Friday, July 31, 2009

Health Care Reform and Blue Dog Profits: A Call to Share the Wealth

And as reports circulate about the funds now pouring into the coffers of those blue dog Democrats who are working hard to subvert a plan for universal health care in the United States, it occurs to me that those of us who promote access to basic, quality health care as a human right for all ought to publicize the names and contact information of these suddenly wealthy public servants.

Since I live in Representative Mike Ross's state and since he's featured in the story to which I link above, I'll help by publicizing his contact information. He can be mailed or called at 2436 Rayburn House Office Bldg., Washington, DC 20515 (1-800-223-2220; [202] 225-1314 Fax).

Rep. Ross's helpful website has a "How May I Help You?" section. So I feel sure that he will be interested in hearing from the millions of American families that cannot afford basic, quality health care, and, in particular, from those millions of families whose children are without access to basic health care.

If you're in that boat or care about those who are in that boat, perhaps you can join me in directing those families to Rep. Ross. He has a sudden windfall to help these families in need, and he appears eager to help.

His website tells us that he and his wife and children are "active members of the First United Methodist Church in Prescott [Arkansas]." That's important to know, for those of us looking for him to help, because the Social Principles of his United Methodist Church state (paragraph 162) that "health care is a basic right." And in 2001, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church adopted a resolution calling for universal health care in the United States.

So I feel sure that we can trust Rep. Ross's promise that he wants to help. I feel certain that he is preparing to use all that money now flowing into his coffers from the health care and health insurance industry to help the millions of Americans, including many, many poor children, without access to basic, quality health care.

Please contact him. He'll want to hear from you, and he has pledged to help.

Thom Hartmann on the CEO as Sociopath: Applications for Higher Education

Thom Hartmann posted an interesting piece at the Alternet site a few days ago. He suggests that, to be a successful CEO—particularly in the corporate, for-profit sector—one needs to have sociopathic tendencies.

Hartmann is a trained psychotherapist as well as a journalist. In this piece, he argues that to make decisions on an ongoing basis that ruin the lives of other human beings, and to be willing to reap rewards for doing that as a “leader,” one has to have sociopathic tendencies. How otherwise to put your head on the pillow at night (and take the big paycheck to the bank), without ever wondering about the lives of those you destroy?

The heart of Hartmann’s argument:

CEOs of community-based businesses are typically responsive to their communities and decent people. But the CEOs of most of the world's largest corporations daily make decisions that destroy the lives of many other human beings.
Only about 1 to 3 percent of us are sociopaths -- people who don't have normal human feelings and can easily go to sleep at night after having done horrific things. And of that 1 percent of sociopaths, there's probably only a fraction of a percent with a college education. And of that tiny fraction, there's an even tinier fraction that understands how business works, particularly within any specific industry.
Thus there is such a shortage of people who can run modern monopolistic, destructive corporations that stockholders have to pay millions to get them to work. And being sociopaths, they gladly take the money without any thought to its social consequences.

I think Thom Hartmann is onto something. As I’ve noted in previous postings, I’ve found this pattern of academic-leader-as-sociopathic-CEO on the rise in institutions of higher learning, and I believe that it’s a pattern that ought to concern everyone in American society, due to the trend-setting influence of higher education in our culture.

As university boards of trustees are dominated more and more by those with ties to the corporate world (corporate attorneys, business leaders, church leaders who run big church corporations, etc.), boards of trustees look more and more for presidents who think like CEOs, who act like CEOs, who proudly profess to be CEOs rather than academic leaders. And the consequences for the institutions such CEO-presidents lead could not be more dismal.

Academic inquiry and academic excellence suffer in these institutions, because faculty are exploited and know they’re exploited. Some academic CEO-presidents gleefully undermine faculty governance and faculty rights, ignore due process in firing faculty, threaten faculty members with reprisal if faculty ask critical questions: they reduce faculty to the level of dispensable workers-cum-things in a labor pool without the protections from workplace harassment long afforded to academics to enable them to engage in serious thought and serious research.

This approach to academic life undermines academic excellence in the grossest way possible, by making faculty frightened to think, speak, publish, and teach. In institutions governed by fear, where a ruthless CEO-president can fire at will (and there are such institutions of higher learning out there), faculty become so intimidated that they will not open their mouths even when academic integrity is at stake.

I have seen a case like this first-hand, and it has been sobering to watch. The president-CEO whose behavior I’ve observed closely, since I have had to work closely with her, actually calls herself a CEO—and proudly so. Her pattern, by now a well-established one, is to go into a relatively stable academic institution and immediately produce such chaos that the institution starts to malfunction, and then falls on financial hard times.

The chaos results from a pathological tendency of this leader to imagine that even those she has placed in positions of trust, and needs to trust in order to keep her institution functioning, are conspiring against her.
When she begins to distrust a member of her own team, she actually targets that person and begins actively subverting his or her work, to lay a foundation for firing him or her with allegations that the team member did not work hard enough or competently enough.

The economic hard times this president-CEO induces through her deliberate creation of institutional chaos then become an excuse to fire more faculty at will—targeted faculty whom the president suspects of being enemies—without due process or strong proof of financial exigency. This, in turn, leads to negative media attention and negative scrutiny from accrediting bodies and academic watchdog agencies, who censure the schools led by this president. And the negative media attention and censuring by academic bodies in turn causes further attrition of funding to the school from donors who would otherwise support the school’s mission, but become concerned that its current leader is undermining the mission.

I’ve become convinced that this person’s behavior does, indeed, have a very strong sociopathic basis. She seems tragically incapable of viewing the other human beings around her, including members of her own academic team, as human. She treats people as objects—dispensable objects to be moved around at her whim on any given day, and when she has grown tired of those objects or suspicious of them, to be discarded like used tissue, with nary a thought about the consequences of such treatment for their human lives.

To behave that way, and to do so over and over again, even when the consequences for oneself are painful (e.g., negative media attention, complaints to academic watchdog bodies, lawsuits), one has to be sick, I’ve concluded. One has to be incapable of learning to change one's dysfunctional patterns, even when those patterns cause one increasing pain. This is a very specific kind of soul-sickness, a soul-sickness rooted in a remarkable capacity of a CEO to view other human beings as less human than herself, as, in fact, dispensable objects.

The corporate world rewards such sociopathic behavior in its CEOs by paying them big bucks. Sadly, the academic world has begun to do the same, as it makes dollar signs rather than academic integrity its bottom line—as its governing boards do this, that is.

In the case I’m discussing above, though the CEO-president in question has now replicated the pattern I’m describing at each institution she leads, her governing boards have stood behind her. Her ruthless, inhumane treatment of her employees is justified as good economic stewardship, necessary hard-nosed pragmatic decision making to keep an institution economically viable.

When this approach to academic leadership is allowed to go unchallenged in our society, and when it’s allowed to become prevalent throughout higher education, we’re in trouble as a society. Higher education is not, in the final analysis, about making big bucks. It should not be about that goal, at least.

It should be about producing leaders who have sound values necessary to keep democracy alive. We fund all institutions of higher learning, both public and private, lavishly because of the social contract colleges and universities have made with our culture, to use those funds to produce strong, ethically grounded leaders with the skill to build democratic institutions for the next generation.

When we allow sociopaths to run our universities, and to justify their sociopathic behavior by claiming that they are simply being good CEOs, we’re headed for big trouble as a society. Academic leaders who betray core democratic values in how they run a university teach an unhappy lesson about values to the students of their university.

As I've noted in previous postings about this topic, before it loses its soul definitively, American higher education would be well advised to re-examine the philosophy of some of the prophetic founding figures of values-oriented, transformative higher education, including Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, the founder of Bethune-Cookman University. In her "Spiritual Autobiography," Dr. Bethune notes the foundational significance of institutions of higher learning in imparting the values necessary for democracy to thrive, as she concludes, “In this atomic age, when one small materialistic possession has wrought fear among peoples of the world, I am convinced that leadership must strive hard to show the value of these spiritual tools which are as real as anything we touch or feel, and far more powerful."

Poor Rowan Williams: The Moral Conundrum Facing the Churches Today, Through Gay Lives

Two days ago, I challenged the poor-Rowan Williams meme now developing in centrist Catholic circles (and in centrist Christian circles in general, among liberal Christians who want to appear tolerant while refusing to risk anything by actually supporting the cause of gay rights in the churches).

The Poor-Rowan Conundrum

The poor-Rowan meme wants us to see the Archbishop of Canterbury as a thoughtful, sensitive man caught in an impossible conundrum. The conundrum itself is not entirely clear to me. Either it’s the conundrum of holding a communion together when some of its members regard the full inclusion of gay human beings as an issue worth dividing the church over, or it’s the conundrum of doing the impossible balancing act of trying to keep the church on track biblically by preaching that gays are sinners, while proclaiming that the church is, as it ought to be, welcoming of all.

