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

The Rebel Jesus

My friend Paul Whitely, Jr. sang Jackson Browne’s classic “The Rebel Jesus”  today.  You should also read Jesus the Rebel by Father John Dear, S.J. (I met John in 1989 by being handcuffed next to him after committing civil disobedience in an anti-apartheid protest. Sometimes my life is somewhat amazing.)  Here are the lyrics for Browne’s wonderful song:

All the streets are filled with laughter and light
And the music of the season
And the merchants’ windows are all bright
With the faces of the children
And the families hurrying to their homes
While the sky darkens and freezes
Will be gathering around the hearths and tables
Giving thanks for God’s graces
And the birth of the rebel Jesus

Well they call him by ‘the Prince of Peace’
And they call him by ‘the Savior’
And they pray to him upon the seas
And in every bold endeavor
And they fill his churches with their pride and gold
As their faith in him increases
But they’ve turned the nature that I worship in
From a temple to a robber’s den
In the words of the rebel Jesus

Well we guard our world with locks and guns
And we guard our fine possessions
And once a year when Christmas comes
We give to our relations
And perhaps we give a little to the poor
If the generosity should seize us
But if any one of us should interfere
In the business of why there are poor
They get the same as the rebel Jesus

Now pardon me if I have seemed
To take the tone of judgement
For I’ve no wish to come between
This day and your enjoyment
In a life of hardship and of earthly toil
There’s a need for anything that frees us
So I bid you pleasure
And I bid you cheer
From a heathen and a pagan
On the side of the rebel Jesus.

December 6, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Blood on My Hands

In some ways, it is harder to take Obama’s warmongering escalation of the war in Afghanistan than it was Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq.  After all, I voted against Bush–twice.  I not only voted for Obama, but I endorsed him on this blog. I actively campaigned for him. I contributed money to his campaign–something I had not done for any presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter in 1980.  I volunteered at his KY campaign headquarters. I phonebanked on several primaries.

So, I know now how those voters must have felt back in WWI: Voting for Wilson who campaigned on “He kept us out of war,” and then he betrayed them and led us straight into the war.  Obama has yet to close Gitmo which he said he would on day one. He has forbidden torture, but ruled out prosecuting torturers, so no one will be held accountable (and making it likely that a Pres. Palin could just reverse this “policy dispute” again). He has defended Bush policies of rendition, warrantless wiretapping, and indefinite detention–at least for some.  The indefinite detention at Bagram in Aghanistan is probably larger than that at Gitmo.  And now the war and bloodshed escalates. Welcome to the presidency of Bush III–another War President.

And the blood of the innocent is on my hands and head.

December 1, 2009 Posted by | Afghanistan | 31 Comments

A Brief History of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC)

It’s time for another installment in my series of historical sketches of major grassroots peace and justice organizations, especially those with religious foundations (and, of those, especially Christian peace groups).  In previous installments to this series, I sketched the history of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR) (concentrating especially on the U.S. branch), and of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). This time around, I’ll highlight the history of Quaker-based American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). (In future installments in this series, I plan to cover the Brethren-related On Earth Peace, the Mennonite Central Committee, denominational peace fellowships (especially where I have membership or a direct connection such as the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, Pentecostals & Charismatics for Peace and Justice, the Mennonite Peace and Justice Support Network and Methodists United for Peace with Justice), Pax Christi International (the Catholic peace movement), Witness for Peace (where I first put my new-found pacifism into practice in ’84), Christian Peacemaker Teams, Every Church a Peace Church (my employer for 3 years), Peace Action, Nonviolence International, Holy Land Trust, Black Voices for Peace (now defunct).  Of the peace groups related to military veterans, I will highlight only Veterans for Peace since it’s members specifically commit themselves to nonviolence.  Some other vocational or occupational groups I plan to highlight include Medicins sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Pugwash Conferences on Science and Human Concern. I’d also like to sketch a few faith-based groups from non-Christian religions, especially the Jewish Peace Fellowship, Muslim Peace Fellowship, and Buddhist Peace Fellowship.

For now, we turn to the Quaker-based American Friends Service Committee (AFSC).  As with groups in our previous installments (F.O.R. and WILPF), the AFSC began as a specific response to World War I.  The Religious Society of Friends (nicknamed the Quakers) began as a Christian movement out of radical Puritanism in the mid to late 17th C.  Although it’s founder, George Fox, seems to have been a pacifist since his conversion, the Friends as a whole did not adopt the Peace Testimony as a defining characteristic until 1660.  Since that time, Friends have been a powerful force for peace and justice–making an impact well beyond their numbers. (There are less than 1 million Friends/Quakers worldwide–the majority in Africa.)

Especially in the U.S., the 19th C. was a troubling one for Friends–leading to several schisms between various Yearly Meetings.  This fragmented the peace witness after the Civil War, but numerous Friends played key roles in the development of the international peace movement in the late 19th and early 20th C.  When the U.S. decided to enter World War I, Quaker Meetings formed the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in order to give young Quaker men an alternative form of national service to war. During AFSC’s very first year of existence, it sent women and men to France (along with British Friends) where they worked and cared for children who were refugees because of the war. They also founded a maternity hospital, repaired and rebuilt homes destroyed by the war, and provided returning refugees with the necessities to rebuild their lives.

Over the years, AFSC has been open to hiring non-Quakers, but everyone associated with AFSC must share the Quaker belief in nonviolence and peacemaking rooted deep Quaker convictions about the dignity and worth of all persons (Quaker evangelists–called Publishers of Truth–were instructed to answer “that of God in every person”), in the power of love, service, and nonviolence, and in the ability of the Light (a biblical symbol of God) to speak to all people.  Quakers see their responsibility in opposing war, militarism, and other systems of domination as a calling to “Speak Truth to Power.”

The AFSC continued its work after the end of WWI.  Some major highlights from the early years (1917-1938) include:

  • Feeding 1 million starving children in Germany and Austria in 1919.
  • Feeding and reconstruction work in Poland, including buying 1000 horses from the Polish army to lend to farmers for plowing in 1920.
  • Distributed food, milk, and clothing in famine relief in Russia in 1920-1921. (This work in famine relief saw the rise in leadership of a Friend in business named Herbert Hoover who went on to become U.S. president–and then see his famine relief experience prove fruitless during the Great Depression–though he remained convinced that the New Deal’s programs were the wrong answer.)
  • 1925-1934, helped with poverty relief among Native Americans, African-Americans and immigrants in the inner cities, and poor whites in Appalachia.
  • 1937, provided relief to both sides of the Spanish civil war.
  • 1938, sent a delegation to Germany to rebuke the new Nazi government for its treatment of Jews and worked to get it to allow Jews to leave the country.

As WWII loomed near, Friends, along with Mennonites, the Church of the Brethren, and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, managed to get Congress to pass exemptions to the draft for conscientious objectors to war (although the law limited this to those whose pacifism was “based on religious instruction”) and for COs to perform “alternative service of national importance” in work camps run by the peace churches.  Many other WWII -era Conscientious Objectors, religious and otherwise, went to prison, instead.  During these years, the AFSC worked to try to maintain a consistent peace witness around the world in the midst of war.

  • 1941, provided medical help to civilians on both sides of China’s civil war.
  • 1942, provided alternative service for conscientious objectors to war in mental hospitals, conservation programs, and training schools.  Provided relocation help for Japanese-Americans and worked to protect the property of Japanese-Americans interred for the duration of the war.
  • 1943, sent food to relieve severe famine in India.
  • 1944, led the reconstruction efforts in post-war Europe and Asia.

