Category Archives: Religion

‘God Damn America’ means what it means

Over the last couple of days, I’ve seen and heard a number of explanations, or attempts at explanations, regarding the Rev. Jeremiah Wright having proclaimed, "God Damn America."

Most of them have been along the lines of the old cliche, "It’s a black thing; you wouldn’t understand," although no one has used those precise words. Well, I accept that on one level or another, I can never fully understand where any other human being is coming from. My own brother has the same genetic background that I do and grew up in the same household, but each of us has had a separate experience of life that has shaped us differently and causes us to express ourselves differently. The farther you get from being my biological brother — or, to describe someone I’ve spent a lot more time with than my brother, my wife — the wider that gap will get. The more different our experiences, the more different our perceptions of the world, and the more different our ways of speaking of the world.

But I’ve got to tell you, "God Damn America" is not a statement that is fraught with nuance. It’s very clear, uncompromising and all-encompassing. In all the explanations I’ve heard for that statement, no one has suggested that the words mean anything different. In English, they can only mean one thing. If Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says "God Damn America," I know what he means, even though he and I probably have a lot fewer reference points in common than the Rev. Wright and I have.

And if the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, speaking from his pulpit, deliberately and clearly calls upon God to damn America, and urges his congregation to send forth the same prayer, I know what he means. It means asking God to send America to hell forever. Damnation, under any sense of the word that I have every heard of (and no one has offered an alternative definition in response to this issue), and within any theology I have heard of (and again, no one has offered a different theological meaning of the word), means that and nothing else.

It doesn’t say, "America has a lot to answer for." It does not say, "America is guilty of terrible crimes." It does not say, "America has treated you and me and millions of others horribly and inexcusably, and we can never forgive that." It means to curse America beyond redemption, beyond improvement, beyond a second or third or billionth chance. "Damn" means "damn." It goes infinitely beyond any other obscenity you might utter in expressing your displeasure with America. If you say — and pardon my implied language — "F— America," that is at least something from which the object of your anger might recover. If you say "Kill America," you have at least described something from which it might be redeemed. But the Rev. Wright did not say those things. He said "God Damn America."

I understand hyperbole. I know all about exaggeration for effect. I know that many people have profound, complex reasons for being angrier about the way the world is and has been than I ever will. But this is not about exaggeration. This word is not a matter of degree. It is not about merely using a word that goes quantitatively too far.

I also understand that black homilitic and worship traditions are very, very different from that of, say, my own church, or any that I regularly attended growing up. I’ve been in this country most of my life (like Obama, I’ve lived abroad), and I took in that fact long ago.

And I’ve read the news stories — here’s one that was in our paper today, and another I saw in The Wall Street Journal — that quote experts explaining that it’s different when Jeremiah Wright says it. But it isn’t different. There is no moral context, no separate historical grounding, no cultural style, no emotional framework that gives the words "God Damn America" a different meaning. When, in The State‘s story, the Rev. Joe Darby — whom I have known and respected for years, and to the best of my knowledge would never say "God damn America" — speaks of "the role of the historical black church in ‘speaking truth to power’," I know what he means. I agree that has been the role of the black church, and it has played that role well, and employed hyperbole in the course of doing so. But the point seems to me irrelevant. In what way, shape or form does "God Damn America" constitute speaking truth to anyone?

I also get it that I’m the clueless white guy. I’ve pled guilty to that before. But again, I remain unconvinced that I am too clueless to understand what "God Damn America" means.

Now — does what I am saying here change the fact that I respect and admire Barack Obama, and think he should get the Democratic nomination for president? No, it does not. To the contrary, I was very much impressed by the speech he gave on the subject yesterday, which in so many ways spoke to the qualities that I respect in Sen. Obama. And note that he strongly repudiates his former pastor’s message.

Am I saying he absolved himself from his connection — his extended, deliberate, close association — with a preacher who would say, "God Damn America?" No. He did not do that. And after all the years he has been going to that church, I can’t imagine any words he could say that would accomplish that feat. And if he did, he would be rightly criticized for politically convenient timing.

As a voter, and as a writer who comments upon politics in this country, I am deeply impressed by the transcendent way in which Barack Obama addresses the intensely, damnably pervasive issue of race in America. He says just what I want a presidential candidate to say on the subject, and he says it better than any politician I have heard. He reaffirmed that for me Tuesday.

But I do have to set all that alongside the fact that he has deliberately associated with the man who said — and apparently meant, since I’ve heard about no repudiation from the preacher himself — "God Damn America." That will be something that Barack Obama as a candidate will just have to live with. It can’t be changed, any more than John McCain can change the fact that he would be 72 years old if inaugurated (a very different sort of problem, but just as immutable).

Those are both inescapable facts, and voters will have to decide what weight to give them if these are the two nominees in the fall.

Prepared text of Obama speech


Here’s the text of Obama’s speech as written. It came in at 10:52, embargoed until he gave it. I’m posting it as it ends, and as I go into a meeting…

"A More Perfect Union"
Remarks of Senator Barack Obama
Constitution Center
Tuesday, March 18th, 2008
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

As Prepared for Delivery

“We the people, in order to form a more perfect union.” 

Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America’s improbable experiment in democracy.  Farmers and scholars; statesmen and patriots who had traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787. 

The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished.  It was stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery, a question that divided the colonies and brought the convention to a stalemate until the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least twenty more years, and to leave any final resolution to future generations. 

Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution – a Constitution that had at is very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time. 

And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States.  What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part – through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk – to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.

This was one of the tasks we set forth at the beginning of this campaign – to continue the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America.  I chose to run for the presidency at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together – unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction – towards a better future for of children and our grandchildren.   

This belief comes from my unyielding faith in the decency and generosity of the American people.  But it also comes from my own American story. 

I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas.  I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton’s Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas.  I’ve gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world’s poorest nations.  I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners – an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters.  I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible. 

It’s a story that hasn’t made me the most conventional candidate.  But it is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts – that out of many, we are truly one. 

Throughout the first year of this campaign, against all predictions to the contrary, we saw how hungry the American people were for this message of unity.  Despite the temptation to view my candidacy through a purely racial lens, we won commanding victories in states with some of the whitest populations in the country.  In South Carolina, where the Confederate Flag still flies, we built a powerful coalition of African Americans and white Americans. 

This is not to say that race has not been an issue in the campaign.  At various stages in the campaign, some commentators have deemed me either “too black” or “not black enough.”  We saw racial tensions bubble to the surface during the week before the South Carolina primary.  The press has scoured every exit poll for the latest evidence of racial polarization, not just in terms of white and black, but black and brown as well.

And yet, it has only been in the last couple of weeks that the discussion of race in this campaign has taken a particularly divisive turn. 

On one end of the spectrum, we’ve heard the implication that my candidacy is somehow an exercise in affirmative action; that it’s based solely on the desire of wide-eyed liberals to purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap.  On the other end, we’ve heard my former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, use incendiary language to express views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation; that rightly offend white and black alike.   

I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Reverend Wright that have caused such controversy.  For some, nagging questions remain.  Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy?  Of course.  Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church?  Yes.  Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views?  Absolutely – just as I’m sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.   

