Levellers

Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

GOP: Racist?

You know the world is a strange place when Fmr. House Speaker Newt Gingrich warns the Republicans that they are looking racist.  After all, Gingrich has been guilty of plenty of racial demogoguery in his career.  What’s next?  Lessons in racial sensitivity from Lee Atwater (who created the infamous Willie Horton ad for George H. W. Bush’s presidential campaign against Michael Dukakis)?  Or frmr Sen. George Allen (R-VA) of “Hello, Macaca” infamy? Isn’t having Newt Gingrich warn you about appearing racially insensitive somewhat like Bill Clinton giving seminars on marital fidelity in the face of temptation or Tony Blair speak on how best to demonstrate that Britain isn’t under the U.S. thumb?

This all started, of course, when the top GOP presidential candidates refused to have a “debate” hosted on Univision, the most watched Spanish-language TV channel in the U.S.  The event had to be cancelled, although the Democrats had already gone to such an event.  Then, after the Democrats appeared at several mostly African-American fora, especially one at the historic Howard University in Washington, D.C., the G.O.P. candidates refused to go to a similar event at Morgan State University (another historic African-American university in Maryland) scheduled for 27 September to be hosted by Tavis Smiley and broadcast on PBS.  Democrats have had a much more hectic schedule of appearances than Republicans, yet the latter keep citing “scheduling conflicts” as reasons why they won’t appear before black or Latino audiences.

Even though the Democratic leaders haven’t said anything, Republican bigwigs have begun to worry about the image all this event skipping is causing.  Enter the advice by Newt Gingrich:

For Republicans to consistently refuse to engage in front of an African-American or Latino audience is an enormous error.  I hope they will reverse their decision and change their schedules.  I see no excuse–this thing has been planned for months and these candidates have known about it for months.  Any of them who give you that scheduling conflict answer are disengenuous. That’s baloney.

Gingrich added that, “We seem to be stuck in a cycle where Republican politicians are refusing to talk to African-Americans, Latinos, or any minorities. I don’t understand it.”

One-time VP candidate, Jack Kemp, a much more moderate Republican than Gingrich, has also denounced this situation:

We sound like we don’t want [legal] immigration; we sound like we don’t want black people to vote for us. What are we going to do: meet in a country club in the suburbs one day? If we are going to be competitive with people of color, we’ve got to ask them for their vote.”

I’ve got news for Mr. Kemp:  These days, most country clubs are far more diverse–and far more aware of the consequences of exclusivity–than the current crop of Republican presidential candidates!

Look, both major political parties have racist histories and periods of history when they have been the party showing the most courage against racism.  The Republicans began, of course, as the Party of Lincoln and Radical Republicans pushed through the most far-reaching legislation of the Reconstruction era–giving us that brief period in the late 19th C. when we first had African-Americans in the House and Senate and in courtrooms, gubanatorial mansions, and state legislatures. Later, the Eisenhower administration sent in the National Guard to forcibly integrate the public school in Little Rock, AR.  All during the late ’40s and ’50s, the annual Republican National Conventions were far more racially diverse than anything the Democrats had going.  I know a few aging moderate to liberal Republicans who remember those days and wonder what has happened to their Party.

Meanwhile, from Reconstruction until the 1960s, the Democratic Party was a coalition of Northern liberals, labor unions and New Dealers with Southern racists known as the “Dixiecrats.”  The struggle to expel the Dixiecrats began with Harry S. Truman in 1948–and is what led infamous segregationists like Strom Thurmond and Trent Lott to leave the Democrats and become Republican.  The final Democratic break with its racist past came during the Civil Rights era when President Lyndon Baines Johnson (D-TX) championed and then signed both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965–saying privately that he knew he had just lost the South for the Democrats for at least a generation.

Until the mid-1960s most African-Americans who managed to register to vote were Republicans. But this began to change when the GOP embraced Nixon’s “Southern strategy”: in which the GOP would deliberately court the votes of Southern white segregationists (fleeing the Democratic Party) as a path to the White House.  It worked.  Since then, although the GOP’s real agenda has still been about keeping the rich as wealthy as possible, it has continuously used code words and symbols to attract racists (often cloaking themselves in patriotism or evangelical Christianity)–such as when Ronald Reagan began his 1980 campaign for the presidency in Philadelphia, Mississippi (the place where 3 Civil Rights workers were infamously murdered by the KKK–some of whom wore badges–in 1965) and announced that he believed in “states rights”–which was the slogan of both the Southern secessionists in the Civil War (i.e., the “right” for each state to support slavery if it wanted to) and of the segregationists during the Civil Rights struggle (i.e., the “right” for states to support segregation and ignore the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education). 