The Conundrum Facing Churches: How to Preach Love While Practicing Hate

If it’s the latter conundrum for which we ought to pity poor Rowan, then it’s important to note that this is a conundrum facing the Christian churches in general today. It’s the conundrum of trying to profess what a church has to profess in order to be church at all—and that’s love—while practicing the opposite of love. It’s the conundrum of trying to present oneself as loving when one is, in fact, hateful in one’s deliberate decision to treat gay humanity as less than the humanity of everyone else. It’s the conundrum of saying that one is just and inclusive when one is, in fact, unjust and excluding in one’s institutional life as a church.

The conundrum facing the Christian churches at this moment in history is the conundrum of having to make a choice, when one event after another has definitively revealed the traditional teaching of the churches, held always and everywhere, grounded on a consistent reading of the scriptures throughout history, as indefensible. As immoral. As a betrayal of what the scriptures are really all about, at their most fundamental levels.

And so it’s not a conundrum at all, really. It’s a question of either doing what we know is right, or of continuing to do what we know is wrong when we actually know better, and while we proclaim that we’re trying to do right. It’s the age-old conundrum that has always faced people aspiring to an ethical life: bridging the gap between theory and practice; doing what you know is right, particularly when the doing requires that you pay a price.

It’s easy to theorize, analyze, and preach. It’s much harder to practice.

But the preaching of the church about love will make sense to people only when the church practices and stops preaching—stops preaching, that is, until it begins to practice. The preaching of the church about love will make sense to people only when the church listens carefully to Francis of Assisi when he tells his followers to preach all the time, but use words only when absolutely necessary.

In this final sense—the conundrum of doing what you know is right, when there is a price to be paid for doing right—the conundrum that the Archbishop of Canterbury is now facing does seem poignant. And it’s one worth analyzing, because it’s one that Christians in general now find themselves facing.

The Biblical Face of the Moral Conundrum Facing the Churches

Homophobia is being so decisively exposed within the culture at large as unjust and immoral, that many Christians are now having to reassess their attitudes towards gay persons at a fundamental level. And this pushes Christians towards something they do not like to do: that is to reassess their entire tradition, including how they read the bible and how they find absolute certainty and absolute authority in the bible.

If we might have been spectacularly wrong about the gay issue, the reasoning of many Christians goes, then what else might we have been wrong about? Where do we find absolute authority and certainty, when our reading of biblical texts appears to be affected and even normed by cultural developments that challenge the traditional reading?

Real-World Context of Reading the Bible: Pressure and Threats from Powerful Interest Groups

It is important to note, too, that discussions of how to read the scriptures and apply them to the life of the church never take place in a theological vacuum, apart from the real world. The decisions churches make about how they choose to interpret the bible have real-life effects. And many groups, including some that have no real interest at all in religion, but a vested interest in placing religion on their political and economic side, work very hard to assure that the churches’ reading of the bible does not change, where they do not want it to change.

How we read the scriptures affects how we do business. Ultimately, what stands in the way of change in Christian churches, when it comes to repenting of homophobia, is not really the bible itself and how we choose to read it. It is economic self-interest that stands in the way, the self-interest of church leaders who know that they will pay a price in the real world, an economic price, if they permit new readings of the bible to inform the viewpoint of their churches about gay issues.

At the very heart of the churches’ (self-made) conundrum about how, whether, when, to include gay human beings in the churches’ life, how to treat us as fully human, is fear. Fear runs deep inside all Christian churches and the institutions they sponsor when they consider what otherwise seems to be a theological issue: the question of how to read the scriptures regarding gay people, and of how to apply those texts to the life of the church today. There is tremendous unacknowledged fear around these issues within the Christian churches. It is fear of economic reprisal, fear of reprisal if they choose to do what they know to be right . . . .

Time and again, when churches, church leaders, and church institutions admit that the traditional approach of the churches to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people is just not theologically and morally defensible, they face serious reprisal. Wealthy church members routinely hold churches hostage by withholding funds from churches that do the right thing vis-à-vis gay human beings. They withdraw their funds from such churches and move them to gay-excluding churches.

The Power Exerted by Right-Wing Political Watchdog Groups to Keep Homophobia Alive in Churches

Powerful political watchdog organizations also get into the act and assure that churches choosing to alter their gay-excluding stances pay a steep price for that choice. These organizations target such churches, publicize their choices, and call on people both inside and outside the church to make the church pay for its choice. These groups are capable of raising hell for churches that do not dance to their reactionary tune. They have strong ties to the mainstream media, and they control the dominant media text about the churches’ response to gay people, depicting every move to inclusion within the churches as a move away from the bible and longstanding Christian tradition—an abdication of Christian belief and values for cultural norms.

These powerful political watchdog groups are adroit about assisting reactionary groups within any church that chooses to repent of homophobia. They encourage these splinter groups to split the church—to preach that the church’s choice to welcome gay brothers and sisters is a church-dividing choice, one that demonstrates that their church has repudiated the bible and longstanding tradition. They not only help these groups to create splinter churches claiming to represent the tradition in all its purity, but they also assist these splinter groups in filing lawsuits that try to damage the mother church financially by taking its property away when a split has occurred.

Rowan Williams's Conundrum as the Conundrum Facing the Churches Today

So, yes, I can well imagine that Rowan Williams does face a conundrum right now. But I would frame that conundrum differently than right-wing groups with a strong presence in the mainstream media want to frame it when they promote the poor-Rowan meme.

To frame the conundrum facing the churches today as gay people ask to be treated as fully human in the churches, it’s important to look at what has happened in the past, when the church has been confronted with similar requests from other groups long marginalized by the churches, as the churches claimed sanction for their oppression of these groups in the bible and in tradition.

Similar Conundrums for the Churches in the Past: Slavery and Women's Rights

This is not the first time in history that the churches have chosen to split over issues of inclusion or exclusion, of full or partial humanity of marginalized groups of people. And it’s not the first time in history that churches choosing to do the right thing have been faced with economic reprisal by those with a vested interest in maintaining a status quo based on discrimination.

In the United States, the churches split over the issue of slavery in the 19th century, and throughout the 20th century, as churches that once made women second-class citizens have opened their doors to full inclusion of women in church life and in the ministry, there have been splits, with economic reprisals, in churches that have chosen to do what is right in this area—despite long-held interpretations of the bible throughout Christian history that have justified the exclusion of women from ordination and have regarded women's humanity as flawed and inferior to the humanity of males.

Just as churches that supported slavery and the continued subordination of people of color to white people preached in the 19th century that they were simply doing what the bible had always told Christians to do—hold slaves, but treat slaves with Christian kindness . . . . In all the churches that chose to split over the issue of slavery—in the churches that took the pro-slavery tack—the argument was consistent: the patriarchs of the Old Testament held slaves; Jesus never condemned slavery, but took it for granted; Paul upheld the right to hold slaves. Tell us that we’re reading the bible wrong about slavery now, and you challenge the entire history of Christian biblical interpretation. You undermine the whole authority of the bible, in changing what Christians have long held to be the correct biblical interpretation of slavery.

The Archbishop of Canterbury's Justification for Resisting Change re: Gay Issues

So it’s interesting to read now the Archbishop of Canterbury’s justification, published three days ago on his website, for punishing the Episcopal Church USA after that church has abolished bans on the ordination of openly gay clergy. I’m interested in particular in the Archbishop’s argument that “the way in which the Church has consistently read the Bible for the last two thousand years” makes the decision to abolish bans discriminating against gay clergy candidates problematic. The Archbishop’s statement reads,

6. However, the issue is not simply about civil liberties or human dignity or even about pastoral sensitivity to the freedom of individual Christians to form their consciences on this matter. It is about whether the Church is free to recognise same-sex unions by means of public blessings that are seen as being, at the very least, analogous to Christian marriage.
7. In the light of the way in which the Church has consistently read the Bible for the last two thousand years, it is clear that a positive answer to this question would have to be based on the most painstaking biblical exegesis and on a wide acceptance of the results within the Communion, with due account taken of the teachings of ecumenical partners also. A major change naturally needs a strong level of consensus and solid theological grounding.

“In the light of the way in which the Church has consistently read the Bible for the last two thousand years”; “painstaking biblical exegesis”; “wide acceptance” within the communion; “solid theological grounding: what the Archbishop of Canterbury is offering here is an impossible process of indefinite delay, before the churches ever act on the growing culturally-grounded consensus that homophobia is morally indefensible. Rowan Williams is arguing that issues which I believe he himself has long since regarded as settled—in favor of a full welcome of gay human beings in the churches—need further study, as a prelude to further dialogue to build futher consensus among Christians who are, in many cases, determined to resist any opening to gay people within the churches.

