Friday, November 26, 2010

A Thankful Nation?

This editorial resurrects an instructive piece of American history--Connecticut Governor Wilbur Cross' 1936 Thanksgiving Proclamation. Unfortunately, the Time's editors are too quick in their praise of Cross' persuasiveness and in their criticism of today's political orators. They suggest that Cross inspired a common hope in a troubled time, but they offer no evidence that his words in fact had that effect, and they also fail to consider today's very different circumstances. Can you imagine President Obama, whatever his words, evoking a sense of unity? Mr. Obama remains a masterful speaker, but there are simply too many on the Right who view him as a foreign agent and too many on the Left who think him a traitor to their cause.

It is time to stop longing for an inspired political leader who will make us whole again. We are living through a period of significant cultural change, and while there is much good about this change it has also inflicted real harm and many people have a deep sense of loss.  This is a recipe for social struggle and resentment, not harmony. In our diverse circumstances of gain and loss, it is hard to imagine what we might be thankful for as a people, but surely one thing we can give thanks for is the continuing social stability that allows us to debate one another without resorting to violence. Such debate is not the deep sense of peace or solidarity that many of us long for, but it is not nothing. Indeed, this civil peace makes a place for us to pursue our dreams of peace and solidarity (and justice), and because of this we can be grateful for such artful statements as that of Governor Cross, not because they secure the peace, but because they witness to it.  Perhaps it's at a time of social dislocation and incivility that we most need reminding of the nation's gifts, including the founding aspiration that all our lives may be enriched by being members of this union.

Still, for many of us, the gifts of the nation ultimately reside in a greater reality that stands beneath and behind the many, and it is to this One, not ourselves, our party, or the nation, that we owe our ultimate thanks and our final loyalty.  It is this One that finally calls us to keep the Feast.  Many families have their own special and sometime crazy Thanksgiving traditions.  The same is true of the religious traditions, some of which dare to speak about the deep hospitality of a heavenly banquet, and it may just be that while at a Thanksgiving meal we enjoyed (perhaps unaware) a foretaste of that heavenly meal, and in this sense Thanksgiving may take on a deeper, even sacramental meaning.  Happy Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Thanks Uncle Warren

Warren Buffett speaking to a group of students...Image via Wikipedia

This op-ed by Warren Buffet is a brilliant piece in several ways. To begin with it reminds us of the pivotal role played by the federal government in averting a second Great Depression. Secondly, it does so in a fairly measured voice. That is, it recognizes that government is far from perfect.  This is all very much in need of saying, especially by a prominent business person, but the real brilliance of the piece may be its return to the nomenclature of "Uncle Sam." In Buffet's hands this sometimes controversial image takes on the feel of the familiar, like a trusted friend of the family. As Buffet says, this uncle is a little different, sometimes painfully slow, and at other times domineering, but nevertheless this uncle is someone to turn to, especially in moments of crisis. How strange this image seems in our age of cynicism, and because it is so strange it is all the more welcome.  

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Friday, November 12, 2010

Islam in Conflict with Democracy? A Response to Stanley Fish | Politics | Religion Dispatches

The State of Oklahoma overwhelmingly supported Measure 755 in last week’s elections, forbidding the use of international and shari’ah law in state courts. A week earlier, literary theorist Stanley Fish penned a piece for the New York Times exploring the conflicts that emerge when Muslim immigrants to Western nations “evidence a desire to order their affairs, especially domestic affairs, by Shari’ah law rather than by the supposedly neutral law of a godless liberalism.”

Fish is well-known for exposing the tensions between our political ideals and the practical demands of life in a pluralistic society. He does so in a way that is almost always entertaining and usually helpful, especially as a reminder that achieving justice is seldom as neat and clean as applying principles. Unfortunately, he also has a tendency to amp up the tension beyond all recognition of the actual conflicts we face. The results are like an overexposed photograph, interesting and provocative in that it helps us see things in a new way, but also distorting of our actual circumstances.

As is the case with a recent Times post, “Serving Two Masters: Shariah Law and the Secular State,” Fish has a tendency to pit liberal or secular theory against a strongly held religious conviction or practice. In this case, the philosophers John Locke and John Rawls are pitted against Islamic law or Shari’ah. Locke and Rawls are, of course, standard bearers for the liberal theory that, according to Fish, strongly informs our legal system, with its emphasis on individual rights. For evidence, he points to the Supreme Court’s 1990 decision, Employment Division v. Smith, the famous case in which a divided Supreme Court ruled against the religious use of peyote based on the general applicability of the law.

Fish writes:

The answer the court gave, with Justice Antonin Scalia writing for the majority, was that the religious believer must yield to the law of the state so long as that law was not passed with the intention of curtailing or regulating his or anyone else’s religious practice.

