Friday, July 28, 2006

Words fail me... again

I am mute with wonder. The breath-taking mental gymnastics... Savor the president's words:
It’s an interesting period because, instead of having foreign policies based upon trying to create a sense of stability, we have a foreign policy that addresses the root causes of violence and instability.

For a while, American foreign policy was just, Let’s hope everything is calm — manage calm. But beneath the surface brewed a lot of resentment and anger that was manifested on September the 11th.

And so we’ve taken a foreign policy that says: On the one hand, we will protect ourselves from further attack in the short run by being aggressive in chasing down the killers and bringing them to justice.

And make no mistake: They’re still out there, and they would like to harm our respective peoples because of what we stand for. In the long term, to defeat this ideology — and they’re bound by an ideology — you defeat it with a more hopeful ideology called freedom.
That is to say, the fact that Baghdad has become hell on earth, and that our troops are "driving around waiting to get blown up" are good things - evidence of a clever new policy aimed at forcing long-simmering hostilities to the surface!

First, there was the flypaper theory. Then the increased-violence-is-a-sign-of-insurgent-desperation theory. Now there's the violence-is-good theory (aka the Civil War could be a good thing theory). And William F. Buckley thinks Bush will have no foreign policy legacy?!?!

  • What a fabulous idea. Molly Ivins says we should draft Bill Moyers to run for president, and she's "serious as a stroke" about it.
    The poor man who is currently our president has reached such a point of befuddlement that he thinks stem cell research is the same as taking human lives, but that 40,000 dead Iraqi civilians are progress toward democracy.
  • Another fabulous idea - probably equally likely to happen. Rep. Lynn Woolsey says Congress should repeal the president's war powers.

  • Perhaps you read earlier this month that increasing numbers of neo-Nazis are infiltrating the US Army, thanks to increasingly desperate recruiting. Today I received an email about a letter being circulated through Congress by Representatives Artur Davis and Eliot Engel, urging the Pentagon to adopt a zero-tolerance policy on extremists in the military. My friend's email says we can sign on at Color of Change, asking our representatives to sign this letter. It takes no time - please do it! (By the way, the recruiting problems won't end anytime soon.)

  • Speaking of spare parts, Eleanor Clift notes that - contrary to what the president might have you think, only 128 of 400,000 frozen embryos have ever been "adopted" (hat tip Atrios).

  • How dare they protest King George!
    When school was canceled to accommodate a campaign visit by President Bush, the two 55-year-old teachers reckoned the time was ripe to voice their simmering discontent with the administration's policies.

    Christine Nelson showed up at the Cedar Rapids rally with a Kerry-Edwards button pinned on her T-shirt; Alice McCabe clutched a small, paper sign stating "No More War." What could be more American, they thought, than mixing a little dissent with the bunting and buzz of a get-out-the-vote rally headlined by the president?

    Their reward: a pair of handcuffs and a strip search at the county jail.

    Authorities say they were arrested because they refused to obey reasonable security restrictions, but the women disagree: "Because I had a dissenting opinion, they did what they needed to do to get me out of the way," said Nelson, who teaches history and government at one of this city's middle schools.

    "I tell my students all the time about how people came to this country for freedom of religion, freedom of speech, that those rights and others are sacred. And all along I've been thinking to myself, 'not at least during this administration.'"

    Their experience is hardly unique.

    In the months before the 2004 election, dozens of people across the nation were banished from or arrested at Bush political rallies, some for heckling the president, others simply for holding signs or wearing clothing that expressed opposition to the war and administration policies.

    Similar things have happened at official, taxpayer-funded, presidential visits, before and after the election. Some targeted by security have been escorted from events, while others have been arrested and charged with misdemeanors that were later dropped by local prosecutors.

    Now, in federal courthouses from Charleston, W.Va., to Denver, federal officials and state and local authorities are being forced to defend themselves against lawsuits challenging the arrests and security policies.

    While the circumstances differ, the cases share the same fundamental themes. Generally, they accuse federal officials of developing security measures to identify, segregate, deny entry or expel dissenters...
    There's a lot more, and it is a surprisingly critical story; I've learned to expect so much less from the AP! (It appears that Bush's favorite Democrat, Joe Lieberman, has been learning from the master.)

  • Another story on the up-and-coming religious left. I was going to be a little snarky about it, but I can't top Pastor Dan:
    "...(I)nstead of a response, I've decided simply to refer to my handy-dandy checklist:

  • Declaration that the religious left is back? Check.

  • Obligatory quotes from members of the UCC or Unitarians? Check, two UCC'ers quoted, and don't think we're not grateful.

  • Obligatory name-check of Martin Luther King? Check.

  • Experts wondering if the religious left can be as politically influential as its counterpart? Check.

  • Due to inability to organize and/or find a coherent agenda? Check.

  • Experts fretting that religion and/or politics will only get more polarized? Check.

  • Religious Right leader sneering at religious left for being too small to worry about? Check.

  • Obligatory quote from Jim Wallis? Check.

    Wheee. If I'd know journalism was this easy, I'd have gone into it, instead of working for a living. All you have to do is follow the template - you don't even have to go in order!"

  • Did you notice the count-down clock I put over in the sidebar?
  • Friday, July 21, 2006

    "These boys and girls are not spare parts..."

    The Frat-Boy-in-Chief, home from the G-8, all cleaned up and scripted (God knows, and now the world knows, how desperately he needs to be scripted), delivered a sentimental and scientifically misleading rationale for his first-ever-in-6.5 years-veto -- thus making good on his promise to deny hope to the tens of thousands who could benefit from stem cell research. But it's all OK, because Karl Rove apparently knows something about adult stem cells that scientists don't. Still, the plain fact is (from ThinkProgress):
    Only about 10 percent of embryos are adopted — the rest are disposed of. Had Bush signed the bill into law, they could instead be used to develop potentially live-saving cures for millions of people.
    Yes, disposed of.

