Jesus

The Prodigal Candidate

This past weekend Donald Trump addressed the African-American community first in Philadelphia then in Detroit. Listening to him speak was like watching someone conjure up one of Jesus’s most beloved parables, that of the prodigal son. It is a story of challenge and inspiration that yields deeper insight with each plumbing. Yet for all its popularity it remains one of the least understood or properly appreciated of Jesus’s parables. To begin with, as many scripture scholars have suggested, it is misnamed. It should more accurately be called “The Parable of the Forgiving Father.”

The misnomer of the common title has allowed generations of people to miss both the point and the challenge. The younger son is not the focus of the story. The father is. The younger son serves as a catalyst, his actions giving movement to the story. But Jesus does not present him as a model. In truth, when reading the parable we are probably all able to find ourselves at least partially reflected in both of the sons. In their own ways they are each self-centered. Greed and immaturity cause the younger son to demand an inheritance he is not yet entitled to; self-righteousness and jealousy flare in the older son who whines about never having been given his own party.

But the father. He is the one Jesus suggests we emulate. He is the character who is defined by love—a love that is displayed in forgiving his younger son and expressing tender compassion for his older son. So what? You may ask. The idea of forgiveness still comes through irrespective the name we give to the parable.

I suggest that the problem with the common title actually enhances the mistakes we make in our own lives, and should serve as warning when we examine the actions of others. As I noted, we probably all see ourselves occasionally reflected in the younger son. Who among us does not pursue self-centered goals and desires? Who among us, given the opportunity, would not use seed money from our parents to feed our debauchery? Those are mere human, adolescent foibles acted out in various scenarios simply indicating that we are not perfect. And when we come to our senses we ask pardon and promise to right ourselves.

If that were all, I might agree. But since most humans are not sociopaths or pathologically ill in multiple arenas of our psyches, we know when we have done wrong and we seek amends—or at least forgiveness. For many people that is what the prodigal son did.

No. He did not.

There is not one word in Luke’s telling of the parable that suggests the son expressed any sorrow or remorse for his actions. He returned to his father’s house the same self-centered little brat he was when he left. He returned because he wanted something. And it was not forgiveness. He had bankrupted himself through carousing and revelry. With no food and no money—and no one to give him anything—he returned to his father after carefully concocting a speech containing not a single suggestion of contrition. He was hungry. He was not sorry.

Oh, it’s true that the father did forgive him. But once we understand who the son really was—what he was really like—perhaps we will not so naïvely want to see ourselves in him. More importantly, we will be able to recognize when someone else is merely playing the game of the younger son. Enter the prodigal candidate.

Donald Trump went to Philadelphia and Detroit after having first traversed the continent denigrating, degrading, and demeaning the African-American community as a whole. Like the son in the parable there was no hint of contrition for anything that he said or did, no sorrow for fanning the flames of racial hatred and prejudice. Well, that should come as no surprise.

Last week Donald Trump went to Mexico after having launched his candidacy and spending the last year and a half belittling, berating and besmirching Mexican-Americans all around the country. He stood on a platform with the Mexican president and spoke not a word of contrition. He flat out lied.

Having spent months in a vituperate intemperance Donald Trump now comes before the Mexican-American and African-American communities playing the perfect prodigal son. Should we forgive him? Absolutely. After all, the father is our model in Jesus’s parable. At the same time, there is nothing in the story to suggest that the father was stupid. It is doubtful that he ever entrusted his son with another dime. So we should forgive Donald Trump—even if he is not remorseful—but we should not give him a vote and should never allow him to become president.
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Why Abortion Still Matters--and Why I Am Pro-Choice

Yesterday the Oklahoma Legislature passed another anti-abortion bill. This one attempts to end abortions by allowing felony charges to be brought against doctors who perform them and revocation of their licenses.

For more than forty years, America has wrestled with this issue. For more than thirty of those years I have been a Catholic priest committed to my church’s teachings in the abstract, while engaging a pastoral response for specific circumstances. I was satisfied with my position, comfortable in my conviction. Certain that no one wantonly desires an abortion, I was pro-life (in all its stages)
and pro-choice. But I have grown increasingly troubled with that balance as unforeseen consequences of the anti-abortion movement have taken hold.

