Monday, November 26, 2007

Hannah Montana has it right: Nobody's perfect

(Originally published 11/24/07)

Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Barack Obama stirred up controversy this week when he told a group of high school students about his experiences with drugs as a teenager.

Although disclosed in his book, "Dreams from my Father," this was the first time he had mentioned it on the campaign trail. He told the students that he had made "bad decisions" by experimenting with drugs and alcohol.

"There was a whole stretch of time that I didn’t really apply myself a lot," Obama said. "It wasn’t until I got out of high school and went to college that I started realizing, ‘Man, I wasted a lot of time.’"

Asked about the statements, two leading Republican presidential candidates displayed polar opposite reactions. Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani said he respected Obama’s honesty.

"We’re all human beings," he said of the candidates.

Meanwhile, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney dispatched a message from his perch atop his high horse: Obama’s statement was a "huge error," he thundered.

"It’s just not a good idea for people running for president of the U.S. who potentially could be the role model for a lot of people to talk about their personal failings while they were kids because it opens the doorway to other kids thinking, ‘Well, I can do that too and become president of the United States,’" he said.

Yes, I’m an idealist, but that statement was Pollyanna, even for me. As my daughters sing along with Disney pop star Hannah Montana, "Nobody’s perfect." Giuliani, who’s had his share of slip-ups, decried the "pretense of perfection" under which candidates are expected to operate.

"If we haven’t made mistakes, don’t vote for us," he said.

I thought Obama’s statement humanized him. He did an admirable thing by detailing his missteps - and sharing the lessons they taught him - with impressionable young people. Some of those kids may be deterred from using drugs, or inspired to quit them altogether, because of his influence. And isn’t that influence worth more than the maintenance of some plastic perfect-man persona?

It’s ludicrous for Romney - and everyone else, for that matter - to stand before voters and insinuate that they are without stain. They are lying to voters - and themselves.

* * *

After months of dogged campaigning, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has rounded the corner in Iowa. Polls this week show him to be in a dead heat with Romney, whose personal millions poured into his Iowa efforts had him topping the polls until now. Romney took the calculated risk of alienating the influential Bowflex constituency and is poking fun at Huckabee’s celebrity endorsements (TV tough guy Chuck Norris and retired professional wrestler Ric Flair). But it’s Huckabee who may have the last laugh: His campaign raised $1 million on Tuesday alone, and he seems to have built the support of enough conservatives that he is considered a viable candidate.

A big part of successful campaigning is mastering the groupthink phenomenon. Perception is reality. If you can scrape together enough support to convince people that they aren’t throwing away their vote with you, you can go from an also-ran to a top-tier candidate in a hurry. That’s apparently what’s happening to Huckabee. He’s beginning to look like a winner in Iowa. And if he can maintain momentum, it won’t be long before the Giuliani camp starts itemizing its other 699 Pat Robertson-inspired endorsements.

* * *

Finally, I spoke with someone recently who expressed an interest in reading more about local politics in this space. Want to share some political news, pass along a tip or story idea, check out a rumor or just ask a question about anything political? Let me know what you’re hearing out there.

Democratic doublespeak dominates desert debates

(Originally published 11/17/07)

Democratic presidential candidates rolled the dice in their latest debate, this week with voters in Nevada.

After U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton fumbled a question about her support for driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants two weeks ago, pundits widely expected other candidates – namely, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama and former U.S. Sen. John Edwards – to gamble and attack her early and often.

But Hillary came to Vegas, as they say, ready to rumble. She beat back their early shots and turned the attacks back against Obama and Edwards, looking as much the presumptive nominee as she had appeared as a deer in the headlights.

"Clinton sparkles," raved British newspaper The Guardian.

Obama and Edwards scaled things back after it became clear that Hillary had regained her frontrunner footing. One pundit described it as "a Roman candle of a debate – started with flash, very quickly burned hot, and then descended quickly." Obama made little noise – or impression – throughout the rest of the debate, while Edwards fell back on his old "Blame-Bush-and/or-Corporate-America" saw.

