Category Archives: Politics

Parsing the GOP’s Health Insurance Statistics

There has been a lot of noise lately about the GOP health care plan (AHCA) and the differences to the current plan (ACA or Obamacare). A lot of statistics are being misinterpreted.

The New York Times has an excellent analysis of some of this. But to pick it apart, I want to highlight a few things:

Many Republicans are touting the CBO’s estimate that, some years out, premiums will be 10% lower under their plan than under the ACA. However, this carries with it a lot of misleading information.

First of all, many are spinning this as if costs would go down. That’s not the case. The premiums would still rise — they would just have risen less by the end of the period than under ACA. That also ignores the immediate spike and throwing millions out of the insurance marketplace altogether.

Now then, where does this 10% number come from? First of all, you have to understand the older people are substantially more expensive to the health system, and therefore more expensive to insure. ACA limited the price differential from the youngest to the oldest people, which meant that in effect some young people were subsidizing older ones on the individual market. The GOP plan removes that limit. Combined with other changes in subsidies and tax credits, this dramatically increases the cost to older people. For instance, the New York Times article cites a CBO estimate that “the price an average 64-year-old earning $26,500 would need to pay after using a subsidy would increase from $1,700 under Obamacare to $14,600 under the Republican plan.”

They further conclude that these exceptionally high rates would be so unaffordable to older people that the older people will simply stop buying insurance on the individual market. This means that the overall risk pool of people in that market is healthier, and therefore the average price is lower.

So, to sum up: the reason that insurance premiums under the GOP plan will rise at a slightly slower rate long-term is that the higher-risk people will be unable to afford insurance in the first place, leaving only the cheaper people to buy in.

What is happening to America?

I still remember vividly my first visit to Europe, back in 2010. I had just barely gotten off a plane in Hamburg and on to a bus to Lubeck, and struck up a conversation with a friendly, well-educated German classical musician next to me. We soon started to discuss politics and religion. Over the course of the conversation, in response to his questions, I explained I had twice voted against George W. Bush, that I opposed the war in Iraq for many reasons, that I did thought there was an ethical imperative to work to defeat climate change, that I viewed health care as an important ethical and religious issue, that I thought evolution was well-established, and that I am a Christian.

Finally, without any hint of insult intended, and rather a lot of surprise written all over his face, he said:

“Wow. You’re an American, and a Christian, and you’re so…. normal!”

This, it seems to me, has a lot to do with Trump.

Ouch

It felt like a punch to the gut. The day after the election, having known that a man that appeared to stand for everything that honorable people are against won the election, like people all around the world, I was trying to make sense of “how could this happen?” As I’ve watched since, as he stacks government with wealthy cronies with records nearly as colorful as his own, it is easy to feel even more depressed.

Based on how Trump spoke and acted, it would be easy to conclude that the “deplorables” won the day – that he was elected by a contingent of sexists or racists ascendent in power.

But that would be too simple an explanation. This is, after all, the same country that elected Barack Obama twice. There are a many people that voted twice for a black man, and then for Trump. Why? Racism, while doubtless a factor, can’t explain it all.

How Trump could happen

Russ Allbery made some excellent points recently:

[Many Americans are] hurt, and they’re scared, and they feel like a lot of the United States just slammed the door in their faces.”

The status quo is not working for people.

Technocratic government by political elites is not working for people. Business as usual is not working for people. Minor tweaks to increasingly arcane systems is not working for people. People are feeling lost in bureaucracy, disaffected by elections that do not present a clear alternate vision, and depressed by a slow slide into increasingly dismal circumstances.

Government is not doing what we want it to do for us. And people are getting left behind. The left in the United States (of which I’m part) has for many years been very concerned about the way blacks and other racial minorities are systematically pushed to the margins of our economy, and how women are pushed out of leadership roles. Those problems are real. But the loss of jobs in the industrial heartland, the inability of a white, rural, working-class man to support his family the way his father supported him, the collapse of once-vibrant communities into poverty and despair: those problems are real too.

The status quo is not working for anyone except for a few lucky, highly-educated people on the coasts. People, honestly, like me, and like many of the other (primarily white and male) people who work in tech. We are one of the few beneficiaries of a system that is failing the vast majority of people in this country.

Russ is, of course, right. The Democrats have been either complicit in policies damaging to many, or ineffective in preventing them. They have often appeared unconcerned with the plight of people outside cities (even if that wasn’t really the case). And it goes deeper.

When’s the last time you visited Kansas?