Oklahoma State Senator Nathan Dahm, who authored the bill, attempted to present himself as a defender of rights and stated, “Those rights begin at conception.” That is a philosophical position that cannot be proved and one that is patently contrary to U.S. law as determined in Roe v Wade.

As I look backward, I observe that in typical American fashion we, as a society, have skirted honest debate regarding abortion—at least anything meaningful. There have been no discussions to explain to Senator Dahm why his position is philosophically (and religiously) untenable. For most of us our minds are made up and there is nothing to discuss. We prefer to sequester our thoughts and marshal our forces as if we are at war with one another.

During the 1990s, it was difficult to drive more than ten miles without seeing a bumper sticker righteously screaming “Abortion is Murder” (Forgive the mixed metaphor). The sticker was simple, if not simplistic, for if ever a slogan skewed the truth, that was the one. On one end of the reality spectrum it played into popular imagination. One could visualize the termination of a living fetus suddenly rendered dead by another’s hands. But it clouded vision on the other end of the spectrum—the birth of a child into poverty, disease and destitution with no societal attention or concern for its plight. That, too, is murder, though it is not so easy to envision. And it carries with it even greater social ills.

The myopically obsessive focus on abortion, including actions by the U.S. Catholic bishops, turned millions of people into one-issue voters, enabling many an otherwise incompetent person to be propelled to public office. For two generations one needed only state his or her opposition to abortion and election was all but assured. I guess as a priest I can’t help but call to mind the biblical adage “Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity” (Proverbs 22:8). As a result of these elections we are now reaping a whirlwind of calamity.

In many state legislatures, and even within Congress, Americans have elected representatives with no concept of a common good; legislators with no compassion for the poor or empathy for the infirm; no concern for the displaced or mercy for the alien. These are issues of great import in both the Old and New Testaments. “You shall not oppress an alien; you well know how it feels to be an alien; since you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). When the arrogant and self-righteous challenged Jesus about his association with sinners he responded, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.” Then he concluded with the stinging indictment, “Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’” (Matthew 9:12 &13).

This is the same Bible that right-wing elected officials claim is so dear to them and upon which most of them take their oaths. These legislators do not call out the best in us for there seems little that is Godly or biblical in them. They are driven by something else and in the process turn each of us into
someone else. We are increasingly becoming a self-centered and self-serving people, unconcerned about the burdens we place on others, whether pregnant women, immigrants or the poor. America has become a country misled not by the left, but by the right. Not by those who defend personal freedoms, but by those who take them away. But there may be hope.

After forty-plus years the truth about abortion might just be emerging into focus. The facts speak something very different from what we hear in state legislatures and the halls of congress. Abortion in the United States has actually been on the decline since 1997. In 2012 there were 486,837 less abortions than in 1997. At least part of that downturn can be attributed to easier access to contraceptives. Why, then, would anti-abortion legislators want to restrict that, too? There are a number of answers.

The first is that this is really about sex. In the 1960 film “Inherit the Wind,” modestly based on the 1925 Scopes trial, the prosecuting attorney is asked about the Biblical evaluation of sex. His response? “It is considered original sin.” That is a level of ignorance that can only be found in right wing circles, and it seems as though they have not come very far in ninety years.

There is also a second conclusion. Opposition to abortion, whether genuine or merely perceived, has been but an instrument for many to obtain power. And history has repeatedly demonstrated how difficult it is to relinquish that. From one state to the next, elected officials are not content merely to force women to bring their pregnancies to term. They also want to restrict access to contraceptives, forcing women to get pregnant in the first place. And knowing full well that the wealthy will always be able either to obtain abortions or avoid the need, these elected officials target minorities and the poor and they have quite successfully managed to malign and denigrate them—the very people God chose as his own; the people Jesus frequently chose to spend time with. There is a pattern here. The same legislatures that assiduously pass burdensome anti-abortion laws also seek to exclude millions from medical coverage and food subsidies. As has been noted by others, the anti-abortion movement is not pro-life. It is, at best, pro-birth.

