Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Donald Trump, the Republican Party and ‘screw you’ politics

If the national Republican Party isn’t feeling the heat now, it should be.

With tycoon Donald Trump far and away the leader for the party’s nomination for president but seen as a drag on the party overall, more than a few GOP “establishment” figures have expressed horror that he might actually win. They believe that Trump’s bellicose rhetoric, most notoriously suggesting that Muslims not be allowed to emigrate here thanks to fears of terrorism, possibly has the potential to scare voters off the GOP, even in Congress. They may be right about that.

Here’s the problem, however: If that happens, the party — or perhaps more accurately, the conservatism that dominates it — has only itself to blame.

How so? Well, consider what I refer as the “screw you” — more accurately, a more vulgar term I as a Christian no longer use — mentality in politics where an opponent is considered not only wrong but fundamentally evil and not worth even having a discussion with.

It’s probably not new in American history, but I first noticed it coming into being with the “religious right” in the 1980s, with its talk of defeating “liberals.” Later came the advent of right-wing talk radio, which has cowed more than a few politicians because of the vehemence its hosts display on the air — and translating that to its extremely loyal audiences. In such situations folks try to dictate rather than negotiate, almost as if defeating a perceived enemy is the highest good, when we “get rid of ‘them.’” GOP candidates for the past few decades have used that attitude to rise to power because it’s what their constituency wants.

Or at least they think it does.

See, if you’re perceived as part of an “establishment” you’re already considered part of the problem even though you may believe and say the “right” things. But the GOP base really isn’t interested in either politics or governance; it simply wants its way and considers compromise, without which you can’t run a country properly, surrender.

And that’s where Trump comes in, making those outrageous statements that nevertheless connect with voters. I won’t say that he truly believes what he’s saying, but he’s saying publicly what they believe privately, which is the secret to his appeal regardless of the facts on the ground. In other words, he doesn’t have to get it correct or even take principled positions because he understands that audience. Remember that he, not even a candidate at the time, was one of the first to question President Obama’s eligibility for the presidency in the first place.

Evangelical leaders are especially feeling threatened, with a number of them intending to meet to determine a candidate to endorse or rally around. The trouble is that they haven’t had much voice in the past decade with many of their empires crumbling due to scandal or irrelevance, and Trump has shown little if any interest in addressing cultural issues such as abortion or gay marriage as it is.

Liberals and Democrats are salivating at the idea of the possible — at this point, even likely — immolation of the GOP because might not have to do anything. “We’re not them,” they may be thinking — which is ironic, because their opponents have always thought the same way.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

When the label doesn't fit

I was recently insulted as a tea-partier, even though I have no sympathies for that movement.

The issue came up because of a Facebook discussion about Mike Huckabee, the GOP presidential aspirant who said that, were he president, there would be "no abortion." Here's the thing: I agree with his anti-abortion stance, which I've maintained for over 40 years.

Of course, fighting abortion became a conservative issue when the “religious right” adopted it in 1978 as moral cover for its real concern — restoring tax exemptions for private religious schools in the South that the Carter Administration removed because he believed that they were founded to circumvent court-ordered desegregation of public schools. Trouble was, it was split off from issues like poverty, pollution, racism and other issues that would also threaten the “sanctity of human life.” (In such a situation I was #alllivesmatter even before it became a hashtag saying.)

So what does that have to do with the tea-party movement? Virtually nothing. The New Yorker magazine exposed the involvement with the Koch brothers, who were bankrolling it — and who mentioned in an interview with Forbes magazine that they were pro-choice. The tea-party movement always was about “overreaching government” anyway, but since it has never claimed any central authority there’s no specific doctrine or ideology that its adherents subscribe to.

That might explain the confusion — and the anger toward me. But it’s misplaced.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

‘Safe spaces’?

I really thought we were making serious progress on racial reconciliation on college campuses. People were talking to each other and building intimate relationships across racial lines, the only way I’ve ever understood positive things to happen.

Learning recently of demands for “safe spaces” where black students didn’t have to deal with racism at all has really deflated me — it seems that they’re cutting off their nose to spite their face.

For openers, where will they find them? And when? What’s their goal? And what will they prove in the process? That they aren’t strong enough to live in the real world, where not everyone will like them.

And then, what will they do for allies? You need them to bridge the gap between people, so that they understand and can convey at least a little bit the indignation that black students may feel.

On top of that, what about the black students who are already comfortable in their own skin and willing to relate outside the parameters of what’s “acceptable” without being referred to as an “Uncle Tom?” Solidarity for its own sake isn’t a virtue, you know, and making unreasonable demands simply doesn’t work.

I will admit that conservative activism among students, many of whom are quite insensitive and some of whom are clearly racist, likely has raised hackles. I saw it at Pitt in the 1990s when a conservative student newspaper regularly insulted Pitt’s Black Action Society for reasons I don’t quite understand except for the purposes of resentment.

But getting “loud” doesn’t help the cause. In the least. Because it demonstrates weakness and thus sabotages the opportunity to gain true respect

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Activism — part of the educational process

“This. Means. War.”

I thought those words back in 1994 when a then-future, now-former girlfriend who was living in Chicago at the time got involved in a cult there and who told me that it was sending a mission team to Pittsburgh. Originally interested, I became suspicious when a male friend of hers who was trying to “recruit” me ahead of time dropped some doctrine on me that I knew to be wrong, and after doing some research I realized that this group was bad news. And since it did most of its work on the campuses of major colleges in major cities — I was taking evening classes at the University of Pittsburgh, which fit the bill in both cases — I decided to take action, breaking the news of their arrival on campus in The Pitt News, for which I served as columnist.

Eventually I became the primary counter-cult student activist, attending meetings of the former Cult Awareness Network and speaking twice to groups of students, one of which landed me on the front page of The Tartan, nearby Carnegie Mellon University’s student paper.

Though to my knowledge there really was no coordinated campaign to defeat this group and I never cut a class, my willingness to go to the mat has since proven to be one of the defining moments in my life. Several years later, author John Eldredge, who writes about masculine development in a Christian context, identified that men need “an adventure to live, a battle to fight and a beauty to rescue,” with in this case two of the three coming into play.

That might be the case with demonstrators on a number of campuses, most notably Yale University and Ithaca and Smith colleges, who are fighting racism, “rape culture” and the high cost of college, among other things. Of course the biggest salvo has recently taken place on the Columbia campus of the University of Missouri, where the president and chancellor both stepped down after members of the football team threatened to strike if they didn’t and the head coach, who probably makes more money than the two administrators combined, supported his players.

But some of their critics, whether ignorant, insensitive or just plain racist, have said that student’s shouldn’t be rocking the boat in that way, that they should simply shut up and return to their studies. However, I applaud them for the willingness to take stands because students have also caused changes — and, I suspect, grew in the process.

Two examples from the civil-rights movement: The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, which engaged in voter registration drives in the South — when it was extremely dangerous to do so. And the four students from North Carolina A&T State University who staged the first sit-in at a lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C. They got an education you simply can’t flop down tuition money to receive.

As did I 20 years ago.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

America needs you, Bill McCartney

Lately ESPNU, the cable sports channel focusing on college athletics, has been running a special program on Bill McCartney, the founder of the Promise Keepers evangelical men’s ministry and former football coach at the University of Colorado.

What set McCartney apart from many evangelicals, however, was his strong stance against racism, even bringing it up at PK events — to the chagrin of many; he himself said that attendance at events dropped when he decided to address the issue. But in fact, in an article in Time magazine he was quoted as saying, “The Spirit of the LORD said clearly to my spirit, ‘You can fill a stadium, but if men of other races aren’t there, I won‘t be there, either.’ ”

I wonder how he would look at the present situation at the University of Missouri, whose president and chancellor both stepped down this week as the result of student protests, especially when the school’s football team threatened to go on strike if the president didn’t leave — and not simply because of McCartney’s avowed stance. See, he himself played for Mizzou.

And in that same article, McCartney mentioned that he got opportunities that his black high-school teammates didn’t and knew just why. That understanding that he received “white privilege” has certainly colored his thinking over the years.

Unfortunately, if you try to bring that up in certain circles it would be ignored or denigrated, certain folks not even wanting to bring it up; in this case, however, it would drive history and the truth underground. Missouri was a slave state, after all; MU didn’t admit its first black student until 1950; and — remember this — Ferguson, the St. Louis suburb that suffered racial trouble last year, lies just two hours east.

So perhaps it would behoove us evangelicals not to believe that racism is simply in the past; for many people of color it’s still a daily reality. I would suspect that McCartney, who saw it first-hand as a college coach, would have a handle on it, and if he did speak about it I would listen.

