Sarah Palin and ‘God, Guns and Constitution’

(Originally published in Florida Voices)

Sarah Palin was in town in Lakeland last week. She was the headline speaker at the annual Leadership Forum at Southeastern University, an Assemblies of God school. The Forum is aimed at pastors and Christian business leaders who pay mucho bucks to listen to famous and semi-famous politicians, business executives and celebrity ministers give motivational talks.

The event inclines toward a sentimental, self-reliant and rags-to-riches kind of narrative, overlaid with evangelical theology. You might pick up an occasional scrap of inspiration or advice if you’re inclined to that sort of thing. Palin is tailor-made for this Forum.

According to an article in The Ledger, Lakeland’s daily newspaper, Palin’s “passionate talk was peppered with such vibrant cries as ‘Cling to your God, your guns, your Constitution!’ and pleas for the next generation to change the country’s moral fiber. ‘That will make our foundation crumble if we choose to ignore it,’ she said.”

There was more along the same lines, but how can you ignore “Cling to your God, your guns, your Constitution”? It would be easy to dismiss this as a rant or even to laugh at the contradiction of urging people to cling to God and guns in one breath. I’ll come back to the contradiction, but there is an internal logic here that is worth considering for a moment.

In fact, God and guns are either implicit or explicit in the first two Amendments to the Constitution, the First guaranteeing freedom of religion and the Second (the courts have held) guaranteeing the right to private ownership of firearms. So from the point of view of someone wishing to insist on Constitutional rights – or in this case fearing that they are threatened – it’s easy to put God, guns and the Constitution together.

For evangelicals, the fear that their freedom of religion is being threatened has been around for years. While it’s true that there are occasional excessive attempts to rid the public square of all references to God or belief, what has mostly been inhibited in recent years is the hegemony that Protestants had over the discourse in the public square. What to some is respect for multiculturalism is to evangelicals a threat to their freedom to publicly talk about Jesus Christ.

According to The Ledger, “Asked how she dealt with critics, Palin said it’s important to know who you are, and that’s why she speaks out for God publicly in a country where she said it’s often frowned upon or against the law to talk about religious beliefs. … ‘What has happened when we can’t say his name in public?’ (she said).”

But let’s return to the combination of God and guns. The ability to believe that the nature of God does not forbid the use of weapons requires a particular kind of Christian theology, one that compartmentalizes Jesus’ decidedly pacifist declarations, such as “All who take the sword will perish by the sword,” among others.

Speaking as a practicing Christian myself, I’m certainly in favor of freedom of religion; I have no problem with hunting; and I’m even willing to entertain a discussion about whether Christians may engage in self-defense under some circumstances. But that is not the spirit of Palin’s remark.

“Cling to your God, your guns, your Constitution” is a seamless ideology that would have Jesus waving the American flag with one hand and clicking off the safety of his assault rifle with the other. It assumes that God created America specifically so that Christians could stand on a public school teacher’s desk in their boots and preach that all those who do not accept Jesus as their savior are going to hell. It assumes that God gave Americans the right to fire at will with whatever weapon they damn well want.

And I don’t believe that. Dear Ms. Palin, consider this possibility: Clinging to God might actually require believers to throw away their guns and turn their backs on the Constitution.

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Economics, Student Accountability and Teacher Pay

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

Is Rick Scott really our next education governor?

In his proposed 2013-’14 budget, Scott suggests that Florida classroom teachers receive an across-the-board $2,500 raise. He sent a letter to the chairman of the state Board of Education for presentation at the board’s Feb. 25 meeting outlining the plan, which would cost a hefty $480 million. The governor also recommended spending an additional $14 million for teachers’ classroom supplies.

It’s easy to be cynical about such announcements. Scott proved to be a virtual nemesis of rank-and-file teachers over the past two years, cutting the state’s education budget and supporting the elimination of teacher tenure. Political realities have set in, and he seems amazed people don’t love him for the job he’s doing. In the wake of fellow Republicans’ drubbing in the last election, Scott suddenly faces the prospect of a very tough re-election, likely against now-Democrat Charlie Crist.

So Scott’s about-face could be his attempt to woo voters, especially teachers, with a kinder, gentler side.

In his letter to the education board proposing pay increases, he said they would be a way “to strategically invest in statewide priorities that will encourage job creation for generations to come.” In other words, he’s justifying the raises on the same grounds that got him elected – an appeal to job creation. He also said in the letter that the state’s teachers earned the raise because of Florida’s improvement in one national review and rises in test scores and graduation rates.