By the 1990s, the GOP had developed a dual strategy (Lee Atwater, Newt Gingrich, and Karl Rove were all geniuses at this) : Keep sending out coded “race baiting” messages to the base, but court token minority conservatives and avoid all overt racist language.  They knew that, unless they broke with policies that keep most minority communities behind, they wouldn’t recruit large numbers of minorities (although Rove tried hard to court Latinos and African-Americans who share the anti-gay feelings of conservative whites). But, to elect presidents, the GOP NEEDS the votes of moderate whites from the suburbs, many of them born after the Civil Rights era and not knowing the code words like “states rights,” but who don’t want to be associated with an openly racist party.

That two-step seems to be falling apart.  The GOP presidential candidates seem to be skipping these minority venues out of fear that they will appear to their (dwindling) base as “pandering to the special interest groups.” They can’t, for instance, simultaneously brag about how they helped scuttle Bush’s “comprehensive immigration reform” and want to build ever bigger fences at the Mexico border and also court Latino voters.  In a crowded field, they seem to believe that they have to appear as xenophobic and “whites only” as possible in order to win the primaries.  The problem, as GOP oldtimers like Gingrich and Kemp know, is that this could carry over to the general election–when they will lose not only conservatives in African-American and Latino communities (who won’t forget being snubbed so quickly) but also those moderate suburban whites who may never have done much for racial justice but who “have Black and Latino friends at work.”

The time comes when you have to make choices.  The Democrats could not keep appeasing Southern segregationists and be the “party of the people.” The Dixiecrats had to go and the Civil Rights agenda embraced in full.  I think the GOP will now find itself in a similar place:  They either have to abandon the “Southern strategy” and reject racism on a deep level (not just appoint token conservative African-Americans and Latinos)–with the risks of losing parts of their base–or find themselves becoming an increasingly isolated WASP country club–one which can’t even host a PGA tour, much less national politics. The two-step won’t work anymore.

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September 22, 2007 Posted by | politics, race | 5 Comments

Bush Renews Threat to Veto Children’s Health Insurance

This should prove the end of the lie about Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.”  The man who took an unprecedented surplus and turned it into mountains of red ink is claiming to do this for “fiscal responsiblity,” when the truth is that the price of renewing and expanding S-CHIP ($35 billion) is about 6 months in Iraq.  (For a breakdown of how much–not counting lives and limbs–the war is costing this nation, click here.) Bush is angering his own party on this one, because Republican governors and know how much S-CHIP has saved business, hospitals, and schools.  Also, the GOP knows that any Republican politician up for reelection in ’08 who doesn’t vote to override the president’s veto on S-CHIP can kiss her or his political futures good-bye.

It will take more than Laura Bush’s campaigns for literacy or W reading “My Pet Duck” to kindergartners to rescue an image of compassion for children from the realities of this cruel and unnecessary veto.

UPDATE: The Senate and the House have reached compromise legislation that will prevent states from enrolling adults (and make them take adults off) and only ensure children making up to 200% of poverty–too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to purchase insurance.  The $35 billion will increase the number of children insured from 6.6 million to 10 million and will be paid for by an increased tax on cigarettes (which seems appropriate since tobacco use adds enormous burdens to healthcare, costs businesses billions a year in increased sick days and other production loss–not to mention all the smoke breaks when non-smokers get only 1 15 min. break every 4 hourse by law!).  The president is still threatening to veto any bill which increases the funding more than $5 billion (not even enough to keep S-CHIP up with inflation).  Based on votes on earlier versions of the bill, the Senate can probably muster 67 favorable votes (enough to override a veto), but this will be harder in the House.

September 21, 2007 Posted by | child welfare | 3 Comments

Olbermann: Bush’s Hypocrisy About MoveOn.Org Ad

As a MoveOn.org member, I thought this ad was a bit juvenile and not helpful. But Bush’s hypocrisy is enfuriating. So is the fact that Congress could not pass any substantive legislation yesterday, but COULD find time to condemn a political ad. No wonder their approval rating is even lower than the president’s.  Once again, Keith Olbermann tells the truth in a time of media sophistry.

Here are some other appropriate comments aimed at the spineless Democrats who approved this stupid resolution that Sen. Maj. Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) should never have even allowed to come up for a vote. (You never saw the GOP-controlled Senate allow a condemnation of the ads attacking Max Cleland or telling voters that voting for Democrats was voting for Osama bin Laden to blow us up, did you?)  See here, here, and here.