But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren’t simply controversial.  They weren’t simply a religious leader’s effort to speak out against perceived injustice.  Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country – a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam. 

As such, Reverend Wright’s comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems – two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy, a chronic health care crisis and potentially devastating climate change; problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all.

Given my background, my politics, and my professed values and ideals, there will no doubt be those for whom my statements of condemnation are not enough.  Why associate myself with Reverend Wright in the first place, they may ask?  Why not join another church?  And I confess that if all that I knew of Reverend Wright were the snippets of those sermons that have run in an endless loop on the television and You Tube, or if Trinity United Church of Christ conformed to the caricatures being peddled by some commentators, there is no doubt that I would react in much the same way 

But the truth is, that isn’t all that I know of the man.  The man I met more than twenty years ago is a man who helped introduce me to my Christian faith, a man who spoke to me about our obligations to love one another; to care for the sick and lift up the poor.  He is a man who served his country as a U.S. Marine; who has studied and lectured at some of the finest universities and seminaries in the country, and who for over thirty years led a church that serves the community by doing God’s work here on Earth – by housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day care services and scholarships and prison ministries, and reaching out to those suffering from HIV/AIDS.

In my first book, Dreams From My Father, I described the experience of my first service at Trinity:

“People began to shout, to rise from their seats and clap and cry out, a forceful wind carrying the reverend’s voice up into the rafters….And in that single note – hope! – I heard something else; at the foot of that cross, inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion’s den, Ezekiel’s field of dry bones.  Those stories – of survival, and freedom, and hope – became our story, my story; the blood that had spilled was our blood, the tears our tears; until this black church, on this bright day, seemed once more a vessel carrying the story of a people into future generations and into a larger world.  Our trials and triumphs became at once unique and universal, black and more than black; in chronicling our journey, the stories and songs gave us a means to reclaim memories tha t we didn’t need to feel shame about…memories that all people might study and cherish – and with which we could start to rebuild.”

That has been my experience at Trinity.  Like other predominantly black churches across the country, Trinity embodies the black community in its entirety – the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gang-banger.  Like other black churches, Trinity’s services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor.  They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear.  The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.

And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Reverend Wright.  As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me.  He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children.  Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect.  He contains within him the contradictions – the good and the bad – of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.

I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community.  I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

These people are a part of me.  And they are a part of America, this country that I love.

Some will see this as an attempt to justify or excuse comments that are simply inexcusable.  I can assure you it is not.  I suppose the politically safe thing would be to move on from this episode and just hope that it fades into the woodwork.  We can dismiss Reverend Wright as a crank or a demagogue, just as some have dismissed Geraldine Ferraro, in the aftermath of her recent statements, as harboring some deep-seated racial bias. 

But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now.  We would be making the same mistake that Reverend Wright made in his offending sermons about America – to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality. 

The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through – a part of our union that we have yet to perfect.  And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care, or education, or the need to find good jobs for every American. 

Understanding this reality requires a reminder of how we arrived at this point.  As William Faulkner once wrote, “The past isn’t dead and buried.  In fact, it isn’t even past.”  We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country.  But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.

Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven’t fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today’s black and white students.

Legalized discrimination – where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions, or the police force, or fire departments – meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations.  That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between black and white, and the concentrated pockets of poverty that persists in so many of today’s urban and rural communities.

A lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one’s family, contributed to the erosion of black families – a problem that welfare policies for many years may have worsened.  And the lack of basic services in so many urban black neighborhoods – parks for kids to play in, police walking the beat, regular garbage pick-up and building code enforcement – all helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continue to haunt us. 

This is the reality in which Reverend Wright and other African-Americans of his generation grew up.  They came of age in the late fifties and early sixties, a time when segregation was still the law of the land and opportunity was systematically constricted.  What’s remarkable is not how many failed in the face of discrimination, but rather how many men and women overcame the odds; how many were able to make a way out of no way for those like me who would come after them.

But for all those who scratched and clawed their way to get a piece of the American Dream, there were many who didn’t make it – those who were ultimately defeated, in one way or another, by discrimination.  That legacy of defeat was passed on to future generations – those young men and increasingly young women who we see standing on street corners or languishing in our prisons, without hope or prospects for the future.  Even for those blacks who did make it, questions of race, and racism, continue to define their worldview in fundamental ways.  For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years.  That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends.  But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table.  At times, that anger is exploited by politicia ns, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician’s own failings.

And occasionally it finds voice in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews.  The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright’s sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning.  That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change.  But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.

In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community.  Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race.  Their experience is the immigrant experience – as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch.  They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor.  They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense.  So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committ ed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time. 

Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren’t always expressed in polite company.  But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation.  Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan Coalition.  Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends.  Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.

Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze – a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many.  And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns – this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding. 

This is where we are right now.  It’s a racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years.  Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy – particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.

But I have asserted a firm conviction – a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people – that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice is we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union. 

For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past.  It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life.  But it also means binding our particular grievances – for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs – to the larger aspirations of all Americans — the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man whose been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family.  And it means taking full responsibility for own lives – by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.

Ironically, this quintessentially American – and yes, conservative – notion of self-help found frequent expression in Reverend Wright’s sermons.  But what my former pastor too often failed to understand is that embarking on a program of self-help also requires a belief that society can change. 

The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society.  It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country – a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old — is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past.  But what we know — what we have seen – is that America can change.  That is true genius of this nation.  What we have already achieved gives us hope – the audacity to hope – for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination – and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past – are real and must be addressed.   Not just with words, but with deeds – by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations.  It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper. 

In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world’s great religions demand – that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.  Let us be our brother’s keeper, Scripture tells us.  Let us be our sister’s keeper.  Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well. 

For we have a choice in this country.  We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism.  We can tackle race only as spectacle – as we did in the OJ trial – or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina – or as fodder for the nightly news.  We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words.  We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.

We can do that.

But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction.  And then another one.  And then another one.  And nothing will change. 

That is one option.  Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, “Not this time.”  This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children.  This time we want to reject the cynicism that tells us that these kids can’t learn; that those kids who don’t look like us are somebody else’s problem.  The children of America are not those kids, they are our kids, and we will not let them fall behind in a 21st century economy.  Not this time.   

This time we want to talk about how the lines in the Emergency Room are filled with whites and blacks and Hispanics who do not have health care; who don’t have the power on their own to overcome the special interests in Washington, but who can take them on if we do it together. 

This time we want to talk about the shuttered mills that once provided a decent life for men and women of every race, and the homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from every religion, every region, every walk of life.  This time we want to talk about the fact that the real problem is not that someone who doesn’t look like you might take your job; it’s that the corporation you work for will ship it overseas for nothing more than a profit. 

This time we want to talk about the men and women of every color and creed who serve together, and fight together, and bleed together under the same proud flag.  We want to talk about how to bring them home from a war that never should’ve been authorized and never should’ve been waged, and we want to talk about how we’ll show our patriotism by caring for them, and their families, and giving them the benefits they have earned. 

