Sunday, December 30, 2007

Seasons

Easter is coming pretty darn early next year. Ash Wednesday kicks off Lent on February 6, and Easter falls on March 23: I'll still be on Spring Break! It may seem odd that I would mention this while still in the midst of Christmastide (like putting out the reindeer decorations the day after Halloween?), but the deacon at St. Luke's Episcopal in Coeur d'Alene said something this morning I found pretty funny, and worth sharing: "I was writing my letter for the January newsletter, which meant I had to think about Lent during Advent. Wow, did that ever take some mental gymnastics!"

I'd also like to mention that I saw the most beautiful sunset of my life today. I went on about it for five minutes to my parents, describing the view from the hill I was on, the mountains, the city nestled below, the myraid of colors, the trees, the snow, and more. I wish I'd had my camera with me so as to share it with you, but every cloud has a silver lining - instead of spending my time trying to get the perfect shot, I was able to just step back, gasp, soak it all in, and say a prayer of joy. I know exactly where I'll be next Dec. 30, camera in hand!

Exploring The Anti-Mormon Charges Against Mike Huckabee

With the holidays winding down and the first primaries rapidly approaching, the percentage of political content on this blog will increase for the next couple weeks. You may have figured as much, given the recent bits on Pakistan and Biden. The theological posts I've been making are not going to go away; my broader focus will continue, but it’s hard not to focus on the primaries right now.

About two weeks ago, I explained why even though I will never vote for him, I admire Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. I have plenty of complaints about him – Iraq, gay rights, the “fair” tax, and now Pakistan – but one criticism I won’t make is that he insults Mormons. This has become a common charge in the media, and I think it’s totally bogus.

The New Hampshire Union Leader editorial board typified this mindset when they wrote, "Huckabee has ridden Christ’s coattails all the way to first place in the Iowa polls and second place nationally by deftly exploiting anti-Mormon prejudice. Not very Christian of him." I’ve read the comments and heard the interviews that this charge refers to, and I’ve got to say, it is complete bunk. I have not seen one instance of Huckabee truly insulting Mormons; his words are frequently grossly distorted or taken out of context. I’m usually slow to accuse reporters of ulterior motives, but the journalists driving this particular narrative are either completely ignorant about faith or they are deliberately trying to create a story that doesn’t exist in order to sell magazines. Either way, it’s grossly irresponsible.

The most galling distortion comes from a Newsweek article by editor Jon Meacham, entitled, “A New American Holy War”:

“Asked if he thought Scriptural revelations from God ended when the Bible was completed, Huckabee said: ‘I don’t have any evidence or indication that He’s handed us a new book to the ones, the 66, that were canonized in 325 A.D. …It was a careful process that adopted those books. That was something I did study in college and seminary… the process by which we ended up with those books. I don’t know that there’s any other books.”

Which no doubt comes as a surprise to the world’s nearly 13 million members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who, like Romney, believe that God did indeed reveal another text in 19th-century America, the Book of Mormon.”


And just why, Mr. Meacham, would it come as a surprise to the world’s 13 million Mormons that a Baptist pastor holds Baptist views? Just what is surprising about a Baptist pastor not believing in the Book of Mormon as Scriptural revelation? OF COURSE Huckabee thinks the Bible is the end-all-be-all of Scripture: He’s a Protestant! That’s what Protestants believe! This is not a story, and it is certainly not, as the Politico said, “dissing Mormons.” The real story would be if Huckabee *did* believe the Book of Mormon is Scripture, in which case he would be one of those 13 million Mormons rather than one of the world’s 110 million Baptists.

I’m an Episcopalian. That means I don’t believe in the Koran as a holy revelations – will that “come as a surprise” to the world’s Muslims? I also don’t view the Bhagavad-Gita as Scripture – does that mean I’m “dissing” Hindus? Of *course* not! It’s just religious difference and theological disagreement, which do not alone constitute “holy war.” With this article, Meacham and Newsweek are recklessly and irresponsibly trying to create a conflict that doesn’t exist. Could they be deliberately distorting Huckabee’s words (and thus smearing his character) to create conflict and sell magazines? I certainly hope not – that kind of division is what splits this country apart and brings down good men. But it’s either that, or Newsweek’s editor is covering religion despite his own ignorance on the subject – which seems unlikely, given that Meacham routinely writes about religion, including one book on the subject. Either way, this is irresponsible journalism.

A second example of Huckabee allegedly attacking Mormons is his supposed implication that they are a cult. Huckabee was asked if he believes the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is a Christian church or if it is a cult, and he refused to answer. As he made clear, he wasn’t refusing to answer in order to imply anything, but because it’s irrelevant to the presidency, and because he lacks knowledge on the subject. I sympathize: I also won’t tell you if I think Mormons are Christian or not because I also don’t know enough about their views on Christ to honestly say. I won’t tell you if I think the Seventh Day Adventists are Protestants, a Christian group on the level of Protestants and Catholics, or a separatist Christian cult because again, I don’t know enough about their views to say. And I won’t tell you if I think Hindus are monotheists because I know that while they say they are, they also seem to believe in numerous incarnations of God. I’m not trying to imply anything about Mormons, Adventists, or Hindus, and I’m not being coy – despite my religious grounding and my Ivy League education, I honestly don’t know. Why should Huckabee be any different? He told Newsweek, “First of all, I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to start evaluating other religions. The more I answer these questions, the more people want to say, ‘Ah, you describe yourself as a theologian,’ or ‘Oh, you’re the one who is setting yourself up as a judge of religions.’ I am damned if I do; I am damned if I don’t.” I think it’s worth pointing out that the only non-Baptist faith reporters seem to ask Huckabee about is Mormonism. My guess is that, as he says, his answers would be similarly vague about other religions, if the reporters bothered to ask. In no way has he implied Mormons are a cult – that’s just the media distorting what he actually did say.

The one Huckabee complaint I can kind of sort of maybe see as a legitimate insult to Mormons came when he asked a New York Times reporter, “Don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?” Romney called the question a “traditional smear” against Mormons, and LDS spokeswoman Kim Farah “said Huckabee's question is usually raised by those who wish to smear the Mormon faith rather than clarify doctrine.” This question certainly does seem to imply something unseemly about Mormons, but I’m willing to give Huckabee the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he was, as Farah said, trying to smear them, or maybe, as suggested above, he honestly didn’t know and had been influenced by someone who actually does fit Farah‘s description. Huckabee apologized to Romney, and explained the quote on CNN, which you can watch below.



Some have scoffed at the notion that Huckabee is ignorant about other faiths, given his seminary background. I’m more understanding, as it is very possible to major in a subject without exploring all that subject’s intricacies. For example, I am currently double majoring in Government and Native American Studies. My focus in the former is on American government, with some foreign policy. I’m not going to take a single class in comparative government, yet based on the Huckabee-must-know logic, critics could say, “Of course Empsall knows about parliamentarian systems – he has a degree in Government!” The same applies to Native American Studies. I need to take ten classes to earn that major, and the department offers a couple dozen. One of the courses I won’t be able to take is called “The Land of the Totem Poles: Native Peoples of the Northwest Coast.” Again, critics could say, “Of course Empsall knows about totem polls – he has a degree in Native American Studies!” If I can defy that logic, why can’t Huckabee? (Slate magazine makes a similar argument.)

I won’t be voting for Huckabee, but that’s no excuse for the press to distort his faith into something it’s not. The only way we will ever fix this country is if we treat one another with respect and decency, and journalists need to be held to that standard too. Quit dragging a good man’s through the mud and get it right: Mike Huckabee has not once purposefully insulted Mormons.

(Picture Credits: 1, 2.)

Saturday, December 29, 2007

The 12 Days of Christmas

Most of us know “The Twelve Days of Christmas” only as an incredibly obnoxious Christmas novelty song. Unless, of course, you’re talking about the Jeff Foxworthy or Bob and Doug versions, in which case, most of us know “The Twelve Days of Christmas” as an incredibly awesome Christmas novelty song.

But that song had to gets its name from somewhere. The 12 days of Christmas is a very real concept, and despite our secular commercial culture, they are not the bright lights and shopping craze countdown of Dec. 14-Dec. 25. No, as any good Catholic or Anglican knows, Christmas is not just a single day, but the twelve-day-long season of the church calendar that begins on Dec. 25 and ends with Twelfth Night on Jan. 5. After that, on Jan. 6, comes Epiphany, the day the wise men arrived to see the Christ child. The traditional name is Christmastide, although sometimes the length is a bit longer than 12 days. Read the relevant Wikipedia articles here and here.