N.B.: I should add that while I enjoy Olbermann’s editorials, he doesn’t do real news anymore than most mainstream media. You have to turn to PBS, C-SPAN, NPR, the BBC, etc. for real, hard journalism. Olbermann’s “Countdown” program is filled with entertainment fluff. But, at least his editorials are a refreshing change from Fox Noise and its clones.  Olbermann steals his line “Good night and Good Luck” from the late, great Edward R. Murrow. But Murrow’s editorials were so effective because they were so rare. He cut his teeth radio broadcasting live from the London Blitz–often in bomb shelters. He did hard, objective news and worried about the effect of television on journalism and on civic life–even as he tried to bend the medium to serious reporting. Olbermann is a pale reflection of that level of professionalism–but still stands out among U.S. TV “personalities,” where the usual choices are fawning rightwing Bush worship or “he said/she said” reporting with little skepticism or tough follow-ups.  Truthtelling is hard to do in an age when news programs are supposed to make money–instead of being paid for by the entertainment shows on AT OTHER TIMES.  I like Olbermann because he tries.

September 21, 2007 Posted by | media reform, politics | 2 Comments

Racial Bias in the U.S. Courts: The Case of the Jena 6

Giving credit where credit is due, I first became aware of the Jena 6 case from Mikeal Broadway this past summer.  See his posts here, here, here, here, and here.  Thanks to Mike, a fellow Baptist ethicist and peace blogger, I followed this case which stayed off the front pages until yesterday.  I signed petitions, I asked the governor of Louisiana to grant pardons. But I didn’t use this forum to highlight the injustice and for that I repent.

The facts are not in dispute.  For decades in the tiny Louisiana town of Jena, whites at the local high school had claimed exclusive rights to sit under a certain tree, which they called the “white tree.” After an African-American student sought and received permission from the principal to sit there (to give credit, the principal denied that it was a “white tree”) and did so, white students hung nooses from the tree. A few were suspended for two days, but none were charged in any criminal case. The D.A. considered the noose incident “a prank.”  Tensions quickly escalated between white and black students.  After some slurs and taunts, 6 black students attacked a white student (one of those involved in the noose incident) and hit and kicked him until he was taken to the hospital.  The students were not suspended for fighting. Instead, the D.A. had them all arrested and charged with attempted murder.

One of the 6 was convicted, but this conviction was overturned on appeal and he awaits new charges in jail. The other 5 remain out on bail, awaiting trial. The D.A. insists the case has nothing to do with race and is determined to put all 6 behind bars for years.

No one denies the 6 were wrong and deserved some punishment, but outrage in this case has to do with the disparity of treatment. The noose “prank” could have been prosecuted as a hate crime or as terrorizing harassment, or similar charges, but wasn’t.  The white kids were slapped on the wrist and the black kids are having the book thrown at them.

The outrage is also because, unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident.  This is part of a larger pattern STILL in the U.S. legal system.  We all know the stories: African-American men are far more likely to be pulled over by police (“driving while black”) than whites.  Wealthy African-Americans are often arrested in their own neighborhoods at night because their presence is “suspicious” (i.e., they aren’t “supposed” to live in those neighborhoods).  Whites arrested on drug charges are often given suspended sentences, probation, or rehab while African-Americans on the same charges, with the same amounts of controlled substances, etc. are given harsh prison time.  In murder cases, if the victim is white and the accused black, the chances that a D.A. will ask for the death penalty rather than life more than triple.  And on and on it goes. My hometown newspaper reported today that a study by the city found that African-Americans are woefully underrepresented on juries, both civil and criminal.

Yes, folks, conservatives to the contrary, racism is alive and well in U.S. society and our legal system.  Do some people falsely make everything about race? Undoubtedly.  But such false “playing of the race card” only works at all because widespread racial disparities in so many areas actually exist.  For every O.J. Simpson who gets away with something (in his case, murdering his wife) by playing the race card, thousands of African-Americans get rigged courts and disparate treatment. 

It’s time to end this.  It’s time to rededicate ourselve to working for racial justice and an end to racial injustice–here and around the world.  For those of us who are Christians, this is mandated by our faith–and by the often-shameful history of our churches.

September 21, 2007 Posted by | human rights., race | 8 Comments

Mitch McConnell: Obstructionist in Chief

mcconnell2.jpgI want to return in the near future to more directly theological topics, but the current political scene keeps crying out for moral, faith-based commentary.

