Friday, August 31, 2012


I think it is maybe time -- what do you think -- for maybe a businessman. How about that?”  That’s what Clint Eastwood told the assembled in Tampa.  Ah, the solution to our problems, a businessman as president.  And of course Mitt Romney couldn’t agree more.  We heard the word business 17 times in his acceptance speech — his credentials in it, President Obama’s lack of them.  He pointed out that the President “…took office without the basic qualification that most Americans have and one that was essential to his task. He had almost no experience working in a business.”  

That’s an interesting qualifier for the presidency, one that apparently the American people have never put high on the list.  Indeed, looking at the backgrounds of our forty-four chief executives you will find numerous generals, professional politicians and lawyers.  We’ve had at least one academic and, yes, an actor.  But in the long list there were only two businessmen: Herbert Hoover and George W. Bush, the first and only MBA.  In addition to the many misty eyed memory lane moments, Romney’s speech focused on the economy, the importance of free enterprise and business.  Eastwood said it may be time for a businessman, Romney’s unmistakable rejoinder — I’m your guy.

The only problem is that the two businessmen presidents turned out to be disastrous for the economy.  Hoover presided over a depression that continues haunt us and Bush over the worst economic collapse since.  It was the non-businessman presidents who led us out of downturns —  clearly this one remains a challenge — and in robust periods of growth.  Franklin Roosevelt, the politician, Ronald Reagan, the actor, and Bill Clinton, the lawyer, certainly didn’t seem deficient because they lacked business experience.  And Clinton left us with a surplus compared with George Bush who, through a combination of tax cuts and two unfunded wars, ran up the lion’s share of the deficits for which the Romney-Ryan team  blames President Obama.

Yes, we surely need a business president, one with the background of Hoover and Bush.  That’s what the people in Tampa offered us.  And speaking of former presidents, Bill Clinton is slated to be the lead off featured speaker in Charlotte.  Did you notice the absence of former presidents in Tampa, except of course for the usual bow to Patron Saint Reagan, this time delivered in film and by those noted flame keepers, Newt and Callista.  Apparently the Romney people think dead chief executives are  a safe bet; live ones are better left at home and out of sight.

According to the US Census, African American and Latinos combined now represent an almost 30% of the population.  Did you see much evidence of that as the TV cameras panned out at those gathered in Tampa?  The GOP constituency, certainly those who make it to conventions, is White as Ivory soap, a group that has declined from 75.1% to 63.4% in just the last ten years — Latinos in contrast are up 33%.  Keep watch next week and you’ll see a much more representative audience in Charlotte.  This week’s crowd cheered loudly when Romney said, “As president, I will protect the sanctity of life. I will honor the institution of marriage.”  They still care deeply about socially conservative issues, but young Americans have a different take.  According to Pew Research, “…young people favor gay marriage by more than two-to-one (65% to 30%).”  And they join the majority of Americans across most age groups who favor women’s reproductive rights to one degree or another.  I don’t know what this year’s election will bring, not only for the presidency but most particularly for the House and Senate.  Near term, the demographics and out-of-sync views in Tampa may not be deciding factors, but long term a party that looks backward with a combination of nostalgia and anger for what is no more, is ill positioned for the real future.

They say there has been scant movement in voter preferences for months.  Most of us probably take in these conventions with minds already made up.  I plead guilty to that and will enthusiastically vote for Barack Obama and Joe Biden.  I’ll be sincerely relieved to see Romney-Ryan go down to defeat, euphoric if the election is not as close as predicted (we all can dream).  As to Clint Eastwood, politics aside, I’m still a big fan.  He is one of the great movie makers of our time and I sure hope he keeps on with his day job for years to come.

Transcenders: coming to a digital device near you next week.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012


Whoever wins in November is likely to do so with a razor thin margin.  We are a divided nation.  Just consider for a moment a situation where our president would garner 60% of the vote or even 75%.  That would be a landslide.  Beyond constituting a clear mandate, it would make most of us rethink some of our basic assumptions about the country and politics, specifically about the idea that we are a divided nation.

Well 60% of Americans tell pollsters that they don't regularly attend religious worship services.  Questioning even that number, researchers C. Kirk Hadaway and P.L. Marler, undertook a headcount in both urban and non-urban churches.  They found that in fact 75% of the congregants absented themselves from weekly worship.  That was back in 1998 and the number of Americans who identify with no religion at all has doubled since then.  Take your pick, 60 or 75%, most Americans don’t attend worship regularly — by and landslide.