Should we choose honesty in this discussion, the anti-abortion laws have another intent that is beyond the birth of a baby. It is to keep women poor and disenfranchised, to strip them of their freedom and opportunities for advancement in education, employment, status—essentially all aspects of life. The extreme anti-abortion laws being advocated in various states are misogynistic and ultimately a modern form of slavery. Women become property to be owned and controlled with the result that these laws contribute to the income inequality that is so central in our current election cycle.

Finally, the third conclusion is the most insidious of all. The conservative legislatures that were created by the anti-abortion movement have cannibalistically turned on the very people they are forcing into existence by stripping them of their right to vote. Lest anyone think this is a non-sequitur, it cannot be mere coincidence that the states enacting voter restriction laws are the same ones that elected their officials with the singular qualification that they opposed abortion.

Forty-three years after Roe v Wade I still believe that no one actually
wants an abortion. But I believe it is sometimes necessary and I am convinced that every woman should have the right to choose—informed by her beliefs, unencumbered by either church or state. As a priest I think, sadly, that the Catholic bishops were wrong to focus so narrowly on abortion and to encourage the election of officials whose social policies are so far removed from Gospel values.

Today I am no longer concerned about balance. I now nuance my position on a life continuum. I am pro-choice precisely because I am pro-life.
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Freedom of Religion in Indiana

Religion is under attack in America. It has been for a long time. But recently, it is specifically the Christian Faith that has been targeted. The classic example is secularizing Christmas; stripping Christ from the celebration with the use of “Xmas.” Yes. I realize that among scholars this a practice dating back hundreds of years and has nothing to do with secularization. X represents the 22nd letter of the Greek alphabet, “Chi”, and has long stood as a symbol for Christ. Therefore, Christmas and Xmas are actually the same—both of them meaning “Christ Mass.” But that’s not the point. The issue is that today it is not just Christian scholars who are using Xmas. So are non-Christians and even non-believers. It’s a little like a family—I can say anything I want about my sister, but you can’t. Infantile? Without question. But there are other, even greater onslaughts against religion.

In more recent years, marriage has become the weapon of choice for attacking the Christian Faith. Everyone knows that marriage is only between a man and a woman. The Bible never says that, but it implies it. In recent years there have been feeble attempts to fight back with slogans such as, “It was Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!” But if homosexuality is the great sin against God that many Christians believe, we need more than slogans. We must fight back with all the ammunition in our arsenal. Enter the great State of Indiana and Governor Mike Pence.

Pence just signed legislation that guarantees the free practice of religion. Bakeries, florists, dress makers, tux shops and photographers, will not be forced to support same-sex marriage. And indeed, why should they consort with sinners? Indiana had to take a stand. Before this legislation was passed and signed by the governor, every same sex couple in Indiana sought out anti-LGBT establishments to provide the food and decorations, etc. for their wedding ceremonies. Why couldn’t they just patronize gay establishments? We needed this law.

There is another, even more important, dimension to this crisis. Indiana is evangelical territory. As such they always ask the question WWJD? Well, what would Jesus do? Better yet, what
did Jesus do?

Jesus frequented the company of prostitutes. I don’t mean that he slept with them. But they did hang out together and share a few drinks. And when it came to tax collectors, Jesus did more than drink. He enjoyed their lavish meals, even though other religious leaders criticized him for it. And let’s not forget the lepers. Jesus not only allowed them to approach him, he reached out and touched them, thus making even the Son of God unclean according to the religious laws of his day.

Does this mean that Jesus endorsed the activities of tax collectors or the life-styles of prostitutes? Of course not. But he did fraternize with them. More importantly he did not condemn them or shun them. As for the lepers, they did not choose their situation and Jesus embraced them for who they were.

On the basis of these and other things that he did it is reasonable to suggest that Jesus would have attended gay weddings. He would have enjoyed the company and the food. He would have shared in the toast and maybe even danced with the two brides. Who knows? Maybe he did. The Gospels certainly do not say that he didn’t.

Hmmm! I may have been terribly wrong about the Indiana legislature and Governor Pence. As it turns out this law is not about the free practice of religion. It is about the free practice of prejudice, bigotry and hate. There is, after all, another way to view the current situation of religion in America. Christianity is, indeed, under attack. But the threat comes from within.

Many Christians have lost sight of who Jesus is and what Jesus did. Whatever answer one offers to the question WWJD, Jesus certainly would not be supporting legislation that condemns, discriminates and pushes people to the margins of society.