I have repeatedly written Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) recently, since, unfortunately, he represents the citizens of the Commonwealth of Kentucky (where I live) in the U.S. Senate. I have called him on the phone quite a bit, too. I have never been able to talk to him, only to an aide.  If I were able to talk to McConnell, what would I say?  Something like the following:

Senator McConnell, I realize you see your job as supporting the president’s war policies no matter what, but do you hate our troops?  We pacifists, heck, not just we pacifists, but anyone who criticizes the invasion and occupation of Iraq, are constantly accused of “not supporting the troops.”  But we aren’t the ones who sent the troops in ill-equipped so that their families had to have fundraisers so they could purchase better bodyarmor (while our tax dollars paid private security companies–mercenaries–enough to be much better equipped!). We aren’t the ones who voted in 2003 and 2004 to eliminate combat pay, hazardous duty pay, and benefits for Reservists and National Guardsmen (and Guardswomen) being used as frontline troops.  We aren’t the ones whose privatization-at-all-costs policies led to appalling conditions in Walter Reed and other V.A. hospitals across this country.  We have said all along that the best way to support our troops was to bring them home safe from this illegal and unwise invasion and occupation–which has turned, as many of us predicted, into the policing of a civil war.

    Now, after you have repeatedly blocked all attempts in the Senate to end this war, Senators Leahy (D-VT), Webb (D-VA), and Spector (R-PA) forged a bi-partisan bill that would have at least made sure our troops got enough “down time” by insisting that that their home leaves be equal in time to the 15 month tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.  But you blocked that, too.  Any military or ex-military person will tell you, common sense tells you, that tired, on-edge troops make mistakes.  During the long, hideous Vietnam War, our troops were only required to do one tour in most cases. Any further tours were voluntary and after sufficient leave.  Yet, some of our soldiers and marines in this war are on their fifth tours of Iraq or Afghanistan–with nothing voluntary except their military enlistment.  More of our troops will die because you blocked this bill. Others of our troops may make poor judgments that result in innocent civilians killed (thereby fueling the insurgency).  The mental strain on our troops is resulting in family violence when they return home, suicides, and homicides.  The more tours with less time to readjust to non-combat life at home in between, the more these trends to continue.  So, I ask, Do you hate our troops? Do you hate their families? Or is your misguided loyalty to Pres. Bush simply so strong that nothing else matters?

Senator, at the risk that overeager police might have me tasered, I have some other hard questions.  I’m sorry, is this a “free speech zone?” See, I have to keep reminding myself that America is no longer a “free speech zone.” Silly me, I didn’t realize the First Amendment had been suspended.

Speaking of suspensions of rights, Senator, Do you hate human rights and the freedoms for which this country once stood?  You must.  When you Republicans still controlled Congress, you pushed through the Military Commissions Act which gave a legal basis for the Bush administration’s denial of Habeas Corpus to anyone designated by the president as an “enemy combatant,” like those terrorist suspects held at Guantanamo Bay Cuba.  You’re an attorney, Senator. So you remember habeas corpus, the legal principle (enshrined in Anglo-American law since 1215! and from there adopted as a firm principle of international law) that demands that anyone arrested and held has the right to know the charges against them and to challenge in court whether the detaining parties have any grounds for holding them? Yet, yesterday, you blocked the attempt to restore that ancient right to those detained at Guantanamo Bay for years without charge (much less conviction).  Do you hate the rule of law?  What if a new administration, a Democratic administration, declared you an enemy combatant and stuck you in Gitmo? Wouldn’t you want to be able to challenge their right to do this?  Now, the fate of habeas corpus in this nation is left in the hands of the most rightwing Supreme Court we’ve ever had. I feel SOO safe, now, don’t you?  I hope your disregard of the Constitution in this way becomes an issue in your reelection, sir.

Senator, Do you hate democracy? I ask because you blocked efforts to give voting rights to the residents of the District of Columbia, to give them a 1 vote representation in the House of Representatives.  Aren’t we supposed to be “spreading democracy” in Iraq and Afghanistan? Then why are we denying it to D.C.? You state that you had to oppose this legislation as unconstitutional (Oh, now, you remember the Constitution!) because the District is not a state.  Will you then sponsor a Constitutional amendment to make the District of Columbia a state?

   If you don’t, Senator, outsiders might think you are afraid of the votes of the mostly African-American District.  And with Republican presidential candidates refusing all minority-sponsored debates and fora, isn’t your party having enough problems looking like a whites only club? So, the District of Columbia remains an internal colony without representation–although it is the capital of a nation founded in protest against any such laws in which the ruled have no part in the making of the rules. Ironic, no? Somehow, I doubt the residents of the District appreciate the irony.

The latest rumor is that you will attempt to block the S-CHIP renewal (which the president threatens to veto) whereby several states, including Kentucky, have successfully given health insurance to previously uninsured children.  Senator, Do you hate children also?

Get your resume updated, Senator.  It is increasingly clear that any progress in these United States will happen only if we remove you as Obstructionist-in-Chief.  Come November ’08, Senator, we Kentuckians will remember your role in these atrocities and help you decide to find new work in the private sector, spend more time with your family, and, generally–not have a job on our dime. 

