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Saturday, March 31, 2007
(9:16 AM) | Stephen:
Branson, Missouri

Is where I am typing this, my first trip here. I had been carefully cultivating a perfect record of living in Kansas City and never having traveled here, but we're celebrating my mother-in-law's birthday, and she loves this place. We set it up as a surprise, and when we told her, she immediately looked at me and asked, "You're going too?" Now, at least, she knows how much I love her.

So here's a couple of notes about the experience so far and a few other items I found quite interesting:

The second wave of Baptists has hit the breakfast room. Time to hit some really liberal blogs with big, profane post titles.

Thursday, March 29, 2007
(5:18 PM) | Stephen:

I need a break from the computer. From writing posts, making comments, reading stories. I'm supposed to be helping out at Ezra's while the good man is on vacation, but the other weekenders and Brian Beutler are handling things quite well.

So, see you. I'll have some time over the weekend and will at least cross-post a few items between here and Ezra's place.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007
(11:28 PM) | Stephen:
Richardson on the Daily Show

Update: Video below.

Governor Bill Richardson just finished being interviewed by Jon Stewart. He did okay. Those types of interviews are hard; the host is always trying to get his jokes in, they're disjointed, talking past each other.

At one point Stewart mentioned Richardson's resume, which is extensive and impressive to hear, and then asked, "so what's the secret that will derail your campaign?" That's the type of question that makes Stewart and The Daily Show so effective. It's a funny question, delivered irreverently and it sounds, on its surface, like a gentle poke at the pitfalls of running for high office. Stewart could have asked that of every candidate on the show.

But he hasn't. Jon Stewart asked Bill Richardson about it, because Stewart does his homework, he keeps abreast - probably not personally - of what the dirty bloggers are saying, and he has a great talent for innocent-sounding questions that take the chair right out from under the other guy's butt. Richardson didn't see it coming, and for a second there I thought the interview was going to go sour. In a further show of how much it threw him off, Richardson just bluntly and awkwardly changed the subject to his poll numbers, which was a bad idea. He obviously had prepared self-deprecating answers for questions about his standing in the polls, and he backed himself into a corner where he had to supply the punchline for jokes that hadn't even been set up. Again, Governor, the way to avoid all this is to address the issue head on. Obviously TDS isn't the best forum for that, but the next time it comes up, deal with it.

The best moments came at the end when he told the story of meeting with Saddam Hussein to negotiate the release of 2 American citizens from prison around 10 years ago. Great story, well told, very effective, especially the part when the guards jumped him for touching Saddam. More than anything else, the story showed him as a man who gets things done.

The key image coming out of Richardson's performance is what a great VP pick he would be for whoever gets the nomination. Richardson was right; he's no rock star. But the smart Democratic nominee will choose him as running mate, and if elected will appoint a younger, lesser person as Secretary of State and let Richardson pretty much run US diplomacy.

I'll stick the video clip up tomorrow morning, and point out the timestamp of Stewart's zinger.

Of course Comedy Central doesn't include a timer. No matter, the question comes up quite early. It really shows the danger of the candidate being highly scripted when the interviewer is not. TDS isn't the same as other shows; even Leno and Letterman are going to more closely follow standard interview formats than Stewart.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007
(5:50 PM) | Stephen:
Wal-mart Is The Biggest Donor

Update: Revised and expanded a bit as per the excellent point Sanpete made in comments. Still not perfect, but more accurate and better at comparing apples to apples.

As a staunch Wal-mart critic - friends always make sure to justify any trips they make to there - it's encouraging to hear that Wal-mart was the top corporate donor for 2006, giving $272.9 million, most of it as cash. I suppose it's time to rethink some opinions about Wal-mart.

Ha ha. Just kidding, folks! No, let's take a closer look at these numbers instead. The MSNBC article helpfully mentioned that Wal-mart had profits of $12.2 billion in 2006. So their charitable giving represents 2% of their profits. Does that still sound like so much?

What if you found out that Target gives 5% of their federal taxable income, and always has? Of course, they only manage to eke out around $150 million a year. Sure is a shame they're not as generous as Wal-mart. I couldn't find a specific line-item in their annual report of "federal taxable income," but Target gives about $166 million a year, which works out to be 3% of their total revenues. But that's pretty close to Wal-mart's 2%, right?

Let's see, if Wal-mart was in the habit of giving 5% 3%, that would have meant $610 $366 million to charity last year. Oops, I forgot that when I figured Wal-mart's level of giving, I was basing it off their profits. Let's compare apples-to-apples and see what Wal-mart's level of giving is in relation to their income. In 2006, Wal-mart posted earnings of $312.4 billion. $272.9 million represents 0.8% of $312.4 billion. If they gave 5% 3% of their income, that would be over $1.5 $9 billion (I don't know what happened with my math on that one).

In other words, Target Corporation gave over 5 times 3 times more to charity than Wal-mart. They did it while paying higher wages and providing better benefits to their employees. And I only used Target because they're the #2 retailer and the obvious choice. It would actually be simpler to list the corporations that are less charitable than Wal-mart than to try and detail the droves of corporations that managed to give more than the loose change found in their executives' couches and car coin trays.

One of our most persistent habits as a species is to be impressed with large numbers regardless of whatever context there may be. Americans in particular use this to our advantage, such as Wal-mart being able to claim that they gave the most to charity in 2006. Consider also those who point out that the USA gives the most aid, both from governmental and private sources, to poor and disaster-stricken areas of the world. This argument is also used to justify tax cuts for the rich and large expenditures by churches, as is happening right now at First Family Church in Kansas City. So long as we focus merely upon the plain numbers and pay no attention to the amount of wealth being generated and/or controlled, wealthy citizens and large corporations will continue to reap the very real financial benefits of being perceived as "generous" while doling out what could quite literally be considered their pocket change.

cross-posted at Ezra's place

(11:01 AM) | Stephen:
Protecting Innocent Parents From Their Duplicitous Daughters

Via Amanda, I see that the North Dakota Legislature has defeated a measure that would allow pregnant girls under 18 to receive prenatal care without their parents' knowledge.

Well, that's a charitable reading of the bill. It actually would require doctors to pester their patients about telling their parents, and would allow them to breach patient confidentiality to tell their parents anyway if they thought it would be a good thing.

Amanda says that this shows how the so-called "pro life" movement is less about saving babies and more about exerting control over women. In this situation at least, she is absolutely right, as the following quote shows:
Vast generations have been born without the type of medical care and prenatal care that we have today," said Rep. Dan Ruby, R-Minot. "It's great that people get the treatment early, but we don't need to do something that is going to take away the authority of the parents, who are responsible for paying the bills.
Good treatment is nice, and all, but a parent's authority over a teenage girl trumps all. It's better, I suppose, that parents are able to keep control over their daughters than to make it easier for a child with spinal bifida to have the condition noticed and corrected while in the womb.

Speaking of the hysterical notion that girls who are abused should be protected (ha! snort!), Rep. Jim Kasper said, "in the vast, vast, vast majority of cases, that family cares for and loves that daughter, and they need to be involved." See, the fact that only a minority of girls are abused means that they don't count. The fact that the "vast, vast, vast majority" of pregnant girls come from loving, caring absolutely wonderful homes means we need to pass laws to ensure that these well-adjusted, loved and cherished daughters don't go running off to get pregnant so they can secretly see a doctor for their babies' prenatal care. Oh, those poor mothers and fathers, who love their daughters just so much and have never done anything, anything at all to hurt them or damage their relationship in any way - how hurt will they be when their precious daughters inexplicably decide that they don't want their parents' involvement in this most important of times!