Why do I bring all this up? To make the point that Christmas doesn’t END on Dec. 25, it BEGINS on Dec. 25! So if you bump into me on the street and I’m whistling Adeste Fideles or The First Noel, DON’T tell me Christmas it’s over! Not until Epiphany, it isn’t!!!

Cling so tightly to the 12 days of Christmas is my pathetic little way of preventing that post-Christmas holidays-are-over depression. I love Christmas so much, and hats its end so much, that I even changed my flight plans to be sure I wouldn’t miss church on Sunday. It’s particularly tough this year, because we didn’t get our tree up until the 23rd, and that pine smell is what really puts me in the Christmas mood. I hate to think of a year where the Christmas season is only three days long. Admittedly, society doesn’t really whistle those tunes with me, and half the joy of Christmas is that it’s a time where almost everyone revels in the spirit. So perhaps my Christmas clinginess is a little desperate – but quite frankly, I don’t care. On this, the fifth day of Christmas, I say, enjoy your five flannel shirts!

Nothing Will Ever Top This

You can take your Rio Bravo and tell Katie Elder just where to stick it after this one!

Friday, December 28, 2007

Not Just A Candidate, But A Role Model

This is the weekly frontpage post I make about Joe Biden at MyDD.com.
******************

The big news this week is obviously the tragic assassination of Benzair Bhutto, so I should probably make this weekly campaign blogger post about Pakistan. Joe Biden has been warning for years that it is the world's most dangerous nation, was pushing Musharraf to offer Bhutto more security, and has proposed the most detailed and forward-thinking policy for dealing with Pakistan. But this is also the final week before the Iowa caucus. As such, I'll just direct you to the Pakistan post I made yesterday, and focus on an even larger issue: why, in my heart of hearts, I support Joe Biden for president.

Fourth months ago, I made my first frontpage post, laying out the five basic reasons I support Joe. Those five reasons haven't changed in the months since, but two other things have. One is that Biden has had made many more impressive speeches, interviews, and debate wins. Two, as is the case with any presidential candidate, he has released dozens more proposals and plans than had been previously articulated. I find myself in amazement that almost every time he says something new, be it policy or politics, I agree with him. This makes it much harder to write a concise why-I-support-Joe post than before. Where do I begin? How in the world do I cut myself off?

I am currently a junior at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. I have respected Biden since I became aware of him seven years ago, in eighth grade. Even with this long-standing respect, my admiration for him has grown exponentially these past four months. This September, I read his memoirs and talked with him for the second time. Between those experiences and watching him in forum after forum, I have come to realize that not only is he my preferred candidate, he is also is the type of man I hope to be in thirty years - not for his career path, but for his values and honor. Biden is the 99th richest Senator, and has commuted home from DC to Delaware every night since 1972. This has prevented him from developing an inside-the-Beltway mentality, and kept him committed to that which matters most: family. His boys rave about their upbringing, his sister (the boy's surrogate mother) runs all his campaigns, and he can't seem to go ten minutes without quoting a parent or grandparent. Maybe this focus on the family - the real kind, not the Dobson kind - comes from his upbringing, or maybe it comes from the accident that took his wife and infant daughter in 1972 (something he did not openly talk about much until this year, when his publisher convinced him to write about it). Remembering also the 1988 brain aneurysms that nearly killed him, and you see why he has a unique perspective on health care, financial security, and more. Biden has a reputation as a talker, and I can't dispute that, but he's no blowhard, and he's not your typical long-time corrupt salon. His family focus and personal background constantly remind him why the issues he gets paid to fight for matter.

And when Biden fights, he fights hard. He is a devote Catholic, and says his faith informs his politics as it shows him you never let the powerful abuse the poor. At the September Dartmouth debate, he said his favorite Bible passages are those where Jesus confronts the Pharisees. This is the Christ I know: fighting for the people, standing up to the corrupt temple leaders and oppressive Roman imperialists. Biden expounds on this in his memoirs, writing that his father taught him never to pick on anyone smaller or weaker than himself. In politics, this means you fight for the little guy, for the middle class. It means you stand up to dictators, to corrupt or incompetent US politicians, and to corporate greed (this is why he has so few major donors).

Biden's values have turned into action. He got into politics because of civil rights, earned accolades on the issue from his fellow candidates at the final Iowa debate, and consistently receives the high ratings from the NAACP. Though his long career has included many accomplishments - stopping the Robert Bork nomination, authoring what would become the Clinton Crime Bill, helping write the original FISA bill - he is most proud of helping stop genocide in the Balkans and of writing the Violence Against Women Act. Most of all, he never loses focus. After bringing VAWA from empty subcommittee hearings to unanimous Senate passage, he did not declare victory, but instead continued fighting on behalf of women. He spent years working to strengthen alimony laws, introduced the International Violence Against Women Act in the Senate this year, and has proposed the National Domestic Violence Volunteer Attorney Network Act (say that three times fast) to improve resources available to victims of domestic violence.

When I joined his New Hampshire Steering Committee in February, I knew he was an honest guy, but I didn't know how much of a straight shooter he really was. Funny what the national spotlight brings out in a guy. With Biden, we see the McCain of 2000, Democratic style. He won't go negative on his fellow candidates, but he rarely falls into the trap of parroting conventional wisdom, either. Pundit after pundit has applauded his straight talk and his blunt frankness. We see passion on Darfur, fresh clarity on executive power, blunt challenges to Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson, constant humor, a genuine attachment to the middle class, and above all, candor.


I also agree with Biden on foreign policy. I already mentioned his strength on Pakistan. No one has shown more passion on Darfur. He can talk for hours about climate change, energy independence, and foreign oil, and has spent years pushing for a renewed focus on Afghanistan. And there is, of course, his plan for Iraq. I know many progressives would rather pull out yesterday than stick around a few extra months to implement a political solution, but how else are we to prevent the Iraq civil war from escalating to the levels of those in Congo or Sudan? Remember, his plan - a detailed, three-state federal solution - is the only plan to gain a veto-proof majority in the Senate. Some say the plan won't work - but what other candidate is offering such anything else? Others argue that it is arrogant for us to force anything onto the Iraqis. Perhaps, but we don't need to force this solution on them. For one, it is rooted in their Constitution, and two, it can be proposed as the centerpiece of a diplomatic push. If the Iraqis don't want it, they don't have to take it, but there's no reason we shouldn't call a major regional diplomatic summit and offer our concerted help in making it happen.

You already knew Biden is an experienced leader, but I hope you can also see the same role model I do. I hope my faith always guides me, and that when I'm 60, I am also still fighting for the weak and downtrodden, for underdogs everywhere. May I always be so connected to my own children and grandchildren. I pray I never forget the middle class background I come from. I hope I always respect those who disagree with me - that instead of sticking my head in the sand, I'll work with the Hagels, Lugars, and even Brownbacks, too. I hope to be like Joe Biden.

Normally I pepper my posts with YouTubes and new links, and borrow liberally from campaign talking points. They are certainly talking points worth repeating - most recently, the campaign has been arguing that this election is not primarily about change or experience, but about action. Not tonight. Tonight, I am writing straight from the heart. This is a candidate and a cause I believe in. This is a man worth following. He may be a darkhorse, and arguing on his behalf at MyDD and Daily Kos may not make me the most popular blogger, but I don't regret for a single instant throwing myself into this campaign. Those 16 state legislature endorsements only go so far: Joe can win, if Iowans will caucus for him, and if voters in New Hampshire and South Carolina will follow.

I will leave you with two further articles, and as many videos (one short, one long), for your final consideration:

The Concord Monitor: Joe Biden: a pragmatist rich with experience

McClatchy Newspapers: Biden overcame tragedy and became an expert on world affairs

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Real Leadership on Pakistan

I woke up on the west cost this morning to the horrifying news that Pakistan’s Benzair Bhutto has been assassinated – martyred by bullet at a rally in Rawalpindi. Chaos has erupted across Pakistan, as it did across the US when Martin Luther King was killed. Bhutto was the former prime minister of Pakistan (the first woman to hold the job) who recently returned to the country after an eight year exile. Like President Musharraf, she is a moderate, but she stands for calm and prosperity in a way that he does not. She had hoped to be elected to a third term as prime minister in next month’s elections. Her death, and the deaths of 20 other people at her rally, is shocking and saddening. This must feel to many Pakistanis the way Robert Kennedy’s death felt to many Americans. It could signal the end of hope.

