Monday, January 30, 2012

Polar Express

To continue in the theme of the prior blog post, I wanted to write a bit about Polar Express.  The author of the book was actually one of the interviewees in the Biography episode mentioned in the prior post. 

I first became aware of the Polar Express book in the 1990s when I was an elementary school teacher.  It won the 1986 Caldecott Medal, a respected prize in children’s literature.   Like many Caldecott winners, we read the book to our students.  At the time, Polar Express was already being viewed as an emerging classic of children’s literature.   When I first read the book, it seemed fairly innocuous.  As I have mentioned, I am not a fan of the Santa Claus myth.  But Polar Express was a sweet story and didn’t emphasize materialism.

Years later, in 2004, the book was adapted by Hollywood to be a major motion picture with an accompanying cottage industry of products and services to exploit the film.  When I watched the longer, more detailed feature film adaptation with Tom Hanks a few years ago, I found it much more concerning than the original book ever had been.  Leave it to Hollywood to really bring out the worst elements in a mediocre story!

The basic plot of the book is that a young boy on Christmas Eve is transported with other kids in their PJs on the magical Polar Express train to the North Pole where they witness the elves’ send-off of Santa as he leaves to deliver gifts.  As a stand-alone, the book is ok.  I’m not wild about it because it perpetuates the Santa myth and it has nothing to do with the real reason for the observance of Christmas.  But Polar Express is a celebrated piece of children’s literature.  If for no other reason than cultural literacy, it is not a book I thought I should keep from my children’s repertoire.  Indeed, it is on our kids’ book shelf because of a gift years ago from a devout Christian relative.

However, the film version is much more objectionable to me.  To convert to a feature length film, there is a tremendous amount of Hollywood elaboration not found in the original book.  The gist of the film is that there is something admirable—perhaps even sacred—about believing in Santa Claus.  The slogan “Believe!” is used throughout the film.  I don’t understand that message.  I don’t know why it would be good to believe in something that is not true and doesn’t seem to be in any way beneficial.  I find it offensive that the film keeps lecturing us to believe when that phrase means belief in a secular myth.

Further, in the film, there is a new character that to me demonstrates one of the many cruelties of the Santa Claus myth.  The last child to board the Polar Express before heading to the North Pole is a mysterious little guy who keeps apart from the other kids for much of the film.  He literally comes from the wrong side of the tracks.  He indicates has never had luck with Santa or Christmas.  Apparently, this means that he has never received presents.  So, this little guy is portrayed in a tragic light because he doesn’t believe in Santa.  There is almost an insinuation that his moral character is lacking in some way for his lack of faith in this secular myth.

But the reality is that like this unfortunate character in the film many kids don’t receive presents because their parents cannot afford the splurge.  There is unfortunately no jolly elf making the rounds to lavish us all with gifts. 

Further, kids who don’t get a magical visit from Santa--and have few or no gifts on Christmas morning--feel extremely deprived and embarrassed because of the situation.  As adults, we may discount and not appreciate how real that hurt is.  As an adult in middle age, Oprah Winfrey still remembered vividly the sting of such experiences from her own childhood.  Such heartbreak spurred her philanthropy in South Africa.  She hated to think of other kids going through that same deprivation and shame. 

But per the Santa myth, when kids don’t get presents, it is because they were naughty and didn’t deserve them.  How incredibly cruel is that??!  It is really hitting human beings at a very vulnerable point in their lives when they are already down.  

The Santa myth plants the seed that those who don’t get visited by Santa are undeserving of treats that pop culture says everyone enjoys at that time of year.  The Santa myth instead sends the message that such kids are deserving of their misfortunate.   

I find such a tradition to be neither quaint nor harmless.  In fact, I want nothing to do with it.  To me, it does more than just ignore the real reason for the celebration of Christmas.  The Santa myth distracts otherwise good people from spiritual values and towards materialistic consumption.  It also is cruel and hurtful to some of the most vulnerable in our society.  None of these things are compatible with Christianity in my opinion.

Job 31:24

I have never trusted in riches.
I never said even to pure gold, “You are my hope.”