Further, further, further, which essentially means never, never, never.

Rowan Williams' Argument That Anti-Gay Biblical Texts Are "Very Ambiguous"

What’s fascinating about this argument—and here is where I find the poor-Rowan meme apt—is that prior to his election as Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams wrote theological essays that reject precisely the argument he now wants to impose throughout the Anglican communion, as a way of dealing with the divided mind of his church regarding the humanity of gay persons. In 1989, Rowan Williams wrote an article entitled "Theology and Sexuality" which he presented as the 10th Michael Harding Memorial Address to the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement.

In that article, he argues,

In a church that accepts the legitimacy of contraception, the absolute condemnation of same-sex relations of intimacy must rely either on an abstract fundamentalist deployment of a number of very ambiguous biblical texts, or on a problematic and nonscriptural theory about natural complementarity, applied narrowly and crudely to physical differentiation without regard to psychological structures.

Interesting, isn’t it? In 1989, for Rowan Williams the theologian and pastor, the biblical texts condemning same-sex relations were “very ambiguous,” and the attempt to impose them on the entire church in the name of longstanding tradition was “fundamentalist.” Now, in 2009, for Rowan Williams the Archbishop of Canterbury, the church has consistently read the bible to condemn same-sex relations for 2000 years, and the attempt to impose that viewpoint on the entire Anglican communion is not fundamentalist at all.

The burden of proof is now, in 2009, on those who want to challenge that longstanding interpretation of the scriptures. They must now convince even the most fundamentalist of their brethren who hold views in other areas—e.g., re: the treatment of women—that not even fundamentalist Anglicans in many regions can support. They must now convince those espousing a fundamentalist reading of the bible which is not even consonant with the Anglican tradition, and not imposed in any other area of Anglican life except when it comes to gay human beings.

Nor has Rowan Williams really recanted what he wrote in 1987. In 2007, he was asked by Time reporter Guilhelm Alandry precisely that question: whether he stills stands by the position he defended in 1987. He replied as follows:

Yes, I argued that in 1987. I still think that the points I made there and the questions I raised were worth making as part of the ongoing discussion. I'm not recanting. But those were ideas put forward as part of a theological discussion. I'm now in a position where I'm bound to say the teaching of the Church is this, the consensus is this. We have not changed our minds corporately. It's not for me to exploit my position to push a change.

The Heart of Rowan Williams' Conundrum: Doing Right When One Knows What Is Right

And so we see here with utter clarity precisely where the conundrum lies for poor Rowan Williams: “It's not for me to exploit my position to push a change.” I have my personal viewpoint: I regard the biblical texts long thought to condemn same-sex relations as “very ambiguous.”

But as Archbishop of Canterbury, on behalf of the Anglican communion, where there are many Christians (with powerful economic and political elites backing them) who promote what I know personally to be an indefensible fundamentalist reading of these scriptures, I have to act as though those scriptures which I know to be very ambiguous are binding on the whole communion and represent the longstanding tradition of the church. That tradition must be defended and cannot be changed without wide consensus throughout the whole church.

How Churches Change Their Moral Minds

This is definitely a conundrum, and it’s one that calls for our compassion: as Rowan Williams' own argument in 1987 noted, the church can and does change its moral and theological mind. It has done so throughout history. It does so, in many cases, when cultural developments cast an entirely new light on how the church has always and everywhere read the bible, and shows that a certain interpretation of the bible is fundamentalist, morally undesirable, less ethically insightful than the viewpoint of the culture at large.

In 1987, Rowan Williams referred to the case of artificial contraception. He admits that the church has changed its mind about this practice, and he admits that longstanding Christian tradition and biblical interpretation view the practice as immoral. He takes for granted that the church was right to change its moral and theological mind about artificial contraception, and right to ditch the longstanding, traditional reading of the scriptures to outlaw the practice—even though many Christians still do not buy into this new viewpoint, and there is not complete consensus about this issue within the Christian churches.

What I think the Archbishop of Canterbury knows, and what makes his current conundrum poignant, is that his analysis of how churches change their moral and theological minds is fundamentally wrong. And it’s wrong because he appears unwilling to take the only morally defensible side he can and must take in the current controversy about gay issues, though he may pay a strong price for doing so.

The Archbishop of Canterbury knows full well that the churches changed their moral minds about slavery and about the place of women in church and world despite what had always been the theological and exegetical consensus in the churches. And the churches changed their moral minds regarding these issues despite the opposition of large numbers of Christians to this theological and moral shift. There was not widespread consensus on these issues when the churches finally decided to do what was right.

The churches changed their moral minds in these instances because cutting-edge groups of prophetic believers within the churches took the risk of speaking out, needling, prodding, challenging the status quo, opening doors to women and people of color when the church itself refused to open those doors. Significant shifts in the moral minds of churches do not occur because churches have built a consensus around a new reading of the scriptures. The shifts are driven by prophetic minorities who then precipitate a shift that eventually creates a new consensus in a recalcitrant body bent on keeping change at bay.

Invariably, when such new readings arise—from the margins of churches, and often in collaboration with secular human rights movements—the majority of church members kick and scream against change. And those with the strongest vested interests in maintaining the status quo—who also often happen to be the wealthiest and most powerful members of the churches—do all they can to resist, as they maintain that accepting the new reading of the scriptures will undermine all religious authority in the world and make everything relative.

The Archbishop of Canterbury is, I believe, faced with a significant moral conundrum today. It is the same conundrum that faces many Christians, who are slowly becoming aware that how their churches have chosen to treat gay human beings throughout history, while quoting the bible, is no longer morally desirable.

It is the conundrum of choosing to do right, once one has attained the intellectual insights that precede a shift in moral awareness. Knowing what is right to do is often not the biggest problem in the ethical life. It's actually doing right that's difficult, and choosing to do so when we know we will pay a price for making that choice.

But when the ability of the church to convince others that its message is worth hearing depends on doing what we know is right, rather than on talking endlessly about what is right, while we remain aloof from the world of choice and action, what a steep price the church pays, in terms of its credibility and ability to be a sign of salvation in the world.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Faith Communities in Support of Health Care for All: A Catholic Perspective

Sixty-four years later, nearly two decades since legislators last seriously considered comprehensive health reform, it is long past time for Congress to act. President Obama ran on a platform of reforming health care. The legislative and political window will be open only briefly. The moment to act is now.

The basic principle of true health care reform is clear, as it was in Truman’s day: Any program that emerges must include universal access to affordable quality care. Bishop William Murphy, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, had it right this spring when he told the Senate Finance Committee that “the moral measure of any health care reform proposal is whether it offers affordable and accessible health care to all, beginning with those most in need.”

Anything less, given the moment, will be judged a failure.


The politics of the “public option” are, to say the least, difficult. The forces arrayed against it -- largely private insurance companies -- are powerful. It remains, however, the most effective means under consideration to achieve universal affordable quality care for all Americans.

It is shameful that the wealthiest nation in the world, one that prides itself on its level of material development, is still bickering about what every other developed nation in the world has long since accomplished: making basic health care accessible to all citizens. Our inability as a nation to frame this discussion as the moral discussion it is speaks volumes about how our material development has vastly outpaced our moral development, as a people.

Rep. Alcee Hastings on the Political Calculus of the Obama Administration: I Do Not Understand

Yesterday, I recounted what happened recently when Representative Alcee Hastings tried to push forward a bill re: military appropriations that would have effectively abolished the don’t ask, don’t tell policy that prevents openly gay people from serving in the military. Rep. Hastings reports that colleagues and the White House itself pressured him to remove his bill from consideration.

There are a number of good follow-ups to this story online today, probing the White House involvement, and asking how it can be that Candidate Obama professed such determination to end a policy he knows to be unjust and discriminatory, while the White House under President Obama’s leadership seems to be blocking legislative attempts to end DADT. What makes this harder to understand is that President Obama has repeatedly justified his own refusal to end the policy through executive fiat by punting to the legislative branch. He claims that DADT can be ended effectively only through Congressional action.

I recommend Joe Sudbay’s summary of the story at America Blog yesterday evening. Sudbay is predicting the White House’s involvement in blocking Rep. Hastings’ bill is going to lead to another of those embarrassing parties for A-list gays at the White House, like the one the administration threw a few weeks back to try to build bridges with the gay community after slapping us in the face with its brief defending DOMA.

I’d add—and I want to continue stressing—that anyone watching how this administration has handled its morally-based promises to the gay community, once it took office, has a significant key to the current health care debacle. The administration is proving to be consistent in its approach to issues demanding immediate attention if we want to get our democracy back on track, and when those issues are based in moral imperatives essential to the viability of democracies.

