Sunday, February 28, 2010

Dancing Deer

Just as Kylene and I were about leave the back window, I snapped this picture. It is the most unusual sight we have ever seen in our back yard.

I frequently see deer stand on their haunches to get berries off the trees, but I've never seen them box and dance with each other before.

Please credit this blog if you make use of this picture.

The View from My Window

Looking out my back window at about 2:15 PM today I caught a rare sight with my camera. Wild turkeys and deer trek through our yard on a daily basis. This is the first time I have seen them together.

There are three turkeys and seven deer in this picture (two deer are behind the tree branches on the right side of the picture).

Several other turkeys and deer were in our yard but out of range of the camera lens.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Comment to Obama's Council on Faith-Based Partnerships

Obama's Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Parternships held a conference call today to make final changes and to vote on the recommendations and reports that they have prepared for the Obama administration.

The public was invited to listen in and make comments at the conclusion of the conference call. I joined the call and made the following comment:

First let me thank Melissa Rogers and the other members of the Council for the fine work they have done, so please do not take this comment as a criticism of your efforts.

Many of us are concerned that there be a recommendation that the President should revoke all executive orders, legal memoranda and other documents that state that religious organizations have a legal right to accept tax funds and discriminate in hiring on religious grounds. Many of us believe that tax-funded positions should be open to all Americans, regardless of what they believe or do not believe about religion.

I know that the Council did not address this issue, but it is a serious issue and it needs to be addressed as soon as possible.
The Obama administration referred this issue to the Department of Justice where it has languished for lack of attention.

Baylor Regents "Water Down" Church Membership

In a scathing editorial at Ethics Daily, Robert Parham says the regents at Baylor "watered down the definition of authentic church membership" when they introduced Kenneth Starr as President of the University.

Several Regents spoke of Starr's chuchmanship in glowing terms. Ken Hall, chair of the presidential search advisory committee and president of Buckner International, summarized the sentiment of the Regents saying, "He represents the very best of what it means to be an active churchman, who ... puts his belief into action through his local congregation of faith."

Parham' research reveals that Starr is a member of an independent fundamentalist Bible church that affirms the inerrancy of scripture, is governed by a board of exclusively male elders, and is pastored by a recent graduate of the seminary associated with Jerry Falwell's Liberty University.

Parham then provides a scathing critique of the Regent's new definition of "active churchman" for Texas Baptists:
Starr's membership is in a church in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. He works at a law school in Malibu, Calif. He belongs to a church on the East Coast and works at a school on the West Coast, an arrangement that has been in place since 2004.

What kind of "active churchman" can't find a church where he lives and works – for six years?

How active can one be in his local church if he lives almost 2,700 miles away?

Why would a "church leader" not have a local church home where he lives?

If Starr represents "the very best" of what it means to be an "active churchman," then Baylor's leaders have redefined churchmanship for Texas Baptists. Call it minimalism or absenteeism. But for honesty's sake, don't call it active church leadership.

The Baylor leaders – who introduced Starr – have watered down authentic church membership and replaced it with the lowest common denominator from cultural Christianity. Conservative cultural Christianity would say that Starr is a conservative, which means he's a faithful Christian, according to some. Political ideology is more important than theology. Party membership is more important than church membership.

The need for the regents and advisory council to spin Starr's churchmanship is a deeply troubling signal about how they value church involvement.

Texas Baptists once believed in the centrality of the local church and expected faithful church members to be genuinely active. The tectonic plates of Texas Baptist theology have shifted.

Towery on Separation of Church and State

Britt Towery had a very good Op-Ed on separation of church and state published in the Brownwood Bulletin yesterday. After summarizing the ignoble history uniting church and state from Constantine up to the colonization of America, here's Towery's conclusion:
This Old World church custom of linking state with church spread to the American colonies, where witch trials were common in church circles. Christians killed or exiled from the some colonies for not going along with the Pilgrims view of scripture and custom.