Aside from how illogical this thinking is - unsurprising for such a transparent attempt to whitewash execrable reasoning - there are some of us who still think that the purpose of setting up laws is to provide for the protection of the majority in some situations, and the minority in others. By Kasper's thinking, we shouldn't have any laws about abuse at all, since in the "vast, vast, vast majority of cases" people are not abused or mistreated in any way. We really could simplify our legal code by getting rid of all the laws that address behavior by a minority of our citizens: burglary, drunk driving, murder, extortion, sexual assault, embezzling - the whole legal code itself seems to be just a bunch of unnecessary mumbo jumbo that micromanages the behavior of a few people who don't count anyway.

Instead of these stupid laws, people like Jim Kasper could just explain to their daughters when they are the victims of sexual assault that while it's a shame this happened to them, the majority of women and girls don't experience this, so they should just put it out of their minds and move on. That would be very effective, I'm sure.

(10:18 AM) | Stephen:

My neighbor, the one directly behind my house, mows his lawn twice a week. At least. I think that perhaps he is just looking for things to do, and I certainly don't begrudge him that. However, I've always been allergic to cut grass - that is, I'm allergic to grass but if it stays whole it doesn't bother me - so quite apart from my own mowing and that of my other neighbors, I get a fair amount of sniffles and sneezes from just that neighbor.

Oh well. That's spring, I suppose. The good thing is that my neighborhood has quite a few flowering trees that are starting to bloom, which is just wonderful. My Redbud has been looking quite nice, and I've got some really nice bushes in front that always start with these wonderful yellow flowers. In fact, other than the sweet gum tree and its indestructible Seedpods of Doom, the previous owners did a great job with landscaping. I've got red and yellow prickly shrubs out front, along with a perfectly-shaped little evergreen tree and the aforementioned yellow flowers. Tulips come up without any involvement from me. That's a good thing, because I'm not very good with plants.

It's a good spring for Kansas City. We had a fairly wet winter, so the trees and flowers and lawns are all doing well (except for my Zoysia, of course, that will finally green up in a month).

There's not much of a point to this post, unless you were around me in years past when I hated Kansas City with a passion and couldn't see the good even in a row of pink and white-flowering trees. Then you'd be on your fainting couch, with your butler patting your hand while the maid fetches the smelling salts.

Sunday, March 25, 2007
(4:31 PM) | Stephen:

I read yet another of those "feminism will destroy us all" columns recently, and wanted to address one aspect of it, specifically the use of the word "helpmeet" to describe women. If you decide to click the "read more" link, consider yourself duly warned that we're going to have a good old-fashioned word study after the fold.

The column that I read was by one Chuck Baldwin, pastor, radio show host, author, "Moral Majority leader" - I put that in scare quotes because I'm not sure what it means, and newspaper and internet columnist.

Reverend Doctor (two honorary D.D's!) Baldwin pulls no punches in his latest column, showing that feminism is to blame for

America's rapid deterioration. . .today's kids. . .growing up mostly undisciplined, unrestrained, and uncontrollable. . .our society [falling] into chaos. America's dads [being] reduced to. . .the butt end of every comedian's joke, the fall guy in every sitcom, and the stupid buffoon in every television commercial.

It's not that women have careers. The problem is worse than that. The real problem is a change in attitude, a sense that women can move "from under the arm and. . .the side of their husbands to, in many cases, a place of independence from, and lordship over, them."

Why should women be under the authority of men? Why do Chuck Baldwin and so many others belive that "man has a natural headship responsibility" and "when men surrender this reponsibility, or when women wrestle it away from them, the entire family and social structures collapse?"

It goes all the way back to the Creation Narratives of Genesis. If you read my comments in this thread, you'll see that for the ancient Hebrews, one of the most important things accomplished by God is to create order out of chaos, and one of the most important things we must do in response to that is refrain from creating "confusion" where there is order. This idea forms the heart of the Hebrew Scripture's prohibitions against homosexual behavior, for one example, and it has been carried over into Christianity as well. God created things with a specific order in mind, and one aspect of that is how women are subjected to the authority of men.

But one of the very interesting things of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures is that even though they were certainly products of their cultures and times, there is often a counter-voice that can be heard within them, a subversion of the traditional patriarchal societal systems and the way that we view examples from a faith history. For example, Gideon and Samson are both anti-heroes, people whose stories are told so that we can understand how we are not supposed to act. That's why when preachers - usually to teens - talk about setting out your "fleece" before God, they are encouraging people to emulate one of the worst people the Hebrew Scriptures have to offer.

The third chapter of Genesis is one such place that things are not as they seem. In this chapter we see Adam and Eve suffering the consequences of their sin. They are being cursed, the serpent is cursed, the land is cursed - curses are flying out of God's mouth in this chapter - and all of it is due to the sin, the disobedience of Adam and Eve. It is within this context that Eve is told "your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you."

The idea that men are to have authority over women is a curse. It is a consequence of what we churchy people call The Fall. For men to have authority over women is a consequence of humanity losing the "image of God," in the likeness of which we were created. It was not part of the original creation, not part of the plan that God had for us.

But what was God's plan for us? How did he want us to interact with one another? We need to go further back, to the description of why God created a companion for the first human.

To begin, we need to realize that ha-adam was not intended as a proper name. It's a Hebrew word related to "dirt," and using it makes sense because in the Creation Narrative we are made from soil. It can be used to refer to both men and women in much the same way that other such words have been used in various languages around the world. The ha-adam had no gender. For 5 days God had been busy creating, and at the end of each he would say "it's good." But on the 6th day, God looked at ha-adam and said,

lo-tov heyoth ha-adam levetoh; e'eiseh-lo 'ezer cenegdo

"It is not good for the human to be alone; I will make a. . ."

Usually this sentence is finished with words like "helper, companion, helpmeet." That last word, by the way, is from the King James Version, and is used primarily by those who believe in traditional patriarchal roles for society.

These translations, though, for 'ezer cenegdo are inadequate. To translate this phrase as "helper" or even "companion" is to ignore the way that the words, especially 'ezer, are used throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.

'Ezer is a word that is, aside from this one verse, applied almost exclusively as a description of God. There are three instances of it being used to describe a military ally. Within these contexts the meaning for 'ezer is "strength." The Israelite King Uzziah, also known as Azariah, is an example of 'ezer (Azar) used in this way; his name means "YHWH is my strength." God is portrayed as our helper, our strength; does this imply that we have authority over God?

Cenegdo is a weird combination word that's hard to deal with. Ce means "like" and "negdo" means standing, specifically standing with someone. In that culture, to be able to stand in the presence of another is to be equal in status to the other. People approaching their betters would bow instead, or even prostrate themselves. When ce and negdo are put together, they mean "like each other, standing in each other's presence as the same to one another." Of course, that's incredibly wordy, but there are connotations to these words that can't be expressed so succintly in English.

When God found the human being to be lacking, he decided to make another human being and in the process differentiate between them. By his own words we see that the intent of God within Creation was to have these two human beings, male and female, approach one another as equals, as partners and sources of strength and help to one another. We might even be able to say that God, by creating this other human being, gave both of them a source of strength that not even he could provide. Does that really sound like a subservient role, a person who has no ability to lead, that must always be under the authority of the other gender, lest our entire society crumble and fall into chaos?

No, of course not. When we try to perpetuate the idea that women should be subservient to men, all we are doing is reinforcing the curse placed upon us at The Fall and denying the fact that God's intent ever since The Fall has been to provide ways for us to come out from under the curse and have the Image of God restored to us. Those who even now try to maintain a "place" for women that is less than men, though they may not know it, are rebelling against God and God's desires for humanity.

Note: My thinking in this matter has been shaped by Joseph Coleson, Professor of Old Testament at Nazarene Theological Seminary. He's a very respected scholar and a rather accomplished archaeologist as well. He wrote a small booklet called 'Ezer Cendegdo: A Power Like Him, Facing Him as Equal, which can be found here. I of course used it as a reference for this, as well as this great essay by Shawna R.B. Atteberry that covers pretty much the same topic.

cross-posted at Ezra's place

(1:52 PM) | Stephen:
Phill Kline Giving Up?