And by the way, fans of the band Chicago, of which I am one, would recognize the title of this entry as the first line from the song “Harry Truman,” an ode to the late president who integrated the Armed Forces — and, ironically, was a native of Missouri.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Drugs — rich vs. poor

When a rich man chases after dames
He's a man about town, oh yes, a man about town
But when a poor man chases after dames
He's a bounder, he's a rounder
He's a rotter and a lot of dirty names

— From “When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich” from “Finian’s Rainbow”

Last week 60 Minutes ran a report on heroin use among the young in suburban and exurban Ohio.

Recently Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie shared the story about a mother’s addiction to cigarettes, calling for more of an emphasis on treatment as opposed to incarceration.

These are well and good, but I often wonder why these things are making national news just now, especially since substance abuse has always been an issue in such places — it’s often as though such a crisis happens only in poorer neighborhoods and people need to be punished for their transgressions.

Indeed, in one local suburban/rural county a news report about 15 years noted the large number of teens using. And I learned a couple of years ago that a large number of kids at one specific high school were using — when I was in high school (and I graduated in 1979).

Here’s the thing: Four states have implemented drug testing for welfare recipients, part of the thinking that people are poor because they use drugs. Which to me doesn’t make sense because drugs cost money (and in fact, states that do such testing have caught only a handful of applicants relative to the money being spent).

And it’s likely that affluent communities try to sweep the drug problem under the rug to protect their names — and property values. Some years ago one township council held a hearing at the local high school about a methadone clinic that wanted to locate in that area but was fighting it. But during a break one of the students noted that another student had set a trash can on fire while he was high.

But I see the issue as social class, not drugs. Perhaps we need to see drug abuse among the young as something that happens to us, not just them.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Some random thoughts …

· President Obama, mocking Republican candidates for the White House for complaining about “media bias” after the last GOP debate on CNBC, nevertheless made an excellent point in suggesting that dealing with the Chinese and Russians would be tougher than the media. That’s one thing often lost on that crew — I mean, you think that leaders from other nations would be intimidated by an American simply because he or she is American? Not anymore, as terrorists are showing these days.

· I actually find it funny that folks are making noise about getting rid of the political “establishment” in Washington, D.C., suggesting that power ought to be returned to “the people.” Sorry to say this, folks, but, in practice, élites have run this country from the jump, and our system was designed for that to happen. Even the idea of the “gentleman farmer” serving in D.C. for a few years ignores the reality that only wealthy people like him had the time to take off to do that. Besides, whom would you want dealing with other countries? An expert? Or a neophyte?

· Given the segment on CBS’s “60 Minutes” on Sunday about heroin problems in rural and suburban Ohio, I don’t understand why it would be news — after all, drug use among the privileged has been swept under the rug for decades. Anyone remember the anti-cocaine spots in the 1980s where people were wearing power suits? But they didn’t get hammered the way urban dwellers have been for decades. Indeed, I learned recently that one suburban high school in my area had had a problem when I was in high school (and I graduated in 1979) — what’s changed?

· Blogger the Rev. John Pavlovitz recently published an entry concerning the failure of Christian clergy to understand and appreciate single adults and apologizing for it on the behalf of pastors. While I got where he’s coming from, a big part of the problem is church culture in general where maintaining families is often seen as the primary — indeed, in some cases the only — function of the church, and if you’re not a spouse and/or parent, as I’ve never been, you’re somehow “less than.” Even singles ministries were formed supposedly for building us up, but the more mature and attractive folks began pairing up, leaving and never returning. We’re not told how to mourn those losses.

· For the musically-minded, I recently ran across these remarks that jazz bassist John Patitucci made three years ago: "There are so many people who want to play music, but not everybody has that gift. So, if someone has that gift and then they don't really work hard — God calls us to excellence -— that's a problem that sometimes gets people in church in trouble with music. They don't grasp the fact that if you're going to make music for God, it better be the best music you can come up with. It better be the highest level of music and it had better be music befitting a king. That means get in the wood shed and don't come out till you get it right. So, I take it very seriously."

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Man in the mirror

I'm still contemplating a two-panel cartoon I saw on Facebook earlier this month.

The one panel displayed a preacher asking his congregation, "Who wants change?" Every hand was raised.

The other showed him asking, "Who wants to change?" No hand was up, perhaps not surprisingly.

That, in a nutshell, is the problem with much of our modern political discourse. Few folks these days want to come to the table in humility and work with those who disagree and those that do are often considered turncoats.

Tonight’s Republican presidential debate showed Ted Cruz blaming “[liberal] media bias” for the questions he and the other hopefuls had to answer — but what it that’s really not the case? It’s an easy thing to say, but does he have the proof? I doubt it.

But not just politics, either — I’m also seeing it as a spiritual issue as well. Many folks say they look forward to the return of Jesus Christ; trouble is, they do so for the purpose of cleaning everyone else up or out so that they can live in peace with what they believe to be true. Thing is, when He does come He will change them as well, and they’ll see just how much they need to change.

And that can be painful and humiliating, but at some point the buck has to stop and we have to understand and accept our part in the mess and eventually make amends. That takes real guts, not to mention maturity.

Just ask anyone who’s ever attended 12-step recovery meetings, which I used to do. The process of recognizing and admitting one’s sins — getting specific, that is — is by definition humbling because it means having to take responsibility for one’s own actions and attitudes, something often not encouraged in a previous life. In other words, we simply don’t like to admit fault, often preferring to blame the “other guy.”

But, to solve problems, that won’t do. I’m reminded of the Michael Jackson song “Man in the Mirror”: “If you want to make the world a better place / Take a look at yourself and then make that change.”

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Asking the wrong question

Earlier this week former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified about the Benghazi situation two years ago at the House of Representatives — for a good 11 hours. As it happened at work I didn’t have the opportunity to watch any of the proceedings, but if reports are to be believed she stayed cool and composed while her questioners went off the rails.

And that didn’t surprise me in the least. For this reason: When you’re so filled with hatred toward someone you will eventually do or say something stupid that makes you look like the persecutor that you are.

That became clear when GOP congressmen said, inexplicably, on the Fox News Channel that their intention in holding all these hearings all along was to drive down Clinton’s favorability ratings. Which they’ve done, but in the process they exposed themselves as partisan hacks less interested in the four people that died on Sept. 11, 2013 than in keeping her out of the White House. But precisely because she remained cool under fire the entire process backfired, making her look like the best choice.

“So, how do we take her down?”, people might be asking at this point.

That’s the wrong question.

Too many of us have such a focus on defeating an “enemy” that we don’t consider what we might do differently and positively. We should have learned that when her husband Bill was president but didn’t do so, and it’s a factor in President Obama’s enduring popularity despite Democratic losses in last year’s midterms.

So, at this point what was intended to be a situation where Hillary was supposed to slip may turn out to be a nail in the coffin of whomever might run against her in next year’s general election. Moral of the story: Don’t put all your eggs in the basket of hoping the other person loses.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Might making right? Not so fast …

“But you’ve got to kill the terrorists before the killing stops. And I’m for the president to chase them all over the world. If it takes 10 years, blow them all away in the name of the LORD.”

— Jerry Falwell, CNN Late Edition, Oct. 24, 2004

Oh, really? Killing terrorists will destroy terrorism? Whom did he think he was dealing with, really?

Falwell’s inane comment, however, was a sign of a bigger issue: The idea that simply threatening to use force will cause people to behave the way we want them to and, combined with the arrogance that we’re always right, that can lead only to trouble.

I’m specifically referring to two things: Militarism abroad and the large number of recent mass shootings, primarily but not exclusively in schools.

In the latter, it’s been suggested that if people, most notably teachers, were armed such mass shootings wouldn’t even take place. The theory goes that snipers would think twice about shooting up places if the public were packing heat.

The trouble is that we’re not dealing with rational people, many of which likely have a death wish as it is (recall that most of them take their own lives during their respective rampages). And in the case of the shooter in the theater in Aurora, Colo. two years ago, he had the foresight to spray tear gas before he started shooting, making such self-defense impossible. Besides that, it’s several times more probable that an innocent person will be killed with a gun at home as opposed to a criminal — and, on top of that, if someone burglarizes a house a gun might be the first thing he looks for.

And then, with the advent of the so-called Islamic State, others are saying that we should send in troops and take it out. Trouble is, as President Obama said correctly during this year’s National Prayer Breakfast, ISIS is a “death cult” that won’t be stopped by simply killing its members. According to its twisted interpretation of Islam, dying in battle is the highest good — and that in its own right makes it attractive to potential recruits. Besides, we’re already in the hole due to our excursion into Iraq to settle a personal score President George W. Bush had with Saddam Hussein.