Friday, January 27, 2012

Biography: Santa Claus

The holidays have passed, but I wanted to share a program I watched in December with my daughters.  I haven’t watched the series in years, but generally I have enjoyed Biography because I love history and learning about people’s back stories is fascinating to me.  I rented the DVD of the Biography episode on Santa Claus from 2005.  If you are interested, here is a link to the DVD on Amazon:
The episode was fascinating.  It traced the Santa Claus myth from the real life Turkish Christian, popularly known as St. Nicholas, to the modern pop culture and commercialization icon in the United States. 
Nicholas of Myrna was a fascinating man.  He pragmatically used his resources to save women in his community who lacked a dowry from a life of slavery and/or prostitution.  He gave gifts of money to help them marry so they could avoid a life of exploitation and misery.  That type of pragmatic giving is certainly a great role model to follow. 
But as a modern Christian, it makes me sad that the example set by Nicholas has been so twisted.  It is now used as a justification for all kinds of unhealthy splurging that racks up tremendous debt for many.  Moreover, it also takes our focus from things of lasting importance towards emphasis on worldly diversions that can amuse us only a relatively short while before they break, wear out, get lost and/or lose their attractiveness.
The Biography episode describes how the real life St. Nicholas was transformed in the United States by the rich and by merchants for their own purposes.  What a fascinating transformation!
The episode first explains that in the 1800s the rich in New York disliked the imported European custom of recent immigrants to call on the homes of the well-to-do at Christmas to be served food and presents.  In the age of the robber barons, the rich propagated a new tradition of “Santa Claus,” who brought the goodies to each family’s home.  They liked the notion of the poor waiting in their own homes instead of imposing on the hospitality of the more affluent in the community.
The Biography episode also describes how the Santa Claus myth proved to be an unparalleled marketing boom for merchants.  It was popular with children, and thus spurred retail spending by their adult relatives.  Indeed, the episode noted how the Santa Claus figure seems to contradictorily encourage buying while the myth features a giver of gifts, who explicitly avoids commercial venues and actually makes all of his own gifts in order to give them away for free.  I thought that was an interesting paradox.
The Biography episode interviewed a number of people from authors, who have researched and written about the Santa Claus phenomenon, to people in the entertainment industry, which has exploited and greatly enhanced our modern view of the Santa myth.  It was fascinating to hear the perspective of all these people, none of whom I could discern were practicing Christians. 
As some interviewees pointed out, though Santa Claus is linked intimately with Christmas, he bears absolutely no relation whatsoever to the original reason for observing Christmas.  The Santa Claus myth does not in any way reflect the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.  There is nothing at all religious about the character of Santa Claus.  Very odd if you think about it.  To me, this is a quite offensive aspect of the Santa myth.  It is evidence of the secularization of an important religious celebration.  As a Christ-follower and a parent, I don’t appreciate that distraction.
Fascinatingly, it was also noted by one of the interviewees that Santa Claus is viewed in our pop culture as a sort of “deity.”  (That was his wording, not mine.)  One interviewee even described that the role of Santa is equivalent for children to the role of God for adults.  What an eye-opening (and terrifying) perspective!  And how insightful coming from an apparent non-Christian.  The interviewee elaborated that both Santa Claus and God are endowed with supernatural powers, are understood to be benevolent and are viewed as approachable.  The difference to me is that unlike the one true God, Santa Claus is simply a human-created myth and his sole purpose is to facilitate splurging on materialistic pleasures. 
I found both of these characterizations from non-Christians to be fascinating and confirming.  I’ve written before that I’ve always been honest with my kids about the Santa myth.  I didn’t want them to believe in a secular myth rooted in untruth and emphasizing materialistic values.  I also didn’t want them to confuse the one true God with the make-believe Santa Claus character.  Finally, I didn’t want to tell my children things that were untrue for fear that it would undercut their ability to trust what I tell them (e.g., the existence of God).  All of these concerns were based in part on my own experiences growing up.  It is interesting that a secular television program would in some ways confirm the concerns I already had.
However, as the Biography episode notes, in our modern culture if you deny the existence of Santa in our culture, you are viewed as a heartless “Scrooge.”   I’ve certainly dealt with that characterization myself.  It is a sticky wick for Christian parents!

Deuteronomy 9:16
It was then that I saw how you sinned against the LORD your God: you made yourselves a calf, an idol made of cast metal! You couldn’t wait to turn from the path the LORD commanded you!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Media Coverage of Romney the Day After

I have written before in my blogs about my fondness for NPR.  The radio format is helpful for my busy life; I can listen to the news while doing other things.  Moreover, the quality of the journalism is generally quite high in my opinion.  They go beyond sound bites.  They spend time on interviews of some depth.  There is a lot of investigative journalism.  It is a great resource. 
