Thoughts on the 2012 Presidential Election

President Obama on Election Night

Following the Facebook, Twitter, and old media discussions of the 2012 presidential election results has led me to an unsurprising conclusion:  many Republicans, including some of my friends, are horrified that President Obama has won.  Considering the tenor of the race, I expected as much.  What confuses me in reading their comments, is that the President Obama they are vilifying has nothing in common with the man who has led our nation for the past four years.  In response, I have a few observations about the President and the direction of the GOP:


President Obama is a Christian

It’s time to let go of the argument that “President Obama is not a Christian!”  This is the one most squarely in my area of expertise, and the one that is most offensive to me.  Perhaps it is only an issue here in the Deep South, where religion permeates everything, but I am at my limit with the “We must remember God is in control, even if we don’t have a Christian in the White House” comments.  They are as insipid as they are absurd.

Where to begin?  First, President Obama is a Christian.  Plain and simple.  He is not the caricature that fundamentalists insist defines the religion, but fundamentalists do not speak for Christianity.  In fact, they rarely seem to even understand it, historically or biblically.

Which leads to my broader point in this regard.  Not only is it indefensible to attack the President’s faith, it is equally irrational to claim that there is one singular “Christian” perspective on specific political topics.  Opposition to same-sex marriage is not the “Christian” perspective on the issue.  Opposing abortion rights or reproductive freedom is not the “Christian” stance.  Capitalism is not the “Christian” economic system (despite embarrassingly ludicrous claims to the contrary).  Individual Christians, and Christian denominations, have vastly different perspectives on all of these issues.

Interestingly, fundamentalist Muslims, fundamentalist Jews, and fundamentalist Christians tend to agree on all of them.  So, if you’re looking for an adjective that describes unanimity on those views, “Christian” is inaccurate.  “Fundamentalist” is spot on.  Billy Graham’s regrettable decision to privilege what he calls “biblical values” over actual Christianity is the perfect example of this.  Graham was willing to functionally endorse the Mormon candidate (who, Southern Baptists are very clear, is not a Christian – see here as well) over the Christian candidate because Graham’s narrow, fundamentalist interpretation of Scripture is more important to him than historic Christian faith.  This privileging of politics over actual Christian theology has become the norm in fundamentalist Christianity, leading to their willingness to ignore enormous theological differences in order to push their agenda of intolerance.

Christians as a whole, however, have a broader understanding of the gospel and our Scriptures.  With 42% of Protestants and 50% of Roman Catholics voting for President Obama, it is time to move past the myth that one party represents the Christian view or Christian values.  The language is a code anyway.  What people – on either side of the fence – mean when they say “Christian values” is:  “my values, which I defend using religious language.”  As a result, the descriptor is meaningless, and it demeans the breadth and complexity of our tradition.

The only real consequence of fundamentalist claims to an exclusive “Christian” platform is that it inspires fierce, partisan disdain for the other side.  Rather than being a political opponent, members of the opposite party become theological adversaries.  They are not just the enemy of our ideas, they become the enemy of our God as well.  Instead of analyzing and evaluating ideas on their own merits, people unequivocally and passionately reject them as heresy.  This kind of thinking has never ended well – during the Inquisition, in Calvin’s Geneva, or under the auspices of the Taliban in Afghanistan.  More importantly, and to repeat, it is simply not true.  Christians have different views on every political issue, and there isn’t a universal “Christian” perspective on any of them.

Let this one go.  At best, it is intellectually dishonest.  At its worst, it is an excuse to hide selfish and bigoted ideas behind a smokescreen of religiosity to prevent them from being challenged.


President Obama is not the Enemy of the Economy

Another claim – perpetuated in some circles – with near-religious zeal is the myth that President Obama is spending money willy-nilly to drive us off the looming fiscal cliff.  This claim is made despite Forbes identifying President Obama as the “smallest government spender since Eisenhower.”  The myth goes unchallenged because the popular perception is that Republicans are more responsible than Democrats, but spending under Obama is not a dramatic increase over past presidents.  In fact, even the popular perception of Democratic spending Republican could use some revision.

As Daniel J. Mitchell of the conservative Cato institute points out, both parties spend too much money.  Where they differ is how to subsidize their over-funding.  Republicans argue that preserving the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy will generate more overall wealth and, consequently, more tax revenue for addressing the deficit.  This is patently untrue, and Romney’s tax cuts would certainly have favored the wealthy or ultimately cost revenue.