Even assuming those results are sound, they owe no thanks to Scott’s policies, but never mind. I offer another reason for raising pay for all teachers: simple economics. Does anybody in our owned-by-the-Chamber-of-Commerce, free-enterprise-forever state legislature believe teachers are exempt from one of economics’ basic rules – that talented workers will follow higher pay? If we want to know why our public-education system fares poorly compared with other states, could it be our best teachers run to other states that pay more?

Here’s another reason to support higher pay for teachers. In its zeal to ferret out whom they believe to be lazy, indifferent or incompetent teachers, our legislators put the blame for poorly performing schools on the wrong side of the equation. It’s students who ought to be held accountable, as they were in the past.

When I attended public school, the common assumption was that if a kid brought home a bad grade, it was because he was lazy, indifferent or incompetent. The onus was on students to take personal responsibility – there’s a Republican phrase for you – for their educations. It was not the teacher at fault when a student brought home straight Ds. When did we start assuming the blame lay with a bad teacher?

But of course that is not the political mantra these days. Reports are that legislators are cool to Gov. Scott’s proposal for across-the-board pay increases because they favor instead – wait for it – merit increases. Never mind that teacher and school evaluations based on test scores are increasingly proving to be failed policy.

Scott in his letter touts teachers as “the cornerstone of educational success.” He’s right, of course, but who is listening? Not the tea party or even the legislative leadership. Not teachers themselves, after the way he treated them in the past.

The same political fear that drove Scott might actually get through to enough legislators to give Florida’s teachers boosts in pay and morale. But Rick Scott shouldn’t expect anyone who supports public education to tumble over themselves rushing to thank him.

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Let’s Not Sing the Song of Angry Men

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

I recently went to see the movie version of “Les Misérables.” I was familiar with Victor Hugo’s classic story but not with the musical, and frankly I didn’t care for it. Way too overwrought for my tastes.

However, there was a line among the many (many) musical numbers that piqued my interest. It was the anthem of the revolutionaries, and it begins, “Do you hear the people sing? Singing a song of angry men?”

I thought to myself, “Now there is a song that captures the spirit of our age.” Everywhere I look I seem to be surrounded by angry men and women.

You can’t turn on the TV or radio or log on to the Internet without getting blasted by the heat of people angry about Barack Obama, John Boehner, the Congress, the economy, taxes, corporate greed, global warming, crime, sexual abuse, animal abuse, underfunded schools, food shortages in Africa, water shortages in Florida and … whew.

We amuse ourselves with Angry Birds, and even our fast food has a hot emotion – Burger King has introduced the Angry Whopper. We have road rage, the rage of mass murderers and just the unfocused anger so famously voiced by unhinged TV newscaster Howard Beale in the 1976 movie “Network”: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

Beale’s rant could be the moment when we began the transition from the 20th-century period that poet W.H. Auden dubbed the Age of Anxiety to what we might call the Age of Anger. (I thought about calling it the Age of Rage, which has a poetic quality, but rage has the connotation of anger that is out of control, and our society hasn’t reached that point yet, thank God.)

Anger has traditionally been looked down on as an emotion that needs to be controlled. In fact, it was once considered one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Displays of anger were seen as immature, an exercise in self-indulgence. Rather than exercising restraint and self-control, someone who lost his temper was seen as weak and selfish.

The writer Frederick Buechner commented about anger that of the Seven Deadly Sins it is possibly the most fun: “(T)o smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back – in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”

We didn’t arrive at the Age of Anger overnight. Two or three self-indulgent generations now have been perfectly willing to consume themselves with anger and don’t mind taking others along with them.

To be sure, there are injustices that make us angry.

The poor people and the revolutionaries of mid-19th century France had plenty to be genuinely angry about. But by comparison, the anger of early 21st-century America is one of frustrated expectations and imagined grievances.

Indeed, the white middle class that seems to be the source of so much disaffection these days would be the legitimate target of the anger of those upon the barricades of Paris.

We need a healthy dose of stoicism these days to give us balance and perspective. Putting a check on anger can not only lead us to see that it is unwarranted, it can save a friendship or a marriage or – who knows – prevent a war.

Something to remember next time you’re tempted to sing the song of angry men.

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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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