In 1947 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to both the AFSC and the British Friends Service Council on behalf of Quakers everywhere.

  • As the Cold War began, the AFSC published Speak Truth to Power(1955) as a pacifist alternative to the arms race.
  • 1961, sent volunteers to work in developing countries.  This began earlier and, along with similar programs run by Brethren and Mennonites, was the inspiration for John F. Kennedy’s Peace Corps program.
  • Following the 1962 ceasefire between France and Algeria, AFSC worked in Algeria to develop garden and poultry projects, milk stations, and clinics to fight poverty-related diseases.
  • 1965 –worked to place 7, 000 African-American children in previously all-white Southern public schools and pushed to keep school desegregation a front burner issue. (Friends had pioneered here.  Even during the days of slavery, Friends schools were open to everyone. When segregation laws in many Southern states forbade teaching white and black children together, Friends founded numerous private schools for African-Americans because of the horrible quality of the state-run “Negro schools.”  Rosa Parks attended such a Quaker primary school.)
  • 1966, provided free medical aid to civilians in North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and areas held by the NLF. (This led to official investigations of the AFSC by the House Un-American Activities Committee which, thankfully, no longer exists.)

And on and on it goes.

Today, the AFSC has programs seeking economic justice both globally and in the USA, programs on immigration rights, equality for LGBT persons, the Wage Peace campaign to end the war in Iraq and rebuild Iraq justly, a program to combat the militarization of American Youth (including counter-recruitment), work for fairer patterns of international trade, programs to end weapons build ups and the international weapons trade (especially work to end nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, and work against weapons that mostly harm civilians, such as landmines), programs for debt cancellation and debt relief in Africa, a program for a just two-state peace in Israel-Palestine, reforming the U.S. criminal justice system (including abolishing the death penalty and ending police abuse).

A glance at these many programs shows that the AFSC’s peace witness is not just a negative peace (the absence of war or armed conflict), but a positive peace built on the presence of justice and human reconciliation.

November 28, 2009 Posted by | American Friends Service Committee, church history, Friends (Quakers), Historic Peace Churches, nonviolence, pacifism, peacemaking | Comments Off on A Brief History of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC)

Lyrics: The Christians and the Pagans

In our ever more pluralistic world, Dar Williams’ song may represent something close to your holiday celebrations and tensions.  Here is a prayer for all those for whom family holiday gatherings are as much a source of tension as of joy.

The Christians and the Pagans by Dar Williams

Amber called her uncle said “We’re up here for the holiday

Jane & I were having Solstice, now we need a place to stay,”

And her Christ-loving uncle watched his wife hang Mary on a tree,

He watched his son hang candy canes all made with Red Dye Number 3.

He told his niece, “It’s Christmas Eve, I know our life is not your style.”

She said, “Christmas is like Solstice and we miss you and it’s been awhile.”


So the Christians and the Pagans sat together at the table,

finding faith and common ground the best that they were able,

and just before the meal was served, hands were held and prayers were said,

sending hope for peace on eath to all their gods and goddesses.


The food was great, the tree plugged in, the meal had gone without a hitch,

’till Timmy turned to Amber and said, “Is it true that you’re a witch?”

His mom jumped up and said, “The pies are burning!” and she hit the kitchen!

And it was Jane who spoke, she said, “It’s true, you’re cousin’s not a Christian.

“But we love trees, we love the snow, the friends we have, the world we share,

“And you find magic from your God and we find magic everywhere.”


So, the Christians and the Pagans sat together at the table,

finding faith and common ground as best as they were able.

And where does magic come from? I think magic’s in the learning,

‘Cause now when Christians sit with Pagans only pumpking pies are burning.


When Amber tried to do the dishes, her Aunt said, “Really, no, it’s no bother.”

Amber’s Uncle saw how Amber looked like Tim and like her father.

He thought about his brother, how they hadn’t spoken in a year,

He thought he’d call him up and say, “It’s Christmas and your daughter’s here.”

He thought of fathers, sons, and brothers, ’till his own son tugged his sleeve

saying, “Can I be a Pagan, Dad?” “We’ll discuss it when they leave!”

So the Christians and the pagans sat together at the table,

finding faith and common ground, the best that they were able.

Lighting trees in darkness, learning new ways from the old, and

Making sense of history and drawing warmth out of the cold.


A prayer for all those with interfaith families–May your family holiday gatherings find faith and trust and common ground. Amen.

November 26, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

An Appreciation of the Family Niebuhr

UPDATE:  For some reason I felt like reposting this appreciation of the Niebuhrs before writing the next section of my biblical case for Christian pacifism.  I know, I know. A pacifist is not supposed to have good things to say about the ardent opponent of Christian pacifism, Reinhold Niebuhr.  And someone influenced by an Anabaptist view of the church and its relation to wider cultures is not supposed to have much good to say about H. Richard Niebuhr, who (mis)labeled this perspective as “Christ against culture,” and helped so many write off Anabaptists off as “sectarians.”  I share these and numerous other critiques of the Niebuhr family. 

But as I was thinking about the history of 20th C. North American Christianity today, I realized what an amazing family the Niebuhrs were–and what a gift they were to the Church, flaws and all.  Very few Christian families had so many members contributing so much to the Church and the world. ( The Wesleys come quickly to mind–including the parallel of the smarter younger brother overshadowed by the dominant older one–; the Booth family in the Salvation Army; father and son Thomas and Alexander Campbell; the Judson-Boardman family among American Baptists; the King family in National/Progressive National Baptist circles; the Poteat family among progressive white Baptists in the South–but only the Wesleys even approached the influence of the Niebuhrs.)

So, here is an appreciation of the Family Niebuhr by an Anabaptist-influenced Christian pacifist. Although I look forward to saying, “I told you so” about many things when meeting them in the Coming Kingdom (or not–presumably I’ll be cured of that sin), I would be foolish not to recognize the gifts God gave them for the Church universal and the way even their errors clarified terms of debate–a gift in itself.

Rev. Gustav Niebuhr (1863-1913). A minister and church planter for the German Evangelical Synod (today absorbed by the United Church of Christ), an American immigrant denomination created by the 1817 union of Reformed and Lutheran churches in Prussia (using the mediating Heidelberg Catechism), who emigrated from Germany to the U.S. in 1881 at the age of 18.  Gustav’s faith combined pietist evangelical commitments with openess to the new liberalism.  He read Schleiermacher and Harnack, voted for Teddy Roosevelt, and studied the Bible in Hebrew and Greek.  He was a vigorous leader in his denomination, planting churches in the West and Mid-west, pushing the small denomination to hold services in English (though the Niebuhrs spoke German at home) and to support a liberal arts college (Elmhurst) and a theological seminary (Eden) for an educated, progressive ministry.  His influence on his family must have been profound since 3 of his 4 children went into the ministry.  Gustav had his faults: He shared the patriarchal views of his era & he discouraged his daughter, Hulda, from pursuing higher education. (She did anyway.) He also played favorites with his children, driving the oldest son, Walter, away, favoring middle son, Reinhold, and being very cold to youngest son, H. Richard.  And he treated his wife, Lydia, as a combination of unpaid co-pastor and domestic servant.  But, despite these serious flaws, theology, music, learning, and service were values that flourished in his home and seem never to have left the family that bears his name.  In 1902, Gustav took up his final parish, St. John’s Evangelical Church (now UCC) in Lincoln, IL, where Gustav also became an administrator of Deaconess Hospital. (See this article on the Deaconess Movement in 19th C. American Christianity.)  He died unexpectedly in 1913 at age 50.

