Productive Ways to Deal with the 2004 Election Results

1. Go ahead and get it out of your system. In the long run, using words like “jack-booted”, “buffoon”, “addle-brained”, “lackwit”, “illiterate”, “tsarist”, “brain-dead”, “moronic”, “incontinent”, and “village idiot” won’t facilitate dialogue and it certainly won’t convince anyone. If the fifty-nine million Americans who voted for the unrepentant prat haven’t already figured it out – this won’t help them. In the short term, however, it really does blow off a little steam. You can even string a bunch of them together to make your own private nickname for the Chief Executive. I’m leaning toward, “Semi-literate, lack-witted, imperialist buffoon.” [At some point you have to realize that there may actually be a kind and caring person underneath the earth-despoiling, empire-building façade; but it’s what he represents we’re talking about here. If he didn’t want to be called names, he shouldn’t be working for the forces of darkness!] Get it out of your system, then stop.

2. Go to a national park with people you care about and take lots of pictures so that your grandchildren will know what the place looked like before the loggers and the oil wildcatters came through. Bonus points if you’re a same-sex couple and you have a wedding ceremony in a national park. You may also want to pitch in to help keep your national park looking nice. There’s no guarantee that our government is going to, so someone should.

3. Start making your retirement plans now. If you’re older than 4, it might be too late; but it never hurts to try. Look for socially conscious mutual funds that aren’t going to contribute to the pockets of the wealthy exploiters-of-the-workers (whose pockets are already lined by the tax cuts which will require you to update your retirement plans in the first place).

4. Buy and read at least one book on foreign policy, the economy, the environment, health care, or some other area where the President’s policies are weak. The field is wide open here. In fact, any book on any topic will probably meet the criteria. Remember that this book might put you on a “bad” list with the current Attorney General, but that’s OK. Pretty soon being able to read might do the same.

5. Make a choice, about anything. You’ll probably have fewer of them in the future; so enjoy them now.

6. If you’re a Christian, enjoy getting to be the top of the heap for the time being. If you adhere to some other religion, don’t worry. Now that the precedent for government-by-religion has been firmly established your turn may very well come. (Quakers can give up on this though. Religion that requires you to actually do things sacrificially for people will never catch on.) Just think, if you get enough bigots together, you can even write your religion’s peculiar prejudices into a state constitution!

7. Wait! Don’t go to Canada yet! Now El Presidente has to clean up the mess he created. He can’t and won’t, and we may see a Democratic Golden Age in response. Hang in there.

8. While you’re hanging, talk to some people who voted for the addle-brained nincompoop and find out why they did it. Not only does this help you reduce the list of people whom you’ll want to invite to your next Michael Moore screening party; it will help you understand why this travesty happened. Maybe they thought invading Iraq in response to an attack by a bunch of Saudis made sense. Maybe they only watch Fox news. Maybe they don’t really understand the threat a rogue Justice Department is to their civil liberties. Maybe every time they saw the words “Dick” and “Bush” on a TV screen their minds wandered. Whatever kept them from realizing that they were voting for possibly the worst President in the history of the office, we need to find out what it is if we’re going to keep it from happening again.

9. Shop Democratic! Spend a little extra and buy locally-produced items from locally owned stores. Buy generic drugs and organic food. Find companies which impose the kinds of regulations and obligations on themselves that our morality-challenged Businessman-in-Chief won’t impose on his cronies.

10. Set aside 8 hours a month to do some kind of work that makes your community a better place. Volunteer at a school or a literacy program. Build a Habitat house. Clean up a river bank. Take your elderly neighbor shopping (he or she probably won’t be able to afford a cab if they are relying on Medicare and Social Security). You don’t need to find an organization to work with. Just set aside a little bit of time to put energy into the place where you live. When people ask you why you’re so dedicated to making the world a better place and to taking care of those around you, tell them,Because I’m a Democrat. It’s what we do.

Vote No on Bigotry

On November 2 Georgia voters will have the chance to act upon our highest prerogative as citizens.  Although it might be tempting to assume that the most powerful vote we cast is the one that helps select the next President; the opportunity to amend our state’s constitution potentially has much greater significance.