American Catholic Weekly
Low church and synagogue attendance has long been a concern of clergy across faiths who look out each week on empty pews that once were filled.  In some instances, the problem has become so acute that institutions have had to close down or merge with others.  Church leaders have looked for innovative ways to draw more worshipers, often with what amounts to gimmickry.  They will create occasions honoring some day or notable, have special music services, invite a guest speaker or, best of all, involve children who are likely to drag their parents along.  Some will even opt to tweak the liturgy hoping to make it more “user friendly”. Megachurches draw crowds by unabashedly raising the entertainment value, from inspirational sermonizing to mounting professional level musical performances.

That’s all well and good, but why has attendance dropped off and why is religion, albeit followed or paid lip service by the majority, in decline?  The two are related.  For a relatively small segment of the population religiosity and daily life are profoundly integrated into a holistic one.  While Sabbaths and holy days may be set aside as special, every day and every activity is grounded in a singular belief system, every decision weighed against accepted and immovable standards.  They constitute the reliable regulars at worship.  But these “integrators”, as I like to call them, are in the minority.  

For the majority of those who identify themselves, certainly as Christians or Jews, religion is a distinct even separate part of their life, essentially segregated from the every day.  I like to think of these people as “doing” religion “by appointment”.  Religion is something that goes on the calendar, sometimes literally so.  The problem with appointments is that they are generally of time and place — and here is the important thing — to be kept or not.  We may eat our meals at more or less the same time every day, but we don’t consider breakfast, lunch or dinner appointments, optional activities.  In our professional lives, appointments are sometimes broken because something more important causes a conflict.  In our personal lives, we may just find something better to do.  As Bill Gates once told Walter Isaacson, “There's a lot more I could be doing on a Sunday morning”.

If I had to identify one reason why religion is in decline today, it wouldn’t necessarily be a loss of faith.  That does happen and long term may be determinant, but I would suggest “by appointment” is religion’s worst nightmare.  Functionally, by appointment, with its implied option is what’s undermining religion more than anything else.  Ask one of the many Jews who grew up Orthodox but have since moved away and you’ll probably find that the drift started when they stopped regularly attending services. 

Of course this appointment phenomenon is nothing new.  Easter Sunday Christians and Yom Kippur Jews have been the rule rather than the exception for as long as I can remember.  Without their nominal participation, most churches and synagogues would be in deep trouble.  Problem is, the children of these appointment participants look at their life-example parents and opt to drop the pretense.  Having better things to do, they stop marking their calendars.  For sure they don't attend worship — by a landslide.   Shouldn't that make us rethink the basic assumption that we are a religious nation?

More on this coming to a digital device near you — it’s called Transcenders and it will be available soon.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

In the wind.

Pre-convention musings.  Presidents do things, lots of things.  They have complicated and nuanced records: hard to capsulize on a bumper sticker.  So presidents are hard to brand.  Candidates?  Well that’s something else entirely.  Obama the candidate was able to sum himself up in “Yes we can” or in a more expected call for “Change”.  Change may seem trite because it’s been used so often before.  But it works.  Ike crushed the long ruling Democrats in 1952 with, “It’s time for a change.”  We are a nation of the easily fatigued.  We love change, in theory that is, because in practice it seems to scare the hell out of us.  “I didn’t mean that kind of change, not a change that might impact on my comfortable life.”

Well, what about Mitt Romney?  He surely has the pretender’s advantage.  He has a clean slate upon which to write his slogan, to build his brand.  Problem is, Romney is hard to encapsulate in a phrase, but not impossible.  I’d suggest a slogan that really captures the political essence of the man — “As the Wind Blows.”

During all his years in the public eye, there is hardly a policy position that Mitt Romney has not changed to fit his immediate need.  This past week’s flap over rape and abortion is just one of many where the candidate has said whatever he deems required in the moment.  He’s for exceptions in the case of rape one minute and, almost without skipping a beat, seems to endorse his party’s draconian — no abortion regardless of circumstances — platform in the next. 