That left an hour and 45 minutes of banter that appealed only to seriously addicted political junkies (OK, me). But there were curious moments for watching wonks:

  • On merit pay for teachers, CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer noted that teachers’ unions "make it difficult" to "terminate bad employees." Candidates mostly agreed that they would support merit-based pay if "merit" meant teaching in "poor rural or poor urban areas." And although Clinton said that "the teachers who are not doing a good job" should be weeded out, she gave no indication about how that could be done, considering tenure and other job-protection assurances negotiated by teachers’ unions for their members. Apparently, capitalism – competition – is good for the economy, but not education.
  • Asked about potential appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court, candidates generally scorned litmus tests for prospective nominees but went on to say they would not consider anyone who did not believe in a right to privacy or support Roe v. Wade. Here’s a new bumper sticker for their campaign buses: "Litmus tests: Only good when they’re mine."
  • Asked whether she is "exploiting gender as a political issue," Clinton unleashed a trio of sound bytes quite obviously crafted after her complaints about the "boys’ club of presidential politics" backfired two weeks ago. She lauded "this great movement of progress" and called the presidency "the highest, hardest glass ceiling." For good measure, she mentioned fathers who "drive hours to bring their daughters to my events" and meeting "women in their 90s" who "say something like, ‘I’m 95 years old; I was born before women could vote, and I want to live long enough to see a woman in the White House." Hillary? Exploiting gender? Are they saying that because she’s a woman?
  • In light of mass recalls of toys made in China, candidates lamented job losses attributed to NAFTA and other free-trade agreements and blamed President Bush for not enforcing existing agreements that they say could have ensured the safety of products entering the United States. (Coincidentally, many of these candidates also support prescription drug importation from Canada.) The U.S. Constitution specifically delegates to Congress the power to regulate commerce with foreign nations, but no one expressed an interest in reversing the 20th century trend that saw Congress cede its deal-making authority first to the president, then to unaccountable international organizations.
Want the truth about the insidious and quiet cancer infecting politics in this country? Think K Street – and check out the cover story of the Feb. 7, 2000 issue of Time magazine.

It should be required reading for every American.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Stoning Obama

I've been wanting to write the column that appears in today's paper for about a month now. Most of the ideas bouncing around in my head have come from news made over the past couple of months. But one incident in particular has stuck with me since it happened nearly a year ago: the way the evangelical establishment reacted when the Rev. Rick Warren invited U.S. Sen. Barack Obama to Saddleback Church for a forum on how faith-based organizations can play a role in responding to the AIDS crisis. I didn't have space to cover it in today's column, so I thought I would lay it out for you here.

The e-mail below (in green) orginated with the Christian Coalition of Alabama and eventually made its way to me via a family member. I have redacted some portions of it in the interest of space, but I have included all relevant portions. The portion in red is the actual open letter to the Rev. Warren regarding his invitation of Obama to the forum.

My response to all this, in its substantive entirety, follows the e-mail and is in blue.



Begin forwarded message:


Date: December 3, 2006 10:40:04 PM EST

Subject: Purpose Driven Life, - Rick Warren - Liberal Deceit?

A message from Christian Evangelicals to Rick Warren

Rick Warren popular author of Purpose Driven Life, Purpose Driven Church has made recent headlines again. This time for inviting liberal heathen U.S. Senator Obama from Illinois to speak at his church. Christians across the nation are outraged that Rick Warren would invite a liberal anti-conservative to speak at his church. See the list of conservative Christians organizations at the bottom of this email who are protesting Rick Warren's action.

Rick Warren is best known for changing the basic philosophy of how churches operate in America. Many churches have adopted his methods and increased church attendance. Bring in the Christian Rock Music and church attendance may increase. Be very positive, do not preach
anything negative and do not preach against sin. If any Christian or any philosophy claims to be Christian, that is okay, anything goes.

The below is complied information on Rick Warren. Scan the below and decide for yourself. The teachings of Rick Warren are probably influencing the operation of your church. Is that good or

Rick Warren's methods have been even noted by the Wall Street Journal in a negative sense.


Christian leaders to Warren: Keep Obama from pulpit

Argue Democrat senator's support for abortion incompatible with Bible

Rick Warren called 'enabler and defender' of evil


A message from Christian Evangelicals to Rick Warren

In the strongest possible terms, we oppose Rick Warren's decision to ignore Senator Obama's clear pro-death stance and invite him to Saddleback Church anyway. If Senator Obama cannot defend the most helpless citizens in our country, he has nothing to say to the AIDS crisis. You cannot fight one evil while justifying another. The evangelical church can provide no genuine help for those who suffer from AIDS if those involved do not first have their ethic of life firmly rooted in the Word of God.

Accordingly, we call on Pastor Rick Warren to rescind his invitation to Senator Obama immediately. The millions of silent victims who have died because of the policies of leaders like Senator Obama demand a response from those who believe that life is a gift from God. The name of the seminar at which Senator Obama will be appearing is entitled, “We Must Work Together.” No, Mr. Warren, Mr. Obama, we will never work with those who can support the murder of babies in the womb.