When Jesus walked this earth the Roman Empire was at peace, relatively speaking. But it was the “Pax Romana,” enforced by the point of a sword — that no one messed with Rome. Trouble was, Israel in that day was undergoing a revival of patriotism, with plenty of resentment toward Rome and a desire to defeat it. (Rome of course was eventually defeated, not by military might but because the then-nascent Christian church simply outlasted it.

I’m not taking a position on gun control or military strength; we just need to think about what we have and how to use it judiciously lest innocent people be victimized by them. See, intimidation has its limits.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

But for the grace of God …

Part of my job at my newspaper entails picking up criminal complaints from district justices, and I did that today. They're reminders of what people can do to each other.

But before I start thinking, “Well, I could never do that,” due to my own dysfunction I’m forced to admit, “Yes, given the right situation, I might.”

The reason I don’t?

That’s right — the grace of God that disabuses me of arrogance that I’m “above” doing such things.

I’m of course reminded of Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and tax collector, during which the former said, “I thank you that I’m not like [him].” Perhaps he was inconsiderate of the tax collector’s situation — perhaps he had to hire himself out for family reasons.

Don’t we often do that, with people prone to anger or addiction? (The former applied to me.)

You see, when you understand your own struggles you’re more sympathetic. During the Thanksgiving service at my church, about half the testimonies are around staying “clean and sober” — and although I’ve never personally had a problem with drugs or alcohol I rejoice with them. Such people understand the grace of God because they knew they needed it.

As do I.

Monday, September 28, 2015

I’m not Catholic — but …

Back in 1981 I had a conversation with a fellow student at the University of Pittsburgh whom I'd met at an evangelical campus fellowship and who came across as mature, spiritually committed and Biblically literate. He also said during that conversation that he would never leave the Roman Catholic Church, something that confused and surprised me, who grew up in a conservative Reformed church which didn't believe that Catholics could be real Christians.

Two years later I was invited to attend a meeting of the Greater Pittsburgh Charismatic Conference, which was taking place at Duquesne University, and a priest delivered a Biblically accurate homily. I was scratching my head at that — a Catholic priest? And at a Catholic university? (I later learned, however, that the charismatic movement in mainline denominations started on a retreat of DU students in 1967.)

Since that time — and I beg your forbearance for sounding arrogant or patronizing — I've become a bit more charitable toward Catholics, understanding that God has His people there as well.

During Pope Francis' visit to the United States over the weekend I noticed a number of people blasting the church as inherently unbiblical, but I had no use for those statements. I've come to appreciate its social teaching, which I hadn't even realized until about two decades ago pretty much mirrors mine — concerned with stewardship of the earth, consistently pro-life (that is, womb-to-tomb) but also opposed to same-gender matrimony. In that the pope could claim correctly that he wasn't a political liberal, at least by American standards.

I do have theological problems with Catholicism, too many to mention in this entry, and many of my friends who grew up there have left the church. But I'm reminded of something that Charles Spurgeon said about John Wesley, with whom he had serious, and perhaps irredeemable, disagreements: When one person asked him, "Will we see John Wesley in heaven?", Spurgeon responded, "I fear not" — in the context that Wesley's passion for and commitment to God far exceeded their own. In addition, theology is generally a man-made construct anyway and can be a substitute for knowing God personally.

Thus, far be it from me to assume just how God will work as well as the vessels that He uses to do it.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Life without John Boehner

Upon seeing an interview with Rep. John Boehner on “60 Minutes” after the 2010 midterm election, I knew he’d be in over his head. Boehner, then in line to become Speaker of the House, seemed to be talking out both sides of his mouth.

In one sense, I understand that because I think he understood his role — to try to govern the country and yet manage the then-ascendant Tea Party caucus, which would have been a difficult balancing act given the contempt that the caucus has for anyone who doesn’t share its views.

That Boehner announced last week that he was stepping down from Congress at the end of next month is thus less a reflection on him than on the tea-party movement, which is apparently more interested in doctrinal purity than running the country. It’s thus safe to say that he’s not so much failed in the end as set up to fail from to outset.

Keep in mind, however, that he won’t be the first victim.

That mindset, which first came about in the early 1980s, never had any interest in compromise to keep the country moving; it simply wanted its way. That came to light when Bill Clinton became president in 1993 and the right, fueled in large part by talk-radio, did its best to overturn the two elections simply because he didn’t support its goals.

Which explains Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich, who became speaker in 1995 after spending his Congressional career in the late 1970s as a backbencher, was likely seen as someone who would defeat Clinton — that’s why he ascended to that leadership post in the first place. Trouble was, Clinton was seen as outfoxing Gingrich on the 1995 budget that resulted in two government shutdowns, and while on an agenda level Gingrich won, he lost the public relations battle and Clinton was reelected with relative ease, effectively ending Gingrich’s political career. (He left Congress after he directed the Republican Party to spend heavily on anti-Clinton ads focusing on his upcoming impeachment — and the GOP subsequently lost five seats in the House.)

That history is why I see a post-Boehner House being immediately more fractious than before. And depending on how the Tea Party caucus behaves, his successor won’t have that post for very long.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Dr. Carson's historical faux pas

Recently Dr. Ben Carson, running for the Republican nomination for president, suggested that a Muslim might not be sufficiently American to become such. I wonder just what he meant by that — seriously. Apparently he believes, or is simply signaling his potential voters, that only Christians, or perhaps Jews as well, can be true Americans.

Perhaps Dr. Carson ought to remember that Islam has a history in the United States that goes back to its founding. Yes, that long (in those days, Muslims were referred to as “Musselmen”).

Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, in addition to his “edited” Bible, also owned a Qur’an. In addition, if I have my facts straight, many of the Africans brought forcibly to these shores were also Muslims (though we don’t know if they continued to practice once they got here).

And then you have the large number of homegrown Muslims in the African-American community who began embracing Islam in the 1950s as part of a revolutionary ethos thanks to Malcolm X and the then-nascent Nation of Islam, which orthodox Muslims consider a heretical cult. In 1964, in part for that reason, Malcolm left the Nation of Islam, which especially after the death of sect founder Elijah Muhummad collapsed. (Louis Farrakhan revived it, but it doesn’t have the strength it once did.)

We all understand that Muslims perpetrated the terrorist attacks in Sept. 11, 2001. But Muslims also died in those attacks, and in their aftermath an imam in New York immediately and strongly condemned them, even founding Cordoba House, a “Muslim Y,” as an attempt to heal the wounds. In addition, an estimated 10,000 Muslims live in the immediate area.

And I’m willing to bet that the vast majority of them are Americans.

A Muslim group has demanded that Dr. Carson remove himself from the race, but I doubt he will — or even apologize — because of the Islamophobia on that side of the political aisle. But in this country we no longer have religious tests for political offices (some states did at one time, however). Moreover, it seems unfair to brand a particular religion as un-American when it actually has a long history here, so Dr. Carson’s remarks were out of bounds.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Where — and why — Kim Davis’ stance contradicts the Bible

Kim Davis, a clerk in a county office in Kentucky, of course has recently been in the news for refusing to issue a marriage license to a gay couple — and doing so based on “God’s authority.”

Such a stance sounds courageous to culture warriors determined to stamp out same-gender matrimony in response to a Supreme Court ruling allowing it in all 50 states. In fact, however, she actually exceeds it, making herself into God.

Frankly, I can’t see Jesus doing such a thing — and He was God. He never told people to take civil authority, especially in a day where doing so was an endorsement of the powers that be. Trouble was, however, that many of the Jewish people wanted to kick out the Romans in the same they were able to defeat the Greeks about a century ago.

Basically, the early church refused to participate in situations it deemed “worldly,” realizing that it didn’t have the power to change things politically. Members wouldn’t serve in the military or participate in plays, for example, due the concern that doing so would cause them to participate in emperor worship. Gradually, however, the church even outlasted the Roman Empire, and only then did it have power. (But, sadly, like anyone else, it abused that power.)

On top of that, you really can’t quote the Bible in opposing “gay marriage” — gay sex, to be sure, but when the Bible was written the idea of two men or two women being joined in the capacity was so far-fetched and ridiculous that it wasn’t even considered. Only when marriage became about individuals and not the community did it become a possibility, and that only in Western society and only over the past few centuries.

