Too Many Guns, Too Few Rules

(Originally published in Florida Voices)

President Barack Obama’s speech at the service for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School atrocity was one of the more remarkable recent moments in our national life.

To some, the speech may have seemed simply to be the president filling a time-honored role as national comforter in time of tragedy, but there was a tone to Obama’s speech that transcended both clichéd psychobabble and vague calls for policy debate.

It has been noted that Obama made free use of scripture, particularly the New Testament, in his speech. He relied on texts that do not provide cheap and easy answers in the face of evil acts, texts that suggest mystery and faith rather than weightless slogans. Anyone who doubts Obama’s professed Christianity would do well to study his speech.

But the president artfully shifted from comforter to prophet partway through the speech. It is the role of a prophet to speak the truth in such a way that everyone recognizes it, and that is precisely what Obama did.
Clearly these murders got to him in a profound way, and he realized that with this crime, the moment had arrived to say what needed to be said: We have all had enough of mass gun violence. That has been said before, but Obama said it with conviction and at a hushed moment when perhaps this time it may be heard.

The truth is that there are just too many guns and far too few regulations. It is no good pretending that this massacre could not be foreseen. After Columbine? After Aurora? How could it not have been? In that respect, we have all failed the victims of Newtown by not acting before now.

It was inevitable that in the wake of the shooting some people – including those we elect to enact  laws – would suggest that the way to stop such massacres is not fewer guns but more. One such lawmaker was Florida Sen. Dennis Baxley of Ocala, who said that on two occasions within days of the murders.

Baxley said that allowing school personnel to arm themselves on school grounds is one option that should be “on the table.”

“In our zealousness to protect people from harm, we’ve created all these gun-free zones and what we’ve inadvertently done is we’ve made them a target,” he said.

It is clear that Baxley does not understand what has happened here. People do not want a schoolteacher to pull out a magnum and blow away a killer after he has already shot several 6-year-olds. They want potential killers not to have guns in the first place.

And that is where, in addition to slapping some sense into politicians like Baxley, ordinary Americans can do one concrete thing themselves. They can stop buying guns. And further, they can master the fear that leads them to want a gun. Only a small fraction of homes are victim to random violence, yet how many households have a gun in them just because we do not believe that we are safe enough?

If Newtown causes people to revile weapons rather than stuff them in the side table and glove box, perhaps the tide of our national conscience may begin to turn, and the truth of Obama’s call of “enough” may spread.

It will be up to the president to keep the focus on this vexing issue, despite the pressures to abandon it. But it is also up to us to take up a rallying cry: Give up the guns. Remember Newtown.

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The Moral Cost of a T-shirt

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

Next time you buy a T-shirt at Disney World or Sears or Walmart, don’t smell it too closely. You might catch a scent of charred flesh.

The Associated Press reported recently that in the burned-out remains of the Tarzeen Fashions Ltd. factory outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, where a fire killed 112 workers, manufactured clothing and account books showed orders for several Western corporations, including Wal-Mart Stores, Sears and Disney.

An AP photo showed a sweatshirt lying on the floor of the factory bearing the cartoon image of Lightning McQueen, the hero of the Disney-owned Pixar movie “Cars.”

It is hardly a shock that garment-factory workers in Bangladesh and other Third World countries labor in unsafe conditions. In fact, more than 300 have died in fires in Bangladesh in the past six years, according to the AP.

These workers endure hardships, low wages and sometimes death so we can buy inexpensive clothing.
Western corporations who profit handsomely from this trade claim that they monitor conditions and don’t do business with factories that have unsafe conditions. Sears, Wal-Mart and Disney all said they had cut off contracts with Tarzeen Fashions because it violated safety standards and blamed subcontractors for placing orders with Tarzeen without their knowledge.

Perhaps, but it is hard to believe that someone at these corporations was not aware of where their apparel was being made.

We hear a lot these days that the free market is the answer to everything and that government regulation kills jobs. I once heard the uber-free-market economist Milton Friedman say in a lecture that during the era around the turn of the 20th century in America, when unregulated working conditions and abusive employer practices were rampant, American families raised their standard of living more than during any other period in our history.