Generally, I find NPR to be pretty fair and balanced, if you’ll pardon my using that particular phrase.  Though some conservatives claim NPR is biased towards the left, I always listen close for substantive bias on particular issues, and typically I don’t detect any.  (However, I have written before that I have detected cultural biases.  See:  NPR is tough on Democrats and have defended Republicans who were attacked by others in the mainline media.  NPR was the only news outlet I heard last year to interview a historian to support Sarah Palin’s characterization of Paul Revere’s famous ride.  In my experience, they don’t seem to scrutinize the right more than the left.
Nonetheless, no one is perfect and sometimes even NPR gets it wrong.  Last Sunday was one such occasion.
They aired a report on Mitt Romney’s distant cousins in Mexico.  The report began by noting that after the LDS church banned polygamy in 1890, it “quietly” sent “selected members” to Canada and Mexico to continue practicing plural marriage.  The report then noted that Mitt Romney’s great grandfather was one of those sent.  It was noted that he had four wives and 30 children. 
Then the report continued by explaining that some of their descendants still live in Mexico about four hours from El Paso.   It was unclear from the reporter’s wording whether or not these descendants are still polygamists or not, but I finally determined I don’t think they are.  I wouldn’t be surprised if other listeners came to a different conclusion.  It was quite ambiguous.
The report included mention that the Romneys in Mexico (who were interviewed for the report) are just “distant cousins.”  Nonetheless, the report tried to undercut this fact in a couple ways.  The report stressed that the distant cousins “feel[] a blood kinship to Mitt” and have a sign on their wall that reads “Families are forever.”  That appeared to be a really cheap shot, in my opinion.  I’m not an expert on LDS theology, but I understand Mormon beliefs emphasize family ties and a belief that families will be together in the afterlife.  To me, that belief was being exploited to make it seem like there was a closer relationship between Mitt Romney and the Romneys in Mexico.  The report even included a question about “why Mitt hasn’t come down and met his family in Mexico.” 
Coupled with the ambiguity about whether the Romneys in Mexico are polygamous, the report was very unflattering.  I could imagine that it could have cultivated a negative response from listeners who were previously on the fence about Mitt Romney’s candidacy for president.  Airing the day after a historical loss to Newt Gingrich in South Carolina, the timing of the report seemed quite odd to say the least.
The full report is available at the following link.
The LDS church embraced polygamy until 1890.  But it has now been expressly disavowed by the church for over a century.  That is longer than the church originally embraced it.  Yet I have observed that there continues to be in some segments of our society a strong suspicion that modern day LDS members are secretly polygamists.  I don’t understand that.  Yet, an irresponsible story like the one NPR aired on Sunday seems to serve no useful purpose and just encourages such suspicion.
My husband and I were working in the kitchen when the report aired and as we talked about the report afterwards.  It just seemed a pointless report aimed at frightening people into thinking Mitt Romney somehow endorses polygamy.  It was very unfair, and my husband and I were stunned that NPR would air such a piece.
It is the understanding of my husband and I that because the LDS church did at one time embrace polygamy, many modern members with deep roots in the church have ancestors who practiced plural marriages at one time.  My husband and I noted that if that is an accurate understanding,  there is a similarity to attitudes towards Germans in modern day Germany. 
During the Third Reich, many Germans were members of the Nazi Party (or offshoots like the Hitler Youth) or served in the military.  Some such Germans did it because they believed in Nazism.  But others did it for political expediency or because they were forced to do so.  (Many young men were drafted and had no choice but to fight for the Nazis.)  As a result of this history, most modern Germans are descendants of people who were Nazis.  Obviously, that doesn’t make the modern day descendants Nazis as well.  That would be ludicrous, inflammatory and incredibly unfair to suggest.
To be clear, I don’t mean to equate polygamy with genocide.  I certainly do not endorse either.  But in my view, mass torture and extermination of millions of human beings is much worse than having multiple spouses.  Though polygamy and genocide are very different, the point about the unfairness of tainting descendants with the sins of their forbearers seems apt.
During our discussion, I noted to my husband that the NPR report was equivalent to interviewing some of his family’s distant German relatives to suggest that my husband was somehow a Nazi.  My husband is vaguely aware that he has some distant relatives in Germany who did not ever follow the branch of the family that immigrated to the United States and who have always lived in Germany.  Though my husband does not know any of those distant cousins, it seems statistically likely that that branch might be descendants of some who were affiliated with the Third Reich.  However, it would be incredibly distortive (to say the least) to suggest that somehow that might make my husband a Nazi!  But perhaps if my husband ever runs for political office, he should be prepared for such an outlandish news report if NPR follows in the same vein as the report on Governor Romney’s distant cousins in Mexico.

