Friday, September 30, 2011

An Open Letter To Wisconsin State Assemblyman Mark Radcliffe

I was sent a copy of your e-mail introducing your bill authorizing local school boards to create vocational diploma programs that would not include the current course requirements in Social Studies, English, Math, and Science, but instead would prepare students to enter the local workforce directly upon graduating from such programs.

It should be said that a number of programs, over the years, have addressed the teaching of vocational skills at the high school level, some of them called “Capstone Courses” designed to teach specific skills for particular trades. And, for many years most Wisconsin schools had agricultural and industrial arts classes that provided the kinds of skill you seem to be calling for in your bill.

But there are differences. Your bill seems to imply that the core curriculum of Social Studies, English, math and science is unnecessary for students of a particular type. I’m not sure, and your bill does not explain, who the target audience is for these vocational courses. Is it those who lack the mental acuity for the mastery of the core academic subjects? Or is it those who through lack of motivation, or through personal preference would rather not take those courses and would welcome a chance to get a High School diploma by taking only vocational courses? Or would school districts make the determination of who should and should not take such courses? Finally, perhaps the local employers would have a say in what students were enrolled and how they would be taught. A lot of unanswered questions.

As a retired Social Studies teacher who taught in a school district not far from the legislative district you represent, I have serious concerns about the effects of such a program if it were to become law and if it were adopted widely.

My first concern is that the bill seems predicated on the belief that one does not need a broad education but can function well if only trained in a narrow specialty. That approach has two major flaws, in my opinion. It sets the student up for failure in an economy where jobs evolve quickly and skills become obsolete over night. But it also assumes that work is the only important part of a person’s life; that an ability to understand current events, to discuss and participate in public life, to judge the soundness of public policy or to grasp the concepts of our economy are not needed. That is terribly short-sighted and would, if widely implemented create a class of “drones” whose only purpose is to do the menial tasks of our society.

My second concern is that your bill would only perpetuate an ignorance of history that is so evident in several of our politicians and elected officials of the last several years. In my opinion, our nation is being swamped with a wave of anti-intellectualism that threatens to destroy the gains our culture has made in the last century. Your bill would only add to that dumbing-down of our nation’s culture, creating a class of people who presumably would retain the rights to vote and even run for public office but who would lack the historical perspective to be wise leaders or to choose wise leaders.

I call upon you to recall your proposed bill and instead offer one that increases funding for public education, holds charter schools, and voucher schools to the same standards of excellence that our public k-12 schools are expected to meet. Provide funding for special programs to assist those students whom you seem to feel should not have to endure education in Social Studies, English, math and science, and establish or re-establish programs in vocational education that are linked to good solid general education; programs that give the graduate not only the skills for his or her first job but skills to easily enlarge his or her horizons when that first job no longer provides for his or her needs.

We need smart educational policy and our present Governor, Scott Walker, is leading in the opposite direction. He is a demagogue, ignorantly dividing our citizens, degrading our state’s culture, empowering moneyed interests, and demoralizing those who serve our state as public employees. And that is only a shortlist of the damage he is attempting to inflict upon our state. There are no members of his party willing to speak truth or wisdom to their leader. You and your party need to provide a counter to the Governor’s destructive policies.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Lethal Mix - Politics and Religion

A friend alerted me to a story printed in the Minneapolis Star Tribune regarding the decision by Pastor Mac Hammond, founder of Living Word Ministries, to become an active (and I presume, paid) member of the Michelle Bachmann presidential campaign. Of course that action put him and his religious organization in jeopardy of violating IRS rules that forbid non-profit organizations from advocating for specific politicians or political movements. He runs the risk that his ministry could lose it’s tax exempt status. Serious enough, but not nearly the most serious issue his support for Bachman raises.

Pastor Hammond states that his goal in joining the Bachmann campaign is to help her win the election and turn America back to its Christian roots. Strong arguments have been made by competent scholars and historians, many of whom are sincere Christians, that there is not, nor ever has been, a “Christian America” to which we could turn back. While the dominant religion espoused by the American populous has always been Christianity, it has never been the case that the founding documents (The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution) or the resulting government was Christian in any sense of the word. Of course, with the majority of those serving the nation owning their allegiance to some form of the Christian faith it has been inevitable and not inappropriate that the Christian character of the culture would be reflected in the laws and mores of the nation and society. But that is a far different thing than having our founding documents proclaim the nation a Christian entity. Indeed, the first amendment explicitly forbids the government from doing that.

Two excellent books, address this issue: one by the Evangelical Christian historian Mark Noll, America’s God, and the other by the Episcopal Christian Historian and former Editor of News Week Magazine, Jon Meacham, America’s Gospel. Noll’s extensive history of the theological evolution in America covers the period from the first settlements to the Civil War. Very briefly, his contention is that the ideals of the Revolution infiltrated the churches, eventually altering their theology and leading to an affirmation of democratic republican principals, not just for the nation but for the church as well. In other words, the church’s alliance with the revolutionaries of the colonial era assisted the revolution but it also revolutionized the churches’ theology. By the time of the Civil War, Noll contends, the church – both north and south – had been so co-opted by the political culture of their region that they were unable to provide the prophetic critique needed to understand the conflict in theological terms. Only President Lincoln, in his second inaugural address, is able to frame the conflict within a Judeo-Christian theological worldview.

Meacham’s book demonstrates that the founding fathers, most of whom had a personal commitment to some form of Christianity, nonetheless were, in Meacham’s opinion, wise enough to know that no one religion should be given preference over the others. But we were, even then, a very religious people, mostly Protestant Christian, but also including Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and of course, African religious influences. Such religious commitment needed a public expression, Meacham says, and so our Founding Fathers, beginning with the Declaration of Independence, invented language to express a belief in “Nature’s God”, “Providence”, or the “Creator” as that document identified him. Each faith could hear their god’s name in those generalized terms. And thus was established, “America’s Religion.” Politicians from George Washington to Barack Obama have used that language to affirm the beliefs of all theistic citizens without endorsing a particular faith, not even their own. America’s Gospel is that all are free to worship their God as they wish, to openly profess their belief or non-belief, as they wish, to proselytize for it, but not to coerce belief from any who will not willingly profess it. Meacham quotes the NIV version of Micah 4:5 “All the nations may walk in the name of their gods; we will walk in the name of the LORD our God for ever and ever.”

Pastor Hammond undoubtedly feels that the goal of “brining America back to God” is a worthy one, and I would agree that it is. But it is not something that he can do. Nor is it something that Michelle Bachmann or any other politician can do. Jesus said that only the Holy Spirit of God can bring people to the Father. Pastor Hammond’s job, in light of Jesus’ words, is to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ and allow the Holy Spirit to use that Gospel to draw men and women to the Father.

A large part of the Evangelical Christian church has lost its soul by its embrace of the political culture of our day. Perhaps it is the culmination of the process that Noll describes in his book, America’s God. America’s god, for those Evangelicals who have bought into the current Conservative Christian movement, is indistinguishable from the politics of the Tea Party and the Conservative wing of the Republican Party. It is a sad, and often inconsistent, blend of flag-waving patriotism, militaristic jingoism, and anti-authoritarianism.

In the Minneapolis Star Tribune article one of Pastor Hammond’s parishioners bravely spoke out against what he is doing. Her words serve well to express what needs to be said to those who believe that the Gospel of Christ is no different than the platform of a political party.

Norma Chappell, who attends Hammond's church, said she was put off by Hammond's remarks about Bachmann during his sermon.

"I don't want to know his politics," she said. "When you read the Bible, it was politics that killed Jesus. They killed him because of politics. And politics is dividing people now. We're supposed to be united as a people who represent Christ."

Well said, Norma. We need more prophetic voices like yours within the church.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Fumbling Founders – Part 2

Our founding fathers knew they had not created a fool-proof system of government. When asked what they had created, Franklin is reputed to have said, “A Republic, if you can keep it.” Not all members of the Continental Congress heartily supported the document they had created and some actively worked against it. But in the end, it was adopted as the best they could do given the mixed ideologies and interests they held.

One of the compromises made involved the means of electing a President and Vice-President. At the outset the Vice-President was simply the person who got the second most votes for President. It quickly became clear that such an arrangement paired men of different philosophies of governance, expecting them to work harmoniously for the policy of only one of them. That was soon remedied by an amendment to the Constitution.