  • The people who have the least, pay the most. But that's really of no interest to Bush.
    "Does he often talk about poverty? No," Snow said. "There hasn't been a direct discussion of poverty, but he is focused on eliminating the barriers that stand in the way of people making progress."
  • Polls show the public is ready to sweep out the GOP this fall, and Mark Crispin thinks that means the GOP will be playing more dirty tricks than ever this fall. They've as much as said so. And they've certainly been laying the groundwork:
    What the Republicans have created is, in effect, a system where they have multiple tools to deter their opponents from casting ballots in the first place--through the voter-ID requirement, the strict rules on provisional balloting and so on--and then making the vote count itself so opaque as to be beyond redress.
    Last month, the Times said: "If there was ever a sign of a ruling party in trouble, it is a game plan that calls for trying to win by discouraging voting." The editorial continued:
    The latest sign that Republicans have an election-year strategy to shut down voter registration drives comes from Ohio. As the state gears up for a very competitive election season this fall, its secretary of state, J. Kenneth Blackwell, has put in place "emergency" regulations that could hit voter registration workers with criminal penalties for perfectly legitimate registration practices. The rules are so draconian they could shut down registration drives in Ohio.

    Mr. Blackwell, who also happens to be the Republican candidate for governor this year, has a history of this sort of behavior. In 2004, he instructed county boards of elections to reject any registrations on paper of less than 80-pound stock -- about the thickness of a postcard. His order was almost certainly illegal, and he retracted it after he came under intense criticism. It was, however, in place long enough to get some registrations tossed out.

    This year, Mr. Blackwell's office has issued rules and materials that appear to require that paid registration workers, and perhaps even volunteers, personally take the forms they collect to an election office. Organizations that run registration drives generally have the people who register voters bring the forms back to supervisors, who can then review them for errors. Under Mr. Blackwell's edict, everyone involved could be committing a crime. Mr. Blackwell's rules also appear to prohibit people who register voters from sending the forms in by mail. That rule itself may violate federal elections law.

    Mr. Blackwell's rules are interpretations of a law the Republican-controlled Ohio Legislature passed recently. Another of the nation's most famous swing states, Florida, has been the scene of similar consternation and confusion since it recently enacted a law that is so harsh that the Florida League of Women Voters announced that it was stopping all voter registration efforts for the first time in 67 years.

    Florida's Legislature, like Ohio's, is controlled by Republicans. Throughout American history both parties have shown a willingness to try to use election law to get results they might otherwise not win at the polls. But right now it is clearly the Republicans who believe they have an interest in keeping the voter base small. Mr. Blackwell and other politicians who insist on making it harder to vote never say, of course, that they are worried that get-out-the-vote drives will bring too many poor and minority voters into the system. They say that they want to reduce fraud. However, there is virtually no evidence that registration drives are leading to fraud at the polls.

    But there is one clear way that Ohio's election system is corrupt. Decisions about who can vote are being made by a candidate for governor. Mr. Blackwell should hand over responsibility for elections to a decision maker whose only loyalty is to the voters and the law.
    I don't suppose that has happened, yet?

  • Here's Krugman, on the lessons of history - in the GOP's own words.

  • Bush personally blocked the justice department from investigating his illegal wiretapping program.
    Bush's decision represents an unusually direct and unprecedented White House intervention into an investigation by the Office of Professional Responsibility, the internal affairs office at Justice, administration officials and legal experts said. It forced OPR to abandon its investigation of the role Justice officials played in authorizing and monitoring the controversial NSA eavesdropping effort, according to officials and government documents.

    "Since its creation some 31 years ago, OPR has conducted many highly sensitive investigations involving Executive Branch programs and has obtained access to information classified at the highest levels," the office's chief lawyer, H. Marshall Jarrett, wrote in a memorandum released yesterday. "In all those years, OPR has never been prevented from initiating or pursuing an investigation."
    You would think that might set off a few more alarms around the republic? At least The Globe gets it. (Seems Bush is more hands-on than we've given him credit for, doesn't it? He also personally authorized the exposure of Valerie Plame.)

  • One of life's great mysteries, solved.

  • Chris Hedges, "Mutually Assured Destruction in the Middle East":
    This is the world of the apocalypse. It is the world where those on either extreme become indistinguishable. And if we do not find a new way to speak, and soon, there will be untold suffering—not only for many innocents in the Middle East but eventually innocents at home. It was the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon that spawned and empowered Hezbollah. It was the decades-long occupation and humiliation of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank by Israel that spawned and empowered Hamas, and it is the brutal American occupation that has bred the legions of extremists in Iraq. And when Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah promises “open war” against Israel, as he did in an address shortly after his Beirut offices were bombed, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says he won’t cease his attack until Israel is secure, it is time to run for cover, especially when George W. Bush is our best hope for peace.
    (But Tony Snow says it's not a war, yet.)

    Please read this terrific TomGram, too.
    What force has done, thanks to the Bush administration's utopian foolishness, is to tie the region's many competing groups, movements, and states into an ever-tightening, Gordion-style knot -- and that knot, in turn, has been ever more tightly hitched to the global economy, so that every tug on any loose end now sends oil prices up another disastrous notch and trembling stock markets into convulsions. (Call it stock-and-awe!) Just Friday, the Dow Jones completed a three-day, 400 point shuddering drop, while oil, not so long ago hovering in the vicinity of $30 for a barrel of crude, managed to hit a staggering $78.40 a barrel by the end of last week -- and remember, this was just based on "nerves," not on more oil supplies actually going off the market, as would certainly happen, one way or another, in a widening conflict in the region.

    In fact, the oil heartlands of the planet look to be heading for further rounds of violence and turmoil and, potentially, the American and global economy with them -- and the only tool imaginable to anybody is still: Force.