I would not be running for President if I didn’t believe with all my heart that this is what the vast majority of Americans want for this country.  This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected.  And today, whenever I find myself feeling doubtful or cynical about this possibility, what gives me the most hope is the next generation – the young people whose attitudes and beliefs and openness to change have already made history in this election. 

There is one story in particularly that I’d like to leave you with today – a story I told when I had the great honor of speaking on Dr. King’s birthday at his home church, Ebenezer Baptist, in Atlanta.   

There is a young, twenty-three year old white woman named Ashley Baia who organized for our campaign in Florence, South Carolina.  She had been working to organize a mostly African-American community since the beginning of this campaign, and one day she was at a roundtable discussion where everyone went around telling their story and why they were there. 

And Ashley said that when she was nine years old, her mother got cancer.  And because she had to miss days of work, she was let go and lost her health care.  They had to file for bankruptcy, and that’s when Ashley decided that she had to do something to help her mom.

She knew that food was one of their most expensive costs, and so Ashley convinced her mother that what she really liked and really wanted to eat more than anything else was mustard and relish sandwiches.  Because that was the cheapest way to eat.

She did this for a year until her mom got better, and she told everyone at the roundtable that the reason she joined our campaign was so that she could help the millions of other children in the country who want and need to help their parents too.

Now Ashley might have made a different choice.  Perhaps somebody told her along the way that the source of her mother’s problems were blacks who were on welfare and too lazy to work, or Hispanics who were coming into the country illegally.  But she didn’t.  She sought out allies in her fight against injustice.

Anyway, Ashley finishes her story and then goes around the room and asks everyone else why they’re supporting the campaign.  They all have different stories and reasons.  Many bring up a specific issue.  And finally they come to this elderly black man who’s been sitting there quietly the entire time.  And Ashley asks him why he’s there.  And he does not bring up a specific issue.  He does not say health care or the economy.  He does not say education or the war.   He does not say that he was there because of Barack Obama.  He simply says to everyone in the room, “I am here because of Ashley.” 

“I’m here because of Ashley.”  By itself, that single moment of recognition between that young white girl and that old black man is not enough.  It is not enough to give health care to the sick, or jobs to the jobless, or education to our children.

But it is where we start.  It is where our union grows stronger.  And as so many generations have come to realize over the course of the two-hundred and twenty one years since a band of patriots signed that document in Philadelphia, that is where the perfection begins.   


March 18, 2008

There were, of course, minor changes in the actual delivery, but I’m not going to try to provide a transcript — you’d have to wait until the fifth of Never for that. But I think most of the changes were minor. For instance, the text says "That is true genius of this nation." But he corrected that to say, "That is THE true genius of this nation…"


Waiting for Obama

We postponed our morning meeting for Barack Obama’s speech that’s billed as an attempt to put to rest the trouble he’s had over his former pastor’s inflammatory statements. It was supposed to happen at 10:15. It’s 10:32, and I’m still looking at a bunch of flags on a stage. Now there are some roadies fiddling with the mikes.

Anyway, if you want to watch the excitement, I found a live feed at Fox News (didn’t see one right away at CNN, MSNBC or C-SPAN, but I didn’t look very hard). Here’s the link. (It has a red WATCH LIVE note next to it.)

When it’s over, I’ve got to go into a meeting, but y’all should go ahead and start discussing it here.

His wife’s there now (below), so he’s bound to show soon, right?


Cafeteria Jesus

Earlier this week I got a message from JESUSIN2008.COM, which called my attention to this recent piece in USA Today. We’re not talking about the Son of God here, but a personal construct of the site’s creator, Stephen Heffner.

Heffner, a fallen-away Catholic, picks and chooses his definition of Jesus, and invites you to do the same — a very American, and most unCatholic, pastime, by the way. Isn’t that pretty much the history of the Reformation — groups of folks going around inventing their own Jesuses? (OK, maybe not the liturgical churches, but don’t stop me; I’m on a rhetorical roll.)

Mr. Heffner is highly selective in building his Jesus. "There are only three rules on the site: no miracles, no preaching and no rude behavior," USA Today reports. No raising the dead, no Sermon on the Mount, no driving the money-changers from the Temple. None of that actual stuff that Jesus would do.

Visitors to the site are invited to pick running mates. In a quick glance, I didn’t notice any nominations for St. Peter. Obviously, no campaign consultants visit this site. Simon Peter would be loyal, would have that common touch that would help the ticket, and would be able to play the traditional veep "goon" role on the opposition with awesome effectiveness.

Of course, you don’t have to go to … well, wherever Mr. Heffner lives … to create your own Jesus (rather than, as most theologians would have it, letting Jesus redefine you). Adam Fogle just filed a TPS Report about a congressional candidate right here in S.C. who’s doing just that. Isn’t that special?

Must we fight about evolution AGAIN?

This morning I was in the men’s library (to use an old Knight Ridder Washington Bureau euphemism) perusing The New York Times. Turns out it was the NYT of Dec. 19, but under such circumstances beggars can’t be choosers.

Anyway, I ran across a piece about Mike Huckabee’s famous "floating white cross" TV commercial. We’ll set the cross controversy aside for the moment. What struck me was the Times‘ assessment of the potential downside of the ad:

While that may work in Iowa, the religiosity of the message may turn
off more-secular voters elsewhere, and remind them that Mr. Huckabee
has been dismissive of homosexuality and indicated that he does not
believe in evolution.

We’ll also, if you don’t mind, set aside the homosexuality thing. What got me going was the bit about how "he does not
believe in evolution."

What does that mean — "believe in evolution?" As an overriding credo — as opposed to, say, believing in God? If so, then put me in the disbeliever’s corner with Mr. Huckabee.

Or does it mean believing in evolution as a mechanism through by which organisms have developed into their present shapes? If so, yeah — I believe in evolution. But I can certainly understand why Mr. Huckabee has been dodgy on the issue, saying such things as "I believe God created the heavens and the Earth. I wasn’t there when he did it, so how he did it, I don’t know."

Or at least, I can understand why I would be dodgy about the issue, were I in his shoes. I would resist every effort to pin me down on one side or the other of what I see as a false choice: That between religion and science.

To me, this dichotomy is as bogus, as pointless and as unnecessary as the chasm that the MSM tell us exists between "liberal" and "conservative," "Democrat" and "Republican," or what have you. I’ll tell you a little secret about this universe: Very few things that are true fit into an either-or, yes-or-no, black-or-white model. At least as often as not, it’s "both-and" or "neither."

Trying to make a Southern Baptist preacher either offend secularists by asserting that the world was created in six days or dismay his co-religionists by saying that’s a metaphor is a lot like those wise guys asking Jesus to offend either his followers or Caesar with the trick question about taxes. I’ve gotten nothing against asking a guy to be clear; I do have a problem with a question that seems designed to make the questioned a bad guy either way.

