Archive for May, 2006

The Spiritual Covenant with America

May 30, 2006

We all know how the Republican Revolution swept into congress in 1994 largely because of the very carefully crafted and packaged “Contract with America.” While the intent may have been good, their vision of America and its values left much to be desired.

Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun and a leader of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, realizes the value of such a statement of principles and vision. He has drafted “A Spiritual Covenant with America,” a covenant which better reflects Christian values and responsibilities than did the Contract of the conservatives.

As he notes in his introduction to the Covenant,

America needs a New Bottom Line, one which judges institutions, corporations, legislation, social practices, our health care system, our education system, our legal system, our social policies not only by how much money or power they generate, but also by how much love and compassion, kindness and generosity, ethical and ecological sensitivity, and by how much they nurture within us our capacity to respond to other human beings as embodiments of the sacred and to respond to the universe with gratitude, awe and wonder at the grandeur of all that is.

The Spiritual Covenant with America is one way to translate that New Bottom Line into policies for our society. The “we” is all those who will embrace this New Bottom Line.

While I do not agree with all of his takes on mainstream liberalism (Liberals do not disregard personal responsibility; the conservatives have merely repeated the charge so often that mainstream America believes it is true, and the liberals have not effectively denied that charge), his stands do indeed better reflect the liberalism which I hold and which is consistent with the doctrines of the Gospel.

Christian Conservatives: Lips vs. Heart

May 29, 2006

It has been my experience that when discussing politics or conservative politicians, people frequently bring up the purportedly religious nature of the conservatives.

My wife and I were visiting a couple in our neighborhood, touring their house, and chatting about what was going on in our lives. The woman reminded us that she had seen us on TV at the SLC Democratic party on TV on election night 2004. We talked briefly about politics, and the woman asked “How can you not like President Bush? Just the other day he basically bore his testimony in his speech.”

In Relief Society a couple of years back, my wife rolled her eyes when, in a discussion on integrity, some sister raised her hand and cited Bush in a discussion on integrity. “I’m grateful we now have a president with integrity” she proclaimed. “He’s always talking about his faith.”

In a comment on my post about oil profits, one person here claimed Bush was “God-fearing.”

Are we that unfamiliar with the scriptures? Are we so unwilling to apply the concepts taught in the scriptures to real life?

Yes, the conservatives are experts at using the language of religion. Does that make them religious?

The Pharisees in the New Testament were also very conversant in the language of religious. They quoted the scriptures, and they knew the codes of their faith. They said all the right things technically. They gave offerings, prayed publicly, went to the Temple, and performed all the other external obligations of their faith.

But were they truly spiritual and in tune with the Gospel? According to the Bible, it seems not. Both John the Baptist (Matt 3:7) and Jesus (Matt 12:34) disparaged the Pharisees as a ” generation of Vipers.”

The key to truly understanding this comes from the Savior when, as the Religious Right frequently does, the Pharisees came to denounce Jesus’ disciples (and by connection, Jesus himself) for not adhering to their superficial and narrow interpretation of morality.

“This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me (Matt 15:8).” See also Isiah 29:13, Mark 7:6, 2 Nephi 27:25, and Joseph Smith History: 19.

Just because a person or group of people use the language of religion or perform the external observances of religion does not make one spiritual or in harmony with the Lord. Indeed, it seems to me that we have reason to be wary of those who very publicly and loudly pronounce their religiosity:

1 Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.

2 Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

3 But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth:

4 That thine aalms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.

5 And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

6 But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly (Matt 6:1-6).

It would be foolish to assert that religion is a purely private matter and has no place in the public realm. But the Savior’s caution seems to suggest that we should be careful about taking at face value those who make a show of their religion.

There are those who incorrectly believe in their pride that they are close to the Lord because of their external righteousness.

21 Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.

22 Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?

23 And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity. (Matt 7: 21-23).

Worse yet, there are also those who cynically use the language and forms of religion in order to take advantage of the power religion has in society.

Christ explicitly warned his followers about such people, and how to detect them.

15 Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.

16 Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?

17 Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.

18 A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.

19 Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.

20 Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them (Matt 7:15-20).