Compounding his serial flip-flops, Romney also suffers from severe “foot-in-mouth” disease.  On Friday a so-called joke sounded an awful lot like an embrace of birthers.  Donald Trump will probably claim credit for writing the script.  Whatever, it seems that Mitt just doesn’t think before he speaks. 

Ah, glass houses you’ll say.  Look at Joe Biden the champion “foot-in-mouth guy.  True, but I think there is a difference.  The Vice President misspeaks because he is a man with little pretense, a natural, sometimes in the rough.  What you see is what you get with Biden who, unlike Romney, seems totally comfortable in his own skin.  Biden has a certain Yogi Berra charm, except with better syntax. 

Romney gets into trouble for exactly the opposite reason.  He’s a guy who comes off as totally calculated.  Every hair in place, he looks ill at ease much of the time.  His idea of small talk is…well, let’s be honest, he’s unfamiliar with small talk.  Okay, that’s unfair. Romney might look at someone standing aside his outboard motor fitted rowboat and spontaneously ask, “Where do you keep your vessel in the winter”?  Biden knows rowboats and more importantly the kind of people who own them.  He gushes authenticity to a fault, literally.  Romney, who is often painful to watch, comes right out of central casting ready to play a scene.

Mitt Romney: As the wind blows.  I like the sound of that.

Transcenders coming soon.

Thursday, August 23, 2012


Throughout much of their history, Jews have intoned a prayer thanking God “for not making us like all the other people.”  Elsewhere, the liturgy refers to “being chosen from among all others”.  Taken literally, both seem to claim superiority — special, better.  But there are alternative and usually preferred interpretations.  "Not like all the other people” sets the behavior goal post high;  “being chosen” means taking on the burden of special responsibilities.  In a sense, these are not as much statements of who any of us are, but rather who we can (and should) be.

Lest you think these concepts are unique to one religious group or people, consider the American equivalent: exceptionalism.  Unlike the more expansive interpretation given in the religious context, many of those who invoke American exceptionalism today do claim that we’re something special — the greatest country on the face of the earth.  So to them, denying exceptionalism is to disrespect the nation, to be un-American.  But those of us who are uncomfortable with the exceptionalism boast don’t deny specialness.  It’s only that we see it as a goal, something to be achieved, not a pre-ordained gift.  America is a work-in-progress with great opportunity to "perfect" our union.

The ideas embodied in those ancient Jewish prayers and in our American invocation of exceptionalism sow the seeds of utopian aspiration providing fertile ground for flourishing myth.  That spirit undoubtedly captured the Founders’ imagination in 1776 and equally those who gave birth to the State of Israel 174 years later.  The only problem is that, claims and aspirations aside, we are still just human beings.  Sure we have enormous potential, but nothing comes to us without both intention and work.

I was reminded of that stark reality verses ideal and myth in reading that a bunch of Israeli teenage hooligans had been arrested in connection with the mob beating of Palestinians.  All this happened in the holy city of Jerusalem.  The report suggests an ugly hate crime.  For sure, most Israelis were appalled, just as are we when such things happen in the US.  But it did happen and so it’s fair to ask, are any of us different than “all the other people”?  The answer is obvious.  It’s not who we inherently are but who we can be.  Often, as in the case of these teenagers, we make a muck of it.  So it takes hard work.

From Amazon
As to exceptionalism, word from Georgia of all things brought me that reality check.  Two American women — Condi Rice and Darla Moore — were admitted as members to the famous Augusta National Golf Club.  Now people have been talking about this place’s discriminatory policies for years. When I was a kid citizens were outraged that Dwight Eisenhower played golf there despite the club's longstanding discrimination against blacks (only admitted in 1990) and, until now, against women.  Yes, “there remains a long way to go baby”!  Think of it, 2012 and allowing a woman to join a golf club is still page one news.  Shame on us — exceptionalism falls short.

And of course the state of women in this exceptional country also raised its ugly head with the ignorant musings of the Republican pretender to the Missouri senate seat.  As happens, it’s a seat held by Claire McCaskill, one of the still small minority of women in that august body.  And the exceptional state of women also came through loud and clear in the proposed Republican platform’s Medieval plank on abortion.  You can put all the women you want on the stage of a convention hall and it goes to naught if the goods you’re delivering make a mock of them.  Myth, albeit embodied in clever catchy slogans, is nonetheless myth — a sham and a shame.

