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Category politics

Trump as Tragedy, Clinton as Farce

In December of 2015 I made the following quip:

The above applies all the more since we have Donald Trump instead of Jeb Bush!

Cynics like myself ought to admit that we experience a bit of glee when our expectations are fulfilled. And oh how they have been fulfilled! Trump v. Clinton is truly a ludicrous contest for choosing leadership for the United States of America. What's more, they are almost meant for each other, because neither would be competitive against a different opponent. A neo-Shakespeare in coming centuries is destined to dramatize this affair.

I will now provide my own account, dear reader, not with the subtle rhythm of a bard, but with my own meager faculties, because I feel the need to summarize my thoughts on this matter. And hopefully through summary comes serenity.

Prologue: Concerning Character

Much of my prior reflection on presidential politics has centered on the policies of candidates, and not on their character. I suppose this is a side-effect of the times in which I have come of age. After four terms of the Presidency being free from the blight of personal scandal, we Americans thought perhaps we had moved on from those historical messes. But alas, here we are, with "temperament" and "character" and "trustworthiness" taking a prominent place in the campaign.

I will not comment on the character of the candidates below, but will leave this observation: the hypocrisy of the partisan system with respect to sex scandals has been laid bare by scandalous videos and accusations against Trump. Everything the Republicans said to attack Bill Clinton the Democrats have charged against Trump. Every defense offered by Democrats has been issued by Republicans.

I do think character matters, but that's not the context of this reflection.

Trump as Tragedy

Donald J. Trump is something like a dream deferred for political reformists and radicals. He is a candidate from outside the political class who holds ideas which are genuinely contrary to the status quo. Trump even goes so far as to break with the bi-partisan consensus on global trade and foreign policy.

(I happen to agree with relatively little of Trump's proposals - prominent exceptions being his seeking to reform global trade and his criticism of the Iraq War. Nonetheless his ideas are important because they differ from bi-partisan consensus.)

This of course has drawn the ire of the elite (yes, there really are an "elite") who have targeted Trump this past year with an unprecedented barrage of Op-Eds and cross-party support. Yet in spite of his distinct lack of newspaper endorsements Trump's candidacy remains alive. Being criticized by the right people has done much to bolster his campaign.

Facing a genuine threat to established political order backed by a growing popular movement, one would expect the leaders of both parties and the media to make every effort to discredit and disqualify Trump before he has a chance to gain power. That they did, but the ammo was fully supplied by Trump himself, and in abounding quantities.

I will not rehearse the whole infamous list of his outrageous statements here, but suffice it to say that Trump is a wicked man who is running on a platform which appeals to the worst aspects of our political natures. It is fair to say in some cases that his words and actions have been unfairly portrayed by his opponents. But the preponderance of evidence is clear: he really is not the type of person whom you want leading our great republic.

Now imagine someone who espoused Trump's contrarian policy ideas but had a personality like John Kasich. I doubt that candidate would even make the "main" GOP primary debate stage, and instead be relegated to the "under-card" debate. In other words our political environment seems to only reward reformist policy with attention in exchange for Trump-like behavior. Not only does he want a radical halt to immigration, but he says that many immigrants are rapists. Not only does he say the Iraq war was a mistake, but he adds that the U.S. should plunder their natural resources. Not only does he argue for a constructive relationship with Russia in the middle east, but he praises the autocratic Vladimir Putin.

The establishment really received a boon. They were tasked with de-legitimizing the fringe candidate, but Trump mostly take care of the job himself. When it comes to protecting the insular status quo from new ideas, you could hardly script a better defense: "novel is crazy." However we may find that in 2016, the year of Brexit, voters do not care to listen to the intellectual wings of the political parties. In other words, Trump might win in spite of himself, or perhaps to spite the elites.

My primary concern with Trump is not the scandals but his avowed desire to be the strong-man. As he said in his nomination acceptance speech at the convention:

I alone can fix this.

