesting to me, was Republican Governor Jodi Rell's justification for signing the law. At the signing ceremony, Rell explained, "I have said all along that I believe in no discrimination of any kind and I think that this bill accomplishes that...."

Rell might have said that people should have the liberty to partner with whoever they want. Instead, however, she indicated that the bill was necessary to avoid "discrimination" -- to "accomplish" equality. In emphasing her opposition to discrimination "of any kind," Rell implicitly linked the Gay Rights struggle to the struggles for racial and gender equality. Admittedly, this was not a complete victory, and Rell also applauded, paradoxically, that the law "preserv[ed] the traditional language" of marriage. Nevertheless, to hear the language of equality coming from a Republican - even a moderate Republican - was indeed extraordinary.

I believe that Rell's statement demonstrates that homosexuals' claims to be heirs of the Civil Rights movement are becoming increasingly difficult to deny. This fact really "hit" me this week when I received the passionate public statement of Eric Berndt.

Mr. Berndt, an NYU law student, gained the applause of some and the condemnation of many two weeks ago when he asked conservative Justice Antonin Scalia an inflammatory question after a speech he gave at the law school. During a discussion about Scalia's dissent in Lawrence v. Texas, Berndt asked the Justice, "Do you sodomize your wife?" Scalia, whose wife was in attendance, responded that "the question was unworthy of an answer."

Recently, Mr. Berndt wrote the following in response to his critics:

As the student who asked Justice Scalia about his sexual conduct, I am [writing] to explain why I believe I had a right to confront Justice Scalia in the manner I did Tuesday, why any gay or sympathetic person has that same right. It should be clear that I intended to be offensive, obnoxious, and inflammatory. There is a time to discuss and there are times when acts and opposition are necessary. Debate is useless when one participant denies the full dignity of the other. How am I to docilely engage a man who sarcastically rants about the "beauty of homosexual relationships" (at the Q&A) and believes that gay school teachers will try to convert children to a homosexual lifestyle (at oral argument for Lawrence)?

Although my question was legally relevant, as I explain below, an independent motivation for my speech-act was to simply subject a homophobic government official to the same indignity to which he would subject millions of gay Americans. It was partially a naked act of resistance and a refusal to be silenced. I wanted to make him and everyone in the room aware of the dehumanizing effect of trivializing such an important relationship. Justice Scalia has no pity for the millions of gay Americans on whom sodomy laws and official homophobia have such an effect, so it is difficult to sympathize with his brief moment of "humiliation," as some have called it. The fact that I am a law student and Scalia is a Supreme Court Justice does not require me to circumscribe my justified opposition and outrage within the bounds of jurisprudential discourse.

Law school and the law profession do not negate my identity as a member of an oppressed minority confronting injustice. Even so, I did have a legal point: Justice Kennedy's majority opinion in Lawrence asked whether criminalizing homosexual conduct advanced a state interest "which could justify the intrusion into the personal and private life of the individual." Scalia did not answer this question in his dissent because he believed the state need only assert a legitimate interest to defeat non-fundamental liberties. I basically asked him this question again - it is now the law of the land. He said he did not know whether the interest was significant enough. I then asked him if he sodomizes his wife to subject his intimate relations to the scrutiny he cavalierly would allow others - by force, if necessary. Everyone knew at that moment how significant the interest is. Beyond exerting official power against homosexuals, Scalia is an outspoken and high-profile homophobe. After the aforementioned sarcastic remarks about gay people's relationships, can anyone doubt how little respect he has for LGBT Americans? Even if no case touching gay rights ever came before him, his comments from the bench (that employment non-discrimination is some kind of "homosexual agenda," etc.) and within our very walls are unacceptable to any self-respecting gay person or principled opponent of discrimination. The idea that I should have treated a man with such repugnant views with deference because he is a high government official evinces either a dangerously un-American acceptance of authority or insensitivity to the gay community's grievances. Friends have forwarded me emails complaining of the "liberal" student who asked "the question." That some of my classmates are shallow and insensitive enough to conceptualize my complaint as mere partisan politics is disheartening. Though I should not have to, I will share with everyone that I am neither a Democrat nor Republican and do not consider myself a "liberal" except in the classical sense. I hope that we can separate a simple demand for equality under the law and outrage over being denied it from so much dogmatic ideological baggage. LGBT Americans are still a persecuted minority and our struggle for equal rights is still vital. 4 out of 5 LGBT kids are harassed in school - tell them to debate their harassers. Suicide rates for them are much higher than for others. We still cannot serve in the military, have little protection from employment and other forms of discrimination, and are denied the 1000+ benefits that accrue from official recognition of marriage. I know some who support gay rights oppose my question and our protest. Do not presume to tell me when and with how much urgency to stand up for our rights.