That may be true, but they did so by working forced 12-hour days and sending their children to work in sweatshops and open-pit steel mills, where they routinely lost limbs. Lacking legal compulsion, corporate responsibility is rare.

Consider a case similar to the Tarzeen factory. A garment factory on the upper floors of a building caught fire and 146 people died, either by jumping to their deaths or from smoke inhalation or burns. The victims were mostly young women, the youngest 14. Managers had locked the exit doors – to prevent theft, they said.

This incident, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, happened March 25, 1911 in New York City. It remains the fourth-worst industrial accident in U.S. history, and it resulted in stronger regulation of working conditions.

There is a moral calculation that does not figure into Friedman’s econometric measures, an offense to conscience that we cannot stand when it comes to fairness and justice. If government regulation kills jobs, the absence of it kills people, and we have correctly decided we will not allow that.

The owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory were put on trial for manslaughter. They were acquitted but lost a civil suit. Police in Bangladesh announced that they arrested three managers at the Tarzeen factory who had locked the doors, preventing the workers from escaping.

It’s possible they will be acquitted as well, but already there have been large-scale protests in Bangladesh about working conditions. Perhaps stricken consciences will override economic interests and there will be reforms in Bangladesh.

Disney, Sears and all Western corporations that deal in garments manufactured overseas could go a long way toward helping that happen, if they want to. If that means adding a buck to the cost of that Mickey Mouse T-shirt, well, at least it won’t be stained with blood.

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Decline in Religious Affiliation Favors Democrats

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

The saying goes that in politics demographics is destiny, meaning that the sectors of the voting public you appeal to will determine the outcome.

There has been a lot of analysis about how Mitt Romney and his fellow Republicans were doomed in this election because they lost Hispanics, women and other subgroups.

I’m not convinced by the “demographics is destiny” argument. I think if an old white guy with the charm and political skills of Ronald Reagan came along, demographics would get swamped by popularity. But looking at how people voted along religious lines does yield some interesting trends.

The Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life (http://www.pewforum.org) has the best overall analysis of how the faithful voted. According to Pew, things did not change much in 2012 from the last few elections: “traditionally Republican groups such as white evangelicals and weekly churchgoers strongly backed Romney, while traditionally Democratic groups such as black Protestants, Hispanic Catholics, Jews and the religiously unaffiliated backed Obama by large margins.”

Obama did not do as well with almost every religious group as he did in 2008, but the declines were not significant enough to swing the election. One exception where he did better, by 3 percentage points: Hispanic Catholics.

The recriminations among white evangelicals toward Romney and the Republican Party might be summed up in an opinion piece by Mat Staver, chairman of the Orlando-based Liberty Counsel, a conservative Christian legal advocacy organization.

Staver wrote on the web site of Charisma, a magazine aimed at Pentecostals, that the problem lay in the Republican establishment, who favored the moderate Romney, and in Romney’s refusal to discuss social issues in favor of a single-minded focus on the economy.

“While evangelical Christians represented 26 percent of the total vote in 2008 and again in 2012, the issues that matter to this voting bloc were largely ignored! This enormous voting bloc could produce positive change if it had a pro-life, pro-marriage candidate who would inspire and unify them,” Staver wrote.

Staver’s claim that some conservative Protestants stayed home in this election may be correct, but according to Pew, Romney actually polled better among white evangelicals who did vote than did John McCain in 2008.

“Romney received as much support from evangelical voters as George W. Bush did in 2004 (79%) and more support from evangelicals than McCain did in 2008 (73%),” Pew reports. So much for evangelicals’ reluctance to vote for a Mormon.

In fact, Romney’s faith – a point of contention during the primaries – mostly disappeared from the radar after it was clear he would be the nominee. Prejudice against Mormons was not the reason Romney lost.

Demographics do count for something, and a graphic from the Public Religion Research Institute indicates the religious challenge facing Republicans. Titled “The End of the White Christian Strategy,” it shows that the coalition of religious groups that voted for Romney is virtually identical to the religious makeup of Americans 65 and older. Obama’s coalition of religious groups is similar to that of Americans 18 to 29.