There are conservatives and Republicans, both voters and elected officials, who are very sincere about their faith. Of that I have no doubt.

But I fear that many of the leaders of the conservative movement have very cynically co-opted the language of religion for their own ends. They are not concerned with following the guidance of the Lord, but in using the name of the Lord for their own ends.

What are the fruits of the machinations of the leaders of conservative movement?

  • Thousands dead and billions of dollars spent on a war based on false pretenses.
  • Use of torture in multiple instances, as well as the defense of such practices.
  • Denial of basic rights in incarcerating alleged enemies.
  • Legal deterioration of civil rights (ie, the Patriot Act).
  • Executive abuse of power in telecommunication surveillance.
  • Multiple financial scandals among conservative leaders.

Just for a start.

These are not the fruits of “God-fearing,” “righteous,” pious men.

Let me be absolutely clear. Such sins are not the exclusive domain of the conservatives. Liberals have had their share of sins, most recently evidenced by the apparent scandal of William Jefferson.

The difference is that, by and large, it is not the liberals and Democrats who have been draping themselves in the robes of piety and religion. It has been the conservatives beating their chests about God being on their side. Christ seems to have found this hypocrisy much more offensive than simple lack of religion.

Some Democrats, having seen the political success of conservatives in using the language of religion, have begun mimicking those tactics. This is no better from the mouth of Hillary Clinton than from President Bush.

In LDS culture, there is a great deal of concern about “swearing.” We tend to be very worried about the use of the name of the Lord and the various other “four-letter words” as expletives (although we seem to have no problem using made-up substitute words—heck, dang, darn, gosh, et al—in exactly the same way). This is considered largely to originate in one of the ten commandments “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain (Exodus 20:7).”

I do indeed believe that when we flippantly use the Lord’s name as an expletive, we take his name in vain.

But how much more in vain is it to use the Lord’s name for self-serving political purposes?

Reagan advisor and Presbyterian elder Clyde Prestowitz has sounded a note of caution to all those who co-opt the language of religion. “Politicians who use God as a prop for their campaigns should remember that ‘God is not mocked.’”

Let the conservative movement beware.

Prom Night

May 20, 2006

Another gem from Sojourners. Discussing the materialism in which our culture is steeped, Brian Kaylor refers to the laudable stand that one Catholic high school took on prom. That principal truly understands the counsel of the Savior.

I enjoyed Kaylor’s thoughts on Stephen Colbert, who did a bit on the prom night news. I don’t get to see Colbert often, as we don’t have cable. But I love his deadpan satire. Very keen and biting humor. The sad thing is that in his satire, he sounds just like Limbaugh, Hannity, even our own Jimbo. The sad thing is, those people are serious.

Colbert’s Correspondent Dinner routine was brilliant, btw. Piercing wit, dead on the money! I particularly enjoyed the line “reality has a well-known liberal bias.”

Hey, that sounds a lot like the response I gave when Brian Jensen claimed in a comment that academia was left-leaning. Pat, did you tell Colbert about my blog?!
😉

Jim Wallis reflects on war

May 20, 2006

A poignant commentary from Sojourners. This one is by founder Jim Wallis, who reminds us that tragedy and evil are the constant companions of war.

If that weren’t warning enough, we have a report that four marines may have been involved in a brutal massacre back in November, and that they then attempted to cover up their crimes.

War is a rabid bitch, and she will snap at the hand of the victor as eagerly as she savages the conquered. No one involved is immune from infection.

That is why war should be pursued in only the most dire circumstances.

Iraq was not a dire circumstance.

Job Hunting

May 20, 2006

My dear wife started grad school this week. She loves being in grad school, but is already getting rather stressed. Her professors warned her that the first year is an intense year intended to weed the wheat from the chaff, and she is discovering that they did not exaggerate. Additionally, the costs for grad school are higher than we expected. We had not considered the ancillary expenses, such as the new computer the department requires their grad students to purchase, and a host of other supplies.

Sadly, my current job cannot provide the support necessary to pay for the added expenses, particularly if we won’t be receiving Sara’s paycheck anymore. She deserves the opportunity to concentrate on her studies.