Ephesians 4:25
Therefore, putting away lying, let every man speak truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

South Carolina Primaries

Wow.  My prior post about religious bigotry came just the day before the South Carolina primaries.  How timely.  I’m just stunned--and quite sad--about what happened yesterday.
The news analysis today is observing that South Carolina was the first Southern state, as well as the first heavily Evangelical state, to weigh in on whom the GOP should nominate as their presidential candidate.  That fact seems to be the news pundits’ explanation of the stunning results.  They are noting that until yesterday’s results, Governor Romney’s nomination was all but a done deal.  Now there is serious doubt about the outcome. 
Newt Gingrich beat Governor Romney by over ten percentage points.  Representative Paul and Senator Santorum were way behind them.  The mainline media seems to suggest that Southern Evangelicals are the reason for this stunning reversal of fortunes.   If that is true, it makes me very sad for many reasons.
In my prior post, I wrote about lingering anti-Catholic and very virulent anti-Mormon religious bigotry being undercurrents in Senator Santorum and Governor Romney’s respective campaigns.  I think, however, I underestimated in some ways just how strong such bigotry may run. 
In my last post, I described how in many ways Governor Romney is an ideal Republican candidate.  A similar characterization arguably might be used in describing Senator Santorum.  He lacks the private sector business success of Governor Romney.  But during his time in Congress, Santorum was nationally known for his outspokenness on social issues.  Further, he was a Senator, not just a member of the much larger House.  And he is from a large, politically important state, not a state with only a few electoral votes. 
Yet, despite all this, it appears that Evangelical voters in South Carolina did not really embrace him when they cast their ballots.  I cannot fathom why.  Religious bigotry is the only reason I myself can think of, though I’m open to other theories.
The Republican voters of South Carolina have handed Governor Romney a stunning defeat.  They have cut off at the knees a well-organized, well-credentialed, photogenic candidate who previously seemed well-poised to secure the GOP nomination and give President Obama a very competitive race this fall.  I listened to Mr. Gingrich’s speech last night and his South Carolina supporters were vehemently anti-Obama in their tone.  However, they do not seem to realize that they have seriously undercut their ability to defeat our current president’s bid for re-election.
…Newt Gingrich?  Really?!
Before I explain my reaction, let me first make clear that I do not judge Mr. Gingrich for his adultery and other mistakes. 
I agree wholeheartedly with the South Carolina Evangelicals interviewed last night who explained why they did not hesitate to vote for him: he had atoned for his sins and they were forgiven.  Amen!  I agree completely with that sentiment.  Grace is the cornerstone of Christianity.  None of us, no matter how far we stray, is ever beyond the love of God.  Moreover, our loving Heavenly Father rejoices when we return to him.  We don’t return as second-class citizens, but as beloved children returning home.  That was why Jesus came to this Earth--to share that Good News with us.  There is a celebration in heaven when each Prodigal Son returns home. 
Further, Jesus taught us repeatedly not to judge.  That too is a basic tenet of our Christian faith.  I myself have plenty of beams in my own eye that keep me plenty busy.  I have no need to worry about the splinters in Mr. Gingrich’s eyes (or anyone else’s).
So, I am not shocked that Evangelicals in South Carolina would embrace Mr. Gingrich despite the fact that he is a fallen sinner.  We all are.  That is important to recognize.  But when there are other  candidates in the race without all the character baggage (e.g., Governor Romney and Senator Santorum), Mr. Gingrich is a very odd choice for people of faith to choose. 
Although I do not judge Mr. Gingrich in any way, I sadly cannot say that I trust him.  I can rejoice that he says he has repented and has begun a new life.  But that does not mean that I have enough confidence in him to elect him to such an important national office.  Mr. Gingrich has apparently had a long history of unfaithfulness to his marriage vows.  Unfortunately, his lack of fidelity was not the result of a onetime only poor choice, which was immediately regretted and never repeated. 
If someone had repeatedly embezzled from his employers, but had later told me he had seen the error of his ways and was changing his life, I would celebrate with that person.  I don’t think, however, I would necessarily put that person immediately in charge of our church’s treasury or managing my 401(k).  That would not be good stewardship in my opinion.  When one has a history of on-going faithlessness, it takes time to build back one’s trust.  In my analogy, we might let the former embezzler start out by helping other volunteers at our church’s thrift store or working with a team of the Finance Committee to count money from the collection plate.  It would probably be necessary to start small and build up to positions of increasingly greater trust.
Another reason for my surprise at Evangelicals’ apparent enthusiasm for Mr. Gingrich is that he is a career politician.  I apologize if this sounds cynical, and I don’t mean to burst anyone’s bubble, but politicians are not always honest.  They say what is necessary to woo voters.  Consequently, Mr. Gingrich’s choice of career makes it hard for me to accept on its face everything that Mr. Gingrich tells us publicly.  (I feel that way about all who have been in politics, I’m not singling Mr. Gingrich out.) 
Indeed, while serving as Speaker of the House, he led the charge to impeach President Clinton for lying under oath about an extramarital affair.  Yet, we now know that Mr. Gingrich was himself at that time also engaged in an extramarital affair of his own.  That sort of hypocrisy for political gain is very troubling.
Finally, because of the way Mr. Gingrich left politics in the 1990s, I have to say I found it astounding that he would even bother to run again for any public office.  And I was absolutely shocked when he threw his hat into the race for the presidential nomination.  At the time, I assumed it was a ploy to get publicity for book sales.  (Mr. Gingrich is a prolific writer and has written in whole or in part over two dozen published books.) 
For those who don’t recall, after a thorough investigation, Mr. Gingrich was sanctioned for ethics violations when he was the Speaker of the House.  He was formally reprimanded and fined after a very lop-sided 395-28 vote of his peers.  Leaders in his own party then asked him to step down from his position as Speaker.    Initially, he resisted.  However, after the 1998 elections resulted in a Republican loss of historic proportions, Mr. Gingrich resigned as Speaker and also announced he would leave the House.  He made his announcement the day after his constituents had re-elected him.  Thus, he abandoned his seat almost immediately after voters had entrusted it to him.  Mr. Gingrich left office in disgrace and characterized the Republicans in the House as “cannibals.”  How interesting that he would then seek the GOP presidential nomination a decade later.
I just do not know how Southern Evangelicals could apparently support Mr. Gingrich’s presidential campaign despite his track record: the long history of marital infidelity, political hypocrisy and ethics violations.  I am surprised because such Christians are known for insisting on political candidates of high moral character.  Yet they would reject Senator Santorum and Governor Romney, who would seem to have much stronger evidence of high moral character, in favor of a political insider like Mr. Gingrich.  I just can’t get my mind around this; it makes no sense to me.

Luke 16:10 (Wycliffe Bible)

He that is true in the least thing, is true also in the more [He that is faithful in the least thing, is faithful also in the more]; and he that is wicked in a little thing, is wicked also in the more.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney and Religious Bigotry

A big news story lately in the GOP presidential race has been the failure of Evangelicals to reach consensus to support one of the candidates.  After the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, Evangelical leaders conferred and began to rally around Senator Rick Santorum.   I found the lateness of this endorsement curious. 

Senator Santorum is well-known as a social conservative.  Indeed, his stance as a fiscal conservative has been questioned and even attacked throughout his career.  Many of Senator Santorum’s most passionate political causes are rooted in his religious faith, which informs his deeply held belief that the traditional family unit is the key to solving many of our society’s problems.  As a result, he has fought against legal access to abortion, stem cell research and same sex marriage.  While in the Senate, he was best known for his outspokenness on such social issues.  Consequently, he seems reminiscent of the type of politician that tends to appeal to conservative Evangelicals. 

Yet Senator Santorum’s candidacy was largely overlooked in the lead-up to the Iowa caucuses.  Some may find that puzzling.  I do not.  Rick Santorum is no Evangelical; he is a devout Catholic.  That may not have been an issue when he was running for Senate in Pennsylvania.  But in other parts of the country where Evangelicalism is more influential, I believe his choice of Christian denomination is a political liability. 

I find it fascinating that I have not heard this issue examined in the mainstream media.  Maybe it has been covered and I just missed it, but I think it is an important issue that should be getting more attention.  I suspect, however, that most in the mainstream media don’t even recognize anti-Catholic sentiment as an on-going issue.  As I’ve written in my blogs previously, the mainstream media tends to not be terribly well-versed in religious issue generally, and is particularly out-of-touch with Evangelical thought and culture.

By contrast, we have heard much more in the mainstream media about anti-Mormon bigotry in the context of the candidacy of Governor Mitt Romney (and for a while John Huntsman).  I think that attention is interesting as well.