Lydia (Hosto) Niebuhr (1869-1961). Little is known of her private life, but she served in numerous unpaid church positions throughout her husband, Gustav’s, ministry, and became the de facto unpaid co-pastor of the Detroit parish of her (then-bachelor) son, Reinhold.  I think her influence was probably strongest on Hulda and H. Richard, but it was clear that she also influenced Gustav’s favorite, “Reinie.” The “Susannah Wesley” of the Niebuhrs, I wish I knew more about her. I suspect she was an amazing person and I would probably have liked her better than her husband.  Unfortunately, like most women throughout history, she barely peaks out of the shadows of her husband and her famous sons. Lydia’s sister, Adele Hosto, was a consecrated Deaconess in the German Evangelical Synod and her father, Edward Hosto, was a missionary with the German Evangelical Synod.

Hulda Niebuhr (1889-1959). The oldest of the Niebuhr children and the only daughter, Clara Augusta Hulda Niebuhr was a pioneer far beyond the expectations of her father, who shared his generation’s views about women’s education and limited sphere beyond the home.  Although Hulda was very bright, her father discouraged her from seeking education beyond high school since she “obviously wouldn’t need it.” When she graduated high school in 1906 (near the top of her class), she, at first, respected her father’s wishes. She followed her mother’s example and did unpaid church work in both her home church in Lincoln, IL (St. John’s Evangelical Church) and, later, her brother, Reinhold’s Detroit parish. But when her father died in 1913, Hulda decided to apply for college work.  She earned an A.B. and M. A. at Boston University, and became one of the first 3 female assistant professors at B.U. in 1927.  In 1928, she moved to New York City and began work on a Ph.D. at Columbia Teacher’s College (now part of Columbia University). She never completed her Ph.D., but became one of the earliest “Ministers of Education,” (actual title, Director of Religious Education) in the nation in 1930, serving in that capacity from 1930-1945 at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, NYC.  This was, as Hulda put it, the “practical work of the church.”  During the years at Madison Avenue PC, Hulda wrote creative materials for use in Sunday School and published two books on how drama and story might be used in the education ministries of the churches.  In 1945, the Presbyterian College of Education (associated with and now part of, McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago) hired Hulda as Associate Professor of Religious Education. In 1953, Hulda Niebuhr became the first woman to hold the rank of full professor at McCormick Theological Seminary.  She continued to pioneer in the field of religious education. She died in 1959 at age 70, having never married.  She deserves to be more widely known, especially by advocates for women in ministry and by religious educators.

Walter Niebuhr, second child and firstborn boy, was a slight rebel, becoming the only surviving Niebuhr child not to become involved in church work. Although he remained a faithful Christian, he became a journalist and businessman–and was the financial savior of the family when Gustav died.

A second son and third child, name unknown, died in infancy–an all too common pattern in those days.

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971). Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr, 4th Niebuhr child and 3rd son, was father Gustav’s favorite and destined to become the most famous (and, for pacifists, infamous!) member of the Niebuhr clan. He was clearly, for both good and ill, among the handful of most influential theologians in 20th C. America.  Born in Wright City, MO, Reinie emulated his father and decided early to follow him into the ministry.  He was intellectually bright (but not brilliant like his younger brother), but more passionate than disciplined and he struggled with school. He was educated at Elmhurst College, the denominational college, not then qualified to give out baccalaureate degrees, functioning more like a German gymnasium (U.S. high school and first year college level) or what would later become a junior college level. From there, he attended Eden Seminary, which was, at the time, unaccredited and functioning more as a pastoral and missionary finishing school than a post-baccalaureate seminary.  Reinie’s grades were good, but uneven, and he was surprised to find himself accepted at Yale Divinity School.  He was intimidated by the cultured elite students at Yale, but he had an advantage over many: he was fluent in German. (In fact, he was more fluent in German than in English!) He finished his B.D. (equivalent to a modern Masters of Divinity) in 2 years and his professors encouraged him to pursue doctoral work, but Reinie was out of money.

In 1915, Reinie was ordained by his father’s church, St. John’s Evangelical Church, Lincoln and called as the pastor of a small mission, Bethel Evangelical Church–in the Detroit of Henry Ford.  Bethel had 65 members when Reinie arrived and over 700 when he left in 1928.  Thanks to his mother, Lydia, living with him and assuming domestic duties, plus serving in much of the routine work of the congregation, Reinie was able to become a very active, Social Gospel style pastor, even involving himself in the politics of the city.  This experience was to shape the rest of his life and ministry.  He became convinced that sermons telling rich bosses to love their workers more were ineffective. Justice would need stronger weapons. Although at this time a pacifist, he threw himself into the Labor struggle, though the labor movement was considered “violent” by most pacifists of that day. (They did not just view those labor actions which degenerated into riots as violent; most Christians, pacifist or not, saw the very act of striking or work slowdowns, etc. as violent. No wonder Reinie considered them naive.) He also, unlike many of the white Social Gospel ministers of the time, spoke out against racism and became partly influenced by Karl Marx (without the atheism and materialism).  During this period of time, Reinie wrote one of his most famous (and most Marxist) books, Moral Man and Immoral Society which began his break from the Social Gospel and the formation of his school of “Christian Realism.” It also brought him to the attention of Henry Sloan Coffin, Presbyterian minister and President of the (once Presbyterian, then independent) Union Theological Seminary.

Coffin wanted to hire Reinie as Professor of Christian Ethics, but the faculty balked since he had no earned doctorate. So, Coffin raised Reinie’s salary from private donations and brought him on anyway.  From 1928 until his retirement in 1960, Reinie taught at Union. Union became his base of operations from which he launched a flurry of writings (books, articles, newspaper articles, etc.), preached in pulpits across the nation and overseas, spoke at universities and in public fora and became one of America’s few public intellectuals. He broke with pacifism and the Fellowship of Reconciliation over Hitler’s rise to power and urged American entry into the War long before Pearl Harbor. But, unlike some militarists who claim his mantle today, Reinie remained profoundly aware of the limits of military power and the temptations of all nations, the U.S. definitely included, to idolatry and self-delusion. He wrote nearly a book a year, founded the Liberal Party of New York, was a Time “Man of the Year,” and founded two journals, Christianity and Society, and Christianity and Crisis. He has been considered the bane of theological liberals (though he admitted in old age to sharing more liberalism than he previously thought), pacifists of all stripes, fundamentalists and most conservative evangelicals, and “sectarians” (in his view) who took the church, rather than the nation-state, as the primary locus of the redeeming work of God.  He has deserved at least 75% of the criticisms directed at him–but I admit to trusting post-Niebuhr pacifists or pacifists who have wrestled with Niebuhr’s challenge more than knee-jerk anti-Niebuhrians. He died in 1971. Union Theological Seminary has endowed a Reinhold Niebuhr Chair of Theology and Christian Ethics and today, one of the cross-streets on which Union sits at the edge of Harlem is known as Reinhold Niebuhr Place.

H(elmut). Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962), the last of the Niebuhr children was the most brilliant and is often overshadowed by Reinie.  Born in Wright City, MO, the shy and quiet youngest son had a much more difficult relationship with his father than did his older brother, Reinie. In his old age, Reinie was surprised to find that Richard considered their father cold and tyrannical.

HRN would begin life in the family tradition, but he learned from his elder brother’s pathbreaking. He graduated Elmhurst College in 1912 and Eden Seminary in 1915.  Knowing the difficulties Reinie had faced with inadequate preparation, HRN obtained an M.A. in philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis, MO in 1918 before earning his B.D. &  Ph.D. from Yale in 1923 & 1924 respectively–the only member of the family to finish a doctorate.

