The Power of Fear in Politics

The other night, I went to a local candidate forum organized by the various Republican Party groups in the county where I live. It featured people running for offices from justice of the peace all the way up to U.S. senator.

Where I live in Central Texas, the Republican primary functions as the general election for local races. Even this year, in what seems to be shaping up as a big election for Democrats, the chances are minuscule that any of the small handful of Democrats running for county-level races will win any of them.

The ideological hegemony here is smothering. In November 2016, the least-supported Republican in any race on the ballot received 63 percent of the vote. Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton here by 50 points.

Meanwhile, the county sits within various districts that also are overwhelmingly Republican. In the Texas Legislature, it’s part of the 73rd House District, where no Democrats were on the ballot in 2016, and the 25th Senate District, where the incumbent, a hard-core Tea Party conservative, won re-election in 2014 with more than 76 percent of the vote. On the federal level, infamous climate-change denier Lamar Smith has represented the bulk of the county for three decades, defeating his Democratic challenger in the county by 60 points.

The point is: This is a conservative county in a conservative state. Republicans have nothing to fear here.

Which is pretty much the opposite of the message several hundred attendees heard at this forum.

Instead, they were told they should in fact be quite afraid.

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Alabama and the Power of the Vote

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Sixty million years ago, what is now south-central Alabama was the shore of an ocean. Over time, the continents shifted, sea levels receded, and the nutrient-rich mud deposited by those waves eventually became nutrient-rich black dirt perfect for planting crops like cotton.

Two hundred years ago, the Industrial Revolution and the rise of textile manufacturing made cotton an increasingly vital part of the Southern – and the American – economy. The children and grandchildren of enslaved Africans, kidnapped and brought over the ocean to harvest tobacco in Maryland, Virginia and the Carolinas, were torn from their families, chained together and marched southwest to Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi to expend their bodies scooping bowls of cotton from thousands upon thousands of plants growing in that ancient shoreline. The modern American economy, from which some of us benefit more than others, was built on their backs.

War. Emancipation. Reconstruction. Segregation. The well worn story, still somehow not told often enough or understood well enough. When I visited Alabama to do thesis research two years ago, I was struck by the extent to which the history of those slaves and their descendants has simply been ignored. Jefferson Davis, traitor to his country, has his statue on the grounds of the State Capitol in Montgomery. Down the street, where men and women and children were chained and sold like animals – where their descendants were beaten and brutalized and ghettoized – no marker stands.

At the risk of generalizing too much, Alabama seems to have a knack for ignoring. Forty years after KKK members bombed a Baptist church, killing four black girls, it took a prosecutor named Doug Jones to finally bring them to justice; their identities had long been known to authorities. They were just … ignored. That bombing, in Birmingham in 1963, occurred as the South convulsed with marches and demands. Martin Luther King Jr., a young preacher in the first capital of the Confederacy who every Sunday delivered sermons extolling the need for equality almost literally in the shadow of the statue of the man who led a war to deny that equality to men like King. By 1965, King led a march for voting rights up the same steps where Davis had delivered his inaugural address as president of the nation founded explicitly on the denial of humanity to dark-skinned people.

For decades, the descendants of the enslaved had been denied their voice. In a nation that preaches the power of the vote and the principle of democracy, black men and women had been stripped of that power, and with it their place as true citizens of a country they had been forced to inhabit. Even after the march from Selma to Montgomery left bloodstains in the 60-million-year-old dirt, African Americans found themselves struggling to make themselves heard. Restrictions on voting for convicted felons. Voter ID laws. No early voting. No online registration. Police intimidation at polling places. Voting, the one measure of power granted to every person born in the United States, the primary tool of self-governance, was granted only reluctantly to those who arguably needed it most desperately.

Ignore it or dismiss it how you will, history is always there. That long chain of events leads directly to yesterday’s election of a new senator from Alabama. Yesterday, people of color – many of them residents of that “Black Belt” of south-central Alabama that once was a seashore – overcame obstacles, waited in line for hours and cast provisional ballots after being wrongly classified as “inactive voters.” They did so because, for the first time, the established power structures of the state – which for so long had domineered and silenced them – were vulnerable. That power structure long had said they were unfit to vote because they were black, or because they were female, or both. Today, they told the power structure it was unfit to represent them on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

Against a candidate who embodied everything wrong about the current American political moment – a likely serial sexual abuser of teen girls who, according to his spokesman, “probably” believes homosexuality should be illegal and rejects the rights of Muslims to hold political office, who just this week pined for the days of slavery – people of color, and especially women of color, rose up. As they have been doing for the past year. As they have been doing for generations.

They rose up to take one of the most powerful actions any person in our society can take – an action so consequential its potential use by African Americans sparked dread among white Alabamians for more than a century: They voted. And in so doing, they pulled down a bastion of power that said they should stay in their place, the place carved out for them as women, as people of color.

By all accounts, it wasn’t easy. Progress never is. It takes a long time for that sea to deposit its grains on the beach, imperceptibly building a fertile land in which freedom and equality can eventually take root, even if only after violence and oppression trample it first. It takes persistence, against long odds, against a bloody history too often whitewashed and denied. It takes being assaulted and insulted and gaslighted by monsters who claim the backing of God and sing “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” while you dismantle their corrupt edifices.

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends – with difficulty – toward justice. Nevertheless, they persisted.

