fresh voices from the front lines of change







It’s always amusing when God (if — and I know I risk losing a huge chunk of readers by writing this — there is one) gets dragged into politics. After all, with an entire universe to run (unless you’re a Deist of the Thomas Jefferson variety), you have to admit it’s kind of funny when mere mortals assume that She (or He, if you prefer) has nothing more pressing to do that take sides in everything from our presidential elections to city council meetings. Our knack for turning the sublime into the ridiculous may not match turning water into wine, but it’s good for a laugh if it’s good for anything.

This past week’s sublime ridiculousness comes via politicos who had copies of the Democratic and Republican platforms, and enough skill to use basic search functions to determine which party gave God the most shout-outs in its platform. The almost funny part is that if God took the time to read at least one of those platforms, the most She (or He, if you prefer) would likely say is, “At least you spelled my name right.”

As much as I hate to encourage this type of behavior, it’s far too engrained for me to think it will stop anytime soon. Besides, I consider myself a Buddhist these days, but I was raised Baptist — in the South — in a family that’s produced several Baptist ministers. Growing up, I spoke so well in Sunday School, that people thought I might “get the call” myself. Alas, I never did. (By then, I’d heard a different call. Nature’s call, and it was irreconcilable with my Baptist upbringing.)

But I did teach Sunday School for a few years, before leaving for college. Being an old Sunday School teacher I can’t resist jumping in, because it seems like we’re focusing on the wrong questions. Instead of asking which party mentions God most in its platform, shouldn’t we be asking, “What in God’s name are they doing in their platforms?”

Sometime before going to bed Wednesday night, I learned of the most pressing political issues of our time: Apparently the Democratic Party’s platform didn’t include a single mention of God (not to mention Israel or Jerusalem). I went to bed hoping that the Democrats, having spent the first couple of nights establishing the values that inform their party platform, would be too smart to fall for such crass, middle-schoolish point-scoring.

I should have known better.

A rare unscripted moment at the Democratic National Convention here Wednesday resulted in an embarrassing moment for the party that is certain to be used in Republican television ads over the next two months.

After they took heat for omitting any reference to “God” in their platform, and for eliminating languagefrom the 2008 platform that identified Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Democrats tried to add the language back into their party platform with a voice vote.

A source informed on the deliberations told The Huffington Post that President Obama personally intervened to strengthen the language. Speaking with HuffPost, a senior Obama administration official also confirmed the president’s involvement.

But when Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the convention chairman, came to the podium to ask for the approval of the delegates, those who shouted opposition to the language change were as loud, if not louder, than those who voiced their support.

It was the usual Democratic reaction when it comes to religion or social issues: the far right cracks the whip on everything from abortion to gay rights, and the Democrats jump over the flaming hoop (or burning bush, as the case may be). The thing was, Democrats didn’t need to get themselves in an uproar. They may not have noticed it yet, but times have changed to the point that social issues have evolved into winning issues for Democrats.

Besides, God may not have gotten a mention in the original Democratic platform, but God was definitely “in the mix.” If Jesus read the Republican platform, he’d probably turn to his omni-parent and complain,” Mom (or Dad, if you prefer), it’s like they didn’t hear a thing I said.”

Elizabeth Warren drew the clearest distinction when she called attention to a Biblical passage that informs much of the Democratic platform.

On Wednesday night at the DNC, Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren drew attention to a New Testament passage that has had increasing significance for the Democratic Party: the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25. “‘In as much as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me,'” she said, quoting Jesus. “The passage teaches about God in each of us, that we are bound to each other and we are called to act, not to sit, not to wait, but to act all of us together.”

The Bible passage became popular among Democrats in 2008, when strategist Mara Vanderslice founded the Matthew 25 Network, a grassroots PAC to organize the Christian left for Obama. Since then, Democrats have used Jesus’ message of caring for the poor to connect with evangelicals on issues ranging from environmentalism to the economy.

“Ms. Warren, like Democrats throughout the week, embodied the faith of the Democratic Party for the nation to see and hear,” explains Democratic consultant Burns Strider. “She showcased the compassion, authenticity and comfort of articulating the shared American values Democrats largely derive from a faith in God.”

If that’s not clear enough, the party platform’s “Faith” section should make it plain enough.

Faith has always been a central part of the American story, and it has been a driving force of progress and justice throughout our history. We know that our nation, our communities, and our lives are made vastly stronger and richer by faith and the countless acts of justice and mercy it inspires. Faith-based organizations will always be critical allies in meeting the challenges that face our nation and our world – from domestic and global poverty, to climate change and human trafficking. People of faith and religious organizations do amazing work in communities across this country and the world, and we believe in lifting up and valuing that good work, and finding ways to support it where possible. We believe in constitutionally sound, evidence-based partnerships with faith-based and other non-profit organizations to serve those in need and advance our shared interests. There is no conflict between supporting faith-based institutions and respecting our Constitution, and a full commitment to both principles is essential for the continued flourishing of both faith and country.