I live in Kansas. The nearest paved road is about a 3-mile drive from my home. The nearest town, population 600, is a 6-mile drive. My governor — whom I did not vote for — cut taxes on the wealthy so much that our excellent local schools have been struggling for years. But my community is amazing, full of loving and caring people, the sort of people who you know you’ll be living with for 40 years, and so you make sure you get along well with.

I have visited tourist sites in Berlin, enjoyed an opera and a Broadway show in New York, taken a train across the country to Portland, explored San Francisco. I’ve enjoyed all of them. Many rural people do get out and experience the world.

I have been in so many conversations where I try to explain where I live to people that simply cannot fathom it. I have explained how the 18 acres I own is a very small amount where I am. How, yes, I do actually have electricity and Internet. How a bad traffic day is one where I have to wait for three cars to go past before turning onto the paved road. How I occasionally find a bull in my front yard, how I can walk a quarter mile and be at the creek on the edge of my property, how I can get to an airport faster than most New Yorkers and my kids can walk out the front door and play in a spot more peaceful than Central Park, and how all this is way cheaper than a studio apartment in a bad part of San Francisco.

It is rare indeed to see visitors actually traveling to Kansas as a destination. People have no concept of the fact that my mechanic would drop everything and help me get my broken-down car to the shop for no charge, that any number of neighbors or uncles would bring a tractor and come plow the snow off my 1/4-mile driveway out of sheer kindness, that people around here really care for each other in a way you don’t see in a city.

There are people that I know see politics way differently than me, but I know them to be good people. They would also do anything for a person in need, no matter who they are. I may find the people that they vote for to be repugnant, but I cannot say “I’ve looked this person in the eyes and they are nothing but deplorable.”

And so, people in rural areas feel misunderstood. And they are right.

Some perspectives on Trump

As I’ve said, I do find Trump to be deplorable, but not everyone that voted for him is. How, then, do people wind up voting for him?

The New Yorker had an excellent story about a man named Mark Frisbie, owner of a welding and fab shop. The recession had been hard on his business. His wife’s day-care center also closed. Health care was hard to find, and the long, slow decline had spanned politicians of every stripe. Mark and his wife supposedly did everything they were supposed to: they worked hard, were honest, were entrepreneurial, and yet — he had lost his business, his family house, his health coverage, everything. He doesn’t want a handout. He wants to be able to earn a living. Asked who he’d vote for, he said, “Is ‘none of the above’ an option?”

The Washington Post had another insightful article, about a professor from Madison, WI interviewing people in rural areas. She said people would often say: “All the decisions are made in Madison and Milwaukee and nobody’s listening to us. Nobody’s paying attention, nobody’s coming out here and asking us what we think. Decisions are made in the cities, and we have to abide by them.” She pushed back, hard, on the idea that Trump supporters are ignorant, and added that liberals that push that line of thinking are only making the problem worse.

I would agree; seeing all the talk about universities dis-inviting speakers that don’t hew to certain political views doesn’t help either.

A related article talks about the lack of empathy for Trump voters.

And then we have a more recent CNN article: Where Tump support and Obamacare use soar together, explaining in great detail how it can be logical for someone to be on Obamacare but not like it. We can all argue that the Republicans may have as much to do with that as anything, but the problem exists.

And finally, a US News article makes this point:

“His supporters realize he’s a joke. They do not care. They know he’s authoritarian, nationalist, almost un-American, and they love him anyway, because he disrupts a broken political process and beats establishment candidates who’ve long ignored their interests.

When you’re earning $32,000 a year and haven’t had a decent vacation in over a decade, it doesn’t matter who Trump appoints to the U.N., or if he poisons America’s standing in the world, you just want to win again, whoever the victim, whatever the price.

According to the Republican Party, the biggest threat to rural America was Islamic terrorism. According to the Democratic Party it was gun violence. In reality it was prescription drug abuse and neither party noticed until it was too late.”

Are we leaving people out?

All this reminded me of reading about Donald Knuth, the famous computer scientist and something of the father of modern computing, writing about his feelings of trepidation about sharing with his university colleagues that he was working on a project related to the Bible. I am concerned about the complaints about “the PC culture”, because I think it is good that people aren’t making racist or anti-semitic jokes in public anymore. But, as some of these articles point out, in many circles, making fun of Christians and conservatives is still one of the accepted targets. Does that really help anything? (And as a Christian that is liberal, have all of you that aren’t Christians so quickly forgotten how churches like the Episcopals blazed the way for marriage equality many years ago already?)