Most Americans, overwhelming, realize this and support raising taxes on the wealthy.  That’s hardly unfair.  Despite what how people think wealth is distributed in the US, 80% of the wealth in this country is in the hands of 20% of the population, with a staggering 1/3 of all wealth in the hands of only 1% of the population.  That top 1% actually got richer during the economic downturn.  Meanwhile, those who make minimum wage have to  work more than 70 hours a week to afford rent.

In a time when the economy is weak, reducing the taxes on the wealthy – who are clearly doing just fine, and at a time when people working two jobs can barely pay their rent – does not make sense.  The 2012 GOP could not see this, and their rhetoric centered on people whom they viewed as self-described “victims” “dependent upon government.”  Americans who actually work for a living, however, realized that this is patently false, and that, even as the fabulously wealthy enjoy the benefits of a healthy, stable, safe nation maintained by their labors, it is increasingly hard for the people who make that America possible to make ends meet.

If Republicans want to represent working people, they cannot be the party of the one percent.  They have to realize what hard-working Americans already do, giving further benefits to the wealthy does not help the American people.


Health, Healthcare and the Environment are not Partisan Issues

Limiting our ability to regulate the impact of corporate greed on the health of our citizens or our environment – no matter how economically expedient – does not help us either.  Republicans disagree, but this should not be a partisan issue.  It does not matter how many jobs might be created, it does not matter how much money there is to be made, if it is accomplished at the expense of American well-being the cost is too high.  Mitt Romney may not be worried about the rising oceans, but the rest of us are.

Nevertheless, Republicans are trying to perpetuate the myth that corporations simply cannot afford to create jobs and make a profit if they must do so in a context that insists that they do so ethically (with fair wages, healthcare for every employee, and without harming the environment or public health).  Their claims have no grounding in fact.  Corporations are doing just fine, as are their executives.  Obviously, they want to make as much as they can, but it is our jobs as citizens to insist that the tremendous profit they earn at our expense be done ethically.  Government regulation is how we accomplish that.

As a side note, government investment in innovation is also how we do it.  Much has been made of the dramatic failure that was Solyndra.  It was a risk, on important innovation, that went wrong, but it was hardly a catastrophic one on the scale of past erroneous attempts at innovation.  We need a president who will create a strong vision for the future, and that requires the risk of innovation.


Civil Rights Are Not a Partisan Issue

As we move into that future, our citizenry is changing almost as rapidly as our technology.  Let’s look at the demographics of the presidential voters again. Republicans did very well with rich, old, white men.  But this is not the era of old, rich white men.  This is one area where mainstream media and conservative evangelicals agree, and the election results are proof that America’s demographics are changing.

This is bringing civil rights issues to the fore again in a way not seen since the Sixties.  As the Human Rights Campaign reports, November 6, 2012 was an unprecedented night of victories for equality issues.  The first openly gay Senator was elected.  Three states passed referendum’s supporting gay marriage, and LGBT-friendly politicians, including the President, fared very well.

Mitt Romney’s lackluster record on civil rights hurt him badly in this election. Likewise, other Republican candidates who talked about “legitimate rape” and children conceived in rape as a “gift from God” were soundly defeated.  Attitudes and comments that might be acceptable in the locker room or the Gentleman’s Lounge at the club are no longer acceptable for those who want to lead a diverse nation of women and men.

Republicans have felt comfortable speaking from the position of privilege – white privilege, male privilege, heterosexual privilege, and the privilege of wealth – for far too long.  If they want to remain a national party, they will have to move beyond that.  The groups who voted for President Obama are the growing edges of the electorate.  Perhaps more importantly, young people of both parties no longer see the partisan lines on social issues that their elders considered immutable.

Certainly these issues still galvanize a certain section of the Republican base, but they are increasingly distasteful to the young, educated, and diverse voters who will lead our country into the twenty-first century.  Additionally, immigrants – who make up an increasingly large part of the electorate – are unlikely to support a party that continues to treat them as second-class citizens, or not even citizens at all.


Obama Has Not Governed as a Liberal

Finally, and sadly, despite all of the rhetoric from the fringe right, President Obama is not a liberal, or at least has not governed as one.  A liberal would not have allowed any arctic drilling.  A liberal president would not have been soft on Wall Street.  A liberal president would not have allowed a former Monsanto Vice President anywhere near the FDA.  A liberal president would have pushed for a single-payer healthcare plan, rather than a conservative plan that favored insurance companies.  President Obama is a moderate conservative.