“The Least of These”

I haven’t come across any mention of what the Republican party’s favorite Bible verse might be. My guess is that it probably doesn’t have anything to do with getting a camel through the eye of a needle (Matthew 19:24), and doesn’t start with “Render unto Ceasar..” (Mark 12:17). (Though, if I were to guess, I expect it would probably begin with “Thou shalt not…”)

In the absence of a “favorite” GOP Bible verse, perhaps its worth considering how “the least of these” fare under the GOP agenda as laid out by its leaders and in its platform.

  • The Poor: They can still get through the eye of that needle, but there’s gonna be a cover charge. These lazy “lucky duckies” will finally pay their fair share, when Republicans raise their taxes.
  • The Hungry: Forget about loaves and fishes. Some 13 million of these folks, including nearly 5 million of their children, and a good many red-state residents, will have to get their junk foodsomewhere else, when the GOP puts the food stamp program on a starvation diet.
  • The Sick: Where to begin? After repeated attempts at repeal, the benefits of health care reform will be gone. Healing will be for those who can afford it. If not, take up thy bed and walk … away. As for the rest of us — the 6.6 million students who can now be carried on their parents health insurance until they ‘re 26, the millions of Americans who have preexisting conditions, those who struggle with lifetime limits on their insurance coverage, the five million seniors now receiving help with their prescription costs, the 30 million who now have insurance they didn’t before — we’ll be left to the tender mercies of the market. That could make the additional 32,000 of us who will die as a result of not having health insurance look like the lucky ones.
  • The Poor and Sick (and Elderly and Disabled): I don’t have much to add to what Bill Clinton had to say at the Democratic convention. Republicans still want to gut Medicaid, by slashing a third of its funding and handing it to states to slash even further. What happens to the poor, the sick, the elderly, the disabled and their families, middle-class families with grandparents in nursing homes and/or in need of long-term care won’t be pretty at all. Look for the GOP Governors’ Death Panel to see a spike in membership. 

As I wrote in February of this year, this is what New Jersey Governor Chris Christie meant when he promised GOP donors that “pain will be inflicted.”

This summer, during the debate over raising the debt ceiling, Republicans used a clip from The Town, a movie staring Ben Affleck, to rally their caucus to support John Boehner’s debt plan … and “hurt some people.” In September, the New Jersey governor promised wealthy attendees at a Koch-sponsored seminar that “pain will be inflicted” if or when conservatives implement their economic agenda.

So far, the right has been disappointed in their desire to “hurt some people.” But if it gets him the votes he needs to win his party’s nomination, Mitt Romney is willing to promise them that they will finally get to “hurt some people,” if they just get him elected. Mitt Romney is willing to promise conservatives not only that “pain will be inflicted,” but how much and upon whom. That pain will be the real narrative of a Romney presidency, at least for 99 percent of us.

This is the “Bully Economy” — in which “the strong do what they will, and the weak endure what they must” —

 Where Is The Love?

But the GOP platform reminds me of another verse I grew up hearing:

“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal” Conrinthians 13:1.

Where is the love? It would seem obvious that in the GOP agenda the “tough choices” are toughest on those already having the toughest time. From the poor and the sick (and their children), to the elderly and disabled, most of the pain and sacrifice is borne by “the least of these.” The dozen or so mentions of God seem like a lot of noise — a “resounding gong or clanging cymbal,” if you will — compared to what looks like the complete abandonment of the poor in the GOP platform.

The Catholic Bishops and the faculty of Georgetown University — hardly your “godless liberal” bunch — seemed to think this was a serious problem with Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposed budget, the one now embraced by Mitt Romney and the Republican party. The bishops said, in a series of letters, that Ryan’s budget “fails to meet the moral criteria” of their shared faith where the poor are concerned. The faculty of Georgetown University, in a letter sent to Ryan in advance of his appearance to deliver a lecture on campus, said that his budget would have a devastating impact on the poor.

The letter quotes the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which wrote several letters to Congress saying “a just framework for future budgets cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor persons.” The bishops noted that “the House-passed budget resolution fails to meet these moral criteria.” Last week, Rep. Ryan dismissed the bishops’ critique, erroneously claiming the letters didn’t represent “all the bishops,” a point the USCCB media office denied.

“I am afraid that Chairman Ryan’s budget reflects the values of his favorite philosopher Ayn Rand rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ,” said Father Reese. “Survival of the fittest may be okay for Social Darwinists but not for followers of the gospel of compassion and love.”

The letters were in response to Ryan’s comments that his budget has deep roots in his Catholic religious faith.