But they don’t get a free pass

I have found a few things, however, absolutely scary. One was an article from December showing that Trump voters actually changed their views on Russia after Trump became the nominee. Another one from just today was a study on how people reacted when showed inauguration crowd photos.

NPR ran a story today as well, on how Trump is treating journalists like China does. Chilling stuff indeed.

Conclusion

So where does this leave us? Heading into uncertain times, for sure, but perhaps — just maybe — with a greater understanding of our neighbors.

Perhaps we will all be able to see past the rhetoric and polarization, and understand that there is something, well, normal about each other. Doing that is going to be the only way we can really take our country back.

No Hate

“God hates people that are…”

I heard a sentence that began that way on an interview with a protestor outside the Supreme Court yesterday. It is a deeply sad, and deeply wrong, statement.

If someone reads the Bible, and can come up with a word, any word, that completes that sentence, they’re doing it wrong. If someone thinks that there is anyone God hates, then I have this to say: No. Just… no.

I saw an article today, taking pages and pages to assess what the “Christian response to gay marriage” should be. I don’t need pages. It’s very simple. It’s this:

God is the God of love.

That is all. Where people are doing good, there is God. Where people care about each other, there is God. Where there are flowers blooming and trees shading and birds singing, there is God. Where people marvel in the beauty of the landscape or of another person, there is God. And where people love, there is God.

There is too much hate in the world already. Instead of adding more, let’s celebrate compassion, devotion, and peace. People that say that God is the God of hate look at the spring landscape and see only last year’s thistles.

One day soon, I hope to see everyone’s hearts set free. What a day of joy that will be! And I hope, too, that those that hate will find the peace of freed hearts, freed from hate and from fear.

Is the Roman Emperor Still Your God?

In ancient Rome, the Imperial cult was the worship of the Roman emperor as a god. It came to be at roughly the same time as Christianity. In the cult of the emperor, Caesar was revered as a deity. According to Harvey Cox, “This was what we might today call a “civil religion” — it had its holidays, processions, and holy sites throughout the empire. Adherence to it was required of all of the emperor’s subjects, wherever they lived and whatever other deities they also worshiped. It was the religious and ideological mucilage that held the far-flung empire together.”

Perhaps you see where this is going. There was a certain group that found the imperial cult, well, repugnant. They felt their own goals — bringing their god’s peace and justice to the world — were incompatible with this sort of devotion to a human institution, and the very institution that had killed their leader at that. Their reaction went like this:

Regarding worship of the emperor, Christians responded with an unequivocal “no.” They claimed that Jesus Christ was God’s kyrios (“anointed one” in Greek), but since kyrios was one of the titles attributed to Caesar, they refused to participate in the imperial cult. They were willing to pray for the emperor and for his health, but they stubbornly refused to pray to him or offer ritual tribute. They recognized that one could not be a follower of Jesus while also honoring a rival to the loyalty their faith in him and his Kingdom required; therefore, “not even one pinch of incense on the imperial altar.” This defiance of the political religion of the empire, which led their critics to brand them subversive, landed many of them in arenas with salivating lions.

— Harvey Cox in The Future of Faith

Now, you may be wondering, why am I asking if anyone still worships the emperor of a long-extinct empire? I maintain that this practice is still alive and well, just under a different name.

I have been interested in some of the debates about American institutions that choose to perform neither the national anthem nor the pledge of allegiance. Many of these institutions are Mennonite, and their reason for not participating in these two particular acts mirrors that of the early Christians refusing to worship Caesar: namely, their goal is to bring about God’s peaceful and just kingdom on earth, and no country, no human institution at all, can ever command greater loyalty than that cause.

Moreover, the American national anthem is a particularly violent one, celebrating the taking of life right there at the beginning. Not completely compatible with the ethics of a church trying to bring about a more peaceful world, right?

It is from that basis that many Mennonites, and our institutions, do not perform the national anthem or say the pledge of allegiance. For myself, when the national anthem is being performed, I will stand out of respect for those around me for whom the moment is important, but I do not sing. I am deeply appreciative that the United States, like many other countries, makes it legal to do this. I am heartened by the fact that I do not risk a confrontation with the lions over my religious stance today.

Goshen College, a Mennonite institution, recently decided to go back on a century of history (which goes back farther than the anthem itself, which was only adopted in 1931) and will now be performing the anthem, followed by a prayer, before select sporting events.

And by so doing, they fail both to act in accordance with the way of Christ, and to be a patriot. They fail to act for peace and justice by playing an anthem that supports and glorifies war and violence.