Phyllis Schlafly, President and Founder, Eagle Forum
Judie Brown, President, American Life League
Tim Wildmon, President American Family Association and American Family Radio
Joe Scheidler, President, Pro-Life Action League
Cheryl Sullenger, Operation Rescue
Matt Trewhella, Missionaries to the Preborn
Brannon Howse, President, Worldview Weekend, Christian Worldview Network
Janet Folger, President, Faith2Action
Peter LaBarbera, President, Americans for Truth
Greg Cunningham, President,
Center for Bioethical Reform, Lake Forest, California
Peggy Hamill, Director, Pro-Life Wisconsin
Cal Zastrow, Christian Action for the Preborn
Dr. Vic Eliason, President, VCY America Radio Network
Ingrid Schlueter, Host, Crosstalk Radio Talk Show
Kevin McCullough, Host, Musclehead Revolution, WMCA Radio
Chris Rosebrough, Capo Valley Church, San Juan Capistrano, California
Rev. Ken Silva, Apprising Ministries
Linda Harvey, President, Mission America


Rick Warren's philosophy is influencing churches across America. The culture of our churches is making major changes to the thinking of Rick Warren and away from the Bible.

Please forward.

If you received this update notice in error or want to discontinue receiving these updates, please use the link below:

Or if you do not trust remove links, just put REMOVE in the Subject and forward this entire message to the list moderator at:




I heard about this on the news the other day. As I understand it, Rick Warren had Sen. Obama out to talk about how to tackle the AIDS epidemic. It’s important to remember that there are two separate issues here, and I want to address specifically the reaction from Christian conservatives to the meeting that involved Sen. Obama. Let us lay aside for now the issues raised about the validity of the Purpose-Driven Life paradigm; I am not qualified to talk about Rick Warren’s credentials, motives, etc. It seems to me that many of the groups opposing Rick’s invitation to Sen. Obama are couching their objections in terms of their divergence with him on issues surrounding his church philosophy.

First of all, why is the idea that Rick Warren would invite Sen. Obama to a conference (Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., a staunch Christian conservative, was among those in attendance) in itself offensive to Christian conservatives? If Republicans had the corner on the answers to stopping AIDS, we wouldn’t be talking about it right now, and a lot of people would still be alive tonight – including moms and dads whose babies are now orphaned in every corner of the African continent.

With that said, I reject out of hand the notion that Rick Warren should be (has there ever been a more appropriate use for the next word?) demonized for having a dialogue with Sen. Obama about AIDS. I understand that the senator is pro-choice. I understand that he is not on the biblical side of the marriage question. And I understand that his position on stem-cell research is unacceptable to those who cherish and seek to protect the sanctity of life. I will also say from the outset that I don’t agree with most of Sen. Obama’s positions on social issues, and I suspect most Christian conservatives share my views.

But this reaction of repulsion from our camp is out of line. Refusing to talk with someone about what is arguably the developing world’s number one problem simply because you disagree with him on other issues is worse than narrow-minded; it’s childish. How can we as Christian conservatives expect for those on the other side of our issues to be open to our arguments if we are unable – or, in this case, simply unwilling – to have meaningful dialogue with them? Consider especially, for the purposes of this discussion, those who consider themselves “personally pro-life” but support choice as a government policy. Why should they listen to us and be open to our ideas about why government policies should come down on the side of life and why it’s important to create a society that cherishes and protects life if we can’t hear out their concerns on these and other issues?

Worse than being out of line, the reaction of repulsion from our camp is unbiblical. The web site headed by leading evangelical Phyllis Schlafly heads articles about Sen. Obama’s appearance at Saddleback, “There are times when you just can't work together!” and the snidely clever, “Such a partnership is an ‘Obama-nation.’” Was this the attitude Jesus had when He encountered those who believed differently than He did? What about Him meeting the woman at the well (John 4:1-42)? He was a Jew; she was a Samaritan. He was the Messiah; she was an adulteress. Morally speaking, she couldn’t have been more His opposite. But did He turn His back to her or refuse to speak to her? Quite the contrary: Beyond the polite and superficial, Jesus conversed with her in such an intimate way that “many of the Samaritans from that town believed in Him because of the woman's testimony” (v. 39). Contrast His approach with the stubborn and hard-hearted ultimatum flung at Rick Warren’s feet by the group of evangelicals (below, in red). Which approach do you think is more likely to turn hearts to Christ -– Jesus’, or Phyllis Schlafly’s?