I am 17 months out of a lifelong closet and have lost too much time to heterosexist hegemony to tolerate those who say, as Dr. King put it, "just wait." If you cannot stomach a breach of decorum when justified outrage erupts then your support is nearly worthless anyway. At least do not allow yourselves to become complicit in discrimination by demanding obedience from its victims. Many of our classmates chose NYU over higher-ranked schools because of our reputation as a "private university in the public service" and our commitment to certain values. We were the first law school to require that employers pledge not to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. Of Scalia's law schools that have "signed on to the homosexual agenda," our signature stands out like John Hancock's. We won a federal injunction in the FAIR litigation as an "expressive association" that counts acceptance of sexual orientation as a core value. Those who worry about our school's prestige should remember how we got here and consider whether flattering those who mock what we believe and are otherwise willing to fight for appears prestigious or pathetic. We protestors did not embarrass NYU, Scalia embarrassed NYU. We stood up to a bigot for the values that make NYU more than a great place to learn the law. I repeat my willingess to discuss this issue calmly with anyone who respects my identity as a gay man. I have had many productive talks with classmates since [the incident,] and I hope that will continue.

Eric Berndt


(No, I haven't forgotten that I've a promised a discussion of the Supreme Court's Commercial Speech doctrine, there are just too many other important things that keep coming up!)

Friday, April 29, 2005

Hooray for Methodists!

The United Methodist Church reversed itself Friday, deciding to reinstate a lesbian minister who was defrocked after revealing her relationship with another woman.

A church panel voted 8 to 1 to set aside an earlier decision to defrock Irene "Beth" Stroud for violating the church's ban on openly gay clergy.
"The church is not free to disregard the standards of justice and inclusiveness that are preached by Jesus Christ ... and are a part of church law," Stroud said after church authorities read their decision at a hotel.

"The ruling gives us hope that the United Methodist Church has the resources to do justice," she said.

Defending Defenders

This observation from Tigerknight over at Donzelion Dissents:

Who better reflects a Christian model than a criminal defense attorney, sacrificing heart, soul, time, reputation - even for the unlovable, guilty human beings?
I would say that the public defender reflects a Christian model even better than the private criminal defense attorney. She does all of the above things and additionally sacrifices salary (and more reputation) in order to defend the poor.

Meanwhile in Texas...

While the Texas Legislature spends its time worrying about gay foster parents and online lotto sales, a new report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has found that Texas leads the nation in the number of uninsured adult workers - 27% of Texas workers have no health insurance.

Let me be clear: more than 1 in 4 of those people actively working to make their lives better have no health insurance. As someone that has recently become acutely aware of how important health insurance is, I am flabbergasted. How can our elected representatives continue to waste time on marginal issues while so many of us are just one major illness away from destitution?

The time to act is now. How many more must suffer before we force our representatives to take notice?

An Immoral Document

Yesterday, the Republican Congress approved a budget that cuts spending on Medicaid for the poor by billions of dollars, freezes educational spending, and makes the Bush tax cuts for wealthy permanent. Democrats unanimously opposed the radical measures -"[t]he vote was 214-211 in the House and 52-47 in the Senate." President Bush firmly endorsed the wholly partisan measure. In considering your vote in the 2006 election, consider whether this budget reflects your moral priorities.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Thursday's Texas Trio

In the spirit of today's look at Texas...

ODESSA, Texas (AP) -- The school board in the West Texas town of Odessa voted unanimously to add a Bible class to its high school curriculum.
Check out the article on CNN.

For starters, lets assume away all constitutional objections to this happening. (To pass constitutional muster, other courses - near Eastern religions, Hinduism, etc - would likely also have to be offered as electives, as they are in state universities across the country.)

From my own personal experience, "Bible" courses are great. In college, it was my "Hebrew Scriptures" and "New Testament" courses that first made me question whether or not the Bible fell from heaven - i.e. was the infallible word of God - or was in fact written by men and accumulated over time. This was definitely a turning point in my religious life - in no other setting had I ever been exposed to the idea that the Bible could be anything other than divinely inspired truth.

Coming from this background, I am not so quick to dismiss this course as bible-beaters trying to sneak "Christianity" into the public school system. Granted, that could be exactly what is going on here...

That aside, I believe that a historical look at the Bible can do students a lot of good, especially if it is offering them a perspective unlikely to be heard via their local pulpits. While offering a Bible-only course smacks of religious favoritism and risks being nothing more than Bible-study on campus, I do think there is a need for a discussion of religious philosophies and texts within the public school system. I challenege Odessa I.S.D. to put their money where their mouths are: give us religious discourse in the public schools in an even-handed (and constitutional) way. You might just be surprised at what you find.