Just as with its promises to the gay community, where prior to the election, Mr. Obama was unambiguous about the policy’s discriminatory nature and about the need to end it, and then once he was elected he announced that ending DADT is going to require further study and dialogue, health care reform has gone from being an unambiguous, morally based goal requiring immediate attention, to something quite different. Before his election, Mr. Obama supported health care reform unambiguously. Now we're told that it requires endless study, consultation, bipartisan action that brings to the table anyone and everyone (but most of all those with a vested interest in keeping things as they are).

This is not a formula for moving forward. It is a formula for keeping things as they are, or, at most, for changing them incrementally but not substantially. It is a formula for keeping powerful, wealthy economic elites happy, and for appeasing religious fundamentalists who prove useful to those elites by diverting our attention from the rapacious economic activities of those elites.

I’m interested in how clearly Representative Hastings sees what’s going on with this administration, at a fundamental philosophical level, and how the penchant for calculating pragmatism is undercutting the moral claims of the administration, particularly in the area of human rights. Yesterday, he gave Rachel Maddow an interview at MSNBC.

After having noted that someone from the White House met with him to discourage him from promoting his legislation to end DADT, Rep. Hastings told Rachel,

Their thinking, Rachel, is different than I believe yours and mine would be. I have a different political calculus. If something is bigoted and if your intent is to see to it that it does not continue, then I did not understand the leadership of Congress or the White House saying the time is not right.

A different political calculus. If something is bigoted and if your intent is to see that it does not continue, then I [do] not understand [deliberate delays] . . . .

These are powerful statements. Rep. Hastings is saying, simply and clearly, that once anyone recognizes that a practice is bigoted, that it is unjust and denies human rights to others, one has a moral obligation to work to end that practice.

Seeing and recognizing injustice implicates the one who sees and recognizes. It is impossible to lay claim to being a moral agent when we admit that we see and recognize a moral imperative which implicates us, and then we do nothing.

And as Rep. Hastings says, what makes this behavior—this “different political calculus”—all the more perplexing with the Obama administration is that polls show that a very large majority of Americans, including ones in the military, see and recognize that DADT is unjust, discriminatory, and needs to go.

This is not even an issue that requires Mr. Obama to spend political capital or to stick out his neck and risk a great deal, if he chooses to do what is right.

Like Rep. Hastings, I do not understand.

When Will the Democrats Learn?: Mike Lux and Steve Weber on the Choices Facing Leaders Who Want to Lead

Re: the health care debacle, I wrote yesterday,

Where's the leadership in the spineless Democratic party and the White House to challenge this betrayal of core values by members of the Democratic party now serving in Congress?

And I find Mike Lux
asking the same question, in an article echoing the Peter, Paul, and Mary refrain, “When will they ever learn?”:

This inability to change Washington is all the more remarkable given the events of the past few years. George W. Bush simultaneously expanded presidential power and destroyed the Republican Party brand. Democrats won sweeping historical victories two elections in a row. Voters proved they were more open to bigger historical change than anyone would have predicted just a few years ago, electing an African-American son of an immigrant with an African-Muslim name, a candidate who beat the strongly favored establishment candidate of his party by running a campaign calling for big change. The economy collapsed in a more dramatic fashion than in any way in American history except for the Great Depression.

You would have thought that with all that dramatic change and upheaval going on in such a short time, that Democrats would have been able to be bigger and bolder in their thinking. But they seem to be stuck in the business-as-usual ways of doing things.

And I
wrote yesterday as well about the death grip the blue dog Democrats seem to have on the nation, as they cater to the irrational, anti-scientific religious views of their constituents, and as they permit those constituents to be in the driver’s seat when national policy is established. I noted in that posting, and I’ve noted in many previous postings, that the calculating pragmatism of the Obama administration, which wants to treat every idea as rationally and morally equivalent to every other idea in national policy debates, gives voice to irrational and immoral viewpoints that ought not to be legitimated in a progressive society.

Moving ahead requires making hard decisions about which path to take—about right and wrong. About moral imperatives that are non-negotiable in healthy, well-functioning participatory democracies.

We will not move ahead—we cannot move ahead—as long as we keep putting in the driver’s seat those whose anti-rational views, based in understandings of religion peculiar to minority groups in this nation, conflict with fundamental principles necessary for the viability of democracy. Whether with regard to the human rights of gay citizens or health care reform, the ultimate goal of these groups is not to serve the core values of our democratic society. It is to impose their peculiar, religion-based, anti-rational views on everyone, and block progressive change.

This is a point Steven Weber
makes powerfully today in a Huffington Post article about the necessity of choosing one path or the other, of either doing what is right or frankly admitting that we know what is right but do not intend to do it. Weber says,

The division is clear. It is, finally, right versus wrong. And on this side of the division we declare:

it is wrong to for a modern, wealthy country to not provide all its citizens with health care.

It is wrong to not provide better education.

It is wrong to go to war unilaterally.

It is wrong to cater to corporate interests when ordinary people are disadvantaged and struggling.

It is wrong to cater to radical, ignorant, religious zealotry and to give it a place at the table when it should be banned to the fringes.

It is wrong to foster a distrust of progress.

It is wrong to have a fear of "otherness."

It is wrong to perpetuate institutionalized racism.

It is wrong to deny science and to avoid culpability in the polluting of our planet.

These are the things a thinking, modern, progressive nation stands for. Those on the other side of the divide -- well, we've seen what they believe in. And, sadly, we've lived it.

To say that religion has an important role to play in democratic societies—as one option among many others that citizens should be permitted to take—is not the same as saying that views peculiar to particular religious bodies, which militate against core democratic values, should be brought to the table in national policy discussions. This is a distinction that sorely needs to be made, as the Obama administration continues its appeasement of anyone and everyone (except its strongest supporters in the progressive community), in the name of consensus-building and bipartisanship.

And as it continues to ignore moral imperatives that it promised to put front and center, prior to the election, when it offered us change we could believe in. For many of us, this election was about our final chance to rebuild a democracy that was virtually dismantled by the previous administration. Hence our dismay at this administration's refusal to respect the moral imperatives it told us during the campaign that it respects, its refusal to make hard choices based on those imperatives, and its refusal to move forward decisively.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Breaking News: Obama's Long-Time Physician Says His Pragmatism Is Doing Him In

Huffington Post is reporting this afternoon that the president's long-time doctor, David Scheiner, is disheartened by Obama's approach to health care reform, and believes that the reform process is doomed to fail.

And what's causing the failure? In Dr. Schreiner's view, Obama's pragmatism.

Schreiner says, "His pragmatism is what is overwhelming him."

Once again: the approach this administration adopted once it took office, an approach centered on cool, calculating pragmatism, undercuts the moral imperatives the administration claimed to recognize prior to its election.

We voted for those moral imperatives. And for the leadership to implement change we could believe in, centered on those imperatives.

Instead, we've been offered endless discussion that treats those moral imperatives as one among several "ideas" now up for grabs. We've been offered compromise and excuses, when we long for leadership. We've been offered bipartisan, "inclusive" roundtables at which the lions sit with the lambs, never having the slightest intent to co-exist with the lambs but intent on consuming them, instead.

Leadership. Moral imperatives. Change we can believe in. Not pragmatism.

Mr. Obama's pragmatism (and, even more, the cold, calculating pragmatism of some of his chief advisors) is indeed overwhelming him, and it is going to be the downfall of his entire platform of progressive change. The betrayal of moral imperatives began with the gay community, and now it's extending to the health care debate.

Our participatory democracy has been systematically dismantled by several generations of amoral neocon leadership. When we elected this administration, we thought we were on the road to recovering that democracy, along with the moral imperatives that ground it.

And how badly our trust and our hope now seem to have been betrayed.

Addendum: and then there's this: blue dog Democrat Dan Boren of Oklahoma
admits that he places the profits of the health insurance industry that's so strong in his district over the needs of every citizen to have access to basic health care. Where's the leadership in the spineless Democratic party and the White House to challenge this betrayal of core values by members of the Democratic party now serving in Congress?

The Poor-Rowan Williams Meme and Catholic Centrists: Unearned Superiority

I have to get something off my chest. I’m irritated, frankly, by the poor-Rowan Williams meme developing in centrist Catholic circles, in the wake of the decision of the Episcopal Church USA to accept openly gay persons as ministry candidates.

I blogged about this recently. As I noted, while the Anglican communion struggles with questions about how the church ought to respond to the expectation of gay persons to be treated as fully human, many Catholics are looking on with a smug sense of superiority. Many of us believe that we hold higher standards, and have set ourselves apart more successfully from a culture headed to hell in a handbasket.