But a larger problem existed in the creation of an Electoral College to select the President. Unfortunately we’ve chosen to limp along with that ill-conceived monstrosity chained to our ankles for more than two centuries. It grew out of the founder’s general, although not universal, mistrust of the common uneducated masses. Many believed, and even liberal Jefferson agreed to some degree, that it was not wise to have a purely democratic selection of the President, in which all white males over a prescribed age would be able to vote directly for President. So an intermediary body, the Electoral College, was created whose members, chosen from among the leading members of society, would cast ballots for the President based on the results of the popular vote in their district. Those men (originally they were all men) would, on a specified day, meet in their home states, cast their ballots and transmit them to the United States House of Representatives where, on another specified day, the ballots would be counted and a President and Vice-President declared.

As electorate has expanded to include almost all citizens over the age of eighteen years of age, the Electoral College has become a system more and more remote from the actual voting population. It is doubtful if more than a handful of voters, after that first generation passed away, have known the names of those men whom they were electing to vote in their stead. Still we continue, for political reasons, to use a system which was devised for philosophical reasons, i.e. distrust of the common people’s judgment.

The system has worked to elect the choice of the people, except in a few cases, for the reason that most electors have faithfully voted for the candidate who won the majority of votes in their state. Few states require the electors to vote in any prescribed way so, in theory, they could ignore the popular vote and choose someone who received fewer votes than the winner. In only a few rare instances have “false electors” done so.

Another reason the system has usually worked as envisioned is because the majority of states, with two exceptions, instruct their electors to vote for the candidate who won the majority of votes among their population of voters. The two states that do not follow that rule, splitting their vote proportionally, to mirror the popular vote, are small and their practice does not materially affect the outcome of most elections. But if other states were to decide that they would like to proportion their votes, rather than give them all to the victor, more pernicious results could occur. And there has been, and is again, talk that some states might choose to do so.

We have cast our ballots for President for over two centuries, believing that every vote counts, but it has never been true that every vote counts equally. And the system could be skewed even further were the states to attempt to shape the system to the advantage of one party or the other.

Our Founding Fathers flubbed the election process for President and Vice-President. Every election since has left us waiting to know, not who won the most votes from the people but who managed to persuade the voters in the states with the largest electoral vote. And on those occasions when the two systems produced a different answer, the nation waited months for the House of Representatives and/or the Supreme Court to sort things out and declare a winner.

There is an easier way in this day of easy communication and travel. We need to eliminate the Electoral College and elect our Presidents by popular vote. It is that simple.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Fumbling Founders

No two persons share the same space and therefore they cannot see things in the same way. Everyone’s angle of vision affects their interpretation of what they are observing. This is true both of visual observation and mental observation.

But it isn’t just position – physical or mental - that gives us our perspective on the world, it is shaped just as much by genetic disposition, cultural influence, experiential preconditioning, emotional commitments, and much more. Thus we live in a richly varied human cosmos that adds excitement to our lives but also creates conflicts as minor as disputes over the relative refreshment of Coca Cola vs Pepsi Cola, or as serious as the clash of armies.

Some have the mistaken notion that such was not the case at the founding of our nation; that somehow our founding fathers all managed to “stand in the same place” and thus saw issues in essentially the same way; that the founding document they devised is the product of agreement and is therefore almost as inviolate as Moses’ tablets of stone.

There were some aspects of government upon which they were all agreed. Mostly they reflected the founder’s determination to avoid the abuses of their former situation, although, even in that, they were often willing to continue those abuses when they were not directed at themselves but at those they now were governors over. For example, many of the colonies, and later the states they became, continue the practice of state-sponsored religion even though their founders had come to the continent to escape the same thing in their homeland.

In reality, there were many large issues upon which the founders could not agree. And so the document that subsequent generations has come to see as a work of genius was really the product of many compromises. It was not at all certain that it would be adopted by the 13 colonies and probably would not have been without the exertion of those who produced the Federalist papers urging its adoption. Even the idea of a “Federal” government – as opposed to a Confederated one in which most of the power would be retained by the individual states – was contentious. But so were the issues of slavery, representation, branches of government, and more.

In an era in which compromise has been equated with moral bankruptcy, it would be good for us to remember that those who shaped the Constitution were not afraid of it. No doubt they were as determined as any today to have things their way but they understood that failure to find a middle way could mean failure to find any way at all.

Time has shown that the compromises crafted in those early years have held up well. We still argue about the issues they did, and over time we’ve made some changes, but not a few of the compromises have become sacred emblems of our heritage. At the very least, they have allowed people whose position and disposition is widely different than their neighbor’s to live together in peace. Let’s not forget the blessings of compromise.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Heart Work

                       by Jim Rapp

Sometimes the heart just aches
Because it is a thinking, feeling thing.
Ever searching for the word that makes
The meaning of its "lyrics" ring,
It tries them all, and then it takes
The best, and pounding, makes the anvil sing
Until the song it shapes
Reflects the image of its inner scenes.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Defining Beauty

                                   by Jim Rapp

How to define a beauty that the eyes cannot see;
Beauty of heart, beauty of mind, beauty of spirit;
Beauties that reflect what's dwelling inwardly.

Heart beauty is a beauty of openness,
Receptiveness of all who come to it,
Tender, receiving, enfolding, enriching-ness.

Mind beauty is keen, quick, incisive,
Filled with wisdom, practicality and wit,
Sure of self but not, of other's lights, dismissive.

Spirit beauty is most beautiful of all,
Heaven breathed, heaven-lit,
It knows when to bow and to stand tall.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Introspection

                      by Jim Rapp

What drives a poet to write more?
Perhaps it is that last verse,
The one just ushered through the door
Unwashed, unfed, ill clad, or worse.

There is always hope that his next "child"
Will bear the marks of noble, ancient ancestry;
Will resemble some forgotten kinfolk mild
And not the face reflected in his recent poetry.

What drives a poet to write another verse?
The fear that his last might be remembered –
What a desperate curse –
To go to poet's heaven thus encumbered.

What drives a poet to produce more words?
"Last words," he knows, often are the measure
By which time, the judge, accords
"Thumbs up" or "thumbs down" at the mob's pleasure.

Friday, September 23, 2011

What Are We Here For?

What are we here for anyway?

That is one of the “Great Questions” I remember being asked to consider in several of my high school and college classes.

Well, then, just what ARE we here for?

There are many places to go in search of the answer. Of course philosophers believe they know the answer, some concluding that we are here to serve others, some that we are here to serve ourselves. The more cynical suggest that we have no known purpose at all, which leaves us, I guess to divide – or blend – our time between helping others and helping ourselves.

Theologians mostly assume that we are here for some good purpose, but differ about exactly what that might be. Some say it is to “glorify God.” Others say that it is to serve our fellow beings. Still others believe we are to be the caretakers of the earth. And the holistic theologian says, “Of course, all of the above, and more.”

Materialists (including hedonists of all kinds) are sure we are here to consume; that all the resources of the world are here for our pleasure and that we should get and enjoy as much as our strength, abilities, and good fortune allows us to. Not all hedonists are heathen; this philosophy was expressed by none other than Solomon, reputed to be the wisest man ever on earth. It is heard – in slightly veiled language that attempts to put a religious face on Epicureanism – from many pulpits and from TV preachers and evangelists.

All of these grand and worthy thoughts have come to me on this day in which I have probably not satisfied the goals or purposes for which any of those discussed above would say I was put here. I have spent this day solving problems.

In a general sense, problem solving is, perhaps, the overriding reason for man’s existence. Perhaps! Absent that little incident with the apple, we would all be hedonists of some sort – good hedonists, mind you – pursuing the sweet pleasures intended to fill our days with contentment. But the apple is a fact of human history and the “curse” pronounced upon our race for eating it was that we would “solve problems” (killing thorns and thistles) with the sweat of our brow. We’ve been doing it ever since.

But my gripe this day concerns the kind of problems I’ve been working on. If it were only inventing “weed killers” to which I had to devote my time, I might be in a better mood. At least I’d be doing honest work that could benefit more than myself. But instead I spent my day getting “weed killers,” sold to me by others, to do what they were advertized to do. Let me explain.

The software I bought to transfer data from one hard disk to another (called cloning), first would not install. After some online consultation, that hurdle was cleared. . . Well, you don’t want to hear it all, but after three or four more “chats” with someone in India that problem seems to be solved. Then there were the anomalies on the credit card bill that had to be deciphered. After that the screw-up of the newspaper subscription occupied an hour or so. And so it goes from day to day. I’m not earning my bread by fighting thorns and thistles, I’m spending my hours fixing the things that some other “gardener” has messed up – weeding out the thorns and thistles he or she has left behind.