The challenge especially falls along the lines of the religiously unaffiliated vs. regular churchgoers. Studies have shown that the numbers of Catholics and Protestants who are most faithful are declining, while the fastest-growing group is comprised of those who claim no religious affiliation. White evangelicals were the biggest bloc in Romney’s coalition – 37 percent of his total. Religiously unaffiliated voters were Obama’s biggest bloc – 23 percent.

It’s always possible that younger voters might be swept with religious fervor as they age and migrate to the Republican Party. But as the parties are currently constituted, a key Republican component will be gone within 20 years, while the Democrats’ future looks bright.

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Abuses Shielded by Religion

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

A harrowing recent series in the Tampa Bay Times detailed how for 30 years a handful of homes for troubled youth have used a misguided exemption in Florida law to get away with all manner of abuses by using religion as a shield.

These homes have gone unregulated because of a 1984 provision that removes religious homes from state oversight and places them under what is essentially a self-regulatory body whose oversight is, to say the least, lax.

Among the abuses committed by these homes were beatings, extended isolation, shackling and sexual crimes as well. The homes have almost completely gotten away with it until now, and fortunately the Times series has forced the state to start an investigation.

The series did not give the history behind the 1984 exemption, only that it was passed due to the efforts of a handful of pastors – presumably of a fundamentalist Christian persuasion – and a powerful state legislator. Reading between the lines, my guess is that this exemption and the mess it created has to do with corporal punishment, which was beginning to be forbidden in schools and state-supervised homes about that time.

The behavioral sciences have since the 1960s discouraged corporal punishment on the grounds that it does more harm than good, and this defines a clash of values. The issue is not just about spanking. Fundamentalists, and sometimes their more moderate cousins, evangelicals, distrust the philosophy that would forbid corporal punishment.

It’s true that psychology and sociology sometimes have far-out ideas, but for conservative Protestants the distrust lies in their assumptions about the nature of human beings. The behavioral sciences tend to assume that human nature is naturally disposed toward improvement. The right techniques that lead to greater self-awareness will result in better mental health, more happiness, etc.

Protestantism traditionally has taken a more skeptical view. Protestant theology has asserted that human nature is naturally sinful and incapable of improvement on its own and that the only remedy for this is reliance upon the grace of God. Only by obedience to the will and ways of God is a human being able to find joy and ultimately salvation.

Regrettably, this theology sometimes has been twisted and exaggerated to produce a harsh, unyielding form of disciplining children that has little to do with the Bible from which it is supposedly drawn. It is overlaid with secular conservative values – independence, traditional views of gender roles, admiration for physical courage and so on.

So when psychologists say that spanking is bad for a child, it goes against the grain. It’s one more bit of evidence to fundamentalists that  the behavioral sciences embrace views that are contrary to the word of God.

In this case, they wielded political muscle to isolate themselves from  obeying the laws of the state, laws that were put in place to protect children from the excesses that some of these misguided people thought were necessary to uphold their values.

To be fair, not all evangelicals hold these views, as the Times’ Alexandra Zayas points out in one of her stories. And even officials at Southern Baptist Children’s agencies were against the exemption at the time it was proposed because of the potential for abuse.

It goes without saying that this exemption was a bad idea from the beginning. When the welfare of children is at stake, even well-intentioned people cannot be given a blank check.

Of course, if the people running these homes had paid closer attention to the teachings of Jesus, including the Golden Rule – “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you” – there might not have been any abuses in the first place.

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Public Money for Religious Schools? No.

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

Several ill-advised proposals to amend the state constitution are on the ballot next week, and one of them would do away with Florida’s so-called Blaine Amendment that forbids state money from being used for “sectarian” purposes.

“Sectarian” refers among other things to religious matters, and this proposal, Amendment 8, taps into a complicated history.

In the late 1800s, Catholic immigrants protested the practices in public schools, which reflected the prevailing Protestant ethos of the country and frequently included prayers and exhortations that had an unabashed Protestant character.

So Catholics started their own school systems, and they complained that because the alternative was forcing their children to endure Protestant indoctrination paid for by tax dollars, Catholics were entitled to public money to pay for schools that supported their own faith.