And so the poor-Rowan meme, with its sad laments about the poignant struggles of a thoughtful and intelligent man confronted with an impossible conundrum: how to hold a church together when some of its members want to split over the question of whether gay human beings are human in the same way that other human beings are human.

Please. A conundrum? A poignant struggle? A problem that thoughtful people can’t resolve?

What’s so perplexing about the question of whether churches ought to accept every human being as fully human? And to treat every human being with the same dignity and respect, as a result of that fundamental theological affirmation?

We Catholics haven’t earned the right, frankly, to stand aside from this battle with such smug superiority. The price we’ve paid in order to call ourselves united and superior is horrific.

It’s the price of admitting, tacitly or otherwise, that we regard gay humanity as less than ordinary humanity. It's the price of ongoing repression of gay and lesbian Catholics, of firing anyone working in Catholic institutions who comes out of the closet, of denying health care and a living income to gay people working in our institutions when they ask for the simple right to be who they are, proudly.

In centrist Catholic circles, it’s the price of remaining totally silent about the legitimate claims of our gay Catholic brothers and sisters to a place at the table.

It’s the price of continuing—smugly and with a totally unfounded sense of our superiority—to natter about inclusion and tolerance and human rights, when we simply ignore those on the outside looking in if they’re gay. We don’t invite them to the table. We don’t give them a voice—not even in our conversations about tolerance and inclusion. Not even in our rare conversations about them!

It's the price of talking about communion as our central value, when our own actions belie our claim to value communion. It's the price of refusing to talk about the slow bleeding out of American Catholicism, as one in three American adults who were raised Catholic have left the church, and as one in ten American adults is a former Catholic.

We don’t want, we centrist Catholics who are so concerned about communion, to talk about why that’s happening. Or to hear the voices of those who’ve left. Including our many gay and lesbian brothers and sisters who have walked away, while we’ve remained totally silent about what is done to them in the communion we claim to value so much.

While we keep talking about human rights and justice. And tolerance and inclusion. And communion.

We’re not so far apart, ultimately, we Catholics of the center in the U.S., from those of our Catholic brothers and sisters on the far right who taunt anyone who disagrees with them—on a daily basis—and urge them to leave the Catholic church and join the Episcopalians. That liberal bugbear group which, the mainstream media has succeeded in convincing us, is headed to hell in a handbasket.

Because it has chosen to treat gay human beings with mere human decency. While we claim to be the superior ones.

More Updates: The Maine Catholic Diocese's Battle vs. Gay Marriage, Virginia Foxx Still at It

And more updates: several weeks ago, I blogged about the surprising discovery that the financially strapped Catholic diocese of Maine has recently found major funds to spend as it tries to overturn Maine’s same-sex marriage law. While the diocese is closing churches with claims that it can no longer support these churches financially, it has somehow found $100,000 to support the drive to repeal same-sex marriage in Maine.

And the diocese seems curiously unable to account for where that anti-gay money is coming from. If it comes from donations of Maine’s Catholic parishioners, then the diocese seems to have some fancy explaining to do. Parishioners donate to their parish with the understanding—normally this is the case—that the funds they’re giving will go to the upkeep of parish buildings, support of the parish school, implementation of parish programs. Not to some political crusade the church is backing.

If the funds are coming to the Maine diocese from somewhere else—for instance, another religious body in another part of the country—then the diocese still has explaining to do. What does our democratic system of governance mean, when religious groups can shift money around from one region of the country to another, to impose their theocratic will on the citizens of states in which the religious group funding a political crusade doesn’t even have its headquarters?

These are questions being asked, for instance, about the Mormon church, after the archbishop of San Francisco, George Niederauer, invited the Utah Mormons to enter the California fray with a massive infusion of funds in the last election cycle, to remove the right of marriage from gay citizens of California.

I find I’m not the only person asking critical questions about the Maine story. Recently, Michael Bayly’s outstanding Wild Reed blog linked to an article by Michael Jones, communications director for the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School, about the Maine story. Jones was previously communications director for Pax Christi USA.

Jones sees the decision of the Maine diocese to spend lavishly to roll back the right of marriage for gay citizens, while the diocese is closing churches due to financial problems, as a case of “misplaced priorities.” He’d like to tell Mark Mutty, director of public affairs for the diocese of Maine, the following:

Here’s a memo to Mutty: not only would some people say it’s misdirected to spend this type of money on denying rights to gays and lesbians instead of on initiatives for the poor, but Jesus himself would have likely said the same thing, too.

Indeed. The Catholic church gives itself a black eye when it talks out of one side of its mouth about the need to defend human rights, while out of the other side of its mouth, it calls on citizens to combat the human rights of a targeted minority. People tend to look at what we do and not what we say, when we preach.

Much Catholic preaching about the sanctity of life and human rights falls on deaf ears, when the church’s own track record in these areas is so abysmal.

And that’s a point that needs to be kept in mind, as well, by anyone assessing the record of Virginia Foxx, representative for North Carolina’s 5th Congressional district. Foxx was last in the eye of the nation back in April, when she tried to shoot down hate crimes legislation by arguing that the heinous murder of Matthew Shepard had nothing to do with the fact that Shepard was gay.

As I noted in a number of postings about this remark at the time, it’s an embarrassment to me that Foxx is a Catholic. A Catholic who appears to defend hate based on sexual orientation. And who has opposed S-CHIP legislation to provide health coverage for poor children, despite the support of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ conference for this legislation.

Well, Foxx is back in the news. Still running her mouth. Still belying Catholic values and Catholic principles in the name of, well, that western North Carolina Catholicism that her fellow Catholic congressman (and ideological bedfellow) from the neighboring 10th district, Patrick McHenry, once defined as “truer and purer” than Catholicism in the rest of the world.

Foxx was in the news lately for making the absurd claim that “there are no Americans who don’t have health care.” Now she’s back in the news with the equally bizarre claim that, in contrast to a Democratic health care plan, a Republican one will not put seniors in a position of being put to death by their government.

I agree with Pam Spaulding. The voters of western North Carolina need to put this walking nightmare of a representative out of her misery and stop allowing her to embarrass their region by such appalling, ill-informed, deliberately inflammatory remarks. And as for Foxx’s claim to represent the truer and purer Catholicism that prevails in her neck of the woods, someone needs to send her a parcel of USCCB documents about human rights and health care. Right away. So she can at least inform herself when she spouts off about Catholic values.

Health Care Reform and Don't Ask, Don't Tell: Making the Connections--Moral Imperatives and (Non-Existent) Leadership

I’ve been holding onto bits and pieces of commentary for some days now. Today, I want to post these in a series of interconnected postings. What binds these disparate postings together is that most of them follow up on issues about which I’ve posted previously at Bilgrimage. Several of the new items I’ll be posting today bring some of my previous stories up to date.

First, the ongoing health care . . . well, what to call it . . . except a debacle? As I see it, the American people are being held hostage. A significant majority of us want decisive, unambiguous health care reform including a plan to cover every citizen, particularly those who cannot afford basic care. We’re being held hostage by Republicans intent on blocking health care reform, because they know that if the administration succeeds in providing us with a sensible health care plan that covers all of us, they will decisively lose their grip on the nation.

But we’re also being held hostage by a group of blue dog Democrats from places like my home state of Arkansas, who have sold their hearts, souls, and hides to special interest groups (the medical and the insurance industries, for instance). These elephants in donkey disguise want in every way possible to act as a ball and chain on any progressive reform promoted by the new administration. This group has made the rest of us hostages to the wealthy special-interest elites they serve, and to the benighted constituents who elect them, who resist progressive change because it conflicts with their ideological and religious outlook.

I know these folks. They're my folks. I come from a state run by blue dog Democrats, who would rather be hog-tied and horse-whipped than admit that a gay human being is a human being. One just like them. With the same level of humanity, deserving the same human rights they enjoy.

I know, too, that even while they tout their profound commitment to God and the bible and moral values, they are utterly tone-deaf to the moral implications of health care. Health care as a human right? Not in their moral playbook. Morality is about bared breasts on television and barring the sale of beer on Sundays. It's not about health care. Not about children needing regular check-ups and good nutrition so that they can succeed in school and become productive adult citizens.

That's not in the bible. And don't get me started on the fact that many of those children denied basic health care under our present system are black. Because race is not in the bible, either. The bible's about breasts and beer. And gays. About keeping the gays down and out as long as possible. Because God tells us to do that, in the name of Christian love.

To these blue dogs, Steve Hildebrand issues a challenge:

Stop holding Americans hostage. Stop placing the economic interests of wealthy elites before the well-being of the nation, and ahead of the mandate you have received in the last election to change things substantially. Stop treating the entire nation like you treat members of the benighted constituencies that elect you. We don’t all share the peculiar reactionary views of your constituents about human rights issues.

Begin acting like Democrats for a change. Be leaders for a change.