With that in mind, I’ve been forced to look for new employment. This is a frustrating development, as I absolutely love my job. I’m going to see if I can find a decent part time job which will allow me to keep the library job. But considering the woeful nature and wages of the vast majority of part-time work, I’m not holding my breath. I will probably have to quit this job in exchange for a better paying one. Curses!

The search has been taking a great deal of time. Until the job situation is settled, I will continue to spend little time on the blog. Figures that pretty much as soon as I establish the blog, other issues take priority. C’est la vive. Hopefully the job search will be short, and I’ll be able to get back to my regularly scheduled life. There is, after all, so much about which I want to comment!

David Batstone

May 13, 2006

I would like to direct your attention to a very fine piece written by David Batstone for The Sojourners on the corruption infesting modern corporate capitalism.

This (ie, the situation he is decrying), is what you get when you glorify an economic system based upon naked self-interest—a euphemism for selfishness and greed.

It is wonderful to hear Christian voices recognizing the problem rather than merely rationalizing it away.

Would that we had more LDS voices within the Christian community doing the same.

Inside Iraq: The Untold Stories

May 13, 2006

Sara and I went out to a movie last night. We aren’t much for movies; most of them are drivel or trash. But there are some good movies out there, particularly among the smaller movie producers. And there aren’t many smaller movie producers than Shidog Films. This virtually one-man outfit has produced a number of documentaries, including the film that was in town yesterday at the Tower Theater in SLC, Inside Iraq: The Untold Stories.
Mike Shiley, the man behind Shidog, produced a “press pass” at Kinkos (he technically got permission from his local Portland ABC affiliate to go representing them, though they didn’t want the liability that came with giving him an official press pass), and spent two months exploring Iraq.

As Mike himself put it

After seeing images of the Iraq war on the nightly news, I knew there was much more to the story than the mainstream media was telling us. I decided to go to Iraq myself to meet the people and document what was going on first-hand. The media only shows bombs and press conferences, the world deserves more.

and

The war in Iraq has been showcased as both an example of American decisiveness and the catastrophic result of failed leadership. But beyond the debate, what is the reality of life on the ground? In December of 2003 traveler Mike Shiley felt compelled to find out for himself. Shiley, who is not a professionally trained journalist or filmmaker, managed to strike a deal with a local ABC-TV station to bring back stories about the troops in Iraq. Armed with a digital video camera and a home-made press pass, Mike Shiley chronicled a two month journey inside Iraq, interviewing American and Iraqi soldiers, talking to local citizens, and putting himself in situations of great personal risk. The footage from Shiley’s excursions throughout the Sunni Triangle, the city of Baghdad, the northern Kurdish region and the Shiite-controlled south, put into deep personal context the stories we hear about in the news. Rather than push a political point of view, INSIDE IRAQ: THE UNTOLD STORIES lets Shiley’s camera roll, catching a multitude of real-life moments that tell it like it is.

Guided by his own narration and interspersed with cuts to the studio interview, we are shown Iraq as we’ve never seen it before, getting a raw look at what it’s like to be a soldier and a civilian in Iraq today. No matter how you feel about the war, INSIDE IRAQ: THE UNTOLD STORIES is bound to leave you examining your own beliefs about the U.S. military, the Iraqi people, and our future in the middle east.

The film presented all sorts of interviews with Iraqis, exploring such realities as the burgeoning porn trade, the thriving Kurdish communities, the businesses and families devastated by war, the ruined infrastructure, the ever-present risk of terrorism and insurgent attacks, the soldiers attempting to make life better, and the soldiers who hate Iraq, hate Iraqis, and just want to be home. It does a fine job of making real the situation in Iraq.

Shiley himself attended and spoke to us, describing the events, taking questions, and giving his own solution to the problem posed by Iraq (he advocates partitioning the land into three nations, claiming such a solution has historically worked in such places as India and Pakistan; he forgets that such partitioning was accompanied by massive bloodshed).

