Thursday, January 29, 2009

AU to Obama: Fix the Faith-Based Office

National Americans United has issued a press release urging President Obama to "Act Swiftly to Fix the Flaws of the Faith-Based Office."

News outlets are reporting that Obama has selected Josh Dubois, a Pentecostal pastor who headed the religious outreach for Obama's campaign, to head the federal government's faith-based office.

Personally, I wish Obama would abolish the faith-based office. Since that is not going to happen, the next best thing would be to structure the office to comply with the First Amendment. That is what national AU is exhorting Obama to do.

Frankly, hiring his campaign's director of religious outreach already has the smell of political payoff. The Bush administration used the faith-based office as a tool to drum up political support from the religious community. It doesn't appear that Obama will do much more than funnel money to progressive churches instead of conservative churches.

It is as wrong to give federal money to support progressive religious organizations as it is to use federal money to support conservative religious organizations. Fairness requires that the government should remain neutral in regard to religion. Elections and politicians should not be permitted to chose winners and losers in the sphere of religion.

On Predator CEO's

James K Galbraith in his new book "The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too" offers a description of the process by which American CEO's subordinated the interests of their companies to their own interests:

Should any CEO of a publicly traded company ever be authorized to pay himself $100 million a year? The question is not one of aesthetics or morals. It is rather, is it possible that a chief executive paid in this way will act in the interest of the company by which he is allegedly employed? Or will the CEO, as a matter of course in this situation, simply view the company as a personal servant? . . .

First, corporate chiefs began to feel interchangeable; their credential was not as the leaders of a particular enterprise but as a CEO per se; the credential for becoming one became, to an increasing degree, that of having been one somewhere else. Thus the recruitment of new CEO's became in part a game of musical chairs among corporations. Wall Street wanted men (and an occasional woman) with experience in cutting costs and driving up stock prices. CEO's therefore began to identify with one another as a group instead of with the companies with which they were affiliated. Instead of pursuing the committee-driven interests of the company -– a process from which by lack of deep immersion they were to a degree foreclosed, and to which they would be, in any event, institutionally hostile -– many naturally came to focus on the truly important business; that of moving up in the class rankings of CEO pay. At the same time, those in the technostructure could easily see that the corporate game had changed. What had formerly held together as a collective enterprise would now become, in many instances, a game of everyone for himself. From this, the step to looting is not large.(Kindle Reader marks 2137-2160)
I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for these looters to ever see the inside of a jail cell.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Another Monumental Mistake

An Oklahoma State Representative has introduced a bill to put a Ten Commandments monument up at the State Capitol in Oklahoma.

With a wink and a nod, he says that his intent is not to have the state endorse any faith, but to recognize a "historical document" that is "part of our law."

It is hard to find a "conservative" Christian in Oklahoma who opposes this ruse. When they are in a courtroom the swear they are only recognizing a "historical document," but that is not what they say in private conversations and in their churches. The language and rhetoric of Christian Nationalism and Christian Reconstructionism permeates the politically active conservative churches in Oklahoma.

Like County Commissioners who approved a monument to American theocracy in Haskell County, I expect Oklahoma's legislators would rather chisel commandments in stone than observe them.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Money Mastering Theological Education

Robert Parham at Ethics Daily has posted a story about the financial troubles that are besetting American theological education.

The troubles cross all denominational and theological boundaries.

It's not a pretty picture.

It is well past time for a new paradigm for theological education.

My guess is that there will be a lot more virtual classrooms in the future. At the moment, B.H. Carroll Institute seems to be at the head of the curve.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Inhofe Labels Obama a Thug

Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe doesn't like Obama's decision to let California and other states regulate the amount of vehicle tailpipe emissions they would permit.

Ordinarily an advocate for more states rights and less centralized government, Inhofe says Obama's decision in this case amounts to "environmental thuggery."

Unfortunately, Inhofe's rhetoric reflects the mindset of most Oklahomans. Many of the titans of Oklahoma industry have a better grasp of the issues, but they continue to find Inhofe to be a most useful idiot for preserving many of their private financial interests.

Podcast: Brent Walker Interview

Podcast (27 MB Mp3) of Dr. Bruce Prescott's 1-25-09 "Religious Talk" radio interview with Brent Walker, Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. We talk about his critique of David Barton, about Christian Nationalism, and about the cynical use of religion by politicians and the manipulation of religion by political parties.