Yesterday, Phill Kline held another town meeting. During the meeting, he said that he's tired and "doesn’t have the patience he once had for election politics." He's not planning on running for DA in 2008.

I suppose that even Kline understands that if he did run, he would lose even more convincingly than he did last year. Perhaps the defections to the Democratic Party finally got through to the Johnson County GOP. Most likely he's been offered a guaranteed position after he leaves office; he's never held a real job yet and I would be surprised if he was suddenly willing to look for one now.

I wanted to go to the town meeting to hear this first hand, but the Kansas City Food Circle had a farmer's expo at the same time. I'm working on getting my family involved in a CSA (community supported agriculture) where we'll get our vegetables, eggs and meat. We need to get a deep freeze; once we do I'll probably buy, with my in-laws, a side of beef, a hog, sheep, several chickens and a couple of turkeys. If we buy it this way, it's actually cheaper than the stuff at the supermarket, and it's grass-fed with no antibiotics or hormones.

Most of the suppliers that are part of the food circle sell out of everything they produce. That's wonderful, something I hope continues to happen so that this type of direct producer-consumer relationship can grow. Who knows, maybe we'll actually be able to reform our entire food system.

Saturday, March 24, 2007
(11:10 PM) | Stephen:
The Truth About the Confederate Flag

From Chuck Baldwin Live, we get this interesting sermon, "Truth about the Confederate Battle Flag." I don't want to say that it's worth reading, because the word worth implies value, and I would hate for anyone to misunderstand and think that I'm applying any level of positive value to this, well, he calls it a sermon so I suppose that it is a sermon*.

The opening is instructive, however, for anyone that would like to see theology by proof-texting in action. One verse after another, each of them quoted either by themselves or only in part so that the particular word the preacher wishes to note is brought out, with very little explanatory commentary in between. Numbers to Psalms to Isaiah, each snippet given its little place and no more.

The point of his proof-texting is that flags (standards, banners, ensigns) are important, they "represent our theology." Within a few sentences, the Bible is left behind completely, verses whose recitation formed the introduction are never mentioned again, and whatever story or exposition in which the verses appeared is not mentioned at all. The point has been made sufficiently for the preacher to claim that this is a Biblically based sermon, and most of the original audience would agree.

Once we get past the obligatory Abraham Lincoln-bashing, the interminable explanation of the different Confederate flags and the trotting out of various black personages who can be quoted as "not having a problem" with the Confederate Flag (some of my best friends are black!), we finally get to the real point of the sermon. It's not really a defense of the Confederate Flag, or the Confederacy itself. Any deductive sermon, whether the preacher is a proof-text partisan or not, is going to make its most important point toward the end of the sermon, usually in the penultimate paragraph. A deductive sermon sets up the main point by establishing the evidence and then arguing the point in increasingly focused ways so that the congregation is ready to hear the main point and, by virtue of its development and placement in the sermon, to remember it when they leave. The last paragraph is just a conclusion, a way to end the sermon by rephrasing the main point and possibly giving the congregation a way to concretely apply the point.

So what should really interest us, since most of the sermon is typical boilerplate Confederate apologetics, is the following:
Now let me try to answer a question for you. Why attack the Confederate Battle Flag? Why attack Confederate symbols? Let me tell you something. Whenever the Confederate Battle Flag is attacked, and the attacks are so vicious and so ferocious, it is because it is an attack on the truth. Because the South was not fighting as a racist nation or as a slave holding nation, they were fighting for constitutional rights. They were fighting for State's rights. . . . To attack the flag is a attack on political incorrectness. The flag represents those who are opposed to unlimited federal government. The flag represents a limited Constitutional republic. A view of government opposed to the powers that be. Let me tell you something folks, all one has to do is to look at present day Washington, D.C., to know exactly what our forefathers fought against. Two hundred and fifty thousand Confederate soldiers gave their lives to prevent from having what we have today! The extension of government into every area of our lives is a result of the fact that the South lost the war. . . . . The Confederate Flag represents truth against error, freedom against tyranny, light against darkness and the Kingdom of Christ against the Kingdom of Governance. You see, we have forgotten the fact that the War of Northern Aggression was a cultural war. It was a religious war and the North was predominantly Unitarian and humanist, while the South was predominantly Christian. And in reality, the War was an attempt to crush Christianity and Christian culture.
You may need to read the final few sentences again. Never mind that the south fired the first shots of the Civil War. Apparently the righteous Confederacy would not be so righteous if they could not cast the war as a case of "Northern aggression."

Consider, rather, that to this man and to many others, the Civil War was an attempt by the "predominantly Unitarian and humanist" North to "crush Christianity and Christian culture."

There are some who compare the Confederate Flag to the Nazi Swastika. Indeed, both of them stand for hate and fear. Both of them represent cultures of false victimization. The real difference between them is that the Nazi Swastika is flown over no state capitols, and forms no part of a nation or state's flag. The Nazi Swastika is not defended by state and US Representatives and Senators. In Germany, the Nazi Swastika is not plastered on bumpers or hung in bars and people's homes. The whole world over it is reviled by all but the fringes of society, people readily identified as hate-filled monsters. But the Confederate Flag has no shortage of defenders, respectable members of American society.

What an indictment upon us that such a situation is tolerated at all.

Friday, March 23, 2007
(12:50 PM) | Stephen:
Friday Funny

Isn't that a cute little cherub on that electronic Bible versifier? How cute. Of course, cherubim looked a little more like this:

If we go by Ezekiel's description, which this image tries to do, cherubim sound quite a bit more disturbing that even this. So I can understand why they went with a baby angel motif to sell their little gadget.

(10:43 AM) | Stephen:
Friday Funny

I think it's safe to say that these guys are watching this case with extreme interest.

Thursday, March 22, 2007
(12:03 PM) | Stephen:
Richardson Is Getting His Way

The fact that the New Mexico State Legislature is controlled by Democrats should allow anyone to assume that it is a friendly body for Governor Richardson. The NM Legislature is not friendly toward any governor, no matter what particular mix of political parties there may be.

And Bill Richardson is a very demanding governor, willing to use every power and trick at his disposal to see that his agenda is addressed and approved. When the NM Legislature adjourned the 2007 session without addressing several bills, Richardson called them back after only two days. That he called them back when he was traveling outside the state didn't sit well, and the NM Senate's first order of business was to adjourn. The NM House, however, did meet and passed the following measures:
All good stuff, really. GOP Representatives were understandably upset at both Richardson and the House leadership. I agree that this special session was probably equal parts Richardson trying to do what is good for New Mexico and what is good for his presidential aspirations - in fact, it may have more to do with the latter. But I'm certainly willing to allow some of that if it means that worthy legislation gets passed.

The New Mexico Senate is required by the state constitution to go back into session by Saturday if the House remains in session. Since the House has passed several bills that require the Senate's attention, as long as Speaker Lujan retains control over his Democrats, the House will remain in session long enough to bring the Senate back. At that point most of the anger at Richardson probably will have dissipated enough to allow them to work on the bills, and they will most likely pass.

This is great news for Richardson, because he is clearly running on his resume, both as a Clinton Administration official and as Governor of New Mexico.

Update: To quote from the latest Richardson campaign email, "[l]ately the media has been more fixated on the rock-star potential of candidates than their resumes." That's very true. However, it's not the kind of strategy that will convince the excited throngs turning out for Obama that they should switch their support to Richardson.

(10:01 AM) | Stephen:
Kansas Political Happenings

Continuing in the grand tradition of legislators wasting the taxpayers' time, the Kansas House and Senate recently passed bills naming English as the official language of the state of Kansas. No governmental organization in Kansas - state or local - is prohibited from producing documents in languages other than English, so long as there is a version of it that is produced in English. In other words, the bill changes nothing except the feelings of those ignorant enough to thing measures like this are necessary. Or perhaps it makes the English language feel better, much like the American flag is always so pleased when laws are passed that "protect" or "honor" it.