HRN was dedicated to the church and his ecclesiology, while having problems (from my own Yoder/McClendon/Hauerwas viewpoint), was far stronger than Reinie’s. Richard was ordained by the Evangelical Synod in 1916 and from 1916-1918, he was pastor of an Evangelical Synod congregation in St. Louis, MO. While pursuing his Ph.D., HRN served as pastor of a Congregationalist church in New Haven, CT.  In 1934, the Evangelical Synod merged with the German Reformed Church in the United States, another denomination of German immigrants based on the Heidelberg Catechism, becoming the Evangelical and Reformed Church.  In 1957, the Evangelical and Reformed Church merged with the Congregationalists (most of them) to form the United Church of Christ.  The Niebuhrs all approved of these unions, but HRN was instrumental in each step.

The education of ministers was a primary concern for HRN. He served as President of his denomination’s Eden Theological Seminary from 1919 to 1931 (upgrading its faculty and teaching standards and leading it to be able to offer truly post-baccalaureate theological education) with a four year leave of absence to serve as interim president of Elmhurst College (1924-1927), bringing the latter up to full accreditation as well.  From 1931 until his death in 1962, HRN taught at Yale Divinity School rising to the rank of full professor and eventually serving in the endowed chair, Stirling Professor of Theology and Christian Ethics. But his concern for ministerial education did not stop there because in 1954-55, HRN chaired a task force studying and recommending changes in theological education across the United States, editing its report and leading to his book, The Purpose of the Church and its Ministry.

HRN wrote much less than Reinie, but he remains an enormously influential theologian to this day.  He helped to found the sociological study of church life with his The Social Sources of Denominationalism. He has influenced the “theocentric” approach of James Gustafson and others with his The Responsible Self and Radical Monotheism and Western Culture (his most problematic book in my view) and helped to found the “narrative theology” of the “Yale School” (even influencing his critic Stanley Hauerwas in this way) through The Meaning of Revelation.  His most influential work, with great strengths and glaring flaws, Christ and Culture remains a standard textbook in Christian ethics in seminaries and divinity schools throughout North America, over 50 years since its publication. 

Ursula Niebuhr (1908-1997), born in Southampten, UK (as Ursula Kessel-Compton), she became one of the first female Anglican theologians, graduating from Oxford and earning a fellowship to study for a post-graduate year at Union Theological Seminary in New York.  She met and married (1931) the much older, Reinie, and was overshadowed by him–as was nearly everyone in Reinie’s orbit! But Ursula founded the religion department of Bernard College in the 1940s and was its chairwoman for years.  She curtailed her career after Reinie’s stroke and edited collections of his shorter writings after his death.  She remained a committed Anglican/Episcopalian, never agreeing with the congregational and pietist ecclesiology of her husband.  She pushed him to work harder for women’s rights in church and society, too.  Together, they raised a son (Christopher) and 3 daughters. I have been unable to find the names of the other two daughters, but the youngest, Elizabeth Sifton, is a book publisher and has written a book on her father’s most famous prayer, the Serenity Prayer, used so much by Alcoholics Anonymous groups.

Richard Reinhold Niebuhr (no dates found) is the son of H. Richard Niebuhr.  He taught for years at Harvard Divinity School and is now Hollis Professor of Divinity Emeritus at Harvard.  Although he published little, he edited some of his father’s unpublished works as Faith on Earth and has become a well-known expert on F.D.E. Schleiermacher.  He has also sought to recover a way to affirm Christ’s resurrection in a world governed by Troeltschian historical forces.  In 2006, a gift by an alumnus allowed HDS to create the Richard Reinhold Niebuhr Chair of Divinity and, in June of this year, Mark D. Jordan leaves Emory University (where he has been Asa Griggs Candler Professor since 1999) to become the first Richard Reinhold Niebuhr professor of Divinity.

Finally, R. Gustav Niebuhr (no dates found) continues in both family traditions by combining careers in journalism and religion. A longtime religion editor for the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times, today R. Gustav Niebuhr has dual appointments at Syracuse University: Associate Professor of Newspaper Journalism in the S. I. Newhouse School of Public Education and Associate Professor of Religion and the Media in the Religion Department.

All that from one family–with maybe more to come.  Whatever our personal theologies, all Christians ought to give God thanks for the gift bestowed on the Church universal in the form of the Family Niebuhr.

November 22, 2009 Posted by | church history | 7 Comments

“Christian” Hate-Speech & Inciting to Violence Returns

Those items to the left, along with T-shirts and bumper stickers with the same slogan seem like more American civil religion, right? Remember all the “Prayer groups for the President” during Bush’s first term?  Wrong.  Psalm 109: 8 reads “May his days be few and may another take his office!” It is one of the imprecatory or cursing psalms.  Written by someone persecuted by one of the wicked kings of Israel, this Psalm asks for Divine Violence against the person “prayed for.” In other words, these cute teddy bears, buttons, etc. are calling Pres. Obama a “wicked ruler” like one of Israel or Judah’s wicked rulers and asking for God to smite him dead!

Look at the verses that follow: May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow.  May his children wander about and beg, seeking food from the ruins they inhabit.  May the creditor seize all that he has; may strangers plunder the fruit of his toil.””  It goes on in this line.  Toward the end, the Psalmist says why he is so angry at the ruler he is cursing in prayer:  Because he has favored the rich and not the poor.  Well, I’m one who doesn’t think Pres. Obama has yet done enough for the poor, but American Christians have not prayed for the deaths of Presidents Reagan, Bush I, or Bush II, who all did so much damage to the poor in this country. 

Is it appropriate that we urge American Christians to pray cursing psalms?  Is that the kind of praying for enemies that Jesus encourages in the Sermon on the Mount?  I want us to share the Psalmist’s passion on behalf of the poor and the Psalmist’s fearlessness of those in high places–rather than cringing toward those in authority–but I find the violence in the heart displayed in this psalm to be exactly what Jesus was AGAINST.  And it leads to actual violence.

There are people out there who have mental problems–and many have guns.  What if Christians who don’t like a certain president, encourage this kind of hate and then someone decides to HELP God “honor this prayer” –to become a self-appointed instrument of God in smoting this president or another?  I think all those involved in making or marketing this kind of garbage, and every preacher who does not denounce it (especially preachers who do not like the current president), will have blood on their hands if someone attempts to assassinate Pres. Obama based on this Psalm.  Conservative Christians especially say that Muslim leaders do not do enough to denounce violent Islamic extremism (the Islamic leaders I know spend HUGE amounts of time denouncing such and trying to get rid of it). So, they need to be held to their own standards.   This is trawling for “Christian” terrorism and should not be tolerated.

Lest someone think that my concern stems only because I voted for this president, let me say this: I refused to speak in 2005 at a peace rally that included the leadership of a secular peace organization known as A.N.S.W.E.R. (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) because ANSWER is actually a front group for an oldline Marxist organization that hates Israel (NOT just Israeli policies–ANSWER denies Israel’s right to exist at all!) and they passed out signs saying “Draft the Bush Twins.”  I did attend some mass rallies that ANSWER also attended (you can’t predict who else will show up), but I denounced their signs and brought my own with better messages–and I wrote about why such signs were not helpful, no matter who made them.  Everyone knew and still knows that I consider George W. Bush to deserve a trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity–but I denounced hate speech by some on the left against him and his family at every turn.

This is ALWAYS wrong–and it is especially dangerous in a society like ours with a long history of political violence.  The pulpits that either encourage this or are silent about it are no different from those that encouraged or were silent about the violence against civil rights workers in my childhood.