Besides, aren't true Christians ones that choose the faith as their own, not ones that have it shoved down their throats their whole lives?

Houston, we Have a Problem

Houston Bans Offensive Odors in Libraries

Those who want to browse books at Houston's public libraries should get enough sleep, eat and bathe before they begin to peruse the shelves.

On Wednesday, the City Council passed a series of library regulations that some say are an attempt to discourage homeless people from visiting the public buildings.

What Would Jesus Do? Would the man who embraced lepers, called the poor blessed, and ate with prostitutes support a regulation that has the effect of banning "the least" from a public place? Oh how we compartmentalize the man we call Lord....

Texas to Ban Gay Foster Parents?

Texas is poised to become the only state in the nation to ban gay foster parents. The bill would require potential foster parents to declare their sexuality on official forms and would remove children from homes of parents later found to be homosexual.

The most disturbing aspect of this bill is that its proponents are pursuing their anti-gay agenda at the expense of children's best interest: a stable home -- any stable home. According to Texas social worker Eva Thibaudeau, Texas is already "facing an ongoing crisis of not having enough resources to take care of foster children."

I am pro-family. Texas Republicans are pro-heterosexuality. There is a difference.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

The Real Threat to Religious Expression, Prologue

The tale I tell is one of woe --
of a truth once exhalted, but now laid low,
of an activist Court that lost its way,
and far from the founders its doctrine did stray.
And in its zealous, hasty crusade,
Religious expression it did degrade....

What's that you say?
You know this tale well?
Of crèches?
Of school prayers expelled?
No, dear friend, it is not these things
that my tragedy, to your attention, brings.

My tale of woe is so much richer --
of ambulance chasers and venders of liquor.
How generations of judges -- five, seven and nine --
built a Tower of Babel that scoundrels could climb:
a doctrine that held the commercial sublime,
a doctrine that conflated profane and Divine.

Note: subsequent posts in this series will not be in verse =)

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Time to Chart a New Criminal Justice Course

According to a report released by the U.S. government today, the nation's prisons and jails now hold 2.1 million people: 1 in every 138 people in this country. The government also reported that the prison population is growing by over 900 persons every week. The AP reports that the United States already imprisons more people per capita than any country on earth. And, of course, the United States is the only developed country other than Japan with capital punishment. (And it executes six times as many people per capita as Japan.)

These statistics may come as a shock to many. It is indeed shocking to learn that our nation has one of the most severe criminal justice systems in the world. Shouldn't this be morally arresting to those of us who count ourselves as Christian?

The essence of the Social Gospel is the belief that Jesus' ethic of agape -- of unconditional, active, self-effacing love -- applies not just to our private lives, but to our social structures as well. Adherants to the Social Gospel acknowledge that agape is important in our day-to-day lives but believe that mainline Protestants have wrongly deemphasized agape's role in Christian politics.

It seems clear to me that the United States' criminal justice system does not reflect agape. A system that destroys so many lives and that directly takes so many others reflects retribution (or, less euphemistically, vengeance). The problem with our criminal justice system is not that capital punishment is unjustifiably expensive (which it is) or that three-strikes and determinate sentencing laws are inefficient deterrence mechanisms (which they are). The problem is that our entire penalogical paradigm is simply and profoundly immoral.

The President talks of overhauling the tax system, of overhauling social security. If this new interest in Christian politics is indeed more than skin deep, then we must overhaul our criminal justice system. We must chart an entirely new course. It is time to critically consider what a criminal justice system -- niether based on "efficient deterrence" nor on retribution -- but on agape would look like.

First, how might agape frame our social response to criminals? A criminal system based upon agape-love would not require that anyone feel affection, passion or any other such emotion for those who commit acts of violence or otherwise contravene our society's most fundamental rules. Agape is more active than emotive. We may be justifiably outraged at criminal conduct. But if we are to agape criminals (and Jesus tells us that we are to agape everyone, including our enemies and the least), then we must not act out in vengeance. Vengeance is, in truth, the polar opposite of agape. And if our criminal system is to agape criminals, then it too must not act out of vengeance. In other words, retribution is out.

But this does not mean that all coercion is out. It just means that the coercion is for a different purpose. If our criminal justice system were to agape criminals, then it would begin with different questions. It would ask, "what is wrong with this person?" and "how can we help?" In other words, if we are to socially give of ourselves in the criminal justice context, then we must not only forsake social vengeance, we must also commit our tax dollars to rehabilitation: to long-term substance abuse treatment programs, intensive psychological counseling, and serious vocational training.