When it comes down to it, it has been my experience that most of the time, the people who most stridently avoid debate are those with the weakest arguments. We live in a society that is supposed to be a “marketplace of ideas” – the system means to have the best ideas rise to the top by virtue of being haggled over, tested, tried and tweaked. This attitude that Christian conservatives should do the equivalent of put our hands over our ears, squeeze our eyes shut and yell, “LALALALALALALALALA” while our ideological opposites are talking does not reflect the confidence that Christians should have in their arguments – maybe that’s because so many of today’s Christians are just too lazy to understand why they believe what they say they believe, or maybe it’s because they would just as soon let Pat Robertson speak for them.

That reminds me of the Gospel stories where the Pharisees were always trying to trap Jesus in religious conundrums. They thought they had the market on all the right answers. And after a while, when they couldn’t best Jesus in their arguments, they decided to kill Him. Don’t get me wrong; I’m certainly not comparing Sen. Obama to Jesus. But the behavior of some in our camp in this episode certainly reminds me a lot of the behavior of those religious “leaders.”

Finally, what disappoints and saddens me about this whole episode is this paragraph, the final graf in liberal stalwart E.J. Dionne’s latest column:

“One more thing: If you read Obama’s speech, you'll realize he demonstrates a
much truer Christian spirit than the GOP masterminds who have recently tried to push people away from Obama by pointing out that his middle name is Hussein.”

These Christian leaders basically gave Mr. Dionne that free shot on us.

In addition, I think that for as well as President Bush and the Republican Congress have done on life issues since 2000, they have not done nearly enough in the areas of sheltering the poor, feeding the hungry, caring for the sick or shepherding single-mother families through their unique struggles. I know; I sound like a liberal. “PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY!!” yells someone from the GOP rafters. “TEACH A MAN TO FISH!!” from someone else on the floor. “A HAND UP, NOT A HAND OUT!!” thunders a voice from behind. And I believe in all these things. But why does modern Republicanism have to choose aspects of Christianity – the sanctity of life and marriage, for example – and ignore others, such as caring for the less fortunate?

I know another story about pious people who were too busy with their “religious” work to stop and help the needy. It’s the story of the Good Samaritan. The hero, in Jesus’ eyes, was the one who stopped to care for the beaten man. And as I recall, in telling the story, Jesus didn’t mention anything about the Good Samaritan lecturing the poor victim about how dangerous it was to be traveling that road alone, how he had it coming, how he needed to be more “personally responsible,” etc. The Samaritan just addressed the wounds of the body – and of the soul.

The bottom line is that if we as Christians believe that we are the salt of the earth, we should look for opportunities like these to have an audience with the decision makers of our country, not run from them simply because we disagree. If the philosophy of the now-repulsed Christian conservatives was applied to our overall interactions with everyone else in the world, Christians would never interact with the lost, and the word of salvation could never be spread.

I just think that as Christians, we have bigger and more important things with which to concern ourselves than with whom Rick Warren wants to discuss AIDS.

P.S. Here’s a good background piece on the conference, including several good quotes from Warren:

Evangelical leaders + politics = Bad religion

(Originally published 11/10/07)


That was my reaction to the news that Christian televangelist Pat Robertson was endorsing Rudy Giuliani in the Republican race for president.

What’s a pro-life, Christian conservative leader doing endorsing a pro-choice candidate who has contributed to Planned Parenthood, arguably the largest abortion provider in the world?

Excuse the double entendre, but politics really does make for strange bedfellows.

“I just believe that I needed to make a statement … that Rudy Giuliani is without question an acceptable candidate,” the New York Times quoted Robertson as saying.

Why settle for an “acceptable” candidate? Social conservatives would seem to have a sure thing in former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who is also a Baptist minister. If it was about the issues, why wouldn’t their leaders get behind him instead of threatening to run a third-party candidate?

The answer: For evangelical leaders, the presidential contest has become more about winning than advancing their values, and they don’t think Huckabee can win. Robertson as much as said so.

“I know how the game is played. I think we do want a front-runner from the Republican Party who can win the general election,” Robertson said.

In other words: Sell. Out. Forget values; beat Hillary.

But what’s the point of victory if there’s no difference between the winner and the loser?

For years, Democrats have complained that evangelicals’ near-exclusive support of Republicans was more about power than principle. It seems they may be right, at least when it comes to evangelical leaders.

So GOP presidential candidates are falling all over each other to curry favor with the Pat Robertsons of America. Remember that Saturday Night Live skit, “Who’s More Grizzled?” The Republican presidential primary is starting to look like “Who’s More Religious:”

  • Giuliani told Robertson’s audiences in September that he believes in God and prays to Jesus for “guidance and help.” He wanted to be a priest when he was younger, he added.
  • Mitt Romney has courted evangelicals for months, working to convince them that his Mormonism is essentially the mirror of Christianity, at least when it comes to social policy.
  • John McCain is trying to rebuild bridges with Christian conservatives after dubbing Robertson and Jerry Falwell “agents of intolerance” during his 2000 campaign.