I’ve never believed that any of us were different from all others, that any of us are chosen or that by nature or right that we’re exceptional.  I do think, even if we fall somewhat short, these are goals worth keeping in mind.  We still have a long way to go to meet them.

Stay tuned — it’s called Transcenders and it will be coming soon.

Monday, August 20, 2012


National Park Service
Many of our presidents have been rich.  Our first, George Washington, whose land and other holdings brought his fortune to an adjusted $525 M, made him the wealthiest by far.  Speak about getting out in front of a trend.  Of course there have been ups and downs — Jefferson and Madison were super rich while in office and both died in debt. TR inherited his money.  Bill Clinton had modest means during most of his presidency but has since made a fortune.  Only eleven of our presidents, including one of our greatest, Abraham Lincoln, were not millionaires.  With a net worth estimated as high as $250 Million, if elected, Mitt Romney would immediately rise to second richest.  Of course there have been other super rich candidates in modern times — Ross Perot (by far the wealthiest), Steve Forbes, John Kerry and this year John Huntsman.  They all lost their bids. 

Wealth doesn’t disqualify Romney, nor should it.  As discussed in earlier posts, Billionaire Mayor Michael Blumberg and other enormously wealthy office holders can be and are effective.  But there is a dark side.  It’s not that more rich people are running for high office, but that the price of entry is making politics less and less accessible (often prohibitive) to even moderately affluent citizens.

Big money has always played an outsized role in our democracy.  Big banks, big corporations and the wealthy class have always held the vital center of power.  Using business speak, we might call them the control stakeholders.  Middle class Americans may have been an engine of our economy through their purchase of goods and services in the post war period, but let’s not pretend that they have ever been in control.  That’s not socialist talk or business bashing, just a reality check. 

The Occupy initiative (you can’t call it a movement) made a singular contribution to our current discourse: the 99%, or conversely the 1%.  They touched a nerve reminding us, as if we didn’t already know, that the disparity between those at the very top and everyone else is growing exponentially, the gulf widening every day.  In making 1% a headline, they were sounding an alarm.  Staying on the present course, portends big trouble in our future.  It’s the kind of trouble that could make Zuccotti Park look like contained child’s play.  What’s remarkable is that Occupy isn’t a movement and that this kind of trouble has yet to show its face.  That speaks volumes about today’s complacent populace, but perhaps more so that a vital tipping point has yet to be reached.

It is in this context that Mitt Romney’s wealth, not unprecedented in elective politics, has taken on a larger meaning.  Many people see him as the 1%’s number one poster person.  Fair or not, he has become the token for one of the fundamental societal problems of our time.  It isn’t only that people like him have so much more than anyone else but that the system seems structured to keep them at an advantage, one that is expanding rather than being held in check.  That probably explains why his taxes loom so large as an issue.

Most of us don’t have tax shelters and even fewer have money stashed abroad.  The Romney advantage is inaccessible to us.  Of course it is perfectly legal. Much-admired companies like Apple keep a disproportionate portion of their money off shore, also to avoid paying taxes.  Romney’s problem is not that he has done anything wrong but that, unlike most of the super-rich, he is running for president.  That’s a personal game changer.  We hold our presidential candidates to a higher standard, one in which their assumed right to privacy, albeit still in place, is greatly diminished. 

So it isn’t a matter of whether Romney is paying taxes owed but whether in not making the returns public, he may be hiding something.  Are there indeed years in which, using shelters and loopholes, he paid none?  As Republican icon Ronald Reagan might say, we should trust but we need to verify.  Of course, beyond the problem that we want transparency, is that Romney’s economic proposals are likely to benefit him personally.  Simply put, they will put even more money directly into his pockets and, of course, not necessarily in ours.  Whether or not that’s fair is irrelevant.  Perceptions rule the day in politics.  Just look at the current campaign, it’s all about building perceptions, one of the few non-partisan actions left.

There is something quite remarkable, even inexplicable, about Romney’s continued insistence on keeping things so close to the vest.  It certainly isn’t doing him any service.  In addition to the issue of his opaque wealth, he will be the first Mormon standard bearer of a major political party.  The Mormon Church itself is noted for a high level of secrecy.  While Romney invited a few reporters to join him for Sunday worship at his New Hampshire church this past weekend, non-Mormons and even some of the faithful are barred from entering their Temples.  As the official church website puts it, “only baptized members who are qualified and prepared are allowed to enter a temple after it is dedicated.”  There are also aspects of his church’s relatively recent history, including polygamy and racial discrimination, that Romney understandably keeps off the table.