Second, how might agape frame our social response to victims? Agape, in all of its beautiful difficulty, requires that we deny victims' seemingly righteous demands for social vengeance, retribution, or -- as the same thing is often called in popular culture -- "justice." If vengeance is justice, then agape requires that we redefine justice in the criminal context. We should give victims true justice by helping them heal. We acknowledge that they have been wronged and, again, we must give of ourselves in terms of tax dollars to support medical, psychological and financial welfare programs that try -- however modestly -- to make victims and their families whole again.

It is easy to object that many victims and families can never really be made whole again. This is too true, but it proves too much. As many victims have discovered, seeing their violators punished not only fails to make them whole, it fails to help at all. Social programs specifically designed to help victims heal -- while they cannot reverse an assault, rape or murder -- can have a true, deep, positive impact.

In short, an agape-centered criminal justice system would seek to heal both criminal and victim. Our current criminal justice system fails to do either.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Setting the Record Straight on "Justice Sunday"

This Sunday evening the Senate Majority Leader, Republican Bill Frist, will participate in a telecast designed to reach millions of people through their churches. The telecast, prepared by the Family Research Council, is designed to show that Democrats are blocking religious judicial nominees because they are "against people of faith."

I agree with 42 that this tactic is simply disgusting on its face. With analysis of the facts, though, the charge that Democrats have blocked "people of faith" can be shown - not only disgusting - but also a flat out lie.

If the Democrats have been blocking "people of faith," then one would expect few, if any, of the judges approved by the Senate under the Bush administration to be religious people. So let's test this hypothesis. For the purposes of brevity, I'll confine my analysis to the most singificant appointments: Court of Appeals judges (who sit just below the United States Supreme Court on the judicial hierarchy). There have been 34 of these powerful jurists confirmed by the Senate - i.e., not blocked by the Democrats - under Bush's tenure. Are any of them "people of faith"?


Through two websites -- the Almanac of the Federal Judiciary and Courting Influence -- I have been able to obtain the Senate Biographical Questionnaires filed by 32 of these 34 judges pending their confirmation. 18 of the confirmed 32 judges disclosed public ties to religious groups. For many, faith has clearly played a critical role in their lives. They are listed in alphabetical order:

(1) Judge Carlos Bea, Ninth Circuit COA. Judge Bea is a Catholic who served on the Parish and Advisory Councils of his Church, St. Vincent de Paul in San Francisco from 1990 to 1996.

(2) Judge William Benton, Eighth Circuit COA: Judge Benton has been a Deacon and trustee of the First Baptist Church of Jefferson City, MO since 1990. He is also a member of the Missouri Baptist Convention’s Committee on Continuing Review (1993-96 and 2003 – present).

(3) Judge Jay Scott, Ninth Circuit COA: Judge Scott is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

(4) Judge Richard Clifton, Ninth Circuit COA: Judge Clifton described himself as “personally active” in his local United Church of Christ – the Central Union Church.

(5) Judge Steven Colloton, Eighth Circuit COA: Judge Colloton is not only a member of the St. Augustine Catholic Church in Des Moines Iowa -- he also sings in the choir and is a “Perpetual Adoration worshipper.”

(6) Judge Julia Gibbons, Sixth Circuit COA: Judge Gibbons is an Elder in the Idlewild Presbyterian Church.

(7) Judge Roger Gregory, Fourth Circuit COA: Judge Gregory has served on the Board of Directors of the Christian Children’s fund since 1997 and has been Vice Chair of the organization since 1999.

(8) Judge Raymond Gruender, Eighth Circuit COA: Judge Greunder is a member of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church.

(9) Judge Peter Hall, Second Circuit COA: Judge Hall was employed by the Trinity Episcopal Church from 1986-1989 as “Member of Vestry and Senior Warden," and he is a current member of same church.

(10) Judge Harris Hartz, Tenth Circuit COA : Judge Hartz is a member of “Congregation Albert,” New Mexico’s “oldest continuing Reform Jewish Institution.”

(11) Judge Michael McConnell, Tenth Circuit COA: Judge McConnel is a member of the Evangelical Free Church of Salt Lake City. He is also a member of the Christian Legal Society and serves on the National Council of Church’s Committee on Religious Liberty and on the Board of Advisors for the Religious Freedom Reporter. Judge McConnell has published frequently on Religion and the Law and written articles titled: “Believers as Equal Citizens,” “The Problem of Singling out Religion,” “Five Reasons to Reject the Claim that Religious Arguments Should be Excluded from Democratic Deliberation,” “Equal Treatment and Religious Discrimination,” “God is Dead and We Have Killed Him!,” “Taking Religious Freedoms Seriously,” “For the Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” and “Christ, Culture, and Courts.”