Friday, January 23, 2009

On the Demise of Banking in the Shadows

In his new book, The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008, Paul Krugman, recent recipient of the Nobel Prize in economics, explains how the sub-prime mortgage crisis put the world on the brink of depression:

As the severity of the housing bust sank in, it became clear that lenders would lose a lot of money, and so would the investors who bought mortgage-backed securities. But why should we cry for these people, as opposed to the homeowners themselves? After all, the end of the housing bubble will probably, when the final reckoning is made, have wiped out about $8 trillion of wealth. Of that, around $7 trillion will have been losses to homeowners, and only about $1 trillion losses to investors. Why obsess about that $1 trillion?

The answer is, because it has triggered the collapse of the shadow banking system. (p. 169)
I didn't know about this shadow banking system. Did you? Here's what Krugman says about the banking system that operated in the shadows:
An arrangement known as an auction-rate security, which was invented at Lehman Brothers in 1984 . . . became a preferred source of funding for many institutions . . . The arrangement worked like this: Individuals would lend money to the borrowing institution on a long-term basis; legally, the money might be tied up for thirty years. At frequent intervals, however, often once a week, the institution would hold a small auction in which potential new investors would bid for the right to replace investors who wanted to get out. The interest rate determined by this bidding process would apply to all funds invested in the security until the next auction was held, and so on. If the auction failed -– if there weren’t enough bidders to let everyone who wanted out to leave -– the interest rate would rise to a penalty rate, say 15 percent; but that wasn’t expected to happen. The idea of an auction-rate security was that it would reconcile the desire of borrowers for secure long-term funding with the desire of lenders for ready access to their money.

But that's exactly what a bank does.

Yet auction-rate securities seemed to offer everyone a better deal than conventional banking. Investors in auction-rate securities were paid higher interest rates than they would have received on bank deposits, while the issuers of these securities paid lower rates than they would have on long-term bank loans. . . .

Banks are highly regulated; they are required to hold liquid reserves, maintain substantial capital, and pay into the deposit insurance system. By raising funds via auction-rate securities, borrowers could bypass these regulations and their attendant expense. But that also meant that auction-rate securities weren't protected by the banking safety net. (pp. 158-159)
By now, everyone knows about the "shadow bank" run at Lehman Brothers and the other "investment banks" last fall. Krugman quotes Timothy Geithner, president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank and currently Obama's nominee for Treasury Secretary, about the size of this unregulated "shadow banking system" in relation to the regulated banking system that operates in the open:

In early 2007, asset-backed commercial paper conduits, in structured investment vehicles, in auction-rate preferred securities, tender option bonds and variable demand notes, had a combined asset size of roughly $2.2 trillion. Assets held in hedge funds grew to roughly $1.8 trillion. The combined balance sheets of the then five major investment banks [the shadow banking system] totaled $4 trillion.

In comparison, the total assets of the top five bank holding companies in the United States [the banking system that operates in the open] at that point were just over $6 trillion. (p. 161)
Krugman then explains why the tools the Federal Reserve and the Treasury have to handle economic crises are proving inadequate to handle our current financial situation. Those tools were designed for the banking system that operates in the open. The sizeable part of the economy that was sustained by the assets of the shadow banking system has been decimated.

I highly recommend this book. I read it through in one sitting. It is the most accessible explanation of economics that I have ever read.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Invisible Hands

Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, contended that an "invisible hand" guided free markets to balance the private interests of individuals with the public's interest in the "common good." Conservative ideology eschews rational and open economic planning and favors unregulated markets because faith in the "invisible hand" is what is necessary for the markets to work their magic.

Since the days of Ronald Reagan conservatives have been broadcasting this faith from radio and TV studios, pulpits, and lecturns across the country. In Oklahoma, despite what is now happening throughout the global economy, faith in the "invisible hand" is as prevalent as faith in God -- and some no doubt think that the two are one and the same. No state in the union has more faith in Reagan's mythology about the "magic of the markets."

I encourage my fellow Oklahomans, and anyone else who might be interested, to read Kevin Phillips' new book, Bad Money. Kevin Phillips was the GOP's principal electoral theoretician during the Nixon and Reagan eras. He provides some revealing insights about the "invisible hands" that have been guiding the American economy since the days of Ronald Reagan:

Part of what Bad Money deals with . . . is the financial sector's massive use of private debt and leverage during the 1990s and then again in the first decade of the twenty-first century to expand its size, global reach, and extraordinary profitability. This is less a market-based Adam Smith brand of triumph than a mercantilist joint venture with U.S. government authority, strategic direction, funding support, and periodic Federal Reserve or U.S. Treasury bailouts of overextended financial institutions. . . .