Does any of this “glorify God,” assist my neighbor, fill me with hedonistic pleasures, add a dollar to the economy? Probably not. But it keeps me occupied. And it keeps me longing for that Eden-to-come that we’ve been promised. I wonder what work we’ll be doing there.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Dumbing Down K-12 Education

Mark Schug, professor emeritus, Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the school of economics, UW-Milwaukee and President of Mark Schug Consulting, was a guest this week on the WPS Joy Cardine show. The stated purpose of the segment was to have Mr. Schug respond to a recent speech by the Wisconsin State Superintendent of Education, Mr. Tony Evers.

Many proposal advocated in Mr. Ever’s speech came up for discussion, some of which Mr. Schug approved and others with which he disagreed. In general though Mr. Schug is pleased with the actions taken by Governor Walker and the State Legislature removing most of the bargaining power of the state’s teachers’ unions. Particularly he was pleased that the ubiquitous salary schedule could now be summarily done away with by local school districts.

For those not in the know, the salary schedule was a part of the agreement between teachers’ organizations and school boards by which teachers’ salaries were determined based on the number of years they had served the district and the educational level they had attained. Mr. Schug accurately pointed out that years of employment and educational credit do not guarantee quality teaching. Teachers and their unions have known that for as long as the salary schedules have existed. But, in the absence of a better way of objectively determining a teacher’s worth, the salary schedule has served as a means to eliminate favoritism and assure equity among teachers. Mr. Schug, nor anyone else I know of, can deny
that the salary schedule came into being because of inequities generated by favoritism.

There have been procedures in place for forty years whereby competent administrators and school boards could remove incompetent teachers. In too many situations those officials have simply not done the legally required documentation to allow them to do so. Thus they look for an easy and arbitrary way to accomplish what should be done in a fair and systematic fashion.

Schug, a long-time critic of Wisconsin’s Teacher certification process, also expressed a wish that the current method of credentialing teachers be relaxed so that “competent persons” in private sector work could be certified to teach in areas in which they have expertise, regardless of whether they had any training in the methods of teaching. That is an idea that has been floated for several years now. In recent years special exceptions have been made to allow newly discharged military personnel to move from their military service directly into public school classrooms. Of course the idea ignores the fact that a person competent in a particular skill or area of learning may not be suited to dealing with students of varying skills, social backgrounds, or motivation. Those are the kinds of skills that teacher education programs are designed to provide to prospective teachers, and which teacher certification was instituted to assure.

I’m wondering if Mr. Schug believes that anyone with competent knowledge in the field of Curriculum and Instruction in economics could have adequately replaced him in his college classroom. I’m wondering if he believes that competent veterinarians or animal research personnel should be allowed to practice their arts on human subjects. We do, after all, have a shortage of doctors. I would guess not. Yet he is willing to subject K-12 students to untried and uncertified teachers simply because they are competent practitioners in some field related to one taught in the public system.

Schug appears to be another in the long list of those who, having benefited by a generally well thought out system of education, and even having benefited financially by teaching in it, now is willing to pull the rug out from under the system for future generations. I can only hope his influence is minimal. Wisconsin’s educational system has been a model for most other states in the union. Schug, Governor Walker, and the current crop of Republican legislators seem determined to see to it that we don’t remain the model.

Many years ago Tommy Thompson inadvertently made the comment, when arguing against some expenditure sought to insure the high quality of life in our state, “Wisconsin can’t afford to be average in everything.” No need to worry. We will soon be well below average in education, wages, infrastructure and innovation if the current mood prevails.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Disillusionment

                by Jim Rapp

With an oil can and a shopping cart
two careless youths debauched
a parking lot at the shopping mart.
Why should it bother me so much?

A blacktop lot isn’t a work of art;
not even remotely attractive.
Can a plastic can and an unparked cart
befoul, in whole or in part,

an expanse of barren blacktop then?
It wasn’t the lot they deflowered, I guess;
instead, my esteem for them
was suddenly, and regretfully, less.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Extremist Rhetoric

At no time has __________ progress been more threatened than it is now. Single-minded proponents of a dangerous and extremist agenda are working feverishly to roll back every ______________ gain we’ve ever made.

The ___________, now calling the shots in the _________Party won’t back away from their radical agenda. And they are also exceedingly well funded by ________ backers . . .

It will take an unshakeable commitment from grassroots ___________ like you to guarantee our progress and to continue to move America forward.

That is an excerpt from a note I received via e-mail from a political source wanting me to donate money to support their “fight” against the evils they perceive. Fill the blanks with whichever party you wish; both parties are sending the same kind of trash.

It is irrelevant whether I agree with the conclusion drawn by those who created the e-mail solicitation. The troubling aspects of the message are: 1) the extremist language used to elicit the reader’s sympathies and support – the Subject of the e-mail was “Extremists”, 2) the lack of specific information about the kinds of evils the extremists were perpetrating upon the country, and 3) a total lack of information about what, specifically, would be done with any donation I made to their cause.

As long as such solicitations continue to bring in contributions they will be with us. If the worst that they did was draw money from donor’s pockets it would be bad enough but they have more pernicious effects. They generate and reinforce habits of distrust that are destructive of civil society. Further they encourage small-mindedness and thoughtlessness in the electorate.

We are at the point, in this country, where a segment of the population, calling itself conservative, believes that another segment, calling itself liberal or progressive, is the embodiment of evil and must be resisted at all costs. Meanwhile those who call themselves liberal or progressive believe that conservatives are dedicated to the enslavement of the working classes and the enrichment of the already wealthy. Our major media sources have lined up on one side or the other of the political battle lines, further reinforcing attitudes that divide the nation.

At a time when we should be encouraging rational discourse and decision making based on sound evidence, our political parties (and political candidates) make every effort to avoid giving specific and useful information to the citizens. We hear talk of reduced spending but no specifics about what programs will be reduced or in what ways. We hear of tax reform but precious little about what specific reforms are being proposed and what impact they would have, and upon whom. We hear calls for Constitutional amendments to balance the budget, ban abortions, prohibit gay marriage, abolish the electoral college, get rid of the Federal Reserve, abolish the personal income tax, take away the direct election of Senators, and more, but the proponents of such amendments are unwilling to discuss the effects such changes would have on our social fabric if enacted and rigorously enforced.

The e-mail solicitation that opened this essay assumes that the recipient – that would be me, in this case – is too ignorant or careless to notice that he is being asked to suspend all curiosity and judgment and cough up money to fight an unspecified evil. It deserves what it will get, a trip to the “Trash Folder”. I would hope that all others who receive such solicitations would do the same regardless of which political party they come from.

When solicitations begin to treat me as an intelligent, thoughtful, and judicious person; in other words, when they give me a rational discussion of the issue at hand, and good reasons why I should support or oppose it, then and only then will they have won the right to ask me for my money.

Monday, September 19, 2011

How To Keep The “Bums” In Office

It has been brought to my attention that we should make a distinction between policy makers and politicians. It isn’t inevitable that a politician would lack the skill for, or eschew the desire to engage in, policy making. Nor is it unthinkable or inappropriate for a policy maker to engage in politics. But they are not the same thing. A policy maker is looking for solutions to real problems. Politicians, as we currently know them, are looking for arguments that endear them to voters and get them elected.

In our political system politicians are inevitable and ubiquitous. They also want us to believe that they are useful, and so they present themselves as policy makers. They profess to believe in certain philosophies of government and often claim to have devised policies that, if enacted, would be consistent with their philosophy – or, more particularly, with the philosophies of those whose votes they are seeking. Most often such “policies” are vaguely described without enough detail for voters to judge their worth.

Policy, in our system of government, is almost always devised by unelected bureaucrats, either hired to assist the President and his cabinet officers in crafting bills to go before Congress, or hired to advise and assist the Congress itself in creating such legislation. Lower level bureaucrats write the regulations required to execute the laws that are passed. We hope – undoubtedly in vain – that those crafting the laws and writing the regulations are apolitical; that their only desire is to create policy that causes our nation to prosper and live in peace.

Sadly it is too often the case that even our legitimate government bureaucrats have political agendas that go beyond the mundane tasks we often think of them performing. They are beholden to the politicians who appoint them and must do their bidding or risk losing their jobs. It is a hard and eternal fact that policy grows out of politics.