In 1875, James G. Blaine, Speaker of the U.S. House, proposed an amendment to the Constitution that would have made it clear that no public money should ever be given to religious or religiously sponsored organizations. Blaine was not anti-Catholic himself, but there was strong sentiment against public funds going to Catholic schools.

Even though the amendment failed, states were quick to pick up the effort, and eventually 37 state constitutions, including Florida’s, had Blaine Amendments.

Supporters of Amendment 8 have tried to spin it different ways: that it eliminates a vestige of bigotry against Catholics; that because religious organizations cannot bid for state money they are being treated unfairly, and so on. They have also tried to say it has nothing to do with funding private religious education through vouchers, which is very hard to believe.

Times have changed, and today it is evangelicals complaining about their kids being indoctrinated with secular ideologies in public school. They’ve teamed up with Catholics, whose position has never changed, and they are salivating at the prospect of tapping state coffers to pay for students’ tuition at religious schools.

After all, private education is expensive and a voucher for the per-pupil amount the local public school would get makes St. Perpetua Catholic School or Triumph Christian Academy a lot more attractive to the parents of prospective students.

In theory, the U.S. Constitution forbids this under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that vouchers may be permissible under some circumstances. The ironclad language of the Blaine Amendment is standing in the way of Florida private school administrators, and Amendment 8 is their weapon to smash that barrier.

Contrary to the convictions of militant atheists and the ACLU, there are certain circumstances in which a partnership between the state and religious institutions is a good thing and ought to be encouraged. Where a denominational organization provides social services, they should be able to do so under contract with a modicum of guidelines about proselytizing.

But education is a very different kettle of fish. Religious groups have no rights to public money when it comes to funding private schools, precisely because religious indoctrination is part and parcel of the mission of those schools, and taxpayers should not have to pay for that.

Religious groups can complain all they want that they are being discriminated against, but one U.S. Supreme Court ruling to the contrary, there is a long legal and cultural tradition against mingling public monies with private religious education. What they call discrimination is in fact only being compelled to obey that tradition.

Some religious organizations that might otherwise legitimately be able to contract with the state are shut out under the Blaine Amendment, and that’s too bad. But if that’s the price to pay to keep religious schools’ hands out of the state till, so be it.

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The Letter That Changed a Congressman’s Mind

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

It’s hard to explain to high school kids today, but there was a time when teenagers were conscripted — against their wills — into military service and sent halfway around the world into live-fire combat zones that make Afghanistan look like a training exercise.

I faced that prospect. Reports of full-on battles in jungle terrain against trained, regimental-strength troops have a way of focusing the mind. My friends and I discussed in earnest whether we would take our chances on getting drafted, go ahead and enlist, or flee to Canada. Many of us were saved from those choices – to say nothing of death – by a new military doctrine in the Vietnam War. They called it de-escalation.

It wasn’t actually a military doctrine, but a political necessity. Millions of patriotic middle-class Americans decided they did not want their sons drafted and killed for a cause that had little to do with their security, and politicians listened.

It’s rather appalling that the Bush Administration and the American public believed they could wage a similar war in Afghanistan on the cheap, without the political cost. The Obama Administration, too, has tried to keep things at a low boil. Except for the soldiers who’ve paid with their lives or limbs, and their loved ones, Afghanistan has become a mosquito for most Americans, an annoying buzz in the background, an “oh-are-we-still-there?” response when mentioned.

But now it appears the public and our political leaders are waking from their slumber and saying “enough.” On Sept. 30, the Tampa Bay Times published a detailed and sobering report about the tragic death of Army Staff Sgt. Matt Sitton of Largo, who dared to complain to his congressman about the increasing pointlessness of the war.

Sitton was a gung-ho soldier, a Ranger sniper who at first was fully committed to the idea of bringing freedom to oppressed Afghans. But on his third deployment, he saw that things had changed on the ground. Afghans no longer wanted us there, and Afghan soldiers and police were beginning to turn against our troops.

