Thursday, January 29, 2009

God in the White House: A History by Randall Balmer

If you’ve read any of Randall Balmer’s other works you know he is a challenging author. He is very readable but he is often piercing in his observations. God in the White House is actually as disturbing as it is enlightening about the relationship of politics, Christian faith, and the men we have elected to the Presidency. Balmer only covers the presidency since JFK and so the work is not about all presidents, but certainly those of the television age and the ones of recent memory. It is an interesting characteristic of America that constitutionally we do not have a religious test for office nor are we uniformly Christian, but we have never yet elected a President who wasn’t a Christian even if their commitment was largely in name only. John F. Kennedy was a watershed president because he was the very first Catholic ever elected and because he asked Americans to set religious affiliation aside and make his platform and leadership the only criteria for their vote. Obviously this was taken to heart in 1960 and actually the religion of a president didn’t become an issue until 1976 when Jimmy Carter was elected and the phrase “Born-Again” became part of our national conversation. Although Carter’s term in high office has been widely considered a failure by many, Balmer considers him to be one of the few modern presidents whose faith really did guide his thinking and policies on a daily basis. Balmer is less generous with Reagan and Bush I who were quite adept at mobilizing the religious right for the purpose of winning elections but in reality did little to nothing to restore the declining morality in America that was the basis of their campaign. Our most recent president Balmer compared to Jimmy Carter as being quite outspoken about his commitment to Christ but felt many of his policies and viewpoints were very much out of step with the King of Kings. I tend to think Balmer is a bit harsh on Bush given that the examples he cites were related to the extraordinary decisions he was faced with in dealing with terrorism. We all look back with horror on the Japanese-American internment camps of WWII, but those too were extraordinary times and such periods are hardly the time to expect complete ethical consistency. This leaves Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford all three of which were church members but were extremely quiet about their faith. In each of their cases Balmer finds many instances where their decisions and policies were actually more reflective of Christ’s teaching than those who were vocal about their faith. Even Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam war was based on the principle that the strong must stand up for the weak if they are being oppressed. In the end, Balmer notes the pattern that our Presidents who have been the most vocal about faith, are the most unbiblical in their policies and are frequently questioned the least by the public for them. This according to Balmer is more a reflection of us and not them. We are more willing to give our vote to those who talk a good game and harder on those who don’t. The answer he proposes is that we go back to Kennedy’s idea that we don’t blindly make our choice based on the religious affiliations of our candidates but on their records and proposed policies and whether we see them as in line with our Christian faith. Another issue Balmer raises is Christian ministers being involved in politics. Many pastors have done a good job of speaking truth to power precisely because they were on the periphery but when they were brought into the counsels of power, they tended to become more political and less Christian. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell are prime examples of this phenomena. This should remind and warn us again that the wall of separation between Church and State is a healthy ideal if for no other reason than it keeps the corrosive effects of power politics from corrupting the Church at large.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Stop the Madness of Self-Serv Gas