    The Bush administration had no wish for other tools -- that was the meaning, after all, of "unilateralism" -- and so now it has no other tools in its "arsenal." It lost most of its allies while in its unilateral dream-state. Focusing all its attention on the Pentagon and on military-to-military relations globally, it also lost whatever modest capacity might have been available to it not just to head down another path, but to deploy the most basic tools of diplomacy. What it has left is, of course, force; but its own on-the-ground forces are dangerously depleted and it's evidently no longer obvious to top administration officials exactly where American force (and forces) should be applied (much as they may loathe the Iranians and Syrians).

    They launched a force party in the Middle East. Now it's in full swing; the club's pilled high with dancers; many of the exits are bolted shut; the bouncers are no longer at the front door; and, on stage, the performers are brandishing blowtorches, while the Earth's last hyperpower and its hyper-commander-in-chief President are watching, helplessly, from the sidelines. As Dan Froomkin, the fine Washington Post on-line columnist, pointed out this week in a column headlined Bush the Bystander, "stopping off in Germany on his way to the G-8 summit in Russia," as the Middle East caught fire, "Bush reserved his greatest enthusiasm for tonight's pig roast -- technically, a wild-boar barbecue -- bringing it up three times. ‘I'm looking forward to that pig tonight,' he gushed."


    Everywhere this administration is being less attended to. Everywhere, others are sharpening their knives, loading their weapons, and preparing to smite their enemies, inspired by the American example, liberated by its failure.
    It's worth the longish read. Meanwhile in Iraq, where things have gotten "far more stable" than in 2003, Baghdad is collapsing, 100 civilians are dying everyday, and attacks on US and Iraqi forces are up 40%. Seems like it's just about time for Cheney to come out of his bunker and tell us the insurgency is in its "last throes."

  • Or perhaps it's time to keep an eye on the Rapture Index - currently at 157, or "fasten your seatbelts" territory. (For those unfamiliar with the tool, read Jon Carroll.)

  • (I keep forgetting to post this.) Refresh your memory of Rev. Tim Simpson's letter about the harrassment of a sixth-grade Jewish student and his family, and then read Jesus' General's brilliant letter to the Stop the ACLU Coalition.

  • Had we known our recent Tour de I-80 would take us through so many potential terrorist targets, we would have carried more duct tape!

  • I never heard this story before, and loved it.
    The Weight of a Snowflake

    A coal tit and a dove were sitting together on the branch of a tree.

    "Do you know the weight of a snowflake?" asked the coal tit.

    "Well!" laughed the dove. "Of course! It weighs nothing at all." And secretly he was thinking that, of course, even a coal tit ought to know that!

    "In that case," said the coal tit, "I must tell you a surprising story.

    "One cold night I was sitting on the branch of a fir tree, when it started to snow. I had nothing better to do, so I started counting the snowflakes as they landed on the twigs and pine needles of my branch.

    I counted up to three million, seven hundred and forty one thousand, nine hundred and fifty two. When the three million, seven hundred and forty one thousand, nine hundred and fifty third snowflake dropped onto my branch, weighing, as you say, nothing at all, the branch broke off and I had to fly away."

    The coal tit smiled at the dove and flew away.

    The dove thought carefully for several minutes, and finally said to himself, "Perhaps only one more person's voice is needed for peace to come to the world."
    When I googled for an origin, I realized I must be one of the only people who've never heard it. Then I wondered what the heck a coal tit was. It appears to be the British version of a chickadee.
  • Monday, July 17, 2006

    "The secular left usually wins"

    So sayeth The Economist in an assessment of the religious left. (It's from May; I'm still working through my pile...) They note that "The religious left is more energised than it has been for years," but suspect it lacks longevity.
    But is this truly a sea-change in American religious politics? Or is it a brief “hallelujah moment”—born of Bush fatigue and political opportunism—that will bring no lasting change? The betting is on the latter. The religious left suffers from two long-term problems. The first is that it is building its house on sand. The groups that make up the heart of the religious left—mainline Protestants, liberal Catholics and reform Jews—are all experiencing long-term decline. Most of the growth in American religion is occurring among conservative churches. And the constituent parts of the religious left are also at odds over important issues. Middle-of-the-road Catholics are happy to march hand-in-hand with mainline Protestants over immigration and inequality. But they often disagree over abortion and gay rights.

    The secular left usually wins
    Serious doubts also persist about how much the Democratic Party is willing to change to embrace religion. Some influential Democrats want real change. Others think that all they need to do is drop a few platitudes to religious voters and the God-gap will disappear. Mr Dean's performance on Pat Robertson's television programme was as telling as it was laughable. He not only chose to talk to a man who plays a much bigger role in the liberal imagination than among evangelicals; he also let slip that Democrats “have an enormous amount in common with the Christian community.”

    The biggest problem for the religious left is that it is badly outgunned by the secular left. The Democratic Party's elites—from interest-groups to funders to activists—are determinedly secular. So are many of its most loyal voters. John Kerry won 62% of the vote of people who never go to church; and that group is the fastest-growing single “religious” group in the country. These secular voters don't just feel indifferent to religion. They are positively hostile to it, regarding it as a embodiment of irrationality and a threat to liberal values such as the right to choose. These crusading secularists are in a particularly militant mood at the moment, as the sales of Kevin Phillips's Bush-bashing book, “American Theocracy”, testify. The last thing they want is a religious left to counterbalance the religious right.
    That little zinger (emphasis mine) propagates a meme the folks over at Talk 2 Action call "demonizing secularism." Barack Obama recently took some heat for remarks that seemed to buy into that frame, as well (and some of the feedback, of course, demonstrated his point precisely). But as "Carlos" at Talk 2 Action commented awhile back, "Even though this theme is largely a rhetorical contrivance of the religious right, religious and secular progressives have not been very effective in responding to it." That's gonna take some cooperation, folks.

    He makes me so proud...

    ...Everytime he goes overseas (video link). (I wonder if he splattered anything on Blair's pink silk tie?)