The Founding Fathers knew that history. They were closer than we are to understanding the wisdom of the state not telling the church what to do, and the churches not telling the government what to do. When neither lords it over the other, they both do their job better.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

On Filling the "God gap" in U.S. Foreign Policy

The Washington Post is reporting that the Chicago Council of Global Affairs has made recommendations that the U.S. take steps to fill the "God gap" in its foreign policy. Rather than ignoring the religious beliefs of people in foreign lands, the Council is encouraging engagement with religious people to help resolve conflict and promote peace:
To end the "episodic and uncoordinated nature of U.S. engagement of religion in the world," the task force recommended:

-- Adding religion to the training and continuing education of all foreign service officers, diplomats and other key diplomatic, military and economic officials. That includes using the skills and expertise of military veterans and civilians returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

-- Empowering government departments and agencies to engage local and regional religious communities where they are central players in the promotion of human rights and peace, as well as the delivery of health care and other forms of assistance.

-- Address and clarify the role of religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy. Cizik said some parts of the world -- the Middle East, China, Russia and India, for example -- are particularly sensitive to the U.S. government's emphasis on religious freedom and see it as a form of imperialism.
Regarding the last recommendation, it would be very helpful if politicians would stop appointing Southern Baptists like Richard Land, head cheerleader and chief religious apologist for the war in Iraq, to serve on agencies like the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Rise of the Religious Right and the Unchurching of Young People

CNN is reporting that young people born after 1980 are significantly less likely to be affiliated with a faith tradition than those born between 1965 and 1980.
One in four American millennials -- which it defined as those who were born after 1980 and came of age around the millennium -- are not affiliated with any faith tradition, Pew found. They characterize their religion as "atheist," "agnostic" or "nothing in particular."

That compares to fewer than one in five Generation Xers -- Americans born from 1965 to 1980 -- who were unaffiliated with a religion when they were in their late teens and early 20s.

Just 13 percent of American baby boomers -- those born from 1946 to 1964 -- were unaffiliated with any religious tradition when they were young adults, according to Pew.
The fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention began in 1979. The rise of the Religious Right in America dates from the same year.

Am I the only one who perceives a link between in-your-face religion in the public square and declining interest in organized religion among young people?

Baptists and other evangelicals used to believe that people entered the kingdom of God one-at-a-time by personal faith and conviction. Since 1979 they have been trying to usher in the kingdom of God by political action and involvement.

Will they ever realize that not only have they been wasting their time, but they have succeeded in turning the "good news" of the gospel into "bad news" for America's young people?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Will Kenneth Starr Empower Women?

Charlie Johnson has posted a blog challenging newly elected Baylor President Kenneth Starr to host an all day meeting with Texas Baptist pastors and answer questions about his commitment to our ideals.

Charlie was interested in hearing his answer to the questions, "Do you believe in separation of church and state?" and,
"How will you appropriate your views on Christian citizenship in a way that honors both the republican and democratic (both lower case) visions for our national life, and strenuously upholds the historic Baptist conviction for religious liberty?"
Many of us are intensely interested in hearing his answer to these questions and comparing them to his written opinions and legal decisions.

Charlie raised another significant question for many of us, "Do you endorse the complete equality of women under God to perform God's work in the world?"

Assuming that he affirms the equality of women, we would also like to learn why his record on this issue has been spotty in the past. According to Jeffrey Toobin, author of A Vast Conspiracy (p.322), Starr appeared to be reluctant to trust women with positions of responsibility:
During the three decades of Starr's career, the legal profession integrated many women into positions of responsibility. This was especially true in criminal law. But in the Justice Department, at Kirkland and Ellis, and in the Office of Independent Counsel, Starr invariably chose deputies who looked and sounded like him. As someone who had benefitted enormously from powerful mentors like Warren Burger and William French Smith, Starr, too, had a series of proteges in the law -- all young white men. Starr's refusal to delegate power to women was especially striking at the OIC. All of his deputies were men. Twenty-nine prosecutors represented the OIC in the grand jury -- twenty-five men and four women. There were 121 sessions with witnesses before the grand jury -- and women prosecutors led the questioning six times.
Toobin didn't say so, but, with a little thought, it would not be difficult to conclude that competent women prosecutors could easily have been more effective than men for the kind of inquiry that Starr was conducting. Among other things, he was investigating improper sexual relations in the workplace. Nearly all of the key witnesses being interviewed and interrogated were women.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

On What Principle Does Ken Starr Stand?