The Kansas House also passed a bill that prohibits any local government from restricting concealed-carry privileges in any way that exceeds the state's concealed-carry law. This is in direct response to several cities, such as Leawood, Roeland Park and Mission, that have restricted concealed weapons in places like city offices and parks. The state law allows businesses to post signs that prohibit the possession of concealed weapons; immediately upon Governor Sebelius' signature, those signs popped up on almost every business I've seen. The issue here is home rule, really, just as it was when Lawrence decided to create a registry for same-sex couples. Once the Legislature got the taste of overruling city governments - and don't think this doesn't have a little to do with the Sunday liquor law rebellion a few years ago - they decided it was pretty good stuff. Sooner or later some city is going to pass an ordinance that pleases the Republican majority, and the Republican majority in the Legislature is going to override it. Perhaps then we can have a discussion about the proper limits of the state legislature.

Speaking of proper limits, the fact that Phill Kline has no concept of them has inspired even more meddling from the Kansas legislature. At issue, still, is how Kline fired 7 prosecutors and the chief investigator from the Johnson County DA's office a few hours after he was sworn in. The 8 former employees filed suit, saying that Kline acted improperly by not following Johnson County personnel procedures. Kline fired back, saying that as DA, he is bound only by Johnson County budget constraints and actually is considered a state official (which makes Paul Morisson, his predecessor and the man who crushed him electorally, his boss. Ha ha ha). The problem is that both parties are correct. Kline is a state official that, by state law, does not have to follow county HR policies. Johnson County's home rule charter, however, clearly states that the DA does have to follow county HR policies. Dumb stuff, but conflicts like this happen.
I suppose that if the state wanted to change the way that all District Attorneys are treated, that's fine. However, a District Attorney should have a measure of independence from the county in which she serves, since she will be called upon, if necessary, to investigate and prosecute even county officials. That the county pays for the office doesn't change this dynamic, and officials such as Annabeth Surbaugh (quoted on this issue in the article) should understand and appreciate the independence that DA's have. Just because Phill Kline often acts like an asshole doesn't mean that we need to revise the state's laws. There is even talk about restricting the bill to only apply to Johnson County. That's ridiculous. The county passed a statute that contradicts state law and it should have been struck down long ago.

Let me be clear, though: while I support Kline's right as DA to treat those 7 prosecutors and the investigator shabbily, that doesn't mean he needs to exercise that right. He could have given them time, could have even done the whole "ask them to resign" thing that would allow them a modicum of dignity in the process. But that wouldn't be his style, and is a sign of how much he despises Paul Morisson and everything that man has done. I have no doubt that if he felt he could get away with it, he would have fired every single person in the DA's office. But as immoral as an action like that would have been, he still would have been within his rights.

In even more Phill Kline news, he recently scheduled a couple of "town hall" meetings in Johnson County to address criticisms and concerns. At least, that was his stated intent. What he did at the first such meeting was spent some time whining about his mistreatment at the hands of the media, which apparently has made an conscious decision to portray him as obsessed with abortion in spite of the many, many other issues he has tackled as Attorney General and as Disctict Attorney.

In the week following these statements, Kline traveled to Wichita in Sedgewick County to meet with a group of pastors and advise them about how to continue their quest to see criminal charges brought against George Tiller, the Wichita abortion doctor that commanded much of Kline's attention while he was Attorney General. In fact, if Kline hadn't overstepped his bounds by bringing charges against Tiller - in addition to his fishing expedition with abortion clinic records - he would very possibly still be Attorney General and on his way to being Governor.

So the not-obsessed-with-abortion Phill Kline felt it a good use of my time to travel to Wichita, in another county that presumably has its own District Attorney, and advise a group in their vendetta against George Tiller. If he's not interested in paying attention to Johnson County and being its District Attorney, I'd be more than happy to accept his resignation. Otherwise he should stick around here and at least attempt to do his damn job.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007
(12:19 PM) | Stephen:
Iglesias is a Mensch

David Iglesias, the New Mexico USA that was fired for alleged failure to prosecute voter fraud cases, has a piece in todays New York Times. In it he makes some points that are worth remembering as the attorneygate scandal or whatever it's called develops.

The first is that he is a Republican. This is key, because Bush wants everyone to think that this is a case of Democrats trying to "get him" or something. David Iglesias is a Republican who was described, in DoJ documents, as "a diverse up and comer," surely a great asset for the GOP as it tries to reach out to the fastest growing demographic in America.

Unfortunately for Pete Domenici, Heather Wilson and everyone else involved in this, David Iglesias is also a man who takes his job seriously, who is concerned with personal and professional integrity. He was pressured to prosecute unfounded cases against Democrats, sacrificing his record and dirtying himself in order to score political points to help a GOP Representative in an election.

He refused, he pushed back, and he lost his job. It's that simple. We should all be impressed that he's willing to speak out about this.

(10:17 AM) | Stephen:
In Which I Attempt To Believe The Best About George Bush, And Fail, Again

Shakespeare's Sister has a very good, and very important post up today regarding the Bush administration's unwillingness to use email. In short, Bush, Gonzales, Rumsfeld, Chertoff and Rice do not use email. In the case of Secretary Rice, she will use email occasionally, to the tune of 3 or 4 known emails during her years in the Bush White House.

Further, there is evidence that White House officials are using emails from other sources, such as the Republican National Committee, to conduct official business.

The problem is that this circumvents the requirements of the Presidential Records Act. You know, I'm trying really hard to not go too far with this. Consider it a thought experiment for me. But I cannot understand why none of Bush's top officials or Bush himself would use email at all, and why other officials at the White House would use email accounts located on other, privately owned, servers, if what they were doing was ethical, legal, above-the-board.

I'm willing to entertain any and all theories of how this is not indicative of a presidential administration that is purposefully engaging in illegal behavior and is ignoring its legal and ethical obligations to American citizens in order for the members of the administration to protect themselves from future criminal prosecution.

Really. Let me know. Tell me how I can actually believe that these are the actions of honest men and women. For that matter, tell me, if no one broke the law or did anything improper in the US Attorney scandal, why it would still be important for White House officials to be excused from testifying under oath. I would really like to know, if they didn't commit any crimes, why it would have such a chilling effect upon the advice that a president could receive from his or her aides and advisors.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007
(10:23 AM) | Stephen:
Reverend Richie Rich

Jerry Johnston is the pastor of First Family Church in Overland Park, KS. He's recently been profiled in the Kansas City Star, which raised questions about the lack of financial accountability that exists between pastoral leadership and the congregation. Key points:

In 2005, Johnston told followers that God had answered their prayers — someone had donated more than 200 acres for a new youth camp. But real estate records show that Johnston’s 25-year-old son, Jeremy, actually signed a $400,000 mortgage on the property in the church’s name.

Johnston insists that the church, a Southern Baptist Convention affiliate, is accountable and run by a board of trustees that oversees all of its finances.

“They’re respected Christian leaders,” he said. “And they’re everything from the former United States district attorney to very accomplished Christian businessmen.”

But Tim Dollar, a lawyer listed in church corporation papers as a board member until January, acknowledged he hadn’t been to a meeting in years. Dollar said he didn’t even know who was on the board and hadn’t ever attended the church.

If someone donates land and the church decides to get a mortgage on it, that's fine. Since 200 acres is probably worth far more than $400,000 and mortgage interest rates are still pretty low, it could be a very prudent way to raise money that's needed quickly. However, the members of the congregation should know when something like that is happening. They should know that the church needs a $400,000 lump sum and why it's a good idea to raise the money through a mortgage than through other means.

Far more troubling is the admission by Tim Dollar that he hasn't been to a board meeting in years and has never attended the church. First Family's board appears more like one of those honorary boards that get attached to nonprofits in order to raise their stature - senators, celebrities and other luminaries that allow their names to be attached to the organization's name and have very little else required of them.