As a lifelong Oregonian, I am one of the few people in the United States today who daily lives with the privilege of having other people pump gasoline for them. In Oregon it is not an option to pump your own gas. By law I am required to sit in my car and let the professionals handle this important and hazardous job. To tell you the truth I don’t mind this one bit. People I know who have moved in from out of state despise this law. They feel they have lost their freedom and some have even said they feel socially castrated having to sit and let someone else do this job for them. Oregon is well-known for weeks of rain in the winter and if it’s not raining it’s either foggy and cold or sunny and cold. In either scenario I feel it’s nice to sit inside my car and stay warm and dry when I stop for fuel. Recently I took a road trip across the southwest and had to get out and pump my own gas. California is the most inane of all the states. You have this spring loaded cover over the nozzle that acts like some sort of technological foreskin that makes the whole process of insertion an absolute nightmare. By the time you’re done following all the steps of hitting this button and that and learning the delicate balance of not pumping too fast as to avoid shutting the system down you are pretty emotionally drained. Then you’ve got to hike in to the convenience store to pay someone of Asian or Persian descent who doesn’t even say thank-you. I felt so dirty afterwards. Arizona and New Mexico get mixed reviews in my book as well. The further east you move, the nozzles are at least circumcised and you don’t have to go inside to pay unless you are using cash. The best self-serve experience I had was in Oklahoma. It was in and out with a simple nozzle and the best part was the price was reflective of the fact I did all the work. It was like someone said “look little buddy, I know its cold outside, the wind is whipping in your face, you’re going to get gasoline all over your hands and have to wash your own windshield, but hey, we’re dropping the price by 50 cents a gallon to say a big hearty thank-you for all your hard work!” Well it’s been several weeks since I’ve been back from my trip and though I did develop a modicum of skill at the gas station, I don’t miss self-serve gasoline at all. I will admit that at times it was a lot quicker than having someone else in the equation, and in some cases it was significantly cheaper. But most of the time self-serve was the same price or even higher and you were totally alone in the process. Here in Oregon, a fill-up is more than getting gasoline. It’s about a relationship with a trained professional whose willing to get gasoline on his or her fingers so you don’t. It’s about someone you can talk to outside your car window and ask for directions or gripe about the weather and to my thinking that’s worth almost any price.

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Strange Tale of Oofty Goofty : A Heartwarming Reflection

I probably should never admit this publicly but I have always been delighted by the flamboyance and absurdity of freak shows. Although I’ve suffered the chronological misfortune of having been born long after their hey-day, they have long been in my field of awareness through history books and photo compilations on the 18th and 19th centuries. Who in their right mind could resist the opportunity to take a peak at a fully bearded lady or a cow with 5 legs? I’m pretty certain the inability to resist such spectacles is related to that same inner drive that makes us stare at car accidents. We know it’s rude and wrong to look, but hey, what do you do? My favorite freak show personality by a mile was a performer named Oofty Goofty, the wild man of Borneo. Oofty really wasn’t from East Malaysia but he did a great job of living up to people’s Darwinian expectations of what a man from Borneo would be like if he were caught and caged by sailors traveling to San Francisco. Oofty wore a bunch of fur stuck to his body by tar which made him black and hairy and he would just pace back and forth in his cage in front of viewers muttering loudly “oooffty goooofty…..ooofty gooofty”. To my thinking, old Oofty could go head to head with Brittany Spears or Paris Hilton as an entertainer any day. Sadly Oofty had to give up his gig because the tar and fur weren’t allowing him to perspire correctly and his health was being impaired. While one door closed in the entertainment industry another opened for Oofty. After getting thrown out of a bar, Oofty Goofty noticed that he felt no pain when he hit the ground. This he quickly parlayed into a new career. Oofty would allow people to hit him and kick the tar out of him for money (this is the definition par excellence of a good freak entertainer because they use their physical oddities to entertain not their talent per se). This actually lasted a bit longer than the wild man from Borneo phase, but eventually Oofty Goofty was hit so hard by someone that it broke two of his vertebrae and from that point forward he felt so much pain he couldn’t work again and so ended his illustrious career. I think there are great lessons we can all learn from Oofty’s tale: first and foremost, know your audience and deliver what they want. No matter what field of work you’re in, you do have an audience and they have certain expectations. The only time expectations should be shattered is if you plan to go above and beyond them with excellence. Oofty also offers us a lesson in flexibility and pliability in life. When your health requires you to make changes, that doesn’t mean you necessarily have to give up doing what you love, but rather you adjust to doing it differently. And finally beware of over confidence in what you do. St. Paul warns us “let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. (1 Cor. 10:12).” Obviously a slightly different context than Oofty’s story, but still too much self-confidence in our own abilities and gifts is a set up for complacency and pride and that just invites being humbled in a painful way. Put another way, if you want living proofty about how not to be a goofty, consider the strange tale of Oofty!