I don’t think being a Catholic in national politics is a cakewalk.  I think it is an obstacle to overcome due to on-going Protestant skepticism about Catholicism.  But to a certain degree, I do agree that the historical antagonisms between Protestants and Catholics have lessened in the last few decades--largely due to the aftermath of Roe v. Wade.  After that landmark Supreme Court opinion, the Catholic Church was the first and most outspoken opponent of the newly protected abortion rights.  Evangelicals are also widely associated to the issue now; the “pro-life” stance has long been a unifying cause within Evangelical politics.  But in truth, Evangelicals were initially a little late to the game.  They eventually joined Catholics in opposition to abortion, and to a certain degree, I have observed this emotional issue to prompt the formation of political alliances that previously would have been unimaginable.

By contrast, I have continued to witness first-hand and in the media deeply held hostility to the LDS faith.  This hostility seems to fester in many quarters.  It seems to be shared by both conservatives and progressives.  Protestants and Catholics sometimes balk at the idea that Mormonism is a Christian religion.  Indeed, the Mormon Church is sometimes labeled a “cult” by such skeptics.  Interestingly, I have also heard such things said about Catholicism.  As a devout Catholic for much of my Christian walk, I can attest such labels are hurtful.

I find it fascinating that in the twenty-first century a candidate’s LDS faith is apparently such a political liability.  Governor Romney’s business record has been attacked recently, but that is fairly late in the race.  It seems significant that such attacks are coming only as his clinching of the nomination seems more and more certain.  When examined, those attacks also seem to be on fairly thin ice. 

Previously, Romney’s record as governor of Massachusetts was also attacked, but those also seemed to be of questionable strength.  From my vantage point, Governor Romney’s allegedly moderate political stance is a joke.  It seems pretty desperate to attempt to attack his conservative credentials.  Governor Romney is no progressive.  He is instead a skilled and pragmatic politician.  If he had embraced positions like Senator Santorum’s, he would never have been elected to state-wide office in Massachusetts. 

Governor Romney’s religion is the only reason I can identify for the astounding GOP reluctance to embrace his candidacy.  Think about it.  Governor Romney is in many ways an ideal GOP presidential candidate.  He is a successful businessman and champion of the private sector.  He is a family man and a leader in his church.  He embodies family values.  He has been married to the same woman for decades and has a bunch of kids.  None of them seem to bad-mouth him. 

Moreover, Governor Romney is photogenic, well-organized and has access to plenty of campaign funding.  Though no one is perfect, he is much more articulate than many past and present GOP candidates.  His opponents have really had to take things out of context and twist his words to put him on the defensive. 

The bottom line is that Governor Romney is a conservative with enough political savvy to succeed in a liberal strong-hold like Massachusetts.  All this has the Obama campaign quaking in their boots.  They would much rather take on Newt Gingrich or Ron Paul in the general election.  Mssrs. Gingrich and Paul both have had messy questions raised about them in the election and some of their political positions are considered too extreme.  But Governor Romney doesn’t have those sorts of political vulnerabilities and would be a formidable opponent.  With all that going for him, it seems to me the GOP should be thanking their lucky stars for Governor Romney.

But it remains to be seen if Governor Romney’s LDS faith will be too much of a political Achilles ’ heel for his candidacy.  I have heard socially conservative Republicans in casual conversation cite his religion as the main reason they don’t support him in the primaries.  Some of the comments I’ve heard were pretty offensive in the way they characterized Mormonism.  LDS hostility is much stronger than I personally would have imagined. 

Perhaps the country was ready for an African American president, but it seems the jury is still out on whether it is ready for an LDS president.  Personally, I’m not sure why Governor Romney’s religion would matter.  But apparently it does.  I find that reality incredibly sad in a nation founded on principles of freedom of speech and freedom of religion.  My own hope is that Governor Romney’s candidacy will prompt more discussion of the issue of religious bigotry.  I myself don’t feel the need to agree with a candidate’s theology to support him or her in a secular election.   I’m surprised more Americans don’t feel the same.  We don’t live in a theocracy.

1 Corinthians 12:25-27

…that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care one for another.  And whenever one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or when one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.  Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Bachmann, Cain and Gingrich: The Role of Religion in GOP Presidential Politics

I find the role of religion in GOP presidential politics to be fascinating.  This political season in particular has raised interesting and fairly unique issues to consider. 

For example, Michele Bachmann’s Evangelical appeal was tempered by her gender.  Representative Bachmann is a devout Christian with wonderful Evangelical credentials—from her formal education to her devotion to her large family to her political career emphasizing issues important to conservative Christians.  Nonetheless, she was one of the first to bow out of the GOP race.  Evangelicals never rallied around her though she was one of them.   This was not surprising to me because many such Christians who take a literal approach to the Bible believe that women have no legitimate role in leadership.  By virtue of their gender, it is thought women are unqualified to serve as Commander-in-Chief.

Herman Cain also had strong credentials as a conservative Christian.  The mainstream media seemed to focus more on his economic message, and the red flags about his personal life eventually sunk his campaign.  I wonder, however, how much the issues involving his personal life would have actually alienated Evangelicals if he had stayed in the race.  I was stunned that Newt Gingrich had a belated surge prior to Iowa’s caucuses.  Between his serial adultery, the two divorces and the ethics scandal that forced him to leave Congress, I myself couldn’t imagine how conservative Christians could support Mr. Gingrich.  But apparently many did—at least for a while.

