Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Right Wing Blasts Wrong Cheney

Mary Cheney and her partner are "just playing house," and the birth of their son is part of a "tragedy." This according to somebody named Stephen Bennett, who is apparently the spokesman for something called Concerned Women of America, which is apparently "one of the largest religious right groups." I say apparently because I've never heard of him, or of his group.

Apart from the venom of the guy's press release, which you can sample for yourself by clicking the link, I am struck by the fact that the Concerned Women of America have chosen a man to speak on their behalf in the public arena. How ... post-feminist?

"Outmoded, Amateurish, and Untreliable"

Per today's Times:

"As the Bush administration completes secret new rules governing interrogations, a group of experts advising the intelligence agencies are arguing that the harsh techniques used since the 2001 terrorist attacks are outmoded, amateurish and unreliable."

Outmoded, amateurish and unreliable: in a nutshell, the Administration's entire approach to national security. (And plenty of other things.)

Still, read the article. The comparison between the highly-trained, language-proficient interrogators of WWII, who spent hours prepping for each hour spent questioning prisoners, is a stark contrast to the intelligence officers of today, whose training never seems to have included foreign languages, much less a review of the relevant academic and professional literature of interrogation.

The weirdest revelation is that the various forms of torture used by US interrogators seem to be "reverse-engineered" -- that is, borrowed from Cold War-era Army manuals which described the methods we thought our enemies might be using. How many things are wrong with that picture? We are borrowing what may have been the torture techniques of an Evil Empire -- techniques which, to judge from the empire's fate, never worked all that well.

We're spending $200 million per day in Iraq. How much would our intelligence-gathering capacity be expanded if a week's worth of war funding were diverted to advanced training in Asian languages for soldiers and spies, and if another's week's worth were diverted to rigorous, systematic, peer-reviewed study of successful, proven, morally acceptable methods of interrogation?

The Coming Polygamy Explosion

A report in the Times of London (click the link) claims that 1,000 men in Britain, more or less, are living with multiple wives. Unsurprisingly, most of them seem to be Muslims. Shariah permits polygamy, but British law does not. But it seems that immigration officials have been instructed to look the other way in questionable cases.

This will no doubt be dismissed, for a while, as an oddity. But in fact, it is food for thought.

First, we should recognize that this modest number of cases will increase, rapidly in European nations and more slowly in the United States, as the number of Muslims increases. Although most Muslim marriages involve one husband and one wife, exceptions -- especially among the affluent -- are not unheard of. So Western nations, largely unacquainted with plural marriage, will need to think hard about some of the questions that the practice raises.

For example, our laws generally prohibit the practice, mostly as a matter of habit rather than a matter of principle. Sooner or later we will need to ask whether there is in fact a principle at stake in this prohibition -- and whether it is a principle of law, of social policy, or of absolute morality. And in any of those cases, opponents will need to make a compelling argument that the principle at stake outweighs the apparent right of Muslims to a free exercise of their religion. (We went through this with Mormons, in the mid-1800s, but I'm not sure that the philosophical legwork of the era will stand up to rigorous scrutiny. it seems to have depended upon vague appeals to "decency," followed by a lot of gunplay).

In this conversation, those of us who have in recent years argued for an expansion of the legal definition of marriage, so that it can include same-sex couples, may find ourselves in an uncomfortable position. I already do. Can we in conscience maintain that position if it leads us logically to permit civil laws that recognize polygamy? And how will we respond when, in a generation or so, the Young Turks within the Church itself begin to argue for Christian solemnization of such marriages? And they will, if only because there is no idea so bad that some Christians will not give it a whirl.

Saturday, May 26, 2007


Click the link to Slate, where Emily Bazelon and Dahlia Lithwick deconstruct Monica Goodling's testimony before Congress.

Money quote:

"Ever since Goodling surfaced in the middle of the e-mail traffic about the U.S. attorneys purge, her gender has been crucial to the role she's played in the tale. She's the only one who cried to other DoJ officials. She's the only one who took the Fifth. This woman who was single-handedly firing interns and hiring immigration judges and stonewalling new applicants, brilliantly cast herself this week in the earnest helpmeet role. And the reason this has worked so well for her is that it's hard to call attention to that without getting tied up in knots. The first thing we noticed on Thursday (didn't everybody?) was Goodling's hair—great highlights! But to even say that is to trivialize her, right? And for us to say it, as women, is to launch a catfight. It's to separate her from the big boys, by calling her a girl.