(Reuters Photo above: Supporters of former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto burn shops during a protest against her assassination in her home town of Larkana. Bhutto was assassinated by a suicide bomber on Thursday, plunging the nuclear-armed country into chaos ahead of a general election she hoped to win. Reuters Photo below: Pakistan's former Prime Minister and opposition leader Benazir Bhutto waves during an election rally in Rawalpindi December 27, 2007, shortly before she was killed in a gun and bomb attack.)

President Musharraf must take this unprecedented moment to show his country leadership rather than his normal personal ambition and fearmongering. A month or so ago, he declared emergency rule in the country, rounding up lawyers and placing Bhutto under house arrest. He is not off to an auspicious start this time, either:

"At the hospital where Bhutto died, some supporters smashed glass and wailed, chanting slogans against President Pervez Musharraf. Musharraf blamed Islamic extremists for her death and said he would redouble his efforts to fight them.

'This is the work of those terrorists with whom we are engaged in war,' he said in a nationally televised speech. 'I have been saying that the nation faces the greatest threats from these terrorists. ... We will not rest until we eliminate these terrorists and root them out.'…

Musharraf convened an emergency meeting with his senior staff, where they were expected to discuss whether to postpone the elections, an official at the Interior Ministry said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks."



(Reuters Photo: Bhutto's family mourns her death.) First of all, the woman’s body is still cold. We have no way of knowing yet who killed her, unless they actually caught the shooter. To instantly point fingers at the old enemies could very well mean missing a new one, perhaps a radical supporter of Musharraf. Secondly, canceling or postponing the elections would be a disaster. Bhutto’s party still stands, and can carry on her work. To postpone the elections yet again would fly in the face of democracy, and I am positive that it is not what Bhutto would have wanted. It also lends credibility to something another former prime minister said this morning, Nawaz Sharif, whose party will boycott the elections. "Free elections are not possible in the presence of Musharraf. Musharraf is the root cause of all problems." The only credibility Musharraf has this morning comes from the fact that Bhutto was shot in Rawalpindi. The president canceled a rally she was to hold there a month ago, citing security concerns.

One man who does have credibility on the subject is US Senator Joe Biden. I hate to turn such a sad event as murder into a political football, but when the stakes are this high – Pakistan is an unstable, nuclear-armed Islamic nation but also a key US ally – I feel I have no choice. Biden is the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and a Democratic candidate for President. When Pakistan descended into chaos under Musharraf’s emergency rule in November, the first US politician Musharraf and Bhutto each called was not President Bush, but Senator Biden. Days earlier, just before that crisis began, the Democratic candidates were asked at a debate about the threat posed by Iran. Biden warned that Pakistan poses the real threat, not Iran, and said that we need to be paying more attention. This was not the first time he has shown such foresight – on Sept. 10, 2001, Biden warned that terrorists would attack soon, and possibly from "the belly of a plane." But Biden moves forward, he does not rely upon the I-told-you-so-card. As the November crisis erupted, he released a detailed proposal for dealing with Pakistan, most of which I agreed with. It was certainly a clear and much-needed shift away from the failed Bush strategy. Already today, the Huffington Post has an article titled, “Pakistan Crisis Makes The Case For Biden, Not Bush or Hillary”.

Today, not as a candidate for President but as Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Biden released a statement about Bhutto’s death and held a quickly assembled press conference in Des Moines, Iowa. A rough, short video is available now, and something longer of higher quality with a sharper image should come out later today. Here’s the video, with the statement at the end of the post:



Biden is the only candidate fit to lead on Pakistan. In August, Obama made some very disturbing and uninformed remarks about Pakistan. As First Lady, Clinton dealt with Musharraf, but only in a social context. She does not have the long-standing political and diplomatic relationships with world leaders that Biden has. Edwards has no foreign policy experience whatsoever, not even the four years as a Foreign Relations Committee backbencher that Obama can claim.

Like I say, I hate to turn this kind of an event into a political football, but in times of crisis, competent leadership is needed, and that’s what Joe Biden and Joe Biden alone offers.


"This is a terrible day. My heart goes out to Benazir Bhutto’s family, friends and followers.

"Like her father before her, Benazir Bhutto worked her whole life – and gave her life – to help Pakistan become a democratic, secular and modern Muslim country. She was a woman of extraordinary courage who returned to Pakistan in the face of death threats and even after an assassination attempt the day of her return, she did not flinch. It was a privilege to know her these many years and to call her a friend.

"I am convinced Ms. Bhutto would have won free and fair elections next week. The fact that she was by far Pakistan’s most popular leader underscores the fact that there is a vast, moderate majority in Pakistan that must have a clear voice in the system. Her assassination makes it all the more urgent that Pakistan return to a democratic path.

"This fall, I twice urged President Musharraf to provide better security for Ms. Bhutto and other political leaders – I wrote him before her return and after the first assassination attempt in October. The failure to protect Ms. Bhutto raises a lot of hard questions for the government and security services that must be answered.

"I know that Benazir’s followers will be tempted to lash out in anger and violence. I urge them to remain calm – and not play into the hands of the forces of destruction. I urge Pakistan’s leaders to open a fully accountable and transparent investigation. We must find out who was behind this and bring those responsible to justice. And the United States should offer any assistance necessary, including investigative teams, to get to the bottom of this horror.

"The way to honor Benazir Bhutto is to uphold the values for which she gave her life: democracy, moderation and social justice. I join with the Pakistani people in mourning the loss of a dear friend.”


Update 6:07pm EST: I have replaced the short clip from the press conference with the full video of the entire thing. I would also like to clarify that I am not suggesting Bhutto was like MLK or RFK in her vision or admirability; only that her assassination is having the same effect on the people of Pakistan that those assassinations had on Americans. As one commenter observed, 2007 in Pakistan is like 1968 in Amerca. End update.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

From Day One

Relevant Scripture
Isaiah 9:1-7
Luke 1:26-56
Luke 2:1-20
Matthew 1:18-2:18

Last year at Christmastime, I wrote about the St. Luke’s Christmas Eve sermon. I thought I would do the same this year, and add a few thoughts of my own. And lest you think that I’m blogging instead of spending time with my family, know that we just got wireless and I’m watching A Christmas Story on TV with my Dad as we speak. :)

Pat's Christmas Thoughts

Our rector, Fr. Pat, gave the sermon. It was a good one. The main message was to avoid routine at this time of year. He spoke of how amazing a story the Christmas nativity is, and said that if there were any visitors in the congregation who had been dragged along and found the whole story a little hokey (virgin birth? angels in the sky?), “You’re in good company!” The King James Version said all who heard the shepherds “wondered” about their message. Pat told us that that word, "wonder," is defined not as amazement, but as a mix of doubt and curiosity. To doubt the Christmas story is to somewhat share that feeling. Though Pat didn’t discuss it, this made me think of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent BBC interview, in which he explained that Christianity and intellectualism do not clash, as the Christmas truth isn’t necessarily what our favorite TV specials suggest. Pat did say that wonder is a beautiful thing, and described the deeper feelings the Christmas story can elicit. He warned us against letting Christmas become routine. Hauling out tinsel and the Nutcrackers, cutting down a tree, shopping, wrapping, and baking, even setting up a Crèche – it is easy to just go through the motions out of obligation: this is what we do every year and I can’t wait for Dec. 26 to get here. When this happens, the deeper meaning is lost. One example: Christmas is becoming a huge celebration in India, even though the dominant religions there are Hinduism and Islam. It’s not a religious holiday, but a day of random celebration where the big hit is “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Pat was referring to an NPR story called “India Embraces Christmas Consumerism”. There’s nothing wrong with a secular holiday, he said, but if we let it, Christmas can be quite powerful: it can be about wonder. ‘Tis the difference between walking in the rain and just getting wet. He closed by soloing “I Wonder as I Wander.” (What a crisp tenor he has!)