Though I myself don’t agree with gay marriage, I say she’s overstepped her bounds; thus, if she feels she can’t carry out the duties which she was sworn to carry out, she should quit. (I would if I were in her shoes.) People may say that they don’t want to live in a licentious society, but it will always be that way until Jesus returns.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

‘Not a politician’?

During the 1996 presidential campaign a panelist on a Christian radio talk show noted that GOP candidate Bob Dole, a deficit hawk when he was in the U.S. Senate, changed his position to support tax cuts. The panelist said, essentially, “That’s what I wanted to hear.”

Of course he did — that’s precisely why Dole changed his position, to get such people to vote for him.

I recall that exchange in reference to Donald Trump’s leading the Republican Party in the race for the White House. Many people supporting him — including, I understand, more than a few evangelical Christians — are saying because, well, he’s saying what they believe, most notably with his stance on illegal immigration.

In other words, in that narrative he’s not one of those mealy-mouthed politicians not willing to take a stand.

Here’s the problem: It could be that Trump is taking that stand simply to get those votes; indeed, it’s likely that his utter lack of polish is a campaign tactic in its own right. (Remember that Sarah Palin, when she was selected to run with John McCain in 2008, came out trash-talking but eventually had her head handed to her.)

See, you simply can’t run a campaign on anger toward some target; at some point you have to do brick-and-mortar things and, importantly, get the money to pay for them. Building a wall along the southern border with Mexico and deporting the undocumented, as Trump said he wanted to do, would cost billions that this nation simply doesn’t have. Of course, when you’re trying to take a political posture details are irrelevant. Trouble is that when you do you give people the optimum opportunity to vote against you.

At some point, Trump will need to turn down his rhetoric or get specific or realistic about his plans. If he doesn’t, and at this point it doesn’t seem likely, he’s toast.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Trumped by Trump — and trumping himself

I’ve believed from the start that Hillary Clinton was the odds-on favorite to take the White House next year. I must admit, however, that I didn’t foresee the help she’s getting from Donald Trump.

According to polls, Trump, running as a Republican, has twice as much support over his next rival for the nomination and as such causing problems for the GOP because of his unwillingness to say what it wants him to. Moreover, during the debate among the 10 leading candidates last week, he wouldn’t rule out an independent campaign if he doesn’t get the official nod.

Thing is, Trump’s appeal is based on his willingness to say what much of the GOP base feels, especially with his broadsides against immigration, but without tying that to the rest of its platform. That’s problematic because the folks who control the party have been trying for decades to paint themselves as political “outsiders” when, really, they’ve never been anything of the sort. In other words, Trump’s heretofore successful campaign is a repudiation of, frankly, their wanting to have it both ways. And since he's too rich to be bought, he's painting them into a corner.

But civil-rights leader Al Sharpton, who once worked for the late R&B singer James Brown, had an interesting take on Trump, whom he apparently knows — and why Trump doesn't stand a chance of becoming president. Sharpton made the analogy that Trump was playing the Apollo Theater when at some point he'll need to tailor his act to Lincoln Center. That is, it's one thing to try to grab attention and another entirely to establish yourself as a serious, polished candidate who knows what he's doing.

Now, people may make the argument that Trump's "not a politician." Sorry, folks, but like it or not, yes, he is precisely because he's running for office and you don't want to give people an opportunity to vote against you. At some point he has to put together a coherent plan that he says he intends to implement if he's elected and not just make things up on the fly; as such, simply "voting them out" doesn't represent a strategy.

I can't say just yet how far Trump will go to get elected or whether he'll survive the primary/caucus season. But at things stand now, he is the alternative to politics as usual, and that's appropriately frightening to the Republican Party.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Behind the Planned Parenthood video

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

— Ninth Commandment

You’ve probably heard of the recently released video of a higher-up at Planned Parenthood that supposedly highlighted the apparent selling of body parts, even discussing costs for getting them out and leading to possible Congressional hearings.

It turns out, however, that the woman involved was talking not about selling organs, illegal against Federal law anyway, but merely collecting tissue, the same as many hospitals do. And the costs she discussed? Shipping.

This video thus represents another propaganda ploy, the likes we’ve seen over the past two decades, first with the “scandals” surrounding then-President Clinton and more recently with ACORN, essentially destroyed after an alleged scandal in its Baltimore office; and former Department of Agriculture aide Shirley Sherrod losing her job over racist remarks she supposedly made. (The ACORN situation turned out be to staged and Sherrod was actually detailing how her own racial resentment was eased — but not before the intended damage was done.)

Some of the same people were involved, which is the point.

As someone who opposes abortion, I’m no fan of Planned Parenthood, but misrepresenting the words of another for any reason in general and for political gain in particular smacks of demonic forces. That’s right — the devil. And it shouldn’t be tolerated.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Some thoughts about the ‘Stars & Bars’

In 1998, the high school marching band in whose district I live caused a bit of a firestorm when it performed a halftime show with a Civil War theme, with part of the show including the playing of the tune “Dixie” and the displaying of Confederate flags — which offended many African-American parents. In response, I wrote an op-ed, “Don’t look away, but play ‘Dixie,” in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, during which I referred to my time attending Georgia Tech, seeing that banner on a consistent basis and not bothering me at all.

That being said, given the massacre last month in Charleston, S.C. in which a young white man expressing racist ideology shot to death a state senator who was the pastor of the historic church where it happened and eight other African-Americans, Southern states probably should retire it from official status and relegate it to museums and private homes.

To say that what is more accurately the battle flag of the army of Northern Virginia simply represented slavery and, thus, racism and needed to come down for that reason is a bit of a stretch, as racial justice and reconciliation weren’t even on the agenda in those days and African-Americans were, really, an afterthought.

Remember that Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was an opponent of slavery, and even when running for president, Abraham Lincoln, because of whose election 11 Southern states seceded, said he didn’t believe that the races could live together and proposed shipping blacks back to Africa — in line with the views of many even abolitionists. And while Lincoln also opposed slavery, he also proposed a compromise that one “free” state would be admitted to the Union for every slave state. (Only after his Christian conversion in 1862 and the possible recognition of the Confederacy by Britain and France did he decide that slavery needed to be eliminated altogether.)

The flag, however, did make an official comeback in South Carolina during the civil-rights movement, its proponents insisting that doing so commemorating the centennial of the beginning of the Civil War — which, while true, certainly came across to many as opposing desegregation.

Moreover, one of my PG colleagues — and now that I think about it, he was right about this — noted back then that the flag also represented treason against the U.S. government. And while it’s fine to recognize that period, that’s not something to celebrate at any time for any reason.

That’s why it needs to be officially retired.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

How about some repentance?

Last week’s Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-gender matrimony has many folks apoplectic, with reactions ranging from “God needing to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah” to the surety, in the minds of some, that this country will become outright hostile to people of faith who oppose homosexual conduct.

The former I don’t see happening, but I think the latter might be correct. And that will be their own fault.

How so? Well, way too many folks — and I first saw this in the late 1970s — decided to use gays as a political piñata for the sake of outrage, not to mention raising funds. Keep on doing that and eventually people will react. On top of that, it’s very easy to focus on sins that others commit, especially those connected to sex.

But things like unjust economics, a major theme in the Scripture and especially the Prophets, often don’t rate as biblical. Wonder why? Well, we benefit from them. Indeed, evangelicals have had an alliance with the business community since the 1940s and in the process failed to critique it. So now that business are supporting gays because they make money off them, we’re finding ourselves isolated.

Bottom line, we need to rethink our alliances — and repent of them. Perhaps then if we speak about sin people will take us seriously.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Taken for granted

What’s the commonality between the possible removal of the Confederate battle flag, sparked by the massacre of the pastor, also a state senator, and eight other members of a historic black church in Charleston, S.C., from public display in many Southern states; and the recent SCOTUS decision legalizing “gay marriage” throughout the nation?

One thing that comes to mind: Flag supporters and same-gender matrimony opponents never gave a consistent rationale for their views.

In the case of the flag, avowed white supremacist Dylann Roof shot up those folks after a Bible study, saying, “You need to go.” And considering that such is considered to have represented racism all these years, especially during the civil-rights movement, it can be hard to believe, as its defenders insist, that it represents Southern “heritage,” not hate. They just assumed that what they held dear represented truth and not considered a consistent insult to a large segment of the population — with whom it never discussed the issue.

And in reference to gay marriage, many look to the Bible, which does label gay sex but also a number of other practices as sinful. (Funny, but those aren’t addressed.)