"But we're prepared to wade into the girl stuff because, to be lawyerly for a minute, it was Goodling who first put it into evidence."

They then go on to compare her, not unfairly, to Fawn Hall. Kinda takes ya back, don't it?

Friday, May 25, 2007

Bush Prefers Diplomacy to War

I know, you think I'm kidding.

But according to an Internet reporter named Steve Clemons, there is a divide over Iran in the White House, between State+CIA+SecDef on one side, counseling diplomacy, and Pentagon+Veep on the other, rattling sabers. POTUS is said to lean so heavily toward Condi and her boys that Cheney doesn't trust him to steer the right course, and is actively working to create a situation which will force the president into (more) military action in the Middle East.

Here's the gist. Cheney and his network of widely-dispersed acolytes are apparently trying to create a situation in which Israel launches a preemptive strike on Iran, prompting Ahmadinejad & Co. to attack US forces in the Gulf, plunging us into war.

Think about it. The Vice-President is concocting a strategy which deliberately endangers the lives of American soldiers and sailors -- that is, one which deliberately exposes them to an attack which will then be declared "unprovoked" even though it is not, and made casus belli. He's going to kill our soldiers as an excuse for starting a war. It's like planting a bomb on the Maine.

This is scary stuff. It is, in fact, the stuff of all those "evil conspiracy inside the government" thrillers they used to make in the 1970s -- from "Three Days of the Condor" to Kevin Costner's belated "No Way Out." People say Cheney is Darth Vader, but they're wrong. Lord Vader is a lame comic-opera Ruritanian in contrast to this sort of wickedness. Cheney is Voldemort.

Monday, May 21, 2007

A Belated Post

Along with the beautiful and reverend Mrs A. and our darling little baby (click the link to see his blog), Father A. spent Friday and Saturday some weeks back at our annual Synod Assembly. Oh joy, oh bliss.

For those who have never had the pleasure, the Lutheran churches of our region (or "synod") gather each year to do business. Each parish sends its pastor(s), and two or three laypeople. The setting is usually either a hotel ballroom or a large church building -- this year, the latter. While we are together, we hear reports from various officers and agencies (our seminary and social-service agencies, for example); we talk about the mission and ministry of our local parishes and the synod as a whole; we elect people who need electing (this year, a delegate to the churchwide, or national, assembly). And we fight.

Mostly, we fight.

Mostly, we fight about sex.

A few years ago, as the ELCA was putting into place the ecumenical agreements that arose from thirty years of dialogue with our Reformed and Anglican sister churches, we used to fight about the meaning and terms of Christian unity. But these days, mostly, we fight about homosexuality. The precise issuse varies from year to year, but usually it has something to do with whether or not we can tolerate gay and lesbian pastors living openly in committed relationships.

I could write more about the various levels of irony and hypocrisy involved in this debate. (One of the leaders of the anti-toleration wing, for example, is a boozer, who should probably have been defrocked years ago, after the assembly where he staggered around drunk at breakfast.)

But today, all I can think about is how silly and sterile the debate has become. We've been talking abut this for years, and -- so far as I can tell -- it has been years since anybody changed their mind. We all know where we stand, both as individuals and as a community. There really isn't much left to talk about, and the conversation itself is increasingly toxic and personal. Moreover, the historical tide has turned; reactionary Boomers wil make up an ever-decreasing portion of these assemblies, replaced eventually by Genration X and its polymorphously perverse heir, GenY. The age that rallied for or against Stonewall is being replaced by one that grew up watching Madonna get rich by emulating gay club culture. The battle in our culture is long since over. So why does the minority camp keep fighting, and why does the majority not simply declare victory and move on?

Here's my theory. Our congregations are closing down at an accelerating rate. We start new missions, but most of them fail or -- far worse -- limp along, draining our resources. Meanwhile, as our numbers and dollars, decline, we are losing our ability to act effectively in the public arena -- to ameliorate poverty, create fair working conditions or help immigrants and prisoners. There isn't much that we can do as a church these days, and this debate allows us to feel that we are doing something, when in fact the partisans on both sides have merely been enliusted as unwitting soldiers in the culture war.

It is significant that, although the US has been engaged since 2003 in an unjust and unpopular war, our synod assemblies (which are historically eager to offer opinions on matters they cannot change) have not passed a single resolution dealing with the subject. This might sound like a newfound humility, nut I suspect it is not. I suspect, on the contrary, that it reflects a collective cowardice, which is given protective cover by the sexuality debate. We can remain frozen, impotent, mute in the face of Abu Ghraib and Haditha and the rest of it, while consoling ourselves wih the false illusion that we are still somehow addressing the great issues of the day.