A President serves for a short time and with limited authority.  Our state and federal constitutions, on the other hand, are the foundational documents that define our rights as citizens.  Our ancestors showed great faith in us by creating a system that would allow us to alter those rights, and historically their faith has been justified.  We have chosen, for instance, to extend the rights that were once limited to white men to people of both sexes and all races.

Sadly, some political groups are hoping to reverse this trend and transform the Constitution of the State of Georgia into a weapon against liberty.  Ignoring real threats like promiscuity, divorce, and unwed pregnancy; they claim that the only way to “protect” marriage is a constitutional amendment barring gay and lesbian citizens from marrying.  In addition, the actual amendment (which differs from the wording we will see on the ballot) may withhold even the benefits of civil partnerships from Georgians in homosexual relationships.

In a secular society, there is no rational justification for this prohibition.  Perhaps more to the point, there is no conclusive theological argument to oppose same-sex unions either. Nevertheless, since logic is not on their side – and despite our tradition of church-state separation – opponents of same-sex marriage have had to rely on weak theological rhetoric to support their cause.  As a member of the Christian clergy, I realize that their arguments are far less conclusive than they will admit.  In fact, my faith and theological education are what lead me to support same-sex marriages.

My greatest concern about the proposed amendment, however, is not as a clergyperson.  Every citizen should be deeply distressed that the Constitution of Georgia might be used as an instrument to impose the beliefs of one group on a minority of our fellow citizens.  Although laws may change to meet the majority’s wishes, the fundamental rights of citizenship within our state constitution are not intended to be subject to the biases of even a majority.

Taking advantage of a preponderance of socially conservative voters to pervert that protection is a shameful act, and I hope the people of Georgia will not fall for the prejudicial rhetoric that encourages it.  To put it plainly, the issue is not a hypothetical threat to heterosexual marriage.  The issue is that same-sex marriage opponents are simply uncomfortable with homosexual relationships, and they hope that there are enough people who share that discomfort that they can get sufficient votes to impose their will on the minority.

This attitude of domination by ideology is the real threat to our nation.  If a majority of citizens can use their religious beliefs to dramatically limit the freedoms of a minority group that does them no harm; what other threats to personal liberty might emerge from other, future majority groups?  If the personal beliefs of some citizens can prevent two men or two women from getting – through lifelong commitment – the legal protections and financial benefits that two Hollywood actors can get after one night in Vegas; what other rights might fall victim to the prejudices or preferences of the majority?

The vote on November 2 is not a vote on gay marriage.  By simply touching a button on a screen, every voter in Georgia will act to either affirm or subvert the tradition of liberty upon which our state and nation were established.  Our foremothers and forefathers trusted us to rise above our personal beliefs when faced with that decision; and I pray that we will once again prove their trust to be justified.

Constitution Protects This Right

This originally appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on December 4, 2003.

The Constitution of the United States of America is one of the most brilliant documents humanity has ever produced. It allows for an orderly and open process of governance by the people; while balancing the majority’s authority with the protection of individual rights. Consequently, the prejudices of even a significant majority of our citizens are not sufficient to abridge the constitutional rights of individuals or marginalized groups.

In the early days of our nation, our interpretation the Constitution was not nearly so inclusive. Women and slaves were denied full participation in the process that created the laws which governed their lives. Yet part of the genius of the Constitution is its flexibility, and it was amended to provide greater protection and participation for all American citizens.

Increasingly our judiciary – whose job is to insure that the majority cannot capriciously make laws which unfairly impose its will on the minority – has recognized that gay and lesbian folks still have not received the full protection of the Constitution.

As part of that process, they have recognized that there is no compelling reason to keep adults of the same sex from marrying. Homosexual couples, like heterosexual couples can build marriages (in all but name) that last a lifetime; marriages that are stable and monogamous; marriages that exist in loving homes filled with laughter; and marriages that raise healthy children who become productive members of society.

Some groups, who feel inexplicably threatened by the committed relationships of same-sex couples, have created volumes of material attempting to claim that homosexual marriages are somehow qualitatively different from heterosexual marriages. They raise bogeymen of promiscuity, pedophilia, and domestic abuse. They can do so successfully because many in their constituency do not know enough (if any) same-sex couples to have a realistic opinion on the subject.

Of course, the propaganda from the far right fails to remind us of what we do know; people in heterosexual marriages engage in promiscuity, pedophilia, and domestic abuse at an alarming rate.