A church board is not supposed to work that way. I'm flabbergasted at the idea of a church board member that doesn't attend the church. In most cases, that would be cause for dismissal from the board. In fact, if Dollar hadn't ever attended the church, I have no idea how he could have been placed on the board at all, since in virtually every congregation in the world such positions are chosen through congregational elections.
Johnston and the board decline to reveal his compensation for his church duties or money he makes from a for-profit corporation he owns that handles his book and video sales and his speaking engagements. . . . .“Most industry and most churches do not publish that because of the privacy of the employee, among other reasons,” Ulrich said. “But I can say that the board has approved everything, and the board represents the congregation.”
As the Star article says, "Officials at several other large churches in the metropolitan area, however, said they provided their pastors’ salaries to members who asked for it." In reality, most churches publish their financial records in their entirety every year in preparation for their annual meeting. These records are also usually readily available to anyone at any time, and if the church is part of a larger organization, the denominational headquarters usually keeps these records and makes them publicly available. The Church of the Nazarene has extensive records on every single congregation in the USA (and most overseas), and this data is available to anyone who calls in and asks for it. The Episcopal Church has a salary schedule for its priests that is common knowledge and, again, available to anyone who wishes it.

The article is quite good and well worth your time. At one point it compares First Family's $17 million budget (general budget figures are available) for its 4,200-member congregation with the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection's $12 million budget for 12,000 members and College Church of the Nazarene's $7 million budget for 3,200 members. And remember that for both the Methodist and Nazarene churches, the budget details are available.

Another disturbing story comes to us from Detroit, where the pastor of the World Outreach Church just moved into an 11,000 square foot mansion worth $3.65 million. This made the news mainly because the church acquired the mansion as a parsonage, removing $40,000/yr in property taxes from the city where it's located.

World Outreach Church does preach a "prosperity gospel," so it's not like the pastor is a hypocrite. I suppose if the church's doctrine says that God will financially reward his people, then the pastor needs to live in a home like that, or there just wouldn't be much reason to attend the church.

What this story, in addition to the one about First Family Church, does do is highlight how ridiculous it is to consider giving to a church as "charity," at least insofar as charity usually refers to assistance for needy people. In my post discussing Arther Brooks' book, Who Really Cares, I argued* that conservatives appear to give more to charity than liberals because giving to church congregations is counted as charitable giving even though most of that money goes toward salaries, technology, buildings and maintenance, supplies and similar things. Since liberals tend to give less to churches, the giving is usually more targeted to organizations that spend their money directly helping those in need (I wouldn't count orchestras and museums in this category; however, churches far outnumber these groups and raise far more money for that to offset the discrepancy).

It's far past time for a change to our tax laws regarding churches. They should only be able to reduce their taxes according to the amount of their physical plant and operating budget that is actually spent helping the needy. People who donate to them should only be able to deduct from their taxes the portion that their church can demonstrate is spent on actual charitable acts. This wouldn't be hard to do, just set a standard for valuing a church's charitable activity; if 10% of the congregational resources are spent charitably, then 10% of a parishioner's donations could then be deducted from income tax.

Palatial homes, business parks, $200 million church campuses, none of these should be completely exempt from property taxes. If, for example, the members of World Outreach Church cannot afford to put their pastor in an 11,000 square foot home unless it's exempt from property taxes, then they should evaluate the strength of their doctrine. The Christian Church in the United States has been coddled by excessive privilege for too long. A period of testing might be in order, and reducing the privileges and protections found in our tax code would be a good way to start.

*I'm pretty sure I got that idea from Sanpete, and never attributed it. That was unintentional, but still a bit rude. So, thanks Sanpete.

(9:34 AM) | Stephen:
North-South Tensions Still Around

But you knew that, didn't you? Apparently, John Schneider and Tom Wopat, the original Bo and Luke Duke from The Dukes of Hazzard have been disinvited from appearing with the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra because of the heavy use of Confederate imagery in the show.

After contracts were signed, the Pops conductor asked the local NAACP their opinion of the show. Faced with the need to either endorse or condemn such a show, they wisely chose to condemn it. What's important to note, however, is that Schneider, Wopat and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra apparently have a long working relationship and have put on this show several times in the past, and the NAACP hasn't made an issue of it. It was only after they were directly asked that they issued an opinion - and it wasn't just a knee-jerk reaction; the local director of the NAACP called the national headquarters of the organization. It sure looks like they were dragged in rather than involving themselves of their own accord. Perhaps people in the Pops organization had their own problems with the show and wanted to make it seem that they were caving to outside pressure.

I'm obviously not fond of the Confederacy, but if you sign a contract, honor the contract. If you have problems with continuing a program, don't continue it. But do it on your own, don't try to make someone else responsible for it.

Other than former Georgia Congressman Ben Jones - who played Cooter on the show, I love that name - I'm not sure of southern reaction to this, if there is much. However, I would like to suggest to anyone that is upset by this decision to remember that The Dukes of Hazzard was not actually the best representation of southern people and culture. Everyone character on the show was completely stupid, even the heroes. If southerners are tired of the stereotypes that persist about them, getting rid of every trace of The Dukes of Hazzard would be a good place to start.

(9:18 AM) | Stephen:
More Of The Great Document Dump Of Aught-Seven

Amazing. Just amazing. If you're interested in what can be found in the document dump, head over to TPMmuckraker and read this comment thread. If anything could give one a case of blog triumphalism, this would be it.

Here's an example:

From: Kyle.Sampson@usdoj.gov [mailto:Kyle.Sampson@usdoj.gov]
Sent: Wednesday, November 15, 2006 11:02 AM
To: Kelley, William K.; Miers, Harriet
Cc: Paul.J.McNulty@usdoj.gov
Subject: USA replacement plan
Importance: High

Harriet/Bill, please see the attached. Please note (1) the plan, by its terms, would commence this week; (2) I have consulted with the DAG, but not yet informed others who would need to be brought into the loop, including Acting Associate AG Bill Mercer, EOUSA Director Mike Battle, and AGAC Chair Johnny Sutton (nor have I informed anyone in Karl's shop, another pre-execution necessity I would recommend); and (3) I am concerned that to execute this plan properly we must all be on the same page and be steeled to withstand any political upheaval that might result (see Step 3); if we start caving to complaining U.S. Attorneys or Senators then we shouldn't do it -- it'll be more trouble than it is worth.

We'll stand by for a green light from you. Upon the green light, we'll (1) circulate the below plan to the list of folks in Step 3 (and ask that you circulate it to Karl's shop), (2) confirm that Kelley is making the Senator/Bush political lead calls, and (3) get Battle making the calls to the USAs. Let us know.

Posted by: JPV
Of course we all knew that Miers was involved, that Sampson was coordinating it, that Karl Rove was part of it. But this just lays it all out so clearly.

(12:04 AM) | Stephen:
The Great Document Dump Of Aught-Seven

Looking through the PDF's on the House Judiciary Committee website is interesting. I've been reading some correspondence between the DOJ and various senators regarding the amendment to last year's Patriot Act extension that allows "interim" US Attorneys to be appointed until the end of the president's term rather than the previously allowed 120 days.

Since USA's are political appointees that are usually replaced in substantial numbers upon the inauguration of a new president, this amendment makes Senate confirmation completely unnecessary. A president can merely name interim USA's and then just ignore the issue entirely for his entire term. Of course, doing this en masse poses certain problems, but this was obviously designed to allow the president to bypass the Senate whenever it seems necessary. If the recent firing of USA's hadn't been bungled so badly, this could have been a pretty effective tool for Bushco to make sure that loyalists are in key USA positions.

