Tag Archives: Republican Party

Of Kolaches, Republicans, and West, Texas

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

A few years ago I was back in my home state of Texas visiting relatives. I drove I-35 between Fort Worth and Waco, a road I had traveled, oh, maybe 10,000 times, when I spotted a sign advertising kolaches at the exit for the town of West.

I pulled off at that exit and 20 minutes later drove away happy.

Kolaches, you must know, are Czech pastries with jellied fruit filling, sort of like a Danish only thicker. But they also come in a variety with a link sausage baked into the roll. To live in Central Texas is to clamor for kolaches.

We know about these things because of our fellow Texans whose Czech ancestors settled in the towns around Waco and Bryan – Dime Box, Old Dime Box, Caldwell and West.

Those little towns don’t have much, but what they do have are bakeries or mom-and-pop roadside stores whose owners still make kolaches. We thought nothing of driving 20 miles over farm-to-market roads to bring home white pasteboard boxes filled with fresh pastries.

The land around West is black clay prairie – open, mostly cleared of post oaks, rolling country ideal for growing cotton and sorghum.

I don’t know West, but I’m sure it’s like hundreds of other small towns in that region, a place where life is dominated by the concerns of agriculture – weather, commodity prices, fuel prices – and by rural institutions – school, church and small businesses. Fertilizer plants are not uncommon around there.

By one news account, last week’s explosion at the West Fertilizer Company plant that killed at least 14 people and leveled buildings for a mile in all directions destroyed an elementary school and maybe irreparably damaged the middle and high schools as well. It’s not hard to imagine that the folks in West are thanking God that the fire at that plant didn’t start in the middle of the day, when kids would have been in those classrooms. Perhaps that’s one of the miracles to be contemplated in the aftermath of the disaster.

Armchair theologians – as well as reporters who haven’t set foot in a church since the day they were confirmed – asked the tired, old question, “Where was God in West, Texas, when the plant exploded?” One possible answer is that God was cursing the state and federal agencies that had not properly inspected that plant, by one news account, since 1985.

The explosion appears to be due to the deadly conjunction of good intentions and negligence.

The Huffington Post reported that the current owner of the plant is a local farmer, described as a good man who had bought it several years ago to keep it open for the benefit of farms in the area. The plant manager had been in charge for decades, and it’s easy to imagine that the owner simply turned the operation over to the manager, who kept running the plant as he always had.

Missing in action were any inspectors who might have questioned whether the tons of ammonium nitrate in the plant were properly stored.

At least since 1995, when Timothy McVeigh used that same substance to kill 168 people in Oklahoma City, you’d think some federal and state agencies would have redoubled their efforts to check fertilizer plants, but a place like West tends to get overlooked, in more ways than one. Until something like this happens anyway, and then government officials begin looking for the nearest place to point a finger.

The Republicans who largely have run Texas since 1995 ought to point that finger right at themselves. This is a party that abhors government oversight and figures that little operations like West Fertilizer are much better off if they’re left alone. It was, and we see the result.

Inspections might well have shuttered that plant, and the farming community would have been inconvenienced, but it would have survived.

Last week, 14 people didn’t, and West, Texas, may never recover. If I ever again am fortunate enough to get my hands on a Central Texas kolache, I expect it to taste just a little bitter.

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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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Scoring the Florida Legislature On Moral, Religious Matters

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

For 30 years, ever since the Christian right made an alliance with the Republican Party, governments have routinely addressed religious and moral issues, and the 2012 Florida Legislature was no exception. What was interesting this go-around, however, was what didn’t pass, as much as what did.

Casino gambling, for instance.  Miami, Tampa and Panama City are natural casino destinations, but this year a bill to allow three $2-billion resort casinos in South Florida didn’t even clear its first House committee hearing.

The GOP’s social and religious conservatives held the powerful gaming industry at bay and in this instance, served the public good by preventing the scourge of casinos.

But the party’s praying wing failed to get their way on an anti-abortion measure. A bill that passed the House would have imposed a 24-hour waiting period and required doctors to take annual ethics training. A bipartisan coalition of senators, including three female Republicans –- Paula Dockery, Nancy Detert and Evelyn Lynn -– blocked it from being heard on the Senate floor.

Except for a provision that new abortion clinics be owned by physicians – an attempted blow against Planned Parenthood – the bill’s requirements didn’t seem particularly onerous, but you have to admire the guts of those three senators. A lot has been written in recent months about the Republican Party’s so-called “war on women.” In this instance, women within the party declared enough and fought back.

Another failure that brings a sigh of relief was the absurd “Application of Foreign Law” bill, which passed the House, but never made it to a vote in the Senate. The bill would have banned courts from accepting foreign laws or tribunal decisions as part of non-business contracts. If this sounds strange, it’s because the bill was aimed at one thing only: Sharia law, the Islamic legal code that lawmakers seem convinced is about to take over American courts.

The measure was modeled on legislation propagated by anti-Islamic activist David Yerushalmi. Ostensibly, the worry is that divorce settlements, child custody arrangements or other domestic affairs governed by Sharia would be approved by Florida courts, but this is a phantom concern.

The Florida Bar called the bill unconstitutional and “a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist.” Not only did Muslim groups oppose the bill, so did Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League. Orthodox Jews regularly use religious codes to govern their domestic affairs and this legislation might have affected them, too. Jewish lawmakers, Democrat and Republican, played a role in killing the bill, and good riddance.

One bill approved by both houses, unfortunately, allows school boards to permit student-led prayer in public schools. Although seen as a victory for the Christian right, even conservatives like John Stemberger of the Florida Family Policy Council are dubious about its constitutionality. Lawmakers knew it likely violates legal precedent about separation of church and state, but passed it anyway.