Numerous Christian bodies, including my own denomination, have said that their pastors would refuse to perform same-gender weddings (a position I personally support); in those cases, however, they’re willing to be “out of step” with the rest of the world, as any church should be. It becomes a problem when that view becomes part of the culture, and given the reality that folks often get married because they’re “hot” for each other and divorce when that’s no longer the case, the complaints about gay marriage ring hollow.

Basically, it has come down to “We can’t have our way anymore — what’s going to happen to our country?”

Perhaps that needs to be rethought.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The future of the American church

What will the Christian church in the United States look like in the next generation? And who will be part of it? Only God knows for sure. But, as the song goes, “the times, they are a-changin’.”

The Pew Research Center, which measures numbers, noted that the results of a survey released earlier this week indicated that the percentages of Americans not affiliated with any religious group has risen sharply, nearly eight percentage points, over the past seven years, driven largely by the so-called millennial generation. The survey didn’t try to explain comprehensively why this is happening, but I have my suspicions.

I suspect too much of an emphasis on and expectation of maintaining “tradition.”

Long gone, of course, are the days where you were born, reared, married and died in one singular faith tradition without questioning. But it seems to me a lot of that has to do with the growing lack of insularity between different traditions, with people moving among them as never before around the time I was coming up. (Until 1998 I was a lifelong Presbyterian of a fairly conservative bent; while I still think of myself as Reformed, that theological school is not a “test of fellowship.”)

I do get concerned, however, with my generation’s emphasis since the 1980s on a national “Christian heritage,” with a couple of state legislatures working on bills to make the Bible their official book. And I wonder if people in their 20s and 30s — those who would be the ages of my children if I had any — are rebelling against that because a higher percentage of the “nones” come from that generation than the population at large.

You see, “tradition” implies “establishment,” to which God never called us as a church because when you become establishment you invariably also become liberal, watering down some Biblical essentials for the sake of getting along in society. What became the religious right beginning in the 1970s and drove the culture war some 30 years ago melded conservative politics with liberal theology, with the fight against “gay rights” actually fitting into that category because all the Bible has always said about homosexuality is, in essence, “Don’t bring that into the church.” Trouble is, our efforts to marginalize gays then have in fact backfired tremendously, with even a number of evangelicals supporting same-gender matrimony.

Some folks are already saying that American society will crumble if people stop going to church; I question that because Europe has been pretty secular for decades, if not centuries, but tends toward stability. I suspect they fear a loss of privilege, an understanding that their values aren’t to be challenged or even questioned. But to me, it also signifies a lack of trust in God to preserve His people, especially since many of them cry “persecution” at the drop of a hat. (Truth be told, you can’t be persecuted if you’re in a position of power.)

I can’t say with any certainty just what the future holds for the church in American society. But I do know Who holds that future so I’m not worrying about it, and we may simply need to adjust.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Praying against Hillary?

In 2008, I received a chain email imploring Christians to pray that Barack Obama would be defeated. (I responded that it was an appropriate request that God wouldn’t honor.) Next year, faced with the near-inevitability that Hillary Clinton will take the White House, I’m sure that some will pray the same useless prayer.

So if you’re praying now that someone will defeat her, stop it. Tout de suite.

To understand why, consider the motivation for people to pray for the defeat of another: Lack of trust in God to preserve His people. In fact, the eyes of those do so are clearly not on Him; they want to tell Him what to do so that they can live in this country under the assumption that their convictions rule the culture. In other words, it’s about nothing but self-preservation, and when He’s not trusted He’s under no compulsion to act.

It could be that things could get even worse the more they pray. Not only will she have access to an ark of cash, which people will gladly give her, and an unprecedented army of volunteers, but any complaints from her enemies will be — and in fact are already being — met with derision. That is to say, the doom-and-gloom scenarios about which they “prophesy,” I would say falsely, will cause people to vote for her to spite them and make her even more popular. I thus predict that the manufactured email and Benghazi “scandals” will come to naught. If anything, her candidacy could be a boon for Democrats nationwide.

Bottom line, if you have to spend your time and energy denouncing the person you don’t like, that means that someone you do like must not have all that much, in anything at all. You’ve thus already lost, sorry to say.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Baltimore — a game-adjuster?

Another urban riot of course has taken place as the result of a death of an African-American man in police custody, this time in Baltimore. And of course, the first thing people think about is white racist cops out to brutalize the black community.

What’s different about this is — well, much of Baltimore’s political leadership is black. And, in a twist, six cops have been indicted on homicide charges. Oh, and by the way, three of the cops are black. So what may be going on here?

I have two theories.

One, if my experience is any indication, the black community in many cases suffers from social isolation — some of that, frankly self-inflicted. I grew up in a black neighborhood that wasn’t “ghetto,” and yet I found few neighbors in many of the places that I frequented as a child. (Mom, not being a native of Pittsburgh, used to take us to a lot of cultural events, such as a “Nutcracker” performance every Christmas, a marionette theatre troupe and a local conservatory that to this day sponsors a quarterly flower show.) I personally loved going to Three Rivers Stadium to watch the Pirates play but as a teen routinely went to games alone.

Which, for me, raised the question: Why didn’t we go to such places? And it seemed that because I enjoyed such events, and still do, I was persona non grata among my black peers for being too “white.” (You wouldn’t believe just how much of an issue that was back then.) In fact, some years ago I learned that many black residents of the Los Angeles area have never seen the Pacific Ocean despite being a relatively short drive.

According to another article, I think in The New Republic, many African-Americans in the ‘hood have roots in the South, which subscribes to an “honor culture” where, if you’re offended, you literally take the law into your own hands because of lack of trust in the political system. That explained a few things, such as their unwillingness to “snitch” on drug-dealers ravaging their communities — and, if one chart is to be believed, the states with the highest number of deaths per capita are in the South, with Louisiana at the top. This may be why “Stop the Violence!” marches, of which we have at least one in Pittsburgh every year, have precious little effect, not to mention mistrust of the cops.

Needless to say, such issues don’t lend themselves to easy solutions. But at least they may open some eyes.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

More meditations from the dance floor

This past Saturday I attended an East Coast Swing — think “jitterbug” — dance because I was in the mood to get my groove on. And that I did.

While there I noticed three younger women, college-age I presume, all of them beautifully-dressed — one was wearing a short rose-colored dress with black lace shoulders and tights to match the shoulders and another a short powder-blue dress. I got dances with all three of them during the night; as I was twirling the woman in blue the hem of her flaring dress brushed up against me.

While thinking about that today and recalling books by my favorite author John Eldredge, I remembered why just dancing with them — I wouldn’t remember their names if you told me and might never see them again anyway — reminded me how a healthy dynamic between men and women should feel.

One, while it’s OK in that particular place for a woman to ask a man to dance, and I’ve been approached any number of times, in each case that night I was the one who took the initiative; for the sake of for a man’s psyche, that’s as it should be. Being that I’m old enough to be their fathers I wasn’t about to ask any of them on dates, but in this instance it just felt comfortable asking a total stranger to dance (it didn’t always).

And I would surmise that the young ladies themselves also wanted someone to notice them — as I said, their outfits were snazzy. (They certainly got my attention!) Eldredge believes that women, especially younger ones, need to feel chosen and lovely, so I feel I played my part as well.

I walked away that night feeling affirmed and hope they did, too. Would that happen to guys and gals all the time.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Mixed emotions

I’ve always believed homosexual conduct to be morally wrong, and about a decade ago I took a public stance against same-gender matrimony.

That being said, I’m not up-in-arms about a possible Supreme Court decision that might legalize it around the country.

And that’s because the folks fighting it are interested not so much in “marriage” but in maintaining social control and cultural authority. You see, in doing so they ended up compromising it.

How so? Well, way back in the 1970s they decided to make active gays into a special class of sinners, especially to raise money for para-church media "ministries" that became empires in their own right but, as it turns out, having precious little influence in society at large. Truth is, they go off on these crusades to perpetuate themselves but make a lot of enemies in the process.

I know what some of you might be thinking: We don’t want to raise our children in a decadent society. To that I respond, “Where you do think you are — heaven?”

Let’s not forget the early church, which was a friendless, underground movement that nevertheless eventually wore out the Roman Empire, lived in a time that likely doesn’t compare to what we face — probably much worse than today. So how did it survive? Not by demanding “privilege” but by living the way that God told it to, without political power at that.

Why can’t the American church do that? Well, it’s become too worldly.

In one sense, a blow against “traditional marriage” might be a key to spiritual renewal because once the trappings of Christianity fall out of favor in society we might finally turn to God — because He was there all along. That’s why I don’t see a ruling for “gay marriage” as an entirely bad thing, even though I won’t agree with it.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Singleness — one male’s view

Something I’ve noticed about the literature available on being a single Christian in a couples’ world: Virtually all of it is written by women. It’s as if we single men don’t exist except for the possible sake of being a partner.