This is obviously outside of the spirit of American republicanism. Let us contemplate for a moment how Republicans mocked the young Democrats who put near-salvific hope in Obama. Let the GOP recall that it is the party which had decried the expansion of the power of the Executive Branch to interfere in all areas of life. For there is no way for the leader to fix everything but by the erosion of local control.

Trump is casting himself as the autocrat and the hero. He is already making threats to use the power of the office of the President to settle personal scores and punish his rivals. He unashamedly calls for unspeakable conduct in war. He should not be our President.

Clinton as Farce

Hillary Clinton's nomination as the Democratic candidate for the presidency has been fore-ordained since her loss to Obama in 2008. She is the chosen one. As private correspondence (which was stolen and made public) has shown, she was the preferred choice of the Democratic National Committee, which it was assumed should be neutral until the nomination was complete. Clinton's lock was so secure that only a no-name and a radical even bothered challenging her in the primaries.

It should have been a fairly clear warning sign that the Democrats had decided on a damaged candidate when a self-described socialist who honeymooned in the Soviet Union gave her a run for her money in a long and close primary race. Were the party elites really so blind to her weaknesses as a candidate? Or did they have a fatalistic commitment that she had to be nominated no matter what?

Hillary Clinton was already one of the least liked and least trusted politicians in the country. She was a carpetbagger. She voted for the Iraq War. She favored bombing Libya. She was paid ludicrous sums of money to regale bankers with her lackluster public speaking skills - what only the most naive would deny was a bribe. She had the liability of donations to their family foundation from questionable sources. She had the private email server. It was shown via leaks that her campaign thought of the press as a wing of their campaign communications team. And so on, and so on.

Of all the Democratic politicians in this country, it had to be her? It's farcical.

I personally do not find any one of those scandals extraordinary per se. I would not be caught chanting "lock her up!" Still, Clinton has managed to accumulate a rather impressive stable of scandals. But the central issue I have with her candidacy is not about her scandals, but about her relationships:

It is not appropriate for the close relation of a President to subsequently become President.

Republicans are loathe to bring up this criticism for the obvious reason of their recent electoral victory of a President's son. This has happened in the past, and the United States has survived it. However I would venture that when we were looking at the possibility of choosing between either the wife of an ex-President, or the man looking to be the third president in his nuclear family, the danger is getting acute. This nation is a republic, and political power is not supposed to be preserved in a family as in a monarchy, nor shared among a few as in an oligarchy.

Hillary Clinton is well-qualified but damaged goods. Her identity rather than her strength as a candidate was the primary criterion in her nomination. It is best to avoid the consolidation of power in a few families, therefore Hillary Clinton should not be the President.


Our free and mostly-fair nominating processes produced two really bad candidates. How does that work out for your democratic ideology?

I left the U.S. President portion of my ballot blank. I felt like the best way to deal with that question was to not dignify it with a response. Others may prefer to vote third-party or vote for a registered write-in candidate. Those are all great options.

The point is: if you think this situation is ridiculous, make it known with your vote (or lack thereof). But don't settle for just voting. Discuss it with your friends and family too. We are going to have to get over some social discomfort if we want to escape this ridiculous partisan circumstance.

If I am being honest, I would prefer Hillary Clinton to win. The simple reason is this: Assuming the worst on both sides, I believe that our republic is better able to cope with a corrupt politician than with a nationalist autocrat.

We'll see what happens. I am not too worried. More than likely in either case the winner will not be as bad as opponents claimed. But even in a worst-case scenario, people do not have to lay down and let terrible things happen.

Walking the thin red line in Syria

More than 50 State Department diplomats have signed an internal memo sharply critical of the Obama administration’s policy in Syria, urging the United States to carry out military strikes against the government of President Bashar al-Assad to stop its persistent violations of a cease-fire in the country’s five-year-old civil war.

Yes, there's nothing like military strikes to help preserve a cease-fire...

I agree with the fifty-one U.S. State Department bureaucrats that US policy in Syria is not productive. The Obama administration calling for the ouster of Assad but taking no military action to back that up makes me speculate that they fear the consequences of the government falling. Based on recent misadventures in Iraq and Libya they should, mightily. However the U.S. has intervened by arming certain rebel groups, by brokering a chemical weapons deal with Russia, and by launching airstrikes against ISIS.