(12) Judge Michael Mellow, Eighth Circuit COA: Judge Mellow spent most of his law practice representing religious organizations. In describing his “typical former clients,” Mellow listed four “typical former clients in the non-profit sector,” and all four were religious organizations: (i) Sisters of the Presentation Religious Order, (ii) Archdiocese of Dubuque, (iii) Wahlert High School (a private Christian high School), and (iv) the Church of the Resurrection. Mellow listed only two clients in the profit sector.

(13) Judge Reena Raggi, Second Circuit COA: Judge Raggi stated in her Senate Questionnaire: “Since graduation from college, I have belonged to the parishes of a number of neighborhood Catholic churches. My present parish is Church of the Assumption, Brooklyn, NY."

(14) Judge Brooks Smith, Third Circuit COA: Judge Brooks is a member of the Saint Thomas More Society – “an association of Catholic lawyers organized to strengthen the religious…commitment of its members [and to] encourage[] attorneys and their families, friends and associates to learn about, and from, Saint Thomas More--husband and father, lawyer, statesman, scholar, author, martyr for the Faith, and Patron Saint of government officials and politicians.” Judge Smith was awarded the “Prince Gallitrin Cross" in 2000 by the Bishop of his Church “in recognition of service to the Church of Altoona-Johnstown Diocese.” Smith has served on the Board of Directors of Saint Francis University since 1990 and is a member of a social group called the “Amen Corner.”

(15) Judge Lavenski Smith, Eighth Circuit COA: Judge Smith is a member of the Mission Blvd Baptist Church in Fayetteville, AR. He worked for three years as an Assistant Professor at John Brown University – a private Christian college who’s motto is “Christ Over All.” Finally, Smith served as a mediator through an alternative dispute resolution service called the Northwest Arkansas Christian Justice Center.

(16) Judge Jeffrey Sutton, Sixth Circuit COA: Judge Sutton is a member of Broad Street Presbyterian Church.

(17) Judge Diane Sykes, Seventh Circuit COA: Judge Sykes is a member of St. James Catholic Church. She is also active in the “Dismas Ministry” which she defined as “an archdiocesan ministry that distributes Bibles and serves the spiritual needs of prison inmates.”

(18) Judge Timothy Tymkovich, Tenth Circuit COA: Judge Tymkovich is a member of the Lutheran Church of Hope.

There are several things to remember about these examples of avowedly religious judges confirmed by the Senate. First, since faith is often a private thing, the 18 out of 32 figure is likely to substantially understate the number of "people of faith" who have been approved as Court of Appeals judges. Second, these examples have been drawn only from Court of Appeals judges. There is surely just as significant an amount of religious devotion among the hundreds of District Court judges the Senate has confirmed. Yet, even this small sample shows that the Senate has confirmed (without filabuster) Jews, Catholics and Protestants of all stripes. It shows that the Senate has confirmed Deacons, Elders, choir members, religious apologists, Christian activists and administrators of Christian charities.

It is true that the Democrats have blocked 10 of Bush's judicial nominees. Whether or not this is right, wrong, good strategy or bad strategy, unprecedented or otherwise is not the issue here. My only point is that, whatever the reason these nominees have been blocked, it is not due to their religious convictions. Indeed, even Leftist propaganda sites (PFAW for example) - designed to convince the die-hard Left to oppose nominees - never mention religious connection as a reason. PFAW cites things like inexperience (one nominee has never tried a case) and, of course, conservative "judicial activism" -- hostility to things like employment discrimination laws and the environment. Undoubtedly, some of the blocked judges are "people of faith," but they have been blocked for their politics, not for their religion.

And I think the GOP knows this. The Republic Party is certainly aware of the myriad confirmed religious judges I've discussed above. But they think they can score political points with Christians by scaring them -- by telling them, once again, that they are under attack.

Senator Frist, you should be ashamed of yourself.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Ratzinger is a Missed Opportunity

With due respect to all Catholics (and others) excited by the election of a new pontiff, I am tremendously disappointed at the choice of Ratzinger. I am disappointed on at least two fronts.

First, Ratzinger is an extreme conservative with the wrong priorities:

On Monday, Ratzinger, who was the powerful dean of the College of Cardinals, used his homily at the Mass dedicated to electing the next pope to warn the faithful about tendencies that he considered dangers to the faith: sects, ideologies like Marxism, liberalism, atheism, agnosticism and relativism....


I was hoping for a Pope that would be at least as concerned with defending "the least" as he is with defending the faith. Ratzinger obviously sees threats to orthodoxy as the great modern challenge. The tremendous social injustices and inequities which plague the modern world must be seen as at least as great a threat to Christianity as heterodoxy.