Final Thoughts

So, if Obama was the conservative in the race, what does that make the Republican Party of 2012?  Simply put, they are a fringe party, pulling themselves toward irrelevance.  Re-defining “Christianity” to mean fundamentalism and then pushing a theocratic agenda.  Defending the super-rich at the expense of the working classes.  Protecting corporate interests and profits over the health of our citizens and our environment.  Opposing civil rights for women, sexual minorities, and immigrants.  These are not “conservative” positions, they are anachronistic ideas that should be repugnant to all citizens of the twenty-first century.

Unfortunately, in an astonishing case of myopia, some Republican voices are promising to go even further to the right.  They would be wise to listen to Republican Senator Linsey Graham, who observed, “We’re not losing 95 percent of African-Americans and two-thirds of Hispanics and voters under 30 because we’re not being hard-ass enough.”  He is right, but the problem runs even deeper.  The issue is not that the Republican Party isn’t pushing its conservative values “hard” enough.  The Republican Party has exchanged actual conservative values – of community, integrity, and personal responsibility – for pseudo-religious hypocrisy, greed, self-destruction, and ethnocentrism.  Until the Republicans can jettison those anti-social values, the only relevant conservative party in America will be the Democrats.


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Chicken Sandwich with a Side of Shame

Little Rock Integration Protest

Little Rock Integration Protest (source Wikimedia Commons)

Yesterday a right-wing,  fundamentalist preacher/politician/media personality urged his fans to go to Chick-fil-A to show their support for the company’s opposition to LGBT rights and same-sex marriage.  Purchasing a chicken sandwich, or refusing to do so, became a political statement leading to some of the most heated discussions I have ever seen erupting on Facebook.  I watched friendships end in rather dramatic ways, and I read vitriolic remarks of astonishing potency on both sides of the conflict.  Although I weighed in on plenty of these discussions in bits and pieces, I wanted to put all of my thoughts in one place:

It’s not about Freedom Of Speech

One aspect of the rhetoric that initially astonished me was the claim by many of the Chick-fil-A supporters that they were going to the restaurant to support Dan Cathy’s “First Amendment Rights” which – apparently – they thought were under attack.  If I understand their argument correctly, Mr. Cathy exercised his freedom of speech by publicly espousing his support for “biblical marriage” and the media response to his comments was an attempt to squelch Mr. Cathy’s right to speak his mind.

Mind you, no one told Mr. Cathy he could not say the things he said or had no right to say them.  No one refused to publish his comments.  In fact, they were reproduced in every possible media outlet.  They were tweeted and facebooked, they were mentioned on television news, and journalists reprinted them in print and online.  No one said Mr. Cathy should not be allowed to say or think these things.  No one challenged his First Amendment rights.

But “I’m supporting Chick-fil-A because I believe in Free Speech” is much more palatable than “I’m supporting Chick-fil-A because I oppose same-sex marriage.”  Hiding their true agenda like this is not a new tactic for the Far Right.  They already try to claim that opposing same-sex marriage is about protecting “family values” and “defending traditional marriage.”  Of course, the reality is that keeping people who would make great parents from adopting children is not supporting family values.  Similarly, keeping two people who love each other and want to make a lifetime commitment to each other from marrying is not protecting marriage.

In a similar vein, telling someone that something they said is bigoted and ignorant is not opposing Free Speech, it is using Free Speech in exactly the way the freedom was intended – to hold an idea up to public examination and critique in a way that allows for all sides of an issue to be considered.  Dan Cathy has a right to say any ignorant thing he likes, and we have a right to point out all the flaws in his statements.

The heart of the matter is that support for same-sex marriage and LGBT rights is rapidly becoming the norm in the United States and in the Western world.  Even Chick-fil-A realized this with their hastily-published attempts to back out of the debate.  Opponents of same-sex marriage realize that they have to cloak their rhetoric of hate behind innocuous or falsely positive language.  Otherwise, they will quickly be dismissed as ignorant, bigoted fundamentalists trying to hide a political agenda of exclusion behind empty religious claims.

Yes, this is Bigotry and Hate

All it takes is a quick look at what’s at stake, however, and it becomes clear that their arguments are just that.  I have already discussed how the claim by opponents of same-sex marriage that they are just being “biblical” is disingenuous at best and – more accurately – theologically indefensible.  I’ve also discussed why I insist on using the term “bigotry” when talking about those who oppose LGBT rights, but I am happy to elucidate further.