The aforementioned dissent memo in the State Department of course invokes ISIS in its justification - namely that to defeat the proto-state the civil war must first be resolved. I happen to agree with that point. Once there is a clear winner among the "legitimate" belligerents, the world will unite (or at least stop interfering) with the winning party to defeat ISIS. However the Obama administration's reluctance to use decisive force makes me wonder if they suspect that the rebels, having triumphed over Assad with U.S. help, would nonetheless be unable to effectively rule the country and defeat ISIS.

So here we stand in a great policy blunder: the U.S. officially opposes Assad thanks to old rivalries and a careless remark on the campaign trail, but President Obama's temperance won't allow the U.S. to double down. I appreciate his instinct to keep the U.S. out of a quagmire. I also mourn for the people of Syria who must endure this prolonged conflict.

"First as tragedy, then as farce", but now we're on to the third or fourth iteration.

Will non-voting be chic in 2016?

In 2008 I read an essay collection entitled Electing Not to Vote and it threw me for a loop, launching me on a prodigious series of blog posts in which I concluded that "the only way to vote righteously is to vote self-righteously." During the next US presidential election cycle I started an abortive series called "Peace in Babylon" from which my best observation was that "the end of Constantinianism requires Christians to be courageous once more". In retrospect those are some of the posts of which I am most proud of in my short personal history of blogging, because they represent a serious engagement with a text and a topic without much of a safety net. Being a bit older now I have found I am less likely to take such strong stances in published works, but I'm not necessarily proud of that.

In addition to the increased writing output, reflecting on Electing Not to Vote troubled how I think about politics and the storm unleashed has not really calmed since. I have not voted for President since (sorry Mom), though I have participated in some local elections. I joke that I am on the spectrum between socialism and Christian anarchism, but I have mainly centered on what I call Yoderian pacifism. Centered, not settled. If there is something political I believe every day, it is that US national politics are ridiculous.

This present 2016 election cycle presents fertile ground for further reflection on these topics, because it is of course the most ludicrous Presidential primary race in memory. So if I was scandalized in 2008, by 2016 it is "first as tragedy, then as farce." Therefore I will re-read Electing Not to Vote and see where it takes me. Given the present cynicism taking root among the American electorate, I would not be surprised if non-voting becomes a popular choice this fall. But will it be meaningful, or despondent?

Category: politics

Time for Oregon to re-examine capital punishment

John Kitzhaber was re-elected to a fourth term as Governor of Oregon. This in and of itself is a remarkable achievement. The situation is even more interesting when considering the swarm of scandals which Kitzhaber successfully swatted in winning. Yet I would like to focus on a single issue which did not end up playing as prominent of a role in the campaign as I thought it would: capital punishment. Given the relative silence on this issue during the campaign, and given the governor's re-election, I think it is highly significant for the near future of Oregon politics.

Capital punishment was up for discussion because early in his term, Governor Kitzhaber effectively halted all capital punishment proceedings in the state. This came to a head because a particular death row inmate had forsworn further appeals and was electing to die.

Kitzhaber was deeply troubled by the memory of the two executions which happened during his first pair of terms. Likewise, he questioned the logic of a death row system which effectively only proceeded to execution if the inmate gave up and asked to die. Therefore he issued an indefinite stay on this inmate's execution. Moreover, the Governor announced that no other executions would proceed during the duration of his term in office. (He was not commuting the inmates' sentences, so it is possible that a subsequent governor could reverse course and executions could continue.)

This act raised various levels of controversy. On the first level, the inmate wanted to reject the clemency and demanded to be put to death in spite of the Governor's action. The case went to the Oregon Supreme Court, which ruled that the Governor's power of reprieve is unconditional.

Above that, some citizens were upset that Kitzhaber was unilaterally stopping capital punishment in Oregon. This, they argued, was contrary to the law and the will of the people of Oregon, and against the intent of the clemency powers given the governor in the state constitution. In this, the Governor was essentially shirking his duties.