But most citizens are unaware that there are large privately financed, non-governmental “think-tanks,” committed to particular ideological and economic policies, that produce legislation and regulations to be passed on to legislators and policy makers. (Think National Rifle Association or National Association of Manufacturers and Commerce.) Their common name is “Lobbyist”. A tiny minority of legislators at the state or national level have the skill or the will to write their own bills, or even to direct their paid staff to do so. They “buy” their policy off the shelf from those who have an economic interest in being policy makers, i.e. lobbyists.

Given those hard facts, voters should be insisting, at the least, that their politicians: 1) be, in fact, capable of devising policy, or articulating their preferred (purchased) policy, on those issues that are most pertinent to their constituents, 2) have policies clearly devised, or be capable of articulating policies of which they approve, before beginning their campaigns for election, and 3) articulate their policies in great enough detail that the voter can know what they are getting if they elect them. Ideally, every politician would have detailed policy statements available on-line and in print form. And, in our dreams, they would reveal the sources of their policy proposals; the private, partisan organizations that devised them.

Further, responsible voters should, themselves, be able to distinguish between demagoguery and legitimate political discourse. Demagogues push emotional buttons that they know will fire up the electorate. They know that a group of voters, energized by the mention of their favorite issue, will seldom require them to explain their position in any detail. The goal is to be elected. And after that, re-elected. Legitimate political discourse invites the voter to think, not just of the moment; to focus, not just on a single issue or two, but to see how a particular range of policies fit with the kind of community or nation we want to be.

Only when the men and women we elect to serve us are capable making good policy, or at the very least, of choosing good policy, will we break the cycle we are currently in; a cycle of throwing out the bums every two or four years.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Political Dialogue: Silence Falling On Deaf Ears

                          by Jim Rapp
What is the sound of one hand clapping;
The sound of a single vocal chord?
Can lips form words by simply flapping;
Or the tongue, all of its own accord?

No single thing that has been made
Can “sound” all on its own;
Can “speak” without some aid –
Some cohorts had on loan.

The lungs, the larynx, nerves and teeth;
The chamber of the mouth,
The structure of the skull, the cheeks,
The brain, must add their worth

To think a thought and form a sound,
To shape a noise and make a voice.
But all to no avail, when none be found
With ears to hear and heart rejoice.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Panning For Gold: A Plea For Honesty

I believe in honesty. I may not be very good at it. In fact there are times when it is more attractive to me than at other times. Honesty is perhaps the most inconvenient requirement we can lay upon ourselves. Honesty seems so reasonable during those nighttime musings when we can’t get to sleep, but in broad daylight, when it must be paid for with the coin of disadvantage or embarrassment, it appears less reasonable. But I believe in it; believe in it for myself as much as I believe in it for others; believe it is even worth dying for if one can find the courage to do so.

Honesty is a rare commodity in our culture. One must prospect for it as one would pan for gold. It is usually found by turning over the fool's gold of carefully laid words intended to appear to be the truth. Why would one chose to use words that appear to be the truth when a simple turn of the tongue would yield the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? It is the fact that truth telling is almost always costly, requiring the one telling the truth to relinquish something cherished that might be retained by use of a cunningly crafted lie.

I’ve been reading things today that make the issue of honesty particularly pertinent. A politician shades the phrasing of his newsletter to make his opponents appear unreasonable when in reality, if he stated the truth boldly, he would be shown as the one who misrepresented his true intentions. A study published with the apparent purpose of supporting a particular point of view is worded in a fashion that seems to support the desired conclusion despite the fact that its results indicate outcomes contrary to those claimed by the designers of the study. Simply substituting the word “offered” instead of the more accurate “demanded” changes the character of an interaction, making the one “demanding” appear more reasonable than he or she actually is. It is a small dishonesty but it is a dishonesty nonetheless.

How much dishonesty can a society endure? Quite a lot apparently, but not happily, and not without paying a price. Whether in our courts, our government, our media, our churches, or even our personal relationships, a deep skepticism runs beneath all our intercourse. We have learned not to trust. We require written affirmation, often signed and sealed. Only in the rarest of our connections can we have confidence that those with whom we are dealing are truly who and what they claim to be. When I extend my good faith trust I wait anxiously, nonetheless, for a shoe to fall. And I am not alone – admit it.

Is there anything to be done? Like so many of the problems that plague our culture the most obvious solution lies at our own doorstep. We can choose to be honest to the best of our fallen ability. And we can reveal a lie when we know we have encountered one. And we can refuse, to the extent that our situation allows, to support a lie in any form.

None of these actions are easy. Dishonesty is a part of man’s fallen nature and it takes perpetual vigilance, aided, I believe, by God (“So help me God”) to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

It is likewise not easy to confront lies. To do so puts one at odds with one’s culture and often one’s closest colleagues. It is a prophetic role which exacts a price from the “prophet” in the best of circumstances, a martyrdom in the worst cases.

Our culture and economy is so complex that it is almost impossible not to become complicit in some kind of lie but a lover of truth will exercise vigilance and separate himself/herself from every advocacy and action that he/she knows to be dominated by error or that uses lies to its advantage, even in promoting an otherwise good cause.

If even a small cadre of truth lovers would commit themselves to personal truth telling, prophetic revelation of untruth, and diligent refusal to abet those who foist lies upon our culture, we would be richer as a society for the effort. Perhaps not a new “gold rush,” but a steady income of honesty that will make our world morally more prosperous.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Troubled Waters

             by Jim Rapp

Imagine how stale would be
The waters of the world
If there were no movement;
No churning of the sea,
No rushing of the brook,
No rising of the tide.
Imagine how stagnant
It would be,
And how the beauty that we see
In falling waters
Would be lost.
Regretfully
We sometimes curse the things
God meant to be
A blessing.
Oh friend, let you and me
Rejoice each time we see His hand,
The Hand of Him
Who freshness loves,
Revealed in "troubled" waters;
"Troubled" for good of you and me.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

A Prayer For Peace

                 by Jim Rapp

It would take a thousand, thousand years,
Immersed in countless bitter tears,
Surrounded and engulfed in fears,
With no hope that helps or cheers,
To requite the grief they've borne,
Of the bodies racked and torn,
By the shells, and hate's cruel storms,
Hopelessly and helplessly forlorn.
And even that would not repay
For a single anguished day,
Watching innocents who lay,
Bleeding precious life away.

God, who through eternity's long years,
Have beheld your own Son's tears;
Comforted his anguish-spoken fears –
Come now – draw this broken planet near.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Stoning Them Outside the City

The death penalty keeps coming up as an issue in political campaigns as it did last week when Gov. Rick Perry was questioned about the 234 death row executions in Texas during his term in office. Perry’s response was that he loses no sleep over his decisions regarding those executions or over the policies in Texas that have made it the leader in the nation in execution of convicted criminals.

Capital punishment is as old as mankind. Cain, after slaying his brother Abel, feared that he would be made to pay for his crime with his own life. God, the governor of heaven and earth at that time, commuted his sentence to “life with a mark upon him” and forbid him to be killed.

Later, when mere men were given the reigns of earthly government it became apparent that clemency was not stopping the violence. So the code of law given to Moses (and before him devised by Hammurabi in ancient Sumer) stipulated that those who took the life of others should be executed, most often by public stoning at, or just outside, the city gates. Other serious crimes, like adultery or various sacrileges were given the same sentence of death.

When a woman, caught in adultery, was brought to Jesus by men who wanted to prove him untrue to the precepts of the Mosaic Law, He did not refuse them the right to execute her but simply demanded that only those who were without sin do the stoning. There was no Rick Perry among them that day so, one by one, the woman’s accusers drifted away leaving her with the only person there who had the right – being without sin – to stone her. He forgave her, commanding her to sin no more.

This brief history of the death penalty within the Judeo-Christian tradition does not settle the issues of: 1) the efficacy of the death penalty as a deterrent to crime, 2) the death penalty as a just punishment for murder or other sins, or 3) the ability of human systems to devise a fool-proof way of determining the guilt or innocence of one accused of a capital crime. But it does point out that, in the two known instances when God was directly involved in the sentencing – with Cain in the Old Testament, and the woman caught in adultery in the New Testament – He refused to impose the death penalty. That should give some pause to those who make claim to be followers of God and believers in His Divine Son, Jesus Christ.