This new Indiana law is not so much anti-LGBT as it is anti-Gospel and anti-Jesus. The irony would be comic if it were not so extreme. Every serious scholar acknowledges that Jesus never appeared in ancient America. But there is a new question today: “Will Jesus ever appear in Indiana?”
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Christmas 2014

Throughout world history and over all the earth, there is nothing to compare to Christmas. No individual’s birth and no religious holiday is accompanied by music conjuring such depth of meaning or magnitude of expression. Look to the carols—both religious and secular. Whether hearing angels from on high on a silent night, or convening people to come and adore, or listening to silver bells on a white Christmas, these songs proclaim a worldwide longing for peace.

But with annual repetition, it is evident that mere musical sentiment does not, indeed cannot, advance the peace and equality proclaimed in song. In fact, if anything this celebration betrays a hypocrisy, if not a schizophrenia throughout most of the world. Historic battles have seen the calling of a one day truce on December 25th, only to resume killing on December 26th. And then there is capitalism.

It is too simplistic to say that Christmas has been commercialized. Many people who lament that reality are unwilling to give voice to the deeper analysis and uncomfortable truth that Christmas was not created to serve or advance a market economy. Such language is deemed politically incorrect. And sadly, many Christians have shown themselves all-too-complicit as monetary concerns have usurped values of peace and goodwill. It is not the ringing of bells, but of cash registers and Wall Street trading that measure the success of the season. How can world peace compete with world banks?

At its core Christmas is an unfulfilled vision, a promise of hope and peace that always remains just out of reach. Perhaps this is because the holiday is not really about mundane endeavors or economic profit. It is about an unanticipated bond between the human and the divine—a presence not recognized in its nativity and adamantly rejected in its adulthood. Christmas is about God becoming human in Jesus. The very idea strains the imagination. It is only approachable and acceptable through faith. At the same time, belief must find expression in action.

Christians, both as victims and perpetrators, have failed the message and mission of Jesus. As perpetrators, they have foisted violence and war on those of different faiths, cultures and political systems. Sometimes even invoking the name of the Prince of Peace. As victims they have refused to embrace the sacrifice of the Cross, instead, forsaking forgiveness and choosing revenge and retribution even at the cost of civilization. It is a disturbing paradox that the followers of Jesus can intently and successfully articulate reasons for war but remain impotently mute when it comes to peace.

So once again we find ourselves celebrating the birth of Jesus, the humbling and undeserved presence of God among us. As we invade and empty the plethora of stores in our shopping malls, even as we clog traffic on the world wide web from our homes, we will be engulfed in the sounds of Christmas.

Since hope springs eternal, this may be the year everything changes. Maybe this feliz navidad will be what the first noel was supposed to be. On this holy night the stars will shine bright, the earth will receive its king, and there will be joy to the world because this child was born. Maybe.
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To Wash Or Not To Wash

First, my apologies to William Shakespeare.

Rome is called the
“Eternal City”. Originally it was a political concept springing from a self-possessed people. But over time the term has come to mean more. For example, the Catholic Church is headquartered in Rome, technically the Vatican City State. And the church moves with such tortoise-like alacrity, that eternal has frequently been used to designate the speed of change. Then came Francis.

Not since John XXIII has a pope so energized the church with the gifts of the spirit, in particular, the spirit of humility. In Catholic theology there is a built in tension between the institutional church (tradition) and the movement of the spirit (charism). The church is neither singularly pentecostal, nor can it be fossilized in an authoritarian past. That tension keeps the church in balance. The progress may be slow, but it is steady. With a few hitches.

Yesterday, Palm Sunday, we entered into Holy Week. And Thursday evening begins the Triduum, the most sacred three days in the Christian calendar when we commemorate the Last Supper, death and Resurrection of Jesus. Although symbol is core to all the rituals of the Catholic Church, perhaps the most powerful and inspiring one occurs on Holy Thursday when the priest washes the feet of parishioners, a reenactment of Jesus’ Last Supper. Enter Pope Francis and his universal vision.

It is not overstating the case to suggest that Francis is a rare person. A Pope with the wisdom to acknowledge his own limitations and the humility to admit that he does not know everything. Unfortunately, not all his bishops share those traits.