Now, I readily admit that part of that has to do with men generally not being writers and thus probing deeply into the question, but a part of me still feels somewhat marginalized with a male perspective on singleness being virtually non-existent. (Perhaps I should be the one to start, so here goes.)

I’m a rare breed — a middle-aged Christian man who has never experienced matrimony. I could get into several legitimate reasons why that’s the case, but as much as people (again, mostly women) say that singleness is not a sign of spiritual immaturity, for us never-married men it really might be the case.

Much men’s ministry often doesn’t help us because it tends to be geared toward guys with families and thus focuses on “leadership.” Nothing wrong with that, as I’ve myself gone through a leadership course that my church offers; the trouble is that such leadership gifts often have yet to be cultivated in us and we often can’t spend time with other godly men in the meantime because they just don’t have it to give. It's even worse if you’re not into sports (though I am).

Moreover, the reason we’re single is that, for the most part, women just haven’t been romantically interested for one reason or another. Asking women on dates is nerve-wracking as it is, and taking the chance of being turned down — and, in this context, it really does represent personal rejection whether a woman who says no means it that way or not — is too great a risk for many of us, especially since we’re the ones supposed to take the initiative, so we do spend a lot of time alone or in unfulfilling singles groups. (This is why, for us, “waiting on God” is impractical.) We tend to be more socially inept than women anyway precisely because we’re men and thus need tutoring and practice in such matters; many of us simply don’t know how to operate.

Lest you think I’m being self-pitying or cynical, I’m speaking mainly from past personal experience because things have begun to change of late. Some years ago I did get to spend some good one-on-one time with a godly woman; though that’s no longer the case, I can’t underestimate the effect it — more accurately, she — had on me. Later I got back into social dance, which apparently the ladies think I’m pretty good at. (To be truthful, sometimes the attention they give me even makes me nervous.) And more recently I’ve become involved in a singles group at church that does focus on dating, with everyone encouraging everyone else on his/her respective journeys.

I wish to stress that I haven’t “wasted” my single years pining for a spouse; I took the time to finish college and, after graduating and getting a job in my field, began to develop a parallel music career; a man especially needs something to bring to the table, I know now, and there’s no time like the present to develop it. I just wish we in the church would pay attention to guys who haven’t “arrived” yet; we could use the encouragement.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Tilting at windmills

In the 1999 book “Blinded by Might: Can the Religious Right Save America?”, Cal Thomas, vice president of communications for the late but hardly lamented Moral Majority, mentioned something I didn’t know: James Dobson, founder of “Focus on the Family,” once threatened to run for president as an independent because the Republican Party wasn’t moving on “social issues,” specifically gay rights and abortion, as quickly as he wanted. His intention was to pull social conservatives out of the GOP to show just many supported that agenda and the party had better heed.

Except for one thing: He apparently grossly overestimated that support, which is likely why I and others hadn’t heard.

Earlier this week, according to Right Wing Watch, Dobson predicted “civil war” were the Supreme Court to favor same-gender matrimony, and I understand that cases are coming to the Court to be decided soon.

Of course, Dobson’s been wrong before and since. Before the 2008 general election he wrote a hysterical screed giving predictions as to what might happen by 2012 were Barack Obama to become president — and virtually none of those predictions have come true. So why would anyone believe him now?

Not only is the idea of “civil war” far-fetched, but just whom would his supporters fight? And with what? I suspect that if his supporters were to do that they would end up utterly isolated, with no allies to speak of; if anything, we're virtually there already.

Here’s the problem: According to the op-ed “A Christian Nation? Since When?” by Kevin M. Kruse, a professor of history at Princeton University and the author of “One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America” and published in the New York Times, business groups, in reaction to the New Deal — which they despised — reached out to a number of Christian clergy and successfully married capitalism with the faith to a point where, by the 1980s, evangelicalism was tied to, shall we say, “what’s good for General Motors.” I’m sure that conservative Christians were counting on the support of big business to fund its social concerns.

Big mistake.

The first chink in that armor: The business-friendly Democratic Leadership Council, in 1988 headed by Bill Clinton, reached out to business to a point where the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which had endorsed Republicans before, declined to endorse a presidential candidate in 1996. Today, the Koch brothers, who announced that they plan to spend nearly a billion dollars in the next campaign mostly on “conservative” candidates and are thus despised by the political left, nevertheless support abortion rights and gay marriage.

And when the state of Indiana passed a “religious freedom” bill that would essentially allow business run by Christians not to serve gays for religious reasons, a number of business groups decided or threatened to pull out of the state, the capital Indianapolis especially being endangered because it’s now a popular convention hub.

Why? Because appearing to discriminate against gays would be bad for business — due not to any anti-Christian “gay lobby” but personal relationships and the money that gays could bring in. Money talks, remember, and for that reason the understanding of a “quid pro quo” turned out not to be viable.

So that’s where we stand.

In the 1980s many believers, thanks to Ronald Reagan, took for granted political power that they thought they had but really didn’t. So now we’re facing court decisions that may not favor us — and we’re facing them alone because, as it turns out, most people never cared about the social issues that we do. I predict that Dobson’s “civil war” will fizzle out quickly, if it gets started at all.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Lessons from Indiana

With the amending of the so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana and the vetoing of a similar bill in Arkansas, it’s become clear to me that American “culture warriors” have lost yet another battle. And, truth be told, there are more losses to come.

Now, such people can complain all they want that the gay-rights movement is acting like “bullies” in getting major business to reconsider doing businesses in such states for what they consider an encroachment on their "religious freedom."

There are several problems with such a stance.

One, when the act was enacted on a Federal level during the Clinton Administration its aim was to protect specific religious rituals — in essence, the “free exercise” of religion; one case in particular surrounded the use of the controlled substance peyote by certain Native American tribes. And the law already contained provisions for churches, ministries and affiliated groups to bar active gays from positions in the organizations.

Which leads to another issue: What the culture warriors have always really wanted was not so much “freedom” but privilege, that only their views would be unquestioningly paramount in society. Trouble is, Christians in general and the church in particular were never instructed to become part of any “establishment,” perhaps because when you become establishment you tend to want to remain such and thus get hooked into the world’s way of thinking. That does more to damage the church’s effectiveness than anything coming from the outside because the faith is often liberalized in its own right.

Not helping matters is that gays over the years cultivated allies, whether in business, government, culture or, today, even some churches. And contrary to popular opinion, that wasn’t the result of some nefarious campaign from any gay lobby — it’s just that when people “came out” to their families and other places they gained sympathy in their respective worlds. In such an atmosphere blood ties and friendships often trump any “moral” concern.

In other words, the modern acceptance of gay rights and especially same-gender matrimony came as the result of, essentially, an underground phenomenon that has now bubbled up to the surface. We didn’t see it because, frankly, we didn’t want to, and now many of us complain that our country is abandoning Biblical “values.” (Which was dubious in the first place.)

Let me say that I do oppose same-sex marriage and would have a serious problem with, say, baking cakes or pizzas for such a wedding were I as a business owner asked to do so. But conservative Christians have never made a strong case as to why they feel homosexuality is morally wrong; as things stand now — especially since they do have a history of race- and gender-based discrimination on “Biblical grounds,” even though they don’t really exist — we can expect such controversies to occur again and again.

And I suspect that Indiana was just the first salvo.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Some "common sense" on race and racism

“Hey, we all know there’s been some bad history in our country. We know that racism exists. I’m extending a hand like, ‘Hey, we want to get past this. We’ve been bullied, we’ve been beat down, but we don’t want it anymore.' ”

Rapper and actor Common, who said those words recently on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” ended up taking some abuse for also saying that ending racism can begin by “extending [a] hand in love” to whites. And, frankly, I don’t understand that.

Because he’s right. That’s the only way racism has ever been ameliorated.

Last month I picked up the book “Birmingham Revolution: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Epic Challenge to the Church” by Edward Galbreath, and in reading it I got a considerable surprise: As a teen Dr. King himself went through an “I hate Whitey” period.

Which tells me that, like Nelson Mandela after him, he underwent a time of transformation and, by the time he became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., he was able to refer to “our white brothers” in sermons.

We all remember what happened next.

And as the campaign for voting rights in Selma, now 50 years old, made national news, whites — even some religious leaders — even got involved. One of them, Boston minister the Rev. James Reeb, who was beaten to death, is listed in a hall of martyrs at alma mater Princeton Theological Seminary; Viola Liuzzo, a housewife, lost her life at the hands of Ku Klux Klansmen when driving demonstrators back.