I was among Kitzhaber's supporters in this move. And now the Governor has been re-elected with this policy still standing. I believe this possibly signals that Oregon voters are ready to remove capital punishment in this state.

The only way to know for sure would be to have an initiative on this topic in the next election. Oregon voted the death penalty into law in 1984. That is more than a generation ago. Popular opinion on gay marriage changed in ten years, and Oregon voters reversed themselves on marijuana legalization in only two. It's time to put the question to the people again. I believe the measure would pass, and the death penalty will be repealed in Oregon.

In addition to his personal objections, Kitzhaber is ultimately calling for the same re-examination. The system should be scrapped or fixed, he says. Let's find out the will of the people.

Dorner as the paragon of our violent culture

A cop who feels he was wrongly fired to cover up brutality in the LAPD goes on a murderous rampage, targeting cops and their loved ones in an act of revenge and to bring light to the corruption of the force. Sounds like a Hollywood plot, right? It is of course the true story of Christopher Dorner, which played out dramatically in the media earlier this month.

But in a way it is a Hollywood plot. A one-man army going outside the law to seek justice is a common trope in action flicks, and Dorner's saga generated comparisons with Rambo and Falling Down, among others, in the media. He was the so-called "chaotic good" agent, doing what was necessary to confront the corrupt powers-that-be. So it was a tragedy that was almost bound to happen due to how our culture celebrates violence.

Clearly the LAPD and big-city police forces in general have an image problem. When the public was exposed to Dorner's claim that he was fired in retaliation for reporting policy brutality, it was widely accepted as probable. People were commenting that for once, the madman's manifesto actually made some sense.

In the course of the manhunt police lived up to the caricature, twice shooting at innocent people who happened to be driving pickup trucks, and deploying their increasingly-militarized arsenal against Dorner, including aerial drones. In the inevitable final shoot-out, Dorner took his own life rather than suffer the flames ignited by the police's incendiary grenades.

With Dorner appealing to cultural hero narratives and the police fulfilling a cartoonish expectation of brutality, it was no surprise that we started seeing the following headline: "Dorner has supporters in social media." That is, many people had come to root for Dorner and were expressing those sentiments in public on the internet. Now some people I think were just expressing sympathy for Dorner's firing, saying that they find his totally-believable story to be credible. But still others seemed to support the rampage itself.

Dorner was the worst sort of criminal - a cold-blooded killer. His attacks targeted not only police officers, but their family members as well. So there should be no respect for his actions, whatsoever. To me it is insane to think that a shooting rampage is a just protest against policy brutality. I know many, if not most people in the US would agree with that.

Yet in our culture, violence is portrayed as the ultimate embodiment of justice. In Hollywood works, and law enforcement, and politics, and foreign policy, it is the redemptive force which brings about good in the end. In so many cases it is the climactic gunshot or fist fight or cruise missile which wraps the story and gives closure to the plot.

So when the socially legitimate violence of the police is undermined, I am not surprised that some people would view Dorner's violence as justified. After all, violence is necessary to achieve good, and if the police are abusing it, somebody should set things right with a gun, right?

Of course not. Escalating police violence is a real problem in this country. We need to decrease the militarized nature of the police, lower overall violence, and increase consequences for the improper use of force. But those need to be achieved through peaceful and lawful means, not through a psychotic rampage. If Dorner has any legacy, it should be to show that our culture is too sympathetic to violence, and that this needs to be corrected.

The curious case of Oregon measures 46 & 47

While reading the 2012 Oregon voter's guide, I noticed that Secretary of State candidates Seth Woolley and Robert Wolfe both call out the incumbent Kate Brown for not enforcing ballot measure 47. Measure 47 was approved by voters in 2006 and enacted strict campaign finance reforms. My first reaction was "that's outrageous!" and noted with some cynicism that the Republican challenger Knute Buehler was silent on the issue in his blurb.