And they fail to be patriotic. Patriotism and nationalism are different things. It’s easy to be nationalistic — to get up there and sing a song that everyone wants you to sing. It is far more difficult to be patriotic. Being patriotic in the United States means using the freedoms we have to improve our country. Goshen ought to use its freedom to not observe the national anthem as a way to try to draw a line in the sand against violence, to suggest that our anthem fails to adequately recognize the character of the American people and who we want to be, and to suggest a better alternative. After all, those people who are venerated today as patriots — anyone from Martin Luther to Thomas Jefferson to Martin Luther King — stood up to their fallible human governments to seek positive change.

Instead of a route both religious and patriotic, Goshen College has chosen one that is neither. I am deeply disappointed that 300 phone calls have apparently cowed their leadership. What have we come to when our ancestors braved the lions, and we give up our principles over the fear of… bad publicity?

Ah, Goshen, perhaps you are thinking that you could spare a few pinches of incense for Caesar after all?

The Cynic’s Guide to American Presidents

Sometimes I’m just annoyed at politicians. Yesterday, after receiving a letter from Sen. Brownback and reading coverage of Sarah Palin, I was annoyed at them.

So, in keeping with my theme of being annoyed at politicians, here’s my cynic’s guide to American presidents. Yes, it’s biased, under-represents successes, but that’s the point.

I’ll start with FDR, because I feel like it.

FDR – 1933-1945 (D)

Took office during the worst economic crisis of the 20th century. Tried lots of things to fix it; a few of them actually worked, and the best produced social improvements that lasted decades.

Finally solved the depression by getting us into a war, but died before he could get us back out of it. In a stunning display of racial and ethnic discrimination, rounded up and jailed legal Japanese, German, and Italian immigrants and their children just because they were Japanese, German, or Italian. Presided over the firebombing of Dresden, which killed roughly 25,000 civilians in what would be called a terrorist war crime today. Formed an alliance with Stalin that indirectly led to the Cold War.

When asked if he wanted the German people to starve, he replied, “Why not?”

Had an affair with his wife’s secretary that must have inspired Gov. Sanford. FDR, however, kept it secret from his wife for 4 years and the public for 48 years.

Harry S. Truman – 1945-1953 (D)

Became vice president, but when FDR died 82 days later, didn’t want to be president. Victory in Europe was achieved shortly after he became president, but not due to anything he did. Ended World War II, started the Korean War, the Cold War, and the nuclear arms race. Saved the lives of countless Berliners, ended the lives of even more Japanese, though Stalin knew about the bomb years before Truman did.

Desegregated the US military in an early civil rights victory, but committed some of the worst mass murders in history using that same military.

Famously embarrassed the Chicago Tribune by winning re-election over Dewey.

Had the lowest approval rating for any American president until George W. Bush came along.

Dwight D. Eisenhower – 1953-1961 (R)

Before becoming president, was supreme commander of NATO during World War II, and thus also was implicated in the Dresden bombing. Reclassified German POWs, depriving them of Geneva Convention protections. Played on fear to justify building the interstate highway system, one of the largest long-term contributors to environmental and energy problems. Refused to defend people from McCarthy, despite privately criticizing McCarthy.

Integrated Washington, DC public schools. Took over the Arkansas National Guard to integrate Arkansas schools. Failed to get us involved in wars in Lebanon and Vietnam, despite his best efforts. Picked Nixon as his vice president, a decision nobody will forgive him for.

Famously warned of the military-industrial complex, a prediction that the profit motive of defense companies would lead politicians to support war for jobs. One of his most accurate predictions, ironically about a situation he created.

JFK – 1961-1963 (D)

Defeated Nixon to win the presidency, mainly because JFK looked better on black and white TV. Famously said “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” But the country did several things for him, including providing security when he had secret meetings with his mistress. (Gov. Sanford, you have a lot to learn.)

Tried Eisenhower’s plan to overthrow Castro. Almost got us a war with Russia, and Castro captured 1189 people. Also almost succeeded in starting the world’s first atomic war, also over Cuba, which was created partly because his earlier Bay of Pigs invasion. Despite putting 16,300 soldiers in Vietnam, it would take Johnson to finally turn that one into a war.

LBJ – 1963-1969 (D)

Supported the largest expansion of civil rights in the 20th century, and also the largest chemical weapons poisoning of a people in American history. Destroyed 6 million acres of land, intentionally destroying Vietnamese food crops, and poisoned 4 million Vietnamese and countless American soldiers. Vietnam war led to the death of 2 million Vietnamese civilians and tens of thousands of American deaths.

