Sunday, May 22, 2011

A May 22nd Hope for the Church -- Seeing the Kingdom of God

So we’re apparently still here. In spite of billboard warnings, immense news coverage, countdown clocks, and lots of commentary, 6:00 PM came and went yesterday pretty much like any other Saturday evening. On the one hand, the prognostications of Harold Camping and his followers went the way of earlier predictions of the end of the world. Just like the group covered nearly 60 years ago by Leon Festinger and friends, the group feels successful in warning the nations even if the timing wasn’t what they expected. The response to these predictions seems to be ridicule, headshaking, and lots of “I told you so”s – and that’s just speaking of the Christians on my Facebook Friends list! The response from comedians, pundits, and “new atheists” will be much more vicious.

But this isn’t the only time a fringe individual has been raised to prominence by media and internet coverage. Way too much time has been spent on Terry Jones and his burning of the Quran and his visits to Dearborn, Michigan to protest Sharia Law among Dearborn’s Muslim population. The Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas and the Phelps family are rightly portrayed as a negative and hateful force that have taken to protesting military funerals as a statement of God’s rejection of “the gay agenda”.

We can also list the politically connected religious voices – James Dobson, Pat Robertson, Tony Perkins, William O’Donnell. These folks can be counted on to speak to current events on behalf of the Christian Right and their views accepted by media figures with little counterargument.

Then there are the popular television evangelists – the happy talk of Joel Osteen, the moral uplift of T.D. Jakes, the fall and return of Ted Haggard, the impact of Ken Copeland. These are folks who receive intense media attention and symbiotically feed on media attention.

What does all this mean? I want to suggest that our national fascination with celebrity has long bled over into our understanding of religious life. But what are we to make of Christ’s instructions that those who desire greatness should serve others? What of James’ instruction not to look for the place of honor but to serve others? The Kingdom of God is hard to find in the midst of celebrity (think camels and needles). 

But it is nontheless true that “the Kingdom of God is at hand”. It exists in the local congregation that provides support to a family suffering due to extended unemployment. It occurs when Christians come alongside the developmentally disabled just to let them know they are loved. It occurs when prayers are lifted for those who lost loved ones, even if the loss were due to Aids. It occurs when a pastor sits down over coffee with someone and explains how Grace overcomes ones past and introduces that one to the Love of Christ.

My hope and prayer on this “Day after Rapture Day” is that we’d look for the Kingdom of God where it can regularly be found. That somehow, the attention of the media and the critics would turn from the celebrities to everyday folks. Folks who, in spite of our human limitations and occasional blindness, manage nonetheless to look out for “the least of these my brethren”.

That's where our focus should be. It doesn't make for great video or look good on a billboard, but it's always where you find the Kingdom at work.

Friday, May 13, 2011

I Think Newt May Be Right

Wednesday, Newt Gingerich announced his candidacy for the 2012 Republican Nomination for President. Not really a surprise -- he's been talking like a candidate for some time (which means making polarizing comments that break down immediately upon reflection -- think of the islamacist atheist conspiracy) and he's not getting any younger.

Now, Newt isn't Trump. He does have some background as a self-developed (and developing) intellectual. What he does share with The Donald is an annoying tendency to put himself as the lead character of any story. This causes him to play fast and loose with that thing we call The Truth. The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler wrote his FactChecker blog about claims Newt made in his announcement. It earned Newt "four Pinocchios" on Kessler's scale.

As an academic, I'm particularly upset by Newt's misstatements. After all, he taught history at the University of West Georgia for eight years. Academic Freedom or not, history professors should have a healthy respect for facts.

Yesterday's LA Times had a detailed story about Newt's claims in his Sean Hannity appearance. Of course, he framed it with Fox News blather about "unfair treatment" -- "Obama, the Republican candidate said, however, has the advantages of the presidency, support from the 'left-wing media,' and the backing of labor unions and billionaires like George Soros." Now, this is easy to rebut simply by naming the impact of the Citizens United decision, Andrew Breitbart, the Koch brothers, the Tea Party movement, The Club for Growth, and Karl Rove's American Crossroads group (that's off the top of my head). Truth -- special interests and balkanized media are on both sides of most political races. As a historian, Newt should be able to acknowledge this systemic reality of politics.

But there was one thing in the Time story that grabbed me. Newt made the following claim:

“I know how to get the whole country to resemble Texas,” he said. “President Obama knows how to get the whole country to resemble Detroit.”

Newt has very clearly stated the plain truth of modern national politics!

Since we're headed to Jackson, Michigan in about six weeks, I've been following much of what's going on there (and especially Detroit). I won't take the time to completely unpack the implications of Newt's comment but it's easy to sketch the broad outline.

Detroit has suffered for many years of high levels of income inequality, racial antagonism, white flight, and short-term policy. It was already weakened when it was struck by a major shift in our manufacturing economy as auto plants downsized and/or departed. There wasn't enough economic diversity to absorb that change. Yes, the population has declined (both in real numbers and in terms of suburbanization). Yes, there are large swaths of the city that are abandoned.

But a quick review of the local news shows that Mayor Bing has a plan for turning the budget deficit into a surplus within five years. And they'll do that without abandoning the needs of its citizens. They want to buy up abandoned properties to do major infrastructure improvement. Ford had a great year. GM and Chrysler are making money, working on repaying their government debts, and expanding their workforces (the problems in Japan has returned the big three to a position of strength). There's much more to do, but the mayor (and the Republican governor) are trying to address issues of infrastructure, appropriate regulation, and business development (it will take a few years to see if the governor's budget gambles will work).