To be clear, nothing should bar a Mormon from the presidency any more than being a Jew, Muslim, Hindu or follower of any other religion.  With two Catholics running for Vice President this year, we’re likely to see a long overdue inclusion of non-Protestants running for and being elected to the White House.  Perhaps even atheists.  But, like it or not, the uniquely built-in secrecy of the Mormon Church just feeds on the perception, again perhaps unfairly, that Romney is keeping something from us.  Withholding his tax returns has larger consquences.

Despite Occupy’s success in bringing the 1% issue to the forefront, it may not be the central issue our presidential election.  One thing that stands in the way is that raising the issue prompts cries of class warfare.  I would argue just the opposite.  If we want short circuit real class warfare in this country, we should be addressing the disparity between what is essentially a divided society, and doing it with considerable urgency.  Redistribution of wealth may not be the solution, nor is it in the cards given our capitalistic system.  But narrowing the gap and tipping the balance of advantage more in the direction of the 99% must be considered, and seriously so.  Other than paying lip service, the chances of a President Mitt Romney becoming an advocate for the 99% are next to nil.  That, among other things, is what this upcoming election is really all about.

Stay tuned — it’s called Transcenders and it will be coming soon.

Friday, August 17, 2012

déjà vu

We’re hearing sounds coming from Israel that echo those heard here during the run up to our Iraq fiasco.  That is deeply disturbing and frightening.  As reported in the New York Times, “[Defense Minister Ehud Barak] acknowledged in Parliament that there were differences over how to deal with Iran, but insisted that the issue was being debated here more thoroughly than any other he could remember.”  Could Donald Rumsfeld and Condi Rice have said it any better?

from Daily Beast
Israeli leadership sees Iran as an existential threat. That may be the case, and I’ll get back to it.  What I fear at this moment is that the Netanyahu-Barack government may be misreading the American Jewish community and its unquestioned support for current policy, or very sadly for that matter, for Israel itself.  Just as Republican candidates speak mostly to Fox News, it seems Israeli leaders  interact largely with the AIPAC types wishfully thinking they represent American Jews at large. 

In fact the now infamous casino billionaire and his fellow right wing conservatives are the exception not the rule.  Relying on them will lead to disappointment, and worse, a gross miscalculation.  Like so many Americans across the spectrum, Jews in this country (who mostly skew liberal and Democratic) have little taste for wars these days and most especially preemptive attacks.  If added to his miscalculation of assumed support, Americans sense that Bibi is trying to manipulate the results or our presidential election, or is blackmailing Barack Obama into some action, the backlash is likely to be even worse. 

There would be nothing good about Iran going nuclear.  By the same token there was nothing good about India, Pakistan, Korea and, yes, Israel going nuclear.  In each of these cases, you could say that the countries involved pose an existential threat to their adversaries, but let’s not forget the rhetoric of the Cold War.  Remember those backyard bomb shelters and kids hiding under desks preparing for the worst?  The Soviets also said they would wipe us off the map. They had both an arsenal and capability that dwarfs anything that will be found in the newer members of the nuclear “club”.

Clearly Israel could use its current nuclear arsenal to wipe out Iran and some other adversaries as well.  Obviously it hasn’t done so and with very good reason.  Only the United States has ever used nuclear weapons.  That was in the closing days of WWII when it dropped two bombs on Japan, nukes that were primitive relative to later technology.  They were, however, enough to make the point.  Nuclear weapons, from a practical standpoint, are so destructive as to be totally useless.

The real problem with Iran is not so much that it might nuke Israel which would in the end be suicidal, the problem is proliferation and the risk that some rogue group might get it’s hands on a nuke and in some nihilistic rage deploy it.  That is precisely what we worry so much about with Pakistan and probably why, despite all the bluster, we worry less about with North Korea.