    Juan Cole assembled the likely order of comments, based on several published accounts, and concludes about Bush's insightful assessment of the Middle East,
    It is an astonishingly simple-minded view of the situation, painted in black and white and making assumptions about who is who's puppet and what the Israeli motivations are...


    It is a little window into the superficial, one-sided mind of the man, who has for six years been way out of his depth.

    I come away from it shaken and trembling.
    Coincidentally, in his column "Is Bush Still Too Dumb to be President?" Jonathan Chait zeroes in on a remarkable item in Ron Suskind's new book, The One Percent Doctrine.
    Ron Suskind's new book, "The One Percent Doctrine," paints a harrowing picture of Bush's intellectual limits. Bush, writes Suskind, "is not much of a reader." He prefers verbal briefings and often makes a horse-sense judgment based on how confident his briefer seems in what he's saying. In August 2001, the CIA was in a panic about an upcoming terrorist attack and drafted a report with the title, "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." When a CIA staffer summed up the memo's contents in a face-to-face meeting with Bush, the president found the briefer insufficiently confident and dismissed him by saying, "All right, you've covered your ass, now," according to Suskind. That turned out to be a fairly disastrous judgment.
    I'd love to read Suskind's book this summer, but I've already got too many underway and several more to read for an upcoming exam. So I will be checking in regularly as Tristero at Hullabaloo blogs about it.

    Friday, July 14, 2006

    Vital signs

    Last week, CBS Evening News ran a short feature about the "emergence" of a religious left. It must have been the very one Jeff Sharlet mentioned in the essay I linked to last weekend. Sure enough, Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo were interviewed (and there was a fleeting appearance by Robert Edgar, of the National Council of Churches) and were described as the left's "own Evangelical leaders." Apparently, a religious left will only make sense to mainstream media if it matches the right, evangelical for evangelical.

    The story declared that the religious left seeks "the same political muscle as the Conservative Christians." Hmmm... Is that actually what we seek? I keep mulling this over. Yes, we seek to redirect a legistlative agenda that has abandoned the poor, the sick, the elderly, and the earth that surrounds and sustains us. Is it the same thing?

    In Sharlet's essay, he refers to the "religious left of the moment" as "tepid," and suggests that it is too willing to conform to media expectations about its shape and priorities:
    Another common mistake made by a media in search of the new religious left is its insistence on finding the color purple — that is, some ostensibly innovative blend of “red” and “blue” values, “fresh” ideas. Again, much of what passes for the religious left complies, declaring, like Michael Lerner of Tikkun, that by mixing more religion into the public sphere we’ll alchemize a whole new liberalism.
    The religious left, he says (if I'm condensing him fairly), will not be viable if it simply tries to make itself the leftie equivalent of the religous right.

    The folks who are looking for that, or perhaps hoping for that, are - I think - missing the point, and it leads to dashed expectations and grave warnings of our impending demise. John Aravosis has decided that the religious left is too disorganized and politically unsophisticated to counter the right. Adele Stan says that growing divisions within the Episcopal Church will kill off the fledgling religious left for good:
    Ever since the rise of the religious right, liberals have longed for a religious counterpart on the left. But that notion was always dubious, and the recent turmoil within the Episcopal Church should put it to rest for good. Without the wholehearted participation of the mainline Protestant churches, there can be no religious left remotely comparable to the Christian right in Protestant-dominated America. And churches in the throes of schism hardly have the wherewithal to marshal their resources in the service of battles in the secular political arena.
    But she says that's OK, because
    In seeking to create a counterpart to the religious right, we tried to force our values through a narrow hole.

    In essence, we bought into the religious authoritarianism of the right, inferring that moral authority proceeds only from religion. In this, we have sold ourselves short.

    Liberal values represent the essence of the world’s great religions. At the root of all of the great faiths are fundamental beliefs in compassion, justice, love, and charity. We have the right -- dare I say the duty? -- to express ourselves as moral agents without the imprimatur of ecclesiastical authority.
    Would I be out of line, here, to remind folks that the religious left is not trying to organize in order to lend "ecclesiastical authority" to liberal politics, secular or otherwise? The religious left has been coalescing and naming itself because many people of faith want to proclaim that their values are not represented by the obsessive, hateful, militaristic, prosperity-gospel politics of the religious right, particularly the Christian right.

    That's why I started this blog, that's why abc joined me in it, that's why many of you read it - and read others like it. (Allow me to refer you, for the umpteenth time, to this terrific essay by Anna Quindlen.) It turns out, of course, that those sentiments are being felt by a lot of people, including some who formerly aligned themselves with the religous right. Randall Balmer, for example. Excerpts of his new book Thy Kingdom Come (which I'll be reading next) are available here and here. That ChronEd excerpt is no longer available without a subscription, but here's a "byte," in which Balmer discusses the fruits of the marriage between the Christian right and the GOP:
    And what has the religious right done with its political influence? Judging by the platform and the policies of the Republican Party - and I'm aware of no way to disentangle the agenda of the Republican Party from the goals of the religious right - the purpose of all this grasping for power looks something like this: an expansion of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, the continued prosecution of a war in the Middle East that enranged our longtime allies and would not meet even the barest of just-war criteria, and a rejiggering of Social Security, the effect of which, most observers agree, would be to fray the social-safety net for the poorest among us.
    It would appear that the excesses of the right might be wearing a little thin. Amy Sullivan and EJ Dionne, Jr. have both written about subtle-but-important shifts away from the extreme right by a number of prominent evangelicals. As Dionne, Jr. sees it:
    The mellowing of evangelical Christianity may well be the big American religious story of this decade. The evolution of the evangelical movement should not be confused with the rise of a religious left. Although the margin of the Republican Party's advantage among white evangelicals is likely to decline from its exceptionally high level in the 2004 election, a substantial majority of white evangelicals will probably remain conservative and continue to vote Republican.