Gov. Rick Scott ought to veto the measure, but you can be sure he won’t. Expect the inevitable lawsuit and the inevitable court ruling that strikes it down. The whole charade is a waste of time and precious tax dollars.

Assuming the prayer measure fails in the courts, the Legislature went 1-for-4 on the moral and religious front. As in baseball, not a very good average.

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Forgiving Newt: Peace or Politics?

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

The phenomenon that is Newt Gingrich continues to amaze, even as he and the remaining three Republican candidates for president descend upon Florida this week. In the Jan. 31 primary, Republicans will decide whether Gingrich’s past and personality are insurmountable or simply don’t matter.

Which raises an interesting question about the nature of forgiveness, on political and spiritual levels.

First, let’s be clear about one thing. A man who is a known adulterer, is on his third marriage and has been fined $300,000 for violating Congressional ethics rules would not have passed moral muster through most of our nation’s history. Even 50 years ago, Gingrich would have been considered a scoundrel, unworthy of holding any elected office.

Yet here we are. Have times changed so much? Are we so much more tolerant of personal failings now? Have we as a society left Calvinistic judgmentalism behind? If so, is it a change for the better?

Religious conservatives – those keepers of the moral flame in the Republican Party – ought to be denouncing Gingrich the loudest, in no uncertain terms. Instead we hear a muted expression of unease about his “baggage” and murmurs that nobody’s perfect. Some religious leaders have voiced their preference for former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, but in last week’s South Carolina primary, many conservatives cast aside their moral qualms to carry Gingrich to a convincing win.

Why is that? Gingrich repeatedly has offered up the f-word – forgiveness – as the rationale for his political rehabilitation. In recent years, he converted to the Catholic faith. The adultery, the lying, all that is in the past, he says, a past for which he has sought and received forgiveness.

On a spiritual level, we have no reason to doubt this. The Catholic Church has about 2,000 years of experience dealing with sinners with worse records than Gingrich. If he says he has received absolution for the wrongs he has done, we should accept that.

Indeed, from a religious point of view, forgiveness is something we all need and crave. Without it, there would be no hope and no point in believing in something higher and purer than ourselves.

But should such forgiveness give us confidence in Gingrich the politician? Just because he has made spiritual peace with his past, should we reward him with the presidency?

There is an old saying, “The greater the sinner, the greater the saint.” That means those who have found mercy in the depths of depravity are better able to ascend the heights of holiness. But such conversions are apparent to others. Great saints who were previously great sinners – people like St. Augustine and John Newton – radiated faith, humility, compassion and peace.

I think it’s fair to say that we have not seen those qualities in Gingrich this campaign season. As a result, it is worth asking whether there has been any alteration in the characteristics that led to his political downfall.

This may sound like the moral calculus of an earlier, Puritan era. But the Puritans were not wrong on every count.

Just because forgiveness is something universally desired, just because it is something we want for ourselves and therefore something we may hope that Gingrich has found, does not mean we should give him a pass when it comes to his ambitions for political office.

Jesus once cautioned his followers about discerning saints from charlatans. “By their fruits you shall know them,” he said.

With Gingrich, we taste not the sweetness of a man with newfound peace, but the mouth-puckering sourness of the old Newt.

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Consider The Man, Not His Religion

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

Now that Mitt Romney is officially the front runner for the Republican presidential nomination – and Florida’s primary on Jan. 31 could assure him the prize – he faces winds of religious prejudice. And that’s a pity.

Romney is a Mormon and some evangelical Christian leaders publicly oppose him based on his beliefs.

On Monday, St. Petersburg Internet preacher Bill Keller, the evangelical version of Ann Coulter, said, “Romney and Mormons lie when they claim to be a Christian, since the teachings of Mormonism are inconsistent with biblical Christianity.”

Keller’s remarks parallel those of the Rev. Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, who said in October: “Mormonism is not Christianity. It has always been considered a cult by the mainstream of Christianity.”

At an ad hoc meeting last weekend at the Texas ranch of Judge Paul Pressler, a stalwart in the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s most prominent evangelical leaders looked for an alternative candidate. Romney’s faith was not mentioned, according to one report, but after prodigious prayer and three ballots, they settled on former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum.

At a time when the American economy is at a critical point and we should be having a serious debate about Afghanistan, appropriate levels of government spending and a host of other issues, obsession with Romney’s religion is a distraction.

Just what problem do evangelicals have with Mormons? The short answer is the doctrine of the Trinity – the Christian doctrine that says God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are all “of one substance.” The Mormons, part of a 19th century movement that questioned the use of ancient creeds, claim to be Christian, but believe God the Father and Jesus Christ are separate physical beings.

Traditional Christians also reject the claim that The Book of Mormon was revealed to Joseph Smith, regarded as a prophet by Mormons, as holy scripture. And until 1890, there was that little matter of polygamy.

The U.S. Constitution forbids religious tests for public office, but you can’t forbid deeply held religious prejudices that have dominated politics for decades.

However, prejudices are subject to change. Before John F. Kennedy ran for president, many Protestants said they would never vote for a Catholic. In more recent times, opposition to abortion and gay marriage have bridged the divide between evangelicals and Catholics, hence the evangelical leaders’ support for Santorum, a staunch Catholic.

America has elected many presidents who, like Romney, did not believe in the Trinity. Among them were Deists like Thomas Jefferson, Unitarians John Quincy Adams and Abraham Lincoln, and Quakers Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon. Their theology was not an obstacle to their governance.

Religious creeds have a place as markers of belief, but they should not matter in evaluating presidential candidates. And indications are strong that Romney’s beliefs do not matter to most GOP voters, no matter how much some evangelicals wail and gnash their teeth.

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