During his time as Independent Counsel investigating the legality of President Clinton's Whitewater investments, Kenneth Starr, newly appointed President of Baylor University, often stood in the driveway of his home and gave pious lectures to newsmen hoping for information about the progress of his investigation. On camera, he would say things like, "There's no room for white lies. There's no room for shading. You cannot defile the temple of justice." (See Jeffrey Toobin, A Vast Conspiracy, p. 75) To this day, when asked about the wisdom of his decision to press for President Clinton's impeachment, he will say things like “The law is the law and no one is above the law.” (Good Morning America, 2-16-2010)

Kenneth Starr presents himself as a non-ideological man of principle, but does his rhetoric match the reality? As an attorney, has Kenneth Starr always been concerned to preserve the sanctity of the rule of law? Or, has he been a hired gun who sold his services to the highest bidder or, at least, to those nearest to his own political ideology? The answer to that question may well be answered by your opinion of the validity and morality of the services that he has been rendering to Blackwater USA, the world’s most powerful mercenary army.

Founded and solely owned by Eric Prince, a Dominionist Christian who once served as a Navy Seal, Blackwater, now operating under the name Xe Services LLC, trains and employs mercenary soldiers around the world. Jeremy Scahill chronicled the advent of this industry for mercenary soldiers in his book, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Army. In that book Scahill recounts the story of four Blackwater contractors who died in the Iraqi city of Fallujah on March 16, 2004. Their deaths prompted the first siege of Fallujah by U.S. forces.

In January 2005, the families of those contractors filed a lawsuit in North Carolina against Blackwater. The families contend that Blackwater sent the contractors into Fallujah in lightly armored vehicles and with neither adequate weaponry nor sufficient personnel. They believe the multi-billion dollar corporation was cutting corners in the interests of profits. Scahill's book suggests that the contractors may have been deliberately sent on a suicide mission by a rogue Blackwater commander.

Kenneth Starr was hired to defend Blackwater after unfavorable decisions in North Carolina state courts were upheld by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. In a Nation Magazine article entitled, "From Whitewater to Blackwater," Jeremy Scahill and Garret Ordower note the reason for bringing Starr into the case when they began their appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court:

There are undeniable benefits to having Starr, the US Solicitor General under President George H.W. Bush, represent Blackwater -- a highly partisan GOP company --in front of a Supreme Court stacked with Bush appointees. Starr also has a personal connection to Blackwater. Starr and Joseph Schmitz, the general counsel and chief operating officer of Blackwater's parent company, the Prince Group, have both worked closely with the arch-conservative Washington Legal Foundation. Since 1993 Starr has served on the legal policy advisory board of the organization for which Schmitz has frequently acted as a spokesperson and attorney.

After Starr came into the case he expanded a line of argumentation that Schmitz had offered to support Blackwater in Federal Court. Schmitz contended that state law should not interfere with or try to regulate "conduct on a foreign battlefield." His contention was that the court had no jurisdiction in the case. After Schmitz's argument was overruled in the appellate courts, Starr expanded Schmitz's line of reasoning at the Supreme Court to contend that Blackwater is "constitutionally immune" from such lawsuits. In effect, Starr argued that Blackwater was above the rule of law and beyond liability.

Is that the position of a man without an ideology? Is this the position of a man of principle who is committed to the rule of law? Or, is this the position of a mercenary lawyer using his skills to service the interests of a multi-national army of mercenary soldiers?

You be the judge.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Kenneth Starr Will Not Unite Texas Baptists

The Baptist Standard has published a story portraying Texas Baptists as "cautiously optimistic" about the possibility that Kenneth Starr can bring unity to Baylor Baptists. The need to qualify "optimism" with the adjective "cautious" tells a story in itself.

The election of Kenneth Starr as President of Baylor University will not unite Baptists. It has already stirred the deepest divisions in my lifetime among many of Baylor's own alumni and friends.

The board of Regents at Baylor sent a message with this appointment. Those who deny it are more committed to their institutions than they are to the truth.