After looking into the issue, I now agree with the Secretary's position. The issue is simple, and it is not as nefarious as the big two parties playing politics with the law. The simple matter is that measure 47 is unconstitutional. It relied on a partner measure 46 to amend the Oregon constitution to be enforceable. However, measure 46 was rejected by the voters (which makes an interesting case study in direct democracy). So the campaign finance reforms of measure 47 are on the books but unenforceable under the status quo.

The Oregon Supreme Court has now ruled on this issue supporting the Secretary's position in a decision handed down on October 4th. I can only presume that this was after the voters' pamphlet blurbs were submitted. The Court opinion points out that the very text of measure 47 admits that it is lifeless without a change to the text or interpretation of the Oregon constitution (let alone the implications of the US Supreme Court Citizens United ruling).

Kate Brown's predecessor Bill Bradbury was advised by the Oregon Department of Justice that attempting to enforce measure 47 would be fruitless. And indeed it would have been: it would have brought doomed cases before the court and disrupted electoral fundraising. No doubt that Secretary Brown would be facing the converse complaints if she did attempt to enforce the law: "she's wasting judicial resources and stifling free speech!"

Measure 47 was doomed by the fickle nature of the Oregon electorate, not by a conspiracy between the Secretary of State and Attorney General. Supporters of campaign finance reform need to find a new avenue besides blaming the incumbent.

Category: politics Tags: Oregon

Peace in Babylon (2): The trouble with democracy

Democracy don’t rule the world
You’d better get that in your head
This world is ruled by violence
But I guess that’s better left unsaid

\~ Bob Dylan, "Union Sundown"

All political systems share a common function: they provide a social framework for legitimating violence. The end of this is the determination of by whom and under what circumstances violence can be acceptably employed. This is a useful insight when analyzing political systems, because in almost all cases this core function is masked by ideology.

People who live in relative comfort and stability have a tendency to imagine that their society has embodied the culmination of history. How could there be a better political system than democracy? In the United States this opinion is compounded with nationalist pride because we are the birthplace of the modern republic.

I am not going to try to suggest a superior political system to democracy. But I think it is important for American Christians to know the practical weaknesses of democracy so that we can wisely navigate the politics of our society. If we tune out some of the ideology surrounding our system, it will help us to better act as salt and light in the world. I'll illustrate this issue with attention to economic class in the United States.

One weakness of democracy is evidenced by the fact that "populism" has a negative connotation. Why is it considered bad to cater to the will of the masses, when that is supposedly the basis of political power? The answer, partly cynical and partly realistic, is that popular will is fickle and not necessarily in line with the best interests of the community at large. The other side of this sword is of course that majorities are necessary for electoral success. So politicians must appeal to a majority of the electorate without appearing to be "pandering."

Of course politicians do not get the opportunity to pander until they have become successful candidates. This requires a lot of money, and exposes the perennial struggle for democracy: corruption. Politicians need money to get elected, and rich people and corporations want to receive some favor for their contributions. So while the people pick the winner, in most cases the elites pick the candidates.

So far as I can tell there is no ultimate solution for corruption. It will be a continual struggle for all democracies to reform themselves and fight corruption as it increases. But even in the absence of out-and-out corruption, the system does tolerate a disproportionate influence by the rich in terms of their contributions.

The notable absence from my discussion so far has been the poor and marginalized. The rich can set the agenda, and politicians appeal to the masses, and in the midst of this the poor can be completely overlooked. As a result we get rhetoric in a presidential election which is almost wholly fixated on "the middle class." This must be of particular concern to us as Christians because we know from scripture that God favors the poor.

So what does all of this mean for we Christians living as sojourners? Democracy has some systemic flaws which prevent it from addressing some issues which are most important to us. It is by no means a perfect system. Therefore we need to direct our political efforts with the knowledge of those flaws.

Note that by "political effort" I do not necessarily mean "vote." I believe in many cases it will be necessary for Christians to address needs in our society directly, without utilizing the formal political system. After all, we may be trying forever to convince a politicians chosen by the rich and focused on "the middle class" to attend to the needs of the poor among us, but we are free to take up the effort on our own right now.