In fact, in the interest of clarity, here’s what I believe:

  • Evolution seems to me exactly the sort of majestic, awe-inspiring way that God would have created us.  He’s no magician doing parlor tricks, as in Poof, here’s a man! or Zing! There’s a mountain; he’s the actual Master of Space and Time (and more; I just can’t explain it, being trapped as I am in space and time). He’s the only Guy I know who can complete a project that  takes billions of years. Therefore evolution has his handwriting all over it. It’s his M.O.
  • I believe in "natural selection," if by that you mean mutations that adapt an organism to his environment and enable him to
    survive to reproduce are the ones that prevail. The guy who can
    outrun the saber-toothed tiger is the one who gets all the grandkids.
  • I do not believe in "natural selection" if by that you mean "random chance." I don’t believe those  aforementioned mutations just happen. That offends me intellectually. So many adaptations seem so clever, so cool, so inspired, that there’s just gotta be somebody out there to congratulate for having come up with the idea. Yeah, 4.54 billion years gives random chance a lot of room to work with, but not enough to satisfy me. If you put an infinite number of monkeys in a room with a typewriter you do not get Shakespeare; you get an infinite amount of monkey poop smeared on a perfectly good sheet of paper.
  • I believe that, judging by this photograph, Charles Darwin may indeed be descended from an ape. Check out the brow on that guy!
  • I believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God, in that it describes better than any other book the development of a continuing relationship, a blossoming revelation, between Man and  God over a period of thousands of years.
  • I do not believe that Adam and Eve were actual individuals, living at the same time, whom you could photograph if you had a time machine, the way you could photograph Benazir Bhutto if you dialed that same machine back a couple of weeks (and had a plane ticket to Karachi). I read a lot, you see, and I’ve developed a knack for telling poetry from prose, hyperbole from understatement and the like. And reading Genesis, it’s pretty clear that this is an allegory that describes truths about our relationship to God, not a court stenographer’s version of what happened in a leafy garden in Mesopotamia one week long ago. Have you never noticed that novels often tell us more true things about how life is lived in the world than, say, nonfiction textbooks about geology or algebra do? There is great moral truth in Genesis, and that’s what we’re supposed to take away from it.
  • I do believe that some wise guy asked Jesus (who was probably known as "Yeshua" among friends) the aforementioned trick question about taxes. That has the ring of a very real situation, one that takes its meaning from the particular political situation in which a first-century rabbi would have found himself. It was clever, but not nearly as smart as his answer, and it’s just the sort of thing his friends would have remembered and told about him later. It also contains great moral truth, as does the story of the Garden of Eden.

Well, I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that I get offended when someone is questioned in a format that seems designed to make him choose sides between the "godless Darwinists" or the "Bible-thumping rubes."

Finally — and this is really where I was going with all this; the Huckabee stuff was just my way of warming up — do we really have to have another stupid, pointless argument over evolution in the classroom? This story I read over the holidays seems to indicate that we do. May God deliver us.

Sacrifice and religion: More Sorensen video

Following up today on stuff I didn’t have time to deal with adequately before Christmas, what with Mike being off and me doing the pages in his absence…

One ball I dropped was to follow through on my promise to deliver more video from my interview with Ted Sorensen on Dec. 20. Here’s a link to the much-better-than-mine video that Andrew Haworth of posted that very night, covering the first part of the interview.

And here, from my dinky, low-res camera, are a couple of quick clips on other parts of the interview I found highly interesting. They are…

First, a clip covering the subject of my recent column challenging candidates today to challenge us the way JFK did. Since that was triggered by a JFK speech I had recently heard again, I thought it particularly apropos to talk with his speechwriter about the subject (The setup — my question — takes a while, but Mr. Sorensen’s reply is worth waiting through that to hear):

Second, we have Mr. Sorensen on the subject of another pair of speeches, both on religion and politics — Kennedy’s to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on Sept. 12, 1960, and Mitt Romney’s to a sympathetic crowd at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library on Dec. 6, 2007:

Viewing that second clip myself today as I edited it, I realize that much of what was said was said by me (pretty much what I had said already on the blog). But Mr. Sorensen adds some nuggets of perspective that no one else could contribute, so I thought it worth putting this up anyway. Normally when I edit video, I cut myself out as much as possible — why bore my readers/viewers? This time, I didn’t see a good way to do that and keep the context. So, sorry about that.

Talkin’ trash about Adam and Eve

Back on this post, Gordon sought to discredit Mike Huckabee (at least, I think that’s what he was trying to do; correct me if I’m wrong, Gordon) by noting that he has been quoted as saying that Adam and Eve were real people.

OK, I know that we’re building up to a huge food fight between Creationists and Darwinists, with poor ol’ Huck in the middle. But on this point, I’m confused: I thought scientists said Adam and Eve were real people, just that they never actually met

… which, when you think about it, seems like really going out of your way to gossip about our ancestors. If I hear them right, these science chaps are saying that our honored great-to-the-nth-power grandad Adam wasn’t the daddy of all Eve’s children; that some of us came from somebody we never heard of. Such talk strikes me, as a member of the family, as unseemly after all these years.

Hal makes up his mind: It’s Huckabee

Back in this column, and in a followup post, I’ve been following Hal Stevenson’s very careful, prayerful process of discernment as he has tried to decide whom he would support in the primaries. That’s been a matter of concern to more folks than just Hal himself, given his leadership position with the Palmetto Family Council.

Anyway, Hal’s made up his mind, and for him it’s a logical choice:


I promised to let you know when I decided to back a candidate for president.
I have indeed settled on mike huckabee.  The campaign wants to prepare a news release but I told them I wanted to let you know first. I was very humbled by the respect you showed for my opinion and am grateful for the kind words. I am not asking you to write anymore about it, but wanted to make sure you knew. Without going into all my thinking on the subject, I guess the one big challenge for me with him was is he really viable- a conversation I had with a business associate in nyc (a self-described non religious person) who expressed interest in him and huckabee’s recent surge have convinced me that he can attract more than just evangelicals. Let me know if you would like to discuss further.


So you read it here first, and for that I’m grateful to Hal.

As for the "is he really viable" part. Well, he certainly is now. It’s interesting to ponder on why, at this time. I mean, I’ve always like the guy, although I’ve had some reservations. I don’t think his tax plan is sufficiently well-considered, and I’m very concerned about the holes in his understanding of (or at least, expressed understanding of) foreign affairs.

David Brooks has an interesting column, which will appear on our op-ed page tomorrow, as to why, all of a sudden, that doesn’t matter. He posits that recent events — the success of the "surge," the NIE on Iran, the setback Hugo Chavez suffered in the Venezuelan referendum, and even the Annapolis peace meeting, have moved foreign affairs off the front burner. He goes so far as to suggest this is now a "postwar election."

I have two reactions to that: One, he’s probably right in that at this moment in time — not last month, and not next month — candidates such as Huckabee and Obama have been given a chance they would not normally have in a wartime election. Two, I think that if people really do think the world has gone away and we don’t have to worry about it any more, they are profoundly wrong. Even given those examples:

  • Iraq can collapse at any time, but even if things keep going well, we will be heavily involved there for years.
  • The NIE only did one thing — made it harder to keep up diplomatic pressure on Iran. It did not change the fact that the mullahs are busily enriching uranium as fast as they can, and can have the bomb as early as 2010.
  • Chavez is still in power, and the need to radically change our energy policies to reduce the power of him, the Iranians, Putin and many others is as urgent as ever.
  • Annapolis has very, very far to go before we have a right to be optimistic about even getting on the road to Mideast peace.