An early supporter of the war on poverty, voting rights, and the war on crime, he nonetheless stirred up some of the biggest riots in the 20th century because of Vietnam.

Managed to win re-election in 1964, though probably only because the Republicans had nominated Barry Goldwater, who made LBJ’s war policies look mild and sane.

Didn’t bother to seek re-election in 1968, knowing he was so unpopular. Though still remained more popular than Truman and Bush, which is saying something (though not a lot).

Richard Nixon – 1969-1974 (R)

Known as “tricky Dick”, managed to live up to the nickname. Announced he was leaving politics after losing to JFK in 1960 and a governor’s race in 1962, then won the presidential election in 1968.

Secretly expanded the Vietnam war to include Cambodia and Laos, while simultaneously calling himself a peacemaker. Greatly expanded Social Security and Medicare, supported the Equal Rights Amendment, Title IX, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Act.

Went on a famous trip to the Soviet Union, where he mocked Brezhnev for not having color TV. Went on a famous trip to China, where he opened up the possibility of numerous ping-pong tournaments between the two countries.

Despite being heavily favored to win re-election in 1972, his paranoid campaign organization, called “creep” (CRP), broke into Democratic headquarters. The resulting coverup had him ordering illegal actions by the FBI, and unleashed G. Gordon Liddy on the country, which we’ll never forgive him for. His arch-nemesis — print journalists everywhere — achieved new respect due to the Watergate scandal, immortalizing an otherwise obscure porn movie by naming a secret FBI informant after it. Perhaps Nixon’s most lasting achievement.

Famously lied when he told people “I am not a crook.”

Gerald Ford – 1974-1977 (R)

Became president, and lost to Carter, because of Richard Nixon. Wikipedia wrote 2 paragraphs about his presidency, which seems about average for him. Supported women’s liberation, opposed swine flu. Both supported and opposed LSD. Best thing to ever happen to Chevy Chase’s career on SNL.

Jimmy Carter – 1977-1981 (D)

A Georgia farmer, he defeated Chevy Chase to win the presidency in 1976. Got us involved with Iran, failed to rescue the American hostages.

Dealt with an energy crisis by talking honestly about it with American people and making solid plans to deal with it. That ended so poorly that it would be 20 years before another president attempted the “honesty and planning” approach. Could have saved us trillions of dollars if he had been less honest about saving energy.

Famously built homes for the people that Reagan made homeless.

Ronald Reagan – 1981 – 1989 (R)

Despite presiding over the largest expansion of the federal debt in history, he is still well-liked by fiscal conservatives. Unlike Carter’s “tell it like it is” approach, told everybody that things were fine and getting better, and got us into $3 trillion of debt as a result.

Famously fired all the nation’s air traffic controllers, leading to ongoing problems with ATC today. Started a war in Grenada, another in Libya, and escalated the Cold War, though gave the whole country Alzheimer’s about all these actions. Famously called Nazi SS soldiers victims, but ordered generals to lay a wreath on their grave after it became too controversial for him to do it himself.

Violated US and international law by selling weapons to Iran to fund the Contras in Nicaragua. Also sold weapons to Iraq to use to fight Iran. Single-handedly saved an American jelly bean company. Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1994, but suspected of having it during his presidency, if his answers to the Iran-Contra investigation are any guideline.

George H. W. Bush – 1989-1993 (R)

Started a war in Panama and another in Iraq, but it wasn’t until 10 years later that his son could announce “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq. Pardoned many of the Iran-Contra conspirators. Launched the careers of Dana Carvey and Bill Clinton.

He refused to take charge when Reagan was shot, throwing the federal government into turmoil during a crisis. Barely took charge even after being elected.

Bill Clinton – 1993-2001 (D)

Taught the world how to deal with allegations of affairs with mistresses. Future SC Gov. Sanford voted to impeach him for it, arguing that he broke a promise to his wife more important than the one to his country. Launched the careers of Ken Star and Monica Lewinsky, in rather different ways.

Brokered historic Arab-Israeli peace at Camp David in 2000. Despite shooting down plenty of Iraqi planes in no-fly zones, never managed to cure Republicans in Congress of their constant criticism that we should just re-invade and finish what H. W. Bush didn’t (it would take Dubya to finally cure the Republicans of THAT wish).

Had more “gates” named after him than any president (Whitewatergate, Travelgate, Troopergate). Tried to both encourage and stifle the Internet (clipper chip). Greatly helped the career of David Letterman.

