Constitution of the United States

America First

For days, weeks and possibly months, the political sport of dissecting the election will continue. A wide range of explanations will emanate from leaders of both political parties, elected officials at all levels of government, commentators and the media. As we did during the campaign, we run the risk of over load and possibly even addiction. It might be more profitable to step back and slightly alter what we should examine. I suggest vivisecting the electorate itself—the people of the United States, regardless of how they voted or why they voted as they did. Who are we as a people? And what does it mean to put America first.

“God bless America” has become the norm for ending presidential speeches and even most campaign speeches. In and of itself it is innocuous. But it is also a blatant attempt to manipulate the listeners, at least those who believe in God. President Nixon first used the expression to deflect attention from his criminal activities surrounding the Watergate scandal. President Reagan used it to inflame the passions of patriotism. And now, in spite of the fact that it has become commonplace, it serves to suggest that every word in the speech that preceded it must be true because the speaker believes in “God and Country.” But there is a problem. Maybe the expression is not so innocuous after all, for it creates and then plays into a myopic vision of the world.

If there is one word that encapsulates this past election it is xenophobia—in its broadest sense. Not just fear of foreigners, but fear of anyone and anything that is different. Fear of people who are different whether because of their place of origin, the language they speak, the color of their skin, their sex or sexual orientation, their faith, their political beliefs. This broad definition of xenophobia also encompasses fear of international trade, of political and cultural exchange, even of scientific knowledge. In this kind of fear and uncertainty it is much more difficult to determine who are we as a people. Everything seems to have become unfamiliar and threatening. So we define ourselves by our past.

I am not convinced that the values of the right and the left are all that different. What I am convinced of is that we fear each other. But there is a solution. Getting to know an individual or group of people who are different from us; placing them and ourselves on the same plane; accepting them as equals; this is how we eliminate fear. By way of example, the reason that same sex marriage is so acceptable to most younger Americans is that they have grown up with friends who are gay, lesbian, bi and, more recently, transgendered. But when we ghettoize our existence, when we wall each other out—or in—we feed fear. And in that world of fear, who we are as a people becomes less attractive.

It is not surprising that the overarching xenophobia that drove the recent election centered around immigration. Immigrants are the ultimate other. They look, speak and worship differently than we do. And they come here to share (some would say take) our prosperity, our way of life. But this is the great conundrum for the Christian, and by extension for all other Americans.

Prior to WWII, most political and religious groups accepted that nations had an inherent right to limit immigration. After witnessing the devastation of the Nazis, and the Fascists and the threat posed by Communism, the Catholic Church made a profound move away from that right. This was partially influenced by the Church’s universality, and by its own immigrant experience, especially here in the United States. More importantly, though, the Catholic Church was evolving a body of social teaching that began in 1891 with Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical letter “Rerum Novarum.” In 1963 John XXIII declared in “Pacem in Terris” an absolute right to emigrate, and by 1967 Pope Paul VI made clear in “Populorum Progressio” that an individual’s right to emigrate supersedes a nation’s right to close its borders. Over the last fifty years, the Church has only reinforced its defense of the rights of immigrants to move where they will.

Although not popular with politicians or nativists, the Church’s teaching should surprise neither a believer nor a student of humanity. What country we are born into is purely an accident of birth. The land does not belong to us. We are its stewards, not its owners. For the believer all the earth belongs to God. For the non-believer it belongs to the whole of humanity. Immigration, along with globalization, must be seen as part of God’s plan for a universal humanity, one in which everyone partakes of and shares the world’s resources and where the few do not prosper at the expense of the many—not only within one country, but around the globe.

The Cold War that emerged at the end of WWII brought with it terms such as “Super Power” and “Leader of the free world”—words and ideas that became part of our daily lexicon. Whatever positive imagery arises from them, they also carry an unmistakable downside—dividing the world into us vs. them, and further deepening suspicion and fear. But we need not be restricted to the concepts that rise from those terms. Our imaginations remain unlimited and we possess the creativity to conceive the world any way we choose. The founding of the United Nations with its Declaration on Human Rights proves this. We have the ability. We seem to have lost the will.

I am glad to have been born in the United States and I appreciate my life here. But I do not believe in America first. America is a land of great opportunity, but it is not inherently better than other countries. We profoundly proclaimed our right to freedom and self-determination with words that have inspired people the world over:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The rights articulated here belong to ALL people, not just Americans.