But yeah, I get how polls could be affected at the moment. And none of that should negate Hal’s perfectly reasonable endorsement of Huckabee.

I’ll add one thought, though: Hal says it sort of came down to either Huckabee or McCain. McCain, of course, benefits if you still think the world is a dangerous place — or at least a place that requires our committed attention. But if you think the war is over, McCain has put too many eggs in that basket to remain among the four — excuse me; it’s now five — contenders for the GOP nod.

By the way, Hal didn’t cite that as his reason for endorsing Huckabee. He said that when he talked to Huckabee, the candidate said of other campaigns, "They may want you, but I need you." And Hal is, to his credit, a guy who wants to make a difference.

And note what he says about his friend in New York: Part of Huckabee’s appeal to him is that he is someone who folks who would be turned off by a Pat Robertson endorsement could go for. That speaks to the reason I talked with Hal about this subject to start with — I wanted to know the thinking of a "values voter" who wasn’t going to sellout for an illusory sense of "winnability" the sort of thing that apparently led Robertson to Giuliani (and, apparently, Bob Jones III to Romney).

Romney vs. JFK


    Almost 50 years ago another candidate from Massachusetts explained that he was an American running for President, not a Catholic running for President.  Like him, I am an American running for President.  I do not define my candidacy by my religion.  A person should not be elected because of his faith nor should he be rejected because of his faith.

Mitt Romney said that today, in his much-hyped, high-stakes speech about … well, he said it was about "Faith in America," but of course it was about "Faith in Mitt Romney," and whether that would be a barrier to his election. Even if he hadn’t invited the comparison to the JFK speech, it would certainly be compared — particularly since it was offered under such similar circumstances, and for nearly identical reasons.

I’ve read and watched (well, sort of watched — more like listening while working) both speeches. Having done so, I wonder whether a fair comparison is possible. I find myself much more impressed by the Kennedy speech, but a great deal of that is a matter of style. Kennedy spoke with such unabashed authority and intellectual rigor, but then he led in a time when the alpha male, take-charge style of leadership was accepted and nobody apologized for it. He came across as Yes, I’m smart as hell; isn’t that what you want in a president? There’s also a slight undertone of being righteously ticked off at having to address the matter, combined with complete confidence in the rightness of what he’s saying.

By contrast, Romney’s delivery is blander, more tentative, less threatening, using tones that you might use in speaking to a class of schoolchildren (but then, I so often think today’s politicians sound like they’re speaking to a particularly slow group of third-graders). As he talks about religion, I’m reminded of how Mr. Rogers might have spoken had he been a televangelist. But this (aside from the hair) is not anything particular to Mr. Romney, I think, so much as it is what public life seems to demand today. He seems to be a little more ingratiating in his desire to be liked — again, in the modern mode.

Beyond that, the speeches in substance have much in common. Both express a fundamental belief in the separation of church and state. Both make historical references. But there are a couple of key differences. Romney feels compelled to "witness" in the evangelical manner to his personal belief in Jesus as the son of God and Savior:

    There is one fundamental question about which I often am asked.  What do I believe about Jesus Christ?  I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind. My church’s beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths. Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history. These are not bases for criticism but rather a test of our tolerance. Religious tolerance would be a shallow principle indeed if it were reserved only for faiths with which we agree.

Kennedy in no way felt compelled to air his own faith in such specific terms.

This stands out in the Romney speech in particular in light of his assertion, immediately after he did that, that he doesn’t believe in doing such things: "There are some who would have a presidential
candidate describe and explain his church’s distinctive doctrines. To do
so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the
Constitution." Yes, I know what he’s thinking: He’s thinking of polygamy and other things from Mormon history. But if there is no religious test, why did he have to say what he did about Jesus? Because there was a higher priority for him than asserting the principles that Kennedy set out: Soothing the Christian right. He was explaining that he believes just what they believe; in other words, he was acting as an apologist for the orthodoxy of his faith. And within this political context, that struck me as unseemly.

Then there was the "multicultural" passage, in which he reached out and stroked everybody and told them that their religion was very fine, too:

And in every faith I’ve come to know, there are features I wish were in my own: I love the profound ceremony of the Catholic Mass, the approachability of God in the prayers of the Evangelicals, the tenderness of spirit among the Pentecostals, the confident independence of the Lutherans, the ancient traditions of the Jews, unchanged through the ages, and the commitment to frequent prayer of the Muslims. As I travel across the country and see our towns and cities, I’m always moved by the many houses of worship with their steeples, all pointing to heaven, reminding us of the source of life’s blessings.

Kennedy didn’t bother condescending thus to other people’s faith. As for his own church, he cited it and its teachings quite specifically and not in generic pieties, but he only did so insofar as it affirmed the bright line between its magisterial authority and secular power in America:

I ask you tonight to follow in that tradition, to judge me on the basis
of my record of 14 years in Congress, on my declared stands against an
ambassador to the Vatican, against unconstitutional aid to parochial
schools, and against any boycott of the public schools (which I have
attended myself)— instead of judging me on the basis of these pamphlets
and publications we all have seen that carefully select quotations out
of context from the statements of Catholic church leaders, usually in
other countries, frequently in other centuries, and always omitting, of
course, the statement of the American Bishops in 1948, which strongly
endorsed church-state separation, and which more nearly reflects the
views of almost every American Catholic.

Overall, for what he was trying to do and his political and cultural context, I suppose Romney did all right. But I think Lloyd Bentsen would probably say that he’s no Jack Kennedy.

Here’s the text of the Romney speech as delivered, and here’s the video.

Here’s the text of the Kennedy speech, and here’s that video.

Catholic tears of pride

Key Energy Party adviser Samuel Tenenbaum, who also does a lot to encourage serious thought about matters of faith, sent out to his e-mail list a link to this NPR piece on the JFK speech. That prompted Bud Ferillo to respond to the group as follows:


This speech, which I have retained in my memory bank since it was given,
moves me to tears every time I hear it.
All of us at Bishop England High School in 1960 had never dreamed a
Catholic could be elected to any office outside of the ethnic centers of Irish
or Italian America. This one speech changed the course of that campaign because
of its direct response to the spoken and unspoken anti-Catholic fervor of the
time. And that election changed the course of the country until the violence
of later years consumed all that had been won.
Thanks for sharing it.

I take it back about JFK

Actually, now that I’ve taken the time — for the first time ever — to listen to JFK’s entire speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, I take it back about my statement that I "don’t much like the way Kennedy did it."

I was reacting to the shorthand description I’ve always read about the speech, which was that Kennedy essentially said, "Hey, don’t worry about me; my religious faith won’t inform the decisions I make as president." I had always found that offensive — offended that a candidate would suggest his deepest beliefs about the most important questions would be left out of his calculations, and offended at an electorate that would expect him to say that. And on another level, I just found it demeaning even to have to address all that anti-Catholic nonsense about the White House being run by the Pope. Personally, I’d rather lose the election than drag myself down to that level. It’s like answering a question about whether you’ve stopped beating your wife — anyway you look at it you lose.