Second, I believe the Catholic Church missed an opportunity to position itself as truly "catholic," in the original meaning of that word: "universal." With the election of a pope from the Third World, the Catholic hierarchy could have clearly positioned itself as truly global - as representing the entire world, including "the least" - and not just white Europeans.

All of this being said - and for the only time - let us now pray earnestly for Pope Benedict XVI. Let us pray that he is guided by the Holy Spirit to concern himself as much with the tragic poverty of the Third World as with sexual practices and orthodoxy.

New Pope elected!

I gotta say, this is exciting. Imagine the power that it would have on the world if an African or Latin American Pope came to the window...

Well, maybe next time. This one - Pope Benedict XVI - is 78 years old after all.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Quote of the Day

Can you imagine an American President saying this:
The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.
Franklin D. Roosevelt

Friday, April 15, 2005

Justice Sunday.

It appears that the Republican's shameless tactics of exploiting their religious right base have hit a new low: Justice Sunday. This from the NY Times:
As the Senate heads toward a showdown over the rules governing judicial confirmations, Senator Bill Frist, the majority leader, has agreed to join a handful of prominent Christian conservatives in a telecast portraying Democrats as "against people of faith" for blocking President Bush's nominees.

Fliers for the telecast, organized by the Family Research Council and scheduled to originate at a Kentucky megachurch the evening of April 24, call the day "Justice Sunday" and depict a young man holding a Bible in one hand and a gavel in the other. The flier does not name participants, but under the heading "the filibuster against people of faith," it reads: "The filibuster was once abused to protect racial bias, and it is now being used against people of faith."

Organizers say they hope to reach more than a million people by distributing the telecast to churches around the country, over the Internet and over Christian television and radio networks and stations.

Check out their advertisement and pitch. This is absolutely disgusting. The politics of division, hate, and misrepresentation have gone too far. Do we really think that this is something Jesus would stand for? It's time for all people of faith to stand together and recognize that there are more ways to worship God that those exploited for political gain by the Republican Party.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

A lesson on "spin"

I haven't read this article yet, but by the headline on I get the feeling that I already know what it has to say: Americans Spend 6.6 Billion Hours Doing Taxes.

That's a bold headline. It makes one think, "dang, we sure do waste a lot of time figuring out our taxes. You know, we really ought to make it easier..."

But the secret to spin is what the reader does not hear. How many hours a year do Americans spend going to baseball games? Checking email? Sitting on their butts and watching mindless television? I bet those numbers are MUCH greater than 6.6 billion annually, but where is any mention of them in the article?

So what's the big deal? Well, if the average reader is anything like me, they probably don't get around to reading too many full articles, opting instead for the quick headlines. And if people don't realize that headlines are more than just mere summaries - they are in fact one individual's opinion - there's going to be a lot of shallow thinking going on out there. So wake up America: don't be fooled into reading just the headlines, give the whole article a once over. Don't just trust someone else's judgment - think for yourself.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

A Culture of Life!

Heartening signs today that the "culture of life" slogan may be taking politics to places that the Right never intended.

New York's legislature refused to reinstate its death penalty after the state's highest court held this June that procedural aspects of New York's decade-old death penalty statute made it unconstitutional. The New York Times reports:

Democrats in the State Assembly closed the door today on reviving the death penalty in New York State this year, handing a significant victory to groups that are trying to build national momentum against capital punishment.

Jim Wallis writes that truly Christian politicians will promote "a consistent ethic of life" that includes abolishing the death penalty: "I am against the death penalty in principle. We simply should not kill to show we are against killing."

The death penalty, says Wallis, "just satisfies revenge," which is certainly not a Christian value. New York's vote gives me hope that this renewed interest in Christian politics is more than just skin deep....

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Cool Under Fire or Just Out of Touch?

AP: Bush Indifferent Over Falling Poll Numbers

The public's dissatisfaction with President Bush and the Republican-led Congress is growing, with ratings dropping amid record high gas prices, war in Iraq, the Social Security debate and the emotional Terri Schiavo case. The Republican president's job approval is at 44 percent, with 54 percent disapproving. Only 37 percent have a favorable opinion of the work being done by Congress, according to an AP-Ipsos poll.
The president was asked Friday about his falling ratings in some polls, and he claimed indifference. "Some of them were going up the other day," he responded as he flew back from Rome on Air Force One. "You can find them going up and you can find them going down. You can pretty much find out what you want in polls is my point."

Friday, April 08, 2005

The Bible and Jury Deliberations

My buddy 42 sent me this article about two weeks ago. On March 28, the Colorado Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of an accused rapist and murderer because the jury consulted the Bible during its deliberations.

Although this story is two weeks old, I think that it is still relevant for comment. It represents one of the many events that have become part of popular Christian consciousness and contribute to many Christians' feelings that the dominant culture is aggressively secular: hostile to religion and morality in general and to Christianity in particular.