George W. Bush – 2001-2009 (R)

Took office and promptly went on vacation. Responding to the worst attacks on American soil, started two wars, one of which actually managed to fight the people that were tangentially related to the ones that attacked us. Nominated an Arabian Horse judge to head FEMA, then famously praised him after his mismanagement led to thousands of deaths after Hurricane Katrina.

Finally invaded Iraq after his dad refused to go deeply into that country, and announced “Mission Accomplished” before the real fighting ever began. Never seemed to doubt it, either. Actively repressed science in government and supported archaic religious fundamental positions, ironically doing more harm to Christianity in the eyes of the world than any president in recent memory.

Ran for president as a “uniter, not a divider”, then proceeded to act as a divider. Criticized Clinton for nation-building, then tried to build up Iraq. Defeated the husband of a ketchup magnate for re-election in 2004. Launched the career of Jon Stewart.

Supported massive tax breaks for the wealthy, ran up the federal debt more than anyone since Reagan, supported massive deregulation. Not to be outdone by the worst response to a natural disaster in recent times, his policies also implemented the worst response to an economic calamity since Woodrow Wilson. Finished office with the worst popularity ratings in history and tried to reignite the Cold War after staring into Putin’s soul and finding it just as divine as Brownie’s.

Barack Obama – 2009-? (D)

Defeated Tina Fey and the ghost of Barry Goldwater to win the presidency. He’s trying Carter’s “honesty and long-range planning” approach to not just energy, but health care, education, Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as well. Good luck with that.

I’ll get the hammer and nails.

Hope

Our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. . . Our security emanates from the justness of our cause; the force of our example; the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

– Barack Obama, inaugural speech, Jan. 20, 2009

This, right here, is why, for the first time in my life, I actually feel good about an American president. Why I have hope about our government for the first time in years. Why I’m glad I used a vacation day to sit on the couch and watch TV yesterday.

On the occasion, once every 4 or 8 years, that is a celebration of American strength, power, and pride, we see our new president speaking of humility, of peace, of moral leadership, this is something remarkable.

Past presidents have used occasions such as these to speak of crushing our enemies, of wanting people dead or alive, of grand government promises that turned out to triple the national debt.

Obama spoke of extending the hand of friendship to anyone that would unclench their fist.

He spoke that we had kicked the can down the road too far, and now we’ve reached the end of the road. We have to stop thinking that we can have everything: low taxes, expensive programs, and a large military, simply by mortgaging our future.

And he leveled with us: we all are in this together, and all have to work to make it better.

Conventional politicians assumed it would be political suicide to say even half of what Obama has said. Yet he went out there and did it.

He was blasted during the campaign by people on both sides of the political spectrum for being just “words”. He’s the first presidential candidate that meant what he said about bringing Americans, and their representatives, together. The shock in Washington has he invited — gasp! — both an openly gay bishop and an anti-gay evangelical minister to give prayers was telling. It’s as if people were saying, “Wait, he really MEANT that?”

Yes, he did. Let’s hope he can pull it off.

And as Rev. Lowry concluded with his benediction:

With your hands of power and your heart of love, help us then, now, Lord, to work for that day when nations shall not lift up sword against nation, when tanks will be beaten into tractors, when every man and every woman shall sit under his or her own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid, when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream. . .

Let all those who do justice and love mercy say Amen. (amen) Say Amen! (Amen!) Say Amen! (AMEN!)

Wow

People often talk about “memorable moments” — times where pretty much everybody in the country remembers where they were at that exact time.

There are probably only two of those moments I can remember: the 1989 earthquake during the World Series and the time 9/11 happened. My car was in for service that day, and I was sitting in the lobby of the mechanics watching it on TV.

So now I have a third: watching Barack Obama win the presidency.

We were installing some new blinds in the kitchen while listening to the coverage on NPR, periodically going over to the office to watch the TV coverage on the computer. (Our TV is upstairs right now, so that was more convenient.)

A few minutes before the election was called, I remember Brian Williams saying something like “We’re going to go to local stations now, but you better not walk away. We’ll have some amazing news at the top of the hour.”

We watched that announcement, then saw McCain’s speech, and finally Obama’s speech (missed the first minute or two of it actually). What an amazing evening.

Then seeing the stories of people celebrating all around the country and around the world: the impromptu party in front of the White House Tuesday night, the small gathering at the Lincoln Memorial Wednesday morning, the Obama parties all around the world. And we watched it on TV in our house while Jacob slept. I feel like I missed out somehow.