But we aren't. We're choking ourselves withy rage and frustration as we grapple over the great issues of 1975.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Crossing the Tiber

Francis J. Beckwith is an associate professor at Baylor University, and until the other day served president of the Evangelical Theological Society. This makes him a leader, albeit in a modest academic way, among American Protestants. Which is why so many people are surprised by his return to the Roman Catholic Church.

Nota bene: "return," rather than conversion. Beckwith was raised Roman, and did not need to be catechized and confirmed. He simply went to confession. It's really very sweet, as these things go. (And they do go; this sort of thing isn't all that unusual.)

What is not sweet at all, we regret to say, is the response that Beckwith has encountered from angry Protestants. Per the WashPost, a colleague accused him of 'embracing serious error," and Beckwith reported "that strangers have called him at home to berate him, and that his Internet server was overwhelmed by 2,000 e-mails a day to his personal Web site, which in the past seldom generated more than 90 a day." Surely the fatwas and burning crosses will follow soon.

Roman Catholicism is, in a sense, the United States of Christianity: a complex, powerful, and often-misunderstood Colossus, by turns loved, hated, admired and feared by the simpler, smaller and less potent would-be Colossi in its orbit. Both institutions are often better, truer and more beautiful in theory than in reality. Beckwith's decision to reclaim his citizenship -- influenced by his reading of Ratzinger's theology -- would seem a matter of principle, where one often supects that more overtly political converts of the John Paul II vintage are motivated less by theology than by power. We hope that Beckwith will not -- like so many converts -- drink the Kool-Aid and become a reckless idelogue, but that he will be like Newman at the first Vatican Council, and have the courage to advocate for the beauty and truth of theory when they are threatened by the harsh reality of power and prestige.

Falwell is Dead

Alive, he was a wretch. In death, he is -- gulp! -- a saint. That is the wonder of the righteousness imputed to the baptized by God's grace.

Click to read the NPR obit, which is fairly even-handed. I'm not so sure about the NewsHour talking-heads piece last night, with Tony Perkins and Tony Campolo. Perkins insisted that his mentor was a misunderstood, bear-hugging father figure; Campolo said that however reprehensible Falwell's political positions may have been, he was a competent theologian and a gracious human being. I think PBS might have considered a third possibility -- that he was a creep, pure and simple.

Well, this is a sticky wicket. Tradition adjures us to speak no ill of the dead. But the thought of a bear-hug from that smarmy bigot makes my skin crawl. And his decades of right-wing political maneuvering seem to outweigh the blessing of decent table manners. He may have apologized for blaming 9/11 on gays and Democrats, but he has plenty more slander to apologize for in Purgatory. (Or, failing that, to rejoice for having been forgiven as he strums a harp in the clouds).

Monday, May 14, 2007

I'm Not Saying Episcopalians are Pompous, But ....

... the National Cathedral is going to offer tours of its garage.

No doubt they expect it to be registered as a national landmark.

Friday, May 11, 2007

"God Help Me!"

That is what the Haitian refugees are reported to have been shouting as they drowned in heavy seas last Friday. There were 160 or so of them on the capsized sailboat; more than sixty died

Early reports said that their boat was "towed to safety" by a Turks and Caicos patrol boat. But that was reported while the survivors were still being held incommunicado. Even this was dubious -- towing an overcrowed boat in heavy weather, when the passengers have no life jackets, is a dubious rescue technique. But the truth appears to be far more disturbing.

As the survivors have begun to speak with reporters, disturbing new allegations have begin to appear: that their boat was minutes away from shore when it was rammed, perhaps twice, by the patrol boat. That the patrol boat towed the Haitians not to safety, but out into deeper (and shark-infested) water. That when the Haitians tried to pull themselves onto the patrol boat, they wwre beaten back with batons and abandoned in the water.

About half the passengers died.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Bush's War on Christians

One little-publicized effect of the Iraq adventure has been to make life much, much more dangerous for Christians in the Middle East. The recent murder of Christian bookstore workers in Turkey is one example. But closer to Ground Zero, the situation is far worse.