But having heard the whole speech, I’m reminded of the danger of making conclusions on the basis of shorthand descriptions. (Example: Most of the discussion of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran the last couple of days has been based on the headline, not the more sobering substance of the report.)

The speech itself is so well-rounded, so erudite, so articulate, so thoughtful about the relationship between faith and political power in this country, that I find myself won over to a candidate who could give such a speech. An excerpt:

    Finally, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end, where all men and all churches are treated as equals, where every man has the same right to attend or not to attend the church of his choice, where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind, and where Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, at both the lay and the pastoral levels, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.
    That is the kind of America in which I believe. And it represents the kind of Presidency in which I believe, a great office that must be neither humbled by making it the instrument of any religious group nor tarnished by arbitrarily withholding it — its occupancy from the members of any one religious group. I believe in a President whose views on religion are his own private affair, neither imposed upon him by the nation, nor imposed by the nation upon him¹ as a condition to holding that office.
    I would not look with favor upon a President working to subvert the first amendment’s guarantees of religious liberty; nor would our system of checks and balances permit him to do so. And neither do I look with favor upon those who would work to subvert Article VI of the Constitution by requiring a religious test, even by indirection. For if they disagree with that safeguard, they should be openly working to repeal it.
    I want a Chief Executive whose public acts are responsible to all and obligated to none, who can attend any ceremony, service, or dinner his office may appropriately require of him to fulfill; and whose fulfillment of his Presidential office is not limited or conditioned by any religious oath, ritual, or obligation.

When is the last time there was a candidate for president of the U.S. who both

a) was intellectually capable of delivering such a speech; and

b) had enough respect for the American electorate to speak to us in such terms, with such depth and breadth?

Consider it within the context, though. If you look at transcripts from the Kennedy-Nixon debates, both candidates spoke with such erudition that it sounds like a campaign taking place on another planet. Both candidates were smart and unafraid to show it.

What I wouldn’t give for such a set of choices today (ah, the wonkish dream — to hear where today’s candidates would stand on Quemoy and Matsu!). The irony is that those debates are seen as ushering in the age of televised politics — referring to a medium that would in turn do the most to lower the level of debate.

Speaking of the way we dumb things down today, the link below is to a mere excerpt of the speech on YouTube. I highly recommend you go to the full video recording here — it’s not as easy to call up and run, but it’s more rewarding in the end.

How come there’s not one where he’s on his knees?


ou know, I’ve seen some hype in my three decades in the business, but this still stands out as unusual.

It’s one thing to have a particularly delicate speech coming up. And I can see how, behind the scenes, there’d be considerable suspense within one’s own camp as to how it will go. But to pump up public expectations with a release such as this one really knocks me back.

In case you’re too lazy to click on it, Mitt Romney’s campaign has sent out a release about how hard he’s working on his JFK-style "Hey, don’t worry about my religion" speech. It includes pictures of him working on it. I am not making this up; I don’t think I could. Note the official photo above; see how he’s just a-sweatin’ over it. I’m almost surprised they didn’t release one of him on his knees.

You know what I infer from this? Romney has determined that the potential voter blowback he could get because of his Mormonism is such a huge threat that he considers this to be a Make-or-Break Moment. He must think, either this speech is successful, or he’s toast — so why not build up expectations?

Either that, or he thinks this speech is going to be such a rip-snorter that it’ll put him right over the top all by its lonesome.

We’ll have to see how it plays. I know I can’t judge its effect on the basis of my personal reaction. To me, there’s something unseemly about a man speaking about his faith in a way designed to get votes. I don’t much like the way Kennedy did it, and I have my doubts about this one, too. But then, Kennedy wasn’t doing it for me; he was aiming at another audience altogether. And everybody seems to think it worked.

Christians as folk

A bunch of stuff crossed quickly through my hands last week when I was too busy — either working on getting the week’s pages out while shorthanded, or traveling to Pennsylvania and New York and back — to take note of them, and a couple of them are blogworthy. Here’s one, which came in as e-mail all the way back last Tuesday.

Orin P. Smith of the Palmetto Family Council sent out this note to members and/or friends, taking note of my recent column in which PFC board member Hal Stevenson played a prominent part:

Columbia businessman Hal Stevenson is a
tremendous encouragement to me. Maybe that’s because I have the sense that
he "gets it." By that I mean I think he has a deep understanding of the
connection between faith and public policy and he articulates it in a winsome
way. Because that is the whole
idea behind family policy councils, I
was glad to see Hal return to the board of
Palmetto Family
a few years ago and agree to serve as
Chairman of the Board from 2004 to 2006. 

The column that follows was
the featured editorial in The
[Columbia, SC] newspaper Sunday before last. I share it with you
not for Hal’s specific impressions of particular candidates for President (which
PFC does not necessarily endorse) or any other specific content or words he has
chosen, but to show how Christians can make a difference in the public square by
being accessible, fair, principled, and just plain interesting to talk

I think you will appreciate the final sentence of the article
above all. 

Happy Thanksgiving.


Here’s what strikes me about this, and not for the first time: Traditionalist Christians are not accustomed to being written about by the MSM as actual folk — real, thinking, breathing human beings — when they interact with the political sphere. They are used to being categorized, caricatured, flattened out into two dimensions at best.

Another way of putting it is that they are not accustomed to seeing themselves written about in ways that they can recognize themselves. Hal said something about this to me in reacting to the column in a conversation I blogged about, and in thanking me for getting him straight.

I say this not to brag on myself — I know I have plenty of flaws as a journalist; one of my few virtues is that my subjects usually say I get the context of what they’re saying right, and this is an example of that.

I say it to marvel at yet another example of the ways we fail in this society to engage each other as we truly are, in the realm of politics. This is another of the many flaws in our partisan, conflict-oriented, anti-intellectual way of choosing up sides so that we won’t have to think.

It’s really a pity that something as simple as what I did — show a "conservative Christian" (which in itself is an inadequate term) as a thinking person instead of a Pat Robertson cartoon — should stand out so that a couple of people who’ve been burned in the past should see it as worth remarking upon.

In other words, it’s not that what I did was so good. It’s that so much else that you see is so bad.

Remind me not to scoff so quickly

Been meaning to tell this one on myself since last week. Since I’m sitting here waiting for some copy for an upcoming page, I’ll do it now…

A week ago today, I got this release:

News Release: Former Governor David Beasley issues comment on National Right
to Life Endorsement decision
November 12, 2007
COLUMBIA, SC — Former South Carolina Governor David Beasley issued the
following statement today on behalf of Gov. Mike Huckabee‘s presidential

    "I can’t fathom the idea of the National Right to Life organization endorsing anyone in the field besides Gov. Mike Huckabee. Mike Huckabee has worked in the vineyards and trenches on behalf of the pro-life movement. His pro-life record is outstanding and it is more consistent than any other candidate for president. He is also arguably the most electable candidate in the field.
    "If, in fact, they endorse Fred Thompson over Mike Huckabee, I’m disappointed because Fred Thompson doesn’t support a constitutional amendment protecting human life. It just goes to show that, at first blush, even the best of organizations may have yielded to Washington politics and made a mistake. In my opinion, this would be one of them.
    "I look forward to Mike Huckabee receiving the support of the grassroots
pro-life movement around the country.