Our nation’s founders wanted our judges to be insulated from that kind of propaganda and the prejudices associated with it. To their credit, many members of the judiciary have seen through the transparent arguments of the far right. They recognize that healthy homosexual relationships demonstrate conclusively that there is nothing intrinsic to same-sex marriages that makes them a threat to society. Likewise, they recognize that the prevalence of unhealthy behaviors among people in opposite-sex relationships makes it clear that proponents of heterosexual marriage are not in a position to claim a moral high ground.

Which is why the proponents of the so-called “Defense” of Marriage Act should be ashamed of themselves. They are attempting to subvert the role of the Constitution by changing it from a document that protects individual rights to one that enforces the religious and social prejudices of a particular group. Whether that group is in the majority or the minority is irrelevant. What matters is that the right against which they hope to legislate poses no threat to our society.

The sex of the participants in a marriage is obviously not the determining factor in its health. If proponents of the new amendment really wanted to defend marriage; they would legislate against the unhealthy behaviors about which they claim to be concerned. Instead, they are attempting to restrict the freedoms of a minority group that wants nothing more than legal protection for their families. In so doing, the propagandists on the right are trying to subvert the Constitution by changing it from a barrier of protection to a wall of oppression.

Waffling Candidates Unworthy of Support

This originally appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on October 31, 2002.

It is far more common to hear someone say “I think …” than to hear “I believe …” A statement of belief is a risky venture, since it is very likely that others will hold us to such a strong statement in the future. Somehow, though, politicians seem to get a free pass in this regard. Perhaps because their strength more often rests on their popularity and charisma than on their integrity; few people even bother to peek beneath the rhetoric and see if a public figure has ever really stood for something. If a voter does go to the effort, they are rarely surprised if a holder of the public trust has failed to take a consistent stand on what they claim to believe.

We have seen two prominent examples of this in local politics. Recently, in an apparent reversal of his public commitment to Georgia Right-to-Life’s zero-tolerance opposition to abortion, Georgia Senatorial candidate Saxby Chambliss stated that he now supports abortion in certain cases. Chambliss’ previous, stronger stand was made when he was courting far-right voters in a primary. Now that he needs moderate support in a statewide race, he seems to be painting himself as a moderate. What does he really believe?

Similarly, in the 11 th District Republican primary, the Rev. Dr. Cecil Staton – a former colleague in the explicitly pro-gay Alliance of Baptists – decided to reinvent himself as a champion of the causes of the radical right. Using their divisive rhetoric Dr. Staton turned the primary into a competition to see which candidate could prove himself to be the most anti-gay. On the surface, this should not have been a tough call considering Gingrey’s record and Staton’s former membership in the Alliance of Baptists.

Unfortunately, the Staton campaign fell back on a tactic that gay and lesbian people know all too well – they dissembled. Claiming ignorance of the Alliance’s well-known stand, Staton began to heavily downplay his role as a leading publisher of progressive baptist scholarship. In a similar fashion, Chambliss now claims that he was not aware of the extremism of the Georgia Right-to-Life pledge he endorsed.

This kind of waffling is nothing new to politics, or to faith communities for that matter. Most clergy hold onto their pulpits using the same skills that others use to gain political office – and with similar results. When leaders – be they political or religious – act out of expediency rather than conviction, then the institutions they serve continue to be vehicles for oppression.

It is therefore no surprise that the topics which Staton and Chambliss felt compelled to hedge around dealt with sexual minorities and women. If a political leader is more concerned about placation than integrity, then strong stands for either of these groups are a liability to their success. On the other hand, when a politician wins because of their ability to change with the political winds, we as their constituents become the losers.

We lose the opportunity for our children to see clear examples of people acting with integrity. We lose the opportunity for honest dialogue – a prerequisite for genuine understanding and real progress on any issue. Finally, we lose because the voices of the minority views are never heard.

I have seen this first hand in local faith communities – particularly in relation to Gay-Lesbian-Bisexual-Transgender people of faith. Time and again I have heard clergy state their willingness to affirm homosexuality in private; only to mumble their unwillingness to do the same from the pulpit. Their lack of integrity allows bigots to continue to use “religion” as a club against gay and lesbian persons. In addition, it places their GLBT parishioners in the untenable position of feeling as if they must choose between their faith and the person they love.