Interestingly, to marry his current wife, Mr. Gingrich apparently agreed to formally convert to Catholicism.  I found it fascinating that this point was never really explored on the campaign trail.  In Europe and in this country, there has long been a bitter, bloody antagonism between Catholics and Protestants though they are all Christians.  Obviously it is not all about theology, there are deep and long-standing political and cultural issues intertwined. 

And that antagonism is not an ancient historical footnote.  When Senator John F. Kennedy was running for president, his Catholic faith was a political liability.  Many Protestants were very skeptical and even fearful that a Catholic president would be beholden to the Pope in Rome.  Senator Kennedy had to face those issues head-on and barely won the presidency.

I’ve mentioned in this blog that in my Christian walk I’ve been both a Catholic and a Protestant at different times in my faith journey.  I can personally attest that anti-Catholic bigotry is unfortunately still quite alive in this country.  When we were practicing Catholics, my husband and I sometimes had to endure really ugly comments about our church by ignorant co-workers.  We would listen to Christian radio stations and sometimes be appalled by hateful comments by callers and DJs discussing Catholicism.  When we drifted away from the Catholic church and were searching for a new church home, pastors whom we generally respected and admired would sometimes make not so subtle jabs about Catholic practices and attitudes.  Though they would not reference the Catholic religion by name, it was clear they were tapping into anti-Catholic sentiment of their respective flocks.  Such comments and mindsets are hurtful.  They are insulting.  They are sad.  The Body of Christ should be in harmony and not attacking itself from within.  That does nothing to further the Kingdom of God.

With that anti-Catholic sentiment still so prevalent, I was surprised that Mr. Gingrich’s Catholicism was not an issue on the campaign trail.  My own suspicion was that a couple of factors suppressed the potential issue. 

First, there were a lot of candidates and many voters were overwhelmed.  It was hard to get to know each candidate well, so I suspect that many voters just did not realize that Mr. Gingrich had converted. 

Second, for those who were closely examining Mr. Gingrich’s candidacy, there were frankly a lot of other non-policy, personal issues of concern.  Protestants who might otherwise have been suspicious of Mr. Gingrich’s religion were probably concerned by other issues such as his marriages and professional ethics. 

Third, because of how Mr. Gingrich had conducted his personal life, I also suspect that many voters took Mr. Gingrich’s conversion with a grain of salt.  A personal anecdote will help explain what I mean. 

For several decades, I have had a sweet friend who is a very spiritual person.  At one time or another, he has tried pretty much every religion around.  He was active in Catholicism for a while, then he studied and practiced Islam.  He regularly attended a Southern Baptist church for another period.  For a time, he was really drawn to Buddhism.  I think he even lived at a Buddhist monastery for a while.  I haven’t seen him for a while, but last I heard from mutual friends he had married and formally converted to the LDS church.  My friend tried so many religions through the years that we all took it with a grain of salt when he would embrace a new one.  We weren’t confident it would last because he did not tend to stick to any one religion for long. 

Similarly, I suspect that because of Mr. Gingrich’s personal life and the fact that he apparently converted in order to marry his current wife in the Catholic Church, many voters have not considered him a “real” Catholic.   If they had had more confidence in the depth of his conversion, his Catholicism might have been an issue in his candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination.


1 Corinthians 12:15
If the foot shall say, "Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body," is it therefore not of the body?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Dr. King’s Birthday

One of my favorite Christian role models is Dr. King.  He certainly was not perfect.  No human being is.  Not even canonized saints. 

But he had a vision for how Christ’s teachings could transform generations of murderous injustice, and how the Church could transform an indifferent wider society.  I know in my heart Dr. King’s vision came from God.  It is too beautiful to have been derived solely from human imagination unguided by the divine.

I deeply admire Dr. King’s courage and faith.  I continue to be awed that after an assassination attempt nearly killed his wife and baby daughter, Dr. King had the peace and love in his heart to preach nonviolence when a crowd gathered on his front yard with understandable rage and a desire for vengeance.  How many of us suffer much more modest slights and cannot be dissuaded from returning evil for evil?

I love that in our country we take time to honor a man like Dr. King with a federal holiday.  He was never elected to any secular office.  He did not command military soldiers in battle.  He was a private citizen who worked in the private sector throughout his life.  It is inspiring that any of us could also do great things for our country without entering politics or the military.

Likely because of the separation of church and state, religion has flourished in our country like no other.  It is therefore not surprising that the one person we honor with a federal holiday--beyond Christopher Columbus and our first president—was a clergyman.   As a man of God, Dr. King showed us the power of faith and the Church when focused and directed towards good.

The link below includes a video of one of my favorite hymns, which was closely associated with the Civil Rights Movement that Dr. King led.  The video includes an absolutely beautiful rendition of the hymn as sung by the Morehouse College Glee Club.

The following link includes a sermon of Dr. King’s that was inspired by that same hymn.  The accompanying video includes a serious of fascinating photos of Dr. King, his family, friends and others during the Civil Rights Movement.

I hope you enjoy these videos.  And however you will be observing Dr. King’s birthday this year, I wish you much peace and much love in your heart.  I also ask you to pray for everyone in your circle of influence.  Specifically, I encourage you to pray that peace and love will also fill their hearts.  Though I am a lawyer and I agree that secular law can be an important tool to protect human rights, as a Christian I believe that the only way true and lasting peace can be achieved is through conversion of human hearts.