My Christmas Thoughts

I also had a few Christmas theology thoughts of my own. Throughout his life, Christ stood up to oppressive rulers. By forgiving our sins in the streets and fields, Christ brought down the corrupted Pharisees who told us we had to go to the Temple and its priests in Jerusalem for confession. He treated women with respect, whether at the home of Mary and Martha or at the well with the Canaanite woman. Walter Wink tells us that part of the Sermon on the Mount taught people how to stand up to their oppressors. There is, of course, more to Christ’s mission than just this: there is indeed grace, salvation, and love, but all too often, Christian communities forget their duty to stand up to abuses of money and power. And it turns out that’s a part of the Christmas story, too. This occurred to me as I was reading what the Rev. John Jennings wrote about the Archbishop’s Christmas cautions (link above):

We are also told that there were witnesses from the fields, shepherds taken by surprise by the news from the angels, rushing down from the hillsides, wondering in awe and then going back to their sheep, transformed by the coming of the baby.

The Wise Men were witnesses of the opposite kind. They were careful, calculating, educated men who think that they begin to discern God’s imminent arrival and who blunder their way across the region until they find what they think they’ve been seeking. They, too, go back transformed.

These are the really important bits of the story.

Though it is not Rev. Jennings’ focus, what jumps out at me from this passage is the word “educated.” The Wise Men may not have been kings, but they were educated and well-respected. As astrologers, they may have even belonged to some king’s court. We do know Herod invited them to his palace. Regardless of how you spin it, they certainly seem to be respectable members of the upper class, something poor shepherds sleeping in a remote field most certainly were not.

We all know that Jesus came for everyone, that Galatians says in Christ there is no Greek or Jew, no male or female, no slave or free. We should pause more often, I think, to reflect upon the meaning of those words. Christ views all as equal, and He came for all. The divisions we put up, of race, income, class, education, and more are false, and to reinforce them is to mock all that Christianity stands for. To be truly Christian, we must stand up to these divisions and do whatever we can, in a cultural, social, and perhaps even political way, to break them down. We see this from the very beginning, from day one, of Christ’s time on earth: both the rich wise men and the poor shepherds came to see the Christ-child. They were all filled with the same wonder and joy, and no distinction was made between them!

From day one. This means that the Nativity is not just a story in and of itself, but that it also sets the tone for everything that is to come. One reason so many people have rejected Christ as a Messiah, as a Savior, is his humble beginning. We expect our king to be born a king and behave like a king, not roll around in smelly hay with peasant parents. But for me, this makes Him all the holier. What kind of a Messiah can truly save a people without uniting them? And how can He appeal to the poor if they cannot identify with Him first? As the Archbishop says, we may not know the precise circumstances of Jesus’ birth. There might not have three wise men and they probably weren’t kings, and the words “inn” and “virgin” may well be mistranslations. Some call this blasphemous historical revisionism, but I say, who cares? What matters is not that we have a pretty image for our Hallmark cards, but that Christ had humble beginnings, setting the tone for His entire mission.

In her song of praise, the Magnificat, Mary says of God, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” This is not an attack on or indictment of the rich or powerful, but it is an indication that the strong should not prey on the weak, and that God sees no difference from one person to the next. The former rector at Dartmouth’s St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Fr. Henry Atkins, says if we are to try to be Christlike, shouldn’t we do what we can to identify those mighty and lift up those lowly in a modern context, to level the playing field? From the very beginning, Christ came to reconcile us and unite us in love and equality.

(On a side note, I want to say that the Catholics are onto something: I have great admiration for Mary. I do not consider her a female equivalent to the male Trinity, as some Catholics suggest, nor do I think her status comes from her special bond with Christ. I also do not think she stayed a virgin her whole life; heck, I’m not even convinced she even conceived Christ as a virgin in the first place. What I do know is that when Gabriel gave her a very frightening message, she did not say, “God’s will be changed!” but rather, “God’s will be done.” To raise the savior of the whole world, and to face the pain of watching your son be mocked all his life and then killed, is an enormous weight for a young teenager to bear, but bear it Mary did. We can learn from this obedient yet courageous example, an example that holds true no matter what her sexual status. Remember Elizabeth’s words to her young relative: “As soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”)

In fact, not only did Christ identify with the poor and bring them together with the educated from day one, He even started fulfilling Mary’s prophesy and standing up to the mighty before uttering His first words. King Herod wanted to kill the little guy! Mary and Joseph did not submit to their ruler’s authority, but heeded Gabriel’s warning and fled to Egypt. Thus, the conflict between the new king and the oppressive kings of old was set from day one. For the first and last time, here was a king worth submitting to, a king worth the surrender (not that He would demand it) of our free will! From day one!

Yes, the spirit of Christmas is found in the angel’s message to the shepherds, in Mary pondering those shepherd’s words in her heart, and in the praise and worship the astrologists gave to Jesus. It is found in the wise men’s worship, and in the baby’s coo. But lest we forget, it is also found in the coming together of Luke’s shepherds and Matthew’s wise men.



Other Recommended Christmas reading:
Anglocat on the Prowl: ’Tis the Season for Mariology?
An Inch At A Time: Holy Family Values
Caminante, No Hay Camino: Christmas Eve Sermon
Caminante, No Hay Camino: Christmas Day Sermon
Caught by the Light: The Tapestry of a Holy Night
Father Jake Stops the World: God has a Better Plan
Reverend Ref: Sermon, Christmas Eve
Telling Secrets: A Sermon for Christmas Eve

Merry Christmas

The Four Stages of Life:

1) You believe in Santa Claus.

2) You don't believe in Santa Claus.

3) You are Santa Claus.

4) You look like Santa Claus.


Courtesy GCFL.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Working on Christmas Eve

I was just thumbing through some Episcopal clergy blogs, and noticed a bit of a pattern. A number of them are writing about the workload they face today, and it seems to me that in light of what they give up for us, they could use some prayer and support. Caminante, no hay camino writes:

10.00 AM communion service at the assisted living place

1.00 PM home communion for a shut-in

5.00 PM early service, family service with Holy Eucharist, setting up of the crèche followed by potluck supper

11.00 PM the Christ Mass


In between all that, photocopying all the bulletins, setting up for tonight, finishing sermons for tonight, tomorrow and the 26th, and perhaps squeezing in a nap.


Not to mention driving through all the snow. Lady of Silences, a priest's wife, adds,

Today looms so long. I should be at church from 4 p.m. until 1 a.m. or so, unless we decide to come home for some of the 7-9 p.m. break between services. Have scarcely seen my husband, which, of course, is usual. Among other things, he had to write two sermons for last week (one an ordination sermon), and three for this long weekend -- Advent IV and two for Christmas Eve (one of the latter going to be recycled over for use Christmas morning). We'll probably just sleep tomorrow afternoon. Then it's back to work on Wednesday. Gift exchange, such that it is, probably will wait until later in the week when the kids return.

I wonder sometimes how other clergy families manage. In the beginning it was good to participate in something far more important than family gatherings, and to get away from the football t.v. fests, the delicate maneuvering around delicate family matters, the restless children, the focus on gifts, and what to do afterwards other than eat and eat and eat and fall into a carbed up stupor. Now it's just a time to try to be inconspicuous and avoid frayed nerves and tired, aching bodies. It's a series of performances, which each year have their own little glitches but the show always goes on. Nothing wrong with that -- indeed, as Children of the Story, it is vital that it gets played out in all of its splendor.

While the rest of us enjoy family time and 24 hours of "A Christmas Story" on TBS (yes!!!!), from St. Luke's Episcopal in Coeur d'Alene to Lakewood Convention Center Church in Houston, clergymembers may be a bit strung out today. Please say a prayer for their stress, their energy, their safety on the roads, and their wisdom, as well as for their families and the chaos they put up with behind the scenes for the Body of Christ all year long.

Pray also, of course, for anyone else with a busy schedule or heavy travel on this day, be they trucking in Spokane and Denver or standing watch in Kabul and Mosul.

Merry Christmas Eve

The best part comes at nine minutes in.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Relevant Change

I had a long (and good) conversation with the new deacon, Dave, at St. Luke’s in Coeur d’Alene today. (For my evangelical readers, in the Episcopal Church, a deacon is not an elder or anything like that but a lower order of clergy. Most, including Dave, are on the path to priesthood.) There is one thing in particular Dave said that I think fits with the social justice theme of this blog, and is worth exploring in slightly more depth here:

"God says to the church, if you don’t change, I’m going to go do my work elsewhere!"