Newt wants to make the country like Texas. Texas has suffered several lawsuits for the inequality of educational opportunities across the state. Governor Perry wants to eliminate all issues that inhibit business development. The State school board is exerting revisionist history in elementary textbooks. There are strong nativist sentiments and concerns over illegal immigration (in a state with some of the fastest growth in Hispanic populations). Recent reports of the Texas miracle find that the state's well-being is maintained by short-term gimmicks (the oft-ridiculed stimulus package has allowed the balanced budget). They execute more folks in their prisons than nearly any other state.

Detroit (a city Newt compares to a state, but I'll let that go) has real serious issues. They got them through a combination of events beyond its control and failure to deal with those issue that were clearly present. In other words, a lot like our national debates about jobs, infrastructure, and demographic demands. Texas, which recently threatened to secede from the US, is a state that holds ideology over pragmatics. That blindness is what made Molly Ivins so great to read for so many years.

The road in Detroit will be hard and will never be what we remember (although the right didn't like Detroit in its heyday). But the path in Texas is a dark one. Increased inequality, increasing demands by a minority who feel power slipping away, environmental concerns that go unaddressed, and a burgeoning prison population resulting in even more of a two tiered society.

So, I have to conclude that Newt let his guard slip and told the truth. It may be the only time his vaunted analytical abilities led him to such an obviously correct conclusion. I won't hold my breath waiting for the next one!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Andy Kohut Thinks I'm a Solid Liberal

I was planning on posting earlier this week, but like many folks I was busy processing the news of Sunday night. Finding the proper balance between joy and Christian love is pretty hard. I did reflect on some generational aspects of the event you can see in my other blog.

So now I'm back to politics and civil discourse. The Pew Center for the People and the Press (led by pollster Andrew Kohut who regularly appears on NPR and PBS) just released results of a new study that suggests eight types of voters: Staunch Conservatives, Main Street Republicans, Libertarians, Disaffecteds, Post-Moderns, New Coalition Democrats, Hard-Pressed Democrats, and Solid Liberals (they also have a group that doesn't vote at all). There's an online quiz that's supposed to tell you where you fall. Needless to say, I came out as Solid Liberal.

It seems to me that there are three driving forces in the survey (which, as Niki says, forces unreasonable options -- more later). One dynamic involves a belief in the ultimate fairness or unfairness of systems. If you believe they're fair, you wind up in one of the first three categories. If not, you wind up Solid Liberal. A second dynamic has to do with economic well-being. Saying you're struggling puts you in either the Disaffected or Hard-Pressed category. The third dynamic has to do with social issues (primarily homosexuality and tolerance of the non-religious). Those folks are Libertarians or Post-Modern.

I actually like the three forces even if I think the quiz needs work. But the notion that people are locked into these philosophical positions strikes too close to home when one sees what's happening in Washington. In the long term, we need a long-term approach to deficit reduction that will actually work instead of playing to political posturing. In the short-term, the debt ceiling needs to be raised.

So what do we do? Well, the House passed the Ryan budget that has no chance of passing the Senate or getting a presidential signature. Harry Reid suggested making a test vote in the Democratically controlled Senate. The House just passed HR3 to forbid abortion funding (on top of the current bans on abortion funding). It has no chance in the Senate and won't be signed.

Why do we do this? Because political campaigns have taken over the government. HR3 had a two-fold purpose -- let the base know that they were heard (to keep them interested and invested) and, more importantly, to create a public record that will show up in grainy black and white commercials in 2012 ("Rep. XXX voted to allow federal money to kill babies".) I don't mean to only focus on the Republicans. Reid was willing to call a vote on Ryan's Medicare proposal for the same reasons ("Senator XXX voted to take health care away from your grandma".)

This is not how people live. It's not how we solve problems on a daily basis (you know, "how families deal with household issues".) Tom Toles of the Washington Post made clear today exactly how outrageous this behavior is:

Back to the Pew report -- We should be able to have discussions about reasonable regulation that protects the environment. Does this mean that snail darters win out over farmers? Not if we can demonstrate that there aren't unintended effects of losing the snail darters (Star Trek IV remains the quintessential example of unintended consequences!). In an emergency, do we break a levee and put fertilizer and other pollutants in the Mississippi? Yes, if the costs of not doing that are too great.  Can't we acknowledge, as I wrote in my last post, that racism has limited choices for people that still matter without thinking that means that folks are sitting around waiting for government handouts? (The OK state senator did back down from that claim but my point is that it didn't need to be said in the first place!).

I could keep doing this with the various aspects of the Pew quiz or with current policy options. Isn't it clear that we need an appropriate level of tax revenue to provide the right level of government and that maybe we could look at changing tax incentives for large farms, energy companies, multinational corporations, and maybe even limit (or at least means test) the home mortgage interest exemption?

I'm currently reading Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation by James K. A. Smith of Calvin College. I'm only about a third of the way through it, but Jamie' s point is that the Christian College focus on "worldview" becomes an overly intellectualized argument that doesn't deal with the formation of heart or character.

I really am coming to believe that our focus on political philosophies, even those suggested by Kohut, is not productive. Like Jamie argues, it allows us to give the "right answers" but doesn't accomplish change. Perhaps if we were less focused on whose political view was in ascendancy and focused on rethinking our pragmatic strategies, we'd be further along. What if we defined our intended outcomes first (e.g., affordable health care for senior citizens) and then consider all the possible means to get there?

This has been fun to write. In spite of my quiz answers, I'm no longer a Solid Liberal. I'm a Radical Pragmatist. I think I can live with that quite happily. Maybe I'll work on a survey.