Truly a fascinating experience. Sadly, the movie is getting extremely limited showing. The only release in Utah is here at the Tower Theater, and only yesterday, today, and tomorrow. But if the movie tour happens to be coming to a theater near you, I would highly recommend you make some time for it.

You can listen to an interview with Shiley on the website of local NPR station KCPW.

The Utah Democratic Convention

May 13, 2006

Sorry for my absence! I’ve been rather occupied for a couple of weeks, and was unable to make my blog a priority. But never fear; I finally have time this afternoon, and since I wasn’t invited to the birthday party for my niece Heather (about which I just found out from talking to my nephew Caiden on the phone—you’ve been ratted out, Julie), I figured I’d finally get around to updating things here. I’ve not been ignoring current events, and will be addressing a number of issues presently.

Today has been a nice day. My wife and I attended the Utah Democratic Convention, and left rather excited by the event.

Now neither I or my wife are registered Democrats. But we are fully conscious of the fact that these are the only relevant parties in our nation today, and that if we want to participate in politics in a meaningful way, we have to play within the two-party system. As jaded as we are about the national party, I believe that the local party is more legitimate and more capable of being truly liberal and progressive. So when the party caucuses were held a few months back, we went to the Democratic one.

As we met our caucus, we were pleasantly surprised to find a member of our stake presidency our precinct chairman. He nominated us to be precinct delegates. We warned him that we were not actually registered Democrats, but he assured us that this would not be a problem. Unlike the state Republicans, who have closed convention and primary—secret combinations, anyone? ;)—the state Democratic party is truly an open party, and we would not be denied our opportunity to participate.

So I attended the county convention a few weeks back, electing the democratic candidate for state Senate (Scott McCoy, a man who served with aplomb this past term), and then attended today’s convention.

The keynote speaker was Joey Cheek, the Olympian gold-medal winner who donated his gold (and subsequent silver-medal bonus) to charity, and by his example and challenge inspired a number of other donations. His speech was nice, and can be heard on the internet via local NPR affiliate KCPW.

But what most impressed us were the Democratic candidates for congress running this year. All three new candidates, including Senatorial candidate Pete Ashdown and our district 1 representative candidate Steve Olsen seemed very bright, very confident, and very grounded on moral/spiritual values (both Pete and Steve are LDS). We recognize that both face long odds on defeating the encumbents and entrenched powers. But I think they have the potential to give Hatch and Bishop good battles, and could conceivably pull off upsets. Sara and I are both eager to volunteer and to our part to make that happen!

On the way out, we saw a Democratic fundraising booth. It carried a t-shirt which tickled us both. We couldn’t help ourselves. Tomorrow we go to visit the family for Mother’s Day, and Sara can’t wait to proudly wear her new shirt to the festivity! She has become quite a little hellion—and I love it!

Are you feeling well?

May 2, 2006

News that isn’t shocking news:

Americans are significantly less healthy than their counterparts in the UK.

(Read the article from the Journal of the American Medical Association)

Actually, Americans are significantly less healthy than a couple dozen of the other leading industrial nations.

How is it that ill-health can be so widespread in the wealthiest nation on the earth? We’re not just talking about the poor living in poor health while the wealthy are in the pink. According to the report, the rich in America are about as healthy as the poor in the UK.

Why?

How in the world can we possibly claim that for-profit, capitalist-based healthcare provides the best and most efficient healthcare, when we spend twice as much on healthcare and are much less healthy than those who rely on nationalized health care systems?

Are we seriously to believe the dogma that our American economic system (whether you call it corporate capitalism, free-market economics, plain ol’ capitalism, whatever) maximizes benefits and provides the greatest good to the greatest number when the healthcare system which that economic system supports (not to mention the lifestyle that system encourages) leads to epidemic obesity, skyrocketing diseases like diabetes, and general poor health among the population?

Time to wake up to reality and look beyond the dogma.

Is English an American value?

May 1, 2006

Once again, ethnocentrism raises its ugly head. The cause of the current flap? The newly written Spanish “Star Spangled Banner.”

President Bush has expressed disapproval of the alternative anthem. “I think the national anthem ought to be sung in English,” he has said.