September 20, 2007 Posted by | human rights., peacemaking, U.S. politics | 6 Comments

A Dream Denied? At Least Deferred

Hi, Gentle Readers.  Some of you know that ever since I stopped academic teaching and began working for various peace groups (especially Every Church a Peace Church from 2002-2006), I have had a dream for founding  & editing a Journal of Peace Theology for pastors and scholars, aimed at the kinds of audiences which would read Theology Today, Interpretation, Evangelical Quarterly, Modern Theology or Review and Expositor.  It wouldn’t be as “newsy” as Sojourners, Christianity Today, or The Christian Century, but it would be much less technical than the Journal of Biblical Literature or Catholic Biblical Quarterly.  This journal would concentrate on various aspects of Christian nonviolence as it relates to overall Christian theology. I was seeking an international board and international contributors from numerous Christian denominations: theologians, biblical scholars, ethicists, philosophers, and nonviolent activists and pastors who are theologically informed. 

Well, from July ’07 until tonight it looked as if that dream was on the verge of becoming reality.  There was a funding proposal for 5 years and I would have begun on 01 January ’08 to lay out a first issue and seek contributors.  I was considering how far back I would have to scale my work on this blog or whether even to shut it down altogether and get someone else to host the Christian Peace Bloggers ring (which is very little work).  Alas, it is not to be.  The organization which was going to host the journal received a fraction of its proposed funding.  If the journal is launched, it will have to be when this organization gets additional funding or when I find another funding source.

I am deeply disappointed.  I was going to work full time on the editing of this journal and I deeply believe that such a resource is needed and could be an incredible resource for the transformation of the global church in the 21st C.  On a personal level, this arrangement would have allowed me more time with my family, would have allowed the fiscal and time resources to rejoin the Society of Christian Ethics and participate in their yearly meetings (something I have greatly missed for 5 years, now), and would have enabled me to visit parts of my scattered family that I have been unable to visit for some time.  None of that will now happen–not this year.

I will have to regroup and try something else.  Frederick Buechner says that we find our calling where our passion intersects with the world’s great need.  But I have been unable to follow such a call either in the classroom, in faith-based peacemaking, or in writing.  I am now middle aged and not using my gifts for the work of God’s Rule–at least not in anything approaching a full way.  It is frustrating in the extreme.

Tonight, I go back to a job which keeps my family fed (along with my wife’s 2 jobs!) and pays for our healthcare and other benefits, but which could be done by trained gorillas, is mind-numbing, and soul destroying. Tomorrow, I will look at my resume, look at book proposals for publishers, and try again.  

The good news for those of you who find this blog useful is that it is in no danger of being shut down in the near future. It is my only regular creative outlet and keeps me sane.

L’shalom/Salaam/Eirene/Pax–Peace.

September 18, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | 11 Comments

Will Democrats Achieve A Filibuster Proof Senate Majority in ’08?

The focus of most political commentary in the U. S. just now  is on the presidential race.  But the Congressional races, especially the races for the U.S. Senate, are looking just as interesting.  Currently, the Democrats have a technical 1-vote majority in the Senate. It’s a technical majority because 2 senators, Sanders (I-VT) and Lieberman (I-CT) are Independants who caucus with the Dems–and Lieberman’s such a hawk, he might as well be a Republican.  So, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has been able to enforce party discipline on moderate Republicans and keep Democrats from getting the 60 votes needed to stop filibusters and to override presidential vetoes–thus, preventing Democrats from forcing an end to the war except by cutting off funding–something they are reluctant to do.

A 1 vote majority is fragile and Republicans would love to regain control over the Senate, just as Democrats hope to gain greater majorities that can accomplish more.  Here’s the rub.  Under the U.S. system, although EVERY member of the House of Representatives has to run for re-election every 2 years, senators serve 6 year terms–and only a third are up for reelection at any time.   Usually, this means that any large shifts in the Senate are difficult to accomplish: That is why Democrats retained control of the Senate in ’94 (“Year of the Republican!”) when the GOP not only took over the House for the first time in 50 years, but did so in a way so decisive as to make GOP bigwigs like Tom Delay dream of a “permanent Republican majority.”  The difficulties in major Senate shake-ups is also why in ’06, when all winds were blowing in the Democrats’ favor, they only managed to secure a 1 seat majority (and that was more than even most Democrats dared hope)!