Our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution have long been beacons to the world, enshrining the concepts of liberty and justice. But when we surrender to the grasp of xenophobia they are reduced to the status of dusty documents, illuminating neither us nor the world. We should not accept America first. We should only accept America together. To borrow the language of fictional Camelot, all countries should be seated at a round table where all are equal.
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Time's Up! Law, Morality and Religion

It seems as though every aspect of life has been partitioned into an “us” v. “them” mentality. The most obvious example is black v. white--most obvious because it is so visually demonstrative. It has become the absolute metaphor for good versus evil, and right versus wrong. This is fine as far as it goes, but most of us do not live in an absolute world. Our lives are tinted by shades of gray.

The problem intensifies when we start applying that analogy to the real world, assigning goodness and evil to other people simply because they are different from us. This is particularly odious in the areas of morality and religion. And, no. They are not the same.

Moral values transcend religion in the same way that God transcends religion. To some that may seem incongruous, but the simple truth is that both God and morality existed prior to any concept of religion. Wrapping morality into one’s religious ideas, at least trying to make them synonymous, is an exercise in futility. It is certainly futile when one is in search of truth. At the same time, it is quite successful in creating a simplistic view for the simple-minded. But that has its own drastic consequences.

Several generations of white people believed that blacks were inferior. Some ignorant people still do. Who knows the actual root of such prejudice? Perhaps it was rooted in the economic and structural development of the Western world. But did such advances make the West more civilized? I suppose it depends on how one defines civilization. One thing is clear: The resulting prejudice defiled religion as believers sought to justify their bigotry in their faith.

A similar kind of discrimination occurred with women. In fact, choose your group and there is a prejudice to match. Many people of faith have continually twisted their thinking into knots to justify bigotry that has no rational foundation. And they have managed to complicate the matter even further.

Recently, people of religion have been making louder and louder claims to be the guardians of morality. Almost without exception, these claims to moral superiority are rooted in their religious values--values that are neither absolute nor universal.

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments for and against same-sex marriage. There is nothing inherently immoral about same-sex marriage, nor about homosexuality itself. The morality exists only by way of social construct. And those constructs, like all moral values, differ from one society to the next and are always in a state of flux or evolution between generations.

To claim that religion determines morality is like saying religion determines God. Wait a minute. That is exactly what many believers do! They can only accept and believe in a God who conforms to beliefs they already hold. They are not about to be challenged by God. By extension, they can only accept people who believe and act the same way they do.

How else to explain the absurd refusal of some fundamentalist Jews to recognize a non-Orthodox marriage? How else to explain the absurd claim by Christian fundamentalists that non-Baptized people are going to hell? How else to explain the absurdity of Muslim fundamentalists who say that a person who converts from Islam should be put to death? How else to explain the religious belief that same sex couples cannot marry—a religious belief with a very uncertain ground in truth and no claim on the mind or heart?

Enter the law. One of the beauties of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are that they are not based in any religious tradition. The Declaration transcends faith, at least beyond the general acknowledgment that certain unalienable rights are bestowed by God. The Constitution transcends the contextual limitation of social morality, at least insofar as those same unalienable rights are inherent in being human.

The result of the American experiment in democracy is that law is the all important and ultimate measure of our society. Neither morality nor religion can make that same claim. A certain credit must be given to those who vociferously claim that God is being pushed out of public life, schools, etc. They have managed to distract many people from the truth. Many people, but not the courts. So a certain gratitude also must be expressed to those judges that have consistently held that God does not belong in public life and schools. The United States is not run on Christian or any other religious principles.

In this country the law is the foundation of our society. It should not be capricious, nor should it be dictated to by religious whim. Our Declaration of Independence states that all are created equal and endowed with rights. The rights mentioned are not meant to be all-inclusive. What is all-inclusive is the all people have these rights.

I disagree with the religious position of the anti-gay movement. It is a skewed and false reading of the Bible. But it does not matter. The United States is not a country based on the Bible, and that is a good thing. It is a country based on the law.

All people have a right to marry, black and white, gay and straight. I would like to believe that anti-gay is the last great prejudice to be overcome by our society. History suggests that as soon as we succeed, something else will spring up in its place. There will always be those people who seek to cast a black
v. white, a good v. wrong pall over the world of gray that is human life.