Proverbs 29:18 (21st Century King James Version)

Where there is no vision, the people perish; but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Current TV

I mentioned that during on our Christmas trip while we were at my in-laws I was under the weather and spent a good deal of time resting in a recliner watching TV in the living room.  When I am well, I don’t watch much TV normally, and our family hasn’t had cable for years.  While I was resting and channel surfing, I came across Current TV and gave it a listen for the first time.
For those who are unfamiliar, Current TV is a relatively new cable channel.  Its focus is current events and news.  The channel is transparent about having a progressive bent. 
Current TV initially gained some attention because it was co-founded by former vice-president Al Gore.  Then in 2009 two of its journalists were imprisoned in North Korea, which attracted the attention (and intervention) of former president Bill Clinton.  Last year, Keith Olbermann got a multi-million dollar contract to bring his Countdown with Keith Olbermann program to the channel.  Prior to watching it recently, that was about all I knew of Current TV.
MSNBC seems to be the reigning news channel with a progressive spin, so I wasn’t quite clear why Current TV would be going after the same demographic.  When I was watching it recently, there were ads describing Current TV as the only “independent” progressive news channel.  So, I guess the leadership of Current TV objects to the corporate ownership (and perhaps) manipulation of MSNBC.  At least that was what I inferred.
While convalescing, I watched several programs on Current TV.  I cannot say I really enjoyed any of them.  I was just trying to learn more about the channel and its programming.  There was a documentary about the Occupy Wall Street movement.  That was fairly interesting, but not terribly compelling in my opinion.  Then there was a show called Young Turks and I caught a bit of Mr. Olbermann’s Current TV show. 
I have to say I was disappointed in the programming on Current TV.  I did not get the sense the channel was really breaking any new ground.  The programming I watched and the programming that was being advertised seemed to be very similar to MSNBC, which in turn seems identical to what is on Fox News Channel except that the content tilts left instead of right.  I don’t find any of that faux news programming productive.  It is just a bunch of angry people riling up the anger of their respective audiences.  It fuels cynicism and vilification of those with opposing views.  I just don’t like it.
Beyond that, I was also very disappointed with Current TV because for a supposedly progressive channel it seemed to be so lacking in diversity.  Like on FNC and MSNBC, the vast majority of the people talking on Current TV were male.  In the hours I watched, I counted only two women who ever got the opportunity to speak on air.  Astounding!  Neither of the women spoke for long.  The programming on Current TV seemed very lacking in female perspectives. 
Moreover, there did not appear to be much racial or ethnic diversity.  Both of the women who spoke while I was watching were white.  The men who were hosting and being interviewed were also disproportionately white.  There was one African American man who was consulted a few times on Young Turks, but the host seemed to take a rather patronizing tone in his questioning with that gentleman at times.  The host of Young Turks is apparently Turkish American and one of the guests he had at one point indicated he was of Middle Eastern heritage.  But that was as much racial and ethnic diversity as the programming could muster while I was watching.  I don’t find such lack of diversity to be very progressive.
Indeed, at one point when I was watching Young Turks, there was a reference to a then-recent comment Pat Robertson made about homosexuals being able to shed their homosexual orientation.  The talking heads on Young Turks lampooned that comment as completely unenlightened.  It was not a serious, intelligent discussion of the vast scientific evidence that sexual orientation is immutable.  Instead, the lampooning of Mr. Robertson’s comment had the tenor of lunch room snipes at a local middle school.  Instead of an intelligent explanation of why Mr. Robertson’s comment was ill-informed, the talking heads just made snarky comments to express their complete lack of respect for Mr. Robertson.  Their comments had an implicit “crazy old man” tone. 
Even worse, there was an odd exchange between the talking heads on Young Turks where the men discussing this “news” item seemed uncomfortable with any possible suggestion that they might be homosexual.  They seemed to be expressing the same type of homophobia, for which they were lambasting Mr. Robertson.   How hypocritical.  And not unlike Rush Limbaugh’s references to fruits in the context of a discussion of Representative Barney Frank, this exchange on Young Turks seemed to be capturing the mentality of junior high kids.  Very disappointing.  This is hardly what I would call “progressive,” but perhaps I have a different definition of the term from Current TV.
Finally, when watching Young Turks, I was appalled at the language that was used.  There were words that I would not want my kids to have overhead, so I was glad they weren’t in the room when they were spoken by the talking heads.  The worst was at one point when the term “God D*@&” was used by the host of the program, Cenk Uygur.  I was really horrified. 
I don’t think I have ever heard that phrase used on television when it was not bleeped and I find it very offensive.  I am no prude.  As those who know me will attest, I am not hip, but I have consumed plenty of secular pop culture.  And I teach some pretty difficult subjects to my students.  But my level of respect plummets for anyone who would use that kind of language apparently in such a thoughtless manner.  I got the impression that phrase was used all the time in Mr. Uygur’s typical discourse and he just forgot to censor himself on-air.  I am also pretty appalled that Current TV would air that phrase without some editing.
All in all, I found my hours with Current TV to be quite a disappointment.  I won’t be rushing to watch it again anytime soon.

Joshua 6:10
Joshua ordered the people, “Don’t shout. Don’t let your voice be heard.”

Job 37:5
God roars with his wondrous voice; he does great things we can’t know.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Rush Limbaugh Show

During our family’s long Christmas road trip, we drove through lots of remote parts of the country that was frankly underserved by radio programming.  At times, my husband and I got a little tired of all the holiday music and the juvenile fiction audio books our daughters were listening to.  We wanted a change of pace and were a little desperate for something else.  At a few points on the journey, we came across Rush Limbaugh’s show as the only radio option. 