There are other ways besides the class system to illustrate the drawbacks of democracy. We as Christians need to keep in mind that our politics is not nearly as perfect as the national ideology would have us believe. With this in mind, we can discern where to engage the political process and where to be more creative in pursuing our mission in the world.

Peace in Babylon (1): In exile

Yoder makes the point this way: prior to Constantine, Christians believed that God was active in the church, but they had to have faith that God was active in the world, since the world was beating the hell out of them. After Constantine, Christians had to have faith that God was active in the church because they now knew that God was active in the world, running the world through Caesar.

Another way to put it: before Constantine it took courage to be a Christian; after Constantine it took courage to be a pagan.

\~ Stanley Hauerwas, "Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Truth & Politics"

In the early church there was relatively little penetration of Christians in the centers of terrestrial power. As time went on, Christians gained influence in the Roman empire. This culminated in the conversion of Emperor Constantine, which launched a new epoch in the church. Now rather than being a sometimes-persecuted minority, Christians were running the largest empire on the planet. This meant that they had the opportunity to enshrine their values into law, and godly living was merged with responsible civics.

I draw a comparison between Constantinianism and the Kingdom of Israel. God's chosen nation had received its legal code via Moses the prophet. Through the Exodus, the wandering, the settlement of Canaan, the period of the judges, and finally in the monarchy, the Torah was the law of the land. In this way Israel was similar to the Roman Empire and what followed: the marriage of the church with the state. Of course Israel's life under the law of Moses was never perfect, and neither was the church's. Yet the basic framework ensured that people would feel at home in their country with respect to their religion.

The kingdom of Israel eventually split and was in the North dispersed by the Assyrians and in the South carried into exile by the Babylonians. This marked the end of the rule of Torah in a nation state. Jews had to transition from being at home in a nation which embraced their religion to being sojourners in a foreign land.

The end of Constantinianism, however, is not so clearly demarcated. In my lay analysis, the first cracks started appearing during the Radical Reformation, when church first started splitting from the state. The founding of the United States, with the explicit absence of a national church, was an important waypoint. However, no matter the impetus of religious freedom which brought so many immigrants to these shores, the generic "Christian" character of society persisted in the absence of a national church. Christians still ran the show and set policies which largely reflected their understanding of the scriptures and tradition.

And in this present day we have people decrying the loss of traditional values and the influence of Christianity in the public square. Future historians will be better equipped to make this determination, but I suggest that the end is nigh. When Constantinanism ends - when Christians are no longer running the show politically - it will be the beginning of our Babylonian exile.

I think many young Christians in this country have already adopted the attitude of sojourners. This is why two generations which largely share the same values sourced in Christianity can have such different opinions on politics. Young people are less likely to agree that Christian social values should be legislated. Why? Because we don't own the world, and we know that law cannot really change hearts (think of the Three Hebrew Children in the Fiery Furnace).

But shouldn't we Christians fight to retain control of the culture and politics of this country? No. The problem with the culture war is the metaphor itself. Jesus taught that our fundamental relationship with the world is one of salt and light. The light is the positive example we set by our own conduct (not born of our fear of the state, but of our affection for God). Salt is the preservative for when society does not heed the example of the light. Neither is coercive. It is in being salt and light that we Christians, like the Jews sent into exile in Babylon, seek the peace and prosperity of the city in which we are sojourning.

The end of Constantinianism requires Christians to be courageous once more. But we should not fear, since the examples of Jesus and the apostles were forged in a period when they had no influence over the politics of Rome or even the Sanhedrin. We do not need to win political contests in order to carry out the mission of being salt and light to our society. I will argue moving forward that bearing witness to truth and providing comfort to our broken neighbors is a more effective politics than winning elections anyway.

Peace in Babylon (0): Introduction

In my opinion, the only way to vote righteously is to vote self-righteously.

I wrote the above nearly four years ago in the culmination of my reflections on Electing Not to Vote - a collection of essays on Christian non-voting. I still believe  what I wrote then.