Unless, of course, you are the governor of a state that has devised a reasonable and thoughtful process to determine, without doubt, that the defendant is guilty as charged. Then you can execute a Bible-based solution without losing a wink of sleep. I would suggest though, that if one wishes to appeal to the Bible as the basis for their certainty regarding the justice of the death penalty, they should also follow the injunctions of the Law to the letter. Take them just outside the city limits and stone them to death.

And let the one who loses the least sleep over it cast the first stone.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Long Count

                by Jim Rapp


I don’t know how long it takes
to read three thousand names.
Multiply it times ten,
or by one hundred.
Read each name slowly,
thoughtfully,
lovingly,
and begin to sense
the real cost of 9 11.

The killing did not start nor end
at the Twin Towers
or the Pentagon,
or in a Pennsylvania farm field.
Americans dare not ask
where it started –
why it started –
and do not know
when – or if – it will end.

God only knows the names,
the number;
may He, someday,
read each name
in its native tongue,
every child or mother,
husband, wife, or lover,
innocent or guilty;
let the toll be tabulated so,
laid on Him,
can be the iniquity of us all.

Forgive us Lord,
we know not
what we have done,
nor can we stop doing it.

Monday, September 12, 2011

If They Can Partner Later, Why Not Do So Now?

Gerald Ford served less than one term in the White House before being defeated for re-election by Jimmy Carter. Jimmy Carter served only one term in the White House before being defeated by Ronald Reagan and his running mate, George Herbert Bush. George Herbert Bush served only one term in the White House before being defeated by Bill Clinton. It is the story of American politics. At the time of the elections the candidates are presented to the electorate, by their proponents, as saviors on white horses, while their opponents are depicted as the personification of all evil.

In 1996, after Alice and I retired we took a trip to Germany, and from there to France and various countries south of Germany. On both of those latter trips, which were short guided tours, we linked up with a couple from Nebraska and enjoyed the opportunity to share our common faith and other interests. However, Alice and I sat quietly when the conversation turned to politics. Our Nebraska friends were convinced that Bill Clinton was, if not the Anti-Christ, the very next thing to it. The husband expressed the firm conviction that if Clinton were re-elected that fall, Christians would be rounded up, placed in rail-road boxcars, and carried off to concentration camps. We didn’t maintain contact with the couple after returning but I’ve often wondered how they responded to Clinton’s re-election a couple of months later.

There is an interesting phenomenon that I’ve observed in recent years. Former political enemies coming together to support some good, often philanthropic, cause. Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford did so, becoming close friends and working together on issues of foreign and domestic policy. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush united after the Haiti earthquake to build a fund to assist the survivors and help rebuild the country’s infrastructure. Bill Clinton and George Herbert Bush also became close friends and Clinton joined Bush in raising funds for the “Thousand Points of Light” volunteerism institute. And just this week it was announced that House Speaker John Boehner will join Clinton in a fundraising effort for the memorial for the victims of Flight 93.

The question all of this raises for me is, “Why can these men, who, in some instances, demonized each other while they were political appointments, lay that aside to do good work after leaving office?” Or perhaps a better question might be, “If they can lay their differences aside to accomplish something good after they leave office, why can’t they do so at the time when they are leading the nation and have greater opportunity to do good for all the people?

We are in need of cooperative government right now and speaker Boehner has been about as obstructionist as he can be over the last two-and-a-half years. Perhaps some of that stems from his position as the leader of a diverse group of Republican congressmen. If he alienates the radical wing of his party he may lose control of his party. But we have reached the point where we need men and women who put the interests of the country above the interests of their party or their own re-election.

It is admirable that Boehner is working with Clinton to raise funds for the memorial. It would be both admirable and good for the country for him to team up with President Obama to forge a truly bi-partisan effort to turn our economy around and put people back to work. In fact I’d have them go beyond bi-partisanship to an apolitical solution – one that looks only at the results for the American people without regard to politics at all. That is perhaps asking for a superhuman effort but the least they can do is forge a partnership – while still in office – like those that others before them have formed after leaving office.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Thinking About 9/11

On October 16, 2001, a month and five days after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and Flight 93, my wife, Alice, and I left on our “honeymoon trip” which formed a great loop from Wisconsin through Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Nevada, Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, and back to Wisconsin. The trip had been delayed for forty-four years due to lack of funding at the time of our marriage in 1957. In succeeding years a continuing lack of funds and the demands of rearing a family and maintaining careers prevented us from making the trip. Finally, five years into our retirement we headed out to fulfill a long-delayed dream.

Only three “sets” of relatives (and one “set” of friends) dotted the route so, except for brief overnight stops in Minnesota, Montana, Oregon, and California to visit with them, most of the trip was truly honeymoon. And most of the attraction was the land itself. Going west from Wisconsin it is the land one mostly sees; a wonderful and vast expanse of never ending, yet ever changing vistas of plains and prairies, mountains and valleys, deserts and lush irrigated farmland. Cities are far apart and squat low and wide on the terrain. Not until one reaches the west coast do cities begin to rise up again and even then one can drive for miles surrounded by expanses of “unused” land, or snake along a coastline for hundreds of miles with hardly any opportunities to turn back inland, or drive for hours in redwood forests.

The images of 9/11 that we had seen a month earlier were still fresh in our minds and it had not yet become clear just how much damage the terrorist attacks had cause our nation. The stock market had reacted negatively, some business concerns had been totally wiped out by the attack on the Trade Center towers, others had been severely crippled. The nation’s focus was on the smoking ruins at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. and the World Trade Center in New York City. The blow was struck at the financial heart of America and many of us wondered how it could recover.

It was a good time to head west, to spend days away from Television reports, and to assay the vastness of our land. But billboards reminded us of the events of 9/11, displaying the flag and patriotic messages. Every gift shop in every tiny town offered us the chance to buy trinkets with the promise that 5% or 10% of the profits would go to aid the victims of 9/11. Partly it was offensive (is there no tragedy that the entrepreneurial spirit of America cannot profit by?) but also reassuring. It would be years – perhaps generations – before New Yorkers could cease to feel vulnerable. Our leaders would soon be launching wars to punish tens of thousands of people who had nothing to do with the attacks – wars that we still don’t know how to wind down. But, west of the Mississippi, life went on pretty much as it had for a hundred years, with an awareness of those easterners and their vulnerable overcrowded cities, but calm in the knowledge that there was little likelihood that terrorists would attempt to blow up the Grand Canyon.

Looking back, ten years later, it is possible to see that, horrific as those attacks were, they did not break the spirit, even of New Yorkers. And they didn’t come close to bringing the nation to its knees. The vastness of our land and the diversity of its resources presented those who would destroy it with daunting obstacles.

We’re feeling more confident again. We’ll celebrate our resilience today, and vow that we’ll never allow it to happen again. We’ll be brave . . . until we hear, as we did last Friday, that there is “credible” evidence that three terrorists might be planning attacks to “celebrate” the anniversary of 9/11 in their own way. Then we beef up our defenses and line the streets of our cities with security forces. As though any number of police or soldiers could deter a well-planned attack if those attacking are prepared to die to accomplish their aims.

It becomes clearer that no place is safe from terror. Not Phoenix, not Ft. Hood, not Washington, D.C., not New York City. Not even Grand Canyon if that should be the chosen target. We have built up our defenses in the hope that we will “feel safer” than we did ten years ago. But, for many Americans there is still a fear, as one woman put it, each time one boards and airliner, or rides the subway, or takes the elevator to the top of a tall building, or finds himself, or herself, in a crowd of people at a government facility.

There is no defense against attack. There is only defense against fear. Many of those who survived the 9/11 attacks attest to their faith in God as the sustaining power as they awaited rescue. And that is still the only source of strength available to those who live in fear of the unknown future. Jesus told his followers they should not fear those who can kill the body, but only He who can kill the body and the soul. America, on the 10th anniversary of its day of fear needs to put its trust in God, who preserves, forever, those who trust him.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Aspiring To Be President of A Moral Government

When someone calls a behavior immoral they need to be serious about it and they need to be ready to defend their choice of words. Many words get flung around in the perpetual political campaign that our political parties, in collaboration with the media have decided to foist upon us. Sadly, it is not always easy to determine if the “flinger” is presenting a serious idea or merely attempting to gain attention or ingratiate themselves to a particular segment of the electorate.

This week Minnesota Representative Michelle Bachmann declared that spending by our government (federal government, I presume) is immoral. It is theoretically possible that that is true. It may be that those who write the billions of dollars worth of checks issued by the government have devised a scheme whereby all that money will be used for immoral purposes. That, of course, would mean that the checks written to pay Rep. Bachmann, and to provide her with all the fringe benefits and perks of her office were also going for immoral purposes.

