Category Archives: Political culture

A new look at reducing poverty

As a religious person, my primary political goal is reducing poverty. With that as my main criterion for judging U.S. political parties, I generally consider both the Democratic party and the Republican party failures. While Democrats are somewhat willing to provide expensive programs to alleviate poverty, these days they seem unwilling to address the basic structural problems within the United States that lead to poverty. While many individual Republicans are very devoted to reducing poverty, not least because many Republicans are devoted Christians for whom reducing poverty is a requirement of their religion, as a whole the party still seems mired in trickle-down economics, which is really a form of Social Darwinism: let the rich thrive, and the poor may eat the leavings from their tables.

Given that both Democrats and Republicans pay at least lip service to the goal of reducing poverty, why have they both been so ineffectual on this issue? Probably because both parties have gotten important things wrong. Ron Sider, in a review of Lew Daly’s new book God’s Economy: Faith-Based Initiatives and the Caring State in the Christian Century magazine, says this about George W. Bush’s faith-based initiative, which has also been embraced by Barack Obama:

Bush was right in rejecting the dominant Reagan-Republican push to abandon governmental responsibility to alleviate poverty. (Liberal critics who said that government abdication of responsibility was the real goal [of Bush’s initiative] were wrong.) Bush was also right to embrace a much wider role for nongovernmental, including religious, organizations in the delivery of government-funded anti-poverty programs. (Liberal critics who charged that is was discriminatory to protect the freedom of religious organizations, especially their freedom to hire staff who share their faith commitments, were wrong.) Tragically, Bush failed to provide enough funding to combat poverty and failed to how an unrestrained market economy threatens families and communities just as much as an all-powerful government does. (Liberal critics were on target here.)

This is an interesting argument, and I’m going to have to read Daly’s book. Perhaps there is a way to make Bush’s and Obama’s faith-based initiative work. However, I remain skeptical of the faith-based initiative for at least four reasons. Continue reading

Pragmatism and ideologues

Yesterday’s New York Times carried a review of a lecture by historian James T. Kloppenberg, titled “In Writings of Obama, a Philosophy Is Unearthed.” According to the article, Kloppenberg contends that Obama is a true intellectual and a “philosopher president,” as were John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln, and Woodrow Wilson.

If Kloppenberg is correct, it is astonishing that Obama was even elected in this age of anti-intellectualism. Kloppenberg identifies Obama’s philosophical stance as American pragmatism, which is not surprising given Obama’s predilection for Reinhold Niebuhr. But given that we live in an age dominated by ideologues, it is therefore also astonishing that this country elected a pragmatist, which is to say a sort of anti-ideologue.

I’m uncomfortable with Obama’s politics; he’s too far to the right for me. But I have been trying to figure out why I am so much more comfortable with Obama than I was with either George W. Bush or Bill Clinton, and I suspect it’s because of his philosophical stance. George W. Bush was (and is) an ideologue, someone who believes in an ultimate truth regardless of contradictory evidence (his rigid morality is a result of being an ideologue). Bill Clinton has, as far as I can tell, no philosophy whatsoever beyond mere expediency (and he has no more morality than a stick). It’s not Obama’s politics with which I’m comfortable, but with his philosophy of pragmatism (and with his morals, which are solid while able to grow and mature). I may not like his politics, but Obama is neither an ideologue like George W. Bush, or nothing at all like Bill Clinton.

This has gotten me thinking about the extent to which ideologues and ideologies have taken over the civic space, from the national stage, to science fiction fandom. These days, we have ideologues on the right and on the left and in the center. What little common morality we have is rigid and based on ideology. Ideologues scare the $#!t out of me; now they’re dominating this country, and that really scares the $#!t out of me.

Balancing the equalitarian and libertarian impulses

“The two main elements of which American democracy is compounded may be seen united in the familiar phrases of the Declaration of Independence: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ One element is the idea of equality; the other is the idea of liberty. These are not only different ideas — they are in some ways quite contradictory. Equalitarianism implies the individual’s responsibility to and dependence on the community; libertarianism implies the community’s responsibility to and dependence on the individual. … Although the equalitarian and libertarian tendencies were each predominant at one or another period in our history, neither alone defines American democracy. Rather, it is their imperfect fusion, their interconnection, and their interaction.” — from “American Democracy and Music (1830-1914)” by Irving Lowens, in Music and Musicians in Early America (New York: Norton, 1964), pp. 265-266.

The problem with American democracy in the past three decades, it seems to me, is that the libertarian impulse has been slowly swamping the equalitarian impulse.

This problem pervades our society, and our congregations are not immune from it. The question facing us, then, is simple: How can we promote a better balance between the equalitarian and libertarian impulses within our congregations?

“I think it might be a crisis…”

Carol and I were talking about the ongoing trend of civic disengagement.

“I think it might be a crisis,” she said.

I think she’s right. There are fewer people than ever before who understand how to be good institutionalists. Most people don’t belong to more than one or two voluntary associations. There are many people who spend all their non-work hours doing nothing more than passively consuming entertainment.

We all know that civic disengagement has an adverse effect on democracy. But in a democracy, where religious organizations are voluntary associations, civic disengagement also has an adverse effect on organized religion. I’d be willing to say that of all the social factors that are pushing organized religion into decline, civic disengagement may be the most powerful such force.