Evangelical leaders aren’t backing away from their self-appointed position in quality control. From their figurative thrones, they are like Roman emperors in the Colosseum, passing judgment on candidates’ religious fitness and giving congregants the thumbs up or down. Robertson is the just the latest to do so. Earlier this year, Focus on the Family guru James Dobson told US News & World Report that he didn’t think Fred Thompson was a Christian at all; he also told a Dallas radio audience, “I would not vote for John McCain under any circumstances … I pray that we won’t get stuck with him.”

Don’t get me wrong. Understanding a candidate’s personal values, on religion among others, is crucial to voters’ ability to know what is at that person’s core.

But Jesus taught his followers not to grandstand in the sight and for the praise of man. Christianity isn’t meant to be a public display of religion. Instead, it is a private, personal relationship between Heavenly Father and child, publicly displayed by the fruits of the Spirit.

Social conservatives can diffuse the religious competition the GOP primary has become by consciously committing themselves to considering who best reflects their own personal convictions – religious and otherwise – and taking that knowledge, in faith, to the voting booth.

And the proof of the health and strength of America’s Christian conservative constituency will be when the political endorsements of their leaders don’t matter after all.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Deep South water wars: share and share alike

(Originally published 10/27/07)

In our house, the crescendo of little-girl voices is a sure sign of trouble:

"That’s mine!"
"Mom says you have to share!!!"

And then, invariably:


You know the drill. One has something; the other wants it. They don’t share. They fight. You can almost hear the bell sounding.

The bell sounded last week when Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue asked President Bush to intervene in the latest round of his state’s Water Wars with neighboring Alabama and Florida. Pained by an historic drought, Perdue wants to restrict the flow of water from Lake Lanier and Georgia’s federal reservoirs, thus cutting the amount of water flowing down the Chattahoochee River – by as much as 60 percent, if the drought conditions persist.

Perdue’s proposition raised hackles all around.

Can’t you just hear them?

"It’s our water."
"But it’s OUR WATER!!"
"You have to share! The Army Corps of Engineers says so!"
"President BUUUUUUSH!!!!!!"

I have to admit that on Thursday, when I saw Alabama Gov. Bob Riley’s remarks on the subject and realized that Florida Gov. Charlie Crist was taking Riley’s side by asking the president not to grant Perdue’s request, I had a momentary instinct to dispense maternal justice and sit the two apparent bullies in the corner.

But the Water Wars are no laughing matter. The flow of the Chattahoochee River is the life of many communities downstream. Its importance is measured not in cubic feet per second, but in the preservation of entire industries and, indeed, livelihoods, along the river’s winding path to the Gulf.

And while lower flow impacts everyone downstream, perhaps no area is more vulnerable than the commercial fishing communities of Florida’s Panhandle. According to the Tallahassee Democrat, Crist told Bush in a letter Thursday that low flows are already creating "economic peril" and threatening the $205 million commercial fishing industry that has been passed from generation to generation in Apalachicola Bay.

Perdue had a point this week when he said that "Congress did not pass the Endangered Species Act with the intention of providing protection for species of mussel and sturgeon at the expense of critical human needs." Continuing under the current arrangement "will also mean less water for the endangered species in the future," he said.

But CNN quoted an Army Corps official in Mobile who said that even if there were nine months without rain, water supplies would still be adequate.

The agreements governing water flow weren’t reached in a vacuum. Abandoning them to ease drought effects in the Atlanta area in the short term would wreak certain, irreversible havoc downstream in the long run.

Crist agreed.

"Reacting to the concerns of an upstream state to suspend environmental laws unilaterally at the expense of a downstream state’s ecology and economy cannot be justified in any circumstance," he wrote to Bush.

In other words, can’t we all just get along?

The reality is that this region’s water woes won’t be solved through any of the six separate lawsuits pending on this issue. The answer will have to involve cooperation, coordination, and, most of all, conservation. We’re all going to have to learn to share.
• • •

Everyone’s adjusting to strict new watering guidelines in many North Georgia cities. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported this week that the City of Alpharetta was issued two citations for illegally watering some flower beds in front of City Hall - on the same day that city officials passed "uber-tough" watering restrictions.

The citations include fines totaling $750. But, "We’re not in the business of paying ourselves," Assistant City Administrator Robert Rokovitz said.