Time to be counted. My conservative Christian friends:  If you do not speak out against this, you are no worse than the hatemongers who stir up terrorists.  There are times when silence equals complicity and this is one of them. Speak up–no matter how you feel about this president.  In fact, the MORE you dislike him and the more your church knows that, the MORE you need to condemn this violent “praying.”  It is an abomination before God.

November 21, 2009 Posted by | prayer, U.S. politics, violence | 2 Comments

Against Conventional Political Wisdom: Ruminations

  • Conventional Wisdom (CW): The Republican victories in the governor’s races in NJ and VA prove that Democrats are in real trouble in next year’s mid-term elections and will probably lose over 20 House seats and lose the Senate altogether.  Umm, sorry, but no, it doesn’t.  VA: Almost all the issues were local and VA just followed it’s historic pattern of electing governor’s from the party NOT in the White House–a tradition dating over 4 decades, now.  I think Creigh Deeds (D) could have bucked that trend, but, for reasons I can’t fathom, he ran a terrible general election campaign after running a fantastic grassroots, come from behind, primary against the better-monied, better-connected, Terry McCauliffe.  NJ: Corzine was in trouble even before Obama was elected. The only thing which made this a real race was the ethics problems (possible illegalities) of now gov-elect Christie. NJ voters picked the guy they hated least.  Now, that doesn’t mean that Democrats won’t face some serious challenges in ’10, especially if the economy is still sluggish. The president’s party traditionally loses seats in the mid-term elections–only 3 times since the Civil War has that not been the case.  But, if the Dems can show the American people that they are fighting hard for them and doing their best to lower unemployment, then the losses need not be high–and the GOP problems recruiting will help.  I see no way for the Republicans, even if ’10 is a good year for them, to net the 11 seats it would take to reclaim the Senate Majority, but it will be hard for Dems to keep the supermajority of 60.
  • CW: Obama’s in real trouble since his polling numbers have now dropped below 50% approval rating.  Since WWII, every president except Eisenhower fell below 50% at some point in his first year in office.  Ronald Reagan, who was reelected in the largest landslide ever in ’84 (I hate writing that, but, unlike the rightwing, I live in REALITY), tied Obama in waiting until month 10 before falling below 50%. George W. Bush fell below 50% approval in 4 months, until 9/11 artificially sent his approval ratings to c. 90% for months.  Bush was below 50% in January of ’04 and became the first incumbent pres. since the Civil War to win reelection when starting their reelection year below 50%.  So, Obama’s current dip does NOT mean that he’ll lose in ’12.  It does make it harder for him to advance his agenda through Congress, but if gets meaningful healthcare reform signed before Christmas, his approval rating (and that of the Dems in Congress) will rise again. If he passes healthcare reform, some other key legislation, and doesn’t escalate Afghanistan, signs a nuke-cutting treaty with Russia, and makes progress on climate change at Copenhagen, then I will be very surprised if he doesn’t start the New Year with about 55% approval. If he and Congress can pivot to work hard on jobs, jobs, jobs, early in ’10, then expect his political capital to grow again. And the same polls showing the pres. below 50% approval rating still show him doing better than all 4 of his most likely GOP opponents, so it’s WAY too early for GOPers to celebrate.
  • CW: If the President begins to drawdown troops in Afghanistan, he will commit political suicide.  Really? LBJ found just the opposite: escalating an unwinnable and increasingly unpopular war is the path to political suicide.  The American people are war weary. If Obama leads to a way out of Afghanistan that shows he remains serious about terrorist threats, but realizes that there is no military solution to Afghanistan, he will reinspire the young–key to his reelection and to his party’s continued success.  In this case, the right thing is also the politically smart thing.
  • CW: Sarah Palin has alienated enough of the Republican establishment to make sure that she is never nominated by that party for president.  Don’t be so sure.  She is the most charismatic figure of the GOP’s (shrinking) increasingly far-right base.  Primaries are dominated by the true believers of each party. When I think of her likely competition:  Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty, Charlie Crist, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, and Mike Huckabee, I think Palin’s has a better than even chance of being the next GOP presidential nominee.  That said, I think her chances of winning the White House are very slim.  She alienates independents and you can’t win the White House without them.
  • CW:  The economy will ruin Democrats’ chances in 2010.  It certainly could. The CW is not completely off-base here.  People vote their pocketbooks and high unemployment is the biggest obstacle Democrats have next year.  BUT:  The GOP losses in ’06 and ’08 were so large, and their current divisions so wide, that they do not seem poised to capitalize on this.  And, if the Democrats are shown to be working hard on the unemployment problem, even if the results are slow or modest at first, then they can climb the steep hill in ’10.  The real challenge will be one of perception:  For good reasons, many who voted Democratic in ’08, now believe the Democrats have worked harder to save Wall Street and big corporations than they have to help the poor and working classes.  Obama and the Congressional Dems made a huge mistake early this Spring in trying to calm anger at the bankers and investors, instead of channeling that anger constructively.  So, many turned the anger away from the bankers to the government–and this is politically dangerous to the majority party.  From now to next November, the people need to see the president and Congressional Dems as ON THEIR SIDE and FIGHTING for them. Economic populism is strong again and it will either work for the Dems or burn down their house–no in-betweens.  If they can win the perception battle and frame the issues their way, coupled with the weakened state of the GOP, then they could defy the odds in ’10 as they did in ’98 when CW predicted a GOP landslide, but the Dems made gains in the House and actually won a slim majority in the Senate.  Then, if, as I believe the economy recovers for most people by 2011, expect 2012 to be a good year for Obama and the Democrats–and that could be true even if ’10 proves a good year for the GOP. (We saw that during the last recession of any depth, ’79-82.  Reagan lost badly in the ’82 mid-terms, but by ’83 the economy was improving nicely and so in ’84, he was able to pronounce it “Morning in America,” and ask “Are you better off than four years ago?” and win the largest landslide victory in U.S. political history.)  The 2 issues that could save the Democrats in ’10 are JOBS, and immigration reform.  EVERYONE favors job creation. And Republican opposition to immigrants, especially Latinos (fastest growing ethnic group in the U.S.), is killing them.
  • CW: Republican presidential hopes will be better in ’16 than ’12.  True.  Since the end of WWII, the U.S. has seldom allowed one party the White House for more than 8 years.  And never more than ’12. So, if Obama’s popularity is high in ’16 and the Dems have a good candidate, they could hold on to win a 3rd term–but that person is very unlikely to be a two termer.  But there are too many unknowns between now and ’12, never mind now and ’16 or ’20. 
  • CW: The violent rhetoric and actual political violence in America is unprecedented.  No.  Actually, eras of rapid social change have USUALLY been accompanied by hatred, fear, and violence on the part of sizeable minorities.  I’m old enough to remember the Civil Rights era (though too young to have participated) and the amazing victories were accompanied by bombings of churches, assassinations, riots, and some of the worst public hate speech ever.  This doesn’t mean I don’t worry. I do. I worry about assassination attempts on Pres. Obama and others. I worry about domestic terrorism–connected to MANY religions, including the right wing of Christianity, or to secular ideologies–not just to fanatic versions of Islam.   We need to work against this–but I think we’ll survive it as we make social progress.