This statement doesn’t mean that the church needs to abandon its roots or change its message. What it means is that the church must take that message, rooted in Scripture, and make it relevant to the modern world. God wants to have a personal relationship with all His children, and He will seek out those relationships in whatever venues are relevant to people’s lives. The more people the church can stay relevant to, the more people who will commune with God behinds its doors. If the church does not touch people where it matters, they will stop coming, and God will do His work wherever they do go. For example, Dave said that Curves, something I only knew as a women’s gym, not only offers self-esteem classes, but is now involved in social justice causes. Shaping the individual life and lifting the wider world – that’s God at work. And while it’s good that He is using Curves for His work, isn’t it sad that more and more people have to look beyond the church to see that work? In order to remain a leader, the church must stay relevant.

This includes visiting the hospital and spreading the Good News, but it also includes feeding the hungry, treating epidemics, educating all the world’s children, protecting our environment, reforming our prisons, and standing up to governments and corporations that abuse the weak. This work will be done, but if the church ceases to be an effective tool in getting it done, God will find other tools. If the church will not also reach out to those in need, He will turn to the Clinton Global Initiative for leadership. If the church is irrelevant to the daily urban life of a city high school teacher, He will guide her to yoga or a book club. From the Hamptons to Ghana, the church cannot let this happen. If God’s work is not done first and foremost by people of faith, the world will not think to link the results with Him. It is one thing when Curves or the usual activists get things done, but it is another story when the messenger wears a collar.

Yes, the church does need to teach its members about Scripture and grace, but also about action. The church needs to show its congregants what they can do for themselves, for each other, for God, and for God’s kingdom. None of this can be done if the powers that be ignore the world we live in. The church must never change its message, but it must change the way it keeps that message relevant.

I am excited about The Episcopal Church’s focus on the Millennium Development Goals, and I admire the use of PowerPoint and other technologies in evangelical churches, but we are not wholly focused on such growth. As long as we get bogged down in the finer points of internal theology; as long as the outside world has reason to think Christians only care about abortion, gay marriage, and eternal damnation; as long as we Episcopalians have Bishops who refuse to even discuss the Gospels or the modern world with those who don’t share their way of interpreting Paul’s teachings on sex, our effectiveness will be limited, and God will find somewhere else to lead. These differences cannot get in the way of unity, and these arguments, while important, cannot become central themes. Let’s try doing God’s work, instead.

(Picture credit 1, 2. That second photo is Dr. Paul Farmer at a Partners in Health clinic in Haiti.)

David Sedaris' Santaland Diaries

I first came across David Sedaris' hilarious "Santaland Diaries," an essay about the horrors of working as a mall elf, at a high school speech and debate tournament. Another student was performing the piece as a Humorous Interpretation. I soon learned that the essay made Sedaris famous when he read it on NPR's Morning Edition in 1992. I bought a copy and began reading it at tournaments myself, as an Interpretative Reading.

By popular demand, NPR rebroadcasts the piece each year. Someone put the first minute or so on YouTube, which you can watch below for a small taste, but for a great laugh I encourage you to listen to the whole seven minutes at NPR's website.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Greatest. Short. Ever.

Merry Christmas. This is from Saturday Night Live years ago; yes, it really did air on network television. I find it quite touching:



I also wanted to post a Santa vs. Fruitcake clip from MadTV, but I can't find it online.

Saint Thomas

The name of this blog is the Wayward Episcopalian, and I specifically mention Christianity in its description. Yet almost all of my recent posts have been political in nature – I’ve made four posts about presidential candidates in the last week, and am planning on at least three more. I do promise you that I intend to make this as much a Christian and social justice blog it is a political one once the early primaries are held next month. To try and prove it, here is a post about St. Thomas.

(Before launching into my own missive, I should probably direct you to the words of a more learned blogger than I for his groovy take on Saint Thomas. I'm an undergrad, he's a priest.)

Yesterday was Saint Thomas’ feast day. I don’t have nearly the scholastic knowledge of saints that one of my Idaho priests has, but I do know enough to be confident of these two things: one, that the word I just used, “scholastic,” comes from the name of a saint (thank you, Fr. Jack), and two, Thomas is one of my favorites. The most famous story about Thomas comes from John 20:24-29, and is where he gets that awful nickname, “Doubting Thomas.”

"But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’"


We tend to look down upon Thomas for being a doubter, but I think there are two important things to remember. One, we all pattern ourselves after Thomas in one way or another, and two, Thomas was so much more than this passage’s one moment in time reveals.

It is easy to chide people for being doubters, yet at the same time we scorn “blind faith.” The best path lies, as it so often does, somewhere in between. We have to have some measure of doubt if we want to avoid the crazies, but too much and we’ll miss the real deal. If we believe every man who comes along claiming to be a prophet or the Messiah returned, we will fall for the false prophets the New Testament warns us about (coughpatrobertsoncough). Take it too far and you wind up giving money to every corrupt televangelist healing someone’s hiccups, or refusing to associate with Samaritans. But we can also go too far in the other direction: if we refuse to entertain what might otherwise seem like a fantastical thought, we will fail to hear the real messengers, and might even miss the real return. Become too much of a skeptic and you’ll wind up rude and bitter, mocking all those with any shred of belief, like those militant atheists the New York Times bestsellers list loves oh so very very much. To put it in a more secular, political way: If we blindly accept whatever the environmentalists tell us, our nation may unnecessarily wind up spending more than our economy can bear. But if we completely ignore their warnings, it won’t be long before we’re seeing ten Hurricane Katrinas a year and New Guinea is underwater.

All of us want physical proof that spring is coming – we need to see that robin in the yard before we plant one seed. We want to have our Christmas bonus in our hot little hand before we’re secure enough to spend it. Is there anything wrong with that? It’s how our minds were made. And why should faith be any different? There are millions of left-brained folks who demand physical proof that God exists. I clearly don’t join them, but can you really blame them? When you boil it down, is “This book says Jesus is God’s son so believe it or else!!!” really that compelling a message to someone who hasn’t grown up with it?

But you can ask for too much proof, or demand that the proof be too physical. It is in this latter category that Thomas falls. Proof does not exist just in the hands or in the mind, but also in the heart. Logic has a place in this world, and it is an important place, but we can only be as logical as our minds will let us, and this universe is so much bigger than our tiny minds. We need to ask serious questions, critical questions, but we also need to learn to trust our hearts. We were given emotions for a reason. Love, hope, and the stillness within will tell us just as much as logic and tangible, physical evidence. I think this is what Jesus meant when he said “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” To believe in God based on absolutely nothing is silly, but to accept Him for the non-tangible evidence is blessed. That is the definition of faith, and for at least one week, Thomas lacked it.

But while Thomas may have demanded more proof than he should have, once he got it, he did more with it than most of us can ever hope to achieve. The global church continues to exist today in large part because of Thomas and his evangelism. It’s important to note, I think, that when a college kid screams, “Zap a tree with lightning right now, God, or I won’t believe in you!” God just rolls his eyes and says, “What kind of leverage is that? You think you’re in charge now? Do you really think I’m so small that *I* have to meet *your* demands?” And yet when Thomas asked for that lightning bolt, Jesus gave it to him. Thomas was special. Remember, for all his doubt, Thomas still did something worthy of becoming a Saint. Joseph of Arimathea wrote that he was the only person to witness the Assumption of Mary. Quite an honor, but quite a man. It was Thomas who, whether by converting Hindus or immigrant Jews, started the church in India, and perhaps Syria and Persia as well. Wikipedia (I know, I know) informs us, “While exploring the Malabar coast of Kerala, South India after Vasco Da Gama's arrival in Calicut in 1498, the Portuguese encountered Christians in South Western India, who traced their foundations to Thomas.” Father Lane Denson at Out of Nowhere tells the story far better than I can:

"We call him Doubting Thomas. Braveheart Thomas might be more fitting for his enterprise.

While the rest of the disciples were cowering full of resentment and fear that they’d bet their lives and whatever fortunes they had on a loser and that the Romans were breathing down their necks, Thomas was out pounding the pavement, risking arrest, renewing old contacts, checking the want-ads, and looking for work. He didn’t believe the talk about Jesus, and he wanted better evidence than the closeted behavior of his former colleagues.