I respectfully ask militants out there: Kindly explain to me how we’re supposed to attain “equality” without relationship-building, what Common was getting at. Tough talk has never availed us anything but further social, economic and political isolation.

Many African-Americans often ask: Has there ever been this level of disrespect for a sitting president as there is today toward Barack Obama? The answer is yes.

Remember that Bill Clinton was gossiped about, with unsubstantiated allegations of corruption, and eventually impeached — illegally — on phony charges. And if you want to go back in history, consider that 11 Southern states left the union as the direct result of Abraham Lincoln being elected president — and he eventually ended up dead. To say that people hate Obama simply or primarily due to his race is thus an overstatement.

One other thing to remember: Dr. King’s adoption the Gandhian-style nonviolence served to expose the bad guys as bad guys. And it certainly worked like a charm because “We’re not going to play their game — we’re bigger than that.”

I find it interesting that Common’s former stage name was “Common Sense.” Which he displayed that day.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Franklin Graham: Back to the dark ages

When evangelist Franklin Graham announced that he was coming to Pittsburgh I thought about going — when his father Billy held a crusade here in 1993 I went every night but the first.

But after the first night of the three-day gathering, which I couldn’t attend anyway, and I heard about an interview with Franklin that aired that night on the Fox News Channel complaining about Muslim persecution of Christians in the Middle East, I decided not to (he has made numerous anti-Muslim statements over the years). In fact, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that he insisted — falsely — that Muslims had never spoken out against Islamic-based terrorism.

And of late, that’s not the only pronouncement he’s made that has offended many. Last month, according to his Facebook page and quoted by blogger Bill Chandler, he asked, “Why is [President Obama] seemingly continuing to protect Islam and refusing to open his eyes to the truth?” And just last week he basically told “people of color” that they should obey the police to keep from being roughed up or shot.

What I think we’re seeing is a return to the bad-old days of the 1980s culture war, where enemies real or imagined were played up by media “ministries” for the sake of power, using some bogeyman to raise money to maintain their empires. In 1980 it went from “secular humanism” to communists to “abortionists” to liberals; in the 1990s President Clinton and the media were the whipping boys; these days, of course, it’s President Obama, gays and Islam.

And the problem was the same then as it is now: Just as did Moral Majority and other groups did back then, Graham, with such pronouncements, is neglecting the spiritual war — which is the war in which he’s supposedly enlisted to fight. Doing so actually causes divisiveness in the church.

Graham’s statements about African-Americans and the police have to be especially insulting considering that Billy was one of the few conservative Christians who supported Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil-rights movement (Billy supposedly said to Dr. King, “You take the streets; I’ll take the stadiums”). Modern political conservatism has a reputation, which frankly is deserved to a certain extent, for racism; while I’m not calling Franklin a racist, he’s probably alienated black supporters of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, under whose aegis Franklin works.

People might be saying, “But Franklin is preaching the Gospel.” I would ask: What kind of Gospel is he preaching? Are we asked to commit to a God Who needs to be propped up by the culture, or is He beyond all that? He is not a tribal deity that we can call upon to defeat perceived enemies; remember that Jesus was crucified in part because He refused to go that route.

A number of people, most notably Lisa Sharon Harper of Sojourners, have called Franklin out. And I think it was the right thing to do — because he’s making things more difficult for the rest of us.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Forgiving ISIS

While [members of the Sanhedrin] were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.

— Acts 7:59-60

The world took note when the Coptic Christian community in Egypt announced that it had forgiven the Islamic State terrorist group that beheaded 20 of its members a few weeks ago.

I learned today, however, that a tract was circulating that part of the world with the same sentiment — and it’s getting notice, with even Muslims reading it according to my source.

And do you know what? If this kind of thing is happening, it really could mean the eventual end of Islamic-based terrorism.

You see, one distinction between Christianity and Islam is the concept of forgiveness, a major part of Christianity but foreign to Islam. Indeed, it probably makes little if any sense to Muslims, who likely believe in retribution for the wrongs done to them (I confess to some ignorance about Islam, so I can’t say that for sure).

Moreover, in this case the Copts understand and accept something that we American Christians often don’t: Following Jesus may very well cost you your life. We’re often the first to complain about mistreatment from the world when He Himself said it was inevitable — so, why worry about it? Heck, He would know about unjust treatment, since He was falsely convicted of a crime against the state and hanged on a cross.

Here’s what might be happening: The Copts didn’t react the way most people expect, and that distinction is turning people’s heads around in that part of the world. And the dictum “The tree of faith is watered with the blood of martyrs” truly applies here, for the reason that if someone were willing to die for something it must be worth it.

Will the Copts’ stance sway Islamic terrorists? It actually might. Remember, the church grew rapidly as a result of Stephen’s stoning and eventually captured a anti-Christian Pharisee named Saul, with the Roman name of Paul, who witnessed the proceedings but, of course, later became the greatest missionary the world has ever known.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Rhetoric vs. reality

For years I’ve heard complaints from the political right that people were being “unfair” to it when the topic turned to race relations and politics. Those folks insist, probably to this day, that the Republican Party eliminated slavery in the 1800s and Jim Crow 50 years ago and complain that African-Americans reject them because “they don’t understand the history of the Democratic Party.”

I heard today, however, that not one — not one — member of the congressional leadership of the current GOP is participating in tomorrow’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the march in Selma, Ala., that resulted in the Voting Rights Act. I would think that if they were so proud of that achievement they would be the first to laud it.

Perhaps the reality that the folks who now run the Republican Party had absolutely nothing to do with civil-rights gains made then (if anything, they opposed them) has finally hit the fan. I wonder just how many of their constituents told them not to bother — or even if they took a poll because they represent districts that tend to be hostile to folks voting who don’t think the way they do. (Then again, they didn’t attend the golden jubilee of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 2013, either.)

After all, who was it that has always tried to gut that law? Who today is passing voter-ID laws that would keep people from voting? If the shoe were on the other foot they would scream bloody murder.

Bottom line, talk is cheap.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Telling the real story

Another Academy Awards show has come and gone, including ongoing complaints that historical films about the black American experience, most recently “Selma,” generally don’t win or are even nominated for any Oscars unless there’s a “white savior” involved. On the surface it sounds like racial bias or, at best, patronizing.

A few years ago at the writers’ conference I attend annually, however, I realized why this is the case.

My newspaper runs a weekly, first-person column called “Saturday Diary,” to which I’m a frequent contributor. When I started there I was told, “The Diarist aims to describe an inner transformation (which can be microscopic or massive) in a way that engages the reader. Being on the [Op-Ed] page, it is in the realm of changing the reader’s mind about something. But being a Diary, it’s more about altering the reader’s perception.”

In other words, I learned at the conference that, say, mere social change simply doesn’t make a good story in its own right, either in print or on the screen. The protagonist needs to undergo a transformation of his or her own in the process for the story to be effective.

A personal example: At the end of prom season three years ago I wrote a Diary called “Being Prince Charming” — I still regret that I didn’t go to mine 36 years ago, but on my birthday in 2010 I took a woman to a cabaret for which we “went to town,” having portraits taken and everything. (While it wasn’t a complete make-up, I did get a sense of satisfaction.)

That “inner transformation” is why films like “Cry Freedom” and “Invictus,” both about the apartheid system in South Africa, made for good stories. In the former, a white “liberal” newspaper editor who was a severe critic of a banned black activist later became friends with him and took up the cause; with the latter, Nelson Mandela, sent to prison for nearly 30 years and probably bitter at that time, emerged a conciliator and, upon becoming president, challenged his own people to “do right by” the white population. (That film, whose immediate premise was Mandela’s attempt to unite the country behind the national rugby team during the World Cup, which South Africa was hosting, won an ESPY award from ESPN.)

So perhaps the critics of the Academy are barking up the wrong tree. It could be that people need to see how the black American experience would change the folks involved on a heart level, not just in a cultural or legal sense.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Dating and marriage: Some thoughts from the dance floor

A few months ago I began taking lessons in West Coast Swing, and I’ve been having a blast. Since there are so few WCS dances in the Pittsburgh area I go to as many as I can, including most Tuesdays at the studio where they’re held.

There’s a culture involved in these dances — since in my observation no one is hitting on anyone else, you dance with whomever asks you and change partners with every song. And while I do have favorite partners (I’m sure that some women also prefer to dance with me as well), I usually invite the woman physically closest to me. It isn’t even considered gauche for a woman to approach a man, which happens to me about once a night.