He wrote in June to Rep. C.W. Bill Young of St. Petersburg, who is chairman of the House Subcommittee on Defense Appropriations and previously a staunch supporter of the war. Sitton said commanders were sending troops on patrols — and into minefields — for no real purpose.

Not two months later, Sitton was killed by a mine. He left behind a wife and a son. Young had Sitton’s letter read at a congressional hearing and announced he had changed his mind – it was time for American troops to leave Afghanistan. Others may follow Young’s lead.

President Obama’s plan to gradually withdraw American troops has more than a year to run its course, which feels like an awfully long time. With the increasing number of attacks on American forces by Afghan soldiers and police who are supposed to be allies, events could rapidly overtake Obama’s gradualism. Concern for those who wear the uniform can cause even a hawk to take up an olive branch.

We have lost 2,000 American lives in Afghanistan, just 1/25th of the number killed in Vietnam. But the numbers are not the main point.

No nation can fight a war forever. No principle or ideal can survive the indefinite drain of blood and money. Public unrest abruptly reversed a military strategy in Vietnam that could be summed up as “more is better.” Sooner or later, people will demand peace, and governments ignore those demands at their peril.

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Archbishop Dolan Prays without Partisanship

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

In his excellent new book, “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics,” Ross Douthat describes how the heresy of nationalism – idolizing the nation – has rendered American religious groups captive to partisan politics.

“If you don’t want to vote for George W. Bush because of the Iraq War then you’re playing into the hands of Christianity’s left-wing enemies. If you can’t vote for Barack Obama because of abortion, then you’re an accomplice to the shredding of the Constitution. You simply cannot be a social democrat and an orthodox Catholic, or a conservative Christian who’s also genuinely antiwar,” he writes.

This polarization became evident again when the Catholic Archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, agreed to give the concluding benediction at the Republican National Convention in Tampa. On the left, Sarah Posner blogged at Salon.com that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, of which Dolan is president, “has unequivocally attached itself at the hip to the Republican Party.” Republicans, trying to fan anti-Democratic flames among Catholics, were gleeful that such an outspoken Catholic leader would make an appearance.

Two problems became apparent with the complaints on the left and the rejoicing on the right. One was that Dolan proved to be an equal-opportunity man of prayer. No sooner had he agreed to pray at the Republican Convention than it was announced that he would pray at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte this week. Dolan will have the distinction of being the only person to immediately follow each party’s nominee – Mitt Romney and Barack Obama – after their acceptance speeches.

The second problem was that nobody had yet heard Dolan’s prayer. It was a model of civil religion, quoting the Declaration of Independence and “America the Beautiful” more than the Bible.

Here’s part of what he said: “(W)e ask your guidance for those who govern us, and on those who would govern us: the president, and vice-president, the Congress, the Supreme Court, and on all those who seek to serve the common good by seeking public office, especially Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan. Make them all worthy to serve you by serving our country.”

That’s a noble sentiment that neatly managed to pray for Obama and Romney in one sentence. It’s true that Dolan made brief references to two issues more aligned with Republicans – abortion and religious freedom – but he also twice asked blessings for immigrants, an issue more favorable to Democrats.

In short, Dolan pulled off what Catholics have been doing for centuries now, and which politically active conservative Protestants have not yet gotten the hang of. He spoke of truths that transcend the politics of the moment, which both sides need to hear.

To be sure, Dolan is not completely above suspicion of partisanship. The Conference of Catholic Bishops’ fight with the Obama Administration about contraceptive provisions in the Affordable Care Act under the guise of “religious liberty” seems disingenuous. And abortion remains the issue without parallel or compromise for Catholic leaders.

Still, as Douthat says, “One need not agree with the exact balance they’ve struck to admire the consistency with which the Catholic bishops have defied easy partisan categorization over the years…” He is correct that what we need is faith that addresses the work of governing, without being partisan.

Republicans and Democrats who seek to use Dolan for their own ends will be disappointed, and that is an entirely good thing.

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Akin’s Apology

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

Forgiveness is an increasingly rare quality these days. We live in an age that seems to have lost the capacity to forgive. The demand instead is for justice in as harsh terms as possible, for the redressing of wrongs.