The only argument against LGBT rights (adoption, marriage, protection from discrimination) is one drawn from a particular interpretation of certain sacred texts, an interpretation is not even the normative one among mainline religious scholars.  When a person uses a selective, minority interpretation of sacred texts to withhold rights from another person, that is bigotry.  We saw this happen with slavery in the nineteenth century.  We saw this happen with religious opposition to women’s suffrage in the early twentieth century.  We saw this happen with the American Civil Rights movement in the middle of the twentieth century.  In fact, fifty years ago religious claims were frequently used to argue for sustaining the laws forbidding “interracial” marriage.

The pattern is the same every time.  When our understanding of biology, psychology, human nature, sex, gender, or ethnicity changes, the only way to sustain the superstitions of past generations is to argue from the religious texts written during those times.  Eventually, of course, even those arguments fail, and in hindsight future generations identify them as exactly what they were:  prejudicial ignorance.  I see absolutely no way in which the debate over same-sex marriage differs from the debate over two people of different ethnicities marrying, and so I label opposition to same-sex marriage as what it is:  bigotry.

That does not, necessarily, mean that it is hatred.  Sometimes prejudice can be well-intentioned in  its cruelty, rather than intentionally hateful.  And yet, many of us have charged that Chick-fil-A funds “hate groups” with their profits.  David Badash in the Huffington Post offered an explanation for why we make this claim.  His citations from GLAAD itemizing the comments from the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins and Peter Sprigg give ample reason why the Southern Poverty Law Center considers FRC a “hate group.”

It is one thing to say (however erroneously) that “my religious beliefs require me to oppose same-sex marriage.”  It is another thing entirely to dedicate millions of dollars to spreading malicious misinformation about your fellow citizens in an attempt to deny them access to the same rights and freedoms others enjoy.  The former is simply ignorance, superstition, or bigotry.  The latter is hateful.

What Else Did that Chicken Sandwich Buy?

Our lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender brothers and sisters, parents and children, teachers and warfighters and public safety workers, bosses and employees, friends and neighbors cannot help but hear it any other way.  For those of you who proudly purchased  a chicken sandwich yesterday, what message were you sending them?

Yesterday you told my two friends in California (who are legally married there) that they aren’t real mothers to their brilliant, charming, beautiful son.  You told them that they shouldn’t be allowed to have or raise children, and that it is biologically impossible for them to do as good of a job as opposite sex parents.  I have seen how they parent with wisdom, intentionality, and love. You are wrong.

You told my dear friends, one a professor and the other an artist, that their relationship of over thirty years is somehow inferior to the opposite-sex marriages we see falling apart all around us.  You said that their love, commitment, and sacrifice for each other – in the face of the additional hurdles of prejudice – don’t matter and aren’t worth the effort.  You have said that their love should not be honored, and that their values don’t support strong families.  I am in awe of the depth and maturity of their relationship.  You are wrong.

You told my various gay and lesbian friends who are pastors openly serving congregations that they have no place in the pulpit, and that their communities of faith are not welcome at your Eucharistic table.  You have said that the Sunday afternoons spent in hospital rooms, the 2 a.m. phone calls, and the lifetime dedicated to study, prayer, and service in answer to God’s call are meaningless and a source of shame to the Church.  You are wrong.

You have supported every parent who threw their child out of the house for their “sinful lifestyle choices” or shipped them off to be “re-programmed.”  You have supported every charitable group that fired a leader or denied a volunteer because their love for another person contradicted the organization’s “values.”  You have sided with the hospitals who have blocked people from sitting beside the deathbed of their lifelong partner.  You have joined your voice with the chorus of people who, through actions large and small, have insulted, wounded, marginalized, and excluded our gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender brothers and sisters.

You are free to do so.  Likewise we are free to point out that such behavior is shameful and has no place in twenty-first century society.

Final Thoughts

Dan Cathy, Mike Huckabee, the Family Research Council, and all those who supported their prejudicial policies of exclusion and ignorance yesterday are on the losing side of history.  They know this, and that is why they are trying to hide their reprehensible “values” of intolerance behind empty and irrelevant rhetoric of Constitutional freedoms.  We must look past the innocuous-sounding language to the actual consequences of their policies.  The reality is that anti-LGBT laws and practices destroy families, break hearts, scar souls, deprive children of loving parents, block hard-working professionals from experiencing the fruits of their labors, and in every way make us weaker, poorer, and less healthy as a society.  It is our duty as citizens, and as neighbors, to correct that shameful injustice by consistently and unequivocally standing against bigotry wherever it rears its ugly head:  in the classroom; in the legislature; in the pulpit, bima, or minbar; and yes, even in the fast food line.