In this new US presidential election cycle we are again confronted with the question of how voting should reflect values, ethics, and faith. In the coming weeks I will reiterate the problems with Christian participation in our formal political system. I will also work to provide more constructive ideas for what Christians can do to live out our faith in the realm of politics.

I decided to call this series "Peace in Babylon" after God's instructions to the exiles in Babylon, as found in Jeremiah 29:7:

Work to see that the city where I sent you as exiles enjoys peace and prosperity. Pray to the Lord for it. For as it prospers you will prosper.

I think the Babylonian exile provides a helpful metaphor for our current political situation. In exploring this parallel I hope to find some helpful insights for our current political situation.

A Song for America

It's the hammer of justice
It's the bell of freedom
It's the song about love between my brothers and my sisters
All over this land

Category: politics

A real betrayal of the US Constitution

I find it odd how upset some Americans are getting about a Supreme Court decision which affirms the right of the government to require citizens to purchase health insurance. After all, we the people have already empowered the same government to imprison and execute criminals, wage war, and even kill a substantial portion of the people on earth with nuclear weapons.

What's more, the very same administration of President Obama has killed an American citizen overseas without due process. That is an explicit violation of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution. Yet I do not hear a great uproar.

I am certain that not many people are complaining because Anwar al-Awlaki was a propagandist who incited terrorists to attack the people of the United States. But people need to consider the implications of the precedent which was set by his killing, and what it means for executive power in this country. What happens if they want to kill someone like him inside the US? What happens if they want to kill another type of criminal abroad?

I do not want to denigrate anyone's political opinions on Obama's health care plan. But I encourage people to look at this other, graver offense, and make their objections heard.

Category: politics

American Catholics out of luck on election day

The producers of this epic Catholic election ad want you to remember that "some issues are not negotiable." Life, traditional marriage, and religious freedom are specifically called out as the non-negotiable issues. "Will you vote the values that will stand the test of fire?"

I do not have anything to share about traditional marriage or religious liberty, but I would like to share a bit about life issues from a Catholic perspective.  I have little doubt that abortion and assisted suicide are the issues which the video producers have in mind. The Republicans have a clear advantage on these issues. But allow me to point out some other aspects of Catholic teaching on "life" which are not so clear-cut:

Capital punishment

According to John Paul II and the Catechism, situations in which capital punishment is permissible are "very rare, if not practically non-existent." These would be cases in which it was otherwise impossible to protect society from mortal harm at the hands of the condemned. However, given our modern penal system, this is virtually never true.

Support for capital punishment is enshrined in the Republican party platform. Indeed, Texas Governor Rick Perry is not ashamed by having given the order to execute over 235 people who were already safely sequestered from society.

The Democratic party platform calls for thorough review of capital punishment cases, but not for a ban. There are some US states where capital punishment has been repealed or placed on a moratorium. Most Catholics will not find a candidate on their ballot who opposes capital punishment.

Nuclear Disarmament

What could be a bigger life issue than nuclear weapons, which continue to threaten the existence of billions of people? Pope John's Pacem in Terris makes it simple: "nuclear weapons must be banned."

The Republicans want to reduce our stockpiles to "the lowest number consistent with our security requirements" in order to help prevent proliferation. In addition to this, the Democrats call for no new development of nuclear weapons, and a continuing test ban. Yet neither of the mainstream parties pass the test of Catholic teaching on nuclear disarmament.


The Catechism has a good summary on the church's teaching on war (paragraphs 2307-2317). "All citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war," and there are "strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force." Here the tenants of Just War are spelled out.

Unfortunately for American Catholics, both major political parties in the US share an enthusiasm for international aggression. Take the Iraq war for example. It has been condemned by the previous and current Popes, yet it was widely supported by the Republicans and Democrats in congress. In spite of what we like to tell ourselves, most US military actions are acts of aggression, and they stand condemned in Catholic teaching, arguments of "pre-emptive war" notwithstanding.