So when someone, especially a public figure, asks for forgiveness, often the response is a resounding “No! Let ’em get what they deserve.” And that brings us to the curious case of Todd Akin.

Akin, the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Missouri, was asked in an interview whether there should be any exceptions to proposed restrictions on abortion, including in cases of rape. He replied that women who are victims of rape – “legitimate rape,” in his words – rarely get pregnant because “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Akin’s magical-thinking approach to biology and his discomfort at discussing a woman’s reproductive system (“that whole thing”) might be funny if we weren’t talking about such a horrific crime.

The resulting political firestorm has been embarrassing and potentially catastrophic to his campaign and his party, so he has attempted damage control by apologizing for the remarks. And he took the further step of asking for forgiveness.

In his apology ad, Akin said rape is “an evil act” and admitted that rape can cause pregnancy. Here’s the operative part of his mea culpa: “I used the wrong words in the wrong way and for that I apologize. … I have a compassionate heart for the victims of sexual assault. I pray for them. … The mistake I made was in the words I said, not in the heart I hold. I ask for your forgiveness.”

Akin is known for his conservative Protestant beliefs, and notice how they are evident in these scripted remarks. He used the language of transgression: “evil” for the act under discussion and “wrong” and “mistake” for his own speech. He used the word “heart” twice, first joining it with “compassionate,” a borrowing of biblical language that refers both to affinity and to the innermost self. He spoke of praying for victims. Akin tries to identify his transgression as a too-casual use of words, not callousness.

Finally, Akin makes a simple plea, again couched in biblical terms: he asks for forgiveness. In Akin’s religious world, this represents the depth of sincerity. It is a confession of wrongdoing, a baring of the soul and an attempt to repair what has been torn.

It is easy to question this sincerity. Jonathan Capehart of the Washington Post called it “a crocodile tear of an ad,” and skeptics may ask whether Akin would have expressed such remorse if his political career were not suddenly in jeopardy.

Forgiveness is not always easily granted, depending on the offense. In this case, Akin made an outrageous statement that insulted the sensibilities of many women and the intellect of everyone. Some would not forgive Akin if their life depended on it.

My view is that Akin was sincere in his apology, but his sincerity can’t hide a paternalistic view toward women. Voters can be indulgent and grant him forgiveness for his clumsiness and still decide that his judgments about women and reproductive choice should not be given a seat in the U.S. Senate.

It is a legitimate – to use Akin’s word – public policy issue whether abortion should be permitted and under what circumstances, including in cases of rape. Akin has asserted his position, and his fate is in the hands of Missourians. He may receive forgiveness. Votes may be harder to come by.

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A Fond Farewell to Bishop Tim Whitaker

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

During the annual meeting of the Florida United Methodist Conference in June, a wickedly satirical video was shown poking good-natured fun at retiring Bishop Timothy Whitaker, a mild-mannered intellectual who reads books on fifth-century Trinitarian theology for fun.

The “farewell address” portrayed an unbridled Whitaker daydreaming about a retirement that includes skinny-dipping and competing on a Polish version of “The Voice,” singing about theology to the tune of “Brown-Eyed Girl.” It was hilarious, but induced wistfulness among his admirers about his departure.

Whitaker has been bishop of the Florida Conference for 11 years and has overseen organizational changes to foster cohesion and bring accountability to clergy performance. But like the United Methodist Church nationwide, and most organized religions generally, the conference continues to decline in members. In interviews over the years, Whitaker expressed disappointment about that, but also realism. The cultural forces at work over 40 years are not going to be reversed by one man.

In some ways, the United Methodist Church is a victim of its efforts to be, as St. Paul put it, “all things to all people.” Because it is excessively concerned with giving all parties and groups a voice, it has become organizationally paralyzed, as was demonstrated by the General Conference at its quadrennial policy-making meeting in April in Tampa. The event was widely regarded as a debacle, a genteel free-for-all that accomplished little.

Taking Whitaker’s place on Sept. 1 will be the Rev. Kenneth H. Carter Jr., of North Carolina, who was elected last month. Carter, 54, has been a successful pastor, leading churches that defied larger trends by growing. In an article in The Ledger of Lakeland, the Rev. Jorge Acevedo, senior pastor of Grace Church in Fort Myers, said Carter is someone dedicated to appealing to a younger generation.