But then, when he got what he wanted, he signed on for good or ill. There’s a line in a translation of Psalm 146 that fits him to a T, “Praise (God) for what you can fathom; for what you can’t fathom, praise him.”* He accepted his commission as an apostle, wrote a gospel, and, some say, started a new church over in India. “Brother Thomas’s Sawdust Trail.” Sounds like an evangelist to me."


Jesus isn’t going to give us the same proof he gave Thomas. But we don’t need it. We can learn from Thomas’ mistakes and listen to our hearts. We can also learn from his example, and follow them once they speak. Fr. Lane continues,

"Faith is risk, and risk wouldn’t be risk without doubt. And faith that comes only after evidence is no faith at all. It is trust, yes, but not faith. Faith is that act of the will, that daring commitment that climbs out on life’s limbs and leaps. And that is all the evidence we get. Faith creates trust….

The disciples in the upper room would probably never have convinced Thomas until he experienced the vision of the risen Lord, himself. Nor if fear is keeping us in the closet will we ever convince those who pass by. Not until we show the world by the way we love one another — one of the greatest risks of all — can our witness ever become a winsome and compelling evangel of and for the Lord."

(Picture Credits: 1, 2, 3.)

Friday, December 21, 2007

Tom Tancredo's timing, and a note on vanity canidates

Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO) dropped out of the race for the Republican presidential nomination today, and endorsed former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA) yesterday. He said it was because he was afraid his staying in the race might split the anti-immigrant vote, and that he'd rather see Romney win than McCain or Huckabee - as if his one point of support was really splitting the field.

I didn't think this was possible, but I've actually lost respect for Tancredo as a result. Does anyone else find the timing of his withdrawal suspicious? Normally vanity candidates like Tancredo never drop out. By vanity candidates, I mean House members or has-beens who never have a chance in hell of winning, but can at least shape the debate. Long shot Senators and Governors are not vanity candidates, but one-issue Congressmen like Tancredo are, as are retired has-beens like former Democratic Senator Mike Gravel, who disappeared for twenty years. Vanity candidates aren't in it to win; they're in it to push an issue or a message. This is why four years ago, Kucinich was the only losing Democratic candidate to campaign all the way to the convention.

Tancredo was, by all accounts, a vanity candidate. He never rose above one or two points in any poll, and never had a chance to win. He's a Congressman, not a Senator, and he browbeats about little more than immigration. As such, he's not the kind of guy to drop out. Until you take a look at the timing: the last Republican debate before the Iowa caucus was held December 12. Eight days later, Tancredo's out. Seems to me the guy was just in it for the national attention the debates would bring him! He stood there for seven months taking up valuable air time that could have gone to more legitimate candidates, time that could have been used to explore more issues or further develop too-short answers, and the minute those debates were done, he said, "Ok, I've had my fun, see you later, time to let the race get serious!" Like it was planned! Excuse me, Congressman? If you weren't going to have the decency to campaign the whole way, you should have allowed us at least one debate with a focus on the viable candidates! At least one!

I've never been able to stand Tancredo. He's nuts; his misleading, xenophobic television ad is proof enough of that. I thought my respect for him was already about as low as it could go. Turns out I was wrong.


A word about vanity candidates
I don't call Tancredo "nuts" just because he's a vanity candidate. Some are, some aren't. In general, I think they waste valuable newspaper space and debate time and should just go away, but every now and then one proves an exception to the rule, either for poll results or general respectability. A quick run down of the other no-chance 2008 fringe candidates:

Republican Rep. Ron Paul - Has extreme, unworkable ideas, but very articulate in one-on-one interviews, and a retired OB-GYN. Many of his supporters (though not all) are a bit loony, but Paul himself seems like a legitimate thinker who brings something to the table. He does give voice to the voiceless (unrepresented libertarians), and so has registered in NH polls and raised more money than any other Republican candidate this quarter. I can respect him.

Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter - Aimless, ideological, and one note. Opposes women in the military. Thinks giving prisoners Noodles Jefferson for dinner makes up for sticking glowsticks up their butts. Wacko. (Though to his credit, he is a war hero, and while that's no excuse for his current behavior, I would be remiss in not saying it.)

Republican Amb. Alan Keyes - Gets angry if you acknowledge the existence of any issue other than abortion. Has had three failed Senate bids and is working on his third unsuccessful run for President. Interrupted and badgered the moderator of the last debate to demand more air time, even though he received more than most of the candidates. Was arrested for trying to crash a 1996 debate. Jumped into a mosh pit during a previous campaign. Calls gays and lesbians, including Mary Cheney, "selfish hedonists." His voice sounds like Kermit the Frog on meth. Crazy? I think what's crazy is having to even ask that question, the answer is so obvious.

Democrat Dennis Kucinich - I've met him, and he's actually quite charming and sincere, with a heckuva personal history. Extreme, but actually quite reasoned and respectable when you talk to him. The real deal.

Democrat Mike Gravel - I met the man once. I call him Crazy Uncle Mike. His ideas are as unworkable as Paul's, just on the other side of the ideological spectrum. The difference between the two men is, Gravel has no understanding of what the current law actually is, and he's as senile in person as he is on stage. How did he ever get elected to the Senate in the first place? What's wrong with Alaska? Quite possibly the craziest politician of the last fifty years.

The final verdict: Good riddance to Tancredo. I wish Hunter and Keyes would join him. Cheers to NBC for kicking Gravel out of their debates. Dr. Paul, however, has earned his keep. As for Kucinich, it would be no loss if he dropped out, but there's really no way to justify kicking him out, as much as the non-vanities may want to.

(Picture credit. Wave bye bye, Tom!)

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Bundles of Hope

I posted this on Monday, but my Biden and Huckabee posts buried it pretty quickly, so I'm bumping it ahead.

Katie Mears of the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana's Office of Disaster Response sent out this e-mail on Thursday. I worked with Katie and the ODR, and strongly encourage you to support their outstanding, ongoing Katrina recovery efforts.



Bundles of Hope
Give the gift of hope this Christmas

Bundles of Hope is an alternative gift-giving program of the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana. Give a lasting and meaningful gift to your friends, family, co-workers and clients, and support the diocese with its post-Katrina rebuilding efforts at the same time.

Choose which bundles you want to give, go to our website www.edola.org, and follow the easy directions to print out your honor cards to give away. Donate online, or send in a check with your order form. It’s that simple!

If you need assistance or don't have access to a printer, call us (225-706-6634) and we’ll be glad to help. Thanks for supporting the rebuilding of a great American city.

Your gift to the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana is tax-deductible. Every dollar goes directly to assist with the on-going support of our citizens who are still recovering from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. Each purchase is symbolic and represents a contribution to the entire mission of the Diocese. Donations will be used where most needed to help struggling people.

The direct url is: http://edola.org/bundlesofhope.php

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

I Like Mike

This is the first of two stories about Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. Read the second post, debunking the myth that Huckabee attacks Mormons, here. On a sidenote, this is the 200th post at Wayward Episcopalian – wooo, part-ay!

There’s no doubt about it, I am a Democrat. I’m pushing hard for Joe Biden, and backed Howard Dean in 2004. Robert Kennedy is my hero, and I’ve volunteered for countless Democratic candidates in at least five different states.

But I have a confession to make: I heart Huckabee.

Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist pastor and Arkansas Governor, has enjoyed a meteoric rise in support lately. Since coming in a surprise second in the August Ames Straw Poll, he has shot from single digits to first place in the early-voting states of Iowa and South Carolina, and holds a strong second place nationally. This success has stumped many pundits, but the only thing that stumps me about it is why it took so long to happen. All summer long, we heard stories about Republican voters’ dissatisfaction with their field of candidates, and about how maybe Fred Thompson could be their savoir. Those were the stories that stumped me. Huckabee has performed incredibly well in every Republican debate since they started in May, and his politics are a natural fit for the Religious Right. I was wondering when he would take off.

There’s no way I’ll ever vote Huckabee myself. He’s wrong on Iraq, wrong on the “fair” tax, and wrong on gay rights. But there’s more to a politician than those three issues, and I believe Huckabee is a genuine, sincere person worthy of respect. I would like to encourage my Republican friends to vote either for him or for John McCain. If you’re a Republican, you might say, “Why should I vote for the guy the Democrat *likes*? Shouldn’t I run in the opposite direction?” If I were praising Huckabee because I agreed with him on the issues, you’d have a point. But while his politics do play a small role in it, I like him largely because of his compassion and pragmatism.

