Monday, September 29, 2008

Pulpit Freedom or Pulpit Folly?

This past Sunday, pastors from several dozen congregations around the country joined in deliberately defying the IRS in “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.”

The Alliance Defense Fund, which organized the stunt, declared that “Pastors have a right to speak about Biblical truths from the pulpit without fear of punishment. No one should be able to use the government to intimidate pastors into giving up their constitutional rights.”

What they demand is an end to the rule that religious organizations refrain from partisan political endorsements. To keep their tax-exempt status, churches currently have to steer clear of outright electioneering.

But this Sunday, Reverend Gus Booth of the Warroad Community Church told his congregation that God’s word demanded a vote for John McCain. Supporting Barak Obama would be heathen and un-Biblical.

Funny, I don’t remember that verse from the Good Book. And I’m not sure the Bible was intended to be a voting guide. But Reverend Gus is entitled to his opinion.

“I have a First Amendment Right to say whatever I want to say,” as the pastor declaimed.

No one questions that ministers, priests or rabbis can privately support whatever candidate they choose. But if their churches start acting like political action committees, shouldn’t they be taxed as such?

Otherwise, what’s to stop the formation of a Presbyterian Party or a Catholic Caucus? What exactly is the difference between a worship service and a Young Republican Rally?

Americans, already polarized between red and blue, can be further divided by faith and doctrine. Religion will lose whatever ability it had to lift citizens toward a vision of the common good. It will become even more a divisive, sectarian force in the culture wars tearing at our nation.

That’s not a move I want to subsidize with my tax dollars. And pastors who deliberately try to move the country in that direction should lose the privilege of their tax exemption.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Alaska's Witch-Crazed Governor

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has been following the story of Sarah Palin's connection with a witch-hunting pastor from Kenya. Pastor Muthee is known for identifying sorcerers within his community, accusing a local woman named "Mama Jane" of casting spells, telling fortunes and causing car accidents in the town. Mama Jane was threatened. Her pets were killed. Muthee demanded she either be saved or leave town--and she left!

In 2005 Thomas Muthee visited Sarah Palin's Assembly of God church, where he laid hands on the future Republican Vice Presidential "in the name of Jesus" and asked that she be protected from witchcraft on her road to political success.

What would the founders say about our witch-crazed Alaskan governor? Ben Franklin, born just a few years after the witch trials in Salem, wrote a biting satire of the hysteria that was still common in his time. Nineteen people were hanged in Salem, and two dogs executed (like in Kenya). One of the accused wizards, Giles Corey, was crushed to death under heavy stones for refusing to plead either guilty or not guilty to the offense of witchcraft. If the founders were careful to build into our constitutioin protections against cruel and unusual punishment, the right to confront your accusers in court, trial by jury, and other procedural safeguards, it was because "guilty until proven innocent," torture and trial by ordeal were not so far in the past.

You can listen to an interview on our founder's faith I did this morning with CBC host Anna Maria Tremonti at

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Washington, Jefferson and Palin?

Is America a Christian nation? Sarah Palin, who signed a "Christian Heritage Week" proclamation last year celebrating "the role Christianity has played in our rich heritage," and went on to cherry-pick quote from the Founding Fathers dressing them up in evangelical guise, thinks so. Of course, Palin's formal education was spotty to say the least!

To set the record straight, I'll be doing an interview on Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's "The Current" ( this Thursday morning 9/25/08. Listen in to find out what our founders really thought! If you miss the broadcast, check the archive,

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Presidential Replay

Imagine two contenders for the presidency, one rather squat and plainspoken, the other lean, lanky and given to elevated discourse. Sound familiar?

At the Continental Congress in Philadelphia where they first met, John Adams was the older man, a known quantity, but far from exciting. Jefferson was a newcomer to the scene, younger and without much track record but a rising star.

History doesn't repeat itself. But sometimes the eighteenth century seems to have presaged the twenty-first. Contrast the personalities of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson with those of Barak Obama and John McCain.

Ideologically, Jefferson was more democratic, yet came off as elitist and aloof. Paradoxically, Adams believed in a natural aristocracy of brains and talent, but his everyday speech was simple and his manners homespun.

In his book Inventing America, historian Garry Will explains that the terms "conservative" and "liberal" are misleading labels in most cases, but rarely as skewed as when applied to these two.