But ’08 could be one of those rare years of Senate shake-ups.  While nothing is ever guaranteed (unless voting machines are rigged as the GOP tried in ’02, ’04, and ’06), the landscape is looking pretty bleak for Senate Republicans for several reasons–many of which are beyond their control.  If the Dems pick up a net gain of 9 Senate seats (10 in case Lieberman switches to Republican or caucuses with the GOP–as he already votes with them on Iraq!), they get a super-majority of 60.  That means, if all 60 Democratic members vote the same way, the GOP could not filibuster or block Senate legislation (not even appointee confirmations). Further, with 60 Senate votes (plus 2/3 of the House), they can even override vetoes by a Republican president.  A 9-10 seat pickup would be extremely difficult, but it is a real possibility for several reasons:

  • The biggest structural problem for the GOP is that in ’08 22 U.S. Senate seats up for reelection are currently held by Republicans, whereas the Democrats only have to defend 10 seats. 
  • Several GOP members are quite elderly and considering retirement.  So far, 3 Republican Senators have announced retirements: Wayne Allard (R-CO), Chuck Hagel (R-NE), and John Warner (R-VA).  Open seats are naturally more vulnerable than seats with incumbents.  Then there is the Larry Craig (R-ID) soap opera over alleged solicitation of gay sex in a public restroom. If he retires, Idaho’s Republican governor will appoint a Republican replacement, but he will have to campaign in ’08. Idaho is a very “Red” (i.e., GOP) state, but a strong Democratic contender could force the GOP to spend time and money defending a seat in Idaho that they need for more vulnerable seats elsewhere.  Other Republican Senators rumored to be considering retirement are: Ted Stevens (R-AK) who is under federal investigation for bribery; Thad Cocheran (R-MS); Elizabeth Dole (R-NC)–not as likely, in my opinion; Pete Domenici (R-NM).
  • A death is always tragic.  There are no exceptions, in my view.  But there is no question that the unexpected death of Sen. Thomas Craig (R-WY) of leukemia on 04 June ’07 gave a huge opening to Democrats.  Wyoming is a very conservative state (it’s VP Cheney’s home state!) and its governor appointed John Barrasso (R-WY) to serve until the next election cycle. So, BOTH Wyoming’s Republican held Senate seats are up for grabs in ’08.  You can bet the Dems will pull out all the stops to try to pick up at least one of them, though the GOP is helped because Wyoming law demands that each candidate specify which seat they are contesting.
  • Currently, anger over the Iraq war is at all time highs and the Republicans are getting the bulk of the blame for Iraq.
  • That anger is strongest in some of the areas where Republicans are weakest as the population is turning more Democratic–e.g., New England, where both Sen. John Sununu (R-NH) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) are in for the fights of their political lives.  Every time Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) twists their arms to keep voting for the Bush positions on the war, their chances of losing their seats to strong challengers increases.
  • As in ’06, GOP scandals are making seats that were previously considered “safe” suddenly vulnerable to strong challengers.  1. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) is under federal investigation for campaign irregularities. Alabama is a VERY conservative state, so unless Sessions is indicted, he may be able to weather the storm.  So far, the only Democrat to announce is State Sen. Vivian Figures (D) from the 33rd District (Mobile). Figures is an African-American woman in her first national race in a VERY Republican state (and one which is still very racist), so her chances aren’t good unless Sessions’ scandal story grows to the point of huge public disgust. 2. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK), already rumored to be considering retirement is now under federal investigation for bribery! Several strong, well-liked Democrats are considering entering this race.  3. Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID), as mentioned above. 4. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), normally an extremely powerful incumbent, is suspected of involvement in several scandals related to KY’s Governor Ernie Fletcher (R-KY), a McConnell protege. His approval rating is below 50% for the first time since he won his Senate seat. 
  • Surprisingly, the GOP has not done well this year in recruiting strong challengers for Democratic held Senate seats, but Democratic recruitment for challenges to GOP seats is looking stronger every day.  There is still time left for the Republicans, but they cannot afford any delay.
  • And then there is the odd case of South Carolina, where the GOP seems determined to hurt itself.  South Carolina is an extremely conservative state and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) is very rightwing and a darling of the GOP base–who has mostly avoided scandals.  Yet, because Graham voted for Bush’s “comprehensive reform” plan for immigration, large sections of the Republican base are abandoning him.  He is facing not 1 but 3 challengers in the GOP primaries.  They won’t win, but they could force Graham to have to spend time and money getting re-nominated that he would need in a general election.  If the Dems recruit a strong, conservative Blue Dog Democrat as a challenger cut from the same mold as Rep. Heath Shuler (D-NC) or Sen. Bob Casey, Jr. (D-PA), they might have an outside chance at this seat–and, if they even make it a close race, they are still taking GOP money and energy to defend a seat that should have been safe.  The GOP cannot afford such distractions in ’08.