This bombshell in Texas Baptist life ranks second only to the termination of Russell Dilday by the trustees of Southwestern Seminary.

Over the last 30 years, the list of the students that I have encouraged to go to Baylor for an education is long. Many of them have done so.

As long as Kenneth Starr is President, I'll not be recommending that school.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Noteworthy Film in Theaters This Week

Blood Done Sign My Name a film inspired by true events in Oxford, North Carolina will be in theaters beginning February 19th.

Based on the autobiography and Master's thesis of Tim Tyson at Duke University. The movie recounts events in 1970 when Tim's father, Vernon Tyson, was pastor of First Methodist Church in Oxford, N.C.

Vernon Tyson's stand against racism cost him his church.

After Henry "Dickie" Morrow, a black Vietnam Veteran, was gunned down by white supremecists, Ben Chavis and Golden Frinks responded to the call to assume leadership of the struggle for civil rights in Oxford.

Here's a link to a review by Tulsa native and Methodist Minister Denny Wayman.

Another Dark Day for Texas Baptists

The Waco Tribune is reporting that Kenneth Starr, the former independent counsel who politicized the office of independent counsel and orchestrated the impeachment of former President Bill Clinton, will be named President of Baylor University.

The Regents at Baylor are sending a clear and unmistakeable message that Baylor will be identified with the extreme political and religious right.

I'm beginning to feel nauseus when I hear the word "Baylor."

Mitch Randall's blog today well expresses the outrage than many feel about the nomination of a "politically polarizing" president for Baylor University.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Regarding Transcript Press in Norman, Oklahoma

Newswires are abuzz today with a story about coins that the Chilean Mint printed with the word "Chile" misspelled. The coins have become collector's items but the manager of the mint was sacked.

Soon flyers will be delivered to thousands of moderate Baptists in the Houston area inviting them to attend a "GALA and Panel Discussion" on Sunday, February 21st for the Ethics Daily documentary "Different Books, Common Word: Baptists and Muslims." The flyers, as they were printed, replaced the word "Discussion" in the headline with the misspelling "Descussion."

I take full responsibility for the mistake of trusting Transcript Press in Norman, Oklahoma with the task of printing these flyers. The flyer I delivered to them for reproduction spelled the word "discussion" correctly. The flyer printed by Transcript Press records a spelling that conforms to a colloquial pronunciation of the word "discussion." They also omitted the final "a" from the word "Oklahoma" in the last line of my flyer.

I complained about these errors after receiving the flyers. Greg Rice, the account representative who handled my account, promised that he would have corrected copies for me the next day. The next day, however, Transcript Press did not produce any corrected copies.

Up against a deadline, I took the flyers with the erroneous spellings to my bulk mailer for processing.

I don't expect heads to roll at Transcript Press for this. They have been fairly shameless about it -- not even adjusting the fee they charged me for their work.

I am certain that I will never make the mistake of doing business with them again.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Racism in Alive and Well in the SBC

Rick Scarborough, former fundamentalist candidate for President of the Baptist General Convention of Texas and key leader in the breakaway Southern Baptists of Texas, demonstrated how close racism is to the surface within the ranks of the fundamentalist Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. While appearing as one of the key speakers at the recent Tea Party Convention in Nashville, the Times Online quotes Scarborough as saying, "If this country becomes 30 per cent Hispanic we will no longer be America."

Scarborough has become a rising star in the pantheon of right-wing religio-political organizing. Initially he was one of the key organizers of young pastors for the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention. Denominational politics, however, was just a stepping stone to secular politics for him.

As pastor of the First Baptist Church in Pearland, Texas, Scarborough organized his church to takeover city government. He once took credit on the front page of Jerry Falwell's Liberty Journal for getting former Republican U.S. Representative Steve Stockman elected to Congress. Scarborough's church was investigated by the I.R.S. for that boast. Those exploits and more have been chronicled in a recently released novel written by Anselm Davis entitled "An American Theocracy."

The U.S Representative that Scarborough took credit for electing was a one-term Congressman who had strong ties to militia movements and reportedly received advance notice by fax that the federal building in Oklahoma would be bombed.