Since it isn’t reasonable to assume those things, I’m going to assume, instead, that Mrs. Bachmann was speaking “very loosely” as we sometimes say; using the word “immoral” to designate her disapproval of some of the federal government’s spending. Most likely, she is objecting to the fact that the federal government is spending more money that it is taking in through various sources of revenue. I think I remember that Mrs. Bachmann is a fiscal conservative. But it could also be that she is objecting to federal money being spent on programs that she considers inappropriate, various social welfare programs for example. Or it could be that she believes that the federal government is too big, that it controls an inappropriate and unsustainable share of the national economy.

I could go on assuming for some time. I would be right part of the time, wrong at other times. But why should a citizen listening to Mrs. Bachmann have to assume they know what she means when she uses the word immoral? It should be clear from her statement exactly what she believes is immoral about government spending. We should know, without guessing, what particular government programs she believes to be immoral.

Of course, such dialogue takes time and effort and a politician runs the risk that the audience’s eyes will glaze over before they can adequately explain their position and their reasons for holding it. It is much easier to find a word that will circumvent the need for explanation. Immoral is a good choice. No one – even those who are themselves immoral – tries to defend immorality. So if government spending is immoral then it is indefensible. Case closed.

But we all know that government spending is not all immoral. Indeed, one could argue that much of it is driven by moral concerns for the safety and well-being of our citizens as well as those of other nations. Mrs. Bachmann’s entire professional life has been supported by government spending, most of it federal government spending. Many of the clients whom her husband’s psychological service sees have their fees partially or wholly paid by government funds.

But Mrs. Bachmann has failed to do the hard work necessary to tell the electorate what they need to know in order to assess her discontent with the effectiveness of government. Instead she has (I assume) chosen to pander to a certain segment of the populous (the Tea Party) whom she, probably correctly, assumes is anti-government. With one mighty word, immoral, she can win their hearts. She becomes the champion of morality by using the very word in a manipulative, and arguably immoral way, obscuring both its meaning and her intention in using it.

If Mrs. Bachmann aspires to be the President of a “Christian Nation,” which she believes the U.S. to be, then we have a right to expect from her the morality – reflected in thoughtful and honest use of language – that should accompany such a position.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Stewardship

The first “assignment” given in the world, as we read of it in the Book of Genesis, was given to adam (mankind), and it’s intent was that adam (mankind) should tend and care for the garden in which he was placed. So mankind was made steward of the earth and all that is within it. For thousands of generations that essentially meant that he was responsible for the natural world around him. I believe mankind is still bound to that stewardship and neglects its duties to its own hazard and to the hazard of the rest of creation.


With the coming of civilization many of us have less and less direct contact with, and responsibility for the natural world. It is, of course, still eminently important to us and we have not been released from our obligation as stewards of the earth though the means by which we fulfill our responsibilities to it are now less direct even if no less incumbent upon us.

But in human society there is more to preserve and protect than just the air we breathe, the water we drink, and ground we till. We live in a culture that is dependent upon certain elements remaining available and viable. Perhaps none is more important than language itself. The sounds, symbols, and gestures we use in communication are the foundation of our culture. We seldom consider the importance of our words; they are just a means to an end – “pass the potatoes, please,” “excuse me, I wasn’t looking,” etc.

The Biblical passage, John 3:16, and the verses that follow it are, arguably, the most well-known of all Christian Scriptures. In John 3:16 Jesus is quoted as saying, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.” The passage goes on to say, “God sent not his son into the world to condemn it, but that the world, through him, might be saved.”

What is this “world” that the Gospel of John speaks about? The Greek word that the writer used was cosmos. Cosmos in the Greek lexicon refers to the social order of mankind. Other Biblical passages tell us that God is working to redeem the geos (earth itself), but in John’s Gospel the focus is on Jesus Christ’s mission to save the cosmos; to restore and preserve a broken social order. He does that through reconciling the world (cosmos) to Himself through his Son, Jesus Christ, one person at a time. It is a spiritual transaction resulting in a change in the heart of a man or woman that, in turn, affects the culture in which the reconciled person lives. Eventually, the apostle Paul tells us, the redemption of mankind will result in the redemption of all of creation, physical and cultural alike.

I believe that, just as adam was made steward of the “garden” of the earth, those born into the Kingdom of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, are made stewards of the cosmos that God is seeking to redeem through them. That stewardship takes many forms but none is more important than the guardianship of language. Language is the essential tool of human culture and it must be preserved (sometimes redeemed) in a form that communicates reality and truth if the cosmos is to function as God would have it do.

Thankfully there are many scholars, preachers, theologians, philosophers, philologists, scientist, poets, novelists, essayists . . . the list is almost endless . . . who are working faithfully and honestly to preserve the integrity of language. Words do not need to mean the same thing to all who use them, nor do they need to mean the same thing in all contexts, but they do need to communicate honest content or they are, at best gibberish, at worst destructive of the cosmos – creators of chaos.

As I have said above, there are many disciplines of life, in which the work of preserving and redeeming the integrity of language goes on. My interests lie mostly in theology and politics. I don’t pretend that my interests are the most important, although my focus suggest that I believe them to be of utmost importance. Most of the content of The Cottage on the Moor relates to either religion or politics. And most of it is an attempt to clarify meanings; to hold myself and others to account for the way we use language.

I intend to look, in future blogs, at the uses of language, particularly by politicians, political organizations, and the media that covers their activities, attempting to hold them to a standard, not only of truth, but also of clarity. My purpose is not to promote a particular political point of view but to ask that any point of view that is presented be first truthful, second faithful to the meaning of the language used, and finally stated without intended or unintended ambiguity.

I don’t wish to offend anyone but I’m aware that it is probably impossible to venture into things of this nature without doing so at times. Know that it is in the same spirit with which Jesus sought to redeem the cosmos (social order) that I am trying to preserve it as a steward of His work and His kingdom.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Words, Words, Words

Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, and author of Generous Justice, tells of a meeting he attended in which a committee was debating which of its members should be sent to represent them at a national conference. The two persons under consideration were, an articulate young man, relatively new to the committee who had invested himself energetically in its work, and an older member who was being put forward on the basis of seniority; she had been on the committee more years than anyone else and had never attended a national conference. When it looked like the debate might be decided in favor of the young man, one of the committee members declared, “To me this is a matter of justice.” That, Keller said, ended the debate. Who could continue to argue for the young man if his appointment meant an injustice to the older member? So, with one word, the battle was won.

It is not a new phenomenon. Words have been used since man first came into possession of them for good and evil. Their power is perhaps the most formidable force on earth. Benjamin Franklin is reputed to have said, “Give me twenty-six lead soldiers (the lead alphabet pieces used at that time to set printer’s type) and I will conquer the world.” The apostle James warns us in his epistle of the power of the tongue to speak both good and evil.

If Franklin could “conquer the world” (perhaps a slight exaggeration, but only slight) with twenty-six lead soldiers, what can be accomplished with the media at our disposal today? It is truly frightening . . . and inspiring. It is frightening on two levels: 1) those bent on evil have more power and influence today than they’ve ever had and 2) the words we speak, even casually, have a greater chance to do harm than words ever would have had in an earlier age. But it is inspiring to know that there are so many more ways available to those who wish to glorify God than any one person can utilize fully.

The use of language in our culture is not essentially any different than its use at any other time in human history; we persuade, and inform, and warn, and woo. Words are the tools of the admen, the preacher, the comedian, the teacher, the toddler, the codger, the lover and the con.  It would be impossible to nominate any person or profession most dependent upon language, or most pernicious in their misuse of it.

However, I would argue that a top contender for the “honor” of most dishonoring the gift of words is the modern politician. With rare exceptions our politicians, and those who shape their message have decided that specific words can mean whatever they wish them to mean, that their meaning can shift from hour to hour and place to place, and that anytime their words become an embarrassment to them a little artful tweaking can bring them into alignment with what the current audience would like to think they mean.

Most perniciously, politicians have decided that it is far better to use words to attack opponents than to clearly explain their own beliefs and proposals. For the purpose of those attacks, words must be invested with a venom that destroys or severely wounds those at whom they are aimed. Like the proponents of justice in Keller’s example their words become moral instruments designed as weapons of conquest. Words like liberal, progressive, enlightened, compromise are spoken with utter disdain. Labels like socialist, communist, fascist, right wing, Christian, Evangelical, atheist, Islamist, and more, are used not as descriptors, honestly and fairly applied to those being discussed, but as bombs lobbed into the public arena for the purpose of destroying reputations and gaining political advantage.