If life issues are non-negotiable for American Catholics, they will find themselves in a terrible quandary come November. Even Roman Catholic politicians are unlikely to hold positions which are in alignment with the church's teachings on these matters. Neither major party holds a clear advantage. So Catholics wanting to heed the call to exclusively vote their life values should find themselves abstaining or looking for third-party candidates.

Category: politics

Thanks for (almost) nothing, Oregon GOP

A few weeks back I received a letter from the Oregon Secretary of State, informing me that:

The Republican Party has decided to allow non-affiliated voters to vote for the office of Attorney General, Secretary of State, and State Treasurer in this Primary Election.

All I had to do was respond to get the GOP primary ballot, so I did. Of course this does not include the presidential primary nor the state nor federal congressional primaries. Yet I thought this a positive development, since I am on the whole supportive of "open" primaries, not getting to vote in many since I am not a member of a political party.

It was to my dismay that upon opening the special GOP ballot I found almost nobody to vote for. One candidate is running unopposed for the Secretary of State position, and no candidates are filed for the other two races. Thank you, Oregon Republican Party, for extending to me the special invitation to cast a ballot of zero consequence.

(I know that it is not the party's fault per se that nobody filed for the races, and that they probably did not know the contents of the ballot when they extended the primary to non-affiliated voters.)

This seems to be a great opportunity for run-off style open primaries. The Democrats are internally contesting two of these three positions. Why not let the whole of Oregon vote on the entire slate of candidates? It seems silly to segregate the primaries by party when even the primaries are uncontested.

Category: politics

Let's simplify US Presidential politics

Mr. Erick Erickson riffs on "it's the economy, stupid":

The way forward for Romney depends on the economy. For the longest time I did not think he had much of a shot against the President, but as I’ve said several times recently, the economy seems to be struggling, which gives Romney an opening.

It's conventional wisdom now: if the economy is going good, the incumbent wins. I think that is really shorthand for the fact that US Presidential elections are controlled by forces which are much bigger than the particular candidates. The economy is the greatest of those forces, but there are other factors. I think we as politically ideological Americans feel somewhat embarrassed about this maxim. We don't think our highest office should be decided on a single factor, especially one which seems so materialistic compared with the pure ideals of our nation. But we all know it is true, and these forces make the whole primary and general elections campaigns feel pointless and silly.

Therefore I am proposing that the electoral college be replaced with an index of economic indicators. Both the position and the trend of each element would be accounted for. Here is my preliminary list:

  • Unemployment rate
  • Price of crude oil
  • New construction starts
  • Inflation
  • The prime rate

No more fuss. Just get down to brass tacks and use empirical data to guide our politics. We could actually forgo an election unless the indicators determine that the incumbent should lose, saving the country billions. Anyone else in favor?

Holy Week and the failure of politics

Pilate addressed them once again because he wanted to release Jesus. But they kept on shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” A third time he said to them, “Why? What wrong has he done? I have found him guilty of no crime deserving death. I will therefore flog him and release him.” But they were insistent, demanding with loud shouts that he be crucified. And their shouts prevailed. So Pilate decided that their demand should be granted.

It seems that Pilate was at first trying to be judicious in his treatment of Jesus. After all, he did not find Jesus guilty based on questioning, and even deferred to Herod's jurisdiction. In this he was being idealistic and principled. Yet in our society there would be a pejorative descriptor for personal conviction overriding the will of the public: antidemocratic.

However, due to a politic context of recent insurrection, Pilate was inclined to defer to the will of the people, so as to avoid trouble. In our society this would be the corresponding slur: populist. So in this both of the political ideologies failed. Pilate's principled jurisprudence could not withstand the realpolitik of his situation. And the democratic agenda crucified the Lord of glory.

And that is one of the important lessons I glean from the passion week. Any political system, no matter how ingeniously devised, would have crucified Jesus. This is part of why I am so resistant to political ideology. It seems that without fail, the best of political systems will from time to time nonetheless bear wicked fruit. That's the fallen nature of man. The question should not be, as Pilate asked, "what is truth?" But rather, "what is righteous?"

Category: politics