The lesson we should learn is that the law is a blunt force, especially when it comes to limiting the rights of communities, be they Native American or Muslims who practice Shari’ah. Rather than litigate such disputes Fish advises us to rely on political processes to find compromises acceptable to the parties involved. The argument is provocative and succeeds in raising important questions, but it also makes common cause with opponents of both secular government and Islam in reinforcing the assumption that the nation’s political theory is a poor fit with Islam. In doing so, he misrepresents the nation’s political theory, Islamic law, and the place of religion in our constitutional democracy.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Longing for a Messiah

A recent survey by Gallup shows that only one in 4 Americans thinks has Congress accomplished more than usual this year. Given the high number of significant pieces of legislation, Gallup wonders aloud why this might be:

This question is particularly relevant this year because the current Democratically controlled Congress has passed a series of high-profile legislative bills, including the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, and others. Nevertheless, the large majority of Americans do not perceive that what Congress has accomplished is more than it has done in previous years.

They point to the obvious reasons, beginning with partisan differences over what a significant piece of legislation is. Politics is an arena in which values and loyalties clearly shape how we see the world.  There's nothing unusual about this, except its extent.  Many Republicans see Obama (and his allies) as a kind of anti-Christ.  One might insert a number of other despised titles here, but "Anti-Christ" gets at the supposed hidden purposes of Obama that animates so many Americans.

The term "anti-Christ" is also helpful because on the flip side are or were the rather large expectations of Obama supporters, many of whom are now disaffected.  For them, Obama was a messianic figure who promised to remake the country, so much so that all signs of the their anti-Christ, George Bush, would be completely removed.

For some of these folks, Congress is to blame for Obama's "failures." I tend to think there's something to this, but Congress has almost never been as "sexy" as the office of President. This is true even of those Presidents almost totally lacking in charisma. The rare exception means the President has screwed up royally--think Watergate and Tricky Dick.  

It has almost always been easier for us to get excited about one leader than about a group of leaders, especially one representing a diverse and contentious bunch like us, the American people.  In today’s culture of celebrity, there is good reason to believe that Congress is destined to be overlooked and downright despised, even in a year of significant achievement. 

Beneath this is the reality that the recent laws and their effects are not radical in nature.  For one thing, they take time to go into effect, often by design. This is especially the case with the health insurance reform act, but it is true with other pieces of significant legislation as well.  Once in effect, however, we are likely to hear only faint praise for even the positive effects, because the effects are reformist in nature. As significant as some of them are—and there are some very important reforms, they do not serve to remake our landscape into a place we no longer recognize. 

In light of our economic troubles, this is a recipe for political disaster. If the Republicans do not win both the House and the Senate, they will have failed. In an era of over-sized personalities, partisanship, and expectations, we long for a political messiah that will remake our society in some shape or fashion. The Tea Party folks claim they want their country back. Progressives want the truly tolerant, multi-cultural America they can see in the distance (in the form of projections). As different as the visions are, they both speak to a longing for BOLD political action or at least they think they do. It may be that what they really speak to are the range of frustrations our society feels with these changing, troubled times. We long for the stability of the familiar and the justice of tomorrow.

But we are still living in the wake of bold, even rash action. It was bold action that led us not just into Afghanistan but also Iraq after we had approved massive budget-busting tax cuts. Our very different visions of CHANGE strongly suggest that our political representatives will continue to struggle along, fighting over our visions and occasionally settling for pragmatic compromises, at least until a new consensus emerges.

I wonder if this would have struck the Founders (and their generation) as such a bad thing. It was they, after all, who set up this democratic system with it checks and balances, including a central place for the legislative branch. The great difference between them and us on these matters is that they believed that this a bold experiment. We "know better" and instead long for a messiah to deliver us from such labors.

Might it be that what we need is not a bold political savior, but the courage and self-control to engage in the messy business of politics?  

Monday, November 1, 2010

Being Awake to Fear (Mongering?)

Would the video below pass the civility test urged by John Stewart, Jim Wallis, or James Calvin Davis?  

On the one hand, it seems like a typical sound-bite video meant to inspire fear, and yet on the other hand....I tend to think it's got a point...there are some scary folks on the Right who seem to be dominating the Republican Party.  

In midterm elections, national ads can't help but generalize about an array of candidates.  So for the Right, the campaign is bound to become about Obama & Co, and for the Left, the election is sure  to focus on the angriest voices in the Tea Party.  The irony is that the Left is schooled in the danger of stereotyping, which would seem to make it more difficult for them to engage in these kind of slash and burn ads that are supposedly necessary to win mid-term elections. They depend, it seems to me, on Republicans becoming so scary that they just roll tape.

It is easy to be critical of this kind of tactic--especially when practiced by the other side, but in a world of mass media, huge campaign budgets, and an ill-informed electorate, it's hard to imagine another way, especially in mid-term elections, especially THIS mid-term.  

In this context, might communities of faith and good will have an special opportunity (and responsibility) to generate forums and conversations that consider issues and elections in depth? Of course, in our current political climate, talking about politics is risky business.  Perhaps Martin Luther was right when he advised that we must be content to act with courage. Knowing that we will err, we should "Sin boldly!" rather than timidly avoid our duties.