It is long past time for honest people to begin to demand better of those who say they want to serve our nation. Politicians must be made to confront the consequences and implications of the words they use. If we are unable to do so face to face – and most of us have no immediate access to politicians, even on the local level – we can use whatever means is available to us to “confront” their unethical and sometimes immoral misuse of language. We can speak up against, or write about, their disregard for truth among our friends and associates. Such activism carries the risk of being shunned or attacked, often by those using the same tactics as Keller cited in his example – being put on the side of injustice, or immorality. But that is a price that must be paid if there is any hope that our political system can ever again function as our founders hoped it would.

Our politicians must come to know that we are listening, weighing their words on the scales of truthfulness and fairness, and finding many of them wanting. They must come to fear that we will cease to listen, cease to believe, and cease to support – with our cash and with our votes – those whose disregard for the sacred gift of language allows them to use it for personal political gain.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Can Leopards Change Their Spots?

                        by Jim Rapp

There was never a time
when our leaders were saints;
a time when all of their motives
were unencumbered and pure.
Our founders, whom now we revere,
where men and not angels.
No matter how hard we’ve scrubbed,
their humanity still speaks to us,
in their letters and diaries, speeches
and biographies; revealing the clay
of which they were made.

As pressure and heat reform sand
into igneous, reincarnate,
making hard and useful that which
formerly crumbled at a touch,
so our “great ones”, tried by fire,
were transformed – reborn – shook off –
momentarily at least, petty peeves,
party loyalties, and small ambitions,
to serve a nation through a dozen wars,
through plague and privation,
standing taller than their smaller selves.

So, can we hope, in our time,
that self-proclaimed saints,
debauched by self-serving motives,
can turn on a dime and be pure –
live by the things they say they revere –
once they’ve sworn before men and angels?
Can their record of calumny be erased,
annulled by words and deeds of service?
Can their actions, speaking louder than words;
show that they have learned they are clay –
not potentates, “self-made”?

Can the leopard change its spots?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Chameleons

                      by Jim Rapp

Why do we tolerate lies; countenance liars?
They take us for fools because we are.
Only fools trust a man or woman
Despite their many twists and turns,
Avowals and disavowals.

They are consistent, these liars,
Reliably telling one group one thing,
Another group another, then
Denying, to a third, that they said either;
Reliable liars, fooling reliable dupes.

They get away with duplicity
Because we like them more than truth;
They feed our ego what it wants to hear,
Forgetting that they promised other crowds
What pleased their itching ears.

Why do we tolerate their ignorance?
They speak ignorance and we ignore it,
So determined to have them win
That we will not expose and oppose them;
Ignorance is preferable to defeat.

Why are chameleons not exposed?
They hide on that which looks like them;
Liars among liars; ignorance shielding ignorance.
It doesn’t speak well of the chameleons
Or those who provide such excellent cover.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Two Kinds of Religion

Jon Meacham, in his book, American Gospel, defines two kinds of religion, civic religion (which he prefers to call public religion) and personal religion. His contention is that the Founding Fathers deliberately spoke in the language of public religion when referring to Deity in the Declaration of Independence, and avoided any reference to Deity in the Constitution. The only references to religion in the Constitution were prohibitions against the government’s intrusion upon the free exercise of private religion.

Public religion, as Meacham sees it promoted by the Founders, and by several later presidents, recognizes the existence of Deity but refuses to identify the Deity with any particular Christian or non-Christian religion. The Declaration of Independence employs the terms, “Nature’s God” “Creator” “Supreme Judge of the world” and “Divine Providence”, none of which requires one to affirm any particular world religion. References to Jesus are totally absent.

Those founders believed it beneficial, perhaps even essential to the success and survival of the nation, that its people be “religious”. Most of the founders were themselves Christians of one kind or another and their writings contain enough religious declarations to allow those who wish to claim them for advocates of their particular brand of Christian faith to do so. But Meacham argues that they consciously and deliberately shaped a nation, “not Christian,” though religious. Only Thomas Paine, among the founders, could arguably be said to wish the demise of religion altogether, and even he is ambiguous, often using allusions to Biblical themes in his arguments.

From my childhood and well into adult life I’ve been aware of evangelical Christians’ disdain for civic (public) religion. The bland, oblique references to “the Divine” or “Providence” coming from the lips of Franklin Roosevelt, or Dwight Eisenhower never failed to illicit some measure of skepticism about the sincerity of their faith. Some may have recognized the attempt by these men to acknowledge our human dependence upon a “higher power” without offending the sensibilities of particular religious sects. Most, however, seemed to take their remarks as evidence that they were unbelievers trying to appear religious for political or other reasons.

In recent years, many evangelicals have renewed a call, heard at other times throughout our history, for a clear association of our nation with the Christian faith – as they understand it. Histories have been rewritten, cherry-picking quotations from the Founders, to show them to be Christians, recognizable by their lives and the doctrines they held to be true. Such “histories’ purport to show their intent to establish the United States as a Christian nation. The dishonesty, and selectivity, of such revisionism seems to fly under the radar of their stated commitment to truth.

If the only result of this renewed effort to “take back America for God” was a few monographs on the shelves of bookstores that present a fairytale version of events, it might be tolerable. Revisionist histories have long been written, and have served many causes over the years. But the goal of zealous evangelical revisionists is broader. They wish to revise the textbooks that all students of all faiths are required to read, arrogantly asserting that the scholarship, based on documents studied for hundreds of years, is so flawed that it must be replaced with their hurried and biased versions. Further, they would amend the constitution to say what they wish the Founders had said, making our government an avowedly Christian institution. And then they would change the laws of the land to enforce the morality that they believe expresses the will of God. It is as if they have concluded that the promulgation of their religion is insufficient to keep men from sinning; they must, therefore, compel them not to sin by legislating against it.

In other words, the religious zealots of our day would make their private religion the public religion of the land, thus restraining all others who do not subscribe to their particular understanding of God and his purposes on earth. The warning cannot be issued too often or too strongly that such a path will ultimately lead to religious repression and that those who are the “enforcers” today may well be the victims – or their children may well be the victims – of someone else’s “enforcement” another day.

The American experiment in religious tolerance and freedom of conscience has produced an environment never seen before in human history in which people of vastly different faiths have been able, for the most part, to co-exist and thrive. The genius of the Founders was to recognize that such a society required a respect of religion in general (civic or public religion) AND the protection of particular religious conviction (private religion). Only ignorance of the past and arrogance concerning the future would cause us to abandon such an experiment.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

When Is The Past Not The Past?

“When is a door not a door?” asks the old riddle. “When it is ajar.” is the unexpected reply. Silliness, of course. Or is it? Riddles, much as they frustrate me, are an age-old means of helping one define their world. Things aren’t always what they seem, on the surface, to be. A door is used to separate two spaces but if it is left ajar, is it any longer a door? An argument could be made that it is, or that it isn’t. Everyone knows a door is not a jar, but the riddle seems to be saying that a door that is ajar is no longer a door. It is, perhaps only a piece of wood dangling on two hinges, no longer doing the work a door should do.

I’ve spent the last two days reading Jon Meacham’s American Gospel. Meacham, formerly the editor of Newsweek, a Pulitzer Prize winning historian, and a vestryman in his Episcopal congregation, is arguing that the Founding Fathers deliberately created a nation in which public religion (ecumenical, inclusive of Christian and non-Christian religions) was freely expressed but which forbid the state from either endorsing or prohibiting private religion (particular dogmatically structured religions or denominations). In a very rapid review of key political figures from Washington to Reagan, he demonstrates their use of (and belief in) public religion without attempting to assay their private religious beliefs except in those cases where they willingly revealed them. It is an interesting book I would recommend to anyone interested in the “religious wars” swirling in our culture today.

But like most good books, Meacham accomplishes more than he imagined, stimulating thoughts that are peripheral to the primary point he is making. It is one of those points I’d like to pick up on in this essay, reserving some other ideas Meacham’s work inspires for other times.

Meacham draws heavily upon the past in order to issue what is essentially a warning to the present that removing the barrier between the state and private religion not only violates the intent of the Founders but also threatens to destroy the freedoms of all religions except the one that can breach the barrier and impose its will and its interpretations of religious reality upon the others. He further reminds his readers that no ideology remains supreme forever, so eventually the “dictator” of religious correctness of one era will be replaced by a competing correctness in a different era.