How to disestablish your congregation

If you’re part of any liberal religious community, your congregation is no longer a part of established power structure of the United States. We religious liberals are so far out of the establishment that the majority of U.S. residents don’t even know who we are. This is why so many people in the U.S. believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim — he’s actually a religious liberal (of the mainline Protestant variety), but more U.S. residents know what Islam is than know what liberal religion is, so since Obama is not a born-again Christian they assume he’s a Muslim. As for you, they probably think you belong to a cult.

Your liberal congregation has already been disestablished in pragmatic terms, so now it’s time to disestablish your congregation in terms of self-perception, and in terms of the way you organize. Here’s a handy checklist to help you accomplish this goal:

(1) Re-focus your energy on the core mission of liberal religious congregations: holding common worship services where we focus on that which is larger than our individual selves; raising our children in religious community; holding appropriate rites of passage when people are born, when they marry, and when they die.

(2) Recognize that what we stand for as religious liberals is extremely countercultural in today’s society: we distrust consumerism because it weakens and shrivels our best selves; we distrust the current economic system (which is supported by both liberals and conservatives) both because it is founded on consumerism, and because at present it is increasing the number of poor people in the U.S.; we reject the idea that born-again Christianity is the norm against which all other religion is judged; etc. These countercultural stands mean that we will never be fully accepted in the halls of established power. Continue reading

Letters from UU ministers in SF Chronicle

Two letters from Unitarian Universalist ministers in today’s San Francisco Chronicle speak out against anti-Muslim acts, including the tiny-but-nasty Florida church which plans to burn copies of the Qu’ran on Saturday. Barbara and Bill Hamilton-Holway, ministers of the UU Church of Berkeley, call on non-Muslim congregations to include readings from the Qu’ran in their worship services this week. Amy Zucker Morgenstern, senior minister here in Palo Alto and writing for the Palo Alto Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice, calls for tolerance and invites people to participate in an Interfaith Witness for Peace in Palo Alto on Sept. 19.

I’ll include the full text of both letters below, or read them at the Chronicle’s Web site. Continue reading

No wedding bells this week

According to an article on the Los Angeles Times Web site posted about an hour ago, Judge Walker did not remove the stay on his ruling on Proposition 8, and there can be no immediate same-sex marriages in California until he does so:

Reporting from San Francisco — A federal judge Thursday refused to permanently stay his ruling overturning Proposition 8 but extended a temporary hold to give supporters time to appeal the historic ruling.

U.S. District Judge Vaughn R. Walker, who overturned the measure on Aug. 4, agreed to give its sponsors until Aug. 18 to appeal his ruling to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. No new marriages can take place until then.

Walker said the sponsors of Proposition 8 do not have legal standing to appeal his order because they were not directly affected by it.

That last paragraph mentions an important point. The fact that the State of California, in the persons of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Attorney General Jerry Brown, refused to defend Prop. 8 puts the opponents of Prop 8 in a legal position that may not allow for an appeal. Having said that, given the current membership of the U.S. Supreme Court, it’s hard to believe they would let that stand in the way of their hearing such an appeal. Politics: endlessly fascinating, not entirely rational.

The legal relationship between same-sex marriage and gender equality

The headline from today’s San Francisco Chronicle says it all: “Unconstitutional: Same-sex marriage backers rejoice as federal judge strikes down Prop. 8”. I’ve been reading over parts of the judge’s ruling, available as a PDF file on the Web site of the San Jose Mercury News. I was particularly struck by the judge’s reasoning that by outlawing same-sex marriage, Prop. 8 discriminates, not only on the basis of sexual orientation, but also on the basis of gender:

Plaintiffs challenge Proposition 8 as violating the Equal Protection Clause [of the 14th amendment] because Proposition 8 discriminates both on the basis of sex and on the basis of sexual orientation. Sexual orientation discrimination can take the form of sex discrimination. Here, for example, Perry is prohibited from marrying Stier, a woman, because Perry is a woman. If Perry were a man, Proposition 8 would not prohibit the marriage. Thus, Proposition 8 operates to restrict Perry’s choice of marital partner because of her sex. But Proposition 8 also operates to restrict Perry’s choice of marital partner because of her sexual orientation; her desire to marry another woman arises only because she is a lesbian. [p. 119]

The judge also pointed out that, in the past, marriage had been a “male-dominated institution.” Then as gender equality became the law of the land, marriage had to change such that both partners became equals: Continue reading

We’re happy, but…

This afternoon, federal judge Vaughan Walker of the Northern California District Court released his decision: Prop 8 is unconstitutional.

This evening, the mood at the rally outside San Francisco City Hall was ebullient.

Sign at tonight’s rally at San Francisco City Hall

There was also a serious undercurrent. Everyone present knew that Walker’s decision would be appealed by the supporters of Prop 8. Everyone knew the odds are that this legal battle will be fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Everyone present knew that there is a good chance that supporters of marriage equality won’t wait for a Supreme Court decision, and that we’ll try to have an initiative on the ballot in 2012.

The rally ended fairly quickly (and it would have ended earlier but for some long-winded clergypersons; boy, people in my profession do like to hear themselves talk). I was just as happy it ended fairly quickly; it was a typical San Francisco summer evening, cloudy, with a chilly damp wind. My favorite quote from the evening: “There is nothing more delicious than being a love warrior today.”