    But the evangelical political agenda is broadening as new voices insist on the urgency of issues such as Third World poverty and the fights against AIDS and human trafficking. Among the most prominent advocates for a wider view of Christian obligation is Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., and author of "The Purpose Driven Life."

    In the meantime, Rich Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals (and a self-described "Ronald Reagan movement conservative"), has been a leader in urging evangelicals to make environmental stewardship a central element of their political mission.
    Call me crazy, but when staunch evangelical leaders are beginning to worry about "leftie" issues like global warming, AIDS, and poverty, and an organization like the Institute for Religion and Democracy (discussed momentarily) devotes itself entirely to destablizing liberal Christian institutions, that tells me the religious left is not as near death as some apparently wish.

    I'm still trying to figure out what exactly Jeff Sharlet means when he says the religious left needs solidarity. We may marvel at the lockstep unity between the Christian right and the Republican party, and the political effectiveness of their unison. But we shouldn't aspire to it. For one thing, the left has a hearty regard for religious pluralism, which will by definition breed variety and dissent (dissent being a good thing, signalling independent thought) in our positions and priorities. Party loyalty and uniformity has led the Christian right to stake out some jaw-dropping positions that toe the Bush administration line, but would seem antithetical to their own aims, and in some cases, the Gospel itself. In Amy Sullivan's article, she tells the remarkable story of a Bible-in-public-schools bill in Alabama. Republicans there opposed a bill authorizing an elective course on the Bible to be taught in public high schools, because it was sponsored by two Democrats! Randall Balmer discovered that the Christian right could not bring itself to oppose torture because that would put them on the wrong side of the Bush administration:
    The torture of human beings, God's creatures - some guilty of crimes, others not - has been justified by the Bush administration, which also believes that it is perfectly acceptable to conduct surveillance on American citizens without putting itself to the trouble of obtaining a court order. Indeed, the chicanery, the bullying, and the flouting of the rule of law that emanates from the nation's capital these days make Richard Nixon look like a fraternity prankster.

    Where does the religious right stand in all this? Following the revelations that the U.S. government exported prisoners to nations that have no scruples about the use of torture, I wrote to several prominent religious-right organizations. Please send me, I asked, a copy of your organization's position on the administration's use of torture. Surely, I thought, this is one issue that would allow the religious right to demonstrate its independence from the administration, for surely no one who calls himself a child of God or who professes to hear "fetal screams" could possibly countenance the use of torture. Although I didn't really expect that the religous right would climb out of the Republican Party's cozy bed over the torture of human beings, I thought perhaps they might poke out a foot and maybe wiggle a toe or two.

    I was wrong. Of the eight religious-right organizations I contacted, only two, the Family Research Council and the Institute on Religion and Democracy, answered my query. Both were eager to defend administration policies. "It is our understanding, from statements released by the Bush Administration," the reply from the Family Research Council read, "that torture is already prohibited as a means of collecting intelligence data." The Institute on Religion and Democracy stated that "torture is a violation of human dignity, contrary to biblical teachings," but conceded that it had "not yet produced a more comprehensive statement on the subject," even months after the revelations. Its president worried that "the anti-torture campaign seems to be aimed exclusively at the Bush administration," there by creating a public-relations challenge.

    I'm sorry, but the use of torture under any circumstances is a moral issue, not a public-relations challenge.
    Can you imagine the religious left uniformly defending the Dems who voted for the invasion of Iraq, or who rubberstamped the president's "PATRIOT" Act, simply because it was the party line? Coincidentally, just this week, the IRD issued a statement chastising other evangelical leaders for signing a declaration opposing the use of torture (hat tip to Americablog):
    Mark Tooley directs the United Methodist Committee of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), based in Washington, DC. Tooley says he has reviewed the declaration issued by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and has noted the document does not say anything about torture in places where it really occurs. That causes him to question the group's motive.

    "If this group were genuinely interested in torture, of course they would be addressing those regimes that actively and deliberately do practice torture rather than focusing exclusively on the United States," he comments. He says he detects a "double standard" in the campaign against torture. "[It] is primarily a creation of the religious left and whose interest is not so much in torture, per se, but about opposing U.S. foreign policy."
    Tooley goes on to warn said evangelicals that they are repeating the mistakes of the religious left:
    "A growing number of evangelicals are ultimately repeating the same mistakes that mainline Protestant church leaders first started making 50, 60, 70 years ago," he states. As a result, says Tooley, those denominations suffered deep theological divisions and great declines in membership.
    Wait a second, now... Where have I read something like that recently? Ah, yes, in an angry screed LA Times editorial by Charlotte Allen. In "Liberal Christianity is paying for its sins" she declares:
    Embraced by the leadership of all the mainline Protestant denominations, as well as large segments of American Catholicism, liberal Christianity has been hailed by its boosters for 40 years as the future of the Christian church.

    Instead, as all but a few die-hards now admit, all the mainline churches and movements within churches that have blurred doctrine and softened moral precepts are demographically declining and, in the case of the Episcopal Church, disintegrating.
    Allen ticks off her list of liberal Christian sins (which include using feminine imagery for the divine in the liturgy, openly and earnestly debating the ordination of gays and lesbians, and -- apparently a long-held grudge -- ordaining women) and assures us that these are the reasons for declining membership in mainline Protestant churches:
    When your religion says "whatever" on doctrinal matters, regards Jesus as just another wise teacher, refuses on principle to evangelize and lets you do pretty much what you want, it's a short step to deciding that one of the things you don't want to do is get up on Sunday morning and go to church.
    Allen salivates with gleeful anticipation over the threatened schizm in the Episcopal church - also the fault of liberal Christianity, of course.
    So this is the liberal Christianity that was supposed to be the Christianity of the future: disarray, schism, rapidly falling numbers of adherents, a collapse of Christology and national meetings that rival those of the Modern Language Assn. for their potential for cheap laughs. And they keep telling the Catholic Church that it had better get with the liberal program — ordain women, bless gay unions and so forth — or die. Sure.
    The column is peppered with faulty logic and faulty history, but I'll refer you to I am a Christian toofor a thorough rebuttal.