What's interesting is the rational that Gonzales repeatedly gives for this amendment (it's a scan, so I'm retyping it):
Last year's amendment to the Attorney General's appointment authority was necessary and appropriate. Prior to the amendment, the Attorney General could appoint an interim United States Attorney for only 120 days; thereafter, the district court was authorized to appoint an interim United States Attorney. . . . [S]ome district courts - recognizing the oddity of members of one branch of government appointing officers of another. . . . refused to exercise the court appointment authority, thereby requiring the Attorney General to make successive, 120-day appointments.
This is rather weak. It would be a nuisance, of course, to have to state every 4 months that Ms. X is the interim USA, again, but not much of an issue.

The next bit would, I admit, be more of a problem:
In contrast, other district courts - ignoring the oddity and the inherent conflicts - sought to appoint as interim United States Attorney wholly unacceptable candidates who did not have the appropriate experience or the necessary clearances.
I am extremely interested in concrete examples of a US district court appointing Goober McDumbass, Esq. - lately of the US Communist Party and the Aryan Nation - to the position of United States Attorney. I don't want to just blindly assume good faith on the part of everyone - which is good, because I rarely do - but clearly there would be a bit of consideration of the nature of the position when appointing an interim. After all, Goober would be arguing cases before that district court, and the novelty would wear off rather quickly. Plus any interim USA appointed in this way that was a "wholly unacceptable candidate who did not have the appropriate experience or the necessary clearances" could then just be fired. And a new interim USA could be appointed for another four months.

These aren't good excuses. They just didn't expect to be caught.

Monday, March 19, 2007
(11:38 PM) | Stephen:
Were You There II

Part one here.

My previous post established the physical presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, and therefore with us as we partake of it. We then went on to see how our presence with Christ at his crucifixion is accomplished through the sacrament of baptism. Paul is quite precise with the words in his letters, and we can be sure that he intentionally chose the present tense to refer to our "dying and rising again" with Jesus in the rite of baptism. Those who are baptized were there, and are there, when Jesus was crucified, there when he was pierced in his side, there when he was laid in the tomb, and there when he was raised to new life by God the Father.

But there is another level to this question. This is the troubling level, the one that is hard to answer. "Were you there when they crucified my Lord?" we are asked, and suddenly we understand that to mean as onlookers, as Roman soldiers and Jewish religious leaders. Was I there among the disciples who fled? Was I there, taunting and mocking Jesus?

One way we can answer this is by looking at the doctrine of Original Sin, the idea that all human beings are tied together by the same failing, the same "bent" toward evil and sin. This doctrine is usually tied with the story of Adam and Eve in Eden, which can be quite problematic depending upon the way in which their story is interpreted.

We can be sure that Original Sin, or the original sin, was not eating an apple or any other type of fruit. The original sin wasn't even in the disobedience to God's instructions. Rather, it was giving in to the desire to "be like God," to usurp God's place in not only our own lives but Creation itself. That was the problem with what Adam and Eve did.

Emphasizing a historical Adam and Eve makes a doctrine of Original Sin quite difficult. It pushes us to locate the problem within their actions rather than their attitudes, and leads us into believing that "original sin" is something that is passed from parent to child, generation to generation. Many Christians have sexualized this transmission, believing that Jesus was born to a virgin so that sexual intercourse between her and Joseph would sully neither Mary nor her son. Without a human father, Jesus was able to be born without original sin.

This obviously makes original sin a substance, a thing that we either have or we don't. Within the American Holiness tradition, this has led to the Doctrine of Eradication, which claims that upon being "entirely sanctified" and receiving the Holy Spirit, God removes original sin from the believer, making them totally whole, pure and able to (in theory) resist temptation and not sin.

This perspective of Original Sin makes us cosmically culpable for the death of Jesus, but absolves us of personal guilt insofar as his passion and death are concerned. Those of us who live now, while benefiting from the Gospel, are also on the raw end of things: we are mortal and inherently sinful because of two people that lived 6,000 years ago (ha ha). In terms of a Calvinistic reading of the heilsgeschicte, our "salvation history," this makes sense. All of history has been predetermined by a sovereign God for his pleasure and greater glory. If some of it doesn't look good to us, that's because we're not God.

Well, I'm not a Calvinist. So I'm not satisfied with the idea that I'm only cosmically guilty for our sins against God. God doesn't offer a cosmic redemption, but a personal redemption. And our sacraments are quite personal, with the personal presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and each believer's personal presence with Jesus on the cross.

Putting Jesus on the cross was just another example of the Original Sin rearing its head. The people in Jerusalem who conspired to arrest him, who called for Jesus' death, who decided it would be better to kill this Jewish peasant rather than that Jewish peasant, all of these people took upon themselves the role of God, in this case deciding who was to live and who was to die. It could be said that all sin is just an expression of this Original Sin, this idea that God is keeping from us our rightful inheritance and therefore we must appropriate his role for our own.

This idea is the beginning of how we can personally, literally identify with those present at Golgotha who did the work of the historical crucifixion. We commit the same sin, all of us. For all the variety we think we see in this world, we are depressingly the same. For all our history, we have only been able to come up with one sin - though obviously we've been rather creative in the ways we express it.

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews is provocative on this issue:
It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. (Hebrews 6:4-6, NIV)
"Crucifying the Son of God all over again." This idea, only part of which is expressed here, has found expression most clearly within the Roman Catholic tradition and its artistic use of the image of Jesus upon the cross. It is significant within the tradition whether the image of Jesus is one with eyes open or closed; it portrays a suffering Christ or a dead Christ respectively. But the crucifixion of Jesus which happened historically 2,000 years ago happens symbolically every time Christians celebrate the Eucharist, the ritual consumption of bread and wine that corresponds to the body and blood of Jesus.

If Jesus' crucifixion is not only a historical event but also a continuing reality - which we must believe, as has been shown, if we take seriously the nature of symbols, the institution of the Eucharist by Christ himself and the theology of the Church regarding the eternal nature of the sacrifice of Christ - then the fact that we all commit the Original Sin coupled with the fact that this Original Sin is what placed Jesus upon the cross in the first place means that yes, I was there when they crucified my lord.

I'm not just cosmically guilty of sin because of my DNA, I'm personally guilty - just as much as Pilate, Herod and the crowds - of the death of the Son of God. The message of Christianity is that each one of us was there, taunting him, beating him, pounding the nails in, running away, denying him. But as the Negro Spiritual says, we also were there when the stone was rolled away, and we were there at the empty tomb.

The greatest possible sin, murdering the very Son of God, is upon all of us. That's what makes God's subsequent actions so incredible. He turned this horror into the way that he would forgive all of us, accept all of us, not only for this life but for all eternity.

That's what grace means.

(1:08 PM) | Stephen:
That Housing Boom You Hear Is Actually A Pop

My family purchased its first home a year ago last December. Before then we lived in apartments, university and church-supplied housing and some duplexes (duplices?). We're both fairly competent and educated. My wife has a business degree. But the world of mortgages is just plain crazy, especially for the last several years.

We belong to a credit union that always gives us good rates and doesn't seem to be very interested in screwing us over, for which I'm grateful. But before signing on the dotted line with them I shopped around. Even as a person who was firm in his decision to look for a 30-year fixed rate loan, some of the bullshit coming out of the loan sharks officers was surprisingly compelling. Who doesn't want a bigger house, or a lower payment?

Even with all the common sense that we brought to the table, we bought too much house. Not way too much, and we did stay out of some of the trendier neighborhoods, but we don't need as much house as we have. The real danger is when realtors and mortgage brokers, acting in partnership, manipulate people's desires and dreams and then hammer them with confusing language and vague-enough-to-not-be-actionable promises (even if interest rates go up, it'll probably be just half a point! Well, you're going to get raises, aren't you? Houses this nice don't need as much maintenance, so you'll just be shifting money!) to get them to sign up for all the ridiculous mortgage schemes that have just been invented.

The fact that the most dangerous mortgages are also the newest, we're suffering from a decrease in the most effective form or protection from bad home-buying choices: our parents and friends that already own homes. My mom last bought a home in 1988, and she paid cash. My dad bought his around the same time (I think. Maybe it was a couple years later). Before that they bought a home together in the late 1960's. They woudn't have been a lot of help in navigating the complexities of loan schemes they'd never heard of.