Last year, Francis modeled Jesus, not just by washing feet, but washing the feet of women. And not just women, but a Muslim woman. It was so moving that one could be forgiven for thinking this model would be followed by others. And, indeed, some have. But in Wisconsin there is a bishop who defies not just the example of the Pope, but also the fact of evolution.

Robert Molino, the bishop of Madison, is stuck in the past. Irretrievably. He has ignored the Pope’s example in his own life and has also prohibited any priest in his diocese from washing the feet of any woman in any church. He seems to have confused his role with that of the universal shepherd. Sadly, this has caused enlightened pastors in his diocese to skip this profound symbol altogether.

I understand that the twelve Apostles were all men. But the Scriptures do not say that only men were in attendance at the Last Supper. And if women were present, washing their feet would have been an even more profound demonstration of Jesus’ humility and fully consistent with the meaning of his action.

It is so tempting to say Molino is misogynistic. But that is too kind a word. It is more accurate to suggest he is Neanderthal. But that is an insult to our ancestors. No, I’m afraid that Bishop Molino is an archeological phenomenon. He simultaneously proves and disproves evolution.

By contrasting him with Pope Francis one can prove that evolution takes place and at the same time prove that evolution is not inevitable. Francis embraces women as the equal of men and all men as equal to each other. Molino embraces only his own kind.

Of course it is possible that the contrast proves divergence. Francis, like most of humanity, is continuing to evolve. Molino, like some, is devolving. Either way this is not as comical as I pretend. It is tragic. Tragic that women in the Madison diocese are so demeaned. Tragic that the Catholic Church has a pope who has been to the mountaintop and a bishop who is still swinging in the trees.
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The Messiah?

Every belief system requires a certain leap of faith. By its very definition, faith is not something that can be proved. At the same time, it must be reasonable. Karl Marx remains famous for calling religion the opiate of the people. And Nietzsche may be most remembered for his statement that God is dead.

This may seem an odd beginning for a Christmas blog. But it is precisely because so many people get lost in the romanticism of Christmas, that it becomes an escape, rather than a time of reflection, thus given some credence to the remarks of Marx and Nietzsche.

Whether or not faith can be proved, a pre-requisite for religious belief should be its rationality and whether or not it holds up to investigation. For example, Jews believe that Moses parted the Red (or Reed) Sea during the Exodus from Egypt. Christians believe that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah. Mormons believe that Jesus appeared in ancient America.

Let’s dismiss the most silly of these claims. There are no serious scholars, even among Mormons, who accept the belief that Jesus appeared in ancient America. One reason for discounting that tenet is that there is absolutely no archeological evidence of such an event. It would be irrational to continue to hold to that belief, thus raising echoes of Marx.

The Jewish belief (also shared by Christians and Muslims) in the parting of the sea is also subject to investigation. There are a number of scenarios whereby the land beneath the sea was, indeed, dry enough to cross. It was a periodic occurrence. So subsequently, the waters that had receded returned, thus miring Pharaoh and his army in the mud. There remains a reasonable miracle here, in that God intervened to assure the timing of the event. The art of storytelling simply embellishes the crossing with the image of water walling up on the right and the left.

Whether or not Jesus is the Messiah is a little more complex. There is no question that Jesus existed as a real person. His life and death are not the invention of sacred writing. They are also mentioned in non-biblical documents. But is he the Messiah?

The Old Testament writers left us numerous ways to identify the Messiah upon his arrival. One of the principle Messianic promises was peace. So, how does this fit in with the story of Jesus?

The Roman Martyrology of the Catholic Church includes a Proclamation of the Birth of Christ. In very brief and poetic language, it traces the passage of time from the creation and biblical events, through Greek and Roman civilization, to the arrival. Of particular significance is the situating of Jesus’ birth in real time:

“The forty-second year of the reign of Octavian Augustus; the whole world being at peace, Jesus Christ…was born in Bethlehem of Judea of the Virgin Mary.”

Setting aside the fact that the phrase “the whole world” is a touch Judeo-Roman-centric, the real issue is the question of peace. Since Christians already believed that Jesus was the Messiah at the time of its composition, it is understandable that an observation of peace would find its way into the Christmas Proclamation.