Does Israel feel threatened?  Of course it does.  Do its current leaders also use this threat, calling it existential, for their own political purposes?  Yes they do just as George W. Bush played 9/11 for all it was worth, leaving other people’s sons and daughters to die on the battle field or be scarred for life.  Supposed existential threats kept warmongers in power here in the early Cold War. The so-called Communist menace didn’t destroy America, but those who used it for their own purposes did do a job on many of its best and brightest citizens including actors and intellectuals.

I do fear that Israel faces an existential threat, but it is one closer to home.  The clock is ticking and the only leaping demographic growth in this very advanced society is to be found among ultra-orthodox Jews who don’t want to give up an inch of land and also among poor Palestinians who might well outnumber Jews in a single state.  Arab and Iranian leaders use the Palestine/Israel limbo to distract their people from their own, often dire, internal problems.  But so too has the Iran “threat” become a smokescreen to distract Israelis and the world community from addressing Israel’s real existential threat.  That’s what makes this so sad and so destructive.

Stay tuned an expanded exploration of people living beyond religion in book form coming soon.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Another Spring

If there is any characteristic that seems to join otherwise disparate Arab leaders facing their spring, it is desperation.  No one exhibits that more than Bashar al-Assad.  The West trained ophthalmologist was reluctant to take on leadership of the family business.  At the start he came off as a reasonable reformist.  In almost Jekyll-Hyde fashion the Assad we see today has morphed from mild mannered doctor into ruthless monster.  When your world is threatened you do desperate things.

Albeit in a profoundly different way, the same desperate reaction seems to be taking hold in Rome these days as the pope and his princes take on what they undoubtedly see as revolutionary threats to their own realm.  Benedict began as his predecessor’s enforcer and perhaps only during his own reign have we been given a more accurate window into how truly conservative the charismatic John Paul II really was.  Remember that Benedict was elevated just one day after the start of April 2005 conclave.  It would seem that succession had been set before John Paul’s death.  Benedict is likely to follow suit.  He has now appointed more voting and like-minded cardinals than his successor, and his reign has not ended.

The Roman church has never claimed to be a democracy.  From the early days it has had top down leadership from an infallible and authoritarian pope.  So its tolerance for dissent or any deviation from established doctrine has been very limited, often non-existent.  That has especially been the case when the Church sees itself under threat, something that has happened at times throughout its history. 

That is likely why Rome, in an assertion of absolute power, has come down so hard on the American Leadership Conference of Women Religious, placing its member nuns under the control of three male bishops.  It seems clear that it is willing to jettison a critical component of Church personnel — 80% of American nuns — to make the point.  In their just completed national assembly held in St. Louis, the LCWR agreed to seek open dialogue with Rome.  But there was no sign that the nuns were willing to back down.  So where these talks will go remains an open question, an ongoing problem for the Church.

Now, adding to that comes the report of Rome’s apparent intention to strip the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru of its name, and more importantly its right to call itself Catholic.  Beyond the question of Papal authority, the conflict in Lima reflects the same kind of right/left struggle that has taken over our politics here and around the world.  It is a battle for supremacy between conservatives who are increasingly ultra-conservative and progressives: moderate or liberal.

The Peruvian struggle is of particular interest since it involves two twentieth century created movements within the church, both of Hispanic origin.  On the conservative side is Opus Dei founded by the Spanish cleric Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer in 1928.  This once fringe right movement has found a receptive audience in the current Vatican.  Among those Americans who attend mass at Opus Dei oriented churches are Justice Antonin Scalia and former Senator Rick Santorum.  On the other side is Liberation Theology a populist approach with 1950s-60s roots in Latin America.  One of its leading exponents is Gustavo Gutiérrez, the Peruvian priest who coined the word, and a leading faculty member of the university.

Are these alone — a group of independent thinking nuns and a similarly inclined university — enough to make Rome desperate?  Probably not, and the pope would surly challenge any such notion of desperation on his part, and vehemently so.  But add to these two the just released poll by the research consortium WIN-Gallup International about the dramatic decline of religiosity in the world.  It focuses on changes that has taken place in just the last seven years, most notably in Catholic Ireland.  Today, only 47% of the Irish consider themselves religious, that’s a drop of 22 points from the 60% reported in 2005.  If some nuns and academics don’t drive Rome to distraction, then these numbers certainly must.  Perhaps the Church isn’t entirely losing its grip on the faithful, but it is clearly losing ground at what should be seen as an alarming rate.