Why the Government Shutdown Makes Me So Mad

1_photoI think about health care a lot. We are blessed with three healthy children – but not so healthy that there haven’t been scares and emergencies. We’ve been to the hospital at least once with each child in the last five years, not to mention the hospital visits to actually give birth.

So I think about health care a lot. Because many families are not as lucky as we have been. Their children need many more hospital visits, or round-the-clock care, or expensive medication taken every day. And that’s expensive, more than they can afford.

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‘I’m Tired of Being Alone’

9780891123590A couple of weeks ago, I described my support for same-sex relationships in terms of intimacy – that God has hard-wired people to need to be intimate, so much so that our physical health depends on it, and that to argue he both creates the conditions that lead some to be same-sex attracted and requires denial of the intimacy they need because of that very attraction requires us to conceive of God as a monster.

In the end, however, I’m just a straight guy. I know and love a few gay people, but when it comes right down to it, I’m just talking about what I think they’re going through – or at least what science tells me they’re going through. I’d much rather let them say it, which is why I heartily recommend a book called Loves God, Likes Girls by a friend of mine, Sally Gary.

Sally blew everyone away about 10 years ago, when I was an undergrad, by standing up in our daily Chapel service and describing her struggle with same-sex attraction. A lot has changed in the past decade – for her, for me, for all of us. Homosexuality is a much more openly discussed topic, and its acceptance as a natural part of the lives of even those who choose celibacy has grown enormously.

Sally’s book is a memoir, nothing more – not a book that advocates for a particular side, just a good story well told that along the way has some valuable lessons to teach. And it’s a valuable resource because it provides a different perspective from the story told by, say, a Justin Lee in his book Torn.

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It’s OK to Be Gay – How Science, the Bible and the Love of God Convinced Me To Affirm Same-Sex Relationships

20130614-012013.jpgIn the end, it just hit me.

A single sentence, in an article not even about homosexuality or theology, not about Leviticus 18 or Romans 1, not about the Boy Scouts or the Southern Baptists.

In the end, what got me was a New Republic article by the magazine’s science editor, Judith Shulevitz.

“The Lethality of Loneliness” describes how psychobiologists “have proved that long-lasting loneliness not only makes you sick; it can kill you.” Loneliness is defined as “want of intimacy.”

The story is fascinating and well worth reading. Shulevitz reports that scientists rank emotional isolation as highly as smoking among risk factors for mortality, and those most likely to feel emotionally isolated are those who are most rejected – as Shulevitz puts it, “The outsiders: not just the elderly, but also the poor, the bullied, the different” (emphasis hers). The lonely experience higher levels of stress, which injects the hormone cortisol into the bloodstream, the chronic overdosing of which leads to numerous maladies, the most serious being heart disease.

Since those who are rejected feel lonely more often, we shouldn’t be surprised that some of the biggest studies into loneliness have occurred among those who are gay. Scientists studying HIV-infected gay men in the 1980s discovered this incredible fact: “The social experience that most reliably predicted whether an HIV-positive gay man would die quickly … was whether or not he was in the closet.”

Closeted men were more sensitive to rejection, more fearful of being outed, and therefore less intimate with those around them. Their lives were more stressful, and stress hormones feed the AIDS virus. And then came the sentence that stopped me cold:

[Researcher Steven] Cole mulled these results over for a long time, but couldn’t understand why we would have been built in such a way that loneliness would interfere with our ability to fend off disease: “Did God want us to die when we got stressed?”

The answer is no. What He wanted is for us not to be alone.

And there it is. Is it really that simple?

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God to Job: Humans Are So Overrated

9780674025974_p0_v1_s260x420When it comes to humanity’s place in creation, we have our scripture down pat: Genesis 1:27-28.

God created humanity in God’s own image,
in the divine image God created them,
male and female God created them.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it. Take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and everything crawling on the ground.”

“Master” the earth, “take charge” of its animals. Or, in the famous words of more traditional translations: We have “dominion” over this world. Throw in Psalm 8 for good measure:

You’ve made [humanity] only slightly less than divine,
crowning them with glory and grandeur.
You’ve let them rule over your handiwork,
putting everything under their feet—
all sheep and all cattle,
the wild animals too,
the birds in the sky,
the fish of the ocean,
everything that travels the pathways of the sea.

Cut and dried, right?

Not so fast.

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Pope Francis and the Progressives

505px-Card._Jorge_Bergoglio_SJ,_2008

The defining moment in the papacy of Benedict XVI, at least for this Protestant, was in January 2012, when the Obama administration was getting set to release its regulations for what insurance companies must offer in basic health care plans as dictated by the Affordable Care Act.

It was no secret that contraceptives likely would be among those required to be fully covered; their role in reducing unwanted pregnancy, protecting women, fighting poverty and ultimately reducing abortions was too great to be ignored.

Yet Pope Benedict chose a different emphasis when addressing American bishops in Rome, decrying alleged threats to religious freedom, including what he called attempts to “deny the right of conscientious objection on the part of Catholic individuals and institutions with regard to cooperation in intrinsically evil practices.”

Two months later, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a letter they asked all priests to read in their Sunday mass, criticizing the mandate and painting it in the stark hues of religious freedom – this despite support for Obamacare by Catholic nuns, whom the bishops then attempted to muzzle. Later in the year, when Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan proposed budgets that would cut services to the poor to pay for defense spending and tax cuts for the wealthy, the response from the bishops was much more muted.

The message was clear: Under Pope Benedict the church would go to much greater lengths to protect its own power than it would the powerless.

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