    Allen's editorial also rang a bell, or should I say, a "death knoll"... Awhile back (I've intended to link to it for weeks), Father Jake had an important post about the Institute for Religion and Democracy's war on mainline Protestantism. He included excerpts of a discussion on Air America, exposing the IRD's efforts and sources of funding, and he linked to an excellent diary on Daily Kos, "Summer '06 Battles Could Tear Apart Liberal Churches." Not surprisingly, the IRD has invested heavily in destabilizing the Episcopal church, and will be ringside for the implosion:
    Many believe a schism in the Episcopal Church USA and the worldwide Anglican Communion is inevitable after this summer. If it does occur it will not be about homosexuality or Gene Robinson or the blessing of same-sex unions. It will have been planned, plotted and engineered by the IRD and its very rich, ultraconservative henchmen (some women, but mostly men) who have targeted the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), the United Methodist Church (UMC) and the Episcopal Church for nearly 25 years. Sexuality was just a hot-button issue the IRD could exploit along with "radical feminist theology" and what the IRD judges to be an abandonment of "biblical Anglican theology."
    For a movement that strikes many as irrelevant and disorganized, we sure seem to bother the likes of the IRD. Ah, but the article by Amy Sullivan, "When Would Jesus Bolt?", shines some light on this puzzler. Sullivan explains:
    Nationally, and in states like Alabama, the GOP cannot afford to allow Democrats a victory on anything that might be perceived as benefiting people of faith. Republican political dominance depends on being able to manipulate religious supporters with fear, painting the Democratic Party as hostile to religion and in the thrall of secular humanists. That image would take quite a blow if the party of Nancy Pelosi was responsible for bringing back Bible classes—even constitutional ones—to public schools.

    The holy skirmish down in Alabama, with its “GOP blocks votes on Bible class bill” headlines, may seem like just a one-time, up-is-down, oddity. But it's really the frontline of a larger war to keep Democrats from appealing to more moderate evangelical voters. American politics is so closely divided that if a political party peels off a few percentage points of a single big constituency, it can change the entire electoral map.


    That's why, insiders say, the word has gone forth from the Republican National Committee to defeat Democratic efforts to reclaim religion. Republicans who disregard the instructions and express support for Democratic efforts are swiftly disciplined. At the University of Alabama, the president of the College Republicans was forced to resign after she endorsed the Bible legislation. A few states away, a Missouri Republican who sponsored a Bible literacy bill came under criticism from conservatives for consulting with Brinson and subsequently denied to a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter that he had ever even heard of Brinson. But as for [(evangelical activist and occasional Democratic consultant) Randy] Brinson himself, he's already gone. “Oh, they're ticked at me,” he says. “But it's because they're scared. This has the potential to break the Republican coalition.”
    Wow. So then, it's not so much about deep religious convictions and moral values, afterall? It's more about winning and keeping power? I'd like to think that the Christian opponents to the Alabama Bible bill, for example, had sinking feelings in their stomachs, pangs of regret, as they lined up to voice opposition to a measure any one of them would otherwise have supported. And that some on the Christian right are sickened and frustrated by the gag order on torture. But that's the price of allegiance to the GOP and RNC, I suppose. Why does the phrase "Faustian bargain" keep coming to mind?

    The religious left will not survive - in fact, would not deserve to survive - if it adopts the tactics of the religious right merely to advance an alternative vision. So it's not going to "look" the way a lot of people expect it to look, which means it's going to be declared "dead" or "dying" as often as it is declared "new" or "emerging." But it clearly speaks to a need, or organizations such as the IRD wouldn't be working so hard to torpedo it. As Sullivan notes in that article, "Despite all of the punditry about a 'God gap' at the voting booth, this is a better moment for Democrats to pick up support from religious moderates than any other time in the past few decades." Two and a half dreadfully long years ago, that made the difference between a Kerry administration, and another Bush nightmare. Need I say more?

    Wednesday, July 12, 2006

    Emotional vicissitudes

    I admitted to a couple of friends recently that it's been hard to get my blogging "groove" back. I thought the long sabbatical would be good for me, but the blog-muscles apparently got a little flabby. I suppose the thesis-writing wrung me out a bit, too. I struggle a bit to form coherent thoughts, and the accompanying sentences to reflect them. We'll have to rectify this situation, since I got my statistical analysis job kicked up to fulltime for the summer, and I'm studying for a comprehensive exam in August! (I start the doctoral program in ethics this fall, and am getting a head start on the exam schedule.)

    Obviously, I've got some cobwebs to clear, and doldrums to shake. So I have to say, thank you, Acting Deputy Attorney General Steve Bradbury, thank you for this gift:
    "The president is always right."
    I'm so grateful to you. I mean, really, do I laugh, or do I cry? I couldn't decide, so first I spit Diet Coke all over my monitor. That turned out to be kind of a reflexive response, so then I wondered whether to laugh or cry. It's easy to laugh at first. But then you give it a little thought, perhaps reflecting only as far back as the last press conference and the vision of a world leader who cannot form an unscripted thought but has been granted unprecedented powers over lives and constitutional freedoms, and you find yourself getting a little weepy. Sobbing, even.

    See there? Now my doldrums are back... Thank heaven the Dems have such a good sense of humor (via Americablog):
    Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-IL) offers a few more lessons learned:
    Mr. Speaker, yesterday the President said we continue to be wise about how we spend the people's money.

    "Then why are we paying over $100,000 for a 'White House Director of Lessons Learned'?

    "Maybe I can save the taxpayers $100,000 by running through a few of the lessons this White House should have learned by now.