But it is the past that teaches us the wisdom of the Founders, Meacham argues. Time and again various religious organizations have mounted campaigns to amend the Constitution so as to remove the ambiguity they see in its declaration of America’s Christian character. But each time the “center” has held and those seeking to abolish the separation of church and state have failed to amass the support to accomplish their goal. Meacham is hopeful, though not certain, that the present enthusiasm for sectarian solutions to problems of abortion, homosexuality, school prayer, religious tolerance, and others, will not overwhelm the center, and that we will remain a nation in which all faiths can freely worship as they see fit, but in which none dictates to another what must be affirmed or denied.

So, back to our riddle, but with a difference. This time the question is: “When is the past not the past?” I would argue that there are two ways in which the past ceases to be the past. First, the past is not the past as long as we give it a voice in our present. As long as we continue to learn from those who have gone before us, both their mistakes and their accomplishments, the past is still the present. But the past also ceases to be the past when we forget it or dismiss it as irrelevant and no longer consult its wisdom and instruction. It becomes . . . nothing!
 
 
I agree with Meacham that history has affirmed the wisdom of the Founders, some of whom were men of deep personal Christian faith, and some whose ideas of personal religion we either do not know, or might find wanting. They knew, from their understanding of history, that giving the state power over the convictions of individuals led to tyranny. They believed that granting religious freedom to all was the only way to assure that all would be free. If sanction, or even pride of place, were given to one religious sect, the freedom of all others would be diminished.
 
 
Humans are unique in their ability to record and retain the memory of generations who no longer are alive. Those memories offer us the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and benefit from their wisdom. Thus the “past” is not the past, to us, but rather a set of present tools with which we can continually repair and maintain the gifts we have been given by previous generations.

But when we forget, or choose not to attend to the lessons of our forefathers, the past will no longer be the past. We will be left with a void behind us and before us. We will be required to shape our future out of sheer nothingness. Some declare themselves eager to do so. If they wish to structure their own lives in that manner it is one thing, but when they propose to lead our nation by such a philosophy, God save us from such fools.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Wisconsin Yard Sale

                       by Jim Rapp

Times are hard in Wisconsin,
everyone scrabbling to make it go.
My neighbor, George, is trying again,
a scheme he ought to know
never brings much money in.

He’s apparently selling his house, a piece at a time;
offering, at first, his garage:
Garage Sale: Spend As Little As A Dime!
Items are strewn like a giant montage,
on tables arranged in three lines.

I’m not keen on the garage’s contents,
nor do I want to buy the garage,
but I’m all-fired  curious, and bent
upon knowing why George, in his dotage,
Thinks I would give up ten cents

to buy a garage,  when I already have one,
begun – still in progress – since youth.
But more to my liking, on the street I live on,
old Batesie, a man of no wisdom or couth,
is having a Yard Sale, and I really need one.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Free To Live For Jesus

I saw a t-shirt today that brought me up short. It was worn by a good person doing a good thing. In fact it was worn by a person who had been given the shirt to wear for a special occasion so she may not have given much thought to the message it bore.

The shirt had a large U. S. flag on the front of it. Above the flag were the words, “Because of . . .” Below the flag the phrase continued, “I’m free to live for Jesus.” So the message of the shirt was, “Because of the U.S. flag I’m free to live for Jesus.”

I don’t have any trouble understanding the intention of the message. I’m as thankful as any other U. S. citizen for the freedom of religion guaranteed me in the Constitution. But I hope that I would “live for Jesus” even if the flag, or the Constitution, did not exist, or worse, if our nation were hostile to the Christian faith.

I’m reminded of a point made by Dietrich Bonheoffer, the German pastor and theologian who died during W.W II, at the hands of the Nazis for his resistance to the regime. He said that the Gospel does not need the permission of any political system as a justification for its entrance into a society. In fact the Gospel will only enter on its own terms, never subject to the terms or approval of a political or ideological system.

Six decades ago Arnold Toynbee, the British historian of antiquity predicted that western Christian nations would follow the path that the ancient Greeks had followed, substituting devotion to the nation for the worship of their traditional gods. Worship of the state ultimately proved thin gruel for the Greeks. It will for modern man as well. And yet the process has reached maturity within the U.S. Christian community, particularly among politically conservative Christians. We are currently at the point where it is almost impossible to distinguish the political speech of conservative politicians from their statements of personal religious faith.

When the church becomes the tool of political manipulators, the Gospel, which is the message of the Church of Jesus Christ, is completely lost in the rhetoric of political discourse. Welfare, health care, foreign policy, budgetary policy, abortion, gay marriage, gun control, immigration policy, state rights, and a hundred other issues become the litmus tests by which evangelical leaders decide which candidates will receive their stamp of approval. And in the process, the Gospel becomes an insignificant detail, seldom mentioned and often sacrificed upon the altar of expediency.

How did we come to this state of affairs? By assuming, I believe, that the Gospel needed the protection and permission of a Christian state in order for believers to be “free to live for Jesus.” Consequently, many conservative citizens and their political leaders have become convinced that they are promoting the Gospel by advocating for their particular political objectives.

Christians, throughout history, have been “free to live for Jesus” regardless of the political system under which they lived. In the United States, we currently live under a system that recognizes the right of all people to worship according to their own conscience, whether they are Christian or not. But if we decide that all must subscribe to a particular theology in order for our nation to be a safe place “to live for Jesus” we will have undercut the very freedom we sought to guarantee. Every place is a safe place to live for Jesus. The most repressive regimes in the world are safe places in which to live for Jesus. In fact it is the height of insecurity not to live for Jesus in such places. In him alone is the safety we all seek, the guarantee that our lives will not be lost even if they are taken from us.

The political and ideological issues that divide us are real and important, but they have little, if any, relevance to the work of the Church of Jesus Christ. It has a mission to perform, and a message to declare regardless of whether the nation is capitalistic, communistic, fascist, theocratic, or anarchic. Be a Republican, Democrat, Tea Party, Libertarian, or Independent, if you wish. Mix and match, bargain and compromise to achieve your goals. But if you are a believer in Jesus Christ, be that first, foremost, and uncompromisingly.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Thoughts Brought On By A Dental Extraction

A trip to the dentist today reminded me of how different things are in our day. As a child I recall my grandmother snapping a dill pickle off with her bare gums, or an old gentleman down the block who had two teeth left to his name, both incisors, one above and one below, but unfortunately not aligned with each other. It was common to see men and women, in their forties and older, with missing or broken teeth. Those beyond sixty often had the telltale sunken mouth and protruding jaw, sometimes nearly touching their nose, of the typical hag in a fairytale.

In the early days of our nation’s history most of our forefathers (and mothers) ended their years without a full set of teeth, often with none at all. George Washington, for all his popularity and influence wore his set of false teeth only on ceremonial occasions and then with much discomfort. John Adams was becoming toothless before he entered the Presidency. It is inconceivable today that a politician who did not possess a perfect smile could hope to attract the support needed to win the Presidency. The intellectual and moral powers our founders exhibited would be insufficient, today, to overcome the disability of less than perfect good looks.

I would not seek to hide the humanity of those early leaders; they exhibited some of the same human frailties that modern candidates do. They were proud, ambitious, opportunistic, petty, even personally immoral in their behaviors. They differed, however, in that they lacked the public exposure that allowed them to overpower the electorate with their good looks and charisma. The limitations of that time – slow travel, limited media, dispersed population – spared them of the need to be perfectly coiffed and made up at all times. They communicated through published speeches and rare personal appearances. Thus the electorate was more likely to focus on what they professed to believe was good for the country rather than their personal appearance and their “style” of campaigning.

Perhaps we should think of those who are asking us to support their candidacy for various offices in the coming months as though they had no teeth. Imagine them speaking in mushy tones, or smiling toothlessly at us each night on television. If we can look past their personal appearance, and hear something other than their carefully rehearsed and tailored sound bites, we might just be able to concentrate on the kind of men and women they are at heart; to think about the kinds of policies they advocate, and what kind of country they would help us build during their years in office.

I know it is unthinkable that the President might look like an Abraham Lincoln and the First Lady like a portly Abigail Adams. But what would we rather have in the White House, a full set of teeth, or a man or woman capable of thinking polysyllabic thoughts?