 I think it almost certain that the Democrats will increase their Senate majority by a minimum of 5 seats, but to get the 10 necessary for filibuster and veto proof majority will be very difficult.  However, if the Republicans keep making it easier, who knows?  Here in Kentucky, we face the difficult task of trying to unseat Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the powerful Sen. Minority Leader. Normally, that would be impossible, but McConnell’s role as “obstructionist in chief” over the Iraq war has angered many and his behind the scenes roles in several scandals involving Gov. Fletcher (R-KY) has brought his approval rating to under 50% for the first time since his initial election and his campaign apparatus in the state has also been damaged.  So, with a strong challenger (I am hoping for Andrew Horne, a Louisville attorney and Iraq war veteran), we just might pull it off.

September 18, 2007 Posted by | citizenship, democracy, U.S. politics | 5 Comments

One Nation Under Surveillance

See the excellent speech by that title that Rev. Dr. Bruce Prescott gave at the University of Oklahoma for Constitution Day, yesterday.  Well done, Bruce!

September 18, 2007 Posted by | citizenship, democracy, U.S. politics | 1 Comment

Happy Constitution Day, America!

Today, 17 September 2007, is the 220th anniversary of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.  I would be the last to consider it a perfect document (no human document is). The original, un-amended Constitution counted African-Americans as 3/4 of a human being for census purposes and allowed slavery.  Voting was originally restricted to white males with property.  U.S. Senators were originally elected by the state legislatures, rather than by direct franchise.

I’d still like to add several amendments: an Equal Rights Amendment that disallows discrimination on the basis of gender; an amendment to abolish the death penalty; an amendment abolishing the Electoral College and electing the U.S. President by direct franchise (popular vote) and one allowing a vote of no confidence that could force an early election; an amendment guaranteeing (civil) marriage to same-sex couples.  Others doubtless would have other amendments.

Still, at a time when Habeas corpus is being dismantled; when torture is public policy; when the president ALONE (with no review)can call someone an “enemy combatant” and suddenly they can be held indefinitely without trial; when citizens can be spied upon with impunity; when the attitude toward the Constitution is that it is an inconvenience to be avoided, rather than the legal protection of our liberties; –in such an era, I feel incredibly protective toward the U.S. Constitution. 

A recent poll, sadly, found that more Americans could name 2 or more Simpsons’ characters than could name more than 1 of the 5 freedoms protected by the 1st Amendment to the Constitution. (For your review, they are freedom of religion and church-state separation; freedom of speech; freedom of the press; freedom of assembly; the right to petition the government for redress of grievances.)

Sure, it’s a flawed human document–which is why it’s ability to be amended is important. It has proven remarkably flexible as it has guided this nation from an 18th C. rural beginning to a postmodern, multicultural era.  I am protective of this document and embarrassed at how disdainfully it is treated both by the current administration and by citizens who would rather be consumers of bread and circuses.  I hope respect for constitutional law will be reinvigorated. 

Civil governments of all kinds are, at best, penultimate goods–not the Rule of God.  But a constitutional democracy with checks and balances and protection of human rights is a penultimate GOOD, not bad.  The last 7 years, as I have been horrified at the direction of my nation, I have both realized more and more that a Christian’s ultimate loyalty can never be to any nation-state or civil arrangement, and simultaneously desired the vigorous defense and renewal of the American experiment in constitutional law.  As flawed documents go, this one ain’t bad.

September 17, 2007 Posted by | U.S. politics | 3 Comments

Decline of the Religious Right?

It is plain that the Religious Right (that group of ultra-Conservative Christians who push for rightwing politics, usually in a “Christian Nation” ideology and sometimes with theocratic-leaning impulses) has lost ground since 2004. (The decline is noticeable in the inability of even RR leaders to unite around any one GOP presidential candidate.)  I am NOT claiming that it is dying or dead.  The death of the Religious Right has often been predicted since 1980 and each time the funeral was premature.  But, at the very least, it has lost momentum and this might herald a decline if trends continue.

What factors have led to this apparent decline?  Without claiming scientific or exhaustive precision, I think the following factors have brought this loss of momentum and, if they continue, will end the influence of the Religious Right for some time.