Why I Hope

And to all those who have wondered if America’s beacon still burns as bright, tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope.

For that is the true genius of America: that America can change. Our union can be perfected.

— Barack Obama, Nov. 4, 2008

Politics and the Church

My church is one in which politics are checked at the door. Some church members wear their politics on their yard, or on their blog — and just about every opinion is represented in the church. But you rarely hear politics mentioned in church. When it is mentioned, it’s issue-oriented rather than candidate-oriented or policy-oriented — we’ll hear updates on efforts to create a peace tax fund, for instance.

But today, hearing about politics is just about unavoidable.

The relationship between Christianity and government has been uneasy and troubled all the way back to the religion’s founding. Many Christians, and I count myself in this, believe that our first loyalty is to Jesus, and on those grounds, refuse to say the pledge of allegiance. What, we wonder, would our word be worth if we were forced to disobey our government because of a law that was unjust or immoral? How could we even say the words “one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all” when those words were written at a time when the KKK was active, lynchings were common, and are said today at a time when people treat Muslims and immigrants with modern disdain?

In short, we believe we are called to be citizens of a different kingdom first.

So, today, our pastor deliberately picked a difficult scripture passage for us: Romans 13:1-7, which reads, in part:

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities. . . The authorities that exist have been established by God. . . Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. . . Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.

What an extraordinary set of statements. This was written during the time of the Roman Empire, which could hardly be said to have been a just and benign government. It’s hard for me to imagine the Roman Legion being established by God.

In more modern times, it would seem to denounce the American revolution as a rebellion against authority and therefore a rebellion against God. It would also seem to denounce the protests that we see all over the world — striking workers in France, human rights seekers in Burma, war protesters in the United States. Would it even have condemned the protests in the 1960s over civil rights in this country, or the protests against war today?

One commentator notes that “Paul is not stating that this will always be true but is describing the proper, ideal function of rulers. When civil rulers overstep their proper function, the Christian is to obey God rather than human authorities” — a theme Paul mentioned more than once in Acts.

What relevance does this have for us today? It seems that we are to help our rulers act in a just way, even if we disagree with them — no matter who wins the election. It is also a reminder that a superficial reading of the Bible, taken out of context and without a deep understanding to understand the author’s point, can potentially lead to very strange conclusions.

The American National Council of Churches has issued a non-partisan voting guide, which we found in our bulletin today. It is an interesting read, and probably not what you think; it begins with, “War is contrary to the will of God.” Thought-provoking stuff.

I find it interesting that there are a lot of people out there that say that religion is responsible for a lot of ill in this country, then proceed to hold pretty much the same opinions I do for pretty much the same reasons. I just point out that the Bible is deeper than intolerance and submission.

What Traditional Values Mean to Me

A comment on Facebook yesterday got me thinking what American “traditional values” are all about. We hear it a lot, and I suspect it means something different to different people.

Here’s what it means to me.

It starts with an ethic fundamentally informed by the central tenets of Christianity — which are also excellent standards of decency by secular standards. We are called to have a relentless drive to care for the repressed, poor, downtrodden. As Jesus said, “whatever you do to the least of these, so you do to me.” It means extending the hand of friendship and compassion to all, in our own neighborhood and around the world. It means taking good care of the resources we have, acting responsibly, and affirming and supporting others so they can do the same. It means that, as our founding fathers emphasized, remembering that all people are created equal, are equally deserving of a good life, and deserve liberty and freedom. Finally, it means a constant realization that we are creating a human institution, and will always have an imperfect answer to these ideals, but that we can — and must — recognize our faults and strive to make things better.

How do these apply to our time?

We must start with the poor, the repressed, and habitually think of their situation in everything we do. That means remembering that when we drop a bomb in Afghanistan to kill a terrorist, we also usually kill 50 innocent bystanders, and devastate their families. It means remembering that illegal immigrants from Mexico come here because all they want is refuge from drug wars, food on the table, and a roof over their head. It means showing compassion in deportation proceedings: when illegal immigrant parents have a child born in the United States, the child is an American citizen and can’t be deported, but deporting the parents will create an orphan. It means actively helping the repressed people of the world, whether they be in Sudan, Georgia, or AIDS victims in Africa, Muslims in New York. It means reducing taxes on the poor, giving them the skills and tools they need to make their way in life. It means caring for those with alcohol drug addictions, helping them to summon the strength to get past those problems, rather than locking them up or throwing them out on the street. In days past, this might have meant sharing firewood with the family down the road that was at risk of freezing in winter. Today it might mean assistance with winter heating bills.