Paul Ryan: A person’s faith is central to how they conduct themselves in public and in private. So to me, using my Catholic faith, we call it the social magisterium, which is how do you apply the doctrine of your teaching into your everyday life as a lay person?

To me, the principle of subsidiarity, which is really federalism, meaning government closest to the people governs best, having a civil society of the principal of solidarity where we, through our civic organizations, through our churches, through our charities, through all of our different groups where we interact with people as a community, that’s how we advance the common good. By not having big government crowd out civic society, but by having enough space in our communities so that we can interact with each other, and take care of people who are down and out in our communities.

Those principles are very very important, and the preferential option for the poor, which is one of the primary tenants of Catholic social teaching, means don’t keep people poor, don’t make people dependent on government so that they stay stuck at their station in life. Help people get out of poverty out onto life of independence.

The New York Times criticized Ryan for not saying how he would “make them self-sufficient,” missing a point picked up by Jared Bernstein:

What struck me was the Times’ complaint that the new VP candidate “failed to explain how he would make them self-sufficient.” Such a complaint reveals an important misunderstanding of the agenda that Rep. Ryan, the Tea Party, and now the Romney ticket are embracing. It’s there in the numbers and it’s there in the rhetoric.

The point is that they wouldn’t do anything to make anyone more self-sufficient. That’s up to the individual. The heart of their theory of what’s hurting America is that government is trying to do things that people should do for themselves. That extends to health care, regulation, jobs programs, college aid, even retirement security.

Basically, conservatives don’t have to do anything to help the poor, other than cut off government assistance, and force them to “get off the couch,” in the words of Maine Gov. Paul LePage, and find other alternatives or simply do without food, medical care, and the other needs assistance had helped them meet. Removing assistance makes those who survive “self-sufficient.” It’s cold, but efficient.

Thus, Paul Ryan can at least convince himself that his budget does not harm the poor — not in the long run, at least, and not those who manage to become self-sufficient.

A Sermon You Can See

For me, my mother has always been an example quiet faith that speaks loudest with its actions. For as long as I can remember, she’s been engaged in helping others; quietly, without fanfare, and mostly without receiving or looking for special recognition. While I was growing up and even long after I’d graduated from college and moved to Washington, my mother worked to support her church’s food bank, which gave food to low-income families in the community around the church. For a number of years, she ranthe food bank. In addition, she could be found in the church kitchen after a funeral, helping to feed the family of the deceased and other bereaved. She’s also helped council teenage mothers in the community.

She’s not shy about her faith, yet she doesn’t wear it on her sleeve either. And she has little patience with people who do make a big deal of their religion if their faith doesn’t show in their actions. “A sermon you can see,” she always says, “is better than any you can hear.”

My Southern Baptist mom has more than a little in common with the Nuns on the Bus, and would certainly identify with their rolling “sermon you can see.” She would probably also have an “Amen” or two for the speech Sister Simone Campbell gave at the Democratic convention.

What Obama actually said in 170 words or so is the same thing Martin Luther King used to say in four: “All life is interrelated.” So if you built a business, said Obama, part of its success is due to the fact that “there was a great teacher somewhere in your life” or that someone sacrificed to “create this unbelievable American system” that allowed you to thrive, or to the fact that “somebody invested in roads and bridges” over which your inventory traveled. Contrary to the GOP narrative, he didn’t deny the importance of initiative. “The point,” he said, “is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.”

…Enter Sister Campbell. This nun, whose social activism has put her at odds with the Vatican, did not talk business. She talked about the “nuns on the bus” tour she undertook to contest cutbacks to services for vulnerable Americans that would be necessary under the budget envisioned by Romney and his running mate. And about the people she met along the way.

Like the 10-year-old twin boys in Toledo who act as sole caregivers for their bedridden mother. Like “Billy,” from Milwaukee whose job has cut back his hours and who could not make it without food stamps. Like “Jini” in Cincinnati whose sister Margaret lost her job, lost her health insurance and so, lost her life when she was diagnosed with cancer.

“I am my sister’s keeper,” said Campbell. “I am my brother’s keeper.” Can you remember when that went without saying?

This was Obama’s point. In a recent song, Bruce Springsteen put it like this: “We take care of our own.”

And we do. Or at least, we should.

The question just under the surface of the “God-in-the-platform” brouhaha isn’t what most people think it is, and certainly not what conservatives would have people think it is. It’s the essential question of this election, if you ask me: Not how we “take care of our own,” but whether we should.

Both major parties have their platforms. One invokes God’s name again and again without answering either question. The other didn’t include originally any shout-outs to God, but did go a long way towards answering the question of how we “take care of our own,” suggesting that at least one party has answered for itself the question of whether should.

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