  • Increasing pluralism in the U.S. population.  This demographic trend started long ago and shows no signs of letting up, which may be why so many in the Right are anti-immigration.  The U.S. is now home to numerous religions, more every day.  I live not in New York City, Chicago, L.A. or Orlando, but in Louisville, KY–a medium sized city at the intersection between the Old South and the Mid-west.  Louisville was never completely the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant enclave that such a geography would suggest.  Catholics helped to settle Kentucky in the 18th C. when they were still a small minority in the nation at large. And Louisville has had a strong Jewish community since the mid-19th C.  But today we have enough Muslims for 2 mosques.  We have a Buddhist temple.  There are Wiccans, Hindus, and others:  3 Unitarian churches; a Friends Meeting, a Women-Church gathering, and more.  All this in a city that has a large (and, since 1994, fundamentalist) Southern Baptist seminary, a Presbyterian seminary, 2 Catholic universities, and is the headquarters of the Presbyterian Church, USA.  The largest mosque in the nation is in IOWA.  Think how diverse the major metropolitan areas of the country are! And that diversity is growing and penetrating even to the rural communities of the South and the Mid-West.  If trends continue, Christians of all denominations may soon be a plurality rather than a true majority in the U.S.A.–which makes theocracy harder to impose, to say the least.
  • Aging and passing of Religious Right leaders.  Jerry Falwell is dead and the Moral Majority disbanded.  D. James Kennedy had died quite recently.  The Televangelism scandals of the ’80s dethroned Jim Baker and Jimmy Swaggert from positions of leadership.  Pat Robertson’s syndicated TV show still reaches millions, but his influence has been in sharp decline since his failed run for the U.S. presidency in 1996.  No one mentions Donald Wildmon, Phyllis Schafly, or Gary Bauer anymore.  The only one of the first generation of Religious Right leaders to still be in full swing is James Dobson, once simply a Nazarene psychologist with conservative parenting tips and he is aging and seems to be losing influence.  There are, of course, newer leaders such as Richard Land (of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission) and R. Albert Mohler, Jr. (who is my age and has destroyed my alma mater with his presidency of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary),but they don’t seem to have the clout that the previous bigwigs did.
  • The following generations of conservative evangelical pastors do not seem as interested in following in the Falwell & Co. shoes. Even conservative mega-church pastors like Rick Warren are not using that influence in the same way.
  • This goes hand-in-hand with the broadening of moral concern among Evangelicals and Catholics in the U.S.  Abortion and “homosexuality” are still concerns for the majority of both groups, but attempts to maintain these issues as the only valid moral concerns in political elections seem to have failed.  Evangelicals and Catholics are now the biggest swing groups in the country–neither Party can automatically count on their votes. They are concerned with environment (few are still calling Global Warming a hoax), with universal health care, especially for children, with war and peacemaking, with torture, with the growth of private prisons, etc.
  • Probably aided by the spector of violent religious fanaticism among some Islamic groups, American citizens have begun noticing similarities in spirit (and sometimes, as in abortion clinic bombings, in action) among Christian fanatics.  This is producing an aversion to religious extremism and an appreciation for secular, religiously-neutral, democratic government.  The secular parts of the U.S. heritage are being celebrated by many. (Susan Jacoby got in on the ground floor with her book, Freethinkers, highlighting the heritage of Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, H. L. Mencken, and others.)  The exteme edge of this is the U.S. part of the “angry atheists” publishing boom as a series of famous atheists and skeptics in the U.K., Australia, and North America blame religion for everything.  I am not a fan of the angry atheists and I think if their noisy anger continues they could trigger a backlash of sympathy for the Religious Right–which thrives on a false sense of persecution. But all these angry atheistic books becoming bestsellers does show a broader disenchantment with religious fanaticism.
  • At the same time, there has been revival among what might be called the Religious Center and Religious Left.  The re-emergence, particularly, of an Evangelical Left (eclipsed since 1980) contributes to the decline of the Religious Right–at the very least by giving the public more spiritual options than skepticism or fanaticism.
  • Prominent Democrats have been more vocal about their personal faith (and some Republicans like Fred Thompson have admitted being lukewarm churchgoers and uninterested in speaking about religion) which has, at least, lessened the Right’s propaganda line that the GOP is “God’s Only Party.”

  There may be other factors, too. Tell me if you think of any.

Now, please remember that any of these things could change (although the first one is unlikely to change). The Religious Right still is trying to accomplish things I don’t consider helpful for either the church, the nation, or the world:  Such as Al Mohler’s campaign to have a mass Christian exodus from the public schools–or even the dismantling of public education altogether.  Such campaigns must be opposed. We cannot simply ignore the Religious Right.  Every time centrists and liberals have tried the “ignore them and they’ll fade away” strategy in the last 30 years, the Religious Right has come roaring back and done great harm.

But these trends have given a space for other, more helpful, forces such as the reinvigoration of the Religious Center and the Religious Left.  If we take advantage of this breathing space, it is possible that a rich and plural civic life will flourish.  I think that is the kind of opportunity offered by groups like The Interfaith Alliance (with its Walter Cronkite Faith and Freedom Awards) and by resources like the Baptist Center for Ethics’ Golden Rule Politics DVD.  I hope many more such campaigns flourish.

September 14, 2007 Posted by | church-state separation, progressive faith | 20 Comments