As a moonbat liberal, my first instinct is to of course see the federal government help individuals retain their homes, preferably by raiding the profits of the corporations that have been preying on them with these despicable practices. However, people work for these companies and not all of them are evil. Most of them have just been swept along by the promises of unending low interest rates coupled with record-breaking real estate appreciation. But something needs to be done, and sooner rather than later.

I was in South Korea during the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990's, and it wasn't pretty. That crisis was also precipitated by massive amounts of truly stupid loans, money that was issued based upon nothing. The difference between South Korea then and the USA now is that Kim Dae Jung (one of my political heroes), the president at the time, called the CEOs of South Korea's largest corporations and banks into a meeting and told them exactly what they were going to do in order to get the country out of its mess. Most of what he said came from the IMF which, though it is rightfully disparaged for its practices, turned out to be fairly good in its advice to South Korea. Kim Dae Jung had no actual power to dictate terms to these CEOs, and it was suggested that what he did was threaten them with completely illegal political payback if they didn't play ball. I strongly suspect that this is exactly what he did. However, South Korea's banks and corporations did as they were told, and South Korea was the first country to start to climb out of the financial crisis, and is still doing well.

Here in the USA, our president has shown that he will look out for the interests of corporations and wealthy citizens all the time, in every situation. Unless the Democratic Congress can sneak something by him, what we're going to see is a massive corporate bailout while hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans will lose their homes, their credit, their savings - while paying for the corporate bailout.

I'm not alone in this thinking, see Atrios and especially click through his link to Nouriel Roubini.

Sunday, March 18, 2007
(10:07 AM) | Stephen:
My New Favorite Photo

Part of an art exhibit at The Mary Brogan Museum of Art and Science in Tallahassee, Florida:

The exhibit also shows Confederate flags in the shape of a cross and with a voting machine. It's interesting that Florida has a law that forbids "public desecration" of the Confederate flag. This is especially interesting given that the American flag is protected by no such law.

Of course, certain people have issues with this display:

Robert Hurst, the leader of the local Sons of Confederate Veterans group, calls the display "tasteless and offensive," and demanded the museum remove it.

"That display is extremely offensive. It's very tasteless," Hurst said. "What they've told us, as Southerners, as sons of the Confederacy, is that it's okay to offend us.
Yeah, pretty much. Just like it's ok to offend neo-Nazis or the KKK or any other group that is organized around either the hatred of other skin colors and/or the celebration of a massive act of treason and organized murder of fellow citizens that is still the bloodiest conflict in American history. The reason for seceeding from the United States was slavery; the documents of the Confederate states make this completely clear. The only concern of theirs for "states rights" was that they retained the right to own slaves. If another state passed a law freeing slaves or allowing escaped slaves sanctuary within its borders, the southern states quickly condemned it and called for federal laws that overturned them. If a territory organized as a free state, the southern states demanded that the federal government require the next territory to allow slavery.

When what is not Texas was still part of Mexico, American settlers were invited in to claim homesteads and work the land. In the early part of the 19th century, Mexico, using democratic processes, adopted a truly progressive constitution, one part of which outlawed slavery. These American settlers, guests of the Mexican government and recipients of very generous homesteading policies, immediately took up arms and rebelled against the legitimate, democratically elected government. That is the history behind the battle at the Alamo. That their act of sedition was ultimately successful was surely on the minds of the assorted traitors that gathered in the various southern states that initiated a bloody war against their fellow citizens.

The American Revolution was fought because of a complete lack of representation in England's political processes, not because the Colonies were unable to bend the rest of Britain to their wishes. That's the key difference between the two wars, and it shows why the USA as a whole has been able to mend its relationship England quite nicely and why the southern states are still stamping their feet and petulantly demanding that the rest of the country kowtow to their wishes.

Once again, I would like to publicly thank my Great-great-great-great-granddad. When the Civil War was over, he had the good sense to leave his plantation in Tennesee and move west, setting in motion a chain of events that allowed me to grow up in a state that did not exist until 1912, and that did not see the need to inflict biased and unfounded propaganda about "states rights" and Northern aggression" upon its students.

Saturday, March 17, 2007
(2:48 PM) | Stephen:
Everything Does Not Have To Be About Global Warming

"Global warming" is turning into yet another way for the right wing in this country to stymie debate on an important subject. Whenever environmental issues are brought up, conservatives immediately turn the conversation into a debate over global warming: whether human causes for it are proven or not, evidence that denies it's a problem, Al Gore has a big house and exhales carbon dioxide - all the normal tactics one uses when one doesn't want to really talk about something.

I'm certainly not the first to realize that Red Herring Arguments are continuously employed by conservatives, and are quite difficult to A)ignore and B)refute effectively. That's what the "b-b-but Clinton!" argument is. That's the point of talking about Al Gore's jet travel or John Edward's house. They don't want to discuss the merits of the issue.

What we need to do is remember that protecting the environment is a very simple, common-sense thing to do. While global warming is rightfully a huge issue and needs to be addressed, we don't need to get sucked into endless debates about the number of scientists who deny it (and where they're getting their money) or whether every single person who is worried about global warming has reduced their personal contribution to the phenomenon to zero.

In order to help us along, then, here are some handy points to keep at hand when discussing the environment:

See how simple it is? Even a young child, such as my 5-year-old daughter, can understand this. When people try to increase corporate oversight, strengthen emissions restrictions or keep forests and wetlands closed to development, all they're doing is saying that they want to breathe clean air, drink clean water and not get poisoned by their food.

Why would anyone argue against that?

cross-posted at Ezra's place

Friday, March 16, 2007
(6:44 PM) | Stephen:
Richardson Rising

The latest strawpoll at DailyKos pegs Richardson's support at 8%. This may not seem like much, but every time Kos posts one of these, his support inches up a little more.

The main problem that Richardson has, insofar as the 'netroots' is concerned, is that people just don't know him yet. However, when they start to really hear about his record, both nationally and in New Mexico, they start to warm up to him.

As usual, though, we see that the netroots poll results are almost the complete opposite of the more scientific nationally conducted polls. Hillary Clinton has strong support among everyone but us blog readers. Edwards is the favorite because he's still seen as standing up to William Donohue, and Obama has support because he's Obama.

Bill Richardson, though, is perfectly positioned as the dark horse candidate. The National Journal calls him "everyone's favorite breakout candidate," and mentions that the GOP is quickly noticing the record of tax cuts he's put together during his tenure in NM. He's still a long shot for the nomination, but right now I'd say the list of possible VP picks runs something like this:
But what's this? The National Journal isn't done: "Still. . . the merits of the 'rumors' aside, shouldn't this story have been, er, put to bed by now?"

Ha ha. What a great pun. But it highlights the increasing damage that Richardson will take by not directly addressing this issue. Most people, especially reporters, aren't going to catch the nuances of this issue and understand that the rumors are about some crude behavior, not about infidelity. Richardson is a Latino and a Democrat. The assumption, if there are rumors about anything, is that it has to do with sleeping around. As time goes on, Richardson is going to be faced with the task of not only trying to defend against the actual rumors, but also the completely new, made-up-on-the-fly rumors as well. What has been one problem is becoming two.

So many of us netrootsy types want to like him. And we can provide boots on the ground all over the country, letters written, phone calls made, contributions made and solicited. But if we find that he's been jerking us around, we'll work just as hard against him.

Thursday, March 15, 2007
(5:52 PM) | Stephen:
Amish Girls Gone Wild

The title to this post comes from this article. I don't really have anything to say about it, except that it's a fascinating look at an aspect of being Amish that I think very few people know.

(11:23 AM) | Stephen:
She Sings For All People

Nina Simone, "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free." I guess I'm on a freedom kick, but this song is for all of us.