And in my view, that challenge applies as well to the Obama administration itself. Lead. Stop the b.s. about pragmatism and bipartisan inclusion of every possible “idea” before we finally struggle to do what's clearly right. As Maxine Waters tells Carlos Watson at MSNBC, the reason the blue dog Democrats now have a death grip on the nation, through the health care reform process, is quite simple: pragmatist-in-chief Rahm Emanuel has given them that power.

They’re in the control seat, these folks whose primary goal is thwarting change we can believe in, because the new administration has put them in the control seat—in the name of pragmatic consensus-building and bringing every “idea” to the table, as if every idea is morally and rationally equal to every other idea. In the health care debacle, we’re seeing the consequences of the president’s penchant for pragmatism and amorphous bipartisan “consensus” playing themselves out. We're seeing his refusal to exert clear leadership playing itself out.

With very unhappy consequences for the nation. What we’re likely to get, when we finally get health care “reform” (and we’re the very last developed nation in the world to consider offering access to fundamental health care to all citizens as a basic human right) is a watered-down, bewildering, patched-together mess that will serve the economic interests of the medical and insurance industries before it serves the needs of citizens.

As Andrew Sullivan notes, the president’s messaging job on health care is his worst messaging job in a long time. Nobody knows what he wants or intends with health care reform:

It's the worst selling job he's done in a long time. I can't tell what's in it, not in it, what he's for, what he's against.

I can’t tell what’s in it, not in it, what he’s for, what he’s against. Precisely as with don’t ask, don’t tell. As I have noted in posting after posting on this blog that predicted the muddle this administration was headed into because it refuses to honor its moral imperatives and exercise leadership based on those moral imperatives, no one now knows what the president wants, intends, or will do with don’t ask, don’t tell.

And this despite the fact that he promised, as Candidate Obama, to end a policy he himself regards as unjust. As unethical. As morally indefensible.

Just as he promised to reform health care and provide access to basic health care to all citizens. Because it’s a moral imperative. Because it’s the right thing to do.

Because leaders do what is right rather than what is expedient. Even when they pay a price.

The grand irony of this moment in the history of the Obama administration, however, is that polls show a huge majority of Americans favoring the abolition of don’t ask, don’t tell. And they show a strong majority favoring the kind of health care reform—centered on access to basic care for all citizens—the administration is permitting Republicans and blue dog Democrats to block.

This is a moment in the honeymoon period of this presidency when these progressive changes—when these promises made by Candidate Obama as part of the change we can all believe in—could have easily been enacted without the deal-cutting folderol we see going on with both DADT and health care reform. Without the compromises and stasis. Without the mixed messages and refusal to stand on promises that reflect moral imperatives.

Representative Alcee Hastings of Florida has just announced he’s withdrawing a defense spending bill that would have challenged DADT. He's withdrawing the bill because of pressure from colleagues and the White House. And the White House: the same White House that, prior to Mr. Obama’s election, promised a speedy end to this unjust and immoral policy preventing the military service of openly gay soldiers.

Commenting on the story, Rachel Maddow, notes that we really do want the administration to ask. And to tell. Do ask. And do tell.

Ask us what we want, and listen when you ask. And tell us what you intend, what you want, what your strategy is. Don’t make promises us to us that you yourself tell us are based on moral imperatives, on the fundamental canons of justice and decency that govern our democracy, and then waffle on those promises. Not when you now have the power to change things. To make your words mean something.

To do more than talk about change we can believe in. You have the power to make change we can believe in.

Why, then, do you keep inviting the lions to the table of the lambs, in the name of bogus inclusion and pragmatism? Please lead, for a change. For God’s sake. It’s what we elected you to do.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Centrist Pragmatism: It's Time to Be Honest about Where the Center Really Stands

We have allowed the pragmatists the run of the nation for decades now, and what has it gotten us? A frayed social safety net, crumbling infrastructure, massive inequalities in income, health, and opportunity, and a financial system that makes a den of fire-breathing pirate vipers an appealing alternative. Oh, and the finest (and most expensive) military ever known to man.

More properly, we have balanced the ideological insanity that is modern conservatism — don't argue with me, when Ann freaking Coulter is the voice of reason in your movement, you know you're in trouble - with a bunch of mush-mouthed hacks dedicated to compromise at all costs. The result is that the allowable spectrum of opinion now runs from the insane to the not-so insane, and the people who actually want something to be done for the poor get labeled the "far left," as if they were going to bolshivize inner cities across the nation.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Cooking to Save the Planet: Summer Vegetable Chowder

Again, a recipe suggestion that makes use of ingredients available locally in summer in many parts of the world--in particular, the ubiquitous summer squash that produces so prolifically from mid-summer to frost in many parts of the U.S., causing those with an overabundance of this vegetable to search for new ways to cook and serve it.

For this soup, I melt about three tablespoons of butter in the bottom of a soup pot, and then add about two heaping tablespoons of flour, mixing well. To that mix, I add four or five medium summer squash (yellow crookneck, but zucchini would also work well), a large onion, a bell pepper, three tomatoes peeled, and the kernels cut from three ears of fresh corn. All of these are chopped coarsely (except the corn, of course).

Stir well to mix with the roux, and be sure to scrape any area of the roux that may have scorched or stuck to the bottom. Add three or four cups of water, salt and pepper to taste, and a bay leaf. If your taste so inclines, add a pinch of sugar, too.

Bring quickly to a boil over high heat, and then turn down and simmer till vegetables are tender, about 15 minutes or so. At that point, coarsely mash the vegetables (I use a potato masher right in the soup pot) and then stir in a cup of milk and bring just to boiling point and serve.

We had this chowder tonight as a prelude to a wonderful summer supper of fresh crowder peas cooked with a handful of whole okra pods on top, cornbread, and sliced tomatoes and cantaloupe. Who could ask for better?

Health Care for All and Moral Imperatives Confronting the Obama Administration

Interesting online articles today that I’m highlighting because all build around the notion that the serious challenges facing our nation have a moral component, and that President Obama dilutes his leadership when he ignores that component. As I’ve argued repeatedly on this blog, American progressives have seriously weakened their movement by shying away from the term “moral” in political analysis.

We’ve conceded that term to those who do not have any bona fide claim to own morality, other than that they shout louder than anyone else that God is on their side and anything they do must therefore be moral. All political debates have moral underpinnings. The path a nation chooses to take regarding this or that issue—in the articles I’m citing today, regarding health care and race—is inevitably a moral path. Every political decision and every political path have strong moral components, because political decisions and the paths chosen by social groups affect human beings. And there’s no way to discuss the effects of policies on human beings without resorting to moral analysis.

This is not to say that politics has to be or should be imbued with religion. It’s entirely possible to make ethical decisions without resorting to religion at all. Our pluralistic democratic society rests on the assumption that, as a nation, we recognize some fundamental moral considerations necessary for democracy to exist, and we commit ourselves to building a society around those considerations, regardless of our different religious viewpoints or our rejection of religion altogether.

These fundamental moral considerations that ground our democratic society include respect for the differing viewpoints of different groups of people within the overall framework of moral norms that bind us together, concern for the those most excluded from social participation through economic and other forms of marginalization, and a commitment to fair play and justice. These are core values of our democratic society, and they’re moral values that demand moral attention, analysis, and commitment.

I’m pleased to see Ben Wyskida arguing at HuffPo today that the president’s media messaging about health care reform has been off-target, in part, because it has prescinded from clear language about the moral imperative of our society to provide health care for all. As Wyskida notes, Candidate Obama did a splendid job of articulating the moral imperatives that need to ground a progressive platform of social change in our society.

But President Obama is failing in this respect, due to his post-election unwillingness to articulate clear moral imperatives for social change as he brings to the table players whose primary interest is not the moral dimension of health care at all, but economic self-interest. The pragmatism of the president’s bipartisan, everyone-aboard approach undercuts the clarity and powerful appeal of his campaign rhetoric about moral imperatives, alienating his strongest supporters, the progressive community:

One of the few times during the Presidential debates that I actually staggered up out of my chair and cheered was when Candidate Obama asserted that health care is a human right. I wonder if there isn't a bolder, higher-calling messaging platform that appeals to a moral framework as well as an economic one. . . .

You can wrap in the economy - health care has always been a right, now it's a necessity. It's a moral and economic imperative.

Wyskida urges the president to get back on message, and begin once again to hammer away at the moral dimension of his understanding of health care for all:

Shift the message, from "do it now or the economy will tank" to the moral and economic imperative a can-do country has to provide first-rate health care argument.

Peter Laarman takes a very similar tack at Religion Dispatches, as he argues that special interests are not “ideas.” Laarman is addressing the Obama team’s overly generous invitation to the table of groups with a vested interest in profiting from provision of health care, an invitation issued under the guise of expanding the range of “ideas” available for discussion.