Politically, I like Huckabee’s economic approach. The business wing of the Republican Party loathes him, and while I’m not exactly an opponent of business – entrepreneurship is good – that does start him off on the right foot with me. He endorses a national sales tax, which I believe is a terrible idea, but other than that, he did some solid things in Arkansas. He likes to brag about his 94 tax cuts, but the fact is he also raised taxes 21 times, leaving a net increase. I’m no fan of tax increases, but “fiscal responsibility” is more than just slashing taxes – it also entails balancing the budget, even if that means the price of cigarettes has to take a hit. Newsweek says, “At times he can sound like John Edwards, promising health care for low-income children and vowing to defend wage earners against Wall Street greed and runaway CEO pay. Alone among the GOP candidates, he speaks emotionally about the legacy of Jim Crow and the dangers of ignoring lingering racism. It is wrong, he says, that inner-city blacks routinely receive harsher sentences than affluent whites arrested for the same crime.” (As a pastor, he integrated his church even though it meant losing some members.) Furthermore, in his book “From Hope to Higher Ground,” he wrote that Reaganomics “makes a false and callous assumption that the poorest people in our nation—with inadequate salaries, lack of nutritious food, substandard housing and nonexistent or underfunded health care—can somehow afford to patiently wait while someone else’s wealth eventually splashes onto them.” It doesn’t get more Christian than that, and Huckabee backed an increased education budget, states-sponsored health care for poor children, gas taxes to fix crumbling roads, and more. His current immigration plan, while emphasizing security, does include a guest-worker program and path to citizenship. As Governor, he fought “stricter state-level immigration measures. Huckabee opposed a Republican lawmaker's efforts in 2005 to require proof of legal status when applying for state services that aren't federally mandated and proof of citizenship when registering to vote….That same year, Huckabee failed in his effort to make children of illegal immigrants eligible for state-funded scholarships and in-state tuition to Arkansas colleges.” In reference to that education plan he has said, “In all due respect, we are a better country than to punish children for what their parents did. We’re a better country than that.” He also admits climate change is real – a rarity among Republican solons.

On foreign policy, I disagree with his pro-Iraq views, but I do admire the essay he wrote last week for Foreign Affairs about Bush’s foreign policy, in which he wrote,

“The United States, as the world's only superpower, is less vulnerable to military defeat. But it is more vulnerable to the animosity of other countries. Much like a top high school student, if it is modest about its abilities and achievements, if it is generous in helping others, it is loved. But if it attempts to dominate others, it is despised. American foreign policy needs to change its tone and attitude, open up, and reach out. The Bush administration's arrogant bunker mentality has been counterproductive at home and abroad.”

One can hardly accuse Huckabee of pandering. Though this is the kind of foreign policy that will play well in a General Election, Huckabee isn’t quite there yet – he’s still competing in a Republican primary where George W. Bush continues to enjoy a 71% approval rating. So not only is Huckabee not in the pocket of big business, he’s also managed to alienate the neocons – my kind of guy!

But there’s more to a politician than issues, which is the real reason I admire Mike Huckabee. He doesn’t strike me as an ideologue. I told this to one liberal friend at Dartmouth, who was shocked to hear it and rattled off Huckabee’s right-wing social positions. Fair enough, but I don’t label politicians as “ideologues” based on where they stand. That word has to do more with how they stand where they stand, with how they approach the issues. Are they willing to work with and listen to folks who disagree? Do they take their blinders off and listen to facts rather than just their gut? Stephen Colbert once said of George W. Bush, “You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday. Events can change; this man's beliefs never will.” THAT’S how you define an ideologue. Huckabee is certainly too far right-wing on social issues for me, but I do believe he is a pragmatic guy who Democrats could work with.

I say this for a variety of reasons. One is his willingness to tick off fellow Republicans as Governor of Arkansas. Two is the approach he took as a pastor. His sermons were never full of fire and brimstone, and he often got things done by building consensus among his congregations. In 1989, he was talked into running for president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, and, though a conservative, won as the choice of the moderates. He became known as a reconciler who worked to bring people together and settle feuds, particularly over the issue of Biblical interpretation. If his personal history is any indication of what a man believes, then it is clear that Huckabee respects ideological differences.

In fact, moving away from the electoral side of things for just a moment, if I were a Baptist, I would be proud to have Mike Huckabee as my pastor. I disagree with him on any number of theological issues – homosexuality, the role of women – but since he shows respect for disagreement, his pastoral style would matter to me more than his specific beliefs. I first started to like Huckabee when I read this Politico story:

I asked him if he is still a Baptist minister — many profiles of him say he “was” a Baptist minister — and he replied, “I am one.” Then he added with a smile: “They haven’t defrocked me.”

And has being a minister made him a better candidate?

“I think it is the greatest preparation to run for office or to serve,” he said with real emotion. “There is not a social pathology that I can’t put a name and a face on: A 14-year-old girl who’s pregnant and hasn’t told her parents, I’ve talked to her.

“A young couple head over heels in debt, struggling to keep their marriage together, fighting all the time, I have talked to them.

“An elderly couple where one has Alzheimer’s and the other is struggling over whether to put the spouse in longterm care and it’s just eating them up. I am the guy who sat down and talked to them and worked with them.

“A family deciding to pull the plug on an 18-year-old kid in a motorcycle accident and donate his organs. I am the guy who was there at 2 o’clock in the morning in the ICU to talk to them.”

He leaned forward a little.

“In the very best people I have ever met, there is a secret side that nobody else knows, a dark side that make us all very fragile and human and real,” he said. “And in some of the worst people I have ever encountered I have also found that you can’t completely write them off as unredeemable.”

Hearing that poignant last paragraph from a high-level elected official is quite stirring. I was also thrilled to see him say the following in a Republican debate, when asked if he believes every word of the Bible:



Returning to the electoral side of things, Huckabee often says, “"I'm a conservative, but I'm not mad at anybody about it,” once adding, “I've learned that you don't have to give up your own convictions. But you do need to be willing to have an open mind, spirit and heart toward people who are completely different from you." Many liberals roll their eyes and say, “Bush called himself a compassionate conservative – don’t fall for THAT again!” But I say, one man claiming to be something he’s not hardly suggests that that something plain doesn’t exist. A side-by-side comparison of the two men shows that Huckabee is no Bush. Bush entered the presidency with no real political experience – just six years as Governor of a state where the Governor is little more than a figurehead. He had no record to stand on, so we had to take him at his word. Huckabee, on the other hand, has ten years as a real executive, and the education and health care initiatives mentioned above were very real. Furthermore, it has often been said that Bush didn’t know who he was as a person until he turned forty. As a pastor, Huckabee had to know who he was long before that. Politically, Senator Joe Biden and Pulitzer Prize winner Charlie Savage have both written that when Bush entered office, his political convictions were still in their infancy, and his advisers competed not just for his ear but for his heart. The Cheney camp ultimately beat the Powell camp, both on foreign policy and Constitutional. At heart, Bush really is a compassionate person – the liberal columnist Nicholas Kristof has said Bush frequently asks aides about Darfur – but his politics were pushed elsewhere. That won’t happen with Huckabee. This is a man who, as an effective Governor rather than a figurehead, has already established his political foundations. Throw in the foreign policy letter mentioned above and it becomes quite obvious that Huckabee is no Bush. We can believe his conservative-but-not-angry line without fearing a return of the compassionate conservative.

Huckabee’s time in office certainly had its critics, but I think most of the attacks are a little silly. The largest charge is probably the list of ethics complaints filed against him. Normally I take ethics violations very seriously, but the specific charges against Huckabee seem petty and largely inconsequential. Most of them revolve around potentially improper gifts from friends or funds that were legal but looked wrong. The casual way in which Huckabee dismisses these complaints bothers me – he was wrong, and he should admit it – but by and large, they are minor issues. Another frequent criticism is his handling of Wayne DuMond’s parole. DuMond was an Arkansas felon jailed for rape. It appears that Huckabee lobbied for DuMond’s parole, but once released, DuMond raped and murdered another woman. Though this sounds like a serious incident, I believe that sometimes what really is the right decision on purely philosophical grounds turns out to have unforeseeable and devastating consequences. Huckabee critics say the DuMond case is reminiscent of the 1988 Willie Horton and they’re right—which is precisely why it doesn’t bother me. That scandal was blown completely out of proportion and colored with racism. Michael Dukakis got a raw deal, and we’ll be better off as a nation if we can avoid treating another man the same way. I’m also dismissive of a 1992 AP questionnaire in which Huckabee wrote that AIDS patients should be quarantined. Although the facts behind AIDS had been established by 1992, myths were still commonplace. I think any citizen can be forgiven for demonstrating a lack of knowledge about the disease at that time. It would be far more troubling if Huckabee were to say that current AIDS patients should be isolated.