As an explicitly pro-gay, socially liberal minister, it would be my preference to vote for candidates who clearly and explicitly – without prevarication – support my ideology. Barring the unlikely arrival of such a candidate in Georgia, I would rather vote for a person who openly and consistently disagrees with me than support someone who simply says what they think I want to hear.

At some point we have to set our respective agendas aside and say that – even in politics – there is a level of dishonesty that is completely unacceptable. Ideology is important. Honest dialogue on our beliefs, however, can only take place among people of character. It is therefore incumbent on all of us – liberal or conservative – to insist that every candidate for the public trust be held to the highest standard of integrity. If we do so consistently and vocally, across party lines, perhaps we can draw the kind of leaders who will sincerely work for all of us, and not just for themselves.

In God We Trust

My reflections a few days after September 11, 2001

Last week was an odd time to be a clergyperson.  On September 11, as a nation, we were dealt a devastating blow to our sense of safety and security.  In response, we came together as a nation. Likewise, at our President’s call, we turned our eyes as one nation to God.

In a country as diverse as ours, turning to God meant many different things.  In different places, we called out to Adonai, Jesus, Allah, Brahma, Tao, or a faceless “Creator.” In myriad ways, when everything fell apart we collectively looked for safety in something that transcended the material world.

This poses no small problem for those of us tasked to speak for any of the aforementioned deities.  We want our respective gods to be perceived as powerful, otherwise why bother to worship them?  We also want them to be thought of as compassionate, otherwise people will think that they are wasting their time.  Finally, we want them to be represented as competent and involved, otherwise people are not going to take them very seriously.

You see the difficulty.  To paraphrase Karl Barth, we stood before our faith communities and in one hand we held the scriptures of our strong, kind, all-knowing deities.  In the other we held a newspaper describing the horrifying deaths of thousands of innocents through the cowardly acts of religious fanatics.  It was an experience not unlike juggling a growling dog and a hissing cat.  You’ve got to keep them both in the air, but you’re afraid that if they ever come together the show will be over.

A few of us chose to cry, “It’s the End of the World!”  This works especially well for Christians, since all bets are off at the Apocalypse – and pointing to the Second Coming is one way to keep us from thinking about the real issue of why God would let so many innocents suffer.  Unfortunately, the Chicken Little approach falls apart as soon as someone points out that the horror in New York is no more likely to mean the end of history than the horrors in Rwanda or Hiroshima.

Some of us took another easy way out.  Certain “religious” leaders said they believed that the shattered lives and mutilated bodies were all part of God’s plan, and were a consequence of America not following the specific political agenda that these leaders have tried to cram down our throats.

Such rhetoric, although likely to help their particular fringe causes, is patently absurd.  Any victim of a crime, particularly a violent one, knows that the crime is not the victim’s fault (and is not endorsed by a loving God).  Whether the crime is rape, setting fire to an African-American church, or the World Trade Center bombing – we must all admit that our respective gods allow bad things to happen to good people, sometimes even on a grand scale and regardless of the politics of those involved.

That leaves the rest of us: rabbis, priests, ministers, imams, monks, and many others who want to help.  We’ve driven by your stores which have “Pray” and “God Bless America” written on their marquees; but we’ve also seen the doubt in your eyes as your faith was challenged by this catastrophe.  It’s easy for us to recognize, because we see it in the mirror as well.

If we are honest, though, we do not have a really satisfying answer.  That is the real irony of an event like this.  It can cause an entire nation to turn to matters of faith; only to expose faith’s greatest weakness: there is no god you can believe in who is guaranteed to protect you from misery, grief, loss, pain, or physical death.

As your religious leaders, we know this – yet we still believe.  We believe because we know the histories of our faiths.  Every major religion in the world has faced the cowardly reprisals of lunatics and zealots.  Over time we have learned that fanatics die and are forgotten.  Faith, truth, and love, on the other hand, last forever.

If you come into our houses of worship, and we hope you will, we cannot offer you the miracle of an easy answer.  Be wary of those who claim they can.  What we can do is offer a visible reminder that when all is said and done, it is the twin miracles of love and the love of God that endure.