It is also true that at the time of Jesus’ birth, the Roman Empire was not engaged in an ongoing war. Still, Rome was a foreign power that controlled ancient Palestine. Since peace is not just the absence of war, it would take a Rowlingesque imagination to observe occupying forces patrolling the streets and deem that reality as peace.

It is understandable that many in ancient Israel, as well as many today, find it difficult to recognize Jesus as Messiah. Peace was not only absent at the time of his birth. Christianity, itself, has been darkened with war and other forms of violence throughout much of its history.

It might be too simplistic to reject Jesus due to the absence of one Messianic promise, even if that promise is as significant as peace. At the same time, that very absence might serve as motivation for those who really do believe in Jesus.

At the core of the Gospels and of authentic Christian Faith, is a peace that is rooted in forgiveness and love. The absence of peaces is not just a historical issue surrounding Jesus’ birth. It is an existential issue that questions the authenticity of believers today.

If the Christian Faith is to circumvent the condemnation of Marx and not serve as a collective drug; if it is to counter the declaration of Nietzsche and keep God alive and present in our world today, then “Peace on Earth” cannot be just decorative phrasing on a holiday card or sentimental lyrics in a Christmas song. Peace must drive who and what we are. War is not only
not the answer, it cannot even be part of the discussion.

Maybe peace really is that important. I, like millions of others, believe in Jesus. However, until peace defines the followers of Jesus, there is not sufficient reason to believe that Jesus is the Messiah.
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Romney's Entitlement Problem

When I was growing up, my parents forbid me to use what they euphemistically called “four-letter words”. I suppose most people had the same experience. As I grew older, however, I realized that longer words are also included in the prohibition. What I did not learn until recently was that “entitlement” is one of those words. In this case it is not only the use of the word that is taboo, but also the meaning. I am left to wonder: How is that right wing politicians have been allowed to turn something good and essential into the equivalent of a four-letter word?

An entitlement program is a guaranteed government benefit, the two big ones being Social Security and Medicare. Romney’s infamous 47% statement—in which he dismisses and treats with disdain half the country—includes many people benefitting from these two programs. Other politicians, including Ryan see these as social evils, and they are twisting themselves into knots in an attempt to pacify seniors, stating that they will preserve the benefits for current recipients while essentially eliminating those benefits for younger Americans. There is something very sinister at work here.

Paul Ryan grew up in a very rich family. Sadly, when Ryan was sixteen years old his father died. As a result, Ryan began receiving Social Security payments. Nothing illegal there. It is the law. It is rooted in the fact that Ryan’s father had paid into Social Security and it is only fair that his son receive some kind of payments until age 21, even if he did not need financial support at the time. Ryan has altered his attitude toward this government entitlement since the days when it benefitted him. Still, it seems to me that the problem is deeper than mere hypocrisy.

Other writers have countered this attempt to roll back entitlements with the observation that these government programs are contracts. They were entered into in good faith. What people receive in retirement and health care is not dependency. It is money and subsistence that they are owed. It is a return on their investment. That is language Romney should understand. Still, the issue goes beyond contracts. This is a question of values and morality.

Romney ridiculed 47% of the nation with the statement that these people “believe they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.” I say ridiculed, because if one listens to the actual recording, Romney’s inflection on the word “entitled” says everything anybody needs to know about Romney and his attitude toward humanity. It is obnoxiously corrupt. Entitled to food? Entitled to health? Entitled to a place to live? Give me a break! Romney is deficient both religiously and politically.

Every major world religion, every humanitarian organization believes that people are “entitled” to these things. At least to food and good health. Although Romney is not a Christian, his Mormon faith includes the New Testament in which Jesus makes clear his preferential option for the poor. Jesus, himself broke the social and religious taboos of his own day. He ate with sinners and he touched the unclean.

The Declaration of Independence, which gave birth to this great nation states that all people “are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Do Romney and Ryan really believe starving, untreated illness and homelessness define the God-given “Right” to life?

Mr. Romney, listen up. Entitlement is not a four-letter word. American democracy is rooted in entitlement. We do not just owe people a secure retirement and good health. They are entitled to it.
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