There is, however, one attack on Huckabee that does bother me. I have described him as a pragmatic statesman, and the national press has certainly bought into the sunny-demeanor narrative. Politicians who worked with him in Little Rock, however, aren’t so quick to praise him. Many say he is a thin-skinned, arrogant bully. Newsweek reports, “Jim Hendren, the state’s Senate minority whip, says he gave up trying to debate issues with Huckabee. ‘It was like you became the enemy,’ he says. ‘There wasn’t ever a negotiation. It was, ‘It’s going to be my way or else.’’” It doesn’t bother me that Huckabee might have a thin skin – that’s his problem, not ours – but I do think we’ve had enough of the “my way or the highway” approach. These critics are the people who know Huckabee best, and their words should be given serious weight. However, his letter condemning Bush’s arrogance and his style as a pastor do suggest these concerns may be overblown.

Moving away from Huckabee’s time as Governor, it is often asked, can a pastor be president? I certainly think, and as a political activist and potential pastor myself, hope so. Democrat and Methodist minister Ted Strickland was just elected Governor of Ohio, and is frequently mentioned as a potential running mate for Hillary Clinton. Across the aisle, Republican Episcopal priest John Danforth did a great job as U.S. Senator and U.N. Ambassador. These men are able to separate their religious obligations from their political responsibilities, and given the way he answers questions about women in ministry or evolution vs. creation, I think Huckabee, with an exception for gay rights, is able to do that. What ultimately matters isn’t that a candidate has acted on their spiritual beliefs in a professional way, but merely that they hold those views in the first place. Obama’s United Church of Christ convictions and Biden’s Catholic faith are no doubt just as important to them as Huckabee’s Baptist faith is to him – why would he be any more disqualified for office than they?

In a similar vein, there are those who suggest that Huckabee has carried his Christian views too far as a politician. For example, prominent liberal blogger Scout Finch of Daily Kos has implied that because Huckabee specifically mentions Christ in his latest television ad, he clearly doesn’t believe in the separation of church and state. I think that’s horse hockey – Huckabee is just being himself. His religious belief defines him at his core in a way no atheist could ever understand. To hide that would be disingenuous, and merely being devotedly Christian and letting voters know it doesn’t mean he wants to blur the lines of church and state. Case in point, Pastor Governor Strickland.

Finally, Huckabee has been accused of frequently insulting Mormons on the campaign trail. This charge is complete BS. Not once have I seen an actual instance of Huckabee trashing Mormons or their church. This is lousy reporting from an irresponsible and uninformed press, and I will address this in great detail with my next post.

Will Huckabee’s success last? That I don’t know. Coming out so brazenly against the neocons when 71% of Republicans still support Bush sure isn’t going to help him. Neither will his lack of foreign policy experience – when asked for his views on the new National Intelligence Estimate about Iran, he said he’d never heard of it. But with that report reducing the threat from Iran, the emergency situation in Pakistan ending, and fewer Americans dying in Iraq, maybe foreign policy won’t be quite the issue we thought it would be . If that’s the case, I don’t see how Huckabee’s numbers among conservative Christians in Iowa and South Carolina can fall, and if he wins those two states with a strong showing in Florida, he’ll have incredible momentum for Feb. 5, when half the nation votes. Given Huckabee’s compassionate pragmatism, McCain’s slim chances, Romney’s opportunism, and Giuliani’s arrogance, a Huckabee victory would be welcome. While it’s Joe Biden I hope to ultimately see in the White House, I urge my Republican friends to vote for Huckabee, if not McCain.



Photo Credits: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Monday, December 17, 2007

Movin' on Up

Though I put Wayward Episcopalian on hiatus for the past few months, my blogging activity did not entirely cease. I have been an active volunteer with the Joe Biden for President campaign, and have been posting each week for Biden on the frontpage of the popular liberal blog MyDD.com. Here's my post from last Friday, entitled "Movin' on Up."

************************************************************************************

Normally I write these posts from the single-digit-weather confines of Hanover, New Hampshire, but for the next few weeks I'll be with family in North Idaho. I figure I'm not missing much, since the candidates will largely bypass New Hampshire until Jan. 4, in order to focus on Iowa.

The latest news from Iowa is, of course, yesterday's Des Moines Register debate. I have to admit I missed the debate, as George Mitchell's press conference was on at the same time, but I've watched the reruns and agree with the pundits' consensus - despite a nasty cold, Joe Biden won yet another debate. (I would like to tip my cap to the moderator for finally giving the candidates roughly equal time.) Biden's shining moment came when asked about race relations - not only did he show off his sterling record with powerful emotion, but the other Senators all shouted, "Here, here!" and Obama in particular gave Biden a stirring endorsement on the issue. Here are two videos - one of all his debate answers, and one of just the race question, as that also includes Obama's response.



The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza listed Biden as the debate's top winner. "Biden was extraordinary today. Not only did he speak specifically and with authority on issues both foreign and domestic, he was able to tie all of his arguments together under the umbrella of taking action and setting priorities. Biden also beat back the toughest question of the day when moderator Carolyn Ashburn asked him whether his past verbal gaffes in relation to race reflected a level of discomfort with the issue... A complete performance by The Fix's Iowa darkhorse." The "dean of the Iowa press corps", the Des Moines Register's David Yepsen, agreed. "Biden's showing was the best of the day... How can you lose when everybody else on the stage is praising your record on civil rights, literally applauds you and the frontrunner offers testimony on your behalf? You can't. And unlike some of his past debate performances in which he seemed strident or comical, Biden was cool, commanding and presidential in this one." The Iowa blog iPol had similar thoughts.

This debate performance, the last one before the caucuses, comes at a great time for Biden, for at least three reasons. One is that Chris Matthews just put him at number three in the Hardball Power Rankings, meaning Tweety thinks Biden has a better chance at winning the nomination than John Edwards. "On the Democratic side I say, and this may surprise you, that Joe Biden is now the third best bet for the nomination. I'm hearing a lot of buzz about him from people who pay attention." Two is that today, Biden won the first endorsement from a Nevada union, specifically the 2200 members of the Plumbing, Pipefitting, and Refrigeration Workers UA Local 525. Three is that Biden just went back on the air in Iowa with a new TV ad, so all eyes are on him. It's a pretty good ad, too:



To support this ad and keep it on the air, the campaign is in the midst of its largest online fundraiser to date. Yes, I know it seems like I say that every other week about Biden's fundraisers, but that's because each time one ends, an even bigger one begins - there's a piece of your momentum! The current drive is pretty clever, asking supporters to "Adopt an Ad" at the following rates:

  • $10 pays for one ad during "The CBS Morning News" in Davenport


  • $35 pays for one ad during the Farm Report on KCRG-TV


  • $100 pays for one ad during the midday News in Cedar Rapids


  • $170 pays for one ad during "Oprah" in Sioux City


  • $375 pays for one ad during "The Today Show" in Des Moines


  • $2,250 pays for one ad during "Wheel of Fortune" in Davenport

  • Click here to donate and adopt your own ad, or e-mail me at texas_musician at hotmail.com to help with Iowa phone banking efforts.

    If you're thinking you'd like to post a comment saying you like Biden and think he'd make a great SecState, SecDef, or VP, I remind you of something Biden says: do you really want a President who isn't qualified to be Secretary of State? And I would add to that something Wesley Clark said in 2004 when asked about serving as Dean's VP: do we really need another 8 years of an inexperienced President with an experienced Veep? For further convincing that Biden is not only the best choice but also a viable one, be sure to read the recent articles "Biden Campaigning With Ease After Hardships" in the New York Times, "Candidate profiles: Joe Biden focusing on security issues" in the Quad City [Iowa] Times, and "For Biden, it's the résumé over the rallying cry" from the Boston Globe's front page.

    I'll leave you tonight with yet another YouTube video, this one a rather moving ABC interview about the tragedy in Biden's life.