Some have labeled these apparent policies the "socialization of risk" or "Wall Street socialism." I think the better explanation is that elements of the U.S. government decided, back in the late 1980s, that finance, not manufacturing or high technology, had to be the sector on which Washington would place its strategic chips -– would "pick as a winner" in the parlance of that era. Farms and factories were expendable, but certain banks and other financial institutions could not be allowed to fail. The coordinating body, handed its government franchise in 1988, following the October 1987 stock market crash, was the President's Working Group on Financial Markets, built around the secretary of the treasury and the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. Its existence has never been secret, only the record of its discussions and the nature of its occasional interventions in the financial markets. [pp. xiii-xiv]
Here's more:
I wrote back in 1994 that “the investment community also buzzed with another rumor that the Federal Reserve, sheltered in the secrecy of its unsupervised, free from audit status, had gone even further by quietly buying S&P futures to prop up the stock market on critical days.” Actually, what would later be nicknamed the Plunge Protection Team may have been sheltering such activity behind something far more reassuring: stated but imprecise presidential authority, contained in a proclamation establishing the President’s Working Group on Financial Markets issued by Ronald Reagan on March 18, 1988, four months after the October 1987 crash. The secretary of the treasury and the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board were the designated big hitters, but others -– the several stock market chief executives, for example, and the president of the New York Federal Reserve Board -– could be added to the attendees as needed. . . .

Just how much power the Working Group was allowed to exercise was never publicly made clear. . . . [p. 58]
And more:
After the financial markets' narrow escape in the stock market crash of 1987, some kind of high level decision seems to have been reached in Washington to loosely institutionalize a rescue mechanism for the stock market akin to that pursued on an ad hoc basis (by the Fed and the U.S. Treasury) to safeguard major U.S. banks from exposure to domestic and foreign loan and currency crises. Thus the coinage of the phrase "financial mercantilism." For Washington to have made such a tentative choice in 1988 was momentous. Finance became the chosen sector of the U.S. economy -– the one that would be protected and promoted because it would be too important to fail. Manufacturing would receive no such help, however excited members of Congress might get from time to time. [p. 60]
Doesn't it make your heart feel good to know how Reagan entrusted our nation's entire economic well-being to the "invisible hands" of those "conservative" free-market financiers and Wall Street executives?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Faith and Politics Under Obama

Robert Parham has posted an editorial at Ethics Daily comparing Obama's use of religious language in his inaugural speech with the words of his predecessors. Overall, Obama appears to be cautious and inclusive in his use of religious language.

More troublesome is the advice Obama is receiving from Mike McCurry, former President Clinton's press secretary. McCurry appears to be advising Obama to employ religion as a tool to reach out to faith-based communities. Such utilitarian applications demean and undermine religion by subordinating faith to politics.

Most troublesome was the response of a U.S. Army Commander to Rick Warren's prayer at Obama's inauguration. He intimidated subordinates into violating their own consciences by applauding what some clearly did not approve.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Best Photo of the Day!

Thanks to Truthdig and Mike Luckovich.

At Long Last, Bush Moves On

This is my personal invitation to former president Bush and anyone else who is interested.

We're celebrating Obama's inauguration today at the United Ministry Center at 1017 Elm Ave. in Norman, Oklahoma.

Stop by anytime today for some coffee and some high five's.

And, our celebration won't be ending at 5 today, we'll be celebrating throughout the evening.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Tennessean Discusses SBC Decline

Saturday's Tennessean published an interesting article about the decline of the Southern Baptist Convention. The article has an insightful quote from Bill Leonard:

Bill Leonard, a Baptist historian at Wake Forest University, believes that conservatives underestimated the power of demographics. Much of the mainline decline is due to lower birthrates in those denominations. For years Southern Baptist churches grew because their people had more children than mainliners.

When that changed, fewer Baptist babies meant fewer Baptists, Leonard said.

The decline in children among Baptists is seen in Sunday school attendance.

In 1971, there were 1,434,892 children ages 6 to 11 in Southern Baptist Sunday schools. By 2007, the last year for which statistics are available, that number had dropped by about 455,000 to 979,429. At the same time, the U.S. population grew by 46 percent.

"Biblical inerrancy can't hold off demographic realities forever," Leonard said.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Introducing Baptist Women for Equality

Shirley Taylor, formerly an employee of BGCT, is now leading a new organization of Baptist Women who are committed to promoting women in leadership roles within Baptist life.

Baptist Women for Equality advocate for women deacons and women pastors in Baptist churches. They just published their first newsletter, "An Open Letter to Baptists" with brief discussions of scripture and the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message.

Kudos to Shirley and the other Baptist Women in her organization. Mainstream Baptists will want to become familiar with their work.