Remembering that all people are created equal means that we must provide good education for everyone, whether they live in suburban California, inner city Detroit, or rural Appalachia. We owe quality health care to everyone; those without means to pay for health care, or to pay for a car to get to a clinic, should be treated with dignity and respect, and have equal access to medicine.

Remembering that all people are created equal also means that we must provide equal justice under law, and give everyone a fair trail. We must abandon the death penalty, because we have a shocking number of people on death row — hugely disproportionately black and poor — that have been shown innocent of their crimes thanks to advances in DNA testing. We must maintain the integrity of checks and balances in government, and support judicial oversight over search and seizure. We must avoid warrantless wiretapping because it subverts judicial oversight and corrupts our justice system by making the exercise of power secret. We must denounce torture, and refuse to employ it, because no human, being created equal, deserves to be treated in such a way — and we have been applying it to innocent humans.

We owe the opportunity to grow up in a loving family, in a safe community, to every child. We must make sure that gangs no longer have the run of our streets, that drugs aren’t displacing hard work as the currency of the community, and that adoption is inexpensive and practical for more families, rather than costing thousands of dollars. Doing so will help every child grow up knowing that they are valued, are important, rather than being unwanted and therefore abused or neglected.

Extending the hand of friendship and compassion to all starts with being a good example — that shining city on a hill that Reagan talked about. We have to run an open, just, and fair society ourselves. We must not fear those that are different than us, just because they’re different. We have to recognize that citizens of Iran, Russia, North Korea, Palestine, and the United States fundamentally are humans, created equal, seeking the same thing: a safe and secure future for themselves and their families. Being able to coexist peacefully means starting from that point, and being willing to talk to them, and yes, even their leaders, regardless of how distasteful they may be.

Acting responsibly with our resources starts at home — things like not driving up credit card debt, not living outside our means. The same applies to government: massive deficits each year are exceptionally irresponsible and place us at great risk both at the present and in the future. We also have a duty to care for the planet and the environment in which we live, which means actively working to curb the things we do to harm the planet and cause global warming.

What about recognizing our faults? Perhaps the most patriotic duty asked of Americans is dissent. It is never easy, but is essential to keeping our democracy functioning. This country has a long history of successes, and also a long history of failures. We failed so many by keeping slavery legal for so long, and discrimination and lynching legal for even longer. We failed that Native Americans by forcing them from their lands and treating them with brutality. We have, to some extent, risen above these failures thanks to the ability to recognize them and try, to the best of our ability, to fix them. This is what the civil rights movement was about, and why we have a holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr. He spoke out against a society that said some couldn’t eat in a restaurant because of the color of their skin, or who were repressed because of their economic status. He recognized that problem in America, and by speaking out against it, helped to change this country for the better.

Today we have to recognize the things we are doing wrong, and try to change them. We are torturing potentially innocent people. We are discriminating against Muslims and homosexuals in our midst. We are giving extraordinary power to big media companies through changes in copyright law, to big communications companies through failure to enact network neutrality laws. And we are labeling people that disagree with war as unpatriotic.

Notice some things I didn’t mention, such as abortion. It’s not really relevant, and the lines we are fed by both sides present us with this false pro choice vs. pro life debate. In reality, it seems to me that both sides want the best for the children: for every child to grow up in a loving family, where he or she is wanted. We all know from research that laws banning abortion do not actually reduce it. So we ought all to come together and try to make it more rare by providing more support to single parents, by making it easier to adopt children, by trying to make the perceived need for an abortion to go away.

So, in this election, I look at the candidates and it seems pretty clear which one is promoting traditional values and which one isn’t. Obama is actively trying to reach across the aisle and find common ground. Even in his convention speech, he suggested ways to work together on abortion like I just mentioned. In the debate, he listened carefully to his opponent and acknowledged when he thought McCain was right. This is a necessary first step in working together to move forward. McCain subsequently released an ad mocking Obama for this.

What about caring for the poor? Again, Obama’s tax policies, education policies, and health care policies take care of them far better than McCain’s. About responsibility? McCain supported these deficit-busting budgets of the last 6 years, supported the oil-centric energy policies, and has been only lukewarm towards dealing with global warming. McCain and Palin mock Obama for trying to help poor Chicago neighborhoods 20 years ago, for being willing to just talk to our supposed enemies, for actually reaching across the aisle.

So yes, I am a values voter, and that’s why I can’t possibly do anything but vote for Obama.