Focus on the Family's response to the ruling is typical:

"Today's ruling further confirms that the judicial branch of our government is nearly bereft of any moral foundation," said Tom Minnery, the group's vice president for government and public policy.

But such a response to the ruling represents a fundamental misunderstanding of what happened, an ignorance of the law which (for a big and well-funded group like Focus on the Family) is at least negligent.

The jury's sentence was not set aside because the jurors consulted the Bible, but because they consulted anything beyond the evidence presented at trial and the judge's instructions. Almost fifty years ago, the United States Supreme Court held that a criminal jury's verdict must be based on evidence received in open court and not on any outside sources. Marshall v. United States, 360 U.S. 310 (1959). Indeed, the Colorado Supreme Court's opinion made clear that its holding had nothing to do with the religious nature of the text and instead was merely one application of the broad principle that prevents the jury from considering any "extraneous prejudicial texts." State v. Harlan at 16. The result would have been the same if the jury had consulted a book of philosophy, a scientific textbook or a newspaper article. The jury isn't even allowed to use a dictionary! See United States v. Gillespie, 61 F.3d 457 (6th Cir. 1995).

So, the Colorado Supreme Court's ruling has everything to do with the structure of our legal system and nothing to do with the Bible. The role of the jury is to find the facts based on the evidence and apply the law as it is given to them by the judge. This reflects the judgment, not that the Bible is irrelevant to lawmaking, but the judgment that lawmaking is properly done at the legislative level and not by the jury. The decision has nothing to do with Church and State and everything to do with the rule of law. To illustrate: there is no rule, of course, against judges or senators consulting the Bible.

Conclusion: this is one of several non-events that the Right has misrepresented and used to persuade Christians that they are under attack. Christians are thereby distracted from parts of the Right's program - e.g., its favoring of the rich over the poor - that are clearly unChristian.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

A Latin-American Pope?

I hope the college of cardinals selects a Latino as the next pope.

Why? I think that Jazmin Gomez, store worker in Santiago, Chile says it best: "our Lord was from the poor and the poor are here."

See this Reuters article, Latin Americans Hope Next Pope Is One of Their Own.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Last Theology Post for a While

Marcus, of a Green Conservatism, made some thought-provoking comments to my constitutional interpretation and biblical authority series that I think worthy of disccusion here, in my last "theology" post for a while. I may be breaking this down wrong, but I thought that he raised at least three really interesting questions.

1. Shouldn't we just admit that most biblical interpretation is disingenuous and stop trying to find the "right" answer? Marcus writes:

Would it be hopelessly graceless to agree that biblical interpretation is like consititutional interpretation in two respects: first, that it is almost all of it dishonest; and, second, that almost nobody wants it to be otherwise?

Hint: I think the Paleocons are right on the Constitution and am quite delighted there is slight chance any court will ever see it, or say it, their way.

Our interpretation of Christianity, of Jesus' Message, of God's Will - or however you want to put it - can never be justifiably dishonest. The interpretation of the Constitution may be justifiably dishonest because a judge may reasonably conclude that there are more important values that effectuating the intent of imperfect men who lived centuries ago. E.g., maybe the founders thought segregation was o.k., but we don't, and who cares if we violate some sort of social contract in order to further this matter of fundamental justice. On the other hand, Jesus' Message is a divine Message. By definition, there is no other value that could possibly trump honestly understanding His divine message and carrying out His divine Will.

2. Marcus argues that it "is apt to be unhandy" to confine ourselves to Jesus' Message alone because it is "hopelessly cryptic" and that it is quite convenient for a liberal to "cut[] the rug out from under Paul" given the conservative political positions many have derived from his writings.

The more I study Paul - and this is an ongoing study and revision of my own thinking - the more I start to realize that I don't so much object to his politics. Paul was quite the progressive for his time. My objection to Paul goes more to his theology and philosophy than anything else. Furthermore, my objection is not so much to Paul personally but to what he represents. I believe that things got terrifically confused as Jesus' Message moved from Palestine to the larger Greco-Roman world and as it moved from Aramaic to Greek. The Hellenistic Early Church mixed Jesus' simple but divine Message with Greek theosophy: with platonic categories and with pagan mystery cult myths.

Thus, my contention is that it is the Hellenistic mutations of Jesus' Message which are confusing and not the original Message. (This rant is continued underneath question 3.)

3. Marcus asks, "What kind of Christology can accommodate your relative de-sacralization (not really the right word, but what the heck?) of the OT? Much of the NT, after all, including the gospels, is quite emphatic on Jesus as fulfilling OT prophecy. Can you make much of that while making so little of the authority of the OT text?"