The WIN-Gallup poll should be a wake-up-call for all religious groups.  Religiosity worldwide has fallen 9 points in the last seven years.  People who call themselves religious today represent 59% of the population, down from 68%.  An even larger drop has been experienced in the United States (13 points) from 73% in ’05 to 60% today.  We may still call ourselves the most religious country, but it’s fast becoming a hollow claim. 

Stay tuned for some news on an expanded exploration of people living beyond religion in book form coming in the near future.

Image from Wikipedia

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Excellent Choice

With our mania for beauty contests and preference for catchy bumper stickers, American elections are all too often scrubbed of substantive content.   That may well explain in part why we live in a country with such a poorly informed electorate.   Judging by the weeks since Mitt Romney secured the GOP nomination, 2012 seemed to be following the same tired script.  That was particularly troublesome because down on the ground the country has been caught in a sometimes-vicious tug of war between opposing philosophical views that speak to the very nature of our democracy.  So while the campaign talk ranges from glib to vague, we stand at a very real crossroad.  The turn we take now may actually determine our road to the future.

I have long felt that, despite some surface similarities, the differences between our two major parties are significant.  It did matter that Jack Kennedy became president in 1960 and that George W. Bush prevailed in 2000.  Yes it’s often hard to differentiate been Democratic and Republican administrations in foreign policy.  Regardless who sits in the White House, we’re still the same superpower that must react somewhat consistently to events and situations largely out of our control.  On the domestic side however, the place where we actually live, the divide has been getting larger the differences more transparent.   Here we are in control.  Different policy can and does make a difference.

It is in that context that I think Mitt Romney has made an excellent running mate choice.  In a sense the chameleon of American politics has decided to run on a clearly articulated and documented philosophy.  Perhaps it’s emblematic of his candidacy that from here on in he will be running on someone else’s (yet another) record.  Think of that what you may, but Paul Ryan’s record puts the right-left divide into sharp campaign relief, much sharper than was the case just two days ago.  And that’s a really good thing.

It has long been said that budgets are where the philosophical rubber hits the road.  It’s not what we say, but how we gather and then allocate our resources.  Budgets ultimately boil down to what we’re spending and what we’re cutting.  As such they remain the best reflection of our national and local priorities.  Ryan’s budget (and everyone calls it that because he is its principal author) isn’t some vague pronouncement but is concrete  hard fast numbers embedded in a bill passed by the Republican dominated House.  Romney now has a record driven by a clear ideology behind which he must stand and which he must defend.  He has made a choice and that’s exactly what we will have to do.

Some partisans will rush to say that Romney committed political suicide on Friday.  Not so fast.  Vice Presidential choices have rarely decided elections one way or another.  Whatever strengths are bringing Romney the nomination might get him to the presidency.  Ryan may have views with which you or I might disagree, but he is a fresh and youthful face who will now be paired against a much older and established counterpart.  If Vice Presidents stand as symbols for the future that could be meaningful, though perhaps not with a 51-year-old President in good health leading the ticket.  We don’t know how Ryan will perform on this much larger national stage or how the Romney-Ryan combo will stand up against Obama-Biden.  Elections aren’t over until they’re over, and one should be wary about suicide predictions.  The last time was when G.H.W. Bush named his Veep choice.  Remember President Bush and Vice President Quayle?

Ryan is an excellent choice because it might force both campaigns to engage seriously on their philosophical differences and where the country should be headed.  How, who and at what level should citizens be taxed?  What kind of safety net should a great democracy provide for its citizens?  What are our priorities say for example between education and armaments?  What is the government’s responsibility, and through it the citizen’s responsibility, for things we all use like our infrastructure?  How should the government intersect with our private lives and how separated should church and state be?

Even with a more ideologically defined race, don’t expect all of these issues to be addressed, certainly not with total clarity.  After all this is America where those who speak seriously about issues are branded wonks and nerds.  But perhaps we can look forward to something more this time around.

Regardless as to how the next months will play out, we Americans are faced with a clear choice this election cycle.  We deserve to understand not only the issues facing us but that we are in fact making a defining choice when casting our ballots.  Mitt Romney may not have given us much until this point, but hopefully his excellent choice will make us all stand up and take notice  — give us greater reason to vote for or against him in November.  For me, if anything, voting against him and for Barack Obama is even more of a no-brainer.