Most recently Scarborough has been preaching thinly disguised get-out-the-vote-for-republicans "revivals" complete with altar calls to get Christians committed to political action.

Scarborough's white-supremecist vision for America is so racist and extreme that Southern Baptist leaders ought to be falling all over themselves to call him out about it. I'll make note of any that do, but I won't hold my breath while I'm waiting to find one.

Why Mission Organizations are Necessary

Associated Baptist Press reports that eight of the ten Baptists arrested in Haiti for attempting to take children out of the country without documents no longer trust the person leading their mission trip. They say they have been "lied to."

Individual churches taking the independent initiative to do overseas missionary work has become a fad among American churches. The problems encountered by these well meaning but misguided Baptists should demonstrate the need for churches to work with some credible mission organization that can make sure everyone operates within the law.

Frank Page Votes Against Faith-based Accountability

Frank Page, former President of the Southern Baptist Convention, voted against a requirement that would have made faith-based organizations accountable for the way they spend money they receive from the federal government.

A report on the White House website about votes related to the Non-Consensus Reform Report produced by Obama's 25 member Advisory Council for Faith-based and Neighborhood Parnerships reveals that Frank Page voted against the government requiring houses of worship to form separate corporations to receive direct federal social service funds.

Those who favor the requirement say "the government should require houses of worship that wish to receive direct federal social service funds to establish separate corporations as a necessary means for achieving church-state separation and protecting religious autonomy, while also urging states to reduce any unnecessary administrative costs and burdens associated with attaining this status."

Frank Page and those who oppose the requirement say "the government should not require separate incorporation, because it is not always the best means to achieve these goals, and because it may be prohibitively costly and onerous, particularly for smaller organizations, resulting in the disruption and deterrence of effective and constitutionally permissible relationships."

Barry Lynn voiced his frustration with Page and other members of the Advisory Council who voted against this requirement saying,
I argued that all public funds that go to a house of worship to operate social services should be handled by a separately incorporated nonprofit -- or at least be kept in a separate bank account so we can keep track of how the money is spent. A 2006 report by the General Accounting Office examined faith-based offices in several federal agencies and found a lack of oversight of these programs. . . .

Conservative religious representatives on the Council disagreed. They want sectarian groups to have access to plenty of government money with very little (if any) meaningful accountability. That's the status quo; they like it.
Shame on Frank Page. If the system the Bush administration devised remains in place, Frank Page, more than any other Baptist in America, deserves the blame for endorsing a system that will corrupt America's churches and allow politicians to use tax dollars for political patronage of favored religious leaders.

Click here for a podcast (33MB Mp3) of my 2-7-10 "Religious Talk" radio program which was devoted to a critique of the federal faith-based program under President Obama.

Friday, February 05, 2010

More Easy Money and Loose Accountability

Nearly ten years ago I interviewed Jim Wallis on my radio program and challenged him about his support for Clinton's "Charitable Choice" program and Bush's "Faith-based initiatives." I asked him several questions and he had a canned response for each of them. Until I asked him, "What could undermine the integrity of the Church's witness more than easy money and loose accountability." That question stumped him.

Wallis should have had the foresight to see through a scheme that would give politicians a way to gain leverage over houses of faith. It is hard to maintain a prophetic voice when every time you bark at injustice you are biting the hand that feeds you.

Obama came into office promising change. Many of us were hoping that he would change the faith-based program, or, better yet, to end it. It was soon apparent that putting an end to the office was not going to happen. As David Kuo revealed in his book "Tempting Faith," the office became an essential component in efforts to turn-out-the-vote for the President's re-election.

From the beginning it appears that Obama, being a politician, could not resist the temptation to use the office for his own political purposes. An article in today's Wall Street Journal says Obama is using the faith-based office to court religious conservatives:
President Barack Obama's willingness to keep Bush-era policies on government-backed religious charities opposed by many liberals is helping to woo traditionally Republican evangelical leaders who can influence key blocs of voters.