That struck me as though the former governor was whistling to keep the dinosaurs away. There was no way that, in an election with Huckabee and McCain out there as pro-life stalwarts, the Right-to-life movement would get behind Fred Thompson, of all people! Sure, religious conservatives had done some pretty weird stuff lately, from Bob Jones III to Pat Robertson, but does weird stuff always to come in threes?

So I wrote back, scoffing:

That’s interesting. Where did the notion that they would endorse Thompson come from?

My correspondent sent me this link, which, being busy, I blithely ignored. So the next thing I know, this breaks. So we have weird, weirder, weirdest.

In case you’ve forgotten, this is what makes this weird behavior:



It’s one thing to change your mind, like Mitt. It’s another to be wrong on the issue, in the eyes of the movement in question, like Rudy. But to have been paid to be wrong on the issue, like Fred? And still get the endorsement. Getouttahere.

I’m just glad I know Hal Stevenson, because that way I know there’s at least one sane religious conservative out there still.

Soul-searching in the secular realm of politics


A reader recently told me she enjoys my columns because she likes to follow my “soul-searching” as I try to work through an issue. I suggested she keep reading — who knows; someday I might actually find something.
    But I knew what she meant, and took it kindly. That’s the kind of commentary I value, too. That’s why I called Hal Stevenson on Friday to talk about the upcoming presidential primaries.
    Hal is a political activist of the Christian conservative variety. He’s a board member and former chairman of the Palmetto Family Council, which has its offices in a building he owns on Gervais Street. He’s also one of the most soberly thoughtful and fair-minded people I know, which to the national media probably constitutes an oxymoron: The thoughtful Christian conservative.
    When last I saw Hal, he had brought Sen. Sam Brownback in for an editorial board interview regarding his quest for the GOP presidential nomination.
    Since then, several things have happened:

    Of all those, the nod I would have valued the most was that of Sen. Brownback — like me, a convert to Catholicism. When he spoke of the impact of faith on his approach to leadership, it actually seemed to have something to do with Judeo-Christian beliefs: He spoke of acting justly, loving mercy and walking humbly.
    By contrast, Pat Robertson’s explanation as to why he was endorsing the one Republican least in tune with religious conservatives seemed to have little to do with spiritual matters, and everything to do with secular ideology and partisan strategy: He spoke of defeating terrorism, fiscal discipline and the selection of federal judges. The first two concerns are secular; the third seemed the least likely of reasons for him to back Mr. Giuliani.
    The ways in which “values voters” interact with the sin-stained realities of power politics have long mystified me, and I wondered: Does a guy like Pat Robertson, with all his baggage (wanting to whack Hugo Chavez, suggesting 9/11 happened because America had it coming), actually deliver more votes than he chases away?
    So I called Hal to help me sort it out. As of lunchtime Friday, when we spoke, he was up in the air about the presidential contest himself, now that his man Brownback was out of it. But he’s sorting through it, and has had face-to-face talks with the candidates he considers most likely.
    “My heart says Huckabee,” he said. “He’s much more like me, I suppose, than the other guys.” But that’s not his final answer. He said when he asked Sen. Brownback why he didn’t get behind Gov. Huckabee, he said “it’d be like endorsing himself, so he might as well stay in himself.” He was looking for someone who offered what he couldn’t, and chose McCain.
    As for Hal, “I did meet with McCain,” who is “certainly a real patriot,” but he’s trying to decide whether the Arizonan’s position on stem cell research — he charts a middle course — “is going to be a deal-killer for me.” (Brownback has told him that McCain says he wouldn’t make such research a high priority as president.)
    He hasn’t decided yet about Mitt Romney. He’s talked with him, and sees him as “a very capable executive… he’s proven that.” But he cites “Sam’s words” about the former Massachusetts governor: “He’s a technocrat, running as an ideologue.”
    While noting that “we don’t look to Bob Jones III for a lot of stuff,” there are “some very credible Christian activists out there supporting Romney.” He mentions state lawmakers Nathan Ballentine and Kevin Bryant, and cites his respect for U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint.
    He says he’s not bothered by Mr. Romney’s flip-flopping on abortion, since he “takes the right position now.” But he worries it could hurt him in the general election, when Democrats could use old video clips to great effect.
    “I am going through a methodical process,” he said, “and I have been impressed with McCain, Huckabee, Romney….”
    He has not, however, met with Fred Thompson, “and I probably wouldn’t waste Giuliani’s time.”
“I respect him for being straightforward and not trying to B.S. us,” he said of the former mayor, but he does not relish having to choose between two pro-choice candidates next November.
    As for the host of “The 700 Club,” “I really don’t much care what Pat Robertson does.”
    “Robertson lost credibility with most thinking evangelicals a long time ago.” Hal said he was turned off back during Mr. Robertson’s own run for the presidency in 1988: “It was all about acquiring political power in the Republican Party,” and that “wasn’t what many of us thought the Christian Coalition was about.”
    While Hal himself is still seeking the answer, “I’ve got good evangelical friends who are working for every campaign.”
    Every Republican campaign, that is. Nothing against Democrats per se, Hal says; it’s just that “A pro-life Democrat doesn’t have a chance in the Democratic primary,” and that is a deal-killer.
    Hal still doesn’t know which of the candidates that leaves please him the most, but in the end, that’s not the point: “The only person ultimately I’m trying to please is the Lord.”


Do these guys influence YOUR vote?

Back on this post, regular contributor Weldon accuses me of "trashing" Rudy Giuliani. Come again? Hey, you want to see trashing, check this out:

    Back in mid-2001, when Mayor Rudy Giuliani was busy committing adultery, lurching into his divorce and third marriage and rooming with a gay couple he promised to marry as soon as the law allowed, who among us would have imagined that one day he would be endorsed for president by Pat Robertson?
    Truly, Sept. 11 changed everything.

That’s from Gail Collins’ latest column in the NYT; you can read the rest on tomorrow’s op-ed page.

Beyond that, though, I wasn’t sure how to respond to Weldon, since I couldn’t make out what he meant. So I changed the subject to something that interested me more — in fact, it’s the only question that I think worth asking in light of the Pat Robertson endorsement:

"Whose vote is actually influenced by Pat Robertson or Bob Jones III?"
Seriously. Are Romney and Giuliani chasing fool’s gold in seeking such
endorsements? Do they actually gain more than they lose in credibility?

Really, are you more likely to vote for Hizzoner because the guy who wanted to whack Hugo Chavez is on his team? (And if you were somebody who thought the sun rose and set because the Lord was doing it as a personal favor for Mr. Robertson, doesn’t this endorsement of the guy Ms. Collins just described take him down a few notches in terms of reliability?)

And is Romney better off for having enlisted Bob Jones III? Is that enough to make a religious conservative say, "Oh, well, forget all that stuff I saw coming out of Mitt’s own mouth on YouTube — a thumbs-up from Bob III cancels it all out?"

Is it possible that the negatives that come along with such endorsements hurt more than whatever bounce they provide?

I’m serious here. Help me out. I’m trying to understand why these candidates would lift a finger in an effort to get such allies.