As Laarman notes,

Morally speaking, however, not all “ideas” have the same legitimacy. There is no moral equivalence between the views of disinterested analysts and public health specialists and the views, of say, medical equipment manufacturers or pharmaceutical companies or (most notoriously) big health insurance companies whose entire raison d’etre is to make money by denying care and/or by squeezing their profit out of every single medical procedure that does take place.

The “ideas” brought to the table by lobbyists for these powerful groups are not properly ideas at all; they are encapsulations of naked private interest. Moreover, this happens to be a malign private interest that militates against the moral claim—the legitimate “interest”—of tens of millions of the sick and suffering.

Once again: the tendency of this administration, now that it is in office, to treat as equal ideas all “ideas” about the path this nation must now take if it wishes to return to its democratic roots undercuts the moral imperatives on which the administration's platform for change rests. Not all ideas are equal. Not all proposals deserve the same attention, if our decisions are to be normed by the core values of our democratic society.

Some ideas are flatly antithetical to the moral basis of our society. Those that benefit the powerful at the expense of the weak militate against the core values around which we want to build our democratic society.

Under the guise of being tolerant and all-inclusive, liberal leaders in this country have historically legitimated the power of the most rapacious and inhumane groups in our society, while turning a deaf ear to progressive groups that have far less clout and ability to make their voices heard. The continued legitimatizing, under the rubric of tolerance and inclusiveness, of groups and "ideas" that are all about self-interest and not about our fundamental democratic values threatens the future of our democracy.

Moral imperatives require that we take a stand. And sometimes that stand has to be against the rich and powerful, when their goal is to profit from those who have no voice to speak for themselves.

Clarence B. Jones makes a very similar argument today in an open memo to the president at HuffPo regarding race in America. Jones calls on the president to create a national commission to address issues of race in America—forthrightly and with open public dialogue about the elephant in the living room. He thinks that if the president fails to do this, he will erode his moral capital and the credibility his progressive platform needs in order to be successful:

Despite looming issues of health care, the banking crises, Jobs Recovery Programs or Afghanistan, the giant elephant of race in America's living room remains, casting its shadow across our nation, and possibly the success of your own re-election. You run the risk of eroding your moral capital and credibility if you refuse to finally constructively find a way to tackle this issue head-on.

And I agree. The way the media have jumped on the Gates incident and exploited it, the
way many of the talk-radio thugs want to use this incident to polarize the nation and to undercut the president’s effectiveness, illustrates how far we have to go in resolving racial issues honestly in our society.

But if I were designing the guidelines for such a commission, I’d add a component challenging the African-American community to deal with Corettta Scott King’s appeal to the black community to confront its homophobia. And, yes, I'd also be all for including conversations about racism in the gay community, just as I'd want to include no-holds-barred discussions about racism throughout all sectors of American culture and society.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Cooking to Save the Planet: Green Bean Summer Salad

As with some of my other suggestions for ways to cook to save the planet, I suspect that the tips I'm sharing in this posting won't be new to many folks. They're certainly not a novel way to cook and serve the ingredients of the dish I discuss here, many of them locally available throughout the U.S. and in other places in summertime.

Still, this salad (which is really a version of a salade Niçoise) may not have occurred to some blog readers. In the hope that the recipe might help some readers, I want to offer it as part of my series on cooking to save the planet.

What follows is a simple main-dish salad composed of fresh local ingredients (for the most part) that Steve and I eat frequently--often weekly--in the hot weeks of summer. It begins with local string beans, or "green beans" may be the most accurate term nowadays. The term "string beans" is a vestige of my childhood, when the green pole bean we preferred above all others was the incomparably flavorful Kentucky Wonder, with its thick, meaty pod that we cooked down for a long time with a bit of smoked pork or some bacon drippings and (towards the end) a handful of new potatoes.

I can no longer cook that staple of our summer dinnertable, because I can't find its main ingredient, authentic Kentucky Wonder pole beans. We bought what purported to be old-fashioned pole beans, grown locally on an organic farm, from our food co-op a few weeks ago. As soon as I began to snap and string them, I knew that they weren't the real thing.

For one thing, they had no strings at all. For another, they were watery and tender, not tough and leathery (and full of flavor), as Kentucky Wonder pole beans should be. As soon as I began to cook them, I knew I was right: they disintegrated in a few minutes, rather than slowly becoming tender and succulent with the flavor of the ham I had added to the pot.

I have even grown Kentucky Wonders in recent years in the garden, to try to produce the string bean dish of my childhood. They're not the same. Someone has obviously fooled with this bean, hybridized it to remove the strings and produce the tender small green beans folks want nowadays. The trade-off is that the beans have lost that incomparable pole bean flavor, and we're now minus one more dish once traditional in Southern cooking, because we can no longer buy its main ingredient.

But I digress. The green beans I use for our summer salad are the ordinary green beans now grown around the country, available everywhere in summer. I top and tail them, snap them, and quickly steam them until just tender. Then I set them aside to cool. I do the same with a handful of well-scrubbed new potatoes in their jacket.

Meanwhile, I slice several tomatoes at their peak of ripeness, and I quarter and slice a sweet onion or two. In a large flat serving bowl or on a platter, I arrange each of the vegetables--the steamed and cooled green beans, the tomatoes, the potatoes, and the onion.

Alongside these, I put several eggs I've boiled and cooled ahead of time (I often steam and cool the beans ahead of time, too, putting them in the refrigerator with the eggs until I'm ready to make the salad). With the quartered eggs I put a handful of black olives on the platter. The olives are the one ingredient (in addition to the olive oil in the vinaigrette) I can't buy locally. Giving up olives and olive oil to eat only locally available foods would be a major challenge to me, though we've gradually cut the variety of things we eat by eating as much as possible only local and seasonal foodstuffs from organic farms nearby.

Dinner is simple. Each diner helps herself or himself to a variety of the ingredients arranged in heaps in the bowl or on the platter, and makes a mixed salad of them on his or her plate. For the dressing, I make a vinaigrette of one third wine vinegar or cider vinegar, two thirds olive oil, a bit of dry mustard or sharp prepared (not yellow) mustard, salt, pepper, thyme, and a clove of crushed garlic.

We sometimes add a can of tuna fish to the platter alongside the boiled eggs and black olives. With french bread and a glass of cool white wine, this summer salad is a delicious, easily prepared meal that tempts the appetite when a heavier meal would not be appealing. It also uses, for the most part, fresh items available locally in many areas. A little cheese to close the stomach at the end isn't amiss, along with a bit of fresh fruit from one's region--for us now, sliced watermelon, canteloupe, or peaches.

Happy Birthday, Your Lifestyle Is a Sin Against Truth, But I Love You: Being Gay and Living in a Church of Truth without Love

In two preliminary reflections about the new papal encyclical Caritas in veritate that I’ve posted on this blog (here and here), I’ve argued that Benedict is trying to put the rabbit back into the hat—to correct a weapon-like notion of religious truth that he himself set into motion when he headed the Catholic church's doctrinal watchdog office, the CDF. I argue that “the pope is now trying to reconnect what ought never to have been separated, if we want to call ourselves Catholic and orthodox: love and truth.”

And I note that, in its practical applications, the notion of truth derived from Benedict’s work (as Cardinal Ratzinger) in the CDF and from John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis splendor has been used in an eminently uncharitable way in the church in recent years, to hound valuable members of the body of Christ out of communion, to force unquestioning conformity to disciplinary directives that do not have the standing of absolute truth necessary for salvation. I state,

John Paul II’s teaching about truth, behind which Ratzinger stood always in the background, has translated, in American Catholicism, into something that is not adequately Catholic. It has translated into witch hunts and the reduction of a fine, complex, ancient tradition, particularly in the area of ethics, into an anti-intellectual set of formulas that are used not to provoke thought or to invite discourse designed to help us fathom and internalize the tradition. These simplistic, anti-intellectual formulas are not intended to help us immerse ourselves in the transformative Truth Who is God. They are intended to separate the saved from the unsaved.

Today I’d like to provide an example of the process I’m describing above. It’s one close to home, and is therefore one not easy to write about. It involves a family I love, one very near to me, which is at the same time not my own family of birth.

And so I feel a certain reluctance to talk about the business of this family in a public forum. I do not want to deepen divisions that already exist in this family. I try to live with the goal of healing the world, not making its wounds more prevalent.

At the same time, there is no healing until we identify what has to be healed—not just theoretically, but practically, in the world in which we live and not in some abstract fantasy world that exists inside our heads. And to identify what has to be healed, we have to analyze what is right there in front of us—our own lives, our own experiences, our stories. We have to tell our stories in a way that brings meaning to them, in order to discover meaning (and healing) in our lives.