"Adams had a theoretical caution but a headlong, informal, risk-taking manner in person," Wills observes. "He was quick to trust or suspect, to take or give offense, to act on a moral 'feel' for any situation."

Along with his cousin Samuel, John was a scrapper. He enjoyed not only the rough-and-tumble of parliamentary battle, but shared a warrior's exaltation for combat. He nominated Washington to be commander-in-chief of the continental armies, practically invented the United States Navy, and himself served as chair of the Board of War and Ordnance during the revolution—a post roughly comparable to today's Secretary of Defense. One feels that like McCain, he would have been comfortable commanding a fighter wing. And like John McCain, the other John was known as headstrong, egotistical, and given to occasional fits of temper.

"Jefferson, by contrast, was rather quick to spill literary blood, but slow to the point of timidity in facing actual violence," says Wills. This wasn't a question of physical courage; Jefferson disliked even legislative conflict and preferred to harmonize differences rather than wrestle with them. He was chosen to draft the Declaration of Independence (with the concurrence of Adams) because of his soaring rhetoric. But his record as wartime governor of Virginia was spotty at best, and of all the titles he possessed, "colonel" was his least favorite. Says Wills, "He exasperated others by seeing inevitability where they saw only crisis, by a long-range vision that treated day-to-day struggles as already settled in their outcome. He brushed troubles aside as distractions from the main point of large patterns."

A preference for bipartisanship, a promise for revolutionary change but no killer instinct, optimism about a beaconing future that's vague on the messy details of how to get there … sounds a little like the junior senator from Illinois, doesn't it?

The choice facing Americans in November is like the choice voters faced in 1796. Adams won that election, but Jefferson bested him four years later. Then as now, both candidates were intelligent and capable. Briefly bitter adversaries, they ended up the best of friends. But one was a hot head (some would say much too combustible), while the other was a cool character, with an air that could be professorial rather than practical.

Most chroniclers agree that Jefferson ultimately made the better chief executive. Political scientists surveyed over the past half century consistently put the man from Monticello among the top half dozen to occupy the White House. Adams ranks further down the list. But the voters, not historians, will have to make the judgment this time around.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Liberals Under Fire

John McCain’s campaign came out swinging from the Republican National Convention. They called Barak Obama the worst name they could think of. They said he was a liberal.

Try googling images of “liberal” and you’ll find some ugly, vicious, nasty stuff. There’s a photo looking straight down the barrel of a six-shooter with the caption: “Liberals, this is the only view you ever need to see,” presumably a reference to liberals’ namby-pamby habit of trying to see differing points of view. There are multiple pornographic variations on liberals with their heads stuck in a place where the sun doesn’t shine. A mock recruiting poster shows an airman climbing into the cockpit of a World War II era plane with the legend, “Shut the F— Up. We’ll Protect America.” I can’t print the rest of message without being indecent.

There are no positive images of liberals. Only violent threats that equate liberalism with cowardice and treason.

Yet “liberal” was a label that America’s founders wore with pride–especially in matters of faith. George Washington, for example, spoke of separation of church and state as an “enlarged and liberal policy” the rest of the world should emulate. Abigail Adams said she and her husband John both preferred “liberal good sense” from the pulpit when they attended church. Thomas Jefferson, responding to protests that his newly founded University of Virginia made no room for religious teaching, invited a variety of sects to set up private seminaries on grounds adjacent to the campus, hoping that “by bringing the sects together and mixing them with the mass of other students, we shall soften their asperities, liberalize and neutralize their prejudices, and make the general religion a religion of peace, reason, and morality.”

Where did America start to lose it’s way? Maybe in the McCarthy era, when “liberals” were accused of being soft on communism. Maybe in the sixties, when “liberals” who questioned our tragic mis-adventure in Vietnam were labeled unpatriotic. Maybe in the 1970's, when Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority proclaimed in a July 4th sermon that that “the idea that religion and politics don't mix was invented by the Devil to keep Christians from running their own country.”

Liberals have been demonized long enough. Religious liberalism was the faith of America’s founders. Political liberalism is the philosophy enshrined in our Constitution and protected by the Bill of Rights. Liberals must reclaim their history and heritage from the rabid right-wing.