November 20, 2009 Posted by | U.S. politics | Comments Off on Against Conventional Political Wisdom: Ruminations

Endorsing Mike Slaton for KY House District 41

Having  just moved to our first home, I am not certain that I am still part of District 41, but I want to endorse Mike Slaton of Phoenix Hill in the May 2010 Democratic primary.  He’s a true progressive and we could use more in Frankfort.  A Louisville native, he is a B.A. (cum laude) in History from the University of Louisville, and works for Louisville Metro Parks, coodinating volunteers.  He formerly worked for the Fairness Campaign, a Louisville organization which advocates for justice for LGBT folk.  He and his partner just purchased their first home in Phoenix Hill and this is Mike’s first campaign for elective office.

On the issues:

  • Slaton advocates micro-loans to combat poverty in KY, community investing, and affordable housing.  He will demand that drug addiction be treated as a disease, not a crime.  He wants to tie prison terms to accomlishments like earning college degrees and he supports automatic restoration of voting rights for felons who have served their terms.  He also wants to end for-profit prisons in the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
  • On social programs, Slaton wants to expand efforts to reduce poverty, reduce addiction, and prevent homelessness.  He wants to help veterans to return to civilian life, demand government be responsive to those who need it the most.  He brings the perspective that prevention saves lives and money.
  • Slaton opposes mountaintop removal and wants to reduce KY’s dependence on King Coal–pushing for more renewable energy.
  • He wants to bring the perspective that quality healthcare, decent jobs, quality education, and ecological integrity are human rights.

In the nearly 30 years that I have lived in Kentucky, I don’t think I have seen as progressive a politician as Mike Slaton in the state legislature.  He is young enough that he could one day be a U.S. Rep., state or U.S. Senator, or KY gov.  We need progressives in each of these positions, but I’ll gladly start with the state house.

His website is Mike Slaton for Kentucky House.  He also has a Facebook Fan Page.

I urge all residents of District 41 to vote for Mike Slaton this coming May.


November 19, 2009 Posted by | U.S. politics | 6 Comments

American Democratic Socialist Heroes

Yes, I’ve learned from Karl Marx.  Though never considering myself any kind of doctrinaire Marxist, I find Marx’s critique of Capital unanswerable, especially the alienation of workers from the fruits of their labor.  I’ve learned from heterodox, creative Marxists like Antonio Gramsci, Herbert Marcuse, the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School (escpecially Habermas), British Fabians and others.  But when I call myself a democratic socialist and think of myself as standing in the democratic socialist tradition of struggle for economic democracy to complement political democracy and for a free, non-racist, non-sexist, non-classist, ecologically sound, non-heterosexist society, it is primarily the home-grown American socialist heroes and heroines of whom I think.  Below are a few that have been especially influential and inspiring to me.  There is no order in the listing except who I think of first, etc.

  • Eugene V. Debs (1855-1926).  A prominent labor leader in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen in his youth, Debs founded the American Railway Union (1894), the Socialist Party of America (1901), and the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies) (1905).  He ran for president five times on the Socialist Party ticket, winning millions of votes, though never a single electoral vote. (The Electoral College and the filibuster in the U.S. Senate, are the two most anti-democratic features of our republic’s structure and both need abolishing.) A pacifist, Debs openly opposed U.S. entry into World War I which, because Congress had passed an Espionage Act which made any opposition to the war effort the equivalent of treason (a law which was clearly unconstitutional), landed Debs in prison for 10 years. He ran for president from prison and won over 2 million votes!  He was not pardoned and released until 1923, when Pres. Harding pardoned him as an old man.  His particular Socialist Party had since died, torn itself apart while he was imprisoned over support or opposition to the new Bolshevik regime in the USSR.  But Debs’ ideals of economic empowerment, organized working people demanding justice for their labor, and international movement of workers, opposition to war as a tool of capitalist oppression, and the dignity of common people live on.  Favorite Debs quotes include “While there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a “criminal element,” I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” 
  • W. E. B. DuBois (1868-1963). First African-American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard, DuBois was a historian, sociologist (including sociologist of religion), criminologist, civil rights activist, pan-Africanist, who flirted with Communism, but returned to democratic socialism.  He once ran for NY Senator on the American Labor Party ticket. 
  • Mary Harris “Mother” Jones (1830-1930). Labor leader and organizer famous for her slogan, “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”  Considered the “Miner’s Angel” because of her strong advocacy for miners against exploitive bosses, dangerous working conditions, child labor, bad wages, poor benefits, etc.  Yes, she is the inspiration for the magazine, Mother Jones.
  • Jane Addams (1860-1935), Nobel Prize Laureate, who founded Hull House in Chicago and with it, social work in the United States.  An early feminist, she worked to end poverty in the United States and to advance the cause of women worldwide.  Also a pacifist, she was the founding head of the Women’s Peace Party and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.
  • Norman Thomas (1884-1968).  Son of an Ohio Presbyterian minister, Thomas graduated magna cum laude from Princeton University, before following in his father’s footsteps, graduating from Union Theological Seminary of NY and becoming a Presbyterian minister.  A pacifist, Thomas preached against the U.S. entering into WWI and became an early member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.  He soon became a major leader of the Socialist Party of America and ran for president 6 times. 
  • Dorothy Day (1897-1980).  She flirted with Communism in her youth as a radical, anarchist, journalist, but after a conversion near the time of the birth of her only child, Tamar, she became a baptized Catholic.  Then, she co-founded the Catholic Worker movement with Peter Maurin, combining democratic socialism, pacifism,  with teachings of the Gospels and the Catholic social encyclicals.
  • Michael Harrington (1928-1989) , trained at Yale as a lawyer, this founder and chair of the Democratic Socialists of America (not a political party, but a movement), he was an early participant in the Catholic Worker movement, but lost his faith in God.  A writer, political activist, professor of political science, radio commentator, Harrington’s The Other America:  Poverty in the United States, inspired the Johnson administration’s War on Poverty.
  • A. Philip Randolph (1889-1979) was the head of the powerful Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and a major labor and civil rights leader.
  • Pauli Murray (1910-1985) first African-American woman to earn a Juris Doctor from Yale Law School.  A civil rights activist, writer, poet, feminist, and one of the earliest women ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church.  Murray was always a democratic socialist.
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), although never the Communist that J. Edgar Hoover and others charged him with being, was attracted to socialism and, after his visit to India in 1960, and  Sweden and Norway in 1964, became a democratic socialist in thought, though never part of any Socialist party or organization.
  • Cornel West (1954-), Professor of Religious Studies and Philosophy at Princeton University, and one of the great public intellectuals of our day.  Has been a co-Chair of the Democratic Socialists of America.
  • Gary J.  Dorrien (1952-) is an Episcopal priest, theologian, and Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Christian Ethics at Union Theological Seminary.  He is a strong advocate of economic democracy and historian of the Social Gospel and of socialism in the United States.
  • UPDATE:   I forgot to include:
  • Ella Baker (1903-1986), civil and human rights activist. Never part of any socialist party, she worked for labor and economic justice causes and shared socialist ideals and convictions.
  • A. J. Muste (1885-1967) began as a candidate for ministry in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) who went to Union Theological Seminary of New York. As a student he became involved in labor and social gospel causes and joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation.  Later pastored a Congregationalist church while working on labor issues–led to loss of his church. Temporarily, he lost his faith and adopted the Trotskyite form of Marxism.  On a visit to the USSR and then a meeting with Trotsky in the latter’s exile, Muste was dramatically reconverted to pacifist Christianity.  He became a Quaker and the Executive Director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. He joined the Socialist Party of America and campaigned for Norman Thomas. In retirement from the F.O.R., Muste went to work for the War Resisters’ League.
  • Bayard Rustin (1910-1987), gay African-American Quaker who was imprisoned for resisting the draft during WWII.  Former communist who broke with the Communist Party over Stalin and joined the Socialist Party of America.  Rustin was prominent in peace and human rights issues–and was the behind the scenes planner of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. 