The story I want to tell now does involve me, but it’s primarily the story of my life partner Steve and of his family. And I tell it with his permission.

Yesterday was Steve’s 58th birthday. Just as I finished my commentary yesterday on Caritas in veritate, in which I proposed that Benedict is seeking to correct applications of his theology of religious truth that have become destructive in the church because they have separated truth from love, Steve received a number of birthday cards from his family.

One of these was from one of his sisters. Steve has been in conversation with this sister for some time now about an incident that happened several years ago when he and I were visiting his family. For reasons still murky to us, this sister’s husband has taken a violent turn towards the two gay members of Steve’s family—towards Steve and one of Steve’s brothers who happens also to be gay. And towards me as Steve’s partner and the partner of Steve’s brother.

When we were visiting several years back, Steve’s sister invited us to come to her house. When her husband heard of the invitation, he threatened her and us with violence if we came to his house. He forbade us and Steve’s gay brother and his partner ever to set foot in his house, and informed us all that if we ever did try to visit, we could expect to be met with violence.

We’ve seen enough of this person’s behavior in other situations to know that if he threatens violence, that’s a threat to be taken seriously. And so we have never sought to visit Steve’s sister on any subsequent trip to his family. In fact, we have never been in her house at all.

Being with this sister and her husband (and their eight children) is now, it goes without saying, excruciatingly painful. What does one say to someone—to a family member—who has threatened to do violence to you? For being who you are. For being gay.

And who has never—not once—apologized for this outburst and for these threats. And to a sister who has never again alluded to them or sought to apologize for them, and who has never once lifted the ban on visits to her house. Who probably can’t do so, without courting violence herself.

How does one kneel and pray beside someone like this, as we were expected to do at Steve's father's funeral a year ago? What does prayer mean when such ugly words hang in the air between you and another person, and the person who has uttered them is unwilling to take them back or even talk about them?

In recent months, probably because Steve’s father’s rather sudden death a year ago has produced family soul-searching that, Steve had hoped, might lead to healing and rapprochement in his family, Steve has tried to talk to this sister about what happened on that visit. And about how it affects him and me, when we now visit Steve’s family.

One practical effect of the threat is that I simply do not want to visit Steve’s family again. This sister and her husband are one among several siblings who have refused to accept me, and who have been grossly offensive to me. One brother has refused to shake my hand when I offered it to him. Another brother has told us not to visit him or his family.

These are the siblings in Steve's family who have remained Catholic. Three other siblings have distanced themselves from the church and are generally cordial. One of Steve's brothers, who is not gay, has, in fact, been extremely kind to us. The pain, the insult and injury, are inflicted solely by the Catholic members of this family.

That in itself makes me not want to visit Steve’s family. I can't stand the tension, the shattering of all that I believe is sacred. At his father’s funeral last year, it struck me as wildly . . . well, strange and insincere . . . that we all knelt to pray the Rosary, with the brother who refused to shake my hand leading it, and that we all prayed for an increase of charity in our lives. While we refuse to shake each other’s hands. While we tell each other not to visit our house.

While we threaten violence to each other, if the banned members of the family visit the righteous members. What can it mean, this prayer, this Catholicism, which treats family members with such conspicuous disdain, in the name of Christian love?

And so Steve’s sister’s birthday card yesterday. It contains a touching apology for the pain her husband’s threats of violence may have caused Steve and me (but not a revocation of the order never to visit her family). Then it goes on to say, “While I cannot condone the gay lifestyle because it is a sin against Truth . . . most importantly I love you and I love Bill.”

And now what do we do with that statement? If it affected only me, I know precisely what I’d do: I’d ignore it and continue my intent never to visit Steve’s family again, if I can avoid doing so. That’s a decision I don’t make easily, since I have no right to write off any human beings in the world, to act as if they don’t exist. And they’re his family, for God’s sake. He is connected to them by blood and being alienated from them hurts him like hell.

And I’ve learned in life never to say no. I’ve learned that just when I say I will not ever do something, that’s when life teaches me a lesson and forces me to remember that the reins of my life lie not in my hands but in God’s.

I can’t just ignore this birthday-greeting statement of Steve’s sister now, and go about my business, for another reason: this is that I see on a daily basis how these statements and the ugly, excluding, judging attitudes that lie behind them rob him of soul. I see first-hand and every day how these statements hurt him.

This birthday statement comes on the heels of a decision one of his nieces has just made, to invite Steve and his gay brother to her wedding, but to exclude their life partners. The niece is Catholic Catholic Catholic. She’s a product of the Franciscan university at Steubenville, and has spent some time living in England at a charismatic community based around the Birmingham oratory, which has close ties to her alma mater.

She majored in theology, and she has chosen to be married on the feast of the Assumption. Catholic. Did I say Catholic?

And she has deliberately (and, to my mind, coldly) chosen to pretend that neither I nor the partner of her other gay uncle exists, for her wedding. It’s not as if she is oblivious to the pain this has caused her uncles, either. Steve, at least, wrote to tell her of his reaction. And so did two of his brothers—the ones now distant from the church—who told her they will not attend her wedding out of solidarity with their brothers, whom she’s hurting by excluding their partners from her wedding.

Did I say Catholic? Steve’s niece and his sister are doing what they are doing out of sincere devotion to what they regard as the truth—the Truth, as Steve’s sister’s birthday greeting says: “I cannot condone the gay lifestyle because it is a sin against Truth.” But I love you.

Happy birthday. I love you. And oh, by the way, have I told you you’re a sinner? But I love you anyway.

How do people, religious people, work themselves into such intellectual, emotional, spiritual prisons? What kind of human being uses a birthday card to inform her brother that he’s a sinner? And relies on religious sanction as she does so?

And thinks she can then go on to talk about love?

Something’s wrong in the church today. And that something has everything to do with how the rubric of truth has been used in the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict, to exclude brothers and sisters from the family of God. To deny salvation to one’s brothers and sisters. To berate and threaten and demean one’s family members in the name of God.

While claiming that what one is doing is about love and not about plain old meanness that does not have a scintilla of sanctity about it.

I don’t get it. But it’s the world in which many of us live nowadays—many of us who are gay. The story I’m telling here is one that many other gay people could also tell about their dealings with their families, especially with their Christian families.

It’s a story of “truth” that has taken leave of love, and as a result, of “truth” that is damaging the church at its very heart—which is supposed to be all about love and about truth in the service of love, if the church has anything to do with Jesus. What kind of family—what kind of Christian family—believes that it is necessary for one family member to inform another that he’s a sinner, on his birthday for Christ’s sake? What kind of Christian family thinks it has the right to talk about loving someone whom it has just slapped in the face?

The sister sending this letter had her first child prior to marriage. I would not for the world have dreamed of informing her that she was a sinner as she struggled through that experience. Not my business. Who am I to look inside her heart and make that judgment? How do I know what circumstances led to that unfortunate event in her life?

And what would I accomplish by telling any member of my family that he or she is a sinner? If we’re all sinners, then why would I wish to single out one particular sinner and try to make his or her sin the prototype of all sin in the world? Why not focus on what’s much harder, dealing with my own sinful ways and my own stubborn heart, trying to foster love where suspicion and pain prevail?

I just don’t get it. But I do see, crystal clear, where Steve’s sister is coming from. Behind her statement that the gay lifestyle is a sin against Truth lie several decades of hard-hitting Vatican rhetoric about the splendor of Truth.

That rhetoric has done untold damage to the church. How the rhetoric has been applied, particularly in American Catholicism, has hurt countless numbers of people.

And these developments have made it much harder to talk about what should always have been central to the life of the church, but has been lost sight of by many of those who have chosen to set truth against love, with papal sanction: this is charity. Where charity and love prevail, there God is ever found.

That venerable old hymn talks about God being found where love dwells, not where truth prevails. Love, first and foremost: because God is love, and those who love abide in God. Love, first and foremost, because we delude ourselves if we claim to love God when we cannot love God in the people around us. Love, first and foremost, because love sums up the whole law and the prophets.

We have gotten away from what is first and foremost in our tradition, with our noise about Truth in the past several decades. It may now be too late to reconnect that absolutely central Christian insight about love first and foremost to all the “truth” floating around in the church in recent years, for many of us who have been the primary victims of this “truth.” I applaud Benedict for trying. But I'm not sure he's going to succeed. For too many of us now, the church has become an impediment, as we seek God.

And as we look for love, healing, salfivic love, in a church in which truth has been played against love in a way that tells us, over and over, that we have no rightful place in the family of God, no right to expect any real experience of love and acceptance from brothers and sisters who claim the right to see themselves as loving even as they threaten and demean us. In the name of truth that has long since taken leave of love.