    "Lesson 1: When the Army Chief of Staff and the Secretary of State say you are going to war without enough troops, you're going to war without enough troops.

    "Lesson 2: When 8.8 billion dollars of reconstruction funding disappears from Iraq, and 2 billion dollars disappears from Katrina relief, it's time to demand a little accountability.

    "Lesson 3: When you've 'turned the corner' in Iraq more times than Danica Patrick at the Indy 500, it means you are going in circles.

    "Lesson 4: When the national weather service tells you a category 5 hurricane is heading for New Orleans, a category 5 hurricane is heading to New Orleans.

    "I would also ask the President why we're paying for two 'Ethics Advisors' and a 'Director of Fact Checking.'

    "They must be the only people in Washington who get more vacation time than the President.

    "Maybe the White House could consolidate these positions into a Director of Irony."
    That perked me up a bit.

    By the way, I know that I promised some follow-up thoughts to this item. They're still growing, so please bear with me.

    Friday, July 07, 2006

    A new kind of power

    I'm just going to throw this link up for now, and hope to comment on it (with a few other links) tomorrow or Sunday. I'm supposed to be re-checking my footnotes and preparing to print the final/library version of my thesis this weekend. But I hadn't checked in on The Revealer for awhile and just read Jeff Sharlet's essay on the religious left's struggle to define/characterize itself (instead of letting the media and the right do it for us). Here's a good sample:
    Power matters. The religious right knows that but doesn’t like to say it, since doing so would involve confessing how much it already possesses. The would-be religious left, as seen on TV, knows it, too, but doesn’t like to believe it, since doing so would involve admitting it doesn’t have any.

    The real religious left — the one yet to be organized — will recognize the reality of power and appreciate its nuances; its applications. Another contributor to Getting on Message, Rev. Vivian Denise Nixon, an ex-con who’s now an African Methodist Episcopal pastor, quotes James Cone, author of a modern classic, A Black Theology for Liberation: “‘authentic love is not ‘help’ — not giving Christmas baskets — but working for political, social, and economic justice, which always means a redistribution of power. It is a kind of power which enables [the oppressed] to fight their own battles and thus keep their dignity.’”

    Too much of what passes for the contemporary religious left speaks in terms of “help,” in no small part because that's the only story most media will listen to. And yet, here's another irony — “help” of the sort Cone disdains is what the Christian Right is best at. The media does Christian conservatives a disservice when it fails to notice that their movement is organized around the idea of helping people.

    As a forthcoming book by statistician Arthur Brooks, Who Cares, demonstrates, religious conservatives give more to charity than liberals do by any measure. Not just in sheer numbers, but as a percentage of individual income. And not just to their churches, but to charities that really do provide food, medicine, and education for the poor. The one victory the tepid religious left of the moment can claim is the media misconception that religious liberals are more charitable, that they care more about the poor. They’re not, and they don’t. Rather, some of them — those not busy playing to the press — care differently.

    That’s made most plain in the closing essay of Getting on Message, “Putting Our Money Where God's Mouth Is.” It’s by Garret Keizer, a former Episcopal priest who’s also the author of an essay in Mother Jones last year that drew the starkest line yet between the “help” offered by religious conservatives and liberals and the solidarity that he says must be the standard of any left worthy of the label, religious or otherwise.

    “I have begun to lose patience with ‘compassion,’” writes Keizer, “be it the conservative version that sees poverty as a moral disease to be cured with a benevolent dose of 19th-century rectitude, or the liberal version that views poverty as an exotic culture to be scrutinized through the kindly lens of tolerance. Poverty is not a culture to be understood; it is a condition to be eradicated.”

    In his more recent examination of “help” vs. “solidarity” in Getting on Message, Keizer proposes a list of policy initiatives to make that happen. They’e not particularly original — national health care, equal education funding, etc. — but that’s significant in itself. Another common mistake made by a media in search of the new religious left is its insistence on finding the color purple — that is, some ostensibly innovative blend of “red” and “blue” values, “fresh” ideas. Again, much of what passes for the religious left complies, declaring, like Michael Lerner of Tikkun, that by mixing more religion into the public sphere we’ll alchemize a whole new liberalism.

    And yet, we never managed to achieve the old liberalism. “Putting Our Money Where God's Mouth Is” means, simply, redistribution of wealth. It means recognizing the reality of class. The “spiritual warfare” of the religious left is what the religious right considers class warfare. And the right is right — solidarity among the religious left will provoke a fight. Solidarity doesn’t mean asking for help from the powers that be, it means organizing to become a new kind of power.
    More later!

    Bird Envy

    My father has a veritable "food court" of about a dozen bird feeders in his backyard in Indiana, and the avian patrons drop in nonstop throughout the day. I sat on the back porch and snapped photos during our visit. (All photos by MizM, who should probably consider using a tripod someday.) As for my own birdless feeders, they were bereft of birds and seed when I got home. I filled them all and added a suet-y kind of feeder during the weekend, but we're getting into the tremendously windy summer season, when it's all the little guys can do to fly rightside-up, and anything smaller than a jay needs to be tethered to the feeder to eat.

    Here are a few of the guys I spotted on dad's feeders... Feel free to correct my identifications if I'm wrong. They are, in this order: a downy woodpecker, house finches (including one in flight), a cardinal, a nuthatch of some kind, and tufted titmice (titmouses?).

    By the way, a new study says that 12% of the world's bird species are likely to be extinct by the end of this century.

    Thursday, July 06, 2006

    Niemoller Redux

    This is the junior partner writing on this blog, and I've been even more absent than MizM, although I do actually have an excuse: six weeks-plus of radiation treatments following excision of a small, well-contained ductal carcinoma in situ that was detected by mammography in February. Say what you will about health care in the US (and there's plenty to be said), but I am grateful for the technological advances that made this very early detection possible.