Perhaps I have been too "hard" on the OT. I do believe that Jesus fulfilled OT prophecy. Jesus did turn the world upside down as Isaiah predicted, and he did so by bringing the quite unexpected divine Truth to the tense, contested terrain of 1st century Judaism.

Jesus preached a simple yet profound Truth. Our right relationship with God was not to be obtained through animal sacrifice and Temple rituals, as the Sadducees would have it. Nor was it to be obtained through fulfilling dietary laws and holiness codes to the nth degree, as the Pharisees would have it. Nor was it to be obtained through ascetic separatism and withdrawal from the world as the Essenes would have it. Nor was it to be obtained through violent revolution as the Zealots would have it. No, our salvation lay in none of these things. Instead, it lay in two fundamental relationships: our relationship with God and our relationship with others. In order to "get right" with God we must adopt a stance of active, self-giving love (agape) towards God and to others. In this -- and not in sacrifice, puritanism, separation or revolution -- lay our salvation. Jesus is, in other words, the ultimate fulfillment of the OT and OT law. Jesus' Message was a "back to basics" Gospel that even "the least" could understand. As I have said many times before, it is not understanding Jesus' Message, but living it, which is the real challenge.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Barbecue solves everything?

I'm not one to post full articles here, but I couldn't pass this one up. Its subject is family barbecues, but I think it could equally apply to communion at church, with friends or even - dare I say it - complete strangers.

Eat Together, Talk Together, and End the Violence
By: Dawn McMullan (freelance writer)
From: The Dallas Morning News, April 5th, 2005

Want to know why kids are killing each other at school? It's not because there are too many guns (although I'd certainly like to see them off the streets). It's not because kids are watching movies about school shootings. It's not because they're playing Grand Theft Auto.

It's because there aren't enough family barbecues.

Why aren't we as outraged about the recent shootings in Minnesota as we were with Columbine? Why are we becoming more like Israel in our acceptance of violence and less like, say, Sweden?

Same reason. It's all about the barbecue.

The fact that a teenage kid can get to the point where he brings a gun to school, shoots another person and another and another, then shoots himself, means that kid wasn't going to any family barbecues. That boy's family – be it over a smoker in small-town Texas or a reservation in Minnesota – should know what's going on inside his head. A child bringing a gun to school is not the first symptom that something is going wrong in that child's life. It certainly often is the last, however.

My father-in-law was part of the family barbecue tradition here in Texas. Several times a year, he'd fire up the barrel smoker, invite his family and friends over whenever they wanted to arrive and spend the evening eating a bunch of meat, drinking a fair amount of beer, laughing and talking with those closest to him. At the end of the evening, everyone smelled a little smokey and had told just about all they had to tell about their life and what was going on in the world.

My father-in-law died eight years ago. But my husband's brother, who still lives in our hometown of Waxahachie, carries on the barbecue tradition every now and then.

About a month ago – with sick kids, deadlines I didn't think I could meet and our school's largest annual fund-raiser to plan – I had a craving for one of those barbecues. And not a carnivorous craving. A social craving. Lucky for me, some cousins came into town, and we spent a recent Friday night inhaling that smoke and catching up.

Maybe this is a simplistic view of how to turn around our increasingly violent and apathetic society. But I don't see bad parents at these barbecues. I see parents I don't always agree with. Parents who raise their children differently than I do. Parents with whom I differ on politics, religion, even whether we should be eating that meat on the smoker.

But I see parents. With their children. I see grandparents. With their children. I see aunts and uncles. With their children. I see friends. With their children. I see a yard full of people who would know a child well enough to see – and do something about – that first sign of trouble. Because that's when we, as a society, can do something about it. It's too late when it hits the news. Kids are dead.

We are headed down a road of more school shootings that we will be less shocked by. The road we should be headed down is one that includes more family barbecues.

You name any one of our infamous list of school shooters. If you had dropped them into my father-in-law's family – or another family where parents knew their children and extended family knew those children, and where family was the most important part of the day – these kids would not be dead.

It's all about the barbecue.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Love for the Poor

"The poor constitute the modern challenge, especially for the well-off of our planet, where millions of people live in inhuman conditions and many are literally dying of hunger. It is not possible to announce God the Father to these brothers and sisters without taking on the responsibility of building a more just society in the name of Christ."

Preferential Love for the Poor, John Paul II, 1999

Saturday, April 02, 2005

John Paul II

We at the Social Gospel Today mourn the passing of Pope John Paul II.

This statement by the United Church of Christ sums up my feelings on the matter. He was a man of peace, who loved so much and who was so much beloved.

I agree with Chuck Currie that Beliefnet's coverage of the Pope's life, his death, and what is to come next for the Catholic Church is the best.