Podcast: Charles Kimball at the Baptist-Muslim Dialogue

Podcast (32 MB MP3) of Dr. Charles Kimball, Director of the Religious Studies Program at the University of Oklahoma, speaking on love for God and neighbor in Christian scriptures on January 10th at the Baptist-Muslim National Dialogue hosted by the Andover Newton Theological School.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Podcast: Seeds and Connections

Podcast (37 MB MP3) of Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of African-American Studies and Sociology at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, speaking on January 11, 2009 at the Baptist-Muslim National Dialogue hosted by the Andover Newton Theological School. Dr. Gilkes entitled her presentation "SEEDS AND CONNECTIONS: The Muslim Presence in a Struggle to Love -- A Personal Observation." In it she discusses common themes between the Baptist and Muslim faith traditions and highlights traces of the influence of the Islamic faith of African slaves on the spirituality of the black churches in America.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Sarah Palin on Carolyn Kennedy

I'm no fan of Sarah Palin, but I think she's got a point when she questions how the media is handling the possibility that Caroline Kennedy coud be nominated to fill a vacant Senate seat. Here's a quote from Palin:

"I've been interested also to see how Caroline Kennedy will be handled," Palin stated, "and if she'll be handled with kid gloves or if she'll be under such a microscope also. ... We will perhaps be able to prove that there is a class issue here also that was such a factor in the scrutiny of my candidacy."
Sarah Palin most certainly lacked the gravitas and experience to run for Vice President. Kennedy may have gravitas, but she has less experience than Palin.

Neither of them are ready for prime time.

Richard John Neuhaus Passes

Richard John Neuhaus, author of The Naked Public Square, has died.

Neuhaus popularized the theme that Theocons and Christian Nationalists have used for decades to chip away at the First Amendmentment's separation of church and state.

While the religious right was taking over the public square and marginalizing everyone who did not support the imposition of conservative Christian values by force of law, Neuhaus incessantly complained that every attempt to preserve religious pluralism and uphold separation of church and state was an attempt to strip the public square of religious voices.

I will not miss his mendacious rhetoric.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Great Depression II?

Paul Krugman, recent winner of the Nobel rize in economics, has posted a column in today's New York Times revealing that the world is terrifyingly close to the "nightmare scenario" of a second great depression. Here's his conclusion:

All of this leaves me concerned about the prospects for the Obama plan. I’m sure that Congress will pass a stimulus plan, but I worry that the plan may be delayed and/or downsized. And Mr. Obama is right: We really do need swift, bold action.

Here's my nightmare scenario: It takes Congress months to pass a stimulus plan, and the legislation that actually emerges is too cautious. As a result, the economy plunges for most of 2009, and when the plan finally starts to kick in, it's only enough to slow the descent, not stop it. Meanwhile, deflation is setting in, while businesses and consumers start to base their spending plans on the expectation of a permanently depressed economy — well, you can see where this is going.

So this is our moment of truth. Will we in fact do what's necessary to prevent Great Depression II?

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Tennessean Looks at SBC Decline

Today's Tennessean has and editorial and Op-Ed's by Ed Setzer and Robert Parham about the declining membership of the Southern Baptist Convention.

The editorial assumes that the SBC's decline is the result of its failure to reach out to a diverse ethnic population and faults the SBC for failing to commit resources to outreach.

Ed Setzer, director of the SBC's Lifeway Research, attributes the decline to an unwillingness to change, a lack of focus and a failure to find new leadership. Ironically, Setzer denies that loosening the stranglehold of fundamentalism would help the denomination catch its breath.

Robert Parham, editor of Ethics Daily, succinctly summarizes the dead weight that is slowly dragging the SBC under the currents of a globally changing environment. Here's a quote:

Positive growth requires that an authentic inclusivity must replace a rigid exclusivity for women in leadership. Civil ecumenical and meaningful interfaith engagement must supplant arrogant theological purity. A genuine commitment to nonpartisanship must be swapped for the claim that God's Only Party is the GOP.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

I'm Praying for Peace

The U.S. and Britain have rejected a cease-fire resolution in Gaza.

Israel is using U.S. made bunker-buster missiles in Gaza and some speculate that Israel is preparing to use the same missiles against Iran:

The attack on Gaza may be a test-run for Iran's nuclear sites. In that case, what we may be witnessing is Israel's initiation of full-scale war with Iran. That would certainly make as much sense as the current stated rationale for invading Gaza.
Bush and the Neo-cons are determined to go out of office with a bang.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Antique Car Shows Up Off Road

The Times Online is reporting that Dr. Harold Carr left his nieces and nephews a dirty job when he died. They had to clean out his garage.

Inside the garage they found a 1937 Bugatti in pristine but dusty condition that had not been on the road since 1960.

Once they clean up the car its estimated value is around $4.3 million dollars.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

On Using Green Cement

The Guardian UK has published a story about "Cement that Eats Carbon Dioxide."

This is the kind of innovation that we need to be able to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.