The experience is showing me some things about relating healthily to the other gender.

For openers, I’ve never been of the opinion that you should date only those people you would marry; after all, everyone, men especially, needs to learn how to build a relationship, to see what works and doesn’t work. The studio offers lessons and a “practice party” afterwards, so that you can try out new moves and/or refresh old ones. Thankfully, since it’s a “safe” place, you can do that, with instructors ready, willing and able to help.

Were more people able to help each other in doing so, in love and life.

Second, I learned quickly that West Coast Swing is fairly unique in that the roles between “leader” and “follower” might change at a given movement; as such, I need to be ready for something different that my partner may want to do and thus create a “frame” for her to do it. For this reason I often prefer dancing with more experienced partners.

During one move called a “right-side pass,” in which a “follower” is normally twirling under the leader’s arm, one woman I was dancing with didn’t complete the pass but held my hand high and simply started moving in the direction I was taking her, indicating that I was supposed to respond. After this happened a couple of times, I finally realized what she was doing and didn’t force her to follow me, just “going with the flow.” (Technically it’s not a ballroom dance, most of which tend to adhere to strict rules.)

This happens a lot in marriage because, even though the husband is the “leader,” the wife may have some ideas of her own that he would need to, and thus should, support. Perhaps she may want to go back to school or seek a new ministry opportunity that would broaden her — and thus their — horizons.

And there’s no feeling in the world like knowing that you’re doing well. The last time I danced with one of my favorite partners, a 20-year-old who’s been at it for longer than I, I noticed at one point that her eyes were closed, I’m guessing because she had gotten "lost" in the dance. At the end of that evening she thanked me not once but twice for dancing with her.

I said in response, “I should be thanking you.” Because she was allowing me to grow.

Monday, February 16, 2015

‘Dangerous’ men

Lately I began thinking about a movie with the female lead as an ingénue and the male lead as a flawed anti-hero. The current “Fifty Shades of Grey?”

No. “Dirty Dancing,” which of course starred Jennifer Grey — what a coincidence — as a teenage girl nicknamed “Baby” and the late Patrick Swayze as a streetwise dance instructor with a checkered past who seduces her.

In fact, when that movie came out about a quarter-century ago it did arouse a bit of controversy. During a discussion on local Christian radio, one commentator called “Dirty Dancing” “a woman’s sex fantasy.”

And that may be the very same issue surrounding the extremely erotic “Fifty Shades of Grey”; when the book came out that a newspaper or magazine reported that one woman recommended the book to another, with this admonition: “Wear a panty liner.”

With the latter production has come the predictable amount of evangelical hand-wringing, especially the apparent glorification of sex, which many consider part of the coarsening of our culture.

Though I have no intention of reading the book or watching the movie, I have a different take: I see it as women falling for what I call “dangerous men.”

Having read the book “Wild at Heart,” I understand this phenomenon a little, with author John Eldredge explaining it as women wanting a sense of adventure in a relationship with a man. Not for nothing are fraternity men, athletes, entertainers and cowboys (to a certain extent) regarded as “hot”; mild guys who are morally upright and stable are, on the other hand, often as a result considered boring.

And this has been going on for decades now.

Here’s the rub: Eldredge also says that when women catch one of these “wild” men they often set out to tame him. Some refuse (I did in my last relationship), while others comply — and promptly lose their mojo, the very thing they fear. Some years ago a newspaper advice column ran a story about a couple in which the woman wanted her husband to trade in his pickup truck for a minivan and he was resisting for that reason. (I thought, “Why not buy the minivan but also keep the truck?”)

In one case, Eldredge referred to a wife who wanted to spice things up in her dull marriage, and he advised her to “invite [her husband] to be dangerous” — which in her case meant allowing him to buy a motorcycle, to her chagrin.

I’m seeing now that church culture usually doesn’t invite men to be “wild”; it’s supposed to turn out good and moral people who don’t make waves, but that has also hurt the masculine journey because a certain amount of passion is lost in the process. For that reason, adventure should be part of a man’s life. (It’s one reason I play jazz and blues, both an adventure every time out because in some cases no one knows what will happen next.)

So perhaps the issue isn’t really eroticism; it’s a desire for women to be intimate with a strong man. Or what they perceive to be one.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Avoiding the past

During his address at yesterday’s National Prayer Breakfast, President Obama spoke truth. Too bad that some took it as an insult.

Denouncing those of any faith who "hijack religion for their own murderous ends," as quoted in the Christian Science Monitor, and most recently the so-called Islamic State, which he quite accurately referred to as a “death cult,” he also had a message for those who believed in their own moral superiority.

"Unless we get on our high horse and think that this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ," Obama continued. "In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often [were] justified in the name of Christ." That led to the predictable outrage from pundits on the Fox News Channel who said that he was disrespecting Christianity in the process.

But that ignores the way that, say, people of color have been regarded — by other Christians — over the years, and I can tell you that such resentment exists even today because we haven’t truly dealt with it as a church or nation.

Let’s never forget the civil-rights movement, which started in Southern black churches in the 1950s but received not only non-support from the rest of Christendom down there but, in many cases, outright condemnation, with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. being denounced as a communist despite his stated opposition to communism as “incompatible” with the Christian faith. And the Ku Klux Klan, which hasn’t had any real power for two generations but still exists in some form today, considers itself a Christian organization.

Something else you might want to consider: Have you noticed the large number of African-Americans with Arabic names? There’s a reason for that: Also around that time many, especially in Northern cities, began abandoning Christianity altogether for Islam, which in this country had no connection to the powers that be — in addition to being perceived as more truly culturally relevant, it was a way for them to thumb their nose at the “establishment.”

“But what about ‘them?’,” you may ask. “They’re trying to kill us!” And we’ll deal with that in its time. But killing Christians has done nothing to kill Christianity; similarly, taking out Muslims won’t stop Islam because, as the saying goes, “The tree of faith is watered with the blood of martyrs.” So before we complain about someone else’s barbarism, we ought to look at our own — and, more telling, our continued propensity for such.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The grief of singleness

My church, which thankfully is more sensitive than many toward diverse populations, is holding an adult singles’ focus weekend the week after next. In advance of that, we singles were asked what leadership can do to minister to us properly.

It hit me for the first time on Sunday that, at least in the church, people need to know that singles are often dealing perpetually with grief — that because we’re unpartnered in a family-centric culture we often feel “less than.” Entering and leaving a church service solo when most people have spouses and especially children can be alienating.

It's easy to tell us that we really don't need a spouse and that we should concentrate on "spiritual" matters. While that's true in one sense, we humans are built, by God, to belong to something or someone, and when you don’t you really feel something missing — as we're reminded on a consistent basis. No amount of spiritual discipline or ministry activities can really make up for or address that; if anything, they can only hide the hole in our collective heart.

Of course, all three groups — widowed, divorced and never-married — have different issues. For the widowed, that loss is obvious; from what I understand, the death of a spouse, especially if the marriage was good, really does mean losing a part of yourself. Divorcées, in addition to the loss of a spouse, likely spend a lot of time second-guessing themselves, addressing either or both "What could I have done better?" or "Why did I choose this partner?"

The never-married — where I fall on the spectrum — can, and usually do, fall into the self-pity trap of "Will anyone want me?" Most of us have been in relationships before and are, like those who have been divorced, crushed when one fails. It's especially difficult when friends around you are tying the knot; in 1987 I played for my then-pen-pal's wedding reception in Wisconsin but with a heavy heart because right around that time I had come to realize that I would not get the woman I wanted. Men have it harder, I believe, because there are fewer of us than women in the church, and even at my age (nearly 54) asking a woman on a date is still nerve-wracking.

Oh, sure, we have things to do, and the majority of single Christian adults that I know do live life on life's terms. Speaking for myself, in my 30s I took the time to finish college and find a job in my field and after that embark on a parallel music career; more recently, I got into social dance. So I'm a very busy guy — but one who's more than willing to make the time for a special lady.

Hear what we're not saying, however: For the most part, we don't believe that merely having a partner will solve all our problems; some will be addressed, of course, but in the process others will be created. We understand this, which is why we're usually deliberate; because we've been burned we want the right person, not just anyone who comes our way. In other words, we're trying not to be desperate because we understand that's a turnoff.

I would say this: Please don't make any glib statements or give us advice, and be very, very careful about setting us up on blind dates (only one ever worked out for me). If anything, we need whatever support you can give us in our journey, although we can't tell you exactly what until we're there. All we ask for is your acknowledgement and presence; that would mean the world to us.