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On Homosexuality

Jonathan Embracing David - 18th Century Engraving

Jonathan Embraces David – Caspar Luiken (Wikipedia)

This is my standard response when someone asks me how I can, as a Christian pastor, affirm homosexuality.

The debate over homosexuality is really rooted in the debate over feminism (in its classic sense). Historically, Western Europeans viewed people as existing in two categories: male and female – with social, political, and religious roles determined by which category a person fell into. In the past century, most of us have come to recognize that we’re all just people, some of whom are male and some of whom are female, but that the male/female distinction does not allow us to make universal generalizations about people other than in regards to their role in reproduction.

This shift has allowed for another change in perspective. Previously, it was assumed that everyone was meant to be heterosexual, since all the members of one category were expected to reproduce with the members of the other category; althought not all at once since that gets messy. Consequently, any same-sex, sexual activity was viewed as aberrant from the norm. With a more nuanced understanding of sex and gender, however, came a more nuanced understanding of sexuality. Homosexuality has come to be understood as one of a couple of possible sexual orientations rather than as an activity that violates the only possible sexual orientation. Speaking in terms of Christian ethics and sin, this shift is important because discussions of orientation and identity run much deeper than issues of which behaviors are acceptable. (In addition, it is worth noting that, in my opinion, much of the hostility you now see directed at gay rights is redirected anger over the full inclusion of women in our society and our churches – another discussion for another time.)

OK, so the next question is: Is homosexuality an unhealthy sexual orientation born of the brokenness of the world, or does it have equal standing with heterosexuality. That is to say, is homosexuality, like heterosexuality, neither bad nor good? Are there healthy, God-honoring homosexual relationships just as there are healthy, God-honoring heterosexual ones? Here are three approaches commonly used by people who say “Yes, homosexuality is an equally valid sexual orientation for Christians.”

1. One approach is to say that Christianity is ultimately about an understanding of the nature of God, the cosmos, humanity, and eternity – not about specific behaviors. A Christian is a person who pursues a relationship with a loving God through the death of God’s only son, Jesus in the merciful hope of the resurrection. That relationship is intended to heal the sinful brokenness of humanity, but sin itself isn’t about specific behaviors (otherwise, to “save” ourselves, we would simply need to correct all of our bad behaviors). Sin is about a fundamental brokenness in ourselves and in our relationships, and only the self-sacrificing love of our merciful God can restore what is broken within and among us. Those who follow this approach typically do not look to the Scriptures for guidance on the acceptability of specific behaviors.

2. Another approach comes from biblical scholars who argue that the small number of texts that deal with homosexual behavior are not addressing the issue of committed, consensual, adult same-sex relationships. In other words, the biblical authors wrote in and for a cultural paradigm that could not conceive of homosexuality as an orientation, only as an aberrant behavior. Consequently, they lump it in with a lot of other behaviors which they considered obviously unhealthy or anti-social. In a different context and paradigm, however, it is now possible to have healthy, loving, monogamous, same-sex relationships, so the applicable biblical principles are not the ones criticizing homosexual behaviors but rather the ones that describe how to have healthy, mutually supportive marriages.

3. A third approach builds on the two above. Some Christians note that there will always be some ambiguity about what is and is not sinful, even as they also recognize that this does not make discussions of sin and ethics irrelevant. While Christians should work hard to lead sinless lives, the heart of Christianity remains the development of a mature relationship with a merciful God who (hopefully) understands that we sometimes have to make choices on issues about which we do not have full clarity. (This is, essentially, a more conservative restatement of position 1.) These folks also recognize that there is considerable ambiguity in the biblical texts about homosexuality (see position 2). With both of these points in mind, and faced with an ambiguous ethical situation, they choose the more charitable perspective.

In other words, if the applicability of these biblical texts to the current situation is unclear, and if ultimately relationship with God through Jesus is more important than precision on exactly what is and is not a sin, then – faced with no clear answer either way – should we chose to separate people who love each other and want to create healthy families together, or should we instead nurture their love and their families in our churches and in our communities? Is it more Christian to nurture commitment, faithfulness, and love or to block it?

Years ago, it was ultimately argument three that persuaded me.

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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.

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