Giuliani defends Pat Robertson, explains endorsement

ust hours after Pat Robertson announced that he was endorsing Rudy Giuliani’s bid for the presidency, a supporter asked what Giuliani thought of the televangelist’s comments right after 9/11 (which he claims to have predicted), when he essentially said that the terrorist attacks were God’s wrath unleashed on a stiff-necked nation. Specifically, he said:

"We have allowed rampant secularism and occult, et cetera, to be
broadcast on television. We have permitted somewhere in the
neighborhood of 35 to 40 million unborn babies to be slaughtered in our
society. We have a Court that has essentially stuck its finger in God’s
eye and said, ‘We’re going to legislate you out of the schools, we’re
going to take your Commandments from off the courthouse steps in
various states, we’re not going to let little children read the
Commandments of God, we’re not going to let the Bible be read — no
prayer in our schools.’ We have insulted God at the highest levels of
our government. And, then we say ‘why does this happen?’ Well, why its
happening is that God Almighty is lifting His protection from us."

OK, so it was more like he was saying the Almighty withdrew his countenance — his protection — from us.

Anyway, Rudy is no stranger to dealing with the protection racket. He brushed off that concern, saying, "Gosh, I’ve had to explain lots of comments of mine at different times."

Saying, "I’m very, very pleased to have Pat Robertson’s endorsement," the former mayor went on to explain why. If you want to know why, watch the video. And if you want video of the announcement earlier in the day, you can find a clip at this site.

Now here’s a ‘religious conservative’ I WOULD want on my side


As you may have read at S.C. Politics Today, John McCain also got on the scoreboard with an endorsement from a Christian conservative type.

But unlike the fringe cats who have stepped out for Romney and Giuliani, the senator from Arizona has the backing of somebody I would actually want on my team, if I had a team.

Sam Brownback (aside from being Catholic) is a religious man of respect, in my book. This is welcome news.

As I quoted Hal Stevenson of the Palmetto Family Council as saying of Brownback in my August column, "I was looking for someone who exhibits, and walks the walk that they talk, and that’s a rare thing in politics."

Amen to that.

Pat Robertson sells out


Either that, or Rudy Giuliani sold out. One or the other. Anyway, you can read all about it here:

    While Robertson has been heavily courted by a number of presidential candidates — most notably Mitt Romney — in recent months, he decided to cast his lot with Giuliani in order to counter a movement among some evangelicals to support a third party candidate if the former New York City Mayor becomes the Republican nominee.
    "I thought it was important for me to make it clear that Rudy Giuliani is more than acceptable to people of faith," said Robertson. "Given the fractured nature of the process, I thought it was time to solidify around one candidate."
    He insisted that while some on the "fringe" of the social conservative movement may see Giuliani as an unacceptable nominee, the "core know better."

You know, the stuff that passes for thought among these really "out there" ideologues never ceases to fill me with wonder.

So, which endorsement of (to me) dubious value means the most to you: Pat Robertson or Bob Jones III?

Catholics Fed Up with Partisanship

At least, that (what my headline says) would probably have been the name of this group if I had been the one to start it. Or perhaps, "Catholics Cracking Heads for Civility."

But Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good is kinder and gentler than I am, so they take a more easygoing approach in their approach to promoting our common goals — more civility, more respect for reason in debates, and less mindless partisanship.

I just received a release from the group announcing that "A diverse group of prominent lay Catholics — including 11 former U.S. ambassadors and former chairmen of the Republican and Democratic National Committees — have called for a more civil tone to replace the divisive rhetoric and partisan attacks that define our national political debates." The release provided a link to the document signed by those leaders, "A Catholic Call to Observe Civility in Political Debate." So I went and read it.

You gotta love such statements as this:

  • As Catholics we must learn to disagree respectfully and without judgment to avoid rudeness in expressing our opinions to those whom we suspect will disagree with us, or in reacting to others’ expressions of opinion.
  • As Catholics we need to keep in mind the common humanity that we share with those with whom we disagree. We must avoid seeing them as "the enemy" in a life-or-death, winner-take-all political contest.
  • As Catholics we should never lose faith in the power of reason – a unique gift from God to mankind – and we should always keep ourselves open to a reasoned argument. In this spirit we should defend our views and positions with conviction and patience, but without being obnoxious or bullying.

I’m a little less certain over the signatories’ tiptoeing around the issue of whether the church should act to correct Catholics who clearly do not support the Church’s social teachings, whether it’s Democrats embracing abortion or Republicans dissing various forms of public assistance. Ultimately, I have to applaud the nuanced, soundly Catholic approach that the document takes, including the following elements:

  • It chides "Catholic politicians who advertise their Catholicism as part of their political appeal, but ignore the Church’s moral teachings in their political life…"
  • It adds that "we should not enlist the Church’s moral endorsement for our political preferences," and "we should not exhort the Church to condemn our political opponents by
    publicly denying them Holy Communion based on public dissent from
    Church teachings."
  • At the same time, it says, as "lay Catholics we should not pass judgment, and should avoid public
    statements that undermine the authority of the Church’s leaders.
    American Catholics know who their Church leaders are: their Bishops,
    Archbishops, and Cardinals." While an "individual’s fitness to receive communion is his or her personal responsibility… it is a bishop’s responsibility to set for his diocese the guidelines for administering communion."
  • In other words, it’s up to bishops whether they want to deny communion. A very Catholic answer, and I agree with it.

But… the group that’s promoting this laudable call for civility is also one that promotes Catholic Social Teaching, and I wish priests and bishops would speak from the pulpit more about our moral obligations in those regards, and do so without worrying who’s getting their feelings hurt.

It’s one thing to engage in the idiocy of the perpetual struggle for supremacy between the two, equally morally objectionable political parties. Catholics should never engage in the dumbing-down of issues or ad hominem rhetoric that the parties and their auxiliary interest groups promote. All of that is extremely destructive. (And we Catholics should challenge ourselves whenever, in others’ eyes, we are seen as guilty of this.)

But if the Church truly believes in the dignity of all human life, in our obligation to be stewards of the Earth, our duty to the poor, and so forth, then it ought to be no respecter of persons as it speaks out in a bold way that makes these positions crystal-clear. (That would of course include challenging me on my support of military action, which puts me in the position of justifying whether our presence in Iraq or Afghanistan or anywhere else is in keeping with the Just War doctrine, or can be made to be in keeping with it.)

I realize I’m not being terribly clear myself here. OK, go back and read what I wrote about the moral instruction regarding political issues that I heard in a synagogue a couple of weeks back. No individual was trashed or called names; no political party was condemned. But it was made clear that as Jews, you are expected to believe in certain things, and act accordingly in the public sphere.

That ought to go double for Catholics. Jewishness is to some extent tied up with ethnic identity, whatever one chooses to believe. Catholicism is purely a matter of what you believe, and there should be no shyness about pointing out where Catholic teaching begins and ends, and when policy proposals are in keeping with it and when they are not.

If this petition leads to less of the vicious nonsense that I decry constantly on this blog, then praise be to God for the miracle. But I hope it will also encourage bold declarations of what is right and wrong in terms of policy, and whether a given proposal is in keeping with such standards or not.