These are but a few of the many key thinkers and activists in the American tradition of Democratic Socialism.  I place myself with the experimental, non-dogmatic, pragmatist and pacifist strand of this heritage.

November 13, 2009 Posted by | biography, economic justice, heroes, labor, poverty, Religious Social Criticism, social history, U.S. politics | | 7 Comments

The Struggle for Marriage Equality: A U.S. Update

I have made clear my support for marriage equality.  But this is not a post making the argument for legal recognition of same-sex marriages.  This is simply a report on the state of the struggle as of November of 2009. 

Hawai’i.  In 1993, the Hawai’ian State Supreme Court rules that the state law limiting civil marriage to heterosexual couples is unconstitutional unless the state can show (1) compelling state interests for the discrimination of same-sex couples and (2) that the limitation is narrowly drawn so that other rights are not impacted.  This case causes such panic that the U.S. Congress passes the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) which forbids federal law from recognizing same-sex marriages–and any couples married in states which do recognize such from receiving any of the federal benefits which are given heterosexual married couples.  This “preemptive strike” was designed by the Republican controlled Congress to cause problems for Pres. Bill Clinton (D)’s reelection campaign against Sen. Bob Dole (R-KS), since it was presumed that Clinton would veto the legislation.  Instead, on 21 Sept. 1996, Pres. Clinton signed DOMA into law and went on to defeat Dole in November.  On 03 November 1998, Hawai’i voters amend their state consitution to allow the Hawai’i state legislature to limit marriage to heterosexual couples. In light of this, the Hawai’ian Supreme Court dismissed the suit challenging that law on 06 December 1998–so it was never decided whether the law would have been unconstitutional or not.  As of this writing, there have been no further efforts by marriage equality advocates to change the laws in Hawai’i in their favor and marriage remains reserved for opposite sex couples in the Aloha State.  Hawai’i has recognited “Reciprocal Benefits” for same-sex couples, having some of the legal recognitions of marriage, since 1997.

Massachussetts.  On 18 November 2003, the MA State Supreme Court ruled that banning same-sex mar riage violated the state constitution.  On 17 May 2004 same-sex marriage became legal in MA.  There was an abortive attempt in February 2004 to amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage, but it was never completed and there have been no further attempts.  The experience in MA seems to show that acceptance of marriage equality by a majority of the general public takes about two (2) years.

California.  California began recognizing same-sex Domestic Partnerships in 2000. At first these Domestic Partnerships had only a fraction of the legal rights of civil marriage, but they were expanded over time.  The mayor of San Francisco began offering same-sex marriage licenses in 2003 until the courts stopped him and ruled those marriages invalid.  29 September 2005, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-CA) vetoes a legislative bill to legalize same-sex marriage. He vetoed a second such bill on 12 October 2007.  15 May 2008, the Supreme Court of CA rules that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional.  Gay and lesbian couples begin to get married on 16 June 2008.  04 November 2008, CA voters pass Proposition 8, a ballot initiative that amends the state Constitution to outlaw same-sex marriage–it takes effect 05 November 2008 and marriage licenses to same-sex couples cease that day. A legal challenge to the law, claiming that this is more than an amendment, but a major revision of the Constitution (and thus cannot be enacted by simply ballot measure) is rejected by the CA Supreme Court (26 May 2009)–but the Court says that those marriages performed in the few months that same-sex marriage was equal will continue to be valid.    11 October 2009, CA Gov. Schwarzenegger signs into law the recognition in CA of same-sex marriages performed in other states.  Currently, marriage equality advocates are debating whether to try to repeal Proposition 8 in 2010 or wait until 2012 when electoral turnout will be greater because of the presidential election.  The 2012 date would give both advocates and opponents of same-sex marriage more time to mobilize supporters and try to change minds.

Connecticut.  Connecticut passed a Civil Unions law in 2005.  On 10 October 2008, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that discriminating against same-sex couples in civil marriage violated the state constitution.  The court ordered the legislature to legalize same-sex marriage.  12 November 2008, same-sex marriages began in CT.  23 April 2009, Gov. Jodi Rell (R-CT) signed into law the statutory recognition of same-sex marriages previously recognized only by court order.  On the same day, Gov. Rell signed a law that would convert existing same-sex civil unions into marriages beginning 01 October 2010.

Vermont.  On 20 December 1999, the VT State Supreme Court rules that denial of benefits and rights “incidental to marriage” to same-sex couples violates the states “common benefits” clause.  In response, the VT legislature created a same-sex “civil unions” law  in 2000 which grants same-sex couples the legal and civil rights and benefits of marriage, but without the name “marriage.” This civil unions law is signed by then-Gov.  Howard Dean(D-VT)–who later wishes he had pushed the legislature for full marriage equality.  The experience of VT with civil unions–and of many residents going to nearby MA for marriage ceremonies–over a 5 year period, leads for a strong push for same-sex marriage recognition, but this is opposed by Gov. Jim Douglas (R-V).  On 06 April 2009, the Vermont General Assembly passed legislation recognizing same sex marriages, but this was vetoed the same day by Gov. Douglas.  On 07 April 2009, the Vermont General Assembly overrode the governor’s veto with a two-thirds majority.  On 1 Sept. 2009, same-sex marriages began in Vermont.

Iowa.  On 03 April 2009, the Iowa State Supreme Court declared that civil marriage could not be restricted to heterosexual couples and, thus, recognized the legality of same-sex marriage.  An attempt to repeal this decision is underway, but amending the state constitution is not easy in IA.  An amendment must pass both houses of the state legislature two consecutive years running and then be confirmed by popular ballot.  Democrats currently control both houses of the state legislatur and the leadership has vowed to prevent any such legislation from reaching the floor. If the Republicans were to win back both houses of the state legislature in 2010, they could not introduce legislation to amend the constitution to ban same-sex marriage until January 2011. It would have to pass both chambers in 2011 and 2o12 and then be sent for ballot ratification. So, the earliest a repeal of marriage equality in IA could occur would be 2013 and marriage equality advocates are hopeful that state residents will be “used to” same-sex marriage by then and not go along with repeal.  The longer the law is on the book, the greater its chances for permanence.  As of 27  April 2009, same-sex marriages have been legally performed in IA.

Maine.  In 2004, Maine adopted a Domestic Parnerships law that granted same-sex couples some of the rights and benefits of marriage.  06 May 2009, Maine Gov. Baldacci signed the Marriage Equality Bill which would have allowed same sex marriages to begin on 11 September 2009.  However, Maine law allows for a People’s Veto by ballot initiative.  That initiative, called Question 1, hired the same firms that successfully repealed CA’s marriage equality through Proposition 8.  But marriage equality advocates were confident that they could defeat Q 1–and, initially, on election night 03 November, it looked like Marriage Equality won, but as the night wore on, the People’s Veto won 53-47%.  Thus, same-sex marriage was repealed without ever taking effect in ME on 03 November 2009.  Marriage Equality advocates are not sure where to start next in ME.

New Hampshire.  Same sex civil unions are legalized in 2008.  On 23 March 2009, the NH House of Representatives passes legislation recognizing same-sex marriage.  29 April, the NH Senate passes same-sex marriage with minor amendments designed to protect the religious liberty of churches, synagogues, mosques, etc. which have religious objections to same-sex marriage.  06 May, the NH House concurs with the amendments of the senate and the bill is sent to Gov. John Lynch (R-NH).  Lynch had previously said he would veto such legislation and there are not enough votes to override, but the amendments lead him to reconsider.  Lynch says he will sign the bill with a few further protections for religious liberty and outlines them.  On 03 June 2009, Lynch signs same-sex marriage into law–effective 01 January 2010.  There is an attempt at repeal in NH both by legislature and by ballot–they cannot start until 01 January 2010.  Because the law was passed so narrowly, nothing should be taken for granted.  Whether NH’s marriage equality law stays past January 2010 is yet to be decided.