Listen here, lyrics here.

Update: Listen link fixed.

(9:42 AM) | Stephen:
In Which I Praise a Southern Baptist Theologian

Albert Mohler, Jr., the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary - the seminary of choice for that denomination - has made some rather intriguing comments about homosexuality, the limits of our medical knowledge and the ethics of intervening in the womb over our children's various characteristics that we might find unacceptable.

Mohler's remarks are the first time that such a prominent member of the Southern Baptist Convention has suggested that there is a biological basis for homosexuality. I tend to think that this admission completely undermines their opposition to homosexuality since it removes it from the realm of an individuals choice. However, as I noted before, the ability for an individual to choose is not as important in the Calvinistic American Evangelical movement as it is among Arminians or those Calvinists that have followed the classical liberal tradition. Therefore, Mohler is not suggesting that homosexuality should be accepted; it's still a sin.

What he does suggest is that once we are able to identify exactly what it is that "makes" a person homosexual, we will be able to develop treatments, applicable while still in the womb, that will "fix" a child's homosexuality and ensure their heterosexuality.

Now that's bold. Really, I'm not being sarcastic. It takes quite a bit of courage for a man in his position to say such things. "I wrote the article intending to start a conversation, and I think I've been successful at that," Mohler is quoted as saying. I'm certainly willing to believe him on this, and he has indeed been successful. Because of him there's going to be a bunch of Southern Baptist seminarians, pastors and laity that will be discussing whether or not homosexuality has a biological basis. That's a good thing.

They will also be discussing the issue of how far we can and should go to modify our children while in the womb. This is an extremely touchy subject, of course. But Christians, just like anyone else, need to be talking about this. The time is already here when we can modify our children's eye and hair color, even their gender, I believe. We can also fix such things as spinal bifida in the womb, and are creating ever more accurate tests for Down Syndrome and possibly some ways to treat that. How far is too far? What if Mohler is right about our ability to prove that homosexuality is biologically based and we develop ways to "fix" it in the womb?

Better that Christians talk about this now, even if many will just try to dismiss it, than to be caught entirely by surprise. Mohler is going to take some huge hits for this, and though he is obviously not on "my" side of this issue, I applaud him for being willing to step out and say something about it.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007
(9:31 PM) | Stephen:
Politics And The Nature Of God

Following up on my post about papal authority, it needs to be said that Pope Benedict XVI approaches temporal power from an entirely different standpoint than American-style Evangelical Fundamentalist Christians. While William Donohue is (publicly) feted by Protestants such as James Dobson and Jerry Falwell, the fact that their goals are currently so closely matched is one of those interesting quirks of history that keep popping up. As I said before, Benedict XVI believes he has the right to interfere in the politics of sovereign nations because the Roman Catholic Church has been the true authority behind many a throne. Popes have been able to call upon large armies from multiple nations to do their bidding.

American Evangelicals, of course, have none of this history. Their desire to control the American political process, as well as support for Adventures in Gunpowder Democracy comes, instead, from the Calvinist theology that provides the foundation for literally every aspect of the movement.

This isn't about TULIP or even really about Jean Calvin himself. I say Calvinist because that is what the theological tradition of Calvin has become in this country, not because it is necessarily a true representation of what Calvin actually taught. This Evangelical Calvinism, no matter what else it may have dropped or added to Calvin's theology, has wholeheartedly embraced the sovereignty of God. This is God's primary characteristic, the word that more than any other can describe not only God's character and the way in which he approaches us, but his very essence, the core of his being. God's love is expressed through the filter of his sovereignty. His grace, his judgment, everything comes to us through that particular filter.

It's important to take a look at what sovereign means in this context. It is much more than the idea that God is free to do whatever he wants. Rather, the sovereignty of God is expressed through his will (often capitalized), which is perfect and complete. God's will, established before he created the world, has mapped out all of creation's history, from the moment God thought it all up to the end of creation as determined by God. Every galaxy, every star, every human being all the way down to not only atoms but the quarks and neutrinos of our weird universe has it's every movement foreordained, determined. Why we as human beings are still supposed to be held accountable for the things we do is something I cannot explain. This view is a foreign language to me. And it is no caricature, no exaggeration to state it the way I have.

If we can set aside the question of why humans should ever do anything for a moment, we can perhaps start to see why people who believe that God is totally sovereign over everything would seek to bend even secular institutions, such as governments, to their (God's) will. God's will is that we will be righteous, and his will is for everyone and everything. Allowing, then, abominations such as abortion or gay marriage to exist in any setting is an affront to the sovereignty of God. His essence is being challenged by the existence of systems that do not perfectly reflect his will and his law.

Chief among the problems with this approach is that it does not allow room for human freedom. There's many ways to refute this bizarre absolute sovereignty: examples of God changing his mind (literally repenting) in the Noah story and regarding Israel's "chosen" status. The fact that the Bible is written as a story in which God seeks to persuade human beings to follow him, usually through the agency of other human beings.

But most compelling of all is found in the very beginning of Genesis. God, we are told, decided to make a creature in his own image. Subsequent books of the Bible should help us to dispense with any idea that we somehow physically look like God. His image - what does that mean? To understand we need to see the picture that is painted of God throughout the Bible. In Scripture God is shown as loving, angry, jealous, kind, able to change his mind - indeed, the picture we get of God is so human that one of the most common objections to belief in God is that he is clearly just another deity that we have created in our own image. But this God is faithful to his promises. He is consistent in the ways he pursues all people, the way he will not give up on any of us.

We also can be loving, angry, jealous, kind, and certainly able to change our minds. We also have been given moral agency, the ability to make our own decisions for ourselves, to rebel against the will of God. That's what it means to bear the image of God. When Christian theology talks about the restoration of the Imago Dei what is meant is that this image we bear will no longer be warped and perverted, no longer will we use our God-given abilities to hurt and destroy each other.

If human beings are truly free to make their own decisions, then laws that restrict human beings' choices are immoral insofar as they do not protect other human beings' ability to make choices. We live in community with one another, and each of us makes decisions every day that affect other people.

The problem is that these things get complicated. A case can be made that abortion should be totally outlawed because it impinges upon the rights of the fetus. Of course, the rights of the fetus can often intersect with the rights of the mother to live as well, which is why trying to be absolutist about it is so difficult - at least if one discards the easy-sounding slogans and moralizing and gets to the heart of the matter. With abortion, just as with gay marriage, drinking alcohol, having sex before marriage or whether to attend a Sunday church service, the issue is choice. If human beings exist only to serve the sovereignty of God, then by all means legislate away. It certainly is an affront to God's sovereignty that anyone anywhere can do anything that in the slightest way deviates from the plan laid out for us in the Bible.

However, if human beings are more than this, if we are made in God's image and given by him the ability to choose for ourselves, well or poorly, then any law that restricts a human being's ability to choose for him or herself the path to take is truly an affront to God's sovereignty - the self-limiting sovereignty of God that chose and still chooses to enter into partnerships with free beings, that seeks to attract and persuade rather than simply watch the grand toy empire he built run its course.

It should be entirely possible to be a Christian, even one that is against all abortion and considers homosexuality to be a truly awful sin, and still allow and advocate for the freedom of other human beings to make their choices. This does not mean that one must sit idly by or ignore the world. But it does mean that if we are to follow God's example - living up to the Imago Dei - there are better ways to spend our time than forcing people to outwardly conform to certain rules and regulations. Those Evangelical Christians who fight to ban abortion and pass amendments against homosexual marriage are accomplishing the exact opposite of what Jesus sent them into the world to do. They are perverting the message of the Bible, spreading false witness of the God's character and resisting his attempts to restore his image to them.

They're sincere, and many of them, most of the time, are very nice, compassionate and loving people. But the more one is committed to restricting the God-given freedom of one's fellow human beings, the harder it is to show true love to them. It's far past time for the American Evangelical movement to rediscover its priorities.

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