    One of the effects of the radiation was a pretty stunning case of skin irritation that made it impossible for me to focus on anything else for a few weeks. It's pretty much over now, but even if it hadn't been, I would have been just as jolted by the message below, which arrived in my inbox this morning courtesy of the Rev. Tim Simpson of the Christian Alliance for Progress. It put me in mind of Pastor Martin Niemoller's poem, ending (more or less) "and by the time they came for me, there was no one else left to stand up for me." Read and weep, and then vow to stand up for someone who needs it.

    "Take Your Yarmulke Off, Jew-Boy"

    I hope that line grabbed your attention like it grabbed mine. Along with taunts of "Christ killer," these are some of things to which sixth grader Alexander Dobrich claims he has been subjected since his family became embroiled in an attempt to protest the encroachment of Christianity into their public school system in Delaware. Alexander's older sister Samantha had protested explicitly Christian prayers at her graduation ceremony, during which she was actually singled out by the one leading the prayer. The Dobrich family, which has been in litigation since 2004, offered a settlement last year, which was rejected by the school board who seemed to want to make a point that they have the right to force Christianity on children in their care (It was such a reasonable settlement that the board’s insurers promptly sued them and refused to pay any more of the board’s legal expenses for not accepting it).. Now comes word that right-wing zealots in an outfit called Stop the ACLU have gone so far as to publish the address and phone number of the Dobriches, who in the face of such harassment and abuse have been forced to move. Never mind that the Dobriches are NOT being represented by the ACLU in their lawsuit and instead by a local legal firm, but facts don't matter much to people like

    This sounds like something out of 1930s Germany, not something out of 21st century America. The pathetic part is that it is being done by people who claim to be followers of Jesus, ostensibly undertaken to advance the ends of his kingdom. The Religious Right loves to use the buzz word "Judeo-Christian tradition" in all of their pronouncements in order to make them sound like pluralists, but instances such as this one show this for what it really is: Jews are welcome so long as they keep quiet.

    I am an unapologetic Christian who confesses faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and I am appalled that the Dobriches and families of other religious traditions, as well as those who have no religious affiliation, have been subjected to this kind of treatment in the name of my faith. Authentic Christianity understands that people come to faith in Christ as they are moved by the Holy Spirit, not by being force fed the faith against their will by means of state organs. It does nothing to advance the values of the Gospel to oppress people who do not share Christian beliefs and is in fact the very antithesis of such values. Increasingly, however, this is becoming a regular feature of the American political landscape created by the Religious Right, who is committed to undoing the historic American commitment to the separation of church and state.

    In his newly released book, Thy Kingdom Come , one of the most prominent scholars of American religion, and himself an evangelical Christian, Randall Balmer points out that evangelical outsiders like Baptists were the very first in the New World to champion the idea that churches ought not be tethered to the government nor have privileged status. Baptists in the 17th and 18th century like Roger Williams and Isaac Backus laid the foundation for the longstanding principle that governments should stay out of religion. Amazingly, however, as the descendants of these Baptists have moved from the margins of society into the mainstream and now into ascendancy in public life, they have dumped the beliefs of their forbears and are now seeking state-sponsored recognition and special treatment for their particular brand of Christianity.

    As Balmer notes, not only is this an egregious capitulation of their tradition's core values, it is also the fast track to the ruin of evangelical faith in the United States . What Williams and Backus knew that their modern descendants have forgotten is that state-sponsored religion quickly turns into a barren and desiccated faith. Using the state to disciple those who accept their religion and compelling to endure the religion's rituals in public those who don't is the surest way possible for the Religious Right to kill a vibrant American Christianity. To see the difference such state attachments can make, one need only look at Europe, where established churches have been empty for decades. By contrast, America is the most religious of the Western industrial democracies, to the point that government-sponsored churches in countries such as Sweden and Norway are moving to sever their ties to the state in order to embrace an American model of church-state separation. How ironic that American evangelicals want to move our country in the opposite, failed direction.

    An authentic Christianity will defend people like the Dobriches from the bullies in our own ranks. It will also stand up for the separation of church and state so that the Gospel will be free from government influence or filtering and thus be allowed to flourish as it should. It is time for those who hold this authentic faith to stand up for what is right. America needs to see that the Gospel is about love and not oppression, that it is about tolerance and acceptance rather than exclusion and ostracism. In a country where the vast majority claims the name of Jesus Christ, we cannot expect the Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Atheists to be the sole defenders of the good. So if we are to maintain our long tradition of church-state separation and protect religious minorities it is necessary that Christians take up this task as well.

    Wednesday, July 05, 2006

    Life is a highway

    Fittingly, we arrived back in SF on the 50th anniversary of the nation's highway system, completing a 6500-mile roundtrip tour of Interstate 80 and a few of its tributaries. I gave up on road-blogging, as you may have noticed. We encountered only one Motel 6 equipped for wireless internet, and while I think it's incredibly cool that all of Iowa's I-80 rest areas have free wireless, I was more eager to get across the state than to stop-and-surf. (And may I just say, bless you, Boulder CO's AM-760/Progressive Talk, for penetrating 200 miles of Wyoming's otherwise unbearable and mysteriously NPR-free airwaves. You made me forget I was in Cheney Country for a few shining hours.) The 1999 Chevy Prizm (manual trans.), burdened with 3-weeks worth of luggage and supplies, and equipped with an on-board Olfactory Positioning System (OPS, aka "Baxter," pictured above), pulled 37-39 MPG most of the way. Coupled with the fact that we paid less for gas along the way than we pay in San Francisco, the trip hurt a lot less than air travel would have!

    Say what you will about the likes of Interstate 80 (you probably can't top Charles Kuralt: "Thanks to the Interstate Highway System, it is now possible to travel from coast to coast without seeing anything." Clearly he's he'd* never been to the World's Largest Truckstop)... But there are some big, beautiful skies out there.
    (*Update: corrected a little problem with my tenses; Mr. Kuralt, of course, passed away in 1997.)