Worse still, Lamar Alexander has introduced a resolution to “Remind the country why we sing our National Anthem in English.”

I have no opinion on the Spanish anthem itself. I don’t care what people sing. They are just words and a tune. Whether or not the song itself is good is for others to decide.

What does bother me is that the idea of an “English-Only” America is resurfacing. I recall being confronted directly with the idea for the first time while I was on my mission in Anaheim. I myself was called as an English-speaking missionary, but there were at least half-a-dozen other languages represented in our mission. While I was assigned to a city with a large Korean community, the woman from whom we rented a room disapproved of that fact. If it were up to her, only English would be used to proselytize in the U.S.

“If they want to come here, they should learn English” She asserted. “we shouldn’t coddle them. Make them learn to talk to us if we’re going to deal with them.”

Few others ever expressed the idea in so harsh a manner, but many of the people with whom I interacted did not disagree with the essential concept.

The idea came up again during the 2000 elections, where one of the issues in Utah was whether or not Utah would become a strict “English only” state. Many spoke of the need to protect American culture and language.

Of course, such ideas have never really died. I have heard Michael Savage talk a number of times about the need for “one language, one culture” in America.

It begs the question: What is “American Culture?” How is English tied to that culture? Are you talking Deep South Culture? The Bible Belt Culture? Rural Midwest Culture? Mormon Culture? Western Urban Culture? California Beach Culture? Urban Black Culture? Just which of those cultures are “American,” and which are not?

Is McDonald’s part of American culture? Am I not American because I abhor the Golden Arches? Baseball (don’t like that either)? How about Microsoft? TV? Widespread car ownership and usage? Conspicuous consumption?

Most “cultures” have an indigenous cuisine (or collection of cuisines—I hear that Tuscans don’t like it when you lump their food in with Sicilians, etc). What in the world is American cuisine? Fast food? Now we’re back to McDonald’s again.

Culture is an abstract concept which is obviously rather difficult to define.

Whatever you want to identify as “our culture” has experienced a radical shift over the past century. If you want to protect the culture of our forefathers—even our grandfathers—you’re a day late and a dollar short. Our modern culture is nothing like the culture of the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries.

I find it interesting to recall that “our” ancestors (ie, Caucasian Northern Europeans, primarily British) didn’t seem too concerned about assimilating into and preserving the pre-existing American culture…

Back to the topic:

Yes, it is convenient and less expensive for an entire community to embrace a single language. It would make a number of things easier if I could easily communicate to my neighbors. It is easier for a community to be united when they share the same culture, beliefs, ideas, and perspectives.

But that isn’t what America is about.

I can say for certain that the immigrants who have come to the United States over its history did not come for the English language. They were not drawn by the quasi-European culture. They did not even come for the strong current of Christianity.

America is, as far as I know, fairly unique in the recent history of the world. This nation was not established based on some cultural identity. The core principle upon which the U.S. was founded and which drew on the peoples from the four quarters of the earth (Africans aside, the bulk of whom were drawn on by compulsion) was liberty: the opportunity to pursue your own path; the freedom to express yourself; self-determination; the chance to be involved in the political process and to have the potential to make your mark.

(That and the economic opportunity to get a hand in the virgin resources of all varieties.)

That essential liberty was the value expressly protected in the Constitution (the Bill of Rights) and championed in the Bill of Rights. Neither document made any mention of the preeminence of the English language.

Because of that unique nature, the United States is one of the few nations to which immigrants have come from all quarters of the globe. We have welcomed (more or less…often less, but that is a discussion for another time) people from all races, nations, and languages. We have been a beacon of hope for the disadvantaged throughout the planet. This is the reason that France bestowed upon us the Statue of Liberty. This is why these words are inscribed on her base:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Our strength isn’t our homogeneity; it is our diversity.

Our essential liberty is the principle which we need to hold dear and protect for all. Pretty much anything else—including something as superficial as linguistic homogeneity—is superfluous.

If we no longer believe that liberty is the core value of this nation, and would instead insist on ethnocentrism (the root of which is nothing more than base pride), then let us push Lady Liberty into the ocean so we can end the pretense.