“He’s a voice of reason and a strong voice of growth,” Acevedo said. “Our denomination is not doing well and Bishop Carter has been one of those voices of renewal.”

And yet Whitaker was a successful pastor before becoming bishop. Like him, Carter may find it more difficult to translate success among congregations that sprawl from the Apalachicola River to Key West.

Whitaker was widely liked by lay people and generally respected by the clergy, although some thought he needed to exercise more control over the bureaucracy. But he had the remarkable idea that his job was to be a spiritual leader who would attend to the faith, hopes and charity of his flock and leave the administration of Conference programs to others.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to measure how much stronger are United Methodist churches in Florida in their beliefs and their efforts to minister to their communities. Maybe, in the end, that matters more than numbers.

Preliminary indications are that Carter is likely to be more interested in the day-to-day affairs of the Conference. His challenge will be to keep his congregations focused on ministering to their local communities, rather than bickering about political and cultural issues. That, in the end, will matter more than numbers.

Whitaker will return to Virginia, where he should enjoy his retirement content that he has, as St. Paul wrote, “fought the good fight … finished the race (and) kept the faith.”

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Same Crime, Different Outcries

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

It’s interesting to contrast reactions to two judgments handed down this week for nearly identical crimes. The reactions speak volumes about our priorities.

On Monday, the NCAA announced Penn State would be fined $60 million, lose football scholarships and be banned from bowl games for four years for the institution’s failure to report child sex abuse that officials – including head football coach Joe Paterno – knew was being committed by assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.

Some pronounced the punishment just, but in other quarters there was a huge outcry. The NCAA was too harsh, it was punishing innocent players, it was tarnishing the image of a coach who ran one of the cleanest programs in college football. Although Sandusky’s crimes against children were conceded as horrible, punishing the school for a cover-up by its leaders was somehow considered out-of-bounds.

Now consider the other judgment, handed down the very next day against Monsignor William Lynn of the Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Lynn, the staff member responsible for looking into charges of child sex abuse by priests, was sentenced to three to six years in prison for felony child endangerment. In the case of the Rev. Edward Avery, Lynn covered up credible evidence that the priest had molested a boy and then assigned that priest to a church where he assaulted an altar boy.

Lynn’s attorney and the archdiocese called the sentence unfair. Anybody else rush to his defense? Uh-uh.

Two institutions. A similar crime – covering up child sexual abuse to protect an institution. Committed around the same time and only 200 miles apart. Yet utterly different reactions.

Why? Simple: football. Crippling a powerful program that commands huge dollars and rabid loyalties was too much for its fans to bear. And let’s just say the Catholic Church doesn’t have quite the same effect on its faithful as the Nittany Lions do on theirs.

To be sure, there are differences between the two situations. While the Penn State scandal was unprecedented for a major college football program, the Catholic Church has been dealing with fallout from its scandals across the country for almost 20 years now, although this was the first time an official has been convicted of a crime for covering up child abuse.

But to push the comparison a step further, isn’t it true that Lynn’s counterparts at Penn State were President Graham Spanier, Athletic Director Tim Curley, Vice President Gary Schultz and Paterno himself? Curley and Schultz face criminal charges, and Spanier is under a grand jury investigation. If Paterno had not died in January, might not he be facing indictment as well?

And why wouldn’t he, if he committed the same crime as Lynn? On what basis would those applauding Lynn’s sentence defend Paterno? Just because he was an extraordinarily successful and beloved football coach?

We in Florida should not be too smug. Given the way football rivalries dominate the university life of this state, it is fatuous to suppose that what happened in Pennsylvania couldn’t happen here. If a similar scandal had happened at Florida State, it’s easy to imagine that officials might have deferred to Bobby Bowden’s judgment as Curley did to Paterno’s.

What does it say about our society that we declare hanging is too good for a priest who covered up abuse, but a college football program that does the same is allowed to continue to take the field?

What it says is that our priorities – and our moral values – are very, very skewed.

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