Since the 2003 invasion, 25 Iraqi churches have been bombed; nuns have been murdered; Christian women who wouldn't adopt the veil have been disfigured with acid -- and, as Paul Isaac observes in the International Herald Tribune -- there has been a massive exodus of Christians from Iraq. Approximately one third of the 1.6 Iraqi million refugees (and another third of the 1.8 million "internally displaced persons") are Christians whose lives have been threatened by the rise of Islamist militias.

Typical recent case: one of the militias has delcared a fatwa against the Assyrian Christians in a baghdad suburb, giving them 24 hours to convert or die. Needless to say, a lot of people did the sensible thing, by packing their bags and running.

There are two possiblities here. Either the President and his advisors simply didn't think through the details of this war, running in with neither a viable long-term plan nor any understanding of the society they would disrupt -- or else they did know what they were doing, and started the war anyway. Because George Bush hates Christianity, and is seeking to destroy it.

Friday, May 04, 2007

"...And Ne'er the Twain Shall Meet."

cAs Kipling knew when he wrote those words, East and West have long since met -- indeed, have they ever truly existed independently of one another? And yet the countinuing encounter of Orient and Occident is as important now as it has ever been, and perhaps a great deal more so. From Iraq to the Parisian exurbs, from China to Nigeria, there are few subjects more loaded with promise and danger for the coming century.

Pay attention, then, to Jane Kramer's article in the New Yorker, entitled "The Pope and Islam." This is far more than a quick rehash of the Reghensburg flap. It is a subtle and well-researched piece of writing, which implies more than it says, and which (blessedly) lacks the condescension, trivialization and outright ignorance of religious nuance that one expects from, say, the Times.

Kramer contrasts the styles of John Paul II and Benedict XVI in their interactions with the Muslim world. She offers a quick analysis not only of what may be at stake for the Vatican but also for some of its partners in the conversation, especially Turkey.

Kramer's picture of John Paul is flawed -- she leaves a casual reader with the impression that he was all outgoing personality, unsupported by theological acumen. In fact, although certainly not a theologian of Ratzinger's caliber, Wojtyla was a well-regarded philosopher in his own right. Those grand gestures were not naive or impulsive, either; they were the calculated moves of a man with a plan.

She describes well what seems to be Benedict's contention, that Europe must reclaim its Christian heritage in order to understand, or be understood by, the Muslim nations. She only begins to touch on some of the weaknesses in this idea, but even her quick touches are provocative. What, for example, about the millions of Asian Catholics, many of them as hostile toward Israel as any [other] Palestinians?

Anyway -- click the link. It's a long article, and well worth reading.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Mitt Romney a Tasteless Clown

He may be a good governor; we live in another state, and couldn't really judge. He might even be a decent president -- only time will tell. But Gov. Romney is clearly no literary critic. So saith the Boston Herald:

"Already under scrutiny for shifting positions on key issues and his Mormon faith, presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has made a bizarre new flip flop - saying on national TV his favorite novel is Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s 'Battlefield Earth.'

"The former Massachusetts governor told Fox News his favorite book was the Bible but his favorite novel was the science fiction tome “Battlefield Earth.”

"'Actually, the one by L. Ron Hubbard,' Romney said when asked to name his favorite novel. "I’m not in favor of his religion by any means, but he wrote a book called ‘Battlefield Earth’ that was a very fun science fiction book.' The Mark Twain novel "Huckleberry Finn" tops the book list on Romney’s My Space page. 'Battlefield Earth' isn’t on the list."

The article goes on to note that Romney has a reputation for tailoring (and re-tailoring) his message, in an effort to appeal to every coceivable interest group. Why he would think that it was good politics for a Mormon presidential candidate to make nice-nice with the Scientology people escapes us.

But we at the Egg are less interested in the political angles here than the literary ones. Assuming the Governor wasn't just pandering, we have to believe that he really has come to prefer a Fifties space opera, too damn silly even for most wild-eyed fanboys of the Goddard era, to the novel from which Hemingway wrote that "all modern American literature comes."

Quite a conundrum for voters. It would be one thing if Romney preferred a merely bad book to classic -- you know, if he chose "For Whom the Bell Tolls" over "Farewell, My Lovely," or (for you fanboys out there) "Glory Road" over "The Demolished Man." In cases like that, gustibus really non disputandum est. But he has defected to a catastrophe from a masterpiece. it's like choosing "My Mother the Car" over "The Twilight Zone." And what does that say about the man's judgment?

So unless Gov. Romney tells us that he was lying, I say we can't trust the man. On the other hand, if he announces that he IS lying, I will embrace him like a brother, no matter what the cost to his political future.