The approach, according to conservative leaders and liberal critics alike, is part of a broader strategy by Mr. Obama and fellow Democrats to regain credibility with centrist and conservative voters who tend to be more religious and have supported the GOP in recent polls and elections.
By now it should be apparent to everyone that the real purpose of the faith-based office has more to do with politics than with helping the poor. Politicians in both parties are using the office to influence religious leaders. Most religious leaders, liberal and conservative, are lapping it up like so many Esau's selling their birthrights for a bowl of soup. Here, have another heaping helping of easy money and loose accountability.

Not everyone thinks this is such a good idea. On Huffington Post today, Rev. Barry Lynn lists the efforts that he and some others like the Baptist Joint Committee have made, to no avail, to get the president to correct the most egregious problems with faith-based programs. Barry writes,
For example, I argued that all public funds that go to a house of worship to operate social services should be handled by a separately incorporated nonprofit -- or at least be kept in a separate bank account so we can keep track of how the money is spent. A 2006 report by the General Accounting Office examined faith-based offices in several federal agencies and found a lack of oversight of these programs.
All Barry is asking for here is that the President put an end to the easy money and loose accountability. In a nutshell, that's what the government's faith-based programs are. But, it doesn't appear that Obama will be making any meaningful changes to this system.

Again I reiterate what I wrote in a 2004 blog, "If the devil himself designed a government program to encourage corruption and undermine the integrity of the church's witness, could he devise a more effective plan?"

Thursday, February 04, 2010

BJC Requests Changes in Faith-based Program

The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty has joined several other organizations in calling for the White House to change the way that religious non-profits use taxpayer dollars.

The key change requested is to put an end to the practice of allowing religious non-profits to violate constitutional safeguards and federal laws in their hiring practices. Here are the central changes requested:

The letter urges President Obama to "restore the constitutionally-required safeguards and civil rights protections governing partnerships between government and religiously-affiliated institutions" and recommends three key steps:

1. Religious organizations should be prohibited from discriminating in hiring on the basis of religion within federally-funded social welfare projects.

2. The recommendations of the Reform of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships Taskforce should be adopted in full.

3. The Administration should amend existing Executive Orders and make uniform guidance resources for federal agencies on a number of specific issues.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

On Becoming an Unhip Oldster

Ars Technica is reporting that blogging has devolved into something that "unhip old people do."

Social networking (MySpace and Facebook) is hip for more than seventy-five percent of teenagers and twenty-somethings.

Twitter is popular with around thirty-three percent of twenty-somethings while less than ten percent of teenagers are into it.

I'm on facebook, but I don't have any desire to be a twitter.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Regarding a Press that Won't Dig for the Truth

Chris Hedges has some harsh words for modern journalism in an essay on Truthdig. As usual, there is a lot of sense in what he has to say. Here's a quote:
Journalists, while they like to promote the image of themselves as fierce individualists, are in the end another species of corporate employees. They claim as their clients an amorphous public. They seek their moral justification in the service of this nameless, faceless mass and speak little about the vast influence of the power elite to shape and determine reporting. Does a public even exist in a society as fragmented and divided as ours? Or is the public, as Walter Lippmann wrote, now so deeply uninformed and divorced from the inner workings of power and diplomacy as to make it a clean slate on which our armies of skilled propagandists can, often through the press, leave a message?

The symbiotic relationship between the press and the power elite worked for nearly a century. It worked as long as our power elite, no matter how ruthless or insensitive, was competent. But once our power elite became incompetent and morally bankrupt, the press, along with the power elite, lost its final vestige of credibility. The press became, as seen in the Iraq war and the aftermath of the financial upheavals, a class of courtiers. The press, which has always written and spoken from presuppositions and principles that reflect the elite consensus, now peddles a consensus that is flagrantly artificial. Our elite oversaw the dismantling of the country’s manufacturing base and the betrayal of the working class with the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the press dutifully trumpeted this as a form of growth. Our elite deregulated the banking industry, leading to nationwide bank collapses, and the press extolled the value of the free market. Our elite corrupted the levers of power to advance the interests of corporations and the press naively conflated freedom with the free market. This reporting may have been “objective” and “impartial” but it defied common sense. The harsh reality of shuttered former steel-producing towns and growing human misery should have, in the hands of any good cop reporter, exposed the fantasies. But the press long ago stopped thinking and lost nearly all its moral autonomy.