My husband and I actually find Mr. Limbaugh kind of funny in some ways.  I know many left of center folks find Mr. Limbaugh highly offensive and believe it is a travesty that he broadcasts at all.  I don’t know that I have much (if anything) in common with Mr. Limbaugh from an ideological perspective.  My faith informs my political values, and as I understand Mr. Limbaugh is not a particularly religious man.  Nonetheless, I am a strong supporter of the First Amendment and would vigorously defend his right to broadcast. 

My husband has a great sense of humor and cracks me up a lot.  He is one of the least political people I know.  He wasn’t even registered to vote until we were engaged and I got wind of the omission.  My husband is also from a small town in rural Texas and he worked for years in corporate America.  In such contexts, Rush is often cited as a minor prophet.  But my apolitical hubby has always seen through Mr. Limbaugh and thought his ramblings were a terrific joke to garner ratings.  Always the joker, my husband would gently antagonize co-workers when they were quoting Rush with reference to his violations of our nation’s drug laws and his many marriages.  That often got the goat of Mr. Limbaugh’s devoted fans, which amused my husband to no end.

As a result of this perspective, when we found Mr. Limbaugh’s program on the dial in those remote areas on our trip, our eyes lit up and with eager amusement we agreed to listen.  Neither of us had taken time to listen to Mr. Limbaugh in many years.  We’ve been busy raising our kids and frankly don’t have as much free time for such things.  But when I used to listen to Mr. Limbaugh regularly (in part to know what folks around me were talking about), he seemed to have a well-grounded point.  I rarely agreed with him and there often seemed to be an odd strain of paranoia in his ramblings.  But at least he seemed to have a discernible ideology and some consistent analysis.   

When we listened to several of his shows recently, however, Mr. Limbaugh seemed quite different from his old self from years past.  He seemed to have run out of steam.  We listened to several shows on the trip, so I don’t think this was just an off program.

For example, Mr. Limbaugh often made references that seemed racist.   He went on and on about political figures he disliked, and then made strange, seemingly off-topic comments dripping with sarcasm about how at least the person was not a racist.  Those seemed to come from nowhere and didn’t seem to make any sense in those contexts.  Other times he made references to Republicans being afraid to stand up to President Obama because he was black.  I didn’t quite get that.  He also railed against President Obama going Christmas shopping.  I didn’t really see how that was an issue.  Didn’t that support conservative concerns such as the economy, capitalism and the recognition of Christmas?  Mr. Limbaugh seemed to really be scraping the bottom of the barrel at that point.

In a truly strange segment of one show, Mr. Limbaugh went on at length to defend parents who had named their children after Nazis and had had their children taken into protective custody.  It was really hard to follow what his point was with that rant.  At times, I got the impression Mr. Limbaugh was endorsing white supremacy, which is not a bent I would have thought he would embrace.  Towards the end of the rant, Mr. Limbaugh questioned in a paranoid fashion whether children would be taken by CPS if their parents had named them for Che Guevara or Mao Zedong.  I didn’t really follow what he was getting at.  I am a registered Democrat.  I don’t approve of anyone who callously violates human rights to secure or hold political power—whether or not such violations are allegedly done in order to minimize the misery of the poor.  I don’t know if Mr. Limbaugh thought that the American left reveres Guevara or Zedong.  That certainly has not been my experience.  There are no children named “Che” or “Mao” in our family’s social circle.

A particularly odd segment of the radio program occurred when Mr. Limbaugh had been criticizing Mr. Obama’s handling of the economy, then took a caller who offered a countervailing view and defended the president’s record.  Initially, Mr. Limbaugh was respectful and let the caller state his views.  Then the caller made an unfortunate, mistaken point about the Obama administration spurring job growth in the caller’s community—particularly good factory jobs.  Mr. Limbaugh then asked the caller to elaborate on the kind of “factory jobs” in his community, and the caller referenced what are really retail jobs at Wal-Mart and Target.  Clearly, the caller was mistaken and didn’t understand what factory jobs were.  Mr. Limbaugh did not challenge the caller when he was on the line, but after the caller hung up, Mr. Limbaugh went on at some length to make fun of the mistake.  My husband and I were quite skeptical that this was a legitimate caller, the whole thing seemed to be staged.  How many supporters of President Obama listen to Mr. Limbaugh’s program and then also call in to defend him?  Interestingly, the caller spoke in an African American dialect.  I’m sure we listeners were supposed to catch on that the caller was black.  In that context, the whole (probably contrived) exchange seemed particularly offensive.  To me, it seemed to be patently racist. 

Later, Mr. Limbaugh referenced Representative Barney Frank, and did not miss the opportunity to make a comment about fruits and vegetables.  It seemed a pretty immature comment.  Yes, we all know Mr. Frank is homosexual.  Let’s make a silly reference to “fruits” to make fun of that point.  Giggle, giggle.  How comical.  It is the sort of unsophisticated humor that kids use in junior high.  Mr. Limbaugh is way beyond junior high, however, so it seemed very sad that he would sink to that level.  Mr. Frank has done a lot during his career.  But apparently Mr. Limbaugh cannot get beyond his sexual orientation, and is so threatened he has to make silly jokes.  I was embarrassed for Mr. Limbaugh.

After the “fruits” comment, my husband and I just couldn’t listen anymore and turned the radio off.  We didn’t want our kids exposed to that kind of language.  I felt sad for Mr. Limbaugh.  If you are a principled conservative, there is plenty to talk about in a radio program.  But his show seems to have devolved to just silly, bigoted nonsense. 


Zechariah 7:10
Don’t oppress the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the poor; don’t plan evil against each other!