New York.  New York passed legislation in 05 that recognized same-sex Domestic Partnerships with limited rights.  In 2007, New York’s State Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriages performed elsewhere must be recognized by New York.  On 12 May 2009, the New York State Assembly (lower House) passed a law allowing same-sex marriages in New York and sent it to the New York Senate.  The New York Senate has 32 Democrats and 30 Republicans and it would take 32 votes to pass same-sex marriage.  The Senate has vowed a vote on the bill before the end of the year–presumably the delay is because they are currently 2 votes short. If the law passes the Senate, Gov. David Paterson has promised to sign it–has, in fact, been a strong champion of marriage equality.  Gov. Paterson faces a tough re-election fight in 2010 and it is not clear if any successor would sign the bill, so marriage equality advocates are pushing hard for passage this year.  Ballot initiatives are illegal in New York, so repeal would be more difficult–and the fact that NY already recognizes same-sex marriages performed out of state argues for the staying power of marriage equality if it can clear the senate this year.

New Jersey.  New Jersey legally recognized same-sex civil unions beginning in 2007 after the NJ Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples were entitled to all the legal benefits of marriage.  Momentum has been growing for full marriage equality, but, originally advocates had not planned to initiate legislation until early 2010.  However, the defeat of incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine (D-NJ) by Atty. Gen.  Bob Christie (R-NJ) on 03 Nov. ’09 has led to a hurried run at the legislature.  Corzine is a GLBT advocate, whereas Christie has already promised to veto any such legislation.  NJ opinion is about evenly split.  If NJ passes same-sex marriage this year, Corzine will sign the law.  If not, they either have to wait until Christie is defeated, or build up enough support to override his veto. 

Washington, D.C.  In 1992, Domestic Partnerships for same-sex couples were recognized in the District of Columbia. Over the years these have been expanded ever closer to those of heterosexual marriage.  D.C. recognizes same-sex marriages performed elsewhere.  A bill to legally perform same-sex marriages in the nation’s capital cleared a key committee 4-1 this past Tues. ’10 Nov. 2009.  It is due to be voted on by the full city council on 01 Dec. and 10 of the 13 council members are co-sponsors of the bill, so passage is assured.  However, there may be a ballot initiative for repeal here as in ME.

Washington (state).  Domestic partnerships were approved in 2007 and expanded step-by-step until they now are civil marriage in all but name.  On 03 November, Washington residents voted by ballot initiative to keep this “all but marriage” law.  If the pattern of acceptance holds, Washington state will be ready to recognize same-sex marriages by 2012–especially if the legislature votes before then to recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere.

In 2004, as part of the effort to “re”-elect Pres. George W. Bush (R), who was in a very tight race with Sen. John F. Kerry (D-MA), Republicans pushed to drive up the conservatives at the polls by placing ballot initiatives in key states that would ban same-sex marriage constitutionally.  Between ’04 and ’08, over 20 states adopted amendments banning same-sex marriage.  Now, 2 of the states that banned same-sex marriage by constitutional amendment in ’04, are reconsidering.

Oregon.  Oregon was one of many states in ’04 which voted to amend its constitution to ban same-sex marriage, but, unlike some other states (e.g., Kentucky), OR did not ban civil unions or domestic partnerships, too.  In 2007, the OR state legislature passed legislation banning discrimination against LGBT persons and also allowed same-sex couples to register as domestic partners with limited benefits.  Marriage equality advocates are building on this base and are working for consciousness raising throughout the state in advance of plans to attempt to amend the state constitution, again, granting marriage equality in 2012.

Michigan.  Michigan was another of the many states which used ballot referenda to amend their constitutions to ban same-sex marriage in ’04.  But Speaker of the House Pro Tem (State Rep.) Pam Byrnes made good on a campaign promise last year and in June 2009 introduced an amendment to repeal the ban on same-sex marriage.  If the bill receives 2/3 support from both the state house and state senate, then it will go to voters for repeal in 2010.  I expect it to be a very close vote.

There are also civil unions or domestic partnerships in Nevada, Maryland, Colorado, and Wisconsin–which makes each of these states likely to be the next frontiers in the struggle for marriage equality.

In June, the Respect Marriage Act was introduced into both chambers of the U.S. Congress. If approved, the Respect Marriage Act would repeal the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), and allow the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages performed in the states that have them.

With the current makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court, I understand why marriage equality advocates are reluctant to challenge DOMA or state laws banning same-sex marriage in federal court.  I would like to see a friendlier Supreme Court makeup, first.  But it seems to me (a non-lawyer) that a good legal case can be made for ruling that banning same-sex marriage is unconstitutional.  1) Loving v. Virginia (1967) struck down state bans on interracial marriage–bans which, at that time, still existed in 13 states and the District of Columbia. Loving v. Virginia established that marriage is a natural right and that customs and prejudices cannot restrict the liberties of two people seeking the bonds of marriage.  Now, to date, that has only been applied to heterosexual couples.  2) Opponents of same-sex marriage argue that same-sex couples have never been recognized as marriage.  They compare it to other cases in which the courts have forbidden the relationships to be recognized as valid marriages:  cases of incest, or of an adult marrying a minor, or of bestiality.  But in Lawrence v. Texas (2003), the Supreme Court struck down the so-called “sodomy laws” of the various states–private homosexual acts between consenting adults cannot be made illegal.  Yes, there is far more to marriage than sexuality, much less sex acts, but this decision suggests that the Court already recognizes a difference between same-sex adult couples and the illegitimate relationships which opponents would use as an analogy: incestuous couples, liasons between an adult and a minor,  liasons between a human and an animal, etc.  If the law already distinguishes between same-sex couples (whose liberties to be a couple cannot be infringed) and other non-heterosexual couples (whose liasons can be declared illegal), then it seems that the argument made in Loving v. Virginia for heterosexual interracial marriages should apply to same-sex marriages.  3) The argument that marriage must entail the possibility of progeny fails on several counts–a. We would not marry any couple where the woman was past menopause or the man had any reasons to be infertile if the possibility of children were definitive of marriage.  b. Just as heterosexual married couples can adopt children or (now) use hi-tech means to become pregnant or hire a surrogate, so those options are also open to the same-sex couple, so that even if we consider children to be a usual component of marriage, same-sex couples are not thereby prohibited.   4) The argument that heterosexuality is a traditional component of the definition of civil marriage is irrelevant since definitions of marriage have changed over time.  Once marriages had to be arranged–and girls were married at ages we would now consider to be child sexual abuse.  Once interracial marriages or marriages between persons of different religious persuasions were considered null and void, but now they are not.  There is no reason that marriage cannot now evolve to include same-sex marriage.

If the Supreme Court were to rule in such a fashion, all the current state laws prohibiting same-sex marriage would be struck down.  Depending on how fast the makeup of the court changes, and who is confirmed (and how quickly) in judicial openings, I would think that such a ruling might occur sometime in the next decade–prior to 2020.  That’s my best guess.  In the meantime, the state-by-state struggles continue.


November 12, 2009 Posted by | civil liberties, courts, democracy, family, GLBT issues, homosexuality, human rights., U.S. politics | 15 Comments