For now, times up! In the United States of America, law, justice and equality trump religion. Thank God! And thank the Founding Fathers!
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The Federal Budget and Kingdom Economics

The financial crisis of 2008 created havoc with economies around the world threatening virtually every government and economic system with potential collapse. No country lives in a vacuum anymore, not even the once forbidden kingdom of China, and so this crisis created challenges for every nation. It also created opportunity—the opportunity to reexamine our priorities. In the United States that opportunity presents itself in the form of three documents.

Of the thousands of documents that make up the body of American life, including speeches by great presidents, senators and congressmen, these three stand out. One reason is that these are the people’s documents. They define us collectively, and, not unlike the human eyes, they allow us to peer into the soul—in this case the soul of a nation.

The first document is unchangeable. It is the Declaration of Independence. Singular among our founding documents, it grounds the philosophical principles from which a new nation would be born. The passion and commitment to these principles give rise to the second great document.

The Constitution of the United States establishes the supreme law of the land. Because its authors could not anticipate every vicissitude of American life, the Constitution is constantly being interpreted. In extraordinary situations, to address unforeseen concerns and rights, it also can be amended. In the end, it serves to guarantee that the principles of the Declaration are extended to all.

At first, it may seem absurd to link the third document, the Federal Budget, to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. To begin with, the budget is in constant flux--at minimum from year to year. Even within a single year, it is frequently adjusted as politicians and special interests wrangle over its appropriations. And since most Americans have no real input on expenditures, it hardly seems like one of the people’s documents.

However, the budget is the practical application of the principles of the other two documents. It determines the priorities that allow (or do not allow) those principles to be lived out and secured in daily life. There is a reason that we use the term “shut down” to refer to an unfunded government. Without the budget, there is no government. Without a government, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are, at best, the dreams of philosophical genius. Precisely for this reason, the Federal Budget, more than any other piece of legislation defines the true soul of the country.

The process of crafting a budget does not just allow us to look into the soul of a people. It also allows to identify and to question the foundations on which priorities are determined. It may be that the world of economics, from the principles of the market economy to the funding of the government is the primary point where the Good News of Jesus Christ intersects modern life. It is certainly the most practical point. Unfortunately, that intersection does not merge into a common path. These days, at least, it leads in the exact opposite direction.

If we take the Gospel seriously, we find ourselves called to build the Kingdom of God here on earth. This Kingdom is not territorial. It is defined by neither a particular political system nor an economic structure. It is a community of shared responsibility and also shared resources. This Kingdom does not benefit one people or group of people over another.

In my last blog I suggested that the current vision of the American dream is incompatible with the Gospel. Human beings will always struggle with tendencies to be self-centered. Yet when major decisions are driven by personal gain, the Gospel call to build the Kingdom goes unheard, and subsequently unfulfilled.

For those who reject any notion of social justice in the Gospel, there is, unfortunately, no possibility of discussion. However, much benefit accrues to those who actually hear the Good News and are willing to examine it. In the parable about vigilant and faithful servants, Jesus speaks about the responsibilities of the servants. Peter asks if the parable is also meant for them. Jesus concludes with the startling statement “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.”

One might expect that the budget is a document of shared resources benefitting all the people. In fact, much of the budget discussion in Washington is misguided in the extreme. It centers on balancing the budget by cutting resources to the poor. Worse still, is that some in Congress, like Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, couples those cuts with outlandish benefits to the rich.

The despicability of attempting to balance the budget on the backs of the poor should be obvious. I would like to suggest that Ryan and company display a total moral vacuum, and demonstrate a complete lack of respect for the American people by suggesting that this is the way for everyone to share in reducing the deficit. What Ryan’s proposals do is take the United States of America, still the richest country in the world, and swell the ranks of America’s poor while expanding the wealth of the super rich. In the process the middle class simply evaporates.

The Paul Ryan types have probably never listened to the teaching of Jesus nor understood Gospel values. Still, it is not just the Gospel call to build the kingdom that is at odds with many of today’s budget proposals. History, also, is being ignored. While people have always balked at paying excessive taxes, most did not object to paying their fair share. The rallying cry of the American revolution was not “No taxation”. It was “No taxation without representation”—a significant difference. The idea that taxes are evil in and of themselves, and that the larger populace is not responsible for the poor must have arisen from the corrupted American dream that centers only on the individual and the self. Sadly, that is the dream adopted by many a Tea Party activist.

If the Federal Budget is to remain in place alongside the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, it must again become the people’s document. For that to happen, the people must rediscover the communal values that made America such a great nation, and then elect representatives who possess those same values.

The budget reflects the soul of the nation. What soul will we project?
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